Alice’s Alphas, Wolf Clan Shifters Book One

Be sure to check out the Wolf Clan Shifter Series. Alice’s Alphas, Megan’s Mates, and Sophie’s Shifters.

One virgin + three wolf shifters = e-reader ecstasy.

Listen to Greg Salinas narrate a snippet right here!

Alice’s Alphas: It’s 1936. Thirty-year-old Alice has given up on finding a husband. Between civil engineering and mountain climbing, her interests are so masculine, she scares men away. A poor route choice strands her—lost, hungry, and scared—next to Lon Chaney’s cabin deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Jed senses a woman stumbling down the steep, inhospitable mountain behind his borrowed cabin. Her scent tantalizes and excites him. Mates are scarce these days, and if his nose is right, she’s his fated one. His and his two pack mates, that is, who are mercifully gone at the moment. Jed crafts a careful strategy, knowing the mate bond might not be enough to convince her to stay once she finds out it will link her to all three of them—forever.

Alice adds Jed to her list of problems when he melts out of the shadowed darkness. At first she declines his offer of help, but he keeps talking until she ends up inside the cozy log cabin in front of a roaring fire. His skilled hands and a shot of whiskey heat her blood to molten, and her carefully tended world explodes into desperate hunger to make love with the man rubbing her weary feet.

As caught up in lust as Alice, Jed takes a chance. A big one. Will mating with her before disclosing everything turn out to be a huge mistake?

Sneak Peek 

Alice’s Alphas:

Chapter One

“This way, Alice.” Brent chugged downhill. His tall, well-muscled frame dislodged small boulders and mini snow avalanches. Longish red hair was escaping from the piece of cloth he’d tied around it.

“I don’t think that’s right,” she protested and dug her crampon points into the steep slope more firmly. The metal spikes didn’t stay very well because the snow was too soft. She looked at the angle of the sun, nearly hidden by the steep flanks of an unnamed peak. Hardly any of the Sierra peaks had names. The one they’d just climbed certainly didn’t.

Damn!

It would be dark in less than an hour. Even though it was early March, days were still short.

“I tell you, this route will work,” floated up to her.

“Bullshit! It’s suicide,” she shouted back.

“You have the skill for this. Just take your time. There’s something I, um, need to do, I’ll wait for you on the far side of the creek. If you don’t find me, head for the car as fast as you can. Lock yourself in if you’re too tired to drive.”

“What?” Her throat tightened. “You can’t just leave me. It’ll be dark soon.”

“You’ll be fine, Alice. We’re past the worst of things, and I don’t have any choice.” The sound of him thrashing downhill nearly obliterated his last words.

She clamped her teeth together. What the hell had he meant about heading for the car as fast as she could? Maybe he was losing it. She’d read about climbers who edged into madness, but today hadn’t been that difficult.

She was cold and tired too, and convinced they were lost. Their ascent route hadn’t been all that great, so Brent suggested they try a more direct line going down. The first thousand feet had worked fine, then they’d run into a band of cliffs. She glanced up. It did seem the cliffs were above them now, but the terrain was perilously steep. She jammed her ice axe into the slope and turned face in. Brent may have been comfortable barreling down like one of the rocks he’d displaced, but she wasn’t.

Alice moved carefully. She planted her axe into the slope, and then found lower purchase for both feet. It took a while. By the time she moved off the steepest part, it was nearly full dark. She cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “Brent.”

He didn’t answer. She yelled his name again. Silence. Panic made her heart thud dully against her ribs, its echo loud in her ears. She felt sick and dizzy. They should’ve taken the known route down. Why had she let him talk her into something so foolish, especially with so little of the day left?

And what was so all-fired important he had to go off and leave her?

Alice slid her rucksack off her shoulders and felt around for her calcium carbide lantern. She poured a little of her precious water into the lantern’s upper compartment, gave it a moment, and flashed the flint. The lantern flickered and sputtered, but then a warm, blue flame steadied. She drank some water and worked at convincing herself not to think too much while she clipped the light to a broad band and settled it around her head. Shouldering her pack, she picked her way downhill.

After about an hour, thick timber surrounded her. The terrain had eased off to maybe thirty degrees. Fallen branches crisscrossed over one another were more of a problem now than steepness. She dropped below the snowline and sat on a downed log to take off her crampons. They snagged on things, reducing her already-slow progress. Bundling the steel spikes, she secured them to her pack, and then called Brent’s name again.

And again.

Anger gave way to fear something hideous had happened. He’d careened down the slope like a madman, but she hadn’t heard him scream. Surely, she’d have heard something if he’d fallen. His exhortation about heading for the car rattled in the back of her mind.

Was there some sort of danger she wasn’t aware of? Was that why he’d abandoned her? She shook her head. It didn’t make sense. If danger lurked nearby, he should’ve stayed to protect her, not taken off like a bat out of hell.

Alice shivered. The temperature was somewhere south of freezing. Her wool top, jacket, and pants were wet with sweat on the inside and wet from falling in the snow so many times on the outside. Between the two, it would take hours for the thick cloth to dry. Thank God it wasn’t windy. Wind-chill would add to her woes. She set her lantern off to one side so its hiss wouldn’t drown out something important and listened.

The welcome sound of water cascading over stones sounded from below. If she just kept on downhill, she had to come to the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. “Even if it’s the South Fork, it’s not the end of the world,” she muttered. “Come daylight, I’ll recognize something.”

She settled her lantern back in place and pulled a pair of wool mitts out of her pack. When she got to her feet, she groaned. Everything hurt, but tomorrow would be worse once her over-taxed muscles stiffened up. Cursing under her breath, she gathered her things together and worked her way through increasingly thick deadfall. As she down climbed, she thought about Brent. All they were, really, was friends. She’d tried to make it more than that, to flirt with him, but he’d never been interested. He made a most excellent climbing partner, though.

At least he had until today.

None of the women she knew had the least interest in the mountains, and men thought it unwomanly for her to don climbing regalia and take to the hills—except Brent. He understood the pull of the Sierras and didn’t think it at all odd she felt the same. She pressed her tongue against her teeth. It was the nineteen-thirties, after all. Women were more than baby machines and unpaid cooks and housekeepers. She’d been practically the only female in many of her college classes, especially the math and science ones. Even with a degree, it hadn’t been easy to get a job in civil engineering.

”It’s not your credentials,” she’d been told over and over. “You’re just going to get married and all the time and money we put into training you will go to waste.”

She’d been so grateful to the Orange County firm that finally hired her, she’d come perilously close to breaking into tears. Alice shook her head, but gently. No point in making the lantern go out. It was heavy strapped to her head. She’d be glad to get to somewhere she could stop for the night. She called Brent’s name every few minutes. If he’d been knocked unconscious, maybe something would get through since hearing was the last sense to go.

The sound of rushing water grew louder, so loud she worried how she’d get across it. If it was the right creek, and it pretty much had to be, the trail was on the other side. She and Brent had crossed the turbulent flow using a rough wooden bridge much farther up the narrow canyon. The hillside steepened again. If it got any worse, she’d need to face into the hill to keep going.

She stopped on the uphill side of a fat tree bole long enough to lash her axe to her pack to free both hands. Alice used thick timber to control her descent, wrapping her hands around branches to keep herself from sliding down the muddy mountainside. Bark poked through her mitts and hurt her hands.

“Holy shit.”

She tightened her fingers reflexively on slick bark. The creek, running at close to flood stage from an early snowmelt, was right below her. She’d nearly fallen into it. Her heart raced. She’d been careful, but she was tired. Too tired to be in a place where every step required thought. Water swirled around huge boulders ten feet below her. No way in hell to cross there. She looked downstream, but she couldn’t see very far. The beam from her lamp was broad rather than deep. It looked like the water disappeared into a cascade, though.

Only one choice left.

Alice picked her way upstream over bushes and branches, staying as close to the creek as she could. Her strength was nearly at its end, and she felt ill and shaky. She hadn’t let herself dwell on animals that might attack or Brent being dead, but both rose to taunt her. Just when she was considering getting out her rope and lashing herself to a tree to sit out the night, the angle of the slope eased and she found herself in a small meadow.

The water was still rushing fast, but the terrain was level enough, she could cross here if she was careful. Several flat stones looked promising, though they might be slippery. Alice looked around for something to sit on. She needed to take off her pack to unstrap her axe. She’d need it for balance crossing the creek.

“I should eat and drink something,” she murmured, understanding how close to the end of her tether she was. She called Brent’s name again, but the noise of the water obliterated her voice.

She shucked her pack, got a glass water bottle, and bent near the water’s edge to fill it. Alice drained the bottle and filled it once more, then staggered back to her meager stack of supplies. She blew out her lantern to conserve fuel. She didn’t have any more of the calcium carbide crystals, and she’d need light to cross the water. She gathered her thick, heavy dark hair and braided it to get it out of the way. Lacking something to secure it with, she stuffed the end of the braid under her jacket. The thought of the trail—and safety—less than two hundred yards from her was seductive, but she knew better than to rush things. Climbers who got in a hurry ended up dead.

Brent, oh Brent…

His tall, broad-shouldered frame and sparkling green eyes rose before her. Even if he hadn’t wanted to date her, they’d been the best of friends and she’d miss him terribly—if the unspeakable had happened.

Yeah, if he’s dead, I suppose I’ll have to forgive him for running off and leaving me. But if he’s not, I’m going to give that man a piece of my mind.

Her gaze scanned the darkness. She blinked and looked again. A light shone through the trees across the creek. Joy swooped through her.

Brent.

He was okay after all and had set up camp to wait for her. Drawn by the prospect of not being alone anymore, she bundled the rest of her food and stuffed it into her rucksack. When she settled the pack over her shoulders, it rubbed on sore spots, but she ignored the pain shooting down her back and upper arms.

Soon. I can take it off for a few hours very soon.

The lantern was fussy. She had to clean some of the sludge out of the lower chamber to get it to light. Finally, with the lantern on her forehead and the axe in one hand, she set out for the far side of the creek. If she got really lucky, her feet wouldn’t get any wetter than they already were in their clunky, two-layer, leather climbing boots. She blessed her six-foot frame. If she’d been smaller—more woman-sized—she’d never have found climbing clothes to fit. Bespoke tailoring was expensive.

Alice kept her gaze on the light. By the time she was halfway across the water, she knew it wasn’t a fire. The beam was too steady. No, it burned like an electric light, or a kerosene lantern. That gave her pause. Her earlier elation faded. Probably not Brent. Maybe some hunters who’d packed a camp in with mules or horses.

If it’s a bunch of men, they can help hunt for Brent come morning.

She moved from rock to rock, sinking her long-handled axe into the riverbed for support. It was easier than she’d thought. The last rock wobbled, but she caught herself and leapt to the far bank. The water was a few inches deep, but didn’t slop over her boot tops. Alice didn’t take time to congratulate herself on making it to safety. She headed for the light. A thick stand of trees blocked her vision momentarily, but she kept moving in a straight line. Fifty feet past the trees, she saw a cabin set in a glade. The light was indeed a kerosene lantern hanging from a hook near the door.

Her eyes widened. Lon Chaney’s cabin. She and Brent had passed it on their way in. The thick fieldstone walls were unmistakable. The story of how Lon Chaney, Senior, had built it around 1930, using mules to drag the huge fieldstones the last distance after the road ended, was legendary. A shudder ran down her back, followed by another. All the creepy roles played first by Lon Chaney, and then by his son, poured through her mind.

I’m just tired. It’s only a cabin.

Yes, but who lit the lantern?

Suddenly cautious, Alice turned the dial to douse her light. It made a small whumping sound and went out. She faded into the stand of trees between the cabin and the river and worked her way around to the other side of the building looking for evidence of hunters. A complete transit of the cabin with no horses or mules tethered for the night scared the shit out of her. Had whoever was inside come on foot? How had they carried enough supplies?

Her breath whistled loud in her ears. Brent had told her to hightail it for the car, but she had a feeling something bad had happened to him. No matter how she felt about him running off, it wasn’t right to just leave him. It had been dark for hours, and she wondered how late it was. Even if she stumbled the few miles to her car waiting next to Glacier Lodge, she was too tired to drive anywhere. The lodge wasn’t any help. It wouldn’t open for the season for another couple of months. There might be a phone inside, but she’d have to break in.

Alice considered her options. If she made the lodge, she’d crawl into her car and fall on her face from exhaustion. It would easily be mid-morning before she got back up here to even begin searching for Brent. Survival in the mountains often hung by a thread. She was the only one who knew where he was.

He may have abandoned her, but she couldn’t do the same and desert him. Not and live with herself afterward.

Alice moved toward where she thought the trail was, intent on setting up a fireless camp to wait out the night. She had enough food and a full water bottle. No tent or sleeping bag, but she’d survived worse conditions. A fire would’ve been welcome, but she couldn’t risk—

“Hey there. You. Show yourself, man,” a deep voice called from behind her. Light flared, illuminating the forest. Footsteps crunched over rocks and twigs as the person approached.

Alice stiffened. People looked at her build and assumed she was male. It had happened to her before—and more than once. She considered running, but burdened with her heavy boots, climbing hardware, and the moonless night, she didn’t want to chance a headlong flight. Besides, the man might have a gun.

“Why should I?” She spun to face him, ready for almost anything.

“What? You’re a woman?”

Alice grasped her ice axe in both hands. “Leave me alone,” she grunted through clenched teeth. “I’m tired and my friend is…lost.”

“Whoa.” The man held up both hands, one of which gripped a flashlight. “Put your axe down, sweetheart. I’m not going to hurt you.” He was tall, maybe six-feet-four, with straight, red-blonde hair. Despite his height, he had a slender build. A well-defined jaw and sharp cheekbones suggested Nordic blood. It was tough to tell in the reflected light, but his eyes looked blue.

“Go back inside. You can see I’m not any kind of threat. I’d head down, but I need to be moving at first light to hunt for my friend.”

The man cocked his head to one side. “Big guy with red hair?”

Terror gripped her. Her throat narrowed. Breathing became a struggle. Since she couldn’t manage words, she nodded and steeled herself to hear the words, he’s dead. Alice bit her lower lip and gazed mutely at the stranger.

“Look, I think he’ll be okay. We were out hunting and heard something big falling. Thought it was the deer we’d shot at. Turned out to be your friend—”

“Awk! You shot Brent!”

The man waved his hands in front of him. “Calm down, woman. Christ, you’re strung tighter than a fiddle. Take a couple of deep breaths. No, we didn’t shoot him. Your friend was unconscious because he hit his head on a rock, so we carried him back here. My two buddies took the horses and hauled him down to the lodge. We only had three horses which is why I’m still here. Anyway, they were planning to drive him to the hospital in Bishop. I don’t expect they’ll be back much before the middle of tomorrow.”

At least that explains why there’re no horses here.

Alice shook her head, digesting the information. “I need to get moving, then. I can drive to the hospital and meet them.”

The man held out a hand. “I’m Jed. Jed Starnes. You look beat. There’re mountain cats on the prowl. Shot one a few hours ago. They get worse at night. More aggressive. You got a gun?”

She shook her head and ignored his outstretched hand. He looked chagrined and dropped it to his side. “Well, then, handshake or no, you need to come with me. Got a nice warm fire going inside. You look wet clear through. Nothing you can do tonight, anyway. Get a few shots of Irish whiskey in you, a little soup, and some sleep. Come morning, you can go after your friend.”

It sounded good. Too good. She kept her ice axe poised. “How’d you get access to Lon Chaney’s cabin?”

Jed threw back his head and laughed. “That’s easy. Ever since Chaney senior died in nineteen-thirty, his son’s been letting some of us who work with him have the keys. All we have to do is ask. Damn shame the old man died right after he got this place built. It’s a beauty. You really should take a look inside.”

She blew out a breath. “What is it you do?”

“I’m a production manager for Paramount.”

“I thought they were in receivership.”

He laughed again. “We are. But we’re still making movies.”

Something about Jed put her at ease. Or maybe she was just too weary to think straight. She slowly dropped her hands. Tethered to her wrist, the ice axe dangled, not quite hitting the ground.

“That’s better, sweetheart,” he crooned. “Follow me. I promise I don’t bite.”

She trailed after him and climbed the broad steps leading to the cabin’s heavy wooden door. He unlatched it, took the lantern from its hook, and motioned her through ahead of him. Alice scanned the large room. One end was an enormous stone fireplace. The other held a kitchen of sorts with a pump mounted next to a sink. A curtained alcove probably contained a bedroom. The lower walls were the same large, flat fieldstones mortared together she’d seen on the outside. The upper walls were wooden planks. Alice sighed. It was warm. Truly warm. She didn’t realize how chilled she was. Her face stung from the sudden temperature shift.

She took off her headlamp and set it on a table. Next she unbuckled her waist belt and dropped her pack in a corner, followed by her axe. The click of a deadbolt falling into its metal hole snapped her to attention. She made a grab for her axe, but Jed beat her to it. “Don’t know about you,” he said, hefting the axe over a shoulder, “but I’m not fond of weapons inside.”

She’d been right about his eyes. They were a rich midnight blue. Something about them made her tingle deep inside. Alice pushed the thought away. She was still a virgin at nearly thirty, and likely to stay that way at the rate things were going in her life. Almost as if they’d been listening in on her thoughts, her nipples pebbled into points of awareness.

What am I doing?

She shook herself back to reality. A stranger she’d just met had locked her into this cabin and taken her only means of defense. Trepidation trumped lust. “Why’d you lock us in?” Because she tried hard, her voice only shook a little.

He flashed the key in front of her and dropped it into his pants pocket. “Never know who might wander by. I wanted to make certain we’re safe is all.” He made a huffing sound. “Most women appreciate that sort of thing.”

“No one would come up this trail in the middle of the night.”

“Hey, I’m sort of a city boy. We believe in locking the bad guys out.” He shrugged. “If you want to hang your jacket, there’re hooks by the fire. It looks pretty wet to me.”

Alice crossed her arms over her chest and stared at Jed. He stared back. Tension sizzled in the air between them. She held out a hand. “My axe.” She gestured to guns on racks along the walls. “Looks as if there are plenty of weapons in here. Besides, my ice axe isn’t a weapon, it’s a climbing aid.”

“Let’s just say I’m not enamored of watching my back. Look—” he balanced her ice axe against a wall, stepped away from it, and spread his hands in front of him “—you’re apprehensive because you don’t know me. How about if I’m feeling the same way?”

She sidled past him and tucked her axe behind her pack where it had been before. “I have no idea how I’m feeling,” she muttered, “other than tired.”

Jed moved past her to the sink and pumped water into a glass. Crossing the cabin, he handed it to her. “Drink this,” he suggested. “Once you’re done, let me hang your jacket near the fire where it can dry a little. It’s so wet, steam’s rising from it.”

 

 

Chapter Two

Earlier That Day

Jeddediah stood off by the side in a cave deep under the Palisade Range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Rush torches lined the walls. Stalactites and stalagmites glistened wetly. Some were so large they met in the middle, creating twisted pillars. Clan leader for wolves, Jed watched with pride as his shifter pack comported themselves well against bears, mountain cats, and coyotes.

A number of contests were in progress, requiring both strength and wits. Every gathering closed with games to defray the seriousness—and stress—of hours of discussion. The last challenge, paw to paw combat where the fighters couldn’t draw on their magic, was the hardest of all. Usually, the bears won because of their superior bulk and almost impenetrable coats. But this time, it was looking like his wolves just might triumph.

He sidestepped nimbly out of the way as a coyote and mountain cat tumbled by him locked in a flurry of teeth and claws. The contests ran until first blood stained the ground. He and the other three clan leaders were quick to call a fight if it became too destructive. They needed every single shifter. To lose even one in a mock skirmish would be unforgivable.

Jed moved farther from the battling pairs. He needed space to think. The last two days had hosted a special meeting of the clans. Their survival was threatened, and it was time to act. Ancient beyond reckoning, their four shifter groups drew power from the four directions and the four elements. Wolves were west and earth, mountain cats south and fire, coyotes east and air, and bears north and water.

For centuries, each clan kept to themselves. As North America filled with people, shifters migrated west in their search for freedom to roam in animal form. When that didn’t work anymore because the western states filled with people, they spent more and more time as humans to disguise their true natures. Soon it became obvious the clans had to work together, or none of them would survive.

Much like their forbearers in Europe, humans in the United States had little tolerance for shifters. After the First World War, things escalated dramatically, maybe because the troops in Europe ran into men who shimmered into other forms and used magic to both kill and protect themselves. Europe was more compact than the States, with fewer places to hide.

Jed snorted. Regardless of the reason, after centuries of near anonymity, shifters had re-entered human consciousness and been labeled a problem. Hunters—religious zealots who embraced chastity—came after them in droves.

“Do you think there’ll be any of us left to meet next year?” The leader of the bear clan, Keir, sidled over while Jed was lost in thought.

Jed nodded. “Sure, but maybe not a hundred years from now.”

Keir shook shaggy black hair away from his weather-beaten face. He was a couple inches taller than Jed and outweighed him by a good fifty pounds. “We must prioritize mating.”

“Easier said than done. We have to run free to spur the mating urge. When we’re locked in our human forms for weeks and months on end, it mutes…everything.”

“I tell you, we should all move to Utah and Arizona. We’d blend right in with the Mormons and their group marriages. Lots of open country too.”

Jed blew out a breath. Keir had a point. Shifters formed family groups with two or three males and a female. The male contingent formed first, and then went in search of their mated female. Of late, there were lots of male duos and trios that lacked females to produce the next generation. “Maybe you’re right.”

“I know I am. Only problem is if we all ended up in the southwestern states, we’d be too visible.”

A growl bubbled from Jed’s throat. He could almost feel his tail swish back and forth. The urge to shift was irresistible, so he did. He was already naked, so ruined clothes weren’t a problem.

Keir joined him. They switched to telepathic speech. “I may have found a woman,” he confided.

“Really? One who is willing to join your family group?”

Keir nodded. “Yes. I explained everything. How she’d become one of us through the mating ritual.” He grunted. “At first she said she had to think about it. But I wasn’t worried. The mate bond snared her. She was so hot she came just rubbing up against me. She stopped by right before we were getting ready to leave.” He chuckled. “Wanted to do the mating ritual right then. Said she couldn’t wait.”

Jed laughed right along with the bear, but then said, “Chancy to let her leave your side with knowledge that could sink us.”

Keir scratched deep furrows into the cave’s floor with his long front claws. “I had my lieutenants watching her. They would’ve brought her to me if she turned into a liability. Some of the clan who remained behind are watching her now.” He reared back on his hind legs. “I’m desperate for a mate for my family group. Willing to take chances I wouldn’t have taken a few years ago.”

Jed’s heart went out to the bear. He understood because he felt the same way. Hunters had gotten cagy. They knew more about shifters than they ever had in the past. It was entirely possible they knew about their dwindling numbers. Jed had no doubt they’d stoop to anything, including using women as bait. All full-blooded shifters were male. Human females who mated with them absorbed some shifter magic through semen, but not enough to change form.

“Oh, look.” Keir dropped to all fours and shoulder butted him. “We need to go to the judges’ table. They’re calling the games for this gathering.”

Jed shot Keir a wolfish grin, his tongue lolling. “Yes, and I do believe we won for a change.”

“Only because it’s gotten harder and harder to find places to shift. Some of my guys hardly remember what their animal side feels like.”

Keir spoke true, and it made Jed sad and angry by turns. He followed the bear to the judges’ station and stood by while the winners were announced, but fury simmered just below the surface. Dropping into his wolf form and killing small rodents muted his rage, at least for a while, but now wasn’t the time.

He drew his jaws back into a snarl. They’d lost so much ground, he feared they’d be forced to keep right on hiding until the last of them was Hunted to extinction.

He reached for his human body and trotted to where he’d left his clothes. Dark wool pants, a tan cotton shirt, and a multi-colored woolen jacket lay in a heap. He dressed, pushed his feet into socks and well-worn leather boots, and gathered his two lieutenants. Both had won awards and beamed proudly at him. The other fifty or so wolf shifters who’d attended the gathering milled about. A few of them had mates, but females never came to shifter gatherings.

“Come on.” Jed walked up the sloping ramp to the cave’s well-hidden entrance. It was still early in the day, not much past mid-morning. He pushed magic out, fanning it about. No one. They’d figured the Sierras would be empty this time of year, and they were. He ducked beneath a low overhang and came out into bright sunlight. Jed shielded his eyes and squinted against the light.

He beckoned to his clan members. “Grab your rifles.” He pointed to a group of long guns hidden in the lee of a large boulder. “Until next time.”

“Until next time,” echoed back to him. The group dispersed, taking off downhill in long, loping strides. Soon only Jed and his two lieutenants were left. Like many shifters, they were a female-less family group.

“Do we really have permission to kill those who Hunt us?” Terin asked. His lips curled in a feral grin. Amber eyes gleamed.

Jed rounded on him. “Only if your life is in imminent danger.”

“Okay, okay.” Terin held up both hands. “I get that part.” A bit shorter than Jed, red hair fell to the middle of his back. All wolf shifters were built the same: tall and rangy with long, lanky limbs and a limber stride.

“I still say it’s an improvement,” Bron growled. He shoved black hair out of his face. Dark, bottomless eyes masked his feelings.

“Hurry. There’s time to chase down some game before the day ends.” Jed bounded downhill with an easy lope. He picked his way through talus blocks and around cliffs. Their special cave sat more than a mile from the main trail that wound into the Palisade Basin. The rough terrain provided strong advantages. So far no one had stumbled onto their meeting place.

They could’ve made better time as wolves, but it was too chancy in broad daylight. If they ran into hunters of any variety, they’d be done for. The common kind would kill them for their pelts. Church-trained Hunters would kill them for their immortal souls.

“I smell a Hunter.” Terin careened down the steep slope and caught up to Jed, panting a little.

Jed sniffed the air. He’d been lost in his thoughts again. He needed to mate. The urge was strong now that he’d spent time in his wolf form. He shoved his erection to a more comfortable position and sorted scents. Damn if Terin wasn’t right. He slammed a fist against his thigh.

“Good call. I’m ashamed I didn’t notice.”

Terin eyed the tented front of Jed’s trousers and laughed. “Understandable. All that talk of mating at the gathering got to me too. We need to find a woman. It’s been too long since we’ve had someone who liked all of us.”

Jed eyed his lieutenant. “What we need is a mate, not casual sex.”

“Whatever you say, boss.” Terin rubbed his crotch, a wistful look in his eyes.

“Hey!” Jed snapped his fingers in front of Terin. “Enough of that. You fondling yourself isn’t helping me focus at all. What about the Hunter?”

“Trail’s not all that fresh, but it’s not that old, either. I’ll bet he traveled by this spot sometime in the last few hours.”

Jed narrowed his eyes to slits. “It could be coincidence. Do you think he was after us?”

Terin shook his head. “Nah. Scent track follows the trail. If he’d been after us, he’d have been crawling around up here.”

“Not necessarily—”

Bron chugged alongside. “I smell—” he began, but Jed waved him to silence.

“We already know.” He sucked in a breath and looked from one to the other of his lieutenants. “There’s only one of him and three of us. If we run into him, we’re just a bunch of guys out for a spot of early season hunting. If he figures out what we are—and that’s likely because they can scent us—we jump him.”

“And kill him,” Terin snarled.

“Maybe,” Jed cautioned. “Wait for my command on that. I know the clans are out for blood, but I can’t see where it furthers our cause to engage the enemy in an all-out war. There are way too many of them, and we’d lose.”

* * * *

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