Clara Sorenson ignored the insistent vibration of her phone, giving Mrs. Ryerson a professional smile as she handed over the bag with the old lady’s purchases. “Thank you for shopping at the Book Nook.”
Mrs. Ryerson nodded graciously. “Clint tells me you haven’t been by the diner in a while.”
Small towns. “I’ve been busy,” Clara lied. Clint’s place was practically Hunter Pack Central. No way was she going to hang around there, looking desperate. “You tell Clint I’ll be in soon. I miss his pancakes.”
Clara hurried along in Mrs. Ryerson’s wake as she made her slow procession through the store. Lifting the old-fashioned latch that always seemed to stick, she opened the door for Mrs. Ryerson to sail through. Clara adjusted her cat’s-eye glasses and dipped two fingers into her pocket, pulling out her phone just as it stopped buzzing.
Brock’s number showed up on the screen, and Clara’s heart skipped a little. It had been good to reconnect with him, especially after what the pack had endured this last year. Brock’s mother, Janet, had made her final change to wolf form and left her family to live in the wild. Brock, being her youngest son, had had a difficult time dealing with her loss. Clara hoped that Brock was finally on the mend. She scrolled to voice mail to listen to his message.
“Sorry, Clara. I can’t make it tonight.” Brock paused as if he was about to say something else before adding hurriedly, “I have a meeting with a new client. Last minute. I’ll, um, catch you later.”
If he was here, she could have smelled the lie on him. Hurt and disappointment washed over her. Why was Brock giving her the brush-off again?
The bell over the door tinkled as a pretty young woman with curly light-brown hair walked in.
Clara smiled at her best friend. “Faith! I didn’t know you were planning to come to town today.”
Faith wore the harried expression of a new mother. “Zane insisted I take a few hours for myself. Finn is teething and fussy as hell.”
“If you want to hang out for another fifteen minutes, we can grab dinner.”
“Perfect.” Faith frowned. “Wait, I thought you had plans with Brock tonight.”
Clara shrugged. “He bailed again. Said he had an important meeting, something about a new client.” She made a show of tidying the counter. “To tell you the truth, I’m writing him off. I really like the guy, but he’s canceled or been a no-show the last five times we had plans. I may be slow to take a hint, but the truth gradually does sink in after a while.”
“I’m so sorry. I love my brother-in-law, but he’s acting like a jackass.”
“Yeah, he is.” Clara sighed. “Brock is usually a great guy, and I know he’s been through a lot, but enough is enough. A girl’s got to have some self-respect, especially a wolf-girl.”
Faith slapped a hand on the counter. “Well, screw him. After dinner, we’ll go over to the Red Pony and get a drink. Well, you can get a drink. I’ll have club soda.”
They grabbed burgers at a pub down the street, exchanging news and catching up. Clara had a wolf’s metabolism and she could have eaten more, but she decided to save some space for those drinks. She wiped her mouth, noting that Faith was already looking more relaxed.
Faith slouched against the back of the booth, savoring her last French fry. “It’s such a relief to have a conversation without mentioning baby poop.”
“Which you just did. You needed a little girl time, hon.”
“I did. Thank you, my friend.” Mischief gleamed in Faith’s chocolate brown eyes. “You ready to head over to the club?”
“Give me a minute to call Zane and let him know our plans.”
Clara nodded and went over to the cash register to pay the bill. Faith joined her a few minutes later, a soft smile on her face. Her friend was still head-over-heels for her handsome husband.
“Zane said not to stay too late because I’m tired and to be careful driving home.”
“The man dotes on you. It’s sickening, really.”
Faith smacked her shoulder. “Hag.”
Laughing, they headed to their vehicles for the short drive to Tilney Mills. Clara followed Faith’s truck in her shabby used Dodge Dart, which was all she could afford. No one ever got rich owning an independent bookstore, though sales had been strong so far. It had been a risk, moving across the country to open a bookstore in this economy, but the local alpha and his pack had been supportive, helping her to set up the shop. Adding a small coffee bar and free online ordering had really paid off. Customers seemed to enjoy the personalized service she offered.
The Red Pony was on the outskirts of town, a great barn of building where locals young and old came to have a few drinks and let off steam. The place was hopping tonight, with live music from a country band, the crowd up and dancing.
Clara grinned at her friend, shouting over the din of music and conversation. “This is great!”
“Oh, hell,” Faith muttered in her ear.
Clara looked over her shoulder. Brock sat at a round table in the center of the room, along with a group of younger wolves, laughing at something his cousin, Ryder, had said. Brock was obviously having a great time, but what really pissed her off was the girl sitting on his lap. Melinda Dawe had her arms wrapped around his neck, her lips way too close to his.
“Clara…” Faith put a restraining hand on her arm.
Clara shook her off and stalked over to the table. “Rough meeting?”
Brock glanced up, startled. He pushed the girl off his lap and shoved a hand through his hair. “Clara, look…”
“Save it. You’re a lot of things, Brock Hunter, but I didn’t think you were a coward.” Clara scooped up the brimming glass of beer sitting in front of him and dumped it over his lap. Served him right.
Brock froze in shock for a moment, before he leapt up snarling. “What the fuck?”
Clara ignored him and walked away, still fuming. How could he humiliate her like this? She almost made to the bar, before a large hand grabbed her arm and jerked her around.
“I think we need to have a little talk.”
Her breathing quickened. She had never seen Brock so angry, his eyes glittering and just on the edge of change.
“I don’t think so.” She shook off his hand and kept walking. Sure, they could talk. Once he calmed down and stopped thinking about wringing her neck.
“Oof.” Clara’s cry of protest was cut off as Brock scooped her up, hoisting her over his shoulder as he carried her from the room. “Let me go!” she yelled, pounding on his back with both fists. Brock ignored her as he shoved open the door and stalked across the parking lot to his truck, laying her over the hood. Wordless, he unzipped her pants, yanking them down around her knees. Her thong offered no protection, baring her bottom. Clara kicked out, trying to scramble off the truck. Brock simply held her in place with one large hand planted on her back.
“Settle down, Clara. This is going to happen.” And then, Brock spanked her hard across both cheeks.
“Stop that!” Clara struggled to escape, her arms and legs flailing. He was so strong.
“No.” Brock held her down with one large hand, while he scoured her bottom with the other. “You disrespected me.” Smack! “In front of the pack.” Smack! “I can’t let that stand and I won’t.”
Oh, God, it hurt. He wasn’t sparing her. Each strike was exquisitely hard, the pain searing her soul as surely as it heated her bottom. Her cheeks jiggled with the impact, the metal of the hood in cold counterpoint to her scorched bottom.
“Please, stop it,” she whispered, a sob breaking her voice.
Brock stilled, breathing hard. His hand soothed instead of punished. Wordless, he pulled up her pants and helped her down from the truck.
“You lied to me,” she told him.
Brock looked away, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I did.”
He didn’t even have the grace to apologize.
“We’re done. I don’t ever want to see you again.” She left him standing there in the dark and went to her car. Clara was still trying to unlock the door, blinded by tears, when Faith showed up.
“Clara, I’m so sorry. The pack wouldn’t let me come out to help you. They said it was between you and Brock. Are you all right?”
“No,” Clara said fiercely, “but I will be. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Faith opened her mouth to object, but Clara shook her head. “I need some time alone. I’ll be fine, Faith, I promise.”
Faith reluctantly let her leave. “Call me if you need to talk. Especially if you want to tell me what a jerk my brother-in-law is.”
Clara gave her a tight smile and got into the car. She sped out of the parking lot, seething with anger and humiliation, her raw bottom chafing against the seat. She wasn’t going to let Brock or anyone else treat her like this. She wasn’t that girl, not anymore.
The old Clara had seen her heart and body broken, and it had taken everything in her to scrape up the pieces and start a new life in New York State. She had her shop, a nice apartment, and good friends. Brock Hunter wasn’t going to ruin things for her. She would shake off the attraction, bury her feelings, and keep on going. This was her life, and she was going to live it on her own terms.
Clara wiped away the hot tears blurring her vision and slowed down. If only she didn’t care about him so much, life would be so much simpler. But she was going to conquer this. She wasn’t going to break—not this time.
Fell Wolf Pack, Minnesota
Two years ago
Clara draped her arms over Tanner’s shoulders as he sat on the edge of the bed, doing up his shoes. “Why do you have to leave? We were just getting started.” She nuzzled the back of his neck, and he grabbed her hands.
“Clara, stop. I have to go. My father wants to see me.”
Clara let him go and sat back on her heels. Quentin Fell was their pack alpha. He was also a mean prick, but she wasn’t going to tell Tanner that.
“Did he say what it was about?”
He was shutting her out, she could feel it. Clara slid off the bed and pulled on her robe. This was a discussion she didn’t want to have naked. “Tanner, what’s going on?”
“Tanner, come on. I’m not stupid. You’re hiding something from me.” She could smell his unease now, hear his heartbeat speed up. Damn. She’d wanted to be wrong about this.
Tanner stood and pulled his tee shirt over his head. Clara couldn’t help but admire the play of muscles across his back. He heaved a sigh and turned to face her, a crease between his brows.
“Just tell me, straight up.”
“Fine. Dad was calling to tell me that my fiancée is in town. She wants to see me.”
“Your… you’re engaged?”
“My father mentioned it once or twice when I was a boy, but I never took it seriously. Turns out I should have. She just turned twenty-one, and her family is insisting on our pack honoring the betrothal.”
Clara’s stomach twisted. “Tanner, no.”
“I tried talking to him, but the old man wouldn’t back down.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, the long auburn waves Clara loved to run her fingers through. “Shit. This can’t be happening.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I guess I was in denial.” Tanner’s gaze touched hers briefly, and then, he looked away. “I didn’t think you would sleep with me if you knew I was promised to someone else.”
Disappointment and anger churned inside her. She felt sick. “You were right.”
“This doesn’t change how I feel about you, Clara. You know I love you.”
That was the worst part. She did know it, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. “Get out of here, Tanner,” she said wearily.
She held up a hand. “We’re done.”
Tanner moved with wolf speed to grab her arm and pull her against his chest. “We’re not done. I’ll sort this out. Trust me, sweetheart. I’ll take care of Amber.”
“Amber? Amber Colby?” The Colby Pack was the strongest pack in the northwest. If Tanner was involved with her…
“Forget about her.” Tanner kissed her hard and cupped her jaw, his hazel eyes earnest. “Don’t worry, I’ll fix this.” He walked out the door and out of her life, though Clara didn’t know that until later, and a world of pain away.
Clara shut off the water and stepped out of the shower. She felt better, she decided as she dried off and walked to the bedroom to dress. Tanner loved her, she had to hold on to that. Together, they’d make Quentin see they should be mated. She shrugged into her coat and picked up her purse, locking the apartment behind her as she walked down the stairs and around the building to her car. Heartbreak beckoned on the horizon, but she still had to work. She unlocked the car door and paused as an unfamiliar scent wafted toward her. Wolf, female. A stranger. Clara whirled around.
A beautiful woman, tall and commanding, with blonde hair hanging in a single braid over her shoulder, stood on the pavement, glaring at her. Who was she? The stranger’s fist moved in a blur, smashing Clara in the jaw before she could react. She fell back against the car, the woman looming over her.
“You stupid slut. Did you think you could claim what was mine?”
Clara shook her head. She couldn’t speak; her jaw felt like it was broken.
“Tanner Fell and I are betrothed. And you put your hands on him, defiled him.”
Shit. The stranger must be Amber Colby, eyes glowing with power and hate, and crazy as all fuck.
Amber punched her in the stomach, so hard that Clara retched, doubled over in agony. “Not much of a fighter, are you?”
Clara scrabbled against the car, grabbing the handle to steady her. Her leg arced out in a powerful kick that caught Amber full in the chest. She flew several feet, collapsing on the asphalt. That was when the other wolves moved in, two big men with cold eyes and bunched fists. There was a moment of agony and then, there was nothing.
She was alive. That first surprised thought surfaced through the pain. Where was she? Clara took a deep, agonizing breath, inhaling the soothing scent of growing things. The sweet, clean air washed away the last wisps of confusion. She opened her eyes. Pale pink washed across the sky visible through the trees. Dawn. Clara dimly remembered coming to in the dark hours of the night, shifting to wolf form to heal.
Amber Colby and those men had attacked her yesterday morning outside her apartment. Why had they taken her here, to the forest?
To die, Clara realized with a sinking heart. They must have thought she’d succumb to her injuries, which had included, to the best of her knowledge, a fractured jaw, several broken ribs, two broken legs, and contusions all over her body. She didn’t even want to think about the internal damage.
Amber Colby wanted her dead. Outrage swelled in Clara’s soul. Fuck her, she thought, furious and frightened. She struggled to her knees, fumbling in her pocket for her phone. Gone.
Healing expended a lot of energy. Her stomach growled as the scent of prey drifted to her nose. Rabbit, long gone. Wobbling with exhaustion, Clara stood up. The subdued roar of traffic and a whiff of exhaust made her turn south toward the highway.
After walking for several minutes, Clara staggered out of the woods, climbing the bank to the road. No car and miles from home. She shoved her disheveled hair behind her ears and tried to wipe the dried blood from her face with her sleeve. She had to get to town. Clara stuck out a thumb. She must look pretty rough, judging from her torn and dirty clothes, and the aches in her bones and muscles.
An SUV with a family inside roared past, a little girl’s face glued to the window, mouth open in shock. Great. She probably resembled an escaped prisoner or a psycho on the loose. Clara started walking south, wincing with every step.
It must have been a good half hour later when a long-haul truck pulled off the road in front of her, lights blinking. Clara limped to the passenger side, pulling the door open.
“Jeez, miss, you okay?” The driver was on the shady side of fifty, with a paunch that nearly touched the steering wheel and kind brown eyes.
“I had an accident,” Clara said breathlessly, hauling herself onto the seat. “Can you drop me in town?”
“No problem.” He gave her a shrewd glance and pulled back onto the road. “I got coffee in the flask there, if you want some.”
Coffee? Hot glorious caffeine. “Thanks.” Clara sniffed it quickly, smelling only coffee and sugar. She sipped it gratefully, as black and sweet as sin.
The driver cleared his throat. “Do you want me to call the police?”
Clara swallowed hastily. “What? No, thanks, but it’s not necessary.”
“Look, I know when someone’s been beat up,” the driver said bluntly.
“It’s not like that. Thanks for your concern, but I’ll work it out.”
“All right, then,” he said reluctantly. He didn’t say anything else during the short drive to town, until he let her off on the outskirts.
“You seem like a nice girl. Word of advice, don’t let anyone else treat you like shit, no matter who they are. You gotta stand up for yourself, but you also gotta survive. So, if that means running away to fight another day, that’s what you do. It’s not giving up, you gotta protect yourself.”
It was good advice, and, hell, she might even take it. She forced a smile. “Got it, thanks. I’ll bear it in mind.”
The driver nodded, not satisfied, but Clara had to get home. Her head pounded, and everything still hurt. “Thanks again.” She slammed the door shut. The driver tipped his hat and then pulled out into the stream of traffic. Clara trudged home.
Tanner’s voice sounded worried on her voice mail. “Clara, pick up, damn it. Where are you? Call me.”
Clara stared at her reflection, touching the swelling in her jaw. It still hurt like hell, but the break had healed overnight.
The phone rang again. Clara slumped against the counter, studying her battered face. She wasn’t able to move fast enough to take that call.
“Clara, I’m going out of my mind. Where the fuck are you? Dad called a pack meeting in an hour, out at the hill. Be there.”
She’d be there all right.
After a hasty and painful shower, Clara changed into sweats and laced up her sneakers. She stopped at the drive-through, snagging an extra-large coffee and three breakfast sandwiches. She was starving, all her energy gone into her healing. Twenty minutes later, Clara pulled into the Fell family compound, where a large graveled area near the main house was filled with cars. Grabbing her jacket, she started for the track, which led through a short stretch of woods to the clearing on a small hill, the traditional meeting place of the Fell Pack.
The wolves were already assembled in a semi-circle. Quentin, Tanner, and Leif Colby stood above them, guarded by Flint, a newer pack member. He’d arrived from the north and risen quickly to the position of enforcer. Quentin addressed the pack, his graveled voice full of an alpha’s authority. “Today we welcome our brothers and sisters of the Colby Pack.” Leif Colby nodded, over six feet of brawn, with shaggy gray hair and the coldest eyes Clara had ever seen.
“We are pleased to introduce Leif’s daughter, Amber, who is betrothed to my eldest son, Tanner.”
Amber, tall and beautiful, strode to the hill, smiling like a queen.
Clara limped through the crowd, ignoring the stares and the murmurs of her pack. Nostrils flared as the smell of blood and injuries reached them.
“All-Father, hear me.” The northwestern packs clung to the old Norse ways of address.
“Clara Sorenson.” Quentin looked her over, eyes widening. The old bastard actually looked surprised. “You’re a mess.”
“Yes, I am. Your son’s betrothed and two of her goons showed up at my apartment while I was getting into my car, attacked me without provocation, and left me in the woods for dead.”
Quentin paused, his arm flying up to block Tanner’s movement toward her. “What proof do you have of this accusation?”
Clara indicated her face.
“Besides myself?” Clara shook her head. “Only Amber Colby and her friends.”
Amber thrust out her chin. “I don’t even know this woman. I deny her charges. The slut is lying.”
Quentin folded his arms across his barrel chest. “You accuse the daughter of the Colby alpha of a grave crime and come before the pack with no proof of your claims?”
Clara clenched her fists, her legs trembling with strain. “My word is my proof.”
Quentin’s lip curled. “Your word is not enough.”
Someone gasped, and then there was silence. Leif Colby scowled down at her, while Amber went to Tanner’s side, clutching his arm. Her triumphant gaze met Clara’s. There it was. Quentin was choosing not to believe her, despite her injuries. He wasn’t going to endanger his plans for an alliance with Leif Colby, not for her sake. Clara felt a surge of disgust.
She looked at Tanner and he… looked away. Her heart froze, knowing he wouldn’t support her against his father. But, maybe, the worst thing was Clara wasn’t surprised. He wasn’t strong enough to stand up for her. Quentin was a bully, and Tanner had lived under his thumb all his life.
Clara took a deep breath of the sweet northern air. Rain was on its way. She was sad and angry, but sure. There was nothing else to do. She opened her mouth and addressed Quentin, speaking the words that would end this mess forever.
“All-Father, I called in the wilderness, and you turned away.”
A shocked murmur rose from the pack, quickly silenced.
“I cried in the forest, and you hardened your heart.” Clara paused, wincing from the pain in her side. Forcing herself to breathe in slowly, she continued. “I will run with you no longer. I will howl with you no longer. I will hunt with you no longer.” Clara swallowed, her mouth dry. “I renounce this pack.”
She swayed for a moment, breathing in the stunned silence that surrounded her. Quentin’s eyes glittered with rage, but he made no move or sound.
Clara swung around and stumped toward her car, not even sparing a glance for Tanner. He made another furtive movement forward, but she heard Flint’s low urgent voice. “No, let her go.”
Clara walked back to her car, her vision blurred with hot tears of anger and regret. A shadow crossed her path. It was a man, not tall, but lean and tough, with long silver hair and piercing black eyes.
He held her gaze for a moment and nodded. “You held yourself well, young wolf.”
“I… thank you.” Clara walked past him, limping toward her car.
He fell in step beside her. “Quentin Fell is a fool. He forgets what Odin All-Father requires of his best beloved.”
Clara almost smiled. He must be older than he looked to speak of such things. “Quentin doesn’t believe in gods and spirits.”
The man made a sound of disgust. “He betrays his pack, a renegade who thinks the Wanderer does not listen to his children. But, look!” The stranger pointed upward, where two ravens circled the trees, their wings black against the flawless sky. “He hears all. Never forget that, child.”
“I don’t know you, do I?”
He smiled. “Call me Jack.”
Clara was sore, exhausted, and sick at heart. But, still, she watched the ravens until they flew out of sight. Soothed, she turned back to her companion, but he was gone. She looked around the empty field. He must have shifted and run off, the fastest wolf ever. A whisky jack called overhead, gray and white plumage circling the blue arc of the sky, before speeding off east.
The whole episode felt strange, like a walking dream. As Clara got into her car and drove away, the memory of their encounter faded, as dreams will do. She made it to the highway before she had to pull over and rub the blinding tears from her eyes. Enough. She’d wasted two years of her life loving a man who wasn’t worth it. She could forgive the broken engagement, she could even forgive Tanner’s omission, but she could not forgive him just standing there while Amber Colby got away with attempted murder. Just to curry favor with her powerful father. The old alpha, Clara’s grandfather, hadn’t been like that. He was a true leader, putting the pack’s welfare above all else, not sacrificing his wolves for his ambition.
Clara slammed the car door shut and sat for a moment, staring out at the tranquil landscape. She felt a little dizzy and her hands were cold. Shock, she supposed. Never mind; Clara was a she-wolf, and she wouldn’t allow herself to fall apart in front of the pack. She drove home and packed up her few possessions. Within a couple of hours, she was on the road, leaving her old life behind her.
She wanted a family, some place she belonged, with a pack she could respect, a pack she could hunt with. Clara picked up the list she’d made of the other northern wolf packs, who might accept a new member. She’d traveled west a long time ago when her parents were alive, before the car crash that claimed both their lives. She’d never been east. Skimming over the list, a name caught her eye. Alec Hunter, Adirondacks, New York. His pack owned land beside a vast state park. Clara picked up the phone.