Comforted by the river’s sound, the brown-eyed wolf slowed. His steps were silent, claws sinking into ground softened by centuries of pine needles as he made his way toward the gravel path he usually avoided. Head high, he drew a multitude of scents into his nostrils while his eyes carried countless impressions to his brain.
Deep underground, ageless energy reached up to warm the wolf’s blood and stir his mind. Although the predator was incapable of putting a name to or reason for the energy, he sensed that without it, he’d be dead.
Why are you doing this? the wolf accompanying him demanded. You risk exposing yourself.
I don’t know. Something pulls me, he replied in the thought-language that served as communication among those of his kind.
Fight it! We must remain hidden.
Do we? Something must change, somehow. I can’t go on this way, living in the shadows.
Risk a second death then. Just don’t jeopardize me or the others.
I won’t. You are all I have.
When he first acknowledged what he’d become, he hadn’t known how to handle the mix of human and predator existing in the same body. But in the year since a raging river and cruel boulders had destroyed him, he’d learned how to separate a hunter’s simple yet vital needs from a man’s complexity. At least he did most of the time. Today, even as he relied on the body and senses he’d been given by forces he barely comprehended, he thought of himself as a man.
He again sniffed the air. A thousand aromas reached his keen nostrils. Some scents like those of chipmunks and snakes represented food, but others belonged to the humans drawn to the dangerous stretch of river known as The Gorge in the mountains of southern Oregon. He’d grown accustomed to the pungent smells humans adorned their bodies with and wondered if they had any idea how much of themselves they gave away.
Something about what reached him now was different. New and old, unfathomable yet fascinating. When he sniffed again, the aroma stirred a long-buried and denied memory to turn him hot and cold, reminded him of what it was to be male.
We’ve been here too long, the other wolf told him. So many people are drawn to this area. I say we must move deeper into the wilderness.
Come with me.
He couldn’t. No matter how many times he’d started to leave, something always drew him back to this place of his death.
Do you really want to spend the rest of what passes as a life never hearing another human voice, or seeing a woman’s body? he asked.
Yes. Smell. One is near.
Stopping, the smaller wolf tilted his head, bright blue eyes narrowing. His body was tense and alert, and he panted, proof he was sexually excited. Maybe I’ll fight you for whoever this female is. After I’ve defeated you, I’ll take her into the mountains.
You, defeat me? The wolf who’d once lived and loved here curled back his lips, exposing fangs capable of ripping flesh and bone. What a fool you are to think that. Besides, you know she wouldn’t want anything to do with you.
You think you’re different? That a human female would want you?
No. My days of walking like a man are over—like everything else I once had.
Fighting back the hot energy running through his veins, the larger wolf waited for his companion to respond, but he said nothing. Looking at each other, they continued to sniff the air, panting in unison, united in resignation and regret.
And when the breeze brought an even more potent scent, the larger predator began walking again. The other kept pace but remained behind as the leader wove through great evergreens that all but blocked out the sun. Despite the challenge they’d thrown at each other, he was grateful for companionship and friendship. Without him and other wolves with human eyes, loneliness might tear him apart.
The forest and whatever lay beneath the ground was home to him. Back when he’d thought and moved as a man, he’d embraced these mountains in large part because he’d earned his living in them. In many respects, the wilderness was responsible for his violent death, but it was what it was. He couldn’t hate it for what essentially had been his doing.
Wondering why the faint memory of his death stalked him today, he took note of his body’s lean, meshing muscles. He barely remembered what it felt like to walk upright on legs and feet and to have arms and hands. Neither could he recall his features. The only thing that remained clear was the swift yet endless seconds before the Rogue River’s violent current had swept his body into hell.
One other thing. A woman had watched him die.
Although she loved this land, Aileen Magle had to fight herself with every step she took. She should have stayed home and finished paring down her belongings in preparation for the transfer and move to Crater Lake. Darn it, she had only one more day off before the change in job assignment that would result in her living some seventy miles away. Or if not packing, she could hide from herself by visiting friends. Anything but coming to The Gorge. Damn it, why was the compulsion to do what she’d avoided for a year so powerful today?
You know why. You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t say goodbye.
Shaken by the insistent voice in her head, she worked circulation back into her hands and reminded herself that she only had another quarter mile to go before reaching The Gorge. It didn’t matter that she’d been working in the woods since she started fighting forest fires the summer of her eighteenth year; the heat always made her fingers swell. If that wasn’t another rationalization for returning to her air-conditioned car and going home, what was?
Unfortunately, logic couldn’t hold a candle to regret and loss.
I’m sorry, Slade. God, am I. I’d give anything for you to still be alive. The way you embraced life had a great deal to do with what attracted me to you, that and the sex. Oh, yes, the sex.
Scolding from a crow ahead of her on the path distracted her from memories both bad and good, but when the large, dark bird hopped into the bushes, her thoughts returned to Slade as they had countless times since his freak accident.
You deserved a longer life than the one you got. That’s a huge part of the pain I’ve gone—am still going through. There was so much you wanted to do, so many places you wanted to see, but that won’t change reality. I have to live with it.
They hadn’t had enough time together. Maybe if they’d had longer, the wonder and heat of their sex life would have settled down. What she remembered were glances that turned into clothes discarded and frenzied need that led to mutual exploration and release.
We didn’t talk about that, not really. Sometimes I longed to ask if you felt the same overwhelming energy, as if you couldn’t breathe without me in your life. But I didn’t because I didn’t know how to put words into something so powerful. And now I’m alone. Half alive. Needing…
Heat between her legs jolted her from the silent monologue. Her heart pounded and her breasts ached. At first, she tried to deny she was turned on. Then as the heat and a deep and insatiable longing grew, she faced reality. For the first time in so long she couldn’t remember, she wanted to be fucked, desperately!
Needed a man’s body locked against hers, saying nothing, doing everything, understanding what she couldn’t comprehend.
Only there was no one she trusted to turn her need over to, no one she would shed her clothes and spread her legs for. Looking around at the silent forest, she relaxed a little. Because she knew the woods in ways most people couldn’t comprehend, she trusted her instincts. She was alone, no other humans around. Why not take a minute to satisfy herself and maybe remind herself that she was still a woman? No one would see.
Stopping, she widened her stance and pressed her fingertips against her sex. Her jeans were already soaked. Still barely believing what had happened, she increased the pressure only to pull back as a wave of desire threatened to swamp her.
She’d shed so many tears in the past year. Hopefully she had no more to shed. Besides, sometimes anger was easier to deal with than regret and sorrow. Fury also kept her body from missing Slade so much she questioned her ability to survive.
“Do you think this is funny?” she raged at the thick-growing trees and whatever lived in, under, or near them. She lightly stroked herself. “Your parting shot, Slade? Get me all hot and bothered here, near where we spent our last minutes together? Make me remember how good the sex was between us?” And then leaving her to deal with unending ache and pain.
Her cheeks and throat flushed. Masturbation might help, briefly, not long enough, leaving her lost.
After another swipe over her core—nothing more than a parting gift to herself—she closed her legs and rammed trembling hands into her back pockets. Doing so altered her position so her back ached and her breasts pressed against her bra.
Feeling feminine was a bad idea.
Facing unresolved issues was even worse.
The smell of sex slammed into the large male. Behind him, his companion growled. As his hackles rose, he dug his claws into the loose soil as if in preparation for tearing it apart.
Where? his companion asked. Where is she?
Although the other wolf’s presence kept him from going insane, at his core, the brown-eyed wolf was a male predator in his prime. Baring his teeth, he pushed ahead of the other wolf. What existed of a human mind took pride in the way his four-legged body effortlessly avoided the fallen logs, trees, and bushes that had conspired to trip him back when he’d been a man.
If only he understood how and why the transformation had taken place.
Shaking off the unanswerable thought, he sucked in air scented with pitch, pine, earth, and woman. The sound of rapid breathing told him he was within a few feet of his prey, only he had no intention of killing her.
Stopping, he looked behind him, fangs again bared. The other wolf dropped to the ground, rolled over, and exposed his belly in submission. Dismissing him, he slunk forward. Each step brought him closer to what he both wanted and didn’t. Something about this female was expanding his usual thought patterns so he now thought of more than hunting, sleeping, and fucking.
Her breathing quickened, but whether it was because she was becoming aroused or alarmed, he couldn’t determine. It didn’t matter because even if she was in heat, he wouldn’t be able to take advantage of her receptiveness. If she spotted him, she’d run before he could try to send her a mind message. Granted, he could overtake her and try to make her see that he was more than a primitive beast, but for what purpose? And why did he care whether she understood and accepted him?
“Who’s there? I know someone is. Damn it, no playing games.”
His hackles sprang to life. Something about the woman’s voice touched him with lightning’s fingers. He growled.
“A dog? Hey, is anyone with it?”
The sense that he’d heard her before increased. Blood racing, he stepped out of the shadows. The woman faced him with her hands fisted at her sides, but when he took another step, her fingers went to her throat. Her long auburn hair was caught in a single thick braid that ran down her back, revealing her unadorned features. He didn’t have to study her eyes to know they were a mix of hazel and blue or look at her breasts to know they were large enough to fill a man’s hand. His eyes narrowed.
The last person to see him alive.