WAR OF HEARTS
A True Immortality Novel
By S. Young
Copyright © 2019 Samantha Young
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without prior written permission of the above author of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
This work is registered with and protected by Copyright House.
The city held no danger for Thea as she strolled down the nearly deserted street on the outskirts of the eighth district. In the dark, the seedy neighborhood in an otherwise beautiful Budapest, could almost pass for a nicer area of the metropolis. Graffiti tags covered the walls, marring its beauty. The only reason she’d chosen the street, almost an hour’s walk from the Danube and the stunning historical buildings in the clean tourist districts, was because she could afford the flea-ridden room her creepy landlady had the audacity to call an apartment.
During daylight the tree-lined street was almost pretty, if you ignored the stench of dog waste and the sight of homeless people pressed up against the graffitied buildings and sprawled on the sidewalk. In the dark, the tall, slender oaks seemed to bow over Thea, a shadowy protection as she walked to the twenty-four-hour convenience store. She’d always felt a strange affinity with nature, her soul yearning for a quiet place in the woods somewhere. Would they find her in some far-off forest?
But let’s be real, she thought, I’d die within the month.
Her survival skills were strictly urban, and she couldn’t afford to stop anywhere for too long. She’d been in Hungary for almost three months, liked it more than most places she’d been, but already she felt that itch to run. However, waitressing did not pay a lot and half the tourists who came through the café she worked at in the Palace District didn’t seem to realize you could tip above 8 percent. She would get a job working for the last café in Budapest to add a mandatory service charge.
Grumbling to herself, Thea strode a little faster past the young homeless guy who looked prepared to grab her around the ankle to stop her. She hardened her heart against the visual of him, scrawny, filthy, and cold in the chilly April night. She was saving every penny she had for train fare. Thea had to run at a moment’s notice and right now her savings wouldn’t get her very far.
The young man yelled something down the street to her and although Thea only understood a little Hungarian, she’d heard her boss use a certain word enough to know the homeless guy had just told her to do something pretty nasty to herself. Thea curled her lip in a mixture of guilt and irritation.
Shrugging it off, she pushed open the door to the late-night convenience store and ignored the look of rebuke the owner gave her. He was an older Hungarian man. Thea put him in his late sixties and again she couldn’t understand the actual words, but every time she came into his shop in the middle of the night, he forced her to endure a lecture she technically didn’t understand.
But she understood him all right.
He did not like a young woman wandering the streets alone at night.
Thea appreciated his concern. However, he had nothing to worry about. Still, she liked the old guy. Few strangers gave a shit what other strangers got up to, especially beyond spending money in their establishment. She gave him a nod, trying to hide her small smile at the fatherly glower he sent her way, and wandered deeper into the store. Thea liked the occasional glass of wine on nights she couldn’t sleep, and the shop sold a red she could kind of just about afford. Plus, there were these European potato chips that were addictive. She couldn’t get enough of them. Paprika flavor.
Thea’s belly rumbled.
Just as she was reaching for the large family-size pack, the hairs all over her body stood on end and her heart raced.
Her head whipped to the left up the aisle and the bell above the shop door tinkled as someone else walked in. Pulse thrumming hard, Thea pulled her hand back from the chips. All her life, she’d experienced a feeling akin to walking through an electrically charged space when something not good was about to happen.
Had they found her?
Looking up in the far-right corner of the shop where the owner had an old TV mounted to the wall, Thea watched the live footage of the front of the store. There was a man standing at the main counter talking to the owner.
Thea heard the old guy’s voice rise just as the new arrival pulled a handgun out of his pocket.
She knew what she should do, and that was everything it took to not draw attention to herself. Thea was good at being quiet. She could creep up the aisle and make a quick dash for the door and be out of there before the guy with the gun could even blink.
Do it, Thea, the survivor in her urged.
Masking her steps with the otherworldly ability she’d had for as long as she could remember, Thea was almost at the end of the aisle. Ready to make a run for it. Get out of there. Save her own skin.
Not get involved.
Yet, Thea knew that the electrical charge she’d felt earlier didn’t happen just because a guy came into a store to rob it. That feeling was like a sixth sense. Something bad was going to happen here.
It wasn’t her business.
But the shopkeeper’s concerned expressions of admonishment filled Thea’s head.
She couldn’t leave him here to get hurt.
Taking a deep breath, Thea listened as the argument between the shop owner and robber grew more heated. It sounded like her stubborn shopkeeper didn’t want to hand over his money. Really? Is it worth your life?
With a heavy exhalation, her stomach churning, Thea stepped out from behind the aisle and the shopkeeper’s eyes widened in concerned horror. The gunman had his back to her.
“I think maybe we should all—”
A crack ripped through the air, followed by a sharp sting of pain in her shoulder. She didn’t even get to finish her sentence because the gunman had whirled around in fright and shot her!
Thea glowered down at her shoulder and then up at the gunman whose eyes had widened. His hand trembled.
“Was that necessary?” Thea took an angry step toward him.
He fired again; the bullet ripped through her just inches from the last. She flinched at the burn.
Okay, now she was pissed.
The air crackled around her as she touched the bloody holes in the only jacket she owned. Feeling a little murderous, it must have shown on her face as she looked up because the gunman wasn’t the only one freaking out.
The shopkeeper was no longer looking at her like a concerned father. His face was pale with terror. He yelled something and if Thea had to guess, it was probably along the lines of “What are you?” or “Demon!” or “Monster!”
And then he scrambled out from behind the counter, slipping on the tiled floor, before throwing open the shop door to tear out of there, crying out at the top of his lungs.
Disappointment flooded Thea. “Nice,” she mumbled. She stepped into help, got shot twice, and that’s how he thanked her. When would she learn?
She cut a look at the gunman. His tawny skin was pale, his hand shaking hard as he backed into the counter, muttering what sounded like a plea under his breath.
Thea knew how she appeared. When someone pissed her off, her eyes transformed from brown to a gold so bright, no one could ever mistake her as human. Plus, she’d been shot, and she’d barely flinched. They knew she wasn’t just a woman. She was something else entirely.
And it looked like this guy would shoot her again for it.
Just because the bullets couldn’t kill her didn’t mean they didn’t pinch like a bitch. Thea didn’t much like the idea of another one. Plus, she could feel that while the first shot was through and through, the second wasn’t. There was a bullet inside her shoulder; she’d have to dig it out, and that would only slow her down. She didn’t fancy digging out two.
Just as the robber’s finger trembled on the trigger, Thea bridged the distance between them in less time than it took a human to blink. She grabbed the wrist of his gun hand and twisted it with such force, his high-pitched scream of agony followed the sound of it breaking. The gun clattered to the floor and Thea kicked it out of range.
Tears streamed down the robber’s face and he begged in a language that wasn’t Hungarian as he cradled his wrist and tried to get up. He scrambled to his feet and backed away from her as if she were the devil.
Shaking her head, Thea watched the guy run out of the store. Dread immediately weighed in her gut.
That little stunt was like sending up a flare to any supernatural after her. Or worse … him. Now she had to get out of Hungary, and she hadn’t saved enough money to get a train out of the country. She automatically zoomed in on the cash register. Guilt niggled her at the mere thought.
But he did run out of here, leaving you to possibly die.
That was true.
Thea rounded the counter. People always disappointed in the end. Why should she be any better? Before committing the crime, Thea opened the cupboard behind the counter and found the old-fashioned VHS security. She pulled the tape, wincing at the flare of pain that spiked up her neck from her wound. She could feel hot blood sliding down her chest and back, soaking into her shirt and jacket. She needed to move fast.
The register was locked so Thea tore it open with a brute strength that belied her five foot eight, for-the-most-part-slender build. Remorse pressed down on her shoulders as she took what she needed plus a little extra from the register. However, she reminded herself she had to do what she needed to do to survive. And she’d just saved this guy’s life. It wasn’t unreasonable to ask for monetary compensation for the two goddamn bullet wounds in her shoulder.
Sirens wailed in the distance, shooting a jolt of renewed adrenaline through her. Walking calmly out of the shop, Thea strolled down the street, toward her apartment, with her head held high.
Then she felt blood trickle off the fingertips of her right hand and cursed. She’d leave a trail that led right to her apartment. Curling her hand into a fist and lifting the arm to rest against her chest, Thea winced against the pain. Then she saw the young homeless man from earlier staring intently at her.
He’d probably seen the gunman and the shopkeeper run out of the shop.
But she’d counted on that.
Digging into her pocket with her good hand, she found the “extra” she’d taken from the cash register and stopped by the homeless man. She held it out to him.
He smirked as he took the money from her. “Ha kérdezik, sosem láttalak.”
Deducing he understood the payment was for his silence, Thea nodded and took off. She moved faster, the shadows of the trees seeming to envelop her, turning her into shade as she returned to her apartment. The sirens had gotten louder, giving her less time to get the hell out of there. But first things first.
The old building smelled of urine and mustiness. The plaster had fallen away from the walls not only in the stairwell but in Thea’s apartment too. The space was just big enough for a bed, a small counter with a sink, burner, and microwave, and a tiny room off the side where they’d squeezed in a toilet and shower. The apartment was dark because the only window in it looked down into a courtyard typical of the architecture in Budapest. Drawing her threadbare curtains closed in case any of her neighbors got nosy, Thea tore off her ruined jacket and shirt, growling in pain. It wasn’t agony, like it would be for the average person, but it still wasn’t fun.
It also, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time someone had shot her.
Moving around the small space like a gale, Thea pulled out the backpack she kept packed so she could run at a moment’s notice. She rummaged through it to find the first aid kit. Stumbling into the bathroom, she stared into the cracked mirror above the sink and saw her olive skin was pale with blood loss. Her eyes zeroed in on the bullet holes. The through-and-through was almost healed over completely. The other was fighting the foreign object inside her.
Picking up her tweezers, Thea gritted her teeth and plunged them into the hole. A wave of nausea swept over her, but she fought through it and moved the tweezers deeper toward where she felt the bullet residing in all its foreignness.
Widening the tweezers to catch hold of it caused a flare of hot, sharp pain down her arm. Grunting, clenching her teeth, Thea yanked with all her might and out came the bloody squashed bullet. When it hit the sink, it tinkled, almost merrily.
“I hate guns,” Thea sneered at the blood-spattered sink.
There was something so dishonorable about using a gun in a fight.
Then again, it was easy for her to say that. She could handle herself.
The skin around the bullet hole tingled and Thea watched as it began to close over, good as new.
Cleaning off the blood, she watched her skin return to its natural golden tan. Good. The last thing she needed to look like was a girl recovering from two bullet wounds. Thea layered up with a T-shirt and sweater since her jacket was ruined, bundled all her bloody stuff into a trash bag, and swept the apartment for any remnants of herself.
Pissed to be leaving somewhere new so soon, she took it out on her landlord by not leaving what she owed in rent. The hag charged a small fortune for the shithole and there had been more than once she’d used her key to come into the apartment unannounced. Just last week Thea had watched the landlady evict a single mother and her two young kids for missing rent by a week. Thea had listened to the woman beg, asking for more time, while the landlady beat at her with a broom, shoving her down the stairs while her kids tripped at her feet.
It had taken a lot not to intervene.
Thea had given the woman money afterward, which she’d tearfully accepted. Hence why Thea hadn’t saved nearly enough to get out of Budapest.
She needed the money more than the landlady. Maybe it was smarter to leave the money so if the police did somehow come knocking, she’d cover for Thea. But Thea knew no amount of money would buy that woman’s loyalty.
Hurrying out of the apartment, Thea swiftly departed the building. The train station was in the north of the eighth district where the streets were busier with bar-goers at this time of night. She took a detour into the southwest, using the shadows to obscure her journey. Finally, she found an apartment block with a broken front door and dumped the trash bag in their communal garbage. Hopefully, the police wouldn’t find it. But if they did, it didn’t matter. Her DNA wasn’t human. She did, however, worry he might find her through the bloody clothes. He had the means. He’d definitely recognize her DNA. Which was exactly why she had to get as far away from Budapest as possible.
As she made the normally forty-minute walk to the train station in just under twenty-five, Thea didn’t bother covering her hair. The station was an international depot, so it was busy, even in the early hours. There were police patrolling it, yet if they stopped her upon description, there were no bullet wounds to be found. Thea wasn’t worried.
Nah, she looked like a perfectly normal human woman.
Instead of what she was.
As for what that “what” was … that was something not even Thea knew.
The blue skies reflected in Upper Loch Torridon was a stunning sight from the rocky beach Conall stood upon. The Torridon Hills surrounded the glen, beinns with peaks that reached over three thousand feet high. They stood over the small villages along the coastline of Loch Torridon with such exaggerated summits and valleys, they gave the appearance of a vast, rugged castle. Forestry sprouted across some parts of the mountainous landscape, a wolf’s dream playground.
Conall took a deep breath, smelling the light scent of the loch, the fresh, crisp air of the Scottish Highlands. There was no place more beautiful in Scotland than Loch Torridon, with its serene lochs and awe-inspiring glens created by the magnificent beinns—hills—that cloistered them in this haven and kept them safe from human intrusion.
His werewolf pack lived in every village that surrounded the banks of the loch. Torridon had the occasional human visitor as not even the narrow, single-track roads into this part of the northwest could keep every human away. But wolves en masse emitted an energy that deterred the average human from venturing too far into their vicinity. He’d been told it was akin to dread. As if they sensed they would no longer be top of the food chain if they drove into Torridon.
Not that any of his pack members would dare harm a human.
“Are you going to stand there all day procrastinating?”
Conall sighed and turned from the glorious landscape that reminded him not only of his fortune but of the massive responsibility weighing on him. Everything here was his. The land, the people. His to command and his to protect.
James, his beta and closest friend, stood in the garden of Conall’s large lochside home.
“It’s time, then?”
James nodded, his expression grim. “They’re waiting for us.”
As Conall took long strides up the beach to the garden, James commented, “You would think on a day like today, it would at least piss it down raining to reflect the situation.”
He shot him a look. “It’s not that bad.”
“Aye, she’s quite attractive.”
“It wouldnae matter if she had the face of a badger’s arse.” Conall yanked open the driver’s door to his Range Rover Defender and got in.
James chuckled as he jumped into the passenger seat. “Thankfully, she doesnae. Well, from the photos we’ve seen. Those could be a lie.”
“Looks dinnae matter in a betrothal agreement. If they did, I’d be fucked.”
His beta snorted. “Such modesty.”
However, Conall wasn’t being modest. As an alpha it was no surprise he was one of the largest men in his pack. He stood at six foot six, built of natural muscle human men had to work hours in a gym to maintain, and he was born with more supernatural strength than most werewolves. It drew female wolves to him. But that was despite the deep scar that scored down the left side of his face, from the tip of his eyebrow to the corner of his mouth. When his parents (the alpha couple) had died, Conall had to fight many wolves, male and female, who wanted to be alpha of the last werewolf pack in Scotland. If he’d lost to any one of them, Conall would always be Chief of Clan MacLennan, but another alpha would undermine his command.
One of the wolves was a Cornishman, and he was a tough, sleekit son of a bitch. Before they’d even shifted to wolf form, he’d slashed Conall’s face with a silver blade. He hadn’t worn gloves to hold the weapon, burning his own palm in the process to show just how tough he was. Silver meant Conall’s scar was permanent. When they’d finally shed their human skin and fought their battle the honorable way, Conall had made sure the Cornishman’s defeat was permanent. After he’d won that fight and become alpha, more had come over the years, hoping they could best him.
As his sister, Callie, proudly said loudly and often, Conall MacLennan was more alpha than most. But he didn’t think that was the reason he won fights against wolves who came to claim what was his. He won because he cared more. The wolves of Clan MacLennan, of Loch Torridon, were his family. His to protect.
Which was exactly why he was about to agree to marry a female he didn’t know to secure the pack’s safety.
“Remember, Canid might be alpha of one of the largest North American packs, but you have the upper hand here,” James offered.
Conall shook his head as he drove the single-track lochside road from his home in Inveralligin to the Torridon Coach House, a fifteen-minute drive along the coast to the other side of the upper loch. The roads were winding, sometimes dark with silver birch and fir trees arching over from either side. The firs were lush and green while the birch trees were still in transition from winter to spring, their sparse leaves plum. Just as suddenly, the road would change, the trees disappearing from the rugged hills, opening to views of the loch glistening in the spring sun. Even after all these years, the view could distract Conall.
An older hunter couple, Grace and Angus MacLennan, ran the Coach House for the wayward humans who found their way here and for visiting werewolves. They had been a part of Conall’s life for as long as he could remember. Angus was his father’s cousin and he and his wife were pseudograndparents to Conall and his sister. “I’d say we’re on equal footing.”
“Not according to Smithie,” James disagreed. “Canid’s finances took a sharp hit when his shares in Opaque Pharmaceuticals became worthless. Opaque,” he snorted. “Ironic.”
Peter Canid was Alpha of Pack Silverton in southern Colorado. He’d heavily invested much of the pack’s wealth in several business ventures, including shares in a pharmaceuticals company that went under when a newspaper did an exposé on their illegal practices.
“Canid still runs the largest pack in America.”
“And you run the only pack in Scotland.”
Conall smirked. “We are mighty, but we are small.”
“Conall, Clan MacLennan is five times as wealthy as Pack Silverton. We have the upper hand here.”
Wealthier than even that, Conall thought. Although his grandfather had died before he’d met him, Conall knew much of him. His legacy was respected in Clan MacLennan. It had brought them their wealth, meaning seclusion, if that was what a wolf wished for. His father took the whisky distillery his grandfather had started and turned it into one of the biggest whisky exports in Scotland. They situated GlenTorr distillery twelve miles north of Torridon near Loch Maree. There was no visitor center, for fear it would bring too many humans to their small paradise. A few years after Conall became alpha, GlenTorr became the third-biggest-selling whisky out of Scotland. The pack could live happily off its proceeds. Moreover, Conall’s dad bought shares in the largest oil company in the North Sea. Conall had sold the shares and that, along with the successful fishing company his delta, Mhairi Ferguson, managed, meant Pack MacLennan lived a comfortable life.
Most of the pack worked at various jobs in the surrounding areas, especially Inverness, the nearest city, while a few others lived and worked farther afield. Conall supplemented all their incomes with a share of the pack’s fortune.
Now Peter Canid was offering his second-youngest daughter, Sienna, in a betrothal agreement that would suit both packs. Conall would pay a substantial dowry for Sienna, and Canid and his large pack—made up of an impressive percentage of warrior-ranked wolves—would become a powerful ally to Conall’s small pack.
“You dinnae have to do this, you know,” James said as Conall parked the Defender in the car park of the Coach House.
Ignoring that comment, Conall got out and didn’t bother locking the car. No one would dare steal it.
“Callie doesnae want you to do it.”
That stopped Conall in his tracks. He turned to face James. “Callie’s a romantic.”
He could still see her pretty face red with frustration when he told her about Sienna Canid. Dowries and betrothal agreements weren’t unusual in the lives of werewolves. They were a primal race, and that meant most of them still based their idea of power on physical strength. There were a few alpha females in the world, but males outnumbered them and few could outmatch an alpha male when she faced one. That meant, unfortunately, males ruled the werewolf world.
It wasn’t the way with Pack MacLennan. Conall’s inner circle wasn’t male-centric, like most packs. His beta was male, but his delta was female, and before she got sick, Callie was his lead warrior. As for his warriors, they were a mix of male and female, his two healers one of each.
Bowing to tradition chafed at Conall, but in this case, for the pack, he would do it. Even if it meant upsetting the one person he hated distressing.
Anguish crossed James’s face. “This is hurting her, Conall. Could you not at least wait until …”
Inwardly, he flinched. Outwardly, he took a menacing step toward his friend. “Until what? Until she dies?”
“You know I didnae mean that.” James shrugged helplessly. “I just want her to be happy.”
“You care too much for my sister’s happiness.” Conall strode from his friend, bristling with frustration. He was well aware his beta was in love with his sister. Under normal circumstances he would give his blessing, grateful that Callie would be with someone who equaled her in strength of body and spirit. But Callie was no longer the alpha she’d once been.
And encouraging a relationship between her and James would only lead to heartbreak.
Irritated that James had upset him seconds before he was to meet with Canid, Conall attempted to shrug off the feeling as he entered the Coach House.
Grace greeted him. She was a petite woman in her late seventies and yet, with her dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, and fairly wrinkle-free, pale skin, she didn’t look a day over fifty. Another reason the pack sought seclusion. They could live to a good thirty years beyond the normal human life span and aged at a slower rate.
Grace patted Conall on the arm and muttered, “They’re in the pub.”
Nodding, he strolled down the narrow corridor that led into the pub, feeling James fall into step behind him. He was so tall he had to bend to avoid the low ceiling, which thankfully opened up as soon as he stepped into the cozy public house.
A fireplace that took up much of the far wall hosted a lit wood burner. Despite the bright sun outside, the days were still cold this far up the coast, and although wolves did not feel the chill as humans did, the fire was still welcome. On the opposite wall was the bar, a traditional chestnut counter that gleamed under candle bulbs set into black iron fittings. Angus, Grace’s husband, stood behind the bar. They shared a nod in greeting.
As it was a Monday morning, the pub was quiet. Even if it had been busy, Conall would have known where the Canids were before he saw them. He’d met Peter Canid before. He had his scent, and it was more than just a wolf’s heightened senses. Conall had a gift for finding people. In another life, he would have made an excellent private investigator.
James followed him as he crossed the room.
He didn’t ask Conall if he was ready. The Canids would hear anything they said now, even at a whisper. But Conall could practically feel the question from his friend.
Wishing his sister and James would stop worrying about him, Conall couldn’t think of what he could say to convince them. They should know him by now. It absolutely did not make a difference who he married. He wasn’t a romantic like Callie. Or James. He’d never loved a female other than the familial love he’d had for his mother, and for Callie and female pack members.
Human women, the ones not terrified by him, were good for sex when Conall wanted fragile and feminine under his hands. Female wolves were excellent for fucking, wild and free. There were several single wolves in the pack happy to indulge in casual sex with the alpha, though he never spent a night with a female who lived on Loch Torridon. That was just asking for trouble.
So no—marrying Sienna Canid made no difference to Conall. As long as the female was willing and not under pressure from her father, and that she understood their arrangement was more about business than anything else, it would satisfy Conall. It would be nice, yes, if they developed mutual affection through the years, but Conall would make do either way.
Peter Canid and his daughter rose from the table by a Tudor window. Like most alphas, Canid was tall, but a few inches shy of Conall’s height. His light hazel eyes were hard with determination. He was an ambitious bastard to be sure, but Conall felt he was also an honest one.
As for Sienna, she was almost as tall as her father, athletic, strong. At twenty-six she was five years younger than Conall. However, she had the bearing of someone older. Confident, not easily intimidated. Her green eyes met Conall’s, assessing, neutral. Usually females stared at his scar for a few seconds, before a blatant exploration of his body. Female wolves were mostly very up front about sex. But Sienna was guarded. She wore her blond hair swept back in a high ponytail and there was little makeup on her face. She didn’t need it. Dressed in a T-shirt, plaid shirt, and jeans, she also hadn’t bothered to dress to impress him.
Conall liked her immediately.
Aye, she’ll do.
“My daughter, Sienna,” Peter introduced her without preamble.
She held out her hand to Conall. “Nice to meet you.”
He shook it, even more impressed to find her palm dry. She wasn’t nervous then. “Nice to meet you too.” He gestured to James. “My beta, James Cairn.”
“Sir! Can I help you?”
Conall spun around at the sound of Grace’s raised voice, just as Angus moved with the speed of a much younger wolf from out behind the bar. A tall man dressed in a well-fitted suit strode into the pub with Grace on his heels. He drew to a sharp halt as he came face to face with Conall.
The man was human.
Of course that wasn’t unusual.
What was, however, was the way he was looking at Conall like he knew him.
“Conall MacLennan?” the man asked, taking a step toward him.
Something about the man caused the hair on the back of Conall’s neck to rise. He looked beyond the man at Grace, sensing she’d felt something from the stranger too.
“He’s not alone, Conall,” Grace informed him. “There are three SUVs outside with armed men.”
This knowledge pissed Conall off. Humans daring to enter his land, armed and loaded. For what?
“Who is asking?” he demanded of the man.
“Conall MacLennan of Clan MacLennan?” He was American, like the Canids.
Conall shot a questioning look at Canid but he shook his head. He didn’t know the stranger. This human.
“What is your business here?”
Sincere, dark eyes stared into Conall’s. There was an air of gentle culture to the man, the kind a werewolf could never hope to replicate. “I am Jasper Ashforth. I’ve come all the way from New York to meet with you.”
“Is that so?” Conall crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, Mr. Jasper Ashforth, although it may not look this way to you, I’m in a business meeting. Perhaps you and I can talk later.”
Ashforth shook his head. A grim sadness marred the sincerity in his eyes. “We have little time to waste, Alpha MacLennan.”
Every wolf in the room tensed at the title.
History had taught werewolves that, in general, humans aware of their existence were a dangerous thing.
“You’ve got some balls to walk into pack territory and declare your knowledge of us, Mr. Ashforth,” Conall replied, his voice low with menace.
Ashforth didn’t even blink. In fact, he took a step closer to Conall. “I need your help, Chief MacLennan.”
“And why would I help a stranger? A human one at that?”
“Because your sister Caledonia is dying from a rare lycanthropic disease that no drug on earth can cure … and I can save her.”
James sucked in a breath beside Conall.
Conall’s blood began to turn molten hot, his claws itching to protract. Nothing tapped into his temper like the disease eating away at his sister. Or people who wanted to use it against him as a weakness.
The growl of his wolf entered his words. “I’d advise you to run, Mr. Ashforth.”
The man had the good sense to feel fear, the musky scent of it tickling the air. “I can prove it. Please.”
James clamped a hand on Conall’s left shoulder. He turned to look at his beta. James’s expression was bordering on pleading. “Conall.”
He looked to Peter and Sienna and said, “It appears something has come up. Can we reschedule for later this afternoon?”
“Of course.” Peter scowled at Ashforth before addressing Conall. “If you need my assistance, let me know.”
Conall nodded and the father and daughter departed the pub. Sienna threw him a curious look over her shoulder before she left, and Conall cursed the interruption. He wanted the betrothal agreement signed and done.
There were only three other wolves in the pub, sitting at a table across the room. They were three of Mhairi’s fishermen but also warrior ranked. They were alert, waiting on Conall’s orders.
“Some privacy, folks,” he said.
They nodded and left.
Grace and Angus were still in the room. Conall didn’t ask them to leave. They loved Callie like a granddaughter.
“Prove it,” he demanded of Ashforth.
A knife, hidden up his sleeve, appeared in the man’s hand, and James made to push in front of Conall. Although appreciative of the protection, he stubbornly refused to move. If the man tried to attack, Conall would kill him. End of story.
Then to Conall’s stupefaction, Ashforth opened his suit jacket, tugged his shirt out of his waistband, and lifted it to show a hard stomach—that he then plunged the knife into.
“What the fuck!” James barked, backing off at the bizarre act.
Ashforth fell to his knees as he removed the blade, thick blood slipping out of the wound. Pale and trembling, he dropped the knife and reached a shaking hand into his suit jacket. He grimaced at Conall as he pulled out a vial of what looked and smelled like blood. “This … this is the last … the last of the cure.” He threw back the blood, drinking it like a fucking vampire. Whereas a vampire wore a look of bliss upon drinking blood, Ashforth appeared nauseated.
“Watch.” He gestured to his gut.
And just like that the wound healed.
Not only that, the color returned to Ashforth’s face, and he stood, seeming stronger, appearing to vibrate with an energy he hadn’t walked in with.
Conall had never seen anything like it.
Supernaturals healed faster than humans and could survive injuries humans couldn’t but he’d never seen a supernatural heal as fast as that. Like the injury had never happened. Moreover, it wasn’t vampire or werewolf blood. Despite what television and movies would have humans believe, vampire and werewolf blood did not heal a human of injury (although vampire blood was a key ingredient in turning a human into one of them).
“What the hell was that?” James asked.
With those sincere eyes of his, Ashforth turned to Conall instead. “It was the last of the blood cure. It cures any injury, ailment, or disease, fatal or otherwise. It will cure your sister.”
The air around James changed with his fury. “Then why not give it to us?”
Conall cut him a look. Calm down, it said.
His beta glowered but nodded.
“Why do you need my help?” he asked Ashforth.
“This blood”—Ashforth shook the empty vial—“it comes from a woman. A very dangerous woman of unknown origins. I discovered her abilities when I adopted her. I …” He gestured to a seat. “May I?”
Conall nodded, taking the seat opposite the man.
“Call me Conall.”
Ashforth appeared pleasantly surprised by the offer. He nodded. “Conall, I was an ordinary man. I had no awareness of the world of the supernatural. I ran a successful telecommunications company and considered myself a blessed man. When I adopted this girl, my wife and I thought we were doing a good thing. We tried to protect her when we realized she was … different. When we discovered she had these healing abilities … well … we asked too much of her.
“My son was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. We wondered …” He looked genuinely ashamed as he stared out the window, lost in memories. “We were desperate, and we asked the girl if she would let us try her blood on our son.” He looked back at Conall, eyes wild with awe. “It worked. Her blood healed my boy. Made him stronger even. Instead of rejoicing, the girl seemed to fear us. We would never have hurt her.” Ashforth shook his head, apparently horrified by the thought. “We did, however, ask her if we could keep the vials of blood we’d taken from her, for emergencies. She agreed but I fear she misconstrued our actions.
“As she got older, she turned from a lost girl into a very angry young woman.” Tears brightened his dark eyes. “I researched the world of the paranormal, trying to find answers for her, but we couldn’t find anything definitive about what she was. She grew more distant, out of control and aggressive. Finally … she killed my wife and two of her security detail.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Ashforth. But I still dinnae know why you would seek me out.”
“Yes, you do, Conall.” He leaned forward. “That was six years ago. She’s been on the run ever since, leaving bodies and a trail of destruction across Europe. It’s my responsibility to find her and make sure she can’t hurt anyone again.”
Conall wasn’t sure he bought that. “You mean you want revenge?”
His nostrils flared. “Perhaps. But had you seen what she did to my wife and those men, I doubt you’d deny me that.”
Nodding in thought, Conall released a slow sigh. “How did you hear of my ability, Ashforth?”
“I’ve continued my research of the paranormal, trying to find those answers I couldn’t before. And money can buy a lot of information. I met a wolf who fought you. He told me that once you have a scent, you can track it anywhere in the world. It’s extraordinary.”
It also wasn’t quite how it sounded. It wasn’t as if Conall went around sniffing the air until he found his prey. It was more that he had an internal GPS and a scent was the postal code. It sounded like an odd ability, but matched with his reputation, it meant no supernatural on the planet would fuck with Conall MacLennan, knowing there was nowhere on earth they could hide from him if they did.
“So,” James interrupted, “let me get this straight. You want Conall to find this woman and bring her back, and in exchange you’ll give us her blood to cure Callie? What’s stopping Conall from finding the woman and taking her blood for himself?”
Ashforth nodded. “Because I won’t tell you where to begin, where you’ll find her scent, until you agree to release Caledonia into my custody.”
“Never.” Conall’s voice was deep with his inner wolf.
The thought of handing Callie over to a stranger made him murderous.
“I would never hurt your sister,” Ashforth assured. “And you could send one of your men to stay with her. But I’m sure you’ll agree that as a prudent businessman, I will need Caledonia as insurance.”
“Where would you keep her?” James asked.
Conall cut him a filthy look for even considering the notion.
“I’ve rented a castle on Loch Isla.”
Ashforth nodded and Conall narrowed his gaze. The castle he spoke of was situated about ninety minutes down the coast. Lord Mackenzie, who had renovated the centuries-old castle, owned it. Conall had never heard of him renting it out before so obviously Ashforth had offered a hefty incentive to do so. And Conall knew why he would. The castle could only be reached by boat and it had once been considered one of the most defensible castles in Scotland.
But that was then. This was now. Even so, he didn’t like that Ashforth would choose somewhere like Castle Cara to hole up in.
“Conall.” James scowled. “Perhaps Callie should be the one to decide.”
Ignoring him, Conall addressed Ashforth. “Let me ask this. If I dinnae retrieve the girl, what happens to my sister?”
“If you can’t retrieve her, or if she kills you, I will release your sister. But if you betray me”—Ashforth’s expression slackened with weariness—“I will keep your sister and she will die of her disease before you ever get the chance to say goodbye.”
James lunged at Ashforth but Conall was faster, yanking his beta back by the scruff of his neck. James’s claws were out.
“I’m sorry to be so harsh,” Ashforth apologized. “But a desperate man does what he must.”
“Conall,” Grace’s voice cut through the room.
He looked at the woman he considered a grandparent. “Grace?”
She stepped forward, her expression one of heartbreaking sadness and hope. “If it would save her … shouldnae we try?”
“What of the girl?” Angus frowned. “Can we really barter a girl’s life for Callie’s?”
“She’s a murderer,” Conall answered. “I have no qualms about handing her over to save Callie. I do not, however, intend to offer Callie up as collateral.”
“It should be up to your sister,” Grace disagreed. “Dinnae take this choice away from her, Conall. Not when it could change everything.”
Worry needled him. But the hope in Grace’s eyes tugged at Conall’s heart. Callie could live. Like a true wolf again. Not trapped in her human half until it withered to nothing.
He looked at James.
The hope had buried its way into him too.
Callie and James.
They would be free to be with each other.
Sighing, Conall nodded. “If Callie agrees … then so must I.” He turned to Ashforth whose entire countenance was transformed with his own kind of hope. “The woman. Who is she? Where is she?”
“Her name is Thea Quinn. She’s twenty-five years old, of unknown species, and she was last spotted in mainland Europe where she murdered a shopkeeper.”
Well, didn’t she sound like a charming wee thing. “If Callie agrees, I’ll need Thea’s scent and a list of her known abilities.”
Anticipation tingled in Conall’s blood. It was instinctual, primal. Deep down he knew Callie would do anything to live.
Meaning it was time for Conall to go hunting.