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Hunting Ground

By:Patricia Briggs

ONE


SHE observed him from her chosen cover, as she’d done twice before. The first two times he’d been chopping wood, but today, after a heavy snowfall appropriate for the middle of December, he was shoveling the sidewalk. Today was the day she’d take him.

Heart in her mouth, she watched as he cleared the snow with carefully controlled violence. Every movement was exactly the same as the one before. Each slide of the shovel was strictly parallel to previous marks. And in his fierce control, she saw his rage, tamped and contained by will alone—like a pipe bomb.

Flattening herself and breathing lightly so he wouldn’t see her, she considered how she would do it. From behind, she thought, as fast as possible, to give him no time to react. One quick movement and it would all be over—if she didn’t lose her courage, as she had the first two times.

Something told her it had to be today, that she wouldn’t get a fourth opportunity. He was wary and disciplined—and if he hadn’t been so angry, surely his senses, werewolf sharp, would have discovered her hiding place in the snow beneath the fir trees lining his front yard.

She shook with the stress of what she planned. Ambush. Weak and cowardly, but it was the only way she could take him. And it needed to be done, because it was only a matter of time before he lost the control that kept him shoveling to a steady beat while the wolf raged inside him. And when his control failed, people would die.

Dangerous. He could be so fast. If she screwed this up, he could kill her. She had to trust that her own werewolf reflexes were up to this. It needed to be done.

Resolution gave her strength. It would be today.



CHARLES heard the SUV, but he didn’t look up.

He’d turned off his cell and continued to ignore the cool voice of his father in his head until it went away. There was no one who lived near him on the snow-packed mountain road—so the SUV was just the next step in his father’s determination to make him toe the line.

“Hey, Chief.”

It was a new wolf, Robert, sent here to the Aspen Creek Pack by his own Alpha because of his lack of control. Sometimes the Marrok could help; other times he just had to clean up the mess. If Robert couldn’t learn discipline, it would probably be Charles’s job to dispose of him. If Robert didn’t learn manners, the disposal job wouldn’t bother Charles as much as it should.

That Bran had sent Robert to deliver his message told Charles just how furious his da was.

“Chief!” The man didn’t even bother getting out of the car. There weren’t many people Charles extended the privilege of calling him anything but his given name, and this pup wasn’t one of them.

Charles stopped shoveling and looked at the other wolf, let him see just what he was messing with. The man lost his grin, paled, and dropped his eyes instantly, his heartbeat making the big blood vessel in his neck throb with sudden fear.

Charles felt petty. And he resented it, resented his pettiness and the roiling anger that caused it. Inside him Brother Wolf smelled Robert’s weakness and liked it. The stress of defying the Marrok, his Alpha, had left Brother Wolf wanting blood. Robert’s would do.

“I . . . ah.”

Charles didn’t say anything. Let the fool work for it. He lowered his eyelids and watched the man squirm some more. The scent of his fear pleased Brother Wolf—and made Charles feel a little sick at the same time. Usually, he and Brother Wolf were in better harmony—or maybe the real problem was that he wanted to kill someone, too.

“The Marrok wants to see you.”

Charles waited a full minute, knowing how long that time would seem to his father’s message boy. “That’s it?”

“Yes, sir.”

That “sir” was a far cry from “Hey, Chief.”

“Tell him I’ll come after my walk is cleared.” And he went back to work.

After a few scrapes of his shovel, he heard the SUV turn around in the narrow road. The vehicle spun out, then grabbed traction and headed back to the Marrok’s, fish-tailing with Robert’s urgent desire to get away. Brother Wolf was smugly satisfied; Charles tried not to be. Charles knew he shouldn’t bait his father by defying his orders—especially not in front of a wolf who needed guidance, as Robert did. But Charles needed the time.

He had to be in better control of himself before he faced the Marrok again. He needed real control that would allow him to lay out his argument logically and explain why the Marrok was wrongheaded—instead of simply bashing heads with him the way they had the last four times Charles had spoken to him. Not for the first time, he wished for a more facile tongue. His brother could sometimes change the Marrok’s mind—but he never had. This time, Charles knew his father was wrong.

And now he’d worked himself up into a fine mood.

He focused on the snow and took a deep breath of cold air—and something heavy landed on his shoulders, dropping him facedown in the snow. Sharp teeth and a warm mouth touched his neck and were gone as quickly as the weight that had dropped him.

Without moving, he opened his eyes to slits, and from the corner of his eye, he glanced at the sky-eyed black wolf facing him warily . . . with a tail that waved tentatively and paws that danced in the snow, claws extending and retracting like a cat’s with nervous excitement.

And it was as though something clicked inside Brother Wolf, turning off the fierce anger that had been churning in Charles’s gut for the past couple of weeks. The relief of that was enough to drop his head back into the snow. Only with her, only ever with her, did Brother Wolf settle down wholly. And a few weeks were not enough time to get used to the miracle of it—or to keep him from being too stupid to ask for her help.

Which was why she’d planned this ambush, of course.

When he was up to it, he’d explain to her how dangerous it was for her to attack him without warning. Though Brother Wolf had apparently known exactly who it was who’d attacked: he’d let them be taken down in the snow.

The cold felt good against his face.

The frozen stuff squeaked under her paws, and she made an anxious sound, proof that she hadn’t noticed when he’d looked at her. Her nose was cold as it touched his ear and he steeled himself not to react. Playing dead with his face buried in the snow, his smile was free to grow.

The cold nose retreated, and he waited for it to come back within reach, his body limp and lifeless. She pawed at him, and he let his body rock—but when she nipped his backside, he couldn’t help but jerk away with a sharp sound.

Faking dead was useless after that, so he rolled over and rose to a crouch.

She got out of reach quickly and turned back to look at him. He knew that she couldn’t read anything in his face. He knew it. He had too much practice controlling all of his expressions.

But she saw something that had her dropping her front half down to a crouch and loosening her lower jaw in a wolfish grin—a universal invitation to play. He rolled forward, and she took off with a yip of excitement.

They wrestled all over the front yard—making a mess of his carefully tended walk and turning the pristine snow into a battleground of foot-and-body prints. He stayed human to even the odds, because Brother Wolf outweighed her by sixty or eighty pounds and his human form was almost her weight. She didn’t use her claws or teeth against his vulnerable skin.

He laughed at her mock growls when she got him down and went for his stomach—then laughed again at the icy nose she shoved under his coat and shirt, more ticklish than any fingers in the sensitive spots on the sides of his belly.

He was careful never to pin her down, never to hurt her, even by accident. That she’d risk this was a statement of trust that warmed him immensely—but he never let Brother Wolf forget that she didn’t know them well and had more reason than most to fear him and what he was: male and dominant and wolf.

He heard the car drive up. He could have stopped their play, but Brother Wolf had no desire to take up a real battle yet. So he grabbed her hind foot and tugged it as he rolled out of reach of gleaming fangs.

And he ignored the rich scent of his father’s anger—a scent that faded abruptly.

Anna was oblivious to his father’s presence. Bran could do that, fade into the shadows as if he were just another man and not the Marrok. All of her attention was on Charles—and it made Brother Wolf preen that even the Marrok was second to them in her attentions. It worried the man because, untrained to use her wolf senses, someday she might not notice some danger that would get her killed. Brother Wolf was sure that they could protect her and shook off Charles’s worry, dragging him back into the joy of play.

He heard his father sigh and strip out of his clothing as Anna made a run for it and Charles chased her all the way around the house. She used the trees in the back as barriers to keep him at bay when he got too close. Her four clawed feet gave her more traction than his boots did, and she could get around the trees faster.

At last he chased her out of the trees, and she bolted back around the house with him hot on her trail. She rounded the corner to the front yard and froze at the sight of his father in wolf shape, waiting for them.

It was all Charles could do to not keep going through her like a running back. As it was, he took her legs right out from under her as he changed his run into a slide.

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