Spring came late that year. Even now, the last remnants of winter refused to loosen their stubborn grasp. Vivian felt it in the way the crisp night traced dulled claws down her bare legs and legs. Still, she delighted in the way her breath no longer frosted the air and the unmistakable sounds of Gabriel tracking her zigzagging path through the forest.
She vaulted over a fallen log and ducked under a low-hanging branch, chancing a peek over her shoulder. Gabriel was nowhere to be seen, but that meant nothing. She'd long since learned his game. Vivian cocked her head, listening intently. She heard it then -- footfalls crushing dead twigs underneath, and getting closer.
Vivian let out a peal of laughter, hearing it echo through the trees. In the distance, she heard answering yips and howls. She smiled at her pack. Wolves ran in all types of weather: torrential rain, unforgiving sun, scorching summer, bitter winter. But nothing compared to the first run celebrating spring's arrival.
She reached for the short hem of her sundress and whipped it up and over her head in one smooth movement. It caught nicely on a branch beginning to bud with spring's fresh green. Vivian took a moment to admire the splash of red, just visible in the pale moonlight before taking off again.
But she barely made it twenty feet before a solid body collided with her from the left side. Vivian shouted in protest as strong arms wrapped securely her as they twisted in midair before crashing into the underbrush.
She lay there a few seconds, breathless from the impact, listening to the thundering heartbeat beneath her ear before Gabriel said, "You do realize hanging rags about completely defeats the purpose of hiding your trail, don't you?"
"Rags?" Vivian elbowed him in the chest, squirming. It only made him tighten his hold. "I do not wear rags!"
Gabriel laughed as he rolled them over. Vivian shifted, avoiding a particularly sharp rock that wanted to dig into her back. "I didn't say they weren't pretty rags."
Vivian huffed and pushed at his shoulders. "Get off me. You're heavy."
Rather than oblige her, he pulled a twig from her hair. "Over so soon, princess? I was hoping I'd get a reward for catching you." Gabriel brushed his nose against her cheek, following the curve to her neck.
She closed her eyes when he licked the pulse point beneath her ear. "Stupid wolfman," she murmured as he inhaled her scent, thick with musk from her run. "If I'd wanted to escape, I would have changed."
"I know." His voice was a deep rumble she felt more than heard. Vivian ran her fingers through his hair, catching and pulling as he slid his hand down her flat belly to rest just above the lace trim of her panties.
Vivian stiffened at the exact same moment Gabriel sighed. "What is it, little brother?"
She tilted her head back, looking upwards to meet Ulf's apologetic gaze. "Sorry, Vivie."
One day, Vivian thought, she would sit down with the Four-Who-Had-Once-Been-Five and talk about their bad sense of timing. She pressed her lips together, fingers tapping a steady tattoo on Gabriel's shoulders. Who, she noted, made no attempt to lift his face from the valley between her breasts.
Vivian snorted and moved to sit up. It was then, and only then, that Gabriel lifted his weight off her. He rocked back into an easy crouch on his heels. Vivian combed her hair back and growled low in her throat when Gabriel tugged another twig free. "What is it?" she asked.
Ulf's face was grim. "We found the stray."
In spite of the circumstances, Vivian perked up. A few weeks ago, she and Gabriel had become aware of another wolf in their territory, an older male. At first, she'd worried that someone had come to challenge Gabriel's right to lead. It'd been barely two years since they'd arrived here and set up their new home.
But no challenge ever came. In fact, other than the obvious signs of an intruder: unfamiliar scent, unidentified tracks, dead prey brought down by no member of their pack, the stray wolf had never made a single appearance before them.
"Did he finally decide to join the pack?" Gabriel asked.
Ulf grimaced. "That's a little difficult."
Vivian didn't like the expression on his face. "Why?"
"Because he's dead."
The land bought and paid for by the insurance money from the fire was generous and more than enough to suit their needs. Not only did it contain a forest large enough for the pack to run without interference and away from the prying gaze of human eyes, it allowed them to build a spacious inn that welcomed many a tourist and traveler who wanted a few days' rest from the road.
Like everything else on grounds, the small building situated away from the main inn had been built by their hands, though this one for the sole purpose of pack business. No humans allowed, not that they had much reason to come this way.
And it was here that Vivian and Gabriel had followed Ulf, to see what remained of the stray wolf's corpse.
Vivian took one look at it, then averted her gaze. It seemed disrespectful somehow to see a male's body so ravaged. "Where's his head?"
Ulf shook his head. "Finn and the others are looking."
Not her first choice but when it came down to it, the Four were reliable. Gabriel would tolerate no less from pack males on the verge of becoming adults. She nodded. "It's a little late for hunting season," she murmured to Gabriel, even though she knew them to be empty words. No hunting licenses for wolves had been issued in the time since they'd arrived. It never failed: loup-garoux scared the real things away, and loup-garoux were too smart to let themselves be caught so easily, let alone killed.
At least, that'd been the case since Gabriel had become alpha.
"This isn't the work of a hunter," Gabriel said quietly.
"Why do you say that?" The head was missing and worse still, so was his skin. Obvious choices for trophies.
Gabriel brushed his fingers across the nape of her neck. "Princess, have you watched the news today?"
Vivian shrugged. She'd never had much interest in television. She far preferred to spend her time painting in the lobby. It was a diversion, not to mention another source of income considering the number of customers who often ended up commissioning art from her. But Gabriel knew that.
"Have your mother or Tomas heard any rumors about werewolves in town?"
"Of course not." They kept a low profile. That was the rule since their disastrous year spent in the suburbs. If there'd been any sign to the contrary, Esmé would have been the first to say something.
"Princess, this body is at least three days old." Well, it certainly smelled like it. "Don't you think that's a little strange?"
Vivian stared at him, not understanding. Gabriel waited, patient as ever, and when comprehension dawned, on its heels came dread, nipping its way down her spine. She returned her attention back to the stray's headless body.
Loup-garoux were neither human nor wolf. Part one, part other, something in between, something both, something more. Despite all that, one thing remained constant.
When loup-garoux died, they reverted back to their human guise. Even if the stray had been in wolf form when he died, that wouldn't have been for the case for long. Which meant he could have been in human form when his head was taken, if that hadn't been the cause of death.
Which meant he had been in human form when his pelt -- skin -- was taken because no way would someone have been able to skin a loup-garoux alive.
"Someone knows about us," she whispered.
Gabriel left the next morning.
Vivian watched him swing a leg over his motorcycle. "How long will you be gone?"
"Two days, three days at the most. I want to check something out with the alpha of the Pennsylvania pack."
She nodded, ignoring the dissatisfaction coiling in the pit of her stomach. "I'll watch things here."
"I never doubted otherwise. A princess always looks after her own." Gabriel met her gaze, read something of what she was trying not to think about in her face. "Don't worry. I don't think it's anything."
"You don't think it's anything, but it's enough of something that you're heading down to Pennsylvania? What kind of thinking is that, wolfman?"
Gabriel snagged her arm and pulled her down, nipping at her lips gently. "Don't be angry, princess. I really don't think it's anything but I need to make sure."
Vivian sighed and pressed her lips more firmly against his. "When you come back, be sure to tell me what you didn't think was anything enough to share but important enough to leave."
He smiled at her disgruntled tone and tucked her hair behind an ear. Vivian tried not to react to his fingertips trailing down her neck but the goosebumps gave her away. "Be safe."
As Vivian watched his departing figure become a speck in the distance, she murmured, "You too."
Two days later, one day before Gabriel was supposed to return, the mystery of their stray arrived in the form of a dark-haired woman in her late twenties. Vivian took one look at the stranger's face, the three thin scars stretching across her forehead, and dove for the check-in counter. Pushing Esmé behind her, Vivian bared her teeth in a snarl. "What do you want?"
The woman pulled off her sunglasses, tugged off her gloves, and laid them in a neat pile by the guest register. She replied calmly, "I'd like a room for the night."
"Vivian!" Esmé nudged her aside. "Please excuse my daughter," she said with a bright smile. "She doesn't normally greet guests." She eyed Vivian with affectionate exasperation. "For obvious reasons."
"Why? I'm sure the guys like looking at her."
Vivian and her mother both stiffened. She gripped the edge of the counter until her knuckles turned white. "My mother has plenty of men who--" The woman met Vivian's eyes and whatever else she'd been about to say faded on her tongue. "Who are you? What are you?"
"Me?" The woman unzipped her jacket and reached inside. She pulled out a gun, two knives, and a taser. "I'm Anamaria Sanchez."
Vivian barely heard her over the roar in her ears. Her attention focused on the silver pendant just visible above the neckline Anamaria's shirt, and stayed there.
It was of a wolf's head.
"And you must be the head bitch," Anamaria continued. She rubbed her forehead, fingers tracing the scars -- old scars judging by how white and pale they were. She must have been a child when the wolf had attacked her. "You're younger than I expected."
"So..." Anamaria peered behind them. "Are your shadows going to leave us alone anytime soon?"
Vivian glanced back and saw Willem and Gregory trailing several yards behind. Far enough to give them privacy -- or rather, a semblance of privacy as loup-garoux-hearing wouldn't allow much more than the illusion -- but close enough to remain a threat. She raised a hand in warning, but Willem shook his head. His lips moved and Vivian heard what Anamaria couldn't:
Gabriel will kill us if something happens to you.
She narrowed her eyes, growling. She could take care of herself, thank you very much. Even when faced with a self-proclaimed loup-garoux hunter. She'd have to remind that wolfman when he returned, like so many other things.
They walked on the trails winding around the inn, crisscrossing back and forth across the grounds. She kept away from the forest. No need to show an enemy their most sacred territory, but staying to the paths heavily favored by the meat-people should be fine.
"I'm not going to ask you what you're doing here," Vivian said finally. "But I am going to ask you to leave."
"And if I don't want to?" Anamaria twisted her thick mass of curls into a bun and secured it with a clip. Loose tendrils curled around her face, highlighting the series of metal studs running up both ears.
"Then we're going to have a problem."
They walked in silence for a few minutes before Anamaria said, "Your alpha isn't here."
The hunter studied her. "Yes," she said. "You are." Anamaria lifted her shoulders as if to say, And what of it? "You know, you're not like other bitches I've met."
Vivian felt her fingers curling into claws, the telltale sting in her eyes. She inhaled deeply, pushing back the urge to change, to show this human who dared think she was a hunter what a predator truly was.
But it wouldn't do to scare the guests. Theirs was a sleepy inn, never packed to brimming but never deserted either. If Vivian lost control here, the wrong person would see and they would be back where they started. That was behind her, and Vivian had no intention of repeating past mistakes.
Instead she said, "Sorry to disappoint you."
"I'm not disappointed." Anamaria laughed. "That wasn't an insult, by the way. I like you. You don't pant after any strong male that walks by. You're smart. Young, but smart. I like that."
"You don't know much about us if you think that's what other bitches do."
The other woman lifted a shoulder in a partial shrug. "Maybe so. I don't make it a habit to talk to lobos before I kill them."
And there they were.
Vivian stopped. "So what is this?"
"This." She gestured to Anamaria, to herself, to the young males who stopped just outside of a human's hearing distance, to the inn. "If you want to kill us, why announce yourself like this? It's stupid."
"It is," Anamaria agreed. "But then I didn't come here to kill you."
Vivian didn't believe her. "No?"
"No." She shook her head. "I came here to see the lobo's body."
"He was a murderer," Anamaria said, staring down at the freshly dug grave. "A rapist. This is too good an end for him."
"You didn't see the body." Vivian kicked over the flowers Gabriel's sisters had placed near the rock that served as a makeshift marker. "Did he kill someone you know?" This, she understood. The need to defend pack, the desire hurt those who hurt your own.
"No, but he didn't need to kill a friend to prove he was a monster. I don't care.
Whatever state his body was in, it was too good. I can assure you."
"He was missing his head," Vivian added. "But we found it." In fact, one of Gabriel's sisters had, the night after their brother had left for Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, it had only confirmed Gabriel's suspicions that normal hunter hadn't been involved if no head had been kept as a trophy.
The other confirmation faced her. "I think you misunderstand. I didn't come here to hunt you."
Vivian saw that now. "You came here to hunt the stray." And he'd led her straight to them. Damn. They should have tried harder to find the male the instant they'd been aware of his presence in their territory. Should have killed him too, even though Vivian was sick and tired of killing.
But the stray was dead, Anamaria was here, and now the pack had a problem on their hands.
Then her companion did something that surprised her: Anamaria barked a laugh. Vivian cocked her head. It held no humor. Did humans laugh when they didn't find something humorous? "If only."
"My partner was hunting this lobo."
Her hackles rose. "We didn't kill your partner."
"I didn't say you did." Anamaria lifted her sunglasses and peered up at the sky. "But I know this lobo was killed by him."
"Is that a fact?"
Anamaria smiled thinly. "Tell me, Vivian Gandillon, female alpha of the loup-garoux of the Northeast. When you found this lobo, in addition to missing his head, was he also missing his skin?"
Vivian hesitated. Then, she said, "Look, I don't want a lesson in how you kill my kind. You can keep that to yourself--"
"This isn't a lesson in how we kill. We don't kill lobos like that. It isn't our way. Too flashy. Calls attention to us. We want to stay under the radar just as much as you do, if not more. People may think you're monsters, but they'll think we're murderers." Because loup-garoux changed to human skin when they died.
And in the eyes of a human, which was worse: a monster who killed humans or a human who killed humans?
"If you don't kill us like that," Vivian said slowly, "then how did you know about the skin?"
"Because that is how my partner kills them now."
"We don't make it a point to hunt lobos like you. You keep to yourselves. You don't cause trouble. Not much anyway. You leave humans alone. As long as you continue doing so, there's no reason for my family, or for others like my family, to get involved."
Vivian pushed the cup of coffee towards Anamaria, trying to keep the disgust off her face. The beverage's strong scent overwhelmed her nose but judging by the way the other woman gulped it down, it tasted fine enough. "And when you do get involved?"
Anamaria closed her eyes blissfully, obviously enjoying the brew's lingering flavor. Good thing Esmé liked making it. "It's in cases like your stray. Ones that kill and murderer and rape. Mad dogs that need to be put down."
"We are not dogs."
She quirked a brow. "Perhaps not. But when you go bad like that, you might as well be."
Vivian had to admit, she couldn't find much fault in that statement. "And your partner?"
Anamaria sighed and buried her face in her hands. For the first time since she'd arrived, Vivian scrutinized the hunter and saw the details she hadn't noticed before: the makeup camouflaging dark circles from a lack of sleep, the bloodshot eyes hidden by sunglasses, the constant furrow between her eyebrows. "It happens sometimes. My father warned me and my sisters about it, to take care. Sometimes it goes to our head, the hunt. The chase. You're lobo. You understand. The thrill you get from the kill?"
Vivian said nothing. She thought of the exhilaration that sang in her blood when she and Gabriel brought down a deer. When they tore through the forest, chasing after a rabbit for fun. But the thought of humans feeling the same way about killing them repulsed her.
This is what Gabriel meant, she realized. This is what he meant when he said humans are like us deep down inside.
Anamaria nodded. "You see? It's a danger. That we might become like you."
She said it as if that were a bad thing, but Vivian chose to let it go. She could learn discretion too. Vivian asked, "Is that what happened to your partner?"
"Daniel?" Anamaria searched for words, the visible struggle to do so awkward and uncomfortable to watch. Even so, Vivian didn't make it easier for her and let the silence stretch. Finally, Anamaria said, "Yes. No. Maybe."
"At first we thought so," Anamaria said slowly. "At first that was what it looked like. He was becoming more and more like you, lobo. It made things... difficult."
She thought of Rafe, and that final year in his life, the horrible year in the suburb when she'd become Gabriel's mate. "I can see that."
"But that wasn't it at all."
Vivian didn't much like where this was headed. "Then what was it?"
Anamaria smiled sadly. "For a lobo, you know nothing of your legends."
"Legends? What legends?" Scorn filled Vivian's voice. "The ones your kind speak of? Those are lies."
"Probably." She rolled the empty mug between her palms. "But you really haven't heard of the legend of the man who wore a wolf''s skin to become a wolf himself?"
Vivian stilled. No.
"Yes." Anamaria read the denial in her eyes and nodded. "Daniel wasn't becoming like you. He wants to become you."
In the end, Daniel made it easy to find him.
He attacked a guest at the inn.
Anamaria watched grimly as Rudy calmed the hysterical couple with soft words and bottles of liquor. "Not very subtle," she said under breath. Vivian looked at her mother. "You better do something about the other guests."
Esmé flashed a smile, false bravado appreciated in this situation for once. "Tomas is already handling it but I'll see if he needs help."
After she left, Vivian turned to Ulf. "Take the others and find him."
"Don't kill him," Anamaria interrupted sharply.
Ulf hesitated, caught between obeying his alpha and listening to the woman who laid claim to the man who raining trouble down upon their heads. "Vivie?"
Vivian sighed and shook her hair back. "Fine. Don't kill him." She held up a hand to forestall any protests. "If you can avoid it. If it's unavoidable..." She trailed off and looked to Anamaria for confirmation.
The other woman nodded without skipping a beat. Vivian was almost impressed. "We know the risks when we agree to this way of life. We can die at any time." She smiled at Ulf. "If it comes to that, if it comes between your life or his, I wouldn't expect you to do anything else but obey your head bitch."
"Right." He took off.
"And what about us?" Anamaria asked Vivian. "What do we do?"
Vivian smiled, teeth all sharp edges and promises of death. No other human would understand but this one? This one would. "What else? We hunt."
Vivian scented him first. An unfamiliar human in their forest? Mingling with that of a dead stray who lay buried under several feet of dirt? Who else could it be?
She took off into the trees, leaving a cursing Anamaria behind. Vivian didn't slow. She didn't falter. If the hunter was as good as she carefully chose not to claim -- and only the best were confident enough not to boast of their exploits -- then Anamaria would have no problems following Vivian's trail, especially when she took so little care to mask it.
The human, to her great and everlasting disappointment, was not nearly as skilled as his partner. Vivian brought him down easily, twisting and easily avoiding his slashing knife. She closed her teeth around his ankle and bore down. His scream mingled with the wet sound of bone breaking.
Vivian danced backwards as he dropped to the earth in a heap. Willem and Ulf burst through the bushes on either side of her but drew to a halt when they saw the state their prey was in. Willem cocked his head at her. Really? This brought down one of us?
She shook her head. Not one of us. The stray had never come to them, after all. Vivian sat back on her haunches and waited. It didn't take long. She felt Anamaria's steady, light footfalls heading in their direction and sure enough, the woman appeared only a few minutes later.
The woman was barely even winded, which Vivian approved of. She was a strong female, perhaps even the head bitch of her own clan and if not now, then someday. She stared down at the fallen man. "Oh Daniel," she sighed. "Look at you."
Even in her wolf skin, Vivian sympathized. Maybe at one time, he'd been like his partner, quietly confident and composed, but that'd been long before he'd chased a stray into her pack's territory. Now, he lay naked and dirty on the just barely awakening earth, a pelt of wolf fur and human skin tied around his waist.
Beside her, Ulf whined and rubbed at his nose with a paw. She bumped into his side. Go. She did the same with Willem. The latter obeyed without hesitation but Ulf lingered. She prodded at him with her nose. Go. He looked at her a long moment, then a brief one at Anamaria, before leaving, not sparing a single glance for the monstrosity at the hunter's feet.
Anamaria said, "What would you like to do, Vivian? This is your territory. I know a little of your ways. He killed a lobo here. He attacked a human here. He threatened your safety here."
Vivian threw back her head and howled. To her credit, Anamaria didn't startle but then she didn't expect her to. This human had teeth.
Then, she turned and ran, leaving the hunter and her former partner far behind.
Some things were best done in privacy, away from judging eyes.
"Thank you for your help." Anamaria tugged on her leather gloves before sliding her sunglasses back onto her face.
Vivian crossed her arms over her chest. "It had to be taken care of." Neither of them spoke of the freshly dug grave deep in the heart of the forest that shadowed the inn nor of the fact that Vivian could smell blood clinging to Anamaria's skin. In fact, they didn't speak of Daniel at all.
"So it did." She turned to leave but paused on the threshold. "We had the same goal this time, head bitch. Take care not to misstep. I'd hate to have to kill you."
"As if you could." Vivian smiled. "We won't misstep," she added softly. "We learn from our mistakes."
"I suppose we have that in common." Anamaria nodded and stepped out in the early spring sunshine. "Good bye, Vivian Gandillon of the Vermont pack."
"Good bye, Anamaria."
Vivian watched the woman's retreating back until the door swung shut.
"And so the princess slew the dragon, without any help from knights, princes, or kings."
Vivian laughed and pressed her breasts against Gabriel's back, wrapping her arms around his chest, fingers linking over his heart. "Jealous?"
"Not at all. I knew you'd be able to take care of things while I was gone."
"Liar. Next time, tell me everything so you won't be left out of the fun." She stood on the tips of her toes and bit his neck lightly. "If it makes you feel better, I did have some help."
"That was a merciful thing you did," he agreed. "But you've always been that way. I don't know that I would have been able to do it."
"You wouldn't have had to do it if you'd hunted down the stray weeks ago and killed him."
Gabriel looked back at her. "Do you think that would have stopped the hunter from coming?"
Vivian tilted her head in consideration. "You might have a point."
His dark eyes laughed.
"I said might." She dug her nails into his chest. Not that it provided much satisfaction; it was like clawing rock.
Gabriel covered her hands with his. "You also might have had a point about the stray." He looked down at their intertwined fingers. "What do you think? Should we worry about the hunter?"
She gave his question proper thought. In other packs, the alpha would never have asked his mate for her opinion, let alone listen to it, but Gabriel was different. They were different. "I don't think we have anything to fear from Anamaria. She is like us, even if she walks in human skin. She understands our way of honor, lives it, even if she denies it. As long we don't stray, she'll leave us alone."
"A female hunter," Gabriel said thoughtfully. "Who would have thought?"
"Who would have thought indeed? But enough about her." Vivian kissed his neck and slipped her thigh between his legs. "I was wondering when this princess would get her reward."