August, 2014 Somewhere, Texas
He’d miscalculated the time and was running late. His wolf paced restlessly within, anxious to get out and run with the pack.
Luke glanced across the intersection. The single light atop the pole across the street flickered on, its sensor detecting the fading light as the sun set. . He didn’t have long to get his ass out to the ranch before the last bit of light disappeared and the moon rose. Once that happened, he wouldn’t be driving anywhere until morning.
He gunned the Vortec 6.0L V8 engine and his pickup blew down College Street with a roar. It was a Monday night and the town roads were abandoned. Most of the students from out of town wouldn’t start arriving until Wednesday or Thursday for orientation. Somewhere, Texas would really come alive then. The start of a new school year always breathed life into the otherwise boring small town.
Leaning forward, he rolled the dial on his radio, searching for the local country station. The new Brent Kane song, Loved Walked In, blared out from the speakers. Somewhere’s very own country rock star stayed over at the Double D ranch north of town whenever he wasn’t on tour.
Luke rolled down the window, enjoying the unusually cool breeze.
Movement on the right side of the street caught his eye. One second the road was clear, and the next his headlights highlighted a familiar female figure in the failing light.
His foot slammed the breaks, but the three and a half ton truck just couldn’t stop that fast. She disappeared from view and the sickening thump that followed made his heart stop and his stomach climb into his throat.
Throwing the truck into park, he leapt out and bent to look beneath his vehicle. Don’t be her. Don’t be her. God, please don’t let it be her.
Her body lay twisted at an odd angle underneath his truck.
He’d killed her.
He sank to the ground next to her, tears watering his eyes. The asphalt bit into his knees like shards of glass. The pain was nothing compared to the fear that he’d lost the only girl he’d ever cared about. It didn’t matter that she thought they were just high school classmates. Luke had known since junior high, Kara McClure would eventually be his.
He touched her neck, looking for a pulse. It was faint, but the blood pooling beneath her body meant it wouldn’t last long. “Fuck. You can’t die on me, Kara. Do you hear me?” Leaning forward, he ignored basic first aid rules and pulled her out from under the giant truck. He put his face to hers, feeling for breath. The tiniest puff of air blew against his cheek, but even that was labored. He could hear a gurgle in her chest.
She would be dead in minutes. He had no doubt in his mind. There wasn’t time to get her to the hospital, or to call for an ambulance. Losing her wasn’t an option.
He glanced up at the orange sky, now laced with shades of purple. Time was running out. He would shift as soon as the moon rose. If he didn’t take a chance now, he’d lose her forever. Somewhere without Kara wasn’t anywhere at all. His life would be over if she died tonight. He lifted her from the asphalt and hugged her to his chest. Warm liquid from her head wound slicked his left hand and tears began to fall down his cheeks.
“Chun tú Geallaim mo chroí agus anam go deo.”
No hesitation. The words rolled from his tongue as if he’d been waiting to say them his whole life.
“Chun tú Geallaim mo chroí agus anam go deo,” he repeated, pleading from the depths of his being for the spell to take hold quickly, for her blood to stop running in sickening warm streams down his wrist.
The ancient pledge would bind his essence to hers and heal her wounds. She would be able to recover from nearly any injury for as long as he lived. He’d deal with the consequences of his choice later. For now all that mattered was that Kara lived.
“Fight, Kara. Please.”
Slowly he felt the pull. The energy that surrounded him shifted, and he growled as pain radiated through him from his head down through his chest. Her injuries were severe, and it would take most of the night for the magick to heal her broken bones and internal injuries. The blood spilling from her head stopped. He gritted his teeth against the pain.
He stood, lifting her in his arms. The streets were still quiet. No one had coming running to see what happened. He laid her out gently on the back seat of his truck, propping up her head with a couple of his old t-shirts. Time was running short. Jumping into the driver’s seat, he pulled the shifter out of park and floored the gas pedal.
Fifteen minutes later, he pulled off the highway and turned down the dirt road that cut across all three of the VonBrandt ranches. The road disappeared, and he drove through some tall grass into a grove of pine trees, hiding his truck from view.
Magick shivered and tensed across his skin, warning him the shift was coming. He gave Kara one last look before getting out of the truck. His muscles burned from the coming forced change, and his body screamed in pain from Kara’s injuries. Tonight’s run was not going to be a pleasant one.
He stripped out of his clothes and tossed them into the bed of the truck just before the change swept over him, changing him into a sleek black and grey wolf. He wanted to stay and watch over the truck, but his wolf had been raring to run all day in anticipation of the full moon. Kara would be safe. No one would bother her.
Raising his head to the velvety black sky, he loosed one long howl. A few moments later he heard a chorus of answers from deeper in the hills. He leapt forward into a run, but stumbled and yelped, surprised by the intensity of the pain. He’d thought after shifting it might have faded a little.
No such luck. Standing slowly, he tested his legs again, reminding himself it was phantom pain and not his. A few minutes later he managed to move forward, first at a slow walk and then a faster lope. There would be no hunting for him tonight. It would take all of his concentration just to stay on his feet.
* * *
Something was terribly wrong. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt so much pain. The hardness of the street had disappeared and the cold emptiness that had enveloped her was gone. She could remember air slipping from her lungs, unable to be replenished. Yet now she could draw a full breath. It hurt, but it was possible.
She hadn’t planned to jump in front of a truck. But when she’d tripped in the bushes and stumbled out into the middle of the street, the blinding headlights just froze her in place. And she hadn’t fought it. At least in death she would be with her parents again. In that split second she’d almost been thankful for the haphazard accident. Though the poor soul who’d hit her must be devastated.
Tears welled in her eyes and ran in streams down her cheeks at the thought of causing someone that kind of grief. It would’ve been better to die quietly and alone, not involving anyone else. At least then, the pain would have only been hers to bear. God knows her bitchy, backstabbing roommate wouldn’t have cared. Neither would her supposed boyfriend, since she’d caught them together at his place. In bed.
Her eyes opened slowly to darkness. The faint smell of hay and horse lingered on the seat where she was sprawled. In fact, the truck smelled like it’d recently been parked in a barn.
Feeling around, she slowly pulled herself into an upright position on the seat and peered out the window at the full moon in the sky above her. Wolves howled not too far off, and she shuddered. The sound had always scared her as a child, even though her dad had always assured her the wolves would never hurt her.
The tears returned in a rush at the memory of her dad. He was gone. So was her mom. They had always gone on vacation in August for their anniversary, but this trip to the spa out in Nacogdoches would be their last. The police officer on the phone earlier today had informed her that a tractor-trailer had lost control on the highway and flipped over, crushing two cars in the process. He tried to soothe her hysterical crying by saying they hadn’t suffered, but it didn’t help.
They were gone. Forever. The one other person she had in her life, at least the one she thought she could count on, was screwing around with her sorority sister behind her back. She and Vincent had been together for almost five years.
What had she done to deserve such a betrayal?
What was there left to live for? When she’d started running away from Vincent’s house, there hadn’t been a plan in her mind. Just that she wanted to escape the pain.
She didn’t have anyone left in her life that cared. A cloud moved over the moon and everything fell into pitch blackness. More howls echoed from the hills ahead of the truck. It sounded like a whole pack. She knew she was safe in the truck, at least for now, but who had hit her, and where were they now? Why had they left her in the truck?
The clouds shifted again and moonlight flooded the field behind the truck. Not much light filtered through the pine tree branches above, and the truck stayed mostly in darkness. She considered getting out and trying to walk, but every time she moved, her body screamed in pain. Eventually it was too much, and she laid back down on the seat and drifted into a restless sleep.
* * *
Luke approached the truck slowly, wondering if Kara was asleep or awake. It was going to be damn hard to explain why all of his clothes were in the bed of the truck and not on his body.
The pine needles scratched his bare feet. He reached over the side of the bed of the truck and grabbed his jeans and t-shirt, wincing when the belt buckle clanked loudly against the inside wall.
“Hey bro, wanna get some coffee when we get ba—” His brother’s voice broke off at the same time two very blue eyes peered through the back window. “Luke, what the hell, dude?” Noah shouted and ducked behind a couple of large pine trees. “Is that why you were so distracted last night during the hunt? I thought dad was gonna chew your ear off for letting go of that deer.”
Luke yanked on his pants and pulled the t-shirt on while Kara continued to stare, her gaze flitting between him and the place where his buck naked brother was hiding in the trees. Her eyes were empty, like she’d cried all her emotions out and only the shell of her remained.
“Noah, go back to the house. I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah, whatever. Mom and dad are gonna eat you for lunch when they hear about this. Don’t think I didn’t notice that new ink of yours.”
“Leave it be, Noah.” He yelled, but Noah had already shifted and taken off.
He didn’t know what he was going to say to Kara, much less his mom and dad, and that wasn’t even the half of it. He stared down at the Celtic markings that wrapped around his wrists. Kara would have identical ones on her wrists as well.
Where to even begin?
He pulled open the back passenger door, expecting a battery of questions, but instead she gave him nothing. Her long, beautiful, strawberry blonde hair was stained with blood from the accident and clumped together in wads. The creamy white skin of her cheeks that he had dreamed of touching was splotchy and red from crying, and her wrinkled clothes were covered in black bits of asphalt and bloodstains.
His gaze narrowed in on her hands. Both were laying lifelessly in her lap, and both of her wrists bore his bond marks. It wasn’t really something that could easily be hidden. The bracelets, so-to-speak, were dark green and about three inches wide.
“Kara. I’m so sorry. It was late and I… and I didn’t have time to take you anywhere.”
She nodded, her gaze staring through him more than at him. He wished she’d say something. Anything would be better than this dead silence. She didn’t respond. She just kept staring, her eyes blank and void of any emotion whatsoever.
“I’m gonna take you back to your place, okay?” He knew she was living at the KAS – Kappa Alpha Sigma – sorority house. He’d seen her parents help her move in a few days ago. He and his twin brother lived across the street in AKO -Alpha Kappa Omega – and Noah spent the entire time ribbing him about never asking Kara out.
Vincent Harris was an ass. A great football player, but an ass nonetheless. Luke wasn’t the type of guy to rat on someone. Their relationship was their business.
Now it had become his business.
Shit. He was all but married to her in the eyes of his family. They were connected in a way no human couple ever could be. His essence lived inside her now, linking him to her forever. It couldn’t be undone. Ever.
He closed the door on her still-silent form, went to the driver’s side, and got in. A few minutes later they were rolling down College Street toward Greek row.
The large sorority and frat houses were “old school” plantation style. White. Tall columns in the front. Dozens of windows. They varied a little in shape and size, but not much. If you were new to the campus, the only way you could tell them apart was by the letterhead over the front doors. Even the front lawns were kept perfectly manicured and gorgeous. Shrubbery lined the front of all the houses, and large pine trees were scattered throughout the front and back yards.
Her sorority’s house was the last house on the street, on the corner, just across from his fraternity’s house. Their houses often had parties together during Greek week and several of his Greek brothers dated KAS girls.
He pulled to a stop by the curb and got out. Kara made no move to exit the truck on her own. He opened the door for her and offered his hand. She laid her small palm in his large one and he noticed her eyes drift to their matching tattoos.
Still, her face remained unchanged and she said nothing. “I can explain.” He murmured, tucking her small frame against his large one. She was so cold. And shivering? Maybe it was still just the shock of the accident. “Why don’t you get a shower, and I’ll go get us some breakfast from Meg’s Bakery. I’ll be right back.” There wasn’t much a kolach or two from one of the best bakeries in central Texas couldn’t fix. The town actually got tourists, just stopping through to eat at Meg’s Bakery. The trip would at least give him a few more minutes to decide what the hell he was going to tell her.
When they got to the front door, Kara pulled a small set of keys from her pocket and fumbled with it a moment before getting the lock to turn. The large white door swung open and a semi-dark foyer lay before them. It was unlikely that anyone was up; it was barely six am. Most of the girls at KAS barely stirred before eight, even once classes started.
“Are you okay to get to your room?”
She pulled away and nodded, moving toward the stairs directly to her left. “I’ll be fine,” she murmured. “You can leave.”
“I’ll be back in fifteen with some food, okay. You need to eat something.”
No comment. No glance back over her shoulder. She was like a freaking zombie. What had happened to the sweet, carefree, always smiling girl he’d grown up with? The Kara he knew and loved could put a smile on anyone’s face. And her voice. Damn, she had the singing voice of an angel.
He pulled the door closed. A jingle caught his ear and he looked back. She’d left her keys in the lock. Pulling them free, he pocketed them and hurried back to his truck. He needed to get back to her as soon as possible, but she deserved a few minutes to clean up and decompress.
* * *
Kara climbed the stairs slowly. She’d heard the door close and the echo of Luke’s footsteps on the wooden porch as he’d walked away from the house. He’d been so kind and comforting, but she barely knew him, and he and his brother were the ‘campus bachelors’. Every girl tried to go out with them. Many girls managed to make it happen once, but it was uncommon to get a second date.
Vincent had always made her feel special, like she was the only star in his universe. But seeing him fucking her roommate – in his bed, the bed they’d shared – made her sick. How could he betray her like this? Especially when she needed him so badly right now.
She got to the top of the stairs and walked down the hall to her room. Brushing her fingers across her pocket, she realized she’d left her keys in the door downstairs. But her bedroom door was ajar. Fuck.
She pushed it open, and new waves of tears welled up into her swollen eyes. Her roommate Samantha was reading in the chair next to the window.
“Kara,” Samantha looked up slowly. Her eyes got big and she jumped from the chair, dropping her book to the floor. “Oh my God, girl, what happened to you?”
Kara raised her arm. “How could you?” Tears poured down her cheeks in fiery rivers. “You’re my roommate. My sorority sister!”
“I don’t know what you are talking about, Kara. Calm down. You look like you got hit by a truck.”
“I did! I tripped and stumbled into the middle of the road after running from Vincent’s house last night.”
“You were at Vincent’s?” Samantha’s eyes got wide. She took a step back and nervously twisted a trailing piece of her bleach blonde hair. “When?”
“Just in time to see him eating something he shouldn’t have been, bitch. But you go right ahead and keep the lying sonofabitch. I don’t want him anymore.”
She turned and dashed back out of her room. Taking the stairs two at a time, she burst out the front door and started running across the lawn. But her car wasn’t by the curb. She’d left it parked at Vincent’s.
“Kara,” a familiar male voice called from across the street. She glanced up and saw Noah VonBrandt jogging toward her. At least he had clothes on now. What the hell had he and his brother been doing buck naked out in the forest last night, and why was he suddenly interested in her?
Her body shuddered; the waves of different emotions flowing through her was overwhelming. On one hand she just wanted to curl up in a hole somewhere and die; on the other, she wanted to scream and hit something. Life had served her a pile of crap over the last twenty-four hours, and she’d had just about enough.
Noah was next to her in moments, his strong arms wrapped around her and lifting her from the ground. She stiffened at first, not wanting to be so close to a male body at this point in time, but gave up when his arms only tightened. “I don’t know where my idiot of a brother is, but let’s get you cleaned up, sweetheart.”
Cleaned up? She’d totally forgotten that she was filthy, and her hair felt like it’d been attacked by a superglue bottle. Her hands were covered in scratches and blood stains, too. Then there were these really beautiful but strange tattoos encircling her wrists, pine needle green and permanently inked on her skin. They hadn’t been there before the accident. She rubbed her thumb across one of the designs and sighed.
Noah shoved open the front door to the AKO frat house and kicked it closed behind them, barely breaking stride as he carried her up the stairs. “I’m not supposed to be in your room.” Kara wiggled a little. Others would see her, and they could get kicked out by their house for breaking rules. Not that guys and girls didn’t sneak in all the time to each other’s frat houses, but normally it was under the cover of darkness and everyone was drunk off their asses. It certainly was never in the morning when people would be coherent and awake.
“They’re passed out. Don’t worry. Nobody saw us.” He slipped into a room at the end of the hallway and closed the door quietly, locking the bolt at the top before setting her gently on her feet. “Shower is in there. Fresh towels are in the cabinet under the sink. I’ll find you something to change into.”
She stood, staring at him, unable to understand why he was being so nice. Not that he and his brother were mean. Quite the opposite. She couldn’t ever remember a time when Luke and Noah VonBrandt had been anything less than sweet to her when they’d crossed paths. Still. It was strange.
He grabbed a t-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts from a laundry basket full of folded clothes. “They’re clean, promise.” He pressed them into her arms and turned her toward the bathroom. “This way.” He opened the bathroom door and gave her a gentle push toward it. “Do you want me to start the water for you?”
She sniffed and wiped a fresh line of tears from her cheeks. “No, I can do it. I don’t know why you are being so nice to me, but thank you.”
“You’re important to my brother, which makes you important to me.”
Important to his brother? Why?
She nodded, not knowing what to say. The bathroom door closed with a click and she leaned back against it. She was shocked to see an organized, clean bathroom. The mirror was clear of spattered toothpaste, the sink was clean like it’d just been scrubbed. She opened the door under it and pulled out a large fluffy green towel. Laying the towel on the counter, she stripped out of her clothes and stepped into a shower stall cleaner than the one in her room. Kara turned the faucet, and within moments hot water poured over her body. The water around her feet was stained red from the blood caked in her hair.
Hopefully everything would make a little more sense once she was clean.