Gunni sniffed several times, his muzzle lifted high. The cold air tickled the labyrinthine passages of his nose. Scents of fear and pain assaulted him, even from a few hundred feet away. Brand had sent him ahead to scout the Vancouver brood, and what he had to report was not encouraging. Madness was the best way to describe the events taking place in the valley below him.
He’d been raised in a relatively modern brood that shared a city with humans and blended in with them whenever possible. The chaos in front of him reminded him of the barbaric history of their kind that he’d heard about, but never imagined still existed. One female was dragged across the dirty snow between two dwellings. Her white-blond hair reminded him of Alice. The ache of her loss was still agonizing. Gods, how he missed her.
Gunni had trouble quelling the urge to run in and rescue another female set upon by male who laughed every time she screamed. Half a dozen males fought in the central clearing in front of an old-style longhouse for a haunch of meat that was quickly forgotten amid the violence of the exchange.
Going down there wouldn’t solve anything, and he would end up in an altercation where he would be vastly outnumbered. He was supposed to observe and report back to Brand, not try to resolve the issues himself. He knew that, and yet, turning his back was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.
The first few steps were the worst, but once he got up to speed, the joy of running through the winter night spurred him onward. He covered ground swiftly, his four paws chewing up the miles almost without effort.
The land was beautiful and more untouched than any place he’d ever known. Located in the mountains a few hours north and west of Vancouver and tucked away at the edge of a provincial park, the brood compound was a strangely anachronistic oasis of wildness in the modern world they inhabited. Though he’d been raised in what he’d thought a rural area, the wolf within him often pined for the expansive forests and hillsides.
He didn’t slow when he crossed the east-bound lanes of the divided highway. The light coating of new snow made the blacktop slick. He traversed the median in two jumps and emerged onto the west-bound lanes. Too late, he heard the squeal of tires. He turned and saw headlights closing with alarming speed.
He didn’t feel the pain of the impact. One moment, he was aware, and the next instant, he wasn’t.
Brand strode back and forth across the threadbare rug in the small living room of the rented cabin, swearing every time he turned around to go the other way. Gunni was late, very late. To make matters worse, Brand couldn’t tell through the brood bond if something was wrong. The brood he’d inherited from his half-brother, Ansvarr, was a seething mass of pain and anger. From twenty miles away, he couldn’t tell one member from another, so he had no idea if Gunni was in trouble or not.
His mate, Dagny, watched him from a well-worn armchair, her gray eyes following his path back and forth across the room. “Should we go look for him?” Her calm expression belied the turmoil that tumbled through their mating bond.
“If I get much closer, they’ll feel me. I’d rather they had as little chance to prepare as possible.”
“I could go.”
He stopped pacing and faced her. “There’s no way in Helheim I’m letting you anywhere near there without me.”
“I took care of myself for a long time before you came into my life.” Irritation hardened her voice.
Brand crouched in front of her and put a hand on her knee. “I couldn’t prevent what happened to you before, but I won’t let you go into that den of brutality by yourself now. I can feel their sickness from here.”
Dagny held his gaze. “I don’t want you to take your anger over what Ansvarr did to me out on them.” He moved to stand, but she grabbed his hands and held them tightly. “You can teach them so much more with tolerance than you can with violence.”
“My sire believed aggression was the only way to control the broods. Savagery has been bred into us for too many generations for more subtle leadership to move them now. Geir ruled for longer than anyone else since our escape from the barbarians.”
“You aren’t him.” She touched his face. “Ruling that way would destroy you.”
He looked down at where she cradled his hands in her lap. “That’s why I avoided this for so long. I’m not strong enough for what has to be done.”
“Your inability to be cruel isn’t a weakness, Brand.” She lifted his chin. “You’re strong enough to do it another way.”
“What if he was right, and brutality really is the only way?”
Dagny shrugged. “If violence is what it takes to lead them, they’re better off tearing themselves apart than having you subjugate them.”
Brand pulled her into his arms. “Okay. We try it my way, whatever that is.”
Gunni awoke slowly, clawing his way into consciousness through a thick haze. He couldn’t smell anything, and opening his eyes was proving difficult.
“It’s unbelievable, Cass. I can’t even figure how he’s alive, never mind how he’s unhurt. He must have flown thirty feet before landing.” The male voice sounded muffled, as if Gunni had cotton in his ears.
“I’m not convinced he’s not hurt. There’s a lot of blood. Can you stop babbling for a minute so I can finish my examination?” a female voice replied.
Gunni assumed the voice belonged to the unknown Cass. He didn’t recognize either voice, so he kept as still as possible, hoping they didn’t notice that he was conscious. A pair of hands moved up his right foreleg. He was sore all over, but he didn’t think any of the damage was beyond his ability to heal. The big trouble was that he didn’t know where he was or how he’d gotten there.
He assumed the two people in the room with him were human, but how had he been captured? He went over what they’d said again. A flash of memory came: headlights bearing down on him through the gently falling snow. He’d been hit by a car while on his way back to Brand.
After checking his legs, Cass started feeling along his ribcage. Her hands moved with a confidence that made her a doctor, or more likely, a veterinarian, since he was in wolf form. The deft fingers moved up his neck, carefully examining his spine.
“Take the towel off of him. I need to check his skull,” Cass said.
“You sure? I figured it was safer with all those teeth wrapped up.”
“He’s still out. If he was awake, he would have started flailing by now. We’ll put a muzzle on him before he wakes up.”
The muffling of his senses abruptly went away with the removal of the towel. The harsh smell of antiseptic hit his nose with his first unhindered breath. Though he was tempted to jump up and try to get away, he was fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to get out of the room, never mind the building, in wolf form. He remained limp, pretending to be unconscious, when the woman thumbed back his right eyelid and flashed a bright light into his eye. She checked his skull carefully, then fit a muzzle around his head.
After making one more pass of his spine, Cass stepped away, and the sound of running water filled the room. “I don’t have any idea how this guy got so lucky, but I can’t find a damn thing wrong with him beyond a few scrapes. You must not have been going as fast as you thought.”
“I was going at least…” The man paused. “Never mind that. What am I going to do with him?”
“You’re not doing anything with him, Trevor. He’s not a stray dog. I’ll call around and see if one of the local wildlife rehabilitators will take him in. Help me get him into the kennel for now.”
When they lifted him, Gunni cracked one eye open to get an idea of where he was being held. They carried him out of the exam room and down a tiled hallway that amplified their footsteps. At the end of the corridor, they pushed through a heavy pair of swinging doors that led to an area where several dogs barked. They manhandled him into a crate barely big enough for him to stand and turn around in, and latched the door.
“Hopefully, I can get someone to come get him before he wakes up,” Cass said.
After the pair left the room, he jumped to his feet and stretched. Though he felt as if he’d been run through a washing cycle, no bones seemed to be broken. Thankfully, he’d healed most of the damage while unconscious. He examined the latch of the crate. He couldn’t possibly work it open with his paws or mouth from inside the crate. Transforming back to human form within the confines of the small container would also be impossible. He finally laid his head on his paws and settled in to wait.
Cass came back an hour later. She checked on the dogs before coming over to look in on him. She peered through the mesh at him and smiled. She had a wide, full-lipped mouth and skin the color of caramel. “Hey, big boy, you’re awake.”
He lifted his head and perked his ears forward. In most cases, it was better to pretend to be a dog. Dogs set humans at ease, while wolves made them afraid.
She appraised him critically. “You aren’t afraid of me at all. Are you?”
He whined and wagged his tail so that it thumped on the wall of the crate.
He tilted his head and wagged again.
She shook her head. “I must be crazy.” She held the back of her hand up to the mesh bars.
He sniffed and then licked her hand as best he could with the muzzle so tight around his jaw. Her skin tasted of antiseptic gel and dog biscuits.
“You’re not feral. Well, that puts a crimp in my plans, buddy.” She crossed the room to where a phone hung on the wall.
She dialed and waited a moment before saying, “Jim, it’s Cass. I need to cancel that pickup.” She twirled the cord around her hand. “Oh, he’s a wolf, but he’s tame. He just licked me. Someone was keeping him as a pet, I guess.” She listened for several seconds and then shrugged. “No, I have no idea what to do with him now.” She picked up a pen. “Yeah? Give me that number.” She wrote something on a pad by the phone. “Thanks, Jim. Talk to you later.”
After she hung up, she came over and scanned the wall behind Gunni’s crate. “What do you think? Do I have a collar that will fit you?” A brief smile touched the corners of her mouth. “Gotchya.”
She reached over and pulled a collar off the wall. “Now, let’s see if you freak out when I try to put this on you.” Cass opened the latch and eased the door open as if he would bolt for freedom at the slightest chance.
He stayed completely still, except for the wagging of his tail. She reached a tentative hand into the crate. He remained unmoving, though he wished she’d speed the whole thing up a bit. He supposed he couldn’t blame her; any human would be cautious in her position.
Letting out a nervous laugh, she patted him on the head. “Well, you sure do look mean, but you’re super mellow. Aren’t you, buddy?”
He perked his ears again and thumped his tail once.
Moving slowly, she put the collar around his neck, tightened it until it was snug, then clicked a leash into place. He jumped down in front of her and looked up as if waiting on her command.
“All those good looks, and nice manners, too? You better watch out, I might be in love.” Her light laugh filled the room with warmth.
He followed her at a perfect heel through the door and outside. He had thought to bolt once on the other side of the door, but a high fence surrounded the yard. While emptying his bladder, a strange hint of embarrassment tickled his belly. Never in his life had he imagined he’d have to go to the bathroom on a leash to convince a human he was harmless.
“Good boy,” she said, patting his head.
He put on his best doggy grin and tried to look friendly. Gods, but this is humiliating.
Gunni spent the long winter night alone in the crate. The dogs around him barked and whined in a constant chorus. Humiliation and irritation boiled inside him. He’d stayed in wolf form to curb the pain from losing Alice, but his current incarceration was a result he hadn’t anticipated. How could he?
In the weeks since Alice’s death, he wasn’t sure if having known her for only a few days was a blessing or a curse. She hadn’t pervaded every aspect of his life in that short time, though she had absolutely invaded his heart. He wished he could go back to Denver and bury his face in her clothes, console himself in the smell of her.
Part of the reason he’d attached himself to Brand was to be closer to her things. He slept in her bed at Brand’s, burrowing articles of her clothing under the covers with him so her delicate scent wouldn’t escape. In the late-night silence, when he felt as if he were going to shatter from the pain, he cursed himself for having been unable to protect her.
He was just another male who had failed her. That was the sum of their relationship when he tore it down to the framework. She was dead, and he’d been less than worthless to her.
Brand asked him every day when he was going to transform back. Gunni knew it wasn’t healthy to stay in wolf form for long periods of time. The wolf would slowly overtake every bit of the man until one day he wouldn’t be able to shift back. Not for the first time, he wondered if he would prefer to be a wolf. The fur and thick skin insulated him from most of the pain. Wolves didn’t cry. They didn’t spend all day, every day, weeping for their loss like some pathetic wretch.
Cass came back early the next morning and took each dog in the kennel for a short walk, one at a time. His turn came last, and afterward, she took him back to the exam room for another check of his injuries.
“Can’t even find a scrape. You’re one healthy guy.” She scratched him under the chin.
A bell rang in another part of the building, and she exited the room, leaving him tied to the exam table. She returned a few minutes later with a burly man who had to duck to walk through the doorway. He wore his dark hair cropped close to his head. Dark, sinuous tattoos coiled up both forearms and disappeared under his rolled-up sleeves.
“Thanks for coming on such short notice,” Cass said. “Jim gave me your number and said that you work with carnivores that can’t be released back into the wild.”
The man grunted an affirmation, stepped closer to the exam table, and grabbed Gunni’s head in a tight grip. After peering into his eyes, the man unstrapped the muzzle and pried open his jaw to look at his teeth.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Mr. Reynolds,” Cass said, but the man ignored her.
There was a sense of wrongness to the man that Gunni couldn’t shake. Reynolds smelled off, like a wolf that had stayed in the sun too long. Gunni barely controlled the urge to growl in protest of the rough treatment.
Reynolds put the muzzle back in place and tightened it so that the sturdy fabric cut into the delicate flesh of Gunni’s nose. Reynolds reached into his back pocket and took out a pronged metal collar. He fit it around Gunni’s neck and pulled it taut.
Cass stepped forward. “Whoa, wait. He does not need one of those. He’s very well behaved.”
“Lady, this is a wild animal, not a fucking poodle.” Reynolds tugged on the lead until the prongs dug into Gunni’s neck and partially cut off his airway.
On instinct, Gunni recoiled, and his lips curled back to bare his teeth.
“You know what? This is a bad idea.” Cass reached toward Gunni’s neck and did something he couldn’t see. The collar slackened, and Gunni could breathe easier.
Reynolds’s eyebrows drew together. “This isn’t a pet. He needs to know who’s in charge every second of the day. My facility is the only one in the area equipped to handle an animal like him.”
“I’ll figure something out.” Cass removed the prong collar from around Gunni’s neck and handed it back to the man.
“I really don’t appreciate coming all the way here for nothing.” Reynolds folded his arms in front of him and glared down at her. She wasn’t a short woman, but he towered over her, clearly trying to intimidate her.
“Sorry to inconvenience you.” Cass offered the man a smile that should have melted his icy demeanor.
Reynolds’s only response was to grumble a curse before he strode out of the room.
Cass jumped when Reynolds slammed the door. “Sorry about that, buddy. He was a real ass.” She patted Gunni’s head and scratched him behind his left ear.
Gunni leaned into her hand and wagged his tail enthusiastically.
She loosened the muzzle to a more comfortable fit. “I have half a mind to call someone to go check on that facility of his.”
A tickle at the back of his skull made him tense, and Cass noticed the change in his posture. “What’s up?”
Brand was close—thank the gods—and getting closer every second.