William sat at the butcher-block table in the small kitchen of the house he shared with Paoli. He stared at the paper before him—scripted in Paoli’s neat handwriting—with open surprise.
On the page was a single name and species along with location.
“Are you sure this is right?” William frowned at the paper.
“It’s right,” Paoli confirmed without even glancing at him on his way past.
“When was the last time we had a female werewolf?” William raised a skeptical brow and his gaze followed Paoli around the table.
“It’s rare they’re marked,” Paoli agreed. “But it happens.”
He took the chair across from William and propped his bare feet on the edge of the table for no reason other than it bugged William.
Paoli was one of the oldest vampires William had ever met, and by far the least conspicuous. He stood only about an inch shorter than William was himself, which put him just shy of six feet.
Where William’s hair was raven and cropped short, Paoli’s was a dark blond and long enough to rest on his shoulders.
He had none of the dark characteristics a person would usually associate with a vampire—especially a vampire as old as he was.
Instead of being intimidating and tortured, he was always the first to laugh and the last to take anything—including himself—seriously.
He had a light-hearted and fun-loving nature that kept him very popular with the opposite sex, which—according to Paoli—accounted for his light-hearted nature.
“We haven’t had one in the last…what, hundred years?” William reached out and flicked the end of Paoli’s toe hard enough to send an electric jolt of pain halfway up his leg.
Paoli howled and snatched his foot back. Humor glittered in his eyes as he cradled the injury. “Now that just wasn’t nice,” he proclaimed.
“Keep your nasty feet off the table.” William gave him a pointed stare. “If we’re going after a female wolf, you need to focus. She probably has a whole pack surrounding her. You’ll have to help this time. It’s going to be dangerous.”
Paoli gave him an impish grin and folded his legs neatly under him before he offered an indifferent shrug.
“I don’t mind hunting werewolves,” he said offhandedly. “It’s the vampires that give me the creeps.”
William shook his head at the irony of that statement. “How can vampires give you the creeps? You are a vampire.”
“Not that kind of vampire.” Paoli shuddered dramatically.
“Sorry, I forgot. You’re a nice vampire,” William said with a derisive snort.
Paoli ignored the slightly mocking tone.
“That’s right,” he confirmed. “I’m like a mosquito. I take just what I need to survive, and don’t kill anyone.”
William gave him a look.
“It’s more than you can say,” Paoli pointed out.
“I’m not a vampire,” William reminded him.
“You’re not completely vampire, but close enough to be forgiven for that,” Paoli said. “Everyone has their own struggle in this world.”
“What’s your struggle?” William wanted to know.
Paoli scoffed. “You think it’s easy being your conscience? Or this good-looking?” he asked with a waggle of his eyebrows.
“Or that humble,” William added under his breath. He tapped the paper in front of him to redirect Paoli to the matter at hand. “We’ll have to use stealth,” he mused.
“They’ll never know I’m there.” Paoli moved his arms in his best ninja imitation.
“Do you know anything about the pack?” William asked thoughtfully.
A female wolf being condemned was all but unheard of. Normally, the pack defended them, so they had no need to spill blood, except the monthly animal hunt.
Which all but eliminated the chances of them losing their humanity and being condemned. Hell, they were the humanity in a pack.
“What’s on the paper is all I know,” said Paoli as he stood back up and headed for the fridge across the room.
William leaned back and sat silent for several moments, thinking.
“Are you sure we should do this tonight? It’s a full moon and this place is almost a two-hour drive from here.” William didn’t mention he had plans for a full moon run himself.
“Where are wolves during a full moon?” Paoli asked over his shoulder, his head in the fridge. He grabbed a bag of red liquid and tore open the top.
He poured it into a mug before throwing a questioning look at William.
“Two for me,” William answered absently while he considered the question. “Wolves hunt during the full moon.”
It was common knowledge that werewolves were at least partially controlled by the moon. Even he could feel its pull.
Paoli finished pouring more liquid into a second mug and set them both in the microwave to warm. “Exactly.”
He waited until the microwave dinged, then grabbed both mugs. He handed one to William before reclaiming the seat across from him.
“Which means this might be a good chance to get her alone,” William concluded slowly, trying to make sense of Paoli’s logic.
“Maybe not alone, but at least not as well guarded as usual,” Paoli told his mug, taking a satisfied sip.
William took a drink and savored the flavor as the liquid warmed him. Not be as good as fresh, but at least it came without the guilt. And without the nagging from his conscience across the table.
For the next thirty minutes, they discussed strategy, and alternate strategies in case they found themselves with more opponents than expected.
Several plans were made, depending on whether their target hunted with the pack or waited somewhere else. Eventually, William was satisfied they had a plan for each possible scenario.
They loaded the car down with the usual cache of weapons, making especially sure they had plenty of silver-tipped ammunition.
William knew the agony of silver from personal experience. No immortal could fight with the pain searing through their veins, which was why he used it when he was forced to play the executioner.
Nothing took the fight out of immortals like a silver-based injury.
Finally, he turned his phone off—grateful for an excuse to power down the bright screen—and headed for their target.
He hated cellphones. It was far too easy to track them. And he always worried about having his on him when hunting.
It would be just his luck for the device to start beeping and give away his position at the wrong moment. While dying wouldn’t bother him, he didn’t want it to be because of something like that.
He wanted a real death—a warrior’s end. Dying in battle was an honorable and proud thing. Dying from sheer stupidity was just embarrassing.
William killed the lights and pulled off the road and into a clearing.
It was a decent-sized area; clear of trees, but full of holes and uneven ground, which made it less than ideal for driving—a fact he only realized once they were halfway in.
Any high grass area could easily conceal a hidden stump or deep rut, though they were fortunate enough not to find one.
Their hiding spot was just over a mile from the farmhouse that acted as home to the pack.
There was no way to know which direction the wolves had gone to hunt, but there was no sign of them there, so it was the safest place to start.
They got out of the car cautiously, and closed the doors slowly to keep them from making any sound.
The house they were headed to was surrounded by corn fields on three sides—all thankfully late to be harvested—which gave them the luxury of cover they hadn’t expected.
Paoli breathed an audible sigh of relief as they silently started to make their way through the field at the back of the property, moving carefully through the corn to avoid giving away their presence.
Recent rains had made the ground soggy, which meant their every step made a slight sucking noise.
Light from the shining moon spilled across the land, casting eerie shadows and making the corn look like silent sentries.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” Paoli whispered, ducking to avoid a stray leaf that seemed to be reaching for him. “Corn is a seriously creepy vegetable.”
William stopped, motioned aggressively for him to be silent, and gave him a look that threatened violence.
Paoli raised his hands in mock surrender and mouthed, “sorry.”
William continued to glare at him another minute.
Paoli needed to understand the severity of the situation they were in. Wolves had excellent hearing, and the last thing they needed was for his big mouth to give them away.
There was no telling how many wolves might be around, and it was important they had the element of surprise if they were going to get the execution done and get out with minimal incident.
William might be an excellent fighter, but even he wasn’t capable of taking on an entire pack of wolves.
William was still glaring at Paoli when a smell caught his attention. It was very faint at first, like a whisper.
It was there for only a second, then gone.
His head snapped around and something inside him became very alert.
“What’s wrong?” Paoli whispered, closing the distance between them to stand at his side.
“Did you smell that?” William closed his eyes and inhaled, chasing the elusive scent. It was gone, and he couldn’t pick it back up.
Paoli gave him a look, then sniffed and shook his head.
“I don’t smell anything,” he said.
William stood for another moment without moving a muscle. He used all his senses, but he couldn’t identify a danger anywhere.
There were no scents in the immediate area except the two of them and the corn.
Besides, it hadn’t smelled dangerous.
It had smelled…good.
Confusion edged his every step when they resumed their advance. There was something so familiar about the smell, and yet not.
Almost like a memory playing on the edge of his mind that he just couldn’t bring into focus.
It drove everything else out of his immediate concentration.
He was aware of Paoli watching him with concerned eyes, but he had no explanation to offer, so he ignored it and continued forward.
They had a job to do.
No matter what else was happening, he needed to remember the job. Somewhere nearby was a female wolf with a sentence of death.
He had to get his focus back on that before his fractured concentration led both him and Paoli into trouble.
Just a few more steps brought the scent again, stronger this time. He breathed in the subtle aroma, trying to figure out why it was so alluring to him.
“Are you seriously telling me you don’t smell that?” he hissed at Paoli.
Paoli frowned, his face growing even more concerned. With his eyes still on William, he breathed in the night air very slowly.
After a few seconds, he shook his head and gave William a look of mixed confusion and annoyance.
“I don’t smell it,” Paoli said, a little defensively. “I’m a vampire. My sense of smell isn’t as good as yours. What does it smell like?”
“I don’t know how to describe it.” William took another lungful of air. “But it’s different than anything I’ve ever scented.”
“I don’t like this,” Paoli said, his eyebrows drawn together in worry. “Maybe we should come back tomorrow and try again. This is dangerous enough without something unknown complicating it further.”
“Tomorrow won’t be a full moon,” William pointed out. “This may be the best chance we’ll have for a month. Do you really want to wait that long?”
He gave Paoli his full attention and raised one sardonic brow.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Paoli said with as much attitude as he could manage at a whisper. “Better to wait a month than walk into a trap. I don’t want to turn to dust at sunrise and blow away after they kill us.
“Well,” he added offhandedly, “I’d blow away in the sun. There’s no telling what’ll happen to you.”
William would have conceded his point, but there was something about the scent that called to him in a visceral way. It brought out a need to…protect. Guard. Provide. There was no hint of malice.
“This doesn’t give me the impression of danger,” he said.
He hoped his voice didn’t sound as befuddled as he felt.
What was happening?
He began to move again. Paoli was still watching him closely, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
He just needed to find the source of the unusual smell. It seemed to leech into his mind and push out everything else.
His mission was all but forgotten. He let his nose guide him on toward the house, Paoli following closely behind.
After what seemed like forever, they broke through the last row of corn and were near enough to the farmhouse for an unobstructed view.
Without warning, the scent seemed to saturate him like honey. As if a spell had been cast, it dragged the instincts of his beast forward.
All capacity for the tight reign of control he fought to hold onto was gone. Paoli was talking, but none of his words penetrated the blind fog in William’s mind.
There was nothing in the entire world but that smell and the unknown promise behind it.
“William?” Paoli’s voice was hesitant and questioning. “What is it?”
His gaze darted in all directions, as if expecting to see wolves descending from somewhere. There was nothing.
William barely responded at all, and when Paoli gripped his arm, the eyes that snapped toward him were liquid gold and hungry. William was no longer in control.
“Oh no!” Paoli exclaimed. “This is not the time to go all wolfy. You have to fight it before you get us both killed!” His voice was a tight hiss.
Without a word, William jerked away and flew toward the house, leaving Paoli no choice but to follow. He gave a loud, strangled groan and stayed right on William’s heels.
William knew only a fool would rush in this way, but he was helpless to stop himself. His body trembled with the effort he put into fighting the compulsion, but he could barely manage to slow down.
Old wood creaked as he stepped onto the back porch, but all he heard was the female scream from inside.
He tore through the back door of the dilapidated house like a crazed animal.
Not for a second did he stop to consider what he was doing. He was beyond rational thought, the beast within having taken complete control for the first time in years.
He located the origin of the scent immediately.
It was coming from a small woman who stood in the doorway of a hidden room, blocking the entry. In front of her was a large man with shaggy blond hair, clad only in dark jeans.
He held her arms in a painful grip and had pulled her forward so far, she was on her tiptoes. William’s nose instantly marked him for what he was.
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