Authors: Elle Thorne
at Lance across the small span of Astra and Kane’s cabin. The distance between them could be measured in feet, yet their divide was more like the Grand Canyon.
She should hate him. She wanted to hate him.
But how can you hate something that is a part of you? Something that was the very best part of you for a measure of time that seemed to span eternity, but was only a few years?
I’m not sure I can do this.
No, she couldn’t. She couldn’t be this close to him while they weren’t together.
The couplebond mark burned with an intensity that made her flinch. She fought to hide her reaction. A scorching heat began in that spot between her shoulder and neck, where he’d bitten her in the throes of passion, then let the essence of his bear slip into her body. The heat traveled through her veins, making her body tingle.
This was more than sexual. Her soul was reacting to his, to his bear’s.
Mac turned so she couldn’t see him. Ariadne was directly behind her, nibbling on one of the puffs, alone, while Cross was next to Mae and Doc.
“I can’t be here,” she whispered the words to Ariadne.
“What is it?” Ariadne put the pastry on a plate, her face wearing a worried expression. “Do you need to go outside?”
Mac struggled to breathe, but her lungs felt as if they’d been paralyzed.
This shouldn’t be happening. The damned witch doctor said the couplebond would be broken.
“Yes. No—I have to go.”
Was the witch doctor’s remedy supposed to make her feel like this? She’d thought she was to feel nothing when she was around Lance. Not like she had World War III being waged within her.
She looked at the front door.
Blocked by Mae, Doc, Cross, and worst of all, Lance.
She looked at the door in the kitchen. “I’m going out the back door. I’ll get some fresh air. If I feel better, I’ll be back. If not, I’ll text you tomorrow.”
She knew she wasn’t coming back. She knew she wouldn’t be feeling better. It was getting worse with every passing moment.
Ariadne put a hand on her shoulder.
“Be careful. They were talking about some kind of storm. Said it was a freakish thing, unexpected and coming quickly. Maybe Cross and I should take you home. Just to be sure.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll be fine.”
And she was fine. For most of the way. Except she had only been to Astra and Kane’s twice before.
And that was during the daytime.
Funny how different things looked as the sunlight waned.
There were a few turns, but it looked familiar to Mac. She was sure she was headed in the right direction.
Snow began to fall, wind blew the white thickness, making visibility a challenge.
She slowed, made sure she stayed in the middle of the road and that her headlights were on.
At least the symptoms had subsided and the burning on the side of her neck had gone away.
First thing Monday morning, she was going to take a day trip to Seattle. It wasn’t a matter of getting a refund anymore, it was a matter of finding out how this went so horribly wrong.
At this rate, I’d have been better off if I hadn’t messed with the couplebond.
She pushed the thought away. She needed to concentrate on driving and the conditions.
And the road.
Suddenly it didn’t seem like she remembered this part of the drive.
And she was doing fine—
Until a flash of brown ran in front of her Jeep.
Mac hit the brake, swerved. She shoved her foot onto the clutch.
Everything happened so fast, she couldn’t have said what happened first.
The next thing she knew, the Jeep was on its side, off the road, she was stuck, and had hit her head.
She could feel the trickle of blood sliding from the laceration she knew was there.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the damned snow was falling fast.
She pushed on the seatbelt’s release.
Come on, come on.
She prayed for the reassuring click that would signal the seatbelt’s surrender.
She’d call for help. Someone would find her.
She looked at the seat next to her, which now was above her, since the wreck had laid the Jeep on its side.
Her purse wasn’t there. She looked around.
Then she put it together. If she couldn’t see it, that meant it was probably behind her.
Fuck. Damn. Fuck.
And the snow kept falling.
She struggled against the seatbelt, but in the infinite—insert a sarcastic tone here, for fuck’s sake—in the infinite wisdom of the vehicles’ designers, there was no give.
She was stuck until she could get that damned thing to click free.
The snow still fell.
The forest became darker.
Her car’s motor stopped running.
The blood wouldn’t stop trickling.
The icing on the cake—her eyes grew heavy.
ance looked away from Cross
, ignoring his bear’s roars. He looked back at Mac.
She wasn’t there. Cross’s mate Ariadne was standing alone, a confused and concerned look on her face.
But no MacKenzie.
And he couldn’t feel her.
He walked toward the kitchen, where she’d been standing the last time he saw her. She’d been talking to Ariadne.
“Do you know where MacKenzie went?”
“She went outside for some fresh air. I don’t think she felt great.”
That added to Lance’s guilt-meter, throwing it off the charts.
Of course it was his fault. He was the one who made her unhappy now.
Unlike four years ago, when he used to make her happy.
He blew out a breath and slipped out the kitchen door.
Just as he’d thought—feared.
Her Jeep was gone.
Mac was gone.
“You just can’t help yourself.” It was Cross’s voice—but it wasn’t. The growly timbre came through.
Lance whirled. He’d heard that tone. He didn’t know what it was and why his and Cross’s bears had a beef, but it seemed bound and determined to be to the death.
“I don’t have time for this right now.”
“No, you only have time to fuck up someone else’s life, don’t you?”
Cross transformed into his grizzly with a speed that caught Lance off-guard. Cross’s bear reared back on his hind legs. He swung, his claws seeking purchase in Lance’s flesh.
Lance jumped back. He couldn’t keep his bear from responding. He didn’t have the mental energy to avoid Cross’s bear claws while holding his own bear back.
It only took that bit of destruction for Lance’s bear to take over. He morphed into his bear with the speed of one who practiced shifting regularly, as his Enforcer position required.
Lance’s bear roared with rage, stormed Cross’s bear, biting and shoving, rearing up, damaging his brother’s bear’s flesh.
Lance wasn’t unscathed. Cross’s bear found the purchase of flesh he’d been seeking. He slammed his claws deeply into Lance’s fur, penetrating muscle.
Lance reared and bucked, shoving at Cross, trying to take him down. They both lost balance, falling to the ground with enough force to knock the breath out of them and cause the air to vibrate.
A scream brought their battle to a pause. Thunder boomed. Lightning crashed in the background, behind the cabin.
Lance looked up.
Mae was on the porch, her hands over her mouth. She was the one that released the scream.
She strode toward them. Her normally dark brown eyes were a midnight turbulent blue.
“You will stop now.”
Behind her, as if accentuating her words, thunder rolled.
Lance backed away. He shifted to his human form, out of respect for Mae. He swiped at his face, pulled back a bloody hand.
Cross’s bear growled, then he morphed into his human body.
“Never again. I will find someone who has an answer. This is not allowed to happen. I didn’t agree to take the both of you into my home so you could kill one another. We will find an answer to this.”
Snow began to swirl around her dark hair. Tiny flakes catching to her clothing, then melting.
“Not now, we won’t.” Lance had to find Mac.
He fished his keys out of his pocket, ignoring the pain from the scuffle with his brother.
He’d find her.
He got in his truck and drove off without glancing back at Mae, Cross, or the assembly of humans and shifters that had gathered on the porch, looking between his departing truck and Cross.
n Lance’s mind
, one scene kept playing over and over…
, three weeks ago…
Lance and MacKenzie had the most amazing afternoon. Greatest sex ever—then again, every time was the greatest sex ever. Then he’d left to give his bear a run. He’d shifted in the forest and given the bear free will. Lance had a decision to make. His goal was simple. He wanted retribution to be doled out on those who had killed his parents. He was confident the information was somewhere with the Shifter Council in New York. And Cross had just gone to work for them as an Enforcer.
Lance would too. He’d get the information he needed. He’d already talked to their recruiter. The guy said Lance was made for the position of Enforcer. That his personality was a perfect match.
Except there was one problem.
A major one.
Enforcers had a high mortality rate. Quite a few didn’t survive the first four-year tour. They suggested shifters who enlisted not be involved. That worrying about someone back home would make them less effective.
That having someone back home who might lose them was not recommended.
So Lance made a hard decision.
He’d rather break MacKenzie’s heart now, than to have her heart broken when he was killed.
And regretted it every step of the way.
His whole mission had turned to shit. There was no information about who killed his parents. There was no retribution.
Nope. Just one loser who walked away from the best thing he ever had.
He pulled into the driveway, looked at her darkened cottage.
No sign of life.
No tire marks.
Mac hadn’t been here yet.
Maybe she wasn’t coming? Maybe she had someone else she would go to. Maybe she had a life that didn’t involve Lance, and maybe, just maybe, it was his imagination that she still had feelings for him—other than feelings of hate.
Here he was. Looking for the woman whose heart he’d split in two, himself a broken man, four years wasted, thinking of what he shouldn’t have done. And here—now—she’d left the gathering, and he couldn’t find her.
He made a U-turn in the clinic’s parking lot and headed back out.
Where? He started back toward the mountains. He’d give it another shot, then he’d head up to Devil’s Horn. He had no business being out, not when a storm was clearly setting in.
He called Mae, hoped she’d not discuss his fight with Cross.
“Lance. Where are you?”
Not a question he wanted to answer right now. “You guys should consider getting out while you can. It’s pretty bad in the valley already. Blankets of snow.”
Man, was he glad for four-wheel drive.
“We left early, right after you did. Where are you?”
In a special hell of my own creation.
“Driving.” He didn’t like lying to Mae. He wouldn’t.
“Will do. You too.”
He’d almost pressed the button to end the call when he heard Mae’s voice again.
He put the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”
“It may be nothing, but Mac’s not answering her phone.”
That’s not nothing.
track of how long he’d been driving. Where the hell was she? He’d traced all but one road that led from Astra and Kane’s.
He was on the last road. It was dark as hell outside, the fucking snow wouldn’t stop falling, and the goddamned wind sounded like a banshee.
Yeah, safe to say Lance was in a bad mood. Bad would have been an understatement at this point.
How could a woman vanish from the side of a mountain like that?
Then he saw it.
Off the road.
His heart refused to beat. His lungs were paralyzed.
He slammed on the brakes and shifted into park, jumping out, uncaring about the temperature or the fact he didn’t have on a coat.
The Jeep was laying on its side. He ran to it, pulled the door open. She was lying there, a laceration on her head. Her face was pale, lips a shade of light blue and her body was shaking.
“MacKenzie. I’m going to cut you loose.”
I know, baby.
Shit. He couldn’t say that. “Hang on.”
Lance pulled out his pocket knife, flicked it open and slashed through the tough fabric quickly. Carefully and awkwardly he lifted her out of the vehicle. He barely managed to get his truck door open while holding Mac in a fireman’s carry.
He situated her in the bench seat, laying her across, then strode to his side and got in. Lance cranked the heat up while he pushed her short hair out of the way.
When did she decide to cut her hair? He liked it. Probably because he’d once asked her to keep her hair long.
Maybe she cut it out of spite or anger. It didn’t matter, he loved it.
Who am I kidding. I love her. Any way she was, he’d always love her.
And with that, he shifted into reverse.
He couldn’t take her to her cottage. He’d never make it there. Closest place was his cabin.
She’s going to kill me.
At least she’d be alive.
Yeah, but he could call Mae to help. Or—
No. He needed to talk to her. He owed her an explanation. No, he owed her more than that. He owed her an apology.
If there was one thing he’d learned over the last four years, he had fucked up royally. So he owed her an explanation and an apology. Not that it would change the way she felt about him, but maybe it would change the self-loathing he felt.
She was still shaking, though the truck’s cabin was warm.
Warm enough to make this grizzly shifter sweat.
Lance pulled up as close as he could to his front door, killed the engine, and carried her through the wind and swirling snow.
What the fuck kind of freak snow storm was this? The forecasters had foretold some weather—but he didn’t figure it’d be like this.
Once inside, he slid her onto his bed.
The only bed in the place, of course. He grimaced. He’d take the couch while the storm blew over.
And now to get the heat on. And to get things going. He still had a cooler and a lockbox of supplies in the back of the truck.
But first to get things ready for her. He lit the pilot on the heater. It kicked on.
Grabbing the first aid kit from the pantry, washcloths, and a bowl of water, he headed toward his bedroom.
Mac had rolled over and was lying on her side.
Lance nudged her gently, turning her to face him. He dampened the washcloth, placed it on the laceration on her face. Tucking her hair behind her ear, he leaned over her.
Was that blood?
He dampened another washcloth and began to rub away at the blood on the side of her neck near where it met her shoulder. Near…
Yeah, he pushed that thought away—
On the exact spot where he’d couplebond marked her, all those years ago.
That isn’t blood.
He pushed the high neckline of her top away.
A tattoo covered a two-inch span, right over the spot where he’d marked her.
What the hell?
It was a tattoo of a claw mark, complete with tiny drops of blood.
She put a tattoo over our couplebond mark?
Yeah, like it meant so much to you that it kept you from walking away?
Lance knew those were his own thoughts, but it echoed the sentiments of his bear. His bear had never forgiven him for leaving MacKenzie behind. Lance had been sure his bear was going to get him killed while on assignments, that’s how angry his beast was.
The grizzly just didn’t get it that Lance had to go. He had to find out who killed his parents. He’d been certain the answers were in the records in New York. With the Shifter Council.
He heaved a sigh.
Some questions may never be answered. Some revenges may never be achieved.
And he threw everything he had with MacKenzie away for those unattainable things.
His bear roared.
I’d tell you to stifle it, but you saved my life already once today, with Cross’s bear.
His bear snarled, not arguing the point.
“What have you done, MacKenzie. Why? Why this tattoo?”