Trace Canaan split away from the group of young wolves, taking a narrow, winding path to his favorite spot at the top of Moon Mountain. Reaching the crest, he leaped onto a granite slab overlooking the valley.
Far below the yelps and yips of the wolves were replaced by friendly shouts and peals of laughter, telling Trace his friends had reached the spring fed pool at the base of Shawnee Falls, the best spot to skinny-dip on a hot summer night.
Instead of joining the nocturnal fun, Trace wanted to watch the full moon rise over his beloved mountains one last time before reporting for duty. He lifted his muzzle, breathing in the scent of the old-growth trees, the wildflowers and the earth, the home of his pack for over a thousand years.
As the moon peeked above the tall peaks, Trace shifted, taking pleasure in the stretch of muscle, sinew and bone, the change in size and shape, the morphing of wolf to man. Naked, he sat on the cool granite, leaned back, bracing his weight on outstretched arms.
The soft thud of paws on the earthen path alerted him he wasn't alone. Nose quivering, he recognized the scent.
He bent one knee to shield his privates as Avana Vasson jumped onto the slab. Trace knew she was out well beyond her father's curfew.
"Do you know what time it is?" he teased, aware of her ongoing efforts to thwart her parents' rigid rules. At nearly eighteen years of age, Avana hungered for freedom, a break from her protective parents. Trace reached out and grabbed her at the base of the neck, the gesture a reminder of their unique bond.
Six years ago she'd fallen into the swift moving river that snaked through the valley. He'd seen her fall, jumped in after her and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. He'd nearly drowned in the process of getting them both to shore and since that day Trace and Avana had been close friends.
He eased his grip and slid his fingers deep into her thick coat, white fur tipped in black. She responded to his caress, leaning into his body and rubbing her muzzle against his bare shoulder. Something stirred deep inside him. He glanced at her, admiring the line of her muzzle, the slope of her head and long ears. Her beauty stole his breath.
He'd spent the last four years at an out-of-state college. During his absence Avana had slipped into her teen years and over time his feelings had evolved from friendship to desire. Each visit the attraction had grown stronger, but he'd said nothing, done nothing to enlighten her. He gently pushed her away and dropped his hand. Although he'd worked hard and finished his business degree, Trace still faced two years of active military duty.
Another two years away from the pack; two long years to wait.
Avana shifted, her wolven form morphing into a willowy body with high breasts, gently curved hips and long legs. Although nudity was common in pack life, Trace forced himself not to stare. To look was to want.
"It's too hot to sleep." Avana sat down beside him, her bare thigh brushing his. "I didn't expect anyone to be here. Party's down at the swimming hole."
"I like it up here."
She lifted her long hair, twisting it into a thick knot at her nape. Leaning back, she mimicked his position, firm breasts pointing at the moon. "I wish you didn't have to go."
"I'll miss you, too."
At dawn, he'd leave. The pack elders considered it an honor that he'd been accepted to join a paranormal military unit. Upon completion of two years of service the elders would pay off his student loans.
"I envy you. If my father has his way, I'll mate with the were of his choice and die here in the mountains."
Trace reminded himself to keep his eyes on her face, but still his gaze drifted south. "And if you get your way?"
"I'd go to the city and never come back."
He shook his head. "You love it here, it's our land. Look at that moon and tell me your heart isn't here."
"You can see the moon from the city."
He worried that she'd find city life suited her, that she'd fall for some sophisticated human with a large bank account. "What about the pack? You have a responsibility to the ancestors."
"I don't want my father and the elders to choose my mate. I want -- What do you care? You're leaving." She sprang to her feet and looked up at the moon. "You went away to college and now you're going off-planet. I have to stay here in the isolation of the mountains and take virtual classes."
Unable to handle her bare backside inches from his face, Trace rose and placed a hand on her shoulder. He understood her father wanted to preserve an ancient bloodline, but pedigree alone wasn't enough. Only an accomplished were would be considered a fit mate for Avana. Needing to improve his prospects and make himself a viable candidate, Trace had chosen a path that demanded he leave pack land. If he stayed, she'd be forever beyond his reach.
"Two years isn't so long," he lied, utterly aware of the silky feel of her flesh beneath his fingers.
She shook her head, her pale hair shimmering in the moonlight. "I was hoping you'd still be here for my birthday party."
Avana loved music and Trace knew she wanted the Twek. Capable of holding a thousand recordings, the tiny device fit into the ear. Despite the outrageous price he'd pulled funds from his meager savings and purchased the Twek, arranging for delivery on her special day. Her father might frown upon the non-traditional gift, but Avana would love it. "Look at the moon and make a wish. If I can, I'll give it to you."
She lifted her face to the moon, then she turned and faced him. "I made two wishes, but I want one of them right now."
A jolt of raw desire rocketed through him. This was the first time she'd ever voiced an interest in him beyond friendship. She'd flirted and teased, but she'd never demanded physical contact. Was she serious?
Her pale blue eyes were silvery in the moonlight and her lips were slightly parted.
He wanted to kiss her, to taste her lips and feel her heart beating next to his, but once that step was taken their relationship would change forever. If only he wasn't leaving in a few hours. But if he didn't seize the moment, he might never have the chance again.
Take it slow. Heart pounding like a manic drum, he leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Happy Birthday."
She lifted her chin and edged closer. "Kiss me, really kiss me."
His nose quivered, her scent driving him mad. Trace closed his eyes. Did she care for him? Was it possible she wanted him as much as he wanted her? Or was she exploring her sexuality? He'd certainly done his share of exploring, but taking it to the next level with Avana was serious business.
She put her arms around his neck, the slide of her skin against his electric. He grasped her hips and drew her close, something he'd done often in his dreams. Thick and hot, his blood pounded and pooled. The tips of her breasts were burning points on his chest. His heart threatening to jump out of his chest, Trace tightened his grip.
"Just one kiss," she whispered, her voice as soft and sultry as the air and her lips just a couple of inches away from his. "Just this once before you go."
The inches disappeared and his lips touched hers. Her lips soft and parting, Trace took the plunge, deepening the kiss. She moved closer, pressing her soft breasts to his chest.
He groaned as her sleek thighs touched his, pushing his erection against her belly. The touch of her, the feel of her seared his flesh. Heart hammering, muscles bunching, blood burning, he palmed her butt cheeks, held her tighter. Fire raced through his blood. He wanted to drag her down onto the cool granite slab and make love to her until they were both exhausted.
She rubbed her belly against him, the erotic invitation as blatant as his body's response. Ready to burst, Trace yanked on the reasoning part of his brain.
Once they made love, the emotions unleashed were too powerful to recall. He'd want a commitment, he'd want it all. Did he have the right to demand a commitment, then leave her behind?
He lifted his head, ending the kiss. Her plaintive moan pulled him back. He kissed her again, another lush meeting of lips and tangling of tongues, one last taste to savor.
When they moved on to erotic strokes of body parts, Trace managed one last moment of reason. He grasped her wrists and gently separated their bodies. Trace sucked in a deep breath and cursed his sense of honor.
She licked her lips. "Again?"
Another kiss and he'd be lost. Aware of his straining erection, Trace turned away. "You don't know what you're asking."
"I know what I want. I want you."