The shift wasn't easy. She'd denied it for so long. Because she'd restrained herself to only changing when she had no choice, each lengthening of bone, each twisting of sinew and stretching of skin was an agony.
She tried to anticipate each step and be ready for it, but the pain clouded her mind and soon she writhed on the ground, moaning.
But at last, it ended. The wolf got to its feet and stood for a moment, head low, as the hurt faded. She looked up at the world, a world with muted colors and scents so heady and strong she could have taken a bite of it.
She ran through the woods, freed from the restraints of big-city society. Heady freedom brought with it a loosening of caution, and Kimberlyn the wolf cavorted like an innocent pup who'd long been caged.
Pausing to drink from a cold, crystal clear stream, she stared at her reflection. Water dripped from her muzzle, and golden eyes shone, mysterious and untamed. White face surrounded with bluish grays, her coloring and beauty fascinated her.
She was such a girl. She lowered her mouth to the water, drinking her fill. Her stomach growled, and her thoughts turned toward the wild bounty the woods offered a hungry wolf.
Then her attention was caught by something much more important than her stomach--a long, musical wolf howl that undulated through the quiet night air like the call of a siren to a hapless sailor.
She stood frozen, unable to so much as breathe. Wolves. There were wolves in these woods. The howl was cut off abruptly.
She couldn't resist. She had to follow that howl. If there were wolves here, and she'd heard one with her own ears, she had to find them. Or it. She trotted toward the sound.
In three minutes, she heard them: hushed noises and sharp yips of unease. Whines of pain. Slinking forward, she finally saw them.
A silver-washed clearing held at least twelve wolves gathered around what appeared to be a fallen pack member. The dead or dying wolf was an enormous dark shadow on the moon-drenched ground.
Even as she watched, a black stain spread from under the huge, shaggy wolf's body. He'd been injured, severely injured, and Kimberlyn frowned. Why did his pack not heal him?
But it was difficult for her to concentrate on one fallen wolf when, for the first time in her life, she had stumbled upon an entire group of her own kind. Werewolves.
She couldn't run to them, as much as she wanted to. She didn't belong to this pack. For all she knew, they would tear her to bits as soon as they saw her.
Anger and sorrow arose from the pack like poisonous vapors, rising into the night air on wings of fear. Why they didn't heal their friend puzzled her, but she couldn't go charging into their midst and demand they help him. They must have their reasons. It wasn't her business. Not yet.
Carefully she slid back into the trees. They were here. It was enough for now.
Then she froze as one of the wolves looked her way, lifted his nose, and sniffed the air. His growl, when it came, chilled her blood. The others looked in her direction as well, hackles rising, growls weaving together in a terrifying song. They knew she was there.
She could run, or she could stand and fight. Not that these were good choices. If she outran the wolves, by some unlikely chance, they would not only know where she lived but also would see her as an encroaching enemy, and she'd never be safe in the woods.
If she stood and fought...well, one wolf against an entire pack never bode well for the loner.
They were upon her before she could decide, thus deciding for her. She rose to her full height, but despite the fact that she was huge, most of these wolves were even larger, especially the males. They gathered around her in a large circle, snarling and growling deep, dark warnings. Their voices vibrated along her skin, raising her soft fur to stand stiff and bristly on her neck.
Three of the wolves had shifted halfway between the human and the wolf, and Kimberlyn was fascinated. In her limited experience, there was no halfway. She had so much to learn.
"Who are you?" asked one of the half-shifted wolves.
She couldn't talk. Of course he knew that. Hesitating, she began to change to human form. Less painful and time consuming than the shift to wolf, she managed to not embarrass herself too much as she completed the change on her knees, naked and shivering before them. The adrenaline rush kept the pain and exhaustion from overtaking her, but she'd feel it later. If she managed to make it out of this alive.
"Kimberlyn from California," she said, her voice coming out awkward and rumbling. "I'm new here. I mean you no harm."
"Who do you belong to?" A dark male's eyes narrowed suspiciously, his lips drawn back to show sharp, lethal incisors.
"I have no pack."
The pack drew in closer still, their circle tightening slowly. One of the half-shifted wolves walked close to her, close enough to touch. His body was covered with a fine fur, and claws shot from his fingers and toes. His face was caught in the half change and could in no way be described as beautiful. He stood on two feet and bared his belly, his cock half-erect and enormous, bobbing as he walked.
She stood silent, understanding they could smell her fear, unable to do anything to halt it. The half-shifted wolf didn't touch her but pushed his face close to her, sniffing.
"You smell good," he said. He closed the couple of inches between them and dug his hands into her back, thrusting his cock into her side.
She snarled and struck out at him before she thought of the consequences. He squealed when her fist smacked his nose, his voice more surprise than pain. His backhand burned against her cheek, numbing half her face. She landed in an ignoble heap but leaped up immediately, rage and a big dose of fear clouding her vision.
Before she could reach him, she was jerked around. One of the wolves had shifted back to human form and lifted her against the tree with a hand to her throat. She gagged and kicked at him, her fingernails digging into his arm.
"I'll let go of you if you calm your ass down," he said, staring up at her. Muscles bulged as he held her up, but no strain showed on his face.
"Yes," she whispered. Her voice rasped like rusty nails, burning a trail of white-hot pain through her throat.
"Elijah! He's shifting! Hurry..."
He loosened his grip on her throat. "Fuck! Don't let him shift, for God's sake." He turned back to face her as he let her slide down the tree, his cold eyes leaving no doubt he meant every word he said. "Stay by my side. Do not try to run, or I will hunt you down and kill you. Are we clear?"
She nodded, barely. He took his hand away. "Follow me. Try to run and you will be stopped."
Every deep, shuddering breath sent waves of pain through her throat. If she could shift, the pain would go away, and her throat would begin to heal. But she couldn't take the time.
She ran with Elijah, the other wolves following. If Elijah wasn't the alpha, God only knew what their leader was like. Maybe that's why they didn't heal him. And too bad for her she couldn't heal herself. But then, she couldn't very well lick her own throat.
The wolf was lying in the same position, only now his body was returning to its human form. If that happened, his wounds would kill him. Even as a wolf, he would have trouble healing.
"What happened to him?" she whispered, her throat cramping. "Is he your alpha?" But she knew he was. His body, as hurt as it was, screamed power. It floated around him like a cloud of steel, an aura of strength that was unmistakable.
"A sleuth of bears," Elijah said, then ignored her as he bent to the pack leader. A gray wolf, huge and sleek, sat at the alpha's side, his yellow eyes on Kimberlyn. Then he licked the leader's cheek.
"He's going to die," Elijah said, and there were moans and gasps at his declaration. The gray wolf lifted his nose toward the sky and howled, a sound of grief and mourning that sent shivers down Kimberlyn's spine.
"Why don't you heal him?" she asked, becoming angry despite herself.
Elijah's face snapped toward her and he growled. "He is beyond help, bitch. Do you think we would not help him if we could?"
"I don't understand. I've seen no attempts to help him."
Elijah jumped to his feet, rage in his eyes, death in his face.
"Let me heal him," she said.
"He cannot be healed," Elijah roared, reaching for her.
She danced away from him. You dumb fuck, of course he can be healed. "I can heal him, if you really want him alive." There was challenge in her voice. She'd once brought back a dog who had been hit by a car, his insides and bones mixing together in a mealy mess. What she couldn't understand was why this man's pack stood around him, doing nothing at all. It made no sense. A quiet thought grew into a scream, and she narrowed her gaze, thinking.
What if they couldn't heal? What if they didn't know how or didn't possess the ability? She didn't ask them. "I have to shift before I can heal him."
The wolves closed in like a tightening vice, and Elijah stared at her with grim, cold eyes. "If you think to try to harm him or any of us, you will be killed before you can move."
She raised an eyebrow but nodded. He was dying, but they worried about her finishing the job. Idiots.
The gray wolf at the leader's side watched her, torment and fear in every line of his body. He gave an urgent yip that seemed to say, Hurry up, girl. If you can do something, do it!
She hated for anyone to see her agonized shift but had little choice. Elijah the bodyguard wasn't going to let her go change in the bushes. The wolves watched her in complete silence with varying degrees of disbelief and empathetic grimaces.
"God, girl. What the hell?" Elijah stretched a hand toward her, then snatched it back before she could tell whether he was about to hit her or pat her.
She padded to the fallen wolf. He was a big man, this leader, but not as big as Elijah. His lean body was still in the throes of a fight not to shift. He was a fighter, a strong, strong man. His back was broken, and cuts that went all the way to bone slashed across his body in hideous stripes.
He wore blood like a gruesome mask on his face. She couldn't tell if he had once been a handsome man.
"Get on with it," Elijah said.
The wolves watched, and she could feel doubt flowing from them in waves. And something else. Hope. That they loved this torn and battered man was obvious.
She drew in a breath and went to work.
"What are you doing?" Elijah's voice was just below a yell. He looked down at her, his body as stiff as cardboard, hands fisted at his sides.
She ignored him. It wasn't like she could shift back every time he wanted to have a conversation. If he wanted his leader alive, she hadn't much time. Too bad she couldn't heal the human body. Her life might have been easier.
The gray wolf hovered but didn't get in her way. He seemed to trust her more than the others did. Or maybe he was just that desperate.
Kimberlyn the wolf began to lick the injured leader's wounds, and as she licked, her saliva closed wounds, repaired blood vessels, and sank deep within his body to heal bones and the fractured spine.
Her mind drifted. The sounds of the other wolves faded, as did awareness of her surroundings. Should someone wish to harm her, now would be a good time. With her thoughts fully engaged upon his wounds, she was as helpless as the man she healed. Her power eased out of her, cooing and crooning to his ills, coaxing them better, mending injuries like an old woman darning socks.
Time had no meaning; she had no idea how long it took her to heal his shattered body. As she neared the end of her work, her conscious mind began once more to awaken to the sounds around her.
Murmuring voices whispered on the cooling breeze like the rasping together of falling leaves. Fresh early-morning dew soothed her bruised throat as she dragged her mouth from the wolf, inhaling deeply.
Dazed, she looked up. The wolves, all in human form, stood in a circle, watching her. Mist danced and weaved around them, creating a picture of such rightness and beauty she might have cried had she not been in wolf form.
She staggered up and shook herself, wondering if she wasn't too fatigued to shift. She'd have to get home before she changed, or else she wouldn't make it. Nearly too exhausted to run, in human form she would simply have crashed where she stood.
The wolf whose life she'd saved slept a slumber of peace and not the near-coma sleep she'd found him in before she'd healed him. He'd be okay. He'd be better than okay. He needed to rest and repair his mind.
She backed away. His pack gathered around him, touching his body, shocked and awed by his obvious health. His body began to shift back to human form, and she fled.