Aric’s hand skimmed over the small of my back as we strolled along the shore of Lake Tahoe. “We missed Thanksgiving together last year. We never celebrated your birthday and Christmas downright sucked without you.”
The September sun warmed my face as I leaned closer against him. “We’ll make up for it this year, wolf,” I promised.
Aric bent to meet my lips with a smoldering kiss. I moaned softly as I curled my free arm around his neck. We’d spent so much time in bed since moving back in together. This kiss reminded me why.
He pulled back, his light brown eyes smoky as he spoke. “Celia, I think it’s time we start.”
I thought my werewolf lover would guide us back in the direction of the house. Instead
he led me around the bend and removed a folded quilt tucked between two boulders. “What’s this?” I asked when he spread it along the sand.
Instead of answering, Aric pulled out a picnic basket from behind another large rock and placed it on the edge of the quilt. His dark Irish skin brightened to red and perspiration built along his crown. He hauled me to the quilt, causing me to trip over my feet. He barely caught me before I fell and lowered me to the center. “Sorry—sorry,” he said, stumbling over his words. “There’s some . . . stuff in there.” He pointed to the basket. “Help yourself—I’ll be right back.”
I didn’t understand what was happening and blinked back at him as he darted away. I tucked my knees against myself and waited, then waited and waited some more. The breeze from the lake pushed back my hair and stirred Tahoe’s magic around me, enlivening my inner tigress and inviting her to frolic.
I paused from trying to lull her back to sleep and collect my long curls when I realized where Aric had brought me. This was the section of beach where I first saw him . . . and where his wolf side had recognized me as his mate. I let my hair slip through my fingers.
Oh my God.
I rose slowly, realizing what might be happening and wondering where Aric could be, when the sound of clanging metal had me whirling in the direction he’d disappeared.
Shrill screams followed swearing. Lots and lots of swearing. My claws shot out when I recognized my sisters’ distressed voices . . . only to withdraw when a snow-white wolf bolted past me wearing a dress.
That’s right, a wolf in a dress. Welcome to my eff’d up reality. Have a seat, I’ll pour you a cup of crazy.
The wolf tore down the beach, kicking back sand with her large paws in her haste to escape . . . my sisters? I watched Taran, Shayna, and Emme race after her, the skirts of their medieval dresses hiked up to their waists and the rose petals from their baskets fluttering in the wind.
“Son of a bitch!” Taran ditched the floral wreath on her head and her basket of petals.
“Run, Celia, goddamnit, run!” she screamed.
She jetted past me in full foulmouthed glory with Shayna and Emme at her heels. The banging sound grew louder. Danny stumbled after them, the knight’s armor he wore making it hard for him to maneuver his limbs. “Get back to the road!” he urged.
Four more knights charged behind him on horses . . . wild, bucking horses. I only recognized Koda because his midnight hair hung from his helmet.
Horses clearly weren’t taken by werewolf charm. And it seemed my wolves would never become accomplished equestrians. One by one, the horses flung them from their backs like sock monkeys. They landed against the sand in a loud clash of noise, half groaning, half laughing . . . and failing to see the one horse thundering toward Emme. I dashed toward her as the large animal continued to kick.
The speed and agility that made me so formidable were hindered by spasms of pain that continued to claim me. While I ducked away from the horse’s legs, and managed to yank Emme from its reach, I couldn’t avoid the smack of its tail.
The horse’s essence hit me like a thunderbolt and I fell into a violent seizure. The world spiraled around me, and what felt like slivers of glass raked against my skin. I clenched my jaw, trying to hold back my cries and work through the misery of my unplanned change.
The banging of tin signaled my knight’s approach. “Celia, it’s okay,” Aric said. “I’m here. Just breathe, sweetness. Breathe.”
It took several long minutes for my convulsions to recede and my torment to end. I rose on four very long and wobbly legs to stare down at my mate. Aric tugged off his helmet and threw it aside, reaching to stroke my face. Fear darkened his features. “Are you all right?” he asked.
I whinnied to assure him I was fine and nudged him with my nose. He swiped at his face. “This is a disaster.”
Gemini took a step forward. “Aric, just ask her,” he said quietly.
My sisters and friends gathered around us. Aric let his hand fall to his side and slowly fell to his knee. For a moment, he simply stared. But when he spoke, I could sense his devotion in every word. “Celia, you have been my princess since the first time I saw you. Now, I’d like you to be my queen for the rest of our lives. Will you marry me?”
My vision blurred as giant tears leaked from my eyes and rolled down my long fuzzy face.
“Scratch once for yes, twice for no!” Bren yelled.
I thought I’d always be ready to hear those words. And there I was, a damn horse. So instead of allowing this moment to be robbed from me, I closed my eyes and took in everything that was Aric—his scent, warmth, love, and all that had brought us together. Someone threw the quilt around me as I felt my body shrink and my bare feet slide along the sandy beach.
For the first time, I managed to reclaim my human form following an accidental change, and I welcomed it for everything it allowed. Aric tucked the quilt around my naked skin and drew me to him, waiting patiently for me to answer. The lump in my throat tightened. After all the times I’d thought I’d lost him, was this really happening?
It took the soft graze of his knuckles against my cheek to assure me this was more than a dream. My body trembled and so did my voice. “Yes,” I managed.
Everyone assembled cheered when Aric kissed me, including Heidi who changed from her white wolf form to stand beside her mate, Danny. Unlike me and being were, Heidi didn’t mind being unclothed. In fact she preferred it.
Three white doves landed a few feet to our left, their loud fluttering wings demanding attention and stirring my inner beast. I broke our kiss, smiling as the little birds closed in. Aric had gone all out!
The one in the center scurried forward, leaving a small trail behind him in the sand.
“Celia Wird,” it screeched.
My eyes widened as the shape-shifter posing as a dove lunged at me. Aric hauled me behind him, but the form the shifter took as it lunged was large and strong enough to tackle us to the ground.
I was crushed beneath the weight of Aric and the shifter. My lungs burned as the air was forced out. Aric yelped in pain before snarling and taking out a chunk of whatever was on top of us. A horrible crunching sound filled my ears as I fought to take a breath, but before I could panic from the lack of oxygen, the weight was abruptly lifted.
I scrambled into a crouch, my tigress eyes replacing my own as the rest of my beast demanded out. Aric guarded me with his massive gray wolf form. Blood dripped from his jowls, coating the dead tiger at his feet.
Aric had torn the tiger’s throat out, killing the shifter almost instantly. My fingers gripped his fur. I was stunned. It had taken me, my three unique sisters, and a swarm of vampires to kill the last shape-shifter we’d encountered. Either Aric got lucky or his strength as a pureblood werewolf continued to grow.
Aric curled his body around mine and howled, calling all nearby weres to his aid as chaos erupted around us.
Two horses lay dead, victims of the remaining two shifters. One shifter had transformed into a giant eagle and was circling above us, a screaming horse writhing in its grip. The other shifter had turned into a black panther the size of a minivan. All the werewolves, including Heidi, attacked as beasts, leaping onto the panther’s back and trying to force it down.
My sister Shayna wasn’t a were, but had inherited a touch of werewolf essence from her mate, Koda. His magic gave her a burst of speed. Not as fast as the weres’, but enough to join the fight. She lifted a knight’s discarded sword, manipulating and sharpening the metal until it elongated into a deadly blade. She swung as she spun, slicing off a chunk of the panther’s paw when it tried to slash her.
My remaining sisters hid behind the cluster of boulders. Emme stayed perfectly still, waiting for the right moment to use her telekinetic power. Taran wasn’t as patient and attempted to stir flame from her hands. But her newly regenerated limb affected her command. The funnel of fire she built dwindled to flecks of embers within moments of summoning her power.
Her waning strength and control scared me, but now wasn’t the time to show fear. I caught my breath and changed into a golden tigress, only to have Aric block my launch forward and growl. He didn’t want me to fight. He wanted me safe. I couldn’t blame him. He knew I hadn’t fully recovered from my last fight and had permanent scars to prove it.
He growled once more before leaving me and ramming the panther at full velocity. The panther’s ribs cracked when Aric connected, the force dragging him across the sand. But as tough as Aric was, the shifters still reigned as the deadliest preternaturals on earth. Injured or not, I wouldn’t allow my chosen pack to fight without me.
I charged, my large form grinding to a halt as I sensed something descending toward me like a bomb. The eagle shifter had released the horse. Good grief, Pegasus he wasn’t. The horse crashed down, narrowly missing me and splattering into a million pieces. Something, possibly his stomach, smacked me between the eyes and temporarily blinded me with its fluid.
Emme screamed, “Celia!”
I bounded toward the sound of her voice. I still couldn’t see and hoped I was going in the right direction. While I moved fast, it wasn’t enough. The eagle’s talons punctured my hide. Despite the jolt of pain, I stretched out my claws to the earth and shifted him into the ground with me.
My body and his broke apart into tiny molecules that passed through the sand. My intent was to bury him and leave him to suffocate. He must have been familiar with my unique gift because he released me before I could take him far.
When I surfaced several yards away, he was already breaking his partially buried body free and propelling toward me. Damn, he was fast. His powerful wings tilted, easily dodging the boulder Emme flung at him. I shot in the direction of the forest; if he wanted me, he’d have to work for it.
I raced across the road, luring the shape-shifter away from my group. If I could buy them enough time to kill the other shifter, the one chasing me would be easier to take on.
My ideas were always better in theory. I’d barely felt the forest floor beneath my paws when razor-sharp talons dug into my back legs and I was wrenched into the air.
The damn shifter screeched, loud enough to stab at my sensitive eardrums. But that pain didn’t compare with the pain I felt when his talons cut into my muscles and scraped at my bones. Agony claimed my entire being, each pull to my muscles growing worse and more torturous as I swung upside down. Beneath me the earth spun. I made out brief images: a river,
the thickening stretch of forest, and the tops of its swiftly approaching trees.
Trees! Shit, shit, shit.
The momentum I used to avoid the pines added to my torment. I roared as the shifter jerked and dipped in awkward motions. This evil bastard wanted me to suffer before he sacrificed me to his deity. So despite the mounting pain, I swung my body hard, grabbing onto my back legs and curling into a ball.
He screeched again, soaring with erratic flaps of his wings.
The treetops smacked at my underside. It hurt, but it beat decapitation. I tried to use my free claws as weapons. It wasn’t until I pulled myself into a better position that I realized why the shifter kept screeching and why we were flying so unsteadily.
Aric, my beloved wolf, must have managed to fasten his jaws to one of the shifter’s wings before he took flight.
His presence gave me the strength I needed to act fast. I dug my claws into the underbelly and took a massive bite. The shape-shifter screeched again, but still wouldn’t release me. So I snapped my fangs repeatedly until his blood poured into my mouth.
In a rather daring move Aric changed back to human and used his hands to scale up the shifter’s back. Chunks of feathers rained down as Aric ripped the shifter’s wing apart with his hands. I clawed and bit harder, knowing the shifter would use his powerful beak against Aric if I didn’t distract him.
The shifter’s screeches grew more pained when Aric snapped the bones of his wing like rotting bark. But instead of diving toward the earth, the shifter soared higher.
That’s when I panicked. If he thought he would die, he’d take us with him. He tucked his broken wing and dove, sending us spiraling out of control.
Aric couldn’t hold on like this. We were diving too fast. So I shifted my weight and bit through the bones of the shifter’s feet.
It worked. Finally, I was free!
And crashing at high velocity toward the earth.
“Celia!” Aric yelled above my roars.
I pushed my terror aside and reached for my inner eagle. Unlike shape-shifters who could command any form at will, my power was limited to creatures I’d touched and unpredictable in the best of times. Instead of transforming into the majestic and powerful bird of prey, all I managed was a set of wings for arms and a very human body.
Good. Lord. I thought my nipples would snap off from the frigid breeze slapping at my body as I fought to halt my descent.
While I didn’t exactly fly, my wingspan was wide enough to slow my fall. I would have fluttered down gently had Aric not howled above me. My head snapped up. The shape-shifter was corkscrewing ahead of me, his erratic motions breaking Aric’s hold and flinging him off.
Like a baby wren leaving the nest, I flapped my wings pathetically toward him. In no way was I graceful, but my need to save Aric made me fast. I batted my half-assed wings and naked self to him, snatching him from the air with my legs.
His face smashed against my bare and trembling body. Had my thighs not been shredded to bits, this move might have been kind of hot. But they were, and aw, hell, did it hurt.
I grunted from the pain and exertion it took to hold him and keep us airborne. “It’s all right, sweetness,” Aric said over my agonized whimpers. “You got this. Stay strong.”
Aric slipped further down my bloody and sweat-soaked body. I gasped, frightened he’d fall through my legs. He tightened his arms around my waist. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “Don’t be scared.”
His warm breath against my stomach brought me a sense of comfort, and gave me a boost of determination. But when I saw how far we remained from the ground, I worried his faith in me wouldn’t be enough.
I forced my wings to keep flapping, and tried to ignore the horrible burn in my legs. But I could barely focus. It felt like someone was slicing at my thighs with a machete and peeling the muscle away.
We were about twenty feet from the ground when my body surrendered to the pain. Spots danced in my vision before I lost my wings and we fell. I vaguely remembered Aric twisting our bodies just before we crashed into the shallow muddy river.
Although it was only September, the water felt like frozen icicles piercing my skin. The sting jolted me awake, but did nothing to ease the throbbing of my shredded skin.
Aric jerked violently beneath me and slowly loosened his tight hold around my head. I pushed myself up on my arms in anticipation of another attack. But it never came. Instead, I watched the shifter disappear into the distance, his damaged wing barely allowing him to fly.
Better luck next time, asshole.
My eyes quickly fell back to Aric. I gasped when I saw him. He lay with his back arched against the base of the embankment. Blood trailed into the water from where his skull had hit a large rock. His breath was ragged, but his eyes blinked open. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, reaching for him.
He shook his head, grimacing as his skull snapped back into place, but surprising me with a smile. He pushed my long hair over my shoulders. His stare wandered down my body until it locked onto my legs.
Aric’s eyes widened when he caught my blood mixing with the river water. “You’re not all right!” He cradled me in his arms. “Your thighs look like hamburger!”
I smiled weakly when he lifted me from the river and placed me along the edge of the bank, keeping his body close against mine. I stroked his cheek carefully. “I meant yes, I’ll marry you,” I told him quietly.
Aric stilled. Drops of muddy water trickled from his hair to stream along his temples. “Even after all that?” he asked, motioning with a jerk of his chin to where the shifter had disappeared.
My fingers trailed over his rough five o’clock shadow. I knew what he meant. Our union wouldn’t make our lives any easier. “For better or for worse, right?”
His light brown irises flickered and that grin I fell in love with spread across his face. “Yes, sweetness. For better or worse.”
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