Xander Copyright © 2016 by Nancy Corrigan writing as Dana Archer. All Rights Are Reserved.
Gwen finally understood why deer darted out in front of cars.
Being a prey animal sucked. Every noise and shadow spooked her.
She cut a quick glance over her shoulder. No glowing eyes. No flashes of white from an animal’s fangs. No sign whatsoever of the five horny shifters who were on her tail. That didn’t mean she was safe. Far from it. The short reprieve was one she wouldn’t pass up, however.
Gwen skidded to a stop, smashing the frost-covered leaves under her feet. She dropped to a crouch and braced her weary body with a hand flattened against a large rock. Rough pants sawed past her lips, and her muscles burned. She wrapped an arm around her stomach and tried to catch her breath.
Running blind was going to ensure she got caught. She needed to take stock of her situation and plan. Easier said than done. With the tightness in her chest and her rapid heartbeat, she hovered on the verge of a panic attack.
She had no delusions about what would happen if a shifter captured her—he’d rape her. Or torture her. Maybe both. It all depended on what got him off.
The only consolation came from knowing he probably wouldn’t kill her. Not only would he be banished from participating in future hunts, he’d have to pay a hundred grand replacement fee for her—ten times what other human women were rated.
She had a use besides being a piece of meat. The nursing degree she’d labored over made her invaluable. She should feel special. At least that was what Reno, the bear shifter who’d dropped her in the middle of nowhere, had said before he’d gone back to collect the entry fees from the shifters who were joining the hunt.
Gwen gritted her teeth. The anger that had become her constant companion since being kidnapped four months ago flared to life, chasing back the fear. She knew better than to let the darker emotion take hold. That was how she’d landed herself in this situation to begin with. Still, the wound she’d given her guard had been satisfying.
And hearing him scream? That had appeased an aspect of her personality she hadn’t known existed until she’d been forced into slavery. In her mind, he’d deserved the shard of glass she slammed into his neck for beating on a restrained man who couldn’t fight back.
A grin spread, cracking her chapped lips. She licked them, an automatic reaction she couldn’t stop but wished she had. Doing so only made them hurt more. She scrubbed her palm over her lips, drying them as best she could, and scanned the woods.
Trees surrounded her, from evergreens to tall oaks. The amount of broken branches and small rocks on the ground made running difficult, but the debris would also hamper those hunting her. So would the shot Reno had given her. The drug masked scents—both human and animal, depending on the dose administered. Gwen was intimately familiar with its effects. She’d used it on Molly, her adopted sister, a few months back to cover up her lioness’s scent.
Too bad it hadn’t been enough to protect her. Molly was lost, maybe dead, and her fate was Gwen’s fault. She hadn’t been strong enough to defend her little sister against the shifters who’d hunted them. Heck, Gwen hadn’t even been able to save herself from being kidnapped. She was too weak, too fat, and too…
No! Gwen balled her hands. Those thoughts weren’t healthy. If Molly were truly lost, the Ulgran clan, the bear shifters who’d kidnapped Gwen, wouldn’t still be looking for her little sister. That alone was enough to give Gwen hope. She had to hold on to it, not allow regret to choke her.
She flexed her hands and wiggled her numb fingers. The sharp bite of the frigid air on her exposed skin was dropping her core temperature too quickly. The cold wasn’t helping the stiffness in her right wrist either. A wolf’s bite had broken it nearly four months ago. Although the bones had healed, her joints ached. Probably would for the rest of her life.
Teeth gritted, she shut down those thoughts. Whining about being cold wouldn’t help her survive the night. That was a must. She had too much to live for and too many promises to keep.
She turned her attention to the woods around her. No snow covered the ground, but it was coming. Reno, the shifter running this hunt, had told her that. He’d been annoyed by the forecast. It would make tracking her too easy.
Reno’s job was to provide a satisfactory experience for all entrants, even the losers. It was bad enough a Royal wolf shifter had entered the hunt. Royals were considered the elite of shifter society. Not only were they immortal, but they housed three animals instead of one. That difference heightened their senses and instincts, no matter what animal form they could take—wolf, feline, or bear.
The other entrants—all single shifters—had complained about the event being fixed because of the Royal’s participation in the hunt. They’d wanted a refund. Reno didn’t believe in such a thing but had promised to do his best to even the playing field. Or at least that had been Reno’s reasoning behind giving Gwen a weapon and a small bag of provisions. Well, one of the reasons. The other sickened her.
If she defended herself, her captor’s instinct to dominate her would be triggered, thereby increasing his enjoyment. It was all about providing entertainment to the depraved shifters who could afford these illegal games. According to Reno, a happy customer kept coming back for more.
They all needed to die—hunters and handlers alike.
She scanned the area one more time. Not seeing any movement or sign she was being followed, she tugged off the backpack and dug through the items stashed inside. The sight of the scarf, hat, and gloves brought a sigh of relief to her lips. She quickly donned the necessary winter gear, wrapping the wool scarf around her nose and mouth, then zipped the bag. The food rations and hot wraps remaining inside would come in handy for the long night ahead of her.
The way she looked at it, she had two choices—run or hide. Both options came with risks, but if she survived the night, she’d be returned to her cell. If she wasn’t, the feral shifter Gwen had defended would lose his head. Crazy or not, Killer couldn’t die. Royal shifters didn’t get second chances, and he deserved one. He’d protected her. Fought for her.
She’d do the same. That was what friends did for each other. Well, at least that was what shifters did for each other. As much as she wished otherwise, she belonged to their world. She’d seen too much.
A slow inhale and exhale grounded her. Gwen glanced over the forest floor. As a human, she could run only so fast without hurting herself. There were too many rocks and tree limbs littering the ground.
Running was out. That left hiding. But where? The middle of a forest didn’t offer a lot of options, especially if the shifters embraced their animals. Predators were excellent trackers. They’d use those inborn skills to find her. She had to counter them. How, though? She was only a human, and her instincts urged her to run, and run, and not look back.
Actually, that was exactly what they’d expect her to do.
Reno had released her at a hunting cabin that was halfway up a large, deserted mountain in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. She was in Canada. Somewhere. She had no idea where, exactly, but Reno had told her there was a single-lane road at the base of this mountain leading back to the nearest town.
If she could get to the road, she might be able to hitch a ride and escape. Those after her would likely search there first which is probably why Reno had told her about it. Nope. She wasn’t going to make it easy for those hunting her. She had to get as far from civilization as possible.
Gwen pushed to her feet and climbed the steeper slope. They wouldn’t expect the chubby girl to voluntarily take the hardest path possible. She wasn’t thrilled with the idea either. Hopefully, she could find an alcove or a cave. Spending the night with bats or creepy crawlers sounded heavenly.
After several minutes of trudging uphill, a sensation of being watched settled over her. She froze, despite the little voice in her head urging her to run. She wouldn’t be able to escape. All she’d succeed in doing was waste her energy. She’d need every ounce of strength to fight.
With her fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife Reno had given her, she scanned the woods. Nothing moved. Someone hid there, though. She could guarantee it, but couldn’t quite say what had tipped her off. It was just a feeling, one she couldn’t deny. Of course, prey animals had instincts too. At the moment, she qualified as one.
She veered toward the right, where the ground leveled out. If she had to fight, she’d need the flatter surface. Her balance wasn’t that good. Neither were her fighting skills, but desperation and determination were great motivators.
The sound of snapping twigs froze her in place. Gwen glanced in the direction of the deliberate noise. No doubt the shifter wanted her to know she’d been found. She’d been around enough of them to understand they could move as stealthily as their animals.
A man stepped from behind a cluster of bushes. She caught a glimpse of a wide chest and leather jacket before her gaze drifted lower. It was impossible not to take in the sight of him or stop her pulse from racing. She’d had a similar reaction the last time she’d seen him prowling the waterfront of Delaware, looking for her and Molly. He had to be the same guy. How many men walked around in a kilt? Or paired theirs with combat boots? That meant—she was screwed.
Molly had called him a Royal. He was the shifter the other hunters had complained about having an unfair advantage, and he’d found her first, proving them right. If they hadn’t been able to outwit him, pitting her—a mortal and out-of-shape woman—against him was laughable. She’d never win.
No. The what-ifs allowed doubt to surface. She might as well lie down and spread her legs for him.
Royals bled, just like everyone else. They also felt pain. She’d simply have to leave him writhing in misery, too weak to chase her. She just had to survive the night. That was all.
Reno had promised her. A lie, maybe. His words were all she had to go on, however. She’d never make it back to the compound on her own. Reno had blindfolded her and tossed her in the trunk of his car.
She clenched her hands to prevent the trembling in her limbs from showing. Slow inhales through her nose eased her rapid pulse. She had to remain calm. After four months of living in close quarters with dozens of shifters—both feral and depraved—she’d learned how important scents and body language were to them.
If she smelled frightened, she’d trigger his instincts. Then again, if she ran or fought back, she would too. Honestly, no matter what she did, he’d pounce on her, but he hadn’t moved yet. Probably because he was assessing his prey. She could do the same.
Gwen swallowed past the lump in her throat and dragged her gaze higher. A partially buttoned leather jacket offered a peek of a gray shirt. She couldn’t tell if it was as tight as the one he’d worn the day she’d first laid eyes on him. For that, she was grateful. She didn’t need the visual reminder of his strength. Doubt would cripple her. She had to keep hers at bay if she stood any chance of getting away from him.
With the reminder held front and center in her mind, she continued her inspection. The wavy black hair that had caressed his shoulders all those months ago was pulled back in a ponytail, exposing a strong, stubble-covered jaw. Full lips and a straight nose completed his rough-cut face.
He was striking. Hot, actually. Had she met him under any other circumstance, she’d be drooling over him. In secret, anyway. She wasn’t the type to approach guys. She waited in the shadows, hoping they took notice of her. Never happened, which explained her virgin status.
He took a step forward. Her opportunity to settle her nerves had passed. It was time to assert herself…or at least to pretend. At the moment, with his intent focus on her, she felt anything but strong.
Chin raised, she shifted her gaze from his nose to his eyes. Her breath rushed out, and every muscle in her body tensed. An odd sense of recognition settled over her, as if she’d looked into those eyes countless times before.
The urge to go to him—touch him—was undeniable. Her fingers itched with the desire to map his body, and her lips tingled with the craving for his kiss. He’d taste of rich chocolate and sweet wine. She wanted to get drunk on him. He’d satisfy an addiction she hadn’t known she’d had until this moment.
She took a step toward him. His breathing deepened, expanding his chest, and his fingers flexed as if fighting the urge to reach out to her, but he didn’t move. He waited for her. She took a second step, then another, drawn to him. Needing him.
“Run, Gwen, run. Don’t let him catch you.” Molly’s words from the day on the waterfront repeated in Gwen’s head, breaking her out of the odd trance.
She jerked her gaze from his hypnotizing eyes to his nose. Molly had known this would happen. How? Why? Gwen didn’t have an answer, but at the moment, her little sister’s warning took on new meaning.
Gwen was a virgin. It was the reason she’d been given to Killer, but he’d refused to touch her or allow anyone else to. Making her the prize of this hunt had been meant to punish both of them.
For those chasing her, being the one to take her virginity was worth the exorbitant fee to enter the hunt.
The shifter appraising her with stark hunger would take it one step further. The possessiveness in his focused gaze told her that. Not only would he have sex with her—he’d devour her.
She clenched her hands tighter, but she couldn’t stop the trembling from taking over. If he caught her, he’d never let her go.
Choices hung over her, but only one offered her a chance to survive.
She had to become the predator who capitalized on his instincts.