“Focus!” Eldrick cuffs the side of my head, but he’s got to rise up on his toes to do it.
I am focused.
Way down below the training yard, Wrenlee is making her way up the great stairs with a full bucket. She’s wearing a scarf today, and she’s stories beneath us. I can’t see her face. Look up. Look up.
“Get your head in the game,” Eldrick snaps as he huffs and puffs and bounces on his feet. I swing a desultory blow toward him which he easily blocks. “What’s wrong with you?”
He pummels my stomach a few times. He can’t reach much higher without exposing his own mid-section. My muscles flex out of instinct. I wish I could leave them soft and feel the pain. I deserve it.
Wrenlee isn’t my mate. I knew after that first kiss when she didn’t go into heat. A good male would have left it there, but I was selfish. The way she looked in the shed—flushed and happy, her shy smile, her arms winding around my neck, her tits pressed to my chest, her heart thumping through her shirt.
I thought one more time. She has to be mine.
I drive a fist into Eldrick’s face, and he goes spinning. His wolf snarls. Mine takes it as an invitation to let the entire yard know how he’s feeling, growling and howling and rattling my ribs. He knows we’re not where we’re supposed to be.
Isaac, Amir, and the others take uneasy steps back from where they’ve gathered to watch their leader school me in how shifters fight on the circuit.
They fight to lose. You don’t start until a bell rings. You have to stop when it rings again. No strikes to the neck, throat, spine, kidneys, groin, knees and below. No stomp kicks. You can’t break bones on purpose. Eldrick allows that “on purpose” depends on if the referee is friendly.
The referee today is an old Fighter who’s getting off on calling me out for every little thing. Rabbit punch. Finger stretched toward opponent’s eye. Elbow strike. Head-butting. He’s not friendly, but he’s also not wrong. I am doing all those things. I want Eldrick to know that one day, I am going to kill him.
“Fists up. Defend yourself.” Eldrick’s voice is a nasal whine. It’s hard to talk when your face is swollen to hell. “What’s wrong with you? Are you stupid?”
Yes. Stupid. Reckless. Weak. I kept telling myself one more time. It’ll happen. It wouldn’t hurt anything.
Females are allowed to be courted. How else would males find their mates? We don’t mix at the bonfires or the market or at gatherings. Females keep their own company, and we keep ours, but it is permitted for an unmated male to spend time with a female in plain sight, look but don’t touch, and if Fate moves you to taste her, but she’s not yours, you walk away, and there is no shame in it, for you or for her.
I fucked up, and she wouldn’t even look at me when they asked if she was mine. If she had, I would have lied. I would have dishonored myself and my line into perpetuity.
How is she not mine? She smells like she belongs to me. Like fresh air and breathing room and sunshine.
I glance over the edge of the training yard and find her in an instant. Eldrick slams a fist into my turned cheek. She’s only a flight higher now. Why is she moving so slowly today?
My guts are a tangled knot, I haven’t slept, and my nerves are on a hair trigger. Does she feel like this, too? Like everything’s fucking wrong?
“Keep your eye on your opponent, Ditch, or do I need to paint you a clearer picture of what will happen if you don’t?”
No. I can see it. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s a worm, burning tunnels through my brain.
I don’t need an eye on my opponent, though. My wolf can smell him fine.
Eldrick feints left, but it doesn’t matter. While he swings, I come at him from both sides with my fists like cymbals, and when his blow glances off my pecs, I smash his skull, and he falls flat on his ass, blinking like an owl.
“You gonna call time?” I ask the ref. “Or should I keep going?”
“Take five,” the old wolf says, shaking his grizzled head as he goes to check on his boy.
Fighters are always surprised when a male from another rank can tussle, and I’ll never understand why. While they’re in the gym lifting weights, we’re out here lifting logs and stone. They’re fighting for points, and we’re out here scrapping for meat and a place close to the fire to lay our heads.
They don’t get to compete for fat purses on the shifter circuit because they’re better fighters. It’s because their daddies and granddaddies marked the territory decades ago, and Ditches are too busy fighting each other for scraps to realize we could take them out if we tried.
I never cared too much before because I like working outside, and on big projects like the moat wall, if you know what you’re doing, they leave you alone.
While the old Fighter checks Eldrick’s pupils, I walk to the low railing that overlooks the river and scan the site I’ve been working since I can remember. There she is. She’s reached where she was headed.
She’s waiting for a male to throw a rope over his scaffold so she can tie it to her bucket, and she’s standing in the sun like she’s got no sense. A step to the side, and she’d be in the shade.
There’s nothing wrong with her, physically, but she’s a female, and she hasn’t shifted yet. Her arms are weak, her hands aren’t calloused enough, and she’s in the middle of almost a dozen brothers and sisters, so she doesn’t get enough meat. Females and pups pass out all the time on the wall on a hot afternoon, and the last place you want to do that is high up on the workman’s ledges or on the great stair.
She doesn’t drink enough water. I got her a canteen and a strap to wear it across her chest, but she forgets about it. She’s not wearing it today. And she is walking strange. Much slower than usual. My wolf whines. He thinks we need to investigate. He doesn’t understand that’ll cause even more problems.
My father came by the bunkhouse and gave me a real beating last night when he heard what happened at the shed. He said he raised me better, and he’s right. He said I made Mother cry.
Wrenlee almost cried yesterday. Her soft brown eyes filled with tears. Remembering makes me want to puke and punch someone.
She almost cried that day when the putty knife hit her, and John Broom nearly died over it. I’m lucky he doesn’t hold a grudge. He was so impressed that I flipshifted that he’s taken to following me around. Last night, he said he’d keep an eye on Wrenlee since I won’t be on site.
I don’t want him watching her, but that’s what life is now, doing shit that I don’t want to do. And I have no problem with that if they leave her alone.
“Hup, hup,” the old wolf calls from the ring they’ve got marked off in chalk. Amir has taken Eldrick’s place. He’s dancing on his toes, shaking out his shoulders. The scent of his fear tickles my nose, even all the way over here by the railing.
He’s the most decent male out of all of them. I’ve got the sense he doesn’t much want to be doing this, either.
We touch fists. That’s another thing you’d never do if you actually wanted to win a fight. Might as well sniff ass.
Amir gets himself into position, gives himself a few smacks, psyches himself up. Over by the stool in the corner of the chalked off square, Eldrick’s recovered enough to be standing with his head together with a few of the older males, eyeing me head to foot, probably talking about me like I’m livestock and their gauging my haunches. Fuck this shit.
The bell rings. I swing, connect with his jaw, and knock Amir out cold. When he hits the ground, a small cloud of dust puffs into the air. I stare at Eldrick and snarl my upper lip to show him a blunt human incisor. His face blooms purple.
He comes for me, his males following in his wake. My wolf leaps to his feet. My heart rate actually picks up. Maybe when they’re all in the dirt this horrible clutching in my chest will ease.
He stops a foot away. Why is he stopping? I don’t smell fear.
“Since you’re stupid, Ditch, let me spell it out for you. You are going to learn circuit rules. You are going to forget all this back alley brawling bullshit, and you are going to develop discipline. And if you’re a good puppy, and you can pull that flipshifting trick out of your ass when it counts—in the ring with Killian Kelly—then you’ll come back here with a big bag, and you can fuck any male’s mate you want. They’ll serve them up on a platter and thank you for the privilege of dipping their dicks in your sloppy seconds.”
My wolf growls in his throat, so I know he’s ready when I am. He and I have always been of one mind. He doesn’t understand why I’m holding him back. He only understands the threat, not the words, and he doesn’t know there’s a second part coming.
Eldrick takes a half step closer. “But if you keep going like you’re too good for the sport, too good to learn the rules, then you’re still going into the ring with Killian Kelly, but you’re going to lose.” He lowers his voice so what he says next is almost a purr. “And I’m going to have a little conversation with that piece of shit who bred that female you’ve been fucking. I’m going to tell him how much Alpha Fireside pays for a night with a female who’s ruined anyway.” He flashes his elongated fangs. “I’ll tell him how much he pays if things get a little out of hand.” He shakes his head, and his eyes glint. “Ditches disappear sometimes. We all know that. Who can say where they go?”
“She’s innocent.” My wolf garbles my words until they’re barely comprehensible, but Eldrick is reading me like a book.
“Now, you know that no one will believe that, but if it’s true—” Eldrick smiles ear to ear. “I’m sure Alpha would pay double. Of course, you have no standing in the matter. You aren’t her mate. And somehow, I suspect that when her true mate does find her, he won’t be too pleased that another male tested out his property. If there is no one with rank to stay him, he might hand her over to Alpha for free.”
My wolf is still and silent. I can hear everything. A hawk screeching above the shrine’s highest tower. Trowels scraping against stone a hundred yards below us. The blood running in my veins like ice.
I do what I have to do.
I tilt my head. It’s the closest to baring my neck that my wolf will allow. And I take my place in the middle of the chalked square. I place my feet shoulder-width apart. I point my front foot at a 45-degree angle, bend my knees, and distribute my weight evenly between my legs and on the balls of my feet.
Isaac joins me. I tap fists with him, and I wait for the bell. And then, abiding by every rule they’ve told me, correcting every misstep and conforming to every suggestion they shout at me at me from the sidelines, I beat him into a bloody pulp until the referee calls time.
The entire time, I hold Eldrick’s gaze so that when he closes his eyes tonight to sleep, he will think of the face of the male who will kill him.
I hold Eldrick’s gaze, and I listen for voices lifted from below on the wind. I listen for her, and even though I can’t hear her, I don’t lose focus. Not for a second.
When the sun begins to lower in the sky, Eldrick tells us to hit the showers. I wait for the others to haul themselves groaning into the locker room, and I bail. I understand that I’m supposed to eat and sleep and shit when and where they say now, but I’ve also had the chance to test all the males of fighting age at this point, and none can beat me.
I had no idea I was good at it. Before, I’ve only ever used my fists to make a point or shut an asshole’s mouth for him. I’ve never fought to figure out a male’s weakness. To size up how to kill him when I get the chance.
The Ditches are finishing up the day’s work on the moat wall, and Wrenlee is dragging herself up the stairs toward the shed with an armful of empty buckets. I shouldn’t talk to her. I can only make things worse. She’s favoring her left leg, though, and I still can’t see her face. Her shawl is pulled too far forward.
I hang back until she’s rinsed her buckets and started down the path to town. There are a few packmates around, but when my wolf growls at them, they bend their necks and hang back. Wrenlee hears him. Her spine goes ramrod straight and her shoulders rise to her ears, but she doesn’t stop. She keeps on hurrying on her way.
Her anger and hurt burns my nostrils, but I can also smell sunshine, and for the first time since she ran off yesterday, I can breathe.
“Wrenlee,” I call.
“Get away from me,” she hisses over her shoulder.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” I slow my pursuit so she doesn’t push herself so hard to get away.
“None of your concern.” She stumbles over an exposed root and finally stops, but she doesn’t face me. “Just leave me alone before I get into any more trouble.”
I don’t dare take her arm and turn her around. Her wolf is rumbling faintly her chest, and mine is agitated as hell, looking for an excuse to burst free and tear something to pieces. He’s confused. He smells her fear, and he doesn’t get why I don’t kill what’s causing it. If I touch her and she screams or struggles, I don’t know what he’ll do.
So I jog ahead and block her way. Her head’s down, but she’s not bending her neck. She can’t bare the sight of me. I stand taller. I can handle it. If she’s safe, I can deal with it.
“Look at me,” I say, stern and cold. I’ve never been harsh with her before, but there’s ice trickling down my spine, almost like fear. Something is very wrong.
She lifts her chin, playing like she’s tough, but her pupils are wide, and her bottom lip betrays her with a wobble. There’s a handprint on her cheek. My wolf sees red. He lets out a howl that rustles the branches overhead and leaps for our skin. I stagger. Wrenlee stumbles backward, tripping over the hem of her dress and landing against a tree trunk. She grabs its sides, pressing her back into the wood like she thinks that if she tries hard enough, it’ll open so that she can hide inside.
She doesn’t run; she doesn’t fight. She’s completely vulnerable.
I wrestle my wolf into submission, and I force myself to swallow the fear—it’s fear, I cannot lie to myself—and master myself so that when I speak, my voice doesn’t make the tears swimming in her brown eyes fall.
“Who did this to you?” I finally manage to ask, standing a respectful distance while she still clutches the tree trunk. “Who hurt you?”
Her head tilts slowly to the side. “You,” she says, and it’s a direct hit. It knocks the wind out of me. I know all of this is my fault, the result of my weakness.
“Was it your father? Your brothers? Which ones?” They’re ass kissers, eager to show neck. Those are always the males who need to tear into a female or pup to wash down the taste of boot in their mouth.
“What did you think would happen if we were found out?” she asks.
I wasn’t going to let that happen. I was a fucking idiot.
“Tell me who.” I let my wolf’s growl infuse my voice.
“What are you going to do? You’re not my mate. You have no rights. You can’t keep me here.” Her voice trembles, and the pulse in her delicate neck flutters faster.
She’s so fucking pretty. You wouldn’t notice her if you didn’t have cause to look. She wears her brown hair in the same single braid as all the other Ditch females, and she has the same brown eyes. Her ass is a little rounder than most, and tits are a little smaller, but she’s average height, and her lips are neither plump nor thin, her legs neither long nor short. But once you notice her—
She’s beautiful. The browns aren’t ordinary browns. Her hair shines like lacquered wood, and her eyes are alive and dark and deep. She calms your heart to look at her, and at the same time, she makes your blood race.
And she’s not mine. I have no rights. I’ve already made things bad enough, and I should walk away now, but I can’t. The best I can do is step to the side so she knows that she can go.
She stops clinging to the tree trunk and straightens. My stomach plummets. I brace myself to let her pass, and to muscle my wolf into allowing it.
She doesn’t go. She readjusts her blue patterned scarf and smooths her dirt-smudged smock. The pulse in her neck throbs and throbs.
“So you’re a fighter now?” she asks. Her eyes are averted, but she darts them up at me, and each time, a new wave of blood rushes to my cock, and my wolf rumbles. To him, we’re too far away. She needs comfort, and he does not understand why I’m over here, hands at my side with a hard on.
“You’re going to fight on the circuit?”
I jerk a nod. I want her to keep talking. She can ask me anything if she just stays here. I do not understand how she isn’t my mate. I’ve been drawn to her since the day she came to work on the wall, and I first caught her scent. There is no bond, though, no tether between us that allows me to control her. I can’t hear her thoughts. She’s not begging me to mount her.
My hands flex at my sides. Her gaze darts down. Her face flushes bright red, blanching the outline of the mark on her cheek. Clearly oblivious to what it does to me, she bites her lip. Despite the funk of her fear fogging the air, I catch a whiff of her pussy, and I’m hard as a rock. I don’t want her to be afraid. I step further to the side until I’m standing in the brush that lines the path.
She stands a little prouder. Her wolf gives a muffled yip. There is a lightening in my chest.
“Will you put your money on me?” I ask.
“Father doesn’t let us keep our coins,” she says. Her eyes shift. It was him. He laid his hands on her. Because of me.
Her nose quivers, and her wolf whines. She scents my anger. Shit. I flatten my arms to my side. Where does the smell come from, anyway? I reek from sparring all day in the sun. My luck I don’t stink enough to cover my aggression.
Her hands start to wring her smock.
I lower my voice, careful to keep any roughness from it. “Will you say prayers for me, then, Wrenlee?”
“You’re not my mate,” she answers quietly.
“Even so,” I say.
“If my cousin sees you here with me, he’ll tell, and I’ll get it again.”
“You won’t.” I can’t keep the edge from my voice.
“You can’t say that.” Her chin firms. “You have no right to me.” Her dark eyes somehow darken to black pools, but still, I can make out a glint of pain. “You are playing free with my honor, Clay Pulley. You will make males question my virtue. Let me go, and do not follow me.”
With that, she draws herself up, and on wooden legs, she walks past me and then breaks into a run, her wolf’s sweet, muffled howls trailing in her wake. Mine howls back, promising her that she won’t get far.
We wait until she disappears around a bend to strip. I hang my pants and shirt from a high branch on a tree a few yards off the path. If a Ditch sees them, they won’t be here when I get back.
My wolf more or less bursts out of my skin. There’s a blinding flash of pain, and then the rush of sensation—the gathering dew as evening falls, the tang of smoke carried on the breeze as females stoke their dinner fires in the town proper. I expect that Wrenlee will head that way, but she surprises me.
She veers west, cutting through the light woods that run between the river and the field where the alpha’s bonfire is held. She skirts the open ground and follows the low wall running along the back of town until she comes to a weed choked trail. My wolf is like a pig in shit. He’s outside, and he’s stalking a female. I am going to have to fight him to get our skin back.
Wrenlee doesn’t even pause to sniff the air. She has no idea she’s being followed. It makes my gut ache.
What is she doing out here? Meeting a male?
Rage crashes through me. My wolf surges forward. An image flashes in my brain—he tackles her, driving her to her hands and knees as he snarls and roars and sinks his fangs into that pulsing neck until her fear seeps strongly enough from her pores to calm him. I want that. I need it. But she isn’t ours.
She isn’t ours.
A female who allows herself to be marked by a male who isn’t her mate is beyond ruined. She has no value. No protection.
I hold him back by the skin of my teeth. And he holds me.
There isn’t another male waiting for her, though, when she finally gets to her destination. It’s a garden. A sad one.
The dirt is dry, more like dried putty than earth. There are tiny green buds planted in neat lines, but they don’t look like they’re doing so well. The ones still upright are drooping. A few have given up the fight and laid themselves flat.
Wrenlee mutters to herself as she grabs a big metal watering can and heads toward the river.
It’s a terrible place for a garden. The tall trees provide too much shade, and the soil is obviously garbage. The grass around the plot is strangely lush and green, but it must be sucking all the water because the plowed square is parched.
I follow Wrenlee, pissing on trees as I go, and I investigate the nooks and knolls while she makes trip after trip to the river. It seems like as soon as she waters a plant, the earth its in turns light tan and dusty again by the time she comes back to water its neighbor.
There aren’t any predators in the area if you don’t count possums. My wolf and I consider the mouth of a possum den for a few minutes before we decide that maybe we do count them—they’ve got sharp ass teeth and a bad attitude—and my wolf takes a shit right on his doorstep.
I have no idea what Wrenlee’s doing out here, but while she weeds and fusses over her doomed baby sprouts, my wolf curls under an elm, and we listen to her murmur.
“Persistence, you understand? You’re strong. Stronger than you know. You can’t give up. Okay?”
Her voice is beautiful. Gentle and sweet and a little throaty. I never heard her talk much. I was usually up on the scaffolding, and she was down below. We didn’t waste time talking in the shed.
She lectures the dying plants for another half hour, and when the temple chimes ring the dinner hour, she pops up and rushes back to town. I watch her disappear down Cook Lane before I make my way back to my shucked clothes. I take my time getting back to my new bunkhouse. It’s in a fancier part of town. There are green spaces for the pups to run and landscaped flower beds.
The sun is setting and the lamps have been lit when I let myself into the courtyard. I hear the thump, thump of a basketball. Amir is shooting baskets in the near dark. The gears in my brain, which have been grinding since I saw Wrenlee’s cheek, click into place.
“Hey,” I say. I clap and hold out my hands. Amir passes the ball. I shoot. It bounces off the rim.
“Did you sleep through Human Sport?” Amir asks. He dribbles, shoots, and the net goes swish.
I catch the rebound. “I’m a Ditch, remember? I never went to the Academy.” I shoot again, and this time, the ball falls straight through the hoop.
“You pick shit up quickly,” he says, picking up the pace. Our wolves get excited and start making themselves heard.
“Yeah. I guess.” I feint left and knock the ball out of his hand. “Kind of funny. Yesterday, I was a mid-rank Ditch. Today, the way I figure it, I’m the top ranked fighter in North Border.”
Amir looks at me and snorts. “Maybe, but Eldrick is top Claw.”
I shrug and hold the ball. “Today. Maybe.”
“You got a point?” Amir goes toe-to-toe with me, and he doesn’t blink.
“I will beat Killian Kelly, and then everything will change. I’m giving you the opportunity to place your bet early.”
“Yeah? And what do I have to do for the opportunity to buy that Ditch bullshit you’re peddling?”
“It’s easy. You just have to look handsome tomorrow when I go down to you in the third round.”
Amir’s face grows very serious. “Claws don’t throw fights.”
I bare my blunt teeth. “I’m not a Claw.”
He rests his hands on his waist, tilting his head back, ostensibly catching his breath. He’s doing the math. If I’m number one, and on occasion, he can take me, that makes him number two. It’s pretty easy fucking math. You don’t have to have gone to the Academy to do it.
“What do you want?” he asks.
“I want you to bump into a certain Ditch male who lives down by the low wall, and I want you to take offense, refuse his apology, and break both his arms and all the fingers in both of his hands.”
“Is that all?”
“And his legs.”
“All right, man. Arms, legs, and fingers.”
“And one other thing.”
Amir is shaking his head. He clearly thinks I’m mad. “And that is?”
“I want you to come with me to dig up some top soil from those flowerbeds over there and haul it to the woods behind town.”
“You’re a strange wolf,” Amir says as he turns, tossing the ball over his shoulder. The net swishes. “And I’ll help you haul, but you’re doing the digging.”
“Not a problem,” I say. “I am a Ditch.”
And if I need to be a Claw, I’ll be one, and if I need to be a gardener, I can do that, too.
I’m not Wrenlee’s mate, but I swear to Fate, she will not want for anything, not as long as I have fight left in my body.