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CHAPTER 5

CLAY

I’ve never been this happy before. It feels strange. Really fucking precarious.

Wrenlee’s wolf is resting, almost dozing beside me on the rocks. She lets my wolf lick her coat smooth, but if his tongue ventures near her face, she shoves her muzzle into the crook of his neck. I think she’s ticklish.

I want to give her more time. Hell, I want to lie here forever despite the hard rocks and growing chill in the air, but Amir is standing a yard away, and he has been for about a half hour. He seems willing to wait, but he’s darting more frequent glances up at the training yard.

My wolf slowly extricates himself from Wrenlee’s, but when her nut-brown eyes narrow on him petulantly, I have to wrestle him the rest of the way. As I lumber to my feet, I fight him for our skin. It’s only when I throw up a memory of Eldrick leering at her by the shed that he surrenders.

I snatch up my clothes and boots on my way to Amir, and I can only be grateful that Wrenlee is a wolf while she watches my pale, bare ass hop as I stuff myself back into a pair of soaking wet jeans. I keep my body between her and him, blocking his view.

Something deep inside me doesn’t want any male to even look at her. When I reach Amir, I walk him a little further off, but I also can’t stand the distance from her.

She’s mine, and she’s not hurt. I owe Fate more than I can ever pay, and my heart is full to bursting with gratitude and terror.

I have no idea what to do next. 

I take a minute to tie my boots and run my fingers through my damp hair until it’s out of eyes. Amir waits patiently in a wide stance, arms crossed, as is his habit.

Finally, I jerk my chin at him, and he sniffs, his nostrils flaring.

“She’s your mate,” he says.

“Yes.”  

He nods. “Eldrick figured as much.”

“He’s got a message for me?”

Amir grunts, blanking his face so that I understand these words aren’t his own. “He says get your ass back up the hill. You can bring the female and put her in the groupie pen until she goes into full heat. Says to remind you that the fight at Quarry Pack is two weeks away, and there’s no time for this bullshit.”

Amir subtly shifts a shoulder forward and drops his arms to free his fists, just in case I swing. My wolf surges forward.

Kill him. Rip his throat out.

My wolf doesn’t differentiate between the messenger and the message. I seize him, wrestling him back with all my might, as I try not to look like a mad man and make myself heard over his snarling.

“Tell Eldrick I’ll be back when I’ve got this sorted.”

Amir shakes his head, but he’s not stupid enough to argue. Instead, he gazes past me toward the river where I left my mate. Immediately, I drop my wolf and throw my shoulders back, step into his space, and bump him with my chest.

He raises his palms to his sides. “Whoa, friend. I get it. I won’t even look.”

He meets my gaze. His wolf glares out of his glowing bronze eyes, ready and eager to seize their skin, but held back by an unexpectedly iron will. For a moment, our wolves size each other up, and then, as if by mutual agreement, we both take a step back.

We take a minute to make sure our wolves are stepping back, too.

“She’s small,” Amir finally says, breaking the silence.

My wolf growls.

“No offense intended,” he adds. “My cousin was a runt.”

“She’s just small.” I know that’s not what everyone will call her, but whatever they say, it’ll be behind my back. The way my wolf is tearing up my insides, anyone who calls her runt to my face is going to lose their tongue.

“Hey, man, it happens. Someone’s got to be the smallest. My cousin was late to shift, too, but he’s doing all right.”

Wrenlee’s wolf is going to do better than all right. “Is his wolf bigger now? Did he, like, bulk?”

Amir shrugs. “To be honest, he’s still pretty small. I don’t know what my uncle did. I tell you what, though—if my mate were a runt, I’d sure as fuck try to put some meat on her bones. You need to track you down some boar. Maybe pheasant.”

He’s got a good point, but I don’t see how I can hunt and prepare to get my ass beat by the Quarry Pack alpha. Wrenlee will be going to go into heat, too, and I’ll need to tend her. My cock stiffens against the freezing cold zipper of my cold, wet jeans. The cold does not deter the hard-on in the least.

Amir clears his throat and lowers his voice. “If you can’t fatten her up, I’d forbid her to shift and get her a gun.”

Our eyes meet. Except for the Alpha and his circle, guns are forbidden. The punishment for possession is exile. The sentence for dealing is death. Amir’s black eyebrow arches ever so slightly. I incline my head the same degree. I think we’re beginning to understand each other.

“Where are you going to take her?” he asks. “Your parents?”

I considered it, but it won’t work. “They’ve got a bunch of pups still at home.”

“So what’s your plan?”

We both know that I’d never let my mate near Eldrick and the others. If I were still a Ditch, I’d be due a room in a boardinghouse once I mated, but I’m a Claw now, and they don’t give you shit except a bunk until you win a few purses. I’m not letting Wrenlee anywhere near her father or the brothers who did nothing to protect her. Or that greasy-ass cousin who checks out her ass. I don’t want her near anyone who could hurt her. My nerves won’t fucking take it.

An idea begins to form in my mind—her little struggling garden in the middle of that lush green clearing. I’ve cleared the woods for a half mile in every direction, and nothing’s been stupid enough to cross the perimeter since I marked the territory. It’s close enough to the river. Water wouldn’t be a problem.

“I need you to get me some things.” I picture my paltry possessions stowed at the Claw dormitory. “I need my clothes, my duffel, my pallet, blankets. My mess kit. A pot. My utility knife.” I’ll need some canvas and rope, too, but I know where I can get that.

Amir folds his arms again, his gaze sharpening. “I think I can handle that…but I’ll need you to do something for me.”

“Just tell me what round you want me to go down.”

Amir shakes his head. “No. That’s not what I need.”

“If you want coin, fine, but you’ll have to wait.” Fate knows, I’m not walking away from the Killian Kelly fight with anything, and even with Eldrick’s boot in my ass, I’m sure it’ll be at least a few weeks before I’ve recovered enough to get back into the ring.   

“No, man, I need you to go down to the Blind Cockerel. There is a certain male who frequents the establishment, and I want you to bump into him and take offense. Don’t worry. Unlike your mate’s father, this male won’t apologize.”

“And you want me to break his arms and legs?”

“If you can’t see your way to killing him, I suppose his arms and legs will do.” He flashes a wry grin.

Yeah, we’re definitely beginning to understand each other.

“Eldrick and the rest are idiots, but you do realize that this shit is obvious as hell.” I mean, I’ll still do it, but I feel like I should point that out.

Amir’s grin widens, flashing his blinding white, descended incisors. “I’m not trying to be subtle,” he says. “I was figuring you weren’t, either.”

True enough. “Should I even ask what this certain male has done?”

His grin disappears. “He has something that belongs to me, and he needs reminding to handle it with care.” Amir’s face says that he’s done talking about it.

“It’ll have to wait until my mate is settled.” My mate. It’s the first time I’ve said it. I scrub my chest where the bond between us flows, sure and steady. I can’t fuck this up, not any more than I’ve already done.

“Of course.” Amir claps me on the shoulder. “That was a badass dive, by the way. And you made me fifty notes.”

“Yeah? How so?”

“When the scaffolding fell, Isaac said, ‘I bet they’re gonna have to drag him out with a net.’ I said ‘fifty notes he swims out,’ and he said ‘deal.’ The second the word was out of his mouth, you popped up and started swimming for shore.”

“Easy fifty,” I say.

He grins again. “It was.” His gaze darts to the river behind me, and my wolf rumbles. “I’ll scrounge up some shifts and smocks and whatnot, too.”

“Obliged.”

Amir jerks his chin and heads off back up the great stairs. I turn back to Wrenlee’s wolf. She’s trembling and eyeing me with more suspicion than has ever been directed my way, but at least she hasn’t backed herself into the river again.  

 

Just to be on the safe side, I stay where I am and call to her, “We’ve got to go, Wrenlee. Can you shift back?”

Her wolf glares, and she hunkers lower to the ground.

Shit.

“I’m not going to hurt you, baby.”

Her wolf’s ears flatten, and she bares those teeth as small and dull as corn kernels. I’ve never seen such contempt coming from a critter so tiny and harmless.

High above us, the temple bell rings the end of the working day. We need to get out of here before Eldrick and the others decide to trek their asses down.

“Wrenlee, please. I’ll take care of you. I promise.”

Her wolf snorts, and it’s dainty and sassy and adorable as hell, but we do not have the time.

“You can make me sorry for this later, okay?” I say, and before she can even try to struggle to her feet, I scoop her up and tuck her in the crook of my arm.

She yelps and tries to nip me, but I’ve got her neck between my thumb and index fingers, so all she can do is snap the air. Her scrawny back legs pump, and occasionally she nails my side. It feels like a tap.

“Hush, sweetling. I’ve got you.”

By some miracle, as I carry her up the stairs, past the shed and the path to town, and then down the trail that leads around the outer wall, she calms. Her head droops, and after a valiant fight, she rests it on my wrist. Her legs dangle from my forearm, and her eyelids drift closed.

In my entire life, I have never felt taller or prouder or luckier.

Or more aware of what I am capable of doing to anyone who threatens the female in my arms.

***

Wrenlee’s wolf won’t shift back. I got her to the garden, and that made her happy. She leapt out of my arms to snuffle around her sad little plants, sneezing when dirt got in her nose. Every time I get near her, though, she growls and trots off to sniff something else.

I dropped by my uncle’s, the Ditch’s quartermaster, while she was still conked out. He let me into the main supply building and looked the other way while I helped myself to a few tarps, pails, a hammer, and a length of rope. Since Wrenlee’s wolf doesn’t want anything to do with me, I busy myself picking out a likely site and pitching a tent.

I feel a little better when she begins to follow the perimeter I staked out and piss on the trees that I marked. She’d probably turn beet red if she knew what her wolf was doing. Wrenlee is a shy female. These past three months must’ve been hell.

Guilt turns like a worm in my chest. I should have lied and said she was mine. I’ve played the moment over in my head a thousand times. The instant that I denied her, I knew I’d made the worst mistake of my life. What if she never forgives me? What if she chooses to stay in her father’s house? She has that right.

I glare at the tarps I’ve hung from a cord between two trees. I’m making a piss-poor showing of myself so far, that’s for sure. She must be hungry. I fetched some water when we first got here, but she’s ignored it. She’s probably thirsty, too.

I abandon the tent and stalk her down. She’s wriggling on her back in the dark green grass, gazing lazily at the sky flushing pink as the sun sets.

“You need to drink some water,” I tell her from a fair distance. She scrabbles to her feet. My chest twinges. I didn’t mean to ruin her good mood. “The pail is over there.” I set it by a stump. I’m pretty sure she can drink from it if she stands on her hind legs, but it’d be easier from a step up.

Her eyes narrow into slits. She makes no move toward the pail.

I sigh. “You’re not hurting me by making yourself thirsty.”

Her snout goes up. Without further ado, I am dismissed, and she slinks past me with her tail waving in a very deliberately casual way. I’m careful not to let my lips curve. She walks straight past the water pail and into the loose flaps of the half-pitched tent. I suppose that she’s small enough that there’s more than enough room for her without the edges pegged into place. Not enough room for me, though.

I don’t hide my smile as I go to collect a few sticks that’ll make good stakes. She might be a runt, but her confidence is full grown.

Why won’t she shift back? Is it because she doesn’t know what to say to me? I don’t know either, except I’m sorry, I’ve never been sorrier in my life, but that doesn’t feel like it’s anywhere near enough. She trusted me. In that shed, she rushed into my arms. I didn’t have to coax her mouth open. She was hungry for me.

Will she even want to touch me now? She’ll have to—her body will make her once she’s in full heat—but will she hate it? The idea makes me want to puke.

How the fuck do I make this right?

I’m worry about that and throwing away perfectly good sticks, pitching them as far as I can out of pure frustration with myself, when I hear Amir call, “Hey ho! Don’t shoot!”

He emerges from the trees laden with packs like a street peddler and immediately begins dropping my stuff on the ground.

I rush to help him so that he doesn’t dump my pallet in the garden dirt. “They give you any trouble?”

He grunts. “They would’ve if I hadn’t gotten in and out while they were all at dinner.”

A yard away, the tarp rustles and a small wolf snout appears between the flaps. Amir notices, but he doesn’t let on. “I stopped home and begged these off my sister before I came,” he says, digging in my duffel and pulling out a plain linen shift and a pale blue smock. He lays them carefully on top of the stack of sacks.

“My thanks.” I extend my hand. It throws him for a second, but he takes it. Clasping hands is a Ditch custom. Claws don’t touch other males except to beat them.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” he says. As soon as I go to walk him back to the path, Wrenlee’s wolf darts out and races toward the supplies. She snatches the shift and smock in her blunt teeth and hightails it back to the tent.

Amir is smirking as he heads back to town, and I have to muffle a chuckle as the sides of the tarp bulge and muttered curses float from the flaps.

When Wrenlee finally emerges, my breath is sucked from my lungs. Her hair is down, hanging in soft brown waves that frame her face. Her cheeks are flushed pink. Amir’s sister must be young. The shift hits just above Wrenlee’s knees, showing her bare calves and feet. While I can’t help but stare, she wiggles her toes in the grass.

Heat courses through me. She lowers her eyes, her hair falling forward and hiding her expression. I can’t stand it. I need to know what she’s thinking.

I close the distance between us and lift her head with my finger under her chin. She still won’t look at me. She glares past me at her garden, but she doesn’t move away.

I can feel her in my chest. She’s scared and hurt and angry, but amidst all that, she’s curious, too. She sneaks a glance up at me. What the hell do I do now?

If this were my mother, scared and angry, my father would tease her, nip her on the butt until she shrieks and takes after him with the broom.

If it were my aunt, my uncle would make himself scarce down at the pub until he caught sight of the pup she sent down to see if he’d ‘managed to drink himself to death out of spite yet.’ He’d sober up with a swim in the river and then drag himself to the kitchen door with a bouquet of wildflowers and a hangdog expression that could make a stone heart weep.

As far as I can make out, the mated Claws don’t bother themselves if their females are out of countenance.  

At a loss, I follow my instincts. I grab Wrenlee’s hand and lead her toward the water pail, stopping to grab my mess kit. I sit her down on the stump, and thank Fate, she goes along with it. I fetch a tin cup and dip her a drink. She accepts it, careful to make sure our fingers don’t brush. She sips primly, but she doesn’t stop until she’s drained it. I refill it as soon as she’s done.

She keeps peeking up at me. I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel hulking and ham-handed and exposed. I pretend to look at something past the tree line in the woods, but I’m stealing glances at her, too. She’s pretty as a picture.

Her shift is tight, squishing her breasts down and creating a deep crease where they’re squashed together. She doesn’t have a lot up top, so she doesn’t fall out of her dress like some, and I’ve never seen this much of her. I’ve felt her though. She let me cup her when we kissed. She was panting so hard, whining in her throat, so beautifully carried away, that I wondered afterward if she even noticed, and I felt guilty.

She’s mine. Soon enough, she’s going to let me touch her all over and look at her all I want. Before my father found out and beat the fact that it’s wrong into my head, I watched the videos that the higher ranked males would bring back with them on their phones from Moon Lake. Females in heat aren’t shy at all. They get on hands and knees, thrust their pussies in the air, and beg for it.

I rotate my hips so that my hard-on isn’t waving in Wrenlee’s face. The back of my neck is probably bright red. I’m not totally inexperienced. I did it once with a Ditch widow who lives on East Gate Lane, and another time with a ballsy Blade female whose mate had set her aside. I know what to do with my cock.

If I keep telling myself that, maybe I’ll be able to pull myself together.

I should focus on more important things. She needs food and shelter. Shelter first. Night is coming on quickly. Already, the woods have cast the clearing in shadows, and the evening star is shining low above the horizon.

I can’t bring myself to walk away, though. Not when she’s darting those glances at me. My bare arms. My tented jeans. My mouth. My blood slugs in my veins.

I should say something. Tell her how fucking sorry I am. Promise her that no harm will ever come to her again. Swear that I’ll make her happy if it kills me.

I cough. She finishes her second cup of water, sets it down next to the pail, and gazes up at me expectantly. I’m supposed to know what to do now. I’m the male.

I grab her hand again and urge her to her feet. A straggling wind from the north tousles the treetops and whips her hair in her face. As it dies down, she plucks strands from her mouth. She always wears it in a braid.

I have an idea, and so help me, I’m so lost for what to do next, I go with it.

“Turn around.” I take her by the shoulders and gently move her to face away. She’s wary, but she does as I ask. Before I begin, I extend a fang and rip the hem of my shirt, tugging a strip free.

“Stay still,” I tell her, gathering all that shiny hair and dividing it into three parts. I’ve never done this before, but I’ve seen my mother and sisters do it plenty after they dry their hair in front of the fire on a Sunday evening.

Wrenlee’s hair is slippery. It slides through my fingers, and I lose focus. It’s soft as silk, and it smells like her. Her breath is coming faster, and the sensations flowing through the bond are brighter and sharper and needier. I fumble, and it all falls apart.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper in her ear. She shivers.

“I can do it myself,” she says quietly, as if we’re in the shed, trying not to draw attention.

“I know.” I divide her hair again, and this time, I make myself ignore how it feels and how she smells, like evening dew tinged with a faint hint of pussy, and how I can hear her heart thumping double time. My wolf rumbles, and hers kind of squeaks.

I weave, over and under. I run out of one chunk well before the other two, and the whole thing has a kink at the base of her neck, but it’s done, and since it’s on the back of her head, she can’t see it. I tie the braid with the strip of shirt, but since it’s so wonky, about a lot is hanging free. I twirl a loose end around my finger.

She pulls it away as she turns to face me. I return my arm to my side. Her eyes are alight. I’ve no doubt that mine are, too. Our noses are quivering. We aren’t moving, but somehow, every second, there’s a fraction less space between us.  

“I’m so angry at you,” she says, staring at my chest.

“I know,” I say, even though she’s not. I can feel her now. She hurts. She trusted me, and I broke that, and knowing exactly how it felt is like shards of glass scraping my skin. “I’ll be sorry until the day I die.”

Her big brown eyes well. “I don’t want that.”

My hand finds the end of her braid again, pulling it over her shoulder, teasing the bristly ends with my thumb. “I’m going to keep you safe,” I say.

She frowns. “Am I in danger?”

In an instant, my brain dumps a hundred images—ferals and lone wolves, rogues from Last Pack, the floods in spring, the blizzards in winter, wasting sickness and moon madness, the witch who skulks around the alleys late at night and smells like bitter herbs and other females’ fear. Vipers, bears, and natural wolves, rabid foxes and raccoons, rusty nails and strong winds that blow scaffolding into the river. Eldrick’s sneers. The going rate for a night fireside. The scent of the Claws’ mates, the unholy combination of despair, drying seed, and the cutman’s epinephrine.

“No.” I do not allow my voice to betray me, not by the slightest quaver, but I have no control yet over the bond.

Wrenlee’s lips turn down. I can’t bear it. My mouth is on hers before I form the thought, and she is sweet, sweeter than I remember, than it is possible to be. She tastes like soaring. Like home and freshness and everything I ever wanted.

I can’t stop. I wrap an arm around her waist, slip my knee between her legs, lift her onto my thigh. She’s with me, looping her arms around my neck, arching into my chest, chasing my kiss, welcoming me. Her tongue slicks against mine, and our teeth click. I have her, and it’s been too long, it’s been for-fucking-ever.

I can’t sip from her; I can’t slow down. Her braid’s undone, her hair threaded through my fingers. She pants into my mouth, and I groan into hers. The pallet is still rolled up. Everything is still packed.

The grass is soft. There’s not that much dew yet.

I can’t fuck my mate on the ground. She needs to build her nest, and she’s going to need more than a wool blanket and a worn flannel flat sheet.

She’s driving her nails into my scalp, as if she’s afraid I’ll try to get away. I’m never leaving her. When I’m old, I’ll rock by her kitchen fire and bother her. When I’m dead, I’ll be her shadow.

I drag her closer, grasping her hips and jerking her forward. She gasps. The scent of pussy floods my nose. Oh, hell, yes.

What do I do next?

I have no idea, so I keep her steady with my hands on her waist, and otherwise, I don’t move. Her shift has worked its way up as her hips work and she grinds herself against my flexed thigh. I don’t stop kissing her. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I want to see, to watch, but all I can bring myself to do is smooth my hands lower to squeeze her sweet, ripe ass.

“Clay,” she gasps, alarmed, her brown eyes flying wide and finding mine.

“Say it again,” I say between kisses. Her brow wrinkles. She doesn’t understand. “Say my name again, Wrenlee.” There’s a resonance in my voice that I don’t recognize. An authority.

“Something’s happening.” Well, if it’s authority, she does not recognize it, but she’s clinging to me even tighter, so I do not care. “What’s going on?”

Shit. I hope she’s coming, but wouldn’t she know? Females aren’t supposed to touch themselves, but they sure do in the videos from Moon Lake and in the barn shows after the full moon runs.    

 

“It’s all right, baby,” I tell her, forcing myself not to throw her to the ground and mount her like every cell in my body is screaming to do. She’s going to have a goddamn nest with nice, clean blankets and pillows, and it isn’t going to be in the woods outside the wall, either. I’m a male, not an animal, thank Fate, because my wolf thinks I should be balls deep in our mate’s pussy by now.

“Clay, it’s coming.” Her breath is ragged, and her eyes are sparkling. I want to memorize her. My cock wants to burst through my zipper.

“Let it come then.”

She screams, a sweet little shout of victory, and then she shakes like a rabbit and collapses against me, limp and sweaty and smiling like a kitten.

I am brilliant.

I do not know what I did—I’m very much afraid I had nothing much to do with it—but Wrenlee smells like cum and satisfaction, and she’s plastered against me like she never intends to move. Fine by me.

I wrap her in my arms, lowering us to the ground so that I can hold her better, and I keep kissing her, her mouth, her cheek, the line of her jaw. Her neck. She giggles and squirms, and I stop immediately. I don’t want to give her any reason to draw away.

Outside this patch of grass, there are killers and Claws and wicked folk, bent on their evil machinations, and soon enough, I’ll have to turn my mind toward them. But for now, in this moment, I will not worry. I will breathe my mate in with the brisk evening air, as happy as a male has ever been or could ever hope to be.

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