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CHAPTER 6

WRENLEE

CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC VIOLENCE

Clay has gone to hunt our dinner, and on the one hand, I need the time alone to get myself together, and to suffer through the worst of the embarrassment at rubbing myself against his leg, but on the other hand, neither my wolf nor I like him being out of our sight.

He said he wouldn’t go far. He saw deer sign earlier on the far side of the river, and he figures he won’t be more than a few hours since he’s hunting as his wolf. He didn’t bat an eyelash when he stripped and shifted. He didn’t bother picking his clothes either. After he left, I folded them neatly and tucked them into the little nest I’m making in the tent.

I always thought nests were weird. We’re wolves, not birds, and even if once upon a time, it was sensible to make a soft place for newborn pups when we lived in dens, we have beds and cradles now. And yet females from the higher ranks have dower chests that they fill with fine linens and beautiful embroidered cushions to build their nests. Ditch females make do with the worn scraps that their mothers and grandmothers rescued from the rag bin. It doesn’t make sense to ruin perfectly good sheets.

My brain still believes that, but a voice inside me, something just now waking up, demands that we find ourselves some decent blankets. I have a pallet, two flat sheets—plain and scratchy, but they smell like Clay—and a drab wool blanket that must be aces against the elements but intolerable against bare skin. I’ve got that rolled up in the duffel to make a pillow.

The only other things I have are Clay’s clothes—a few shirts, two pairs of jeans, socks and underwear. The shirts are faded, the jeans are threadbare at the knees, and the whites have that dingy grayness of everything that goes through the laundry on Bristle Lane, but they’re still my new favorite things.

I lay the jeans flat and lie on top of them, lining my legs up with the denim. Clay is a good deal taller than me, and wider, too. I cover my top with one of his shirts, pulling the collar to my nose, and I breathe in the lingering scent of mortar that never washes out. My body flushes and unravels at the same time, and I can’t tell whether it’s anticipation or a fever coming on. I suppose it could be both.

I am aware that I’m being weird, but also, I did not understand before how important it is to make a good nest. It has to be perfect. I don’t have enough materials to do the job, but when Clay comes back, I’ll tell him, and he’ll fix it.

I know that I have no reason to have such faith in him, but my wolf suddenly has a lot more of a say in our thoughts. She has zero faith in the man, but absolute confidence in the wolf.

Good mate. Red fur. Red furred pups.

She is the most excited about pups. I am, too, but maybe excited isn’t exactly the right word. I’m going to need to get a job in the kitchens. I can’t wear a pup on the ledges, not when scaffolding is falling into the river. That means I won’t see Clay all day, even at a distance. I never wanted to do kitchen work—it’s hot and hectic and tempers flare. I can do it if I must, though. My mother and aunts and sisters do.

I don’t want to raise a pup around the Claws. They do what they want, and pretty much the worst thing an unmated Ditch female can do is catch one of their eyes. If her father doesn’t act quickly enough, or if he doesn’t bother, there are rumors and tears and all kinds of disaster.

It’s good that the gray witch’s finicky flowers are coming along. If Clay wins a few purses, and I can harvest the ashbalm, we can rent a room in one of the cheap streets. The Claws are clannish, but maybe they’d make an exception for Clay if he does well for them. I’m sure he will. I saw him with John Broom. He was like a machine, quicker than your eyes could follow, stronger than your mind can conceive.

I shiver and sit up. His shirt falls, bunching in my lap. Do I want this?

When Clay and I were working together on the wall, I dreamed about it every night. Before I fell asleep, I decorated our home and named our babies and picked out the flowers that I’d weave in my hair on the day he presented me to his family. It was all exquisitely, achingly precious because it was never going to happen.

But Clay Pulley is my mate, and a few months ago, he rejected me. The Claws offered him a seat with them fireside, and he dropped me like a hot potato. He told me to go work in the kitchens and stop drawing attention myself. He said my behavior made males question my virtue as if he weren’t in that shed with me. He said those things, and now, because he’s my mate, all of that is erased?

He saved my life. He risked his life for mine. Doesn’t that erase it?

He apologized. Isn’t that enough?

I don’t want to mistrust him. I want to wrap myself in these things that smell like him and float away on that hot, buzzing feeling inside me. I want him to come back. I don’t like him being where I can’t see him. What if a feral attacks him? What if he disappears and never comes back—plenty of folks do, especially on nights close to the new moon—and I’m curled safe in the tent he pitched nursing bitter feelings?

I need air. I jump to my feet and slip out into the dark. There is a small glow from the fire Clay built before he headed out and the stars are out but they’re fuzzy and distant tonight. The dew is cold on my bare feet, but I don’t mind. I’m sweating from being cooped up.

I stretching, inhaling the cool night deep in my lungs, when a stick cracks. My wolf’s ears shoot straight up. I dive back into the tent, scrambling for the knife that Clay left, but even as I do, my wolf reassures me—

Family.

 

“Wrenlee? Don’t be scared. It’s me.” Annabel calls out from the shadows. She says don’t be scared, but her voice shakes, and she reeks of fear.

“What’s wrong?” I hurry to her. She’s alone, but I can scent my mother and sisters on her smock and in her hair. They’re terrified. “What happened?”

“It’s Father,” she says. “You have to come. Someone gave him a gun. He’s going to shoot Mama. Please, he’ll listen to you.”

I grab her hand, and together we race down the path toward town. “H-he w-won’t listen to me,” I gasp as we run. “W-we h-have to get Uncle Manuel.” Manuel is Father’s oldest brother. If anyone can talk him down, he can.

“N-no, he’ll listen to you. Your mate is a Claw. You rank now.”

I guess that’s technically true, but I’ve never seen a female pull rank on a male, not even a female from the Alpha’s family. But when I would have seen that? Maybe they do.

While I push my legs as hard as I can, I reach for the bond, and I try to give it a tug, to let Clay know that I’m going. I don’t know if I’m doing it right. It’s like grabbing a rainbow.

“W-who gave him a gun?” I ask as we squeeze one after another through the low wall gate.

“I don’t know. Emmett probably.”

It’s not until my feet hit the cobblestone that I realize I’m still barefoot. I’m not even wearing my smock. I left it hanging outside the tent. I didn’t want the scent of Amir’s sister in my nest.

I run as quietly as I can. Most folks are still awake at this hour, gathered by the hearth to chat and play cards. I don’t need to set off an alarm. Part of me would love to see Father exiled, but we’d lose the house, and then what would happen to Mother and my younger sisters? I’d like to believe my brothers would care for them, but the older ones have families of their own, and to be honest, I don’t know if they would, push come to shove.

Father’s probably drunk. I’ll tread very careful. Show my neck right away.

I tug on the bond again, and this time, there is a tiny tug back. Relief floods my chest just as we round the corner to our lane. Of one mind, Annabelle and I duck down the alley, take the back steps two at a time, and burst into the kitchen.

Father is propped in his rocking chair, his arms and legs in dingy white casts. There is no gun. He couldn’t even hold one if he tried.

Mother is on the floor beside him, weeping. Her left eye is swollen shut.

My other sisters are clustered by the pantry, clinging to each other, their wolves whimpering, their necks bared.

The table has been turned onto its side. Dirty dishes are broken and scattered across the wood floor. In the middle of the braided rug, Eldrick is standing with his arm slung around my youngest sister Laney’s shoulder, hooked so that her neck is pressed in the bend of his elbow. One of my brothers is collapsed against the cabinets. His head is tilted at an unnatural angle, but his chest is moving.

A half dozen Claws stand in a half circle behind Eldrick, leering at my huddled sisters.

“Well done,” Eldrick says to Annabel. “You can fetch as well as any other bitch, I see.”

“Let her go,” Annabel reaches out for Laney, but even with all her bravado, she’s too scared to get within arm’s length of the Claws.

Eldrick laughs. “I am a male of my word.” He flexes his bicep, drawing the Laney closer to his chest. Her little fingernails dig into his beefy forearm. He drops a kiss on top of her head and lets her go. She tumbles to the rug like a ragdoll, flips to her knees, and scrambles as fast as she can to Mama.

Annabel and I circle slowly to our right until we’re standing between Mama, Laney, and the Claws. We don’t have a chance against them, but we can slow them down. I need Clay. I reach for the bond, but I can’t focus. It slips through my fingers.

“So this is the little slut who thinks she can take my fighter.” Eldrick stalks toward me, sneering. I hold my ground. I don’t want him any closer to Laney. “A fucking runt, no less.” He spits on the rug, and then he leans over to whisper in my ear. I don’t want to bow my head, I hate myself for doing it, but the instinct is too powerful. I clutch the sides of my shift in my fists.

When he speaks, his breath is hot and damp. “You belong to me now. You’re an incentive now, runt. That mate of yours is going to come back, he’s going to show fucking neck, and he will train like he’s fucking serious. He’s going to beat Killian Kelly, and we’re going to bring home the fattest purse this pack has ever won. And then, I’m going to throw him off that goddamn wall with a few hundred-pound weights chained to his ankles, and you’re going to spend the rest of your days on all fours in the groupie pen, working off every fucking second I’ve wasted on this goddamn aggravation.”

I am grasping the bond, curling my fingers around it, jerking backward with all of my strength, when Eldrick draws back, swings, and everything goes black.

***

I wake up on the dirt floor of a dim room that smells like blood and stale fear, and my heart nearly shoots through my chest. I leap to my feet, my wolf and I searching the shadowy corners for danger, but we’re alone. My pulse pounds in my ears, my breath ragged in the damp silence.

There’s a door, heavy and wooden. It doesn’t have a knob. A scrap of wood has been nailed over the hole where the knob should be. I rush to it, trying to open it anyway, pushing with both palms and then slamming my shoulder into it, but it doesn’t budge.

There’s a small rectangular slat at head height, and I pry and push, but I can’t open it.

I’m in a basement. Black mold creeps up the walls from rotting baseboards. The room is fairly big, as large as the supply shed, but there’s only one high glass block window. Although it’s thick with dust, it lets in some light. It’s morning. How long was I out?

Where’s Clay?

My panic swells, and I grab for the bond and pull and pull. I know he’s there. I can feel him, his fury and anxiety, but I can’t tell if he’s close or if he feels me.

My jaw throbs, my face is swollen, my right eye is puffed into a narrow slit, and I’m scared.

The room is empty except for a pile of stained sheets in the corner, and something terrible has happened there. It’s clearly a nest, but it’s wrong. Instead of one male, it smells of many, and terror, and pain. It’s been ruined, everything intentionally strewn out of place. There are small dirt footprints, no bigger than my own, stomped into a pale blue thermal blanket.

I don’t smell death. The female who made the nest survived. She walked out of this room. I will, too.

I try the door again, turning to kick at the bottom with my bare heels, but it doesn’t give. The window is too high. I still jump for it, but I’m a good foot away from reaching the ledge, and even if I could break the glass blocks, I’m not sure I would fit through it. My wolf would fit. Maybe she could leap to the ledge.

I eye the distance from the door to the window. Maybe twelve feet.

She’s dashing around inside me, yapping up a storm. She wants to try. She’s so very small, though. I don’t think she has the strength to break the glass, and if Eldrick and the others come back, I would be even more vulnerable as my wolf. The blow I took to the face would have killed her, without doubt.

I’ll try the jump again myself. I back up to the door and take a running leap, and this time, my fingertips skim the ledge, but I can’t get a purchase. I back up, try again, and fall. Then I pound on the door again until my shoulders and my heels are bruised. I can’t stop. If I give up, this is real, and it cannot be.

Time ticks by, and slowly, the room gets brighter. I give the nest wide berth. My wolf and I are in accord—it’s tainted. Evil.

Eventually, my shoulders and fists can’t take it anymore. I have no choice. My legs collapse under me, and I end up cross-legged in the middle of the first floor. Where is Clay? What are they doing to him? Maybe they didn’t catch him. Maybe he caught wind of what they were doing, and he ran. The thought comforts at the same time as it cuts.  

I try to still my mind and focus on the bond. It’s hard to sort it from the screaming inside me, but if I picture the bond flowing from me to him and think really hard, I can trace it.

I feel his rage and terror, but as I attend, those feelings become muted, and a new note emerges. It’s almost impossible to describe. It’s not a sensation, more of an impression, and if I had to name it, like a pup finding animals in the clouds, I’d call it a wolf ripping through another wolf’s throat. It doesn’t frighten me. It calms my heart and evens my breathing.

The room is dank and cold, but I’m sweating. At first, I thought it was because of the running and slamming into the door, but I’ve been resting for a while. I’m not cooling down.

I feel like my body is plumping. My breasts are heavy, I’m tender between the legs, and my skin is tight because every curve is swelling and ripening. There is no comfortable way to sit, and I am so thirsty. I’d give anything for a cup of water filled with chipped ice or sweet juice, maybe grape or apple, frozen to an icy slush. I groan. The sound is too loud and obscene so near a stranger’s filthy, ruined nest.

I sit very, very still. I can’t go into full blown heat here.

I grab the bond. That strange impression flows into me, bloody and violent and reassuring. I can visualize it wrapping around my wrist and winding up my arm into my chest like a strong and healthy vine as it whispers pictures into my head of a wolf with red-tinged fur tearing another wolf apart.

Clay will come for me. And what will happen then?

I hang on to the bond as the daylight fades and my wolf paces back and forth, back and forth. I drift off to that kind of sleep where time slides forward, and even though you’re aware, you aren’t awake.

Hours later, when it’s pitch dark, I’m startled alert by muffled growls and voices. I surge to my feet. The rectangular slot on the door scrapes open.

Clay.

I start for the door.

He snarls, “Get back.”

I stop so quickly that I rock back on my soles. I don’t understand. He’s here. We’re safe.

My wolf notices the other scents before I do. There are other wolves close by, acrid and nasty males. Eldrick. Isaac. Others. Their scents are familiar. They cling to the soiled nest.

All I can see through the slot are Clay’s eyes, and there’s something wrong with them. It’s like they’ve been scraped clear and painted over. I don’t see him in there, his wolf either.

Dread grabs me by the throat. He’s on the other side of the locked door. Have they made him another offer he can’t refuse?

“You see her,” a snide, sneering voice says from the hall. It’s Eldrick. My wolf whines and lowers her head, and I hate it.

“Where is her food and water?” Clay asks without tearing those strange, blank eyes from me.

“You want her fed, too,” Eldrick answers, “You’re gonna need to earn it.”

Clay turns until his head is in profile, and if I did not see it myself, I would not think such a perfectly empty face could communicate such unmistakable contempt.

Eldrick goes on, unaffected. “Last full moon, the Hunters trapped themselves a feral out by the bogs. We’ve been keeping him on ice for a special occasion. I figure if you can take him out, Killian Kelly should be no problem for you, eh?”

No, no one goes against a feral alone. Even Hunters go after them as a pack, and they take knives and swords and weighted nets. Ferals are infected, stuck between man and wolf, stronger than both, driven by madness and rage at Fate.

“Clay, don’t,” I say. He shows no sign that he hears me.

“Kill him, and we’ll keep her as full as she can handle.” Eldrick snickers, and my skin crawls.  

Clay’s jaw tightens. “I feed her. You don’t go into this room. None of you.”

“You think you’re in a position to negotiate, Ditch?”

“I think you said you’d bring me down here if I could take out your three best fighters in three rounds, and now I’m standing here, so yeah, I think we’re negotiating.”

There’s a moment of silence, and my stomach slithers into a knot. Clay doesn’t blink.

Finally, Eldrick’s mocking voice floats through the open slot. “Smell that, Ditch? I know you do. Did you know the young males dare each other to come down here at night? They swear that on a full moon, you can hear the echoes of the female’s screams.”

Ice runs through my veins. Clay stares steadily toward the direction of Eldrick’s voice.

“We’re such a superstitious lot. The female’s not dead.” Eldrick chuckles. “But I’m sure she wishes she was.”

Clay doesn’t betray a single emotion, not by the slightest twitch or wince, but the bond crackles, whipping and sparking like a live wire. I clasp a hand to my chest as if I can tamp it down.

Finally, I suppose when Eldrick grows bored with the silence, he laughs and says, “Let’s see how cocky you are when a feral is chewing pieces of your hide. Something humbling about watching an animal swallow your flesh in front of your own eyes. Right, Amir?” Eldrick snorts, and a hand appears in the small window, and as suddenly as it was opened, the slot slides closed.

The male voices quickly fade, disappearing down the hall. I don’t even get a last look. My heart gallops. A bead of sweat drips down my clammy back.

I don’t know what to do, so I sit down again. Hours pass. Eventually, exhaustion and all my aches and pains become too much, so I lie down on my side, resting the uninjured side of my head on my forearm. I tuck my knees to my chest and listen to the bond. It’s a jangling roar, furious and bloodthirsty, but as long as it’s strong and steady, I’m comforted. He’s alive.

He hasn’t given me up. He wants me fed.

The sun goes down, and the room cools. The floor grows icy against my burning body. My shift is soaked with sweat. I can’t drift off to sleep now. Instead, I float in a fever dream. I hurt, and I throb, and my shift chafes everywhere it touches my skin. I shiver, my teeth rattling, and I can’t tell if it’s from the heat or the cold.

At some point, much later, there is noise at the door. I don’t jump. I’m too stiff, too out of it. The hinges creak, and the room floods with the harsh light of the fluorescent bulbs from the hallway. I have to sit up. I can’t lie here curled into a ball. I make myself push up on my hands and sit back on my heels, but my legs are too wobbly to stand. The room tilts, and my stomach roils.

“Wrenlee.” Clay rushes in, kneeling in front of me, dropping a brown paper bag to the ground. His hair is wet, and he smells like mint and citrus and soap. I drag him into my lungs.

“Clay?” I clutch his forearms. He steadies me, pressing his cool forehead to mine.

“Five minutes,” a male barks from the door.

Clay takes a water bottle from somewhere, unscrewing the cap as he pushes it into my hand. I don’t need encouragement. I gulp it down, chugging until I’m forced to stop to breathe.

“Here.” Clay digs a hunk of meat wrapped in cheesecloth from the bag. Venison. My stomach rumbles, and my wolf howls.

Clay rips off a piece and places it between my lips. “Eat,” he says softly, bending close to me again, brushing kisses across my forehead as I chew. As soon as I swallow, he offers me another piece.

As I eat, his fingers skim my swollen jaw. He brushes matted hair off my face and smooths his hands down my arms as if he’s reassuring himself that I’m here, and he’s here. We’re in one piece.

“You have to run,” I whisper to him.

He hushes me, feeding me another bite.

“You can’t beat a feral by yourself.” He has to know this.

“I just did,” he says, kissing the tips of the fingers that I’ve pressed against his chest where the bond sings back and forth between us.

My eyes well. “They’re going to kill you. After you fight Killian Kelly, they’re going to throw you into the river with weights tied to your ankles.”

“No, they’re not.” He holds the bottle to my lips, and I drink. “You are going to be brave, and you and I are both going to walk out of here together. I promise.”

“They tricked me,” I say, the tears dribbling down my face. “They hurt my mother, and they were going to hurt my sisters.”

Clay dabs my cheeks with the sleeve of his gray Henley. “Your family is safe now. I made a deal. No one is going to touch them.”

Clay presses another piece of meat to my lips, but I can’t eat. I need to talk. Tell him what’s happening.

“I’m so hot. My brain isn’t working right.” I grab his hand and press it to my chest above the neckline of my shift. I want to show him how I’m burning up, but once his rough palm touches my skin, I loose track.  

“I know.” He kisses the corner of my mouth and offers the venison again with his free hand. “Eat this for me, baby, so that I know you’re fed. Please.”

I do, shivering and huddling against him, holding his hand against my heart, and when he offers me the water again, I drink.

“Everything is going to be okay,” he murmurs. “I just have to do some things, and then they’ll let you out, and I’ll take you home, and all of this will be in the past, and you’ll never have to think about it again.”

“What things do you have to do?”

“Nothing for you to worry about. You just make sure you finish this meat, and there’s an apple in the bag, too, and a chunk of cheese. You’ll eat it all, won’t you, Wrenlee?” He catches my gaze and tries to look stern, but it doesn’t work. His wolf is in his eyes, greedily watching me with a longing that makes my heart ache.  

“What things?” I ask again.

There’s a nasty chuckle from the doorway.

“Time’s up, Ditch,” an unfamiliar male voice says. “Don’t worry, female. Your mate doesn’t have to do much—only knockout Killian Kelly in the second round come Saturday night. Shouldn’t be hard. Nobody’s done it, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And he’s got an incentive, doesn’t he?” The male laughs again. “Your heat will hold out ’til Saturday, right?”

His laughter echoes down the hall long after Clay is forced to leave, and I finish my meal and curl up on the floor again, shivering.

And sweating.           

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