Time is running out for Elsie. Her twentieth birthday is three weeks away, and if she doesn’t claim a wolf shifter, she’ll be forced to mate Brutus, the boorish bear shifter. If she doesn’t, calamity will strike her father’s coven and lives will be lost.
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* Unedited sneak peek. Copyrighted material.
Wolf Hollow Shifters, Book 4, Chapter 1
As the sun began its decent over Balmar Heights, Elsie paced the stone terrace of her father’s villa the same way she had every evening since leaving Wolf Hollow. The skirt of her gown billowed against her ankles and whispered over her legs like mist.
Below their mountaintop, the forest stretched on as though the trees knew no boundaries and would never end. On and on they went—oblivious to time. If only she had that kind of luxury.
In three weeks she’d reach her twentieth year.
In three weeks she’d be mated . . . The question was, would she be claimed by a wolf or a bear?
The plan had been to find a mate among her half-brother’s packmates, and Elsie might have succeeded if a young woman from the city hadn’t thrown herself on the pack’s mercy. Now the woman’s cruel brother would send out his men to search for her.
Elsie should have been allowed to remain in the hollow. She could have helped. But Tabor had stubbornly insisted she wait it out at Balmar Heights like some kind of princess sequestered in a stone tower.
She clenched and unclenched her fists. If she didn’t love her brother so much she’d curse his name. But she could no more curse him than forsake the air in her lungs. Instead, she whispered a protection spell into the wind. Too many miles separated her from the hollow for the incantation to have any affect, but it brought her comfort. There wasn’t much else she could do.
The soft chatter of neighboring families and clack of plates reached her ears as patio tables were set and smoky, fishy smells rose from grills.
Elsie wrinkled her nose.
Her father had gone to check on her friend Sharon, who was about five weeks away from giving birth to her first child. Sharon had been bedridden for the past month and would remain so until the birth. Lazarus diligently checked on her every few days and didn’t expect to return until dark.
Elsie cast one last wistful look at the dusky forest before drifting away from the balcony’s iron railing. If she’d tarried a second longer, she might have been spotted by William. His voice sailed across the lawn.
“Have you seen Elsie?” came his hopeful, boyish pitch.
She backed up slowly, one careful step at a time toward the open doorway to the second story of her father’s villa.
“I’m not sure,” came their nearest neighbor, Tanya’s answered. “Lazarus left to check on Sharon. I don’t know whether Elsie went with him or not.”
“I’ll see if she’s around. Thanks!”
Elsie could just picture the spark in William’s eyes—his anticipation of finding her home alone. Perhaps sleeping with him when they were sixteen had been a mistake, but by now she would have thought that he had accepted her fate and moved on. He hadn’t.
“Elsie?” he called from the first floor.
She breathed her sigh in through her nostrils and wafted toward the stairs, her shoulders slumped. Before she reached the landing, her legs stopped moving, anchoring her to the second floor.
“Elsie? You here?” William’s voice moved around the first floor.
Her mouth opened, but no words emerged.
It would be awkward if she answered now—after waiting for so long while William went from room to room calling her name.
“Don’t see me,” she whispered as she moved swiftly away from the landing. It wasn’t a spell so much as a plea. There was nothing William could do to help her. He could only make things worse.
She drifted into her father’s upper floor den with its busy oriental rugs, statues, and oil paintings, calming her heartbeat and softening her breath along with the gentle patter inside her chest.
William mounted the stairs. When he reached the top, he stopped. Elsie waited for him to call her name. When he didn’t, her heartrate picked up. His silence unnerved her more than the sound of his voice. She felt as though she’d been cornered into an elusive game of hide and seek.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose and her jaw ached as her wolf fought to take possession of her body so she could attack the unwanted intruder. A silent growl reverberated up her throat.
The soft rustle of pant legs moved past her toward the balcony. William would likely check outside first—see if she stood at the railing staring out wistfully as she so often did.
After he passed the den, she slipped into the wide hall and down the stairs, drifting one step at a time to the first floor. She left her father’s villa from an arched opening in back, her bare feet brushing against stone until sinking into the soft grass of the yard.
She strode forward, not bothering to duck into the shadows of neighboring villas. When she reached the cobblestones connecting all the homes, a wind gusted up as though to prevent her from reaching the gates and road leading off the mountain. She kept walking, her hair rippling at her back.
A light mist gusted over her bare arms and face from a large three-tiered fountain splashing water from the center of the wide road. Elsie had never given such extravagances a second thought until spending time in Wolf Hollow. Life in the hollow was much harder, but she’d also felt a keener sense of kinship, community, and space to breathe. Her wolf didn’t like walls. The stone pillars flanking the entrance of Balmar Heights loomed toward her as her gown billowed in the rushing wind.
A wizard named Everett stood with his back resting against the wall, smoking from a pipe, watching her approach. Everett was a tall, fit wizard nearly twice her age. Most of the wizards on the mountain had green eyes, but Everett’s were a deep, penetrating, rich brown that matched the thick hair on his head and tidy scruff over his chin and cheeks.
Puffs of white smoke wafted in the air around him. He straightened as Elsie neared. He pulled the pipe from his mouth to smile.
“Good evening, Lady Wolf.”
Elsie laughed and curtsied. “And greetings to the most desired bachelor at Balmar Heights.”
Everett’s eyebrows jumped and he smirked. “Most desired?”
“According to more than one witch on this mountain.”
Everett’s laughter boomed. He lifted his pipe to his lips and sucked in languidly, expelling smoke through his nostrils while holding Elsie in his brown-eyed gaze. He pulled the pipe out of his mouth and pointed it at her.
“Flattery is not going to work on me, Elsie. Lazarus made it clear he doesn’t want you running outside the gates on your own.”
She smiled playfully.
“Oh, Everett. I know better than to try and use flattery to get past you. I just want to give you something pleasant to think about while I’m away.”
The skin around Everett’s eyes started to crinkle in confusion as Elsie hit him with her spell. With her words, Everett froze in place, pipe pinched between his fingers at his side.
He wouldn’t be able to move for the better part of an hour; however, he would be able to think. Too bad the spell didn’t include a mental fog. Everett’s mind already had to be racing with the shock and betrayal of what she’d done.
The number one rule on the mountain was no casting spells on other wizards, but it wasn’t as though they could cast her out. Soon enough she’d have to leave them whether she liked it or not.
Elsie drifted to Everett’s side.
“I’m truly sorry about this, Everett, but I’m about to jump out of my skin. I’ll run then I’ll return like I always do.”
She hurried past him and out the gates, pulling her dress over her head and tossing it onto the ground. Crouching naked over the rocky terrain, Elsie shifted as swiftly as an owl swooshing down from a tree branch before snatching a mouse in its sharp talons.
Wind flowed through her fur as she ran along the mountain, breezing over her nose and down the ridge of her back to her tail. The wizards of Balmar Heights could transform liquid and objects into almost anything they wished, create electricity or fire with a touch, manipulate the weather, and use vast combinations of words to create spells for endless possibilities. But none of them knew the exhilaration of running free.
Elsie had the best of both worlds, yet she found herself caught between two lives. Wolf and witch. Both sides of her were equally strong and neither could be suppressed for too long.
The high-pitched call of an eagle cried above her.
Elsie dashed down the mountainside, running to the next mountain and the next, covering great distances with little effort. When she ran, she felt untouchable, strong, and brave. She felt her place at the top of the food chain.
What need did her wolf have of possessions, clothes, or electricity?
None at all.
She stopped on top of a grassy plateau, lifted her head, and howled, drowning out the hoot of owls. Her powerful call silenced the forest.
Elsie looked over the darkened woods with a satisfied grin. The woods around her seemed to hold its breath—the forest creatures waiting for permission to resume their activities. Before they could, a roar bellowed across the mountain valley and shook the ground beneath Elsie’s paws.
Immediately, the hair on her back lifted and a snarl parted her lips as a massive brown bear charged through the forest straight at her. Brutus. She should have known he’d be lurking nearby, anticipating her need to step outside the gates of Balmar Heights for a run. She wouldn’t allow him to intimidate her. She didn’t belong to him yet and hopefully never would—though he couldn’t know that, not until she’d succeeded in claiming a more suitable mate.
Growls erupted from Elsie’s throat. She flew down the plateau and around Brutus, snapping at his hairy back.
Brutus spun around and took a swipe at her with his thick claws, but Elsie was already racing around him. Her growls were answered by vicious roars as Brutus spun around again and again to face her. When his paw came within an inch of her muzzle, she jumped back, fangs bared. Brutus charged her. She darted past him, snarling, and bit him from behind, quickly releasing his thick hide to put a good three feet between them before he had a chance to whip around again.
Elsie could run circles around Brutus, but without the help of packmates, she would tire out quickly. She should run—race back to Balmar Heights—but she couldn’t stand to give Brutus the satisfaction of chasing her off. These were as much her woods as his.
Her lips lifted over her gums and a snarl rose in her throat. The next time she got around him, she bit him above his back leg.
Brutus roared and jerked around. His mouth opened wide enough to fit her entire head between his jaws.
Elsie sprang back and growled. Brutus charged her, but she darted around him.
Big, lumbering brute. His excessive size did not intimidate her in the least.
As soon as she got around him, she pounced to nip him again. But he’d already anticipated her move and spun around. A thick hairy arm and wide paw swung at her as she closed in. Brutus batted her away as though she weighed no more than a twig. She flew back and crashed against a tree trunk, crying out in dismay.
If she’d been in her human form, the blow would have knocked her unconscious and possibly broken a few bones.
While she lay on her side, stunned like one of the unfortunate birds that sometimes hit the villa’s window pane, Brutus shifted. He performed the transformation on two legs, watching her the entire time with dark black eyes that turned brown. His snout receded, ears shrank, and fur turned into hair that covered his head, face, chest, arms, and legs. Buried beneath all the hair was a tall, muscular man with a sharp jaw and stern gaze.
Elsie shifted as Brutus approached. She spoke an incantation as she stood, calling for an invisible barrier between herself and Brutus—one he walked right through. She repeated her words, spreading her arms to strengthen the spell, but Brutus kept coming.
His fishy breath hit her face from half a foot away. Elsie’s lashes fluttered as though that would clear the stench from her nostrils. Brutus grinned wide but did not leer at her naked form. He was too busy turning over his right arm to show her the symbols carved into his skin. A curved line cupped his wrist before descending four inches down his arm where it curled into a pentagram. Another line zagged midway through the line. The pattern rose above his skin in a red, angry scar.
“Your father gave this to me. Protection from all sorcery. Your spells won’t work on me, little witch.”
The pride and triumph in his voice made Elsie scowl. Why hadn’t her father warned her?
Brutus’s smile widened.
“Did your father not tell you?” He lifted his head and let his gaze roam over her body. “Your spells won’t save you and you won’t be able to use them against me once we are mated.”
“I’ll still have my claws,” Elsie retorted.
“Mine are bigger,” Brutus said.
Brutus opened his mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Elsie didn’t need magic to shut him up. She could outwit, outrun, and best him any time. Without a ready response, Brutus resorted to a human growl. His arms shot out, trapping her between the tree trunk and his hairy chest and bristling beard. If he groomed himself, he could make himself more pleasing on the eyes, but his wild, unkempt exterior fit his boorish personality spectacularly.
“Once we are mated, you will obey me.” He glanced at her breasts and sneered. “I have no desire for a witch or wolf shifter, but I will take pleasure in knowing how much it kills your tyrant of a father to think of his sweet little girl warming my cave.”
Elsie couldn’t hold back a shudder of revulsion and outrage. Brutus’s gaze snapped up and he glared into her eyes.
“You will cook my meals, wash my clothes, and tend my fire. Do all this to my satisfaction and I might reward you every once in a while, though never on the full moon. I am not your father. I will not bring more half-breeds into this world.”
Elsie slapped him but his damned beard got in the way of a satisfying smack. She shoved his chest next. He didn’t even budge. Brutus threw his head back and laughed.
Dark energy coiled inside Elsie’s stomach.
“Formella lavita!”she screamed, trying to throw him off.
Through his dark beard, Brutus smirked.
“I told you, magic won’t work on me.”
Elsie ducked down and darted away from him.
“Then I will shift and tear you apart,” she snarled.
Brutus turned slowly and folded his arms. “Do that and your brother is dead.”
His words hit her like arrowheads. Elsie clutched her chest.
“Did your father not mention that part, either?” This time Brutus sighed. He glanced off toward the mountains as though their conversation had begun to bore him. “My father was a shrewd man and a mighty bear shifter—smarter than Lazarus gave him credit. Before he agreed to your father’s bargain, and returned those little witchlings, he made sure Lazarus would not be tempted to back out. Not only will there be no more births among the wizards of your coven if you do not claim me by your twentieth year, but any child fathered by Lazarus will immediately die. You. Your brother.” The truth behind Brutus’s words rang in her ears.
Brutus shrugged, showing how little he cared either way. Whether she was his mate or dead, her father would lose her. But there was one more option. One Brutus couldn’t know. The bear shifter’s father might have been shrewd, but her father was far more cunning.
Elsie tossed her hair back. “I still have three more weeks.”
Three weeks to save herself, her brother, and her coven by claiming a wolf shifter—a mate who would not impede her powers or freedom.
“Enjoy them because after we mate, I will see to it that you never run wild or leave my cave without permission.”
“Or what?” Elsie challenged, unable to resist. “At that point you’ll have no more leverage over my father or his people, and I promise you, whatever misery you think to bestow on me will come back at you tenfold.”
Brutus grunted dismissively. He turned his arm over, flashing her his marked flesh.
“You make threats because they are all you have left.” He rolled his neck and cracked his knuckles. “I expect you to come to me in three weeks.” Brutus lumbered away without a backward glance.
Elsie spit out a curse at his retreating form even though it did no good.
Three weeks. She still had three weeks to find a suitable mate. When her father made his oath to Brutus’s father, he hadn’t specified that his first-born daughter would have to marry a bear shifter. His exact word had been “shifter.”
Elsie had a wolf to claim. He just didn’t know it yet.
Thank you for reading! If you want to see MOON CURSED sooner rather than later, please support the series by leaving reviews of books 1 – 3, and recommending them to you reading friends.
In the meantime…
How did this strife happen between the bear shifters and wizards of Balmar Heights? It all began with a turf war. You can read about it in Lazarus’s story “Blow Your House Down” in Once Upon a Quest.
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