The house never felt as empty as it did in mid-winter.
Lana thought the loneliness would’ve gripped her by the throat in the early summer nights after Greg died, but those didn’t compare to the brittle ache that descended with the new year.
Even though she was standing right beside her microwave, the beep made her jump. She pulled the now-steaming mug of coffee out and took a sip. Since it was nine at night, she needed this to keep from being comatose after the double whammy of a shift on the ambulance followed by three sessions with her massage clients. She might have both bare feet planted on her hardwood floors, but her mountain lion hadn’t stopped pacing from the moment she’d returned home.
Her skin prickled. Something’s off.
She cast a quick glance around her kitchen. The shadows sloped with the dim overhead light splaying across chrome appliances and rustic hickory countertops. Nothing slunk through her kitchen. The heat from the mug of coffee soaked into her palms—the closest she’d come to feeling something all day.
Almost eight months had passed, and still she walked into the house waiting for his deep voice to answer her back. Greg’s worn spot on the couch remained empty, almost as empty as the hollow chamber where her heart had once beaten. She headed over toward her living room, winding around a stack of paperbacks that teetered precariously. Her coffee sloshed over the rim, the hot liquid stinging where it splashed her hand. Lana glanced at the windows, waiting for something to pop up, for eyes to be staring back at her.
Great Spirits, I’m going insane. Lana took a seat on the weathered corduroy couch and placed her mug on the scratched and dented coffee table. She needed a roommate, or at least a cat. Maybe a dozen—her local SPCA would be a danger zone for her. She should cave and take Ally up on her offer to move in.
Skritch, skritch, skritch.
Lana sat straight, her mountain lion perking to alertness. That wasn’t a squirrel in the bushes. Her heart raced, as it had the night of the bombings. She could still feel the burn of the colloidal silver ropes against her skin. And all she would ever see again on her floorboards was the crimson splatter as her husband slumped to the ground, dead.
Lana’s nails turned into claws on instinct, and a low growl built in the back of her throat. The scent wasn’t a woodland critter prancing through and didn’t belong to her pack.
She crept in the direction of the sound coming from the backyard. Her bare feet jolted with a shock of cold as she stepped onto the cool tile of her screened-in porch. Her heart pounded loudly, becoming almost all she could hear while she crept forward. Any moment, the door would fling open. Any moment, whoever stalked outside would attack.
Night-time breezes swept in through the screen, the chill of winter causing goosebumps to prickle up her arms almost as much as the distant hush that descended. Her throat dried, but she took another step. Even with Marcy and Rick living next door, if someone murdered her here, they wouldn’t hear a sound. Who knew if she’d even be found for days? Her eyes throbbed with the familiar pulse of phantom tears—she’d cried so much in the first month that they no longer came.
Her nose twitched from the unfamiliar scent. Where was it coming from? Lana took another tentative step, a heartbeat away from shifting. Her mountain lion paced inside her, begging to break free. Her cheeks iced, but she continued forward, her core temperature rising with the need to shift even as her outside froze. Ever since they had taken down the Coalition of Human Rights in September, quiet had reigned through Ricketts Glen. Too much quiet.
If she hadn’t been paying attention, she would’ve missed the sound—the soft whump of padded feet on grass.
Her teeth transitioned to fangs and she stepped closer to the door. Focus. Her skin prickled, the fur begging to emerge. She strode up to the handle and rested her palm on the icy knob.
Two sets of eyes glowed on the other side, feet away.
Her gaze landed on the two approaching grizzly bears, and she leaped back, as if the flimsy screen might protect her. With the poised control of their limbs and the menace in their eyes, Lana didn’t question for a second that the hulking shifters wanted her dead.
By the time she dived through the door and back inside the house, the bears had begun to charge. Their growls slashed through the air, and her heart leaped into her throat. Lana had made many, many split-second decisions to the point they’d become reflex. She raced through the house, her bare feet burning against the hardwood with the force with which she slammed on the planks. Mesh ripping resounded through her place, and a second later, the heavy pounding of the bears’ approach reverberated all the way to her.
She needed to reach her front door. If she got there, she could shift, and in her mountain lion form she stood a chance of outrunning them.
Lana’s breath caught in her throat as she crossed the distance from the living room to her front door, running closer and closer. The weight of the bear shifters echoed through the house, their footfalls like tolling bells. She didn’t dare look back at the intruders who raced for her, their snarls making their intent clear. They were closing on her, like a noose sliding around her neck and pulling tight.
Her home wasn’t safe. Again.
An icy sweat broke out on her palms as she lunged for the handle, scrambling to grab the knob. She fumbled with it, trying to turn it and failing.
The bears crashed through her house, getting closer by the second.
Lana yanked the door open and vaulted out. She shut it behind her, the door slamming so hard she almost took the doorknob off. With all the trouble the Landsliders had caused in the region, she didn’t question that they were involved. Roars quaked behind her, muted by the door, and she rushed down her front steps. They’d bash their way through within moments—she needed to take advantage of the seconds while she had them.
The shift overtook her liquid-fast, already brimming on the surface. Her creamy fur pricked across her skin and her nails changed into sharp claws. Lana’s surroundings altered with the shift, the crystalline night growing even sharper in her mountain lion eyes, and within seconds she settled her weight onto four paws.
Lana lunged forward, slicing her way through the wilted grass at top speed.
At least, until an unknown wolf stepped between her and the road.
Lana skidded to a halt, churning grass and mud with the force. The inkstain wolf shifter bared her teeth, the golden eyes glowing like lanterns. Quaking came from the house behind her as the bears slammed at the door, straining the timbers. Once they broke through, she was dead. No way could she fight all three at once.
The wolf in front of her growled, the sound reverberating between them in the stark air. Cold filtered through her veins. She needed to escape.
A bang echoed through the air, and her front door burst open. The first of the bears barreled through.
Her world shrank to the wolf before her and the bears behind. She would die. Just like Greg.
Lana lunged to the right, trying to find a way past the wolf who paced in front of her. The moment she moved, the wolf leaped, snapping for her leg.
The ground shook as the bears raced across her front lawn, closing the distance too fast. Dread rushed her in one dizzying sweep, even colder than that winter night. These shifters would kill her, and she’d never know why.
A single roar sliced through the night, loud enough to fracture the sky.
A massive Siberian tiger crashed onto her front lawn, one she recognized from the attack on the Coalition. Lucas, a member of the East Coast Tribe, had arrived.
Those were odds she could work with. Lana whipped around to face the wolf, baring her fangs. Lucas crashed on past her, moving with a grace that defied his size as he charged for the bears. The wolf lunged for her at once, the gray fangs shining in the sparse moonlight. Her paws crushed the withered grass beneath her as she whipped around.
Once the wolf snapped with those lethal jaws, she didn’t step back or try to dodge. Lana slammed right in, using the flat of her skull like a battering ram. The collision echoed through the air with a thump. The wolf emitted a low, pained sound as she sank onto her paws. As if the Silver Springs pack hadn’t spent time sparring with their Red Rock wolf brethren.
Growls lit the air from the two bears, but Lucas raced circles around them, moving with a familiar feline swiftness. The tiger leaped in to scratch one along the muzzle and whipped around to slam into the other before either could react. The way he fought was pure poetry.
This time, she took the offensive. Lana didn’t give the shifter a chance to rebound, charging forward with her head down, ready to ram in again. The wolf reared on its haunches. The moment she dove in, the black wolf sprang, sailing overhead.
Lana pivoted around, right when the shifter landed. They both lunged at the same time. The hot breath of the wolf puffed against her fur, and Lana launched in for the kill. The jaws snapped in her face, the fangs scraping against her head, but she’d ducked.
She clamped down on the wolf’s throat and tugged. Crimson blood spurted across her cheeks, the heat staining her fur as she refused to let go. Her heart hammered, her adrenaline surged and, like this, the hunt, the chase and the kill commanded her.
The wolf let out a moan before she collapsed to the ground. Lana tried to steady herself. The specks of blood on her face might as well have been acid. A pool of crimson grew around the body, and a violent urge to heave rolled through her. Her mountain lion might’ve taken the reins in a fight or flight situation, but she should be saving lives, not taking them.
All she could see was Greg’s body lying on the floor as they’d done the same to him.
She stepped back one pace, then another, numbness descending. The ground shook when one of the bears dropped, flesh rent as if it had been tossed through a wood chipper. Lucas tackled the other bear, the two locked in their fight, a tangle of limbs and claws.
The moment the bear landed on his back with a crunch, the shifter was sentenced. Lucas tore into him with a similar ferocity, the sort of formidable expected from one of the Tribe. The governing force of the shifters wasn’t one to be underestimated—on top of their enhanced skills, they possessed elemental magic and a compulsion they used to force their kind to comply.
Lana prowled, trying to ignore the ache in her heart and the sickness that dizzied her mind like the flu. Blood soaked into her fur, and even her pawprints left smudges on the grass as she stalked forward.
The bear let out one last gasp before Lucas’ claws sliced right across his throat. Blood spurted in droplets onto the grass, leaked in pools beneath the massive body and stained the pristine coat of the East Coast Tribe member who for some reason had showed up here at the perfect time. Not like she wasn’t grateful—she’d have been dead otherwise.
Lana began to shift, needing some space from what she’d done in this form. Her fur changed to smooth skin and her legs lengthened until she stood back on two feet. Lana’s long hair tickled, growing until it brushed her back. She touched the wet spots on her skin, trying to rub away the blood even as she approached.
Lucas prowled over from where he’d left the two bear corpses on her lawn. He’d begun to shift as well, the beautiful orange fur and the white stripes disappearing when he returned to his human form. By the time he stood in front of her, he towered at well over six feet of pure muscle, his tawny, desert-sand skin marred by the blackened flecks of blood across the surface. The Tribe tattoos traveled all the way up his arms and legs, bands of complex linework she couldn’t help but stare at.
His dark eyes crinkled with his smile as he came to a stop. “I’m guessing this isn’t how you expected to spend your night?”
The sardonic tone drew her out of her shock and she responded on autopilot. “How else do you think I stay in shape? This is my nightly ritual to get to sleep—you might want to try it. Works better than whiskey.” She wanted to groan when the words left her lips. She was two steps from vomiting on the lawn, yet here she stood sounding like a homicidal maniac.
A laugh burst from his throat, a rich rumble. The sound calmed her like nothing else and a breath escaped her—the first deep inhalation she’d taken since she got home.
“What are you doing back in the area?” Lana asked, her stomach sinking with the realization. If the Tribe members had returned, so had trouble.
He skimmed a hand through his jet-black hair before glancing at the bloodstains spattered across his chest, his legs and his arms. Lana followed the trail on reflex, but when his eyes met hers, her cheeks flushed. Like she didn’t have enough to feel bad about, she might as well add gawking at the hulk of a Tribe member on her lawn.
He lifted his eyebrow and shook out his hands, sending a couple of droplets flying. “Why don’t we discuss this inside? If you’ve got a shower I can co-opt, I’d be in your debt.”
Lana nodded before heading toward the door. His dark gaze burned into her, and she should feel unsettled with this big guy she barely knew entering her house. However, her front door hung off the hinges, and she’d been feeling neurotic at every creak and groan for months now. Lucas Diaz was one of the good guys—she’d known within five minutes of meeting him—and he’d saved her from ending up as a body on her lawn.
They stepped to the doorway, and Lana trailed her fingers along the wooden edge as she looked to Lucas. “Just tell me one thing,” she said, unable to ignore the gravity settling inside her. “You’re here for that reason, aren’t you?”
Lucas nodded, the shadows deepening the scar in his cheek, the sharp curve of his nose and the grim line of his lips. “The Landsliders have returned. I’m here to find out why, then I’m going to stop them.”