HEART OF THE WINTER WOLF
A full-length paranormal romance from New Concepts Publishing
© 2007 Dani Harper
The dream had long since faded, but James Macleod couldn't
seem to wake up. Instead, he drifted slowly towards full consciousness like a diver rising in measured stages from some dark ocean depths. The wolf was there too, with him and part of him at the same time. Despite the strange duality, James knew he wasn't dreaming anymore. And he found himself able to ponder the meaning of the dream. Memory. It wasn't a dream, it was a memory. If it was a memory, that meant he had killed Jillian's attackers. Even though he had never taken human life before, even though it was forbidden to do so by Changeling law, he had no regrets. Not only was he certain the men would have preyed on others if left alive, the protection of another Changeling or a pack member was a higher law. Protection of a mate superseded all.
A mate. Why did that cross his mind?
The wolf stirred within. Mate. Mine. Ours.
Not that again. Look, hanging around with Jillian is going to put her in danger!
Protect her. Mate. Ours.
Stop saying that. We need to leave her alone, do you hear me?
Alone, danger. Together, safe. Mate. Ours.
Goddamn it, since when do you know how to talk? I can't believe
I'm arguing with— James woke at last, but the wolf was gone. At
least his awareness of the wolf was gone; he could no longer be certain that the damn wolf ever really left. Exasperated, he rolled over and opened his eyes—and froze as he realized two things simultaneously.
One, he was in the hayloft at the animal clinic again. And two, he was
human. He sat straight up, ran his hands over his face, his fingers
through his hair. Human. No mistake. He must have Changed in his goddamn sleep, because he certainly hadn't done it on purpose. Had the dream brought it on somehow, or had the wolf called the Change? And just how the hell had he managed to get all the way back to the North Star Animal Hospital?
James struggled to his feet, feeling disoriented and strange, needing to get to the window and determine time of day—of whatever the hell day it was—by the angle of the sun. He leaned a hand on the window frame to steady himself, gulped in the fresh dew-moistened air and took stock of his impossible situation. His brother, Connor, didn't seem to think that wolf and human personas could separate, but for James, the evidence was indisputable. There was no longer any doubt that his wolf side had recognized Jillian, sensed her, and come to her aid in the past. And no doubt that now the wolf was trying to maneuver James into complying with its current plan for survival, a plan that centered around Jillian.
Mate. Mine, the wolf had said. James was dead set against the idea, yet there appeared to be limits to his choices. He could control his human side. The wolf, however, had become a wild card and was becoming bolder in its determination to take the lead. If James had no control over his wolfen side, could not order it to stay away from her, then Jillian was already in danger.
A mate. Even if he had dared to want such a thing, he didn't deserve it. Not after what had happened to Evelyn. Weary in body, heart, and soul, James sank onto a bale and dropped his head into his hands. The crushing weight of guilt on his shoulders was as familiar as the endless litany that echoed through his mind. Should have known there was danger, should have been more alert, should never have left Evelyn alone. Should have been strong enough to walk away from her in the first place, should never have gotten involved with her. His fault, all his fault, accusing him every time his human awareness surfaced within the wolf. Small wonder that he had lived as a wolf, hunted and howled as a wolf, lived and breathed and existed solely as a wolf for over three decades.
He wished he was in lupine form now. Being a wolf was easy. Too
easy? It was certainly tempting to submerge himself beneath the wolf persona right now and not have to feel anything, think anything. Shit.
Wasn't that exactly how he got into this impossible situation?
He'd buried the man deep inside the animal, so deep that now the
animal was determined to take over not only his life but Jillian's
too. He couldn't allow that. Nor could he allow Jillian to be harmed
in any way. He had brought danger to Evelyn and their unborn child,
danger and death. And he would bring the same to Jillian if he
didn't find a way to stop the wolf within. But the only way he could
think of was to remain human, and that he could not bear.
James pounded a fist into one of the heavy bales, knocked it flying off the top of the stack. Pounded another until it burst. And another. His heart was going to explode, he was going to explode. He beat upon the heavy hard-packed bales, dozens upon dozens of them with all his Changeling strength, until his hands were bloody and not a single bale was left unbroken. He fell to his knees in the midst of the straw and howled, a long ululating howl from his very soul. Howled again. And again.
But he did not Change. He dared not. He couldn't trust the wolf,
couldn't make it stay away from Jillian, therefore, he would not be
a wolf. He would damn well walk out of this town—and her life—on
two legs, if he could believe for one moment that the wolf would let
things be, would give up on its quest to be near Jillian. But James knew now that wasn't going to happen. The first time he fell asleep, the wolf was likely to take over and make its way right back here.
Jesus Murphy. Looked like he was not only stuck with being human, but stuck with staying here. "Fine," he said aloud, baring his teeth
in defiance at whatever Fates insisted on screwing up his life. "If
that's what has to happen, then fine." He felt anything but fine
about it. Frustrated, pissed off, apprehensive and even—if he
admitted it—pretty much scared spitless at the prospect of resuming
a human life. But he wouldn't shy away from this decision. He would
protect Jillian from the wolf and from anyone or anything else too.
At all costs.
© 2007 Dani Harper
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