A naked girl? Chilly scrambled to his feet, trying to ignore the pleasant sensation of his fur sliding along her bare skin as he scooted out from under the leaning boulder. Without thinking–and trying not to look–he shifted to human form. That was even worse, so he shifted back. No, he obviously needed to talk to her; he shifted back–wait, boy with undressed girl, not good. Better shift back–
“Oh, please!” Her voice betrayed more than a hint of exasperation. “Pick a form, would you? All that strobe-shifting is giving me a headache.”
“Uh. Okey dokey.” Okey dokey? Brilliant, C.W. Just freaking brilliant. “I’m…uh…just not used to waking up with a beautiful naked girl between my legs.” Oh shit! Did I really say that? Shoot me now! “That came out wrong.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed. You are staring at my cornflower blue eyeballs, right? Not my female attributes or anything like that? And why are you all wrapped up in blankets? Are you always this suave with the girls you meet?”
“Whoa.” Chilly’s legs collapsed; he sat down on his well padded bottom with a soft thud. “That’s a lot of questions. You’re a shifter.”
“No duh. You didn’t know? You didn’t! You thought I was a wild wolf when you freed me?” Utterly unashamed of appearing before him in her rather thin yet ridiculously attractive birthday suit, the girl crawled from beneath the big rock and assumed a seated position facing her rescuer, her legs crossed in tailor fashion. “That’s…unbelievable.”
“What’s–wait a minute. Do you mind if we, um, get you clothed before continuing this conversation?”
“Clothed?” One perfect eyebrow arched, her cornflower blue eyes twinkling. “How?”
“Um…give me a minute.” Chilly began working the belt rope loose, freeing the rolled blankets he’d been carrying all this time. Not the gray one; that might have gotten wood splinters from the frame or something, from when I scraped out through the window. In the middle…yes. “Do you mind–this brown one is soft enough it should be comfortable, and the color will blend in pretty well as long as we’re in the forest. Would that be okay?”
She grinned, holding back a laugh. “Oh Round Knight of the Table, mayhap thou might have noticed this fair maiden hath minimal room for negotiation.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers. Sure, that blanket will be fine.”
“Oh. Good.” Fishing in his pockets, Bronson produced the standard kit all Bronson family members wore. Doubly true now, all the Bronson family being me. Having been a mama’s boy had its advantages; he could sew by hand with the best of them. Thirty-five minutes later, the blonde with the laughing blue eyes looked much more respectable, decked out in a crude but serviceable tunic that made her even more desirable, however that worked. Now, for her feet.
“Sorry. I don’t have any leather to make moccasins.”
The girl finished admiring her new sleeveless tunic–belted with an inch wide strip cut form the same blanket–and sat back down rather hastily. “Whoo! Just about passed out there. Give me a sec.” She lowered her head into her cupped hands, but not for long. “Okay. I’ll live. But, um, never mind my feet, okay? I’ve got calluses on calluses. When you’re a throwback like me, you get used to running like hell on bare tootsies, believe me. But I’m still not used to being this hungry.”
“Oh! Um…I ate a whole bunch of goat meat a while back, and, um, I guess I could live off my own fat for a month or two, so I didn’t realize—”
She waved her good hand dismissively. “No apologies needed, o’ rescuer mine. It’s just that unless you like your women, you know, anorexic like Miley Cyrus or something, it would be nice if….” Her voice trailed off, embarrassed. She hated appearing ungrateful, asking for more when the boy had already saved her life. Maybe she should have asked him to splint her horribly bruised wrist–broken? She didn’t think it was broken. Hairline, maybe. Frippin frapping wolf trappin’ bugger; if she could snap that trap on the trapper’s family jewels, that would be food for her psyche, right there.
It took her a moment to recognize the words coming out of her benefactor’s mouth. His voice was gentle but resonated with power, hinting of the man he would become. Kind of distracting, that. “We need to get moving. There might be people hunting me. Maybe just mundanes, but maybe shifters, even a vamcritter or two.”
She was instantly on her feet. Her arm, she decided, could wait. “Ug. But how can we move at any sort of speed? Neither a three legged starving wolfette nor a two legged starving wussy girl can cover all that much ground–” She stopped speaking, blushing to her hair roots. “Didn’t mean to denigrate either the quality or the quantity of the rescue you provided, okay?”
“Denigrated?” The heavy youngster scratched his head, bemused. “Whatever that means. Guess I sort of get it by the context. But…okay, we’ll find something to eat as soon as possible, and we have a ton to talk about–”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“–but no time for it now. You weigh, what, maybe eighty pounds?”
“On a good day. This hungry, probably closer to seventy.”
“Well, if I go in wolf form, you could ride me. Wait, that–”
“Came out wrong. I know. You can carry the weight? For a long distance? At speed?”
“Yes, yes, and yes. Not as a human, I couldn’t, but my gear converts to muscle when I shift.”
She sighed. “Must be a nice trick, that. Paps can do it. Bub can do it. But can pretty little me do it? No-o-o, I have to be a throwback, the curse of my dear departed mother’s line. And no splint for this wrist, either, if we’re that pushed for time. So,” her tone turned imperious, “shift already.”
Chilly shifted, then crouched low while Wolf Rider–well, I don’t have any other name for her yet–mounted his furry back. And…they were off. Minutes later, ghosting through the trees, his rider was off. He’d run her under a low branch, heard an “Ooof!” as the limb took the wind out of her in a rush.
“Don’t bother to shift back,” she snapped. “I let go and rode the stupid branch instead of the stupid wolf, okay? No harm, no foul, except for a few scratches on my good arm. Shall we try this again? I don’t mean to complain, you having saved my life and all, but Don Quixote’s donkey was probably a safer ride.”
Snippy brat, he thought. Fortunately, controlling his features was easier in wolf form than in human form, and wolves didn’t blush. You don’t have any idea of the danger we’re in. Not that he’d taken the time to explain, but still. Besides, traveling in broad daylight, forest cover or no forest cover, was frightening enough all by itself. If a stray Michigan hunter or trapper happened to notice a bare-armed, barefooted blonde girl in a sleeveless brown tunic riding an overly stocky wolf through the woods, who knew what might happen? Nothing good, though; he’d wager on that. Thankfully, a couple of silver linings did surface as the day wore on. For one thing, there was still plenty of water available for a traveling wolf who knew how to find it, so thirst was not an issue even though the girl did have to shuck out of her tunic before shifting and back into it after–wolves being able to safely drink nastier water than humans–providing a distraction Chilly really couldn’t afford if he wanted them both to live. Just as crucial, her weight didn’t bother him, not even after hours on the trail.
Trail. Yeah, right. If there was anything he was not doing now, it was following a trail. Game followed trails. Hunters followed trails. They’d follow scent and tracks, too, but game trails were alluring, addictive, sucker traps for the lazy and unwary. I might be lazy, given the chance, he thought, but I’m certainly wary enough. Or was he? In these circumstances, could a guy ever be wary enough?
It was nearly sundown when he selected a stopping point, a thick stand of brush-choked timber that provided excellent cover if nothing else. The girl made no complaint when he burrowed his way in deeply, first following a whitetail deer tunnel and then branching off to one side before deciding they were safe for the moment and shifting back to human form.
“Won’t be riding you in here, eh?”
“What?” His mind still on survival strategy, he hadn’t processed the question.
“Just making conversation. Sort of. Can we talk now?”
“Yeah. For a while. Once it’s full dark, I need to hunt.”
“Hunt? Why? And for that matter, what? Deer? Baby bunnies? What?”
Suddenly realizing he was dog tired, pun intended, he stared wearily at his undeniably pretty companion. “Cattle. A calf, probably, so no baby bunnies, but yes, probably a baby cow. I could smell the herd before we turned in here; they have to be pastured no more than half a mile ahead.”
Crossing her legs, which encouraged the tunic to cast intriguing shadows that made her somehow seem more naked than she had been when they first met, she looked at him thoughtfully. “Why?”
“Why?” He’d couldn’t believe she’d said that. “Why hunt? So you can eat. Duh.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Chilly blinked rapidly. “Not hungry? Well, maybe not, but you’re starving. You’re mostly skin and bones, curves notwithstanding. You know what happens to anorexic people?”
“They die?” Her tone was pure curiosity.
What the–? “Tell you what, kiddo, I do believe it’s time we got to know each other’s backstory, okay? I can tell you mine first. Basically, my Clan leader decided to attack a group of people in Montana who’d apparently pissed him off. He ordered an all-out attack against them. They cut us to ribbons. My family went down in the fight, all but me.”
“What?” Wolf Rider was playing with a grass stem, her brow furrowed. “This, um, Montana bunch? They were able to come out ahead of a full steam offensive? What are they, shifters too?”
“Some are shifters. Some are ordinary humans, seems like, but tough sonsabitches. Witches maybe, couldn’t say about that. I was told to stay back, watched from a distance. Didn’t see any sign of any vams, except on our side, and those all got dead.”
“They took out vams?!” Her blue eyes widened in incredulity.
“Sure did. Didn’t waste any time doing it, either. And they have a wizard. A slam bang Purple Fire wizard, no less.”
“Not. Anyway, I made it back to Clan headquarters on my own, clear from Montana to Michigan, and old Lord Heartbite decided to–”
“Wait!” Now she was staring at him, boring holes through his skull. “You’re part of the Heartbite Clan?”
“You’ve heard of it, apparently. But yeah. That is, I was, until Kraznick himself decided to try sort of soft-torturing and conning me into telling him everything I’d seen and heard. Plus, it became ugly clear that he was going to force witchery on me, and I knew that was a death sentence ’cause I can’t so much as draw a pentacle or ride a broom, you know? Or maybe the vam virus, which would be worse; the survival rate sucks, and it’s not a pretty way to die. So I split. I’m on the run. My dead Mom has warned me that other than physically, they can only track me through strong emotion. I had a serious burst of that when a naked girl showed up snuggled in my fur this morning, so they might have gotten a bead on our last location. I have to stay in balance, see? But…what do you know about Heartbite?”
“My turn to spill the beans?” Daylight was beginning to fade; the shadowed nest in which they rested provided only enough illumination to frame her pale hair, face, and arms, floating in the growing darkness. Darkness to human eyes, that is; shifting to wolf form would of course change that perspective.
“Your turn. In as much detail as you want; it won’t hurt to let the night settle in a bit before I steal one of the rancher’s calves.”
“Uh, about that….”
“What, you don’t eat meat?”
“Get real, woman. It should be easier in wolf form; I know it is for me.”
“Could you at least…cook it or something?”
“Cook–fine! I’ll fricking cook the baby cow, send the smell wafting out to any ranch dog or other pursuer on our trail. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll just cook the damned thing for you!”
“You’re shouting,” she said calmly. “Shouting doesn’t work with me.”
“I am not–okay, maybe I did raise my voice a little. Not enough to carry beyond these woods, but a little. I. Will. Cook. Your. Beef. For. You. Madame.”
“Thank you.” There was a sadness in the tone of her voice now. “You’re seeing why I’ve never been much of a werewolf. My name is Jewel Creachner.” She stuck her good hand out. He took it, shaking it gently, not knowing what else to do.
“Chilly Bronson, at your service. Apparently quite literally.”
“Yes. Well. The Creachner family goes back for thousands of years, or so they tell me. But my Mom died giving me birth, and while she was a shifter, she was old school. I apparently got the do-it-naked thing from her side of the family. Or at least that’s what Paps and Bub always beat into me, that I was a loser because I couldn’t master the shift-with-your gear thing. That’s a newer technique, you know. We old school nudie type shifters are dying out, kind of like Neanderthal man when the Cro Magnon came along. They called me that, too. Jewel the Neanderthal. Anyway, your Lord Heartbite–”
“–Whatever. He’s put out the word to other Clans. Says he’s perfected the Triple Way, so anybody who wants to join his group, even if they’re abandoning their former Clan, they’re welcome with him.”
“Whoa.” Chilly held up a hand. “Jewel, he has not mastered the triple fusing. It’s never been done. And the death rate among those who undertake even the usual doubling…it’s horrible.”
She chuckled, though there was no mirth in it. “Doesn’t surprise me. Besides, the Clans are, you know…Clans. Nobody jumps ship to change Clans; it just isn’t done. You become dead to your old Clan if you do, completely ostracized if you ever try to come back, and you’re not going to be trusted by your new Clan, either. You’re seen as a traitor from either side. And yet…and yet some are heeding Heartbite’s call. Paps and Bub didn’t like our Clan leadership much, down in South Carolina–”
“That’s where you’re from? South Carolina?”
“Yes. All my life, up until now. Anyway, they decided they’d head on out, join up with Heartbite. For the glory or something; I never could really understand why. Or maybe they think Heartbite is weak enough they can take over and Paps can become Clan Head himself; he’s egotistical enough for that, and whatever Paps says, Bub buys. Anyway, we’d been traveling hard for a long time. I lost track of the days, but many weeks. They never would quit traveling when I was too tired to go on, so I was usually trailing behind, following their scent. I was just plain too tired and stupid or that trap would never have gotten me.” She shuddered, cradling her injured wrist in her good hand. “Lucked out, though. We didn’t splint it, and then you tried to kill me with that low branch, and still it’s feeling a bit better than it did this morning. I’m guessing the bone is bruised but not broken. On, and I turned thirteen a moon or so ago.”
“That’s good,” Chilly breathed. “That’s really good.”
“That my wrist isn’t broken or that I’m thirteen?”
“The wrist, of course. And that you’re an older woman.” Oops. Did I really say that?!
“Ah. Call me a cougar and catch me some chow, then, eh? I’ll just catch up on my beauty rest while you’re gone.” She was lying about that last part, of course; Jewel knew full well she wouldn’t be sleeping a single wink while her Bronson wolfman was gone. Young or not, the kid was capable; she felt safe with him in a way she’d never once felt secure around either her father or her brother. Once he was gone from the nest, she removed her tunic and shifted carefully back into wolf form, settling down to wait, nostrils sniffing delicately, reading the olfactory newspaper of the night. She was lonely and afraid, but nothing like the previous night, the time in the trap. Mere inches from her front paws, a field mouse worked its way through the leaves and needles, blissfully unaware of the sharp fangs poised within snap-reach.
It was in no danger. She would become a vegan if her wolf body could sustain itself on anything other than meat in some form–red, white, or God forbid fish–which it could not. Once she dared use her wrist, she’d take over the cooking. She’d need to start watching how she spoke to Chilly, too. Her tongue had long served as her primary defense against her brother and even her father, but it was a dangerous weapon. She’d seen her man–okay, not that many years on him, but still a man for all of that–she’d seen him flinch when she sounded bossy. Lord knew she didn’t mean to do that, not with the man who’d saved her life. Mrs. Bronson, she thought. Jewel Bronson. It sounded a whole lot better than Creachner. He had a plan in mind; anyone could see that. He hadn’t shared it yet, but he had one, all right. Whatever it might be, she was going with him; where Mr. Bronson went, there the future Mrs. Bronson would be. Except for the hunt times, of course.
She watched the night and waited.