The valiant old Nissan ran out of gas thirteen miles short of her destination. Renny would ponder the irony of that number some other time. Right now, she needed to run, and run fast.
She jumped from the car the minute it stopped moving, abandoning the vehicle on the shoulder of the two-lane highway. Before she reached the tree line, she was already tearing off her shirt, ignoring the chilly bite of the pre-spring March air. She threw the garment aside and immediately reached for the button of her jeans. She continued to hop forward as she struggled out of the confining denim, but the minute that last restriction fell away, she shifted.
Fur replaced skin, arms became forelegs. Between desperate breaths, humanity slid away, and in the place of the panicked woman, a sleek red wolf began to weave through the trunks of the trees.
Her claws dug through the lingering patches of wet, heavy snow and soft leaf litter to the soil of the forest floor, flinging small clumps of mud into the air in her wake. She needed to put as much distance as she could between herself and her pursuers. She might not have seen them on her tail from the highway, but it wouldn’t take much longer. They were the reason she hadn’t been able to stop for gas for the last couple of hours. They’d already chased her across two state lines and more than five hundred miles, and that was just this time. Somehow, she couldn’t picture them giving up now.
She didn’t bother to think about what she’d left behind on the roadside. If the pack caught up to her, it wouldn’t matter whether or not someone ransacked her car and stole all of her worldly possessions. She didn’t think she’d need a good book or many changes of clothes in the afterlife.
If there was such a thing. Frankly, Renny wasn’t all that anxious to find out.
Keeping her head down and her feet moving, she continued to track north and west from the roadside, calling up the map in her head to guide her in the right direction. The last road sign she’d seen had put the Snoqualmie Pass about twenty-five miles northwest by the highway. Heading directly north instead should put the town center of her destination somewhere in that thirteen-mile range, so she had to keep running. Just a little farther.
Alphaville, or die trying.
The town of Alpha, Washington, had shimmered like a mirage on her horizon for years now. As a pup, she’d heard stories—everyone heard stories—of the northwestern town founded and run by shifters as a haven for those of their kind with nowhere else to go. Wolves driven from their packs, bears with injuries and scars inflicted by careless hunters, lions who couldn’t control their shifts, leopards who needed to change their spots—they all went to Alpha, and they all, eventually, got better.
Surely a town like that could provide a safe haven to one small wolf with a teensy-tiny little stalker problem. Right?
Please, Goddess, let her be right.
Renny’s ears swiveled back and forth as she ran, their extra-large proportions helping to catch and funnel in the sounds of pursuit. And damn it, she thought she heard the first indications of it already. They’d found the car, and even if the muddy snow weren’t perfect for holding tracks, they knew she would have fled into the forest. That was what wolves did, after all.
She poured on another burst of speed, paws barely seeming to skim the cold ground as she flew toward sanctuary. Or what she prayed was sanctuary, anyway. If she was wrong, she wouldn’t live to regret it.
The first staccato bark confirmed her fears. One of her pursuers had picked up her scent trail and was alerting the others to the location. Now it was only a matter of time before they found her. All she could do was run and pray she made it to safety before they all caught up.
If just one came at her, she could handle it. In a fight between a lone wolf and a single coyote, the wolf almost always won, even a smaller and lighter red wolf like her. Which was why Geoffrey had sent five of them after her. No way could she beat those odds. Five trained male enforcers of any species against little ol’ her? She’d need to be a polar bear to survive that.
Branches snapped behind her, urging Renny to move even faster. If the coyotes on her tail weren’t worried about making noise, then they wouldn’t bother choosing a clear path to follow her. They’d plow through anything to take the straightest line right to her. Clearly, her nemesis had instructed them not to mess around anymore.
A sharp yip of anticipation gave her a single instant of warning, and that will to survive made her dip her shoulder and twist into a sharp right turn. She dove into the underbrush, ignoring the clumps of snow that plopped onto her head and the way the thorns ripped through her thick fur to scrape at the skin beneath. She could warm up and lick her wounds later, when she was safe.
If she managed to save herself at all.
The unexpected maneuver may have gained her a few inches of distance between herself and the lead coyote, but that didn’t last. She could feel the enforcers closing in again, harrying her as if she were some kind of prey animal, like a wounded deer on the way to becoming the pack’s next meal.
The comparison fit way too close for comfort.
She tried to calculate how far she’d traveled in the last frantic minutes, but all she could do was guess. Running flat out, she could probably manage thirty-five miles an hour, but she couldn’t keep it up for more than a few minutes. Already, burning muscles and oxygen-starved lungs begged her to drop down to something more reasonable. So where had her panicked flight left her in relation to shifter Shangri-la?
Not fricking close enough. If she was lucky, she’d covered eight of the thirteen miles between her and safety. Nine, if the Goddess happened to be looking out for her. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Then something changed.
A new smell cut through the atmosphere of pine needles and wet soil, rocks and wildlife. Something heavier, muskier. Male. Wolfish. Alpha. The realization almost made her slide to a terrified halt.
Shit. She’d just stumbled into someone else’s territory—another shifter’s, by the scent of it—and that could be either good for her or very, very bad. A wolf shifter might take her side against a pack of coyote goons, or he might decide to kill her himself for trespassing on his territory. There was no way to tell.
Maybe now would be a good time to dedicate herself to serving the Goddess and a life of prayer?
She sent one up, hastily but earnestly begging the Moon and all Her Sisters for a miracle. Something, anything to get her out of the reach of the coyotes, who would drag her back to Sawmill, California, and her death at Geoffrey Hilliard’s brutal hands.