Wolf Bargain by Eden Beck

1

Sabrina

Dawn beginsto peer its pinkish face through the canopy of tree branches in the forest.

The night of the full moon is almost over and I have my eye on a deer that I’ve been tracking for the last hour. I never used to be much of a hunter, but ever since the full moon ritual, hunting seems to be one of several new things I’ve been drawn to.

I think I’m pretty good at it too … at least for a human.

Even for shifters, I’ve gotten good enough to give the boys a run for their money. I’m fairly silent prowling around the forest on my human feet, my toes searching out the soft spots in the fallen leaves and underbrush, and after much practice my aim has gotten better. In fact, it’s usually spot-on.

I stop in my tracks and scan the dim light beneath the trees.

When I see the deer again, I signal to the boys that it is in perfect sight.

True to Romulus’ word—or more like true to the word he’s prepared to break—everything has changed.

More than the promise of my turning, everything about my life with the Gray family has changed.

I’m truly one of them now. Or, at the very least, I know I will be soon.

The boys have been better about letting me come along with them to everything now. No more being asked to leave. No more protecting me from a safe distance.

No more leaving me behind.

And I, in turn, have left my old life behind. At least as much as I could.

I’d had enough to pretending to be something I wasn’t, of toeing the line between my old world and their new one. So, I started by dropping out of school.

No more pretending.

I was surprised when even Rory didn’t complain.

I think they all realized after what happened the last time, that they just couldn’t expect me to sit around and twiddle my thumbs while I waited for them to decide when it would be a good time to turn me. I wasn’t going to sit back and wait. I was going to do as much as I could with them until I could actually be one of them.

And even if they hadn’t realized it, I would have made them.

I’ve had enough of waiting for everyone else to do the right thing. I’ve made it clear over these last months that if they’re going to be with me, then they have to treat me like they want me.

Because for a while, even after they came back, I wasn’t sure if I wanted them.

Not with the way they treated me before.

Not if I was going to wake up every day and wonder if that was the day they decided to leave again.

I think, for me, it was watching and participating in the full moon ritual that was the tipping point. I had always known that I wanted to be with the boys, but I never really understood why. During that ceremony, the reason became much more clear. I still couldn’t really put it into words, it was more like a feeling that resonated within me … but it was so strong that it was practically seeping through my skin and into my very bones.

It was like when I first felt the bond.

That night, there under the eclipse of the full moon, I watched as their kind gathered and bathed in the light as it was drowned out. I watched them shift, then turn human again, their bodies quivering as they were unable to stop the change back—just like they usually were unable to fight the change from human into shifter.

It was … humbling.

It was terrifying.

But more than that, it was welcoming.

I was suddenly aware of the nakedness they felt at that moment, and I understood why all the packs had traveled to be together in that moment. It wasn’t to feel the strength of their numbers.

It was to feel weak, together.

And in that, there was a strange strength. Something, I wonder, if Remus’ pack not too far off in the adjoining forests felt as well.

I loved the boys even before the ritual, and I wanted to be with them more than anything in the world, but on top of that I also felt a need to be a part of this life. From the moment they introduced me to it, I knew this was where I was destined to be.

Where I am destined to be.

And now I stand on the precipice, or the ridge of my own transformation. I know, when it happens, I’ll feel weak. I’ll feel out of control.

But all I feel now … is the power. All I feel now is the strength.

I watch the deer in a silent stillness as I get ready to pull out my tag gun and shoot. But as I’m waiting, something appears at the edge of the thicket, something that looks more like a man than an animal.

Much to the surprise of both me and the deer, Marlowe comes stumbling out of the thicket in a frenzied, naked rush toward me. He looks as if he’s just shifted back into a human, and the wolfish adrenaline running through him hasn’t quite let go yet; which is made very apparent by the still-swollen and excited appendage hanging between his legs.

Marlowe rushes up to me and as soon as he is within arm’s reach, he grabs me and pulls me against him as he tries to put his mouth on mine to kiss me. It isn’t a soft, gentle kiss that lingers on my lips like the thrill after a good hunt; it’s an urgent, violent kiss that wants to push our bodies into each other out of a primal need as if we are the hunt.

I slide my hand up inside the tight space between us and put it onto Marlowe’s bare chest as I push him away. He stumbles back a step and looks at me with an aggrieved angst.

It takes me a second to catch my breath, but now that I’ve realized he isn’t here out of fear, chased by some giant creature in the woods, I’m feeling more than a little annoyance creep up.

“You might be finished with your hunt, but I’m not,” I say as I spot the deer again, glad that he hasn’t scared it off completely.

I aim and shoot at the deer and would have struck it dead-center, if it wasn’t for both Rory and Kaleb staggering out from the woods as well. All three are naked and full of pent-up sexual energy that is emanating from them so profusely that it almost gives the boys a visible aura of libido.

Once, that would have blinded me. I would have forgotten all else.

But now … now …

“Damn it,” I say as I see that the deer has disappeared from my sight, dashed off into the depths of the forest and out of reach. “I was close to getting that one.”

“Why are you so obsessed with tagging?” Kaleb asks, jogging to a halt at my side. He has to double over a moment to catch his own breath, and I think I see him trying to calm himself down, force his body back into submission at the sight of me. “It’s not like you’re going to rip into it with your teeth. That I could understand.”

I make a grunting noise at all of them as I push past Kaleb to try and hunt down where the deer disappeared to. Maybe there’s still a chance I can catch up.

Maybe it isn’t lost to me yet.

But Rory grabs me in his arms as I walk by and holds me tightly as he kisses the top of my head. Unlike Marlowe’s horny attempt to have me right here and now, Rory is trying to calm me down. I sometimes feel like he is the only one who actually gets why I’m so angry.

It’s not something I once expected. As the most levelheaded of the three, sometimes I wondered if he had emotions at all. But then, after that night when he nearly gave himself up as a sacrifice to his uncle, things just haven’t been quite the same.

Not for him.

Not for me.

“You’ve gotten a lot better at tracking over the past few months,” Rory says in admiration, his lips still pressed so close to my scalp that I can feel the heat of his breath on me. “I still wish you’d carry a real gun though, and not just a tracking gun.”

“Why?” I pout sarcastically. I’m still miffed over losing the deer.

Amongst other things.

“Because you might end up needing a real gun one day, in case one of us loses control or in case you run into a less-than-friendly wolf shifter out here in the forest.”

“Or in case you need to fight off Marlowe’s overly zealous cock,” Kaleb says, bursting out into a howl of laughter.

I roll my eyes so hard that it hurts.

“Once I am a shifter too, I won’t be carrying a real gun,” I say. “I won’t need to.”

“True,” Rory agrees. “But until then, I really wish you would.”

I stubbornly keep my gaze level with his as I put the tagging gun away at my side. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t back down … but neither do I.

Since the deer is gone and the boys’ time in wolf form is done for now, we all walk back toward the house together. At dinner, Lydia pulls out the laptop and shows everyone how many deer I’ve been tagging, and how we might finally be able to figure out what’s been going on with the local animals.

“As you all know, we’ve been running into migrating animals moving in unusual patterns over the last couple weeks,” Lydia says. “Rory was the first one to notice it, of course, and thanks to Sabrina here we might actually be able to make some sense of the change.”

Rory rocks back in his chair, arms stretching across the breadth of his chest.

“I don’t know why you bothered, Lydia,” he says. “It’s nothing. I never should’ve even mentioned it in the first place.”

I eye Rory out of the corner of my eyes.

“But it’s not for nothing,” Lydia says. “Because I think you were right to trust your instincts. I think something is going on.”

Despite the fact that they look like they’d rather be out doing literally anything else, all three boys lean forward a little to listen as Lydia continues.

I’ve tried explaining this to the boys before, but they’ve been too distracted to pay attention lately. At first, they were excited and enthusiastic about the newfound interest I took in their pack lives. But now that original enthusiasm has waned with time. Sometimes I think they’ve started to think I’m going overboard.

That I’m doing too much, spending too much time on my preparations.

And not enough time with them.

“Ever since the last full moon, an unusually high number of animals have been disappearing. But then last night, Romulus found one not too far from the cabin at the base of the hill, and this time, it wasn’t just out of place. It had been eviscerated. Attacked.”

Now all three of them—Rory, Marlowe, and Kaleb—straighten up in their seats.

“And it wasn’t the only one.”

Lydia glances my way and hesitates a moment before she pulls up the photo of a slaughtered herd. Deer lay, dead and bloodied, across the entire clearing out in front of the now-abandoned barn where I once first met the boys.

My stomach lurches, but I try not to let any of my revulsion show on my face.

“Your father and I have been trying to figure out who is responsible for all the carnage on the local herd, but as of yet, none of them have been able to track down the shifters responsible. Because, of course, that’s the only possible explanation.”

Rory’s hands flinch at his sides.

“Here, on our land? So close to the house?”

His breath catches. “How did we not sense them? We should have smelled them, seen their tracks sooner … something.”

Romulus’ face is white, but he keeps his face still. “I’m confident it won’t happen again. Whoever it is … they wouldn’t dare try again.”

“But you think I’ve tagged enough deer that we should be able to keep track of what’s happening to them? Or, at least, see if something like this might be about to happen again?” I ask.

Lydia’s eyes sparkle. “Exactly.”

“That’s pretty damn impressive actually,” Kaleb says, nudging me in congratulations. He tries to keep the look he gives me optimistic, but there’s a darkness hovering behind his smile.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I say as I try to shift the conversation away from myself. “Lydia is the one who made something out of it. You should tell them how it all works.” I give Lydia a look and she picks up on my feelings and launches into an explanation about the program to keep the guys’ attention away from me. I just want a quiet night tonight so that I can focus on the other things rolling through my mind.

The boys look at me as though I’m acting oddly quiet and they want to know why, but I just keep eating my pasta and looking at Lydia as she explains something convoluted about software systems until my eyes glaze over along with everyone else’s.

Several minutes later, suddenly Marlowe gets up from the table quickly and storms off toward his room with Kaleb right on his heels.

What was that about?

It takes me a second to shake myself back to my senses. I’ve zoned out, completely unaware of what’s been going on the last couple minutes. I look to Rory, who is eyeing me carefully from across the table, before he gets up and excuses himself as well.

It’s not like the boys for their roles to be reversed like this.

Rory should have been the one to storm off first, his temper once again getting the better of him.

I start to wonder what’s going on with them. It’s not like I was that upset in the woods today, not enough for them to have hurt feelings at least. I stubbornly refuse to follow the boys, instead staying downstairs to finish dinner and help Lydia clean up.

When we’re all done, I head toward one of the several libraries they have inside the house—to the nooks and crannies that have become my constant companion since the promise to turn me. If I’m going to be one of them, then I need to understand them.

If I’m going to do this, at long last, then I’m going to do it right.

I supposed I should have gone up to check on the boys, but they acted like they wanted some space, so I sit for some time in one of my favorite places in the house.

It’s been three months since Kaleb’s pack ceremony, and during that time I’d been delving into all the wolf-shifter culture I can get my hands on. I’ve stolen away here to my favorite oversized armchair inside my favorite corner of the library, right next to a smaller hearth than the one in the living room every chance I can get. I’ve been studying the books that detail how turning a human actually works and the books I could find that go into more description about the bond.

When that gets too heavy, too dense and complex, I dive into werewolf lore. Their mythology is far more intricate than the version humans have touched on. I find myself lost in it, spun into the stories that have shaped the shifter culture for centuries.

Basically, over the course of the long winter, I’ve been devouring any information that I can that pertains to this life that I’m about to embark on. I want to know all about it. I want to know everything. No matter how much I read, how much I learn, I just can’t get enough.

Aside from wanting practical knowledge about what’s going to happen to me, I also just find all of it completely fascinating. The lore surrounding the turning of a human into a werewolf is perhaps the most interesting. There are stories that tell about humans being turned by eating the meat of a wolf that had been mixed with that of a human, and others that mention being conceived under the light of the new moon, and even others that are as innocuous as eating certain herbs or drinking water that a wolf had stepped its paw into or touched its muzzle to.

If I had a choice in the matter, I would choose to drink the befouled water, or maybe crunch on some earthy roots and savory herbs while some magical moonlight ceremony is performed … but those are only myths with about as much truth to them as their human fairytale counterparts.

The actual turning ceremony is quite simple. Romulus has sat me down on several occasions to explain it, but that hasn’t stopped me from disappearing into the stories surrounding the truth. In all truth, however, it’s become increasingly difficult to discern between what is real and what is myth when so much I once thought to be make believe is now very much alive.

As I have many nights before this, I once again stay tucked inside the library late into the evening hours—well after everyone else in the house has gone to sleep.

It’s hours later when Romulus stumbles in on me, sitting here in the half-dark room lit by waning candlelight and chilled by the night air that creeps in through the cracks in the windowsill. The sight of me sends him reeling for a moment, but then he seems almost impressed.

“Bit of late reading, Sabrina?” he asks as he eyes the tall piles of books that I have stacked up around my little reading spot in the corner.

“Yeah,” I say, a blush rising in my cheeks as I glance around myself at the accumulated mess. “I just want to know all about everything.”

I pick up the book closest to me and hold it out, my eyes glowing as I look over the worn leather cover. “Everything,” I repeat.

Romulus chuckles.

All about everything?” he says. “That’s a pretty tall order of knowledge. No one knows all about everything.”

That’s true.

“Well, then I want to know about as much as I possibly can,” I say, amending my answer.

Romulus nods his head as if he’s influenced by what I’ve said. He takes a quick look around the room and walks over to the hearth to start a small fire inside it.

“What does your mother think about all of this?” Romulus asks as he stokes the beginnings of the flame.

Ugh, my mother.

I set the book down with a little too much gusto. I’ve spent the last few months here trying not to think about her.

“She’s too busy thinking about herself at the moment to care what I’m doing.”

Romulus glances over at me with a sideways stare.

“I doubt that’s true,” he says. “Haven’t you told her anything about your involvement with us?”

Maybe I would have if she wasn’t so concerned with her own involvement elsewhere.

“Define anything.”

“Sabrina, does she know that we’re wolf shifters?”

I don’t answer. The look on my face tells him everything he needs to know.

While he seems pleased at the fact that I haven’t betrayed their trust, he also seems a little wary. He nods his head in thought.

“Just be careful,” he says, “that you don’t lose touch of your old life so completely that there’s nothing left to hold on to after the transformation.”

He leaves me with that before I have the chance to answer.

And maybe that’s a good thing, because I’d hate to have to tell him it’s already too late.