Jonathan McKnight lost everything in Afghanistan. His left hand, his identical twin, his self-respect and his naive belief that good always triumphs over evil. Burdened by grief and guilt, he searches for redemption on a solo backpacking trip into the remote Sawatch Mountains of Colorado and discovers a secret tribe of shifters.River, the beautiful young shifter that rescues Jonathan has been promised to a man she despises. A man that does not desire her and only wants to use her to achieve his own political goals. Jonathan is more than a romantic rival. He’s a threat to those goals.The only way to save Jonathan’s life is for River to take him as her recruit.As Jonathan learns more about the horrors of River’s cult-like society, he becomes even more determined to escape it, until he learns that River is responsible for everything he does and will be executed if he succeeds.Escape is not an option—unless Jonathan can persuade River to leave with him. And if she refuses? Well, then, he’ll just have to kidnap her.
Eli stayed in his wolf form as long as possible, which wasn’t nearly long enough. His outsider clothes were buried under a ton of rubble. His own clothes were stowed in his pack on Old Red’s back. It was too cold to hike naked, but he had to shift back early enough to give his wolf’s scent a chance to fade before Old Red got a whiff of him. He was in no mood to deal with a belligerent horse.
What a fiasco. This was supposed to be a simple mission. Slip in, set the charge, slip out and wait for it to go boom. No witnesses, no casualties, no problems.
Everything was going fine until those two kids showed up. Letting an outsider see you in wolf form was a serious crime, but Eli’d thought he could stay hidden in the dark and scare them off with a few vicious growls. He hadn’t expected the boy to shine a light on him. And he sure as hell didn’t expect him to stand his ground, or knock him out with a rock. Outsiders were usually such cowards.
Eli rubbed the still growing lump on his forehead. How was he going to explain that? Or the fact that he’d miscalculated the amount of C-4 he needed to flood the mine? The blast was supposed to take advantage of a fault under Turquoise Lake, not blow up half the mountain. The council wanted it to look like a natural disaster, not a terrorist attack.
He needed to hole up and lick his wounds before reporting back to Jesse.
When he got to the spot where he’d tied Old Red to a tree, all he found was a broken rope. “Damn your sorry hide, Red!”
He knew he shouldn’t blame Old Red for bolting. That blast would have spooked even the calmest horse. It had stopped Eli’s heart, and he knew it was coming. He pressed his palms against his ears, but it didn’t help. What if the ringing never went away?
It took him half the night to find his horse and the rest of the night to make it back into New Eden. He was exhausted, in pain, and in no mood for a dressing down by his commanding officer. A couple of hours relaxing in a steam cave would go a long way towards restoring Eli’s spirit as well as his body.
The steam cave and cleansing pools were on the edge of Reuben’s territory. Technically, he should ask before entering, but Eli was family so he wasn’t exactly trespassing. Still, the last couple of time’s he’d run into Reuben, he’d been about as friendly as a wet cat. The man’s only mate was on bed rest until she whelped his pup so it was no wonder he was testy. He really needed to take another mate, or at least use a whore.
Eli tied Old Red to the hitching post with what was left of his rope, then stripped and stuffed his clothes back inside his pack. He ducked his head and crawled into the steam cave.
“Hey! Get outta here!”
Eli jerked his head up and banged it on the cavern’s ceiling. He mumbled a few choice swear words under his breath and rubbed the sore spot.
A skinny, adolescent female with waist-length black hair, tear-streaked cheeks and dark eyes glared at Eli. She scooted her butt across the stone bench and plastered herself against the back wall of the cavern. “Stay away from me.”
Damn, that wall had to be at least a hundred and ten degrees. “I’m not going to hurt you, kid. I just want to unwind a little.”
“Well, do it somewhere else.”
“This is the only steam cave within twenty miles—”
“Go back to your mountain. Use your own steam cave.”
So, she knew who he was…or at least that he was an heir of Sanctuary. “It’s too far.”
“Not my problem.”
She looked familiar, but Eli couldn’t quite place where he might have seen her. She had the golden, tanned skin of a surface dweller so there was no reason he should know her. No servant would dare speak to him with such disrespect but she was too young to be anyone’s concubine or mate. “I know your laws. As long as I remain unaroused—and believe me, that won’t be a problem—there’s no reason we can’t share the cave.”
“I’ll give you a reason, but you won’t like it.”
The little vixen was feisty. “How old are you, kid? And what’s your name?”
“Old enough to kick your ass. And none of your business.”
The girl’s hand moved so fast, it was a blur.
He didn’t even have time to duck. The rock hit him square in the chest. “Hey!”
Until last night, no one had dared throw anything at Eli. That was twice in twenty-four hours that someone had hit him with a rock.
“Get outta my cave!”
Feisty females were cute and entertaining. Belligerent, disrespectful of authority and rock-throwing brats were not. “This is not your cave and you need to watch your mouth little girl.”
“I’m not a little girl. I’m eighteen.”
Eighteen? Eli doubted it. She looked to be about fifteen, maybe sixteen at the most. But however old she was, she had a good arm. He’d come here to relax, not get pelted with rocks.
He held up both hands and backed towards the entrance. “Okay, okay. I can tell when I’m not welcome. See you around, kid.”
“Not if I can help it.”
She hurled another rock but Eli was expecting it, so he had time to duck. It whizzed past his ear and struck something behind him with a dull thud. Eli whirled around and nearly ran into Uncle Reuben.
He grabbed Eli’s arm with one hand and rubbed his bruised shoulder with the other. “What’s going on in here?”
Eli shrugged and twisted out of Reuben’s grasp. “It looks like you have a trespasser.”
The girl stood up and marched towards Eli. She was skinny and underdeveloped with narrow hips and small breasts but much older than he’d originally thought. Maybe she really was eighteen.
She shook her finger at him as if he were a wayward child. “You are the trespasser.”
Ordinarily, Eli wouldn’t have been attracted to her at all, but he hadn’t been with Aspen, or any other woman, for over a month. He couldn’t keep his body from responding to the naked girl any more than he could keep from breathing.
He turned his back to hide his predicament from the girl, but unfortunately, that meant he couldn’t hide it from Uncle Reuben.
Reuben growled and bared his teeth as he moved between Eli and the girl, guarding her. He’d given up half his power—as well as half his life expectancy—when he shared the gift of his wolf with Hannah. But he was still a one hundred twenty-year-old alpha, in his prime, and extremely dangerous.
Eli ducked his chin, but Reuben continued to growl. His eyes shifted from brown to amber.
Eli couldn’t keep from whimpering as he lowered his gaze and turned his head to the side, exposing his neck.
Reuben continued to glare at Eli as he spoke to the girl. “Get dressed and go home. I want to have a talk with this young pup.”
As soon as the girl left the steam cave, Reuben’s eyes returned to their normal shade of brown.
Eli waited until the girl disappeared from sight then jumped to his own defense.
“I just finished my mission. I was tired. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t know she was in there, I swear.”
“She threw a rock at me and told me to get out.”
Reuben nodded. “That sounds like River.”
The bands of anxiety around Eli's chest loosened, but he remained guarded. “I’m sorry.”
“I’ll bet you are. She has a good arm.”
Eli rubbed his chest. “You can say that again.”
“Looks like she wasn’t the first.”
“Your forehead?” Reuben picked his breeches up off the ground and stepped into them.
“Oh, that.” Eli touched the egg-sized bump and grimaced. He refused to admit that an outsider had gotten the best of him. Reuben had been an Enforcer for nearly a century. His interrogatory skills were legendary. He’d know if Eli was lying, but a half-truth might work. It would give him a chance to try out his story before he had to report to Jesse. “That happened during my mission to sabotage the McKnight Mine.”
“So, what do you think of her?”
“Are you attracted to River?”
“She’s a little young…”
“Who’s courting her?” Eli slid past Reuben and pulled his clothes out of his pack.
“What’d she do? Chuck a rock at her betrothed?” Eli relaxed a little as soon as he tugged his breeches on.
“River was never betrothed. I had a first stage courting contract on her, but annulled it last year.”
The girl must be the orphan Reuben claimed after her mother was executed for murder. At least he knew where she got her temper and violent disposition—and why Reuben changed his mind about taking her as a mate.
“You didn’t answer my question.” Reuben’s back and chest expanded as he pulled his tunic on over his head. The man could crush Eli like a fly if he were so inclined. “Are you attracted to River?”
This felt like a trap. “Why do you ask?”
“I love River as if she were my own daughter.”
“Then I would never—”
“I want you to court her.”
“Mother is choosing my alpha and beta mates.” Since he had no chance of claiming the woman he loved, he didn’t care who filled those highly coveted roles. As long as it wasn’t some hateful brat that thought it was okay to throw rocks at him.
“Did you see the brands over River’s heart?”
“No.” He’d been too busy looking at other parts of her. His heart belonged to Aspen, but he was still a man.
“River, daughter of Asher and Issachar’s daughter, has excellent bloodlines. Shula will approve the match.”
Using River’s full name was a low blow. Eli’s father was an unknown outsider so his own name—Eli, son of Zebulon’s daughter—was pathetically simple. Not only was he two generations removed from the only alpha in his line, it was on his mother’s side. “Asher and Issachar were both powerful alpha’s but they were surface dwellers.”
“What’s your point?” Reuben narrowed his eyes—his glowing amber eyes.
“No offense, Uncle Reuben.” Eli emphasized the word ‘Uncle’ to remind Reuben of their blood connection and took two steps back. “I only meant that River’s people have always been surface dwellers. She might not want to live inside Sanctuary.”
Reuben’s eyes returned to normal. “Then join us on the surface. You could spend more time with Paul.”
Eli swallowed around the lump in his throat and dropped his gaze, pretending to focus on the mindless task of lacing his vest. Reuben had called in every favor and sold half his herd to buy Paul—and Eli was grateful for it—but every time he heard his son call Reuben ‘Pa,’ it tied another knot in Eli’s gut. He did his best to stay as far away from Reuben’s ranch as possible.
Reuben tightened and tied the laces on his breeches. “Of course, I’d expect you to honor our agreement and maintain your relationship as his cousin.”
You expect too much. Eli clenched his jaw to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t want to offend Reuben. Hope stirred in Eli’s breast as he realized a way he might be able to work this situation to his advantage. Hope was a dangerous thing. He’d worked hard to eliminate it—but here it was again, clawing its way out of his chest, opening old wounds. “If I agree to court River, will you help me secure Aspen’s freedom?”
“She’s an omega now…a common whore.”
“Because of me!” Eli’s nails dug into the palms of his fisted hands. His body trembled. He could tell from the way his eyes burned that they were glowing. His wolf wanted out. “It’s my fault Aspen’s an omega.”
Reuben balanced on one foot, then the other as he pulled his boots on. “She was betrothed to Solomon when you trapped a wolf for her to merge with and then mated with her. What did you think would happen?”
“Solomon was her parent’s choice, not Aspen’s. We thought that once she was bound to me, Solomon wouldn’t want her. He already had an alpha and a beta. Aspen would have been his fifth mate, little more than a concubine. He never even tried to court her. Aspen begged me to help her. If I’d thought for even one moment that the council would rule against us, I never would have risked it.”
Eli couldn’t restore Aspen’s station. She would always be an omega. He couldn’t give her their son, but he might be able to restore at least a portion of her honor. And in the process, secure his own happiness. He tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. “I’ll take River as my alpha—if you give me Aspen as a concubine.”
“I was at your merge ceremony. You mated with two women, so I know you aren’t bound to Aspen.”
“I mated with four women.” In truth, Eli had only managed two, but Mother had paid the remaining two whores to swear that he’d taken them as well. It was all part of her campaign to promote Eli’s political career. A career he didn’t want. “And of course I didn’t bond with Aspen. Men don’t bond.”
“Then why are you so obsessed with her?”
“You don’t have to be bound to someone to love them.” Eli leaned against Red’s shoulder to maintain his balance as he pulled on his boots. He wasn’t nearly as agile as Reuben. “What’s the point of this interrogation?”
“Is there room in your heart for more than one woman?”
Eli closed his eyes and sighed. “I’ll provide for River and protect her, as I will all of my mates. I’ll sire as many children with her as she wants, but I won’t lie. River will be alpha in name only. Aspen will always have first place in my heart.”
“Would you be willing to take River as your alpha, even if she didn’t bond with you?”
“She won’t want me if she’s bound to someone else.”
“I don’t want her bound to anyone.”
“You want her to mate before she merges?” Surely not. That was a death sentence. It would shorten her life to that of an ordinary human.
“I want her to have the same freedom from bondage that you have.”
“That’s not possible.”
Reuben chuckled and slapped Eli’s back. He kept his hand on his shoulder and squeezed it until Eli grimaced and pulled away.
“Actually, it is. But you don’t need to know the particulars unless you agree to my terms.”
“No one must ever doubt that River is your alpha. Her children will inherit your birthright, even if they are sired by another man.”
At first, Eli was too stunned to speak. Why would such a demand be necessary? Women only mated with one man. Occasionally a poor widow might take another mate, but it was always as a last resort, when she couldn’t afford to feed her children.
“And most importantly, you will allow River to do whatever it takes to prevent bonding after she merges.”
“Are you saying that a woman can prevent bonding by mating with more than one man?” Such a thing had never occurred to Eli, but it made sense.
“You will allow River to remain on the surface, even if you decide to reside inside Sanctuary Mountain. And you will never physically punish her; nor will you allow anyone else to do so, even if it requires you take her place as proxy.”
Eli broke out in a cold sweat. River was headstrong and hot tempered. She was bound to commit at least one crime during their lifetime.
“What if I court River, but she doesn’t want to be my alpha?” River obviously didn’t like Eli anymore than he liked her. It wouldn’t be hard to insure her rejection.
“Then you have no promise.” Reuben smiled, but it was the predatory grin of his wolf. “I’m not a fool, Eli.”
Reuben had lost favor and political clout when he left Sanctuary Mountain to claim his recruit as his alpha mate, but that was over a hundred years ago. He was still Zebulon’s son and still a high-ranking enforcer. It was worth a shot, but Eli needed his own guarantee. “I’ll court River, but I won’t make her my alpha until after Aspen is released from the brothel.”
Reuben locked his gaze on Eli’s face. “Keep your paws off River until after she’s merged with her wolf.”
“Jesse is your superior officer, right?”
“I’ll have you transferred to my unit for the winter.”
“I don’t want any special favors.” Eli swallowed even though his mouth was suddenly dry. He didn’t want to spend the winter on the surface while Aspen was locked inside Sanctuary Mountain.
“It’s not a favor. I want to keep an eye on you while you’re courting River.”
Eli nodded. What choice did he have?
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