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Shifter Island (first two chapters)

 

 

Chapter One

The late summer breeze, unusually hot and dry for Montana, washed over me, bending the tall grass. Mixed with the scent of lavender and lilac, my father’s musky scent hit me, followed by the sound of his heavy footfalls. I’d shifted back to human after a run in the woods, and my skin still tingled; my wolf close to the surface.

Smiling, I sat up and turned toward him. “Hello, Father.”

The moment I saw his somber expression, my heart tumbled into my stomach. “What’s wrong?” Without waiting for an answer, I sprang to my feet and sent out my alpha heir power, trying to sense if anyone in the pack had been mortally injured or killed.

Nothing felt out of the ordinary, so why did he look so … stricken? “Father?”

He plastered on a fake smile, but the expression never touched his eyes. “The alpha king has called for you. It’s time.”

My gaze dropped to the stiff white paper in his hand. Embossed lettering danced on the page, moving in golden swirls, and there was no mistaking the logo: a capital A above an island, its snow-capped tip surrounded by rippling waves. We all knew that symbol at the top of the paper, an official declaration from the alpha king. I tried to steady my breathing while my heart made an attempt to escape my chest.

“Already?”

Swallowing the lump at the back of my throat, I blinked, determined not to cry. Tears were not befitting an alpha’s daughter. No one wanted a leader whose first instinct was emotion. I needed to be strong for me and my pack.

But before I could stop myself, words tumbled out: “I thought I had another year at home.”

“So did I,” my father said, his nostrils flaring. His eyes blazed with emotion. Was it fear? Rage? As quickly as I saw it, he reined it in. Of course, a shifter must control their feelings at all times lest they lose themselves to their animal instinct. “But you’re of age.”

He extended the letter as if he couldn’t stand to touch it any longer, and a sob formed in my throat.

These mountains, this blue sky, the trees covering our land … the pain of leaving home tore through me. I was born of this place, connected to the earth here like all of our pack. To go to Alpha Island, to leave my pack … the thought made my stomach churn. I wouldn’t be permitted to see or speak to anyone from home for four years, only letters—and only if I could find someone to bring them here, to the mortal realm where our pack was exiled. Judging by the frequency of visitors, the odds didn’t fall in my favor.

I yanked the paper from his hand, angry with the injustice of the system. “They don’t even like our clan. We all know it! I hate that we have to play by their rules.”

My father frowned at my outburst. “It is the way of the alpha, and our pack needs you to lead. Without training your magic, you won’t be ready to take over when I die.”

I grimaced, knowing the other option. Those who refused the summons to Alpha Island were sentenced to death, traitors to their pack and their alpha heir blood. One hundred percent not going to happen.

My father cleared his throat. “The pack will need a strong leader when I’m gone. You must train. Show the other packs we have sufficient power to deserve their respect.”

I wanted to protest or pout, but at nineteen winters old, and as the alpha’s daughter, I needed to act like I had my crap together.

So I took a deep breath, shoving my emotions away to deal with later, and nodded. “I’ll make Crescent Clan proud.”

He opened his arms, and it took me an awkward moment before I understood the gesture. My father was not one for unnecessary affection. He taught me to be strong, to never show weakness unless it served a purpose. While I struggled at times with adhering to his strict doctrine, having him fold me into a stiff hug meant this was a big deal for him. As his arms wrapped around me, I felt the lump in my throat grow. Peering up, I looked into his eyes, the same pale blue as mine—the only part of him I’d inherited. Only, my eyes burned with unshed tears while his glittered like crystal, hard and sharp.

“Do you wish you had a son?” I whispered.

He pushed my silver-white hair away from my face, shaking his head. “Never. You’ve been your mother’s greatest gift to me.”

Before I could blink them away this time, the tears spilled down my cheeks. I thought of the stories my father had told me about the woman who died giving birth to me and gave him a small smile. My father rarely talked about my mother. It must’ve upset him too much. I was the only piece left of her. My father’s commanders had urged him to take a breeding companion after her death and try to have a male heir, but he refused. It was just me. Me and Dad.

“Show them what you’re made of, Nai.” He bopped my chin, and just like that, I was brought back to my sparring lessons as a child. He’d said the same to me before every match.

Reaching up, I traced the white crescent moon, our clan’s alpha mark, on his forehead, and my fingers thrummed with energy. His link to our clan’s magic always gave me little zaps when I touched it. His mark was an exact match for the one on my head.

I needed to be strong like he’d raised me, regardless of the rumors about the other packs and the stories of what happened on Alpha Island, regardless of the fact that I wouldn’t see him for four years.

“Hold down the fort while I’m gone,” I said, pulling away. “I’ll be back before you know it—an alpha heir, ready to serve.” I saluted him with a silly grin, hoping to keep things light.

Pursing his lips, he cleared his throat. “Just be safe, Nai. The other heirs won’t like another Crescent Clan wolf on the island.”

I waved him off, feigning confidence I didn’t feel. “I’ll be fine.”

But we both knew the island was dangerous as were the trials.

We walked over the packed dirt path toward the main lodge together, and for the first time, my father checked his long stride and paced beside me, indicating we were equals. Members of the pack stopped what they were doing and tipped their heads in respect as we passed. I held my chin high, clutching the paper in my fist while pretending not to be nervous when all I felt was worming trepidation.

We rounded the corner of the log-style lodge that served as the pack’s headquarters, and I stumbled when I spotted four Alpha Academy guards wearing matching black shirts with the island symbol embroidered on the left side like some stupid fraternity. They stood beside a shiny black SUV.

I skittered to a stop, staring nearly open-mouthed at their hulking figures. Men didn’t grow this big unless they were dominants. All four of them stood well over six feet tall and wore black baseball caps. That was shady … especially if they were covering marks on their foreheads. They might even be from Midnight Pack. The thought sent fiery tendrils of anger through my chest. The ruling pack could bite me, but…

My pace slowed as I compared my fraying cutoffs and tank-top to their swanky threads. I didn’t need to arrive looking like a Montana farm girl even if I was one.

All of the guards stood as still as statues. None of them spoke as my dad and I approached.

“I need to leave now? Like, right this minute?” I mumbled under my breath, hoping I was wrong. My gaze dipped to my pale feet, the skin dusty all the way up to my ankles. Sadly, I wasn’t Cinderella; I wasn’t going to a ball, and those beefy dudes were definitely not my Fairy Godmother. An outfit change definitely wouldn’t hurt.

My father gave a curt nod, eyeing the guards with disdain. “Lona is packing your things and will be out shortly.”

Damn. Damn. Damn.

They should’ve given us a day at least. How was I going to say goodbye to Callie and Mack? They were out hunting and wouldn’t hear the news until I was long gone.

I huffed. “Fine.”

“Remember, your cousin is there,” Dad whispered. “He’ll be looking to expose your weaknesses.”

I grunted and shook my head at the unnecessary reminder. Nolan had always looked out for Nolan, except when he was chasing some female around like it was breeding season. His mother and my father didn’t speak after a falling out, but she still carried alpha blood, so she could technically take over the pack and so could her son.

“It’ll be fine,” I said, not wanting my dad to worry.

Lona came out the door with my worn duffle; the faded green bag was almost as big as her body. Tears tracked down her wrinkled face as she crossed the porch and descended the stairs.

“Lon.” I ran to my childhood nanny, a surge of protective instinct for the petite woman welling within. “We all knew this was coming. I’ll be fine.”

Apparently, “fine” was the word of the day.

She nodded, sniffling as she handed me my things. “They used to give notice—at least a couple weeks. I could’ve made a nice dinner…”

Lona displayed her love through food, and no one, including my father, complained about that. She was an amazing cook.

She pulled me in for a long hug, forcing me to drop the huge duffle I’d just taken. With her affection, the mixture of fear and sadness swelled within my chest, bubbling up into my throat. If I didn’t leave ASAP, I was one hundred percent going to bawl—in front of everyone. Through the bond, I could feel the clan approaching, and sure enough, when I spun toward the SUV, a Land Rover no less, the entire pack stood there, crowded in the grassy clearing among the old pickups and dirt bikes. As one, Crescent Clan all dropped to one knee, holding their right fists over their chests.

Something they’d only done for my father, in times of great respect.

I was totally going to lose my cool.

Swallowing hard, I bowed to my people. “It’ll be my honor to serve you.”

My father was the alpha link for our people’s magic; his fire magic could keep them alive in the bitter Montana cold. When he died, Crescent Pack’s link would transfer to me—if I graduated Alpha Island. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility or respect that came with being alpha, not yet. It was something that had to be earned.

My father leaned in and whispered into my ear. “Beware the alpha king and his heirs. All they want is to retain power, and they’ll stoop to anything to get it.”

As if I needed those reminders. Midnight Clan was the reason my pack was cast out from the magic realm into the mortal world. They were dirty, high mage suck-ups. I would never get involved with them. I gritted my teeth and nodded as fierce determination filled me.

I was the only child of the alpha of Crescent Clan. I’d go to the island and fight for my place, fight for my people, fight to keep our magic strong.

I hefted the canvas bag over my shoulder and marched toward the guards waiting to take me away. As I approached, I studied them. They looked identical. Legit. The four dudes were practically carbon copies of each other… quads, or whatever four people who looked exactly alike were called. Brothers? Obviously. Same height, build, even the same pinched expression of disgust, which their matchy-match sunglasses didn’t hide. What was their deal? They glowered as if I were the offensive one.

Yeah, I hate you too.

Their outfits designated them as royal guards to the king, and anything related to the Midnight Pack I hated with passion just out of principle.

Dark hair peeked out from beneath their caps as my gaze ran over their chiseled jaws and then to their muscled arms. Of course, they were beautiful. The assholes always were.

The closer I got, the more my ire rose until irritation prickled my skin, and I had to grit my teeth to keep from snapping at them. Who did they think they were? Sending four guards to collect me like a criminal! Nolan only had one. This was disrespect through and through.

Obviously, they weren’t too high on the food chain or they wouldn’t be here in the mortal realm escorting me. But why four? That wasn’t normal. Did they think I was a flight risk? I inhaled through my nose and growled when I smelled their dominance—all four of them. This close, their earthy musk blended, and the scent both burned the inside of my nose and lured me. At least one of them smelled really good, but I pressed that thought down and tried to ignore it.

One of them cocked his head to the side, the side of his mouth curled in what might be a conspiratorial smirk. He peeled away from his clone brothers and circled to the driver’s side. The one standing next to Driver Dude’s vacated space looked ready to explode with anger; his muscles were so taut. His nostrils flared, and he dropped his sunglasses just long enough to level me with a green-eyed vitriolic glower.

What the hell? How dare he challenge me on my land?

Punch him in the face? Or let it slide?

“Rage, stop,” the driver snapped and chucked a half-empty water bottle, hitting the one who glared at me square in the chest.

Dude didn’t move, just kept his evil glare fixed on me.

Hah! His actual name was Rage? How fitting.

The guard on his right bumped him with an elbow and then climbed into the passenger seat. After he closed the door, Rage stepped to the side and opened the rear passenger door while keeping his head turned toward my clan. Never look away from a threat … it was like he didn’t trust us.

He stood there, a silent sentinel, waiting for me to get into the car, and I growled. The final clone brother limped around the back before getting inside, favoring his right leg.

I took one last look at my father and Lon and the rest of my pack and nodded. There would be no big goodbye; it just wasn’t the way.

See you guys in four years … if I survive.

“I need to put my bag in the back,” I growled at Rage. “Especially if you expect me to sit between two of you brutes.” I circled my hand to encompass the big dudes already in the car. Why did I have to smash in with four giants?

One of them grunted, and the hatch rose, probably activated by Shotgun Dude.

I tossed my bag into the cargo area and then climbed in, sliding into the center of the leather bench seat, and then got smooshed into Clone #3 as Rage got in on the other side. He closed the door with a shoulder-check to my side that forced me to bump the mute dude on my left.

“Excuse you,” I growled at Rage, glaring at him from the corner of my eye.

Someone needed anger management.

He raised his eyebrows over his mirrored shades and said, “Oops.”

His deep voice was gravelly and did something weird to my insides. Not butterflies, definitely not butterflies. More like murder hornets.

As soon as the giant douche on my right settled into his seat, I popped him in the ribs with my elbow. “Oops,” I shot back.

“That’s enough,” Shotgun said.

The scent of leather and car freshener swirled in the vehicle, but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by eau de male wolf. The worst thing you could do to a dominant wolf like me was to trap her in a vehicle with a bunch of other dominants. I’d be lucky to get through this drive without ripping off someone’s head.

Ignoring my annoying escorts, I steeled my heart and leaned forward to stare out the window. My gaze landed solely on my father, but his stoic expression, combined with the knowledge he couldn’t see me, kept me from waving.

The engine of the SUV purred to life, so quiet compared to the rumbling old truck we owned, and I wondered if the disparity of wealth had anything to do with our pack’s banishment from the magic realm. I closed my eyes and rested my head against the back of the seat, feigning sleep.

Mother Mage, help me get through this drive without becoming a murderer.

With my eyes closed, I let my thoughts wander. What was I getting into? The magical vow my father took as a young teen before entering the island—decades ago—kept him from telling me exactly what to expect. I’d prepared my entire life for battle, propriety, and the way of the alpha. But having been banished from the shifter realm when I was just a baby, I didn’t have the advantage of knowing what lay beyond the veil. Pretty sure Amazon didn’t deliver there. Nerves churned and twisted my insides. If I puked, I’d definitely be aiming for Rage.

Driver Dude drove down the winding road, the only way in or out of Crescent Valley, while I drummed my fingers on my bare knees. The vehicle was clearly built for luxury, or at least, I’d heard such from the young men in my clan who dreamed of lavishness. But the pothole-ridden path was meant to discourage visitors, so I relaxed and let the movement rock me, lulling me into semi-lucidity.

As soon as we hit the paved street, my heart lurched.

“Have you eaten yet today, cub?” asked the brother who sat shotgun.

Rage, the grouchy one to my right, snorted. “She’s hardly a cub, Justice.”

Justice? Rage? What kind of names were these?

I ignored their domineering question and peeled my eyes open, staring at the heads of the two in front. Not really identical. Driver Dude’s hair was straight; only the ends curled around the collar of his shirt. But Shotgun’s hair was wavy—Shotgun, aka Justice. I glanced at the silent brother on my left, but he was staring out the window.

Forcing a dry swallow, I faced Rage.

The dark curls poking out from his cap strained against whatever product he’d used to try to tame it. His profile was like his personality, all hard angles … except for his lips. Blushing, I forced my attention down … to his neck, where his pulse feathered between tense muscles. His arms were jacked, the muscles curved and dipped, straining against the confines of his shirt. He clearly had a standing date with the gym. Probably where he burned off the steroids.

Driver Dude angled his head and muttered, “I don’t remember her name.”

Nice. I had Tweedledee, Tweedledum, Rage, and Justice as escorts. I hated to have a pity party so early on, but Why me? I let the thought bounce around my head and then realized it was useless. No one else could take my place. As much as I hated our system, I’d known this was coming. I just thought I had more time with my father and our pack.

“Who cares what her name is, Noble? Why does it matter if she’s hungry, Justice? She’s Crescent Clan.” Rage’s voice was more animal than human by the time he was done.

Oh, hell no.

“Fewer words, buddy. You’re annoying me.” I glared at the one named Rage and was rewarded with an absolute feral look.

Rage growled, his canines elongating.

What is his deal?

“Reel it in, Rage,” the brother on my left snapped, stretching his arm around my back to smack king d-bag on the arm. “If you shift in here, we’re all going with you.”

My mouth dried, but before I could contemplate the horror of five dominant wolves trapped in an SUV, the brother on my left poked me in the ribs.

“My brother asked you a question, and it’s rude not to answer. Have. You. Eaten?”

I knew they were brothers; they looked insanely too much alike.

“Well?” he demanded, his jaw snapping shut with a click.

“I’m not hungry,” I muttered, returning his glare. Not true, and my stomach promptly rumbled loudly, declaring my lie. Male wolves and their need to feed a female wolf was beyond sexist and annoying. I’d starve before accepting food from them. It was a move for power, and I wouldn’t play into it.

The brother to my left sighed, and I rolled my eyes to the roof of the car. My attention was captured by the knobs and buttons; I wondered what they all did. Was that a television screen? I was going to ignore these jerks all the way to the island!

The driver shook his head. “Listen, cub, I can’t bring a hungry wolf to the island. We have an hour drive before we hit civilization.”

A green and gold package landed in my lap.

“There’s a granola bar to tide you over,” Justice said from his shotgun seat.

Rage smacked Justice in the back of the head. “Why are you being nice to her? Let her starve.”

“Calm down.” Driver dude’s voice was softer than the others; he was clearly the voice of reason.

The brother to my left looked at the driver next. “Noble, would you like to offer her a refreshment as well?”

The driver’s hands clenched the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. “Piss off, Honor!”

Noble? Rage? Justice? Honor? What kind of freaking names were these?

I glared at Rage beside me and leaned into him. Placing the food bar in his lap, “Thanks for the offer, but I’ll decline—on all counts.”

The driver, Noble, chuckled. “I think this cub has claws.”

I liked them better when they were mute.

“What’s your name, cub?” Noble asked as he maneuvered around the potholes on the road leading out of town.

Oh, now they were going to be friendly?

I stared at my reflection in his glasses through the rearview mirror, wishing I could rip them off. “Not a cub.”

I was nineteen, and they couldn’t be a day older than twenty-one. Was this a joke?

“Then what?” Rage growled.

Alpha heir to you, buddy.” Might as well put these douchebags in their place right now. No island guard would talk down to me like this; I didn’t care how dominant they were.

All four of them laughed at that, and a blast of cold air hit me as the air conditioner came on. “Be nice, cub,” Justice growled. “Or the next four years will really suck for you.”

Was that a threat?

Fuming, I leaned forward and angled the vents away from me, blasting Rage and Honor with frigid air. How dare they?

Calm down, Nai. Don’t show weakness unless there’s a reason. Recalling my father’s teachings, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

“What’s with the names? You guys named after virtues or something?” I glared at Rage, who clearly wasn’t named after a virtue. More like his personality. But the others were Honor, Noble, Justice.

Justice grunted, but that was the only response I got.

“What’s your story?” Rage asked, his lip curling. “Didn’t Crescent Clan already send their heir last year?”

Nolan.

I tipped my chin up. “Nolan is the spare.”

Before Rage could reply, the Land Rover swerved, and I was thrown forward as Noble slammed on the brakes.

What the…?

“Get down! Rogues!” Noble snapped.

That one word sent ice water through my veins.

Rage grabbed my head and forced me down by the back of the neck so I could no longer see out the front windshield.

Patches of fur rippled down my arms as I tried to control my wolf. She wanted to come out now? With a snarl, I twisted and snapped at Rage’s wrist, fully intending to bite him. He yanked his hand back just in time, and I bolted upright, peering out the window. “Dammit!”

McCain and his crew.

Rogue wolves were akin to feral cats. They’d left their packs, usually forced out after repeated offenses. They had zero social skills and were more wolf than human. McCain was the worst. Stripped of pack and magic, he always wanted blood—the only way to steal the mage-bestowed magic running through our veins.

What the hell was Noble waiting for? A peace talk?

“Run him over!” I shouted.

McCain stood in the road with his scrappy pseudo-pack of six wolves, blocking our way.

“I … can’t,” Noble faltered. “It’s against wolf shifter law. They must strike first.”

Was he kidding? I chortled at the lunacy of his statement. “Screw the code! I’ve seen this guy gnaw the flesh off a grown man faster than a royal betrayal. Run the rogue over before we—”

A heavy thump on the roof stole my breath, and I froze. I longed to shift into my wolf form, but my wolf was shy in times of stress. A really lame trait to have as an alpha heir.

Spinning to my right, I stared at a fully shifted werewolf standing just outside our window.

“Noble, go!” Justice shouted from shotgun, and the more tolerable of the brothers gunned the gas.

A loud scraping sound grated across the metal above, reverberating through the car. I looked up to see three inches of werewolf claws piercing the ceiling.

Before I could formulate a course of action, Rage launched into me, his face connecting with my chest as he forced me down across Honor’s lap with a headbutt.

“Get off—” I grunted.

Rage rolled to the side, and I gaped in awe as he held a sleek black gun up to the roof of the car.

A small snapping noise rang out, a burst of light exiting the barrel with each silver bullet, followed by two more. Good thing they had silencers or all four of us would be deaf for the next hour. My ears just rang a little. 

A thud rocked the car as Noble plowed through the group of rogues, and a faint keening registered before it was gone.

My attention went from the holes in the roof to the giant dominant draped over me.

I blinked at him, and my lips parted.

Those eyes!

His glasses had come off, and my thoughts derailed as I stared. Fire danced across my skin, its heat soaking deep into my chest and melting my insides.

His startling green eyes, the color of spring grass, held me captive for one long breath. That warmth in my belly was not attraction. Nope. So, I pushed it down and reminded myself that this guy was an idiot … and an ass. But … I wasn’t prepared for how hot a total douche could be. Striking and unique seemed inadequate adjectives—

What the hell?

My nostrils flared, and I closed my mouth with a snap. His baseball cap had flown off in the scuffle, and peeking out from under his tousled hair, the outline of a full moon shimmered across the surface of his skin. The mark of Midnight royalty was on his forehead.

These weren’t regular guards. Of all the packs, they belonged to my sworn enemy.

Midnight.

 

Chapter Two

 

Snarling, I shoved at Rage, trying to wiggle the rest of my way out from underneath him.

“Get off me, Midnight!” I hissed.

I should have known it would be them. Of course, the alpha king would send Midnight Clan to retrieve me. To rub it in my face.

But royalty?

Sending one of their heirs—or four of them to be exact—that wasn’t done. Most clans had at least ten to twenty heirs to ensure someone would be bred strong enough to take over the pack when the alpha died. I didn’t know much about Midnight Pack other than they were the ones who drove our clan out of the magic lands. If the king sent his heirs to retrieve me, they must be distant spares, not even worthy enough to enroll in Alpha Academy.

His eyes widened as if I’d slapped him, and he growled back. “I said stay … down!” His gaze darted to my lips, and then he licked his own.

My mouth dried, and I blinked up at him stupidly.

“Hey, Rage,” Honor said, his voice drifting down to me from above. “We’re all good here. Safe and sound.” He cleared his throat. “Get off her so she can get off me. Please.”

I was basically lying in Honor’s lap.

Awkward.

Rage pushed up, his right arm caging me in on one side and his brother’s chest on the other.

My gaze bounced, trying to escape the dominant over me, and I sagged with relief when all I could see was the mangled ceiling … and Honor staring down at me.

He raised his brows, and I noted his eyes were hazel—not spring-grass green.

“You should sit up—and wipe the drool off your chin,” he said with a cheeky grin.

I shot up so fast my hair tumbled into my face as I bounced off Honor and smacked into Rage by accident.

This damn car was too small for these giants!

“Oww,” I muttered between clenched teeth, pushing my hair back.

Honor chuckled, and without thinking, I swung my right elbow back, twisting my body with the strike to give it extra power. I felt my elbow connect with his collarbone, and he released a muffled grunt, making me grin.

He deserved it, and it wasn’t anything more than I’d do with Mack when he was out of line.

A blur of brown hair flew into my face, and I came face-to-face with Rage once again.

Don’t hit my brother,” he snapped.

Sucking in a sharp breath, I tried to swallow as my retort caught in my throat. The other three spoke all at once.

“Ease up, Rage.”

“I’m fine,” Honor said.

“Give the cub a break,” Noble spoke from the driver’s seat. “She’s just asserting dominance.”

Justice managed to get out “Seriously, Rage—”

And then I lost it. “Get the hell out of my face unless you want to lose one of those pretty green eyes!”

I planted my hands on his chest, splayed out fingers over rock hard muscle, and then shoved him against the door with a snarl. Climbing onto my knees, I leaned forward—into his personal space. “The next time you decide to play alpha, remember which clan you belong to—and which one you don’t.” I shoved him one more time and added, “I don’t answer to you, so stop with the pissing match.”

My heart thrummed with adrenaline as my actions caught up to my consciousness.

Not smart, Nai.

Rage’s expression was pure murder. His eyes glowed orange, and I could feel how close his wolf was. A pelt of black fur swam down his arm before disappearing beneath his skin.

Forcing a tight smile, I smoothed his shirt. “Uh, so yeah, this car is small, and that … might’ve been a little more than necessary.”

I yanked my hands back, realizing that I was practically feeling him up. With my cheeks burning, I took my seat and fastened my belt.

The other three men all stared at me.

Closing my eyes to them, I tamped down the urge to run—not that there was anywhere to go.

“Maybe we should … uh … start over,” Noble said. “My name is Noble, from Midnight Clan.”

I blinked my eyes open.

Before I could ask, he pointed to the guy riding shotgun. “This is my brother Justice.” Then he pointed to the dude on my left. “And Honor.”

Yeah, I’d caught the names before, but I’d play along for nicety sake.

I turned to Rage. “Is your name really Rage?” Unsurprisingly, he curled his lip in a non-answer, so I glanced back to Honor. “Is it?”

Because if their mom named three of them after virtues and one after a vice—

“His name is Courage, but…” Noble faced forward and put the car in gear before merging back onto the road.

Shaking my head, I snorted and then muttered, “But clearly, Rage suits him better.”

Noble and Honor chuckled, and Justice grunted, but it wasn’t lost on me that none of them bothered to contradict me.

I continued playing nice. “I’m Nai.”

They all just nodded but stayed silent.

Awesome.

The next hour crawled.

The strain between me and three of the Virtue brothers waned—a little. At least enough for me to ask a few questions and listen in on their good-natured teasing. The other one, Rage, just sat next to me like a tightly-coiled snake ready to strike. I’d learned they’d been raised on the island and pried for more info.

“Do all three clans live on the island or just Midnight?” I asked. The magic lands were as big as the United States and host to all types of shifters and mages. But Alpha Island, where the school was, held the royal heirs of each line while they went through school. Yet, I wondered where the rest of the packs resided. I heard Midnight Pack held over a thousand wolves. Could they all live on one island? If so, how big was it?

Justice flattened his lips and shook his head. “Seriously, you don’t know this?”

“All of the wolf packs live on Alpha Island—except those from Crescent Clan and the rogues,” Noble interjected before his brother and I could start a fight.

I knew my father’s pack had been excommunicated for some reason, but I didn’t know whether our pack lived in the magic lands or on actual Alpha Island prior to being kicked out and forced to live among humans.

“Do any other shifters live there?” I heard a long time ago they all did.

“Alpha Island is for werewolves only,” Justice growled.

I frowned. “Yeah?”

From what my father was able to tell me, I’d learned the island, in the past, was for all royals whose magic allowed them to shapeshift. Not just werewolves.

“When did that happen again? That it became werewolves only?” I asked, pressing my luck.

“Do you always talk this much?” Rage growled, plugging his ears.

I ignored the idiot on my right, but when no one answered my previous question, I decided to try another vein.

“So, can you tell me anything about what happens at the school?” I tried to shift the conversation to different waters.

“Alpha Academy is guarded by high mage magic,” Honor said.

“And that magic binds you so you can’t reveal what happens while you’re there,” Noble said, wagging his brows at me in the rearview mirror. “It’s very secretive.”

“I knew about the binding.” Everyone did, but I was hoping maybe these dudes could give me a tiny bread crumb.

“If you knew, then why are you asking?” Justice groaned from the front seat.

Ugh, these douchebags were rude!

The hulking mass on my right moved, and the seat dipped, making me bump him.

“Sorry,” I muttered.

Sorry not sorry, jerk.

Tugging at the frayed hem of my cutoffs, I tried to pinpoint why I was feeling so irritated. Being a dominant female close to such dominant males from a rival clan … it had my wolf so riled I felt like crawling out of my skin.

I was done playing nice. New goal: ask as many annoying questions as possible, and see how long it would take to set Rage off again.

“My cousin didn’t get four Midnight Clan escorts. What gives?” Last year when Nolan left, they’d sent one skinny dude to pick him up. Was I seen as that much of a threat? Because if so, that was badass.

Rage muttered under his breath, unintelligible except for the explicative and the undercut strike punctuating his sentiment.

Noble, the peacemaker, shook his head and growled, “Rein it in, Rage.”

Justice suddenly turned in his seat to face me, meeting my eyes with his green gaze, identical to Rage’s. “We’re not the usual heir collection team. We received a summons to go pick up the heir from Crescent Clan today, and we follow orders without question, understand?”

Huh. Why would someone from the academy want the A-team picking me up?

“Sure, I understand English just fine. Thanks for asking.” I ignored his huff and laid on another question. “Who sent the summons?”

That adage about curiosity killing the cat had no bearing on wolves. I was as curious as they came and not afraid of death.

Rage grabbed his ears. “Holy mage, woman, do you ever stop talking?”

What a baby! The last time I’d covered my ears like that was when I was five. Maybe he had issues; like eating paint chips as a kid or wasn’t loved by his mother enough. Whatever it was, it wasn’t my problem. With the sweetest smile I could muster, I pried one of his meaty fists away from his head.

“Nope.” I popped the “p” and let go of his hand. Every single wolf in the car grinned—well, almost everyone.

“I like her,” Noble declared.

Justice spoke up from the front seat: “Well, don’t. She’s not in our pack.”

I crossed my arms, secretly grateful for the reminder. I couldn’t let my guard down. “Damn straight, and I’ll never forget Midnight’s betrayal.”

All four of their eyebrows furrowed. “OUR betrayal?”

Rage grinned for the first time, and holy-mage-of-everything-beautiful, he just got hotter.

Bastard.

“She’s been lied to.” Rage shook his head, and his voice held a bit of pity.

My vision turned crimson, and I gasped. “Have not! The king ordered your clan to attack. They murdered half of my pack, including my uncle, before casting the rest of us out—and for what? No solid reason was ever given!”

My wolf pounded against my skin, demanding to be freed. Whose bright idea was it to put us all together in one small space? And why was my wolf so anxious to come out here and now? Maybe someone was trying to get me killed.

“Nai.” Honor patted my thigh tenderly as he spoke, and Rage’s gaze flicked to his hand, nostrils flaring. “Your uncle was convicted of a high crime by the High Mage Council. Our alpha was merely following orders from them.”

Shock ripped through me, and my mind blanked. High crime? There’s no way anyone in my pack would deliberately offend the high mages…

Dad never told me what his brother had done, just that it had brought trouble to our pack. He would’ve told me if it was a high crime though … right? The five high mages ruled everything, both in the mortal realm as well as that of the magic one. Most of the time, they left our kind, werewolves, alone to be governed by the alpha king. Even so, we all knew no one, including the alpha king, could refuse an order from the high mages.

The fact that my uncle committed a high crime couldn’t be true. They had to be lying—of course they were lying. This was Midnight clan. I wouldn’t let them drive a wedge between me and my dad, let alone my clan.

Nice try.

“Whatever. You’re the ones who’ve been lied to.” I crossed my arms and fell silent.

Damn, this ride was boring and never-ending. I leaned forward and glanced at the clock. Ten minutes? Ugh. Better keep on with my questioning.

“So, what are your jobs on the island? Let me guess. Security?” If they were last in line for the throne among ten or twenty siblings, they wouldn’t even go to school. They’d just be used for cushy jobs around the alpha king like security, war advisor, or breeding companion to females of good lineage.

Useless, basically.

All four boys shared a look I couldn’t interpret.

“Something like that,” Justice said, and the car went quiet.

The Virtues carried on between themselves, talking about random guy crap, and I tuned them out, resting my head against the back of the seat once again. I did my best to ignore Rage too. But that was easier said than done. Every time he moved, the seat dipped, and I slid into him. Eighteen times in sixty minutes, but who was counting. The guy must have werewolf ADHD.

I must’ve dozed off. One minute, my eyes were closed and my head against the leather headrest; and the next thing I knew, I jerked awake, all nuzzled up to the most lickable-male a she-wolf could hope to mate with. If said male wasn’t a member of the most traitorous clan in the world.

Oh. My. Flippin’. Mage.

I inhaled and nearly moaned before thinking. My mouth watered, and my wolf wanted to see if Rage tasted as good as he smelled. This wasn’t right. Rival packs were supposed to smell revolting. Not this bottle of pheromone yum.

My wolf and I needed to get on the same page—pronto. I yanked my head off of his shoulder and murmured, “Mmffttstff … sorry.”

Yikes.

I turned the color of a tomato but bit my tongue. The end of my incoherent babble was an apology, so it should count.

He looked down at me, and heat pooled in my abdomen.

No.

With a stony expression that could cut diamonds, he said, “No worries. This isn’t the first time a girl’s fallen asleep on me.”

My cheeks burned as his brothers chuckled.

“Won’t be the last.” Justice reached out for a fist bump, and I smacked his hand out of the way.

“Grow up,” I snapped. “You’re more likely to put a girl to sleep out of boredom—not exhaustion.”

“She’s like the sister we never had,” Noble declared, laughing as he pulled the car into a canopy of trees.

“Eww.” I crossed my arms. “I’d rather die.”

I sat up straighter. This wasn’t just any canopy of trees. An iridescent shimmer flickered within the opening, and anxiety tightened my gut.

This was the portal to the magic lands.

“Five dollars says she pukes,” Justice said, narrowing his eyes. “The weak ones always do.”

I flipped him off. Glare away, pretty boys. I was not going to puke.

The car crept forward, and a rainbow mist appeared between the trees.

My anxiety gave way to excitement, and the feeling thrummed through me. I squealed, bouncing up and down in my seat like a lunatic. “It’s the portal! It’s real.”

As soon as I realized we weren’t moving, I glanced at the guys—who were all staring at me.

Honor’s frown was filled with pity. “You really have been stuck in the human world your whole life, huh?”

Bless his heart.

“Yeah, because of your Al—”

Rage clamped a hand around my mouth. “Stop talking.”

Rage was too manhandly for my liking. He needed to be taught a lesson. Wrenching away from his hand, I then reached up and clamped my hand over his mouth with a sneer.

Oops.

His lips were still parted, and the second his tongue hit my skin, an electric current zipped up my spine. My thoughts fritzed—gone. What had I been saying?

I’d forgotten what I’d been doing.

Why did he lick me?

Oh yeah.

“Doesn’t feel so nice, does it?” I asked, ripping my hand away.

Ugh. Why did my voice sound so breathy?

Rage’s green eyes were wide, mirroring my shock. He swallowed hard, but his rough voice held a note of warning. “I meant for you to stop talking … so you can focus.” He swallowed again. “Or you could be ripped in two.”

What the what?

My eyes bugged. How did my father not cover that in his brief chat on portals? “How do I not get ripped in two? That seems like something important you should tell me.”

“Just calm down and focus on your breathing,” Honor shared with a snicker, and I suddenly felt like I was going to faint.

Noble reached back toward me. “Alpha Island invitation.”

Oh, the swirly thing my father had handed me this morning. Was that a part of this portal process?

I pulled it out of my back pocket and unfolded the paper. Noble then looked at Rage. “Crescent Clan heir summons.”

Rage held another thick piece of paper out to his brother, and I craned my neck to try and read it. Too late. All I saw were more magical swirly letters and the same embossed emblem.

Noble rolled down the window.

“What’s next—? Whoa!” I stared opened-mouthed as a man materialized out of freaking nowhere. Boom. One second, nothing; and the next, the guy was ten feet in front of the car … floating in the air. I looked closer. Not a man. A high mage.

My body froze and skin tingled. I’d never seen one before.

Honor tapped my chin. “It’s rude to stare.”

Holy crap.

I shrank down, half-hiding my face in Rage’s arm but also keeping one eye out to see the race who ruled us all.

Pretty much … scary as hell. At least, I couldn’t imagine anyone more so.

The high mage was close to seven feet tall, thin and wiry, wearing dark robes with swirling galaxies of stars that moved on the cloak. He didn’t walk so much as float, and the closer he got, the more his presence crawled through the car. The air charged with electricity, and I had to tamp down my fear. His eyes were the most unsettling because … eyes shouldn’t look like that. Like his robes, his eyes were dark with small universes swirling in slow circles within. My legs went weak. I wanted to ask about them, but I also wanted to live, so I kept my questions to myself.

His gaze flickered to the papers held before him.

“Another heir from Crescent?” The mage’s voice sounded like a blend of French horn and wind chimes. More contrasts that were freaky when put together.

“Unfortunately,” Rage offered, making the high mage grin, “Rules are rules. If the council sends the summons, we’ll respectfully fetch.”

I didn’t know Rage well, but that sounded like sarcasm, and I didn’t appreciate the dog reference.

“Their last heir, sir.” Noble looked slightly less terrified than I felt.

“Well, thank goodness for that.” The high mage pinned me with a glare, and I dropped my gaze to Rage’s knees.

I could feel the galaxy dude looking at me, assessing me like spiders crawling over my body. Was that magic? It felt like he was touching me, and my wolf didn’t like it. I could feel her cowering. Breathing in deeply through my nose, I felt my wolf suddenly lurch to the surface.

Now?

I’d struggled with control over my wolf form since I was a young pup. In a fight, when instinct should take over, my wolf mostly stayed inside, so I was forced to fight in my human form. Other times, like this, she was too eager to come to the surface. She had it backward … and was wildly unpredictable.

She was not happy.

A small patch of fur bristled on the top of my hand, and Rage immediately reached out and clamped down on it. The contact was so sudden that it stopped my shift. Clutching my fist firmly in his, he pressed against me and nodded to the high mage.

“All set?” Rage’s voice held something I couldn’t place.

Protection?

I felt the high mage’s energy leave the car then, no longer creeping over my skin and stirring my wolf.

“Go ahead.” The high mage handed the papers back, and the portal started to swirl—like a rainbow inside of a washing machine. Then, he disappeared. Poof.

Gone.

I let out the breath I’d been holding. And Rage released my hand.

Their last heir, sir,” Justice teased, mocking Noble’s voice far too well.

“Screw you, dude. They legit give me nightmares. I heard a high mage could make it so you shoot blanks—or even that you couldn’t get it up—”

“You can come out of my armpit now,” Rage muttered, shoving his elbow into my side.

Blushing, I straightened, not realizing until now how much I’d tucked into him. “What? I was … looking for my earring.”

I didn’t even have pierced ears.

A sly grin played at the edges of his mouth. “Mmm-hmm.”

Noble threw the car in drive and, as we inched forward, glanced at me through the rearview mirror. “No more talking. Focus on your breath. Got it?”

“Wait, I—”

He gunned the gas, and the tires squealed as the car beelined for the shimmering portal.

Blessed High Mage Council, don’t let me die.

As my breathing grew short and shallow, I pinched my eyes shut and then opened them because I didn’t want to miss a thing. I was going to Alpha Island, to the magic lands. Going through a portal. This was epic even if I was about to die.

The car got closer, and I sucked in my breath, tensing my thighs with an iron grip.

Rage reached over, grabbed my forearms, and slid his hands down to mine, stroking my skin.

Holy mage

Threading our fingers together, he leaned into me and whispered, “Relax.”

Everything inside of me melted. That voice was almost as good as his lickable-pheromone-yumminess. Any witty response I might’ve had evaporated as we entered the rainbow washing machine.

The entire car lit up like the aurora borealis, colors splashing across the seats, ceiling, and walls. Not to mention me and the quads. With a flash of agony, my vision turned white as it felt like my skin was ripped away. My stomach flipped, but Rage’s grip on my fingers clamped down, keeping me steady. When I thought I couldn’t take the feeling of being spun any longer, the car shot out of the portal and to the other side. Rage dropped my hands as quickly as he’d grabbed them, and like a mist of cool water on a hot day, relief washed over me, followed by a sense of rightness. I took a deep breath, but my smile faded as I looked out the window.

What the heck? Where was the magic?

I blinked and shook my head. Staring at the trees, I nudged Rage with my elbow. “It looks exactly the same as before we went through the veil.”

Rage grunted. “What did you expect? Faeries?”

Well, clearly the hand holding was to keep me alive, not because he enjoyed my presence.

“You okay?” Noble asked.

I nodded. “Never better. I think someone owes you money, right?”

He grinned and held his hand out to Justice. “A fiver, please.”

“Is this seriously happening right now?” Justice groaned. “She’s like the scrawniest wolf ever. How did she not puke?”

I looked at Noble, and he winked.

Hah! I had an ally in these brothers.

Now that we were in the magic lands, that meant we’d be to Alpha Island shortly and then on Academy grounds … an academy I knew nothing about.

“So … first day of school…” I said, tipping my chin high. “Do I get one of those Alpha Academy shirts like you guys?”

Justice just growled at me.

Clearly, he was a poor loser. Note to self: don’t be on Justice’s team.

Noble shot me a look of pity, and my confidence disappeared as fast as it had come. “Yeah … about that. I think you’ll find things here on the island are a bit more formal than what you are used to.”

Rage’s gaze went to the hem of my cut-off shorts. I played with the frayed ends and shrugged. I didn’t do formal; I was from Montana. When I wasn’t training with my father, I milked goats and lay in the cornfields with Callie and Mack, talking about pack stuff. Not a single dress in my entire wardrobe.

I was about to ask another question when we drove up to a normalish quaint town that resembled something out of a Harry Potter movie. Over the next ten minutes, I inched closer and closer to the window on my right, not because Rage smelled good but the view was better. I think.

A red barn stood on a hilltop, and my jaw unhinged as I stared out the window at a huge black bear, ignoring Rage’s groan of frustration.

“Holy crap, is that a shifter or a regular bear?” I pressed my face to the glass, ignoring Rage as he pushed me back.

As if answering my question, the bear started to contort and shift, losing fur and mass until he was a naked male staring out at our passing car with stony eyes. My cheeks went red as I averted my gaze.

“Listen, if you want to keep your head attached, don’t stare at them,” Rage said. “Bear shifters have nasty tempers.”

I had no idea if he was joking or lying, so I reeled back and took it in with the buffer zone he provided.

I’d only ever grown up around wolf shifters, but my father said there were bird, seal, panther, bear, coyote, deer, and countless others living in the magic lands. Along with the mages…

The mages had nothing on humans, numbers-wise, but a mage lived anywhere from two to ten times longer than humans. A couple thousand mages could do a lot of damage in a mortal war—which was why they mostly stayed here, in the magic lands with the shifters.

Whether shifter or mage, all magical creatures were ordered to stay in the magic lands unless given permission to leave or were exiled, sometimes with their power stripped.

The Crescent Clan’s exile was instituted by the alpha king, confining us to a few hundred acres and limited access to town. If we did anything in Montana without the alpha king’s approval, there could be hell to pay. Thankfully, Amazon delivered. Eventually.

“Are there really fifty different kinds of shifter?” I asked Noble now that we were buddies. Why did everyone else need a throat punch? Maybe they didn’t. A lobotomy might work instead. But in either case, I was saved by the noble Noble.

He nodded. “But the high mages, alpha wolf shifters, and vampires are the most powerful.”

My blood ran cold. Vampires?

“I … I thought all the vampires died out in the last war?” I hated that my voice shook a little.

A creature that sucked blood from your veins to become more powerful? A shiver ran down my spine. Nightmareville.

Rage groaned and shoved his fingers into his ears.

Legit baby.

“Someone forgot their happy pills this morning,” I muttered. “Maybe you should see a healing mage for that. Or get therapy for life skills.”

He glared at me, and I glared back, unwavering. Take that, bully.

Breaking my glare-off with Rage, I turned as Honor said: “A few vampire nobility are still around, but they live off in the cliffs and don’t come to the island.”

Thank the mages for that!

“We’re here.” Noble pulled the car into a parking space, and I looked up to see a ferry sitting on a shore of deep blue water that lapped onto a black sandy beach—just like the colors of the night sky.

Whoa. Is that…?

Just beyond the misty shore loomed Alpha Island. From here, all I could see was the highest tip of the snow-covered mountain in the center of the island.

Without another word, Justice grabbed my duffle while Rage hooked a hand under my armpit, and then I was being hauled toward the boat like a criminal.

“Hey! What’s with the manhandling? I’m a willing participant here.” I jerked away from him.

He tucked close to me. “I don’t want you getting scared and running off. I have a package to deliver.”

I’m a package now? Great.

I stepped onto the boat while the boys chatted up the mage captain. He wore a long thick cloak and bore the mark of a mage on his forehead. The triangle with a single dot inside always fascinated me. I’d only met a handful of lower-level mages in my life, ones who came to trade on our farm, but they all bore this mark.

The man was tall and lanky as most mages were, but this one looked more powerful than a simple boat captain should. There was intelligence in his deep brown gaze, one that washed over me and gave me chills. The mages had a hierarchy: novice, adept, advanced, master, and then, of course, high mage, but there were only five of those in existence at any given time. I didn’t understand it much, but if I had to guess, I’d say this guy was advanced or master.

He stepped over to me, pulling a small, black palm stone from his cloak.

“Summons.” He held his hand out to Rage.

Rage produced the papers once again as my heart kicked up about a hundred notches. Any time someone asked for that summons, weird things happened.

His gaze bored into me. “Nai of Crescent Clan. Alpha heir?”

“Yes, sir.” I gulped. Hey, I wasn’t about to piss off an advanced magic-user. My own magic was piddly-diddly compared to this guy. As a wolf heir, we only had access to one of the elemental magics: usually earth or fire, and only once we went to Alpha Academy and learned to use it, but this guy … he could probably turn me into a toad.

He held out his palm, facing up, and the black stone began to glow.

“Upon entering this island, you are magically bound from speaking about your experiences at Alpha Academy. Do you accept?”

The hairs raised on my arms, and I swallowed hard.

This was it. This was the magical binding everyone talked about. For some reason, I looked at Rage as if asking his permission, which was stupid. He simply gave a curt nod, and my gaze flicked back to the advanced mage.

“I accept.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Then, touch the stone.”

Oh. Right.

I took a breath and steeled myself, reaching out to lay my hand over the stone. The second my skin touched the cool black surface, an electric jolt ran the length of my arm, exploding at my shoulder blade. I yanked my hand back with a yelp and grimaced at the mage.

Oww. He could have warned me.

“Interesting.” He narrowed his gaze at me.

Justice griped, “Come on, you big baby. I want to get back in time for dinner.”

Interesting? Why did the mage say that? Interesting meant strange, and I didn’t need to be any more strange than I already was—or am. Before I could dwell further on it, I was shuffled onto the boat.

After a few moments, the boat took off from the dock, and I gripped the sides, peering over into the water at something black swirling in its depths.

“Selkies. Don’t make eye contact, or they might sing for us,” Noble said. “They’re still pissed about Shifter Island becoming Alpha Island.”

So, what my father told me was true. Of course, they were pissed. The alpha king kicked out all other shifter species from the island and claimed it for wolves only. This forced other shifters to the fringe areas of the magic lands to mingle with the mage folk and live in less desirable conditions. I wanted to tell him being driven from your home sucked, but the consequence of dealing with Rage and Justice’s tempers and/or sarcasm was one hundred percent not worth it. Also, I’d heard selkies’ songs could be dangerous, so he was right.

Twenty minutes later, we approached the white crystalline beaches of Alpha Island. A shimmering iridescent barrier hugged the shoreline, stretching as far up and over the horizon as I could see. Nerves churned in my gut as I saw the group of guards standing with their spines erect, each one carrying at least two katana swords.

“Wow, they really guard this place,” I mentioned when Rage stood, and I knew from his furrowed brow and tight jaw that something was wrong. The other three Midnight brothers stood as well, and suddenly, I felt like hiding.

As the captain pulled the boat up to the group, over a dozen guards, all huge beefcakes nearly as large as Rage, stormed onto the boat.

“Prince Courage! Your uncle has been very concerned. The island has been on lockdown all day. Where have you been?”

The guard’s words registered and then rattled my brain like an electric fence.

Prince Courage. Rage. Rage was … a prince…

“Oh, mystic mages.” I facepalmed. The four brothers of Midnight, they weren’t distant heirs of the alpha king. No one carried the title prince unless they were directly in line to the throne. They were the heirs. But uncle? That meant the king had no children, fascinating considering how valuable heirs were. Maybe he was sterile.

Rage’s brow furrowed, and he handed beefcake the summons he’d shown the high mage earlier. “We were following orders to fetch an alpha heir. Surely, my uncle knew that, considering he signed the summons.”

That’s when Captain Beefcake took one long glance at me, and his lip curled. “Who are you?”

I raised my eyebrows and pointed at the paper in his hand. “Nai, alpha heir to Crescent Clan.”

The dude frowned, his gaze bouncing from the summons to me. “Is this a joke?”

I looked at each of the brothers, but none of them were laughing. I wasn’t laughing. Beefcake dude wasn’t laughing. Not even the captain was laughing. “I’m pretty sure it’s not,” I said dryly.

Like 99.6% sure. What in the name of the high mages was going on?

A deep crease appeared between his eyebrows. I was 99.7% sure he didn’t think I was funny.

“We have a problem.” He shoved the paper back toward Rage. “The king didn’t sign this; it’s counterfeit. We’d better go talk to your uncle.”

My stomach dropped. Counterfeit? How did he know that? And why did I feel like I was to blame?

I glanced at the four brothers, my attention bouncing from one to the next. All four of them wore similar expressions, making my situation clear as Arkansas crystal. Hello there, trouble, we meet again.

With every step, that one word replayed in my mind.

Counterfeit.

If the king didn’t send for me … who did?

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