Noah heard the crunch of tires on gravel outside only because that morning’s migraine had silenced his mp3 player, which he’d shoved into a dresser drawer. He’d maxed out his meds for the day. The worst of his blinding headache was gone so music wouldn’t have been painful, but after his sick agony earlier, the quiet soothed him. Hunched over his laptop, he usually hummed along while he updated websites for his clients, the beat of arena rock coaxing his fingers to fly over the keyboard. Even softer melodies would’ve been uncomfortable with his stomach still tender from vomiting and his sore muscles tight from clenching, though. Silence was better.
He frowned at the muffled thump of car doors closing in the driveway.
Weird. The farm entertained few visitors.
Ignoring the distant rumble of voices and the screech of the opening front porch door, Noah focused on his computer screen. He knew the drill. His dad met distributors at a diner a few miles away to sell their crops, but inspectors sometimes assessed their operation to ensure they fulfilled organic farming requirements. Sunset was late for an inspection. Maybe neighbors needed a favor or help? The reasons didn’t really matter to Noah. When outsiders came, he stayed hidden. Humans weren’t as eager to hurt him after Dr. Phares accepted him as a patient, but he’d learned not to take chances.
He tuned out the noises and worked.
The tap on his bedroom door didn’t alarm him, either. When he hobbled to the door, his eldest brother stood in the hallway. Tall, beefy with muscle, and dark like most shifters, Mikael often let Noah know when humans arrived at the farm as well as when it was safe for Noah to leave his room.
“Come with me,” his brother said, face ashen.
That pricked Noah’s unease. He trusted his family. His dad and his brothers had proven a million times they could be relied upon to protect him. Noah was alive because of his family’s diligence and sacrifice. If Mikael said he had to go, then he would go.
Noah shut down his laptop. After the screen went black, he fetched his forearm crutches. Dread stirring, Noah pushed his glasses up his nose with a bunched shoulder and followed his brother’s silent hulking back.
He stumbled when they reached the living room. Noah’s mother had died shortly after Noah’s first shift at puberty, but the house was the same as she’d left it: full of overstuffed furniture, draping afghans, family pictures, and vases that Noah’s father still supplied with wildflowers. The cluttered living room wasn’t big. And Noah had never seen so many shifters inside it.
He’d never seen so many shifters. Ever. Not this close.
Terror sprinted through him, fiery hot, because he recognized some of these men. City shifters. The pack from town. The same shifters who had wanted to kill him when he was a toddler. A mercy killing, they’d called it. After he’d fallen eight stories from a high-rise balcony, when he’d awakened from weeks in a coma to paralyzed legs and excruciating migraines, these shifters would’ve ended him. His parents had fled to the country instead and made enemies of their former pack by seeking human medical treatments to help Noah.
Was this it then? Had the city shifters finally decided to exact judgment?
Trembling more than a little, Noah clamped his mouth shut while Mikael guided him to join his father and his other brothers who perched stiff and pale on the couch on one side of the cramped room. They faced a small army of betas from the town pack, who stood behind an easy chair occupied by a sprawling man who must be their new alpha. Dressed in casual khakis and a form-fitting black T-shirt, he blended in with the other shifters, but no one would mistake the intense energy that vibrated the air around him. Nor his eyes. Dark as midnight. They glittered with command. And fury.
Rather than dropping to the couch with his family, he stood beside them, leaning against his crutches as his wrecked knees jellied. He wouldn’t risk the censure of the shifter horde by drawing attention to his brace and crutches by sitting. His father, alarmingly, hung his head low and focused his stare on the living room carpet. Wouldn’t look at Noah, whose fear rocketed when his brothers wouldn’t meet his gaze, either.
Although he must certainly smell the stench of Noah’s mounting terror, the alpha smiled. Wade. Wasn’t that the new alpha’s name? He studied Noah for moments that felt like lifetimes, his stare lingering on Noah’s forearm crutches. Noah slumped his shoulders, trying to look as insignificant as possible. The accident had stunted his growth, and he’d topped out at five foot six inches. He couldn’t pull off invisibility, but at least being small wasn’t difficult, even if being shorter than everyone else in the room was another strike against him.
“This is the boy?”
Noah shivered at the alpha’s voice.
Stress lines bracketing his mouth, Noah’s father confirmed that Noah was indeed the boy with a murmured, “Yes.”
“The pact you formed with the old alpha demands the selection of this generation’s alpha mate among your children. Since the child specified, your eldest, married a human,” Wade said, mouth twisting to a terse grin, “I can now pick from your sons, and your family is required to give him up.” When Noah peered through a layer of lashes, the alpha nodded. “You may consider the pact satisfied.” He angled his head at Noah. “Him.”
Noah’s stomach plummeted to the floor. His jaw dropped.
He blinked at the dark-haired alpha.
What had just happened?
“No!” Dad’s stare snapped up. “Take one of my other sons if you insist on fulfilling the pact. Each of them is ready and willing to go with you.” Flanking his father on the couch, Noah’s three brothers bobbed their heads in uniform agreement. “But not Noah.”
“You’ve broken our laws and defied this pack long enough. You can pay for those crimes. Or you can honor the mating pact.” The alpha’s lips thinned to a grim line. “I choose the boy.”
A pair of betas strode across the short width of the room. They grabbed Noah by his biceps. “Dad,” Noah said while he ineffectively jerked his elbows and forearm crutches to try to break free. “You said leaving the pack negated the old mating pact,” Noah pleaded with his father. With the city shifters. With anyone who would listen. “You said they didn’t care about us anymore.”
The alpha shifted his frown to Noah. “Your father was wrong.”
Mikael bolted to his feet, a snarl on his lips, but Dad halted the rebellion with his white-knuckled grip on Mikael’s arm. “Stop, you fool. Or they’ll kill us all.”
Eyes wide, grief-stricken torment writ across his face, Mikael sank to the couch.
Noah’s last hopes died.
The taut, avid attention of the gathered betas and the angry glitter in their alpha’s glare proved they hadn’t driven to the farm to enforce an obsolete mating pact. Arranged matings were barbaric. Though shifters drafted the agreements to convey special honor and status, few were executed. No one pushed to fulfill a mating pact unless both parties were willing, even at the top of the shifter hierarchy where the practice most often continued to foster alliances between packs. But as much as Noah loved his family, they weren’t another pack. No political benefit would be fostered or gained here. His dad had been important among the city shifters once, the most trusted of the old alpha’s betas, but after the accident, his family became rogue wolves, outsiders. And criminals. They hardly merited the high regard and attention of the new alpha.
Wade wanted revenge. That was the only explanation.
City shifters had left his family alone as long as they’d stayed out of sight, but the new alpha’s largess had made them sloppy. Stupid. Lydia marrying Noah’s physical therapist had crossed a line, no matter how they’d convinced themselves the pack wouldn’t notice or care. Noah would now pay the price. With the eldest child mated, Wade could choose among the remaining siblings according to the letter of the law regardless of how little mating pacts were enforced, even in the city. Wade was right about that. Dragging Noah away was a vicious taunt, the alpha daring his family to object, and perhaps provoking his father and brothers into a fight they couldn’t win. Not against this many betas.
Noah was doomed.
Maybe his family, who had sacrificed so much for him, didn’t need to be.
“I’ll go.” Sandwiched between the two betas, Noah let his body go slack. His fear coiled like vipers in his belly, but he stopped struggling. The shifters lifted him until his feet dangled uselessly above the floor. “I’ll do whatever you want, if you grant my family amnesty. If you don’t hurt them.”
The alpha beamed in predatory triumph. “Agreed.”
Noah hung limply between the pair of betas as they dragged him toward Wade, whose smile roiled Noah’s stomach.
“In the car,” Wade ordered the betas.
While the collected shifters parted to create a path for the two manhandling Noah to the door, Noah’s father at last made a shaky attempt to help him. “He needs his medicines, his extra brace and forearm crutches, his computers—“
When Noah looked over his shoulder, the alpha cut Noah’s father off with a sharp wave. “You’ve done enough harm to him. The boy is no longer your concern.”
They muscled Noah, heart thundering, to the nearest of a fleet of black Chevy Tahoe’s. He swore he wouldn’t gamble his family’s safety, but he flinched then. He stiffened in the beta’s grasp when they opened the SUV door. He couldn’t go into that vehicle. He’d be helpless. Captured. They could hurt him. Maybe kill him.
He jerked away—and earned a light cuff to his temple in rebuke.
His brothers wrestled. Often. All shifters did. The mock battles that frequently resulted in bloodied noses and bruises were their way of jockeying for position even in a group as small as their family or that’s what his mother had said when Noah was younger. His brothers had never touched him, though. Shifters could take the rough and tumble, but not Noah. He’d been physically vulnerable, easily injured.
The blow, however gentle, rocked him to the core.
He’d known pain—endless surgeries, torturous physical therapy, and a shattered body that refused to function properly. But he’d never suffered as much as a casual swat on his butt when he’d misbehaved as a child and none of the typical punishments meted out by his father to maintain discipline among the adult wolves since.
“Don’t look at me like that. And stop cringing. We won’t abuse you.” The beta frowned. “You’re a shifter. He’s ordered you to be treated as one. That’s all.”
That didn’t reassure him considering bitter experience had taught him shifters were the most brutal of nature’s creatures. More scared than he’d ever been in his life, Noah stopped resisting, though, and they shoved him into the back seat of the Tahoe. They took away his forearm crutches, cramming the lightweight supports at their feet on the floor. When Noah instinctively reached for them, the shifters tied his hands with rope. The engine roared to life, and the Tahoe shot forward, zooming from the farm while the betas bound his feet, too. Once he was restrained, they ignored him. Terror balled inside Noah as he waited for what would happen next.
After they reached the blacktop of the main road, the Tahoe turned right, toward town. When one of the betas caught him spying out the window and watching the long tail of headlights leaving the farm, Noah yanked his gaze down. He hunched over to protect his stomach, but the anticipated blows never landed.
One of the betas snorted scathing disapproval. “They should be punished.”
“Wade granted amnesty. You heard him.”
“When we slow on the next straight stretch, the lead cars can overtake us,” the driver said into the head set of a cell phone and then glanced in the rearview mirror. “Alpha Wade wants to know if the boy is all right.”
“He’s fine.” The beta smiled. “As docile as a lamb.”
Noah squeezed his eyes shut. Please let that be enough. See? I’m cooperating. No reason to go back to the farm to murder my family. No reason to hurt them—or me.
The vehicles streamed into the city. The fleet of cars blended into traffic headed to the far side of town, where Noah and his brothers had been forbidden. Noah had only ever left the farm to sneak to doctor’s appointments. They hadn’t dared anything else. His father had even installed an indoor pool so he could do his physical therapy at home rather than chance facilities in the pack’s territory. He’d rarely been in town, never this part of the city, and certainly not at night. The lights overwhelmed him, a headache quickly building at the sensory overload of flashing neon, blaring car horns, and the assault of foreign smells, mostly fried food and car exhaust. He glued his gaze on his hands, but that morning’s migraine flared back to life. Agony pounded his skull, behind his eyes, at the base of his neck. His tender stomach couldn’t take a second assault that day, and despite the breathing techniques he’d learned from Dr. Phares, Noah moaned in warning. “I’m going to throw up.”
One of the men cursed, a heavy hand landing on Noah’s nape to push his head between his knees. “Keep driving. We’re too close to stop now.”
Noah vomited water and bile to the floor while the other beta grabbed a phone. Noah hurt too bad to make out the words.
The Tahoe screeched to a halt moments later. They opened the door on Noah’s right. They pushed him from the car. He tried to force his legs under him to walk, or at least stand, but with his crutches inside the vehicle, his feet bound, and his head aching, he dangled between the two goons. A gentle but firm fist in his hair eased his gaze up. He groaned, squinting at bright spotlights in front of the pack house.
“His senses are over-stimulated.” When the alpha’s stare dropped to the rope binding Noah’s wrists and ankles, he scowled. “I thought you said he wasn’t fighting this, that he was okay. Why is he restrained?”
“He balked at climbing into the rig. You said you didn’t want him hurt. When he panicked, we tied him to ensure he didn’t injure himself,” one of the betas answered. “He settled down then.”
“Because he’s petrified.” The alpha grimaced. “He’ll be calmer once he’s inside and cleaned up. Take him upstairs, but keep the rooms quiet. Dark. Untie him. I’ll decide if he’s a danger to himself.”
They carried him away again, through the double front doors of the pack house. They strode into a gauntlet of gawking shifters inside. The two betas hauled him up a wide staircase. The foreign scents in the house—of other shifters, of lemon-scented cleaners and even here, the city smells—overpowered him. He concentrated just to avoid vomiting again. They guided him into a bathroom three flights up. He screamed, the blinding glare of overhead lights too much for him. Thankfully, one of the betas doused the light and flicked another switch for dimmer sconces topping a mirror above the sink. When the betas stripped him, he was too sick to fight them. Even when they removed the rope cuffing his wrists and ankles, he couldn’t manage more than clumsy twitches. They unbuckled his leg brace and discarded it with a negligent toss. His glasses were set aside on the vanity with more care. Blurrier now, the two strangers pushed him to sit on the lid of the toilet. Noah had never felt this naked, not only of his clothes, but stripped of the supports that helped him walk, of even his sight with his glasses tucked away. Shaking, he rubbed angry red marks the rope had left on his wrists, but knew the shifters didn’t need restraints anymore. Without his brace, crutches, and glasses, he was helpless.
Startled, he jumped nervously when the alpha strode through the bathroom door. “Reminders of other scents will confuse him. Destroy his clothes,” Wade told one of the betas, who snatched up the piles of fabric and scrambled to leave. “Help me with him,” he ordered the remaining shifter. They lifted Noah by his biceps and pushed him into the shower. Hot water soon relaxed his cramping muscles. Fully clothed, Wade joined him under the shower and scrubbed him with a scratchy sponge while the other shifter held him upright. Wade washed Noah’s hair twice and then traded shampoo for a softer sponge to thoroughly clean Noah again.
By the time Wade hauled him from the shower to towel him dry, the smells of his father, brothers, and home had washed away.
Noah’s mind shut down.
They walked him through another door to a utilitarian bedroom and dumped him on a narrow bed, where he lay in a boneless heap. The beta placed a basin next to him. “In case you throw up again.”
“His body temperature is lower than ours, more human than shifter. Turn the thermostat up. I don’t want him uncomfortable.” The alpha leaned over him, palm cupping Noah’s cheek. “You’re going to be all right. I promise.”
Noah shut his eyes, and after they’d gone, when the room was dark and the ticking of the baseboard heater proved the alpha’s command had been obeyed, Noah finally realized he wouldn’t be raped. He wasn’t safe, but they were leaving him alone. For now. He surrendered to exhausted sleep.
* * *
When he awoke, the basin was gone. Someone had moved him under the sheets and a green cotton blanket. He smelled a stranger in the room, but numb by his terror, Noah didn’t cringe. He turned inside the snug cocoon of covers to find the indistinct blur of a new shifter standing guard at the door a few feet away. Miraculously, his wire-rim glasses rested on an otherwise bare night table. He groped and awkwardly shoved his glasses onto his nose. Able to see now, Noah lowered his gaze in the submissive pose he was positive would be expected of a prisoner and used the opportunity to surreptitiously study his guard. He was tall like most shifters and dark, with a long tail of black hair streaming down his back from an elastic band at his nape. He was dressed like city shifters—jeans, a simple blue work shirt, and scuffed boots. Noah couldn’t be sure. Last night was a blur and all shifters looked the same to him, big and bulky with muscle. As blunted as his sense of smell tended to be, though, he didn’t recognize this shifter’s scent. This one was new.
The stranger frowned, but didn’t speak to him. Instead, the guard reached for a cell phone strapped to his waist. “He’s awake.”
Without his leg brace or forearm crutches, Noah sat up in the bed and scooted to lean against the plain oak headboard. He tugged the blanket up to his chin, only his head remaining uncovered. He had to pee and his bad leg hurt like fire, but until he knew how much trouble he’d landed in, he wouldn’t move again.
One of the betas from last night walked into the sparse room moments later, and Noah sighed in relief that it wasn’t the shifter who’d slapped him. “He hasn’t been up?”
“Too scared.” The guard studied Noah through narrowed eyes. “He’s pretty scrawny. I’m not sure he can.”
The newcomer grunted. “Wade won’t like that. C’mon.” He and the guard tore Noah’s blanket away. They helped him to the bathroom, and when Noah couldn’t stand upright, the beta from last night supported him while Noah urinated into the toilet. And Noah thought his hospital stays were embarrassing? The pokes and prods from dozens of human nurses hadn’t compared to this. The shifters steadied him while he washed his hands and brushed his teeth. They handed him a comb for his hair, then a washcloth to wipe his face.
When they returned him to the bedroom, they plunked him in a tangled clump on the mattress, but his bladder wasn’t ready to burst. They’d permitted basic grooming. A tray of food now rested on the night table where his glasses had been. Noah’s mouth watered at mountains of scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon.
His morning could have been a lot worse.
The guard exited the bedroom, but the beta from last night stayed. He nodded to the food. “Eat.”
Noah stared at the steaming platter. His empty stomach yowled. He guessed the meal could have been drugged, but they didn’t need to sedate him to make him do what they wanted. They must not have settled on killing him. Not yet at least, not if they were feeding him. He didn’t see any purpose in starving, especially since refusing food would be considered a challenge. That, Noah knew, would be met with merciless efficiency.
Wrapping a corner of the blanket around him to cover his nudity, he reached for the tray. It was heavier than it looked, weighed down with more food than Noah was accustomed to, and he snorted when he noticed the cutlery was plastic. Like he was dangerous?
“You’re on suicide watch.”
Noah’s jaw dropped. “I don’t want to die,” he protested.
The beta shrugged. “Sick and injured wolves do desperate things.”
Sure, they did. Like submit to antiquated mating pacts to spare the lives of their kin. But a deal was a deal. City shifters might deem Noah damaged beyond repair, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hold up his end of that bargain. “I said I’d cooperate.”
The shifter rolled his eyes. “Then, eat.”
Noah glared at the beta before grudgingly returning his attention to his food. The massive portions were more in line with the quantities his brothers and his dad regularly consumed. Shifting burned lots of energy. They needed the extra calories. Noah didn’t. Dr. Phares had him on a strict diet, carefully balancing nutrition and caloric intake so he wouldn’t gain weight that could throw off his precarious balance or hinder his physical therapy. He never went hungry, but he never enjoyed this kind of excess, either. Though his family mixed with humans often, most shifters didn’t. The city pack was no judge of proper portions for damaged wolves like him.
Still, he couldn’t refuse.
Picking at the scrambled eggs, he lifted a bite on the ridiculous plastic fork to sniff it. According to Dr. Phares, his sense of smell was almost as muted as a human’s, but blunted senses were better than none at all. His nose scented nothing amiss. Just eggs. He poked out his tongue to test the taste and groaned at the explosion of cheese mingling with the eggs. He shut his eyes, a shiver of delight working up his spine. When had he last been allowed cheese? Probably not since his mother’s heart attack, shortly after his recovery plateaued following his first shifts.
If cheese masked the taste of drugs, Noah didn’t care.
He shoveled the bite into his mouth. Then another. And another. Ducking his gaze to avoid the tiny curl at one corner of the beta’s lips, which Noah supposed passed for a smile, he ate scrambled eggs—only the eggs—until his cavernous stomach filled. Before last night, he might’ve been embarrassed at his haste, but the food tasted wonderful. Besides, with his modesty preserved by only the stingy corner of a blanket, pride numbered among the many items he couldn’t afford anymore. He ate rapidly and gluttonously, reasoning that increasing his food intake must have balanced out the calories he’d burned while he’d struggled with his terror last night. Even then, when his fork slowed, mounds of food remained on the platter.
“More,” the beta commanded.
Too bad Noah couldn’t justify consuming the rest. Piles of crispy bacon taunted him especially, but he didn’t know when or if he’d see a pool for exercise again. He didn’t want to risk force-feeding, though. He nudged the eggs with his fork. Squaring his shoulders, he screwed up his nerve to ask for his leg brace. “I can’t walk without it,” he said, pausing to consider how to condense the dry terms in a way someone unfamiliar with his medical history would understand. “My knees hyper-extend. Mostly the right leg, but also the left. I wish I could control that, but I can’t. I could dislocate the joints, tear muscles and tendons. Unless you want to carry me to the bathroom every time I have to pee or watch me crawl—“
“Eat.” The beta crossed his arms over his chest.
That wasn’t a “no” exactly. To show his good will, Noah forked more fluffy eggs into his mouth. “I need my medicines, too,” he said after he’d consumed the bite. “Pins stabilize my hips. The white lines running down my legs? Those are scars from my surgeries. Dr. Phares said I might be able to walk without pins, plates, and bars strengthening my bones once I’m fully grown, but not yet.”
“You’re twenty years old.”
“Exactly.” Noah nodded. “I’m small, even by human standards. Dr. Phares wants to give me another year to see if I hit a growth spurt delayed by the accident.”
“Shifters mature by sixteen.” The beta scowled at him. “You’re short and too skinny, but you’re an adult.”
Frowning, Noah shoveled another heaping mound of scrambled eggs he didn’t want into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. “Listen, I’m not like you. Not like other shifters.”
“But you are a shifter.” The beta glowered. “A stubborn one who needs to shift.”
That was what he was afraid of and the last thing he should do. “My doctors adapted to my physiology. After I stopped therapeutic shifting to try to heal the damage, we worked around using bars and plates as much as we could, but I have a few left in me. Anything foreign to our bodies disappears during a shift, though. So I can’t shift, okay?”
Eventually, Noah stopped trying. He dutifully ate as much of his breakfast as he could stand. Only then did the beta move, walking to the bed to collect the still half-filled plate. “I won’t make trouble. I’ll do whatever he wants, I swear. Just please…tell me what’s happening? Why is he holding me prisoner?”
“You aren’t a prisoner. You were rescued,” the beta said, but when he left with the dirty dishes, Noah heard the lock click.
* * *