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Under Her Skin, Page 1

Jeaniene Frost




  Under Her Skin

  Jeaniene Frost

  Meljean Brook

  Ilona Andrews

  Under Her Skin

  (2010)

  An omnibus of novels by Ilona Andrews, Meljean Brook and Jeaniene Frost

  UNDER HER SKIN

  Published by Ilona Andrews, Inc at Smashwords.

  "Pack" was first published in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE, by Running Book Press. "Pack" copyright © 2009 by Jeaniene Frost

  "In Sheep’s Clothing" was first published in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE, by Running Book Press. "In Sheep’s Clothing" copyright © 2009 by Meljean Brook

  "Grace of Small Magics" was first published in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF PARANORMAL ROMANCE, by Running Book Press. "Grace of Small Magics" copyright © 2009 by Gordon and Ilona Andrews

  PACK

  Jeaniene Frost

  Chapter One

  I knew I was being hunted before I heard the growl. First there had been flashes of gray and black in the trees around me, too fast for me to make out. Then crackling of dried leaves and twigs as those forms came nearer. And that primal, icy feeling on the back of my neck that told me I'd just moved from top of the food chain to prey.

  No one was around to help me, either. This was Yellowstone National Park, one of the last great American wildernesses. I hadn't seen another soul since my friends Brandy and Tom abandoned the hike three days ago, and I'd been lost for two days now. A wave of fear rolled over me, making my stomach clench in a nauseating way. Whatever had growled, it wasn't alone.

  New growls emerged from behind the trees—low, guttural, and more menacing than a mugger in a dark alley. I flicked my gaze around, trying to hone in on the source, while I drew my backpack off my shoulders. I had a gun in there which I'd brought along in what I'd thought was over-the-top paranoia. Now I wished I'd brought an Uzi and some grenades, too.

  I had the backpack on the ground and was pulling the gun out when the animal struck. It came at me with incredible speed, plowing right into me and knocking me over. Instinctively, I scrambled back, holding my hands out in defense and convinced I'd feel teeth tearing into me at any moment. The wolf – God, it was a huge wolf! – didn't lunge for my throat, though. It stood a few feet away, mouth open in what seemed to me to be a sick caricature of a grin, with my gun on the ground between its paws.

  I'd dropped the gun. How could I have been so stupid as to drop the gun?

  That thought raced through my mind, followed by a slew of if onlys. If only I hadn't gone on this camping trip. If only Brandy hadn't twisted her ankle, forcing her and Tom to leave early. If only I hadn't been so determined to continue the hike alone. If only the map hadn't gotten ruined. If only I'd had a satellite phone, instead of my useless, out-of-area cellular.

  And if only I hadn't dropped the goddamn gun when an enormous wolf charged me. That would probably be the last regret I ever had.

  Twigs snapped behind me. My head jerked back while I still tried to keep an eye on the wolf in front of me. Five more wolves cleared the trees, running around me with an easy, deadly grace. I started to scoot back more, but there was nowhere to go. My heart was pounding while my breath came in strange, jagged gasps.

  You're lost out in the middle of nowhere, and these wolves are going to eat you. Oh God, no, please. I don't want to die…

  Only four days ago, I'd been laughing with my friends about how great it was to be outdoors, instead of trapped inside our stuffy offices. This was the vacation I'd been waiting years to take. How could this be happening?

  One of the circling wolves broke from the ranks and charged me. I flung up my hands in useless defense when the huge gray wolf let out a growl that sounded like a word.

  "Mine."

  I gasped. That wolf did not just speak! But its yellow eyes gleamed with a savage intelligence and another rumbling, coherent growl came out of its throat.

  "You. Dieee."

  I abandoned all logic to scramble to my feet, running as fast as I could even while knowing it was futile. Scalding pain in my ankle had me stumbling, but I didn't stop. I lurched on, heart hammering and tears blurring my vision. Around me, the wolves gleefully yipped as they kept pace.

  More pain seared my leg. I fell, panic urging me to get up even though both my legs felt like they were on fire. I tried to run again, but my left ankle buckled. The wolves' cries became more excited. They darted in, nipping me and drawing blood before bounding back and ducking out of the way of my wild punches. I couldn't run anymore, but I staggered forward, looking for anything that would help me. Maybe I could climb a tree. Maybe I could find a heavy branch to use as a weapon.

  It's too late for that, Marlee, said an insidious voice in my head. Just give up. It'll be over soon.

  The enormous gray wolf suddenly jumped in front of me. Its mouth was open, fangs gleaming in the late afternoon light. It let out a howl that stopped the other wolves in their tracks. Then they joined in, filling the air with their victorious cries. The gray wolf became silent, coming closer while its companions continued their howls. I braced myself, images of my family and friends flashing in my mind. They'll never know what happened to you. You'll just be another vanished hiker in the woods…

  Despite my overwhelming fear, anger also reared up in me. I looked at the gray wolf, only a foot away now. You might kill me, but I'm going to hurt you before you do.

  When it lunged, I was ready. Its fangs sank into my right arm, which I'd thrown up to protect my throat. But even as I almost fainted at the agony of its teeth tearing my flesh, I didn't hesitate. My left thumb jammed into its eye, as deep as it could go.

  Something like a scream came out of the wolf. Or maybe I was screaming. Either way, it took a second for the next, new sound to register, but when it did, I felt a surge of hope. It was the loud, unmistakable boom of a gunshot.

  The gray wolf let go of me. I sagged back, clutching my torn arm to my chest. The wolf's right eye was bleeding and it was panting, but it didn't run. Neither did the other wolves. They crouched, staring over my shoulder, snarls coming from their throats.

  "Leave," the gray wolf said, garbled but intelligible.

  I'm hallucinating again, I thought. Maybe I've passed out. Maybe I'm being ripped to pieces right now.

  Something brushed by me. I recoiled when I saw it was several more wolves. With my good arm, I began flailing at them in a pathetic attempt to keep them away, but they ignored me. Their attention seemed fixed on the other, snarling wolves.

  When the naked man squatted down next to me, I knew I was hallucinating. I might have even let out a laugh. Maybe all of this was just a horrible dream, and I'd wake up safe in my tent.

  "Are you all right?" the man asked, looking me over.

  Now I was sure I laughed, but it had an edge of hysteria to it. "Never better."

  I looked at his face – and gasped. His eyes were amber and slanted, just like the wolves' eyes, and the same wildness lurked in them.

  God, please let this be a dream!

  The man stood. He had a gun pointed at the gray wolf. "You've gone too far, Gabriel," he said. "Hunting humans is forbidden. The pack will judge you for this."

  The wolf snarled. "They hunt us," it said.

  "They don't know better," the man replied. "We do. Either you come with us, or I shoot you with her gun."

  I was shaking my head from side to side, even though no one was paying attention to me anymore, it seemed. Talking wolves didn't exist. Muscular men didn't walk around naked in the forest, chatting with non-existent talking wolves. Why I couldn't I wake up? And what was that noise? It was getting louder, like a swarm of bees approaching.

  When the gray
wolf sat down, shuddered, and its fur began disappearing into its body, I didn't even blink. I was concentrating more on finding the source of that buzzing noise. It was almost deafening now.

  The last thing I saw before the noise rose to a crescendo and my vision went black was the wolf's fur being replaced by skin…and the body of a naked man where the gray wolf had just been.

  Chapter Two

  Pain tugged on my leg. My eyes opened with a rush of terror as my last memory came roaring back.

  The wolves. Attacking me.

  "No!" I screamed, trying to defend myself.

  Something big held me down. I was so panicked, it took me a moment to realize that it wasn't biting me or covered in fur.

  "You're all right, the doctor is just setting your ankle," said a deep voice.

  My head felt cottony, but I tried to shake that off. I was in a bed. An older blond woman was giving me a mildly irate look as she bent over my ankle. Someone held my upper body in an unyielding grip, and whoever it was didn't look like a nurse.

  "Let go of me."

  That grip didn't loosen. "Doc?"

  "You can let her go, Daniel," the blond woman said.

  In my next blink, I was free, staring around the room with its wood walls, rustic interior, and bloody bandages on the floor. Sure, I had healthcare, but unless medical standards had really dropped, this wasn't a hospital.

  It took a second for me to recognize the tall, russet-haired man by the bed. "You're the naked guy," I blurted. He wasn't naked now, wearing a pair of loose-fitting denim jeans and a long-sleeved shirt.

  He smiled, but it looked strained. "You remember."

  Not all of it. I knew he'd stopped the wolves from attacking me, but I couldn't remember how, exactly. Or why he'd been naked in the woods in the first place.

  There was something about the wolves. Something really important that my groggy mind couldn't quite recall.

  "The wolves…" I began.

  "I need to finish this," the woman interrupted me. "Hold still. You'll feel some pressure."

  She certainly sounds like a doctor, I thought. Professional, uncaring, and using the word 'pressure' to describe what would probably hurt like hell.

  My premonition proved correct. A burning pain started in my ankle as she probed, muttering to herself while she shifted it a few times.

  "Where am I?" I asked, biting back a yelp. "Is this a Ranger station or something?"

  The man stared at me, his hazel eyes seeming to probe as much as the doctor's pitiless fingers.

  "What's your name?"

  "Marlee. Marlee Peters."

  "The sedative shouldn't have worn off this quickly," the woman remarked when I couldn't help but yank back as she manipulated my ankle in a direction it didn't want to go. "You know that, Daniel."

  "So give me another one," I said, clenching my teeth as the pain began to throb. 'Pressure', my ass!

  Daniel, as the doctor called him, let out a sigh. "Damn Gabriel," he muttered.

  Gabriel.

  The name conjured up an image of a huge gray wolf glaring at me, one eye bleeding. They hunt us, it had said. Then it started writhing on the ground, its fur disappearing…

  I tried to bolt out of bed, but Daniel had me pinned back before I'd even cleared the covers.

  "It's all right, Marlee," he said.

  "Like hell it is!" Whatever remains of the sedative they'd given me wore off in the flash of that memory. Run, my mind urged.

  From over his shoulder, I could see the blond woman sit back in disgust. "I can't work like this," she said.

  "Get Joshua," Daniel told her, still holding me to the bed.

  I screamed for help, which drowned out any reply the woman made. I kicked, too, even though that hurt my ankle like I'd set it on fire.

  Daniel went from holding me down to flattening me on the bed with his body. It was like a ton of bricks just landed on me. He even had his legs tangled in mine so I couldn't kick. I couldn't move, but I could keep screaming, which I did, long and loud. He winced.

  "Stop that. You're hurting my ears."

  His arms were pinning mine down, but his hands were loose near my face. He could have covered my mouth to shut me up, but he didn't. That meant he wasn't concerned about anyone overhearing, which meant there was no one near enough to help.

  I stopped screaming, trying another tactic. "Let me go. I'll leave and you'll never see me again."

  "Why were you in the woods alone, Marlee?" he asked. "That's not very safe."

  Considering my current situation, the absurdity of that statement made me laugh. "You don't say?"

  He ignored that. "You remember what you saw. That's why you stink like fear now."

  "It wasn't real," I muttered. "I was tired, I'd been lost for days, and I panicked because of the attack –"

  "You know it's real," he cut me off. "Sorry, but you know, so we can't just let you go. Even if nothing comes of your bites."

  That froze me more than the two hundred pounds of muscle holding me down. I'd been bitten – several times, in fact. I'd seen the movies, knew enough of the folklore to know what happened to a person who'd been bitten by a…

  "This can't be real," I whispered.

  His gaze was grim. "It's as real as it gets."

  * * *

  I insisted on sitting in a chair to meet Joshua. Daniel stood next to me, his presence a silent threat that any attempts to leave would be quickly stopped. Still, when one met the leader of a pack of werewolves, one wanted not to be trapped under another werewolf in bed, right? Yeah, I thought so, too.

  Of course, I was also still thinking – hoping – that I'd just eaten some bad mushrooms along the trail and none of this was real. Be careful what you wish for, ran through my mind. I'd wished for years to go to Yellowstone. My ex-boyfriend Paul and I had planned this trip, down to the places we'd hike and where we'd camp. We were thrilled when my best friend Brandy and her boyfriend agreed to come. The more the merrier, right?

  But things changed. Paul moved to Manhattan, our relationship couldn't overcome the long-distance strain, and four months later, I ended up being a third wheel on this trip instead of it being a fun, couples' getaway. Add that to being overworked and underpaid as a paralegal, and my fervent wish for something new and exciting to come into my life.

  Looks like I got that wish, though it might come with a set of claws. I waited, missing my small cubicle at the office more than I'd ever missed anything.

  Ten minutes later, the blond doctor returned with a man in his late forties. He had edges of gray on his temples, but the rest of his hair was thick and auburn — the same color as Daniel's, actually. He also had a similar large, muscular build, albeit not quite as lean as Daniel's. He wore a tan jacket and vest over his collared shirt, with a pair of denim pants.

  In short, he looked like your typical Yellowstone tourist, not the leader of a secret pack of monsters.

  "I'm Joshua," he introduced himself, holding out a hand.

  At a loss over what else to do, I shook it. Part of me wanted to run screaming out the door, and the other part wanted to burst into tears. Surprisingly, this myriad of emotions left me feeling slightly numb, like I was running on auto-pilot.

  "Marlee."

  Joshua sat on the edge of the bed. His posture was casual, but there was nothing relaxed in his gaze. He looked me over as if I were a potentially-contagious virus. I fought not to hold my breath.

  "What happened yesterday was very unfortunate," Joshua began.

  "Yesterday?" I couldn't help but exclaim, glancing at the window. It was nearly dusk. I'd thought it was the same day as the attack.

  "Yesterday," Joshua repeated, giving me a frown that said he wasn't used to being interrupted. "A member of our pack was…distraught over his wife's death. He and a few others began hunting you. You were lucky Daniel found them when he did, but you'd been bitten, so we couldn't drop you off at the nearest hospital. You haven't heard of our kind before, Marlee, and there's a r
eason. We do whatever's necessary to protect our existence."

  We'll kill for it was left unsaid, but I heard that loud and clear. I nodded, striving to hold onto my numbness. Hysteria wouldn't help me, no matter how tempting it was to give in to that.

  "A person has to be bitten several times to be at risk of transforming, and half the people who've been bitten still don't shift," Joshua went on briskly. "We won't know whether you'll turn into one of us until the next full moon, two weeks away."

  Two weeks? It would take that long for me to find out whether or not I'd become a monster? I'd go insane wondering until then. And if it did happen…well, suicide didn't sound like a bad idea all the sudden.

  "What happens if after the full moon, I'm not…ah…like the rest of you?" I couldn't bring myself to say a werewolf. I just couldn't.

  Joshua gave me a thin smile. "That depends on you. Either you stay with us, as a member of the skinwalker part of our pack, or…"

  He shrugged. That single gesture completed his sentence. Or we kill you.

  One way or the other, I was screwed.

  Chapter Three

  "Hungry?"

  I sat in the chair, my broken ankle finally in a cast, and glared at Daniel before replying.

  "Somewhere between the death threats and the thought of turning into a four-legged monster, I lost my appetite."

  Part of me wondered why I dared to be so surly. The other part figured I was as good as dead anyway, so it didn't matter.

  Daniel grunted. "Suit yourself, but I'm getting something."

  He stood, stretched, and then held out a hand. I just stared at it.

  "What?"

  "You're coming with me," he replied. "Who knows what kind of trouble you'd stir up if I left you alone?"

  "And I suppose you'll just drag me along anyway if I refuse?"

  A smile quirked his mouth. "You learn fast, don't you?"

  I gave Daniel another withering look that didn't seem to faze him. He was extremely striking, in an outdoorsy-type of way. His hair was chin length and russet, and he had a faint weathering to his features that spoke of long days outside. Daniel only looked a couple years older than me, which would put him at about thirty, but there was an air of command about him that made him seem older. None of the lawyers at my