The white wolf ran as fast as she could, lungs burning with the effort, legs stretching out as far as they could. Thank god she was in wolf form, not human, but that brought other problems. She thought she'd scoped out the new territory thoroughly enough, but then she'd run into some other creatures when she was in wolf form who told her a horror story that made her blood freeze.
Trapped and captured, they told her. Their friends disappearing. Rumours of a big preserve on a ranch, land big enough to hide it all. Where the trapped animals were hunted and killed. Sometimes maimed first, then released to be hunted again.
Stay away, they'd told her.
Her brother, John, as usual, had been too curious. Now he'd been gone for two days, and she feared the absolute worst. She needed help, but where was she going to get it? She'd been so sure she'd find the peace she longed for in Texas. And she'd heard about a group of shifters trying to reform a pack. Now she needed to connect with them more than ever.
But her first priority was staying alive.
She heard the voices coming close punctuated by drunken laughter, and the increased thunder of hoof beats as she finally reached the huge oak tree where she'd left her clothes. Praying she had enough time, she paused, forced herself to shift, and scrambled up into the tree. She clung to the thick branch, naked and shivering, while the men passed beneath her. When she was sure it was safe, and movement couldn't be detected, she pulled her clothes back on. But it was nearly dawn before she had the courage to climb down from the tree and stealthily make her way back to her campsite.
* * * *
Drew Noland sat on his back porch cradling a cold beer in his hands, watching the first edge of night creep over the Texas Hill Country. He loved this area of South Central Texas, the mixture of rolling pasture land with tree-dotted hills, copses of trees here and there in the vast areas of emptiness where civilisation had only bumped the edges. Ranch country. Cattle, goats, sheep, all being raised in what Drew considered the closest thing to heaven on earth. He drew in a deep breath, inhaling the mingled scents of nature that never failed to stir his senses.
He'd bought his small ranch ten years ago when he landed in the Hill Country and decided it was a safe place to stay. Running about a thousand head of cattle, he made enough to keep the ranch in the black, needing only a minimum of hands to help and still have time for his work with The Sentinels.
Now he was doing one of his favourite things-watching night lower its blanket over the countryside and the first appearance of the stars in the velvet sky. It gave him a feeling of peace he hadn't known until he came here, peace that had been stolen from him, just like it had from his partners. A sliver of moon drifted into the sky. He heard the soft whinnying of horses in the barn, broken now and then by the distant wail of a coyote.
He'd heard other ranchers discussing the increasing presence of the predator, said there'd never been this many coyotes here before. But what bothered Drew was the talk in the feed store and the diner of the chance spying of other animals not indigenous to the area. Someone even mentioned wolves, which made Drew's guts tie up in a knot. He knew there were no wolves around here except for himself, when he wasn't in human form.
He knew what madness even the whisper of a wolf could do in a community, and a tiny thread of fear unravelled inside him. A human pack was far more dangerous than any group of animals. It was how his pack had been destroyed. How he, himself, had nearly been killed, hiding in the woods in the northern state where they'd lived, woods that he was so familiar with-shifting to his human shape during the day to avoid detection. Men determined to kill wolves at all costs were like rabid dogs, crazed and maniacal.
Few members of his pack had survived, and they'd scattered for safety. Some hand of fate must have led them all to Texas, where he ran into the Spencer brothers working at the Houston Stock Show. The three of them had managed to find the other five remaining members, all gravitating to a small town outside San Antonio.