Authors: Stacey Espino
“Wake up, sleepyhead.”
Bella twisted and opened one eye. The leather seat creaked as she shifted. She’d actually fallen asleep during the ride, but after pulling that double shift at the store, she shouldn’t be surprised.
“What time is it?” Her familiar nighttime friend, the distant moon, stared down at her from a darkened sky.
“Around four in the morning. Come on, we’ve got to set up the tents.” Amanda exited out the left side of the vehicle after Sara.
Bella opened the door and stepped out onto the soft earth. The air had a sharp chill, causing her skin to break out instantly into goose flesh. With the weather being so hot in town, she didn’t even have a sweater with her, only the skimpy tube top. She felt like an idiot now. Amanda and Sara both wore blue jeans and a cardigan over their shirts. Bella was usually a jeans and T-shirt kind of girl. The whole outrageous ensemble was just for fun, to become someone else for one night.
At least her almost waist-length hair veiled her shoulders in a thin layer of warmth. No matter how many times she cut it, it grew back with a vengeance. Now she saved her money and let it have its way.
As she stepped away from the glow of the SUV’s interior lighting, her senses magnified, coming to life even in her sleepy state. The guys were already out in the clearing setting up, arguing with each other. Twigs cracked and snapped, and the low murmur of voices comforted her in the pitch black. The forest backdrop highlighted by the moon wasn’t at all inviting as she’d remembered from her previous camping experiences. After nightfall, she’d always been bundled up in her tent, not standing out in the open without protection. Bella easily imagined every variety of dangerous beast watching her from beyond the curtained symphony of insects. If she stared at the wall of blackened forest any longer, her imagination would play dirty tricks on her and find images that didn’t exist. She stepped closer to the light of the vehicle and helped Amanda and Sara unload the back.
“This is stupid,” said Sara. “How are we supposed to set up when we can’t see a thing? We should have come in the morning.”
“We have the headlights,” said Amanda, forever optimistic.
They each dropped an armful of equipment on the ground in the clearing. Every sound they created seemed too loud, magnified in the sleeping landscape. Her four companions made enough racket to wake the dead—or the bears and the wolves.
“How many tents are there?” asked Bella, assessing the disorderly pile of equipment.
“Two,” said Amanda. “One for us. One for the guys.”
Keith stepped over the pile of tents and sleeping bags. “Actually, I brought a pop tent for Isabella. I thought it would be romantic for each of us to have our own tent.” He pulled Amanda against him and kissed her neck, making her squeal and slap his shoulder. Bella wanted to gag. They hadn’t even started their grand adventure, and she was already the unwanted fifth wheel. Now she’d have to prove the bravery and survival skills she boasted about by sleeping alone in a little one-man pop tent. There would only be a couple millimeters of thin nylon protecting her from the elements and wildlife. She sighed, mentally tallying up the odds against her, but kept her mouth shut.
* * * *
“What are humans doing all the way out here? On our land?” asked Johan.
“They’re not hunters. I don’t scent their usual stench or gunpowder. It’s not like tourists to come out this far.” Ben crouched in the woods, still as a gargoyle, watching the humans that made an obscene racket—objects clanged, voices shouted, and car doors opened and slammed shut repeatedly. The group of humans was definitely not there to orchestrate some sort of sneak attack on the pack. They just happened to be in the wrong place—wolf shifter territory.
“How long you gonna watch them?”
“Until I’m satisfied they won’t be a problem.” Ben ran his hand through his hair and tested the air again. There were females in the group. The fragrance was unmistakable.
With their two alphas getting busy nearly every night with their mate, Ben was coiled tight. Living out in the bush with no female wolves and too far out in the wilderness to hook up with humans, it took just the sweet smell of a woman to make his cock ramrod hard.
“You haven’t been yourself since Callen’s pack started moving in.” Johan stood and stretched, his movements only disturbing the air, not making a sound.
“I don’t trust them. The whole merge has me on edge.”
“They’re loyal to Callen, and Ethan agreed that Callen is just as much our alpha as he is. Best get used to it.”
“I’d still rather play it safe. You have to earn trust in my book.”
Johan patted Ben on the shoulder. “I’m heading back. Don’t stay out here all night.” His tone was laced with concern. He disappeared into the undergrowth without a sound.
Johan might be heading back to camp, but not to a warm bed, not since their alphas’ moved their little human mate into the small cabin. Construction had already begun on a new house, a magnificent layout that would house a growing pack. The next generation was brewing in Ingrid’s stomach, making both Callen and Ethan overly protective, which said a lot. Everyone had to sleep outdoors in wolf form. It suited Ben fine, but Johan and Grant complained to no end.
Ben was at home in the forest, preferring solitude to city life. If he had his own mate, he’d be happier than a lark to stay in the northern forest forever. Many shifters turned soft over time, spoiled by the humans’ modern cities and conveniences. Not Ben. He was one hundred percent in tune with his wolf and thrived in rustic, less than sublime, conditions.
With Johan long gone, Ben decided to move in closer. Damn, those humans were loud. As he observed the interactions between the people, he realized how much he missed spending time with his best friend, Callen. These days his main concern was his mate and his new role as alpha. About now, they’d enjoy scaring the wannabe survivalists with some grunts and growls from the darkness, but alone, it didn’t have the same appeal.
Even a loner could get lonely.
It took the group of humans over an hour to set up the tents. The sunrise would waken the land in just over an hour. When the humans settled into sleep, rightful silence returned to the forest, and Ben moved in closer. Shifting into his wolf form, he crept in and took inventory of the campsite. There were two large dome tents and a smaller one on the periphery. At first he assumed they kept supplies in the small pop tent, but as he neared he could smell her.
He knew the truth the moment he smelled her unique fragrance. Something within him sparked awake. His wolf, as well as the man, knew the woman in the small tent was fated to him by the gods. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind. Only now did he understand the pull of a mated male. He may have resented his two alphas for favoring their female over the pack, but in an instant, he knew why. His protective and territorial instincts spiked to new levels. As the sun began to rise, he still paced the perimeter around her tent, chancing getting caught. It took all his resolve to return to the forest and away from the woman he hadn’t even seen.
* * * *
Bella stretched her legs and sat up in the confined space. She rummaged through the duffel bag filled with clothes Amanda had packed for her. Although she didn’t like the idea of Amanda going through her stuff in her bedroom back home, she nearly laughed out loud when she saw her worn blue jeans. After shucking her skimpy club clothes, she pulled them over her hips, then she added three layers to her upper body and two thick pairs of socks. The cold still clung to her bones. She needed a source of heat to dismiss the chill. Maybe she’d attempt to get a fire started. She could vaguely remember her childhood camping skills and hoped they’d come back to her when she needed them most.
Bella unzipped the tent opening and stepped out into the rustic, hushed surroundings. She could forget the real world existed living out in the woods. She could see things that had been hidden the night before. The tree line surrounded her, thick with underbrush. When she looked up, the forest canopy seemed to reach the clear blue sky. Wildlife flourished, birds singing and small animals clamoring in the branches around her. The air filling her lungs was pollution free and smelled both sweet and earthy.
During the night, she could have sworn there was something or someone on the other side of her tent wall. Sometimes she thought she saw the shadow of a wolf in the moonlight, but the next moment it was gone. She blamed her heightened senses on her frayed nerves. They were deep in bear and wolf country. One could never be too safe, and she had no protection. Thanks to her active imagination, and the potential for real danger, she got little sleep.
As Bella explored the immediate area, she realized that she’d changed over the years. She was no longer the young girl that thrived in the woods, in tune with Mother Nature. All she could think about was the running water, electricity, and warmth of her apartment. It saddened her that her hopes and dreams had fizzled into nothing since starting her adult life. She’d always dreamt of building a log cabin in the woods, living a simplistic life at one with nature. The opposite of how her parents raised her. Now, looking around, she realized what she had once loved now scared her. Her friends expected her to be at home in the wilderness, but she secretly hoped the guys would wake up, make a fire, and take control. She’d never admit that for the life of her.
Bella had lost her childhood dreams and that spark of believing she could do anything. Her parents had stifled all her fantasies, so she focused on escaping their control and getting her own place. Rather than use her freedom to reach her goals, to follow the path she’d always dreamed of, she’d forgotten her dreams. She also forgot how it felt to be at home in the forest, to use her imagination to escape reality. Bella had sold out.
A twig snapped in the forest. Bella wished she had some peanuts for the squirrels and chipmunks. She squatted down to try and spot some of the wildlife, but found nothing. It had gone eerily quiet, as if the animals and birds sensed danger. Bella sensed nothing but early morning peace. Once she stood and took a step back toward the camp, there was another snap coming from the same place. This time she ignored it. Daylight gave her newfound courage.
Bella rummaged through the supplies, realizing just how unprepared her party was. She found no wood or tools, just sports equipment, folding chairs, and a cooler filled with bottled beer. How were they expected to make a fire? Without an axe, she wouldn’t even be able to collect wood.
No stirring came from either of the larger tents, so Bella decided to venture into the forest to collect kindling and maybe some fallen branches. Once she got a fire going, she’d feel a hell of a lot better. The morning air was bitter and chilled her all the way to her marrow. At least the two couples had each other to keep them warm. She’d spent most of the night awake, scared out of her wits, and shivering uncontrollably. When she got Amanda alone, she’d give her a piece of her mind, and hopefully they’d pack up and head out in the afternoon. What a waste of a weekend off.
She dispelled her irritation by hiking deeper through the underbrush. This was an old growth forest, so there was no shortage of dry twigs and branches. Her arm was full of kindling, but she kept moving deeper, enraptured by the massive moss-covered trees. She felt as if she were in the middle of a fairy tale, some magical place she only dreamed about once upon a time. Bella smiled to herself, feeling twelve years old again. Her legs burned from exertion, but it felt good. She was alive for the first time in years. Perhaps being kidnapped from the city was the best thing that could have happened to her.
Minutes turned into hours. Her stomach protested, but she hated the idea of returning to the campsite. She felt at home in this forest. Some natural force seemed to surround her, lulling her into peaceful submission. “Bella!”
The voice carrying through the forest was like a bucket of ice water to a sleeping body. She jolted to attention, completely oblivious to the time and place. The spirit of the forest had pulled her out of reality, and she was almost disappointed to regain her awareness.
Bella backtracked along the rough path of pine needles and leaf litter, following the sound of voices. They grew louder as she neared. Amanda’s voice carried a hint of fear, and Bella felt guilty for being gone so long without word.
“Bella! There you are! Where in God’s name were you?” Amanda ran over, closing the short distance between them once she emerged from the shelter of the forest, giving her shoulders a firm jostle.
“I was just hiking. I lost track of time.” Bella winked. “Folklore says old growth forests have enchantments. Might not be so far from the truth.” She dropped her pile of kindling at Amanda’s feet. Everyone gathered around and looked from her to the wood she’d collected. Bella couldn’t help but notice the two men carried no love for her, trying unsuccessfully to rein in their scowls of disapproval.
Amanda sighed heavily and turned to face her boyfriend. “See? I told you she had to be off doing her survival thing. Look, she brought us wood.”
Keith stepped forward and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, if she’s as good as you say, then let’s see her build us a fire.” All the expectant eyes upon her made her nerves flare up. Did she even remember how to do any of this? She had no flint or matches. Did they expect her to create a fire from scratch or were the guys going to step up and help her? She felt so cornered, so alone. That feeling of love and belonging when in the forest was a sharp contrast to her current situation. She had the urge to run, to run free like the wild animals hiding from the light of day—no worries, no regrets, just the strain of her muscles.
“I brought the wood. Surely a big, strong guy like you knows how to use a lighter.” Appealing to a man’s Neanderthal pride always worked. The two men teamed up, attempting to build a fire.
Man build fire. Good.
She rolled her eyes and joined her two friends, now sifting through the supplies.
“Did you bring anything to eat besides beer and chips?” asked Bella. She was starved and hoping for a real campside breakfast consisting of hash browns and bacon on the open fire. However, there was no cast iron pan or any basic supplies. What were they thinking when planning this trip? They had to eat.
“We were gonna stop at the grocery store off the highway. Guess Keith forgot. We’ll head out in a while and get what we need. It can’t be too far.” Amanda tried to salvage the situation, but the look in her eyes didn’t inspire confidence. How long was she going to defend Keith to her friends, her parents, the world? She deserved better.
Bella could accept that Amanda would soon move on, probably to start a family with Keith. She’d be left behind—fine, but she hated that he constantly tried to put a wedge in their friendship. It was a miracle he’d agreed to let Amanda bring Bella on this adventure at all. She was certain Keith agreed under duress because if looks could kill, Bella would be dead and buried.
“I’m starving,” Bella complained. Her stomach made itself heard.
Sara unfolded a chair and plunked herself down to remove a rock from her shoe. “I’ve already eaten a whole bag of chips myself. My diet’s shot.”
Amanda clapped her hands. “I know!” Her eyes twinkled with life when Bella felt like a zombie. That was usually the case. “We’ll split up and search for berries. I mean, the pioneers survived in the bush, right? There must be something edible out there.” She motioned to the wall of forest around them.
“This is Canada, not the tropics. We’ll starve to death if we play
Little House on the Prairie
.” Bella had had enough. She knew hunting for berries would be a waste of time, but Sara and Amanda sprinted off like schoolgirls, with high hopes of finding a source of food for the five of them.
She exhaled and dropped into Sara’s seat, watching the gentle breeze rustle the leaves high in the forest canopy. It sounded like waves washing up on the shore, calming her and pulling her into daydreams. She’d had such little sleep that it was so easy to succumb to the heavy weight of her eyelids.
“I told Amanda it was a mistake bringing you here,” snapped Keith.
Bella was startled awake from her semi-sleepy state, sitting upright in the chair and nearly collapsing with it. “Excuse me?”
Dave came up behind him, determinedly rubbing two sticks together. There was still no fire in their manmade pit, and they were no doubt pouting over their shattered manly pride.
Keith looked off in the direction Amanda and Sara had taken before continuing. “This is supposed to be a romantic weekend. You’re supposed to be the fucking survivalist that makes things easy for us.” He turned around and snatched the sticks from Dave and tossed them on her lap. “Be the hero and make a fire before you ruin this experience for Amanda.”
“Like you care about Amanda. You’re just sorry that your ego’s bruised. You think having a woman save the day will help you feel better? Didn’t you even bring matches? It’s not exactly rocket science to light up some kindling and throw on a few logs.”
He dragged a heavy hand through his hair. “No, I don’t have matches. I don’t smoke. Why the fuck would I carry matches?”
“Because you’re camping in the woods?” she answered sarcastically. Every minute that passed made her more and more uncomfortable being trapped with these jerks. Keith might put on a pretty face for Amanda, but he threatened Bella. She didn’t even doubt that he was capable of physically harming her. He was relatively big for a guy, and she was petite for a woman.
“You’re a smart one, aren’t you?” He put his arm around Dave’s shoulders and leaned against him. “Take the truck back up the path and see if there’s a store nearby. Check the highway signs. They should give you an idea of the closest rest stop. Bring back something to eat.”
Dave nodded and took the keys Keith handed him. Great, now they’d be completely alone. No witnesses if he decided to kill her and hide her in the bushes, claiming she’d gotten lost hiking. Her wild imagination made her muscles tense and thoughts irrational.
As Dave pulled out of their camping area, the tires spinning on the dirt, she stood up and put distance between her and Keith.
He followed her. “Was anything you told Amanda true, or are you just completely full of shit?”
“Hey, I haven’t been camping in years. And, for your information, I never asked to come on this trip. If I’d been told in advance to prepare for this, I’d have packed appropriately.”
He stared at her for longer than a comfortable moment, his lips pursed. “You realize the reason Amanda hasn’t moved out yet is because of you, don’t you?”
“No it’s not. And where is this coming from?”
His mood shifted to something darker. He stalked forward, getting in her space, forcing her to back up. She ended up tripping over one of the tent ropes, falling back on her rear end, and scraping her palms on the ground.
“There a problem here?” A deep baritone came from directly behind her. Without getting up, she tilted her head back and looked up, up, up at the man standing less than a foot away.
?” asked Keith.
The mystery man bent over and helped her to her feet. His arm was thick with muscle. When she looked up at his face, he smirked playfully and gave her a wink. “My name’s Ben,” he said to her, ignoring Keith. Keith would be a fool to put on his macho display for this guy. He had to be a head taller and twice as broad. She couldn’t stop staring—was she drooling?
“Thanks for that. I’m Bella.” She broke eye contact and brushed the dirt from her jeans.
Keith stepped forward, and as if countering his movements, Ben stepped between them. “You camping near here? We’re in need of supplies. Is there a store nearby that you know of?”
“I’m with a small group of hunters. You won’t find any civilization around here for at least an hour’s drive.”
“Fuck,” Keith muttered, and kicked the cooler nearest him. The glass beer bottles inside clattered together.
Ben put an arm around Bella’s shoulder and led her away. His hand was big and so warm when her body shivered internally. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine. Just scraped my hands.”
And bruised my ass.
He stopped dead and grabbed her wrists, turning her hands palm side up. He frowned as he examined her.
“I should take care of this. It’s better if you come with me. I have a first-aid kit at my camp. Besides, you’re freezing, and we have a fire going.”
“I’ll come along,” said Keith from the distance.