Authors: Stacey Brutger
Moonlight shimmered between the tree branches, and the buckskin breeches she wore under her split skirt allowed her to move swiftly through the undergrowth. Her breathing evened out, her muscles burned, and she smiled as the thrill of the hunt raced through her veins. She was the hunter in her group of friends, a skilled fighter, often beating the men in any challenge.
Most people found her behavior unwomanly. She wasn’t demure or shy, and didn’t know how to pretend to be. She saw no reason to change herself to fit into society’s concept of the perfect woman.
All that mattered was her cousins stood by her, accepting her without reservation.
A pang punched through her chest at the thought of them.
She missed their friendship.
She worried if they had survived.
A joyful howl rent the air, pulling her out of her maudlin thoughts.
Wolf had located his target.
Through their connection, she felt his muscles stretch as he took off in a flat-out run. A bellow of frustration rang through the trees when the man lost track of Wolf, his frustration and pain hollowing out her stomach. She increased her pace, willing herself to tune him out. It was best she find the child first without having to explain exactly how she managed the feat.
A fine sheen of sweat coated her brow. The ground flew past in a blur, and Diana wanted to laugh, exuberant at the freedom. Her ability to connect with animals gave her access to a different way to experience things, an escape when the human world became too much. It was impossible to explain the experience to another human being, explain the sheer thrill of living that bubbled through her.
At Wolf’s yip, she veered left, easily avoiding the small gully. Diana slowed to a walk when she saw Wolf dancing at the base of a large oak tree. Signaling to Wolf to sit and guard, she dropped the bow and quiver next to him and went to see what he had discovered. She craned her neck and saw a small patch of pale lace flutter in the breeze.
“There is no reason to be afraid, my friend won’t hurt you.” No movement or sound came from above, and Diana switched her approach. “Your father sent us to find you. My name is Diana Legend. Can you come down, or are you stuck?”
After a short hesitation, the girl answered tentatively. “Stuck.”
“Stay calm. You’ve been a very brave girl.” She pitched her voice so no hint of concern came through. “I’ll climb up and help you.”
“But you’re a girl.” She sounded forlorn and disdainful at the same time.
Diana quickly suppressed her smile. “So are you, but you managed.”
“But you’re big.”
Diana chuckled. “I am an expert climber. You’ll be down in no time.” Diana walked around the tree and studied the branches for the best angle. “While you wait, why not tell me why you climbed the tree. By the time you’re through, I’ll have you safe.”
Without waiting for her to begin, Diana backed up a few feet and ran toward the tree. Thanks to her connection to Wolf, she easily leapt and grasped the lowest branch, allowing the momentum to propel her upward. She wrapped her legs around the branch, then reached up to the next, rough bark flaking off and pelting her while she climbed.
“Every father wants a boy,” the mite explained with exaggerated patience, obviously mimicking something she’d heard from an adult. “After Mama died, I wanted to make him happy.”
Diana repressed her smile, leaping from one branch to the next with ease. The girl was wedged halfway up the tree, quaking with fear, but her chin firmed when she saw Diana.
Her heart caught at the girl’s courage. “Your father’s not far. You’ll be home soon.”
Diana gathered the child close, loosening her shoe where it was wedged in the crook of the tree. Little arms wrapped around her neck, the brutal grip threatening to cut off her air. The child shook so hard Diana didn’t have the heart to pry her tiny hands away.
“I’m afraid of the dark.” She whispered the confession as if ashamed.
The deep terror reminded Diana of what it had been like to grow up alone, after her parents abandoned her when they discovered her freakish gifts. No child deserved to be afraid of the unknown.
“Have you looked at the night? It has a beauty of its own. Even certain flowers only bloom in the moonlight. The quiet can be peaceful if you allow it.” Diana wrapped her arms under the girl, studying the options available to extract them from the branches.
“I think it’s well past time for us to escape this tree. If you wrap your legs tightly around my waist, we’ll climb down together.” The child shivered, and Diana tucked the girl’s head on her shoulder, casting her mind about for something to distract her. “Then you can meet my dog. Would you like that?”
Diana waited until she received a nod.
“Then hang on tight.”
Even with the extra weight, Diana effortlessly swung from one branch to the next. “We only have one last jump, then we will be on the ground.”
Without giving the child time to panic, Diana jumped. The impact jarred her knees, and she dropped to her backside to prevent any serious injury. Diana glanced down at the child cradled in her lap. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” The girl blinked in surprise and a big grin of amazement crossed her face. “You did it!”
Diana ran her hands through the child’s tangled hair, which she found surprisingly soothing. Emboldened by the caress, the child mimicked her. “Your hair is so soft.”
Diana smiled and eased her grip on the child, needing to see her face. “So is yours. Are you ready to go home?”
The girl nodded enthusiastically. Her father had described her perfectly, but said nothing of the child’s beauty. Just like her father, the child was eye-catching. She had an angelic pixie face, her nose slightly upturned, her brown eyes big and wide.
Wolf pranced over and licked both of them, wagging his whole body madly, and Emilie giggled in delight.
“What’s his name?”
“I call him Wolf.” The girl clung to Wolf’s neck, her fingers buried in his fur like she never wanted to let go. “What’s your name?”
“Emilie.” Her face scrunched up in disgust. “It’s a stupid girl name.”
“I think it’s very pretty.”
“I guess so.” She shrugged, her voice shy as she peered up at Diana.
Diana stood and motioned for Wolf. “It’s past both our bedtimes. What do you say we take you home?”
The child rose and placed her hand in Diana’s, sighing dramatically. “Yes, we’d best go. I’m sure Daddy is worrying.”
Diana tightened her hold, her heart skipping a beat at the mention of her father, and they began walking. Once they reached the tree line, the baying of dogs broke the silence. The pack charged in their direction, flying over the forest floor in a burst of incredible speed. Wolf paced anxiously. She wanted to order him to leave, but knew he would refuse. He lingered at her side to protect her, loyal down to his bones.
Connecting to a pack would be difficult, not to mention incredibly dangerous. So much could go wrong. She’d never tried to control so many individual minds at once, since she knew they could easily overwhelm her. If she pushed too hard, they would see her as a threat and attack.
She rubbed her hands on her skirt, battling a rush of nerves. The only way this would work would be to prove that she was stronger—prove to them that she was the alpha.
If she didn’t do anything, Wolf would be torn apart trying to protect her.
iana only had
a few moments left before the hounds broke through to the clearing. Her back itched, then began to burn, a sign she recognized all too well. Magic rose from the essence in her blood, and pain streaked down her spine, as if someone was slowly carving the flesh from her bones. Heat burned along the tattoos that ran along her spine, the scrolling design like vines, growing every time she used her power. As the threat increased, the magic demanded release, determined to protect her even if it had to rip her apart from the inside out to do it.
“Emilie.” Ignoring the crippling pain, she knelt and grabbed the girl’s shoulders. “I want you to stay behind Wolf.”
“Are you leaving me?” The child’s voice quaked on the last word before she lifted her chin.
Diana smoothed the child’s hair, gritting her teeth to hold her powers back as it tried to claw out of her body. “I will be right here. Do you hear the dogs?” She waited for Emilie to nod, despite the urgency. “They will want to chase Wolf. There are too many. If they catch him, they will hurt him.”
“No.” Emilie ran toward Wolf, hugging him around the neck with arms barely big enough to encompass him. The animal licked her face and whined.
“I want you to stay there, and I will stop them.”
Emilie never released her grip on Wolf, her eyes full of terror as she raised her head. “But I don’t want you to die.”
“I’ll tell you a secret.” She glanced over her shoulder, the need to hurry pressing down on her, the force of her magic seeping in the air, seeking a target. The hounds were getting too close. Soon the three of them would be overrun. The burning in her shoulders intensified, the promise of danger scorching the air. “Animals listen to me. I can stop them, but only if you stay next to Wolf.”
“All right.” Big brown eyes peered up at her. Humbled by that trust, Diana buried her doubts, determined to keep them both safe, even if it killed her.
Diana smiled, stood, then turned to face the threat. If she couldn’t stop the dogs, she would use her gift to drop as many as she could. Retrieving her bow, she noched an arrow. Those that proved to be too strong to overpower, she would try to shoot to maim. While her insides rebelled at the thought of harming an animal, the need to protect her two companions overrode everything else.
Opening her mind, she ignored the burning pain that darted down her back and focused on the hounds. She knew the instant they caught Wolf’s scent, felt the adrenaline engulf them, the drive to hunt and bring down their prey flooding their bloodstream. She focused the swirling energy on the lead dog.
When the pack dashed into view, she closed her eyes. Power surged up her spine, across her shoulders, prickling like thousands of needles being jammed under her skin. The force was unstoppable—like trying to catch lightning. She focused the energy on the dogs and threw the command at them, using her magic to force them to obey.
The words were soft.
They thrummed with power.
Since she was unable to touch the animals directly, she had to expend double the energy to command them. The muscles of her back seized in protest, nearly squeezing the air from her lungs. Her vision wavered, her thoughts growing fuzzy when the command finally slammed into the animals.
Their thrill of the hunt plowed into her.
The sheer joy of running with the pack engulfed her, until she felt she could run for hours for the unadulterated joy of it.
She nearly wavered under the strength of the yearning.
She ached, feeling so human, so isolated without a pack of her own.
The lead dog shook his head, as if trying to buck off her command. She poured more power into the tentative connection. Heat seared up along her back like a lash of a whip, leaving behind tender strips of flesh where her tattoo slowly stretched and burned new lines into her body.
The alpha stumbled and faltered, and she ruthlessly took control of the rest of the pack.
The first dog stopped, whimpered and circled aimlessly. The others followed suit. One by one they sat, until every one of them gave her their undivided attention. She stretched her arms, trying to alleviate the itch as the magic continued to ride her hard.
Diana lowered her bow, shaken at the near disaster.
“You did it.” Emilie jumped in excitement. “How did you do it?”
Diana felt drained, the fire searing along her back gradually easing to the level of a bad sunburn. “Remember, this is our secret. You can’t tell anyone.”
The girl’s face practically glowed at being trusted with a secret. “I promise.”
Diana held up her hand when Emilie opened her mouth. “Listen, do you hear them?”
“What?” Emilie followed Diana’s gaze, practically bouncing on her feet.
Diana felt hooves pounding along the earth, the sensation more in her head than under her feet as remnants of her power continued to float in the air. “Horses. Your father is coming.”
“Oh,” the girl whispered, her shoulders hunching as she deflated, her eyes downcast in disappointment.
Diana barely resisted gathering her up in her arms. “You didn’t want to spend the night in a tree, did you?”
“No.” She kicked at the dirt, scuffing her shoes aimlessly.
Concern churned in her gut. Little people were a mystery to her. Her missions for the school where she lived and trained usually dealt with hunting and fighting and animals. She floundered, clenching her fists, her hands more familiar with weapons than comforting a child. “Then what’s wrong?”
Small arms wrapped around her leg. Wolf, still sitting patiently at Emilie’s side, let lose a small snuffling sound and leaned against them both, the added weight nearly knocking the three of them over. “I don’t want you to go.”
“But don’t you want your toys and clothes?”
Emilie shook her head and burrowed closer.
Shouts rolled over the glen.
They’d been spotted.
, I don’t live far away. You can visit me any time your father allows it.” She had no doubt Emilie’s father would forbid any contact. Not that she had to worry about it. She had no choice but leave if she wanted to survive. Diana ignored the twinge of discomfort at the small deception. As those big, innocent eyes gazed up at her, she felt her resolve waver. What could it hurt to linger one day?
Diana repressed a grin at the endearment that slipped out. “It means dear or beloved.”
Emilie nodded, but persisted in her original thought. “But it’s not the same.”
“The same?” She’d somehow completely lost track of the conversation, another reminder how ill-equipped she was to deal with a child.
“As you staying with me.”
Charmed despite herself, Diana knelt, placing her hands on Emilie’s shoulders. “No, it is not.”
Emilie’s face scrunched up in thought then brightened. “If you come live with us, you can share my toys. I promise not to bother you. My house is really, really big. You won’t even have to see me very much if you don’t want.”
Her heart squeezed at the plea, and Diana hugged Emilie tight. What was her father thinking? She gently eased the precocious child away. “I cannot live with you and your father. People would talk. When a woman lives with a man, they need to be married.” Diana knew she’d said the wrong thing the moment Emilie’s brown eyes brightened.
“Then you can marry my father. We could have fun and—”
“When people marry, they should marry for love.” Her stomach fluttered at the thought of a man like him interested in someone as inappropriate as her. The thought of marriage never crossed her mind…and now it circled her brain, a little nudge of curiosity about what it would be like to be loved.
“Daddy didn’t,” Emilie insisted. “Everyone says so.”
That explained a great deal.
Diana tried to squash the tiny spark of compassion. She didn’t want to like the man. “But I would need love.”
Diana feared her smile was more sad than reassuring. She’d given up the unrealistic dream of having a family of her own when men had destroyed the school where she and her friends lived. Those men wouldn’t relent in their search for power. They’d gone too far to retreat, not without their prize.
“You could learn to love him.” But even the child sounded doubtful.
As if mentioning him had conjured him, Emilie’s father rode into view, a tall, commanding presence. After he lost sight of Wolf, he must have doubled back to collect the horses and dogs.
“Emilie.” His voice thundered across the open area, his horse charging toward them like an avenging knight rescuing a damsel. He pulled up short a few feet away, but stayed in the saddle like a lord of the manor. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Diana’s mouth dropped open in shock at his harsh tone and complete lack of compassion.
“Sorry, Papa.” Emilie looked to her feet, scuffling the tip of her shoe in the dirt. Even crouched next to her, Diana barely heard her.
“It won’t happen again.” His harsh command grated against Diana’s nerves. It was everything she could do not to have the horse toss him to the ground like he deserved.
“No, Papa.” Emilie’s voice quavered, her eyes filling with tears for the first time since she’d met the young girl.
Diana gritted her teeth against the urge to protest, but she couldn’t risk becoming more involved. The last time she tried to do the right thing and protect people, Pastor Williams made it his mission in life to hunt her down.
“Go back to the house.”
Diana jolted when the man spoke again. Emilie tightened her hold, stubbornly shaking her head. Diana snuggled the girl closer, admiring her spunk even though she quaked in fear.
“Emilie. Go back to the house. Now.” His voice was softer but, if anything, more commanding.
Emilie’s whole body trembled, and she tucked herself against Diana.
“Perhaps I could walk back with her?”
He looked at the dogs, then back at his daughter, and his scowl deepened. “I think you’ve done enough.”
Diana stood, anger churning in her at his presumptuousness, and she spoke more sharply than she’d intended. “You mean like finding your daughter? When you asked me so nicely?” Diana held out her hand and smiled when Emilie grasped it, her little fingers squeezing hard enough to make her wince. “My task isn’t complete until I see her home.”
“Brava.” His lips twisted into a smile, and he nudged the horse aside with his knees. “By all means, be my guest.”
His smugness made her instantly uneasy, and she took a step back, running through her limited options.
Refusing his thinly veiled command would make her look suspicious.
He’d neatly trapped her.
Swallowing hard, she gave in to the inevitable.
She’d deliver Emilie home, then vanish from their lives.
Diana ignored the pang in her chest at the thought. Pretending the men milling about didn’t exist, she whispered to Emilie. “Do you know the way home?”
She looked around uncertainly. “It’s so dark.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll find it.” Diana breathed deeply and braced herself, then called upon her power. Pain ricocheted through her as her blood heated. It was a weakness. If she used her powers too much, her body protested the abuse.
If she forced the issue too far, her mind would shut down completely.
She refused to show weakness in front of
Pressure built behind her eyes, the sudden headache threatening to split her skull when the familiar heat spread along her back. The crushing pain eased to a dull ache as soon as her power found release, and she whistled her command to the dogs.
The pack yipped, chasing around them, before racing off.
The energy from the hounds flooded her system, giving her an extra boost.
Diana picked up Emilie and followed.
The horses kept pace in the distance, but she didn’t bother looking back. No need. Heat sizzled along her skin as Gabriel’s bold glances trailed over her from head to toe, his regard persistent and unbending. The attention flustered her.
To keep her mind from wandering to where it shouldn’t—to him—she focused on assessing the damage to her body. As long as she didn’t use her gift for a few hours, she would recover by morning. Every time she used her gift, her tolerance grew, but the side-effects worsened.
One day, her gift would ultimately kill her.
But not today.
Pink tinged the horizon as the sun began its ascent, and she surveyed her surroundings in case she needed a quick escape. The vision in her dream had warned her Williams was near. Even while her body craved a few hour of rest, she couldn’t risk lingering.
The hounds dodged the trees and undergrowth, circling around them, nipping and playing with each other. As they emerged from the tangle of trees, a vast expanse of green lawn lay stretched out before them. A large mansion lit up the horizon like a beacon.
The sheer size gave her pause, nearly making her turn and head in the opposite direction. Only the precious weight in her arms stopped her. “You’re almost home.”
She waved Wolf away, and he easily blended in with the other dogs. The last thing she needed was for him to cause some mischief if left on his own. Diana set Emilie on the ground, and they walked the remaining distance together.
“Don’t leave.” She threw herself at Diana and wrapped her arms around her legs, almost tripping her.
Guilt nipped at Diana’s heels at the little girl’s desperate plea.
, your father…loves you.” She hesitated for a second, remembering his cold reception to his own daughter.
“He’s mad at me. Again.” She gave a long-suffering sigh, as if accepting her fate.
The little minx didn’t seem very troubled about her father’s anger, and Diana swallowed back a snort. There was no doubt in her mind that Emilie knew exactly what set her father off, and she did it often to gain his attention.
Diana also remembered his frantic search. “He was worried about you. He’s been searching for you all night.”
Emilie quieted, uncertainty swimming in her eyes. “Really?”
The awed whisper clutched at emotions Diana had worked hard to bury the past few months. “Yes.”