She ran, blood pounding in her ears, lungs straining, at their limit.
The rough sound of his breath pushed her to go faster. The huge trunks of pine and oak trees provided cover…just not enough, considering his sense of smell. But she was fast and she had a head start.
She’d veered off the path immediately, her bare feet cut and bleeding from the forest underbrush. She needed a place to hide, somewhere he couldn’t find her.
A slim beam of pale gold sunlight caught the tip of a nearby pine. Midsummer air in the southeastern Pennsylvania forest smelled of heat, heavy and wet.
Spotting a large trunk ahead, she pulled in close, stopped to catch her breath and listen, eliminating noises one by one—birds singing in the branches, deer rustling in the brush, the sound of cars on the nearest highway at least ten miles away.
She didn’t hear him. She’d run while he’d been turned, gaining the advantage. If he caught her…
No, she couldn’t think about that. She had to get back to the house, had to—
The grey wolf jumped out from behind her, sharp teeth bared, awful growling echoing in her ears. Unable to help herself, she screamed, the high-pitched screech reverberating through the trees. Turning, she ran, though she knew she couldn’t outrun him.
Sure enough, his jaws clamped around her ankle, careful not to break the skin but not letting go, either. Scrambling backward, she grabbed a broken branch and raised it above her head.
With a snarl, the beast released her and backed away, hazel eyes narrowed, watching her. Then he lifted his snout and howled in pain as his body began to contort. Her eyes widened as his limbs lengthened, the fur rippled and disappeared as the wolf transformed into a chestnut-haired teen boy.
“That was cheating, Cole.” She threw the stick at her older brother, though not close enough to hit him, and followed it with his backpack. She’d stolen it from his hiding place in the woods, intending to stash it somewhere as a gag. But he’d caught her and the chase had been on. “You’re not allowed to change. That’s not fair.”
Panting as he pulled on his jeans, the lanky seventeen-year-old stood, stretching the kinks out of his back.
“And you know Dad’ll tell you everything’s fair in love and war, brat.” Cole smiled the smart-ass grin that never failed to get him out of trouble. “You didn’t know I was there, did you?”
She hadn’t, but she wasn’t about to admit it. She stuck out her tongue at him instead. “And Dad’ll tell you not to use me as prey.”
Cole snorted. “Oh, come on. You’re almost fifteen. It’s not like you don’t know how to take care of yourself.”
With a huff, she turned away to walk back to the house. “Then why do you and Cal still treat me like a kid?”
“ ’Cause we’re your older brothers. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” He fell into step beside her. “You’ll have your change soon, brat. Girls usually have their first change before they’re fifteen. Soon, you’ll be—”
Cole cut off and Bella turned to find her brother frozen, hazel eyes wide, nostrils flared as he scented the air. “Cole? What’s wrong?”
He lifted a hand to silence her and his eyes narrowed. “Gunsmoke. Blood.”
It wasn’t hunting season. Goosebumps broke out over her skin. “Where?”
Cole took off like a shot, Bella on his heels, fear close behind.
Her brother pulled ahead and lost her in seconds. She ran flat out, concentrating on breathing as she tried to catch up to Cole. A half mile from the house, she heard her brother cry out, something in his voice she’d never heard before—fear.
She ran faster.
She’d almost caught up to Cole when she saw a flash of tanned skin through the trees.
“Cole. Bella. Stop!”
Her oldest brother, Cal, leaped out of the bushes in front of her and grabbed her around the waist, taking her off her feet. Cole stopped and turned frightened eyes on their brother.
“Take Bella into the forest and hide,” Cal snapped at Cole. “I’ll go to the house.”
“Where’s Mom and Dad?” she asked.
Cal shook his head, not meeting her gaze. “Take her, hide her.” He growled the words. “Now. Right now.”
She didn’t understand. Why did Cal want her to hide? Where were her parents?
“Let me go, Cal.” She started to struggle, but she couldn’t break away from his strong arms. With a snarl, Cole grabbed her, threw her over his shoulder and took off.
“No! Cole, let go! What’s going on?”
“Quiet!” was all Cole said, his tone a nearly silent hiss, dread pouring from him in waves. She shut up and held on.
He ran flat out and she tried not to let her stomach revolt from hanging upside down as she thumped along on his shoulder.
She didn’t know how long they ran, but when he stopped, gasping for air, she saw the mound of the cold cellar hidden in the deep woods. He practically threw her on the ground then fell to tear at the leaves and brush hiding the door.
Sensing Cole’s fear and urgency, terror began to build in her chest, nearly choking her.
“What’s happening?” She tried to keep the whimper out of her voice but didn’t succeed.
Cole wouldn’t look at her, just shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“Are you going to the house?”
“Why can’t I come with you?”
Cole shook his head again and this time he did meet her eyes. “You need to stay here. Don’t leave until one of us comes for you.”
She could barely force the words out of her mouth. “What if no one comes?”
“Someone will come.” With a grunt, he pulled the old wooden door away to reveal the high-tech steel beneath. Keying in the access code, he flipped the hatch open.
She could barely breathe out the words. “Don’t leave me, Cole.”
“I have to. Cal needs me.”
No way was she going in that dark hole by herself. “Then take me with—”
Cole slashed a hand through the air. “You can’t protect yourself yet. We can’t look out for you and deal with…whatever’s going on. Get in, Bella. Now.”
Her teenage brother’s face hardened and she had a glimpse of the man he’d become.
She went into the shelter.
* * *
Bella sat on the cool earth floor, the lantern in the corner providing enough light to see the entire space, which wasn’t much more than three solid concrete walls and ceiling, the dirt floor and that cold steel door.
The batteries in the clock on the wall had corroded so she had no idea what time it was. She had enough fresh batteries for the lantern to last a few days, but she wouldn’t wait that long. She couldn’t wait that long.
She had to get out of here. Soon. Her skin tingled, like bugs had crawled under it, and her stomach hurt, though she didn’t feel sick. She realized she was panting and took a deep breath—in through her nose and out through her mouth like her dad had taught her. She couldn’t afford to let the fear to overtake her.
But, Blessed Goddess, her skin itched.
She tried to keep her mind off what was going on outside by singing songs, playing tic-tac-toe on the floor.
But after what seemed like forever, she settled into a corner, arms wrapped around her legs, and watched the door for any sign of movement, ears straining for the slightest sound.
She willed the door to open, prayed to the Great Goddess Uni for her mom to step through and wrap her in her arms, to tell her everything was okay.
What was going on out there?
The first intense pain took her by surprise, making her legs twitch as if she’d been hit by an electric shock. She screamed and grabbed her calves, felt the muscles contort like rubber bands being manipulated by a two-year-old.
No, no, no. Goddess, please, not now.
The second agonizing jolt made it perfectly clear the Goddess wasn’t going to answer her prayer.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Alone. Afraid. Her mother was supposed to be here, helping her through this first time. Her dad needed to teach her how to run on four legs.
She howled, the sound a guttural cry of agony as her shoulders and backbone began their transformation. Cartilage twisted and bones reshaped, making her body hunch.
Now her stomach began to heave as the change took her to all fours in the dirt. Brown fur began to sprout from her skin, an agonizing itch she couldn’t scratch. Her clothes shredded as her body reformed, seams bursting and buttons flying.
Terror wanted to consume her but she knew she had to keep it under control. She was all alone. If something went wrong—
No, she couldn’t think about that. Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind, she concentrated instead on riding out the pain, on not letting it overpower her. She was hyperventilating and she knew it, so she made an effort to rein it in, taking long, deep breaths even as the bones in her face reconfigured in terrifying ways.
No, not terrifying. Get a grip, Arabella. You’ve seen your family do this a hundred times.
She clung to the thought like it was a lifeline and she was drowning as her ribs restructured and the joints in her arms bent backwards.
She had no sense of time as her body made its first change, just that the agony never seemed to end.
Until finally, it did.
For several minutes, she lay on the ground, just breathing. When she thought she’d be able to stand, she rose on her paws, unsteady in her new form. Her joints ached, her bones hurt—her snout, especially.
She wanted her mother. Whining, she made her way to the door, stumbling on wobbly legs. She sniffed the air around the door, her sense of smell ten times more powerful in this form than in her human body.
She caught Cole’s scent, Cal’s, and, beyond that, her parents. She began to claw at the door, though it hurt her still-tender paws. She had to get out. She was trapped in here and she couldn’t stand— No, the wolf couldn’t stand it. Cover was good but not without an exit, an escape.
Suddenly, she caught a scent she didn’t recognize, a human. But not human. Someone with power, though it was different from hers. It came from within, instead of being drawn from nature.
He was running, fast, straight for her, until he was right outside. Backing into the corner farthest from the door, she bared her teeth, trying to look fearsome though she shook like a leaf in the wind.
It seemed to take forever for the door to open and when it did, she growled, surprised that she still sounded vaguely like herself.
She didn’t expect a boy to open the door, a dark-haired teenager who looked to be Cole’s age.
He drew in a deep breath at the sight of her and froze, though she didn’t smell fear. Confusion, doubt, then shocked realization crossed his expression and he slowly lowered himself onto his knees, one hand outstretched.
“Arabella, I’m Steven Castiglione. I’m here to help. You have to come with me now.”
She growled again. Who was this boy to tell her what she had to do? Cole had said he would come for her. Or Cal or her parents. She wasn’t going anywhere with this stranger.
As if he’d read her mind, Steven grimaced and his eyes shadowed. “Your parents can’t come for you, Arabella. You must come with me. I won’t hurt you.”
He backed away until he stood outside the shelter, far enough away from the door that she had enough room to escape. Sniffing, she didn’t smell anyone else. He’d come alone.
She growled, unable to speak in this form. She needed to speak, needed to ask questions. But how was she supposed to change back?
She tried to think even as she snapped at the boy, who continued to talk to her. What had her mom told her when she’d asked how you changed back? How had she explained it?
Concentrate on reshaping the body, on calling back the pelt and the snout and the paws.
Blessed Goddess, she didn’t know if she could do this, not with the uncertainty and the fear and the realization that something was very wrong.
No. No, she could do this. She had to do this.
Pushing everything out of her mind, she found the strength of will to call back the animal, to conquer nature and return to human form. It wasn’t as painful this way. Her bones and muscles knew the wolf was only a temporary state, that this was her true form.
It took her longer than it should have, but it would get easier. Her mom had told her that, too.
When she recovered, drained and naked on the ground that had absorbed her energy back into it, she raised her head to find the boy standing with his back to her.
When he turned and moved toward her, his expression held an overwhelming sadness that chilled her to the bone. He towered over her, his too-long hair shadowing a lean face. Then he pulled his t-shirt over his head and kneeled beside her. He helped her sit, helped her into his shirt, averting his eyes as if embarrassed by her nudity.
Must not be versipellis.
The random thought flitted through her mind. He didn’t smell like one, either, though his blood carried arus, the magic inherent in all descendents of the Etruscan magical races.
“I’m sorry, Arabella, but we have to go.”
She shook her head. “Where’s my mom and dad?”
His mouth firmed but he looked her straight in the eyes. “They can’t help you now. You have to come with me.”
No. She refused to hear what he wasn’t saying. With a burst of strength, she broke away from the startled teen and ran out the door.
Through the forest, her legs still wobbly, her stomach knotted tight in fear, she ran toward the house. She could smell blood and, though it made her want to curl into a tight little ball and cry, she forced herself to run faster.
Steven followed, but she outdistanced him in seconds, fear giving her wings. Vaguely, she felt some power call to her, something that wanted her to slow, to calm, to wait.
She was too far gone to wait. She barely felt the underbrush tear at her legs as she raced home.
It didn’t take her long to reach the house by the edge of the woods. An unfamiliar, battered Jeep sat in the dirt driveway.
Her heart leapt to see her brother sitting on its tailgate, head in his hands.
Her scream made him lift his head and she saw tears streaming down his face.
“Are you okay?” She skidded to a stop by his side and threw her arms around his shoulders. “What’s going on? Where’s Mom and Dad?”
Cole’s arms wrapped around her waist and crushed her against him, as if he needed the comfort.
And that terrified her.
“I’m sorry, Bella. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help…they were already gone.”
That’s when she saw them. Or rather, their bodies.
Cal, her mother, her father. Lying next to the house while a stranger stood over them, hands outstretched, chanting.
She tore away from Cole and ran for them, for her mom, but another pair of arms came around her from behind and lifted her off her feet.
Kicking and crying, she fought to get away.
Steven held her, crooning something she didn’t fully understand in her ear. The words helped to calm her but the grief continued to build.
“Let her go, Steven. It’s alright.”
“Dad, I don’t think—”
“She needs to see. Come here, Arabella.”
The man who’d been standing over her parents and brother stood and held out his hand. She ignored him and ran for her family, dropping to her knees beside them.
Cal had a wound on his chest. Mom did, too. There was a blanket over her dad’s face. Instinctively, she reached for it, but the man who’d called to her grabbed her hand.
She turned. He looked somewhat like the boy, though he was older and his dark hair was laced with gray.
“You don’t want to do that.” The man’s voice held a gentle note despite his hard expression. “They shot him first. They had to, or he could have beaten them. Your mother and brother fought well, but the cowards shot them both in the back.”
Her chest hurt so bad, she didn’t know if she could breathe. Gone. Her parents were gone. And Cal, too.
She sobbed, laying her head on her mom’s stomach and cried even harder at the stillness of the body.
* * *
Steven watched the girl pour out her agony with her tears, his own sense of failure weighing on his shoulders.
They’d been too late. His dad, a legendary Etruscan grigorio with magical powers to rival the gods, had gotten the call only an hour ago that the lucani royal family was under attack. They’d raced up here from Chester County but the four Malandante assassins had killed Cole and Bella’s parents and older brother before his dad had killed them.
In one swoop, the Mal had killed the king and queen of the Etruscan lucani and their oldest heir. As one of the last royal versipelli families in the world, their deaths would rock the foundation of the magical Etruscan society in America.
The question was, why now? The lucani hadn’t made any aggressive moves on the Mal in years. More like centuries. The Luporeales had been more interested in keeping the lucani from splintering into factions.
Why the hell had the Mal killed them?
And broken this girl’s heart?
After a while, Arabella’s sobs finally faded but her expression was so desolate, his heart hurt for her. The boy, Cole, was just as devastated. His dad was talking to Cole now, his voice strong and solid as Cole cried too.
Leaving Steven with Arabella.
Kneeling next to the girl, remembering the absolute sorrow he’d felt when his mom had died, he laid his hand on her shoulder.
After several minutes, she finally calmed enough to look up at him, her pretty face red and blotchy. He wanted to take away all her fear, all her sorrow. He wanted to make this better.
He knew he couldn’t.
“We need to go.” He held out his hand and watched as she stared at it for several seconds. Finally, she took it and let him draw her to her feet. Then he picked her up in his arms and held her against his chest. She couldn’t weigh more than eighty pounds.
“We can’t leave them.” Her voice, barely a whisper, reverberated against his chest.
“We won’t.” He kept his voice soft, not wanting to make her cry again. “We’ll bury them first.”
Her lower lip trembled and she bit into it until she drew blood. “Where are we going? Where’s Cole?”
“Cole’s right here. He’s coming with us, too. You’ll live with us now. I’ll take care of you, Arabella.”