Seth Clearwater raced through the forest, his heart hammering in his chest. He huffed, pushing his legs as fast as they would go. Everything passed by him in a blur of green and brown, the cold earth giving way under the weight of his heavy paws.
He cut a sharp right as the trees thinned, giving him a wide view of the highway. Before any cars could come around the curve, he sank deeper into the woods north of Coquitlam. Until recently, he'd never come this far from home, but the reservation had become somewhat of a cage for him lately. Every now and again, he would drive across the border, book a stay somewhere decent, and live as free as he could. Sometimes Embry Call and Quil Ateara would even join him if they got fed up enough.
Between Jacob Black's leaving with the Cullens to be with his imprint, Renesmee, and having to deal with Sam's orders, it was one tense moment after another, and all Seth wanted to do was get lost for a while.
Some days, he didn't blame his sister, Leah, for choosing to stop phasing once the Cullens left or for moving to Seattle to get away from the pack drama. But he couldn't give in that easily. He loved this life, even if it meant having to kill the occasional bad vampire or two.
Shaking his head, he skirted around a thick evergreen that looked ready to snap in half. He was maybe a mile out from his favorite hill. If he gave himself enough room, he could get enough hair to make it feel like he was flying.
Before he could dig his claws into the soil, he realized he wasn't alone. How had he missed it? Maybe I'm getting a little rusty, he thought. It'd been over a year since he'd taken down his last vampire after all.
Seth's ears perked up. It sounded like a shovel breaking ground. Great. A murder scene, he thought. He heard only one heartbeat, which was hammering away in its owner's chest at an unnatural rate. Okay, a coked-up murder scene?
He sniffed at the air, his body stiffening. Whoever it was, wasn't human. He kept low to the ground and cautiously made his way toward the sound, avoiding any twigs or branches that might give away his position.
The scent wasn't sterile like vampires tended to be. In fact, it smelled a lot like he did. Except the woodsy scent had something else underneath. Something sweet and heavy, floral.
He paused mid-trot. This was way out of his and Sam's territories. Did it matter what was here? He looked behind him. Six hours for a human was a long time but for something possibly inhuman, who knew how short a distance that was.
This was close enough to be concerned, he settled, keeping track of every snapping twig and breath for however many miles out they could.
But there was only him and this stranger. He slowly rose up the short hill he'd flung himself over countless times, burying himself in the leaves and brush as best he could. Having spent the better part of the morning rolling in dirt, his usually sandy coat was much darker now.
"—stupid son of a bitch!"
Seth paused, shocked at the violence in the feminine voice that hit his ears. He peered over the top of the hill, careful to keep his face hidden behind the brush. Below, he found a tall, willowy woman propped up on a shovel, looking more than a bit disheveled.
He wouldn't rule out murderer just yet.
Dressed in ill-fitting sweats and a shirt that looked too big, she was as out of place in this forest as it got. The woman continued to curse under her breath as she ripped some weeds from the ground and tossed them into an open basket a few feet away from her.
Seth watched as she reached up, pulled her thick, brown waves into a pile atop her head. She inhaled as if to calm herself down and then, something shifted. Her body stiffened, sinking into a crouch that belied her human appearance. Her lips pulled back over her teeth and her eyes darted in his direction, scanning the tree line.
What the hell? He thought as he watched her hands close around the handle of the shovel. Her posture alone was enough to confirm his non-human theory.
He wasn't quite sure what she was but the deadly aura rolling from this woman said he didn't want to stick around. Not unless one of his packmates were around for backup. Since he couldn't hear Embry's thoughts, Seth knew he was alone. He could howl for backup, but he wasn't sure if there were others nearby that he needed to be wary of. They weren't close enough to smell but a howl would signal any threat straight to him. He assessed her slender frame again. He could probably take her. She didn't look as tough as a vampire.
As the woman scanned the tree line again, she settled on the exact spot where he hid. Shit, he hissed to himself. He'd been made.
Please be friendly, he prayed. Since his position was already made, it was best he saw it through. She hadn't attacked him yet after all. Had this been a vampire, he'd either already be fighting or chasing the thing down.
Cautiously, Seth stood to his full height, rising to stare down over the short hill between them. The woman growled low in her throat; her shoulders pushed back the same way his did right before he phased.
Not friendly, he settled again, curling his lips over his teeth as a warning.
The woman's body lurched forward, and he expected to see a wolf staring back at him. Something stopped her in her tracks. She sniffed the air again, growling as Seth stepped a bit closer. Maybe she was realizing their scents were similar enough that he posed no immediate threat. He chanced another step forward.
All the telepathy and stories in the world hadn't prepared Seth Clearwater for what happened next.
The woman stepped forward, warning, and leveled him with a scowl strong enough to give his sister a run for her money. The second his eyes met hers, the world stopped dead on its axis and fell silent, all save for the pounding of her pulse in his ears, the quiet huff of her breath as she stumbled and caught herself on the tree next to her.
Her wide, hazel eyes were bright, the deadly warning replaced by something else, something more inviting. The second he could breathe, he wanted to rush toward her, hold her upright, keep her from falling, feel the softness of her warm, olive-toned body against his.
He could smell her nervousness in the air between them as he shook off his shock. Of course she'd be scared, I'm a freaking wolf, he thought, cycling through his options. He could phase back and blind the woman with his nakedness or he could play it cool, follow her scent in human form, and casually introduce himself.
Like a stalker.
He settled for staying put. Was there a better option C?
He heard a quiet snicker in his head and Embry's deep voice call out as he phased. Ooo. Another one bites the dust, he teased. You could always howl at her. Heard that drives the ladies mad.
Shut up, Seth hissed. Even as a grown man, he still got razzed like a kid. He was 28 for heaven's sake.
The woman approached him with her hand outstretched, climbing the hill with a deliberate slowness. In the back of his mind, he knew Embry was watching, suspicious, now that he'd seen the whole exchange in Seth's memories. He was approaching from the southwest slowly, with purpose.
As the woman reached him, Seth knelt instinctively, lowering his head so that she could run her fingers through his fur. She smiled, pressing her forehead into his as if to say "Hello" before nuzzling his face with hers.
He couldn't help but want to phase back, to hold her to him.
Oh God. Please, spare me. Embry gagged.
Before Seth had the chance, the woman stepped away from him, turning her back as she listened to something behind them. He wanted to tell her it was just Embry, his pack brother, but something in her reaction set his nerves on end. She was terrified. Seth stepped forward to listen too, to try and pay attention to something other than her.
Whatever it was, they were still miles out. But...He sniffed the air.
The scent wafting off the woman was getting stronger in the wind. Only, it was different, not sweet at all. It didn't take long to realize the newcomers were all male.
Seth, you picking up on this? Embry asked.
Seth showed him that he'd already decided that they weren't dealing with bloodsuckers, but that didn't change the fact that whatever was coming at them was moving fast—and there were a lot of them. He couldn't see past the woman next to him long enough to pick out just how many though.
Seth nudged the woman behind him, crouching low, ready.
Don't be stupid, Seth, we're probably outnumbered, and we clearly have no clue what's going on. Back down! Embry shouted at him. As Jacob's third in command, Embry's order was palpable enough to give him pause. But Seth couldn't shake the anxiety the woman next to him exuded.
"You need to go," she whispered under her breath. "Now, before they smell either of you."
Her hands caught in his fur as she pulled him back behind her. He picked up on the hint of an accent in her voice, something with a slow, comfortable drawl that belied their current situation. Her scent said she was afraid, but her voice said otherwise.
Embry's confusion mirrored his own. Through his brother's eyes, he could see that Embry was closing in behind him. He'd be here in no time.
"Please," she begged, gripping the sides of Seth's face. He whimpered as her request cut through him. That only made him want to stay more; it wasn't in his nature to leave someone behind when they needed help, let alone his imprint.
Pained, he realized he was out of options. Apparently, he couldn't say no to her and he knew he couldn't put Embry at risk either. Seth cut his eyes toward the forest, the sound of heavy paws rushing toward them. Paws...Embry registered Seth's surprise as the realization dawned on him. It can't be…
More shapeshifters? Embry choked out, incredulous.
The woman wrapped her arms around Seth, inhaled deeply as if to commit him to memory, and ran back down the hill and toward the others. He wanted to race after her, but she was out of sight in seconds.
Seth strained his ears to pick apart the sounds. Now that the woman was gone, he could focus more, pick out 10—no, 11 different heartbeats.
Let's go, Embry called out.
We need to be as quiet as we can. Seth pointed out. If we can hear them, they can damn sure hear us. Seth was thankful the wind's direction was in their favor, otherwise he and Embry both would be in trouble. I'll catch up. Go ahead.
He felt Embry hesitate before heading in the opposite direction, back toward the motel. Seth gave one last look over his shoulder, a twinge in his chest as nothing was left of the woman but a trail of her sweet, woodsy fragrance.
Reluctantly, he headed after Embry. Once he put enough space between him and the rival pack, Seth picked up his speed.
How many? Embry asked him as soon as he caught up.
He tried to remember, to see beyond the overwhelming worry that was crawling under his skin. Why would she race toward danger? Why not fight? Or flee with them?
Focus! Embry growled as they neared the thinning forest near the motel.
Right, sorry. Seth launched himself over the small creek. I counted 11, he reported. But one of those might have been her.
He felt Embry's shock. This isn't good, man. We just got rid of those bloodsuckin' Cullens.
Watch it, Seth bit back. While he wasn't necessarily a fan of all vampires, the Cullens had always been nice to him. The others might not be able to fully get over their aversion, but the stench was bearable once you got used to it and Seth hadn't cared what they were. At least, not until Jacob decided to run off with them and leave them without an alpha.
Seth and Embry phased back to their human forms, pulled on the athletic wear they'd stashed in the bushes and headed toward the building. Seth flexed his arms and legs as they walked, re-acclimating to his two-legged body.
"I'm just saying. We don't have a precedent for this. As far as Sam or the elders know, the cold ones are our only enemies and we're the only shapeshifters."
Embry was right about that, but Seth was trying to hold back judgement. Truth was, they didn't know anything about these other shapeshifters. The woman—his imprint—was probably harmless enough…Even as he thought, he couldn't shake her fear. Her pack must be as dangerous as they feared.
While Embry tossed their luggage in the bed of Seth's truck, he went to check out. Back outside, he grabbed the keys from Embry and hopped in the Ram, quick to start it up and peel out of the parking lot.
"How much should we tell Sam?" Seth asked hesitantly after they made it onto the highway. While he had to sometimes answer to Sam, he didn't belong to Sam's pack any more than Embry, Quil, and Leah did. Not really anyway. They usually followed him out of respect for their friendship and the unspoken treaty that Jacob and Sam created before he left with the Cullens.
That said, there were some days Seth was grateful that Embry had taken on the mantle in Jacob's place, however temporary that might be. As Jacob's third, it had only been natural. Especially once Leah gave everything up.
Seth was also grateful that, without their declared loyalty to Sam, the telepathic link hadn't been re-established. There was no way he'd be able to keep any of this hidden. He hazarded a glance at his friend. Grateful though he was, he still felt bad for Embry.
The man didn't want to be an alpha, even by default. Most of the time, he deferred to Sam where it mattered or let Seth and Quil make their own judgement calls.
"We don't know enough yet. You know how Sam gets—it's even worse when Paul's involved." Embry responded after a long pause. "We've got a bit before we get back to the rez. I'll come up with something before then."
Embry was right about Paul. Even after he'd gotten married and had a kid, he could still be as ill-tempered as he was in the early days.
Seth seriously longed for the simpler times when he didn't have to keep up with who to answer to and which secrets to divulge, but he didn't have it in him to separate from Jacob's pack. A lone wolf was as good as dead, shapeshifter or not. That was why Seth had been so shocked to find the woman alone.
Besides, Jacob had always stood up and done what was right when it counted, not what was easy. Sam, on the other hand, only cared about tradition and protecting the reservation at all costs. Seth couldn't blame Sam for his nature, but the man's methods didn't always sit well with him.
Sensing his mood, Embry let out a heavy sigh. "I know it's confusing, man. Hell, half the time I don't even know what I'm doing. Leah was much better at this. You try managing tension between a bunch of rowdy wolves and an alpha with a serious superiority complex."
Seth barked out a laugh. "Nah, I'm good, boss. I'll leave that to the pros."
Embry rolled his eyes and leaned his seat back. "Wake me up when we get to the border."
The rest of the trip was mostly silent as Embry napped and Seth replayed the morning's events. He'd imprinted. Finally. Honestly, he wasn't sure it would ever happen. Not that he'd let it keep him from living life. He'd had a few girlfriends over the years, even thought he might marry the last one. Angela had even been privy to his secret, something he'd never felt comfortable sharing with another person. And she'd accepted him.
He felt a twinge in his chest at the memory, but it hurt a lot less now than it had a few months ago. Ironic, really, that his imprint was hundreds of miles away from his home. He didn't need to feel awkward about running into his ex when he went down to Forks now, but he also apparently couldn't be with the woman he was destined for.
Seth was starting to wonder if God or whoever had it out for him. He didn't even know her name. Just what she looked like, smelled like. Felt like.
Curious hazel eyes, thick eyelashes, heart-shaped face, bright smile. The earth right before a storm mixed with sweet honeysuckle. Her slender hands were warm and lightly callused as if she actually spent a lot of her time digging up plants in the woods.
He imagined her name would probably be something like Jasmine or Willow. He recalled her loud cursing and snorted. No, something less flowery. Something with thorns. Rose or maybe Roxy.
Absently, he touched the side of his face where her hand had been. Seth rolled his eyes with a weary sigh. Okay, he was getting carried away.
Thankfully, after hours of being on the road, the little cottage the Uleys called home was coming into view. He reached out and gave Embry a smack to wake him up.
His friend glowered, pulling his seat upright. "My ass is sore from sitting too long."
"Thanks for the info. What's the plan?" Seth kept his voice low, hoping whoever was home was too preoccupied to eavesdrop.
Embry gave him a look that said, Just follow my lead, all right? before hopping out of the truck.
Seth cut the engine and did the same, grimacing at the stiffness of being in the same position for over five hours.
They entered the small house to find the usual cast huddled between the kitchen and the living room, chowing down on whatever good food Emily had whipped up. Everyone except Leah.
"How was the trip?" Quil asked from the table, his mouth full of pasta. His long hair was pulled back, exposing his wide face which, at the moment, was covered in spaghetti sauce. Embry and Seth exchanged amused looks and Quil cleared his throat, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
"Ran into...an interesting situation," Embry started, running a hand through his cropped hair as he took a seat at the table. Sam leaned across the counter to pass him a heaping plate of spaghetti before nodding his head for Embry to continue.
Sam had always been a little scary in Seth's opinion, with a serious face and hooded, dark eyes that matched his serious personality. The years had done little to temper that. The only thing that seemed to break that persona was Emily as she made her way through the house, lovingly caressing her very large, very pregnant belly.
"Way past either of our territories but there's a scent...It's not bloodsuckers, but it's not human either," Embry finished. "Shouldn't be a problem as long as they stay that way, but we figured you ought to know in case they don't."
Sam narrowed his eyes. "Well, did you follow the scent? Did you see what we're dealing with? How many?"
Embry looked over at Seth, who was propped against the door frame, his arms folded across his chest. "The scent isn't that much different than ours. We're thinking shapeshifters."
Seth caught how Sam's eyes widened for a split second, perhaps in shock. "Don't worry," he chimed in. "We weren't followed. I was listening."
Sam nodded, seeming to relax just a little. Out of everyone, Seth was the best at tracking. Sound, smell, he could pick up a trail farther out than the rest of them. Now, he was just glad the reputation was enough to stop the questioning.
Embry grinned. "Oh, and our boy Seth here finally—"
"—got a new job." Seth interrupted, cutting Embry off. Quil and Embry eyed him suspiciously. "Yeah, I was waiting to tell anyone 'til it was official, but it pays pretty well."
"Forks pays well?" Quil asked, disbelieving.
Seth grimaced. "Well, no, it's not in Forks. It's not anywhere, actually," he started, suddenly embarrassed at all the attention. "It's remote. I figured it'd be safer. Can't exactly risk turning into a giant wolf in the middle of an office building, you know?"
It was true, after all. Seth had gotten a new job. As much as he didn't want people to make a fuss over it, he'd much rather them know that than the truth.
While Seth had no clue if he'd ever see that woman again, he did know that she was somehow involved with that mysterious pack of shapeshifters and that Sam wouldn't hesitate to kill anyone who thought might pose a threat, no matter what their rules said.
A/N: Stay tuned every Thursday! Don't forget to leave a review if you like what you read :)