He quickly looked away and scanned the area around them. “You need to stay close to me. We’re going to have to run through a few residential neighborhoods, but it’s late so we should be able to blend in.” Despite his unreadable expression, his commanding voice had a soothing effect on her. She nodded but her throat seized as he started stripping down in front of her. Just took off his clothes like it was no big deal. When he bared his taut, muscular chest, she averted her gaze. Most shifters didn’t care about nudity but she was from a different generation. As far as she knew Alaric was almost five hundred years old and, well, he was a man. It didn’t seem to matter what species they were, males didn’t care about showing off their stuff. But she did. Turning her back to him, she slipped off her boots and then forced herself to undergo the change. She hated to ruin her clothes, but she was not stripping in front of him. Her cargo pants and T-shirt ripped as her bones broke and shifted. The pain rushed over her like she’d been flattened by a truck but, as always, it was fleeting. Once her ligaments and tendons realigned, the sudden euphoric charge nearly overwhelmed her. Everything was clearer. Smells and sounds were sharper. The night air rushed over her newly sprouted fur as she surveyed her surroundings. A cold nose nudged her in the side. She turned to find herself looking at a hulking gray wolf. He was at least a hundred and thirty pounds of pure muscle. With strong back legs and a broad chest, she felt dwarfed next to him. She was already small for a shifter but next to him, she felt absolutely puny. A weak mongrel. How many times had she been reminded of that growing up? She shook away her insecurities and fell behind him as he darted down an alley toward a quiet neighborhood. Her muscles strained and stretched as they raced through the streets and darted in and out of backyards. She guessed that if any humans saw them he’d look pretty strange carrying a pack in his mouth. At least it was night and the asphalt wasn’t hot against her paws. It seemed they ran forever, though she was sure barely an hour had passed by the time they stopped at the back door of a two-story brick house in a cozy middle-class neighborhood. Before she had time to prepare herself, he shifted to his human form. Then he simply stood there in all his naked glory staring at her. Waiting. Lord, why did he have to look so good? There was no fat on the man. Taut skin stretched across his broad, muscular chest and shoulders. His arms looked like they were chiseled from stone, and she wanted to drool at the sight of what was between his massive legs. She couldn’t help it. She turned away from him as she underwent the change. Somehow she managed to stifle a cry as her bones shifted back into place. Her heart raced wildly and she could feel his gaze burning into her naked back. Staring at and assessing her. No doubt with a critical eye. Where he was built like a Greek god, she was way too skinny for a shifter. That’s what the women of her pack had constantly told her growing up. She’d more or less grown into her body but her breasts were still pretty nonexistent. On more than one occasion Lamont had told her she was lucky he’d even offered for her. What wolf would want someone like her? A shifter like Alaric could have any female he wanted. Hell, he probably had a new, stacked she-wolf in his bed every week. Something akin to jealousy jumped in her gut at the thought of him with a female, but she ignored it. She didn’t care who he slept with, and it was none of her business anyway. “Here.” He reached over her shoulder and gave her one of his T-shirts. She quickly tugged it over her head and was thankful when it fell to midthigh. His spicy scent enveloped her, all earthy and male and way too intoxicating. For the first time in years she felt like that awkward nineteen-year-old girl with a silly crush. How many nights had she lain awake thinking about him after their first meeting? His Alpha had sent Alaric to visit her pack for something since they were in neighboring territories at the time and she’d been absolutely smitten by the sexy wolf. It was embarrassing to even remember it. Relief poured over her when she heard the door unlock then open. “This is it. We’ll bunk down here for the night,” he murmured, too close for comfort. His deep voice rolled over her skin like a soft breeze. She turned and tried to brush past him, but he blocked her. Refusing to make eye contact, she glanced down but wished she hadn’t. His erection stood tall, thick and proud against his abdomen. An answering rush of need burned low inside her. She knew his reaction wasn’t to her, but the result of the adrenaline rush they’d just experienced. After working in a war zone, she understood that it had that effect on some people, especially males. One of his strong fingers lifted her chin, forcing her gaze upward. The concern she saw in his dark eyes surprised her. “I think we lost them, okay?” She nodded mutely. If she spoke, her voice would shake and she couldn’t afford to show any weakness. He frowned and stroked her cheek with the rough pad of his thumb. “You don’t have to be afraid. I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again.” When his voice softened like that, her stomach did annoying little flips. She swallowed hard and fought for control. “I’d like to take a shower, if that’s all right.” More than anything she wanted to get out from under his watchful gaze. She suspected he could smell her desire and it was embarrassing. If she could get a few minutes to herself, she’d be able to gather her thoughts and contain her searing lust. The last time she’d reacted this badly to a man had been five years ago. Unfortunately, it had been to Alaric. But she’d been so young then and she’d never met any shifters outside her pack up until that point. It had been a silly crush. At least that’s what she told herself. So why was she experiencing the same rush of uncontrollable desire again? His dark eyes narrowed a fraction but he nodded. “Fine. The shower is upstairs. First door on the right. But when you’re finished, we’re going to talk.” Something about the way he said “talk” sent a shiver of something—fear maybe—rolling over her skin. When she’d run away she’d known there would be repercussions if she’d been caught, but no one had come after her. Maybe that’s what was happening now. Since she hadn’t officially declared her intent to leave her old pack she was still technically governed by whatever Alpha ruled her territory. A heavy knot twisted inside her and pulled tight. She’d run before and she’d do it again if she had to. Chapter Three Alaric waited until he heard the sound of running water upstairs before calling his Alpha. Knox answered on the first ring. “Everything okay with Felicia?” “Yeah, but she seems to think I plan to hurt or punish her or something.” He dug his fingers into his palm at the thought of someone harming the petite she-wolf. “Hurt her?” A sharp bark of laughter escaped Knox. “Listen, that’s not our only problem.” He quickly filled his leader in on the attempted attack after he’d picked Felicia up from the airport. When he was finished Knox was silent for a moment. “Vamps or shifters?” “I don’t know, but it’s not a good thing whoever it was.” Especially since the formal treaty between both species hadn’t been signed. Neither side wanted any violent incidents before then. Even if it was a couple of rogue vamps who had tried to attack them, since there wasn’t an official method of punishing rogues, it wouldn’t do shifters as a whole any good if he meted out justice to vampires—even if his actions would be justified. Vamps could use his actions to try to gain leverage for the signing. Knox’s sigh was heavy but he didn’t respond. He didn’t have to because they both knew how fragile the future was at the moment. “I’ll send some of the men to check out the accident. See if they can pick up a scent. What about you? When are you bringing her in?” Alaric had wanted a few days alone with her before bringing her to the compound and under the protection of her new pack, but his Alpha needed him and he couldn’t shirk his duties. Since he was second in command, staying close to Knox right now was important. “I need a night alone with her, but we’re at the safe house.” Only Knox and Alaric’s brothers knew about the place so unless someone managed to track them down—and considering how many side streets and detours he’d taken them on, he doubted it—he could keep Felicia safe for the night. “It’s up to you. If you want more time with her, you’ve got it.” “Thanks.” When he heard the shower upstairs stop, he got off the phone and quickly pulled his clothes from his backpack. He tugged on a pair of jeans but kept the top button undone. He preferred to walk around naked but it had obviously bothered Felicia. At least she’d noticed him. Not that he’d been trying to hide his reaction. He wanted to make it clear he was interested. She’d been ready to get the hell away from him though. It surprised him how deep her small rejection had cut him. Over the past few months they’d become friends—or he’d thought they had. Thanks to his contacts overseas he knew she hadn’t dated or been intimate with anyone in the past two years. If she’d shown a remote interest in anyone while overseas—human or shifter—he’d have been on the first plane to see her. His inner beast wouldn’t have allowed him any other option. Hundreds of years ago he’d tamed and controlled his animal side, but the thought of Felicia with another male made something deep and dark inside him roar with anger and possessiveness. A lot had changed since she’d been gone. Most of her old pack members had dispersed to various parts of the country, though a few had assimilated into Knox’s pack. Felicia didn’t seem to even care to meet the new pack. She’d come back to Huntsville and hadn’t told a soul—including him—so he could only guess what her plans were. And she seemed intent to keep him at arm’s length. That bothered him more than anything. He knew he should have mentioned his Alpha had taken over her old pack’s territory in their email correspondence. Hell, he’d had plenty of opportunity but something had held him back. He hadn’t wanted to spook her into cutting off all contact with him. He hadn’t been willing to risk it. Not when she’d started opening up to him.