She had to choose.
Vaughn completed his watch rotation without speaking to a single packmate, then took off into the purple glow of day turning to night. He ran for hours, heading deeper and deeper into the Sierra Nevada, territory that had once belonged solely to the wolves. The chill mountain air ruffled his fur in a way that usually gave him the greatest of pleasure. But not tonight.
Tonight, the human half was very much in charge and it was beyond furious. He'd mated to a woman who might reject him and walk away. Forever. It made him want to shake her until she came to her senses and accepted the bond between them. How could she not see it? Yet she didn't.
Powered by a chaotic mix of anger and pain, he ran so far that he left everything known behind. Only then did he take to the trees and find a perch from which to watch the night moods of the forest and think. But thinking wasn't what he ended up doing, his emotions too violent for anything that rational. So he tried to wrap himself in the aloneness of the night, tried to teach himself the sound of silence, the sound he'd be living with if Faith renounced their bond.
It took him bare seconds to realize he'd been mistaken. He wasn't alone, the scent of Pack was strong in the panther who'd tracked him. Lucas didn't make a sound as he padded to a spot on another branch of the same tree as Vaughn. Neither did he make any move to instigate a conversation, and when Vaughn took off again, he ran beside him.
It was hours later by the time Vaughn led them back to his home and they shifted. Uncaring of their nakedness, they sat atop the small hill that the cave was buried under and watched the edge of a brilliant dawn lighten the sky.
"Where's Sascha?" Vaughn asked.
"She and Tammy stayed over at the SnowDancer den after working with Brenna."
At the mention of the SnowDancer female who'd been violated by Enrique, Vaughn's simmering anger exploded into full-blown fury. "You trusted her to the wolves?"
"Yeah. Hawke never breaks his word." Lucas grinned. "And the damn wolf knows Clay and Nate will tear him to shreds if he so much as lays a finger on either of our women. They're up there, too."
"So much for trust."
"Trust takes time."
And while the economic partnership between DarkRiver and the SnowDancers had held for almost a decade, the blood alliance between the two packs was only months old. "Why did you track me?"
"Thought you might want to talk."
"Why?" Vaughn disappeared on long runs nearly every week, the jaguar seeking solitude.
"Sascha. She said something before heading up to the SnowDancers."
"Her powers are developing in an unexpected way. Either that or it's the influence of the Web." The leopard male crossed his arms over his knees and clasped the wrist of one hand with the other. "She didn't feel anything from you the whole day and she got worried."
"She got worried because she didn't feel anything?"
"She says she's constantly aware of the presence of everyone in the Web, a hum that lets her know you're alive. But yesterday you shut down so violently she thought something might've happened to you."
Vaughn didn't particularly like the idea of being shadowed. "I want her to teach me how to block her."
"Yeah, she figured. She's been working on something for everyone."
"So, you hurt?"
"No." Nothing physical.
"Want to talk?"
"About as much as I want a lobotomy."
"Then how about we go one-on-one?"
Vaughn decided that pounding Lucas into a pulp sounded like an excellent way to work out his frustration and anger. "Fine."
They changed back into animal form and went at it. Lucas might be his alpha, but tonight they were simply friends. And Vaughn was a jaguar. They were generally bigger than leopards - he was no exception. However, Lucas was faster, a result of being born the pack's Hunter, charged with the responsibility of executing former packmates who'd gone violently rogue. Put together, it meant they were evenly matched in most situations, but today Vaughn was full of so much anger that he was lethal, a savage hail of teeth and claws and dangerously powerful jaws.
When they finally called it quits, both were bruised and a little bloody. Lucas wiped a red streak from his chest. "Sascha's going to be pissed. Maybe it'll heal before she sees it." It wasn't a vain hope. Most surface cuts and scratches healed relatively fast on changelings.
"You're gonna have a black eye."
"Fuck." Lucas touched the eye. "That's not going to heal before tonight."
"Yeah, well, you almost took off my hand." He flexed his wrist, raw from the grip Lucas had had on his paw.
"Had to keep you from clawing off my ear. I don't think my mate would've been too impressed with a one-eared panther." Lucas began to grin.
Vaughn scowled. "What?"
"Faith'll teach you."
Dropping his head between raised knees, he blew out a rough breath. "Faith - " He couldn't say it, couldn't betray her even to Lucas. She was his mate. That loyalty came before everything else. Until she walked away, until she broke the bond, he'd honor it with everything in him.
Lucas gripped his shoulder. "She'll tear you up worse than any animal, make you feel as if your heart's being cut into a thousand pieces, but she'll also heal you in a way no one else will ever be able to do."
If she came to him.
For the first time in over twenty-four years, Faith was absolutely lost. Her life had been circumscribed since birth.
She'd never really had a choice. But now she had to make one that would change the course of her entire future. The problem was, she didn't know how to make that choice.