The Cull, Book 2
He’s Not My Mate, He’s My Sponsor
When Braden Jackson spotted the tall, curvaceous naked brunette stepping out of the concrete den, his stomach dropped, his cock stiffened, and his inner beast howled. The newly culled woman’s face was round with wide cheekbones and wide-set eyes—indigo with tiny gold flecks that shined when the morning sunlight crossed her path. Her wide mouth stretched in a yawn, and when she glanced his way and smiled, sharp dimples dinted her cheeks.
It had been three days since the invited had been culled and transformed by bite and blood. The tribe’s land in the Ozark Mountains, lush with colorful foliage, trees, and clear streams and springs, was a perfect and private location. Members of the tribe used it when the need to run as a wolf overwhelmed them, but usually no more than a handful of lycanosapiens attended at a time. The place hadn’t seen these kinds of numbers since the last cull during the time of the Great Depression.
Most of the tribe members—natural borne and culled—would spend the week naked, changing back and forth from two legs to four legs at their pleasure. His kind was very comfortable with both their forms. In that sense, the woman’s nakedness didn’t surprise Braden. His visceral reaction to her—that was another story.
When she reached for the sky, clasped her hands, and twisted her torso to Braden, his breath caught in his throat. Her lush breasts swayed with the movement. Brazenly, she held his gaze as she dropped her arms to her sides, her fingers sliding over her ample hips in mild reproach.
His cock jerked, making him glad he’d put on jeans after his earlier run. Otherwise, the proof of his desire would be pointedly obvious and hard to hide. He smiled when she winked. What a woman!
Braden had been born in the late sixties, a son of two first generation lycanosapiens or natural borns. His people had been culling human’s to create more of their kind for thousands of years. They usually waited for times of great disaster. He’d heard the stories from his parents and grandparents, and from the tribal elders, but actually watching a cull take place, being a part of the process, had been an eye opening experience for Braden.
The invited were usually people in desperate circumstances: the destitute, the terminally ill, and the desperate. Which category did the enticing woman belong? Whichever, she certainly looked happy and healthy now.
She went up on the balls of her feet. Her breasts gave a slight bounce as she dropped back on her heels. Braden grinned. Very healthy.
The woman put her hands on her hips and sauntered over. She looked Braden up and down while tugging the side of her lower lip into her mouth. Finally, after a moment’s assessment, she asked, “Are you okay? You look like you swallowed a bug.”
Oh, man. She had a sweet, southern accent, but not so Deep South he’d need a dentist. Some of the newly culled were shy about their bodies, but not this beauty. She acted completely unaware of her nakedness. “I’m Braden,” he said.
The charming brunette held out her hand. “Eve. Eve Taylor.” A pulse of energy washed into Braden as she shook his hand with friendly enthusiasm. “Nice to meet you, Branden.”
Braden inwardly groaned. It was never a good sign when a woman couldn’t get your name right. “It’s Braden,” he said again.
“All right,” Eve smiled. She hadn’t let go of his hand. “Braden.”
“Eve!” a man shouted. Braden and Eve both looked. Tom Ellis, a first generation, stood outside the den where Eve had emerged. He was a broad man, built like a heavy weight boxer.
Braden ground his teeth as an unnatural fury surfaced. His fingernails turned to claws and cut through his fisted palms. Had Tom and Eve shared a den? The thought made him sick to his stomach. Tom worked in law enforcement in the human world—no stranger to violence and death. Braden was a teacher. Ellis had a reputation for getting exactly what he wanted when he wanted it. What chance did Braden stand up against such a hardcore beast?
“I guess I better go,” Eve said, looking over her shoulder to Tom.
With surprising speed, Braden grabbed her wrist before she could leave. “Are you mated to him?” He punctuated his question with a growl. He should have sensed her as claimed or mated, but she didn’t feel tethered… to anyone.
Eve narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“Ellis.” Braden could barely control his reaction. Fuck! He could feel Ellis’s glare almost burning his skin, but he couldn’t stop himself. He wanted Eve—wanted her to the point of stupidity. He had to know if he had any chance with the dark-haired beauty. “Tom Ellis. Is he your mate? Have you…”
Eve yanked her arm away from Braden before he could say more. “Don’t be crude. Of course I haven’t—” She waved her hand dismissively. “He’s my sponsor.”
The word “sponsor” took Braden aback. “As in AA?”
She snorted. “You’re funny.”
“Eve!” Ellis barked her name like an order.
“Sorry,” she smiled apologetically. “I told Tom I’d go for a run.” Eve took Braden’s hand, her fingertips lightly dancing on his palms. “Maybe I’ll see you ‘round later.”
She jogged backwards a few steps, her cheekbones widening as her nose and mouth began to protrude, and her eyes shifted from dark blue to the color of a clear sky. Within seconds her muscles began to ripple as a layer of fur sprouted smooth and thick over her entire body. In wolf form, she was a rich cream color with touches of brown, black, and white with the thickest concentration of brown around the crown of her head.
She glanced at Braden once before taking off in a brisk lope into the woods. Ellis didn’t immediately follow. Instead, he approached Braden as soon as Eve was out of sight.
Ellis was a tall man, at least six feet four inches—a good three inches taller than Braden. Even more intimidating, he was nearly twice as wide, all beefed up with workout muscle. No wonder, he looked astonished when Braden didn’t flinch.
The big man pointed a finger at Braden’s chest. “Go near Eve again and I’ll take you out, Jackson.”
Anger overrode Braden’s good sense. “She said you two aren’t mated.”
Tom Ellis’s face turned ruddy and his mouth thinned. The veins on his necks bulged and twitched as he clenched his fists. “I plan to remedy that real soon.”
A knot tightened in Braden’s chest over Ellis’s declaration—something so sinister in the way he’d said remedy. Before Braden could respond, Ellis turned on his heel, transformed into a large gray wolf, and raced into the dense woods. A half second later, Braden was out of his jeans and tracking after him.
What About Braden?
When the calls and text messages started six months earlier, Eve Taylor had found herself the center of attention for a psychotic stalker. She’d had to give up her cell phone and close all of her social network accounts. Eventually, she dropped her internet plan all together and had the phone company put in an unlisted landline. Still, the stalker managed to contact her by leaving threatening notes, dead flowers, and scariest of all, dead animals at her home and work. Every message he left for her ended with the scary and creepy line: You will always need me. Because of him, she lost her job and her apartment. It hadn’t taken long for the bank to have her car repossessed for non-payment.
She’d been an only child—her father and mother both farmers. And when they died in a car accident, she’d been nineteen and didn’t have the maturity to keep the farm going. She’d defaulted on the payments and the bank auctioned off the land. With her options limited, Eve had moved to Springdale, Arkansas to attend community college. She’d never spent any time in the city before, and while Springdale might not have been New York, the amount of streets and buildings and people had overwhelmed her. The stalking had driven home how truly alone she was in this big, massive world.
Tom Ellis had been the officer working her case. He’d helped her as much as he could, but until the stalker actually did something physical to her, there had been nothing legal Tom could do to stop the harassment. Tom had been kind and sweet, like a big brother. When he invited her to become part of the tribe, she didn’t hesitate to say “yes.” A new life and a new start was exactly what she needed. Now, running free, surrounded by a collection of werewolves, a strong werewolf herself, Eve finally felt safe.
She trotted onto a path in the wood that led down to a rushing creek. She lapped at the cool water, amazed at the efficiency of her wolf to take what it needed and no more. She sniffed the air, catching the scents of squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and other woodland creatures, but Braden’s scent mesmerized her the most. The warm musk of him had clung to her, even after transformation.
Today hadn’t been the first time she’d noticed Braden, but it had been the first time he’d noticed her. She’d seen the handsome young man the day Tom had brought her to the camp, before the change. He looked like a poor kid at Disney World, so full of light and excitement. Had he been invited too? His short hair, thick and dark brown, framed his narrow face and deep set, green eyes. He had a long, lanky frame with hard, wiry muscles.
God! He made her heart race. She thought it would leap right out of her chest when she took his hand. She’d asked her mother once what it felt like to be in love. Her mom had told her, “When I met your dad, the whole world disappeared around us. It was as if we were the only two people alive. It might not have been love-love, but in that moment, I knew he’d be the man of my life.” When Braden took her hand, the noise from the camp fell away, all the smells, and the vividness surrounding the two of them dulled. In that second, she felt her mother near.
He’d scared her a little when he’d grabbed her arm, the weight of his possession reminding her of the man who’d spent the last half-year destroying her human life. He hadn’t tried to hold on when she’d pulled away, and he’d sounded more lost than angry when he’d asked her about being mated Tom. As if!
She understood that Tom’s feelings for her were more than platonic, but he’d never tried anything, and he had to know she didn’t feel anything more than friendship and gratitude. He was a police officer—used to helping people. It was in his nature. Eve respected Tom for his service and in her own way—loved him for being the only light in a very dark time. He was an attractive man, but she’d never been a fan of bulky, muscles.
He’d invited her to his tribe’s culling and, in that invitation, took responsibility for her training. No more. The way Braden’s heart-shaped mouth under his beautifully straight, aquiline nose pursed when he’d ask “As in AA?” had made her want to kiss the smirk right off his lips. She’d never been bold or brave, but when she’d walked over to Braden, she’d been both. Eve had rarely dated, always waiting for the feeling her mother described. Could Braden be the one—the man of her life?
Lost in thought, she smelled Tom’s scent before she actually saw him. When the gray wolf sat beside her, he rubbed his muzzle into her fur. Eve gently withdrew from his touch. He’d rubbed against her before when they’d been out, and his presence had comforted Eve. Being in this new form had been scary at first—but now the contact of his head against her body felt weirdly intrusive.
He turned—his gray eyes bearing down on her.
Her skin prickled beneath the dense fur and she fought the urge to run away. What is wrong with me? Tom was her friend. For some time, he’d been her only friend. Her agitation grew as his presence made her wolf anxious. She shifted to human, the transition easy and fluid, and waited for Tom to do the same.
When he transformed back into a man, he stared at her—his eyes heavy with questions. “Are you okay?” His voice held a slight tremor that could have been nerves or the edge of a growl.
Eve wrapped her arms around her breasts and drew up her knees. “I don’t know,” she said. She lowered her eyes to avoid meeting his gaze. “I wish I did.”
Tom raised his brow. “Did I do something to upset you?” His hand hovered near her knee, but he didn’t touch her. “I don’t want you to be troubled or afraid, Eve. I never want that for you again.”
His words softened her anxiety, but her she-wolf still backed away from him. The wolf wanted Eve as far from Tom as possible. Her stomach ached at the hurt expression on his face. “I’m sorry. I’m not afraid of you.” Her wolf snarled in her brain. “I think I just need a little time. I’m feeling strange today. Off kilter.”
“It’s Braden Jackson.”
“What?” The mere mention of Braden’s name made her pulse quicken. This time she did meet his gaze. “What about Braden?”
“I can smell him on you. All you did was touch his hands and it’s like he’s everywhere around us.” Tom tucked a strange of hair behind her ear. “Between us.”
Eve leaned back until his hand fell away. “Please, Tom. Don’t.”
“It’s all right, Eve. I’ll give you the time you need.” He smiled, but no real joy reached his eyes. “I’m okay with waiting.” With a quick roll sideways, he changed back into the wolf and took off in a run back toward the encampment.
Only when she stopped hearing his footfalls, did Eve let go of the breath she’d been holding. Tom had never acted so strangely, but what he’d said about Braden… Eve could smell him as well. Stronger now than when she’d first reached the creek. She tracked her surroundings, peering through the dense copse of trees. His scent had faded a bit, not as strong as it had been before Tom left.
Had Braden been watching them? The idea brought back her fear of the stalker. The smart thing would have been to run, and run fast, right back to the camp. Back to Safety. Back to Tom. But her heart and her wolf—her instinct—wouldn’t let her.
She didn’t know why Braden had followed her, and while it should have creeped her out, the idea actually excited her. So, instead of running back to the dens—back to Tom—with her tail tucked between her legs, Eve changed again to wolf and, at a hundred yards out, picked up Braden’s trail and began hunting him down.
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