Authors: Rachel Hawthorne
A Dark Guardian Novel
For Gretchen, Kari, and Zareen
Death hovers in the shadows. Through the slit of the…
Tonight was the big night, the one I’d waited for…
I didn’t remember falling asleep. My last memories were of…
As I hurried back to the main house, I realized…
The ominous silence followed me up the stairs to the…
The Council of Elders was made up of three. They…
When I returned from my run, Lucas had posted a…
The long hot shower I took back in our room…
The next morning when I went down to breakfast, I…
When we got to Tarrant, I gave Kayla directions to…
“We’ve got ourselves a werewolf,” Ethan said.
Be careful what you wish for, my mother had always…
Monique brought us breakfast. Funny thing was, she appeared really…
With his entourage in tow, Mason led me back to…
The next morning I squinted against the sunlight. I’d fallen…
Connor and I were lying on our mound of blankets,…
It was sad that in death Mason reverted back to…
I wore black trousers, a black shirt, and a black…
That night we all met at the Sly Fox: Lucas,…
The night sky was brilliant with so many stars that…
Death hovers in the shadows. Through the slit of the window, the barest of moonlight filters in. I’ve always drawn comfort from it, but tonight it’s Connor offering me solace.
Within our prison, the mound of blankets softens the floor beneath us. One blanket covers us. Connor never bothered to put on the sweatshirt I brought him, so my fingers have the luxury of dancing over his bare chest.
“Don’t be afraid, Brittany.” Connor’s voice is soft, gentle.
But how can I not be afraid? We both know that tomorrow we might die. Facing death brings urgency to
life. All the things we’ve put off, all the things we haven’t dared to explore suddenly loom before us as dreams that might never be fulfilled.
Connor holds me close, his warm lips brushing over my temple. Beneath my palm I feel the steady pounding of his heart. How can his be so calm when mine is fluttering like a bird trapped in a cage?
He skims his mouth over my cheek. I hear him taking a deep breath, inhaling my fragrance. I press my face into the curve of his neck and take his unique scent into my lungs. Even here, inside this building where we’re held captive, he smells of the outdoors: evergreens, rich earth, sweet nectar, sharp foliage. He smells of everything I love and more.
I’ve waited so long to know the feel of his hands moving slowly over my back, urging me closer. I never want these moments to end.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispers again.
Then the beast inside him that always hovers near the surface breaks free and chases away the gentleness. He kisses me hungrily, desperately as though with our wildness we can ward off the arrival of our enemy. I eagerly return his kiss. I want to experience life with a passion I’ve never before known. I accept that under normal circumstances we might not be tasting each other or running our hands over each other. But these circumstances aren’t normal.
We’ve been stripped of everything except the intense craving to experience everything we’ll soon be denied.
“I love you, Brittany,” he whispers.
Tremors cascade through me. My heart pounds against my chest so hard that I’m afraid my ribs might crack. With his words, he’s given me what I’d always longed for, what I absolutely don’t deserve.
Will his love turn to hate tomorrow when he discovers that I’ve betrayed him?
Eight days earlier
Tonight was the big night, the one I’d waited for my entire life. The awakening, the first shift—the loss of my moon virginity.
A few minutes earlier, I’d removed all my clothes. I sat on them now in a small clearing deep in the forest, surrounded by towering trees. Chill bumps erupted along my skin. It was summer. July. But our hidden compound, Wolford, was located in a national forest that bordered Canada. When the sun retreated, the nights grew cool.
Brimming with impatience, I waited. I’d never wanted
anything as badly as I wanted this. Well, except maybe a mate.
But I couldn’t help but believe after this momentous night—after I’d proven myself worthy—that the right guy would finally step forward and claim me.
I’d celebrated my seventeenth birthday three days earlier. The first full moon since that day was rising in the night sky. When it reached its zenith, I would transform into a gorgeous creature—into a wolf.
I’d envisioned it a thousand times. I would shed my human shell to reveal what I’d always known resided inside me. I willed it to happen. Even though I knew I should be terrified I wasn’t. My fur would be blue-black, just like my hair. My eyes would remain a deep blue. Earlier in the summer, Connor had told me that they reminded him of an ocean surrounded by more ocean. We’d been drinking beer with some campers at the time. I knew his slurred words didn’t mean anything, but they’d still given me hope that somehow Connor would become my mate. But the hope had finally shriveled into nothingness, and I focused on the larger picture, the greater good.
For as long as we’d existed, the male of our species had chosen his mate after his transformation and before hers. He went through his alone, but he stood by his mate when she endured her first shift, guiding her so she experienced more pleasure than pain. No female had made
the change alone in generations—and the ones who had in the past were considered myths. Legend proclaimed that without a mate, a female faced excruciating pain followed by certain death.
Guess I was about to find out, because no one had claimed me as his mate. The elders, the wise men of our clan, the ones who guided us with their wisdom, had even tried to connect me with someone—Daniel—so I wouldn’t have to go through this night alone. I knew they meant well, were trying to protect me, but I didn’t want just anyone. I wanted Connor McCandless.
So two nights ago, I’d slipped away from Wolford in the middle of the night. I knew with his sense of smell that Daniel would be able to track me if he wanted to. But I also knew that he was the type of guy who would respect my decision to leave without him. Somewhere out there was the right girl for him, and we both knew it wasn’t me.
The first transformation was an intimate, personal experience. I didn’t want to go through it with someone who was serving as a stand-in for the real deal, for my true mate. In my heart, it would always be Connor. If I went through this with another guy, I’d feel like I was cheating on Connor. It was an irrational thought because we’d never be together. Still I couldn’t control how I felt.
Earlier in the summer, my mom had even offered to
go through my first transformation with me—but that was as creepy as the idea of going to the prom with her. Some things I simply didn’t want her to share with me. So I’d encouraged her to take her annual summer trip to Europe. I was fine on my own.
But now as I stared at the yellow orb that possessed more power than humans realized, an uncharacteristic loneliness washed over me. Tonight Connor was with Lindsey because she was going through her first shift beneath the full moon, too. Last summer he’d declared her his mate in front of the entire pack. He believed she was his true love. I wasn’t as convinced. Lately, I’d noticed her staring at Rafe. I thought maybe she wanted him, but she’d been promised to Connor, and our traditions weren’t meant to be broken.
I couldn’t help wishing that Connor had selected me. He had this cute way of using his fingers to comb his shaggy blond hair out of his stunning blue eyes. He was tall, strong, and possessed a body honed to perfection by the constant shifting. Like all male shifters, he was predatory and dangerous. Totally hot.
Not that I was into Connor because of his physical prowess. It sounded stupid to say I loved his mind, but I was into the way he read situations, considered strategies, and never jumped into Shifter mode at the first sign of trouble. He weighed options.
I just wished his heart had been as cautious before he’d announced Lindsey was his mate. Following the ancient tradition, he had a Celtic symbol representing her name tattooed on his shoulder.
I fought not to think about Connor and Lindsey standing together wearing only the ceremonial cloaks reserved for mates preparing for their bonding. I’d heard that going through a transformation together was an incredibly soul-binding experience. That it wasn’t only the moonlight that caressed, that touched, that whispered—
Groaning, I banished the haunting images. I would suffer enough tonight without thinking about them and the attraction that would pull them into each other’s arms.
I lifted my gaze to the star-filled sky. The moon that guided our destinies was high overhead. I should start to feel something at any minute.
As a rule, no one ever discussed their first transformation. It was as private as the loss of your virginity. But I’d felt as though I had no choice but to seek advice on what to expect. So I’d spoken with Kayla, who had survived her first shift during the last full moon. She’d told me that it had felt as though the moonlight was actually touching her, coaxing her beast to reveal itself.
Concerned that I’d be going through this alone since no guy had ever shown an interest in me, I’d been prepar
ing all year. I’d built up my stamina by running every morning. I’d strengthened my muscles using weights. I’d disciplined my body for this incredible moment. When my beast burst forth, I’d tame it, gain control of it. I could hardly wait.
If I survived, I’d move into the realm of legend. I would confirm that guys weren’t the only ones who could survive going through this alone. That idea was so sexist anyway. Let’s move into the twenty-first century already. Our kind had some really archaic customs. But I was seventeen, liberated, ready to embrace my destiny. Even if that destiny didn’t include Connor.
I closed my eyes and imagined how it might have been if he was here. We’d be standing so close that the breeze wouldn’t be able to pass between us. He would cradle my face with his large hands. Very slowly he would move in to kiss me. We wouldn’t rush the moment. Then his lips would brush over mine as a deep growl rumbled up from his chest. His beast would call to mine and mine would answer with a softer sound. We would embrace, riding the wave of pleasure and pain, and then we’d transform together.
Thoughts of him not connected to Lindsey brought me comfort as I waited. If I pretended I wasn’t alone, maybe I could conquer the pain that would soon envelop me.
Why didn’t it come—while I was prepared to face it?
Before the doubts I’d been holding at bay began to creep back in?
The ability to transform was mine by birthright, passed from parent to child through our DNA. But as my time had drawn near, I’d begun to have disturbing dreams. In them, I stared at the moon, waiting for it to keep its promise. But it, not me, shifted. It became the sun and I remained human.
Kayla had said that she could sense the change coming long before her birthday, before she even knew she would have the ability to transform, but I’d felt nothing. When the caterpillar is enclosing itself in a cocoon does it know that it’ll emerge as a butterfly?
that I would emerge from this night as a wolf, but I didn’t
it. Fear gripped me. I felt the way I’d always felt, like a human, like a Static—our derogatory term for those beings who didn’t have the ability to shift.
But I was a Shifter. My parents were Shifters. I’d grown up surrounded by Shifters.
I tried to will the change to come, but tonight the moon called the shots. After that, I’d be able to change at will. But for now, I had to tamp down my impatience, and that was almost impossible. I wanted so badly to be a full-fledged Dark Guardian. They were the protectors of our kind. Knights. The ones who handled any enemies who might want to attack us. Right now we had
an incredibly dangerous enemy threatening to destroy us and the time for the final confrontation was quickly approaching. I wanted to be in the thick of it.
I wanted to cast off my novice status. Tonight that would happen. Once I shifted.
I opened my eyes. The moon seemed lower in the sky. But that couldn’t be. I hadn’t noticed any tingling. Maybe it had happened without me feeling anything, but when I looked down, I was still human. Still a girl. Not the wolf I’d always envisioned I’d be: the wondrous creature that lived deep inside me.
No, no, no.
Maybe I needed to be standing. I jumped to my feet and outstretched my arms toward the sky. I wanted to call out to someone, something—
I heard a distant howl echo through the night. The voice was one I’d never heard before. Was that Lindsey?
No! This absolutely couldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t let it happen.
I ran as though I could catch up with the quickly disappearing moon, as though I could somehow…
What? Touch it? Make it reach its zenith again?
I crumpled to the earth and felt the hot tears coursing down my cheeks. It wasn’t fair. But it was what I’d always feared. Why else would Connor look at me and not see his mate? Why else wouldn’t he know that I was
his destiny? Why had he settled for stupid Lindsey?
I’d always felt that something was lacking in me. I had always felt as though I was on the edge of everything, the outsider desperately wanting to be accepted by the clique. Oh, people acknowledged me, but there was always a distance.
Don’t get too close, Brittany. You’re one of us, but you’re not connected to us. The girls will talk to you, but never confide in you. They will befriend you, but never invite you into their most intimate inner circle. Our males will fight beside you, but never be drawn to you.
No one, no one had ever asked me out on a date. No one had ever kissed me. No one had ever looked at me with heat in his eyes.
Did I not change because a guy wasn’t with me? That made no sense. It was the moon that changed us. The moon that called us.
I bent my head back and howled—
But it wasn’t the cry of a wolf. It was the anguished shriek of a girl. A human.
A human whose soul was cracking and whose heart was breaking.
I wasn’t a Shifter.
I, Brittany Reed, was nothing.