Authors: Quinn Loftis
The Burning Claw
The Grey Wolves Series
© 2016 Quinn Loftis Books LLC
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Photography/Cover Design KKeeton Designs
For Bo. There’s no one I’d rather howl at the moon with than you.
“I have to go on. I must. I know that. But I don’t want to.”
ostin watched as Titus squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush. His mate had been missing for two days. The lives of Fane and Jacque were still being precariously sustained only by the combined healing power of Peri and Rachel. Alina and Lilly had taken over the care of the youngest Lupei and newest pack member—Fane and Jacque’s newborn son.
Costin’s wolf paced restlessly inside of him. He was torn. His need to protect the fragile three-year-old entrusted to his care and his need to find his mate warred for dominance. Jen and Decebel had promised to search for Sally. They had promised to let him know anything that they found the moment they found it. Costin knew that he had additional responsibilities now. He had to take care of Titus—his son—
son. Sally would have expected nothing less from him.
“She’s not gone forever, Daddy.” Titus’ voice drifted up to him. Costin looked down at the little boy who’d instantly taken up residence in his heart. His eyes were filled with too much knowledge for one as young as he. He should have been chasing bugs and building with blocks, not staring into the faces of hungry vampires.
Costin knelt down so that he was at eye level with Titus. “No, she isn’t.”
“You miss her,” he said.
“I miss her too. But the angel said Mommy would have to go away.”
“Did the angel say how we could get her back?” Costin asked. He couldn’t be sure, but Costin suspected the angel Titus was referring to must be the Great Luna herself. It was in her nature to offer comfort to her children. But her ways were mysterious, of course. He could only trust that she was involved in all of this, somehow. He had to believe that she had a plan and that it would all work out eventually. What other hope did he have?
“She said that Mommy would have to
to come home before she would be able to come home. But I know she will want to be with us, so she’ll come home.” He sounded so sure, so absolute, and Costin desperately wanted to have the faith of a child.
But it was hard to have faith when he felt so desolate inside. The last two nights he’d been unable to sleep because his bed was empty without his mate. His arms were useless without Sally to hold. Instead of sleeping, he’d been researching, searching to find out if Titus had any family. What he would do if he found anything, he wasn’t sure. That was the type of thing Sally would have known intuitively. She had an innate ability to handle delicate situations with tact, charm, and wisdom. He was more disposed toward hunting, killing, and making jokes. Frustratingly, none of those skills were proving particularly useful in dealing with his current predicament.
Perhaps, it was a blessing, but so far, no family had turned up. Thanks to Wadim’s uncanny ability to hack into poorly protected county computer systems, he had found a missing person’s report that had been filed on Titus, but it hadn’t been placed by his parents, of course. They’d been found murdered in their home and there had been no sign of the boy. No other family had come forward to be ready to accept the child if he was found.
Costin plucked Titus up from the floor and carried him to the room that joined his own. Jen, as usual taking the initiative, had already gotten a room put together for the little boy. It wasn’t finished, but it already felt like a room meant for a little boy. No, it didn’t feel like it was meant for any little boy. It felt like it was meant for Titus. It felt like it was meant for his son. He laid Titus in the bed and pulled the covers up just over his waist.
“Want the big light on or just the lamp?” Costin asked him.
“Just the lamp. I’m getting braver.”
Costin smiled. “You are very brave.”
“I have to be brave for Mommy.” Titus closed his eyes and within a few minutes he was sound asleep. Costin felt as though the little boy was trying to catch up on all the sleep he’d probably lost while being imprisoned by the vampires. After all, who could sleep knowing that at any moment you might be dragged out of bed and snacked on like a box of crackers?
He watched Titus for a few minutes longer before standing up and turning on the lamp that rested on the bedside table. Then he walked to the door, turned off the bedroom light, and glanced back one more time before stepping out and pulling the door partially closed. As he stepped back into the room that he usually shared with his mate, Costin glanced around and the emptiness hit him like a punch to the gut.
His wolf surged forward and fought for control. It was a battle that Costin had fought repeatedly over the last few days. He suspected that, at some point, it might be one that the man would no longer win. He needed her. Costin needed her light; he needed her soft-spoken nature, her wisdom, and her gentle heart. He needed her brown eyes staring back at him, shining with love for him and only him. Perhaps, most of all, he needed her with him to help raise Titus. Titus had endured tortures that Costin could only guess at. No one else but Sally had the kind of quiet, gentle, healing love that such a boy needed. It wasn’t just that she was a healer, it was that she was his mother. Costin had known it the moment he saw Peri carrying the small form out from that underground hellhole and passing the child to Sally’s loving arms. Despite the brave face Titus was putting on, the boy had no chance without Sally.
“I can’t do this on my own, Sally mine,” he whispered into the quiet room. He walked over to her side of the bed and, as he done at least a hundred times before, he picked up her pillow and held it to his face. He took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with her scent. Again, he reached for her through the bond and again he found nothing. It was like a life preserver trailing behind a boat. One second, it was there, floating along, offering him the hope and salvation he’d clung to since the moment she and her two best friends had walked into his bar almost two years ago. The next second, the rope connecting the preserver to the boat had been cut. How or why it had happened, he had no idea. But their bond was cut and now he was lost, floating aimlessly in the open ocean. There was no help in sight—no land, no lifeboat—nothing but a vast emptiness as far as he could see.
Costin reached out with his wolf hearing and listened for Titus. His breaths were slow and even. He was in a deep sleep.
Costin shed his clothes and phased. He needed to run. His wolf needed to hunt and if they couldn’t hunt their mate, then he’d hunt something else—something he could kill. As he headed for the back door of the mansion and toward the forest that beckoned to him, he let the wolf take over completely. Costin let go of all the human emotions and gave into the wolf. He needed a break from the brokenness. He needed the confidence of the wolf.
“We will find her. We will protect our pup,”
his wolf growled. There was no doubt to be found anywhere in the beast. Those two things
happen and the only thing that would prevent them from happening would be his death.
“It is not time for our death. It is time to hunt.”
And with that thought, his wolf shot out into the woods. His shaggy brown fur was a blur, streaking through the trees. None could have matched his speed, not even the natural grey wolves that inhabited this region. For the moment, wolf and man would hunt together. They would stalk the prey that lived in the forest and they would kill it, quickly and mercifully. But soon, very soon they would stalk the ones that took their mate. And there would be death, but it would be anything but quick and merciful.
“Sometimes I feel as though I am an actress with a bit role in this story called life. I feel like I’m simply going through practiced motions. I’m not really living, mostly just existing. It’s like I’m just stuck. I have no purpose, no plans, no ideas for the future. I’m just stuck.” ~Sally
“I don’t drink,” Sally answered the man, who had introduced himself as Cross. She was sitting across from him in his small, cluttered office. The walls were plastered with old record album covers and lined with numerous boxes boasting of different types of liquor. But the liquor that had once been in those boxes had been replaced by layers and layers of receipts, bills, and various other documents.
“You do realize that you are interviewing for a position as a bartender, right?” Cross asked. He was a burly man—biker-ish—if that’s even a word. What she meant, Sally thought, was that he looked like he belonged in a bar. He wore a scruffy shadow on his face as though he didn’t have time to shave and he wasn’t that concerned about it. His hair was short, cut close to the scalp, and looked to be a deep, chocolate brown. He had stern, serious, hazel eyes and what she thought might be a dimple on his left cheek. He was rugged, handsome, but rough around the edges.
“Is drinking experience a requirement for the job?” Sally asked. She wasn’t being sarcastic. She didn’t have a clue what was expected of a bartender. But she guessed that
drinking up all the bar’s products was probably a good thing.
He leaned back in his chair and rested his elbows on the arms. His hands steepled in front of him as he looked at her. It was like he was seeing her for the first time since she’d walked in.
“How old are you,” —he paused and looked down at her application— “Sally?”
“I’m twenty-one,” she answered as she reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. She fished through the billfold and pulled out a small plastic card. “At least, that’s what my driver’s license says.”
Cross took the license from her and stared at it, then looked back at her, and then looked back at the card. He sighed and handed it back. “Alright,” he said as he pushed up from the chair, placing his hands squarely on the desk in front of him. “We’ll give this a try. You’re a little wholesome for a bar, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of doing the job. Something tells me that what you lack in experience, you’ll make up for in enthusiasm. And no offense, but just having someone as good looking as you behind the bar will probably increase our male patronage by about 200 percent.”
“Um…” Sally began.
“I’ll start you at twelve fifty an hour,” interrupted Cross. “Plus any tips you make are yours to keep. I’ll need you here at three in the afternoon. You’ll get off at midnight. I’ll have a bouncer walk you to your car in the evenings.”
“I don’t have a car,” she said and when he frowned she wished she’d just kept her mouth shut.
“No, I walked. I live in the apartments a block down.”
“Okay, then, I’ll have a bouncer walk you to your apartment if it’s only a block away. It’s too late at night for you to be leaving by yourself.” His hands had moved from the desk to his hips where they now rested as he looked down at her. “Any questions?”
“What do I wear?”
“Ah,” Cross said as he held up a finger as if the idea had just occurred to him. He turned around and leaned over digging in a box on the floor. “What size are you? A small or medium?”
“A medium should be good,” Sally answered. She could wear a small but she preferred her shirts leave something to the imagination.
Cross stood back up and turned, tossing her a black t-shirt in the same motion. Sally caught it and stood up. She unfolded the shirt and held it up in front of her face. The front of the shirt contained the bar logo with the name of the bar,
The Dog House
, written in big white letters. She turned the shirt around and read the back out loud. “Forget the couch?” She frowned and looked questioningly at Cross.
“Didn’t your mom ever tell your dad he was in the doghouse and that he had to sleep on the couch?”
“Oh, okay, sorry. Got it now.” Sally felt her face flush.
“Alright, Sally. I’ll see you here tomorrow at three.”
Sally sat on the bench in the city park that was situated catty-corner from her apartment and across from the bar where she would now be working. The sun was warm on her skin and a slight breeze kissed her face. It was a beautiful spring day. She reached into her purse and pulled out a granola bar, opened it, and took a bite— eating alone… again. Sally really hoped that she would make some friends at her new job. With her parents gone, and having moved on the spur of the moment to a completely new place, she had no one but herself to talk to. Maybe she should get a cat. But that would just put her one step closer to being a crazy old cat lady. And everyone knows that one cat leads to another cat, and then another. Before she knew it she’d be eighty years old living alone with her cats, talking to them like they were people and imagining that they talk back. Then one day she’d drop dead and no one would find her body for weeks until the neighbors eventually started noticing a strange smell coming from the apartment above them. By the time the police kicked down her door to find her body, the cats, having gone unfed for three weeks, would’ve taken matters into their own hands and half of her face would’ve been eaten off. No, no, definitely not getting a cat.
Long after night had fallen, Sally fell exhausted into her bed. She hadn’t brought much stuff with her from Texas, but still the unpacking had worn her out. She’d gotten every box emptied and broken down so they were now piled neatly in a flat stack next to her door. The entire time she’d been unpacking and placing things in various places in the apartment, she’d kept up a steady monologue to herself.
“I really need to get out and meet some people,” she mumbled to the empty room as she clicked off the lamp on her bedside table.
She closed her eyes and sleep came quickly. Despite her exhaustion, however, she didn’t fall into a deep sleep. Instead, she drifted into an amazingly lifelike dream.
Sally was standing in a forest. Tall trees, massively trunked, surrounded her. As she tilted her head back and looked up, she saw the sun filtering down through the branches. The wind blowing through the leaves caused the sunlight to dance as though it was frolicking from one leaf to the next. The sounds of birds and scurrying animals bombarded her senses. She didn’t hear any signs of civilization whatsoever. She heard no cars, no murmuring of voices, or no closing or opening of doors. Aside from the sounds of nature, there was nothing.
Sally began to walk; she noticed immediately that she was barefoot and the ground beneath her feet was cool, dry, and crackly from the leaves that had fallen. The dirt was soft. There were no prickly twigs or rocks to stab her unprotected feet. She had only been walking for a few minutes when she heard a new sound. It was a sound that her rational mind told her should have filled her with fear. A long, deep, mournful howl echoed through the trees. The sound crashed over her, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. There was sadness in the howl.
No, sadness wasn’t the right word
, Sally thought. This was something deeper, something more profound. There was a pain in that sound that came from somewhere dark. It came from loss. And Sally knew that the creature that made that sound had suffered a wound far deeper than she herself had ever felt, even deeper than the loss of her own parents. That was the sound of suffering; she had no doubt. And instead of feeling fear, the howl caused her heart to fill with longing.
As the echoes from the sad cry began to fade, she knew with certainty that the howl had come from a wolf, not a coyote or a dog. How she knew this, she couldn’t say. But whatever the reason, she now felt a deep desire to run to the wolf, to comfort the animal that had sounded so grief-stricken. And while the howl hadn’t scared her, this feeling did. At the sound of the howl, a wave of longing had passed over her—a feeling inside of her so intense that it seemed as if her heart must be breaking. This feeling petrified her because she had no idea how or why she was feeling it. She only knew that she had to find this poor creature.
But she had no idea how to proceed. She stood frozen and listened. No sooner had the final echo of the first wolf died out when more bone-chilling howls echoed through the forest. More wolves were joining with the first, reverberating its terrible song of sorrow, loss, and despair. Her heart broke. Her spirit felt lost. For a fleeting second she felt that this world, this dream forest, was the real world. And the real world back in Oceanside, South Carolina, with her new job and new cat-free apartment, was the actual dream. Tears streamed down her face as Sally stood in the forest, unsure of what it meant; she only knew that the wolf that had begun the song was broken, and she was broken along with it.
When the sunlight streaming through her window pulled her from her sleep, Sally blinked several times, trying to push away the grogginess. She was tired and felt as though she’d spent the night crying over the loss of a loved one. At first she didn’t move, lying perfectly still trying to contemplate the dream that was still vivid in her mind. When no answers came, she got up and shakily went about the task of getting ready for her day. As she went through the motions, she again felt the same funny feeling as she had in the dream—the feeling that this world was the actual dream and that the dream forest was actually real. It had certainly felt real. When she closed her eyes, she could still feel the soft dirt in between her toes and still hear the crunch of the leaves. But most of all, as if she were hearing it blaring from the wireless speaker resting on the nightstand beside her bed, she could still hear the howl. And that memory brought pain. Just thinking about that howl brought unexplained tears to her eyes. The tears were real; that she could see as she stared at herself in the bathroom mirror.
This is silly.
Why am I so upset? It was only a dream.
She shook herself and hopped in the shower, hoping that the hot water would wash away these weird feelings. But it did nothing more than wash her hair and body. The mournful spirit was still heavy inside of her.
Her breakfast croissant tasted like stale cardboard, and the glass of orange juice that she usually enjoyed was sour on her taste buds. Her legs felt as if she were wearing concrete shoes as she walked and her arms were just as heavy. She plopped down on the couch and groaned.
What was wrong with her?
She had to do something to get herself out of this funk, and quickly, before she had to go to her first day of work.
At two-thirty, Sally trudged down the stairs of her second story apartment and proceeded to
The Dog House
for her first day of work. Something about hitting the sidewalk and hearing the rumble of the passing cars seemed to lift a little of the heavy weight out of the pit of her stomach. And as each step brought her closer to the front door of the bar, her sadness was slowly being replaced with an extreme nervousness that she hadn’t really expected. Her palms were already sweaty and butterflies were beginning to dance in her stomach. She kept picturing herself attempting to spin bottles and do fancy tricks with the drinks. But each time she tried, she saw herself clumsily dropping the bottles and drenching herself, and her irritated customers, with alcohol.
Why would she be picturing that? Sally wasn’t going to be trying any fancy tricks. She was going to be too concerned about memorizing the drinks to attempt any tricks. She wasn’t a drinker but she knew just from looking at menus in restaurants that there had to be tons of combinations out there. What had she been thinking? Why had she ever thought she could be a bartender?
Just as she reached the door, she pulled in a deep breath, straightened her spine, and told herself to
suck it up, buttercup
, because she wasn’t a coward. She would walk in that bar and she’d work her butt off and failure wasn’t an option.
With those confident thoughts filling her mind, and the disturbing remnants of the dream now buried in the back of her mind, she pulled open the door and walked into the building. She walked into a large room full of tables, both tall and short, arranged haphazardly toward the center of the space. Booths lined the right hand side of the room and four pool tables dominated the left side. Neon lights yelled at her from all around, luring her in, tempting a good time if she would only let go of her inhibitions. Music was playing but it wasn’t loud. It hummed in the background, giving the mind a focal point and distracting the customers from the cost and calories contained in the mixed drinks and French fries they were cramming down their gullets.
“Sally!” A boisterous voice boomed across the room. She turned her head in the direction of the voice and saw Cross standing in a doorway that led to the back of the bar.
Cross motioned her over and she made her way through the maze of tables. Just as she reached the end of the bar, another man stepped up from behind Cross. He was tall, probably about six feet she guessed. He had kind, grey colored eyes, a strong jaw, and lips that looked as though there was always a ready smile waiting to spread across his face. His hair was sandy brown and worn a little longer on top, sweeping to the side across his forehead. He was cute and he was checking Sally out just as thoroughly as she’d been doing to him.