A Cursed Embrace Page 16

Koda raced around the streets of South Tahoe’s club district, his window cracked in hopes of picking up Aric’s scent. “We’ll find him, Celia.”

I noticed Koda didn’t state how we’d find him. But wolves weren’t known for lying or for false reassurance. I tried to slow my breathing. It didn’t work. My panic for Aric’s safety beat my heart against my ribs, threatening to call forth my beast. The thought of losing him accelerated my racing pulse and forced my claws to protrude and retract, over and over until the tips of my fingers ached from the effort. We’d become so close in such a short period, it couldn’t all end now.

After a few more sweeps and some swearing, Koda abandoned the streets and jumped on 89. Gemini growled with equal frustration. I stared out toward the lake, and prayed silently for Tahoe’s power to somehow guide us to Aric. The lake didn’t answer. I wasn’t Misha. I hadn’t learned to harness the lake’s power. But since in a way I viewed it as a friend, you’d think the watery bastard would have tossed me a bone.

I rubbed my hands together. “Does your link to him as his Warrior tell you anything?”

“Only that he still lives. His death would destroy a piece of my heart.”

I wrapped my arms tight around myself, knowing exactly what he meant.

Koda’s phone rang, making me startle. “We found him,” a voice announced on the other end. “It’s not good. Trace my signal—”

Koda’s eyes cut to me. “I’m on it.”

Koda stayed on 89 until he veered sharply onto the abandoned housing development Whispering Woods. I’d read about this place in the paper. The contractor had purchased it and then lost all his money in a bad investment. Only a handful of houses had gone up before the owner had abandoned ship, leaving his employees out of work and his investors demanding his head on a platter. I rolled down the window, trying to track Aric’s scent and unable to keep still. Mud smeared the new road in streaks, and weeds had started to overtake the lots. In the nearing distance, I heard Aric’s enraged snarl.

Koda’s grip to my wrist kept me from leaping out. “Celia. There are other weres present. Don’t go off without us.”

My head jerked from him back to the open window. “I don’t care about them.”

“We do. Our presence will keep them from attacking you. I can’t make that same promise if you show up without us. Aric’s hurt. They’ll sense your predator side as a threat to him.”

I nodded but barely managed to keep my tigress from leaping out the window.

We passed through four more blocks before a row of SUVs finally came into view. A were with a long beard and sporting a leather jacket waved us in to where a mob of weres stood with their backs turned. They didn’t bother to face us. Either they knew Aric’s Warriors had arrived or what held their attention was far more important.

The headlights of Aric’s Escalade illuminated a two-story Colonial littered with pine needles and clumps of ash. The driver’s-side door was wrenched open, evidently left the way it had been found. An overturned EMT vehicle rested to the left of Aric’s SUV, the back doors barely attached to the hinges and smeared with gray wolf fur and blood—Aric’s fur and blood.

And that’s when my heart stopped beating.

Koda and Gemini sprang from the Yukon. The scent of spilled gasoline burned my nose, and the cool night breeze slapped my face as I shoved the door open. But it was the thunder of Aric’s growls that had me jetting behind the wolves.

The crowd of weres that easily parted for Koda and Gemini became an impenetrable wall of bodies the second I neared. “Let me through.” My voice should have spewed all the anger and terror coursing through me. Instead it softened and shook, revealing nothing but my fear for Aric.

“Not your business, cat,” the same leather-clad were spit the moment he caught my scent.

“But I’m—” What? The girl he’d slept with? I cleared my throat. “Aric’s friend.”

A werecheetah dressed in a slinky gold dress quirked an eyebrow. “Aren’t we all?” she whispered in a breathy tone that told me more than I wanted to know.

I scanned the area for a possible opening, only to fix on the pale skin of the very still and very dead human to my far right. Droplets of blood stained his white T-shirt. His jeans and underwear had been ripped off. Only a tattered piece of denim remained attached to one ankle. He lay spread-eagle on the asphalt near the driver’s-side door of his blue Ford Focus—well, had the door remained attached. The dented clump of metal dumped on an empty lot was all that remained. Claw marks caved the roof in, and clumps of blond extensions littered the passenger-side seat.

What the . . . ?

Another howl of agony had me lunging at the crowd of weres. I managed to bust through the cheetah in the gold dress and another female, only to be forced back by the rest of the group.

Koda’s deep voice shouted over my growls, “Let her through!”

The weres abruptly released me as Koda appeared, his glare parting the crowd like the slice of a machete. He extended his hand. “Come, Celia. Aric wants you.”

Koda was offering me more than his hand. He was making it clear I was to be left alone, or else. I took it quite willingly and allowed him to lead me through. I hurried behind him only to stop short when I caught sight of Aric.

He lay on a makeshift bed of particleboards elevated by stone pavers, an old army blanket covering his na**d and writhing form. My free hand clasped over my mouth to suppress my gasp. Aric’s normally golden skin had darkened to a sickly gray, and a waterfall of sweat cascaded down the muscles of his back. About six gaping holes punctured along the length of his spine. I felt my head spinning and I barely grasped onto the realization that he still lived.

Koda’s hold barely kept me upright. What could only be described as a gold, two-pronged meat hook with barbs pierced through Aric’s right shoulder and out his back. Blood and pus oozed from the openings where the cursed gold poisoned his body. No wonder he suffered; the gold mimicked acid coursing through his veins. I tore away from Koda and dashed toward Aric, falling to my knees before him.

My hands pushed his sweat-soaked hair from his clouded brown eyes. My God, his skin was on fire.

“Celia,” he panted.

“I’m here. Don’t worry, we’re going to help you.”

His lids shut tight with pain, but he inhaled deep to take in my scent. “You’re hurt. I can smell your blood.”

I stroked his cheek with my thumb. “We ran into trouble, but it’s taken care of.” Aric jerked his head, and tried to rise. I held tight to his arm. “I’m fine, Aric. I swear it. Please lie down.” Aric slowly lowered, groaning with each small movement. My eyes fixed on Koda. “Tell me what to do.”

The moment Koda approached, Aric let out a growl that sent every hair on my arm to quivering beneath my skin.

Koda stepped back. “Aric was shot with six gold bullets through his chest. They’ve been cut out.” He motioned to Aric’s shoulder. “The barbs go through the length of the hooks, making them harder to remove. The curse from the gold is rushing through his bloodstream. His beast is, well, pissed and trying to protect Aric from further harm. If you can keep his wolf calm long enough, we can wrench out the damn hooks.”

I blinked back at Koda as Aric released another toe-curling growl. Our recent sexual encounter aside, Aric barely knew me. And his beast barely knew mine. Could I keep him calm? I wasn’t so sure. But I’d meant what I said when I promised to help him. My arms fastened around Aric’s neck, immediately silencing his growls. My lips teased over his enough for me to taste the salt from his sweat. “I didn’t think our next kiss would be like this,” I murmured.

Aric’s lids peeled back briefly before Koda and another were jumped on his arms. Two more grabbed his legs while a werebear donning black rubber gloves up to his armpits straddled him and yanked on the hook.

Aric didn’t take it very well.

Aric bucked Koda and the other were off and changed into his giant gray wolf. My legs lifted from the ground as I hung tight to the tuff of his neck. “Oh, shit,” the werebear grunted. “Hold him. Hold him now!”

A cluster of weres piled on top of him, swearing and growling through Aric’s snarls, while I stuck to him like duct tape. I tried to whisper words of comfort, but my voice trembled with fear—fear I was doing more harm than good. Finally I turned to begging, seeing how short of knocking him out, it remained our only option. “Aric, stop.”

Aric instantly stilled, shocking the hell out of both me and his fellow midnight streakers. He sniffed my hair, as if suddenly realizing his actions could have harmed me. “I’m all right,” I assured him. “But I need you to stay calm and not move.”

Aric let out a throaty growl, hard enough to shake everyone still attached. I didn’t speak wolf, but I took it as a “Fuck that.”

“Please, baby. They’re only trying to help you . . . and so am I.” My face rubbed against his as I continued to whisper low enough so only he could hear. “I want to take you home with me. Let’s get through this so we can make that happen.” Aric’s furry head fell against my shoulder and he licked the side of my neck. In that simple gesture, he’d promised to behave. I smiled against him before clearing my throat and addressing the weres. “It’s okay. You can release him.” No one moved. Not even Koda. I wanted to bang my head against the board. “Look, I managed to assure his beast for the moment. I can’t guarantee what will happen if you don’t let go.” The weres exchanged glances. At Koda’s nod they slipped off one by one. I motioned to the werebear, but the moment he adjusted his grip on the handle, Aric let out a warning growl. “Aric, please. Someone needs to remove the hook.”

The werebear examined Aric’s back as Aric quieted. “Aric’s change dug the barbs deeper into the flesh of his beast.” Around us, the crowd groaned, but silenced when the werebear held up his hand. “It might be a good thing.” He addressed me. “See if you can get him to change back. It’ll hurt like a mother, but as the muscles revert, it should loosen the holes and be easier to pull out. Go on, now,” he said when he caught my “Are you out of your goddamn mind?” expression.

I didn’t want Aric to hurt. He probably only managed to stand because his wolf’s strength surpassed his. Yet soon even the power of his beast wouldn’t be enough. The curse poisoning his blood would bring him down as it found its way to his heart.

I adjusted my body so I could pull his fuzzy ear toward me. “I know you’re scared, Aric. And I know you’re in a great deal of pain. I also know you don’t want to hurt me. But I’ll be honest. It’s killing me to see you like this.” I swallowed hard to choke back the aching truth of my words. “So please, change back so the pain can stop for us both.”

Even through his fur, I could feel the rising fever. At first, I thought he wouldn’t listen, but then he changed, collapsing at once when his human form crashed onto the particleboard. I landed hard on my butt. Yet Aric’s horrid howls had me throwing myself on top of him when the werebear yanked at the hook.

Aric panted and grunted against my shoulder as the were twisted and pulled. I kissed his lips, his eyes, his cheeks, all the while reassuring him it would soon be over. After what felt like a lifetime, droplets of blood sprayed my hair. Aric released one last growl of torment and dropped his head. I barely kept his jaw from smacking against the wood. We both gasped for breath—Aric from the torture session and me from the stress. I rose slowly, keeping my hand over his uninjured shoulder, while attempting to wrangle in my beast.

My tigress wanted to punch the werebear in the head for causing Aric so much agony. Fortunately my human side stayed reasonable.

“Get me out of here,” Aric rumbled.

Gemini had arrived donning only a pair of slacks. His wolf leapt onto his back and disappeared, merging with the man once more. He and Koda slipped Aric’s arms over their shoulders while I tucked the blanket around his waist. The moment I finished, the wolves began to lead him toward Koda’s SUV.

Aric stopped short. “Where’s Celia?” he choked.

A film of white clouded his eyes. He couldn’t see me. And as the gold made a mess of his circulatory system, he couldn’t scent me, either. “I’m here, Aric. I’m not leaving you.”

I ignored the weres watching me. Whether they liked me or not remained of little importance. So long as Aric needed me, I would stay with him.


I briefly recalled hearing the sound of a key fob and the trunk of a nearby car pop, as we reached Koda’s Yukon. The werebear appeared with a giant container of sea salt in his hands. He shook the container over Aric’s body like he was seasoning meat. Aric threw back his head and snarled, clenching his jaw tight enough to stretch the cords of his neck.

I smacked the container out of the werebear’s hands. The salt particles flew out in a stream of white and the cardboard container bounced twice on the asphalt before rolling beneath a nearby car. “What the hell are you doing?”

The werebear regarded me like I was the sadist. “Keeping his wounds open.”

“I can see that, a**hole—”

Gemini leaned into my ear. “Now that the hook has been removed, Aric’s wolf is trying to seal his wounds. They need to stay open to draw out the gold poisoning his system. Otherwise it will take longer for the body to excrete it.”

Heat flooded into my cheeks. “Oh.”

If I hadn’t felt foolish enough, the werecheetah made sure to dig the Dagger of Shame a little deeper. She smirked. “But how could you know our ways, sweetheart? You’re not one of us.”

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