Marked in Flames
Book 5 in the Aspen Pack Series
My mate rejected me, leaving me broken. I refuse to let that happen again—even if Steele is the one for me.
I hold the power of flame and future in my hands, but I know the world is watching. Waiting for us to fall.
The truth and lies that bind the Aspen Pack together are crumbling and I am to bear witness to its fate.
I know the Enforcer of the Aspens is my mate.
Yet neither of us want what fate decrees.
So, we’ll fight side by side and ignore the burning attraction between us.
Only when a traitor rocks the foundation of all we know, we might not have a choice to who we cling to in despair.
The vampires were only the pawns in this war.
The demons are on their way.
And if we’re not careful, the Aspen Pack could lose someone that breaks them.
And I could lose my mate.
Marked in Flames
I easily ducked the first blow, then shook my head. The man in front of me had bulked out over the past few months, but he still wasn’t back to where he used to be. There was a darkness in his gaze, a thinness to his hips. I could no longer see his ribs as he took deep breaths, so there was that at least.
Being dead for as long as Blake Jamenson had been left one’s body in a state of weakness.
I rolled out of the way of Blake’s next kick, both of our claws out but not doing any damage.
This was a dominance challenge, but not in the ways that others might think. I nodded tightly, threw my shoulder into Blake’s gut, then kept moving, punch after punch, kick after kick, as Blake got out his aggression and showed the Pack who he was, while I let some of my anger slide through.
But this was also a teaching moment.
I was nearly fifty years older than Blake, but Blake had lived a thousand lifetimes.
Although the irony of that meant I would never actually say that aloud.
When Blake and Tatiana had come back from death, or wherever the hell they had been before Dara, our harvester death witch, had brought them back, they had looked exactly like they had when they were killed on the battlefield when the Talon Pack fought the human government. At that point in time, shifters had only recently been forced into revealing ourselves, and some of the government hadn’t liked us. Well, that was probably still the case. They had wanted to exterminate us, and some had succeeded. Others, like the man who had helped kill Blake and Tatiana, had wanted to study us.
They had vivisected our brothers and sisters, had torn our bodies apart in order to find a way to create their own shifter super-soldier. And they had nearly succeeded—one of the test subjects was actually part of the Talon Pack now. But the only way that those super soldiers had survived and not turned into grotesque monsters was because of a mating bond.
The government had lost, and now the people in power were friends of the shifters.
It would likely not always work out like that. We constantly had to prove to the world that we weren’t or and strong or would kill people with one swipe of a claw near the jugular.
Humans still feared us, with hate groups rising in popularity and threatening us. There were still bills in the government trying to take us out or claim that we weren’t human. But we had power too, so we would always find a way to survive.
Just as Blake had.
Just as I had.
Blake moved, claws outstretched, and I took him by the neck, slamming him to the ground.
Blake was strong, stronger with each passing day as he healed, at least physically.
But I was the Enforcer of the Aspen Pack.
It was my sacred duty, a blessing and gift from the moon goddess, to protect my Pack. I had extra bonds to our Pack, much like the Alpha. He could sense the overall well-being of the Pack and be exactly who each Pack member needed, and I fought against the outside forces. If there was a threat to our Pack, my wolf would know.
Only, we had been under threat for as long as I had been Enforcer.
The demons and vampires surrounded us. They were coming for us, so we needed to be stronger, faster, a tighter unit.
And that is why I pinned Blake to the ground as he struggled against my hold.
The others were watching, as this dominance challenge had been sanctioned, but they had seen the way Blake fought.
They saw the strength in both of us.
Blake lowered his gaze, his wolf not as dominant as mine yet, but he had still drawn blood.
He had already risen through the ranks of the Aspen Pack since he had joined us a few weeks ago, but now he was stronger.
I pressed my claws against Blake’s chest, feeling the heartbeat underneath my palm. That was good. A damn good thing.
I had known Blake before the war, but we had never been friends. In fact, I had been hiding within the ranks of the Aspens during that time, our former Alpha having not let us help the Talons in any way.
“Yield,” I whispered, my voice a low growl.
Blake looked up at me again, his eyes gold with his wolf, before he nodded. “I yield,” he gritted out. I smiled, just a quick flash of teeth. I didn’t smile often, at least according to everyone who knew me, so when I stood up and held out my hand, Blake looked at it for a second. For a moment I thought his pride would be too much, that the chip on his shoulder was even larger than my own, but he slid his palm against mine and I quickly pulled him to his feet.
The spectators cheered before some went back to their day. Others came towards us, surrounding us. Blake was new to the Aspen Pack, but we were wolves, and we understood how to comfort.
“Good fight,” I said truthfully.
Blake smiled. For an instant, his eyes lit up as if he had no darkness within, but then he blinked it away and looked at the others. “I guess nobody can beat the Enforcer of the damn Aspen Pack,” he said dryly.
Hayes, our Omega and a six-foot-six tall and broad man who could turn into a polar bear let out a gruff laugh. “You’re the idiot who decided to fight against him rather than another dominant right in front of you. But I’d say all of our wolves understand where you rank now.”
“I don’t know. My wolf just wanted to try it.”
“Yeah? Then you did pretty good,” Hayes said before he walked off, rubbing his chest.
As the Omega, Hayes could feel every emotion within the Pack. He usually blocked it off, just like sometimes I had to block off my own bonds, but something was rattling the old bear, and he wouldn’t tell me. Hayes was on his own most days, if he wasn’t hanging out with Wren, our Healer, or Wynter, a human who had been forced to live with us when the human she worked with had threatened her and taken everything from her.
Our Pack was growing by leaps and bounds, just like a healthy Pack should.
The crowd dispersed until it was just me, Blake, and Chase, our Alpha.
Blake immediately lowered his gaze from the both of us, and I did the same to Chase. I might be dominant as hell, but I was nothing compared to my Alpha, or our Beta. Audrey was off with Gavin, the two of them finally taking a moment to themselves.
They had been mated for a few years, for the second time, but with the war with the vampires and demons, they hadn’t had many moments to themselves. They were still on den grounds, I could feel them, though I blocked that connection quickly, but they hadn’t been here for the dominance fight.
“You’re doing well, Blake. Are you aiming to be one of our lieutenants?”
Blake shrugged. “Maybe. I want to thank you again for letting me join. I know it probably isn’t easy dealing with me.”
I met Chase’s gaze for an instant before Chase cleared his throat. “My wife is your cousin, and your other cousin is mated to my best friend. I’m pretty sure we are all turning into one Pack as it is. But I also understand wanting to branch out. You have a lot of siblings and cousins over there.”
“And Mom and Dad weren’t happy when I decided to leave the Pack, if only for a time.”
The Redwood Pack had grieved when they lost one of their own, but now he was back, though he clearly wasn’t the same man as before. He wasn’t the baby of the family, wasn’t all smiles and curly hair. He was different, and though I knew the Redwoods were stronger and tied more emotionally than any other Pack I knew, it must have been a blow to them to realize Blake had changed so much. They gave him space, but Blake needed a change, and both Alphas agreed.
The fact that both Lexi and North of the Redwood Pack were visiting here more often made me smile.
He was still Pack, even if he answered to a different Alpha and not his uncle anymore. There were reasons why a wolf needed space, and the fact our Northwest Pack alliance was strong enough and tightly bound enough to allow that to happen meant we had grown far stronger than others thought possible.
I just wasn’t sure we were strong enough to fight against pure evil.
“Are you off to go do some scouting?” Chase asked as Blake walked off with Skye—his cousin and Chase’s mate.
“I was thinking about it. How’s the baby doing?” I asked, and Chase winced. “Skye refuses to take any time for herself. Doesn’t matter that she is about to give birth to our first child, she wants to do everything that she used to do.”
“She’s a wolf. She can handle anything.”
“You keep saying that, but you will rue the day when you realize that your pregnant mate has no concern for herself and keeps putting everybody else first and refuses to just lie down when you ask.”
I tried to hide my smile, ignoring the ache in my chest. “Well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, as I have no mate and don’t plan on it.”
“You’re cute thinking you’re going to have a choice.”
I flipped him off. “And Skye is heavily guarded at all times. I noticed the way that Blake is watching her every move. He’s protecting his cousin, just like everyone else. I also see Novah and Cassius walking towards them. What are they doing, ensuring that the precious Alpha’s mate doesn’t fall and trip?”
“I might have persuaded Novah to walk towards them and ensure that she’s safe.”
My lips twitched. “Cassius and Novah still trying?” I asked. We began walking towards the perimeter because I needed to do a patrol soon. Chase looked over his shoulder one last time before putting his attention back on me.
“So far. I know that the Healer’s working with them, I just hate to see it. Novah wants a child, and Cassius would do anything for her. But you know wolves—we’re fertile as hell, unless we’re not. There’s no middle ground.”
I nodded. The Redwoods seemed to have three or more children per family, sometimes up to six. The Talons were slowly following along, as well as the Centrals. We Aspens were taking our sweet time, but then again, we had been scorned by the moon goddess for our past transgressions, much like the Talons and Centrals had. They had overcome it, and we were too. Our Alpha was about to be a father. Adalyn, our former soldier and now Alpha to the Central Pack, was a mother as well.
Our families were changing, our Pack was growing stronger.
“Is anyone placing bets on when Gavin and Audrey start?”
Chase laughed. “Audrey told me that they’re waiting until my child’s a bit older. They thought that two pregnancies at the top of the leadership might be a bit much.”
That made me throw my head back and laugh. “Trust Audrey to try to keep everything on a timeline.”
“Hence why the betting pools are increasing. Dara and Cruz are waiting,” Chase said, speaking of the Heir of the Pack and our harvester death witch.
“Really? So, it’s going to be a while before you are an uncle then?”
Chase grinned. “I hate our father, hate him with every ounce of me, but damn it, I got a brother out of the deal. Took me too long to realize it, but it’s pretty damn great.”
I smiled as we walked. “Yeah. Our Pack’s changing, but we’re growing stronger. Hell, we’re even working side-by-side with a coven.”
Chase raised a brow. I didn’t blame him. I didn’t usually bring up the witches. Not that I was prejudiced against magic—the exact opposite. No, it was more the fact that one of their coven leaders grated on me beyond all reason.
I did not want to think about Jade though, or her little human friend that was always around. Things got weird when I thought about them. And I didn’t want to go there.
“I need to head back, things to do.”
“Mate to watch?” I teased.
“My mate is about to whelp a pup, let me be the growly Alpha father here.”
“Please use the phrase ‘whelp a pup’ in front of her. I want to be there when she rips off your balls,” I said with a laugh.
He pushed at my shoulder, my wolf yipping in happiness, before he walked off.
One of my lieutenants came forward soon after, tablet in hand. “Were you just lurking around?” I asked, and Hazel beamed.
“Maybe. Seriously though,” she continued. “He’s all growly and about to be a dad. I’m going to let you deal with him.”
“You’re a dominant wolf, you can handle him, Hazel.”
“You say that, but then he gets overprotective and forgets that I’m a strong dominant too.”
She was all of five-feet, pure strength, and could take down a grown man with her pinky. There was a reason she was one of my top lieutenants, and a good friend.
“I have the latest control reports, as well as information from the Centrals about a potential new kiss.”
I sighed and took the tablet.
Demons made vampires. That much we knew. When a demon had slid through the crack from their dark realm nearly thirty years ago, it had created a new being. Bloodthirsty monsters who were either controlled by other vampires or the demon itself. When they gained their own control, and weren’t red-hazed and flailing weapons, they were conniving, brilliant, and far more dangerous than any other foe we had ever faced.
When vampires hid together, the groups were called kisses. We would have to find them before they found us. My wolf wanted to stop this. This endless fighting wasn’t good for our Pack, and our Healer had said time and time again we needed to find a way to make friends with the vampires, to find the good ones.
Only the man in me wasn’t quite sure I believed they were a thing.
“Thanks for the report, are you off shift?”
Hazel nodded. “I have a date,” she teased.
“What’s her name?”
“Sandy. A cute human with blond curls. She is going to be fun.”
“Well, that makes me happy. It’s about damn time.”
“I leave the den, do you?”
“I left the den last week.”
“To what, fight a vampire?”
“You should go out to the town, to the city. We’re not locked in. You’re allowed to go out and find a willing wolf or human or witch to tumble.”
“Are you telling me I need to get laid?”
“All of our wolves need touch, they need that sensory action. And you, my Enforcer, need to get laid.”
She winked, then moved off.
I sighed and thought about the one person my wolf seemed to want these days.
It wasn’t going to happen, we had both said as much, but damn it, that witch just wouldn’t leave me alone.
My wolf pushed at me suddenly, clawing at my chest as the bonds that connected me to the wards as Enforcer pulsed.
I whirled, moving towards the Pack line before any of my lieutenants or other Pack members noticed.
Then the siren went off, a sentry having noted what I had already felt.
I slammed through the wards, the familiar magic tearing at me. It was welcoming, yet harsh and brutal. Because it knew what was coming, and it knew it needed to be strong.
The wards were filled with the blood and magic of shifter and witch and human. That was what protected us, and I was what protected it.
A single vampire slid out of the shadows, a smile on his face.
“The Enforcer. It’s good to see you.”
This was a sentient one, strong enough and old enough to fight against any control from its master. I didn’t know what set it off, what could change it to be this being. Part of me wanted to see if there were those so-called good vampires out there. Ones that protected. Sawyer told me they existed, but I wasn’t sure if I believed Jade’s friend.
I wanted to, but the idea of that wasn’t quite real.
“What do you want?” I asked as I felt the other members of my team moving around in silence. They were hidden, though I was sure with the vampire’s heightened senses he knew they were there. It didn’t matter that they were downwind, we all were filled with blood, the vampire’s nutrients. He would be able to see us, feel us.
“I’m just here as a warning. I mean no harm.” The vampire held up his hands and I growled.
“The demon is coming. Malphas, our master, wants you. Wants your entire Pack. He wants the witches and their power. And he wants the brat about to be born. I would be on the lookout. Because this is only the beginning, he is only the beginning.”
At that threat, I threw my head back and howled. The vampire grinned.
We moved at the same time, claws out, but the vampire slid into the darkness, running back to where he came from.
I gestured towards my lieutenants as I ran, but a voice stopped me.
I whirled at Dara, her eyes wide, magic radiating from her in dark, smoky pulses.
“What is it?” I snapped, the hunt still having me on edge.
I paused, the others moving in pursuit of the vampire. I wasn’t sure they would be able to catch him, as the vampires were faster than us most of the time when it came to running, not fighting.
“Her entire complex has burned down, they killed the humans, the children,” Dara said quietly.
Cruz was behind her, hand on the back of her neck as he steadied her. My wolf howled, raging at the injustice of it all.
“Dara, where’s Jade?”
“The humans and vamps have her. And they left a note.”
It felt as if the world crashed around me. “Is she dead?”
Dara shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“If they have her, we’ll find her.”
It was a promise I made as Enforcer, and as the man that wasn’t Jade’s.
Because my wolf refused to mourn until I knew for sure.
I had no link to Jade. I wouldn’t know if she were truly dead or not. But there was potential.
Jade, the fire witch full of secrets and flame, was my potential mate, a bond that could be blessed by the moon goddess.
And yet, neither of us wanted the bond.
Only now I was afraid that that one choice might have cost Jade her life.