Stolen and Forgiven
Book 1 in the Branded Packs Series
The first rule of being Alpha of the Canine Pack is to protect their secrets from the humans at all cost. One look at the dying human at his doorstep and Holden Carter knows he will have to break it. The broken woman with no hope at survival is his mate. When he forces the change on her to save her life, he not only sets forth motions that could risk both their lives, but the lives of every shifter in the world.
Ariel Sands grew up in a post-Verona infection world and under the care of the very humans she thought had cured the disease. When they betray her in the worst ways imaginable, she finds herself not only mated to the Alpha of a the very species she’s been taught to fear, but the focal point of a traitor and path to destruction for everyone’s way of life. It will take more than trust and a mating bond for Ariel and Holden to not only survive their enemies, but the burn of their own temptations.
Soren Slater is a Beta wolf who understands that duty to his Pack comes before his own needs. At a young age he takes a position as a liaison between his Pack and the other species of shifters. He never expected his enticing flirtations with Cora Wilder, a Tiger Princess, would encourage her cat to consider him a potential mate. He’s forced to walk away, choosing a partner among the wolves to try and strengthen his Pack.
Cora has no intention of forgiving or forgetting Soren’s rejection. Not even when the Packs are forced to live together and she discovers Soren’s former mate has died. But then, she’s kidnapped by the SAU and she has no choice but to work with Soren to escape. Together they must put the past behind them if they’re to survive the human’s evil plot.
Stolen and Forgiven
If everyone didn’t get the fuck away from him, they’d be responsible for the trail of clawed up assholes in his wake. Holden Carter, Alpha of the River Pack, ran a hand through his hair. His muscles strained, and his wolf prowled far too closely to the surface for his liking. It didn’t matter that they sat on old couches and the scarred wooden floor in his home. He’d take them out one by one if they wouldn’t let him breathe.
“You look ready to kick someone’s ass, Alpha, you’d better rein it in.”
Holden turned to his second, Soren and narrowed his eyes. The smug bastard might be a Beta, but there wasn’t a submissive bone in his body. The only thing that kept Soren from leading like Holden was his wolf.
The wolves determined dominance, not the strength of the man beneath.
Instead of smashing his best friend’s face in, Holden lifted a lip in a semblance of a smile. Of course, from the look on Soren’s face, it must have come out as more of a grimace than an actual smile. Oh well, the man deserved it. As did the rest of them. Hell, he needed to run. Or a drink.
Anything at this point.
Holden turned back to the wolves in front of him and let out a low growl. Each man and woman quieted, the collars around their necks a stark contrast to the color of their skin. He fucking hated the collars his brothers and sisters wore more than the metal one wrapped tightly around his neck.
It reminded him that the Pack wasn’t free.
They were caged and branded, but not forgotten.
He’d make sure his Pack was never forgotten.
That was his duty as Alpha. One of many.
“You’ve aired your grievances,” Holden growled out, his wolf clawing at him. “The collars can’t come off. It’s a death sentence at this point. You know this.” The collars themselves wouldn’t kill them if they took the metal cages off their necks. No, it was the humans who held that power. They had eyes everywhere, a hold over their lives and future.
“But we can overpower the humans,” Theo, a younger wolf, bit out. He had been born within the compound walls and had never stepped foot outside as a free man. Between the need to find some semblance of who he could be and the natural aggression of a new adult wolf, Theo always toed the line of wolf and man. “We’re wolves. We’re powerful. Not like the fucking cats and bears in the other compounds.”
Rumbles from the other wolves who agreed with him.
Holden suppressed a growl of agreement. The cats and bears were in their own compounds and had their own troubles. Many of the wolves in the Pack had never seen another type of shifter. The humans had broken from their brethren, and the results weren’t a shared connection of pain. Instead, the old taunts of cat vs wolf vs bear had turned to something far more feral.
Again, Holden didn’t want to think of that. Instead, he wanted—no needed—to run.
“That’s enough,” he growled, his wolf in his voice. “We’re not all dominants. There are submissives, non-fighters, and children to consider.” Holden let out a breath. Always so much to consider and never enough leverage to protect his people from atrocities of the worst kind.
The wolves, cats, and bears had been locked within their own compounds for twenty-five years. Two and a half long decades where a new generation had been forcibly denied a glimpse the outside world; destined never to breathe the air of freedom, never to run on four paws for as far as their legs could take them.
Instead, they’d been collared, imprisoned, and branded like cattle.
Holden rubbed his left forearm where the brand of his species, his people, burned as it had when he’d turned fifteen and been forced to wear the mantel as Alpha and savior of his kind. The tribal wolf howled at an unseen moon—ironic since the humans who’d designed the brand had done their best to cut the wolves from their nature and their need to be one with the earth. The act of defiance in tattooing the left side of his Pack tattoo had cost him dearly, but he’d never regret the ink on his skin.
Not when it meant his people had a chance at life.
Holden squeezed his forearm, his claws breaking through the tips of his fingers slightly before receding. He had better control than any wolf here, but sometimes, the wolf needed to run.
The men and women who sat in his home were his council. Not a true council since wolves didn’t work that way, but they were the pillars of their Pack, their compound. Each of them wove within the den, learning what they could and keeping the peace. For if a wolf stepped out of line, it wouldn’t be the Alpha in all cases to punish them. Instead, the humans would take that on their shoulders and make them an example. The people in front of him helped him keep his Pack in line and let him know of problems that he could be unaware of as Alpha.
Soren, as Beta, did most of the legwork when it came to that, but he couldn’t do it alone. Not when their numbers grew monthly, but the space they’d been provided hadn’t. The walls became more confining daily, and soon they would have to find a way to glimpse freedom. However, today was not that day.
“We cannot fight against the humans with what we have,” Holden continued. “We are gaining in number, gaining in strength, but it is not enough. Not yet.”
“When will it be enough, Alpha,” Ana, another young wolf, snarled.
Holden clenched his jaw and met her gaze. Her wolf whimpered and lowered her eyes after only a moment of meeting his. Ana wasn’t a weak wolf by far, but she wasn’t anywhere near Holden’s dominance. Between her and Theo, Holden had reached his limit in dealing with cocky attitudes and far away dreams of a freedom without thinking of the cost.
“We’re done,” Holden bit out. “We are dealing with the problems we can control, and the rest are tabled.” He let out a breath, his arms threatening to shake. If he didn’t get out of there soon, he’d start shifting right then. “Go to your families.”
The others shuffled out, their own wolves reaching out to him. He could feel their power brush his own, but that didn’t calm him like it should have. Instead, it only egged him on.
“You need me to run with you?” Soren asked, his voice low. His best friend understood him like no other, but Holden needed to be alone right then. It didn’t help that he knew Soren needed to run off his own demons, but it was not Holden’s place to help him. Some scars could never be healed.
Holden shook his head. “No. Go back and make sure Theo and Ana don’t start shit.”
“They’re young,” Soren said simply as the two of them walked out of Holden’s home into the night.
A breeze brushed over Holden’s face and he stopped to inhale the sweet scents of nature. As much as humans wanted to close them in and never let them breathe free air again, that hadn’t worked. When the compounds were built twenty-five years ago during the first months after shifters had been discovered, the wolves, cats, and bears had been forced to live in warehouses of sorts, breathing recirculated air with no trees around them or soil beneath their feet.
Holden stifled a growl at the memory of their brutal captivity. The chain-link and razor wire electric fences surrounding their newer compound clawed at his soul, but it was nothing like before. When his packmates had started dying, he’d begged—fucking begged on his hands and knees—to let his people have fresh, unfiltered air and the space to run on four paws that they needed to survive.
In the end, he’d bargained with his life and won. At least as much as he could. He refused to rub between his shoulder blades; the puckered scars there a stark reminder of what he’d endured for the facade of freedom his Pack now held. Between the blood he’d lost and the brutality he had been forced to endure and take part in monthly, he’d found the cost of that small freedom.
But his Pack’s lives were worth all that and more.
He shook his head, his hands fisting at his sides. “Go.” One word, a growl on the wind, and Soren lowered his gaze. Holden didn’t miss the sadness there. Soren alone knew the pain Holden endured to keep his people safe, but there was nothing the other man could do—nothing Holden would require his friend to do.
Soren gave him a tight nod then loped off after the other wolves that had gone their separate ways. Holden knew Soren would hold the fort while he ran along the forested edges of their compounds. He couldn’t hunt as the humans had done all in their power to keep game and other animals out of the wolves’ territory, but he could at least run hard between the trees.
He made his way to the forested area on the westernmost edge of the compound. From there he could barely make out the shadowed peaks of the Rocky Mountains. After the humans had found out about shifters and done their best to kill them off, the rest of those with two natures had been forced into compounds around each major city in America—and across the world if what Holden had heard back then was correct. Denver loomed in the distance north of them, but he couldn’t quite see the lights of the big city. That was on purpose, of course. God forbid humans were forced to see the atrocities those in power had created—manmade camps where freedom was nonexistent and torture was a way of life.
The Canine compound sat between the Ursine and Feline compounds, with the Ursines to the west nearer to the foothills, and the Felines to the east, their compound brushing the plains. By law, Holden and his people were not able to visit the others. In fact, they were never allowed to step foot off their compound unless the humans took them out. And even then, it was only for questioning and study.
He swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat at that thought. He needed to run, to forget those who had bled at his hands and out of his control. With a sigh, he stripped off his shirt and undid his pants. While he could shift fully clothed, he’d only end up disengaging anything on his body that wasn’t etched into his skin or a special metal. The collars, of course, were made of a metal that adjusted to the size of the shifter’s neck after they changed into their animal form. Such ingenuity from a people who had all but killed his own.
He let out a breath then pulled on his wolf. The change was quick, a breath of sweet agony, and soon he found himself on all fours. In his animal form, he stood a little larger than a natural wolf. The moon wasn’t full so he’d be able to hide easily within the shadows if he felt like it. It helped that his midnight-black fur blended so well with the dark. The only real color was a white stripe on his nose.
His mother had loved that little stripe.
He repressed a growl and buried the pain of her loss. When the Verona virus had hit, most of his people were safe from the disease, but not the carriers. He’d lost his parents, his siblings…everyone.
A growl escaped his throat, and he shook his body like he’d stepped out of water, and ran. His paws slammed onto the ground, the force of the impact vibrating in his jaw, but he didn’t care. He had dirt between the pads of his feet, and a slight breeze through his fur. If he could ignore the stench of metal and burning electricity, he could almost forget that he lived within a cage.
He’d been running for only a few minutes when he scented another wolf.
Well, hell. He wasn’t in the mood for this, but Theo needed to get it out of his system. As Alpha, it was Holden’s job to help the younger, dominant wolves find their place within the Pack. That meant fielding dominance challenges and takedowns when necessary. Theo wouldn’t win tonight, but the wolf would be able to let his aggression out. Too much suppressed aggression within a system, and that system would break. Holden had seen firsthand what happened when a younger wolf not only didn’t learn to control their urges but didn’t learn to let them out, as well.
Holden lifted a lip in a snarl as Theo padded toward him. The younger wolf had grey, tan, and white patches, much like many of the wild Timberwolves outside the compound. Theo’s human side had finished growing, though Holden knew he would gain more muscle over time. However, Theo’s wolf wasn’t quite finished growing. Holden had a feeling Theo would soon be as large as Soren. That would be good for the Pack since they would need all the strength they could get in the coming months and years. Right then, though, Holden had more pressing matters on his mind.
He let out a warning growl, but Theo didn’t stop moving. The animal within Theo maintained control, and Holden would mold and shape that into a dominant wolf worth having in the Pack. Theo snarled but didn’t lower his gaze.
Theo pounced, a quick movement that surprised even Holden. It seemed the young wolf had some speed. Good, but not good enough. Holden moved out of the way at the last moment and nipped at Theo’s flank. The younger wolf snapped his large teeth, but Holden didn’t get bit. Instead, he threw his own body at Theo, smashing the young man into the dirt. Theo struggled, but couldn’t fight Holden’s greater size. Knowing it had to be done, Holden bit into the back of Theo’s neck, marking him has his lower. Pride swelled inside, even if it warred with frustration. Theo would make a good enforcer or tracker one day, once he’d found his calling. He just had to refine his balance with his wolf. They all had to do it, though Holden had accomplished it far younger than most.
When Theo relaxed in his hold, Holden released him and stood back. He nudged at the other wolf and they both shifted back, Theo panting in exertion.
“Feel better now?” Holden bit out. He’d needed his run and a dominance challenge hadn’t helped his wolf.
Theo ran a hand through his too-long hair and grimaced. “Sorry, Alpha. I…I tried to hold back.”
He waved him off. “Your wolf needed a fight. I get it. It’s what makes us wolves and not human. But, next time? Try Soren or someone else first.”
Theo let out a breath. “Yeah, I know. I just…I don’t know.”
Holden had a feeling he knew. Theo would one day be one hell of a strong wolf. Perhaps not as strong as Soren to be Beta, but he’d be up there. Theo’s wolf needed to seek out the strongest of them all, even if he was certain to lose. Holden understood it, but he didn’t have to like it.
“Go back to the center of the den and get tended to by one of the submissives.” Holden grinned as Theo flushed. “I meant your cuts and bruises, boy. You know those submissives hold the power while we just think we do.”
Theo raised a brow and stood up on shaky legs. “True. Sorry for fighting you.”
“Never be sorry for fighting when your wolf needs it. You did the smart thing. You waited until we were alone and not in the middle of the den center where someone would take it as a clear challenge, rather than just aggression.” He frowned. “If you’re still feeling it, talk with Soren about more duties. If you have all this energy, we might as well use it to our advantage.”
Theo snorted and ran a hand over his brand—an absentminded gesture that clawed at Holden. He remembered the day Theo had been branded. He remembered the day each of them had been.
The two of them stood naked in the middle of the forest, but it didn’t matter. At some point, he’d have to go back and find his clothes since his run had been cut short, and he didn’t know where Theo had left his before he’d shifted.
“Thanks for not making me truly bleed,” Theo said wryly.
Holden rolled his eyes, his wolf huffing. “Go to the submissives.”
Theo grinned then ran off, leaving Holden alone in the forest once again. The fight had helped him release some energy, but he still sat on the edge of control. Fighting or fucking would help with that if the run didn’t, but he figured he wouldn’t be doing either tonight. Fighting Theo hadn’t been nearly enough. As for fucking, he had to be careful when it came to females in the Pack. None of them called to his wolf so he wouldn’t be able to truly mate with them. Most of the others in the Pack could find a mate their wolves would tolerate, even if it weren’t a true mating; however, as Alpha, he needed the balance, a complete bond in every way that mattered.
And unless she magically dropped from the sky, it wouldn’t be happening. Unlike the stories of legend, shifters didn’t live forever. They only had a short time on this planet, like humans, to find the one for them and make it work. He was already in his forties and unable to meet new wolves.
He had no chance for true happiness.
His wolf pushed at him, and he let out a frustrated growl. Fuck. Between the lack of options when it came to humans and now mating, he needed to punch something. For months now, he had been running on the edge of control, and he wasn’t sure what he could do about it. He needed something to center him, and running with his wolf wasn’t cutting it anymore.
He was about to shift back to his wolf—something that would hurt to do this close to his previous shift—when the wind changed. The scent of copper hit his nose and he went on alert.
Knowing full well he could be running into a trap, he padded on human feet toward the origin of the scent. If he didn’t, he could be risking his Pack even more. Human guards patrolled the gates, but they didn’t come out this far often. There weren’t any homes out here, and his people only used the forested area for runs and hunts.
It could be something as simple as a human guard having cut themselves accidentally, but he had a gut feeling it was something far worse. His wolf at the surface, he crept toward the source of the metallic scent. He couldn’t scent any humans other than the injured one. In fact, the stench of near-death became so potent, he was afraid he was too late.
This was a body dump.
A shadowed lump lay in a macabre pile on the shifter’s side of the fence. He let out a low growl and prowled closer.
Someone had sure done a number on her. They’d cut her up so old and new scars covered her body. When they’d dropped her over the high fence, they’d broken her bones—and perhaps had done that before she’d come to them. She lay naked with her long, tangled hair covering her face. Her chest rose softly in pained gasps, and he knew she lived—but not for long.
Whoever had done this had sliced her up in ways that made his stomach want to revolt. He’d seen unimaginable horrors in his years and had even been on the receiving and giving ends of such memories, but this…this was too much.
He crept closer and sucked in a breath.
They’d fucking vivisected her. How the hell was she even alive?
Death edged closer; it was only a matter of time before she’d let out her last breath. There was nothing he could do. The humans who had done this—he scented their stench around her—had placed her on the shifter’s land for a reason. If he had to venture a guess it was to place blame. It wasn’t the first time the SAU—Shifter Accommodation Unit—had played this game. And it wouldn’t be the last.
He let out a breath, knowing this woman suffered. He could either let her die in agony, or make it a swift death for her. His wolf whimpered, and he frowned. That was an odd response. His wolf didn’t whimper. Ever.
It wasn’t a whisper. Not a word. Not even a true voice. But a feeling along the bond to his wolf where he’d only felt aggression and pain for so long.
It had to be a mistake. There was no way this dying human was his mate. It couldn’t be. With a shaking hand, he brushed her hair from her face and fell to his knees.
Her eyelashes fluttered but she didn’t wake. A single tear mixed with the dirt and blood on her face slid down her cheek and he brushed it away. Fuck. This couldn’t be happening. He’d found his mate only to watch her die.
He knew what he could do—knew what he could have done in an age past. But it was truly forbidden now. He licked his lips, and his wolf pounded at him to do the one thing he couldn’t as Alpha. Not anymore.
Only he wasn’t sure he could hold himself back.
Knowing he was about to break the one rule as Alpha that held his people together, he pulled away from the woman and shifted back to wolf. It hurt like fucking hell, but nothing compared to what she must have felt just then.
Once he did this, he’d risk everything he and his people had fought for. As Alpha, he shouldn’t do this, but as a man, he couldn’t not.
He said a prayer asking forgiveness and bit into her shoulder. She let out a gasp, but didn’t thrash—she was far too close to death for that. The sweet, tangy taste of her blood settled on his tongue and he pulled away before biting her belly and thighs. The more fleshy places he bit, the stronger the chance the change would take.
If she lived, she would shift as he did.
If she lived, he would have to hide her from the prying eyes of the humans who collared them. For the humans had no idea how to make shifters. As far as the humans knew, shifters were born, not made. With this one bite, he risked the secret they’d kept since revealing their existence twenty-five years ago.
Yet his wolf pushed him and he knew he’d made the right decision.
At least that’s what he prayed. Because if he hadn’t, he’d sentenced himself and his people to certain death.