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(The Fox and the Howl #)
A dark new-adult urban fantasy/paranormal romance
I peered back over my haunches only briefly, just long enough to recognize the intent for victory in golden eyes as bright as the moon looming high behind the wolf's head. My lolling tongue sucked back as I realized the game of tag had become a true chase of predator and prey. Bollocks. The moon had pulled out Cooper's animalistic instinct to hunt. His human side was nowhere to be seen, and he was hot on my tail and closing fast, lips pulled back in a snarl that wrinkled his muzzle and exposed inch-long canines dripping saliva. So much for friends are not food.
I put on a burst of speed. I could take Cooper in my human form, but a common garden fox was no match for a full-grown wolf — which was all he was to me right now.
He should not have come to visit me on a full moon. He shouldn't be here at all. And now I was going to pay for not telling him to bugger off all these years he broke the rules.
My heart pounded almost as fast as my paws pattered across the rain-slicked grass of the Clifton Downs — and much louder. I torqued my ears back, listening to his excited panting in order to track the shortening stretch between us. My lithe form was designed for stealth, his for might.
Options flitted through my mind. To my right, death in the form of a steep drop of the cliff dropped onto Hotwell Road and beyond it, the River Avon. Left ran into the obstacle of the Clifton Observatory — populated by humans at this time of night. Straight led directly from the park into densely packed neighbourhoods, which were natural roaming grounds for foxes... but not for grey wolves who were supposed to be extinct in the UK.
I tucked my head and sprinted straight ahead toward Gloucester Row and the houses beyond, knowing Coop would have to pull up or veer off. He may have trespassed, but he wouldn't endanger the secret of his kind... That was if he had enough cognition to recall that fact. If he didn't, at the very least, I could find a small hidey hole to escape his teeth.
My legs were weak with fatigue and tripped me up more than once. When the anchorage of the suspension bridge reared in my vision, I hoped Cooper would detour back to his territory. Instead, a growl pursued me. I wasn't going to make it to the edge of the park before he caught up.
I cast about in haste for an alternate option. A large sign to my left indicated public toilets for tourists visiting the notorious bridge. It would be locked after dusk but the rubbish bin next to it would be recently emptied to avoid attracting wildlife overnight. Tonight, that cleanliness was the attraction.
With the last of my dwindling energy, I made a few final bounds and launched toward the top of the metal barrel—
A pair of teeth closed around my tail.
I crashed into the ground with a yip of surprise and pain. We had too much momentum, both of us tumbling together until we crumpled against the base of the bin. I landed on the bottom, belly-up, in the worst possible position, unless you were into submission — which in the case of life-and-death is not advised, assuming you’re aspiring for the “life” eventuality out of those two options.
My head twisted to the side, and I squinted open one eye, worried I was about to see an impressive set of teeth before they ripped into me.
My open eye rolled.
The so-called predator was poised over me, braced on his forepaws, tongue hanging loose from his jaw in a wolfish smile that did nothing to endear him to me.
Immediately, I shifted back to human. “Cooper Mills, you are an absolute git. One of these times, you’re going to chew off my tail. And then you’re going to get a muzzle-full of unrestrained magic. Without apology.” Bold words for a Brit… and a fox trapped beneath a full-grown wolf who also happened to be the local alpha’s son. “You know that, right?”
His response to my threat was to sweep his slobbery tongue up the side of my face.
“Gross.” I used a forearm to wipe it off leaving a streak of mud in its wake. I wasn't sure when he'd returned to his senses — maybe when he tasted my fur in his mouth — but I was done putting up with his animal side tonight. “No. Just because you're my friend — were my friend — won’t stop me. Now get off. You’re heavy,” I grunted. “I think you really did break my tail.”
He nudged my hand with his wet nose.
“Used up my magic shifting so fast,” I explained raising the palm to show that there was no sizzling glow. I'd planned to refuel before heading home and shifting back. Coop had forced my hand and thrown off my evening plans.
That made his jaw close, and his head tilt in chagrin.
My eyes rolled again. “I just need a solid night’s sleep to rejuvenate my stores,” I lied, “and then I’ll have enough energy to heal it.” Unfortunately, the pain from the break would not abate until then and I couldn't even cradle the wound without that appendage in human form. “Get. Off. Me.”
Cooper’s eyes shut in concentration and a moment later, a naked man lay across my naked body, grinning in a wolfish manner. The autumn wind was colder without the fur blanket, but he generated a lot of body heat pressed intimately against mine.
I remained very still, my heart picking up pace again. Though this wasn’t the first time I’d shifted in front of Coop, it wasn’t usual that we were interlocked at the time.
“I don’t know,” Cooper cooed, dropping one elbow into a pile of leaves that had drifted against the bin. His other lifted to pick up a strand of my shoulder-length hair. He twisted the pale blond strands around a finger. “I want to make sure you know your place, Polka Dot. Beneath me.” His lips quirked, and he leaned down toward my ear to whisper the next part. “You know. Because I won.”
“That’s it.” I lifted both palms and shoved at his shoulders, which only managed to reposition him against me. If I’d had any dregs of power, I would’ve blasted him off at the cost of leaving my tail injured. “Get. Off. I can’t breathe.”
“Lose your breath at the sight of me, did you?”
“Lost my breath because of the reek of this rubbish bin.” It really wasn’t that odoriferous, being empty as I anticipated. We were laid out like two drunk college students on the edge of a major artery. It was late, but a car was bound to motor past at some point. “We need to move.”
Cooper rolled off with a laugh. When he stood, he winced, sucking in a sharp breath and grabbing the edge of the bin to avoid crumpling to his knees.
“What’s wrong?” I dipped under his arm to support him, trying to find out where he was hurt.
Despite the fact that he tried to keep his weight off me and funnelled into his braced hand, the arm was heavy across my shoulders. It was just like the arrogant prick to procrastinate medical aid in favour of haughty banter.
“Twisted my ankle on that knoll you leapt down.” He gave me a sharp look out of the corner of his eyes.
“I am not apologizing for that. You shepherded me down there. I was going to lose entirely if you caught up to me.”
“You lost anyway,” he pointed out.
“I meant my tail. Lose my tail.” I cocked my head. “Although… If you’re injured, I think I get some credit.”
He shook his head. “You double lose, because it means I beat you even with a handicap.” He tweaked my nose.
"You already have a handicap. Your idiocy." Ducking out from under his arm, I walked away down the road toward the brightly coloured cookie-cutter houses on the hillside, bare feet stinging on the unyielding pavement after being pounded on rough terrain.
It really was a nuisance that I didn’t have enough spark to shift back to my animal form. I was going to have to cut down the Zig Zag to reach the road far below that paralleled the river. The brush along that winding footpath would surely leave cuts on my soles that Aunt Ellen would ask about with a suspicious raised brow.
“Dot Pearson,” Cooper called after me. “You are going to help me out, yeah?”
The fact that Cooper used my full name gave me pause. There were only a number of times — less than two-hands’ worth in fourteen years — that I could recall him using anything but the moniker adopted when we went through puberty and his wolf pup grew, while my little fox form had a less substantial growth spurt. His injury must be bad enough that he was willing to wound his own pride to admit dependency.
I paused for only a second though.
“Nope.” I didn’t look back. “Winners don’t need a hand from losers. I’m walking away with my head up and leaving you to limp home sadly.”
“Looks more like a walk of shame. An alluring walk of shame, mind.”
Without slowing my stride toward Lookout Lectern, I shot him a hard glare over my shoulder.
He had hopped toward me on one foot, keeping his weight off the other one with a pitiful gaze and pouting lower lip.
I stopped, fists curling in annoyance at my weak will for ruining a fantastic exit. “Sorry, Coop. I told you, I have no juice to heal you. Obviously.” I indicated my exposed flesh. Modesty urged me to shift back though I had no means to do so.
“I noticed.” Coop’s eyes dropped only once, fleetingly and without judgment, but a flush bathed my body in a fire-side glow that was followed by a dainty shiver that started at my neck and tripped down the full length of my spine. It had nothing to do with the night’s autumn breeze.
I swallowed, refusing to cover myself as it would only draw more attention and Cooper’s mirth. “And I can’t help you home, if that’s your next suggestion. Not if I don’t want more than a broken tail for trespassing on pack land. Go back to your turf.” I pointed toward Clifton Suspension Bridge. “One of your mates there will gladly help you in order to earn the appreciation of the great Stryder Mills.” My sarcasm was getting heavy, my tail was aching, and I was suddenly bone-tired and chilled through and through in the crisp air on which danced a few lazy leaves. “Besides you already wore me out,” I said honestly.
Cooper grinned at that. “You could do with the exercise.”
I scoffed. In my birthday suit, he could see every rib through my nearly translucently pale skin. Using magic drained my energy and my weight; I'd probably lost a kilogram forcing that shift. My hands landed akimbo. “And you could do with an excuse. Bet you're thrilled that there will be honesty in your words when you tell your father you were out hunting,” I countered. “Isn’t tonight supposed to be your monthly pack hunt?” I twirled a finger toward the full moon. “Shouldn’t you be back there, leading the charge, as it were?”
Coop snorted derisively. “It’s early yet. They’re still riling themselves up for it. You know I’d rather chase you, Polka Dot.” His teeth glinted in the bright moonlight that surely lit our bodies up like beacons to any nosey observers peering out the front windows across the road.
I watched him for a moment. “You’re playing with fire.” The soft warning echoed my aunt's words. The sensible part of me had hoped he wouldn’t come, and the other part? The part needed to bugger off. I quashed it for now.
He shrugged. “My father’s the one who signed the accords, not me.”
I shook my head. “You know they apply to us, too.”
Coop scoffed. “There’s no tripwire. My father doesn’t know where or what I’m hunting. Just that I am. And with this as proof — ” He gestured at his foot. “— he’ll believe that my prey was something impressive.”
“That’s because it was something impressive,” I corrected, lifting my chin.
He laughed. “Maybe next time, Polka Dot.”
“You’re faster today than usual. I did pretty well, considering,” I pointed out, pursing my lips.
“Yeah, well, I'm a bit slow now, eh?”
I tapped my temple. "You're always a bit slow."
I observed Cooper’s pitiful state: a fully exposed body in the middle of the road and he was going to have to head across the gorge, out in the wide open on that expansive bridge, to return to his pack with a weakness for all to see. Would his younger brother take the opportunity to challenge him for the spot of heir?
Then I thought of my tail and Aunt Ellen, who was another candidate for making the tail look like a wee nick if I broke the accords. I had an important errand to do before heading home anyway — an errand I needed to do alone.
“Moon’s out, you lazy sod. You can shift back and use three legs.” Pivoting on a heel, I presented my back to my best and only friend... and my greatest enemy, knowing he couldn't chase me further if he wanted to.
Coop gave an appreciative hum. "And what a glorious full moon it is."
I saluted his remark with a middle finger and a terrible impression of a quiet wolf’s howl of triumph directed toward the night sky.
Coop's exclamation made me grit my teeth. "If you're faking more pain just to get me to help you..." I left the threat open.
No one responded.
"Coop?' I slowed and half-turned, waiting. If he was messing with me, he was getting his other ankle broken, I decided. "Cooper. This isn't funny." I didn’t see him behind me; he’d started his trek toward Wolves Wood. “Did you fall off the bridge?” I asked half-kidding, half-worried.
"Shit!" The way Cooper shouted the swear to the sky chilled me more than the wind on my bare skin.
I began to jog back the way I’d come. "Coop? Where are you?"
He didn't answer, but I found him quickly enough. He hadn't gone far; I was relieved to find he hadn't stepped foot on the bridge yet.
He didn't seem to register me, just kept staring at the bridge, bare chest heaving with heavy pants.
Following his gaze, I froze. "Shit," I echoed breathlessly.
There, in the middle of the empty walkway along the side of the empty bridge was a large grey lump. The floodlights that lit the bridge cables for all of Bristol to see also illuminated the crumpled form. The dark fur of the wolf was clearly charred on one side, a few tendrils of smoke lifting on the breeze. When I inhaled hard in panic, the scent of singed hair filtered into my nose.
Slowly, Cooper turned wide eyes on me.
"I didn't kill him," I bumbled, though of course Cooper knew that. He'd been with me.
Mutually, we turned back to stare with horror at the body.
Cooper’s whisper punched the air from my gut with more force than any physical tackle he’d ever launched. Terror gripped my core. "Slade... your dad's beta?"
Neither of us moved to see if Slade needed medical assistance. The beta of the Mills Pack was clearly dead, toasted by a blast of power that could only be one thing: magic. Magic like mine.
My eyes lifted to stare at Coop, and he gazed back, too many words behind his eyes. Fear uncoiling in my gut, I fled Bloody Bridge.
Cooper's howl of grief chased me down the path. The responding howls from the wolf-shifter pack about to head out on their full-moon hunt spurred me into a blind sprint.
Completely naked, I streaked down the Zig Zag and along Hotwell Road, ignoring the tooting horn from a passing car on the motorway. I forewent scrambling into my open bedroom window on the second floor. Falling through the front door, gasping and choking, I rushed to slam it behind me and leaned against it as if to keep out the hounds of Hell.
They weren't on my tail yet. But they would be.
want more Wolves Wood?!
A modern twist on The Fox and the Hound story with feuding wolf-shifters, a lone fox-shifter, black-magic witches from the past, and a bridge with dark secrets, set in Bristol, UK.
For fans of Deborah Harkness, Anne Bishop, and Christine Feehan.
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