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The third in the Sapphire Ranch Wolves series, this is Zeke and Owen's story.
Will Owen submit, or will the lone wolf run?
Shifter Owen Pope is a bitter man, a lone wolf, banished by his pack for defying his Alpha. He survives day by day, working as a laborer, sometimes living for months as a wolf. On the borders of Sapphire Ranch, he catches a scent that calls to his wolf as he hunts.
Then he’s cornered, trapped with nowhere to go, and Owen realizes to his horror that the delicious scent belongs to the human pointing a gun right between Owen’s eyes.
He escapes, only to be confronted by two wolves, and his world is turned when he realizes one of them is a shifter from his former pack. Owen has so many questions but he’s not sure he’s going to like the answers.
Zeke is huge and fierce to his co-workers in the Cavalry, but he has one desire; to protect Owen and create a life together. Will Owen submit, or will the lone wolf run?
The Sapphire Ranch Wolves series
#1 The Last Wolf
#2 The Hidden Wolf
#3 The Rogue Wolf
#4 The Forgotten Wolf (to come 2016)
#5 The New Wolf (to come 2016)
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Six years ago
Eighteen year old Owen Pope stood naked and defiant in the center of a circle of wolves restlessly snapping and snarling at him. He held his head up high, refusing to show any sign of weakness before his alpha and the rest of the pack.
The alpha wolf, the only other human in the circle, stood in front of him, flanked by his betas. “You’re a troublemaker, wolf. You’re bad for the pack.”
The noise from the surrounding wolves grew louder but Owen refused to look at them, angry that they’d forced him into the circle. His “crime” had been to question the alpha’s decisions, to suggest ways of improving pack life. The hierarchy of Wild Creek pack didn’t tolerate dissension from the lower ranks.
“You have one last chance, Owen, to divremain Pack and Family.”
Ignoring his wolf’s disapproval Owen snarled at his alpha. “Are you gonna listen to me?”
“You’re a gamma. Weak and low in the pack. Little better than Callum. Yet you think you know better than your alpha and betas?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Owen saw one of the smaller wolves slink away and grew even angrier that, once again, the alpha had hurt the omega of the pack, his own son.
“Just because you’re stronger than me doesn’t mean you should ignore me. You think Cal is weak? Have you ever asked him what he thinks? He’s stronger and more intelligent than you give him credit for.”
“Cal knows his place,” the alpha snapped.
Knowing he was sealing his own fate, Owen looked his alpha in the eye. “One day someone will challenge you and you’ll lose.”
The wolves fell silent, just the odd uneasy whine slipping out. No one would support him, even if they agreed with him. Wolves didn’t challenge their leaders unless they wanted to take over the pack, and Owen wasn’t strong enough to do that. He wasn’t an alpha or a beta wolf. He was a gamma, and considered no match for the stronger wolves.
The alpha shook his head. “You’re no longer part of my pack, Owen Pope. You’re banished. If you make it to the edge of the pack land before my betas attack, you’re free to go.”
“You would kill me?” Owen stared at the alpha as the terms of his banishment sank in.
“You’re not part of my pack, therefore you’re an intruder. We kill all intruders.” Without warning, the alpha lashed out at Owen’s cheek.
Blood dripping from his wound, Owen didn’t hesitate, knowing he’d be given no second chance. The alpha was ruthless and his eldest sons, even worse. He shifted and barged through two of the weaker wolves to escape the circle. They scattered, giving him space to run.
The alpha and betas allowed Owen to reach the beginning of the forest before they started the chase. It was a deliberate show of strength, toying with him. They had no doubt their best hunters would kill him and there would be no mercy. Owen hesitated for a split second and headed for the river. It was his best chance. He was a strong swimmer as wolf and human. Owen headed into the densely wooded forest, his lungs burning as he tried to put some distance between him and the hunting wolves. The howling from the wolves grew louder; there were many strong shifters, several who were faster runners than he was. He was a mile away from the river but the chances of reaching it were slim.
“Owen! Owen! Over here.”
Owen swung around to see Cal, now shifted to his human form, standing by an old Chevy, its engine still running. He was fifteen years old, skinny and awkward, only just showing the signs of the man he would become. Owen reluctantly shifted, knowing it was wasting valuable seconds. “Jesus Cal, get away before they see you.”
“Take the truck. Leave it when you’ve made your escape. There are clothes and some money on the back seat. I gave you what I had. Sorry it isn’t more.”
Owen couldn’t waste time thinking about it. He leapt into the truck and looked at the boy. “Thanks, Cal, appreciate it.”
Cal nodded and disappeared into the undergrowth. Owen gunned the engine and drove as fast as he could on the rough terrain. There was enough gas for him to get clear of the pack lands. The wolves wouldn’t chase him beyond there. He glanced over his shoulder. A heap of clothes were scattered on the seat, most of them not his. Cal must have just grabbed the laundry pile.
In the rearview mirror he could see a small group of wolves standing in the middle of the track, none of them bothering to chase him. Owen breathed a sigh of relief, then caught sight of himself in the mirror. A huge jagged wound blazed angrily, bisecting one cheek, blood still dripping down his neck. The injury should have healed as soon as he shifted. Owen sent a query to his wolf but it was silent; the only sense he received was of icy condemnation.
Owen Pope slunk low to the ground, trying to stay downwind of an old coyote. The acrid smell of his prey teased Owen’s nostrils in the cold night air. Owen hadn’t eaten in days and he’d be lucky if the coyote didn’t hear his belly rumbling.
He was a lone shifter, not part of a wolf pack since he’d been banished six years before. Over the years Owen had found intermittent work as a day laborer on ranches, if he was lucky, but usually the ranchers took one look at the long scar on his cheek and decided he was trouble. Owen was as alienated in the human world as he was as a wolf.
The scar was a constant reminder of his status. He was a wolf shifter, and, because of their healing powers, shifters didn’t scar unless their animal form allowed it. The jagged scar made by claws from his eye down to his mouth was a constant reminder that his wolf had judged him and left him imperfect.
Now he was in Texas, at the end of his strength and he didn’t have a penny to his name. The scent of the sheep on the nearby ranch made Owen’s mouth water but hunting as a wolf posed its own dangers. This was ranching country and ranchers didn’t take kindly to predators taking their stock. Owen desperately needed food and sleep before he traveled much farther. He hadn’t slept much as he’d traveled across Oklahoma looking for work. He’d made a decision to hunt before seeking shelter at a deserted ranch he’d found a few miles back.
Owen knew he was in little danger from a bullet if he was shot, but, if word got around that a wolf was in the area, there’d be more trigger-happy cowboys willing to face him down the barrel of a rifle. It would take him longer to heal from a bullet wound because he was weak. He needed to hunt quickly and find somewhere to sleep.
The coyote lifted his head. Owen waited for it to run, but, ignoring whatever had spooked it, the animal relaxed, its senses dulled by age. Without other wolves by his side, his only chance of a successful hunt was to take the coyote by surprise. The scar down the side of Owen’s face throbbed, distracting him as he waited for the right time to chase and wound his prey. If he were in his human form he would have rubbed it, but now he gave a silent snarl, angry to be reminded that he was scarred, imperfect as a shifter.
Owen attacked. He was lucky. The coyote tried to run but Owen was too quick. He snapped at the coyote’s flanks, attacking it again and again until it collapsed on the ground and Owen could tear its throat out. Owen filled his belly for the first time in days, relishing the strength that the fresh meat provided. When his hunger was finally sated and dawn approached, Owen slunk back to the deserted ranch to sleep through the day. He would need many meals to recover the strength he’d lost. Still in his wolf form, Owen curled up in a corner of the ranch house and fell asleep, knowing that tomorrow he would either have to kill again or move on to find work.
When Owen awoke in the evening he was cold and hungry, and the smells coming from the livestock nearby were a constant torment. Owen needed to feed, then steal some clothes so he could take his place in human society. There were times he thought about giving himself over to his wolf entirely, but as a lone wolf his chances of survival were slim. Despite the issues he’d had with his childhood pack, he missed the companionship of other wolves. He shifted into human form, taking the opportunity to stretch cramped muscles before the cold became too much and he returned to the warmth of his fur. Under the cover of darkness Owen went hunting, the night scents filling him with anticipation.
The ranch had been deserted for years, by the state of it, and Owen was able to hunt on its lands enough to fill his belly. He was feeling better already from two days of eating and he made a decision to stay in the area for a few days to recover his strength, although he’d need clothes if he was to venture into town. Clothes and money. And pancakes. God, he missed pancakes.
Under the cold full winter moon, Owen padded through the fields, now devoid of sheep or cows, and contemplated his options, limited though they were. He could smell something ahead but he couldn’t identify what was teasing his senses. Suddenly he froze, one paw in the air. A tall—no, huge—dark-skinned human, dressed in black jacket and pants, faced him, a high-powered rifle pointing between Owen’s eyes. The human seemed equally still, his eyes locked on Owen. Then he lowered the weapon. Owen managed to recover his senses enough to back away, not taking his eyes off the human who seemed to be the source of the glorious scent. He had the oddest feeling—like the human didn’t want him to leave.
Owen turned and fled, his senses on high alert. As he ran into a clearing Owen spotted two wolves ahead of him. They hadn’t seen him yet, too busy playing like young pups. He should warn them about the human with the rifle.
What the hell are two wolves, two shifters, doing here?
They noticed him and stood rock still, the three of them at an impasse. Owen made the first move, retreating backwards into the darkness. They could take their chances. He breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t follow him, but it was short lived as he contemplated the identity of one of the wolves. They weren’t the first wolf shifters he’d met since his banishment, but none of the others had been from his previous pack. He would have to move on now he’d been discovered. What was Cal Pope doing here, so far away from home? Owen had questions. Lots of questions, but he wasn’t sure he was going to like the answers.