*Please note, this is an unedited, early version!
Melody shivered as she walked along the path to the alpha’s mansion. Her little cabin was farthest from it, making her the last to arrive when everyone was called together. This was great for everyone else in the Moonclaw Pack. They could make more jokes about her short legs and call her Runt.
It wasn’t so great for Melody, but she was used to it.
Walking ahead of her on the shadowy path were Sara and JD, a mated couple who lived close-ish to Melody. Jogging to catch up with them, she said, “Hey. Do you know why Cameron called a meeting?”
JD ignored her, as most of the pack members did, but Sara spared Melody a glance. “He finally convinced Leanne to do his reading.”
“His reading?” Melody asked. Leanne was their local witch, but she didn’t often come to the territory.
“To figure out where his mate might be,” Sara said.
Cameron had power. He had prestige. He had the command of an entire, twenty-strong pack of wolf shifters.
But he still didn’t have a mate.
The lack of a mate seemed to grate on his nerves. He would come close to Melody during pack runs, bump his shoulder against hers and growl. She would immediately fall away from him, not wanting to risk more of his ire. At the same time, she was strangely drawn to him.
Yet he was so freaking mean to her all the time, it was getting easier and easier to hang back, to keep her distance.
On the path toward Cameron Stebbins’s house, Melody kept her pace the same, but sure enough, Sara and JD sped up. They wouldn’t want to arrive with Melody—nobody did.
Melody looked up at the oak limbs that stretched across the wooded path, trying to see the stars beyond them. Moonlight filtered through. Not for the first time, Melody considered leaving the Moonclaw Pack. There was nothing for her here. There hadn’t been, since her father had died during a challenge with another pack member. The guy who’d won that battle wasn’t even around anymore—he’d died in a subsequent challenge. The cycle would continue indefinitely. Eventually, Cameron wouldn’t be around, either, and that was a day Melody would celebrate.
But did she need to remain here and endure everyone’s scorn in the meantime?
Maybe not. Maybe it was time to go.
There wasn’t much around this section of northern California. The closest thing to the Moonclaws was south of them—the Sierra Pride. And not far from that, the Junkyard prison. East would be the Graves Pack, but they were so snobbish and exclusive, Melody didn’t think they’d appreciate her any more than the Moonclaws did.
But if she went east, she could stop with the Graves for a brief spell. And if south, the Sierra Pride might even help her find a new place to go, if they didn’t have room for her there. They had a reputation of being kind and fair.
Melody wouldn’t recognize kind or fair if they took a chunk of her hide—it had been so long since she’d seen either sentiment in action.
Rumbling murmurs filled her ears as she approached Cameron’s cabin. Everyone had gathered in the yard out front. Melody found the witch in the crowd immediately—her long, red hair was piled on her head and her lithe arms gleamed in the moonlight as she raised them to the sky.
The pack went quiet while the witch did her work. Melody swayed in place, her feet growing tired after a long day of cleaning motel rooms in town—one of the few jobs Cameron had approved for her. The cool September evening raised goosebumps over Melody’s skin. Or maybe that was the magic.
“Move over, Runt,” a rough voice said from behind her.
Melody turned her head. George Stebbins—Cameron’s brother. He’d never been kind to Melody, not once.
There was plenty of space to get by, but he shoved her, anyway. Melody bit her tongue to keep from responding. The brutish asshole would only wallop her the next chance he got, or have Cameron come up with some other punishment. Probably both.
In front of them, the witch’s arms fell to her sides. Her eyes opened and she looked directly at Cameron. “You seek your mate.”
“Yes, Leanne, I do,” Cameron said, his voice deep and serious.
“Well, you must be blind in the heart,” Leanne said.
“What?” Gone was Cameron’s reverent tone. “What are you talking about?”
“Your mate is here.” Leanne’s voice was matter-of-fact, unconcerned, although the meaning sent a ripple of excitement through the pack.
There were a few unmated women in the group, and a couple of unmated men, as well. They would all probably jump at the chance to be Cameron’s mate.
Melody sighed, wondering when this would be over. She just wanted to crawl into her bed and sleep until it was time to go back to work. Cameron’s mate was no concern of hers.
“There,” Leanne said, pointing.
Melody frowned. It looked like Leanne was pointing at her, Melody. Couldn’t be. Melody stepped aside and looked behind her, but there was no one else here.
“That can’t be true,” Cameron said, his voice icy.
“Yes, her—the little blond woman.” Leanne nodded and dropped her hand.
Melody froze in place, her feet rooted to the earth as if held there by chunks of ice. All those times that Cameron had stared at her. All those times she felt like she needed to find some excuse to stop by his cabin and ask a question. Yeah, she’d always felt drawn to Cameron, but she’d figured it was the alpha’s innate charisma, even though she hated his guts because he was such an asshole.
All the hours she’d spent feeling like the lowest member of the pack, feeling like the runt.
And all along…she’d been the alpha’s freaking mate?
Cameron raised his gaze to hers, and his fierce, hazel eyes pinned her in place, stronger than a set of jaws on her neck, forcing her to yield.
He wasn’t happy about this revelation, that much was evident.
Leanne packed up her bag of crystals and potions and whatever the hell else she’d brought with her. She held her palm out to Cameron, waiting.
“Oh, right,” he said, taking his wallet from his jeans and peeling out several bills before placing them in her hand.
Leanne disappeared around the corner of Cameron’s cabin. A minute later, her car engine rumbled to life. Melody watched the red eyes of the taillights fade.
She didn’t want to look at Cameron.
“I don’t want to be mated to the fucking runt,” Cameron growled.
Well, the feeling was mutual. But now that they knew what the weird draw was between them, maybe they could move past it.
Maybe they could love each other, given time.
“I won’t do it.” Cameron marched up to Melody and stared down at her. “You are weak and you disgust me.”
Yeah, so that thought she’d just had about loving each other, given time? Didn’t sound like that was going to happen.
“If you reject me,” Melody said, “you won’t find another mate. We’re fated to be together.”
Shifters mated for life.
He gripped the sides of his head in his hands and roared.
Melody flinched, causing several people to laugh. Cameron’s breath smelled like grilled onions. Not caring that the move would make her look frightened, Melody took a step back.
“You can break the bond, Cameron,” JD said from the side of the group.
“Yeah?” he said, his hateful gaze never leaving Melody. “How?”
“If she dies,” George said.
Panic fluttered in Melody’s chest. Cameron wouldn’t even entertain that idea, would he? He and Melody were fated mates. He wouldn’t allow harm to come to her. That’s what it meant. He couldn’t hurt her. Nobody would be able to. As the alpha’s mate, maybe Melody could stay here, remain in her pack, in her home. Cameron would protect her.
But Cameron turned away from her, his expression considering. “If she dies?”
“Like in an accident,” George said, and a few others snickered.
“An accident,” he said.
“With your fated mate dead, you’d be free to find another one,” JD said. “It happens all the time.”
Melody glanced around at her packmates. “You can’t be serious, guys. You’re talking about murdering me.”
“Nobody’s saying that,” Cameron said, his voice growing soft and reassuring. “Let’s be calm and keep a level head. In fact, this has been quite the revelation. We should all rest, and we can discuss the matter tomorrow.”
There wasn’t a lie in his words, but Melody, like all the other pack members, had grown up learning how to lie with half-true statements. We should all rest. We can discuss the matter tomorrow. Not: We will all rest. We will discuss the matter tomorrow.
“Right,” Melody said, struggling to speak past her tight throat. “Right. We should rest. Tomorrow, we can discuss.”
“Well, okay, then,” Melody said. “I’ll head back to my cabin now.”
She turned around, giving them her back. It felt wrong, so wrong, to just walk away. Dangerous. But it would be far more dangerous to force a confrontation here and now.
“Goodnight, Melody,” Cameron called from behind her.
She turned and flashed a smile at him over her shoulder. “Goodnight, mate.”
Nobody followed her. She knew, because she listened for footfalls. The idiots must have thought they’d tricked her, which was insulting, really. And they didn’t need to follow her, because they thought they’d know where to find her. They would come into her cabin while she slept, and get rid of her then.
Except she wasn’t going to sleep in her cabin. She was going to keep on walking past it. She’d reach inside for her purse and a change of clothes, maybe some granola bars, and then walk her ass right off of the Moonclaw territory. She’d go east, toward the Graves Pack, because Cameron and the others would probably expect her to go south.
When she reached the doorstep of her cabin, she paused. The surrounding woods were too quiet.
Shit. There wasn’t time to get her purse or clothes or anything. She’d been wrong in guessing the lack of footsteps meant they weren’t following. They were freaking right here, and they’d shifted into their wolf forms to be silent.
They weren’t going to wait until she went to sleep—they were doing this now.
She yanked off her shirt and pushed her jeans and panties down to her knees. Then she dropped to the ground, and shifted, not even bothering to take her clothes all the way off. If her packmates were watching, she didn’t have any time to waste. The shirt had to go, because she could get tangled in it, otherwise. But everything else would slip off once she took her wolf form.
Fur sprouted over her skin. For a long moment, she had to breathe through the agony of muscles shifting, bones grinding and lengthening, rearranging. Then it was done.
With stronger eyes, she looked into the forest.
A growl rose up from the darkness, beyond the moon’s reach into the trees.
Wolves waited in the depths of the forest. Wolves who were bigger than she was. Wolves who would happily tear her to pieces.
Her path to the road was blocked. She couldn’t see who waited in there, but her instincts screamed at her to run the other direction…toward the river.
So she kicked her jeans, panties, and shoes away. Then she ran.
Her paws skidded and slipped on pine needles and dry vegetation. It had been another parched summer and everything crackled beneath her footfalls. It was impossible to flee quietly.
A baying howl rose up behind her.
They knew she was running, and they were giving chase.
Was Cameron among them? It didn’t really matter, did it? Something cracked in her heart, though—maybe the bindings of their connection, maybe the latent feelings she’d always had for him. Impossible to know.
Running footsteps grew louder in her wake. They were gaining on her.
How many times had she run with them, chasing down prey in the woods during pack hunts? Rabbits, the occasional deer? Despite being the runt of the pack, she’d always been a predator.
Now, she was prey.
Soon, the sound of her pursuers’ footfalls faded, overcome with the sound of rushing water. Even during a drought, the river was powerful, cutting through a gorge, its current swift and merciless.
Melody skidded to a halt on a short cliff overlooking the water. She peered down, praying for a gradual path she could take. If she traveled along the river, maybe they would lose her scent.
There was no path—only a steep drop.
She turned to travel along the cliff and search for another way down.
But it was too late. Her packmates were here. She recognized JD’s brown coat, George’s gray and black one. Even Sara, with her beautiful white fur, was here. There were others, too, but Cameron wasn’t among them. Maybe, as Melody’s fated mate, he couldn’t kill her himself. He wasn’t stopping the rest of them, though. He could stop them if he wanted to, though, as the alpha.
She faced her packmates. One after another, they inched closer to her. Melody backed up a step, then another. A bit of ground gave way beneath her rear paw, so she scrambled forward again.
George lunged at her. With a yelp, Melody jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding him. He spun for another attack. From the corner of her eye, she saw JD readying to spring, as well.
She tried backing up again. This time, when the ground gave way beneath her, there was no escaping it.
Better to fall, maybe, than be torn to pieces by people she would’ve defended with her life, had the situation called for it. Any one of them, she would have fought to save.
Instead of slamming into rock, she slammed into water. Its icy claws dug through her fur, pulling her down. She kicked her legs, scrambling to right herself. Which way was up? All she could feel was the black water stinging her eyes, the cold freezing her muscles, holding her fast.
She wasn’t dead. Not yet. But they were waiting up there, beyond the surface of the water, waiting to kill her, waiting to tear her wolf body to pieces.
The current ushered her forward. She could guess at the surface, now. But if she popped her head up, they would know she’d survived the fall.
She held her breath. Long. Longer. The current carried her, and she let it, trying to keep her paws angled downcurrent so if she hit a tree or boulder, she wouldn’t crush her skull.
Was it safe to come up for air? If she didn’t take a breath soon, she’d die. Her lungs ached for release and her mind begged for oxygen. She was in danger of passing out. Still, she kept her head beneath the surface.
At the count of thirty, she would come up. One. Two. Every second that ticked by was a second that sealed her fate, one way or another. She would get away, or they would be there on the shore, waiting to tear into her hide.
Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty. Heart thudding desperately, she lifted her head above the rippling surface of the river.
“Where the fuck did she go?” a loud voice asked—but it was far away. They were still up on the cliff, nowhere near the riverbank. Some of them must have shifted to discuss what to do next.
“No way could she have survived that fall,” someone else said.
Melody took a deep breath, ducked back under the water, and swam with the current. This wasn’t the best escape, but it was the escape she had. Fate had fucked her over in a major way, setting her up with Cameron. The least Fate could do for her now was keep her moving in the river’s current.
Some time passed. She didn’t try to track it. But she had to be at least a mile away from where she’d fallen. Her paws were completely numb and her fatigued legs didn’t want to swim anymore. Gingerly, she aimed herself toward the bank. There, the water was shallower and slower moving. She shook off excess water and closed her eyes, taking stock of her body. Nothing seemed to be broken. She took an experimental step, then another. She could walk. If she could walk, she could run.
She probably looked like a drowned rat. Runt, they’d always called her. She certainly looked the part now.
Unwilling to leave her scent anywhere along the shore, she waded in the quieter shallows, shivering with every step.
She was a runt. A reject. A runaway.
I hope you enjoyed the preview. You can preorder your copy of Filthy Reject from your favorite retailer! (Except not from Google Play, just yet!)