The Cull, Book 1
Culled Against Her Will
When Anna Davis woke, her chemo-ridden limbs, no longer thin and bruised, pulsed with vitality and power. Am I asleep? Still dreaming? Hair clung to her face and brow. She lifted a honey brown lock away from her face and stared at it. She’d been nearly bald after her recent round of therapy, wearing wigs and scarves to hide her patchy scalp. Now her hair hung loose around her shoulders. It hadn’t been this color since her late twenties when she’d gone bottled blonde. She pushed back the tangled locks. Where am I?
Anna predatorily tracked her surroundings with a sweeping gaze.
The room had a low ceiling, concrete walls, and a floor littered with heavy, colorful blankets. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she caught the scent of something more than damp wool. Amazingly, her vision zoomed in and out, reminding her of the autofocus feature on her son’s digital camera, until she could clearly see who she’d been scenting.
A naked man, who appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties, sat cross-legged against the opposite wall. The lean muscles across his wide chest and arms created a maze of grooves and hard angles in his chiseled torso. A crop of black hair fell around his ears. His head was down, but she knew his eyes were the color of rubbed sage. Just like she knew his full, sensual lips curved like a bow ready to fire when he was deep in concentration. Conor Evans.
“I should have known,” she said, unable to keep the anger from edging her voice. Another person might have been grateful to suddenly be cancer-free, but Conor hadn’t cured her. “I made peace with death. You had no right to make me into this…this thing.”
Conor flexed his arms as he combed his fingers through his dark hair, the move pushing the loose curls off his square, masculine face. The sight of him made her lower parts clench with need. In twenty years, he hadn’t changed. Anna couldn’t say the same. She’d been curvy her whole life, something she’d never been ashamed of, but age had a way of making the curves sag a bit, and cancer had a way of deflating the rest. Self-consciously, she touched her body. The emaciated woman she’d been before waking up in this room was gone. Even though her lush body had reappeared, it didn’t matter how good or healthy she felt, she only had one thought: I didn’t choose this life.
Last week, Conor showed up at her chemo treatment and begged her to let him save her. He wanted Anna to become like him—a werewolf. When she’d worked as his assistant, he’d told her about his tribe and their ritual of culling. He’d explained that the last cull had taken place during the Great Depression. His mother, a struggling jazz singer, had been one of the invited. Shortly after, Conor had been born—a first generation lycanosapien. An evolutionary breed of werewolf and human.
Conor still looked so young for someone who had lived more than eighty years. Seeing him made Anna realize she’d never stopped thinking about Conor—never stopped loving him. Turning down his offer had been difficult and painful, but she’d made her peace with dying and had been firm when she’d told him no.
What he’d done to her, taking her and changing her without permission, was forbidden by his kind. Werewolves only took the willing. This wasn’t her choice, she thought again, while trying to ignore the small, niggling hope worming its way into her brain.
When they’d met in the 90s, Conor had been a doctor—a researcher in the field of medical biology—and Anna had been his assistant while she finished her education. She’d been married at the time with a baby. All the same, she’d fallen in love with Conor, and he’d trusted her with his secret. For the sake of her family, she refused to leave her husband Robert for Conor. Later, Robert cheated on her, but she couldn’t deny that she’d claimed the first betrayal—a betrayal of the heart. Had Anna left Robert in the beginning, she might have saved them both—along with their son—many years of grief.
God! Her son. Sam. He was twenty-one now. Her stomach lurched. Because Conor had changed her, she’d outlive her own child—the main reason she’d turned him down.
Anna couldn’t take the quiet tension in the small room. “Why? Make me understand, Conor. Why would you go against your own laws to do this to me?”
Conor’s didn’t speak. His penetrating gaze made her uneasy, but not afraid. He wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to harm Anna. She looked around the room again to avoid his stare. She grasped at the blankets under her butt and her fingernails scraped against the dirt floor beneath. Strangely, the contact with the cool earth calmed her nerves.
This had to be one of the many dens on the tribe’s large plot of land in the Ozark Mountain Range in northern Arkansas. She’d always wanted to see the beauty he’d described when he talked about home—the rolling hills, clear springs and falls, the flowering catalpa trees, and the fresh scent of pine.
Conor leaned forward, pressing his knuckles against the floor and moving to his knees. He sniffed the air—a quick inhalation. He cracked his neck to one side before his gaze locked with hers. In this position, Anna could see that his gray-green eyes were nearly black.
He crawled toward her. She pressed her back into the wall and turned her head, not afraid, but somehow instinctually knowing that direct eye contact could make the situation escalate. His hot breath huffed over her skin.
“What are you doing?” She couldn’t keep the shakiness from her voice.
The heat from his body warmed her skin as he closed the distance between them. Anna froze when he rubbed his rough cheek against hers, his hands traveling down her arms while an inhuman growl rumbled from his chest and his words left no room for debate. “You. Are. Mine.”
Crap! A part of her wanted to yank off her panties and throw her legs wide open while screaming, Take me now! But the saner part of her brain bitch-slapped her libido and told it to back off. “Get away from me,” she said, trying to put as much command in her tone as he’d had in his. She wanted to tell him to fuck off. She wasn’t his or anyone’s for that matter. She belonged to herself and no one else.
Conor chuffed, his breath blowing against her ears. Anna turned her head slowly and met his eyes. “Don’t you dare fucking big, bad wolf me, Conor Evans.”
Hearing his name made him blink. He growled, but backed off. “I could be in a lot of trouble for bringing you here.”
“Then why did you do it?” Why would he take the risk? His veins pulsed and rippled like snakes under his skin. She’d never seen him like this, not even the one time he’d shifted into wolf form for her as proof of his species’ existence. His eyes watered as his soulful gaze met hers. “I couldn’t let you die.”
“So you’d rather die. That makes no sense.”
He pursed his lips and shook his head. “I want you to live, Anna. You had days, weeks at the most. I couldn’t convince you and I couldn’t think straight. I could never think straight when it came to you.”
A sob escaped from Anna’s lips. She put her hand to her mouth to stifle another cry. “I didn’t want this life, Conor. I didn’t.”
He closed the distance between them, this time wrapping his arms around her shoulders and drawing her in. “I love you, Anna.”
It was the only apology she would get from him.
Watching Anna stare at him with such defiance and courage, Conor couldn’t regret his decision. This close, she smelled of earth and nature, and beneath those scents, he could smell her desire. Her gorgeous body, so thin with illness the day before, vibrated beneath him with restless energy.
If Anna told the pack she hadn’t chosen to be part of the culled, they would punish Conor outright—no defense and no trial, only judgment. It didn’t matter that his father was a tribal elder or that he was a first gen. They would not show leniency.
He’d resisted the urge to run his thumbs over her bra—the blue satin fabric barely concealed her tightly drawn nipples. He’d always loved her sexy curves, the ample shape of her ass, her round hips, and full breasts. More than her body, her indomitable will and inner fortitude had made him fall hard. She’d always been the most spirited woman, human or lycan, he’d ever encountered. He couldn’t give up on her. The disease had taken her will to fight, and he’d taken this measure to help her find her strength again. The strength to live.
Her gorgeous brown eyes, deep set and large, were wide as she kept them averted. She had a small nose with a slightly broad tip that twitched when she became nervous. It twitched now. Conor wanted to soothe her fears, but it was all he could do to keep his beast from completing its claim to Anna.
Finally, she turned to him—her pupils so dilated only a hint of her chocolate irises remain. Her rounded lips parted in a soft pah as her warm hand pressed into his chest, keeping inches between them. If he tilted his head forward their lips would meet. They’d only kissed once when she’d worked as his assistant, and he would give the world to taste her again.
Anna’s eyes shimmered with unshed tears as her unwavering gaze held steady with his. She finally spoke, her voice tight and strained. “Conor. Don’t.” Her fingertips caressed the hair on his chest in an act of betrayal to her words.
The musk of her arousal made his cock hard and made him ache to touch her. He deeply inhaled her again. The sweet, pungent odor of cancer had disappeared. Her scent—the one he’d memorized all those years ago, the scent he still smelled in his dreams—had reverted to its healthy state. When her fingers grazed his stomach he bared his teeth.
Fuck! He wanted to sink his bite into her flesh—to mark her as his own. Without thinking, he snapped his jaws.
Anna gasped. She dropped her hands to the floor, clenching fistfuls of the blankets beneath her. “You’re scaring me.”
He could sense her fear mixed with anger and another emotion, one that had very little to do with being afraid. Inside, he cried out in rage and triumph. Rage, because he’d never force his claim on her, and triumph, because he knew she would offer little resistance if he did. “I won’t hurt you.”
“You already have.”
“Let me save you, Anna.”
She blinked—a tear spilled down her cheek. “Oh Conor. How little you’ve changed.”
Conor wiped the tear with his thumb, placed it to his lips, and drank her sorrow. He couldn’t keep the truth from her. Not anymore. “If you want to leave, you can go.”
“But I can’t now. You’ve taken away that choice.”
He caressed her face. He loved Anna, and real love had a price. He chose to let her go if she truly wished to be free of him and his world. “You’re still human.”
Shock and disbelief animated her expression. “How can that be? I’m not sick. I feel stronger than I ever have in my life. My sense of smell, my hearing, my sight… Hell, my body.” She cupped her large breasts. “It’s like I’m thirty again. I don’t understand.”
Explaining would have been complicated if Anna had been a layperson, but she’d spent time at his side in the lab. “I’ve developed a serum using the enzymes from lycanosapien saliva. Its effects are…temporary,” he said ruefully. “You can go back to your life.”
Her eyes widened, and she couldn’t keep the excited tremor out of her voice. “Am I cured?”
The question felt like a kick to his gut. “No.” He couldn’t keep the anger from his tone. “The cancer will come back after the effects of the serum wear off.” He gripped her by the shoulders. “Please. Let me change you, Anna. I—”
Conor froze as the energy in the room shifted. Anna tensed. Her eyes widened for a moment—and he knew Rebecca Johnson had entered the den. Anna’s gaze narrowed in on the woman behind him. He cursed himself for not sensing her sooner.
Rebecca’s sultry, low voice echoed in the small space. “I can’t believe you spurned me for a bitch who doesn’t even want you.”
Conor’s stomach clenched as a growl rumbled through his chest. How long had Rebecca been listening? The concrete dens on the tribe’s property were built to keep sound muffled, especially in their human forms, but if she’d been at the door… He couldn’t think about the consequences. If Anna agreed to the culling, the point would be moot.
He’d been family-bound to Rebecca. They’d both been first gen—littered together—and their parents had made arrangements for them to mate in their fortieth year when they’d become adults.
He turned to look at her, unsurprised to see her lean body completely naked. “What are you doing here, Rebecca?”
She tilted her head sideways. Her long red hair brushed against her arm and fell over her small breasts. She pursed her lips, her cheeks flexing as she scrutinized Conor and Anna. “I’m trying to figure out why you’d turn your back on me. On us.” She pointed at Anna. “For this pathetic human.”
When Conor had petitioned the tribe to receive special dispensation to go to college and study medicine, the elders had granted his request. This had effectively changed the terms of his binding contract with Rebecca. He’d been working to find a treatment for the infertility in lycanosapiens when he’d met Anna. He’d kept up the research until the day he’d found out Anna had developed cancer. From that moment on, he’d turned his efforts to curing her instead.
In his research, he’d discovered an enzyme in his saliva that made his kind impervious to human diseases. He’d tested the isolated enzyme on several terminal patients in the end stages of cancer, and while they initially exhibited signs of being healthy, the effects wore off in days. Subsequent injections were less and less effective. Four out of the five patients in his trial study had accepted his invitation for transformation, but only two had survived long enough to take part.
Conor regretted his inability to save the other two patients, but it was too dangerous to change a human outside of an organized culling. The reconstruction of a person’s body to that of a lycanosapien could be extremely painful and deadly. It’s why the tribe only changed people in a controlled environment and only after they’d pumped the invited full of sedatives. Even then, the newly converted werewolf would need the support of the tribe upon awakening.
Because he’d been born a wolf, Conor would never know what a culled member went through when altered by bite and blood. But he knew with certainty, if Anna didn’t allow him to change her, she’d return to her fragile state of health in a couple of days, and be dead in a couple of months. All his work would be for nothing.
“My wolf claims you as mate, Conor Evans.” He heard Rebecca drop to her knees behind him. “If your woman won’t submit, then you must allow our second natures to decide.”
Rebecca, by right, had first claim on Conor, but she’d never have him where it counted. He kept his gaze trained on Anna. She seemed strangely calm now—her demeanor almost cold. “I have chosen you, Anna Davis. In all my life, I will never love another. You are the ruler of my heart and body, but if you refuse the invitation, then I’ll let you go.” He squeezed her shoulders for emphasis. He needed her to decide now. “I want you, but I will take Rebecca. It’s my duty to my kinsmen and to my tribe to take a mate.”
The pull of Rebecca’s wolf was hard to resist with his own animal so close to emerging. When she rubbed her breasts against his back, her fingers tangling in his hair as she kissed his neck, he didn’t respond but he didn’t stop her.
“I won’t let you go,” Rebecca whispered fiercely.
Anna threw herself forward, wound her fingers into Rebecca’s long hair, and yanked her sideways. “Don’t fucking touch him, bitch. Conor is mine!”
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