The Cull, Book 3
Ice crackled along the low branches of a large oak. To dodge a falling chunk, Lizzy Langston jumped left, nearly all four of her paws leaving the snow-covered ground. She rolled in the fresh white powder, the thick fur close to her skin keeping her nice and toasty. This was freedom. True sovereignty. A state she could only achieve in wolf form, and only when she was alone. There was no government, no doctors, and no tribe telling her what to do.
She’d spent the night before working a hectic shift in the ER, three major car accidents, two heart attacks, a stroke victim, and several drug seekers looking for a pharmaceutical high. As a nurse, she knew that holidays, especially Christmas, were worse than a full moon for hospitals, and the craziness had started early. She’d needed to get away… from everything.
Donovan Wright, her guardian, had been pressuring her to choose a mate. Now that she was in her eighties, she pushed the edge of their kind’s fertility window. As a first generation lycanosapien, it was an unspoken part of her duties to breed. Second gen babies were often fertile, but third gens, both sons and daughters, were always sterile. This made extinction a real possibility for her kind. Because of this, they held a human cull every eighty to a hundred years, and the current cull had already lasted a year. Most other lycanosapiens celebrated human Christmas rituals, which was fine by her.
Lizzy had the mountain all to herself.
The trees were brown and leaf-bare, but against the white backdrop of the climbing plateaus, the Ozarks still managed to be beautiful. She ran along the banks of a crystallized stream, hopping from side to side, sniffing twigs and bushes.
Because of modern technology and saturated media, her tribe had to be more careful than ever about who they asked to join. If the werewolves approached the wrong human, it could land them on the first page of every search engine on the Internet. The recent recruitment had the lowest number of new members in the history of the cull. The rules were strict. They only turned people who would benefit as much from the transformation as the tribe. The desperate, the homeless, and the lonely tended to be a perfect fit; those who wanted or needed to start new lives from scratch.
The unfortunate circumstances of the Great Depression had created a greater pool of humans to choose from. Lizzy had been born from that cull. Her parents had a true mating—when two people instantly connected both physically, emotionally, and most of all, biologically. A true mating involved bite and blood, and the female always ended up pregnant.
No, thank you. Like the bumper stickers said, I’d rather be hunting.
Since the new cull began, Donovan had her oversee the monthly turnings at the tribe’s secluded compound. She knew that he hoped one of the new members would be her match. No such luck. Lizzy had never felt a soul-deep connection with any member of the tribe. Why couldn’t her well-meaning friends leave her alone? She was perfectly content to be a lone wolf.
She sniffed along the ground and scented deer, and then she discovered the tracks in the snow. The idea of a hunt excited her. Besides, going after the deer would keep her mind off her age and mating status.
She put her head down and followed her prey’s scent and tracks along the stream until it veered right up a small incline, over a fallen tree, and into an open field. She hunkered down, her belly deep into a foot of fallen snow. The large doe perked up her ears. Her tail switched from side to side, alert. You know I’m here, but you can’t see me. Lizzy was a white wolf, and the mounds of snow acted as camouflage.
She crawled forward slowly. The deer scraped away the snow beneath its hooves, searching for vegetation. Lizzy’s blood pounded her veins as the thrill of the hunt warmed her from nose to toes.
Sixty feet away. Hang on deer.
Fifty feet away. Don’t be frightened. Nothing out here but harmless snow.
Forty feet. I’m coming to get you.
Her adrenaline spiked with every advance. She was a predator, and only in this form could she truly embrace her nature.
A tree branch snapped under the weight of accumulated ice. The deer’s head jerked up. Lizzy stilled, holding her breath. Don’t see me.
The doe’s nostrils flared, her eyes wide.
Suddenly, she hunkered back on her hind legs, turned, and then bolted toward a line of trees.
Shit! Lizzy leaped from her hiding place and pursued her dinner. This Christmas meal would not get away so easily.
* * * *
Coy Vega blinked rapidly to keep his eyes open. He hadn’t been able to drive more than fifty miles an hour since he’d entered the Boston Mountains, which boasted some of the highest elevations in the Ozarks, at least according to maps he’d picked up at a gas station. Two lake areas, Norfork and Bull Shoals, were nearby. He planned to stop at a campground for the night and catch some sleep before continuing to St. Louis. When he’d been young, camping had been an adventure. Now, he’d give almost anything for a soft bed and central heating.
He rolled down the driver’s side window and inhaled the rush of frigid air. Stay awake, he told himself. Only twenty-four miles to go.
He saw movement on the side of the road. Before he could process what it was, a deer sprinted in front of his car.
Adrenaline instantly extinguished his fatigue. He slammed on the brakes. “Diablo!” he shouted.
A large white dog skittered across the road, apparently on the heels of the deer
It was too late to avoid the creature. The car clipped the animal as it slid across the highway and into a ditch. The airbag slammed him against the seat. Pain bloomed across his chest, and his ears rang.
“Christ.” He pushed the airbag down and saw that an oak tree had pinned the driver’s side door. Coy crawled across the seats to exit the passenger side. He climbed out of the ditch and bent over, taking in deep breaths. His heart hammered in his chest. It took a moment for the ringing in his ears to subside and his vision to clear. The headache, however, wouldn’t be going away any time soon.
He looked at the road and cussed a blue streak. Now he could add killing animals to his long list of sins. Feeling like the worst human being ever, Coy approached the bloodied creature.
Its eyes were open, and it struggled to breathe. The least he could do was get the injured beast off the road. Damn, it was one of the biggest dogs he’d ever seen. He didn’t want to drag it in case doing so caused more pain. Why should he mind the blood, anyway? He had enough on his hands already.
As he scooped the dog up, it roused briefly, but its pathetic attempts to protest ceased quickly.
“Sorry, buddy,” he whispered as he lay the creature near a pine tree on the other side of the road.
The dog whined, and he stroked the soft fur on its head. “Looks like we’re both screwed.”
God, his head fucking hurt, even worse than the hangover pain caused by a bottle of tequila. The exhaustion returned so suddenly that he plopped next to the dying animal. Shit. He was out in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter, he'd smashed his car, and it was starting to get dark. To top it off, the cartel was on his ass, and he had no way to contact his handler in St. Louis. He’d left his cell phone in a seedy Little Rock, Arkansas hotel.
A chill crept into his bones, and he was too goddamned tired to move. His head felt like it was going to explode. He rubbed his temples trying to alleviate the worsening agony. He focused on the dog. Blood smudged its hindquarters. Another wave of guilt crashed over him. He had to do something. He took off his coat and laid it across the injured mutt. When he went to tuck it under the animals back, it snapped at him, snagging him just above the elbow. He jerked his arm away.
The dog laid its head back and whined again. The poor thing was in a lot of pain.
Coy collapsed next to the beast, ignoring the bite damage as the fluffy, new-fallen snow numbed his body. What did it matter? He wouldn’t live long enough to get an infection. The below-freezing temperatures would take care of him long before Manny showed up to finish him off. He was still staring at the pure white fur when his vision went fuzzy. He closed his eyes and fell into utter darkness.
* * * *
A low ominous hiss along with staccato grunts awakened Lizzy Langston.
What the hell?
Her right hip ached like it wore a deep bruise. Wet snow cooled her naked flesh. As she blinked awake, she noticed a heaviness against her chest. She peered down. A tattooed arm lay across her. His dark hair was shorn close to his head. His cheek bones were high and chiseled. His face had cuts and petechial marks like a spread-out hickey on his forehead and around his nose and mouth. Though his eyes were closed, she could see they were large and deep set with a slight downturn at the outer edges. His thick, black lashes lay like valances. His full, kissable lips softened his angular Roman nose and sharp chin.
The hissing and squawking snagged her attention again. She rolled toward the noises, baffled by her aching body and her new companion. Lizzy sat up, and his arm slid off her. Over her lap, a brown, fleece lined bomber jacket covered her up to her waist. Had the man put it over her? Why couldn’t she remember?
She waved her arms at the mourners in black.
“Shoo,” she said. “I’m not dead yet.”
Chaotically, they stumbled around and flapped their wings, launching themselves into the air. Black vultures. Her people had always had a symbiotic relationship with carrion eaters. Her tribe hunted fresh meat. The vultures took care of the left overs—a brilliant way to prevent disease and contamination of their picturesque tribal lands.
The man’s skin had taken on a bluish tint. She placed her hand on his face, relieved when she felt a slight warmth. She palpated his carotid artery. His pulse was weak but present. She rifled his jeans and his jacket for an ID. He didn’t have any on him.
His warm, brown eyes blinked open. “Not safe,” he muttered.
Lizzy looked around but detected no imminent danger. She patted his cheek. “Hey. You.” Pat. Pat. Pat. “What’s not safe?”
He didn’t respond. He’d lost consciousness again. This man was human. One of her kind, a lycanosapien, wouldn’t react to the extremes of winter weather. For her, it was uncomfortable, but not unbearable. Lizzy had to find a place to warm him or he wouldn’t survive the next couple of hours.
“I’m a nurse,” she told him, a courtesy for her profession more than any real belief he could hear her. “I’m going to help you.”
She took the jacket from her lap and struggled to dress him. He had a sleeve of tattoos on both arms, which is why she almost missed the jagged rip on his inner bicep.
“Oh no,” Lizzy whispered. The imprint was tale-tell. A bit caused the injury. She’d never bitten someone before. Lycanosapiens were careful about turning humans, especially when performed outside of a scheduled cull. They screened potential candidates thoroughly, and thanks to modern science, bite and blood could be handled in a more controlled environment. Some of the stories she’d heard about the Great Depression culling made her glad she hadn’t been around for it.
Still, there had to be an exchange. A bite without blood wouldn’t change the human…but it would probably kill him. Had she sentenced this man to death?
Quickly, she put his arm in the remaining jacket sleeve and zipped him in. His tattoos didn’t stop with his arms. There were even a few that peeked out from under his black V-neck T-shirt. All the tats she could see had been done in a range of color and themes from tribal too symbolic, or at least she assumed so. At the base of his neck, she saw a moon in blue and gold. Donovan would call that tattoo a sign.
Yeah, it was a sign all right. A sign of trouble. A man like this would bring only strife. For the briefest moment, she considered leaving him where he lay and let winter do its bitter job. Then she shook herself. What the hell is wrong with you? She’d have to turn in her nurse card and her wolf card if she knowingly caused injury to a human.
She stood up, and from this vantage, she saw the red car on the opposite side of the road, down in a ditch, and smashed up against a wide oak. Now she knew why his face was messed up. Airbags saved lives, but they also had a way of leaving their mark.
A flash of memory returned.
The deer darted through the foliage, with Lizzy right on its fluffy tail. She heard the car skid, and then agony exploded in her back as her legs were knocked out from underneath her.
Lizzy had been so caught up in tracking her prey that she’d followed the doe blindly. Damn, if it hadn’t been exhilarating clear up until she had her backside tagged by a bumper. She’d hunted alone before, but usually deeper into the mountains. It was dead winter, though, and the pickings were slim. She’d been hunting a deer and landed a man.
“No offense, cutie, but I’d rather have caught the deer.” She tried to lift him up and managed to get him into a sitting position. While she was strong for a human, she wasn’t strong enough to haul the stranger to safety. “Jesus, you got lead weights in your ass, or what?”
Damn it. She’d have to shift into her anthro-form. Changing from human to wolf and back again was like breathing. Every lycanosapien has the instinctual ability to transform. But the half-form, well, that took practice to achieve. While parts of the half-form, some facial changes and claws, could happen in any lycanosapien during heightened periods of emotions, only alphas could make the full transition. The metaphysical space that made a werewolf not quite animal, not quite a human, instead, the monster in between was an energy spender. There had to be a refractory period before the change could happen again.
She concentrated on the shift and heard the snick of her bones as they broke and reshaped and elongated. Her face widened, her nose and mouth protruded forward, and her teeth sharpened as the strength of her jaw increased. Soon, she was no longer smaller than he was. She bested him by several inches in height and was nearly as wide. She reached down and easily lifted the man into her arms.
He moaned, and she worried he had injuries more life-threatening than the hypothermia, not to mention what was to come if she had bitten him and shared her blood.
She had to find a place to examine him better. A place she could make warm. She knew her tribe’s land in the Arkansas Ozarks better than just about any of her kind. Not far away was a system of caves set up with a scant amount of supplies—water, blankets, kindling, and fire starters. If she could get the man there, she might have a chance of saving his life.
She threw him over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry and ran through the tundra and deep snow until she entered the cover of trees. The caves were less than a mile, and she was determined not to stop until she reached them.
The dream was relentless. Coy remembered snatches of a large, graceful monster that carried him while his blood burned. Pain streaked from his arms to his chest, down his back into his legs, until he felt like every part of him was on fire. The only relief came when the creature sat him down on the stone floor of a dark dwelling. The temperature helped to dull his frayed nerves. In all his life, he’d never prayed for death. Not like he prayed for it now.
The heat from his cheek as it pressed the freezing stone created a wavering veil in the air before his eyes like ghostly spirits. Like he imagined the soul. Was this it? Was this the end? His death at the hands of nature—not the drug cartel or some other criminal element.
“Hold on,” a woman said. “I’m trying to help you. Don’t move.”
Coy turn to where her voice drew him. He blinked. She was an angel. Blonde hair, blue eyes, tall and voluptuous. En pelotas! Completely naked. His teeth chattered, but even unclothed she didn’t seem to be affected by the cold. It only lent credibility to his theory that she was some spirit come to escort his soul.
“I’m ready, bella,” he told her.
“Ready for what?” she asked.
“To go with you.” Coy moaned as he pushed himself up, trying to sit.
“No, no,” the angel said. “You have to rest. My bite is working its way through your system.”
“Your bite?” Had she bitten him? Why couldn’t he remember? And since when did angels bite? “Where are we? How did I get here?”
“In a cave. You had a car accident.” She unfolded a thick, green woolen blanket and tucked it behind his back. She rolled him over onto his other side—the blanket between him and the ground—and he grimaced as the pain increased.
“I know it hurts,” she said. “That can’t be helped.” She straightened the blanket then rolled him onto it. She put a log on a fire in a small pit near him. She caught his gaze, her bright eyes glittering with anxiety.
He recalled driving down the winding roads. He’d been tired. Exhausted. Him. The car. The icy asphalt. The blur of fur. “Did the dog make it?”
Was it his imagination or did she sound offended? He clenched his eyes as the burning agony increased.
“The big white one. He…I think I broke his hip when I hit him with the car.”
“She was a wolf.” The blonde gave him a sour look. “And she’s okay.”
“Who are you?” he managed between gritted teeth.
The angel smiled. “Lizzy Langston.” Her hand caressed his face. “You’re feverish.” She swept her fingers across his brow. “I couldn’t find any identification on you. What’s your name?”
“Coy.” He hesitated to give her his last name, but if he was dying, what did it matter? “Vega. Coy Xavier Vega.” Coy, the son of a crazy artist and a fireman, could never do enough, be enough, to escape the world that had shaped him. His past was his burden. And it was getting too heavy to carry.
Lizzy undressed him. Her hands gentle, but confident. “Your clothes are wet and icy. I have to get you warmed up,” she said. “If the bite doesn’t kill you, the hypothermia will.”
Her warm, dry fingers stroked his skin as she took off his shirt and unbuckled his belt. “Lizzy,” he said, trying her name on his tongue. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you.” He heard the first hint of uncertainty in her voice. “And you’re…hypothermic. Let’s get you warmed up.”
Coy sank into her heat when she curled up behind him, her breasts pressed into his back. She covered them both with another blanket, and she snuggled fully against him. Her touch seemed to quell the fiery torment in his muscles. With relief, came the ability to rest. He couldn’t keep his eyes open, couldn’t keep sleep at bay.
“Stay with me,” he said.
“I’m not leaving you,” she mumbled. “Rest now, Coy.”
* * * *
Lizzy knew the dangers in culling someone without their full consent, along with the dangers of a bite without blood. Before her friend and scientist Conor Evans had developed the serum to assist the change, there was a higher human mortality rate. Even with the help of science, sometimes humans didn’t survive. The serum allowed the transformation to last for hours instead of days. Even so, they still sedated the culled to provide them with as much comfort as possible.
As a natural born, she’d never had to experience the trauma of transformation, but she’d talked to Conor’s wife, Ana, about it once. Ana had said the pain was the equivalent to getting set on fire and then thrown into a wheat thresher.
With only her bite, Coy Vega had a slim chance of remaining human, but an even slimmer chance of surviving. If he wanted to live, she’d had to give him her blood as well. She wanted to save him, force her blood on him without his permission, but to do so would go against every rule the tribe had in place. While she was a nurse in the human world, she was an enforcer in the pack. If she culled him would her own team come for her for breaking tribe law?
Coy began to shiver uncontrollably, and Lizzy pressed herself closer.
“I’m here,” she told him. “I’m with you.”
Even without the tattoos, the knife scars on his chest and the three bullet scars on his back marked him as someone who was dangerous. He could be a terrible human being, one that wouldn’t be an asset to her tribe. Yet, injured and close to unconsciousness, he had carried her off the road and covered her with his only protection against the harsh winter. In her heart, Lizzy begged for his life. She didn’t understand the emotions toiling away inside her. She’d never felt such a strong connection to anyone in the tribe, not even with any of her ex-lovers. She liked being single, but Coy triggered a primal calling in her. Something she couldn’t resist. Why now? Why with this human?
Coy’s soft moan made her chest tighten.
He was the kind of man she’d promised herself she’d never date, let alone love. This type of man was the reason she was an orphan, and the reason she hated Christmas. Lizzy’s mother, also a natural born, had been a second-generation lycanosapien. Her father, on the other hand, had been a human bootlegger with deep ties to the mob. He’d been an orphan who grew up on the streets of New York, and when the tribe offered him a way out from under the murdering mob boss Mickey “The Knuckle” Costello, he’d jumped at the chance.
Her dad had moved to the Ozarks after his culling—the tribe’s form of witness relocation, and he’d fallen in love with Elizabeth Langston. He changed his name to Vincent Langston after they’d achieved a true mating—one that produced a child. Her mom and dad had been happy for a while, or so Lizzy had been told. Unfortunately, the mob had a long reach and had executed both her parents, their bodies dumped in the Norfork Lake two years after her birth.
The divers found them on Christmas Eve during a winter event.
It wasn’t that she missed her parents. How could she miss people she’d never known? But she saw the way other parents were with their children, and while Donovan had made her feel wanted in his home, she’d never had the same kind of relationship she envied from her fellow first gens. No, she didn’t miss her parents, but she had missed having parents. Every Christmas Eve, she was forced to remember that loss. How could she celebrate the anniversary of her parent’s murders?
Coy mumbled something in Spanish, and Lizzy wished she’d paid better attention in her foreign language classes. Just the sound of his voice, though, made her stomach dip.
Gah! This man. His skin began to warm. Lizzy’s body tingled in her shins, her thighs, her belly, her breasts, and her cheeks. Every part of her touching him had come alive. She wanted more. She craved more. Coy’s scent was masculine, a combination of wood and leather. Underneath, he had a more natural musky aroma that drove Lizzy wild.
She leaned in close and inhaled the back of his hair. Strawberry and vanilla. It had to be his shampoo or conditioner, but, God, he made her hungry and not for food.
Lycanosapiens were not shy about their bodies. Being a part of the tribe meant the naked form was something to be admired, but it wasn’t inherently sexual. So why was moisture gathering between her thighs, and why were her nipples standing at rigid attention?
Coy turned his body until they were face to face. She felt his erection press against her thigh as he adjusted his position. He stared into her eyes, his gaze ravenous with desire.
“What are you doing?” Lizzy asked. Her breath hitched when he trailed his fingers down her shoulder to the bend of her waist, her hip, the curve of her thigh. “Oh, God,” she moaned.
“Your skin feels electric when I touch you.” His caramel-colored eyes drank her in, his nostrils flared, and his full lips parted. “You smell of sweet spice and damp fur,” he said. He twirled a lock of her hair between his fingers. “And your hair, it’s not just blonde. It’s as if every strand is as unique in color as a snowflake is in shape.”
Oh, no. He was taking on the first traits of the change. She hadn’t shared her blood with him, yet his senses were heightening. She didn’t understand how, but she couldn’t deny the reality. Relief flooded her, even though she’d apparently culled a man without his permission. On the up side, the transfiguration of his DNA from human to lycanosapien increased his chances of surviving from five percent to ninety percent.
“Your heartbeat is like a drum in my ears, barely outpacing my own.” His pupils undulated between pinpoint constriction and full-out dilation. “What the hell is going on?”
How was she supposed to explain to a human who didn’t know the supernatural existed that he was about to join the club?
He rolled her until she was beneath him, pinned by his weight and gaze. His eyes were wild, primal. He straddled her thighs and held her arms down above her head. Lizzy didn’t fight him. He wasn’t trying to attack her. Transformed humans worked on pure instinct like new pups, wanting to discover…well, everything. She watched him as he dipped his head and sniffed her neck, her hair, her breasts.
His hot breath gusted over one of her nipples. Lizzy bit down a groan as her lower bits began to throb under the heat of him. What am I doing?
When he licked her nipple, already a hard, taut nub, Lizzy moaned. The rough touch of his tongue as he laved and licked sent her spinning toward the edge. The stubble on his cheeks brushed her chest. She trembled, her thighs parting, as she squirmed with need.
“This isn’t a good idea,” she said, but she didn’t try to stop him.
Coy looked up, his intense gaze catching hers. “I want you, Lizzy. Do you want me to stop?”
“No,” she said, her voice strangled and hoarse.
He took her nipple into his mouth, sucking as he teased her with his tongue.
She stretched out, her body aching for him, all of him. “I want you too.”
He kissed his way down her belly and let go of her wrists so he could part her legs more. He rubbed his face against her inner thigh, inhaling her scent deep into his lungs.
“Fuck, I can’t get enough.” His brows began to thicken, and his nose widened with the first signs of a physical mutation. Not much, but enough for her to notice.
It took strength to change this quickly, strength and willpower only an alpha could manage. His fingers dug into her thighs as he pushed her legs back, and he leaned down, his mouth warm against her wet pussy, and tasted her. He glanced up her belly, his face slack with lust, his eyes alight with raw need. His mouth had shifted a little, and she knew his teeth would be sharp.
He bit down gently on her clit, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough that the throbbing grew even more intense. Her sharp inhalation brought a predatory smile to his face. Coy Vega did not fucking play.
He sucked her sensitive bundle, flicking his tongue against the tip as his teeth scraped the sides. Lizzy grunted with pleasure, squirming until Coy rose up, his arms looped about her knees, and pinned her shoulders to the ground. He brought his face within inches of hers. He bared his teeth, placing them against her neck, and chuffed—a sign of dominance. He truly was alpha, even if he didn’t understand what it meant.
Lizzy held still, submitting, which frankly surprised the hell out of her. She’d never allowed a man to dominate her—not at home, not at work, and certainly not in bed. But Coy Vega wasn’t any man. In her soul, the soul of a lycanosapien with thousands of years of instinct written in her DNA, she knew he was her mate.
“No,” she said aloud.
Coy stopped. He pulled his head back, and he looked at her. Her “no” had brought him to an abrupt halt.
“What are you?” There was a hint of alarm in his voice that startled Lizzy. He put his hand to his face, moving his fingertips along the new landscape. “This isn’t real. Is it?” He looked at his hands. His fingers had elongated; his nails were thickened claws. “What am I?”
Lizzy, who had never been one to mince words, bluntly said, “You’re a werewolf.”
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