A new page-turning adventure in the compelling Alpha and Omega series, from No.1 New York Times bestselling urban fantasy author Patricia Briggs
P R E L U D E
SUMMER: NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Sissy Connors, PhD, checked her GPS, adjusted her backpack, and continued her trek into the mountains. Common sense told her there must have been an easier way, but none of the trails on the USGS map seemed to go exactly where she needed to travel.
She was an experienced hiker—her doctorate was in botany and her field study trips sent her to the edges of the world, looking for oddball plants that might contain the cure for Ebola or MRSA or some other disease. Elvis, her half German shepherd, half who-knows-what-except‑it‑was-big who trotted beside her, was experienced, too. Generally, he would trot back and forth, investigating anything he found interesting, then checking in with her before exploring again. But for the last five miles he’d stuck to her side like glue. He didn’t look nervous, precisely, but the last time he’d done this it had been because a cougar had been stalking them.
This was cougar territory. Elvis’s attitude had her paying attention to the branches of the trees she was walking under, but other than some porcupine sign, she hadn’t found any indication she and Elvis weren’t the only living things for miles.
She didn’t think it was a cougar making her dog cling to her side, because she felt it, too. The air was . . . different. In her years of wanderings, she’d explored places that were sacred, where every step forward felt like a sacrilege. She’d discovered secret meadows or caves that welcomed her presence. She’d hiked through places that made her stomach turn—even though her normal senses found nothing wrong.
This had all the hallmarks of one of those hikes. She found some comfort in trailing her fingers in the big dog’s ruff as they climbed.
It was hot and the last few miles had been uphill. She stopped in a shaded place, took out a canvas water bowl, and filled it from her canteen. She set it down for her dog and took a good swig herself. She was near her goal; she’d been circling it for a while, trying to find a negotiable path through the mountainside.
“Dad,” she told the empty air. “I know you like to be an off-grid hermit, but this is ridiculous.”
She found it an hour later—fifteen minutes after she swore she was going to turn around and start the two-day hike back to her car. She passed the rock face of yet another cliff—and stopped.
Tired, sweaty, and frustrated as she was, she couldn’t help the smile of wonder. She reached out but did not touch it. The marks were perhaps two feet square, and they formed a symbol she hadn’t seen before. Like the legs of an isosceles triangle, two lines rose from opposite edges of the petroglyph and met with their vertex angle at the top of the figure. Each of those legs was crossed by three upward slashes.
She took a step nearer—and realized there was a steep trail up the side of the cliff, tucked into a crack in the rock she hadn’t been able to see from where she’d been standing. There was no sign it was a trail to her father’s camp, but it headed in the right direction.
She crawled up the steep trail—helping Elvis up ahead of her with a hand on his rump when he couldn’t find purchase on the sheer rock. It wasn’t quite steep enough for her to use her climbing gear. She had to crawl out through a hole between a tree and a rock the size of a small house to get to the top. If the thought of getting Elvis back down in one piece hadn’t been so harrowing, she might have given up. She hoped she could find another way back once they were at the top.
Finally, she surmounted a particularly difficult bit and found herself in a small meadow surrounded by dense forest. They had tucked the buildings in under the forest canopy so well it took her a moment to see she had reached her goal. But once she noticed the first building, her eyes started to pick out the rest of them.
There were a few tents, but most of the living spaces were actual cabins or yurts. It was more than an encampment—a whole town, really, complete with one tidy cabin marked by a small hand-painted sign that read USPS—Wild Sign.
It was much more civilized than she had expected her dad to tolerate. It took her a minute to realize it was too quiet.
“Hey!” she called. “Dad?”
She waited. Then she tried, “Dr. Connors, it’s your daughter, also Dr. Connors!”
But only the wind answered.
SUMMER: MISSOULA, MONTANA
PREVIOUS TO THE EVENTS IN BURN BRIGHT
“I am never going shopping again,” Rachel said solemnly before tossing back the whiskey shot she’d requested from their server. She was a small woman with curly brown hair and a rounded build. She’d managed, somehow, to escape the hyperfit look most of the werewolves acquired. Anna had thought Rachel had ordered the whiskey because that was what Leah had ordered, but watching Rachel put the liquor away made Anna reconsider.
Anna sipped at her own drink without enthusiasm. She should have ordered whiskey, too. Specialty cocktail or not, her drink tasted like paint thinner. Doubtless the high alcohol content was supposed to make up for the taste, but as a werewolf, Anna didn’t even get much of a buzz from it.
If she had been in this little intimate back room of the restaurant with her mate, she’d have laughed, put it aside, and ordered something else. But she was in if not precisely the company of enemies, then certainly dangerous company. It was important to maintain the appearance of competence. Competent people, she was sure, did not order drinks they did not like just to impress people with their nonexistent sophistication.
Rachel set her glass down and told it, “No more fitting rooms for me.”
Anna grunted in sympathy.
“That,” said Sage accusingly, tipping her glass toward Anna, “was a Charlie grunt. No men allowed on this expedition means no grunts.”
Model-beautiful Sage was the only person allowed to call Anna’s mate Charlie—not excepting Anna herself. Sage treated him like a big brother. And, Anna thought ruefully, Charles treated Sage as if she were any other member of his father’s pack: to be protected but also to be held at a distance. Only with his brother and his father did the impassive shield he kept around himself loosen. With Anna he had no shield—Charles belonged to Anna with all his complicated soul and uncomplicated heart.
Anna would much rather be curled up with him in front of the fire or eating something one or the other of them had cooked. Instead, she sipped at her paint thinner at a restaurant in Missoula, the better part of two hundred miles away from home, at the tail end of one of Leah’s females-only shopping expeditions. Anna was pretty sure there was no clothing store, shoe store, or makeup counter in Missoula they had not explored.
Anna’s feet ached, and she saw Rachel slide out of her shoes and flex her toes when she thought no one was looking. Even Sage, the shopping queen, was rubbing her left calf. Only Leah, in four-inch heels, looked perfectly comfortable. Anna frowned at Leah’s feet—maybe Leah wasn’t crazy for spending ungodly amounts of money on her shoes.
Leah, the Marrok’s mate, used the shopping trips to Missoula or Kalispell as bonding time for the women in the Marrok’s pack. Usually they were something anyone without a Y chromosome could attend, but this time Leah had limited it further: Anna, Sage, Leah, and Rachel. Anna was pretty sure the trip had been designed to get Rachel, who had come into the pack only a month ago, comfortable enough to open up.
Rachel was not a permanent pack member; she would be with them only until the Marrok found a place for her that he liked. Somewhere safe. As Anna well knew, even werewolf strength didn’t help you when your abusers were werewolves, too. Rachel had come to them after her pack had undergone an extensive reorganization. No one had been killed, but her old pack was under new management, the former Alpha moved to a different pack where he was not in charge. Outside of the Alpha, Rachel had been the only wolf extracted from the situation.
Rachel hadn’t said a word above a whisper since she’d arrived two weeks ago, and Leah or the Marrok (or both) had decided to do something about that.
Anna smiled into her house special cocktail as she pretended to sip. After two hours of trying on clothing, Rachel had forgotten to be intimidated and had joined the chorus of moans when Sage had found a dress that made her look fat.
Tall and slender, with gold-streaked brown hair and deep blue eyes, Sage looked more like a fashion model than most of the fashion models. Finding something that made her look bad had been quite an achievement. Distraction and bonding over bad fashion had broken through the shell Rachel had worn and revealed a quiet but naturally cheery soul.
Leah, for all of her faults, was good at her job. And the semi-good-natured ongoing rivalry between Leah and Sage (that Anna was convinced they both enjoyed) served as a reminder that no one in this pack needed to worry a more dominant wolf would overreact to a little snark. A reminder that the Marrok’s pack was safe.
Anna had probably been included because she was an Omega wolf. Without trying, she pulled the tension in the air down to a manageable level and made people feel comfortable around her. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d been recruited to help with a damaged werewolf. Now that Rachel was talking, Bran would be able to figure out where she would fit in best, whether that was in the Marrok’s pack or somewhere with less potential for violence—most of Bran’s pack were there because a lesser Alpha would not be able to control them.
Food came eventually, and in the middle of eating her steak, Rachel broke into the conversation with a total non sequitur. “I feel like a failure.”
Sage reached out and covered her hand. “Why is that?”
“I’m a werewolf,” she told Sage. “And I had to run away from my problems because I couldn’t protect myself.”
“Me, too,” said Sage promptly.
Rachel’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth opened in surprise. Anna had noticed throughout the day that Rachel was sporting a case of hero worship for Sage. Anna understood that. Sage had been the first to welcome Anna to the pack, too. Sage made it a point to protect newcomers until they could stand on their own two (or four) feet. She was an effective protector; her reputation as a fighter left most of the pack unwilling to push her too far.
Privately, Anna thought the way Sage called Charles “Charlie” also helped her in her efforts to cow bullies. Most of the wolves in the pack were a little afraid of Anna’s mate. None of them would have dared to give Charles a nickname he disliked.
Sage nodded at Rachel. “One wolf cannot stand her ground against a whole pack.” She cast a mischievous look at Anna. “Wolves whose last names are Cornick excepted.” She returned her attention to Rachel. “Even Charlie had to bring Asil along to straighten out the mess your old Alpha made of his pack, Rachel.”
That wasn’t why Asil had gone. Asil had been sent so there would be no chance of any defiance that would force Charles to kill someone who might otherwise be saved. Charles alone was terrifying. Asil was a legend. No normal wolf would even imagine disobeying the pair of them.
Sage nudged Anna’s leg underneath the table. At least she thought it was Sage. It might have been Leah. Anna was supposed to share her story to make Rachel feel less alone. Oh goody.
“Me, too,” Anna muttered unenthusiastically. “I spent my time in purgatory.”
“But you are an Omega,” exclaimed Rachel. “No one would abuse an Omega wolf.”
Anna would have let that stand, but Sage said, “They did. They forced the Change on her and followed up with several years of rape, pimping out, and beating.”
Anna pushed her plate aside because she wasn’t going to be able to eat after that. “Yes,” she said. “And I needed rescuing, too, Rachel. But this isn’t a ‘my life was worse than your life’ contest.”
Trying to avoid seeing Rachel’s expression, Anna met Sage’s eyes accidentally. The other wolf immediately dropped Anna’s gaze, and there was a faint flush on Sage’s high cheekbones. Did Sage feel like it was a contest? Anna grimaced.
“Is that what life as a female werewolf is?” asked Rachel in a subdued voice. “Abuse? Looking for a protector? A rescue?” Rachel was tiny, maybe two inches shorter than Anna. Next to Sage and Leah, who were both very tall women, Rachel looked fragile and defenseless.
“Remember what pack you are in,” Anna told her. “There are hundreds of female werewolves out there—and the Marrok only brings in one or two women a year who need assistance.”
“Don’t forget werewolves can live a long time,” said Sage, pulling Anna’s uneaten dinner over and shoving her clean plate in front of Anna. “We all, male and female, are likely to run into a bad Alpha or some other kind of abusive situation at some point. The trick is to not join the other side of the equation and become abusers ourselves.”
Leah pushed her own empty plate aside and downed her fourth shot of whiskey neat. “I think it’s a matter of choosing your mate well.”
Sometimes the older wolves showed the effects of being raised in an earlier era—like Leah’s assumption a good mate was the cure for all problems. Anna was pretty sure no one else at the table believed the cold relationship Bran and Leah had was a good thing. It wasn’t abusive—not quite. Not physically abusive, anyway. But Anna would have lasted a month, tops, in a relationship where her needs were met with attentive care—and not an ounce of affection.
But no one could say that, of course. Though there was something in Leah’s face that made Anna wonder if Leah knew what they were all thinking.
“How did you choose Bran?” asked Sage.
Huh. Anna had presumed Sage, at least, would have known the story. There were a lot of things that everyone knew except Anna, and she’d assumed the details of Leah and Bran’s courtship had been one of those. Anna knew better than to go around asking questions about the older wolves’ pasts. If they wanted you to know, they would tell you. All Anna knew about how Leah and Bran met was that Bran had gone off to find a mate and had come back with Leah.
Leah played with her napkin, making her newly polished nails glitter in the deliberately dim lighting. She glanced around, as if looking for witnesses. But she had reserved a private room for them, and the other two tables in the room were empty, the door was shut, and there was no sign of waitstaff.
“I don’t talk about it,” she said shortly, in a tone of voice designed to put an end to the topic.
Sage was made of sterner stuff. She huffed a laugh. “I understand that, darlin’. Else I would know the story already. But now you’ve got to tell us—how did you get messed up with—” Leah raised an elegant eyebrow, and Sage grinned and altered her wording midsentence. “— ah, how did you meet our fearless leader?”
For a moment Anna thought Leah would balk, but finally she said, “My father and mother were missionaries called by God to educate the heathen savages.” She took up her unused salad fork and peered at it, as if looking at her own reflection.
A lot of the old wolves still took for granted things Anna’s generation tended to give more careful evaluation. Even so, Anna would never have thought the Leah she knew would have been able to utter such a sentiment seriously, but if there was sarcasm intended, Anna couldn’t pick it up in Leah’s voice.
“I was fifteen—the oldest of six children,” Leah continued. What Leah said certainly had the ring of truth, but her casual tone hid more mass than the visible top of an iceberg did. “And Papa packed us all up in a wagon and headed west.”
“This was when?” asked Anna. She might not know Leah’s story, but she knew her husband’s history. He’d been a child when Bran brought back Leah. “Late 1820s or early 1830s?”
History had not been her best subject, but living in a pack of wolves that encompassed individuals born before the Mayflower left port had upped her game. Leah’s father’s expedition west seemed pretty early. The Civil War and the California Gold Rush were both in the middle of the nineteenth century. The western expansion had mostly been driven by those two events.
Leah shrugged. “Maybe? I don’t remember. Our church funded us to fuel the salvation of pagan souls.” There was the thread of cynicism Anna had felt but not really heard. “Papa packed us all in a wagon—except for my littlest brother, who was only a few months old. He stayed with my aunt and her family. The idea was we would get settled and then my aunt and uncle would come join us.”
She huffed an unamused laugh, and her foot began to tap a rhythm on the tile floor. “He had no idea what he was doing, my papa. Big dreams and no common sense. We ran out of food first. Then my little brother James broke his leg and died from the infection that set in.”
She was speaking in a quick, light monotone—as if she couldn’t bear to actually think about the words she was using.
“Two days later, one of our horses went dead lame and the other couldn’t pull the wagon on his own over rough ground. For lack of any other plans, we camped next to a creek for a week or so waiting to see if the lamed horse would recover before we all died. The horses were pets, and Papa couldn’t bear to shoot one of them just to feed us. He couldn’t fish and Ma spent her time crying, but my oldest little brother, Tally, and I caught a few trout. Not enough, though. We were starving to death when he came.”
The door behind them opened and a waiter came in to bus their plates. Leah pasted a polite smile on her face and ordered another whiskey in a voice slightly too loud.
Hesitantly, Rachel ordered red wine. As Sage requested water, Leah started humming under her breath.
Anna asked for water, too, but most of her attention was on Leah’s music. Her humming was spot‑on for pitch and rich enough to hint Leah might have a beautiful voice when she sang. Anna had never heard Leah sing. In the Marrok’s pack, music was everywhere. Anna had assumed Leah just didn’t have a good voice, that she couldn’t sing, not that she didn’t sing.
The door shut and they were alone again. No one said anything, unwilling for Leah to stop. The tune she hummed was compelling in the way “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Stairway to Heaven,” or “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was compelling. Anna found that she leaned forward to hear more—and tapped her own foot in time with Leah’s foot, which was giving a percussive beat that was counter to the rhythm of the song.
Sage’s eyes were wide and she was staring at Leah. Sitting beside her, Anna could scent her unease. Fear, even.
It was Rachel, not Sage, who broke the odd spell, though. “What are you singing?” Rachel whispered. “I think I’ve heard it before—but I don’t remember where.”
Leah stopped, blinking rapidly as if she’d been caught up in the music, too.
“Where is that whiskey?” she muttered. Then she shook her head and lied, “Nothing, Rachel. It’s just a song I heard once upon a time.”
She seemed to hear the lie with a little surprise as it crossed her lips. But she didn’t correct it, just shrugged and said briskly, “Anyway. Bran showed up. They saved me by Changing me into a werewolf.”
That was weird. Changing someone was not a way to save someone who was starving. And who was “they”? Charles had told her Bran had gone off alone and brought Leah back.
Anna knew better than to ask about any of that, though. Leah hated Charles and that put a few odd kinks in her relations with Anna, Omega or not. If Anna questioned Leah about a situation she clearly did not want to speak about, Leah would clam up.
“You were fifteen?” asked Sage, an edge of outrage in her voicebecause, like Anna, she had been born in the last hundred years. “Fifteen when he took you for his mate?”
That was a good question. But it wasn’t the first on Anna’s list, her very long list. And she was pretty sure it was wrong, too. Someone—Charles, surely—would have told Anna if Leah had been only fifteen when Bran brought her back to his home in Montana.
Leah shook her head and said briskly, “Fifteen? Goodness, no. Twenty or more, I think. You know how time blurs after a while.”
The “he” who had come upon Leah and her starving family had not been Bran, then. Five years or more between that day and when Bran had “rescued her” by transforming her into a werewolf. Leah had given them only the beginning and the end—leaving out all the interesting parts in between. Why had she started the story if she wasn’t going to finish it?
Anna waited for Sage to address some of those questions, but evidently she’d decided to leave off questioning.
There was a long, quiet pause as Rachel finished her drink, Sage fixed her makeup, and Leah stared at her empty shot glass. Anna tried not to look like she was bursting with curiosity. Five years of something so important Leah wouldn’t talk about it. Anna would bug Charles.
She took out her phone and texted him: Almost done. Do you know how and why Bran Changed Leah? She’d been texting him on and off all day. She’d sent him a photo of Sage in the unflattering outfit—but not in the five hundred dresses/shirts/ pants/ skirts that made her look stunning. Anna wasn’t an idiot. Charles hadn’t replied to any of them. He must be out doing something. Bran liked to steal him to go hunting when Anna was gone.
She got a text back this time.
No idea. Da doesn’t talk about it. But he doesn’t talk about the past in general. Sorry for not responding earlier. Went for a run with Da.
Leah was humming again. Hearing it afresh . . . she could imagine it played by a full orchestra with timpani drums beating the same rhythm of Leah’s toes, making Anna’s chest buzz with the power of it.
Anna looked up from her phone and frowned at Leah. Understanding what a piece would sound like with different instrumentation was part of what had made Anna the kind of musician who got scholarships to Northwestern University. But this was more visceralthan what she normally experienced.
She needed to interrupt it, so she said, “What is that song, Leah? Rachel’s right. It’s familiar but I can’t place it.” It made her want to go do . . . something.
Leah stopped humming but she looked lost in her own thoughts.
“Anna was a music major in college,” Sage told Rachel. “Before the bad wolves got her.”
Pulled away from the musical puzzle by Sage’s words, Anna tried not to scowl. Anna hadn’t wanted to go into graphic detail about her time in hell, for sure, so why did Sage reducing her abduction to the level of a Grimms’ fairy tale make the hair on her neck stand up? Anna frowned at her mostly full cocktail, sure she was overreacting. Maybe she shouldn’t drink things that tasted like paint thinner?
Leah touched Anna’s hand and gave her a soft smile that made her look more beautiful than Sage for a moment. And no one was more beautiful than Sage. It wasn’t a smile Anna had ever seen on Leah’s face before—something, she thought, the music had brought out.
“I don’t know the name of the song,” Leah said, her voice a little rough, as if her throat were dry. She looked at the far wall, but Anna was pretty sure it wasn’t what she was seeing. “I never did—or at least I don’t think I did. It’s been troubling me lately. I wonder what it means.”
The waiter came back with their drinks then, and the topic of conversation moved on to something lighter. But the song Leah had hummed lingered in Anna’s ears, along with a nagging sense of unease because of the unfinished story. It felt important. There had been five years between the day someone had happened upon Leah’s starving family and when Bran and someone else had rescued her.
Rescued her from what?