By: Stacey Brutger

And despite her bedraggled appearance, she was the most exquisite creature he’d laid eyes on in years. He inhaled, and her light citrus fragrance sent a shock to his system. He’d dated beautiful women, but he’d never had such a visceral reaction to one, where every part of him demanded he claim her immediately.

But he’d read about it once.

A mate.

Hope clawed up his throat, so desperate that he forgot how to form words. Aiden shook his head to banish such foolishness. True mates no longer existed. Hadn’t for centuries. A cheap imitation did nothing for him. He’d just been too long without a woman. It was the only reason that made any sense.

Aiden was painfully aware of his scruffy appearance. Hell, he could hardly stand his own stench. Shame, mixed with fear that she might run, helped him maintain his distance. He would not sully her by laying his filthy hands on her, no matter how much he craved it.

“What are you doing here?” Aiden winced at the harsh tone of his voice, clamping his mouth shut when she flinched. The only sounds he’d made in the last few weeks were a few choice swear words and the howls of pain he was too weak to contain any longer.

When she backed away, his heart thumped painfully against his ribs. He held up his hands and stepped back, even though he desperately wanted to charge forward and beg that she not leave him. Then he held out her phone. “Wait. Please.”

His hoarse plea made him wince.

Begging like some pathetic human.

“You’re not one of them, are you?” They could’ve sent her down here. And if they had, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to resist her for even an hour. There was something about her reaction to the rat that told him she didn’t have the stomach for torture.

At the thought of the lost rat, his stomach rumbled in protest, cramping so hard that he nearly doubled over.

“One of…them?” The low, hesitant sound of her voice sent a shiver of pure lust through his system. He swayed, wishing she’d speak again.

His condition mortified him, and he straightened, not wanting to appear weak. Not in front of her. He tucked his rough, callused hands behind his back, hiding their condition.

When the little goddess ventured closer, he stilled so as not to frighten her. Without warning, his beast broke his iron hold over him for the first time since being imprisoned. Any illusion of control vanished. Mercifully, his wolf didn’t manifest, didn’t take over. Maybe more frightening, the beast seemed content to simply be near the woman.

His wolf peered out of his eyes, and Aiden held his breath, unsure he’d be able to stop him if the beast decided to fight free.

The wolf whiffled, inhaling her scent.

Learning her.

But then he did it again, this time to savor the fragrance that rose from her skin.

Once satisfied, he laid his head down on his paws and whined, wanting her touch just as badly as Aiden did. His animal had never reacted to a woman so strongly. Aiden wanted to revel in the sensations, but he needed to get them out of there first.

Maybe the rain would keep his captors away, but he doubted it. A wave of rage crashed over him, and he knew what he had to do. He straightened to his full height, feeling like a monster as he towered over her.

“You’re not safe down here. You have to get out.”

She reared back at his comment. He wanted to recall his words, lure her closer, promise her anything if she just stayed a minute longer, but he would not risk her safety, even if it might mean his freedom.

“Do you think I’d be here if I knew the way out?”

She sounded so exasperated Aiden almost smiled, then he cocked his head in confusion. “How were you able to find me if you don’t even know how you got here?”

“I fell.” She muttered, casting a quick glance over her shoulder. “Exiting that way was not an option.”

“So you searched for a way out and found me.”

Shayla nodded once.

He didn’t want to admire her ingenuity. He didn’t want to be attracted to her. He failed miserably at both accounts. Before he could press for more information, a sound to his right made him whirl.

Familiar male voices.

Fear shredded the last of his composure, and he surged toward the bars. He gripped the metal, uncaring when his flesh sizzled, how the skin of his palms slowly tightened and then cracked. “Run!”

She gazed at him, not as afraid as she should be. “There is nowhere to run. I can’t go back the way I came.”

Footsteps scuffled toward them. The stench of their bodies swept through the tunnels, and his wolf pressed forward beneath his skin, desperate to defend the woman.

“There is another way out, but you must hide right now. If they discover you here, they’ll kill you.”

Her brows furrowed, and the look might have been cute if he weren’t so terrified for her safety. He wanted to keep her close. She was his last chance at freedom. At least that’s the only explanation he had for the primitive way he responded to the idea of her in danger.

He peered down the tunnel, conscious of time ticking away. When he turned back, she was gone.

Profound loss carved his chest out, the force of it enough to break the last hold he had on his sanity.

He shuddered at the thought that he’d imagined the whole thing.

Then he heard her voice.

“If you want to keep me a secret, I suggest you turn off my phone and hide it. I’ll need it to get out of here.”

He stared stupidly at the piece of pink plastic he still clutched, then swore. He just managed to shove the phone into the waistband of his pants when the lights from his visitors bounced off the walls.

Conflicting signals muddled his mind. The warrior in him wanted to strut in front of her. The ancient practice of attracting a mate by showing his prowess might have been lost through the years, but the customs had been ingrained in him since his birth over two hundred years ago. Conversely, the human side of him wanted to hide his abilities for fear she might run.

Both sides were desperate to do whatever it took to keep her close. The reactions were so strong, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep himself from following her around like a lost puppy.

His limbs trembled with fatigue, and he gritted his teeth against the need to rest. He couldn’t crash now, not when more than his life hung in the balance.

“I don’t see why we have to come down here tonight. The full moon will be here in two days. He won’t be able to hold out then.”

The nasally whine annoyed the piss out of Aiden, and his claws punched through the tips of his fingers, eager to rip into the man’s throat. He ignored the truth in the taunts, pitifully pleased that they were vague enough not to frighten his little goddess out of her hiding place.

The one they called Hugh tossed scraps of some animal they’d scavenged from road kill just outside his cell. Aiden locked his knees to stop himself from dropping to his knees and gorging on the rotten food. The swirling current quickly swept it away, and the big one laughed, his pot belly jiggling.

Whiskey fumes exploded from him in waves strong enough to intoxicate the person standing next to him as well.

Hugh might be stupid, but one didn’t tug on the tail of the lion without consequences. He liked to feel important. Beating up kids and women had fulfilled that need until Jacob hired him.

“Come on, Jacob, let’s get out of this shit hole.”

Aiden didn’t dare allow himself to relax. Jacob took pleasure in the torture, studying how long he could push and still keep his prey alive. He wouldn’t forgo it on a whim.

“Fine, leave. I’ll follow in a bit.” Jacob was the taller of the two, his lean frame tightly controlled, his cold eyes calculating.

Neither of them saw Aiden as human, not that it would have stopped them. To get what they wanted, they would’ve killed him just the same.

“Sure, but I gotta take a piss first.” Hugh turned and fumbled with his pants.

A moue of distaste curled Jacob’s mouth. He turned his back and ignored the other man. “You don’t have to die. The offer is still on the table. Just give us what we want.”

The key to Aiden’s cell dangled from a cord around the man’s neck.

Taunting him.

The bastard knew and did it on purpose.

“No.” It was the same question every night. Their offer was a lie. If he gave consent, he would wind up chained in his wolf form and bled dry for the rest of his very short, miserable life.

Tonight was different. His eyes skimmed the key, but his obsession had broken, and he quickly turned his attention to Hugh.

Tension held Aiden stiff as impotent rage consumed him. For the first time since he’d been captured, Aiden prayed.

Don’t move, baby.

“What the—”

A piece of wood swung out of the darkness, cracking Hugh across the temple. The rotten wood exploded in a spray of splinters. Hugh, overweight by a good thirty pounds, his pants still open, staggered backwards, but didn’t go down.

“What the hell are you doing, Hugh?”

Blood poured into the man’s eyes, and a nasty cut gaped open over his brow. He turned at the sound of his name, and stumbled a little too close to Aiden’s cell.

Desperate not to lose this chance, Aiden lunged forward and snatched up the rotund man through the bars. The movement dislodged Shayla’s phone, and it landed with a plop, before disappearing into the murky water. Then there was no more time to think. He looped his arm around Hugh’s neck, pulling until the man was crushed against the bars. Bones should’ve snapped like matchsticks, would have if Aiden had been at his full strength. Now he was just too weak.

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