Bridged by Love Copyright © 2015 by Nancy Corrigan All Rights Are Reserved.
Did you miss Chapter 1? Read it HERE.
Nic pulled into the parking lot of Hollow Grove’s only veterinarian hospital, Riley’s Sanctuary. He’d heard she’d gone to vet school while he’d been traipsing across the country. A year ago, she’d taken over as pack doctor. Sure, she treated people’s pets and the local livestock, but her main responsibility was to care for injured shifters.
Single shifters healed quicker than humans, but they weren’t immortal like Royals, multi-animal shifters who were tied to the gods. Most singles lived a few hundred years, some more, some less. They also got sick like everyone else, except they needed a doctor who understood their rapid metabolism and unique physiology. Only a handful of humans were entrusted with their secrets. Riley had been the youngest.
He’d been so damn proud when he’d heard she’d graduated. His pack had honored her with a huge celebration. He hadn’t returned for it. He’d chosen to lose himself in booze and a hooker’s body instead.
He was a goddamn fool. His dad had warned him to pick his first lover carefully, that sometimes addictions formed to a female’s scent. Nic had figured with Riley being human he’d be safe from the inborn drives to claim and possess. He hadn’t counted on falling in love with her or that the emotion would be as strong as the mating drive.
Of course, love meant jack shit to his wolf.
Actually, that wasn’t true. Love acted as a cohesive bond linking the pack, but it wasn’t romantic in any sense of the term. It could be described best as a communal affection and the need to protect all members. Ironically, that included Riley too.
Her image flashed before him. He shoved it away before the annoying ache in his chest spread to his throat and choked him.
On a growl, he flung the car door open and dragged in a deep breath. Scents assaulted him. In his human form, his senses were limited. Certain fragrances, however, were ingrained into him. He could pick them out from a crowd. All dominants possessed the trait, along with the ability to partially shift. They were survival tactics. He’d be able to seek out and fight for those individuals important to him if there was ever a threat.
Only three people made his internal list—Riley, Hannah, and Alex.
All had been at the hospital recently. On top of their familiar scents, Nic smelled disinfectant and death. A shifter had died in the hospital’s parking lot recently. Nic’s wolf growled. He mentally stroked the beast, the only way he could ease the animal since he couldn’t exactly talk to it. The animal’s tension lessened the longer he petted it, but Nic’s anxiety grew. Two questions repeated in his head. Who had died? And why hadn’t the smell been neutralized?
He scanned the lot. Near the side door, a section of gravel had been removed. Dirt showed in the circle. He walked toward it. The stench intensified. He knelt and studied the disturbed earth. Blood had seeped into the soil. Someone had tried to counter the evidence by dumping diluted bleach onto the spot, but it should’ve been covered with fresh topsoil too.
Had he not known better, Nic might’ve worried it’d been his dad who’d died. But no, the male who’d created him still breathed. Good thing too. His death would’ve made the next full moon a free-for-all to determine the new alpha. He could win it. The fight didn’t worry him. Knowing he’d be killing his own pack members to earn the position did, however. He pushed the thought away. It hadn’t happened. His return ensured it never would happen.
With his hand inches above the marred area, he said a prayer for the deceased’s spirit. If the person had been a member of the Kagan pack, the shifter’s wolf would’ve returned to Nic’s father. Of course, the unfortunate victim could’ve belonged to any pack. Riley’s Sanctuary stood on neutral ground. No shifter in need was turned away.
He stood and swept his gaze over the surrounding area. Woods flanked the back and sides. He didn’t see the wolves he knew were hidden in it. The pack’s protectors had been taking turns guarding the place while their alpha recovered. They’d remain hidden and only emerge if needed.
He faced the single-story brick building that had acted as their hospital for close to eighty years. Advertisements for various pet medicines and the generic posting of hours covered the front door. Above it, a sign identified the veterinarian as Riley…
His heart stuttered before racing hard. He hadn’t known she’d taken the Kagan name. As a member of the pack, she had every right to do so. After the way he’d treated her, however, he hadn’t expected it.
She and Alex had been abandoned as infants, tossed away in a garbage bag along the side of the road. They were found by one of the older shifters and became honorary members of the pack. With the nearby towns consisting of mostly wolves, it had been easy to keep their existence secret. There’d been no need for either of them to leave. Well, no need until Riley enrolled in vet school. She would’ve needed an identity.
Why the hell did she have to pick his name? Slap a wedding band on her, and she might as well have been his wife.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The animosity wouldn’t help. She’d established herself as Riley Kagan. He could piss and moan all he wanted. It didn’t change the facts.
And what did it matter? She was leaving. She’d be gone before the week was out.
His throat tightened. He rubbed at it and cursed. She was twisting him up, just like she’d always done. He inhaled and held his breath until his lungs burned. His pent-up air escaped in a slow hiss, draining the tension with it. He pulled his key out and unlocked the door.
Riley’s sweet fragrance hit him. His body reacted to the trigger, thickening his cock.
Home. That was what she smelled like. His home.
Anger rushed up, replacing the first stirrings of desire. He curled his fingers. The tips of his claws dented his palm. A week. She’d be gone in seven days. Then, he’d never have to deal with her again or curse his wolf every time he saw her, wishing the animal could’ve loved her as much as he did.
He slammed the door behind him and strode across the waiting area. Details registered—paintings of wolves, cute stuffed dogs dressed up as doctors and patients, and a play area for kids. He locked his jaw and focused on the door at the end. He didn’t want to know how she’d left her mark on the old barren hospital. It was just a damn building anyway. The next doctor would decorate it too. Better probably.
He reached for the door handle. It opened before he could touch it. Jenna, a shifter who’d mated his best friend Sean while Nic had been gone, stood on the other side. He’d heard she was pretty, but nobody had mentioned the strength that radiated from her. Her platinum blonde hair and pale blue eyes explained why. Jenna housed the second rarest wolf, the arctic wolf.
She dropped her gaze. “Welcome home. We’re so glad you decided to return.”
“Yeah, thrilled to be home.” He let the sarcasm drip from his words. “Where’s my dad?”
She pointed at the stairs behind her. “Room three.”
“Thanks.” He stepped around her, careful not to brush against her. He might be set to take the role as alpha, but Sean would still come after him if he scented an unmated male on her, friend or not.
He paused mid-step. “Call me Nic. My dad is Nicholas.”
“Nic.” She cleared her throat. “Your father has allowed my younger cousin to live with me. Ben will come into his first shift in a few months. I was hoping he’d be accepted into the Kagan pack.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “What pack are you originally from?” He should know, but he hadn’t spoken to Sean much about his mate. Nic was envious of him. Sean was living the life Nic wanted—married and mated to the woman he loved.
“The Tanner pack.” She twisted her fingers together. “His parents were killed. They got caught in a dominance fight. Ben was only a baby. Our aunt raised him, but when she died, I—”
“Stop.” He raised a hand. “He can be presented at the full moon after his shift. Whether our spirit wolf accepts him is not up to me. You know that. Only the worthy are joined to our communal pack.”
She smiled. “He’s a good man. Ben helps out at the Sanctuary all the time. He and Riley are close, close friends.”
He tensed. The thought of how close Ben and Riley were stirred his jealousy. Nic had no right to feel it. He’d left her. Fucked dozens of women. Allowed dozens more to pleasure him. What Riley had done while he’d been gone was none of his business. He turned away without a word and jogged down the stairs.
A week. That was all.
The reminder didn’t soothe him. The annoying lump in his throat returned. He swallowed past it and strode down the hall. Overhead lights brightened the wide corridor. More paintings lined the walls. He didn’t know who’d made them, but they were good. He let his gaze scan them. A familiar face caught his eye—his face. He paused and studied the portrait. In it, he knelt in the field they used for gatherings. The artist had depicted him with the shadowy spirit of the wolf behind him.
Somebody had captured the sacred ceremony and embodied it into a detailed painting. It was…
He trailed his fingertips over the oil brushstrokes. A sense of rightness swept through him. He might not want to become alpha, but it was his fate. The pack depended on him. He would do what was right by them. If he didn’t, a male like Derek Tanner would take control of his loved ones. They’d suffer. More than that, their pack’s spirit would be tainted, corrupted, freakin’ used to cause harm. He couldn’t let that happen. The spirit wolf was the Kagan pack—past, present, and future.
It was his responsibility to protect it. No matter the sacrifice.
Determination settled over him. He turned his back on the painting and made his way to the door at the end of the hall. The sign on it marked it as a restricted access area. There was an additional lock and a keypad on it. He used his key, then punched in the security code. A green light flashed. He opened the door and slipped inside.
The large room reminded him of one he’d seen in a human’s hospital. A few uncomfortable-looking chairs offered a spot to sit while visiting. A moveable table held a tray with a half-eaten meal, while monitors, tubes, and equipment surrounded the hospital bed. He took it all in, then turned his attention to the male lying on the bed.
A thin sheet covered his older, muscled frame. His sandy blond hair showed no white or gray streaks, but the lines on his face hinted at his age. At over five hundred years, Nicholas Kagan was one of the oldest leaders in the country. He’d fathered seven kids in his lifetime. Only Nic and Hannah had lived to see their twenties. The last millennia had nearly pushed the shifters into extinction, but with the decision to disclose their existence to a select group of human leaders, they’d finally begun to recover.
The general populace hadn’t learned of them yet. Soon, though, everyone would know the truth. In the modern world, there were only so many things shifters could do to hide their longer lives.
The Kagan wolves had to be ready. He had to be ready.
His dad’s voice yanked Nic out of his thoughts. He dragged a plastic chair to the side of the bed and straddled it. “Yeah, I came. Why didn’t you call me sooner?”
“Hannah sent you that text, not me.” His dad hit the control on the bedrail to raise the mattress. He grunted and pushed himself into a semi-reclined position with pillows supporting him. “You made it clear you’d only return when you had to. I was fine after that fight. Took the kid out in less than five minutes. Hell, we never even made it to the circle. The little prick knew he’d die there, so he jumped me in our backyard.”
Nic pointedly motioned to the monitors behind the bed. “And those are there for decoration?”
“You didn’t talk to Riley, then?”
The memory of her draped over the human returned. Anger surged, tightening his muscles. Nic rubbed the back of his neck where a knot formed. “Briefly. She was in a hurry.”
“I walked away from that fight with only a few scratches.” His dad whipped the bed sheet down and tugged his hospital gown up. He ripped the bandage off. Four red and puffy marks stretched over his stomach. The cuts had barely broken the skin, but pus oozed from them. “That’s the extent of my injuries.”
Nic met his dad’s hazel eyes. Nothing showed in them. He’d been pack leader too long. Nic, on the other hand, still struggled to keep his emotions hidden. He’d learn. He just needed time. “Hannah said you almost died, that you’d been fighting dominants nearly every month for the past year.”
“Yes, and I have, but none have officially challenged me. They’re testing the waters, so to speak. Picking fights and trying to see if I’m getting weak.” He dropped his gown, covering the raw wound. “Derek was no different. He came over, running his mouth, saying he was going to take my pack from me. I reminded him if he challenged me, he’d die, ’cause he was too damn weak to take me out. He got pissed and rushed me. I proved myself right, though. Kid was as uncoordinated as shit.”
Nic nodded. That was the way of an alpha. Once they accepted their pack’s spirit, they only passed it on to a pack member who’d carry on the bloodline, and then only when they had to or risk losing it to an outsider. Nic wouldn’t be any different once he took over. Being alpha offered the best damn power rush any shifter could experience. No human drug could compare to the high it gave.
“So how did you go from winning the fight to almost dying?” Nic asked.
“Morning after the fight, I woke up with a fever. Sick as shit, you understand? Throwing up, chills, the whole nine yards. Then, the seizures started. My heart stopped. If it wasn’t for Riley, I’d be dead. That girl’s a miracle worker. Our pack’s guardian angel.”
And she was leaving in less than a week. “What did she say was wrong?”
“Infection, but it looks like it’s just about run its course. She’s put me on some last-ditch antibiotics.” He pointed to the IV in his arm. “Seems to be doing the trick, except…”
“I can’t call my wolf.”
“I can feel him. He’s there, but I can’t reach him. I doubt I’ll be able to shift again.” His dad glanced away. “It happens sometimes when a shifter is pulled back from the brink of death. Like a rubber band, you know? My wolf’s spirit was ready to depart, but when Riley restarted my heart, I pulled him back. He’s caught in limbo.”
A shiver ran down Nic’s spine. “You’re not going to be able to transfer our pack’s spirit to me, are you?”
Gaze on the wrinkled bedsheet, he shook his head. “I lost the pack’s spirit when my heart stopped. The spirit wolf retreated to the realm of the gods and will wait there until the next full moon, when it can join with another shifter.”
In the meantime, every shifter who died, either of natural causes or acts of violence, would lose their connection to the pack. If they were reborn, they’d return as humans, ones who’d always long for the bond they’d once shared with their wolf and pack mates. They’d never be whole.
“I was going to call you as soon as I got out of this bed.” His dad’s voice broke through Nic’s grim thoughts.
Nic glanced at him. Anger built. His father had known their pack mates were at risk, and he hadn’t even texted him. Hannah had. “I would hope you would’ve.”
“I had to think. Get my thoughts in order. I’ve decided on a path that’ll protect our pack. We need to plan for the ceremony.”
“But you said the transfer isn’t happening.” He’d have to fight for the spirit wolf, hurting those who thought to oust the Kagan bloodline from their rightful place as alpha family.
“Not the way it’s expected, but the result will be the same. Come the full moon, you’ll become alpha. No one will even know they’d been at risk of losing the pack.”
Because that was the other concern that came with a change in alphas. If, for whatever reason, the spirit wolf couldn’t connect with a shifter who’d act as its vessel, it would fade away, severing the mystical bond linking every member of the pack. Their women, their children, their dominants and betas—none would be safe. They’d all die when their wolves’ souls were reclaimed by the gods.
“Yeah?” Nic leaned forward. If his dad knew of a way to prevent their pack mates from suffering, he was all for it. “How’s that going to happen?”
“We’re going to mimic the ceremony, and if you’re the only one in the circle with me, the spirit wolf will just go to you.”
“Nobody else knows?” He was assuming as much since he hadn’t heard of any fights between their males. All dominants would want to avoid the same outcome he did—the loss of their pack mates and the death of the Kagan pack—by offering themselves up as potential hosts. The spirit wolf could choose only one, however. If Nic was there, it’d pick him, exactly as his dad had said. Nic was a Kagan, the rightful lineage. Without Nic’s presence, the spirit wolf would gravitate to the strongest male, the one who could defeat its enemies.
His dad glanced at him, brow raised. “Do you think I’m a fool? Hannah knows. That’s it. Our dominants might be loyal, but the lure of power does crazy shit to people. And if word got out?” He snorted. “We’d have wolves from all over the country congregating here, ready to claim our pack. Not happening. You hear me? Our bloodline has housed our pack’s spirit wolf for thousands of years. You will welcome it into your soul, or I’ll take your head myself, son or not.”
Nic closed his eyes. “Of course I will. I’ve always known I’d take your place.”
“Good.” He awkwardly patted Nic’s arm. “But we need to keep this between us. If it gets out, the challengers will gang up on you. They’ll take you out, then fight among themselves.”
Nic nodded, knowing it was the only way.
“You’ll need to pick a mate and be ready to claim her after the—”
“I know how it works,” Nic snapped. He didn’t want to think about the poor woman who’d be stuck with him for the next few hundred years. He needed to change the subject. “Do you think you got the infection from the fight?”
His dad shrugged. “It wouldn’t surprise me. Derek knew he was no match for me. He had to tip the scales someway.”
Nic shifted his gaze to his dad’s stomach. “He purposely infected you.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Think about it. Infect me, and then swoop in and claim my pack on the next full moon. Snotty prick probably had some plan to take out his rivals. Wouldn’t surprise me either. Dominants have been dying left and right in our neighboring packs.”
Nic stared at him a moment. He’d been in California for the past few months and had kept his nose out of shifter affairs for years. “The shifter who died outside—”
“Belonged to the Tanner pack. Derek’s younger brother. He drove himself here because his pack refused to help him. Never made it inside.”
Nic cursed. “Great communal bond.”
“They believe in the old ways—only the strong survive. I’m done with their games. If Derek comes after me again, he dies, even if I have to shoot him. It’s my right. I’ve only been tolerant of him because I want peace between our packs, but no longer, not after Riley’s accident. No one goes after my pack’s weaker members and lives. I don’t condone that. Our pack never has.”
Nic stiffened. “The car accident?”
“That’s my guess. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but it’s too coincidental. Kill her the same night as he fights me so she can’t save me, but according to her, the car looked like the one her ex drove. So?” His dad shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Her ex?” A low growl rumbled in his chest. Claws punched out. He curled them before his dad noticed. “Who has she been dating?”
His dad held his gaze for a long moment before shifting his focus to Nic’s hands. “A few different guys since she’s been home. Mostly humans.”
“Mostly? What do you mean mostly? Shifters have been dating her?”
“Yeah. You have a problem with that?” His dad leveled a hard look at him. “I’ve encouraged our males to consider mating her. She’s like my daughter. I don’t want to see her grow old and die before I do.”
Nic ignored his primitive response that wanted to claim her. Only half of him shared the desire. His wolf had no interest in Riley or any of the humans Nic had fucked over the years. No, it made its wants known every time he walked by an unmated female shifter. His animal spirit wanted to breed. It understood the rules. The Kagan line had to continue.
“You won’t have to. Riley said she’s moving.” Nic caught his dad’s gaze and lied. “Not sure why she decided to go now, but she said she’d recommend a new pack doctor before she leaves.”
His dad cursed. “We’ve got to talk her out of it.”
“There are other doctors, and Jenna can handle things until we get one. If Riley wants to go, I say let her.” As much as it pained him, it’d be better for both of them. She couldn’t give him the kid he needed to continue the alpha family line, and he couldn’t give her the life she deserved.
His dad stared at him. Nic saw the truth in his eyes. His dad knew, or at least suspected the real reason she’d decided to up and leave. He finally sighed. “I’ll send one of the protectors with her to make sure trouble doesn’t follow her.”
As much as Nic didn’t like the idea of a shifter with Riley, the knowledge that she’d be watched over eased him.
“Good.” Nic stood and walked toward the door. “I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”
Nic paused with his hand on the doorknob. “Yeah?”
Nic glanced over his shoulder. Sympathy softened his dad’s normally impassive features.
“I eventually came to care for your mother.” His dad dropped his gaze to the bed. “Sometimes I even miss her now that she’s gone.”
Cared for, not loved.
Nic grunted and walked out. He didn’t want to think about his future. He wanted to shift into his wolf and run. Too damn bad it wouldn’t help him escape his fate.
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