Chapter 1: Cursed

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It had been years since I set foot in the Armitage pack's territory, and I'd hoped to keep that winning streak going for a while longer. Of course, being kidnapped and cursed had a way of changing your plans.

Not that I was really setting foot in it now, more like setting hands and knees. I'd fallen so many times that I'd stopped trying to get back up, and was just crawling through the thick, loamy mud under the drenched forest canopy.

The patter of chill rain on the back of my neck was bad enough, every drop sending new shivers down my spine, but my soaked jeans were chafing in every direction and on every sensitive bit of me. Why had I worn skinny jeans this tight again? Oh, right, going out clubbing, and not planning on being kidnapped and cursed. Mud squelched through my fingers and seeped into my ankle boots.

I'd been so careless, so arrogant. My father, such as he was, had been dead for two glorious years, and the magic he'd stolen from me all my life was finally back where it belonged. I could take anyone, right? A powerful young warlock, well trained and paranoid as only years of living in the shadow of a criminal with a lot of enemies could make me.

And all it took was a few drops of witchbane poison in my fruity cocktail.

So impressive. My father, may he rot in hell, would be laughing his freaking ass off.

With a grunt and a pitiful moan, I lurched from crawling to belly-flopping in the mud. A wet and filthy rotting leaf poked into my mouth, and I spat it out, my stomach heaving as the flavor of mold burst on my tongue. I wasn't going to make it. Where the hell were the pack's perimeter guards? Someone had to patrol this huge territory, what with rival packs only a few miles away and a master vampire and his brood in the next town over.

Especially since one of those rival packs had snatched me from the club, and especially especially since they'd done it as the first step in a plot against the Armitage pack.

Or at least so I'd gathered as they chained me up, drew a circle of burnt celandine, and had their pack shaman start a ritual nauseatingly similar to the one my father used to do every month at the new moon.

"Armitage can't defend against this," one of the werewolves in the corner of the room had said to another, gesturing my way. "Once his energy's bound to yours, he'll have all your resilience and all his powers, all under your control. He'll be the perfect weapon."

He'd sounded like he was reassuring the other were, who'd maybe expressed some serious doubts about the plan. I thought the other were was probably the smart one, since I had some serious doubts myself.

Strike that, I had no doubts at all. I was going to die here, my magic drained out of me by this fucking curse, my body withered away to nothing and sinking into the mud until only a few bones wrapped in skinny jeans remained.

And then I heard the growl.

It was the kind of sound that would make any human's nervous system go into overdrive; it had a low, throbbing undertone to it that raised all the hairs on the back of my neck. I managed to turn my head and peer into the pre-dawn gloom. A pair of glowing golden eyes looked back at me, set in the face of a wolf with his (probably his, but I sure as hell wasn't going to try to inspect) teeth bared.

Finally. Jesus, would it kill them to keep a better eye on their borders?

"I'm Nate Hawthorne," I rasped faintly, drowned out by the rain. It didn't matter. With the wolf's supernatural hearing, I could have been twice the distance away and he'd have heard me as well as if I'd had a microphone. "I need to see Matthew Armitage." The wolf just stared me down. My head started to spin, and I dropped down, my cheek hitting the ground with a splat. "Take me to your leader." I started to giggle, my chest heaving as the laughter morphed into sobs, the curse draining more of my life away. I could feel it like a physical tug on every vein and nerve.

The wolf tipped his head back and let out a long howl, a call that probably carried all the way to the other edge of the pack's territory. And then he came a cautious few steps closer, sniffed me, let out a disgusted huff, and settled on his haunches a few feet away.

He was waiting for someone, then. Backup. Maybe, hopefully, someone who could find me a shower and a borrowed pair of boxers. At least he wasn't ripping out my throat.

I probably passed out for a few minutes, because between one second and the next, another wolf was prowling out of the forest. Even with the rising sun hidden behind clouds, and even with my vision as bleary as it was, I could see that he was enormous, easily half again as large as the first. Most of the werewolves I'd seen fully shifted had some shade of gray fur, but this one had a coat like a tawny owl, variegated hues of brown and tan, dappled like sunlight through trees.

The wolf came right up to me with a nonchalant saunter that was more than a little insulting. To be fair, if I'd been a giant predator with four-inch razor-sharp retractable claws, I probably wouldn't have been too terrified of the twink in skinny jeans lying in the mud like a lump, either.

He sniffed me just like the other werewolf had, and then shoved one dinner plate-sized paw under my shoulder and flipped me like a pancake. An expression that in a human would be utter horror and disbelief was oddly clear even on that lupine face. His lips drew back, exposing a wicked set of fangs.

"I need to see Matthew," I choked out, hoping to convince him before he just ripped my guts out and had his minion throw me down a ravine. I hadn't meant to tell the details of the story to anyone but the leader of the Armitage pack, for the sake of discretion, but...wasn't saving your own ass the better part of discretion? Or something? "I was kidnapped. By the Kimball pack, and it had something to do with your pack, and Jesus you don't need to kill me --" My voice rose to a squeak as he leaned in, his teeth fully on display, his enormous muzzle way, way too fucking close for comfort.

But he didn't bite, just sniffed me, from my head all the way down to my feet, pausing at my wrists. Finally he let out a surprised-sounding huff.

A second later, his huge form blurred, rippled, and reshaped into man nearly as enormous compared to other humans as his wolf form was compared to garden-variety wolves. Messy auburn hair curled around his temples, and his freckles might have given him an air of innocence if it weren't for the cold, pale blue eyes. Oh, and the shoulders and chest bulging with muscle. And the claws.

Either way, I knew he was the opposite of innocent, and I knew damn well who he was.

My heart sank. Ian Armitage. My dead ex-lover's best friend, the pack leader's second in command, and one of the most feared werewolves in California. And he hated me.

The curse might still try to kill me, but now it would probably have to get in line.

Ian flexed his hand, extended his gleaming claws, and laid them gently across my throat. My vision blurred as my heart rate shot into the stratosphere.

"What the fuck are you doing here? One flicker of a lie, and you'll be dead in seconds."

I had to struggle for breath before I could answer, and that was irritating as hell. Yes, I was less than thrilled to have a supernatural apex predator about to rip out my jugular, but mostly I was just cursed. And having him interpret my shortness of breath as pure terror was just embarrassing.

"You can smell them on me, can't you? The Kimballs." I panted, and he nodded, his grip on my throat tightening just a nearly-puncturing-my-veins fraction. "They kidnapped me. And they started some kind of --" Deep breath. "Ritual." I forced another breath into my lungs. "I need to see Matthew."

Was the sun going down again? That wasn't right. It was just coming up. But everything had gotten darker.

Yeah, I was passing out. Everything went black, and Ian's furious face was the last thing I saw.

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