Hunter’s Descent sneak peek

Deleted Chapter 1

The tree loomed at her all at once in the darkness. Mary Alice Nolan slipped to one side, trying to keep her eye on the golden shape that slipped ahead of her in the gloom. A branch hit her on the shoulder, but bent, smaller twigs dragging across her light jacket with a tearing sound. She was going to hear about that from Ruri. The trees were thinning, and she put on an extra burst of speed, drawing up next to the bounding wolf. Her girlfriend glanced her way, tongue lolling from her mouth in silent welcome, then lowered her head and rocketed forward again.

“Dammit, Ruri,” Mary Alice called after the golden wolf as she drew away from her. Ruri didn’t like to make it easy. This wasn’t their first run together. Mary Alice knew it would end with her as a sweaty, exhausted mess, while Ruri would be rejuvenated and up for pretty much anything. She grinned. Pretty much anything was usually very fun.

She put her head down and lengthened her stride, digging deep into her altered physiology and the iron-hard discipline of her training. The grin was more of a grimace now, but it didn’t matter. This was the time she would beat her girlfriend to the edge of the woods. Her mind clarified and her reflexes sharpened. She leaned into her instincts, trusting them to guide her around trees and over treacherous terrain. The less she thought about it, the faster she went, until she felt like she was flowing over the ground, at one with the wind. She blew around a young tree, then hurdled a long dead stump. The moon wasn’t full, not yet. If it had been, she would have no chance of catching up to Ruri, but she drew closer to that elusive golden shape one step at a time. Her tail was raised over her back like a fluffy banner, and Malice concentrated on it, using it to goad her like a red cape in front of a bull.

Ruri’s head was down. Her powerful shoulders churned and her hindquarters bunched and lengthened with explosive speed, but she didn’t pull away. Malice grinned. If she stretched out her hand, she could grab that tail. Her fingers twitched. Once she had the tail in hand, it would be child’s play to wrap it up, and throw herself to the side, bringing the werewolf down. She had no katana, not for a run like this, but her mind visualized the blade being drawn across the beast’s neck, blood spraying red across the golden fur.

What? No! What was she doing, visualizing the death of her girlfriend? Mary Alice shook her head, trying to clear it of the disturbing imagery. She and Ruri were together, and things had been going pretty well the past few months. It wasn’t easy for someone like her to date someone like Ruri, but they managed, and the sex was incredible. So far, she’d kept the truth of Ruri’s background from her superiors. It wouldn’t do for a Hunter, one of the US Army’s elite monster-hunting soldiers, to be found literally sleeping with the enemy. Mary Alice knew what would happen if they were found out. She would lose Ruri and her position. It was doubtful either of them would survive, which was chilling, but also strangely comforting.

Am I in love with her? It wasn’t the first time the question had crawled through her brain. It had a tendency to crop up at the most inopportune times, like when she was sprinting at full tilt through a forest in the middle of the night. She shrugged her way past a thick fir, trying to keep from getting a face full of needles and snow. Am I? She wasn’t sure. But she knew that if Ruri was taken from her, she wouldn’t stop until she had Ruri back, or had died trying. Ruri calmed her, kept her out of her own head and away from dark thoughts and even darker memories.

For all her darkness, Ruri stuck with her. That was the amazing part of it all. No matter how surly she got after a meeting with Uncle Ralph, her girlfriend was there with a hug or a snarky comment. She always seemed to know exactly what Mary Alice needed. She had the sinking feeling she wasn’t keeping up her end of the bargain on that one.

No, Ruri was fantastic. She was smart, and fun.

And gone.

Mary Alice looked up. The golden wolf she’d been chasing had taken off while she was deep in thought. There was no sign of her tawny fur nor her paw prints.

“Crap.” The cold air steamed from the utterance. She would have to trace her steps and figure out where Ruri had deviated from her usual path. The packed snow among the trees crunched softly as she made her way back along her own footprints. There it was! When Mary Alice had swung to the right around that fir, Ruri had gone left and had continued, taking an angle away from Mary Alice. She was in the woods somewhere, probably watching and laughing to herself. Pounce and chase was one of Ruri’s favorite games when in wolf form. She positively delighted in it. Malice wasn’t bad at it either. She slowed down, letting her senses reach out, feeling for something different in her mental landscape. There were times she thought she could actually feel Ruri, like a point of pressure on her skin, though one that caressed more than jabbed.

She kept an eye on the prints as she moved forward slowly, taking care not to step on the snow when she could manage it. Not only did the crust squeak under her feet, but it concealed dead branches that would give away her position. What moonlight there was at this late hour dappled the forest floor, making the prints difficult to see. She almost missed where they stopped. She grinned and shook her head.

“You’ll have to get up earlier than that to get the drop on me,” Malice said. She looked up into the boughs of the large tree where the prints stopped. There was no sign of Ruri. She blinked once, then looked around. A featherlight touch ghosted across the back of her head. Ruri was behind her.

She leaped straight up, grabbing the nearest branch and levered herself up as Ruri dashed beneath her. She dropped down and took off after the wolf. Ruri bounded and weaved, trying to pull ahead, but Malice kept pace. Eventually, Ruri stopped trying to throw her off. She shortened her stride and dropped back until Mary Alice paced alongside her. The canine grin was still there, but not as sharp. It was time to enjoy each other, not to try to outdo the other. She made no move toward Mary Alice, and Mary Alice was content to leave it that way. She fell into an easy running rhythm and opened herself up to her surroundings.

How long they kept pace through the snowy woods, Mary Alice had no idea. The woods ceased between one step and the next and they were loping across dead grass swathed in snow. Mary Alice slowed and looked around. There was no one to be seen; it was much too early. The sky to the east was lighter. Dawn wasn’t that far off. They’d been out much longer than she’d thought. It was time to head back to the truck. She wasn’t sure where they were, not exactly, but she had an idea. Skirting the edge of the woods and cutting through them would be faster than attempting to retrace their steps.

“Come on,” she said to Ruri who still paced alongside her. Sweat rolled down Mary Alice’s back. She’d wanted a workout and she’d gotten it. Ruri looked like she’d come back from a leisurely stroll. There was no trace of matting to her coat and she didn’t seem to be breathing heavily at all. At least she didn’t have to worry about her falling behind.

Something grabbed hold of the back of her foot and tugged. For a second, Mary Alice was able to keep her balance, but another tug overbalanced her completely and she tumbled in an ungainly sprawl of limbs. Snow puffed up around her and she scrambled to turn the fall into a controlled tumble. She got her feet under her, then a warm mass struck her right between the shoulder blades and she sprawled forward. She had enough presence of mind to close her mouth before she ate too much dirt. Adrenaline surged through her; the night snapped into sharp focus around her. Malice dug her hands into the ground and flexed her arms, pushing herself around to face whatever it was that was attacking her. She grabbed at her waistband with one hand before she remembered she hadn’t grabbed a knife on the way out of her home. It had seemed like overkill with Ruri around in wolf-form.

Ruri was face to face with her, tongue lolling as she panted, waiting for Malice’s next move.

“Dammit, Ruri.” Mary Alice slapped the snow-covered grass with an open hand. “I could have killed you.”

Ruri’s sneeze told her what she thought of that statement. She clacked long teeth together next to Mary Alice’s ear, and despite herself, Mary Alice couldn’t help but flinch. Ruri took the opportunity to favor her with a wet lick along the side of her face.

“Oh!” The outraged gasp was less than effective, but it was all she could manage as a rebuttal. “That’s it.” She launched herself at the laughing wolf who danced away. Fur glided through Mary Alice’s fingertips, but there was nothing to grab hold of. She pushed herself up to a low crouch and circled to keep Ruri in front of her. The wolf bowed down, her head low and rear haunches and tail held high. Glowing golden eyes tracked her every move. Mary Alice feinted to the left and reversed herself to the right as Ruri dodged away from her. She caught the wolf around the front of her chest with one arm. Together they tumbled to the ground, rolling over and over until they came to a stop with Ruri somehow on top again. She dipped her head toward Mary Alice’s face.

“Enough,” Mary Alice choked out past gasping laughter. She raised her arms to protect her face from Ruri’s exceptionally wet tongue. “Enough already.” Instead of giving her the wet tongue bath she was expecting, Ruri laid her head on Mary Alice’s shoulder for a moment. Peace seeped into her and she relaxed, wrapping her arms around Ruri’s warm body. It would be all right. Ruri’s breath expanded her ribcage in an even cadence beneath her hands. Things would work out. They had to.

Light bloomed around them and Mary Alice looked away from the source, trying to preserve her night vision. Long shadows traced the form of their bodies upon the snow.

“Ma’am?” A man’s voice reached her ears. He sounded young, his voice was light and unsure. “Are you all right?”

Crap. Mary Alice scrambled to her feet. Ruri went sat on her haunches and looked in the direction of the speaker. She didn’t seem too perturbed.

“I’m fine.” Mary Alice made a show of brushing the snow off her pants. She waved in the direction of the lights. “Just out for a morning run with my dog.”

“Park’s not open yet.” Now that he was convinced she wasn’t in mortal danger, the man’s voice hardened into something approximating authority. “And you should really have your dog on a leash.”

“Yeah, sorry. I don’t like to let her run when there are other people around, so I thought I’d come early.” She shrugged and tried not to think what Ruri must be feeling. “Other dogs tend to be scared of her, so I can’t take her to the dog park.”

“I get it. If you leave before my boss shows up, I’ll pretend I never saw you. Only I better not see you here before open again.”

“Got it.” Mary Alice patted the top of her leg. Ruri turned her head slowly and stared at her. “Come on,” Mary Alice hissed. She hadn’t been aware that wolves could roll their eyes, but that’s exactly what she was treated to as Ruri heaved herself up.

“And put a leash on that dog!” the young man called after them.

“Sorry, sweetie.” Mary Alice pulled the leash and collar out of her pocket. “It’s just until we get out of sight, then it comes right off. I promise.”

Ruri was still as Mary Alice buckled the collar around her neck. Every line of her body sang with tension. She followed along when Mary Alice broke into a jog, but her usual grace was gone. They couldn’t get out of sight fast enough for either of them.