A prequel short story from my upcoming spin-off series, Tales from the Immortal Black Forest. This short series will be related to The Immortal Grimm Brothers' Guide to Sociopathic Princesses Series! I'm so excited for you to dive into this new series this summer! Until then, here's a sneak peek into some new characters!
Melissa Padgett (M. J. Padgett)
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This work may not be translated except by permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. The names, occupations, events, incidents, and businesses are products of the author’s imagination.
Ash floated in the breeze as my face warmed despite the cold. The fire licked the dark, teasing and taunting it until the darkness surrendered and flickered with an orange glow. Behind me, Ian shuffled through the thick debris, forcing his noises into my mind though it sought serenity in these dark times. It was time to leave before the second wave hit, but it was so difficult to walk away from… everything.
In the distance, the pack called for us. They were afraid, lost, and alone in the wilderness until one or both of us regained our senses long enough to lead them as we were meant to. Alpha. The word rattled around in my head until its echo haunted me, reminding me that I was an orphan, and the survival of the pack rested on my shoulders. Mine… and his.
I had rejected him. I left him alone and weak, out in the cold though he had only come to do what was expected of him—create a united pack, his and mine. Ian’s soft breaths filtered through my thoughts, forcing me to remember everything I had said to him.
You are weak. You are not alpha mate material. What am I supposed to do with you? I can’t protect a pack, not with you. I need someone stronger, someone smarter, someone… better.
Flashes of golden eyes and thick black lashes, swollen with tears, made me close my own eyes. I hadn’t meant to hurt him. I was angry, and my father wouldn’t see to reason. There was no good reason to unite our packs, only his antiquated belief that I could not rise to the position of alpha as… a girl. Not just a girl, but a girl of nineteen and his daughter.
I never hated my father for it, but I couldn’t forgive the way he looked at me with longing, wishing I were his son. I miss him… His son was lost, and I was all that remained. I tried not to take it personally, to let his disappointment weigh me down, but that was easier said than done. My mother, a huntress to the core, was also disappointed but for an entirely different reason. Now that Dax was gone, I had no choice but to step into the role of alpha. After all, the Brauns had led the pack for centuries upon centuries. I couldn’t be a huntress like her, like she wanted, not when I was the only remaining Braun to accept the alpha position.
He was patient… Ian. There was no rushing, no pushing, no urging me to move my butt before we were attacked and killed. He just… waited. Silent support in the form of a six-foot-three, somewhat gangly man of twenty-one with golden eyes and thick dark lashes, the patience of a saint, and a heart that might never heal after the wounds I cut into it—deep and gaping.
“We can go,” I said, a faint whisper on the smoke-filled breeze.
“We have time, Quinn.”
He stood far enough away that he wasn’t in my space but close enough to watch my back if something approached. He was a good man… would have been a good alpha, too. But I ruined his life and his future, leaving him the laughing-stock of his pack. They didn’t run him out, but they may as well have for all the torment he suffered.
“Why did you come?” I asked as a shameful whimper.
Eyes narrowed, lips parted. “Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, standing straighter.
My eyes flittered toward the fire once more, and again, tears lined my lids. Everything was in that safe house… everything. Now they were gone… Mom… Dad… Faye…
A touch so gentle, so slight it was hardly a touch at all, soothed me in a way nothing else ever had. Warmth of a different kind filled my soul, spread from my heart, out through my arms and legs, and to my fingers and toes. I felt light-headed and faltered.
“Quinn? Easy, I’ve got you,” Ian said and steadied me.
“It’s all gone,” I said, another murmur.
The wolves howled again, frenzied and scared. Ian’s gaze settled in the distance, momentarily pulled away from me. In that stolen moment, I saw him. I saw him.
“I’m sorry, Ian. I’m so, so sorry.”
His jaw tightened, teeth clenched. “It’s easy to say that now.”
I flinched, but it was true. Ian had every right to hate me, to be angry with me for all eternity. I was the reason he lost his position. I was also the one woman he wanted and couldn’t have.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that, not now. Come on, let’s go like you said.” Ian made sure I could stand on my own two feet, then shifted. His golden coat blazed, his own little fire as the flames that ate my home flickered and illuminated the many hues of his fur.
“I can’t, Ian. I can’t lead a pack into certain death. My father was right. I don’t know what I’m doing,” I admitted. In his wolf form, I could hear his thoughts even as I remained human.
Your father was wrong, Quinn. I suspect he’s also the reason you— He cut himself short, then chose a better tone to relay his frustration. I know he tried to force you into the… the thing with me, and that was unfair. I guess I always hoped that was the real reason you rejected me, just to stick it to him.
It wasn’t. There were many reasons I rejected Ian, not the least of which was my father’s ridiculous plan to merge the Braun and Winter packs again like they had been centuries ago. It wasn’t a horrible idea on paper, but in reality, there were too many strong wills and independent personalities to even consider… but now…
Quinn, there are only seven of us left. Can we try to… I don’t know, just get along until we win this war? Then you can go back to hating me.
My eyes lifted against my will. It was harder to ignore him when he was in his wolf form, forcing himself into my mind. I shifted and ran. I ran away from everything and to nothing, ran from him, and to him all at the same time. I didn’t want to feel anything, especially not after losing the rest of my family to the blood-sucking psychopaths. I wanted to run until I found land free of them—no more Vampyrs, no more wolves, no more anything.
Ian was there, not far behind. He didn’t crowd me, but he made sure the only living Braun stayed… alive. I pushed harder, faster until I could hardly breathe, until my lungs begged for air, and my muscles nearly seized.
To my right, a golden flash tackled something to the ground then rolled away. I skidded to a stop and whirled around, forced to face my nightmare only hours after it destroyed my life. Blood dribbled from the grotesque face of the creature from Hell, one of the Vampyrs that escaped when my ancestors failed to complete their mission.
Ian whimpered but joined me, his golden fur streaked with blood.
Are you okay? Did it bite you?
He stretched his neck upward and assessed his condition. I’m fine.
He lunged toward the creature, fast and sure. I was taken aback, surprised by his sudden movements, but cleared my mind and jumped. Together, we made quick work of the bloody, useless creature. One was easy… a horde was another story. A horde could kill—No! I couldn’t think about that right now. I had to move on, get the pack to safety, and then form a plan to take out what remained of the horde that attacked our house.
Once the Vampyr was nothing but macerated flesh and broken bone, Ian shifted again. There was no reason to shift, not unless…
“Shift, please. We need to talk, Quinn. We need a better plan than just running.”
I shifted, glad our ancestors did one thing right—they ensured we would always remain clothed when we shifted.
“I can’t even think straight, Ian. How can I ever lead these people after everything that has happened?”
“You don’t tell them what to do, Quinn. You show them. Get your hands dirty like you always do, show them you’re devastated by the loss but willing to move on to save them. You make them your priority until nothing else matters. You do what an alpha is supposed to do.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, clamping out the smoke that stung so bad, the tears that kept trying to fall, but most of all, closing out the picture of the man who only wanted a chance to be my everything. I was such a fool, and I paid the ultimate price.
“I can’t,” I whispered.
“You can, and you will.”
I shook my head and bit my lip, unwilling to cry in front of him.
“Why do you do that? Why do you shut yourself off from everyone?” Ian asked.
Not everyone. Just him. I shook my head again, still lost though I knew what I should do. I knew what I had to do, but I just… didn’t want to anymore.
His fingers graced my biceps, and he gripped my arms. “Quinn, would you look at me? Am I that horrible to look at? Can’t we put aside your vendetta against me long enough to—”
“I don’t hate you,” I said.
“What?” Ian released me as if my skin scalded his hands and took a step back.
Finally, the tears slipped free, tired of being contained behind a mask of strength and ferocity—the kind my mother taught me to wear. I ducked my head, ashamed… but I cried. I cried until I had nothing left… and he was there, holding me against his chest though I couldn’t remember how I moved there. His warmth surrounded me, drew me in until I felt… at home.
“Do you feel that, Quinn? That easy feeling that makes you comfortable?” I nodded. “That’s us, Quinn. I only feel that way when I touch you, no one else. Do you know what that means? Do you care?”
I licked my lips, tasting the salty tears as they dribbled over my face. “I… I do care. Am I selfish?”
Ian chuckled. “Maybe a little,” he said with a shrug. “But I don’t care. I love you, Quinn. Always from afar, left out in the wilderness with no pack to call home, but loved you all the same. I can’t explain it, and sometimes I hate it, but it’s always there, reminding me that maybe patience really is a virtue.”
“You love me after everything I did to you? After everything I said?”
He nodded. “Always and always and always.”
I felt my bottom lip quiver, forcing me to clench my jaw to no avail. Ian’s gaze settled there for a moment, then it connected with mine as I looked up at him. The time was all wrong for connections, for stolen moments of comfort while the world was burning around us, but if there was any chance, any possibility he could forgive me so we could save what was left of our packs, our families, then…
He brushed his lips against mine… slowly… faintly. My heart raced, my stomach leaped, and my chest filled with a flutter of emotions that all meant one thing… I’d been such a fool… The warmth filled my entire body as he kissed me and held me. I might have kissed him forever if not for the howls that broke into our moment.
Ian pulled away, a faint smile on his lips.
“I am sorry, Ian. Easier to say now or not, it’s no less true. I’m sorry for what I did and my role in you losing your position.”
He shook his head. “Don’t. Don’t blame yourself. But I need to know, Quinn. Is this moving on or just… just you seeking comfort?”
I stood straight, unsupported. The truth was, I didn’t know. Maybe it started out as a comfort-seeking moment stolen in my weakest hour, but… it didn’t feel that way.
“I don’t know, Ian, but… I want it to be moving forward… together?”
“I won’t force anything, Quinn. I want us to be together, but only if it’s what you really want.”
“Can… can I have some time?” I asked. I needed to be sure, to know it was the right thing before I committed to him. I couldn’t risk hurting him again, not ever.
He chuckled again. “Of course. I mean, ten minutes ago, I thought you hated me. Now I stand half a chance, so yeah, you can have time.” He smiled, flashing that toothy grin that always made other girls go goofy. I felt a flutter in my chest again. That’s new.
Another howl, this time, one that said they were royally ticked with me.
“We should go,” Ian said. “We need to find a place to sleep and hunt before sunrise.”
I stared at his back as he prepared to shift. “Ian?”
He glanced over his shoulder, his pretty eyes focused on me.
“Thank you for never giving up on me.”
He grinned and shifted. What else would I do, Quin? I love you.
Ian darted toward the calling pack as I shifted. I couldn’t say what tomorrow would bring. I had no idea if the pack would follow me without my parents there to guide me, and didn’t know if I would live to see twenty, but I did know one thing—I didn’t want to live my life without Ian Winter in it, not ever.