Prequel to Cloaked in Fur
by T.F. Walsh
Ebook ISBN: B0195QNTR0
[ Shifter Romantic Suspense, MF ]
She’s mysterious. He’s forbidden. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with. The wulfkin have rules. Although Daciana knows what they are, she can’t help but be attracted to Inspector Connell, a forbidden human.
Damn bear. Leaving footprints on the outskirts of the forest, winding around the apartment blocks, and scaring locals for the past week. No wonder the cops had threatened to shoot him on sight today.
Sunrise wasn’t far away; neither was my transformation from wolf into human, so I had to hurry. Romania’s morning breeze wove through my fur, and the distinct dried- clover-and-grass scent screamed bear. He was definitely here—always just before dawn.
Not that I should care. Wolves and bears weren’t the best of friends. But I’d seen the way humans made killing us a sport, and I couldn’t stand to see any animal hurt.
Careening around the corner of the building, I halted and silenced my breaths.
Fifteen feet away was a frizzy, brown bottom sticking in the air. The bear that belonged to that butt balanced on the edge of an oversized trash can, head down inside, his scratching and grunting muffled.
A few steps closer, I snarled, the sound vibrating through my chest.
The bear jerked upward, a butter container sitting over his nose. He clacked his teeth and forced an expulsion of air, throwing the container off his face.
I backed up. Yep, this might be a funny moment on television, but not when you were the one facing the six-foot animal standing on hind legs.
He flopped back onto all fours and momentarily gazed back at his trash.
I have no plans to take your garbage. A growl slipped past my throat, and I lowered myself, feigning attack posture. Come on, boy, get out of here before it’s too late. I stalked forward.
He swiped at me with a front paw, huffing. I jumped back and circled him. But he lunged suddenly, slapping the concrete ground several feet from me, and stood
there, his mouth hanging open. He roared and made a pulsing sound deep in his throat. Oh, he felt threatened now. Good. I ran around him in a large circle, faster. His claws swatted at me, inches away, but once I was at his back, I leapt closer and nipped his hindquarters. His bawling echoed, but I hadn’t drawn blood, and it sure as hell was better than a bullet. The crunch of leaves sounded, followed by footfalls, from around the building behind me. I flinched and sniffed the air. Humans. The bear turned and ran away from the trash, from me, from the city, heading toward the forest. I chased after him to make sure he got as far away from here as possible. He bolted faster, his paws hitting the ground with each pounce. “The bear. And a fucking wolf?” a disembodied voice boomed from my left. In the empty grassland between the apartment block and the woods, two police officers with rifles watched us. They were there to hunt the bear and broke into a run in our direction.
Fuck, this was bad. Really bad. I burst into the dense Transylvania forest behind the bear, trampling foliage and dried twigs. He’d swung right and already put distance between us. He was safe, but what about me?
Heading straight ahead, I sprinted across the forest floor, dodging low branches. I glanced behind me. Footfalls resonated, and the two figures raced my way.
Heavy breaths strangled my lungs as I bolted. The ground flew beneath me and fresh pine-scented air splashed over my face, promising escape. Except my heart was attempting to break free from my chest.
A shot was fired, and I scampered faster.
Ten pulse-wrenching minutes later, the police were nowhere in sight or smell range. That didn’t mean they couldn’t still be trailing after me.
The first ripples of a transformation into my human form crawled through my back legs. I scrambled up the hill, claws digging into the soil for leverage with each rapid lunge.
Through the woods, the first glimpse of the morning sun peeked over the horizon.
My body shuddered, and I stumbled forward, shivering uncontrollably as thousands of tiny bite-like nips swarmed across my flesh. I whimpered, and a long exhale gushed past my lips. The change was happening.
Fire catapulted through my veins, and a thunderous growl rolled free as my wolf retreated. My limbs stretched, and my bronze pelt vanished. Gone were the muted colors. The shadows no longer glowed with a gray hue. Now, I crouched on all fours in my human form with a chill snapping across my bare skin. The full moon had come and gone too fast, along with my forced change into a moonwulf. It happened once a month. Unlike other moonwulves, I had the ability to control my wolf when I turned. No being locked up for me, and I thanked the moon goddess for her blessing to run wild in the woods, to release my wolf, and be one with nature every full moon. On the other days, I remained a regular human.
I staggered upright, rubbing the cold from my arms and shivered.
Hopefully I’d put enough distance between the police and me. The Animal Research Institute lay over the hill. So much for reaching it before sunrise and any of my coworkers arrived at work. No one knew about my wolf side, and unless I intended to break a massive pack rule that could get me killed, it would remain that way.
As I sped up the slope, the frozen earth and foliage pinched the soles of my feet. Working at the institute had its perks, including a spare set of clothes tucked away for situations like this. Keeping the humans clueless of my kind’s existence had been drilled into us at birth, or as in my case, the moment I joined my pack family at a young age. Hmm, maybe stashing a set of clothes in a tree trunk would work better in an emergency. Mental note for next month.
The winds carried an icy bite, so I ran. With my chin tucked low, I spotted the purple berry juice staining my toes. Stretching my fingers out revealed the same dark crimson in the corners of my nails. Overnight I had devoured so many wild berries, I was surprised my whole body hadn’t turned violet.
Most of my day would involve caring for bear cubs, so I’d blame my stained fingers on feeding them berries.
Through the trees, the shadow of the institute loomed.
Except, blue and red lights throbbed from the far side of the building, glowing brighter through the morning dimness. I froze on the spot. Had they seen me coming this way in my wolf form? A naked girl in the woods would also definitely attract attention.
If I retreated, it meant sneaking into the city without clothes. Not an option.
I crept toward the back of the building, away from the flashing lights, and prayed no one saw me. Approaching several trash cans, I tilted the largest one on its side and reached for the key I’d taped to the underside the previous night.
The crunch of dried leaves sounded from around the building ahead of me, and I halted. Footfalls closed in.
With the key clenched tightly in my fist, I scrambled back into the woods. No time to unlock the door and dash inside. Throwing myself on the ground behind a huge, thick bush, I watched as two uniformed officers stepped into view.
My breathing quickened as I lay there freezing, a sharp object stabbing my belly. The police scanned the area with a flashlight. They tried the back door of the building, which was locked, and inspected the windows. Standing several paces from my hiding spot, one of the men examined the bins, inside and underneath. He leaned over and picked up something from the lawn near the bin. What did he find?
Despite the cold, sweat beaded on the nape of my neck.
When the officers beamed a light in my direction, I ducked and held my breath. Their footsteps receded, and I waited awhile to see if they returned. They didn’t.
Rising from my hiding place, I dusted off the dead leaves sticking to me in embarrassing places and sprinted to the back door. Once inside, I slipped into a dark corridor. Voices floated on the air, and my nerves stood on end as I rushed to hide inside my office.
Edging the door shut behind me, I crossed the dark room, kicking a wastepaper bin in the process. A dull thud echoed. Crap.
From the bottom drawer of my desk, I seized the spare clothes and shoes. Hurry up. I tugged on my underwear and tight pencil skirt.
A creak outside the room.
I dropped to my knees and rushed to put my bra and blouse on, fastening the front buttons at ultra-speed, my hands shaking. Hopefully, the buttons were in the correct holes.
I slipped into heels, immediately cursing that decision, and raked my fingers through my shoulder-length hair, hoping it resembled a smidgen of normalcy. No noises outside. I snuck out the back door, locking it behind me. The cool breeze of the woods washed away the perspiration but left me chilled.
Okay, I can do this.
I’d only been living in Braşov for a couple of months as part of the tradition of rohang, my one year amongst humans and away from the pack. If I could get through this yearly ritual—and that meant not drawing police attention—I’d be considered a full- fledged pack member ready to be taken seriously and allowed to participate in pack hunts.
Entering into the woods, I took each step slowly to avoid tripping, and soon enough, I reached the dirt road leading up to the front of the institute. Lofty pines stood, crowded in every direction. Their fresh morning scent and the swaying wind calmed me.
Spotting a bulging gap at the front of my blouse from a button I’d missed, I tugged it down.
“Hey,” a uniformed officer from up the road called out.
I spun away from him and fiddled with the buttons. Wonderful, the police will think I can’t even dress myself or I was making out in the woods. Maybe he was the one who chased me from the city.
“Turn back around, slowly,” the male’s husky voice called out.
With the top of my blouse wide open, I rushed to fix it as footsteps closed in. Now buttoned up correctly, I spun around to face the officer and planted a smile on my face. He halted several paces away.
“Hi there.” Damn my shaky voice.
“Where did you come from?” The young officer had a faint wisp of a mustache and appeared about fourteen years old. He scanned the grounds behind me.
“I work there.” I pointed at the institute. He stared at my fingers momentarily. “Where’s your car?” “I walked.” “In the freezing cold in heels and without a coat? And why are your fingers purple?” I shrugged. “It—” “A huge wolf was spotted in the woods this morning. You should be more careful.”
He cocked his head. “What’s your name?” My mouth opened, but someone else’s voice responded from behind the policeman. “Daciana. Fantastic, you’ve arrived early.” Vasile, my boss, jogged toward us.
Dressed in an olive-colored suit with pointed lapels and flared pants, he would be considered trendy—if we were in the seventies. Thankfully, it didn’t matter, since he had the biggest heart of any person I’d ever met. A breeze fluttered through his thinning brown hair. At fifty-six, he easily looked a decade younger.
The policeman turned to face him. “Why is she in the woods without a car?” “It’s fine. She works for me.” Vasile snorted and wiped a hand down his face. Vasile didn’t know the truth about me, but he trusted me unconditionally and always had my back. I was eternally grateful. A silent, awkward moment of the men staring at each other ended with the policeman sighing and marching up the road. Were they here because they followed me from the city?
“Daciana.” Vasile’s voice shook. He clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Since when do you walk to work? What’s going on?”
I swallowed past my dry throat, attempting to find my voice and a plausible lie to stop Vasile from staring at me as if I’d somehow stabbed him in the back. “I … I dropped off the car at the mechanic last night since the brakes were playing up, so I went on foot today.”
“Well, we have a major problem this morning. Come, I’ll tell you inside.”
We hiked up the road in silence. The last time I’d seen Vasile this distraught was when someone stole one of his company vehicles.
Two months ago, Vasile took me on as an intern. After helping him with several injured animals, he’d appointed me the institute’s behavioral specialist. Of course, it came with a load of training, and I owed him for taking a chance on me, so I’d do anything he asked.
We reached the front window of the institute, which was stamped with the logo—an oak tree. Ahead, the main door opened and another policeman, wearing jeans and a pale, blue shirt, emerged. A badge hung from around his neck on a chain. His gaze landed on me, and I wondered how he had gained the purple bruise beneath his left eye. A gust of cold air whipped past, ruffling his black, cropped hair, and I caught a sniff of his woody cologne.
“Inspector Anton Funar.” He offered me a hand. I shook it, firm and frozen to the touch, but his green eyes never left me.
An itchy sensation crawled along my skin. Anton might’ve been tall and handsome with his chiseled jaw and all that, but his hard stare left me uncomfortable. The word abrasive came to mind.
“So, why would anyone take them?” Vasile’s attention focused on the inspector.
Anton cleared his throat. “We’re looking into it, but there doesn’t seem to be any signs of a break-in, so either it’s an inside job or someone got access to a key. You really should look at getting an alarm system and cameras. It seems someone simply waltzed in, took the bear cubs from their cage, and walked straight out. But I need to speak to you in private, if you don’t mind.”
My belly flip-flopped. “The cubs were stolen?”
I pushed past Anton, through the front door, and bolted inside, directly to the back room where we temporarily held injured or endangered animals. We either relocated them back into the wild or called a vet if they were injured. But with orphaned animals like cubs, we kept them for a day, or two at most, until we found a bear sanctuary that could care for the young.
Veering right into the open room, I hoped I’d misunderstood the conversation. The far right corner where we’d left the two cubs to sleep overnight in a large cage was empty.
Oh, goddess, no. Why would anyone steal helpless bear cubs?
Had someone seen me place the key under the bin outside last night? Guilt rippled through me. Those poor cubs. Stepping farther into the room, I inspected the corner and instantly inhaled a faint scent—something sweaty, almost barnyard. Actually, it reminded me of fresh leather, but with a stronger chemical influence. Strange, since it hadn’t been there yesterday, and I’d spent all day in the room. It was definitely a new odor from overnight. Being close to the full moon, my senses were sharpened.
“This is terrible.” Vasile’s voice held a brisk snap that broke through my thoughts.
I spun around as he stormed into the room, his arms folded across his chest, hands tucked into his armpits.
“Why would anyone do this?” The lump in my throat refused to dissolve.
“Mind explaining why the police found this near the bin outside?” Vasile stuck out his hand and uncurled his fingers.
Ice froze my insides. In his palm sat a yellow key identifier ring—mine. When I opened my mouth to explain, no words came out. I pulled the key to the building out of my pocket, minus the yellow ring. Double shit. Vasile had issued everyone a different colored ring for easy identification.
I squeezed the key in my hand until it hurt. Perhaps the ring fell off when I ran into the woods? Didn’t matter. Vasile was going to fire me. Maybe I’d get arrested, and my rohang would come to a short, speedy end. I had the best alibi in the world about my whereabouts last night and why I left the key there, but I couldn’t tell a soul.
“I planned to run to work this morning but preferred not to have anything on me in case it dropped and I lost it. So I left the key out back.” Pacing in a small circle, hands by my sides, shoulders curled forward, I said, “I’m such an idiot. I’m sorry, Vasile.”
“You ran to work in heels?”
“Well … ” My words dried up, and I faced him. I was doing a spectacular job of digging myself deeper. “I took my shoes off. Running in heels would be insane.”
He frowned, staring right through me, and I held my breath, waiting for him to pick apart my weak-assed excuse. “So then you didn’t take the cubs?”
“Never.” My voice rose. “I would never want them harmed.” He shook his head and rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “I’ve heard of bear cubs being sold on the black market. A bear’s gall bladder can sell for over ten grand.” Or so I’d read in the local paper. “Maybe someone found out we had them and saw me hide the key under the bin.” My mind whirled with horrific possibilities. “When I left yesterday to go home, only you and I were in the building.”
Vasile paced to the door and back, his arms tightly crossing his chest. “That’s my fear, too. Yesterday, I foolishly told a friend about the cubs, knowing the man couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it.” He halted a few paces in front of me. “I plan to speak to him before I tell the police anything more. I’d hate to get him in trouble if he simply opened his big mouth. And the police say they’ve had other wild animals vanish lately from the zoo and various veterinarians, so it might all be connected.”
The longer I worked at the institute, the more I adored the idea of keeping this job for as long as possible. Sure, I missed my pack family in the woods, but after two months in Braşov, I struggled with the idea of going home and being mated. My independence would vanish, along with any individuality and prospects of seeing the world. And after my small taste of freedom in Braşov, I wasn’t ready to give it up so easily. But those were problems for another day. For now, I had to keep my job to pay for my apartment. My alpha knew someone through a friend of a friend who’d gotten me this job, so if I was fired, he’d find out and expect me home. He’d made it clear I had to support myself completely. Otherwise, I didn’t belong in the city.
“Please don’t fire me.”
Vasile huffed. “We all make mistakes, but this is a big one, Daciana. If we don’t find those cubs or who’s responsible … I’m sorry, but I’ll have to let you go. When my boss finds out, he’ll demand your resignation.”
The notion made me queasy. Sandulf would order me to return to the pack and claim a mate. I didn’t want to return and simply pump out babies. This job offered me the opportunity for a new life.
“I told the police I’d speak with my staff about the ring, so I’ll tell them it was you. You’ll be questioned.”
I nodded and struggled to breathe. “Yes. No problem. I’ll do anything to help track down the cubs. I’m so sorry, Vasile.”
“We’ll go down to the station now. I don’t want them thinking we are hiding anything.”
“Aren’t the police still here?” He shook his head. “They just left.”
“Okay. And I can ask them about the strange smell in the room, too. I think it’s connected to whoever took the bears.”
Vasile sniffed the air, his head tilted back, nostrils flaring with each inhale. “The animal smell?”
“No.” I pushed strands of hair off my face. “The tanned leather. It’s faint.”
“Nope. Don’t smell leather, but remnants of that blasted cold are still blocking one of my nostrils. Not sure I could smell flowers if they were right under my nose.”
“It’s a strange smell, that’s all. I’ll mention it to them anyway.” He reached into his pocket and retrieved a set of keys. “Let’s go then.” “Of course.” This was my fault, and with the bear cubs potentially in danger, I felt responsible. I’d find them myself and set my mistakes right.