Elaina Jacob pounded a fist on the door of the neat wooden dacha house. “We’ve got business, Nikita!”
The house stood alone, just on the edge of a field in the Stolby woods. The land was restricted, far out in the quietest reaches of the nature preserve, where park visitors were not typically allowed. From the road—really no more than a rough dirt path—Elaina’s mate Grisha sat astride his motorcycle, watching her with his customary cool, inscrutable gaze. He’d brought her to the home of the oboroten leader over the protests of her other mates Gavri and Kolya, but he had no intention of confronting the alpha wolf alongside her. Grisha understood Elaina had to handle this herself.
Only a few days ago, she’d met with Nikita in public, before all the wolves of the Stolby pack. She’d only meant to plead with him for a pardon of Gavri and Kolya, whom he’d exiled from the pack and from their lands. Instead, she’d lost her temper, and wound up challenging Nikita for the mantle of alpha wolf.
Now she had until the summer solstice—just a little over three weeks—to learn the ways of the oboroten, claim the power to change her shape, and fight Nikita for his title.
Not exactly the best way to make friends, Elaina.
She delivered another series of furious knocks to Nikita’s door. “Come on, you know why I’m here!”
The door opened abruptly, and her next blow fell not on handsome teak but on the tall, striking man who filled the doorway. Her hand hit his chest with a dull smack and, startled, Elaina snatched it back.
“Oh!” She brought her fingers to lips in surprise. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
Nikita cocked an eyebrow at her. He stood more than a foot taller than she, and regarded her with a lazy, disinterested expression. He hardly seemed to have noticed she’d hit him at all. Crossing arms over his chest, he leaned against the doorjamb, and his fair blonde hair fell carelessly in his eyes. His impeccable white polo shirt bore a small logo on the left side, and for a moment she thought it was the tiny, familiar Lacoste alligator. As she looked closer, though, she discovered it to be—what else?—a small wolf in silver thread, embroidered in mid-run. The logo, she imagined, of the Stolby tribe’s trade enterprise.
“Did you need something?” Nikita asked.
“I want to know who attacked Kolya,” she demanded. “Three mysterious assailants, Nikita. Day before yesterday. Ring a bell?”
He shrugged. “I know nothing about it.”
“I think you do.” She squared off with him. “They put him in the hospital. You gave me your word you’d call off the blood hunt until our duel. He’s one of your pack, Nikita!”
The alpha wolf tilted his head to the side, frowning. “Human,” he said, with a hint of growl in his voice. “I keep my word. I didn’t send anyone to hurt your dog.”
“Don’t call him a dog,” she hissed.
Nikita straightened. Looking past her, he spied Grisha by the road. He tipped a wave at the other man, and asked her, “Is he your chaperone? Did you bring him along to protect you from the big, bad wolf? Or can I invite you in to discuss this like two normal, rational adults?”
Elaina glanced over her shoulder at her mate. Grisha looked aloof as ever, but his bright green eyes were locked on her. He was more focused on their exchange than he appeared.
“I’m not afraid to come in,” she told Nikita. She gave a nod to Grisha, and he returned it without getting off the bike. He’d wait.
Nikita stepped aside and gestured for her to enter.
Inside, the dacha was bright and tidy, surprising her. She didn’t know what she expected from Nikita—maybe an overtly masculine den full of mounted animal heads, antlers and bearskin rugs and pewter beer steins on a rough wooden table. To the contrary, the house looked modest. Downright warm. The living room opened up on her left, lowered a step, filled with soft, mid-morning light from a wide bay window. A small fire burned in the hearth before an arrangement of a loveseat and two easy chairs. Stretched out on the loveseat, nose in a book, sat Nikita’s sister, Sofie. She paused in her reading, marking her place with her finger, and peered up at Elaina with distrustful eyes.
That’s right. I forgot he had a sister. Does she live here with him?
Nikita said something to Sofie in Russian, and the girl nodded, rolling up from her spot on the couch and slinking off down the hall. Gavri had told Elaina Sofie was a wildcat shifter, unlike rest of her family, who were all wolves and part of the Stolby pack.
Oboroten—a tribe of shapeshifters following the ways of Diezana, spirit mother of these lands—didn’t choose the bestial forms they took when they shifted. The wolves of the Stolby tribe, like Nikita, Gavri, and Kolya, formed a pack, and the pack doubled as the tribal leadership. But not all the oboroten became wolves. Some, like Grisha and Sofie, became large hunting cats. Rini, the sweet and smiling housekeeper employed by Gavri’s family, turned into a snowshoe hare.
How involved are they in making decisions? Elaina wondered as Sofie disappeared. Does she resent not being a part of the pack, like the rest of her family?
Hard to tell. Sofie wasn’t just a cat; she was a teenager. Sulk factor doubled.
Elaina switched her attention back to Nikita and gave a start when she found him closer than she’d expected. Nikita leaned toward her and his nostrils flared, pupils dilating. She stepped back, refusing to cringe, but she recognized the expression on his face. She didn’t like it on him. Not Nikita.
“The outsider too, hm?” His lips curled into a hint of sardonic grin. “You’re collecting boy toys just like keychains and tourist tchotchkes, aren’t you?”
Heat flashed at the back of her neck. “Excuse me?”
He strode past her, into the airy, open kitchen. “You have Grisha’s smell on you. Him, Gavri, and Kolya. You’re a salacious woman, aren’t you?”
“I thought your tribe acknowledged such arrangements. A marriage of many hearts, didn’t you call it?”
“We do. Among alphas. You’re not one of us nor are you a leader, so in your case, it’s just kinky.”