Meet the Gallize shifters, an ancient race unlike any other.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, eastern border of Russia
Elianna squatted in a dark cranny between two buildings, which was as good a place to hide—or fight—as any. Not a good place to die, though. Her little brother, Nico, needed her alive. She forced herself to calm down and stop sucking in noisy gulps of cold air as if the Grim Reaper was hard on her trail.
That wasn’t far from the truth.
“Where wolves now?” she muttered softly and kept watch for any movement. Even alone, she practiced her English and French for the day she hoped to use those languages.
Her hands hadn’t stopped trembling since she’d hidden Nico.
The cold didn’t bother her. Low forties in early May was normal and her body generated more heat than a human’s.
It was fear, driven by the vision she kept having of a grizzly shifter standing between her and Nico—that chilled her to the core. Not just any bear shifter, but a powerful one.
Her visions always came true. Her mother knew that, but still had ignored her warning.
At the moment, though, wolf shifters were Elianna’s main threat and they were hunting only her.
Crazy shifters probably hopped up on Jugo Loco. Their Black River pack had brought the drug, originally made from a hallucinogenic tea in South America, to Russia. It affected supernatural beings in different ways, and never good ones.
Her mother had picked a bad group to cross and died for her mistake. If only her mother had listened when Elianna warned of her vision.
Her mother had refused to take the vision seriously, though, and now an innocent six-year-old child was in danger.
Elianna tried to recall the last time her mother had been happy. Too many years to count. Her mother’s mind was broken, thanks to Elianna’s biological father. The poor woman dragged strange men home more and more often lately, anything to make her feel loved, but it was false love. Elianna had begged her mother to stop until she found a place to live with Nico.
Then her mother could put out a sign for men if she wanted.
Her mother, a polar bear shifter, had gone to her regular Friday drinking hole last night and turned down a wolf shifter. She’d believed that by sleeping only with humans, she was being true to Elianna’s father, a man Elianna had never met and never would if she had any luck left.
He was the most powerful grizzly shifter in this part of Russia, which was why the vision weighed heavily on her mind.
In the vision, Elianna had seen wolves all around her mother, but not what happened in the end. That vision had ended with blurry darkness.
Sadly, she now knew how the end of that vision played out.
The rejected wolf’s pack had paid her mother’s crappy little third-floor apartment a visit just before dark.
Wolves did not accept no, especially from a shifter who took a human to her bed.
Elianna could still smell the fresh blood. She’d scented it as she neared the apartment building over an hour ago with Nico’s tiny hand in hers. She’d asked a friend to watch him today or he would have been with Elianna’s mother and would also be dead. Standing out of sight near the apartment, Elianna had listened as the wolf shifters descended the stairs and laughed about killing that ‘bear bitch.’
Then one of the wolves brought up smelling a second female and young male in the apartment.
He still had a taste for bear. The wolves howled, ready to hunt.
Elianna had gone into protection mode.
She’d taken her coat off and wrapped Nico in it, then carried him as she ran to a restaurant dumpster filled with table scraps. Disgusting, but it would camouflage his scent. She’d rubbed her hands on everything at the entrance to the alley, then left to find the wolf shifters. When she did, she found an upwind spot and lifted the tail of her shirt to give them plenty to smell, then started walking away.
When she heard a wolf howl, she’d taken off running.
Now she waited a kilometer from Nico, hoping to survive.
How close was that pack of five shifters?
Glancing around, she familiarized herself with the area she’d chosen to take a stand. Moonlight danced over large, earth-moving equipment, creating long shadows across the open space in this fenced-in storage lot behind a construction business.
Any other shifter in her shoes would probably consider changing shape right now.
Her bear would be of no help in a fight.
Also, even though she’d be stronger as a bear, she could blend in better and escape more easily as a human if she had to run. Having had no chance to change clothes for her night job, she still looked like every other dockworker in her dull-gray pants and long-sleeved pullover stained with diesel oil and mud. Smelled like them, too.
A shifter could identify her true scent, but humans had no idea she was anything more than a low-paid laborer like they were. They would have known about her if a bear clan had accepted her.
Invisibility among humans was the only benefit she’d derived from being an outcast among her own kind.
Shifters were first revealed to humans in America eight years ago. Elianna suspected many of the old-timers had been aware of the Romanov Kamchatka bear shifter clan even before then. Elianna’s genetic father ruled that clan. His family had descended from royalty and had been in power long before the general human population of this country found out that monsters walked among them.
With her father’s reputation as a powerful alpha and his family’s royal ancestry, no one in this part of the world dared cross him or his clan.
Living on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia’s lower Pacific coast offered her father a perfect location. Alexandre Romanov was treated as the king he believed himself to be.
As for her, she was fair game to any threat, be it human or shifter.
Something clanged close by.
Lifting her nose, she sniffed for wolf scent mixed in with the aroma of stew being cooked in a nearby tavern and the smoky tinge of burning logs. She trusted her extremely sharp sense of smell over any other sense. Nothing yet.
The waiting was nerve-racking.
She was not known for her patience.
Maybe she shouldn’t have run across the tops of two buildings, then shimmied down the water drain and through a small window into a ladies’ bathroom that opened into a bar and ... she smiled at the obstacle course they’d been forced to take to follow her.
She knew this town inside and out.
They were the outsiders.
A tabby cat stalked by, explaining the noise. If it looked her way, the cat would see only a dark figure, if anything. Elianna still wore a navy-blue rag tied around her cinnamon-colored hair, hallmark of being the bastard in her mother’s family of polar bear shifters. Her hair was only one difference between her and others in a polar bear clan that possessed shades of blonde hair and eyes so dark brown they looked black.
Once the polar bears had seen Elianna’s mixed-blood bear, it hadn’t taken long for them to boot Elianna and her mother from their clan fifteen hundred miles north of here.
Among the bear shifters in this town, her pale-blue eyes marked her as not belonging to her father’s clan.
She missed living in her first home, a cold wilderness where, as a child, she had survived on the land and faced few real threats.
Miss fish. Eat fish. Swim.
Of course. Her bear says nothing about being threatened by wolves, but let Elianna make the mistake of reminiscing, and her bear starts whining.
Speaking to her bear with her mind, Elianna said, Please sleep. I fight bad wolves. No interfere. She’d been speaking to her bear in English for a while now, but still added, Understand?
Her bear grumbled and pushed at her, but settled down, which was as much acknowledgment as Elianna would get.
Twice a month, she shifted into her animal abomination to allow the bear freedom to run in a remote section of the mountains west of the city.
After a last, half-hearted snarl, the bear ignored her.
They had a relationship of tolerance. It was unlike those of other shifters who actually enjoyed friendships with their animals, but it worked.
Elianna accepted half the fault for the wall between them, but who could blame her? Should she be happy to have a bear inside of her that her own clan found disgusting? Her father had never even tried to meet her, and her mother had refused to share much about him.
Ironic, considering the fifteen hundred miles through rugged mountains her mother had forced Elianna to travel to be close to the man she wanted as her mate.
But he already had a mate.
Small details often escaped her mother.
Like humiliating a wolf shifter.
Elianna and her half-breed bear would forever be outcasts here. She had to find a way out of here with Nico.
Swim, swim, swim. Eat fish, her bear grumbled.
No, Elianna replied. Go sleep.
“Life not fair,” Elianna muttered softly. She studied everything she could about life outside Russia, always preparing for any chance to leave a land where she no longer felt welcome. In Canada, she could vanish with Nico into the wilderness. She needed no clan and no man. As a bear shifter, she would never have a life in PK, the name locals used for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
She refused to turn twenty-three in this place.
Of course, losing to the wolves would take future birthday concerns off the table.
Her thumping heart could handle the demand of running through knee-deep snow and scrambling over boulders to outrun her enemy, but it couldn’t take anything happening to Nico. He might not be her blood brother, but he was hers to protect.
A sharp smell on the wind yanked her head to the right. She sniffed again to be sure. Wolf.
The pack was close by. Just as she’d planned.
Good. Nico was safe. He had to be.
But ... what would happen to Nico if the wolves killed her?
Her bear rumbled at her, attempting to convince Elianna she had options if she’d let her bear out.
Elianna rolled her eyes. She had never put her bear in a life-and-death situation, because the silly animal would rather swim—or chase that tabby cat to play with—than fight a pack of wolves. Did her bear think she actually believed this attempt to help?
Me swim, me swim, me swim, her bear said in a singsong voice.
See? Her bear was never serious. Even if Elianna could bring a bear to this fight, being exposed as a shifter in this city could blow up in her face if humans found out her true identity.
She and Nico would be hunted to sell for experiments.
The Black River pack was rumored to pay top dollar.
Shaking off that thought, Elianna sharpened her attention. Survive tonight first, then figure out how to leave this place immediately.
She’d met Lubov, a merchant ship captain, when she’d been hired at the docks to unload the smaller vessels, and the old guy liked her. As a walrus shifter, something she’d never heard of before she’d met him, he would understand her dilemma better than a human would.
He’d once told her if she was ever in trouble to come to him.
She was in much trouble.
He might let her owe him for the fare.
With each breath she drew, icy air spiked her lungs and stung like tiny needles, but still, she preferred the cold.
Her nose twitched. The stink of wolf came from the left this time.
They were surrounding her, hunting as a pack.
In fact, this particular bunch was rumored to pass a woman around, which meant they’d probably done the same to her mother. They must have drugged her mother or they’d have faced a polar bear who would have crushed their skulls. Elianna wouldn’t shift, but these wolves would lose body parts, favorite body parts, before she went down.
She looked longingly at where moonlight dusted the mountains and volcanoes in the distance. She could have led the pack out there where she would have had the advantage of knowing the land better than a visitor, and also of shifting if she’d decided to make that gamble, but the wolf shifters might have lost patience and come back to hunt for Nico instead.
No, this was it. She would make her stand here.
Rising to her full height, all five foot eight inches, she prepared for the attack.
Then she heard them moving in.
They weren’t being quiet. They didn’t care that she heard them coming. They wanted to terrorize her.
She stepped out of her cubbyhole and put her back to the brick wall, which felt like a block of ice.
Two figures emerged from behind one of the frontend loaders. They’d probably jumped the fence on that side.
Two more dropped to the right of her from the roofline, like demons spit from the night. Fifty-gallon, steel drums were stacked in a three-high pyramid on her left.
The wolves smelled of her mother’s death.
Blood splattered their faces and clothes where they’d ripped apart her body.
Elianna’s heart quivered at the horrible pain her mother must have suffered.
She hadn’t been the best example of a mother, but she didn’t deserve to be shredded by a pack of lunatic shifters.
Sharp fingers of worry clawed at Elianna.
Where was number five?
Not that she wanted one more wolf shifter to take on, but she did want every one of them here, far from Nico.
“Come on little cub,” the bald one with tattoos all the way around his neck taunted in English with a Spanish accent.
“Who is leader?” she demanded while she tried to think her way out of this alive. She began to doubt the possibility unless some guardian angel hanging around wanted to perform a miracle.
Nope. No flutter of wings.
Elianna had been taking care of herself for a long time. This was no different.
The wolves looked at each other, then at her with confusion.
Stressed, she had reverted to Russian.
She repeated the question, but in English this time so they would understand her.
“Me. Call me Varga. I am in charge,” bald guy replied, laughing as he pretended to introduce himself.
Looking past their baggy pants and nylon jackets, she could see that they were skinny, dangerously thin. Also, she had one to two inches in height on these guys, but hungry shifters of any size turned into vicious killing machines.
She’d bet their lack of muscle was due to drugs and not to going hungry.
Regardless of their size, they had soulless eyes that glowed more yellow than the amber color she’d have expected.
Plus, there were four.
“We are good guys. We give you chance to do this easy way, bitch,” Varga said without a bit of sympathy in his tone.
Lies. Always lies from men.
The pack began easing forward.
She sidestepped to the left.
They smiled, clearly happy to herd her toward the stacked barrels. She wasn’t as fluid as a wolf at jumping high, so they could reach the top of the barrels ahead of her. She had only one choice and that was brute strength.
She fisted her hands to hide any tremors and asked, “Why kill woman?”
Varga shrugged. “We like to kill. She deserved it. Consider her death service for community.”
“She harmed no one,” Elianna countered.
He sneered. “She was slut, which I would not hold against her, but she refused wolf shifter. She was whore for humans.” He spit on the ground. “Worse than slut.”
Elianna said, “Mistake to kill that one. She was under Romanov Kamchatka alpha protection.” That might be a complete lie, but Elianna had always wondered why Alexandre Romanov had never sent a bear shifter to demand her mother declare herself to their clan and king.
She’d asked her mother about his clan once and received no answer, only a sharp warning that Elianna avoid asking questions about that clan or their alpha.
Elianna had done as her mother asked.
Just look where that had landed both of them.
The half circle her attackers formed pulled closer every second.
With Elianna’s next step back, her heel bumped a metal drum.
“No shifter king protects a whore,” Varga scoffed. “If he did, he would mark territory.”
She was running out of anything to say, but had one more critical question, one that required arrogance to get an answer.
“Where is other wolf? Is he coward, afraid to fight female?” That came out sounding like she had a sick stomach instead of ringing with confidence.
She had no play left. She smiled in the face of death.
Stupid, maybe, but it made her feel better to not show the bone-cold fear inside her.
One of Varga’s pack members answered her. “That one? He has best nose of pack. Someone had to find brat we saw in picture with you.”
Nico! “You all die!” she yelled.
The one on the far left attacked first.
The wild-eyed wolf shifter dove at Elianna.
She made a fast move to one side, bringing her fisted hands down on the back of his neck while he was airborne.
He landed beside the steel drum stack. Bone cracked loud enough to ensure he was out of commission until he healed. Pity she hadn’t killed him.
Had that missing fifth wolf found Nico?
Every second she’d wasted talking to these shifters might be costing Nico. Whipping around with her hands up, she ordered, “Move or die.”
They must have sacrificed the first shifter to test her.
This time, all three came at her, snarling.
She had those two inches in height on all of them and used her extra arm length to slam her fist at the first head. As he was on his way down, she kicked, connecting with his hard skull.
But one ducked the fists she continued to whack at anything that moved. He came up behind her, landing a blow on her back. That drove her forward and off balance. Still, she kept jabbing her elbows and using head butts to fend the others off.
It didn’t matter.
In less than a minute, they wrestled her to the ground and booted her in the side. She coughed and spit up blood. Her bear growled and bumped, still wanting out. She was tempted, but she and her bear had never fought together. If her bear turned and ran, the wolves would gut it.
Then they would both die without even attempting to fight. Her bear had no idea what it was up against.
It was Elianna’s job to protect both of them.
One of the wolf shifters had his arm across her throat. He was wheezing too much to be a shifter.
Had that drug made this pack so mentally and physically unfit?
Varga sat on her middle and the last wolf pinned her legs.
Varga’s slick head had a few new gashes and his eyes were bright with crazy.
She didn’t need him to tell her that she would die more brutally than her mother, but ... Nico. Her heart cramped. She’d failed him.
Varga leaned so close to her face she couldn’t avoid his disgusting breath or body odor. Shifters normally prided themselves on being clean.
To be told they smelled bad was an insult.
She couldn’t insult someone who didn’t care.
“I warned you,” Varga said, still dragging in deep breaths. “Now, you will regret making me teach you respect. We put you in chains and take you over and over. You will not die soon. I may keep you that way for months.” He shrugged. “Until you bore me.”
Reaching deep, she heaved her chest up one last time. Nobody moved.
Varga slammed her head on the ground.
Everything blurred and spun around her. Her skull felt cracked open. Warm liquid wet her hair. She imagined her life force trickling away.
Sadly, she would rejuvenate and heal the damage.
Someone snatched the cloth off her head and grumbled. “Fuck, must have hit her too hard. Damn rag is soaked with blood.”
She didn’t care for herself, but Nico would suffer without her to protect him.
One of her attackers howled, but ... not a victorious sound. That had been more like the pained cry of an animal caught in a trap. The heavy bodies piled on her started moving around, jumping up to face a new threat.
Boots stepped on her chest as they moved across her.
More blood gushed from her mouth.
She opened her eyes and saw only blurred images so she closed them.
Had the last wolf shown up? Did he have Nico? Why were they fighting? Snarling, hitting, yelping. What was happening?
When the sounds died off, silence closed in.
Elianna blinked awake. She must have passed out. She could still feel the hard ground beneath her, but someone had propped her head on a wad of soft material. Her head throbbed, though less now than before.
Peeking through her thick lashes, she discovered it was still night, but even darker with the group of massive men hovering around to stare at her.
Squinting, she focused her eyes, but leave it to her nose to identity them first.
“You are Elianna, yes?” The largest man had a deep voice, better English than hers, and spoke with a refined edge, but he was clearly Russian.
“Yes.” She drew in air to speak and hissed at the pain in her chest before she squeezed out, “Who are you?”
“Alexandre of the Romanovs.”
“Yes,” he said, cutting her off.
Evidently he did not want to be identified as her father in front of his men. She would not do so, for now, only because they had clearly dealt with the wolf shifters.
That didn’t make him her ally.
He stared at her with deep interest. She didn’t hide her curiosity either as she took in the man who had made her a pariah among all bear shifters.
His men watched the staredown, but didn’t dare say a word.
Someone who must have thought her eyes needed help flicked on a dim light off to the side. She could finally see her father clearly, and did not enjoy admitting that she now understood what had attracted her mother.
Alexandre possessed the high forehead, sharp cheeks, slightly curved nose and smooth mouth of an aristocrat. Dark hair fell around his shoulders and he appeared strong enough to lift one of the buildings surrounding them. His eyes were the most startling of all. At the moment, they were glowing like gold nuggets under bright sunshine.
Nico often commented that when she became angry, her gray-blue eyes lit up like diamonds on fire. Adult bear shifters were not meant to have eyes like hers.
All she’d inherited from this man, other than the grizzly blood that ruined the color of her coat, longer claws than a polar bear’s and a shorter snout in animal form, was that her eyes glowed when something infuriated her.
She did not have this man’s rich brown hair, but a reddish color between pale brown and blond. Nothing that would belong to a pureblood Romanov Kamchatka bear shifter. Her face had more fullness than his narrow one. He even had a pretty mouth.
Elianna was as plain as this man was beautiful.
No, she was the bastard, thanks to him.
She had no way to stop him from doing as he pleased with her, but she would not stand by and let him harm Nico.
Her brains snapped back into use.
“Nico!” She struggled to sit and fell back, ribs broken and one arm refusing to work.
Alexandre ordered, “Calm yourself. My men found the child when tracking the other wolf. Child is safe, but could have died. Wolf was sniffing dumpster when my men showed up.”
Immediate relief took her breath.
Should she thank this man when he had failed to protect her mother from that same pack?
She was at Alexandre’s mercy, but nothing could stop her from asking, “Where were you before? They rape and maul my mother.”
His lovely eyes showed true sadness. “If she had listened to me, she would still live. I offered a safe home away from here for all of you. She knew when we met I could not mate her. I never lied to her. We searched for wolf shifters who dare to enter my territory without permission and found her remains. You are fortunate we found you. I would have saved your mother if I could.”
Why did he have to sound so reasonable?
She needed to rail at someone and unleash the anger chewing up her insides.
But this man had Nico.
Elianna remained silent, especially since every breath hurt to draw. One of the broken ribs had to be piercing her lung. She would heal, but without shifting it would not be quickly and she was in no shape to hike up mountains to release her bear.
Me heal. Swim. Fish. Heal.
Her bear had no sense. Elianna silently replied, Not here. Be quiet or no run for you for long time. I try to save me, you and Nico.
Surprisingly, her bear actually did as asked, thankfully, since she had to keep her attention on the man she hated with every part of her being.
Elianna had no choice but to heal without shifting.
The one time she’d made the mistake of turning into her bear in front of other bear shifters had been enough humiliation to last a lifetime.
“You and I must make decisions,” Alexandre said, gripping his chin in a look of serious consideration. “You cannot live among my clan. You would suffer daily at their hands. My mate would eventually kill you.”
Judgmental glares bore down on her, reinforcing his words.
She had done nothing to these people.
She had stayed out of his way and watched her mother wither into an empty shell of a woman.
That pushed Elianna’s temper. In Russian, she asked, “Your pack would disobey orders?”
The men around him made a collective sound of anger on their leader’s behalf.
She’d insulted all of them.
Alexandre lifted a hand to quiet his men and silence fell immediately. He sighed and answered her in his native language. “I would never force my mate or clan to face my mistake daily and I would never ask them to accept an ursid hybrid as a member.”
That hurt, but not because she expected anything more from this man.
But he’d called her an ursid hybrid in the same way her attacker had called her mother a whore.
Elianna had never wanted to be part of Alexandre’s clan or any other. No polar bear or grizzly clan would accept a half-breed.
But she would choke on her pride before she admitted his words had cut her.
Seeing no other way out, she kept speaking in Russian to move this along faster and asked in a civil tone, “Please allow me to heal and leave on my own. In a show of appreciation for your help tonight, Nico and I will go far away from your territory.”
Sure, she had pride, but she was not going to allow Nico to suffer over something she could swallow to save him.
“Actually, you are thinking the same as I. I agree it would be best for all if you go far away, but you and the child would not survive traveling north on foot through hundreds of miles protected by small shifter groups.”
“I survived a trip through the mountains once,” she claimed, sure she could do it again.
“That is only because I received word your mother was determined to cross them with a teenager. I asked that she be given safe passage.”
So many things she did not know about this man, but he’d just admitted a way for her to succeed. “Then give me that same protection so we may go north.”
“I have a better idea.”
Bones were trying to mend in her body, but they weren’t properly set. She shifted to ease the pain, but she had to move this along for her broken arm.
“I am starting to heal. I have bones that need to be set.”
Nodding his understanding that she needed him to hurry up, he spoke quickly. “I have made an agreement with a grizzly bear clan in North America for me to accept one of their females and send him one of mine so that we may crossbreed and keep our bloodlines strong. I think you would be the perfect woman to send to the United States.”
He wanted to send her to a grizzly clan. Had he missed the whole point about her bear being unacceptable to any clans?
Arguments rolled up her throat, ready to burst forth, but when she heard him say United States, her mind changed direction. She’d been studying English and French since turning fifteen, so that she could one day leave here for Canada. If he made the deal with full knowledge of her being a half-breed, then any complaint would be laid at his feet.
Cautious, she rattled off her concerns in Russian. “How can you do this? I would need papers.”
“I have already arranged for documents.”
“Legal documents,” she clarified.
“Yes, legal. I know someone in that country who has a unique relationship with the US government. He can clear a shifter coming in with something of value to offer. You speak English and French, if I am correct.”
“Yes.” She frowned. How did he know that?
He continued, “If you fulfill the agreement I have negotiated with him and show that you can be useful as shifter translator, your full citizenship would be processed after one year. You would be allowed to remain on special visa until then.”
Her heart picked up its thumping, but with a renewed sense of hope. Then that little voice piped up, the one reminding her how men had never been trustworthy.
“To expedite your healing, I will send my healer to you tonight,” he added.
Would the healer expect her to shift?
Her bear growled. Yes. Hurt.
She would pacify her irritable bear once this was done. She could not make a mistake and end up in a strange land with a child and no way to care for him.
Elianna said, “I will need our clothes and money.”
“Everything has been gathered from your apartment and your clothes will be delivered tonight to a location I have where the healer can tend to you. I will make arrangements for ... your mother.”
She studied his face for any sign of regret or remorse.
The hard eyes of a ruler, who would show no weakness in front of his men, stared back at her. He asked, “Do you wish to be present when we burn the body?”
No, she did not want the stench of burning body to be the last reminder of her mother. She already knew the smell of her mother’s blood and death, and would carry that with her forever. But she chose to think of her mother as the young, happier woman she’d been when they’d lived in the north, long before coming to this place chasing this man.
That woman had been gone for a long time.
Holding her head as still as she could so the pain did not blind her, Elianna said, “I do not. I accept your generous offer. Now, if you will help me to this protected location where I will meet your healer, and bring Nico to me, you will not have to ever see me again.”
Alexandre became suspiciously quiet, so much so that his men were sending guarded glances his way. He said, “It would be dishonorable for me to allow us to part ways before you understand all the terms of our agreement.”
That worried her, but Alexandre was known for his word being unquestioned in business deals. He had no reason to lie to her since he held all the power right now.
What had she missed?