Historical Paranormal RomanceBy Ann Gimpel
Dream Shadow Press
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Tumble into sabotage, subterfuge, and wolf shifters defying the odds to remain alive.Tumble into sabotage, subterfuge, and shifters defying the odds to remain alive
Gwendolyn’s so busy hiding her shifter side from humans and staying alive, love’s the last thing on her mind. Too hot to be denied, it hunts her down anyway.
Relegated to a shadowy existence of half-truths, Gwendolyn lives in fear her wolf side will be discovered. She leaves the Old Country with Hunters nipping at her heels, but things in the Americas aren’t any better. Eighteenth-century society isn’t kindly disposed to either shifters or witches.
Mikhail, the love of her life—except the relationship always felt pretty one-sided—has been missing for years. When he shows up after escaping imprisonment in an Austrian abbey, Gwendolyn is ecstatic to see him. But she’s afraid nothing’s really changed. He’s always put the pack’s needs above hers.
Victimized by superstition and sick of running for their lives, she and Mikhail take a stand, revealing what they are. It was either the smartest thing they’ve ever done—or the one thing that will kill them.
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The full moon rode low in the sky, clinging to the horizon far longer than it should have. A blood-red cast lent it an eerie, threatening aspect. Gwendolyn threw back her head and howled along with all the other wolves in her shifter pack, but something about the moon was so ominous, hackles rose along her back.
High, wailing shrieks, shrill as banshee cries, split the night. Her nostrils flared, scenting the air.
Goddammit! Humans had found them.
Not normal humans, Hunters.
Humans without power would never interfere with a wolf pack as large as hers. They’d be torn to bits reloading their muskets, and they knew it. Before she was done analyzing things, Gwendolyn put her head down, gathered her haunches beneath her, and ran, keeping to the shadows of a thick Austrian forest.
Shots rang out, lending her speed she didn’t realize she was capable of. Howls, growls, and snarls faded as she put distance between herself and the ambush. Her breath left white plumes in the cold, night air. Even after she couldn’t hear gunfire anymore, she still kept running.
It was what they were supposed to do. She’Lara, the One Wolf and their leader, said it often enough. “Do not let yourselves be captured. Hunters will bind you with iron and interrogate you. When they’re done, they’ll kill you. Better to die free.”
She didn’t know how long she ran. Her wolf side wasn’t any good at judging things like that. She stumbled and understood she’d moved beyond weary. Her flanks heaved, but she willed herself to keep going. The scent and sound of rushing water filled her senses. It had been there for a while, but she’d been so focused on pursuers she hadn’t paid attention. Without warning, the earth fell away before her. She stuck both forelegs out to break her fall, skidding on her buttocks. It didn’t help. After a long, heart-stopping moment, she tumbled down a steep embankment into the muddy Danube.
At first she scrabbled her way back toward the nearest bank, but stopped when her paws touched dirt again. If she weren’t so tapped out, she’d have taken to the Danube’s fast running current long before now. Water was a godsend, and she let herself drift into the center of the broad channel. It would mask her scent—and not leave any tracks to follow. She began to relax, confident she was truly out of harm’s way—this time.
Her thick wolf’s coat shielded her from the water’s chill as the river carried her downstream. If anyone was looking for escapees from her pack, a few more miles between her and the Hunters wouldn’t hurt.
The sky was beginning to lighten in the east when she clawed her way up the bank and pulled herself out of the river. Shifting in broad daylight was risky. It upped the odds of discovery. Given the surprise attack, staying in wolf form didn’t feel safe, either. She shook herself from head to tail tip and then did it again. Clothes would be a problem. She’d left hers near where her shifter pack had gathered—miles from her present location.
She looked at the sky again and made her decision. She didn’t want to ride out the coming daylight hours as a wolf. Smoke stung her sensitive nostrils, so people must live nearby. Melting into deeper darkness between two gnarled oaks, she gave her body the command to shift. The first thing she noticed was how cold she was. The second, a sharp thorn that pricked one of her feet. Human bodies were fragile. Because her wolf self had been wet, her human form was too, which meant her long, copper-colored hair clung to her head and shivering body.
Good. Maybe I can tell whoever finds me that I fell in the river and nearly drowned.
Yes, well that won’t explain why I’m naked.
Sitting still would be a death sentence. It was late autumn, and she’d freeze. Even if the sun did come out around mid-morning, it wouldn’t carry much warmth. Gwendolyn took off at a trot, cursing as rocks and brambles cut into her feet. She scented the air for the smoke she’d smelled as a wolf, but couldn’t find it.
Damn her blunted human senses.
Coming to a halt, she shut her eyes and tried to remember which direction the smoke had come from. Where there was smoke, there were bound to be people.
“Mistress!” A man dressed in tanned deer hide breeches and a jacket sewn from the same skins stepped noiselessly out of a thicket. His dark eyes were wide and shocked. Blond hair hung down his shoulders, and an unkempt blond beard obscured the bottom half of his face.
“Mistress,” he repeated. “What happened to you?”
She shielded her body as best she could with her hands. “I fell in the river a long way upstream. I-I must’ve hit my head and passed out. When I finally pulled myself from the Danube, it was just back there.” She jerked her chin over one shoulder, not wanting to move her hands.
“Where are your clothes?”
Heat rose from her chest to face. “If you must know, my husband took them. He was angry because I didn’t prepare supper last night.”
The man drew his thick, blond brows together. “Did he perchance help you into the river?”
Gwen hung her head and nodded. This was going better than she’d hoped.
“Here.” He tugged his leather top over his head. “Put this on. It should cover your, ah, your woman’s parts.”
“Thank you.” She pulled it on. It smelled of sweat and poor tanning, but at least it was warm.
“I have a place not far from here. My wife will find clothes for you.”
“Thank you again. I’m most grateful for your kindness.”
* * * *
Gwendolyn’s feet were cut and bruised, but the rest of her was none the worse for wear. It had taken the better part of two days to walk home. She would’ve made better time if she’d shifted, but didn’t know if she could risk it. Grateful to be home, she dug in soft dirt near her front door and extracted a key from its hiding place. Shoving it into the lock, she pushed her door open and let herself inside her house.
Herbert, the man who’d rescued her, and his wife, Isolde, had been more than kind. She stayed with them for a few days, working off the debt she’d incur once she left with an item or two from Isolde’s meager wardrobe. Like many country dwellers, Isolde had only a single pair of shoes. She’d offered them, but Gwendolyn refused. Bad enough she’d taken one of the woman’s two dresses.
She lit a fire in the stove and then went outside to pump water from the well. She needed to bathe; she could smell herself. As she worked, she realized how lucky she’d been. She hadn’t been raped or set upon by highwaymen. And she was still alive. She wondered how many of her shifter pack weren’t.
She thought back to when she’d been truly young, and nostalgia washed over her. Shifters were free to be themselves then. No one persecuted them. They could take their animal form without fear. She’d been born in 1263. It was now the year of our Lord, 1621.
“Not my Lord,” she muttered, annoyed with herself for using the phrase even in her thoughts. Gwendolyn wasn’t young anymore, but she expected to live another several hundred years. Shifters had long lives—unless they spent too much time in their animal form.
She poured another kettle of steaming water into her washtub and looked critically at the water level. It would be nice to add another kettle or two, but she didn’t want to wait any longer. What was there would have to do. She stripped off Isolde’s dress and lowered herself into the tub, wincing as water sluiced over her damaged feet.
Hunters had shown up after the Church grew stronger. A combination of clergy and hired thugs, they searched for those like her with special jewels. Created with holy water, prayer, and dark magic, the gems—Bloodstones—turned rosy whenever a shifter was close by or bright red when there were several. The stones had made it far more difficult to evade Hunters and their ilk. Before, all she’d had to do was bat her lashes, show a bit of cleavage, and flirt. That didn’t work if someone was holding a Bloodstone that gave her away.
She leaned forward to wet her hair before the water got too dirty and reached for a bar of her lye soap. Shifters had fought back, but they weren’t organized enough. And bear, wolf, bird, and cat shifters never got along terribly well. They were as likely to kill one another as their Hunter enemies.
Gwendolyn dunked her head and worked the soap out of her hair. Gloom settled in the pit of her stomach like a brick. The pack was her family. She needed to find out who was left. Surely She’Lara had survived. The One was immortal.
Her heart lurched in her chest as she thought of Mikhail. She’d loved him forever, but he saw her as more of a friend and little sister than a lover. They’d met when she was just thirteen, right after her first shift.
She snorted as she stood and stepped out of the tub. If three hundred and forty-five years wasn’t enough time for him to decide he wanted to court her, she didn’t suppose he ever would. She’d played the seductress, and it had gotten him into her bed. Many times. But he left just as easily with nary a word of love or commitment. Gwendolyn pulled a length of linen off a wall hook and dried herself, still thinking of Mikhail.
He’d been at the gathering she’d run from. Was he still alive? Breath caught, making her throat tight. Even if he didn’t want to marry her, she still cared about him, and the thought of him dead made her heart ache dully.
Getting dressed was easy. Unlike Isolde, she had lots of choices. Picking through her armoire, she pulled out a black woolen skirt and a blue linen shirtwaist. Since it was chilly, she layered a wool cape over everything. Being the local midwife meant she always had enough to eat and money for cloth to make clothing. She perched on the edge of the bed to inspect her feet. They’d be a problem. She lit a candle and worked on first one and then the other, picking debris out of deep cuts. While she caught her breath from the pain of probing her sore feet, she cut strips from the bandages she used for her midwifery trade so they’d be ready. Then she gritted her teeth and poured whiskey over the open wounds. They stung like the devil, but she kept on pouring.
Once her feet were bandaged, she looked for shoes. As she feared, none would fit over the wrappings.
She drew her lips back from her teeth in a snarl. She needed to find others from her pack, but if she tried to walk very far on her damaged feet, they might never heal properly. Foot wounds were unpredictable because they were so far from the heart.
She blew out a disappointed breath and settled into a chair. If things went well and her feet didn’t develop any sign of infection, they’d be well enough in a few days for her to leave home. Maybe if she got lucky, one of her kin would come looking for her before then.
Gwendolyn eyed the whiskey bottle, snatched it, and took a long drink. The liquor burned all the way to her stomach. She swallowed again, gave in to a bone-deep weariness, and let her eyes close.
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