Ella and the Beast - S.E. Smith - ebook
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To survive another generation, they'll need to live among the shifters. Long ago, a world war waged between shapeshifters and humans. Humans lost, and the consequences were dire…. Ella is part of a clan hidden deep in the forests of Washington State. She doesn't know if there are other human clans out there or if hers in the last one, but she knows there isn't a future for her people if they don't do something drastic. All of her life, she has heard horror stories about the Others, the beasts that surround them in high-tech dwellings beyond the mountains, but the Others may be their only hope. Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of romance and adventure. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid landscapes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 241 (6x9) pages, 81,645 words

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Ella and the Beast

More than Human Book 1

S.E. Smith

Contents

Acknowledgments

Copyright

Synopsis

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Sample of The Dragon’s Treasure

Additional Books and Information

About the Author

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband, Steve, for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Lisa, Sally, Elizabeth (Beth), Laurelle, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Montana Publishing

Science Fiction Romance

Ella and the Beast: More than Human Book 1

Copyright © 2016 by Susan E. Smith

First E-Book Published September 2016

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental.

Summary: A human woman falls in love with a shifter, a beast known as the Other to the few remaining humans, and must decide if she will accept his offer of a new life among the dangerous world of shifters.

ISBN: 978-1-942562-97-9 (eBook)

ISBN: 978-1-942562-98-6 (Paperback)

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Paranormal – Fiction. 2. Romance – Fiction.}

www.montanapublishinghouse.com

Synopsis

Ella is the last of a dying breed of humans that live hidden deep in the forests of Washington State. All of her life, she has heard horror stories about the Others, the beasts that live beyond the safety of the mountains. In ancient times, humans and the Others lived together in peace, but a great battle divided them and the shape-shifting species won the war.

Ty Bearclaw, a grizzly-shifter, is the curator at the Washington State Animal Sanctuary, Research, and Observation Center (WSASROC). A call from a rancher about an unusual animal causing havoc along the borders of the National Forest brings him to the Olympic Mountain National Park. Ty is furious when he discovers that the rancher has placed a trap to capture the creature on government-protected property. His shock soon turns to horror and confusion when he locates the wounded ‘animal.’

Ty finds more than he expects when a human, thought to be extinct, turns up in the trap. What is even more confusing is his bear’s reaction to the female. When word escapes about his discovery, Ty must fight to protect the unusual woman who is more than an oddity – she is his mate!

Can Ty keep Ella alive and safe from a shifter obsessed with adding her to his private collection? Not only that, can he protect her when his own government threatens to take her away from him?

Chapter 1

Ella sucked in a deep breath as she ran through the forest. She ducked under a fallen log and hurriedly straightened again. Her heart pounded with fear, making it difficult to catch her breath. The Others were in the forest. The sound of one of their metal machines could be heard in the distance. Jayden, her best friend and fellow hunter, ran beside her. Ella knew the other girl was just as frightened as she was, but she didn’t let it show.

They turned to the left and ran down a narrow animal trail. Ella moved ahead of Jayden when it became too difficult to run side by side. They bounded over another log, and a desperate cry escaped them both when the ground suddenly gave way from under their feet and they tumbled into a deep pit. Pain exploded in Ella’s ankle when Jayden fell on top of it, twisting it at an odd angle.

Ella groaned, holding her body still and focusing on her breathing until the pain receded enough for her to notice her surroundings. She lifted her head up off the soft ground and glanced at Jayden. The young girl was pacing and glancing wildly around the pit.

“Ella, we’re trapped!” Jayden exclaimed in a horrified whisper. “The Others! They will catch us. We have to get out of here.”

Ella gritted her teeth and reached for her lance. She pulled herself up using both the lance and the tree roots exposed in the dirt walls of the hole. She paled when she tried to put pressure on her foot. Something was broken. She could actually feel the bone moving.

“I’ll help you get out,” Ella said in a strained voice. “You can go for help.”

Jayden turned and looked at Ella with a frown. “If I can get out, I can pull you out,” she said.

Ella shook her head, fighting back the nausea threatening to overwhelm her. Her ankle was already beginning to swell and turn black and blue. She wouldn’t have much time before it would be too difficult to help Jayden escape.

“My ankle is broken,” Ella replied, fighting back tears. “You’ll have to go alone.”

“But… What if the Others come back?” Jayden whispered in horror.

“Then I will die,” Ella replied in a quiet voice filled with resignation. “Come, you must escape. Hopefully, they will not come to check the trap soon. There is a storm coming. Perhaps it will keep them from venturing out. There aren’t enough thick roots for you to climb out from here, but I’ll brace myself against the side, and you can get up onto my shoulders. It should be enough to get you out of here.”

Jayden bit her lip and nodded, glancing up at the edge of the pit. Ella leaned her back against the wall, gripping the lance in one hand and several roots in the other. While Ella braced herself as stiffly as she could, Jayden placed one foot on the upper thigh of Ella’s good leg, then climbed up until she was standing on Ella’s shoulders.

Ella trembled, gritting her teeth until her jaw hurt in an effort not to cry out from the pain while she straightened up as much as she could. Panting with the exertion, she extended one arm so Jayden could use her hand as a step. Ella stared at the dark dirt floor until the pressure of Jayden’s weight was removed.

Ella blinked her eyes to clear them, then used the lance to maneuver herself far enough from the wall that she could turn to look up at Jayden. A soft, sad smile curved Ella’s lips at the look of sorrow in her friend’s eyes. She drew in a deep breath, then slowly released it.

“Go, Jayden,” Ella whispered. “If I’m not here when you get back, know I’ve gone on to the next life and we will meet again one day.”

“I’ll hurry, Ella,” Jayden swore. “Don’t give up.”

“I won’t, little sister,” Ella said.

Jayden gave her one last smile before she disappeared. With the help of the lance, Ella slowly lowered herself until she was sitting on the ground, crying out when she jarred her injured foot against the dirt floor. Thunder echoed through the thick forest and a soft, steady rain began to fall. Ella carefully laid down and stared up at the canopy of trees that acted like an umbrella, protecting her from most of the rain. A shiver ran through her and she sniffed.

There were many names for the ones that ruled the world outside of the forest that was her home: the Others, the Shifters, the Beasts. For centuries, her people had avoided them. As time passed, the survival of Ella’s people had become more myth than sure fact to the rest of the world. But remaining completely unseen had become more difficult with each generation as the Others continued to expand further into the forested areas.

Ella and Jayden were part of a small clan. They were humans, beings with a single, constant form. The Others were the beast-people, beings who could shift into many different forms. A long, long time ago, humans and the Others had fought. The Others had won, almost wiping out the humans. Only a few humans had survived throughout the world.

Over time, humans had disappeared altogether, or so the Others thought. In truth, the humans had created a haven for themselves deep in the forests, the mountains, and the frozen areas of the world, existing unnoticed by the Others.

Unlike her father and the other elders, Ella had never met any humans from other clans. Those kind of meetings were from before her time. For all she knew, her dying clan could be the last one, the last of her species, and without fresh blood and a permanent living area, their chances of surviving another generation were growing slimmer.

Ella closed her eyes, and her hot tears mixed with the cold rain. She thought of what the Others would do if they found her before her people could rescue her.

If she was lucky, they would kill her quickly. It was more likely, however, that they would want to take their time to cut her up, make her talk about the location of her clan, and study her before killing her. No – if she were found by the Others, there would be a quick death. There was no other way.

“Please, if Jayden does not return in time, please have mercy and let me die swiftly,” she whispered to the forest.

Ty Bearclaw slid out of his truck, shaking his head and grimacing as cold rain slipped inside the collar of his shirt. He reached over the seat, grabbed the wide brimmed hat off the passenger seat, and placed it on his head for protection from the rain.

“I just needed one more hour,” he growled to himself. “Just one more hour of no rain, but no, the clouds had to start pissing the moment I turned onto the road.”

Ty reached behind the seat and pulled out his rifle. He probably wouldn’t need it, but he had learned that it was better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. His job as curator at the Washington State Animal Sanctuary, Research, and Observation Center—WSASROC—took him to all kinds of places. This time, it was a four hour drive from home. A local resident had complained that some type of animal had been getting into his storage shed.

Ty had stopped and talked to the idjit earlier this morning. The bastard was too stupid to warrant being called an actual idiot. The wolverine-shifter and a few of his friends had decided they should try to trap the creature by digging a pit. It hadn’t mattered to them that the pit was more than ten miles from the man’s property. The shifter had discovered an animal trail and figured the creature was using it to get back and forth between the National Forest and his own property. Unfortunately, the pit was on a National Wildlife preserve, in direct violation of the park rules.

After getting directions from the shifter, Ty had driven nearly thirty miles before reaching the remote dirt logging track. Of course, that was when it had started raining.

Ty slammed the door, locked it, and started down the path. The bear inside of him rolled over and woke up. Ty could feel the beast lifting his head. He didn’t care that it was raining. He would have been perfectly happy roaming the woods in the blasted freezing liquid. Unfortunately, wet bear fur was a pain in the ass to clean up and Ty didn’t want his truck all muddy. It would be bad enough as it was with him in his two-legged form.

The tall, black rubber boots cut through the muddy trail with no problem. Ty adjusted his grip on the rifle and pulled up his collar to keep the raindrops from getting under his dark green raincoat. The shifter had told him where they had dug the pit. It should be several hundred feet up the trail. Ty just hoped that no unsuspecting hiker had fallen into it. The last thing he needed was a pissed off cougar-shifter giving him grief for something he hadn’t done.

I smell something, his bear suddenly whispered to him.

What? Ty asked warily. Cougar?

No. Different, his bear responded. Never smell this before.

It could be the rain playing with your nose, Ty muttered.

No. This strange… animal, his bear insisted.

Ty slowed and drew to a stop, glancing warily around. If there was one thing he had learned, it was to trust his bear. He turned in a slow, tight circle, scanning the area. His head tilted when he heard a soft sound. It sounded like the whimper of a wounded animal.

He focused, his senses narrowing in on the sound. It was further up the path if he wasn’t mistaken. Moving as silently as possible, he held the rifle up to his shoulder. He paused when he heard the sound again. It was very, very faint. If he hadn’t already heard it and been focused on it, he would have missed the barely audible noise.

Stepping over a low branch, he saw the ragged edges of the hole up ahead. He cursed. That stupid bastard had caught an unsuspecting animal after all.

Ty shook his head in disgust. Maybe he would stay the night in town after he put the poor creature out of its misery, beat the shit out of the wolverine-shifter, and then give him a hefty fine for violating Federal Laws.

Flipping the safety off the rifle with his thumb, Ty carefully moved closer to the edge of the pit. He glanced down into it, not seeing anything at first. Walking along the edge, he aimed the rifle after he saw a slight movement at the bottom. The hushed whimper reached his sensitive ears again.

No shoot, his bear growled.

It isn’t another shifter, is it? Ty asked warily.

No… It… different, his bear growled, pacing inside him.

Well…Shit, Ty muttered grouchily, lowering the gun and stepping back from the edge.

He debated whether he should shift or not, then decided against it. He needed to get a better view of what was down there before he decided whether to kindly shoot the damn thing, shift into his bear to scare the hell out of it, or rescue the creature. Whichever decision he made, it looked like he was going to get muddy.

“So much for cleaning my truck yesterday,” Ty muttered under his breath.

He turned and leaned the rifle up against the dead tree lying across the path. Walking closer to the edge, he pushed his hat back on his head far enough to get it out of his eyes and knelt on the soft, muddy ground. Leaning as far forward as he could without falling in, Ty glared down into the hole.

“Sweet, holy bear cub!” he hissed when he saw the shivering woman lying below with her eyes tightly closed. “Hey! Are you okay?”

The woman winced and curled into an even smaller ball, as if trying to disappear beneath the dirt. He frowned when the woman didn’t answer. Gripping the edge, Ty studied the unusual female. She was wearing strange clothing: leather boots that appeared to be handmade, dark trousers, a long tunic with a leather vest, and a leather pouch around her waist. He had never seen clothing like she was wearing except in…. Dread and fascination warred inside him.

“Woman, do you understand me?” Ty demanded.

The figure finally moved, but only the woman’s head turned. Bright blue eyes – eyes like he had only seen in books – stared up at him filled with fear, pain, and resignation. He knew what she was at that moment. He had completed his dissertation on her species – a species that was supposedly extinct.

“Please…,” her soft voice washed over him, pulling an immediate reaction out of both his bear and him. “…Kill me… swiftly.”

Shock hit Ty hard. He could feel his head shaking back and forth in denial. Swallowing, his gaze locked onto her pain-filled eyes. His fingers curled into the soil along the edge of the pit, his nails lengthening as his bear fought to emerge.

What are you doing? Ty hissed to his other self.

I go to her, his bear snarled, trying to break free.

I won’t let you kill her, Ty warned, pushing back.

I no kill, his bear snapped. I protect our mate.

That statement hit Ty hard. Our mate?! he thought in horror. He had just discovered a previously considered extinct species and his bear thought the – the human – was their mate?!

“Ah, shit,” Ty muttered, forgetting about the dirt on his hands. He ran them down over his face in resignation. “This day has just gone from bad to worse.”

Chapter 2

Ella pushed up and scooted back along the bottom of the pit when she heard a male voice. Her ankle had been throbbing too much for the relief of sleep, but she had fallen into a semi-conscious doze in the hope of gathering enough strength to try to escape. It had made sense at the time to give Jayden her best chance at escaping. It had made sense to wait for help, but the more she had thought about it, the more afraid she had become that Jayden wouldn’t return with help in time.

In the last few weeks, they had ventured further in this direction than they ever had before, searching for items they could take back to their village. Jayden had been excited when she had seen an odd little building on the outer edges of the forest. She had told Ella about it and described all the strange and wonderful things stored inside. They had broken into it and, sure enough, found quite a few items they could use.

They had been returning to the building for more items when Ella had heard the sound of a strange metal beast moving along the road. Fear of being caught had made her reckless. She should have known to avoid the animal trail.

Now her foolish mistake would not only mean her own death, but the discovery of her existence could endanger the lives of her whole village. If Ella couldn’t kill the Other or if the Other didn’t immediately kill her, Ella would have no choice but to take her own life to prevent the Others from finding her people.

Gritting her teeth, she ignored the agonizing pain in her foot and clenched her lance. Her gaze remained glued to the thick, sharp claws that were digging into the soil along the edge of the pit. Ella braced her good foot into the ground and slid until her back was against the side of the pit.

“Kill me,” she ordered, holding the lance menacingly in front of her.

“Why would I kill you?” the man asked in confusion, staring down at her with dark, liquid brown eyes.

“If you don’t, I will kill you,” she warned.

Irritation swept through her when the beast’s lips curved upward in amusement. Reaching up, she wrapped her hand around a root and pulled herself to her feet, using the lance to steady herself. She leaned back against the side of the pit, panting with pain for a few precious seconds, sweat beading on her brow despite the cool rain. She swayed before she stiffened her good leg.

“You can barely stand. I doubt that you could kill me,” he observed. He frowned down at her lifted foot. “You’ve hurt your foot.”

Ella hissed when her foot touched the ground. She jerked it up, almost losing her balance again. Biting her lip, she stared up at the beast. He was nothing like the stories she had been told. He resembled none of the descriptions given by the elders in their many tales.

They were supposed to be creatures with massive bodies, glowing red eyes, sharp claws, and fangs. While this man was very large, he still wasn’t as massive as Ella had imagined the Beasts from the stories would be. Instead of red eyes, his were a dark brown which held a hint of curiosity and confusion. He was wearing clothing, unlike the pictures of fur-coated and blood-covered beasts in the tomes. His face was slightly broader than those of the men in her village and his canines looked a little longer, but she still wouldn’t classify them as being true fangs. Her eyes went to his long fingers. They were normal now. Long and thick, but the nails did not look any longer than her own.

Not only did he not look like any of the pictures of the snarling, blood-coated beasts, he also didn’t snarl and growl at her. He spoke in a warm, gentle voice that caused her tremble with something other than fear, pain, and exhaustion.

“Are you real?” he asked softly, surprising her again.

Ella frowned and tilted her head. “Of course I’m real!” she snapped. “You are a beast. What kind?”

“A beast?” he asked, his eyes narrowing in confusion. “You mean, am I a shifter? Yeah, of course. I’m a grizzly.”

Ella paled and felt the tenuous grasp of her hand slip on the root. She slid back down to the ground, staring up at him in numb horror. The flashes of mental images overwhelmed her. A grizzly-shifter! One of the most feared Others. They were known for their speed, their ferociousness, and their strength. She was truly dead.

“Why do you play with me?” she asked in a hoarse voice. “I am no match for you. One swipe of your paw and you could gut me.”

“Gut you? Why would I want to do that? Gutting is so… barbaric,” Ty muttered with a shake of his head. “Listen, my name is Ty. What is yours?”

Ella lowered her lance to the ground. It would be ineffective. Her hand slid along her side and down to her hip. No, her knife was the only way. She would drive it through her heart before he could rip it out. She only hoped that he would choke on it when he tried to eat it.

“I am called Ella,” she whispered, lifting her head to stare at him as she pulled the blade from its sheath. “I want you to remember my name, Beast. For I shall haunt your dreams while you sleep.”

“Haunt…. Shit a bloody mosquito,” Ty cursed, landing down in front of her and wrapping his hand around her wrist when she pulled the knife out and turned the sharp tip toward her chest. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

Ella stared up into his furious eyes. Surprise and shock surged through her at his incredible speed. One second he had been staring down at her from the edge of the pit, and the next he was wrapping his massive hand around her wrist. Swallowing, she began to shake.

“Taking my own life, so that you can’t,” she whispered, licking her lips.

He reached out and cupped her cheek with a gentleness that belied his superior strength. A strange warmth flooded her at the feel of his calloused fingertips against her skin. She drew in a deep breath when he leaned forward.

“You aren’t going to escape me that easily, sweetheart,” Ty muttered, bending forward until his lips were just a breath away from hers.

“Why not?” Ella asked in a husky voice.

“Because, Ella, when a Silverback grizzly finds his mate, he will do everything in his power to make sure she stays safe,” Ty muttered, pressing a warm kiss to Ella’s slightly parted lips.

Ella felt his hand slide down to her hand. With a flick of his wrist, he removed the blade from her grasp. He held her head still while he softly explored her mouth. The warmth she felt intensified, numbing the throbbing pain in her ankle and stunning her with its strength.

Ella didn’t understand what was happening. This wasn’t in any of the story books. He was supposed to be snarling, growling, and disemboweling her, not… not kissing her!

Ella’s hand curled around her lance and she leaned back a little. The move drew the huge Beast slightly off-balance. Swinging with all her might, she hit him with the shaft of her lance. He fell sideways, gripping his head and staring at her with shocked surprise.

“Why did you do that?” he demanded, starting to rise to his feet. He jerked and suddenly staggered backwards, looking down at his thigh in surprise. His back hit the side of the pit. He slid down until he was sitting on the ground. “What the…?” His gaze moved up to the edge of the pit.

Even from the bottom of the pit, Ella could see Jayden standing near the edge, a strange weapon in her hands. The startled look in Jayden’s eyes told Ella that her friend hadn’t realized that she had triggered the weapon. Ella’s gaze moved back to the Beast. He had wrapped his hand around the red tranquilizer dart fired from his rifle and was pulling it out of his thigh. His eyes were glazed and he blinked several times.

“Will it kill you?” Ella whispered, unsure why she cared.

“No… Just sleep,” he muttered. “Ella… Don’t leave.”

“I have to, Beast,” Ella whispered. “You must forget you ever saw me.”

His breathing began to slow and he slumped to his side. “I can’t,” he forced out as his eyelids slowly closed. “You… belong to… me.”

Ella shook her head. “I can never belong to you,” she murmured. “Forget me.”

Ella watched as several ropes were lowered into the pit. Jayden had found another of their hunting parties. Two slightly older women nodded to Ella after they slid down into the pit to help her. Ella glanced at the slumbering beast.

“Should we kill him?” one of the women asked, staring at Ty.

“No,” Ella said with a shake of her head. “Perhaps he will think this is a dream.”

The woman closest to the dart on the ground nodded and picked it up, tucking it into her pouch so the Beast would not see the evidence of what had happened when he woke. With the help of the other three women, Ella was able to climb out of the pit. Once at the top, Jayden quickly wrapped Ella’s foot and ankle. It would be a difficult journey back to the village, but at least she was still alive to make it. Ella glanced one last time over her shoulder at the pit. Somewhere deep inside her, she felt a pang of sorrow. It was as if a part of her was still trapped with the beast.

“Come, Ella,” Jayden murmured. “We need to put as much distance as we can between us and the beast before nightfall.”

Ella nodded and held onto the shoulders of the two women following Jayden. Soon, the forest swallowed them like fairies returning to the hidden corners of a magical world – a world where humans lived, not the unusual shape-shifting beasts who kissed instead of killed.

Chapter 3

Ty groaned and dropped his head into his hands. The blurry images in the book lying open on his desk seemed to mock him. Had he just imagined her?

No! My mate out there! Hurt! his grizzly growled.

“I know,” Ty muttered with a weary sigh. “But where? We’ve searched that area and then some for the last five weeks now and found nothing!”

“What are you looking for?”

Ty leaned back in his seat and closed the book in front of him. He had to blink several times before he could bring the figure standing at the door into focus. He grimaced when he saw his twin sister, Tracy, leaning against the door frame.

“What are you doing here?” he growled, pushing his seat back and standing up to stretch.

“I love you, too, little bear,” Tracy chuckled as she straightened and stepped into the elegant room. “I see you are still keeping your nose in the books. You’ll never find a mate that way.”

Ty scowled at his sister, who was older by all of two minutes. “I don’t see a mate sniffing up your ass either, Tracy,” he retorted.

Tracy shook her head, sending a dark mane of thick brown hair dancing around her head. Ty’s gaze softened when he saw a fleeting look of sadness sweep across his sister’s face. Like her brother, she much preferred to have her nose in a book or to be studying some strange rock somewhere instead of hanging out in a bar or on the social network established for shifters who were searching for their one and only.

“I felt your unease,” she murmured, stepping closer to the desk.

Ty bit back a curse when he saw her gaze sweep over the cover of the old textbook. Her eyebrow lifted and she shifted her gaze back to him in confusion. Once again he cursed the connection between twin cubs.

“It’s nothing,” he muttered as he picked up the book and stepped around the desk. “Please tell me that you didn’t travel halfway around the world because you felt something.”

Tracy shook her head and looked down. “No, it isn’t the only reason,” she admitted in a soft tone before she looked up again and gave him a wry smile. “But, it was the primary one. So – I thought you were done with school.”

“I am,” Ty said defensively, pushing past her to replace the book on the bookshelf next to the door.

“Did someone discover some old bones?” she asked.

“No,” Ty said tiredly before he released a groan and ran his hand through his hair. He stared at the spine of the book ‘Ancient Humans and What We Know About Them’.

Obviously not nearly as much as the scientists had thought, he reflected silently before shaking his head and turning to look at his sister.

“What’s wrong?” Tracy asked in a soft, concerned voice.

“I found my mate,” Ty reluctantly admitted.

Tracy drew in a surprised breath. Her eyes widened and her lips parted in stunned disbelief. A reluctant smile curved his lips. It wasn’t often that he could shock Tracy into silence.

“You…,” she paused and shook her head. “You found your mate? Where? When can we meet her? Do Mom and Dad know?”

“Goddess, no!” Ty replied with a shudder.

“Why not?” Tracy demanded, placing her hands on her hips before her eyes narrowed. “It isn’t a fox-shifter, is it? You know how Dad is about foxes.”

Ty scowled and vehemently shook his head. He would have almost preferred dealing with their dad’s dislike of fox-shifters instead of what he was going through at the moment. His gut twisted at the thought of never finding Ella. The pain and fear welled inside him. To know he had a mate somewhere out there in the woods and to never see her again was almost more than he could physically or mentally stand.

“Ty!” Tracy whispered, reaching out to grip his arm. “What is it?”

Pain shadowed his eyes. “I have to find her, Tracy,” he muttered in a thick voice. “She’s out there. She was hurt. I have to find her, but it’s as if she just vanished.”

“Your mate?” Tracy asked.

Ty nodded and swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Ella,” he whispered. “Her name is Ella.”

Tracy’s eyes sharpened with determination. Ty recognized the look in his twin’s eyes. She was like a bear on the hunt when she got that look.

“What is her last name? What type of shifter is she? There will be a record of her in the database. I can get Peterson to do a search. He can hack into any computer system. Once we find her marker, we can trace her,” Tracy said with a contemplative expression. “I’ll also need a description of her. That will help. Van can do a sketch.”

“They won’t find her,” Ty replied with a weary sigh.

“Of course they will!” Tracy exclaimed. “Peterson and Van are wolves. They can find anything!”

“Not this time,” Ty insisted, shaking his head and walking over to the window of his office.

He could feel Tracy’s puzzled gaze on his back. He drew in a deep breath and thought about how much he should tell her. Every second of every day for the last five weeks he had thought of nothing else but Ella… and what it would mean to the world should she be discovered before he could find and protect her. There were some shifters who would capture and keep her as an exotic pet. He had dealt with those types numerous times over the years when ancient human artifacts were discovered.

He also thought of what it would mean to him and his bear if he never found her. He felt like he was going crazy after just five weeks. If he spent years, even a lifetime, knowing he had a mate but never seeing her again… Ty didn’t know what would happen to him. Would he truly go insane?

He released a long breath. If he was going to find her, he needed help. Tracy was right. Van and Peterson were two of the best men to have at your side when you needed to find something – or in this case someone.

Ty turned back around and looked at his sister. The connection between them was strong, even for twins, and he could tell from the faint lines of strain at the corner of her mouth that she was feeling his anxiety. A reluctant smile curved the corner of Ty’s lips. Tracy always did take her responsibility as big sister to the max.

“I need your help, Tracy. Call your team together. This is important,” Ty finally instructed.

Tracy’s eyebrow rose. “Of course it is! Now, tell me about this fabulous woman who has captured your heart,” she requested before a frown creased her brow. “I’m assuming it is a woman.”

“Yes, it is a woman! I told you her name is Ella,” Ty retorted with a grimace before he ran his hands down over his face in resignation. “She’s about your height, with light brown hair and blue eyes the color of the sky.”

“Blue eyes?” Tracy repeated. “Is she a wolf?”

Ty shook his head. “No,” he replied in a quiet voice. “She’s human.”

Tracy’s eyes widened with disbelief and her mouth dropped open before she snapped it shut and scowled at him. The scowl slowly changed to uncertainty before the disbelief returned when he just continued to stare at her in silence. He knew she could see that he was totally serious.

“You’re telling me that you found a human… a real, honest to Goddess, non-dead human?” Tracy whispered in a slightly trembling voice filled with awe.

“Yes, and her name is Ella,” Ty repeated with a calm, serious look. “I need your help to find her, Tracy.”

Ty watched as Tracy swallowed and nodded her head. It wouldn’t take long before she regained her composure and began bombarding him with questions.

The thought had no sooner swept through his mind when she started peppering him with questions. A grim smile curved his lips as he repeated everything he knew to date about Ella. There was nothing like having his sister on his side when it came to tracking down an unusual, precious artifact, and as far as he was concerned, there was nothing in the world more unusual or more precious than Ella.

Seven days later, Ty was in the Olympic National Forest again. This time, though, he wasn’t alone. He and Tracy watched from above as Peterson knelt at the bottom of the pit he had marked off with orange tape. Peterson stood up and frowned.

“You know, this would have been a hell of a lot easier if you had contacted us five weeks ago,” Van complained when he came to stand next to them. “Peterson, you find anything?”

Peterson looked up and shook his head. “Nothing,” he replied. “I wasn’t expecting any scents, but it would have been nice if your mate would have left something behind, Ty. Are you sure she is real?”

Ty scowled. “Yes, I’m sure,” he retorted in a blunt tone. “I wouldn’t have wasted your time if she wasn’t.”

“They’ve just started, Ty. Give them time,” Tracy said, laying her hand on his arm.

“She’s right,” Van replied with an easy grin. “Peterson and I always did love a challenge.”

Ty shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and nodded. He watched as Peterson started climbing back up the ladder they had placed in the pit. His eyes narrowed when Peterson suddenly released a soft exclamation.

“Well, well, well, maybe the Goddess is looking down on you after all, Ty,” Peterson crowed with a grin.

“What is it?” Tracy asked, watching as Peterson reached into a twisted bundle of roots along the side.

“Just the first piece of evidence that your baby brother isn’t as crazy as we thought he was,” Peterson replied. He held up a dirt-encrusted bracelet in his hand before he moved it under his nose. “Protected from the rain and weather, oh, you sweet little jewel. I have a very, very faint scent!”

“Let me see it,” Van demanded, leaning over the ladder for the wide leather bracelet. Fine threads of braided hair, colorful stones, and wooden beads decorated the unusual piece. “Oh, yeah,” he said, holding it to his nose and drawing in a deep breath. “Slight, but there.”

“Let me have it,” Ty said, reaching for the bracelet. He held it to his nose. While his sense of smell wasn’t quite as good as a wolf’s, it was still pretty damn good. He drew in a deep breath and held it, allowing the very faint scent to wash through him. “It’s her.”

Ty lowered the bracelet and stared at the strands of golden brown hair woven into it. It was the same color as Ella’s hair. His fingers closed around the evidence proving that he wasn’t dreaming. He looked up when Van, Peterson, and Tracy came to stand around him.

“Now what?” he asked in a gruff voice.

“Now, we hunt,” Tracy replied with a grin.

Chapter 4

Ella placed the bundle of firewood she had gathered into the small basket. It was the last of the wood she needed for the night. She winced when her ankle protested. It was almost healed, but it still reminded her when she overdid things. She needed to remember that the splint had come off just yesterday. The clan’s healer had instructed her to continue wearing the brace for another six weeks.

“Ella!”

Ella turned when she heard her name called. A smile lifted her lips when she saw Jayden walking toward her carrying a basket of fresh berries. That was one thing she was looking forward to doing again—hunting for food with the rest of them.

“Jayden, what did you find?” she asked, reaching for the cane she had propped against the tree.

“Blackberries,” Jayden replied with a grimace as she held up her arm to show the long, angry-looking scratches. “I swear those things live off of my blood.”

Ella laughed and looked in the full basket. “That’s pretty impressive. You must have sacrificed a lot to get that many,” she teased.

Jayden shrugged and set the basket down on the ground as she sat on a log. Ella sat beside her and sighed as she looked out over their new home. It had been a particularly difficult journey for her, along with the few elders and small children who lived in the village, but Mitchell, the leader of the clan, had felt moving the village was the safest thing to do after Ella had told him about being found by a grizzly-shifter.

“Do you think we’ll be safe here?” Ella asked in a hushed voice.

Jayden looked at her in surprise and shrugged. “I don’t see why not,” she replied. “We didn’t leave any evidence behind and Mitchell made sure that we covered our tracks. If they find anything left of our old village, there is no way to tell when we were there, or where we might have gone. Mitchell was pretty thorough. He even ordered that all the trash be burned and buried deep beneath the ferns. By now, no one would even be able to tell anyone had been living there.”

Ella lowered her head and nodded. Her fingers touched the bare wrist of her right arm. She had lost one of the bracelets she had made, but she couldn’t remember when.

It could have been on the trip here for all she knew. She barely remembered the first week. The agony she had felt and the pain-dulling herbs she had been using had reduced everything after her escape from the pit to a hazy memory. It had probably come off when they had been crossing one of the many rivers that ran through the region. They had just crossed one of the larger rivers when she first realized it was gone. The currents were pretty strong, and trying to navigate over the rocks, even with help, had worn her out.

“Are you okay? You’ve been so quiet lately,” Jayden asked in a soft voice.

“Yes, I’m fine. It is just…,” Ella started to say before she ruefully shook her head. “I’ll be glad when I can hunt again. It seems like forever since I’ve been out of the village.”

Jayden laughed and wrapped her arm around Ella’s shoulders, giving her a tight hug. “You’ll be there before you know it. I like this place. We haven’t seen any signs of life in weeks. It is nice not to worry about being seen,” she replied with a sigh. “I’ve found a really cool place about six miles from here. Maybe I can show it to you later this week.”

“That would be nice,” Ella replied with a small smile. “It will be easier to move around now that I just have the brace on.”

“I’ve got to take the berries to my mom before she wonders what I’ve been doing. Come over later if you get a chance,” Jayden said, rising to her feet and reaching for the basket of blackberries.

“I will. See you later,” Ella said, stiffly rising to her feet as well.

Ella watched as her friend hurried away. It seemed strange to be living on her own. After the move, she had decided she wanted her own space. She had lived with Jayden and Jayden’s parents since her own parents had died. Bending, she picked up the long stick that she used as a cane. By the end of the day, she would be tired and need the extra support.

She walked back to the basket where she had placed the small pile of wood. She dropped her cane on the pile and began pulling the thick rope that hung from a branch high up in the tree she called home. It was almost to the top when the rope started to slip in her grasp. A soft gasp escaped her when a large hand reached out to grab the rope and take it from her.

“I’ve got this,” Mitchell said in a blunt tone. “You were supposed to call one of the men.”

Irritation flashed through Ella and she shook her head. “The men have enough to do without coddling me any more than they already have,” she snapped. She winced when Mitchell raised his eyebrow at her.

“We work together, Ella,” he reminded her with a grunt as he finished pulling the basket up the tree and tied it off. “It is the only way we can survive.”

“I know, Mitchell,” Ella replied with a sigh. “I just hate being a burden to the village.”

She glanced up when Mitchell placed a hand under her chin and lifted it so that she was forced to look at him. He was almost as tall as Ty, with thick broad shoulders much like the grizzly-shifter had. He was also just as good-looking. His light, mocha-colored skin and muscled body often drew admiring looks from the other women in the village. He kept his hair cut close to his head, but Ella still remembered the soft bouncy curls of his black hair when he was just a boy.

“You are never a burden,” he replied in a gruff voice. “You are family.”

“I know. I know,” she grimaced and wiggled her nose up at him. “Just don’t you dare call me—”

“Little sister,” Mitchell chuckled, gently touching his knuckles to her chin. “Do you need help getting up to your loft?”

“Why not?” Ella muttered with an exaggerated sigh. “It’s better than pulling myself up.”

“Get in,” Mitchell instructed, nodding to the small lift system he had helped her construct.

Ella reached up and brushed a kiss against Mitchell’s jaw before she turned and slowly walked over to the lift and stepped up onto it. She raised her thumb to show him she was ready and held onto the wooden pole in the center. Her heart tightened as she gazed out over the village.

Twenty-eight humans – such a small number; twenty-eight and slowly shrinking. Their numbers would continue to shrink unless they reached out and searched for other humans. The difficulty was moving undetected in a world ruled by the Others. It wasn’t easy with their world getting smaller around them. Ella’s and Jayden’s adventure had proven that.

Her people lived high in the trees, making a home off the ground as much as possible. The thick branches of the old trees provided them shelter from below and above. They did what they could to keep the land around them unaltered. It was necessary to change their environment as little as possible, so they did not attract attention.

Ella looked up as the lift grew closer to the large fork in the tree where she had made her home. It wasn’t much. A rough platform made up the floor, and she had woven branches, vines, and leaves to create the walls. It was primitive, but it would give her adequate shelter until she could build something better.

A smile curved her lips when she heard the laughter of the half dozen children that lived among them. Soon, there wouldn’t even be that many. Ella, Jayden, and several of the other women of childbearing age had met late one night almost five years before and made a pact to never have children.

The pact had been made during an emotional period, but nothing since had changed her mind about her decision. The night before the pact, Ella had lost her mom and stillborn sister. When the healer had stepped out and shook his head at Ella and her father, she had known deep down that the survival of the humans was a hopeless endeavor.

Her father’s death three months later from pneumonia had sealed her resolve to do everything she could for her village – except have children. That decision was another reason why she had moved away from Jayden’s family. They had been pressuring her to pick one of the men, specifically Mitchell, for her husband. She knew they had been pressuring Jayden, as well.

With the decreasing numbers, the elders had decided that for the clan's survival, it would be necessary for the males to have more than one partner. Ella was selfish and didn’t want to share a husband. Almost immediately, the image of a different man rose up in Ella’s mind.

She grunted and waved to Mitchell when he called out. She quickly slid the safety loop onto the hook she had built before she gingerly stepped off the lift and onto the platform. Bending down, she grabbed the small basket of wood and disappeared into the dim interior. She would work on building a fire and roast some of the nuts and fruit that Jayden had harvested for her.

“Stop it, Ella,” she whispered as she reached over and pulled some of the wood closer to where she was sitting. “You have to forget about him.”

A soft groan echoed in the narrow area as she sank down onto the thick pad that made up her bed. Who was she kidding? She had been telling herself to stop thinking about the beastman named Ty for weeks, to no avail. She dreamed of him at night and could swear she could still feel his lips pressed against hers.

“I wonder what he’s doing now,” she whispered between blowing soft breaths of air to build the flames of the fire in the round clay pot she used as a fire pit. “He’s probably forgotten all about you, Ella. You should do the same.”

Her eyes burned for a moment. She tried to blame it on the smoke rising from the moss she had dried out, but she knew the sudden tears had nothing to do with the fire and everything to do with her own internal struggle. Drawing in a deep breath, she sat back and stared at the glowing embers.

“I wish you peace, beast,” she murmured as she set aside the dinner she had prepared, no longer hungry. She twisted and laid down on her bed. She stared up at the growing darkness, waiting to catch the first glimpse of a star through the thick branches. A sad smile curved her lips. “If only things were different….”

Ella stared up into the night sky, thinking of the grizzly-shifter and how her dad’s prediction that one day the humans and Others would meet again had come true. In the distance, she heard the muted sounds of the other clan members talking and laughing as they settled down for the night. She reached up and curled her fingers around a small spot of light high up in the sky, catching the first star of the evening in the center. Once again, she was the little girl who believed that wishes could come true. She squeezed her fist tight, as if afraid the star would escape, and pressed her hand against her heart.

A light breeze swept through the trees, caressing her face and filling the air with a scent of autumn. She swore she could hear her father’s quiet voice on the wind, reminding her that dreams can come true. When she had asked him how he knew they could, his answer had been simple.

“It is how I found your mother,” he had replied in a quiet voice.

“Daddy, do you think we’ll ever find more humans?” Ella remembered asking. “I mean, like how you found mommy before the Others could get her?”

Her dad had been quiet for a long time before he replied. “One day humans and the Others will meet again, Ella. It is only a matter of time,” her father had told her.

“We will? Will they eat us?” she remembered asking, her voice full of fear and awe at the same time.

“No, I think one day we will all live in peace together,” her father had said, brushing her hair back and pressing a kiss to her forehead. “I hope you see that day.”

Tears burned her eyes. For a few seconds, she closed her eyes and made a wish. In her mind’s eye, she could almost imagine her father’s soft words and tender touch as he brushed her hair back from her face as he had so often when she was just a little girl. That night, he had hugged her close before he pointed up to the stars and urged her to capture one. Only when she had done what he’d instructed did he speak again.

“Now, make a wish,” her father had urged her as she held the star in her tiny fist. “What did you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you or it won’t come true!” she had retorted.

A smile curved her lips as she now thought of the scowl she had given her dad and how she had shaken her head in exasperation at him. Afterwards, she had opened her hand and released the star so it could watch over them. She and her dad had sat there for a long time before she finally snuggled close to him, tired.

“Daddy,” she had whispered.

“Yes, Ella bug,” her dad had murmured.

“If I tell you my wish, will it really not come true?” she had asked in a soft voice, turning to stare up at him.

Her dad had been silent for a moment, then he had shaken his head. “No… No, I’ll hold it safe for you,” he had promised.

She had turned to look back up at the stars, not sure which one she had released and wondered if she should tell him what she had wished for. He had waited for her to speak, not rushing her or impatient with her prolonged silence.

Releasing a breath, Ella whispered the words that had haunted her since she was a little girl.

“I wished that we could all learn to be friends and live together as one,” she whispered out loud, her adult voice mixing with the faint child’s voice of her childhood memory. “I don’t want to die and… and I think I could be a good friend if they would let me.”