Claimed by Aline Hunter

 

Chapter One

Normally,Gunner Newsom didn't struggle with his werewolf nature. He'd always been capable of keeping himself in check, creating a balance that worked for him and the animal over the last century of his life. Unfortunately, the full moon hovered over him, the beams whispering along his skin in a sensual caress, calling to the beast that wanted its mate in the worst way. He was only able to do so much. Especially when the wolf was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Fuck.

He swiped a hand over his face and focused on his Alpha. Merrick had brought wolves to the hunting grounds to assist Shane Heyward. The male had decided to challenge Wade Wilson for his pack, wanting the piece of shit out of Atrum Hill for good. Over the last few weeks, he'd orchestrated things in order to make that happen. The process should have been easy. None thought Wade would fight back.

They'd been wrong.

Wade sensed something amiss and created a plan before the full moon. Unfortunately, the male didn't have the backing he needed, and his wolves weren't as strong as he'd hoped. His refusal to resign caused death and destruction. Not that Wade gave a shit. The fucker only looked out for his daughter and himself. That was the reason Shane needed to remove the asshole in the first place.

A growl crept up Gunner's throat, his chest vibrating.

Wade had changed the game, using a rare pack law. Since Shane had been a Beta, he had to face challengers to prove he was worthy of the position. He had to fight the most dominant wolves in Wade's pack before he could face the Alpha.

It was a bitch move, and everyone knew it.

Shane had taken the first challenger down quickly. Then the second. Wade introduced two more. While technically he could do so, Jackson and Merrick had had enough. The Alphas ordered their packs to brace for a fight, jumping straight into the action. When members of Wade's pack jumped in, Gunner had entered the fray, protecting his Alpha's back.

It was kill or be killed. Chaos ensued with death on the menu.

Shane had gone for Wade, ready to put an end to the lunacy. It hadn't taken long to place the Alpha on the ground. Shane had his hands around Wade's neck, ready to sever his head. The instant Wade accepted he'd been outplayed, he offered complete surrender, telling his wolves to back down.

Jackson, Shane, and Merrick—the dominant Alphas in the area—agreed to let Wade live. That didn't mean they hadn't dished out punishment. Each one of them took turns kicking the shit out of the male to send a message. They weren't unkind leaders, but they had rules. Anyone that broke them would suffer.

The fucker had it coming.

The son of a bitch had gotten six werewolves killed.

Even as the reality hit, reminding Gunner of his part in those deaths, he pictured his female, dredging up an image of her to combat his guilt. He recalled her presence and scent, wishing he could be with her, imagining what it would be like when she viewed him as a mate and not a stranger.

Melody Walker.

He'd informed Merrick of the situation, uncertain how to approach things. Merrick had offered sound advice, instructing Gunner to proceed with caution. Melody couldn't shift and didn't have a direct line to the wolf within her. Therefore, it was best to come to her as something she understood, acting more man than beast.

Doing so hadn't been easy.

He ventured to Melody's house daily, offering to help her with menial things, insisting it was part of his job as her Beta. Gunner watched over the pack members Merrick was responsible for, ensuring they were comfortable and settled, proving he would care for them without question.

The problem was, Melody avoided werewolves.

Her home and distance she'd placed between herself and the pack were a primary example. He'd asked pack members about her, angry they hadn't attempted to make her feel welcome. They'd told him they'd tried but were turned away when they offered friendship and assistance.

That didn't make sense to him.

He thought she'd have embraced their presence as humans wanted nothing to do with her. Despite being a registered nurse, she'd been relegated to working as a cashier when hospitals refused to hire her. The instant she'd been bitten by a rogue werewolf, she'd been labeled as something dangerous.

Her entire life had changed.

Thank God I didn't bring her here.

He'd been tempted to, wanting to keep her close. He felt uneasy at the thought of leaving her on her own while he traveled. Merrick had instructed his newfound pack to join him at the hunting grounds for their first formal hunt. Not only did he want them to see how he got things done with Wade, he wanted them to understand they could lower their guard and trust him. The bloodshed, while unfortunate, was something that would give them a sense of security. Of course, they were born werewolves. They understood the instincts and violence that came with being human and animal.

Melody didn't have that luxury.

Gunner was eager to tell her the truth about their connection, envisioning his future with her as a mated pair, and had almost given the command for her to attend the hunt. Her lovely face, sweet scent, and delectable body drove him insane. Being apart from her made the lust and madness even worse. Every single time he'd been around her, he wanted to discover how she'd feel when pressed against him, fighting the carnal urge to seal their union.

He wanted her beside him, desperate to claim her body and soul.

He glanced at his bloodstained hands, flexing his fingers. If she'd witnessed the carnage, she'd fear him more than she already did. If she'd seen him break another male's neck like a twig, she'd probably pack up her things and split.

An engine started, and he lifted his head.

Wade was about to depart with his daughter.

Good fucking riddance.

They had to leave within twenty-four hours. Wade hadn't liked hearing that, but he had no other choice. If he stayed, he was as good as dead. So was his daughter.

The two of them had caused enough damage.

"Are you heading back tonight?"

Gunner turned toward the individual who'd posed the question, coming face-to-face with his Alpha. Merrick had agreed to Gunner's mating, giving him the go-ahead. His only request had been to wait until Shane had taken charge before Gunner made things official.

Merrick's request was understandable.

The packs were constantly at each other's throats, and it was time to end that kind of turmoil. The werewolves in Atrum Hill and Rhodes were ready for change. They wanted their Alphas to band together and establish peace and business partnerships.

When Gunner didn't respond, collecting his thoughts, Merrick said, "If you're planning on going home straight away, you should shift before you make the drive. If you stay the way you are, you'll upset your female." Merrick met Gunner's level stare. "Your eyes are wild, my man."

Of course they are.

Sometimes he hated his obsidian irises, wishing they were lighter in color. His heritage channeled his feelings, causing shades to shift all over the spectrum. Over the years, he'd worked at being unemotional, striving for calm and control at every turn. While his expression could reveal things, most didn't know what the change in his eye color meant.

Merrick was the exception.

Gunner sighed, shaking his head, annoyed at the itching under his skin. As much as he wanted to return to his mate, he couldn't do so with the moon riding his ass. He'd pretended to be something he wasn't for weeks, acting like a harmless human, attempting to gain Melody's trust.

Despite his efforts, she hadn't come around.

The female merely tolerated him.

Merrick stopped in front of him, his bright blue gaze understanding. "With Wade gone, shit is about to be less stressful. Take a breather and get a handle on yourself. You have time to decide how you want to do things."

Gunner studied various pack members and stopped when he located Shane and Luna. They'd gone through hell to find each other. Judging by the way they touched and interacted, they'd overcome anything that got in their way. They had a lot on their plates. Wade had several bad eggs in his pack. Shane's first order of business would be to remove them.

"Is he culling tonight?" he questioned.

"He took care of that before Wade arrived."

Well hell."He took them out?"

"Are you surprised?"

"No." Since Luna was blind, Shane would remove any threats straightaway. Her welfare and safety were his number one priority. "How many?"

Merrick's jaw clenched, his irises turning silver. "Twelve."

Shit."That many?"

"That many." Merrick folded his arms over his chest. "It could have been worse."

Gunner looked around until he found the pack members he knew best, the ones that belonged to Merrick before he'd taken over Rhodes. "Is Isaac willing to watch over things while I take care of personal matters?" Isaac had been Merrick's Beta before Gunner joined the pack. "There's a good chance I'm going to be preoccupied when I make it home. I don't know when I'll be able to focus on pack responsibilities."

"He's game."

That was a relief. Isaac had been a moody bastard lately. "We're going to have to tell him about the mating."

Merrick ran his fingers through his short head of hair. "Isaac knows. I felt it best to tell him since he'll be covering for you."

"Fair enough."

The moon broke through the clouds, the rays hitting his skin, causing the wolf to come to life. He lifted his head, studying the glowing orb in the sky. Usually, the beast lived for the hunting grounds, eager to run with the pack. This time around, the animal wanted to be somewhere else.

Lowering his head, he glanced at Merrick.

The Alpha was right. A shift before the trip home wouldn't hurt.

"I'll shift before I leave. I want to be back in Rhodes before the sun rises."

Merrick cocked a brow. "Any particular reason?"

He couldn't prevent the growl that traveled up his chest and into his throat. "Melody's in-laws are coming for a visit. I'm going to be there when they arrive."

"They're visiting during a full moon without my permission?"

"They don't know about the exchange of power. Melody didn't tell them." There was also something else, a far more dangerous reason they were coming to town. "They want custody of Beatrice. If Melody loses control and snaps, it'll make things easier for them. There's no better time to rile her than the full moon."

He didn't know everything about the situation, but he'd scented his mate after she'd taken a call from them. He'd been on the porch when she'd answered the phone.

Whatever transpired had made her anxious and upset.

When she ended the call, he'd asked questions.

She didn't answer any of them, telling him to leave. The dismissal was the final straw. She'd pushed him away for weeks, throwing up roadblocks each time he got too close. While he'd allow her space when it came to the mating, he wouldn't let her keep secrets when it came to her daughter. Bebe wasn't his child biologically, but she was his by right of claim. He had to watch over and protect her just as he would her mother.

Left with no other choice, he’d used the ability only Merrick knew about, one that came from his mother. He ventured into his mate's mind, reading Melody's thoughts. He'd avoided doing so out of respect for her, feeling it wasn't fair or right to intrude. To protect the child he was responsible for, he had to be prepared.

What he found pissed him the fuck off.

Kay and Thomas Walker wanted to take Bebe from her.

They'd been attempting to do so for months.

That was why her finances were shot, and she always looked exhausted. The visits to court had worn her down. She'd run out of savings and life insurance money soon. Then she'd be unable to retain an attorney. Kay and Thomas had the resources to keep things going. She was alone, without any help, fighting a battle she wasn't in a position to win.

"Should I make the trip with you?" Merrick asked.

He shook his head. "Melody's nervous as it is. I'm going to have a conversation with them and tell them what's what."

"Does she know that?"

"Not yet."

Merrick was intuitive as ever. "Are you going to tell them she's your mate?"

"More than likely." He hadn't wanted his claim to go down like that. If things had been different, he'd have given Melody more time to accept him. She deserved a patient and understanding partner. Sadly, it appeared that wasn't going to happen. "I won't let them keep bullying her. She's at the end of her rope." The frayed strands were going to snap soon. "I'd rather deal with her anger than see her hurting. She's suffered since she was bitten."

"As soon as you mate her, the problem is solved."

Something he already knew. "I'm aware."

Human courts might go after a bitten female with a child, but they wouldn't fuck with one who'd mated with a Beta. A few custody cases had been tried in the last few decades—involving visitation and other such matters between humans and supernatural creatures—and things never ended well. Courts eventually decided private mediation was best. Humans didn't stand a chance against beings that had access to magic and other such things.

Merrick gave him a cursory look. "They're going to be terrified of you."

He glared at his Alpha and repeated, "I'm aware."

Gunner never minded his size before, finding it helped in a lot of situations. It sure as hell ended most confrontations before they started. At six feet and seven inches, he was a big son of a bitch. Female werewolves responded positively to his proportions, appreciating his musculature and form, knowing he could fuck them the way they liked or protect them with ease. It figured the one meant for him wouldn't be the same. Melody found his tall and bulky frame overwhelming and intimidating. Not that he didn't understand her response. She'd been attacked and changed to something she feared.

If he was in her position, he'd feel the same way.

He spotted a flash of red hair. As soon as he got a visual of Rachel and Declan, he told Merrick, "I need to speak to Declan before I shift."

Merrick followed Gunner's gaze. "Declan?"

"I'm going to see if he's willing to come for a visit. Rachel was bitten and turned against her will."

"You want Rachel to speak to Melody?"

"If she's willing. The only bitten werewolf Melody met was in a support group for humans." He'd gained that knowledge from the pack when he'd questioned them. After Melody had been directed to Rhodes, she'd been instructed to speak with others in a similar situation. Humans didn't understand the true complexities of the change. When bitten, not all werewolves were equal. The one she'd spoken with wasn't part of a pack. "It might calm her nerves if she talks to someone who understands how she feels." Delving deeper and trying to think ahead, he added, "She keeps the link between her and the wolf closed. If she finds out there's nothing to be afraid of, she can lower her guard and get to know the pack. It'll make her life easier."

The Alpha didn't speak for several seconds, contemplating Gunner's words. "She won't have a choice if you use influence. You could take care of her doubts straight away."

"And subject her to more things she can't control?" Venom and outrage were evident in the question. As much as he respected Merrick, he wouldn't consider such a thing unless there was no other alternative. If he did something like that, there was a good chance she'd never forgive him.

He was already fighting an uphill battle.

Merrick didn't respond straight away, but his irises brightened. The dominant and unbending wolf inside him peered out through the eyes of the man. "If your mating becomes an issue, I'm going to expect you to do just that." He growled, advancing. Authority and brute strength oozed from him. He didn't care that Gunner was several inches taller than him or that Gunner was a deadly opponent. The Alpha was incredibly strong and capable of holding his own in a fight. He stopped when a couple of inches remained between them. "I understand you want to do right by her, but I have a pack to think about. There are others to consider."

Merrick had taken over wolves that needed absolute leadership and guidance. Even though Gunner was one of Merrick's, Melody wasn't.

Not in the way she was supposed to be.

She'd defied Merrick twice now, rejecting him when he'd sent invitations to meet with her and accept her into his pack. Gunner had managed to keep her out of trouble, but with Wade out of the way, she was about to discover she couldn't avoid the chain of command any longer.

"Merrick." A deep voice intruded on the conversation. "Can I have a word?"

Shane had stopped a few feet away with Luna by his side. Gunner studied the female with a heavy draping of long, dark hair. Her blue eyes had a milky appearance but held a slight golden glow. She'd placed her hand in the crook of Shane's arm, allowing him to guide her. He reached for her mind, curious to see how she was feeling. The female was brimming with love and pride. She was relieved the fight was over, but she had absolute faith in her mate.

Lucky bastard.

"Do what you need to do." Merrick hiked his chin in Shane's direction, indicating he was coming to the couple. "Settle things on your own if you can. I expect to meet your female this week. Her lack of response to my summons is an insult, and I'm not going to let her keep running from you, me, or the pack." The anger in his face slowly ebbed. "I'm not trying to be a bastard, Gun. I know you'll do the best you can. I won't force an issue unless I have to. But we both know what has to happen if she keeps giving you hell. It's not safe for either of you."

The Alpha stepped away, moving toward the pair waiting for him.

Fucking great.

Gunner bowed his head and gave himself a shake.

Merrick had been supportive since he'd learned about Melody. Accepting that, Gunner decided to move away from the packs that gathered once a month to hunt. He needed to shift and get the toxins out of his system before he spoke to Declan. If he went to the couple in his current state, it might frighten Rachel. This was only her second full moon, and he didn't want to fuck anything up. Once he'd shifted and ran the excess energy out of his system, he would talk to the pair. Then he'd get in his truck, drive back to Rhodes, and return to his mate and child.

Certain issues might create tension, but he'd make things work.

As he rounded the barn that served as a shelter and meeting place, he shrugged out of his coat. The instant he removed his shirt, presenting more of his skin to the light of the moon, he felt a harsh tug in his chest. A steady fire raced under his skin. The prickle of fur beneath his flesh expanded. A growl in his head followed. The beast was equally unbalanced. As much as the wolf wanted to run and enjoy the night, it wanted to return to the female it identified as its own.

Both parts of him were uncertain.

While the man and beast knew what they wanted and needed, striving to claim and possess what belonged to them, they didn't know how to make those very things happen. Both were aware to proceed with caution, recognizing what their mate had endured.

She was the only reason to exist, a mirror to their souls.

Without her, life wasn't worth living.

The man and animal needed her like the air they breathed.