Code of the Wolf

Code of the Wolf
Western/Victorian Werewolf Series  —  Book 8
Harlequin (August 2011)
ISBN-13:  9780373775521 ♦ ISBN-10: 

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Outlaw werewolves destroyed his home and killed his wife. But they made one mistake: they didn’t kill him, too. Now, after ten lonely years honing his skills with a gun, Jacob Constantine is back in New Mexico, hell-bent on justice—until he’s ambushed by bandits and saved by an angel on her own deadly crusade. With a gun slung low across her seductive hips and vengeance in her eyes, Serenity Campbell isn’t who she seems to be. But neither is the mysterious bounty hunter who threatens to drive her desire into dangerous territory. Together they track their prey with the same intensity they circle one another. But will their growing passion be enough to right the wrongs of the past and bring two damaged hearts together?

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Code of the Wolf

Chapter One

Doña Ana County, New Mexico Territory, 1883

“I’m going to enjoy this.”

Jacob squinted up into the blinding New Mexico sun. Leroy Blake was only a black shape against the glare, but his gun was inches from Jacob’s face, all too solid and seconds away from sending a bullet into Jacob’s brain.

It wasn’t easy to kill a werewolf, but a bullet to the brain would do it. Jacob knew his odds of survival were almost nonexistent.

“Too bad it’ll be over so quickly,” Jacob said, wincing as bone grated in his shoulder. “I would have been happy to watch you hang, but I’d have taken the most pleasure out of seeing you squirm as they built the gallows.”

Leroy’s gun slammed into Jacob’s temple, knocking him to the ground again. The outlaw’s spittle flecked Jacob’s cheek.

“You think you can trick me?” Leroy snarled. “You want me to give you a chance to escape? I ain’t that stupid.”

Jacob lay still. It wasn’t just a matter of making Leroy think he was helpless, which he very nearly was. Broken ribs made it hard to breathe, and blood loss was rapidly draining what was left of his strength. He wasn’t even strong enough to Change.

“You’re … not stupid,” he croaked, “but you’re still a coward, Leroy. Still afraid … I can get away. I’m surprised you don’t run right now and leave one of your men to do your dirty work.”

The outlaw dug the toe of his boot into the ground and kicked dirt into Jacob’s face. “You ain’t nothin'” he said. “Nothin’ but a dirty bounty-hunter.” He leaned down, bathing Jacob in his foul breath. “You want to die slow? That can be arranged.” He stepped back. “Silas! Bring that rope over here!”

Silas, one of the four men left in Leroy’s gang, brought the rope, stepping gingerly around Jacob’s body. Unlike his boss, he had sense enough to recognize that there was more to Jacob than met the eye. It wouldn’t take much to spook him.

“Git over here, Stroud,” Leroy snapped. “You too, Ben, Hunsaker. We’re gonna give this son of a bitch his final wish.”

Jacob remained limp as the men heaved him up and dragged him away from the scanty shelter of the rocky outcrop. It was full noon now, and though it was only early May the desert heat was relentless. A man left without water or shelter would soon be dead. Even a werewolf, unable to Change, badly injured and already deprived of food and water, couldn’t expect to live out the week.

But it was a chance. Jacob let them carry him out into the desert, far from any shade, and drop him to the parched earth. Stroud and Hunsaker bound his hands and feet while Ben hovered nearby and Silas kept a wary distance.

“Don’t think we’re leavin’ you out here alone, Constantine,” Leroy said, holstering his gun. “We’ll make sure you get nice and warm. See how you feel about things in the mornin’. Maybe you’ll beg me to kill you quick … if you last that long.”

Jacob didn’t answer. He closed his eyes, concentrating on slowing his heartbeat and the blood still trickling from his wounds. That, at least, he could manage. Leroy and his men retreated to find a comparatively comfortable place to watch.

The night was slow in coming. The buzzards, who’d come looking for an easy meal some hours ago, resumed their stately aerial dance. By the time the sun set, Jacob’s tongue was swollen and the bare skin of his face and arms were seared like overcooked beef. His body was too weak to heal itself quickly enough.

The darkness that seemed so absolute to ordinary humans was bright to Jacob’s wolfish eyes. Leroy and his men were huddled over a tiny fire built on dry sticks gathered up from dead mesquite and rabbit brush branches, their faces etched in eerie light and shadow.

“I say kill him now and be done with it,” Silas said.

Code of the Wolf

Leroy snickered loudly. “Why? You still scared of him?”

Silas shook his head. “He ain’t no ordinary bounty-hunter. You seen how quick he killed Davey. If Stroud hadn’t gotten his horse …”

“He’s good,” Stroud said, “but he ain’t nothin’ special. He’ll die like any other man.”

“Maybe not as quick as you think,” Silas muttered. “I ain’t never seen a man take as much as he has and stay alive.”

The men fell silent. Using what remained of his strength, Jacob worked as the ropes. They should have been easy to break, but his body hadn’t had enough sustenance to feed his werewolf’s natural stamina, and the mere effort of staying alive had sapped his endurance almost beyond recovery. After six hours he had barely managed to loosen the ropes around his wrists. But not enough.

When dawn came, Stroud and Hunsaker rode out in search of game while Silas came to look Jacob over. Jacob kept his eyes closed and his body still, but Silas wasn’t convinced. He crouched beside Jacob’s head and poked him in the shoulder.

“I know you ain’t dead,” he whispered. “I know … I know you ain’t normal.”

Jacob knew better than to respond, and after awhile Silas went away. The sun rose, hotter than it had been the day before. Jacob crawled into the dark, cool shelter inside his mind the way an injured animal finds some untroubled place to lick its wounds and wait out the crucial hours that would determine its fate.

Stroud and Hunsaker returned sometime later, and the smell of cooking rabbit drew Jacob from his private mental sanctuary. Though his wounds had healed over, they were still raw inside. His skin burned from the sun’s constant assault and his mouth was far too dry to water in vain anticipation of food.

He began to realize that he had less time than he’d estimated. Presuming Leroy didn’t decide to shoot him first, he’d have to get out of the ropes before another night had passed.

He didn’t even make it to sunset. Silas came twice to stand over him and mutter about things that weren’t quite human. Even Stroud came to look him over, and despite Jacob’s efforts he knew they weren’t deceived.

“He ain’t dyin'” Silas whined as the sun began its steady descent into the west. “We could be here for days, waitin’ him out.”

“I hate to say it, but I think he’s right,” Stroud said. “Constantine looks bad, but he’s not near dead. We got places to go, and someone might’ve known he was bringin’ you in.” Ben and Hunsaker muttered agreement.

Leroy, who had been sulking in the only patch of shade for half a mile, hawked and spat loudly. He didn’t like to admit to anyone that he’d been wrong, let alone that his own captive might have played him for a fool.

He got up, and Jacob heard the sound of a gun sliding from its holster. “We ain’t gonna stick around,” he said. “A belly shot will see to him, and he’ll still suffer enough to wish I’d shot him in the head.”

“But what if he …” Silas began.

“Shut up.” Leroy’s boots stomped in the dirt as he marched across the dozen yards of parched ground to where Jacob lay. Jacob tested the ropes around his wrists. With a final burst of effort he might get his hands free, but his feet would still be bound. A carefully-aimed kick would relieve Leroy of his weapon–if Jacob could find some last reserve of strength.

Leroy stopped inches from Jacob’s body. He lashed out with his foot, kicking Jacob onto his back and sending a fresh wave of agony through Jacob’s ribs.

“So long, Constantine,” Leroy said with a twisted grin. “Hope the buzzards don’t start into you before you’re dead.”

He aimed his pistol. Jacob gathered his muscles for a single, straight kick.

Code of the Wolf

The gun went off, but Jacob felt no shock of impact, no pain. Leroy howled, dancing like a man who’d just stepped on a red ant’s nest.

Jacob didn’t give himself time to wonder. He ripped his hands free of the ropes and threw himself on top of the gun Leroy had dropped. Someone shouted a warning. Stroud came running, and another shot from nowhere took his hat right off his head. He grabbed Leroy and fell flat on his belly.

Clutching Leroy’s pistol, Jacob felt his muscles turn to water. He couldn’t so much as raise the weapon above his head, let alone get to his knees. He rolled onto his back and concentrated on keeping his hand on the gun. Whoever came for him next would get a bullet between the eyes.

“Stay where you are!”

Jacob laughed. He couldn’t have moved even if he’d wanted to. But after a dazed moment he realized the voice he’d heard didn’t belonged to Leroy or any of his men. It was higher-pitched, though it carried strongly enough.

A woman?

Blackness rolled like thunderclouds behind Jacob’s eyes. He fought it, fought the helplessness that was coming. If there was a woman here, she didn’t stand a chance against Leroy’s gang. God knew what they’d do to her once they …

The pistol fell from his hands. His senses dimmed. He heard hoof beats … One horse, three, six. The gang’s mounts plus his own. More gunshots, and a cry of surprise and pain. Seconds or minutes or hours passed before he heard a different set of horses—three of them–approaching from the west.

Jacob struggled to keep his eyes open as the riders drew up a few yards away. They dismounted, feet striking the ground more lightly than any man’s would have done.

A silhouetted figure appeared, slighter and shorter than any of the gang, smelling faintly of perspiration, soap and chamisa. He could see nothing of her face. She stood over him, rifle in hand and at the ready. A toe prodded at his hip.

“Is he alive?” she asked in the same voice that had rung with command so short a time before.

Another woman knelt beside him, and slender fingers touched his throat. It was the first soft, cool thing he’d felt in days.

“He is alive,” the second, accented voice said. “But he may not remain so for long.” The fingers withdrew. “We must take him back with us.”

There was thunder now inside those black clouds in his head, thunder that came from the direction of the woman with the rifle.

“No man comes to Avalon,” she said.

“But Serenity,” a third, younger voice said, “He’ll never survive out here! We have to bring him in!”

Serenity. Jacob tried to remember what serenity felt like. He tried to imagine what kind of woman would have such a name. Surely not the one with the hard, merciless voice.

“Very well,” she said. “But only if we can tie him to one of the horses. I won’t have him loose for a moment.”

“He may not survive the ride,” the woman with the cool fingers said.

“It’s the only way,” Serenity said. “If he makes one hostile move, we drop him.”

Smart, Jacob thought dreamily. Smart, and tough. Tough enough to beat Leroy at his own game. But were the men dead? He’d heard those six horses running away, sure enough, but he doubted the outlaws would have gone if they hadn’t been caught by surprise. If Leroy and his men were alive, they might come back any time.

He had to warn these women somehow. He opened his mouth. His lips cracked. His tongue was like a chunk of stiff rawhide, but somehow he managed to move it.

“G … Go,” he rasped. “Get a–”

Lightning flashed inside his skull, and the blackness engulfed him.

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