Coveted

By: Stacey Brutger

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS





For those who’d helped me along the way…Melissa Limoges, Angela Rafuse, & Jessie Teicher…Thank You!



And a special thanks to my amazing editor, Faith, whose hard work has made this book stronger.

I bow to your skill at finding the story buried beneath all the words and making it shine.



To my husband and his unending support…thank you for believing in me. Know that you hold my heart.



Thank you to all my fans and readers.

I couldn’t have written this book without you.





Chapter One



Death saturated the air, oozing up from the hard-packed dirt floor of the prison. Aiden prowled the confines of his cell, intimately familiar with every stone after weeks spent locked in the underground fortress.

He closed his eyes and ran a hand down the front of his threadbare shirt, ignoring the betraying tremble of his fingers, ignoring, too, the stiff crust of blood and assortment of stains.

The clothing reminded him he was human.

The moment he forgot, allowed his beast to roam free, he was a dead man.

Claustrophobia methodically ate away at his last shaky hold on sanity. And it only grew worse at night. The walls closed in on him. The air thickened until breathing became impossible.

If he squeezed his eyes shut hard enough, he could almost pretend he was free and home in his own castle. But even half-starved and feverish, his mind would not be fooled. At least his keen sense of smell had faded, burned away by the rancid stench of rot and decay that infested the walls from the previous occupants.

He opened his eyes, and a heavy dose of grim humor took hold, kept him from going bat-shit crazy.

The five-foot-eight cell was surprisingly accommodating for an eight-hundred-year-old dungeon.

Running water?

Check. Plenty of water trickled down the mossy stone walls…if you didn’t mind the extra protein of slime in your diet.

Entertainment?

Well, entertainment of a sort, anyway. Spiders and other insects feasted on every available inch of his flesh. He hardly felt them anymore. And let’s not forget the talkative fellow one cell over. The whittled-down corpse lay crumpled against the far wall where he’d perished, his body disturbingly juicy even after months of rotting one slow inch at a time. Manacles dangled overhead, the man only escaping after death.

A foot or more of stagnant water pooled in the other cell, the floor having long since been washed out by rainfall. Despite the placid surface, a putrid stench of death rose from the watery pit. Half of the poor man’s body had disappeared into the sinkhole, the water insidiously claiming the man’s decomposing corpse as if it got a taste for flesh and wanted more.

Another chain, anchored lower on the wall, snaked below the surface. The placement guaranteed the prisoners were forced to struggle to keep their heads above water until they eventually weakened and succumbed to a watery death.

Which would’ve been his own fate if not for his lineage. His captors had reserved the fortified cell especially for him. They couldn’t risk killing him too soon, not until they got what they wanted.

Then there was the food.

At first they’d brought him raw meat, most of it days old if the sour smell was any indication. Aiden ate it anyway, determined to remain strong. Only when he’d nearly escaped did they leave him to fend for himself.

The underground dungeon harbored an unlimited supply of rats, a type of room service, he supposed, since the food came to him. Although even that was getting scarce. The rodents didn’t venture near anymore, not with the full moon drawing close, and his wolf pressing so insistently beneath the surface. The predator in him kept them at bay.

Exercise?

Only if you consider the way they worked him over during the frequent torture sessions. They’d escalated to nightly visits…anything to force him to change into his wolf so they could extract his blood.

And they were close to succeeding.

The change was becoming harder to fight.

Much to his shame, he was weakening.

It was his wolf, his beast’s thirst for vengeance, that Aiden feared would ultimately break him.

In the last few days, he’d become more beast than man. The wolf had worn away his resistance, shredding the little bit of humanity he’d managed to scrape together. Soon he’d be left with nothing. When that happened, he wouldn’t be able to contain him much longer.

Aiden clenched and unclenched his fists as he paced, the scabs on his knuckles—that should’ve healed in minutes—cracked and dripped blood.

One thought kept him sane.

They’d slip up soon enough.

Make a mistake.

They had to.

Then he’d give free rein to his wolf and pick them out of his teeth afterwards.

The full moon would rise in a few days. Few wolves could resist her seductive call. Those who were denied her regenerative rays became raging beasts after a few cycles. He knew in his bones that he wouldn’t be able to hold off the change a second time. Even now his beast slashed under his skin, tearing into his flesh in retaliation for daring to imprison him.

He needed to shift, and soon, or he’d be in danger of going into flux. Locking out his wolf for extended periods of time would either stifle or kill his beast outright. Aiden wouldn’t survive being trapped in his human form for an eternity, half of his soul damaged beyond repair.

But if he shifted, he was dead. They would put him down like some rabid animal, drain every last drop of blood they could squeeze from his veins, and bottle it.

An ounce sold for thousands of dollars.

The hottest new drug on the market.

Since blood deteriorated so quickly, they required more wolves to maintain the supply.

He was an alpha, a purebred born and raised, not some bitten mutt. That made his blood more potent. They’d discovered that while he was unconscious. They offered him food and water, better accommodations, if he would voluntarily give his blood. Aiden refused. It was the only reason they didn’t kill him outright, but their patience was growing thin.

They wanted his blood, and they were becoming more determined to take it from him one way or another.

One dose gave the purchaser a surge of adrenaline. People could do impossible things, heal from life-threatening injuries. Diseases went into remission. It wasn’t a complete cure. They needed continual doses. But after the first miracle, people didn’t care where it came from or that a little too much would kill them.

Or worse.

Transformed them into something no longer human.

Those genetically predisposed, those that carried the werewolf gene, would turn into the very creatures they’d hunted if they consumed too much blood.

A lone wolf on its first change would rampage, its human side overtaken by a wolf more savage than those in the wild, and massacre anything in its way. A news report he’d spotted shortly before he was captured proved this point. A wolf had ripped through an apartment building, killing dozens before morphing back into his human from.

The police had taken one look at him, naked and covered in blood, ranting about monsters, and raised their weapons.

The first shot hadn’t even given the guy pause, only a hail of bullets succeeded in bringing him down.

The rest of his teams had been on assignment, tracking the record number of missing people from the surrounding area. People whom Aiden suspected were wolves. With no one else available, he’d gone himself to investigate. It was their first clue in months, his chance to search for the source of the drug.

That was when he met Nora, the lone survivor.

Nora had been on the drug, he’d smelled the blood on her. When she said she knew where he could get some, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to hunt down the culprits and eliminate the problem once and for all.

Too bad he hadn’t trusted his instincts.

She hadn’t lied. She knew where the drug had come from.

His veins.

And she was desperate for more.

She’d set up her boyfriend by giving him an overdose while he slept, possibly hoping to lure out more of his kind. Aiden should’ve been more careful. He took one look at her pretty face and underestimated her addiction and her knowledge of wolves. When Aiden had lunged, ready to force the truth from her broken body if necessary, she’d tossed a handful of powder at him.

Wolfsbane.

He’d tried not to inhale, but the damage was done. The instant the powder came into contact with his skin he was flat on his ass, only dimly aware of his surroundings.

Warmth burned under his skin to know that he’d fallen for her lies like some feeble human.

That carelessness had landed him in this hell.

He missed the feel of the sun and moon on his skin, the fresh breeze instead of the stink of this sewer. The passage of days could be measured only by the pull of the moon. Even now, his skin prickled, and his wolf stretched under his skin, testing the boundaries.

The moon was rising.

Night was ready to fall.

And they always came after sunset.

Aiden stopped in front of the wall, flicked out his claws, and pressed the sharp edge against stone, slashing a single mark next to the long line of others.

Nearly two months.

Thunder boomed in the distance, loud enough that a fine sift of sand rained down. The sound sent his stomach rumbling pitifully. He scratched his chin through the thick beard, while his wolf scenting the air for prey. Thunder meant a torrent of water would sweep through the underground, carrying rats in the floodwaters.

And if he was lucky, something he could use as a weapon. Everything he’d gathered so far had been useless. Every makeshift weapon he’d constructed had failed, the wood too rotten to be of use, and anything heavier never made it far enough to reach him.

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