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The Burning Claw (The Grey Wolves #10)

By:Michele G Miller

The Burning Claw (The Grey Wolves #10)
The Grey Wolves series
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Prologue
“I have to go on. I must. I know that. But I don’t want to.”
~Costin
Costin watched as Titus squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush. His mate had been missing for two days. The lives of Fane and Jacque were still being precariously sustained only by the combined healing power of Peri and Rachel. Alina and Lilly had taken over the care of the youngest Lupei and newest pack member—Fane and Jacque’s newborn son.
Costin’s wolf paced restlessly inside of him. He was torn. His need to protect the fragile three-year-old entrusted to his care and his need to find his mate warred for dominance. Jen and Decebel had promised to search for Sally. They had promised to let him know anything that they found the moment they found it. Costin knew that he had additional responsibilities now. He had to take care of Titus—his son—their son. Sally would have expected nothing less from him.
“She’s not gone forever, Daddy.” Titus’ voice drifted up to him. Costin looked down at the little boy who’d instantly taken up residence in his heart. His eyes were filled with too much knowledge for one as young as he. He should have been chasing bugs and building with blocks, not staring into the faces of hungry vampires.
Costin knelt down so that he was at eye level with Titus. “No, she isn’t.”
“You miss her,” he said.
Costin nodded.
“I miss her too. But the angel said Mommy would have to go away.”
“Did the angel say how we could get her back?” Costin asked. He couldn’t be sure, but Costin suspected the angel Titus was referring to must be the Great Luna herself. It was in her nature to offer comfort to her children. But her ways were mysterious, of course. He could only trust that she was involved in all of this, somehow. He had to believe that she had a plan and that it would all work out eventually. What other hope did he have?
“She said that Mommy would have to want to come home before she would be able to come home. But I know she will want to be with us, so she’ll come home.” He sounded so sure, so absolute, and Costin desperately wanted to have the faith of a child.
But it was hard to have faith when he felt so desolate inside. The last two nights he’d been unable to sleep because his bed was empty without his mate. His arms were useless without Sally to hold. Instead of sleeping, he’d been researching, searching to find out if Titus had any family. What he would do if he found anything, he wasn’t sure. That was the type of thing Sally would have known intuitively. She had an innate ability to handle delicate situations with tact, charm, and wisdom. He was more disposed toward hunting, killing, and making jokes. Frustratingly, none of those skills were proving particularly useful in dealing with his current predicament. 
Perhaps, it was a blessing, but so far, no family had turned up. Thanks to Wadim’s uncanny ability to hack into poorly protected county computer systems, he had found a missing person’s report that had been filed on Titus, but it hadn’t been placed by his parents, of course. They’d been found murdered in their home and there had been no sign of the boy. No other family had come forward to be ready to accept the child if he was found.
Costin plucked Titus up from the floor and carried him to the room that joined his own. Jen, as usual taking the initiative, had already gotten a room put together for the little boy. It wasn’t finished, but it already felt like a room meant for a little boy. No, it didn’t feel like it was meant for any little boy. It felt like it was meant for Titus. It felt like it was meant for his son. He laid Titus in the bed and pulled the covers up just over his waist.
“Want the big light on or just the lamp?” Costin asked him.
“Just the lamp. I’m getting braver.”
Costin smiled. “You are very brave.”
“I have to be brave for Mommy.” Titus closed his eyes and within a few minutes he was sound asleep. Costin felt as though the little boy was trying to catch up on all the sleep he’d probably lost while being imprisoned by the vampires. After all, who could sleep knowing that at any moment you might be dragged out of bed and snacked on like a box of crackers?
He watched Titus for a few minutes longer before standing up and turning on the lamp that rested on the bedside table. Then he walked to the door, turned off the bedroom light, and glanced back one more time before stepping out and pulling the door partially closed. As he stepped back into the room that he usually shared with his mate, Costin glanced around and the emptiness hit him like a punch to the gut.
His wolf surged forward and fought for control. It was a battle that Costin had fought repeatedly over the last few days. He suspected that, at some point, it might be one that the man would no longer win. He needed her. Costin needed her light; he needed her soft-spoken nature, her wisdom, and her gentle heart. He needed her brown eyes staring back at him, shining with love for him and only him. Perhaps, most of all, he needed her with him to help raise Titus. Titus had endured tortures that Costin could only guess at. No one else but Sally had the kind of quiet, gentle, healing love that such a boy needed. It wasn’t just that she was a healer, it was that she was his mother. Costin had known it the moment he saw Peri carrying the small form out from that underground hellhole and passing the child to Sally’s loving arms. Despite the brave face Titus was putting on, the boy had no chance without Sally.
“I can’t do this on my own, Sally mine,” he whispered into the quiet room. He walked over to her side of the bed and, as he done at least a hundred times before, he picked up her pillow and held it to his face. He took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with her scent. Again, he reached for her through the bond and again he found nothing. It was like a life preserver trailing behind a boat. One second, it was there, floating along, offering him the hope and salvation he’d clung to since the moment she and her two best friends had walked into his bar almost two years ago. The next second, the rope connecting the preserver to the boat had been cut. How or why it had happened, he had no idea. But their bond was cut and now he was lost, floating aimlessly in the open ocean. There was no help in sight—no land, no lifeboat—nothing but a vast emptiness as far as he could see.Costin reached out with his wolf hearing and listened for Titus. His breaths were slow and even. He was in a deep sleep.
Costin shed his clothes and phased. He needed to run. His wolf needed to hunt and if they couldn’t hunt their mate, then he’d hunt something else—something he could kill. As he headed for the back door of the mansion and toward the forest that beckoned to him, he let the wolf take over completely. Costin let go of all the human emotions and gave into the wolf. He needed a break from the brokenness. He needed the confidence of the wolf.
“We will find her. We will protect our pup,” his wolf growled. There was no doubt to be found anywhere in the beast. Those two things would happen and the only thing that would prevent them from happening would be his death.
“It is not time for our death. It is time to hunt.” And with that thought, his wolf shot out into the woods. His shaggy brown fur was a blur, streaking through the trees. None could have matched his speed, not even the natural grey wolves that inhabited this region. For the moment, wolf and man would hunt together. They would stalk the prey that lived in the forest and they would kill it, quickly and mercifully. But soon, very soon they would stalk the ones that took their mate. And there would be death, but it would be anything but quick and merciful.
Chapter 1
“Sometimes I feel as though I am an actress with a bit role in this story called life. I feel like I’m simply going through practiced motions. I’m not really living, mostly just existing. It’s like I’m just stuck. I have no purpose, no plans, no ideas for the future. I’m just stuck.” ~Sally
“I don’t drink,” Sally answered the man, who had introduced himself as Cross. She was sitting across from him in his small, cluttered office. The walls were plastered with old record album covers and lined with numerous boxes boasting of different types of liquor. But the liquor that had once been in those boxes had been replaced by layers and layers of receipts, bills, and various other documents.
“You do realize that you are interviewing for a position as a bartender, right?” Cross asked. He was a burly man—biker-ish—if that’s even a word. What she meant, Sally thought, was that he looked like he belonged in a bar. He wore a scruffy shadow on his face as though he didn’t have time to shave and he wasn’t that concerned about it. His hair was short, cut close to the scalp, and looked to be a deep, chocolate brown. He had stern, serious, hazel eyes and what she thought might be a dimple on his left cheek. He was rugged, handsome, but rough around the edges.
“Is drinking experience a requirement for the job?” Sally asked. She wasn’t being sarcastic. She didn’t have a clue what was expected of a bartender. But she guessed that not drinking up all the bar’s products was probably a good thing. 
He leaned back in his chair and rested his elbows on the arms. His hands steepled in front of him as he looked at her. It was like he was seeing her for the first time since she’d walked in.

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