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I hit the ropes hard, my body bouncing back into the ring like a shot. My face unfortunately landing right back into of the fist of the werewolf who was pounding the shit out of me. I wheeled backward, my neck catching the brunt of the impact, the force propelling me into the corner, right where the little stool would sit if I had one. I hit the post and collapsed in an unceremonious heap.
I was a mess, mangled and bloody. One of my eyes was swollen shut and at least two of my teeth were loose. Despite my poor showing thus far, I wasn’t even close to giving up this fight. “Is that all you got?” I taunted, spitting a mouthful of blood onto the mat. I braced my arms and slowly pushed myself up. “The busboy at Selma’s hits harder than you do.”
Mitch Jacobson sneered down at me, his teeth half exposed, his lips drawn in a tight, cruel line. Even though he was in his human form, his irises sparked a deadly amber, like a pair of flickering candles lit from within.
A low, predatory growl issued from deep in his chest. “Get up.” His fists balled. “Fight me.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” I said, stalling. “But the beach just called and they want your highlights back.” With his tan skin, slight build, and blond hair, Mitch was relentlessly teased for his California good looks.
I used what I had.
Challenging Mitch to this fight was the biggest risk I’d taken to date, but I’d made a decision. It was time to go all in. After years of enduring hatred, fear, name-calling, and threats for being female, I was ready to stand up for myself or die trying. After my eighteenth birthday, Pack dynamics had changed. The bullying and skirmishes had become more intense, and the small altercations were escalating in frequency and becoming bloody, the outcome likely ending with me losing my life in a fight I hadn’t planned on.
And I had no intention of dying.
I’d picked the perfect opponent. The one who’d give me the greatest likelihood of success. Mitch was not only pretty, but he was the least skilled alpha-born wolf. The bottom of the hierarchy on the Compound, and I was ready to win. Surviving meant keeping him occupied—and slightly enraged—while using every spare moment to recover.
I needed every single second, because I was human.
“You’re really funny,” he growled. “Now get the f**k up and fight me.”
I rose to my knees slowly. “You’re just too pretty, you know that? Almost feminine with those delicately high cheekbones. You should be carrying a surfboard under one arm instead of boxing a girl in the middle of the north woods.” We weren’t technically boxing, since neither of us wore gloves, but the ring served its purpose. All Pack challenges were fought here.
It was the first time I’d been on the inside looking out.
What we were engaged in was highly forbidden and unsanctioned by Pack—or by my father, Callum McClain, who happened to be head of Pack. There would be severe consequences for fighting. Clearly that wasn’t stopping either of us.
“Shut up, you piece of shit,” he snarled. “I’m going to silence that mouth of yours once and for all. You’re an abomination to the race of wolves, and I’m going to rid the world of you tonight. Something I should’ve done a long time ago.”
“Those are big words, Mitchy.” I staggered to stand, gripping the nylon ropes beside me. “I hope you have something to back them up.”
“I’m going to make it hurt too,” he said, advancing on me. “You’ll beg me to stop.”
“Then do it already,” I snapped. “You’re wasting my time. Or maybe you need a break? I brought some Band-Aids. Your brother can slap on a few and wipe your nose for you. I can wait.”
Josh Jacobson, the more tentative of the two brothers—on a werewolf scale of tentative,which meant he was beta-born, not alpha-born—stood just outside the ring. He glanced over his shoulder every two minutes, like he expected someone to bust through the doors at any moment, catching us breaking Pack Law.
But nobody was going to interrupt us. I’d made damn sure. I’d bolted the huge double doors behind me and added a heavy chain. Plus, it was two thirty in the morning and we were surrounded by several feet of solid, soundproof concrete coupled with state-of-the-art insulation. My father took every precaution to keep us a secret.
No one else besides Josh was in attendance to witness me getting my ass handed to me.
“I haven’t needed a f**king Band-Aid in my life.” Mitch swiped a forearm under his dripping nose, smearing a long bloody streak across his right cheek. I’d landed a few good kicks before he’d had a chance to wreck my face with his fists.
“That’s not what I heard.” I stepped out into the ring. “I heard Doc Jace had to rebreak a few bones for you not so long ago. I’m sure he needed plenty of Band-Aids for that.” Holding a wolf down so their bones didn’t align as they healed was considered bad fighting form, but was incredibly useful when you were trying to teach someone a lesson—which was exactly what my brother had been trying to do. “Isn’t that right? Something to do with a squabble you lost to Tyler? And by lost I mean…lost.” My twin brother was fierce and carried incredible status for his young age. Tyler had stepped in on my behalf when Mitch had started needling me a few months ago, and tried to pound some much-needed sense into him.
It clearly hadn’t worked.
“I’m going to wipe that smile off your face for good.” Mitch seethed, the hair on his arms morphing, growing thicker, triggered by his intense emotion, which was a glaring, telltale sign I was getting to him.
I grinned, loving the knowledge I’d pissed him off, that I’d weaseled under his skin like a bad rash. “So you keep saying,” I said. “But I’m still up, and you’re still an a**hole.”
He came at me faster than I could track. I hit the floor and rolled.
I was too slow. Sharp claws raked my back, shredding my flimsy tank top, gouging deep, bloody furrows into my skin. Breath left my body.
If I lost my focus now I was dead.
Mitch pressed in behind me. I swung my elbow up before he completely overpowered me, connecting with his jaw. He swore, but didn’t move. Instead, his hand wound around my neck and he mashed my face into the mat like he was putting out a cigarette. “How does that feel?” he growled. “Looks like you’re down now.”
With every ounce of strength I had, I forced my head up, arching my neck and shoulders. I managed to gain a little space between me and the mat. His hand was like iron, unforgiving and hard, but I was leaking fluids. I used the slipperiness to my advantage, and in the small space I’d won, I twisted my body to the side in his grasp, but just barely. I brought my leg up and pressed it into his shoulder, and with gargantuan effort, pushed him back less than an inch.
It was all I needed.
“You’re not getting away,” Mitch snarled. “I’ve waited to do this for too many years. I’m not letting you bring our race down, Daughter of Cain. It’s time for you to go back to your Maker.” He grabbed a fistful of my hair, which had come loose from its bindings, and yanked. My head wrenched to the side at an impossible angle—vanity payback for keeping my hair long when I should’ve cut it “No help is coming for you now, Jessica, so it looks like I win.”
“And,” I gurgled out of my distorted throat, “it looks like you have…my heel”—I smashed the back of my perfectly positioned foot into his face as hard as I could—“in your f**king eye.”
A satisfying crack sounded and Mitch sprang back, staggering away from me, cupping the wound, blood flowing freely between his fingers. “Goddammit!”
I gulped in a few breaths, compensating for the lost oxygen. Sticky blood streamed down my back in hot rivulets, but I couldn’t let it distract me. I had to find a way to erase it from my mind—and taunting Mitch sounded like the best place to start. “What’s the matter? Did that hurt?”
Mitch snarled fiercely.
I scuttled back out of his reach. Even though I’d likely shattered both his frontal and maxillary bones, it would take him only a few moments to recover. Stupid werewolf healing. And even though he was a wolf, he still felt pain, which always worked in my favor.
After a moment, Mitch dropped his hand, fury roiling across his features in churning waves of hate. Blood coated his face, red leaking slowly out of the still-healing wound, dripping onto his formerly white T-shirt, making it look like a horror-soaked tie-dye. As I watched, the fractured bones began to set themselves in real time. It was completely unnerving, even though I’d seen live-action healing many times before. It was straight out of a sci-fi movie on the FX Channel—only this was the real thing. Mitchy was going to be good as new in less than a minute.
A low-level growl sounded from outside the ring as Josh nudged himself closer to the ropes, his agitation clear, his eyes sparking more than a little yellow. Shit. Betas, overall, had never given me as much trouble as alpha-born wolves, but they were still stronger than I was. If the fight moved along at a quick pace, Josh should keep to himself. Instinct would demand he let his superior-status brother, and Pack mate, have the kill. If Mitch went down, Josh could feasibly jump in. But fighting two wolves was not on the agenda tonight, so I had to make sure that didn’t happen. Lucky for me, Mitch was ready to play again.
“You’re about to hurt.” A slow smile crept over Mitch’s bloodied lips. He dove for me, his sharp nails latching on to my arms before I could get clear, and with one fierce tug I was airborne. I spun, crashing into the corner headfirst. I fell into the mat, a long gash above my hairline, fresh blood rushing into my eyes. I’d lost my advantage—or rather my perceived advantage—and had to think fast.
I dug deep into my arsenal of survival skills while I was down, my brain flipping at warp speed through tactics. There was only one real option left, so I stilled my breath completely, relaxed all my muscles, and lolled my head to the side.
I played dead.