Heart of the Assassins – Stacey Brutger

Morgan raced through the trees, her heart thumping wildly against her ribs as she pushed herself into a breakneck pace. She ignored the painful stitch in her side, the way her mouth tasted of blood—she couldn’t afford any weaknesses. The hunters were only a few yards behind her and gaining. She tightened her grip on the gun, the metal bitingly cold against her fingers. Snow crunched under her boots, the crisp, frigid air burning her lungs with every breath. She had only seconds to escape before they located her. The silence made the forest feel abandoned, like nothing else in the world existed. But it was a lie. They were out there. Hunting her. And she was running on empty after eluding them for hours. A twig snapped to her right, and Morgan whirled to see a large shadow lunge out of the trees. Wolf. She flung herself backwards, brought up her gun and fired three shots in rapid succession. Then she registered who she’d just shot.

Ryder! Three splashes of bright pink paint dotted his chest, no doubt Draven’s idea of a joke, since he was the one who loaded the paint gun that morning. The majestic wolf melted down, the sandy brown fur with white undertones faded, the body stretched. There was a bright flash of light, the intense heat radiating from him, threatening to singe her skin, then there was only Ryder facing her. The change happened in a matter of seconds. If she blinked, she would’ve missed it. He reached for her as she fell backwards, wrapped her up in his arms, twisting midair, so when they landed, he was on the bottom. They smacked the ground hard, the snow doing little to protect them, and she groaned at the painful collision. Even with the breath knocked out of her, she didn’t hesitate, immediately lurching backwards, bringing up her gun and firing point blank at his chest. Ryder grunted, a grimace twisting his face at being shot in such close quarters. It had to smart.

His wild, fresh green scent tasted of freedom and temptation, inviting her to forget their training session. Then she became aware of his chest—as in a bare chest packed with mouth-watering muscles, oh so temptingly close. She blinked, suddenly uncomfortably warm when she realized he was stark naked… and she was straddling him, her lower body the only thing protecting his dignity and her sudden curiosity. The training mission was forgotten, scrubbed from her mind as she studied the shiny, obsidian metal webbing on Ryder’s chest. A striking contrast to the snow beneath him, the tattoo ran up his chest and along his shoulder, where an inch-long spider sat etched just beneath his skin, an exact replica of the dainty markings on the inside of her left hand. The only difference was hers included the tiny pawprint as well. Their mating marks. This close, Ryder’s pleasure at her attention vibrated through their connection, making her whole body tingle in reaction. Though usually painfully shy, he remained absolutely still under her perusal, as if fascinated by her reaction to him. His craving for something as simple as a brush of her fingers made her heart ache.

Goosebumps spread across his shoulders and down his arms, not from the cold, but in anticipation of her touch. Being this close to him, feeling his emotions while struggling with her own, shortcircuited her brain, and her resistance melted, making her forget the last few weeks of frustration in dealing with the men. She hadn’t wanted to use her mating marks to get close to the guys—she wanted them to be friends because they liked her, not because the markings made them crave being near each other. Now, straddling Ryder, she couldn’t remember why resisting the pull was so important, not when being this close to him felt so right. Even sprawled out beneath her, every inch of him packed with muscles, he was huge, making her five feet, seven inches seem dainty. Heat radiated from him, luring her closer, offering protection from the bitterly cold winter air. She felt safe with him, and not only because of his strength. She knew, no matter what, he would never let her down, the point driven home when he almost died for her. Even now a pale, paper-thin line remained where he’d been gutted, drawing her attention back to the body below hers, reminding her how easily he could be taken from her, and she wrestled against the need to lay her hands on him, confirm that he was all right, that his heart still beat, that his skin was still warm. The reassuring rise and fall of his chest was mesmerizing, the blob of bright pink inviting her to use her fingers to trace the paint along each dip and shallow.

The splash of girly color didn’t detract from his beauty—it only made him appear more rugged and comfortable in his skin. And sexy as fuck. A light dusting of hair covered his chest and down his packed abs, but she resisted touching him when she noticed the blush darkening his cheeks. He looked gorgeous backdropped against the snow, his sandy brown hair shaggy, reaching well past his shoulders, and her fingers twitched to run through the strands the way she would when he was in wolf form. He seemed bigger, stronger than she remembered. Yummy. To her surprise, he didn’t pull away from her and cover up the way he did when they first met. In fact, ever since she claimed him, he’d changed, no longer shying away from her when she came too close, no longer ducking his head to avoid her gaze. He always paid attention to her, but since the mating mark, he behaved as though she was his whole world. While his interest was flattering, it was also unnerving.

She wanted to be liked for herself, not because of an arbitrary bonding—she didn’t trust it. In the past few weeks, the men had changed, and the camaraderie between her and the team had become strained. She wanted her men back, the ones who fought beside her during battle, her friends— not the men who now ruthlessly kept their distance and only thought about her stupid training schedule. It hurt. It hurt more than she could say to finally have found friends and a family, only to have them pull away from her. All because of her stupid bloodlines. Anger roared through her, the gun in her grip groaned, and she forced herself to relax her hold before she accidently crushed it into a ball of useless metal. She should never have told them her secrets. Her lustful thoughts cooled, and she raised a brow, ignoring the way the snow melted under them and soaked her pants legs, leaving her skin as clammy and cold as she felt inside. “Did I pass?” “Yes.

” The smile he gave her caused her to hesitate, encouraged her to believe her men were still there, waiting for her, and she simply needed to find a way to cut through their bullshit to reach them. Morgan leaned forward, brushing her lips across his cheek, then sprang to her feet, fighting against the urge to linger. “Go.” His whisky brown eyes glowed as he studied her, a combination of wolf and human. For a moment, she thought he would pull her back down to him—hoped for a sign that he wanted more than a simple kiss—but he waved her off. “You didn’t tag all of us yet. If you don’t hurry, they’ll catch you, and you’ll be assigned more training.” Stupid training. Morgan barely resisted the urge to kick him while he was down. Instead, she whirled, taking off into the woods.

It would be dark soon. She had maybe twenty more minutes to elude capture and tag the rest of them before they called a stop to the hunt. No way in hell was she going to waste any more of her free time training. Kincade’s regimen was as rigid and unbending as the man himself. The only time she had any peace from them was on these hunts. It had been close to two months since they discovered the truth of her past. Ever since, the guys had refrained from being alone with her. Hell, they were avoiding her completely, and it pissed her off. She used the anger to fuel her, scrambling deeper into the woods, heartily tired of the hunt, tired of the endless training. She didn’t think it possible, but she was coming to hate hunting, when once it had been her whole life.

She understood their need to prepare her for what was coming—her bloodlines made her royalty, which made her a target. She’d almost been killed, and the guys refused to let her forget it. To make matters worse, the mating marks bound them together in ways she never expected, made her crave more from them than just a strict, emotionless instructor and student relationship. Instead of taking advantage of the mating marks, they were using them to track her every move. She was trapped by her blood, her heritage, and her team’s drive to protect her, and she didn’t know how to escape. She’d been learning to disguise her presence from them for a few seconds, long enough to avoid them. Each time, those seconds stretched a little more, becoming minutes, but eventually, no matter where she went, they always located her. She was becoming accustomed to the lack of privacy, but what was slowly killing her was the emotional distance separating them. Every day they seem to be further and further away, and she didn’t know how to reach them anymore. She knew they noticed the difference—they pushed her more, trained her harder, but their demands only ended up making things worse.

At times, if she concentrated, she could connect to the men, feel what they felt…but as soon as they discovered her intrusion, they blocked her before she had a chance to become accustomed to the tantalizing sensations. The distance they so rigidly maintained between them was not only annoying as fuck but it took all her control to keep from losing her shit—she refused to give them any more power over her. She concentrated on the cold as she ran, allowing the exercise to numb the pain. She never wanted to bind herself to anyone, detested the practice, but it didn’t matter what she wanted…fate had decided for them. The men were supposed to be hers, but she’d never felt so distant from them. Morgan knew she reached the end of the training when the guys opened up the links between them, signaling the okay to return. Night would fall in less than an hour, and she’d been training since sunrise. She was beyond tired. Tired of training. Tired of the distance between them.

She came to a stop, the air misting in front of her with each breath, and she plunked her hands on her hips. It was time for a change. Her necklace warmed, the metal stretched and twisted until a fragile heart pendant formed. A knife pierced the top curved edge, while the sharp tip of the blade emerging through the side, and Morgan snorted at the message. All’s fair in love and war. She gazed into the trees, the pristine snow unmarred, the temptation to run away growing stronger each day. The only reason she’d resisted was she knew they would follow. No, the necklace was right. She must nut up and face them, fight for what she wanted, not run like a coward. Very slowly, she turned back toward the Academy, the turmoil churning in her gut calming with her decision.

She would either get answers out of them, or they would have to let her go. She was done settling for second best. M C HA P T E R TW O organ emerged from the tree line, pausing to appreciate the stunning view of the Academy. It was an honest-to-goodness castle. The structure rose majestically from the mountaintop. Even with the sky overcast, ribbons of orange and red light from the setting sun cast a fiery glow against the grey stones, making it appear as if the Academy was burning. The view was spectacular…and more than a little foreboding. The outer wall was the only thing separating the school from the forest and potential intruders. She slipped through the gates only minutes before they closed for the evening. A pack of wolves patrolled the yard, a few of them gave her toothy grins, but none stopped to play.

They took their jobs seriously. She handed one of the guards her paintball gun, her mouth twitching, trying not to smile when she noted his camouflage was liberally splashed with pink. Most of the guards had been her victims at one time or other. Poor schmucks. The double doors to the Academy loomed in front of her, closed and imposing, most of the students already inside for the night. As she mounted the stairs, the doors creaked open, as if aware of her presence. Since the school was sentient, there really was no sneaking up on it. The inside was even more impressive. A giant mirror stood to the right, and she could hardly believe she arrived through that portal only a few months ago. It felt like the Academy had always been her home, probably because it was identical to the castle in the primordial realm where she was raised.

Every nook and cranny was familiar, even when the stairs led to nowhere, the doors opened to walls, the building altering its very structure to guide her where it thought she was needed. A series of steps led up three stories, a small landing at every level, the stairs stretching nearly as wide as the room. Ten-foot-wide arched openings were on either side of the landing, the top level invisible from where she stood. The place was a weird combination of castle and school. The Academy smelled of teenagers, their sweat and hope, hormones and anxiety, and a healthy dose of unrepentant lust, but more and more, the ancient place smelled like home. As she dashed up the stairs, she nearly collided with Harper and her entourage of witches. “Watch where you’re going, freak.” Morgan raised an eyebrow. “Nice face, Harper. Walk into a wall?” Despite the cake of makeup puttying her face, a bruise still darkened her eye.

When the witch smiled, Morgan took pleasure in knowing it hurt. She flexed her fists, still able to feel her knuckles cracking into the witch’s face during the routine beating sessions they endured nearly every morning. Harper did her best to kill her, while Morgan did her best to survive. Harper leaned forward, a snarl curling her lips. “A cheap shot. Tomorrow you’ll get what you deserve.” Malice gleamed in her eyes, but also pure enjoyment. Morgan had expected Harper to bow out of their training sessions the first time her precious face got smashed. Instead, she had to give the witch credit, she dished out as good as she got. She was determined to learn how to protect herself after a near fatal attack, and she deemed Morgan the only person capable of teaching her.

The witch whirled and stalked away, her gaggle of minions trailing behind her, glaring daggers at Morgan as they passed, but wisely keeping their distance. They were more the type to stab you in the back than face you directly. Morgan continued up the stairs, already thinking about the next match between her and Harper. They’d settled their rivalry…mostly. Since the school was attacked two months ago and Harper lost her two wolf protectors, she had weaseled her way into being trained. She didn’t want to be helpless anymore, and Morgan couldn’t blame her. What Morgan could lay at Harper’s feet was blackmailing her into being the one to train her. Every other morning for the last six weeks, the two of them beat the crap out of each other. While Morgan had strength and training behind her, Harper had magic and loved to cheat. No matter how much skill Morgan had, she was a novice at magic.

Though she had the raw strength of pure power, she had yet to learn the finer aspects of how to control it. The one time she tried to strike back at Harper magically, she accidently left a crater in the ground and knocked herself on her own ass. She’d since been banned from casting, allowed to use magic only as a shield. As she raced up the last set of stairs to her new room, she suddenly veered right, toward her old dorm, needing a few minutes to regain her composure before she confronted the men. And saw a man leaving Neil’s room, carrying a box. “Son of a bitch.” Her hand unconsciously formed a fist, the metal cuff around her wrist melting, slipping through her fingers to solidify into a black blade. The relic was a magical weapon said to be able to kill anything. She ran, then dropped and slid, taking the guy out at the knees. The box hit the floor with a crash, and barely missed crushing her.

She twisted and brought up her weapon, resting it against his neck when he tried to sit. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” The guy reached for the weapon at his side but froze when her blade touched his neck. “Ahhh—” She pressed the blade harder, stopping just short of drawing blood. “We don’t steal from the dead.” “Neil was a traitor. His stuff should’ve been cleared out and burned long ago for disgracing our family name.” Morgan turned to see a young woman standing in Neil’s doorway, her long black hair stretching down her back, her pale skin flawless, her beauty stunning if not for her hard, dark eyes. “Now either let my brother up or kill him.” She turned away, vanishing back into the room without another word. Morgan lifted the blade and registered that while the kid was large, he was young.

She released her hold on the blade, and the metal melted down, snaking up her arm to re-form into a decorative black cuff, and hastily got to her feet. “Sorry.” “You’re Morgan.” The kid didn’t move. “He talked about you. He said you were different.” Morgan blinked, not sure she liked having people talk about her. When she didn’t say anything, he carefully got to his feet, never removing his gaze from hers, as if she was a predator and not a person…which might not be too far from the truth most days. By the time he straightened, she was surprised to find him towering over her

.

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