The Immortal Beside Me, Book I
© 2010 by R.M. SouthTHE BIRTH OF A WEREWOLF
Why must it be raining, Nikolas Tackett asked himself as he slowly made his way toward the house. What made the rain worse was the fact that his coat was completely soaked. Not to mention that his specially made leather boots had cracks in them, and his feet were wet. Despite all these problems, he was a happy man. He had just received word that his beloved wife, Constance, was bringing their child into the world this evening. He assumed that by the time he entered the house, her labor would have progressed somewhat well.There were other thoughts, other haunts, which prickled at him. Although he would have easily given his life for Constance, there was one thing she had never known about him. Nikolas Tackett was a lycanthrope. It was entirely possible that his child would be as well. He wasn’t a man schooled in genetics or other matters that didn’t quite exist in his world. However, he knew there was a half chance that his child would inherit the curse of immortality. He wanted to believe that his baby would take on most of his mother’s genes. In other words, it would be human. He had to think of it that way. If he didn’t, he might lose his mind.
Outside the house, it was mostly dark. The only light he could see was from the lamps in his and Constance’s bedroom. It was in this room where she would bring their child into the world, where all the questions he had been asking since she said she was with child might very well be answered. Whatever the case, he dashed through the rain, went through the front door, and was immediately confronted with somber faces. He could hear Constance’s shrill voice, could almost feel her excruciating pain. He didn’t need the household staff telling him something wasn’t quite right with her labor. Something was definitely going wrong.
Nikolas started to dash toward the bedroom, but he was halted by Constance’s sister, Victoria. “You shouldn’t go inside, Nikolas. Our mother is with her now. She is going to be all right,” she said with a smile that was a lie; a horrid, stinking lie.
He knew Constance was not faring well. “I must see my wife,” he insisted stubbornly.“Nikolas,” Victoria stated firmly. “You cannot.”He didn’t listen to his sister in-law. Instead, he burst his way through to the bedroom. He was just in time to see his mother in-law, Bridget, wrapping a tiny, bloody infant in a clean linen sheet. He looked to his wife and would never forget what he saw. Their marriage bed was soaked in blood. Although Bridget had covered Constance from the waist down, her life blood was still evident. In the corner of their room, Nikolas saw the doctor standing iping his spectacles with the bottom of his shirt.
“What is this,” Nikolas roared. “Why aren’t you doing something for her?”The doctor replaced his spectacles and slowly approached Nikolas. The man was about to lose his wife, become a new widower. He stood wound up tight, ready for a death battle. “Mr. Tackett, there is nothing more I can do for your wife.
"The birth was quite difficult.”
Ignoring the squirming, bloody infant in Bridget’s arms, Nikolas went to his wife’s side. Her eyes were half lidded; her breathing shallow. She was dying. Part of him wanted to murder the doctor and throw his mother in-law out of the room. One bite from him and Constance would heal instantly. He thought better of it. Was it fair to allow his love to lead such a cursed life? When he took her weak hand in his, he was more tempted than ever to turn her, to allow her to live with him forever. It would have been more than worth the risk of showing his true self to the others in the room, as well as his ailing wife.Tears streaking down his face, he whispered, “Constance? Can you hear me? If you can, my love, tell me what to do.”
She never fully opened her eyes or looked his way. She smiled as much as her weakened body would allow. “I’m going away, Nikolas. I’m going to another place where I can finally see my family."
“My love,” he barked harshly, “You have a family here. We have a child.” He glanced at the bloody bundle in his mother in-law’s arms, not quite sure if the baby would survive the birth, either. He knew he already loved the child, but at the moment, he could only think of his dying wife. “You cannot leave us alone.”
Finally, she turned her head and focused her foggy eyes on his face. “I think I always knew,” she told him. “And I am not angry. I’m at peace, Nikolas. Promise you will take care of our baby. He is the one thing that matters most.”
Before Nikolas could react, Constance took one last hitching breath, and that was it. She was gone. Fully realizing this, Nikolas dropped his head onto her limp hand and cried like a baby. For a moment, he had all but forgotten his child, who was now fully blatting for his first taste of mother’s milk, something of which he would never have in his young life.
* * *
Nikolas sat outside on the front veranda as Constance’s mother and sister cleaned up the bedroom. They had sent for the rest of the family to assist in preparing her body for burial. He had listened to them making plans with little to no interest. He was in shock and numb. He had also refused to take one single look at his new baby. The only sure thing he knew was that the baby was a boy. Both he and Constance wanted a boy so badly. They planned to name him Keagan Conner Tackett. Nikolas was so entrenched in grief that he hadn’t glanced at his boy once. He could hear the faint strains of the baby’s cries somewhere in the house. The doctor had helped his in-laws concoct a formula that would satisfy the baby since he had no mother to provide sustenance for him. Right now, Nikolas Tackett didn’t give a damn.
It was a remedy his family had chosen throughout history to cure whatever ailed them, so it was no surprise that Nikolas was tempted to find whiskey. It was only a temporary fix. Sooner or later, he would have to accept the fact that Constance was dead. What did he know of taking care of babies? The first thing Victoria had suggested for him to do was find a new wife. The woman was utterly insane. His wife had just died, why would he even consider bringing in a stranger simply to care for his own son? When he decided his first course of action was to drink himself into a stupor, he suddenly changed his mind. He wanted to see his son, to find out if the baby had taken after Constance or was cursed like he was.
Pushing his self-pity aside, Nikolas crossed the porch and reentered the home. The living room was lit by dull oil lamps. His mother in-law sat primly on the sofa with her face in her hands. He was touched by her grief, since she was not so happy with his marriage to Constance. He moved past her and down the hallway, where the cries of the infant grew harsher. The bedroom door was blessedly closed. For now, it held the body of his wife, iced down, as they awaited the relatives for her burial. He slid past it, down two rooms, where they had set up a nursery for their son. When he opened the door, he saw that Victoria held the infant in her arms, trying her best to feed him milk that certainly had not come from his mother. It was obvious he didn’t want it. Why in the world wasn’t Victoria wise of this?
Nikolas approached his wife’s younger sister, standing directly in front of her. He noticed she was holding Keagan protectively, as if she didn’t want anyone else to touch him. She was plainer than her sister, her hair an off putting shade of red. “May I hold my son?” He asked, as if he were the stranger and she the mother.
She nodded primly. “Of course.” The baby was fussing wildly, refusing the fake mother’s milk, fighting against it. He apparently didn’t care much for his Aunt Victoria. “As you can see, he’s quite unhappy.”
“I can certainly understand,” he answered dully, forgetting that she was telling him something he already knew.
Awkwardly, the baby was transferred into his arms. This was the first time in his eternity that he had ever held an infant. It hit him instantaneously. This child was his. This child was his son. Tears slipped easily down his face. Keagan was a beautiful little extension of him and Constance. Vaguely, he wondered if his wife had seen him before she died.
“Constance didn’t see him, Nikolas,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I would like to believe she can see him with our Lord right at this moment.” She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. He stared down at his son, acting like they were the only two people in the room. That was completely fine with her. “Our sister and brother will be here by nightfall tomorrow. Father is coming in a few hours after he finishes the coffin. Will you bury her here?”
Victoria’s question brought his full attention back to reality. He had yet to meet either of Constance’s remaining siblings. Gordon and Sophia were a complete mystery to him. Both lived several miles east of here. They would arrive by train, he assumed, and would be forced to make the journey to his home via carriage. It would certainly be a long, harrowing trip for them. Constance’s parents lived only a few miles away. Oddly, Wyatt Apton’s specialty was the construction of coffins. Nickolas never thought he would need one so soon. How was he going to live without Constance? How was he going to take care of Keagan without her? It was almost too overwhelming to comprehend an ounce of new information.
“Yes,” he said; his eyes still on his infant son. “She wanted that. She loved our home.” As an afterthought, Nikolas wasn’t certain if he could ever tell Keagan where his mother was buried.
“Nikolas, have you noticed the odd mark on Keagan’s hand?” She asked. “It is, by far, the oddest birthmark I have ever seen.”
As soon as she voiced her question, he immediately searched out his son’s hand, digging it out of its protective swaddling. His heart sank as he identified the lycan mark. His son had inherited the curse. Suddenly, he felt sick. He already loved his son more than anything, but also feared him at the same time. Nikolas, a lycan himself, didn’t know how to raise one from birth. It would become a most daunting task. It didn’t matter if he was prepared for it. The infant lay in his arms, his baby, and the one who would carry on the Tackett name.
Swallowing hard, he looked up at Victoria and smiled rather morosely. “Odd, but beautiful. He truly reminds me of my Constance. Don’t you think?”
Victoria mistook his sadness for grief and only understood it to be related to Constance’s death, not the fact that he had passed on a curse. “Yes, Nikolas, I think so. He is a beautiful son. You should be proud.” Certain that Nikolas wasn’t ready to let go of the baby just yet, she said, “After my sister is laid to rest, I will return to my husband and daughter. Sophia will most likely wish to stay behind and help with the baby.”
Sophia was the middle sister, unmarried, and the family was convinced that she would be a spinster her entire life. She was only in her mid-twenties, but the family had already written off her chances of marriage. “I will need the help,” Nikolas admitted. “However, I do not know how long.”
The thought of an interloper in his home made him feel uneasy. It was easier to explain to Constance why he needed to take sojourns more often than necessary. What would her sister suspect or want to know where he was going? Feeding for him was natural, something he was forced to do. No one else could quite understand. Nikolas, too, was born a lycanthrope. His mother was one, like he, and his father was human. He didn’t know what Keagan would face as he grew, but Nikolas remembered how it was for him, what he went through as an adolescent. For now, Keagan would remain a sweet baby. In a few years, they were all going to face challenges. If one of Constance’s meddling sisters was around, he worried what would become of his son. He wasn’t ready to face the burial of his wife, much less the arrival of her unmarried sister. What did she know of infants? What did she know of lycans? Absolutely nothing.
Victoria left Nikolas with his son after a few minutes. He sat in the old cane rocking chair parked closest to the window. He kept the lamp light low, just in case it hurt Keagan’s eyes. Looking down at this son, he realized that the baby had stopped fussing so much. In his father’s arms, he actually took to the formula the doctor had concocted for him. He was asked to find a wet nurse, which would be best, and that was his next plan of action. For now, he was satisfied looking at the life he created with Constance. It hadn’t hit him fully that he would never see her again. It hadn’t hit him fully that when he opened the bedroom door, he wouldn’t find his gorgeous wife lying on their bed, her glossy dark brown hair fanned about the pillows in a shimmering cascade. Their love was undeniable, their passion unquestionable. When they discovered she was with child, Nikolas finally felt like a normal family man. All loose ends had been tied. He now realized that nothing was so simple.
As soon as Keagan’s hunger was sated, he opened his eyes and Nikolas swore he saw him, saw through him. He didn’t know if this was possible of one so young, but that action alone made his heart soar higher and higher. Keagan’s eyelids grew heavier as each moment passed. The same could be said for Nikolas. He was tired, grieving, and a hull of a man. He had never felt so tired in his life. Although his wife’s body lay in a room not four feet away, he was able to forget it as he slept with his son in his arms. The challenges ahead were unimportant. His wife’s words haunted him as he slept: I think I always knew. And I am not angry.“Nikolas,” a sharp female voice barked. “You are about to drop my nephew, you buffoon.”
Nikolas jerked awake, his sleepy eyes focusing on the disrespectful female standing inches away. How dare she enter his home and speak to him like this! He tightened his hold on the baby and glared at her. She was in an elaborate dress, full petticoats, tight bodice, and daring loose sleeves. It was the color of sapphires, which matched the blueness of her eyes and the darkness of her hair. It was a shade darker than Constance’s, and her mouth was full and wide, just like his wife. She wore a fragile lace and silk cap atop her head. This woman barking orders in his home was most likely Sophia Apton.
At first, he believed he had slept here with Keagan for days. How was it possible Sophia and Gordon were here? “Genteel lady, you are not,” Nikolas grumbled. “What are you doing here so soon? I thought you were with your brother.”
“I am sorry, good sir,” she responded sarcastically, curtsying for good measure. “I was only a few hours away,” she explained, answering his question grudgingly. “Father sent a message by courier and I just arrived. I rode in with him. He has finished Constance’s coffin. Might it be possible for me to see her before…”
Before they put her in the coffin, she wanted to say, but had enough sense about her to stop the words from flying out of her mouth.Good God, he thought he had dreamed it all. Constance’s crass spinster sister brought reality into his home once more. “She is your sister, Sophia. Do as you like.”
“Thank you,” she said. “When I return, I would like to see my nephew.”
Nikolas watched as Sophia left the room. He stood carefully, taking great care in not waking his son, and he placed him into the crib he built. When he was certain the movement wouldn’t rouse the baby, Nikolas left his sleeping son and slowly followed Sophia down to what had become Constance’s death chamber. He didn’t know why he was so curious as to what Sophia would say or do with Constance, but he couldn’t stay away.
Sophia didn’t know she had an audience as she made her way inside Constance’s bedroom. The message she received did not go into the horror of her condition before she arrived. However, it didn’t take long for Victoria to fill her in. She was glad to see that her sister’s body had been properly cleaned. If it wasn’t for the ice packs surrounding her, Sophia would have thought Constance was simply asleep with the sheet pulled over her head. Her family had accepted her marriage to Nikolas Tackett. His family did not have a name like the Apton’s, but he had been able to care for Constance and give her the life she deserved. When Sophia and Victoria learned Constance was giving Nikolas an heir, the whole family was excited. This was even truer for their father. He had a thriving business that would need a family touch down the line. The Tacketts were hard workers who earned a wage from a mercantile business that afforded Nikolas a nice home for Constance. It would be the very home where little Keagan would spend his formative years.
Everything seemed perfect. Although Nikolas was away much of the time for business, Constance never complained. If she grew lonely, she always came to Father and Mother. She had found true love with Nikolas Tackett, all that was left was a family. The two of them almost achieved it. Almost. Sophia hadn’t met Nikolas Tackett before, even at the wedding. Sophia was ill at the time and couldn’t attend. His appearance today was rustic, like a commoner. He wore breeches, boots, and a loose white shirt. His hair was long, tied back with a piece of black cloth. He wasn’t proper or refined. Sophia never complained about Constance’s married life before. Perhaps she should have. Father would have found more suitors for her who were proper, ones who weren’t Nikolas Tackett. Maybe…just maybe Constance would still be alive.
Sophia approached the bed slowly. She ignored the covers pulled all the way past her sister’s head. She looked beyond the ice keeping her body preserved before the burial. Holding her breath, she pulled away the sheet from her face. She was not prepared for what she saw. Her sister’s skin was a deep gray, her hair wet and loose. Quickly, she covered her face before she lost the food in her stomach. She turned to run from the room and slammed into the wall that was her brother in-law’s body. She wanted to hit him, to hurt him. It didn’t matter it was the complications of childbirth that ended Constance’s life. What mattered was her husband, a man who ran away all the time, not bothering to take care of her, even after he knew she was carrying his child. The words ‘it’s all your fault’ were just on the surface of her lips. She bit it back. It was wrong. Nikolas Tackett didn’t need her, but his son obviously would.
“Sophia, are you okay?” He asked with concern.
“What an absurd question, Nikolas,” she hissed. “Where were you when she was dying?” Sophia demanded.
“I was away,” he said simply. I was away, dealing with a metamorphosis, trying to find prey that didn’t walk upright. “I wanted to be here, I did not know Constance would have the baby like this. I would have been here if I could have.”
“I am right sure of this, sir,” she quipped. “You were never here when she truly needed you. I won’t allow you to neglect your son.”
“I need help with him,” he admitted. “I am quite inexperienced. Yet, your tongue lashing was not called for. I would never neglect my son. I understand I failed my wife in some way. The fact remains that Keagan is not your responsibility. You cannot sacrifice your life to care for another.”
“She was my sister, you bastard,” she replied, each word dripping crass venom. “You cannot make time, but nothing says I can’t or won’t.”
Nikolas once thought having a big family was a blessing. He realized that in the few hours since Constance’s died, he was mistaken. They were as much of a curse as his lycan blood. If he could not force Sophia to leave, would he be forced to show her what he truly was? Would he then also have to tell her what Keagan would face when he grew older? What in the world had he been thinking when he married a human? All were valid questions. He should have thought them through before he fell in love with Constance Bridget Apton, a human, and he, a lycan.
“It is the way of the world,” he managed after a very long, tense silence. “It is my lot, Sophia. Who else can hold my family together if not me? I loved your sister more than life itself. Your family knew this, understood it, and blessed us when we married. I should think you would show the same respect.”
Although Sophia didn’t know it, she was a woman far ahead of her time. In most circles, if she had spoken to another man like this, he might strike her down. She was somewhat surprised when Nikolas used words instead of his open hand. “Respect is earned, Nikolas, not freely given.” Stepping back, she took a deep, hitching breath. Her stay pinched mercilessly. She had left in a hurry, which made her unable to properly affix it. “Now is not the time for this. I am very sorry, Nikolas. Perhaps we should all try to get some sleep. The next few days will be trying.”
Stubbornly, he slid past her, even if it meant escaping her wrath for a few more hours. “At best.” One other thought loomed heavily in his mind: If you only knew.
* * *
Nikolas spent some time at home. Perhaps it was Constance’s death and her sad burial, but something else kept him close, quashing his hunger. He understood what melancholia did to others at a time like this. It was somewhat different for men of his kind. His parents failed to tell him much about grief and the effect it had on the need to feed. He saw humans pining away while their bodies wasted. Nikolas thought it might be different for lycans. His hunger was not touched by most anything, even when he and Constance felt ripples in their marriage. Yet, this was the first time he had experienced the loss of a spouse. Life had been complicated since Constance died, but thus far, it was no stranger than normal.
Sophia’s presence was trying. She was bossy, demanding, and the perfect example of a woman who did not know her place. Despite that, he didn’t understand what he would have done if she hadn’t been here. Keagan was a joy for him. No matter how much he loved his son, Keagan was still an infant with needs and a very busy feeding schedule. Nikolas did as much as he could with his son, as long as Sophia allowed it. He held a great dislike of his sister in-law and easily mused the reason behind why she never married.
The Tackett men found comfort walking amongst the trees on the Tackett property. He had inherited this love directly from his father. When the house grew stifling with memories, Nikolas sought solace here. It was quiet, calm, and warm, like the embrace of a loved one. In those days, it wouldn’t be odd to see woodland creatures lurking about. When there was no reason for him to work his trading business, he sometimes took advantage of the deer that crossed his path. He was far enough away from the house not to be noticed by Constance or their few household servants. Today as he plodded around, his sharp eyes caught sight of a deer. Normally, his heart would race, his eyes glowed, and he would feel the emergence of his fangs. He was a hunter at heart, one by nature. Although he could have easily attacked it, he had no heart for it. The need to feed was virtually gone. If he didn’t know lycan blood coursed through his veins, he might have been fooled to believe his humanity had pushed out the immortal part of his soul.
Morosely, Nikolas turned away from the deer that had casually cropped at the grass, not knowing the lycan standing near had fed on his mother. It was cold today, gloomy, and the mist covered the outside of his greatcoat. Nikolas hardly noticed this as he tromped toward the house. In the distance, it stood like a great reminder, telling him with its presence that no matter how much he wished for her, Constance would not be there. Sophia would, and this seemed to deepen the melancholy sensation attacking his heart.
Sophia walked out of Keagan’s room, her slipper’s heels clicking hollowly on the floor. The baby was bathed, fed, and resting comfortably in his bed. Her brother in-law had employed a neighbor who had just lost an infant as a wet nurse for his son, but she felt her presence was needed in the home. Nikolas had sent away the household servants, but that mattered little. What did was the fact that the baby was her sister’s son. She was a needed fixture in the home. Of course, she sensed that Nikolas wanted her to leave some time ago. Not that she would. Her siblings and parents might have felt comfortable leaving the infant in his father’s care. However, they were unequivocally wrong. She couldn’t put her finger on the issue, but there was definitely something in the home that needed to be righted. One of those things was Nikolas.
She moved quickly, gracefully descending the staircase, her hands primly folded before her. To an onlooker, she might have appeared as if she were greatly worried about something. She maintained a stiff posture, giving off the idea that she was fighting to prevent her hands from wringing nervously. Bridget Apton taught her daughters that a lady’s hands proclaimed her habits. Her one dainty flaw was rubbing them together. It showed the world around her that she was a nervous woman. It was a trait she did not intend to reveal, especially while she lived in the Tackett home. She wanted Nikolas to understand that she knew what she was doing, even if she didn’t.
As she reached the landing and stepped onto the floor that led to either the family room one way or a hallway that led to the kitchen in another, a passing thought entered her mind. Back when the Aptons came to this land a hundred years ago, if a man who married into the family lost his wife, one of the single sisters would be offered to the widower. It was a custom that remained alive and well until just twenty years ago when Wyatt Apton put his foot down on the subject. Sophia knew his unconventional decision meant she wouldn’t be handed over like a lamb to slaughter. Sophia had no interest in being Nikolas’ wife. She would accept Keagan as her son easily, but an unmarried woman with a baby was completely unacceptable. Her family wouldn’t necessarily turn her away. Society, though, was not as kind. If anyone knew anything about her family, what other people thought about them was most important.
As soon as she decided to enter the kitchen, a flash of color stopped her. She couldn’t see the entire family room from her vantage point. What she could make out were the subtle noises one makes when sitting in a room or shuffling about. She knew Nikolas had gone outside some time ago. Perhaps he finally managed to get himself together and come inside. Tackett was spending more time with Keagan than Sophia understood. She didn’t like it one bit. In her mind, the boy should be raised as an Apton, not a Tackett. Nikolas was a bastard, and she didn’t understand how anyone else couldn’t see it.
Sophia walked far enough into the room so she could fully see her brother in-law. As usual, his manner of dress was inappropriate. Again, he wore a loose linen shirt and breeches. His greatcoat and other clothing lay haphazardly over a delicate chair given to him by Virginia and her husband as a wedding gift. He was not respecting his wife’s memory or her things.
“Keagan is doing well today,” Sophia said.
Nikolas knew Sophia was in the room. He had known she was heading his way as soon as she began her walk from Keagan’s room. He didn’t pay attention to her right away, which she hated. His mood was as gloomy as the weather; therefore, he wasn’t ready to have a meaningful conversation with her. He knew his son was well cared for by everyone in the home. Sophia never saw it that way. She never did. She was accustomed to how parents taught their children in this age. Most fathers didn’t have a role in the day to day care of an infant. Nikolas would like to believe he was different, as his father had been. Were lycans simply more progressive thinkers than humans? He almost laughed at how aristocratic the thought was. Perhaps if he felt better, he would have enjoyed the moment.
“I’m aware of that,” Nikolas said shortly. “I was with him earlier before I took my walk.” Why don’t you go on and wring your hands. I know you’re nervous. She would do no such thing, as she was a proper lady. “I believe Mrs. Carmichael intends to prepare roast mutton for dinner.”
Mrs. Carmichael had volunteered to cook for the family. Nikolas wasn’t much of an eater in the home, but he had to maintain the mask of normalcy for the interlopers. He could sense that Sophia wanted to tell him matters of dinner had no interest for her. Instead, she wanted him to entrust the Apton family with Keagan’s upbringing. He vaguely wondered if he told her he knew exactly what was on her mind, and would probably force her to run away screaming in the night. It was a tempting thought, one so wicked he had to contain another laugh.
“That should be adequate,” he quipped.
Moving deliberately, she stepped further into the room. There was another chair with a stiff back. It was across the room from Nikolas, but would still give her a nice view of him. She sat down easily, arranging her layers of clothing around her so that her appearance stayed proper. Her hands remained clasped before her, resting almost stonily on her lap. Sophia was aware Nikolas was not paying attention to her. It was most fine with her. She studied him quietly for a moment, noticing the features he possessed that attracted Constance. Unlike her and Virginia, Constance’s tastes were less refined. She wanted a man who would take care of her, but she didn’t care as much about his breeding. Their mother was worried when Nikolas Tackett asked for Constance’s hand in marriage. Their father wasn’t concerned at all. The mercantile business and trading was good enough. Constance believed in love, thinking it was most important above all else. Sophia and Virginia were more selective. A man’s family and breeding had to be top notch. Perhaps Sophia’s tastes had led to her old maid status. Perhaps if she had not been so selective, she would have had a chance to be married.
What fascinated her more than anything else about Nikolas was his youthful appearance. According to Constance’s letters, Nikolas was away a lot, and worked very hard for the mercantile in town. At times, he worked more than eighteen hours a day, the labor often physical. Even true, he had the air of a man who held a more leisurely position. There were no worry lines on his face, his skin had yet to wrinkle and show signs of age. His eyes and hearing were sharp, his body lean and tough. Sophia knew Nikolas was choosy about his meals, but when she witnessed him eating, he certainly wolfed down his food. For a man his age, he had perfect teeth. Much of this she did not understand. Why was he so healthy? How could he appear as if he had never been sick in his life?
Nikolas felt uncomfortable under Sophia’s gaze. For once, he dug into her mind, to hear what she was thinking. It didn’t take long for him to realize he made a mistake. She hadn’t lived here long, but she was already mentally asking questions she had no business to, because she would not like the answers. There wasn’t much he could do to progress his age. Men of substance had the means to maintain themselves far better than he could. Still, Nikolas had the body, temperament, and physical stamina of a man who should have been no more than twenty. In fact, his body stopped aging at twenty. It explained a lot. It wasn’t something he was able to discuss with his wife. Sophia certainly didn’t have a reason to know. It was time to ask her to leave. Mrs. Carmichael would do until Keagan was old enough to no longer need a nurse. Was today the right moment to ask?
He turned slightly, enough to see Sophia. Immediately, he noticed her stiff, proper posture. Nothing about her appearance stated there was anything out of place. Sophia Apton was a statue. “I have appreciated your assistance with Keagan, Sophia,” he began. “Perhaps it’s time for you to return home.”
His words didn’t surprise her as much as they should. It still hurt to hear them. What was she returning to? More drudgery? “If you are wondering if Keagan is disrupting my life, you could not be more wrong. I am prepared to stay on.”
There was almost no life in her. Morbidly, he wondered if she wasn’t amongst the undead herself. Wouldn’t it be ironic if so? “I understand, Sophia. You should go. I can have you on a train in a few days. I will never be able to return the favor.”
Color began to creep into her cheeks. She clasped her hands tighter to keep them from wringing violently. She must remain cool. “Nikolas, you are a businessman. You know nothing of infants. The night I came, you as much said so yourself.”
“We will be fine, I can assure you,” he replied. He also noticed the color. Finally. A sign that meant Sophia was amongst the living. “I do not want to sound harsh. We do not need you here.”
“I do not agree,” she insisted stubbornly. “I will remain.”
Nikolas shook his head, leaned forward, and clasped his own hands in front of him, unintentionally mocking Sophia’s pose. “Sophia, Keagan is my son, not yours. I am more than capable of caring for him now. I know how close you were to Constance and I know you feel responsible for him. You are not. You must return home.”
Forgetting her ladylike propriety, she stood up abruptly. She dropped her arms to her sides and balled her hands into tight fists. Her knuckles were whitening. “No, Nikolas. Never. You did not care for Constance as you should have. Since Keagan was born, you have not taken care of him, either. I will not see my nephew destroyed like his mother was. There is something wrong with you, Mr. Tackett. I do not know what it is, but as soon as I uncover it, you will be finished.”
Within mere seconds, Nikolas was on his feet, standing before Sophia, and making the trip with lightning speed. He did not put his hands on her person. Instead, he stood over her, glowering down at his genteel sister in-law. “Your disrespect in my home is taxing.”
There was another horror burning inside him, fanning the flames of his anger. It was hunger, the smell of blood…human blood. Humans were not appropriate prey. The theory did not hide the fact that he had fed on them. He didn’t know how many had darkened his conscience. If he thought about it, it would drive him crazy. Animals were plentiful, so the slaughter of humans was completely unnecessary. His mind did not want to process this. To the naked human eye, one would never see the vein pulsing in Sophia’s neck. It was very easy for the lycan to do so. The grief was slowly losing the battle against his hunger. Weeks had passed since his last proper feeding.
Sophia did not like the look on Nikolas’ face. It didn’t matter to her. She stood her ground and absorbed his anger. It, in effect, merely fed hers. Not caring about the consequences of her behavior, she raised one hand, reared back, and slapped Nikolas’ face. She put a lot of strength behind it, but she immediately noticed that he barely moved. Had he felt it?
The sensation on Nikolas’ face felt no more than a mosquito sting. What it managed to do was fan his anger further. His hunger went up an octave. Would she deserve what he was about to do? He couldn’t come up with an answer, not one that would satisfy him. His lycan brain had effectively taken him over. He would feed on her and get her out of his home, away from his son. It didn’t matter that Mrs. Carmichael was in the kitchen, preparing their dinner. He didn’t think about his son upstairs. Where were the other people who helped maintain the house? He completely forgot he sent them away. Properly, thoroughly, he didn’t give a damn.
She witnessed his changing silvery eyes. She had enough room and time to escape, summon help, and finally prove to her family that Nikolas Tackett was insane. When he snarled, she saw his canine teeth elongating into something her brain could not quite fathom, but still clearly understood. Fangs? She didn’t understand. Everyone heard stories of monsters in the mist. Yet, no one truly believed they existed, did they? Did they? She stepped back, ready to flee. One step was all she managed to take. Nikolas grabbed her upper arms and lifted her almost a foot in the air. The move startled her so that she could not scream. No noise escaped her. None of this was real. She was convinced it was nothing more than a nightmare. Since that was the case, she simply surrendered. Her body sank back to her feet and she allowed herself to be hypnotized by his strange eyes. Her head swayed to the right, as if she heard an unspoken command to move it. She had never known the touch of a man in her young life. As soon as the sharp canine teeth pricked her skin, she cried out very slightly, as if she were finally in her marriage bed.
When the first strains of blood entered Nikolas’ mouth, he drank them in greedily. Human blood tasted sweeter than fresh spun honey. It hit his throat in a heavenly spray. What was even better was the taste of human flesh. After sating himself with the taste of blood, he found that he was digging his teeth further into her shoulder, actually tearing a chunk away from her body, chewing it as if it were the finest meat on earth. He felt more alive at that moment than he had since Constance died. After a moment, as he felt Sophia’s body going limp in his arms, the human part of his brain woke up. It demanded he stop immediately. And he did.
Nikolas looked down at his sister in-law’s body. He had mutilated her so quickly it boggled his mind. She wasn’t dead as of yet. If he had attacked again, tore away vital flesh a moment longer, he would have had to bury her. Her shoulder wound was gruesome, blood pumping from it only because her heart was still beating. He could taste her flesh in his mouth. If he hadn’t already consumed it, he would have spat it out. Almost dropping her, he rebounded quickly and looked around. They were alone in the room. Thank God for that. Thank God for that one thing. He gathered her body in his arms and bounded up the stairs without making much noise. He went to her room and gently laid her on the bed. There was a fresh bowl of water on the nightstand. He took the damp cloth inside, wringed it out, and applied it to her neck until the blood was wiped away. There was still the matter of her shoulder wound, pumping blood at an alarming rate. He ripped a strip of the cloth from her shoulder and wrapped it around the wound, pulling the ends of the material tightly, cringing when she moaned loudly. He pulled the covers up to her chin, hiding the telltale marks. She needed medical attention without alerting a doctor. He would have to care for her himself. What had he done? What in God’s name had he done?
His heart thudded in his chest. It reminded him of the animals he preyed on just before he killed them. Their hearts beat just like this. For once, he understood what it felt like, and he was suddenly sorry about that. What would he do next? An idea came to him. He ran downstairs, found Mrs. Carmichael still in the kitchen, completely unaware at what had just transpired. He told her a pure lie, of course. Sophia was ill and in bed, no one was to disturb her while he summoned the doctor. She didn’t question this at all, thank God. If she had, he wouldn’t know what he would do next. She knew he had lost his wife, however, nothing made her believe that someone was about to die.
Nikolas rode into town as fast as his horse could carry him. He first thought about taking the carriage, but that would raise suspicion. Basically, it was too formal. There was no way he wanted Mrs. Carmichael to happen upon Sophia’s room and find her in the state from which he left her. It was one sure way to be hanged. He had no doubt about that whatsoever.
He slowed Gerrit to a lackadaisical trot with the stubborn animal coughing and protesting the entire time. There was one thing he learned about horses; some of them were as trying as humans. Once he saw the sign over the doctor’s office, he commanded Gerrit to halt. Surprisingly, the horse followed the order without his normal misbehavior. Nikolas jumped down and grabbed Gerrit’s reins, swiftly tying him to the post located a few short feet from the door. Sighing heavily, he went to the door, opened it, and slunk inside as if he were no more than a common criminal.
The town doctor was an elderly man with bad eyesight. Nikolas had a difficult time approaching him, as he had delivered Keagan. Grief was funny, he learned. No one knew how to bring up the subject of the dearly departed without feeling quite uncomfortable. Until he lost a patient, Dr. Abraham Bedford was usually not a man to mince words. It was never easy for him, and grew even harder each year he aged. Needless to say, when Dr. Bedford heard someone entering the office, he emerged from a back room, his mouth falling open with surprise. His nurse, Elizabeth, had gone home for the day. Although he was fond of her, today was the exception. Why could she have been here to face the grieving widower of Constance Tackett?
As soon as Nikolas saw the doctor’s face, he froze. How could he go about his task without raising suspicion? Dr. Bedford might want to come to the house and see after the patient himself. That, of course, was a disastrous thought. “Good evening, Dr. Bedford,” he began tentatively.
Nervously, he pulled off his spectacles and wiped them with the tail of his linen shirt. It was a terrible habit and had practically ruined the only way he could see well these days. “Mr. Tackett,” he acknowledged. “I haven’t gotten the chance to tell you how sorry I was about Mrs. Tackett’s loss.”
Nikolas shook his head. He wasn’t here for an exchange of sympathy. Sophia needed treatment before she regained consciousness. If she did. “Thank you, Dr. Bedford. I know you did your best.”
Dr. Bedford put on his spectacles and absently fumbled his linen shirt back into his breeches. He was normally put together well when patients stopped by. “What can I help you with today?” Lord above; please do not let him tell me another relative is in dire need of attention.“One of the household staff has cut her finger. Could you possibly spare some supplies for her? It’s not serious, but needs to be taken care of before it becomes so.The lie rolled easily off Nikolas’ tongue. It was, after all, completely possible that someone could have hurt themselves on a mid-size farm such as his. It was mostly a tree grove with nothing present that might hack off a leg. He hoped the story would sound plausible to the good doctor.
Dr. Bedford nodded thoughtfully, silently praising God that nothing had happened out at Tackett House Manor. Even then, in small communities, people talked. However, it was mostly gossip. The Tacketts didn’t make themselves readily available. In fact, the night he delivered little Keagan, Dr. Bedford could count the times on one hand that he had set foot in the house. It was odd. Most families needed his services at least once a month.
“I see,” he said. “Are you certain I do not need to come out? Might she need stitching?”
Nikolas shook his head, possibly too eagerly. He hoped Bedford hadn’t noticed. “No, sir. I do not think that will be necessary. I would be grateful for the supplies and I’ll be sure to summon you if she needs assistance later on.”
“Of course, Mr. Tackett. Please give me a moment,” he said a few minutes before he disappeared in the back again.
While he waited for the good doctor to gather what he needed to disinfect the wound festering on Sophia’s neck, Nikolas shifted from foot to foot nervously, fervently hoping that his story wouldn’t fall apart before his eyes. He didn’t have a moment to feel guilt at what he had done. That would come later. Although it took no more than ten minutes, it seemed to take hours for Bedford to reemerge with a small cotton bag filled with what he needed. He handed it to Nikolas, who then produced a fair amount of shillings.
Bedford shook his head. “No need, Mr. Tackett. By all means, if the condition worsens, please come for me.”
Embarrassed now, Nikolas stuffed the currency back into his pocket and tucked the bag under his arm. “Thank you, Dr. Bedford. I will not forget your kindness, then or now.”
Without waiting for a response, Nikolas turned swiftly on his heel and exited the building. Gerrit awaited him at the post, snuffling and puffing as if he were mad. Frankly, Nikolas didn’t understand how certain horses accepted his kind, like Gerrit did, while others would often attack or run away. He did not pretend to know or care. He had no time for errant thought. Sophia needed attention.
The ride back to the house seemed shorter than the ride to town. Perhaps it was his worry over how to handle the doctor. Perhaps it was his guilt eating away at his heart. He didn’t care much for Sophia, but she certainly didn’t deserve to be attacked. Attacked? Hardly, Tackett. She knew. She has always known what you are, just as her sister knew. He pushed the thought aside and prodded Gerrit along until he was back at the stable.
He took little time in caring for the saddle, haphazardly throwing it into a corner. Gerrit instinctively knew which stall was his. Of course, there weren’t many horses keeping him company. Turning away and locking the door to the stable, Nikolas ran back to the house with the bag clamped securely under his arm. As he entered the home, he realized he could have easily made the trip to town and back using his immortal gifts. That certainly would have brought about a different set of issues.
Gloriously, the house was blessedly quiet save for Mrs. Carmichael singing as she made dinner. Without waiting to see if she was going to notice him, he flew upstairs and ran into Sophia’s room. He immediately noticed that she had not moved an inch. The covers were still pulled up to her chin and she appeared to be sleeping peacefully. The only hint of her true condition was the way she breathed. It was short, hitched, and labored. She was in dire condition.
Remembering the bag, Nikolas laid it at the foot of the bed. Opening it, he noticed linen pads and a bottle of what he assumed was antiseptic liquid. Another package wrapped in a wool cloth was also inside. When Nikolas opened it, he turned his head away, his expression a drawing maul of distaste. It was a smelly poultice of some type. Bedford didn’t tell him what to do with it, but simple elimination told him. He yanked the cork out of the bottle, tipping it carefully, and soaked a small linen pad. Gently, he pulled away the sheet. The bite marks were inflamed and puffy around the edges. He applied the pad to the wound. Although he knew the brew was more than likely stinging the hell out of her delicate skin, Sophia did not react. After a few moments, he pulled it away. He then applied the poultice to the wound. It stuck to the area as if it contained an adhesive agent.
The moment his chores were done, he stood back to examine his work. It looked fine. Sophia looked anything but. Her skin had gone an alarming ashen color. Dark circles had begun to form beneath her eyes. It was sad and simple; her body was dying. He had seen it before when he fed on humans. However, most of them were mutilated enough to actually die. Sophia would soon become a lycanthrope. How could he tell her? How could he explain? If he was in another frame of mind, he could simply finish the job and tell everyone that she had gone home. Her family would notice her missing. There would be another tragedy. He couldn’t do that to the Apton family. Losing Constance was enough.
Nikolas turned away from Sophia for a few moments to find a chair. He grabbed one from the other side of the room and moved it over. He sat at her bedside for a long time, waiting to see if she was ever going to open her eyes. After more than an hour, he was about to give up. He had begun to stand when her eyes suddenly fluttered open.
“Sophia? Sophia, can you hear me?” He asked urgently.
She focused her wounded eyes on his face. There was recognition and true blind hatred in them. “What did you do to me, Nikolas?”
The instant Sophia heard Tackett’s voice, she was almost convinced she had dreamed the whole incident. Surely, nothing like that could really happen. Monsters only existed in stories of lore. They did not roam about in the true world. However, some glimmer shown in his eyes. It was the glimmer of guilt. He had done something horrid to her, and as soon as she felt better, she would go home. She would tell her family about him, and then they would raise Keagan.
She sat up suddenly, so suddenly that Nikolas was caught off guard. He nearly tumbled over on the floor. “I am leaving this night and taking the baby along. When my family discovers your depravity, you will be ruined and hung.”
The venom erupting from her mouth was the norm. Still, her words burned him with their heat and gall. She did not know anything of which she spoke. “You should remain calm, Sophia. Something about you has changed.”
He tried to reach out, but she stopped him abruptly with a snarl. She hit the middle of his chest with the palm of her hand. Although she had yet to experience her first transformation, there was force behind it, more so than ever before. “If you attempt to touch me again, I will scream.”
Unlike any other woman in her situation, she was unafraid. “I do not mean to harm you, Sophia.”
“You have,” she hissed. “What did you do to me?”
Defeated, Nikolas sat back. Sophia’s hand moved away from his chest and fell primly to her abdomen. “I bit you,” he admitted flatly. Why lie at this juncture? “I fed on you.”
She came alive again and tried to jump out of the bed. Swiftly, Nikolas reacted and held her down. She did not scream as promised, but she fought. For a woman in the throes of mortal death, she was strong, her wily body completely possessed. Her silence unnerved him at first. He kept a strong hold on her, hoping fervently that Mrs. Carmichael wouldn’t interrupt them. She would most likely believe Nikolas was trying to take advantage of her.
Sophia tired quickly. Despite the fact she was in full dress, she sullenly sat against the headboard and held the covers past her neck. The only article of clothing he had removed was her shoes.
“I knew something was not proper about you when you married Constance,” she began, voicing her favorite accusation. “You, sir, belong in an asylum.”
“No one knew this of me, Sophia. Constance might have, as she admitted with her dying breath. I’m half human, half lycanthrope.”
He spoke the words with little passion. Right now, he hoped that all this had been a hallucination of sorts. He wanted to wake up by a camp fire, realize that everything which had transpired was nervousness at becoming a father for the first time. He was worried that his child would inherit his sickness, so of course, he would have strange dreams. It was no dream, no vivid hallucination. It was true. His wife was dead, his son a lycanthrope, and now this. He fed on his sister in-law, in effect passing on his curse to another. To a woman.
Sophia had never heard the term ‘lycanthrope’ before. There were rumblings concerning a creature in France that was half wolf, half man. Was this what he referred to? Was he the offending creature gossiped about half a world away? “Nikolas, you are mad.” She had uttered the words before, but could not summon a more apt description. “Monsters do not exist.”
“I am not a monster,” he insisted. “Take off the poultice and touch your neck and shoulder. You will find puncture wounds and a tear where I took flesh from you.”
She wanted to do nothing of the sort. She did not want to follow any order he gave her. Curiosity, morbid at best, won out. She took hold of the foul poultice and briefly touched the areas he asked her to do. Unbelievable. He was mad. He was simply mad. She was tempted to scream. Her neck was nothing against the damage to her shoulder. There were actual bite marks there, as if he actually carried out the horrible actions he admitted.
“No,” she sighed. “It simply cannot be.”
Feeling incredibly horrid, Nikolas opened his mouth. He, at will, forced his canines to elongate into sharp fangs so that she could see what he was trying to tell her. Sophia nearly screamed. She stuffed her fist into her mouth and bit down on it hard enough to draw blood. Noting her brother in-law possessed fangs that were more than capable of effectively killing her, she crammed her hand beneath the covers.
“I’m still alive,” she whispered, her eyes were shut very tightly against the thought.
“Your mortal body will die, Sophia…is dying,” he said calmly. “When it does, you will become like me. You will transform into a lycan form and will need to feed for the first time. This I have done to you, have passed on to you, as much as it has passed to my son.”
She focused her eyes on his face. He stared at her blatantly, but with concern, and sympathy. “Keagan?”
He nodded. “He will eventually transform and feed. Like me, he will not age past twenty. It is different for those born like we.” Sighing heavily, he pushed away from her bedside and brought himself to his feet. “What I suggest for you is to stay in bed with your wound covered. I will stay and monitor you, ensure that you do not hurt yourself. Your mortal death will complete in two days time.”
The information was more than Sophia could handle at once. How could she believe such insanity? Her parents and siblings were miles away. Would any of them think she was telling the truth? Most likely, they would lock her away with others who were as mad as Nikolas Tackett. Then, she thought about her nephew. If Tackett wasn’t insane, the precious little boy would become a frothing creature. One who would never age or die. What would she do? Where could she turn?
“What if I refuse?” She asked pointedly, waiting for Nikolas to challenge her.
He did. Almost immediately. “Then you kill us all, Sophia.”
She did not care if Tackett died. Sophia only thought of Keagan. She promised her sister she would take care of the baby, and she intended to do so, even if it meant living with her much undesirable brother in-law. “What I believe you are telling me is that your kind preys on the weak, the innocent?”
“Our kind, Sophia,” Nikolas said, nearly growling. “I am not one who is normally prone to prey on humans. I have. I cannot lie about that. I feed on animals, much like humans do. What I did to you is inexcusable, but it cannot be changed. I will live through my eternity figuring out a way to repair what I have destroyed. Do what you wish, Sophia. If you take the route you want, my son will suffer as a result.”
“You care only for your skin,” she said angrily, her eyes blazing with a fire that would soon die.
“No. You could not be more wrong. Have me hanged if that is your desire. I simply do not want Keagan paying for his father’s sins.”
He spoke with such conviction that she almost felt sympathy for him, for his situation. The emotion left her with the same speed as it entered. “Tie me down, Nikolas. If you do not, I cannot guarantee I will remain in your care.”
“Tie you down like an animal?” He asked incredulously.
“Have you forgotten?” She asked sarcastically. “I am an animal.”
At that moment, unable to disagree with her, Nikolas left her alone. He had no intention of tying her down to the bed, but he would keep watch.
In another part of the country, Gordon Apton received a letter from Sophia. In it, she spoke of the routine her life had taken, including caring for little Keagan. Another item that caught his attention was his sister’s incredible criticism of Nikolas. Like his other sister and their parents, he had no quarrel with Tackett. However, Sophia’s words had begun to make his eyebrows furrow. Gordon Apton was a young man still, not much older than Sophia. He had married just a year ago. Since his one responsibility was his wife, he could leave the steel mill he owned to his laborers. Perhaps it was time to drop in for a visit to ensure everything was as it should be.
* * *
Nikolas never agreed to tie Sophia to her bed. Every few hours, he checked on her condition. At times, she would be lying in the same clothes she had worn on the day he fed on her, in a tight ball as if she were chilled to the bone. When he witnessed this, he would build a fire for her. Moments later, she would beg him to put out the fire. On the second day of experiencing mortal death, she stripped down to her shift, completely unconcerned with modesty. More than once, she begged him to kill her.
Of course, Mrs. Carmichael knew of the strange sickness that seemed to overtake Ms. Apton so suddenly. When she asked if she could help, Mr. Tackett told her he was managing fine. He explained it was a fever she caught that would abate in a few days. She took his words at face value, never questioning him. After all, Mr. Tackett was a good, solid man.
It was almost midnight when Nikolas watched Sophia draw in her last mortal breath. Her body arched severely upward off the bed. Her hands had tangled into her hair, which had been ripped out of its sensible bun the day before. She opened her mouth, perhaps to scream or call for help, and then it was over. Her limp body dropped to the bed.
Nikolas had closed the bedroom door a few hours ago, so no one would be able to get in. He knew what would happen next. Therefore, he literally braced himself against the door and its heavy frame. Once in lycan form, Sophia would cease to act like a human. It would be a painful phase and noises might leave the room and travel downstairs. Preparing for this event, Nikolas informed the household that they were not to disturb Ms. Apton no matter what they heard leaving the room. He had no doubt they would follow his orders. And thankfully, they did.
Sophia’s transformation began with a shriek that could have wakened the dead. When her muscles elongated, stretched, and twisted, she buried her face into the bed. If she had believed Nikolas’ story a fairy tale, she was now completely convinced he told the truth. As her simple shift tore away from her body, she didn’t try to cover herself. To the devil with modesty. The first transformation was the most painful of them all. After this, it wouldn’t seem so torturous. Nikolas couldn’t tell her this. If he tried speaking to or touching her, she would attack him. What they didn’t need right now was a fight between two lycans. In her final form, she lay in the fetal position, panting.
Nikolas awaited her next action anxiously. The first thing she would want to do was feed. He was prepared for that as well. Just before creeping back into her room, he had freshly killed and slaughtered the deer he watched cropping at the grass not so long ago. With him, he brought up a few pounds of fresh, bloody meat. The rest he left with Mrs. Carmichael for curing. She definitely would try leaving the room to hunt her own prey. That, of course, was an impossible task to allow. There would be a fight. In her first transformed state, he was certain he could overpower her if the necessity presented itself to do so.
His next instinct was spot on. When she recovered from the process, she tried to leave the room. Their eyes met, and in a flash, Nikolas saw the last vestige of humanity. In them, he saw sorrow. His heart broke in that moment. Yet, he could not allow himself to be caught off guard. She came for him, stalking like a huntress toward the game. What came next was standard in his kind. He had to establish dominance for now. He arched his neck forward, the muscles and tendons straining against his skin. Opening his mouth, he showed his elongated canine teeth and snarled at her. She did not back away. Instead, she postured back against him. She lifted her arm, showing incredibly sharp claws. She drew back, ready to slash him. He caught it in mid-swing. With a slight nod, he showed her the bloody meat. Once she noticed it, she lost all interest in fighting with him.
Nikolas released her arm, stood back, and allowed her to feed. He couldn’t watch. Although he had done this hundreds of times…millions…nothing was more unsettling than watching a lycan feed for the first time. As soon as her blood lust and need for flesh was sated, her human form would return. He did not know what would happen after that. Lycans were a strange breed. His mother told him that like people, immortals could be good or bad. What niche Sophia chose was still a mystery. Watching one feed was indeed animalistic, and even if good, lycans still seemed evil, twisted.
After her hunger was sated, Sophia collapsed to the hardwood floor. Nikolas quickly reached for a heavy woolen blanket with which to cover her. He knew she was modest, proper, and prim. Stepping back against the closed door, he waited for her transformation back to human form. He didn’t time the process, but if he had to estimate, it might have taken no more than an hour. She was bloody from the deer, and he was prepared for that as well. There was wash water nearby. As soon as she was back to herself, he would allow her privacy to clean away the evidence.
As herself, crumpled to the floor, Sophia began to weep. Nikolas wanted to comfort her. He didn’t move her way, because he was certain she wouldn’t want him near. He waited, cautiously, to ensure she was all right. “Sophia,” he called, his voice tinged with concern.
“Leave me be,” she demanded in tears. “You have reduced me to this,” she told him, indicating the deer.
“Call on someone if you must,” he said.
“Go to hell, destroyer of souls!”
He left her as she wished. Whatever she became as an immortal was up to her now. Having this attitude didn’t stop Nikolas from thinking he had created a monster. Every word out of Sophia’s sensible mouth was true. Every word.
For the next day, Nikolas and Sophia steered clear of each other. As soon as her first feeding was out of the way, she washed away as much blood as she could. The red stains covering her attracted her, fascinated her. Without realizing what she was doing, she suckled at the drops on her fingers as a baby might do with mother’s milk. It tasted finer than milk, actually. She couldn’t describe it. As soon as it dawned on her what she was doing, she went about trying to establish as much normalcy as possible. Part of her couldn’t believe what just happened. It was too real to deny now.
After she felt presentable, she put on a heavy wrap and left her room. It was dark in the hallway, but it didn’t matter. She learned quickly that it was quite easy to see in the dark as a lycan. She found this enjoyable beyond description. Barefoot, she padded past the bedrooms upstairs, knowing that Nikolas was in one of them. Ignoring him, she continued on downstairs. Mrs. Carmichael’s room was somewhere down here, despite the fact that she was responsible for Keagan’s feedings. His human feedings. Slipping into the kitchen, she could smell the mutton that was prepared earlier. Her stomach rumbled, but not for the roasted meat. The raw meat she had before was what she craved. The remains were still upstairs.
Remembering this, Sophia took to the stairs faster than she ever could before. She dashed toward her room, not quite making it back. She stepped lightly into Keagan’s room. The infant slept like an angel, totally unaware of what destiny had in store for him. At that moment, she was tempted to sweep him up in her arms and flee. Where in God’s name could she go? Back home? Her family could never know what Nikolas had done to her. They would kill him. Although he deserved it, she didn’t want to deny Keagan his father. She brushed her hand gently over his brow, marveling at the thatch of hair on his head. Then another thought hit her.
Why hadn’t Nikolas saved Constance? He had more than one opportunity to do it. Yet, he didn’t. Suddenly, her hatred went up ten octaves, fanning the flames of hell as it did. Her urge to take the child came back strongly. Again, she resisted. There were other ways of exacting revenge. Primly, she leaned over the baby, placed a dry kiss on his forehead, and left the room. The need to finish the deer overtook her. Tomorrow would be a wonderful new day.
Nikolas rose early as usual. His son was just a few weeks old, but Nikolas had already learned his schedule. Soon, the child would begin blatting for his morning feeding. Just down the hall, he heard Mrs. Carmichael moving about her room, readying for the boy’s wrath. He gave slight thought to Sophia. What he didn’t know was that she had risen earlier than he, and took to the grounds, smartly dressed in riding attire.
There were only two hands Nikolas hired to take care of the horses. This morning, one had arrived early. Isaiah Anders was the youngest of the laborers. At seventeen, he was the man of the house. His father died approximately three years ago from a fever that took him quicker than it should. This put some strain on Isaiah, his mother, and three brothers. Working for Mr. Tackett wasn’t much of a wage, but it was more than the family had after Poppa died. Since his time working, he had seen Sophia Apton in passing. Deathly shy, he barely spoke five words to her or any other female in his immediate vicinity. Mother didn’t count, of course.
Isaiah thought Ms. Apton was achingly beautiful, with vibrant eyes, creamy skin, but a disagreeable disposition. He was shy, true, but he also wanted to exchange at least a few niceties. It was obvious Ms. Apton was above his social stature. Yet, it would be mighty fine with him if she could manage a slight hello. Today, perhaps, was the day. Aware of her presence, he fumbled the horse brush, nearly smacking himself on the foot. The old mare he had been tending to huffed a protest. Absently, he reached out to stroke her. Mr. Tackett was fond of Gerrit, gentle Hannah was his favorite. Unlike the other horse, she liked to be brushed, but she didn’t seem comfortable under the master’s touch. Oddly, he noticed Hannah wasn’t as huffy near Ms. Apton. Normally, the old mare responded to him alone.
Sophia, the prim lady that she was, didn’t think it proper to speak to the help. She was friendly enough with Mrs. Carmichael, but she was the primary caregiver for little Keagan. It helped to keep them in place. At the same time, she wanted to stay agreeable with her so as not to rock the boat. It wasn’t the same with the men who cared for the stable and grounds. That is, until today.
She had already noticed that her sense of smell was keener now. The improvement of her eyesight was another plus. As of yet, she didn’t consider what Nikolas had done as much of a curse as she first assumed. Her mindset verged toward the harm and havoc she would create in Tackett’s wake. Young Master Anders had a unique aura around him. He smelled of hard work, horse manure, and pure adrenaline. He was nervous and this somehow enchanted her. Until this morning, she had no use for the wiles of femininity.
“Might I have a ride this morning?” She asked politely.
The words made Isaiah jump three inches out of his leather boots. This time, he did drop the brush. Hannah blew a harsh rebuff in his wake. “Miss Apton,” he mumbled, his eyes briefly meeting hers. “I apologize. I did not see you.”
His last words, she knew, were a blatant lie. Her own nervousness around men melted away. Today, she had no need to fold her hands before her. Today, she had no need for many things. “I am sorry for startling you.”
A blush grew heavy and bright red on his face. He bent down and grabbed the brush, ready to finish with Hannah. He noticed how calm the horse was around her. On the other hand, Gerrit was making a lot of noise in his stall. Toward the back of the stable, the two remaining stags were fussy, but mostly could be ignored. To keep Ms. Apton from noticing his nervousness, he turned toward Hannah and began brushing her again, using long, loose strokes.
Hannah was one of the horses that were primarily used for the carriage with her equally aging mate, Lucas. However, every now and again, they could all be ridden separately. “Oh, I’m sure you can, Miss Apton,” he managed to say. “Old Hannah here seems quite comfortable in your presence.”
Sophia smiled and slowly approached the mare. The horse’s eyes met hers, their two souls seemingly joining. Her connection to Hannah was like Nikolas’ with Gerrit. She was positive that if she approached his favorite, the animal would probably kick her straight out of the stable. Her hand touched Hannah’s muzzle gently. “That would be lovely.”
Readily agreeing with her, he nodded. “Yes, Miss.”
While Isaiah continued to brush the mare, Sophia stepped back and watched him. “I do dislike riding alone.” The five words came out of her mouth almost like a sigh.
“Perhaps Mr. Tackett would ride with you?”
His statement was innocent, said with his back to her. The moment he mentioned Nikolas’ last name, Sophia’s eyes glowed with a renewed hatred. Quickly, she hid it behind her mask of genteel calmness. “No. I’m sure he is quite distracted with his son. Could you possibly set aside your chores and ride with me?”
An audible gulp left him. It was accidental and he found himself wanting to die right on the spot. He turned to glance at her for a moment. She gave out an air of having not heard a thing, even if she had. “Oh no, Miss. I’m sure Mr. Tackett would rather I finish up my chores. It might not be proper…”
Before he finished his sentence, she waved her hand. “Nonsense,” she said with a smile. “I can assure you that it’s quite proper. Mr. Tackett will be fine with us having a brief ride. You work so very hard and deserve a break.”He needed to get to Hannah’s other side, but her presence made it difficult to move. “Miss…I…” He hated to stutter.
Boldly, she reached out and touched his arm. She felt his body stiffen, his breath came in sharp, jittering hitches. “Please, Isaiah.”
Her touch felt heavenly, and the way she said his name sounded foreign. The word he wanted to use was ‘forbidden.’ It had yet to enter his vocabulary. “Of course, Miss Apton, I would be delighted.”
While Sophia stayed outside, seducing Isaiah, Nikolas had himself dressed and fed. In an hour, he was expected at the mercantile. His business partner was coming in with a new load of goods. Before he left, he couldn’t resist checking on his son. Not five minutes ago, Mrs. Carmichael fed and changed him.
He leaned over the bed and felt a smile spreading on his face. For a moment, he had forgotten everything that happened in the last two days. Confidently, he reached in and scooped up the infant into his arms. Keagan was comfortable, more so than Nikolas thought he should be, since he was a new father. He expected the child to kick, scream, and make a huge fuss. He didn’t. His eyes were wide and bright, so much like Constance it hurt.
Nikolas carried Keagan over to the old cane rocker by the window. He sat down carefully, still shaky with his new fatherhood status. For a moment, he cleared his head and forced out all the negative thoughts. Right now, all he wanted to do was focus on his son. Keagan’s world would be a difficult one, his life eternal and confusing. He wasn’t much of a forward thinker, but one thought entered his mind. Nikolas hoped that someday, a cure could be found. Keagan deserved a mortal life, one of normalcy. The challenges he faced were enormous. When his son was older, Nikolas would have a lot of explaining to do. As he spent this time with him, he fell in love more and more.
“I wish Constance could have seen you,” he whispered to his son. “She was a wonderful, lovely woman. You resemble her so very much.”
He leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead and didn’t pay attention to the window. Considering what would conspire, he should have. Below him, Sophia was busy. Below him, he ignored her, ignored what she did.
A flash of movement was what caught his attention. Looking away from his infant son, who by now had fallen asleep, he focused on the two moving figures. Isaiah Anders was standing with Sophia. His brow furrowed. What in the world was she doing? She had never shown interest in the laborers on the grounds. He should have been more concerned than he was. If his son hadn’t had almost all of his attention, he would have gone outside. As it were, he ignored it. He ignored the world for now. Keagan was more important than Sophia Apton.
Outside, Sophia knew Nikolas had glanced briefly at them. She also knew his mind was blank. For her, it was good. She waited while Isaiah saddled two horses for them. He used Constance’s side saddle for her. This one move made her feel somehow closer to her sister. She would take gentle Hannah, and Isaiah would ride her mate, Lucas. The Tackett property was expansive, so their ride would last a goodish amount of time. It would be just enough for her to completely enchant Master Anders.
The two of them rode side by side, mostly silent as Sophia took in the beauty of the grounds and the trees. As she rode, Hannah most agreeable, she pondered her next action. Once it was done, it couldn’t be undone. Her attitude toward Nikolas Tackett prodded her along more than anything else did. With a gentle tug of the reins, Sophia brought the horse to a halt. When Isaiah noticed, he stopped Lucas.
“Is there a problem, Miss?” He asked worriedly, somehow thinking he had done something wrong.
“No,” she said, her eyes focusing on nothing in particular. “Would you help me down? I think I would like to walk for a bit.”
Isaiah hopped down easily off the horse. He went to Sophia and assisted her. She slid easily into his arms. For a long moment, he inhaled the scent of her. Perhaps she bathed in lavender oil. Thinking of her bathing, in a vulnerable state, brought more color to his face.
For a while, the two of them walked around a small patch of land surrounded by trees. This area could not be seen from the main house. “It is so very beautiful out here,” Sophia said wonderingly, as if she were a billion miles away. If truth be told, she was.
“Indeed, Miss.” He grew more uncomfortable with her by the minute. “Perhaps we should get back to the stables?”
She turned to look at him. He spoke words he certainly did not mean. “A few more minutes, please?”
He could not deny her. “Of course, Miss.”
“May I ask you something?” A smile touched her lips. It was her most endearing feature, one she shared with Constance. When she saw him nod, she continued without allowing him to speak. “Thank you. Have you enjoyed your time here with Mr. Tackett?”
“Oh, yes Miss. I have. Mr. Tackett has been good to me.”
She believed him completely. He was more than loyal to Nikolas. It felt right and good. Most of all, it felt righteous. “Isaiah, may your soul be welcomed in heaven.”
Before he realized what she said, what she meant, Sophia was on him, her canine teeth sinking into his flesh with lightning speed. Outside sampling her own, it was her first taste of human blood, and she experienced the sweetness of it, the salty tang which almost stung the tip of her tongue. Nikolas spared her, but she wouldn’t do the same. She wanted to drain him, to feed on his flesh, every single scrap of it. Although she took from him greedily, she did so without much fuss. She chewed the flesh of his neck, immediately uncaring at his whimper of discomfort. She was on him so quickly that he didn’t have a chance to scream or beg for mercy. Only when his heart stopped beating did she step away as gracefully as any lady.
Nikolas didn’t realize Isaiah Anders was missing until he went outside to retrieve Gerrit. He had spent so much time with his son that he was running late at the mercantile. Both Lucas and Hannah were in their stalls, happily munching on a mixture of oats and honey that Anders had concocted for them. Only Gerrit remained uninterested. Odd. The animal normally finished his meal before either horse. Hesitating only a moment, Nikolas went to Gerrit’s stall and set about the process of readying him for the ride into town. Gerrit was nervous, jittery, as if something spooked him.
Gerrit allowed himself to be tacked up and led out of the stall. He kicked at the dirt floor, huffing loudly. What on earth was wrong with that damned horse? He turned so he could bawl out at Anders, but he realized there was no one to yell at. Shaking his head and forgetting about Anders for the moment, he made moves to step up into Gerrit’s saddle. Just before he could, Sophia gracefully glided into the stable.
“Good day, Nikolas,” she said flatly, her hands folded primly before her.
Nikolas nodded her way. “Have you seen Isaiah?” He knew they had been together, he had seen proof of this when he was in Keagan’s room.
“Earlier I did,” she said with her own nod. “I must have scared the young man away. He saddled up Hannah for me and I haven’t seen him since. Are you on your way into town?”
Although he didn’t think she deserved an answer from him, he found his lips moving anyway. “Yes. I must meet my business partner at the mercantile. Is there anything I can bring you?”
“No, but there is a question I would like answered before you leave.”
He hopped up onto Gerrit and found himself looking down upon her. Her face was open, expressionless. Her eyebrows, however, were lifted quizzically, as if she held a secret no one else was privy to. “What is that, Sophia?”
She smiled sweetly, but there was nothing sweet about her. Not today. Not ever again. “If you had the capability to pass on immortality, why didn’t you try and save Constance?”
He pushed out a fevered growl between clenched teeth. “You are a craven bitch, Sophia.”
If those words had been spoken to her a few days ago, she might have gotten offended. Today was different. Instead of anger or shock, she threw her head back and laughed lustily his way. “Ah, dear, the love of family is the best kind.”
Nikolas ignored her and urged Gerrit toward the exit of the stall. He had no time to deal with Sophia or her apparent twisted mind. Once he finished his work day, he would return and find out what had become of Isaiah Anders.
Even if Nikolas didn’t know, Sophia did. After feeding on the young boy, Sophia stripped down to her shift and dug a grave for him with her bare hands. Once in his eternal resting place, Sophia found a small pond yards away from where Anders died. She swam in it until the dirt was washed away from her body and the linen shift. She bathed in the pond for an hour or more. The water was ice cold, but refreshing at the same time. It revived her, made her feel better than she had in days. When she thought she had had enough, she stretched out on the grass and allowed the sun to dry her. It was just long enough for her to get dressed and wander back to the main house, in time to see Nikolas off before he rode in to work.
Did he believe she had anything to do with Anders’ sudden disappearance? Part of her didn’t care. Whatever she had done to the young man was his fault. It was as simple as that. Nikolas had changed her, had turned her into a monster, so anything that died in her wake was nothing more than fresh blood on his hands.
Sophia left the stables and walked toward the main house. She could hear Mrs. Carmichael upstairs tending to Keagan. She went up herself and watched the woman caring for the baby. After a few moments, the other woman noticed her.
“Is there anything I can do for you today, Ms. Apton?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes. Could you help me prepare a bath? I have had somewhat of a trying morning.”
Sophia dressed after her bath, realizing she felt ten times better than when she entered the house. While Mrs. Carmichael tended to her chores, Sophia left her to it, and went downstairs. She wanted time to think about her next move, about what to do next. There was little time for it. A knock on the door broke her respite. Nikolas didn’t get many guests and she wasn’t expecting anyone. She remembered the letter she had written to Gordon, but she hadn’t asked him to come. Like a spoiled brat, she wanted to call for Mrs. Carmichael to answer the door. She didn’t do that. She brought herself up to her feet and went. The second she opened it and realized who was there, she wanted to scream with joy. It was Gordon.
“What on earth are you doing here, Gordon?” Sophia asked with surprise.
He smiled at her, the same smile possessed by all the siblings, Constance included. It was the one trait that carried on. He bent and kissed the cheek she presented. “Your letter concerned me,” he answered simply.
“Please,” she said. “Come in and sit. We have much to talk about.”
“I must take my horse and carriage to the stables first,” he said.
Realizing there was no one taking care of the stables for now, she gulped. “Oh, that can be tended to later,” she said. “Come in, rest, and allow me to voice my concerns face to face.”
Gordon didn’t want to leave his horse and carriage left obviously in front of the house. He wanted his arrival to remain a mystery to Nikolas as long as possible. After a moment, he pushed those thoughts aside and followed Sophia over to the sofa. He sat and gazed at her for a very long time. It hadn’t been long since he last saw her, but something was different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. What had happened? Sophia had changed; somehow she had changed within a mere few weeks. Was that even possible?
“What is happening here, Sophia?” Gordon asked with concern. “How is Keagan fairing? Is Nikolas taking care of our nephew?”
“Well, that topic is quite subjective,” Sophia explained. “He has hired a wet nurse to take care of Keagan’s needs. I’m here to give him all the love and support of our family. Nikolas appears to be a good father…”
Her voice trailed off. “He appears to be a good father? What does that mean?”
She sighed dramatically. “Oh, Brother, I do not know how to approach it. There is so much to tell. Frankly, Gordon, I think Nikolas may be mad.”
At first, Gordon wasn’t sure he understood what his sister had said. When it sunk in, it was more unbelievable the longer he thought about it. Even if his family hadn’t warmed to Nikolas when he was courting Constance, he never seemed mad. Slightly odd? Of course. Mad? No. In the dark recesses of his mind, he wondered if Sophia were the mad party.
When she assessed his immediate reaction, she nearly heard what he was thinking. Did mental gifts come with immortality? It was something she would like to discuss with Nikolas one day. Sighing and sitting up more stiffly than ever, Sophia whispered, “I suppose you do not believe me?”
Waffling, Gordon tried to carefully shape the words that would flow out of his mouth. He had his own opinion, but didn’t want to upset Sophia at the same time. “No, Sister, I did not imply you’re telling half-truths. It’s just that Nikolas hasn’t struck me as mad.”
“Of course you would say that, Brother,” she retorted, clasping her hands together tightly. She was tempted to thrash him within an inch of his life. The thought startled her with its ferocity. Never had she wanted to intentionally harm one of her siblings. “You haven’t been here to witness his behavior since our dear Constance was taken away.”
It was true. Despite that, her words didn’t make sense. Although he was married, women still remained a mystery to him. He found them to be flighty, vain, and irresponsible. They needed coddling, just like a child. His dear sister was no different. “Where is Tackett?”
“He went into town for the day to meet his mercantile partner,” she answered quietly. She knew her brother had basically pushed her concerns aside. What must she do to convince him? “Wait here, Gordon. I’m going to ask Mrs. Carmichael to prepare tea for us, and we will discuss this further.”
* * *
Nikolas arrived in town later than he intended. Quickly, he dismounted Gerrit and tied the animal to the post in front of the building. Tackett’s partner in the business, Sven Hansen, was a widower as well. He lost his wife ten years ago to fever before they could have children. At thirty, he was the age of expected bachelorhood, and would likely remain such as long as he lived. Sven was a big Swede with ruddy cheeks and clear blue eyes. He stood nearly six foot six, taller than Nikolas. The man’s arms and legs were tree trunks covered with golden hair. He had a mop the same color on his head. Vaguely, he wondered if he could pawn Sophia off on him. He would have tried but for one thing. He didn’t believe Sven would attach himself to a she-wolf. He was unaware that he had partnered with the male version.
Before Nikolas entered the mercantile, he could make out Sven’s form inside the building. He had donned a leather apron and seemed to be concentrating on a ledger. At this hour, there were yet to be customers, most of whom were women and their straggling young children. Perfect. It would give him time to help Sven with the daily mundane tasks. It would also take his mind off Isaiah Anders, and whether or not Sophia had done away with him.
Sven turned when he heard Nikolas enter; likely thinking he was a customer. “Tackett, I was beginning to wonder if you were coming today,” he said with a glittering smile.
Although Hansen had been in the country for fifteen years, he had lost his accent. Funny, but he had embraced the accent of their area. “Please excuse me, Sven. I had difficulty leaving Keagan at home this morning.”
The big man harrumphed. He hadn’t seen much of Nikolas since Constance had passed, but he was aware of the situation at home with Sophia. He had never been properly introduced to his sister in-law. However, from the stories he was told, he was in no hurry. If he knew about Nikolas’ errant thought of matching him with Sophia, he probably would have laughed until his sides ached.
Talk of young Keagan didn’t hurt as much as it should. He was still spry enough to attract another wife, make babies, and be painfully happy again. For now, he was satisfied working at the mercantile. His partnership was solid, the work hard, but he thrived on it. Sven Hansen came from a long line of laborers. It was his lot in life. Why complain?
“You must bring your boy into town one day, Nikolas. I’m sure our business could be boosted,” Sven said. “You know how women love babies.”
Nikolas heard his friend’s words, but he was distracted, very much worried about his head stable boy. “Right,” he uttered.
Sven picked up on Nikolas’ mood. “Are you all right today, my friend?”
He looked up at his partner for a few moments. His eyes told the truth. No. He wasn’t all right. His mouth, however, could lie quite well when it was warranted. “Fine.” He followed the word with a big, fake smile. He didn’t need to draw anyone else into his personal hell. Look what happened to Sophia. And possibly Isaiah. “I’m going back to the store room. I’m certain we have dry goods that need to be stocked.”
Another harrumph issued from his wide chest. “You are certainly right about that.”
While Tackett and Hansen busied themselves with their business, Gordon and Sophia finished their tea. By that time, the second stable boy arrived at the home. Before he went to the stables to assist Isaiah, he noticed a carriage parked in front of the house. From the look of it, it had been here for a while. The horses were cranky, digging their hooves into the dirt impatiently. Obviously, they needed food and water.
Ambrose Cowan had worked for Tackett almost as long as Isaiah had. He was only younger by half a year, but was considered Anders’ subordinate. He knew of one guest at the home, but had never seen this carriage before. Unlike Anders, Ambrose was not as shy. Without a thought, he bravely strode to the front door to ask permission to take care of the carriage.
Sophia had yet to convince her brother that Nikolas should be isolated due to his madness. It didn’t stop her from continuing her line of thought. She was about to open her mouth and express another gush of negativity before a dutiful knock stopped her. She knew Mrs. Carmichael was tending to Keagan, so she went to the door herself, despite Gordon’s protest that he should do it. What was it about men? They didn’t understand a woman could answer the door without fear of being attacked.
She opened the door to a young man about the age of Isaiah Anders. He was physically and mentally years ahead, however. The lad was of average height and possessed a head of thick, curly black hair. His eyes were a dull olive hue. She could sense this boy had absolutely no interest in her as Anders did. Although a possible food source, she would have to work harder on this one. Oddly, she was certainly up to the challenge. She didn’t immediately recognize him.
“May I help you?” She asked stoically. Inside, she heard Gordon rise to his feet. You buffoon. He means me no harm. Clearly, she could take care of herself.
“Yes, Miss,” he said politely, nothing in his voice giving away an ounce of insecurity. “The horses outside need tending. May I take the carriage to the stable?”
The moment he voiced the question, Sophia realized who he was. “Ah. You are Ambrose?”
He nodded. “Yes, Miss. Is Isaiah here?”
Some of him is everywhere, I suppose. She smiled invitingly, hoping to sway him. “No, he went home early. I believe he said he was ill.” And dead. Delicious, but dead.
“May I?” He asked again.
“Oh, of course,” he said, her smile remaining. Apparently, he had yet to be swayed. “Would you like to come inside later? Have some tea?”
His hands neatly clasped behind his back, he shook his head. “No, Miss. I have chores.”
The light never left her eyes. She nodded primly. “Good day, Sir.” Sophia closed the door and turned toward her brother. He eyed her curiously. “What is it, Brother?”
“I have never seen such shameless behavior from you,” he said in a harsh whisper.
“Oh, Gordon,” she replied, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “I treat the household staff with respect,” she lied. “They work very hard.”
“I presume you feel Nikolas doesn’t respect them?” He didn’t have doubts about Tackett’s sanity, but at the moment, he was concerned about hers. Something was not right about his younger sister. She was a lady, not some harlot painted up with her bloomers showing. “From what I’ve seen, everyone seems happy within their stations. Perhaps it is time you come home, Sophia. I think Nikolas is managing fine.”
Men were certainly cut from the same cloth. If she were a man, he would have believed every word out of her mouth without question. Wretched bastard. Tired of standing, tired of arguing with her brother, Sophia sat down. Gordon followed suit within moments. For a very long time, Sophia didn’t speak to or look at her brother. He didn’t know it, but she was busily planning his demise. He could be dead, buried, and his horses set free, and no one would be the wiser. She would dispatch of everyone currently in the household, save for her nephew. The only thing that stopped her was the belief that if her own brother didn’t believe her, no one else would. If no one else did, what would become of her? Unfortunately, immortality had its limits.“We’ll see,” she finally said. “We shall see.”
* * *
The lamps were lit about the property as Nikolas slowed Gerrit to a leisurely trot. The good smells of roasted venison and dropped biscuits drifted from inside. Mortal food did not have the same appeal as it would to humans, but tonight, it was enough to make his stomach rumble. He rode Gerrit out to the stables where he immediately noticed the carriage. A shred of hope bloomed within him. Perhaps he was wrong about Isaiah. Perhaps the boy had simply wandered off. The hope died quickly as soon as he saw the junior stable boy.
“Mr. Tackett,” Ambrose nodded politely as he approached. “Would you like for me to take care of Gerrit?”
Nikolas dismounted and handed the reins to the boy. “Have you seen Isaiah?” He asked hopefully.
“Sorry, Sir. I have not. Miss Apton said he had gone home ill,” he answered soberly.
Miss Apton said. He did not trust that statement whatsoever. He wanted to confront Sophia immediately. The carriage stopped the thought before he could react. “Who is here?”
“Not sure, Sir. I think it is a gentleman.”
He wasn’t expecting guests, so he assumed it was one of the Aptons, perhaps checking on either him or Sophia. “Thank you, Ambrose. As soon as you finish with Gerrit, go on home.”
“Sir,” he protested. “I have yet to finish mucking out the stalls.”
He appreciated Ambrose’s work ethic, but tonight he had to deal with his in-laws. “Don’t worry yourself with it. I’ll take care of it myself. Do as you’re told,” he commanded gently. “Go on home.”
Not sure what awaited him inside, Nikolas entered the sitting room. Beyond it was the dining room. He heard a male voice, immediately recognizing it as Gordon Apton. What on earth was he doing here? He lacked Sophia’s desire to meddle, but if he was here, she had likely summoned him. Wretched woman. He hoped Gordon would take her home.
Steeling himself, he entered the dining room, briefly noticing his in-laws were dressed for dinner. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone in his home had dressed for dinner. Sophia acknowledged his presence with her usual distaste. The man was completely uncouth. Nikolas picked up on the thought clearly. He didn’t hold back his thoughts, either. Leave me be. Leave my home and my son. Ignoring Sophia for the time being, he approached his brother in-law and offered his hand. Gordon shook it briefly.
“What brings you here, Gordon?” Nikolas asked evenly, trying hard not to convey an ounce of rudeness. In truth, he wanted to get him out of the house as quickly as possible.
He glanced at his sister guiltily before making eye contact with his brother in-law. Gordon opened his mouth in an effort to explain himself. He didn’t get the chance.
“I asked him to come, Nikolas,” she answered evenly. “Why don’t you go upstairs and change? I’ll ask Mrs. Carmichael to warm a plate for you.”
She could act the genteel lady all she wanted in front of her brother. Nikolas knew her true colors all too well. Witch witch witch. “I am dressed,” he snapped. “Keagan and I are doing fine, Gordon. You may return home with Sophia.”
Gordon was in the middle of something he had no way of understanding. Had Tackett taken advantage of his sister? Was this why she acted the way she did around the young stable boy? Suddenly, he felt a coil of anger tightening in his belly. “Nikolas,” he said carefully, as if trying to choose his words wisely. “Has anything happened of which I am not aware?”
His brother in-law had made an understatement of the age. “No,” he answered simply. “I have taken too much time from Sophia. I manage quite well with my son.”
Gordon didn’t like the fact that Nikolas towered over him. It was hard having a decent conversation while looking up at another person. “Nikolas, please join us at dinner, so we can talk.”
“I wish to check on Keagan first,” he said coolly.
“Mrs. Carmichael has seen to his needs for now,” Sophia told him. “Please, Nikolas. Join us.”
Sophia’s invitation was hollow. She wanted him to join them for dinner only to torture him. He was completely certain of this. Momentarily outnumbered, Nikolas pulled out a chair that was too close to his in-laws for comfort. The word suffocating came immediately to mind. He saw that Gordon was ill at ease while Sophia glowed. She successfully had blocked her mind from his probing. She had something to hide, and he knew it was Isaiah Anders.
Sitting down, he regarded the enticing meal with great distaste. Perhaps later tonight, he would hunt for his supper to work out his irritation over the frustrating in-laws staying in his home. “What is there to talk about, Gordon?”
Sophia noticed the slight irritation in his words, but didn’t give it much thought. In fact, it amused her. “Go on, Gordon,” she urged.
Not a man who normally spoke down to his sisters, Gordon was tempted to tell her to shut up. Instead, he cleared his throat and smiled weakly at the man who married dear Constance. “Our family simply wants to make sure you can efficiently handle Keagan,” he began.
All of it, he thought. All of it was Sophia’s fault. Nikolas knew what was coming next. Gordon didn’t want to buy in to his sister’s absurd theories. “Of course I can handle my son,” he said gruffly.
“I understand,” Gordon sputtered. “An infant can be trying to a widowed man, one who is often away. Constance once regaled us with stories of your travels.”
No. Sophia regaled you with utter cod swallop. “I will postpone them as long as Keagan is this young,” Nikolas told them, knowing his words had little effect on Sophia. “In fact, I intend to mind the mercantile while my business partner travels in my place.”
Nikolas intended to do just that. He would be forced to hunt and find hiding places at home when he became the wolf. There was no way he wanted anyone else raising his son, not as long as he was able-bodied and alive. In the future, Keagan would face his own challenges that if exposed, would mean the end of his young life. Fiercely protective of the boy, he couldn’t allow that to happen. If Sophia wanted a son, she damned well should make her own, even if it meant spreading the curse. It was moments like these that he hated himself for choosing a mortal woman, even if it meant he wouldn’t have had those precious moments with her. He certainly didn’t feel as if he needed to defend himself or his life choices, either.
A light entered Gordon’s eyes, as if he had suddenly been hit with a lightning bolt. “Oh, Sophia…I…didn’t know that.”
Of course you didn’t know it. It wasn’t an idea Sophia planted in your head. “Yes, you may ensure your parents that I do not intend to shirk my duties as Keagan’s father. It is true I’m still grieving Constance’s death, and will continue to as long as I live, but your worry is unnecessary.” He pushed back a few inches from the table. “As I said, you may take your sister back home and rest your minds.”
When it seemed obvious that Gordon was going to take Nikolas’ side, Sophia could no longer remain silent. “Brother, there are variables you have not considered. Leaving Keagan here is not a good idea.”
Nikolas saw that she had touched his hand intimately, the way someone does when they want to sway another’s opinion. He had never known Sophia until now. Constance had spoken of her before, mentioning once that she was somewhat manipulative with their father. His wife halfway expected it, considering how long she remained single. At this moment, she was doing it with her brother. Manipulation. He hated it. It was an action he had used himself, but he hoped he had never actively done it such as her.
At Sophia’s touch, Gordon recoiled. It was as if contact with her revealed to him the monster behind her feminine façade. “What variables do you speak of, Sister?” He asked, as if Nikolas wasn’t in the room.
Gently, she smiled and moved her hand away, primly folding them in her lap. “The death of our sister has left Nikolas…feeble.” She wanted to tell him the full truth. If she did, both of them would hang from the noose. Or burned at the stake. She flicked her eyes to Nikolas, who was by now furious. His eyes had a strange silver glint to them. How she hoped he would metamorphose before her brother. “Nikolas, you know you’re suffering.”
“That I am, woman,” he growled through clenched teeth. “Do either of you have evidence that Keagan is suffering with me? Show me one small hint of my failure to him and I shall let him go with you this instant.”
It was a clear challenge that normally might have a negative outcome. Not this time. The infant was well cared for, loved, and without the slightest unmet need. Neither of his snobby in-laws would have any legitimate complaint. Of course, Sophia did, but if anyone should point fingers or accuse another of insanity, it definitely wasn’t she.
“Come now, Tackett,” Gordon said, a hint of anger in his voice. He didn’t want anyone speaking to his sister like this. “Calm down. Sophia is simply expressing her concerns.” When he voiced his opinion, he turned to his sister. “Leaving Keagan with Nikolas is the right and proper thing to do. I don’t see a threat here. In fact, I think our brother in-law is right. It’s time for you to come home, Sophia. Leave them be, let him raise the boy in peace.”
“What do you men know of infants,” Sophia cried angrily. Color had risen to her delicate throat.
“I could ask the same of you,” Nikolas said evenly. “Forgive me for my words, Sophia, but if you wish to raise a child, perhaps you should marry and have one of your own.” Before he gave Sophia a chance to speak, Nikolas stood abruptly, turning on his heel halfway toward the sitting room. “If my interrogation is over, I would like to spend some time with my son.”
Sophia watched Nikolas until he disappeared upstairs. Like him, she had the gift of reading minds, but he had effectively blocked her out. Damn him. Damn him and damn her brother. She would do her best to make both of them pay. “Gordon, you’re my brother,” she said softly. “How could you take his side against me?”
“If anyone has been swayed by Constance’s death, if anyone has become feeble, it is you, Sophia,” he said gently. “When I leave, you should accompany me.”
She said nothing in response to his retort. Instead, she remained seated at the table with her hands in her lap. There was no sense in arguing with her brother further. He had made up his mind and there was no way to change his opinion. She had a few days to fix her situation, even though she had no idea what that would be. Keagan’s fate was not the only thing on her mind. She needed to feed again. And soon.
It was past midnight when Sophia donned her wrap and made her way to Keagan’s bedroom. To her utter surprise, Nikolas was in the room, sitting in the rocker near the baby’s crib. He knew she was coming in here.
He noticed that her hair was loose and fell thickly down her back. Since the night of her first transformation, he hadn’t seen her hair out of its sensible bun. If it wasn’t for her attitude, her evilness, he might have thought her beautiful. Had she always been so monstrous? “Your performance tonight was absolutely splendid,” Nikolas said his voice dry and hollow.
“All of my anger, my ire, is a result of what you have destroyed, Nikolas.” She stepped toward the crib, peered inside, and noted that her nephew slept peacefully, completely unaware of his future. “You shouldn’t have interfered with me, tonight. Step away and let me take the boy.”
He smiled bitterly her way. If she reached for the baby, he would kill her. “What did you do to Isaiah?”
His question wasn’t unexpected. Still, it surprised her nonetheless. “We went for a ride. No more.”
The bitter smile turned into a low chuckle. There was no humor in it. “I know you’re lying, Sophia. I know you murdered him. The question is why? I’ve told you there is no need to murder humans for food. So, the only other reason you harmed him is to point the finger of blame my way. Is that your plan? Is that how you intend to take my child away from me? Is that how you intend to exact revenge for Constance’s death?”
She was certainly positive that if she reached out to touch the baby, Nikolas would bring her to a swift end. Instead, she moved away and stood in front of the window. There was no moonlight shining in. If so, both would probably be fighting each other to the death. Perhaps she wanted that.
“What would happen if I unearthed Constance’s body and bit her corpse?”
Sophia had asked the question so innocently and seriously, Nikolas didn’t have time to feel anything. When it slowly sank in, the disgust came in waves. His mother was right. Some lycans were simply just bad. Sophia Apton was one of them. What had he transmitted to her? Right now, he didn’t feel guilty. What he felt was that she needed to die. She could not go on like this, the life of his son depended on it.
“You believe me to be the mad one after you ask a question like that?” Nikolas was furious. Was she trying to anger him enough to transform so she could call upon her brother for assistance? Why did she hate him so? “When Gordon leaves, I want to see you with him. If you are not, I cannot guarantee your safety.”
She smiled at him sweetly. “We both have the same curse flowing through our veins. You might have met your match. Until I came to stay with you, I had never wanted to marry. Now, it feels suddenly within grasp. If I marry and my husband lives near here, there is nothing you can do to stop me. If we fight, you might die. If so, then perhaps I will have what I want. Your son.”
“You won’t do this, Sophia,” he said calmly. “You are inexperienced and have not lived as long as I. I’m far stronger than you could ever dream to be. Ire and ice course through your veins. What motivates me is my son. I would kill for him, Sophia. I would kill anyone for him, including a genteel lady such as you.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “May the battle begin, good sir.”
* * *
Three homesteads away from the Tackett house, Saul Utting sat outside on the front porch. Like Nikolas Tackett and Sven Hansen, Utting was a young widower, but the events of his wife’s death were much different. Although he knew Tackett was part owner of the mercantile, he hadn’t spoken more than five dozen words with the man since he moved here.
Seven months ago, Utting’s wife was outside making a batch of lye soap. She did this twice a month and likely as not, she sold as much of the product as the family used. There were only two of them in the home. God hadn’t seen fit to bless them with children just yet. Not for lack of trying. While she was at the kettle, she made a misstep and landed clumsily on a snake. She wasn’t afraid of them. After all, there were dozens in the woods. This one, however, was poisonous. It didn’t dawn on her until after his sharp fangs penetrated her flesh, piercing the material of her leather shoes and stockings.
Unfortunately, Saul was not home. Within moments of the bite, Mahala’s ankle swelled three times its normal size. Bitten many times in her life, Mahala knew she was in trouble. Panic was not a good friend with snake venom. As hard as she tried, she simply could not stay calm. When her ankle stopped supporting her weight, she managed to crawl a few inches before giving up. Out here in the woods, it was hard to call for help. Today happened to be the day in hundreds where she didn’t bother riding into town with her husband. She came to regret the decision. The regret didn’t last long. She died when the venom caused the hard working woman to have a stroke. Mahala Utting was twenty-two.
Saul found her two hours later. He screamed loudly, crazily, realizing that no one heard, no one had a chance to save her. Knowing that summoning a doctor would do nothing for her, he cleaned her body, dressed her in her fanciest clothes, and buried her himself. After that, he had a brief mental break. He hallucinated regularly; saw his wife in every corner of every room. The kettle where she concocted the soap remained where it was since the day she died. Often, he saw her behind the huge vat, her hair sometimes straggling out of its tight bun.
He was unaware that Nikolas Tackett and his business partner had lost their wives. If he had been, he probably wouldn’t have cared. His grief took him over, giving cause for excess drinking every now and again. He was also unaware that Tackett’s sister in-law bore a striking resemblance to his late wife.
On the evening Sophia Apton was defeated (in a way) by her brother and brother in-law, Saul Utting sat with a leather flask of corn whiskey. He was properly squiffed when he saw movement beyond the woods in the dawn shadows. It was Mahala, coming back to visit. Most people might have been afraid at the sight, but he wasn’t. Her spirit coming to him daily was comforting. He was lonely and heartbroken.
What he didn’t know was that the figure moving in the woods wasn’t his wife’s ghost. It was Sophia Apton. After her confrontation with Nikolas, Sophia took to the woods, fully intent on hunting a deer to sate her blood lust. She had never met Saul Utting and hadn’t known of his homestead. She didn’t care about it, either. However, she sensed the man in the distance wasn’t attached to other people. He had no children or wife, and wouldn’t be missed by anyone right away. Her first intention was to pounce, feed, and then take a swim in the pond by Tackett’s house.
As she grew closer, her sharp lycan eyes made out the features of one Saul Utting. He was shorter than average with reddish blond hair. His face was ruddy and handsome, reminding her of Tackett’s young stable boy. The one whom I have not fed upon…yet. The name of the boy dawned on her as soon as she moved closer still to Utting. Ambrose. His name is Ambrose. The fellow was not as handsome as she would have liked, but good looks did not precede feeding. Or matter. Not really. She felt the sting of claws emerging, the sharp ache of erupting fangs.
Saul Utting quickly noticed the dark hair of the approaching ghost. Yes. Mahala had come to visit again. Yet, there was something different about her this time. She seemed taller, fuller at the bosom, and more narrow at the waist. Outside his Hallie, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
The leather corn whiskey pouch forgotten, he sat up in his chair. “Is that you, Hallie?”
The question startled Sophia at first, knocking her off her hunting instincts. She saw his desperation, smelled the stink of his body, and was shown how his late wife had died. Sharp, bitter words came to surface, but she choked them back. Perhaps this man was her way back from defeat earlier in the evening.
Demurely shielding her well covered body, she shrank back. Dropping her eyes as if shamed, she purred, “I’m so sorry, Sir. I think I have been sleepwalking and now I’m lost.”
He wasn’t certain whether the alcohol was playing tricks on his mind, or there was in fact a woman standing before him. “What’s your name?” He asked the vision.
Shyly, she lifted her head to make eye contact with him for a total of thirty seconds. “Sophia Apton.”
He had heard the name ‘Apton’ before, but he couldn’t place where. “From where did you sleepwalk?”
Sophia noticed that he hadn’t moved from the old chair during their exchange thus far. “From Nikolas Tackett’s home. He is my brother in-law. Or was. Constance Tackett just passed a few months ago,” she said sadly.
His heart began beating hard, almost aching, when he realized they had something in common. It wasn’t a nice thing to have. “I…am widowed as well.”
“I am so sorry to hear that, Sir,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper.
“Please,” he muttered. “Call me Saul.”
Sophia smiled up at him. “Very nice to meet you, Saul. Can you show me the way home?”
Rising now, suddenly paying attention to another human who was not Mahala. “I certainly can.”
Nikolas knew the instant Sophia left the house. He was first intent on following her, because he clearly understood what made her leave the comfort of her bed. After a moment, he decided to delay chasing after her, and try to find the body of the young stable boy instead. He sensed the body was close to his property. The smell of death was in his nostrils so strongly, he might have been the one to kill him. His eyes scanned the north part of his property. Several hundred yards away was a pond. It beckoned him, called out his name, telling him where the Anders boy was buried. He was certain that as soon as his mother noticed the lad missing, she would be knocking at his door.
He turned his body northward to explore the grounds surrounded by the pond. He hoped to find the body, make up some excuse to tell Mrs. Anders, and live with it for all his eternity. He didn’t need a lamp, so no one else would suspect that Nikolas had left his room. As he began the trek, he wondered what he could do to handle Sophia. The woman certainly didn’t seem convinced that her place was at home, living out her eternity as an old maid. Could he allow her to live? He couldn’t if she continued to kill, to leave a hint of suspicion pointing his way.
Although it would cause more unrest in his wife’s family, he knew what he had to do. Kill Sophia. End her life before she could destroy Keagan’s. His decision firmly in hand, he noticed that the further north he walked, the closer he drew to Constance’s grave. His senses told him Sophia had come this way. Perhaps she had stopped at her sister’s final resting place before going on her quest to end a human life. Time was not on his side that night, but he couldn’t prevent stopping as soon as he saw the ornate headstone. Someday, he would be forced to remove it so Keagan wouldn’t know where his mother was. He didn’t understand why it was so important for him not to know about his mother. It simply made things more difficult in the long run. His guilt would grow by the day, just as Nikolas’ had.
A defeated man, Nikolas dropped to his knees before the fancy granite slab. He touched the cold stone, running his fingers along her name and the date of her death. He had spent a great many years as an immortal, fully understanding that if he married a human, she would die long before him. Had he thought of turning her? Perhaps he had. There had been many opportunities to do so during their most intimate moments. It was the only time he was never in control of his faculties. What was his world now? He didn’t understand any more. He didn’t want to.
“My beloved Constance,” he whispered huskily. “Forgive me for what I did and am about to do. I will burn in hell for this, but if I had to do it over, I would choose the same fate, because it means I could see you again, love you, and make our son.”
Rising swiftly, he turned away from the marker and continued onward, not realizing that Saul Utting was leading Sophia back in the same direction. Nikolas saw the bobbing lamp light in the distance, completely aware that it wasn’t Sophia. Like he, she could see better in the dark than in the light of day. He knew of his neighbor acres away, but had never officially met the man. Whoever came toward him had to be the neighbor. He only hoped that Sophia wasn’t stalking him. Nikolas had no weapons upon him. However, one of the most efficient ways of killing an immortal was ripping his or her heart out with a bare hand. He was prepared to do that very thing tonight. He would deal with Gordon and the other Aptons when the time came.
“Hello ahead,” a man’s gruff voice called out. “Identify yourself.”
Sophia didn’t have to stalk the man. He saw her, felt her. It happened within seconds of his coming close enough to sense her. Goddamn her. What did she think she was doing? “Nikolas Tackett,” he called back. “Are you Mr. Utting?”
“Yes! I have your sister in-law at my side. She became disoriented in the woods,” he shouted.
Nikolas closed the distance between them as fast as he dared without using any of his gifts. Sophia had grasped Utting’s arm tightly. She was dressed only in a shift and a modest wrapper. Her dark hair was out of its upswept style and resting wildly on her shoulders. There was a knowing smirk on her smug face. Nikolas didn’t take to striking women. If he did, Sophia would be down on the ground.
When the trio was facing each other, he assessed Utting with a sharp eye. His shaggy hair was unkempt and unwashed. He appeared to have been partaking of the drink. He smelled like corn whiskey. There was something else about him. Loss. He had lost his wife as well. What was it about this township and widowers? There seemed to be a plethora of them these days. Sophia, on the other hand, was glowing. It wasn’t from fresh prey or blood lust. It was something else. She had a plan. A way to manipulate him and steal his son. If she had an ally, an outsider to the family, her intentions would be unstoppable.
“I am so sorry, Nikolas,” Sophia whispered contritely, lowering her head for effect. “I was sleepwalking again.”
At first, Utting was confused. He didn’t know how Tackett could make it off his property without a lamp. It didn’t pique him enough, because he was enchanted with Sophia Apton. “Do you need assistance getting back to your home?”
Nikolas realized he was talking about his lack of a lamp. He should have thought of that, but didn’t think he would be running into a human at this time of night. Everyone in the country worked hard and was in bed as soon as the light left the sky. “Yes,” he muttered grudgingly. “I somehow managed to forget my lamp. I know my land like the back of my hand, but ran into almost every free tree branch for miles around.”
Utting might have laughed if he wasn’t so damned melancholy. “Yes, Sir,” he said instead. “I can imagine you did. Come along now.”
The three of them made their way back to the house without much conversation. When words were exchanged, it was mostly between Sophia and Saul. Nikolas listened with a jaded ear. He knew she was manipulating him. He would have to step in between this burgeoning courtship before it occurred. Maybe this very night. As they ascended the steps leading up to the veranda, Nikolas noticed that instead of immediately walking away, Utting stood back, his lamp hanging limply at his side. He was intoxicated thoroughly from his home made corn liquor and from a spell cast by a cunning female lycan.
“Mr. Tackett,” Saul began, his eyes sparkling with more life than they had since Mahala died.
Nikolas set cold eyes on Sophia before focusing them on the man. Her smirk still danced on her lips. “Thank you, Mr. Utting, for seeing us home.”
“We’re neighbors and I would like for us to be on first name basis, if that is all right with you,” Sophia said, her eyes glued to Saul Utting. “Saul, please call me Sophia and Mr. Tackett is just plain old Nikolas.”
Utting nodded slightly. “Very well. Nikolas, do I have your permission to call on your sister in-law?”
The idea almost made Nikolas ill. “I am not the man to ask such a question,” Nikolas said evenly. “If you feel you must court Sophia, I suggest you speak to her brother at a decent hour tomorrow. He is here visiting and will take his sister home with him when he departs.” He spoke the words only because he assumed Sophia’s spell would wear off by the time Gordon was up and out of bed.
He nodded again. “Of course, Nikolas. I shall do that. I shall be back tomorrow.”
If he weren’t so tired and disgusted with Sophia, Nikolas would have offered Utting a horse for his journey back home. The other man, however, would have a safe trip, as the only thing to be feared was no longer close to him. “Good night, Saul.”
Sophia was going to lag behind with Utting, but Nikolas wasn’t about to allow that. He took hold of her upper arm as she bid the other man a good night. He said nothing to his neighbor. His slight anger had turned into all-out rage. Another second and he probably would have torn out Sophia’s heart right in front of her potential new beau. He dragged his sister in-law inside, closed the door tightly, and shot the bolt. He didn’t hear the eager footsteps of Mrs. Carmichael, the snuffling cries of his son, or the fevered footfalls of his brother in-law. Perfect. Everyone was sleeping as they all should be.
Although Sophia struggled to free herself, Nikolas held on, dragging her into a drawing room the furthest away from the sleeping quarters upstairs. He wanted no interruptions during their discussion. Noticing that she dared not move an inch, he shot the bolts on the two doors that might have given her an escape route. He didn’t bother lighting a lamp, since he knew well they could see each other in pitch darkness.
For a few long moments, Nikolas paced about the room, circling her like a hunter closing in on its prey. She knew he had a mind to murder her, to plunge his hand into her chest, dig out her heart, and perhaps feed on it. He knew she could read this on his mind, so perhaps he wasn’t foolish enough to actually try it in his home where both his son and brother in-law slept. Sophia could cheerfully kill them all, even her treasonous brother and not bat an eyelash.
Nikolas stopped close to the mantle. Above the fireplace was a portrait he had had painted shortly after he married Constance. It was difficult looking at it, but with her watching over him like this, perhaps he wouldn’t attack Sophia like he wanted, like his impulses dictated.
“Why didn’t you simply kill the man and have done with it?” Nikolas demanded gruffly. “It might have made everything so much simpler.”
“You courted and married a human. Why can’t I have the same luxury, Nikolas?” Her words were calm, settled. She had a plan and she damned well wanted to see it through its fruition. “I am well past the age of marrying, as my parents enjoy telling me each day when I awake. Wasn’t it you who told me to marry and make my own babies?”
He was upon her and had her body penned against the wall before she had a moment to exhale. “Insanity,” he hissed down at her, his eyes glinting, silvery, and evil. “You went out tonight to find another to murder in my name, Sophia. You are trying to bewitch a grieving man. He was so inebriated that I hope he will forget you by the time he sobers up in the morning.”
She smiled up at him, her canine teeth bared, elongated. The laugh which left her throat was grated, frazzled, and completely over the top. “He’ll remember me, Nikolas. You’ll see. Tomorrow, he will come and ask to court me, as if I need Gordon’s permission. As if I need yours. I’ll leave him alone and send the weak bastard away if you do one thing for me.”
He stepped away from her, the heat from her body sickening him even more than the glassy, insane glow in her eyes. What had he done? What wicked favor would she want that didn’t involve taking away his son? “Granting you a favor is working with an Imp of Satan.”
“True,” she said with a chuckle. “What I said forced you to move away from me, didn’t it? So I know you’re listening to me. Take me as your wife, Nikolas. Allow me to raise my sister’s son, her immortal son, and I will stop tormenting you. I will repair all the ways I have wronged you since you gave me eternal life. I will have no need to court Saul Utting or kill another human as long as I live.”
The idea was so incredibly distasteful. At the same time, it had merit if she kept her word. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t want a woman with such a black heart raising his boy. Nikolas wanted Keagan to become a good man, not a sick hunter solely interested in killing humans, feeding on them, and possibly spreading the sickness. Blood lust was a good way to wind up burned alive. Nikolas didn’t look at Sophia for a very long time while mulling over how he was going to say his next few words. Could he get away with taking her heart now? In the house? Under Constance’s watch? He wondered if his wife was ever aware what kind of person her sister was. Had she known?
“I don’t want you to raise my boy,” he said slowly, carefully choosing his words. He didn’t look at her when he spoke, which was not a good thing to do. However, the moment the words left his mouth, he finally laid his eyes on her. “I don’t want your poison to infect my house.”
Pure rage fueled by ire entered her body, causing an instant partial transformation to occur. Her claws emerged along with her canines. Her eyes had gone their immortal sliver shade. Her fingers danced and waggled slowly, conveying a slight ounce of her true nature. If she pushed it a centimeter further, her full lycan glory would be exposed before him, his house, and her brother. This part of her was what made him wary with regard to Keagan. This would be what he saw as he grew and learned to hunt. Around her, Keagan would be a killer, not a hunter. He steeled himself for an attack. His joints began to pop, his muscles flared, and he felt his canines elongating. He fought against full transformation as part of him suspected that this was what Sophia wanted. She wanted the wolf to emerge. If she could not get what she wanted, she would cheat to win. It was as simple as that.
“Bastard,” she growled. “My poison came from you. What makes you so damned different, Nikolas Tackett?”
“My heart isn’t an abyss. My soul isn’t as black as a lump of coal. I may no longer have a soul, Sophia, but I will always have heart and the best interests of my son in it. I am thinking of my son. You are thinking of yourself.”
Whisper quick, Nikolas was on Sophia again. His hand wrapped around her neck like an out of control python. Sophia’s feet dangled six inches off the floor. She struggled against him, but it was no use. He was far stronger than she at that moment. His instincts were spot on. She had only put enough forward to appear fully lycan. What she hadn’t counted on was the silent way he moved.
“Listen to me carefully, Sophia,” he whispered roughly. “Go ahead with your plan. If Saul Utting comes to call, do what you wish. I will fight you all the way if you’re intent on taking my son away from me. Marriage to a mortal will not achieve such a goal. Remember that. Remember it when you ruin a man’s life.”
Without attempting to kill her, he released his hold on her body. She crumpled to the floor in an unattractive heap, managing to rake up her wrap and shift past her knees. “You will pay for this, Nikolas,” she cried through her fanged mouth.
“Of course I will,” he said with an amused smile on his face. “Haven’t you made this threat already? Know this. If you do not hide Isaiah Anders’ body somewhere else, I have ways of ruining your life as well, Miss.” He sneered her way, noticing how shameless she was. “Go to bed, you wretched witch. I want you out of my house.”
Primly, Sophia arranged her clothing before standing. She walked past Nikolas slowly, tempted to attack him, but the idea of besting him stopped her. Saul Utting was hers for the taking. She would have him as her husband and he would help her take Keagan.
* * *
Two visitors graced the Tackett house the next day. The first, the dreaded one, was a visit from Elizabeth Anders. Nikolas stayed home purposely for this. Sadly, he gazed down at Isaiah’s mother. She wasn’t very old, but life had dealt many horrible hands to her, so the lines on her face were like that of a tree. They were numerous and told her history in a flash. Since her husband died, Isaiah was the main source of income for the family. Now, he was gone.
He invited her in and asked her to sit with him. Mrs. Carmichael brought them tea and cookies without being asked. Understandably, Mrs. Anders did not want either. She wanted to know where her son was. She didn’t feel as if Nikolas Tackett would know his exact location, but he was his employer and a good man. He would help her find her son or die trying.
Nikolas didn’t touch the refreshments, either. “I haven’t seen Isaiah since earlier yesterday morning. He told my sister in-law that he felt ill and left shortly thereafter.” Where the hell is Sophia? He wanted her here to back up the story she initially told him.
Mrs. Anders shook her head while her hands fiddled with a coin purse she carried everywhere. It was made from an ugly combination of leather and wool. However, she couldn’t part with it. Isaiah had made it for her when he was five. “I simply don’t understand,” she said quietly.
From what Anders said, his mother was a very quiet woman who didn’t quarrel with anyone unless she was angered. Today, she was worried. “I am so sorry, ma’am. I would like to take you to town. You can report him missing to the constable. Perhaps…”
He didn’t finish his thought. Mrs. Anders waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “The constable is a buffoon, Mr. Tackett. Will you look out for him?”
He felt horrible, shameless guilt. If he hadn’t fed on Sophia, none of this would have happened. As soon as Mrs. Anders left, he intended to endow the family. It was the only way to make up for what Sophia had taken away. She was too proud to accept anything directly. “I certainly will. He is a good boy, Mrs. Anders.”
She smiled wearily. “He is.”
“May I summon Ambrose to accompany you home?” The Anders’ property was a few miles away. She had walked here and looked much too tired to attempt the trip back.
“No,” she said with a curt nod. “Thank you. The walk will help clear my mind.”
Nikolas saw her to the door and stood on the veranda, watching her, until she was well out of eye shot, even for an immortal. When he turned to go back inside, to his utter dismay, Sophia stood at the foot of the stairs. Dressed impeccably in a dark blue dress, she appeared to be ready to impress. He hoped it wasn’t for Saul Utting. Gordon was upstairs, packing the few belongings he brought with him. Sophia told him of the gentleman caller. He was pleased, of course. The old maid sister had a possible beau. If Utting failed to show up, they were to leave today. Whatever the case, Sophia was leaving his home. If Utting decided to call, Gordon was instructed to take his sister to town and leave her at a boarding house for women. When asked why she wasn’t staying with Nikolas and her nephew while this ‘maybe’ beau came to call, Sophia smartly told her brother that it was time to leave the Tacketts alone. As if Nikolas believed that. He noticed her neck was void of finger marks.
“No one will discover Master Anders’ body,” Sophia stated blandly.
“Have you packed?” Nikolas asked his voice just as bland as hers.
“Of course, but I will be stopping in from time to time to see my nephew.”
Smirking himself, he nodded. “Of course. There is always a chance your man won’t come calling. If that is the case, the trip from home will be a long journey for you.”
“Impossible,” she said smugly. “Saul Utting is a lonely man. He wants a wife and children.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do this. Why can’t you go home? Go away? Why must you do this, Sophia?”
“I wouldn’t,” she began, “if you agreed to our bargain. I told you what we could do to resolve our issues. I would make you a dedicated, obedient wife. The perfect mother for your son.”
“And I told you I could never want it or want you raising my son.”
She smiled bitterly. “Then I suppose I shall become Sophia Utting in time. We will have sons and daughters. Soon enough, I will make everyone see how much better it would be for Keagan to live in a stable home, rather than living in yours.”
Nikolas was about to retort when a discreet knock came to the door. He thought it might have been Mrs. Anders returning, deciding to take him up on the offer of an escort home. He honestly didn’t believe Saul Utting had come to call. He was sourly disappointed the moment he opened the door.
Last night, Saul Utting resembled an out of luck vagabond. Today, he had on a dress suit, clean leather boots, and a suitable greatcoat. Today, he had life in him. There was no sour corn liquor smell about him. Frankly, he was sober and looked as if he had been that way since he left the house. Behind him, Nikolas was certain Sophia had a triumphant smile on her face. It was one that likely needed to be slapped off.
Properly, Sophia kept to herself. She walked prissily over to the sofa and sat down gracefully. She saw immediately that Utting’s eyes shifted from Nikolas to her. Demurely, she kept her eyes downcast, but offered a smoldering look toward him; one that she knew set him on fire. Within a few days, she was certain he would forget who Mahala Utting was to him.
“Mr. Utting,” Nikolas said calmly. “Won’t you come in? I will summon Gordon for you.”
He entered the house. Nikolas closed the door behind him, and turned to the stairs. Gordon likely heard the commotion downstairs. The pompous ass, however, wouldn’t come down without an expressed invitation. He wanted to be called upon as if he were royalty.
The moment Nikolas was out of the room, Sophia looked up at Saul, smiling. “I am so glad you are here, Saul. Won’t you sit down?”
Without speaking, Saul approached a straight backed chair, one given to Constance and Nikolas from Sophia’s father, and sat down. He hadn’t thought to bring flowers. It was a luxury he couldn’t afford for now. “If I may say so, Sophia. You look quite lovely.”
Sophia laughed behind her hand. “Oh, you may say.”
After Nikolas told Gordon Sophia’s caller was downstairs, he washed his hands of the entire business. For now. He wanted no part of the scene playing in his home. Instead, he took to the nursery and the comfort of his son. With Sophia out of the house, he felt somewhat safer. Sooner or later, he would have to take care of her. It would be easier with her away. He didn’t feel as if Sophia and Saul would marry. He hoped that Saul would get enough of young Sophia during their courtship. Nikolas had never officially met the man or his wife. Despite that, Mahala Utting couldn’t have been as horrid as Sophia Apton. Surely, he wouldn’t fall for her, even if bewitched. Surely, he turned out to be wrong.
After Gordon took Sophia to town, she went to her room at the boarding house. Since she had a prospective husband, she didn’t mind wandering around the small village of LeVale. She spoke often to the woman who ran the boarding house. She was Mary LeVale, the great-great granddaughter of the town’s founder. She learned a lot about what would become her new home. Nikolas’ mercantile wasn’t far from the house. Sophia intentionally walked by as often as she could, noticing that Sven Hansen mostly ran it. The bastard who co-owned the establishment stayed home more, with his boy, the boy she should be raising.
Although officially she belonged to Saul Utting now, she suddenly had an eye for other men. A proper lady never openly flirted with another man, especially if taken. It didn’t prevent her from glancing at Sven as he worked. Every now and again, his eyes met hers. He was clearly aware of whom she was, but he never made a move to speak. He merely nodded her way. He had seen her with Utting, he wouldn’t interfere with their courtship, but Sophia sensed he wanted to do just that.
Utting courted Sophia, met her family, and seemed to be the perfect gentleman. He wouldn’t come calling when they were alone. Old Mary LeVale babysat them during their meetings. Sophia longed for more private moments, but intimacies were saved for marriage. Saul kissed her hand politely, leaving her frustrated and curious as to what would come once they married.
Finally, after several months, Utting asked Sophia’s father permission to marry. He granted it, offering a hefty dowry for his daughter. It was enough money to have a grand home built wherever they desired. The family loved Saul Utting, his hard working character, and the fact that he was taking their old maid daughter off their hands. As snooty as the Aptons were, it didn’t bother them one iota that Saul Utting wasn’t modestly wealthy like Nikolas Tackett.
Tackett heard of the marriage proposal from his partner, Sven. In LeVale, news had a way of getting around fast. However, the folks in the boonies usually were last in line for the news. Since asking for Sophia’s hand, Utting had come to Nikolas’ home many times, trying to get to know his brother in-law more, sniffing about his business, and callously asking ‘just how rich are the Aptons?’ Utting wasn’t exactly uncouth, but it was obvious he wasn’t accustomed to wealth and what it could do for a man such as him. Mostly, Nikolas ignored Saul Utting and his bride to be. He stayed focused on his son, raising him the best way he knew how.
Three days after Wyatt Apton gave his blessing, Sophia sat alone in her small room. It was decorated well. The only thing she complained about was the amenities. There were none. She knew the wretched old woman who owned the home sat on a fortune, but Sophia had to beg for linens, wash water, and soap.
One evening, she stared out the window. It was nearly dark and she was hungry. Of course, the boarders had a meager dinner of soup and bread. It simply didn’t satisfy her. She wanted more. She wanted hot, bloody flesh. Unlike Nikolas, she couldn’t be sated with an occasional deer or wild boar. Sophia hungered for flesh. Human flesh. After leaving Nikolas’ home, she promised herself that she wouldn’t kill another human. Her marriage to Utting would be the catalyst to her plan, but if she caved in to her cravings, everything would be ruined. If she exposed Nikolas, she would do the same to her nephew and herself. What would she do?
Sophia loved her nephew dearly. Nikolas allowed her very brief visits under either his or Mrs. Carmichael’s supervision. More than once, she was tempted to kill the old witch when it was Mrs. Carmichael’s turn to watch. She hesitated only because she knew that Keagan would be living with her soon enough.
Mrs. LeVale wanted her boarders to adhere to a strict curfew, as if they were children. This home was thought of as ‘Old Maid Manor.’ Despite that, every woman here was well over the age of consent. Why did she care if she was caught, then tossed out? Within a few months, she would be married and living in her own home. Not the home Utting currently lived in, of course. Her father ensured that her dowry would provide for them well. She knew her future husband intended to sit on the money. She could persuade him otherwise. She had her ways. After all, he was marrying her, wasn’t he?
Shrugging off Mary LeVale’s rules, Sophia put on a proper wrap and left her room. Every other woman here was already asleep. Erring on the cautious side anyway, she crept lightly down the stairs, loving her night vision more with each step. She noticed that even old busy body Mary LeVale was in bed. Hopefully that meant she could come and go as she pleased.
Despite the hour, there were a few people still out and about. LeVale was a sleepy town with all the shops closing early evening. Yet, she noticed weak light emitting from the mercantile. She wondered if it was Sven inside. She hoped it was. Otherwise, she risked a nasty confrontation with Nikolas. He would then cart her back to the boarding house, where she would be forced to listen to a lecture. She kept telling herself none of this mattered. Soon, she would marry. Soon, no one would bother treating her like a child. If they did, she would happily kill them.
To her utter surprise and pleasure, she saw that it was Sven. He was readying the store for closure. Her step as light as a feather, she entered the building with a smile. Sven looked up, surprised, as he saw it was Ms. Apton. Nikolas spoke little of her, his word always curt and full of spite. Sven knew she was to marry Saul Utting soon. He didn’t envy the man or his choice of bride. Still, he saw Ms. Apton walk by on occasion, and he found her to be beautiful and as proper as any lady in town. He had no idea that Sophia had ways of turning a man in her favor.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Apton, I’m about to close up,” he said. “If you’re looking for Mr. Tackett, he hasn’t been here in a couple of days.”
She regarded the tall Swede with light in her eyes, her breath coming in swift hitches. His flesh and the vein pulsing in his neck were attracting her in a way that was completely unnatural. Nevertheless, it was exciting. “I understand, Mr. Hansen. I simply couldn’t sleep and decided on a walk. I noticed the light and thought I’d stop to say hello.”
Sven scratched his head absently. This was the first time he had exchanged more than six words with the young woman. Why in the world was she such a burden on Nikolas? It was confusing. “Won’t Mrs. LeVale have a bee in her bonnet when she realizes you’re not in bed?”
Sophia laughed lightly behind her hand. Sven thought it was a sign of shyness. In fact, she hid her emerging canine teeth. Her thirst for blood and hunger for flesh were overwhelming. “She will be fine, I’m sure. How is business?”
He was somewhat startled by her interest in the business. Her father dabbled in it, because that was how Nikolas met Constance. Women usually didn’t give one fig about business. “Oh, it’s fine.”
“Lovely,” Sophia said with a sigh.
She moved closer to Sven. He was uncomfortable in her presence, but he didn’t move. She was standing close enough now to touch him. What in the world was she doing? Didn’t she care about insulting Saul Utting? “Ms. Apton? May I assist you back to the boarding house?”
“Oh no,” she told him.
Her hand reached out to touch his arm. The moment her skin made contact with his, it gave him a jolt of electricity. His arm seemed to be on fire now. Sven Hansen wasn’t the smartest man in the whole world, but he knew when he was being seduced. Whores aplenty were available in the next town over. He never thought he would meet one here, in tiny little LeVale. Was her intended aware of this?
“Please,” she purred. “Call me Sophia.”
He didn’t want to do any such thing. In fact, he wanted to grab her upper arm and lead her right out of the store. For reasons unknown to him, he couldn’t do it. He had no control over his faculties. “Sophia.” The word came out as a husky sigh.
“Would you mind taking me into your storage room? I would love to see your merchandise,” Sophia said breathily.
No and hell no, he heard his brain pushing to his mouth. It didn’t quite come out that way. What was happening was completely impossible. “Yes, Sophia. I would certainly love to show you.”
Willing, yet unwilling at the same time, Sven took Sophia’s hand and led her back to the store room. It was basically a small shed attached to the main building. The room was messy, dusty, and covered with crates of various sizes. Bags of animal feed were piled up in the corners of the room. Thankfully, since he had been working so hard, it wasn’t as crowded as it had been a few days ago. Normally, no one saw it other than him and Nikolas.
He watched as Sophia found a clear area. Amazement painting his face, he saw her sit on the dirty floor. What did she think she was doing? Stupidly, he slapped his face to ensure this wasn’t a dream. She smiled up at him with an inviting look. It demanded that he join her where she sat. Fighting against the urge, he hesitated for a few moments. He was even more shocked when she took down her hair from its sensible bun. It spilled down her shoulders and back in a dark silken flow. He hadn’t seen such beauty since his wife. Witch. She’s a witch. Poor old Saul Utting didn’t know what he was getting himself into, and he didn’t have time to warn him.
“Aren’t you going to join me?” She asked innocently, batting her eyes for good measure.
“Of course,” he said, hesitating slightly.
Sven sat before her on the dirty floor, crossing his legs for good measure. He watched as her chest rose and fell, the swell of her breasts instantly caused a mad blush to overcome him. Every part of him went red, but he was powerless to get up, to leave her alone.
Her intention was to feed on him. It was an attractive idea, as she was hungry for it. Something stopped her, just as it had before when she came upon Saul Utting. This man would be useful to her, not in the same way as Utting. She knew nothing of intimate relations. Her lycan senses had taught her the way of seduction, hypnotism. Would it be possible to feed on him without killing or passing on immortality? How could this be achieved? How could she make him her willing drone?
“You may touch my hair if you wish, Sven,” she told him.
He wanted nothing more than to touch her hair. At the same time, he wanted nothing less. He wanted to shove her out of the building, close up shop, and inform Nikolas that his sister in-law was a witch that needed to be burned at the stake, just like in the old days. Instead, he reached out with a work weathered hand and touched her hair. It felt like spun silk. He took a handful of strands and inhaled deeply. It smelled of vanilla, one of his favorite spices.
Sophia moved quickly. While he inhaled her perfumed hair, she leaned forward and placed a delicate kiss on the side of his neck. The move surprised him so, that he dropped her hair. She pulled back, her eyes glowing, begging him for more. Suddenly, he pounced upon her, taking her lips with such brutal force that the wind was knocked out of them both. She plunged her hands into his hair, digging her nails in his scalp. It burned, but he didn’t care. Shamelessly, he allowed his hands to roam her body, at last squeezing her breasts. He forgot about modesty, ruining her virtue, or spoiling her for her new husband. All he could think about were her lips, ripe body, and the fact that he wanted her more than he wanted anything in his life.
After the kiss was broken, he gazed down at her, noticing that she wasn’t frightened or offended. It was just the opposite. “You should go, Sophia.”
The words made sense. Of course, she knew he didn’t mean it. He wanted her and she would have let him have her if it weren’t for Saul Utting. He was expecting his bride to be a virgin. She would be, no matter how well she could control Sven Hansen if she allowed him to do so. Instead of getting herself back together and honoring Sven’s wishes, she placed her hands on the back of his head and kissed him again. Her gifts made her aware there was a way of making him her drone, of helping her produce an infant much quicker than with Utting alone. As she kissed him, implanting wicked thoughts in his mind of how she was without clothing, she reached up with one hand. It hooked into a wolfen paw easily. With one hooked claw, she pricked the skin of his neck. He flinched slightly. When she knew a bead of blood had formed, her mouth left his quickly and went to his neck, drinking in the drop. It tasted heavenly and forbidden. How she longed to finish the job.
“I will see you again,” she whispered after she withdrew from his neck. “When you see me, you will know what to do.”
Completely entranced, he blinked before nodding. “I will know what to do.”
“Yes, darling,” she said. Pushing him away, she snarled, “Go, you’re damned now, Sven Hansen!”
At her last harsh words, Sven seemed to come out his trance. Dazed, he glanced down at Sophia Apton sitting on the dirty store room floor. Her hair had been tugged out of its bun and rested down her back. She had the look of a woman who has just been rolled about in a hay mow.
“Ms. Apton, did I…” He couldn’t quite choke out the words. He wasn’t a violent sort, understanding that if a man couldn’t get a woman, he had the use of his hand. There was never a need to take them.
Her first thought was to play the attack angle. If she did, he would be more of a servant to her than she needed. She thought better of it. As of now, he was under her spell, she controlled him. Why play him more? “No, Mr. Hansen. I have terrible bouts of sleep walking, so I must have somehow come here to you.”
Sven didn’t know how she managed to get here without his seeing her. His brain felt foggy, his body out of sorts. Without thinking, he reached out to her and helped her to her feet. “I’ll walk you back to your boarding house now, ma’am.’”
Brought up to her feet, Sophia hastily braided her hair, giving herself the proper air of a well-trained lady. “You are coming to my wedding, aren’t you? Surely Nikolas didn’t fail to give you an invitation?”
Neither he nor Nikolas spoke of the wedding when they were working together. Nikolas was sick of it, Sven completely uninterested. However, he nodded agreeably. “Of course I will, Miss. Let’s get you back home.”
The word home almost made her laugh. Before Nikolas kicked her out, she had a home. She had a child who would come to rely on her, but it wasn’t good enough for her brother in-law. Her wedding to Saul Utting would fix everything. It would also fix them all. She would see to it, even if she died in the process.
How in God’s name was I talked into doing this? Nikolas Tackett wondered as dozens of people, hired by the Apton family, turned his modest home into a place where a wedding extravaganza was being held. According to his in-laws, having the wedding here made perfect sense. Compared to the home of Saul Utting, Tackett House Manor was a palace. Sophia was their damned daughter. Therefore, they should have done it where Sophia was born. Part of it, he was certain, was Sophia’s doings. It was what she wanted, so they would damned well give it to her. The family played on Nikolas’ loss, plus the fact that Sophia so adored Keagan.
Tackett turned away from the wedding doings and stalked in the back yard. Mrs. Carmichael had been watching the young boy. Dismissing her, Nikolas dropped to the wool blanket where the boy was using his latest new trick. He had learned to crawl and sit up, so he did it as often as he could, like any new talent learned. He couldn’t believe how fast the boy was growing. He was crawling already, and whenever Nikolas called to him, the boy would work his body busily until he was secure in his father’s arms. He loved his son so, that he didn’t remember what his life had been like before he came.
Constance was in his heart always. He would never forget her or how much he loved her. As the days grew into nights, he found her memory fading ever so subtlety. He could never imagine replacing her in his life, no matter how often his family or friends asked him. There were many women around, some widows, who would have made suitable wives. It didn’t interest Nikolas. The only thing that kept him focused was his son. Little Keagan had become his whole world. He often thought about selling his half of the mercantile to Sven. Perhaps he could leave the country, visit the destination where the Tacketts had first begun.
All of it sounded attractive, like a plan he should follow. If there wasn’t the problem of Sophia, he probably would have packed and left before this hideous wedding date. If he left, Sophia would follow. Staying here where he could watch was best. She didn’t love Saul Utting. Whom she loved was not in her reach, not while he drew a breath.
When the Apton family arrived for the big day, Nikolas played along as a good host, showing them to their rooms, sacrificing his for the elder Aptons. He planned on sleeping in Keagan’s room since Sophia would be in close reach. As the bride, she had a room to herself in which she would transform from an old maid to a wife to be. Saul Utting would remain at his house for a few more hours. The dowry paid to Utting had gone partially to begin construction on the dream home Sophia felt she deserved. Nikolas heard Sophia tell her mother she wanted many bedrooms for all the children she planned to have, plus one for Keagan so he could visit when he was older. The words sent chills down Nikolas’ spine. Sophia would have to be stopped before that could happen.
The Aptons also brought along a distant cousin to the family. Nikolas heard Victoria gossip about the young woman. Like Sophia, she was getting at the age where men would be uninterested in marrying her. Barely twenty-five, Lydia Blount was rather tall with hair the color of cotton and eyes as green as an emerald. Painfully shy, she barely spoke when Nikolas greeted her. She was quite smart at dressmaking and had been brought along to help with Sophia. Another thing he noticed about her was that Keagan took to her almost immediately. Nikolas’ son was somewhat shy around strangers, but Miss Blount brought him out of it.
The family settled in and went about the crazy nonsense of getting the wedding together and the ceremony performed on time. Nikolas drew away from the hysteria and took to the woods. He left Keagan in the care of Mrs. Carmichael. Out in the woods, he could be himself. Out here, he didn’t have to think of weddings, Sophia Apton, or the fear she wanted to take his son away.
He picked up a thin, long branch and used it as a walking stick. It was fairly strong and held up his weight perfectly. On days like this, he often forgot the fate of his life, the difficulties ahead, and fear. Before he became a father, he was unafraid of anything. Meeting Constance brought it about a bit more than he would have liked. Yet, he didn’t believe his feelings for her would go beyond a slight flirtation. It had been Constance to make the first move toward their courtship. He had just bartered with the elder Apton for fabric and his crafted coffins when he saw Constance flitting about, asking her father a billion questions. She cared nothing about fabric or coffins. She wanted to know who the mysterious handsome man was. It didn’t take long for her to find out.
After days of their constant bartering, Nikolas somehow realized he wasn’t interested in goods from Apton’s business, either. The last night Nikolas came to the Apton mercantile in nearby Riverbay, all he wanted to see was Constance for one last time. He was pleased when he did, and even more so when she boldly gave him a kiss. One kiss was all it took for him to be completely hooked. Before long, he was courting her with her father’s blessing, their meetings chaperoned by Gordon. On their wedding night, it was the first time he had ever been allowed to be alone with her. Although he was experienced, he almost didn’t know what to do first. It didn’t take long, and his sweet Constance was passionate, loving, so unlike her Victorian forebears.
He hated weddings. They always reminded him of what he no longer had. This one, in particular, bothered him for more reasons than he could count. Nikolas moved further into the grove of trees, noticing how the house grew smaller as he went. Good. He wasn’t due back for half an hour. The wedding would begin soon after.
Nikolas turned around in the grove when he knew he was getting close to Constance’s grave. He didn’t want to visit her today, not with the nonsense of her sister’s wedding dawning on them. When he began moving closer to the home, a splash of color caught him off guard.
“Hello?” He called.
He half expected to see Saul Utting. It wasn’t. The splash of color he saw was the cottony sheen of Lydia Blount’s hair. “Oh, I am very sorry, Mr. Tackett. I didn’t mean to startle you. I hope it is appropriate for me to be out here.”
Her voice was light, soft, and almost musical. Her appearance was ethereal. She didn’t seem to be the shy woman who was introduced to him earlier. The Aptons were nothing like this creature. She most assuredly was what he liked to call a ‘shirt-tail relative.’ “It’s fine for you to be here. You are, after all, family.”
She began to approach him and when she drew closer, she was smiling. “Somewhat,” she said, amused. “I’m somewhat family. I knew your wife only slightly. I believe I had met her a few times. She seemed to be a lovely woman.”
Nikolas nodded. The motion almost imperceptible. “She was. My son has seemed to have taken a shine to you.”
“Ah yes, little Keagan,” she said. “He is a joy. I love little ones.” The words came out of her mouth tinged with hurt.
In some circles, conversations such as this were usually deemed inappropriate. However, Nikolas didn’t feel that way. He was curious as to how she came into the Apton mix. “How are you related to the Aptons? You carry none of their physical characteristics.”
“You, among others, have often said the same thing,” she began, “I am actually a third cousin to the family. Sophia’s mother and mine are second cousins. Her family name was Mulder and mine, as you know is Blount. Our people were mostly Dutch and German.”
“I see,” he said.
She laughed, the sound just as musical as her voice. He couldn’t understand how a pleasant sound could come from a girl related to another who was a monster. “History can be boring, Mr. Tackett.”
He smiled at her with a slight shake of the head. “Not bored, simply intrigued, since you look nothing like your family. And please, call me Nikolas.”
“All right, and you may call me Lydia.” She moved nearer to Nikolas, standing close enough where it seemed like they were two conspirators planning some nefarious stunt. “Sophia never liked me, if you want the truth of it. She knows I can make beautiful dresses for weddings. And no offense to you, our gracious host, but it seems you are in the same position as I.”
No truer words were ever spoken. “You are very perceptive, Lydia.” He moved his arm, sweeping it along the property. “And if I didn’t own such a large house, and married into the family, I wouldn’t have a role whatsoever. As it is, my purpose is to host the wedding. Nothing more.”
Her brow furrowed with confusion. “Why not use the Apton estate? Their house seems much larger when I think about it.”
“Sophia likely requested it because her intended lives nearby,” he explained.
She looped her arm in his as they began to walk back toward the house. Both of them were needed for the wedding in minutes. “Ah yes, it makes sense now. Other than the fact that she is your sister in-law, what other connection does Sophia have to you?”
Her taking his arm surprised him, but didn’t disturb him as much as he would have thought. “Absolutely nothing,” he lied. “She came to help with my son, but became a nuisance.” He chuckled. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be talking about this.”
“Perhaps we should,” she said softly. “I don’t like her either.”
The two of them walked back casually to the house. From the bedroom where Sophia began to prepare herself for the wedding, she could see Nikolas and Lydia walking together. Although her mother and sister were in the room assisting her, Lydia was needed in case the dress ripped or didn’t fit right. Without caring if they heard her or not, Sophia growled under her breath. The sight of them together irritated her. Both were literal black sheep in the family, and an alliance between them was not helpful to her cause.
Sophia turned to her sister and hissed, “Get Lydia up here now. My dress needs an immediate alteration.”
Victoria nodded dutifully. “Of course, Sophia. I shall fetch her.”
Saul Utting arrived for his wedding a few minutes after Nikolas and Lydia made their way inside. He stayed downstairs in the drawing room and chatted nervously with the reverend Mr. Apton had hired to perform the ceremony. Nikolas simply nodded to both men before thumping upstairs to put on his best suit. How he longed to go down and plead with Utting to change his mind.
The door to the bride’s room was closed, but he heard idle chit chat inside. Before he could say anything to Lydia, Victoria had grabbed her hand and hustled her upstairs so she could repair some flaw in the wedding dress. Nikolas darted into his room, where his son had just been laid down for a long nap. It was close to his bedtime anyway, so his son would likely sleep though the wedding and the party afterward. He visited with his son as long as he dared. If it could be avoided, he wouldn’t be late for the ceremony. He vaguely wondered if he could somehow stop it. Once Sophia became Mrs. Utting, she would definitely destroy lives.
Dressed in proper attire, Nikolas kissed his son’s forehead and made his way downstairs. Utting stood in his designated area by the reverend. The Aptons had invited dozens of guests, none of whom Nikolas knew. It was okay. He had often been the stranger in the room. As he looked around the crowd of guests, happily munching and drinking punch, he saw Lydia standing by herself. Her dress was a brilliant emerald green that set off her hair and brightened her eyes. Her pale locks were curled elaborately and held together with beads dangling about. She held a matching fan that she used every few minutes. It was warm inside the house already, but the crowd made it more so.
For the first time since Constance had died, Nikolas couldn’t help but think a solid thought regarding one Miss Blount. She’s lovely. He was tempted to approach her, to join the other who seemed to be black listed. He hesitated, choosing to remain behind the groom, away from the action. He was stunned when Lydia approached him instead.
“How much do you suppose Sophia’s father paid my cousin in-law to take her off his hands,” she whispered cattily behind her feathered emerald fan.
Nikolas couldn’t fight back a wicked grin. “More than I possess, I’m sure.”
“I think Sophia’s dress will be beautiful, but she does not deserve such talent,” she said with a sigh. “Do you mind if I stand with you during this circus?”
He smiled down at her, enjoying the mirth he saw in her brilliant eyes. “Not at all. In fact, I think I would be honored.”
Before Lydia could reply, an elderly man began to play a song on his violin. It was slow, drawn out, and haunting. It signified a bridal party march, but also seemed to be completely inappropriate for the occasion. Nonetheless, the wedding party began to descend the stairs. First, Bridget Apton was escorted by Victoria’s husband. Next came Victoria, who was led down by Gordon. Finally, the music changed into a traditional wedding march. On the arm of her father, Sophia began the descent, the last time she would be referred to as Sophia Apton.
Although Nikolas literally abhorred her, he had to admit Sophia glowed. Lydia had made her a red wedding gown with white floral trim. Her hair was styled as elaborately as Lydia’s, with one exception. She donned a white lace head piece that flowed down her back. Her face was hidden by a sheer white veil. Nikolas remembered that Constance had worn a similar dress that was blue and white. He wondered if Lydia had made it as well. He scoured the recesses of his memory to see her face. Of course, it didn’t matter. On his wedding day, his sole focus was on Constance.
Sophia couldn’t help but glance at Nikolas. He stood with her cousin, both of them with irritating smirks on their faces. What she wouldn’t give to kill them both. All eyes were on her, of course. It didn’t keep Nikolas from lamenting about Constance and his wedding day. She knew he was curious about Constance’s dress, and if it was also made by Lydia. It was, brother in-law. Now it seems as if you have your eyes on her. She won’t be with you or any man, for she is unclean.
When Sophia stood beside her groom, Nikolas began to allow his mind to drift. He didn’t hear the ceremony or their vows. He didn’t watch the exchange of rings. He didn’t see when shy Saul Utting kissed his bride for the first time. He saw nothing. He also missed the couple’s departure to the party in their honor outside. He remained inside for as long as he dared. It was Lydia who drew his attention.
“Come, Nikolas,” she said, taking his hand. “Let’s go outside and feast. We may not belong, but that doesn’t mean we can’t eat.”
Nikolas was asked to sit with the family, so he did. The banquet table was gigantic, fastened to several other special tables. The top of it was loaded with food, three kinds of wild game, fresh fruit, seasonal vegetables, and a large wedding cake in the center. As the rest of the guests fed heartily, Nikolas picked at his food. Lydia sat on the other end of the table and picked at her own. Most of the party was a blur and he would be hard pressed to remember much of anything.
After the meal came dancing. Nikolas stood with a cup of punch, longing for a flask of whiskey. He hadn’t drunk in a very long time. It was a promise to Constance he intended on keeping. It didn’t stop the craving or the desire for this party to be over. What was worse for Nikolas was that Sophia and Saul would spend their wedding night in his home. The idea of her being bedded in one of his guest rooms was enough to sicken him. Perhaps tonight, he would camp out in the woods.
As the party died down, there was one last ritual. Saul and Sophia went inside, up to their room for the night, intent on consummating the marriage. Of course, before that happened, all of the party guests (excluding Nikolas) grabbed pots and pans. Quietly, they crept up to the newlyweds’ room. Sophia and Saul were completely aware of this, and remained standing in the room, feet away from the bed. Outside the bedroom door, they banged the pots and pans merrily. The noise disturbed Keagan, who began to cry loudly as his sleep cycle was interrupted.
The angered cries of the infant sent most of them away. Nikolas quieted his boy and managed to get him back to sleep. He left him in Mrs. Carmichael’s care, glared at the bedroom door, and left the house. He carried enough equipment with him to spend the night alone in the woods.
Once alone in the room, and after the party revelers left them alone, Sophia smiled lovingly at her new husband. She didn’t love him one bit. However, her body quacked at the thought of what was to come. She remembered how Sven Hansen’s hands felt on her, and she longed to feel it again.
“I am your wife,” she whispered. “Will you show me your love?”
It was a moment that Sophia expected him to rip off her dress, touch her, and ravage her body. She waited for his touch, longed for it. He stared at her so long, she wasn’t sure what he was thinking. She certainly didn’t know how to initiate it.
“Yes’m,” he mumbled thoughtlessly. “Undress. I’ll be right back.”
Curiously, she watched as he went into the small walk-in closet in the room. He intended to undress in there? Confused, unaware what steps she needed to take, she simply followed his instructions. She took off the gown lovingly made by Lydia Blount and tossed it carelessly over a chair. She removed her stays, her corset, and shoes. The only article of clothing remaining was her shift. She picked the jewels out of her hair, unraveled it from the once elaborate hairstyle, and left it loose about her shoulders.
She heard no movement from the closet. Assuming he was undressing as well, Sophia went to the bed, pulled back the covers, and slid in. Saul emerged from the closet after several minutes, wearing a nightshirt common amongst men of his age. She sat up, smiling invitingly, although terrified at the same time. She was a lycan, a killer, but this she was afraid of.
“No,” he said flatly. “Lie back.”
“Yes, Saul,” she said. What in the world was wrong with him? Didn’t he want her? Didn’t he want her like Sven Hansen did?
He approached the bed and grabbed the coverlet she was cringing beneath. He threw it back to reveal her luscious body covered by a thin shift. He moved to the lamp sitting on the bedside table. He blew it out before moving closer to the bed. Sophia could still see, but curiously, Saul never removed his nightshirt.
“You’re beautiful, Sophia,” he whispered.
“Thank you, my dear husband,” she whispered back. “Aren’t you going to have me?”
He kneeled on the bed before her, gently touching her leg. “Women shouldn’t say such things, Sophia. Now lift your shift.”
Stung by his words, she again decided to follow his directions rather than talk back to him. She still needed a baby out of this deal. “Yes, Saul,” she said rather demurely.
With some difficulty, she raised her shift up to her waist, immediately feeling the chill in the room as well as the heat of her desire. She had been waiting so long for something like this. Saul didn’t look at her, her body, or anything in the room. He placed his body between her parted thighs and kissed her forehead.
“I love you, my dear,” he said softly.
“And I you.” Lie. Lie. I hate you and only married you for one thing and you had better do it.
Sophia hissed slightly as she felt him enter. As he moved within her, the pain seemed to worsen, finally settling in as a dull ache. She closed her eyes, hating him, hating Nikolas, hating all men as his body humped over hers, his sweat dripping down into her face. He stunk of the corn liquor he drank as it melted out of his pores. This was nothing like the electric thrill she felt when she allowed Sven to touch her. All this seemed to be was a bunch of huffing and pumping. This made babies, she knew. But her husband was not very good at it.
When his body jerked and rocked, she hoped it meant it was over. He was a quivering mess when he collapsed on top of her. His stink was worse than ever before. She longed to push him off her and feed on him. Yes, he took her, he took her in blood. She would like to take him back, make him pay her back in blood.
Panting, he rolled off her body. Looking at her soberly, he said, “The first time is always a mess. It always hurts. Our love will make it better, my Sophia.”
She wasn’t so sure about that. She wasn’t so sure at all. “Will this make us a baby?” There were tears shining in her eyes. She didn’t want to cry, but couldn’t exactly help it.
He touched her cheek, caressing it gently. “It will, if we go long enough.”
Oh, we will, you bastard, she thought. , she thought. If we don’t, I will not hesitate to drink every drop of your blood and eat the flesh off your bones.
Nikolas had no desire to be inside the home while the newlyweds consummated their marriage. Tonight, he set up a campsite in the woods far enough away where he wouldn’t think about Sophia and Saul. Tomorrow, they were supposed to go home, so he thought he could rough it a night alone in the woods. He had done this millions of times, of course, but not once since Keagan was born. If he didn’t wholeheartedly trust Mrs. Carmichael, he wouldn’t have done it. It didn’t take long to set up a small tent, a comfortable bedroll, and a pillow stuffed with chicken feathers. It wasn’t much, but just enough to keep him out of the house until the ‘happy’ couple left.
He hadn’t eaten much during the party, so he was pretty hungry. Although he preferred his meals slightly more raw, he killed a rabbit and put it on a thick branch over a spit on the fire. The good smells of cooking meat wafted in the air, and he was sure it would attract coyotes. However, they would sense who and what he was before skittering back into the woods.
As his meal continued to cook, he grabbed a nearby water bag and drank deeply. How badly he craved a real drink. His kind and alcohol simply didn’t match. Lamp light wasn’t necessary, so he sat in the dark, listening to the noises around him. The house seemed distant, far away. That was fine with him. As soon as this fiasco of a wedding party saw its end at dawn, he could go back home and figure out his next plan of action.
Right before he took to his meal, he heard a series of snaps and crackles. Someone was in the woods. He saw the telltale bob of a lamp a few feet behind his camp site. Who in the world would be out wandering in the woods this time of night? It couldn’t possibly be Sophia, could it? Tell me I don’t have to face her tonight. Give me a few moments of peace, please. After he thought about it, he realized it wasn’t Sophia. Like he, she didn’t require light to move around. He sat completely without moving, hoping that whoever it was would go away. He wasn’t in the mood to speak to anyone right now. When it appeared the interloper wasn’t leaving the area, Nikolas’ body tightened. Every lycan had his or her own smell, so he was certain it wasn’t Sophia. The person was obviously human, female.
The prospect of a female nearing him gave him cause for concern. Was it Mrs. Carmichael? Had something happened to Keagan? “Who is out there,” Nikolas called.
“Don’t shoot, Nikolas. It’s just me, Lydia,” she said.
She drew near the fire, where his rabbit was done and ready to be consumed. He saw that she was dressed in typical night wear: a shift and wrapper. She was decently covered with her hair braided in one thick rope resting over one shoulder. She appeared to be much younger in her vulnerable state.
“You shouldn’t be out here at this hour in the woods,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
She smiled down at him, a handsome man sitting in the dark; the only light illuminating the site was a small camp fire. “You seem unafraid,” she responded lightly.
He wanted to tell her that other creatures were afraid of him, not the other way around. “I live here, so I know what to expect. What are you doing up at this hour?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” Knowing he likely wouldn’t invite her to join him, she walked around the fire and found a place to sit near him. “And you?”
Nikolas shrugged. Every bit of a gentleman when he could be, he surprised himself when he said, “I didn’t want to bear witness as to what is happening under my roof.”
Lydia laughed at the comment, not a bit offended by his implication. “They make an odd pair, don’t you think?”
He snorted. “Somewhat.” He took the rabbit off the make shift spit, fully intent on eating it straight off the stick. Not expecting company, and completely unsure if she was interested in fresh game, he turned to glance at her. “Rabbit?”
The question was odd and unanticipated, it was also quite amusing. “No thanks,” she said with a muted laugh. “I think I ate enough at the wedding party. You go on.”
He did, with relish. Nikolas wondered what she had done to offend the family so. The word going around was ‘unclean.’ It wasn’t any of his affair. He knew it was uncouth, but after eating a mouthful of rabbit, he wiped the juice off on his sleeve. Men would always be men, he supposed.
“How did you wind up the way you are with a family like the Aptons?” He asked, and then realized how rude the comment was. “I didn’t mean that quite the way it sounds.”
She wrapped her arms around her thin body. “No offense taken.” She stared into the flames for a moment, as if gathering her thoughts. “I am not a typical Apton, as you well recognized. My cousin Bridget married into money. The marriage was arranged, I suppose. How? I have never been told.” She turned as if to survey the house in the distance, along with the woods surrounding it. “It seems as if you are doing quite well. Perhaps not Apton well.”
He smiled, grunted, and took another bite of rabbit. Chewing it, he shrugged. “Touché.” .”
“Although I wasn’t at your wedding, I made Constance’s dress,” she said.
Suddenly not hungry anymore, he threw the remains of the rabbit far into the woods. “I thought as much,” he said, remembering it had crossed his mind earlier in the day’s festivities. “It was beautiful.”
“So was Constance,” she whispered. “In my opinion, she was the best of the lot. I wasn’t around much, but I’ve been told she loved playing house, always wanting to be the mommy. If she couldn’t, she would be the nurse maid.” She sensed stiffening in his body, a distance in his expression. “I’m sorry, Nikolas. Perhaps this conversation is not appropriate.”
He glanced down at her and afforded a slight smile. “You have done nothing wrong,” he said softly. “Her family doesn’t like speaking of her. Constance told me quite a bit about her youth, but never liked speaking directly about herself.”
Lydia chuckled and nodded. “That was Constance, from what I’ve gathered. People say the youngest of the family receives the best of everything. My mother told me it was different with her. By the time she was born, I think her parents were simply tired of parenting. Sophia was always so needy, demanding. There wasn’t much room left in their hearts when Constance came along.”
Constance had never said as much, but Nikolas figured what Lydia described was exactly the case. In fact, she said that if she ever had children, she would never show one more affection than the others. “Odd how the family never mentioned you,” he said, changing the subject. Constance was still a very sore spot.
“I am the family’s deep dark secret, Nikolas,” she said, her words not giving away the knowledge of his subject change. “Every family has one, you know.”
He knew all right. “Yes, I suppose that is true.”
She liked how he didn’t directly ask why the family kept her hidden away, save special family occasions. If a woman needed a dress for a fancy party, call on Lydia. If a newborn needed a christening gown, call on Lydia. Otherwise, keep Lydia locked in the closet. On the occasions she was around, Constance had been very kind to her, had even invited her to the wedding, but in the end, Lydia couldn’t. The only reason she wanted to come to Sophia’s was out of sheer curiosity. She wanted to see the man desperate enough to ask her hand in marriage. Not that Sophia had invited her. Bridget asked her to come for last minute alterations.
“I’m the last old maid in the family now,” she said with the air of someone not ashamed in the least bit.
“Like Sophia, you strike me as a woman who doesn’t need to be married or want to be for that matter,” Nikolas said.
“I’m not. I never have been. I simply don’t understand why, after all these years, she has chosen a man like Saul Utting.”
The rabbit was starting to sour on his stomach. “Do you want to know what I think?”
She saw a light in his eyes, one filled with mirth, ire. “Of course I do.”
“She is obsessed with my son,” he said. “She doesn’t think I know what I’m doing with him. She even brought Gordon in to support her cause, but he didn’t. She believes that if married, it will be much easier for her to take him away.”
Nikolas had no idea why he suddenly felt the desire to tell everything to a rank stranger. Somehow, she was an outsider, as much as he was. The Aptons bore him no ill will, but if they had to choose between him and Sophia, it wouldn’t be a choice at all. He knew that without fail. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her what he was and what he had done to Sophia. She was easy to talk to, confide in. She was a lot like Constance.
“It sounds like something she would do. Perhaps when she has a child of her own, she will forget about your son,” she said hopefully.
“I don’t think so,” he said morosely. “There is so much going on that I cannot begin to explain.”Pushing what was proper against the very nature that had her labeled as ‘unclean,’ she asked, “Were you and she intimate?”
Startled by her candor, his mouth dropped open and snapped shut. “Absolutely not. I could never have those feelings for her.”
“Men and women don’t have to have ‘feelings’ to be intimate.”
Her bawdy comment caught him off guard again. She was unlike any woman he had ever met. “I certainly understand that,” he managed to say after swallowing a lump in his throat. “I assure you, nothing like that was ever the case. She never liked me or approved of my marriage to her sister. She considered me beneath the Aptons.”
As if she understood exactly what was in his mind, she nodded. “I know how that feels.”
His eyes moved away from the flames to her face. She wasn’t looking at him, but had her eyes focused on the darkened woods. Perhaps she saw something out there he couldn’t. “You do not have to answer me, Lydia. What have they done to you? What has made them cast you away in the shadows?”
Without pause, without shame, she looked directly into his eyes. What she saw there was kindness, concern. “You are too good for the Aptons, Nikolas,” she said quietly. “I don’t mind telling you. With that said, you might cast me away as well.” She chuckled bitterly. “I was intimate with a man to whom I was not married. A girl child resulted from the coupling. After that, the family did not have much use for me, unless they need a wedding dress.”
In this day and age, it was considered a horrid sin against one’s family. At the same time, it was almost hypocritical. Many couples could not wait for their wedding day. Having babies out of wedlock was a mortal offense. “I cannot judge anyone, Lydia.” Especially since I have secrets of my own. Possibly worse than yours. “Where is your child?"A single tear suddenly appeared and rolled slowly down her cheek. “My father took her away from me. I have no idea where she is. She is only slightly younger than your son.”
Awkwardly, Nikolas reached out, clasped her hand for a few moments, and then pulled away as if burned. “I’m sorry, Lydia. It’s terrible what your family has done to you.”
“You do not think I’m trash?” She asked, surprised.
Incredulously, he eyed her. What a wounded woman she was. “Of course not,” he said.
“There is more, if you want to hear.” She noticed that he waited patiently for her to continue. The moment she realized he was silently prodding her, she said in a harsh whisper, “He wasn’t a white man. He was an Indian…a native.”
Nikolas had never encountered Indians in his world. He thought his father might have during his time. Again, he had no right to judge her, not after the life he led thus far. The way she spoke, she wasn’t taken by force. He could clearly understand how the Aptons would react to something like this. If they ever discovered his secret, he would lose Keagan for sure. As much as he loved his son, losing him was unimaginable. How had she gotten through something so tragic?
“I cannot imagine the hell you went through,” he said softly, voicing his thoughts. “How could your father be so callous? Giving away his granddaughter?”
“It was quite easy for him, actually,” she told him, a bitter edge entering her voice. “They were so ashamed by what I had done. I was locked away for months. I had her in a room that was no more than a dudgeon. She was rather beautiful and dark. You know the bluish hue of a baby’s eyes?” She smiled slightly when she saw Nikolas nod with recognition. “You never know what color they will be until they’re a bit older. However, hers were already their permanent color. Like his, they were almost black. Her little head was covered in black hair.”
Lydia had begun to cry. “You do not have to speak of it. I know you are hurting,” he said with concern.
Wiping the tears away with the back of her hand, she shook her head. “I have yet to tell anyone of this who isn’t connected by blood to my family. I can sense you’re a good man, Nikolas. Good men are hard to find, and they’re usually ready, welcome listeners.”
He ignored her words, feeling incredibly uncomfortable with compliments. He couldn’t help but think again that her sins weren’t as incredible as his. “Maybe someday, Lydia, you will see her again. How long were you with her before she was taken away?”
“A few hours, perhaps less,” she said her voice husky from her choking tears. “I do not know if the people who took her kept the name I gave her. I called her Storm.”
It was an odd name; one not familiar with the time, yet Nikolas rolled the name off his tongue, saying it silently. Soon, this girl child would change their lives. Soon, she would come to mean everything to his son.
Nikolas awoke outside before dawn broke. It was just a few hours after Lydia went back up to the house. Later, Sophia and Saul were to leave for home. His time speaking to the Apton cousin gave him pause for thought. Although he wasn’t immediately ready to make the trek back to the house, he wanted to speak to Lydia before she left with the other in-laws.
Packing up hastily, he slung the heavy knapsack over one shoulder and trotted out of the comfortable woods. Inside, the guests still slept, but he heard Keagan’s fussy snuffling right away. Now that he had gotten older, he accepted milk substitute, so Nikolas often fed his young son without the aid of Mrs. Carmichael. Perhaps it was time to let her go back to her family on a permanent basis. The baby had healed her broken heart when she lost hers
By the time he entered the kitchen, he saw Mrs. Carmichael preparing a bottle for the baby. She nodded his way and he returned it with a smile. “Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning, Mr. Tackett,” she told him. “How was your nap in the woods?”
“Better than sleeping in my own bed,” he said with a chuckle. “I can take over.”
“Of course,” she said with a knowing smile. She had no more use for Sophia than Nikolas. “I can prepare coffee and begin a light breakfast for your guests.”
“No,” he said quickly. “That won’t be necessary. I don’t expect anyone to stay long after they awaken. Mrs. Carmichael, I cannot tell you how much I have appreciated your assistance with Keagan,” he began, “now that he is older and accepting formula, would you like to return to your family full-time?”
She watched as he deftly prepared a bottle for the baby. Keagan wasn’t very old, but Nikolas seemed like he could handle things fine. She remembered the early days when he was flustered by the simplest tasks. “That would be appreciated, Mr. Tackett. I have loved caring for your family. I love your son as if he were my own.” She watched as he deftly prepared a bottle for the baby. Keagan wasn’t very old, but Nikolas seemed like he could handle things fine. She remembered the early days when he was flustered by the simplest tasks. “That would be appreciated, Mr. Tackett. I have loved caring for your family. I love your son as if he were my own.”
He didn’t know how well Mrs. Carmichael would mesh with the family. She had fit well, despite having had a stillborn not long before she was recommended for hire. “I know you do, and so does Keagan.”
Wise beyond her years, she glanced at him with shining eyes. “You’re planning on asking Miss Blount to stay behind, aren’t you?”
Mortal women sometimes appeared to have the lycan gift of reading minds. “Yes, ma’am, I do,” he answered simply. “My home has always been a type of respite for misfit souls.”
“How apt.” She turned to him and held out her hand. “May I feed Keagan one last time?”
He gave her the bottle without the slightest hesitation. “Absolutely. You know you are welcome to visit any time you wish.”
“I plan on it. And I will watch your son if you ever need me again.”
Nikolas hoped to see Lydia before the rest of his guests rose for the day. He wasn’t disappointed. Not long after Mrs. Carmichael gave Keagan his feeding, she entered the kitchen, having smelled fresh coffee on the stove. She saw Nikolas at the kitchen table silently enjoying his first cup of the day. He looked up at her, noticing that despite having slept only a few hours, she was fresh, bright, and alert.
“I was hoping to rise before everyone else,” she said, a wicked gleam in her eyes.
“You did,” he said with a grin. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes, I would. Don’t bother yourself, Nikolas, I think I can manage to get a cup,” she said, not unkindly.
He settled back at the table and waited while she poured herself a cup. She joined him at the table and sipped at the steaming brew. For a moment, he hesitated, causing somewhat of an awkward silence. “I dismissed Mrs. Carmichael earlier this morning,” he said, his words halting and tentative. “I do not want to seem out of place or too forward, but I was hoping you would consider staying behind and helping with Keagan.”
It was risky sending Mrs. Carmichael home before approaching Lydia with the idea of staying behind. He thought he sensed enough about her, enough that told him she would agree. Regardless of what she said, he was certain he could manage alone, but he didn’t want to send her away with the Aptons, either. Just knowing what her family had done was enough to understand that she would be better off here. If her selfish family needed a dress, they knew where to find her.
Lydia was startled by Nikolas’ offer. She studied his expression carefully. If there was an ounce of pity in it, she would not hesitate to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that she would leave. Period. There wasn’t any. She saw that he was obviously trying to help her, to give her purpose again. He wasn’t holding her back for a life of servitude or readying to pawn her off on the next old geezer for marriage. It was what she would expect once she returned home.
“Are you certain you want me around your son?” She asked carefully.
“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have asked. Unlike your family, I know you have more to offer than fine dressmaking skills.”
The look on his face went from complete studiousness to incredulity in the span of seconds. An expressive man was Nikolas Tackett. “I would love to stay here. Can you manage alone until I go home to pack? I believe my parents will be happy to see me leave so they no longer have to deal with me.”
“If you need help, I can go along,” he offered.
“Oh no,” she said with a proud smile. “I want to face my parents alone.”
Almost heterogeneously, the Apton family joined Nikolas and Lydia in the kitchen for coffee. When Lydia announced her future plans, none spoke up, even Sophia. However, she didn’t like the situation at all. Keagan did not have a proper father, and now he wanted an unclean woman tending to him? She noticed she was the only family member ready to protest. As Lydia had predicted, the others were only too happy to have her mark rubbed clean from the slate. They knew her parents would be even happier.
Unashamed, Nikolas didn’t bother offering any of them breakfast. He was too ready to see them go, hoping to deal with them in short bursts to visit with Keagan. Sophia, however, wasn’t one to go away quietly. He glanced at the newlywed couple. Both seemed miserable, but hid it well. Utting thought he was gaining a meek housewife who would replace his beloved Mahala. Nikolas understood that he didn’t know what he was getting wound up in, especially considering how obsessed she was with his son.
“I would like to say goodbye to my nephew,” Sophia announced.
“You’re not going to be that far away, Sophia,” Nikolas grumbled. “He has gone down for a nap, so I would appreciate it if you didn’t wake him.”
“He’s right, Wife,” Saul said quietly. “We need to get on home now.”
Nikolas hid a smile only Sophia would physically see. She wanted this lot in life to best him, so she could wallow in it. He gave the couple a cold, dark look before settling his eyes on Lydia. “I will see you in a few days.”
“Yes, Mr. Tackett,” Lydia said for the benefit of the Aptons, whom did not know they were on the basis of using first names. It was something only Sophia knew.
Approximately twenty minutes later, Nikolas bid the Aptons and Uttings adieu, promptly slamming the front door with the sole of his boot. He gave Lydia a proper, more appropriate goodbye minutes earlier. He had other business to tend to, one task of which was clearly Sophia’s doing. It was time to send the Anders’ family another endowment.
The home to be built with Sophia’s dowry wouldn’t be complete for some time. After leaving Tackett’s home, Saul insisted they immediately go home, his home. She had seen the inside of it only once. That was enough. She didn’t want to set foot in it or sleep in the bed. When she suggested they stay in a LeVale hotel for the time being, it didn’t sit well with Saul. He expected Sophia to listen to him like Mahala did. There were many things she was willing to concede when she became Mrs. Utting, but her lifestyle wasn’t one of them.
“We do not have the money to go into LeVale,” Saul said sharply. “I have a perfectly suitable house.”
Hate for him radiated out of every pore in her body, but she played it off well. Her cool hand fell upon his, and she almost pulled away, full of disgust. His skin was dry and roughened from hard labor. “Darling, you no longer have to push yourself so hard. We’re well off enough. Please, Saul, you deserve to live so much better.” If you do not agree, you will know what it feels like to bleed.
Her voice was contrite, complete spun sugar. It was music to Saul’s ears. He was somewhat hurt by her implication. There wasn’t anything wrong with working hard. At the same time, he wanted to be everything she needed. He was willing to let her lead him away from his life for that reason alone. Otherwise, he would have put his foot down. Besides, the whiskey at the hotel would be much finer than what he had awaiting at home.
“For a few days,” he told her sternly. “Then we go home.”
“Yes, my love. A few days,” she agreed. We will see about that.
Sven Hansen lived in a modest single man’s home on the outskirts of LeVale. He built the house himself when he was a newlywed. It offered a short ride to the mercantile with a few acres of land if he cared to expand in the future. There wasn’t much on his mind when he took to his bed that night. He definitely wasn’t thinking about Sophia Apton Utting or her recent wedding. Unbeknownst to him, it was exactly what she would have wanted.
The first thing that disrupted his sleep cycle for the night was the slightest hint of perfume. It roused him somewhat. He hadn’t had female companionship in so long; he knew it wasn’t something that belonged in his environment. At first, he thought he was dreaming of his departed wife. He regained consciousness a bit more the stronger it grew. Shocked, sweaty, and disturbed, he sat up, looking down at his big feet poking from under the cover. He halfway expected to see his wife’s ghost. There was nothing. Feeling embarrassed, he laid back, intent on falling asleep. He couldn’t. The scent grew even stronger.
Whatever was in the air seemed to be coming from outside. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, his feet thumped to the floor. Not bothering with clothing for the time being, he stayed in his nightshirt and pulled on his heavy boots. He wasn’t threatened by the scent whatsoever.
Scratching his head, then his back, he opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch. It was murky outside with no moonlight. His eyes were pretty sharp, even in darkness, so he didn’t bother with a lamp. For now, he simply stood where he was, waiting to smell the perfume again. He hoped it was a dream. It wasn’t.
His face was slapped with it again just moments before an ethereal presence came upon him. It was followed by the shape of a female’s body dressed in a billowy night dress. The long, dark hair fluttered about her as if she were underwater. What in the blue blazes? Stupidly, he slapped his face. Sven realized he was definitely awake. He started to go back inside for his gun, hesitating only when he saw who his visitor was.
“Miss…er…Mrs. Utting,” he sputtered. It couldn’t be her. It just couldn’t.
“Why didn’t you come to my wedding, Sven?” Her question was followed by a ridiculous pout. “I missed you.”
“What on earth are you doing here, woman?” He demanded. “You should be with your husband.”
She approached him from the gloom with quick, light steps. Sven noticed, with a pang, that her feet were bare. “I had rather be here instead. You owe me a favor, Sven.”
Blinking at her, feeling drunk with ignorance, he mumbled, “I do?”
“Yes.” The pout reappeared. “You don’t remember? Invite me in for tea.”
Sven had no intention of doing anything of the sort. What he was going to do was speak to Nikolas about this, and then he might mention it to Saul Utting. “You should go.”
“No,” she stated emphatically, lifting her chin defiantly for good measure. “Not until we’re finished.”
He gave her an incredulous look. “Finished? With what?”
Sophia touched the center of his chest with her small, cool palm. The moment she made contact with him, he understood. He remembered what happened between them in the storage room of the mercantile. He wanted nothing more than to bed her. He wanted nothing less. Unable to vocalize, he backed up as if Sophia was pushing him inside. How he managed to get into the room without tripping over something, he would never know.
Although Sven wasn’t necessarily working on his own, his body stopped as soon as the back of his legs hit the rough wooden bed frame. He felt the sting of a dozen splinters entering his flesh. How fast had he been walking? He literally towered over Sophia, so there was no way such a tiny little woman could have slammed him inside, causing the bed frame to rake off a layer of skin off his bones. Was there?
She touched his shoulder and he went down to the bed slowly. Again, it seemed she was controlling his movements. He sat looking up at her as she stepped back from him a mere few inches. Mystified, he watched her take off her billowy white night dress. A woman, especially a married woman, should not act like this. He was completely helpless to stop it. She was completely unashamed by her brazen behavior.
He was thrown by her beauty. Normally so prim and proper, he expected to see the body of a matron thirty years older than she. Despite how he felt and thought, he realized he was growing hard for her. Not one to react this way, his face turned a bright shade of red, color that spread quickly to his ears. She had yet to see evidence of his lust, but she smiled down at him as if she did. He wasn’t an innocent man and had had his share of whores. This young woman was supposedly a proper married lady. Proper married ladies did not act this way, even giving way before their husbands.
Since coming into the house, she had yet to say a word. She was speaking, doing so inside his mind. Moving slowly, dazedly, he managed to remove his boots, and nightshirt, not in the least embarrassed when his erection popped out, perhaps saying ‘hello.’ He didn’t know what to do next. This was not right. He should make her go home to her husband. He couldn’t quite do it.
“Lie back,” she told him like her husband told her on their wedding night.
While Sven Hansen learned certain truths in his bed, Nikolas Tackett was realizing a few of his own. He had no way of seeing what exactly was transpiring at his friend’s house. Even if he did, he wouldn’t want to know. He had a sense that Sophia was doing something wrong, not killing, and doing something she shouldn’t be. Perhaps he felt it because he was so close to Sven. Whatever it was, he wished he had time to stop it.
Unable to sleep right now, Nikolas swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood. He yawned, stretched, and was satisfied at the loud popping noises his joints made. Not certain if Lydia was awake, he grabbed his discarded breeches, donning them before he left the room. Stepping out into the hall, he noticed that her bedroom door was closed. He glanced into Keagan’s room. The boy was sleeping soundly, his needs met for the moment.
Nikolas thumped downstairs and made his way toward the front door. Other than a solution to a huge problem, he needed air. It might do him some good. He inhaled a huge lungful of air and let it out slowly. “I wish I had a cure,” he whispered harshly.
“A cure for what?”
Startled, he turned toward the owner of the voice, one Lydia Blount. She came out of nowhere. “Insomnia,” he said quickly, too quickly. “How long have you been outside?”
“A few minutes,” she answered. “I woke up out of a sound sleep. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I gave up.”
He chuckled harshly. “You too?”
“Do you want me to make you herbal tea? It helps me sometimes.”
“No thanks, Lydia. I’m not much of a tea drinker,” he said. “If you have whiskey hidden away somewhere, I might accept that.”
“I’m not much on the drink.” She wrapped her arms tightly around her body, seeking warmth. It wasn’t very chilly out. “Drink tends to turn men into monsters.”
You have no idea, he thought vaguely. “That’s true,” he said morosely. “In my case, at least.”
He hated that she was so easy to talk to. One of these days, he might admit the true man behind the mask. He wondered how she would react to the truth. Would she be so quick to stay here? Take care of his lycan son? It was insane. He knew it was because he missed Constance so much. Fight it as much as he might try, he couldn’t stop comparing her to Lydia. She had a right to be like his Constance. They were related. Perhaps it wasn’t such a wonderful idea to invite her to stay. However, his instincts were sharp. There had to be a reason behind it. He had no other explanation for it.
“In your case?” She asked.
Nikolas had expected the question to leave her the moment he spoke the words. Again, he cursed the way he opened up to her. “Yes. I am not too proud about that particular part of my life. I was younger.” Younger. What a word for an immortal to use. He couldn’t tell her it happened a few hundred years ago. She might run into the woods, screaming for help. “When I was foul in mood, I took to whiskey. It was the only thing that made me laugh before I cried again, before I became evil and twisted.”
Once more intrigued by the man who was Nikolas Tackett, she lifted her eyebrow and focused her eyes on him. “I find that hard to believe, Nikolas. What exactly did you do that was so evil and twisted? It couldn’t have been any worse than taking an infant from her mother.”
He focused his eyes on hers. Deep hurt loomed in them, hurt that would never go away no matter how many years passed. Damn her parents for hurting her. Damn them. “Never,” he whispered harshly. “I have done things that no one needs to hear about, Lydia.”
She smiled a trifle bitterly. “Nikolas, your past is yours, the same as mine. If you don’t want to talk about it, why bring it up?”
The question was asked rather pointedly. It should have angered him, interrupted the conversation, and sent him back to his room. It didn’t. She had a point. He wanted to talk, but he didn’t want to tell her everything. She wasn’t ready to hear it. Even his wife wasn’t. “I’m sorry, Lydia. I’ll stop.”
Shaking her head sadly, she whispered, “I wish you wouldn’t.” She moved closer to him, so much so that she could touch his hand if she wanted. “You have so much hidden inside you, Mr. Tackett. More than a man should. More than anyone needs to have. I’ve sensed that about you since first meeting you. I’m fairly adequate at reading people’s intentions, of knowing what is inside their hearts.”
Nikolas had heard of the type. Most of whom were charlatans sent out of town riding a rail, some tarred and feathered. LeVale was a quiet town, on the borderline with Victorian views, but its people didn’t take kindly to being had, no matter how strong their beliefs were. If the truth came out about him, they would burn him first and ask for proof later.
“You have never spoken of those skills before, Miss Blount,” he said amusedly.
“I know,” she said shyly. “It’s another of those talents my family disliked so. You are a good man, Nikolas, but you are troubled. It breaks my heart sometimes to think about how alone you are, despite your son and me being here with you.”
“I have been alone longer than you can imagine, Lydia. There were other women in my life before Constance, but I never felt the desire to marry until I met her. I was certain her family already had her contracted to marry another man. I wasn’t the only one after her, I can assure you. To this day, I cannot explain why her father allowed us to marry.”
“Like me, he could read people deeply inside,” she said. Her eyes were still on him. He had shifted his vision to the woods before him. “I believe it’s why he tried so hard to find Sophia a suitable husband. I think her parents know there is something rotten inside her.”
Nikolas sighed heavily. It was clearly his fault she had become immortal. Everything else seemed to be her character flaws. At the same time, he allowed himself plenty of blame. “Do you know if anything happened to make her so off balance?”
“No, Nikolas. Again, I wasn’t around Bridget’s children much; I just know that Sophia was different from the others. I don’t think she likes men.”
“I don’t think she likes people,” he said gruffly. “The only two I’ve seen her dote on were Constance and now, Keagan.”
“You do not have to fear her, Nikolas. Even if she has a child of her own someday, it won’t help her cause. The only thing you must worry about is your past. Is there anything she can use against you that you haven’t told anyone?”
Oh yes. One big, hairy, toothy secret. “Yes, Lydia, there is.”
Lydia took in a sharp breath, one that conveyed what he felt. Damnation. “What is it, Nikolas? Have you murdered someone? Fathered illegitimate children? What have you done?”
He focused his attention entirely on her. Whatever he saw in the woods was gone now. “I can’t tell you, Lydia.”
Without worrying about the consequences, she reached out and took his hand. “I can help you if you will tell me.”
Nikolas removed his hand from hers as if she had burned him. “No one can help me with this. My only escape is death when it comes.”
She didn’t understand as his words were vague enough to keep her guessing. She was afraid that if she pushed him too hard, he would send her away as so many others before he had done. Yet, she wouldn’t let it go. So, she decided to open up another facet of her life.
“Is it something a spell can cast away?” She asked carefully, ready to face the consequences of her confession. There were worse things in life than having an illegitimate child with a man whose skin was a different color.
He looked at her carefully, closely, his brows knitted together with concern. His mouth was open slightly, revealing a bright red tongue and perfect white teeth. “A spell?” The two words were spoken with incredulity. “Lydia, what are you telling me?”
“What does it sound like?”
What the hell? He didn’t believe in witches. No one believes in werewolves, either. What are you? Who are you to judge? For a very long time, he remained silent. Was this something Sophia put her up to? Was this how she was going to win Keagan? Immortals could sense other immortals that was true. If they wanted to hide their thoughts, they could. Sophia would definitely go this far to best him, to trick him into saying what he was so she could take his son away from him.
“Sophia has not put me up to anything,” she said suddenly, as if she could read Nikolas’ thoughts. “I don’t do her bidding. I never did. I will do what I can to help you, but you must tell me what I’m up against.”
“More than you can handle, Lydia. More than you could ever believe.”
She took his hand again. This time he didn’t let go of it. “You may trust me, Nikolas. I’ve told you things about me that no other man knows. Whether you believe what I’ve said to be true is up to you. I feel as if you believe me, because if you didn’t, I would be locked away by now, awaiting men from an insane asylum.”
Sighing heavily, he had no idea what his next step should be. He believed her thoroughly. He was certain that Sophia wasn’t using her to get to him. He took his hand out of hers and focused his eyes on her face. “Wait here.”
Lydia did as he instructed, standing on the veranda, gazing at the woods while he disappeared inside the house. After a few minutes, he emerged donning his great coat and holding a small pistol. He handed her the light wrap she wore on chilly nights. Curiously, she eyed the wrap and the pistol.
“What is this?” She asked softly.
“Put on your wrap, Lydia. We’re taking a walk in the woods.”
Quietly, she slipped on the wrap. As soon as she had it on, he grasped her hand and led her into the woods. Although the hour was late, the perfect time animals tended to hunt, Lydia was unafraid. Something about him made her feel safe. Nothing would attack them as long as she stayed with him. It was an odd sensation, one she never experienced before.
They walked at a quick pace, the woods cloaking them with dark cover. She glanced back when they passed Constance’s grave. Before long, they were near the campsite Nikolas had set up the night Sophia married Saul Utting. She opened her mouth to protest about their absence at the house. What if something happened to Keagan? She closed it abruptly when he uttered that his son ‘will be fine.’ Had she spoken the words of her worry? She hadn’t remembered uttering a single syllable. What the hell? Had he read her mind? Once they stopped walking, he passed her the pistol.
“What am I do to with this, Nikolas?” She asked, concerned. She had never shot a pistol in her life. “I don’t know what to do with this!”
He heard what she said, digested it, and completely ignored it. “If I try to hurt you, aim at my forehead and squeeze the trigger,” he instructed blandly. “The bullet will stop me. Run for your life.”
Feeling disturbed at best, she tentatively asked, “Nikolas, what are you doing?”
“You want to know my secret, don’t you? You told me about yours, so I’m going to share mine. I’m about to show you, Miss Blount. Keep your hand on the pistol.”
Lydia stood back with the pistol in one hand as he had repeatedly told her. She failed to notice when they left the house, but the moon was full, shining brightly upon them. Not that it would have had any bearing on what was about to occur. What seemed like ten minutes passed before anything happened. She was on the verge of protesting that they get back to his son when something stopped her. Nikolas’ body appeared to pulse. No other word in her vocabulary could adequately explain it. He threw his head back and roared so loudly that roosting birds squawked, fleeing into the night. Coyotes whimpered and scampered away. Other woodland creatures sought safety elsewhere. A large opossum touched her ankle as it fled, causing her to cry out. She realized she had taken her eyes off Nikolas. God help her. She didn’t want anything to do this insanity.
Stepping back, she covered her mouth with her free hand as his muscles began to elongate, veins exploding over them in taut cords. His fingers grew in inches. She heard the distinct crackle of joints popping in protest. Before her eyes, both hands widened, claws forming from the tips of his digits. Shock holding her to her place now, her body stiffened when he roared again, the sound growing more and more like a howl. The howl of a wolf. Every fiber of her being told her to move, to run away. She couldn’t as she was rooted her spot. She didn’t believe what she was seeing before her. This had to be a dream or at best, a hallucination.
Despite the lack of light or a lamp, it was enough for her to see thick hair growing on his body, sprouting from every available pore. His jaws clenched tightly against the pain. Amazingly, magically, pointed ears sprouted up from his usually flat ones. Another tortured cry escaped him again at what seemed to be the final process in his transformation, the growth of his face and the formation of his snout. Lydia closed her eyes against it, but sick curiosity forced her to open them after a brief moment. Standing before her, mere feet away, was a monster. She had read about them in books, heard tall tales of them from her family, but had never thought they were real. In the same token, no one believed witches to be real, either, but she surely practiced the craft.
A tall man, in his lycan shape, he was even taller, probably well over seven feet. His head was exactly that of a wolf, the snout, the ears, the animalistic eyes. The rest of his body was more like a man, just one covered in hair. It was the same color as that on his head. The light of the moon cast a glow on the dark sheen of it. His hands were flexing, opening and closing in a steady rhythm, his claws dangerously sharp and threatening. Yet, she stayed put. She didn’t run, she didn’t shoot him. She couldn’t. Even she didn’t understand her motives.
In his wolfen eyes, she saw that he was battling an inner demon. Part of him wanted to attack, maim, and feed. Another had absolutely no intention of harming her. She didn’t know if he actually recognized her. He stood in a taut, ready to spring formation. Breathing heavily, his mouth half open, his chest heaved in and out as he worked out his deep rooted conflict. Still, he made no effort to attack her. The pistol was in her hand. At any time she could shoot him. The bullet in it was obviously silver, the poison that supposedly brought them to their deaths, or at least injured them enough to allow a human quick escape.
Another thought crossed her mind, perhaps Nikolas had passed it along. He couldn’t speak as he was, but he could certainly transmit thoughts. “Oh, Nikolas,” she sighed sympathetically. “Your secret is not so simple is it? Your son? Sophia? All of you?”
The human part of him understood her words. His other side dominated him, gave him just enough to know this female meant him no harm. She would have to repeat her thoughts later. At her words, at his understanding, he threw back his head and howled. It sent chills down every part of her body. She covered her mouth with her hand to hold back her scream of terror. What neither of them needed at this moment was further human interference. His gigantic, scary form moved closer to her. Instead of fleeing, as she should, she stood her ground. Running would be very bad for her. It would definitely force him to give chase. What would happen if he caught her? The thought was unimaginable. It was then that she received a close up look at his face, so much like a wolf with a sense of humanity. His eyes gleamed with human intelligence, but he had the heart of a beast. She held her breath when he opened his mouth, pure white teeth shown there, gleaming with saliva. Long canine fangs were exposed in his silent growl. He would not hurt her, she was certain. Suddenly, an idea crossed her mind. Give him orders. Divert his attention from her.
“Hunt, Nikolas,” she said softly. “When you return, we can talk.” As he drew nearer still, she raised the pistol. “Now go,” she demanded. “I am not afraid to use this!”
He took off in a blast of heat, leaving behind an odd spectral trail. Nikolas moved so quickly, Lydia hardly saw him go. Shaking with fright, she dropped the cursed pistol and ran. Nikolas had granted her access to his secret life, but there were no guarantees while the wolf commanded him.
Exhausted, Lydia wanted to go to bed. At the same time, she wished to wait for Nikolas’ return. It was almost dawn when she heard the front door open. She rushed into the sitting room, just in time to see him hastily wrap a thin wool blanket about his waist. His body was grimed with dirt and blood from whatever he had killed. He hung his head in shame and dropped before the fireplace. For a moment, he was completely unconcerned about modesty.
“Now you know who I am,” he stated angrily, all the while defeated.
Moving quickly, Lydia grabbed a quilt and brought it over to him. She sat beside him, silently offering the cover. He took it gratefully and wrapped it around his shoulders. She reached out with a comforting hand and stroked the back of his head. To her utter amazement, he began to sob. It was the first time he had let loose like this since Constance died. Of course, Lydia had no way of knowing this. She saw a man who needed comfort. Therefore, she was damned well going to provide it.
“You didn’t hurt me, Nikolas,” she assured him.
He wiped the tears away with the back of a grimy hand. “I’ve hurt my son, Lydia. I’ve hurt your cousin. She has already killed and will kill again.”
“We’ll find a way to stop her, Nikolas,” she assured him. “No one will hurt you as long as I’m alive. I promise you.” She drew her hand away and stood. “I will draw you a bath and we can talk more if you like.”
Nikolas looked up at her, so much like an angel with her light hair and vibrant eyes. He hoped he could trust her. Otherwise, he might have just gotten his son killed. “Thank you, Lydia.”
Nikolas finished his bath just as the first light of the morning came creeping into the slats of the shutters. Lydia had already fed Keagan and taken care of his other needs. Freshly fed and bathed, she dressed him and brought him into the kitchen. She sat the gurgling infant in a high chair Nikolas built before he was born. When he entered the kitchen, she had coffee on the stove and sat drinking a cup while she waited. He saw his son, his beautiful little boy, watching with eyes that were so like his mother’s. At that moment, he felt like sobbing again. Before joining her at the table, he poured a cup of coffee for himself. He sat close to her and fumbled the cup to his lips for his first taste of the brew for the day. Nikolas was a heavy coffee drinker and usually finished a pot by himself.
“What happened to Sophia?” She asked somberly.
Unsure whether they should be having a conversation such as this in front of Keagan, he brought forth the memory of that day. He decided that his son was young enough not to understand what they were saying. Sighing deeply, he said, “We argued, I became filled with rage. I was already filled with rage. Rage because Constance was dead. Rage because Sophia had come into my home. Rage. I changed just enough to feed on her. Just enough to pass on the curse.”
She understood that he was filled with regret. Immortality wasn’t something Lydia ever thought about. Since Nikolas changed before her, it was on her mind constantly now. She had so many questions, but she wanted no part in becoming immortal. “Perhaps if I help with Sophia, you can use some of your power for good. Help me find my daughter.”
Everything came with a price, Nikolas realized. It wasn’t that he minded helping her find the child ripped away from her. It was the fact she used the word ‘power’ in the bargain. He considered it more like blight. A rotten mark. “I’ll do anything I can to help you, as long as no one discovers that my son shares the same curse. Do we understand each other?”
Lydia noticed that when he said the last few words, he eyed his son adoringly. She wanted a chance to love her child before she completely forgot who her mother was. Lydia took another drink of her coffee. “Of course we do, Nikolas.”
“Sophia is enraged by the death of her sister,” he explained. “She believes that I should have fed on Constance before she died. I should have, but I couldn’t. I loved my wife. I would easily trade places with her. One thing I’d never do is curse her. When I first realized my son inherited the gene, I was devastated. He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t ask to be born.”
As if on cue, Keagan made a slight cooing sound. Nikolas looked at him again. It was so unfair that Constance wasn’t here, helping him raise the boy. Would she want this life for her son? He dropped his gaze into the darkness of his coffee cup. Constance, why aren’t you here? He would never understand.
She reached out and covered his hand with hers. “There is nothing you can do about things you cannot change. You cannot change the fact that Constance has been taken from you. You cannot change either yours or Keagan’s fate. You will teach him how to live with it. You will teach him how to be a good man. As far as Sophia, we can change her without her permission. Something is lost in her mind, in her make-up. Her family already knows, but they won’t admit it or recognize it. An Apton cannot be imperfect.”
“Lydia, I don’t know what fate conspired to bring you in my life,” he began.
“Nor do I. I truly believe there is a reason for everything, Nikolas Tackett. The next time you go into town, take Keagan and me along. I think it’s time I run into my cousin.”
“Aren’t they at Utting’s home?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so, not Sophia. They’re likely in the finest hotel LeVale has to offer.”
“You’re probably right about that,” he uttered. “I can’t see inside her mind. I don’t know what she is planning to do. She has the same gifts as I. Despite that, she has blocked me out. What I do know is that she intends on taking Keagan away from me.”
“It won’t happen, Nikolas. I won’t let it,” she whispered. “I’m a good friend to have on your side with this.”
He looked directly into her eyes. He saw incredible pain there, but strength as well. “I will do what I can to get information about your daughter.”
Lydia smiled, suddenly feeling the onset of tears. She blinked them away and barked a harsh, cynical laugh. “Maybe Storm and Keagan will grow up together. Wouldn’t that be incredible?”
He returned her smile, feeling her pain instantly. “Yes. More incredible than you know.”
Sven Hansen was late getting to the mercantile the morning after Sophia visited him. Of course, he didn’t remember the details of it, or even the fact that she had been in his home. All he knew for certain was that he had an incredible headache, feeling as if he had tied one on last night. He knew that wasn’t the case. He was lucky that Nikolas wasn’t here or that there weren’t dozens of people waiting to get inside for their provisions. Simply put, he had just been lucky.
Later, he would be forced to lock the door for a few hours to restock a few things and clean up the storage room. Right now, he was needed behind the counter, because he saw a regular patron approaching the door with her husband. Despite the hung over feeling, Sven put on a smile and readied to serve them. He wasn’t in the mood, exactly, but knew he must do his job.It was Jonas and Molly Coyfield. They lived in neighboring Riverbay and owned their own mercantile business. They often bought skeins of cloth, because it was the one product they lacked. Both Sven and Nikolas enjoyed the couple’s company greatly. They had a little one about Keagan’s age. Some time or other, the kids should get together and play when they were older. Pushing the unpleasant thoughts out of his head, he turned to the two of them with a smile, ready to do what he needed to do.
Meanwhile, at the Concord Hotel a few blocks away, Sophia Apton Utting awoke from a fitful sleep. She was tired, sore, and irritated. She had spent hours with Sven the night before, having relations with the man more than five times. Her husband hadn’t touched her since their wedding night. He much preferred drinking himself into oblivion than anything else. He was completely, totally, and utterly useless to her, to the human race. Supposedly, marrying her was a cure for his grief over losing Mahala. It was a stupid assumption. Sleeping, he mumbled incessantly about his dead wife, not caring in the least bit that he had a new one, a wife who wanted to have a baby desperately, and practiced infidelity to do it. She must have a lycan child, like Keagan. Once she achieved that, she would take both away and run with them. Her monthly wasn’t due for another two weeks, so she hoped that she was with child already. Then one task would be complete.
She remembered Nikolas’ words about her character. Perhaps he was correct. Perhaps not. It didn’t matter to her now. Everything that had resulted since Nikolas fed on her was his fault. Period. Every action she performed, every word she said, was his fault. Everything. All of it. The blood of Isaiah Anders was on his hands, and any blood spilled afterward was his doing. The son of a bitch deserved the grief that was coming to him. He could have used his powers to bring Constance back to life, to save her. He didn’t. She hated the bastard and wanted to see him bleed, to see him die a horrible death. Nothing would make her happier.
Beside her, her new husband stirred. He opened his eyes, looked around their luxury room, and then focused them on her. This morning, she appeared quite fetching. Normally quite dowdy, Sophia wore flannel gowns with collars that went up all the way to her neck. This morning, she was dressed in a billowy night dress made up of several layers of material. Stupidly, he scratched his head. He didn’t remember her wearing this last night when she went to bed. What in the blue blazes was wrong with the woman? At the same time, something in him stirred. Yes siree Bob. She wanted to make a brood of young’uns, so why not keep going at it?
Oh suffer me, dear Lord. She saw the look in his eyes and instantly knew what it meant. She didn’t want him after Sven, but what choice did she have? He was her husband. It was her wifely duty. Her mother had told her so many times over the years, before she had ever met Saul Utting or considered marrying him. Like a good woman, she smiled invitingly at her husband, raised her gown, and waited for her husband to do his business. Perhaps then, he would leave her alone. Once she was with child, he would do so anyway, for if he didn’t, she would kill him. It was simple as that.
Around the same time, Nikolas brought Lydia into town for her first outing. She insisted on taking charge of Keagan over Nikolas’ protests. The two of them entered the mercantile and saw the Coyfield couple. Like Sven, Nikolas had met them a few times; they never struck him as extraordinary people, even though the two families did some trading. Today, however, something touched Nikolas about the Coyfields he never experienced before. One thing was the fact that they had a child about the same age as Keagan. It was a girl child, like the one Lydia lost. Was it too much of a coincidence? Didn’t the Coyfields live in Riverbay? They wouldn’t simply find a childless couple right in the same town, would they? Yet, it intrigued him. The Blounts wanted to push her out of town, so it would make perfect sense to give her child to a family right under her nose.
Lydia sensed Nikolas’ discord. She watched him as he eyed the couple with a look that verged on suspiciousness. What was he thinking? For more than the first time in her life she wished she could read minds. What on earth was going on in his head? She trained her eyes on the couple with whom Nikolas was staring. Had they hurt him or the baby? Done something to his family? She didn’t speak up, knowing it wasn’t the place or the time for questions. She simply held onto Keagan and would wait for the proper time to ask.
“Good morning, Mr. Tackett,” Molly Coyfield said. “We haven’t seen you much lately.” When she remembered that his dear wife Constance had died, she immediately wanted to take her comments back. “Jonas and I were so sad when we heard of Constance’s death. She was a dear, dear woman.”
Sven hadn’t noticed Nikolas’ entrance into the mercantile. He hadn’t expected his partner to arrive today, especially with his son and a young woman in tow. His heart began to pound in his chest, as if he had done something wrong, something that deserved a harsh punishment.
Nikolas spoke a few words to Mrs. Coyfield, but didn’t remember exactly what he said. Sven’s appearance had nearly yanked the words out of his throat and spilled them on the floor. His partner’s eyes were blood shot, likely from little to no sleep from the night before. It wasn’t what bothered him the most. There were a series of deep scratches along his neck. What had he tangled with? Better still, with whom did he tangle? He feared it was Sophia. And as soon as he could get Sven alone, he was surely going to ask. At the same time, why would Sophia be in the picture at all? It was clear from what Nikolas had said that Sven had no interest in her. Not only that, but Sophia was a married woman as well. Sven was a good man. He would not bed a married woman, despite her beauty or endowments.
He wanted to speak to the Coyfields about their daughter, but the pressing matter with Sven was more important. The chance was minimal that their child was Lydia’s. He turned to her, leaned down, and kissed Keagan’s forehead, not caring in the least who saw him do it. “There are a few matters of business I need to attend to, Lydia. Would you mind taking a walk with Keagan?”She smiled. “Not at all. However, I know there is more on your mind connected with other matters. Will you mind a talk with me later?”
“Of course not,” he replied with a smile.Nikolas waited until everyone was out of the building before he approached Sven. He immediately noticed how the other man stiffened. His mind was solid steel, material supplied by Sophia no doubt. Please do not let this man be enslaved by a lycan woman. “Sven, what in the world happened to your neck?”
He touched it tentatively, wincing all the while. He knew the scratches were there when he awoke this morning. They prevented him from shaving. He had flashes of a woman’s fingernails digging into his flesh, but no more than that, not enough to tell Nikolas what happened to him. “I don’t know. I sleepwalk at times, so I might have tied up with a tree branch.”Any time the words ‘sleep’ and ‘walk’ were spoken, he immediately thought of Sophia. This was purely her doing. Had she turned him? Spread the curse? He didn’t feel anything about Sven other than a slight drone sensation. Drones were common amongst the most evil of his kind. Lycans worked through them to do all the dirty work they themselves didn’t want to do. All it took was a poke from a claw or a scratch. It was enough to control a human, but not to turn them.
“Sleepwalking has been a growing problem around here lately,” he said off-handedly, sarcastically. “Sophia had an episode some time ago. Right before she married Saul Utting.”
Nikolas mentioned Sophia on purpose to gauge Sven’s reaction. It worked. The man almost crumbled. “Is that right?” Sven asked, his voice quaking.
“Has Sophia been coming around here?” Nikolas figured that Sven wouldn’t remember the coupling any more than a drunk would. Yet, she had had to make a move some time or another.
“Only once that I recall,” he said shakily.
“You look haggard, Sven,” Nikolas said. “The young woman who was in here earlier has taken Mrs. Carmichael’s place as the primary nanny. Her name is Lydia Blount, and she is related to the Apton family. I trust her with my son implicitly. Take tomorrow off and I will come in. You need rest.”
He shook his head violently. “No, Nikolas. I’m fine, I promise you. You need to spend time with your son while he’s young.”
"You’re a hard worker, Sven. You deserve a day off. Take tomorrow off. As senior partner, I demand it,” he said sternly.
Sven nodded wearily. “All right. Whatever you say.”Tonight, your curse will be lifted. I’ll make sure of it. “Good man. I’m going to take care of a few things and wait for Lydia to return. After that, I’ll go back home and prepare for tomorrow.”
Lydia Blount strolled along the boarded walkway with Keagan Tackett in her arms. There weren’t many thoughts in her mind, so she didn’t notice as Sophia Apton Utting came out of the hotel to get away from her husband. She noticed Lydia several minutes before the other woman noticed her. Immediately, Sophia felt the first tinges of a showdown. She wanted to attack Lydia, take the child, and run. This was the perfect opportunity for her, but she must wait. She might be with child and she did not want to risk a life that may be growing inside her.
Lydia turned when she felt eyes on her. It was Sophia. She wondered casually why she wasn’t walking around with her new husband. It was a joke. Sophia didn’t love her husband. At the wedding, it was obvious. The Aptons wanted to get rid of her just like the Blounts wanted to rid themselves of their daughter. It worked on both counts, didn’t it? She was tempted to approach Sophia and allow her to see the boy. She thought better of it, because it might be something of which Nikolas would not approve. Instead, she kept walking the same path.
It was Sophia who decided to cross paths with her unclean cousin. She stepped before Lydia, almost knocking her down. “I don’t understand why Nikolas is allowing you to care for Keagan.”
Lydia was startled, but not afraid. “Who would you recommend? You? He’d rather use a woman like me rather than allow a loveless couple to do it for him. Do you blame him?”
Sophia sneered, nearly growling at the other woman. “I could tear you apart,” she whispered severely. “And no one would care. Are you banking on bedding Nikolas? Because that is all you would be to him. A whore, a woman who bore the child of a savage.”
She nodded her head sadly. “What it must be like to live in your body, Cousin. How unhappy you must be right now to care what other people do with their lives. I don’t plan on bedding anyone, but if Nikolas were to ask, I’d certainly consider it. I know who he won’t ask. You. Good day, Sophia.”
Lydia turned around and began to walk back to the mercantile. She knew Sophia’s eyes were on her back. She could have easily used her powers and obliterated Lydia where she stood. She ignored her instinct to turn back and walked on. Nikolas was probably wondering where they were by now.
By the time she made it to the mercantile, Nikolas was already sitting in the carriage, the reins in his hand. As soon as he saw her, he dropped the reins, jumped down and took Keagan from her arms. Without a word, she stepped up in the carriage and took the baby from Nikolas. He joined her shortly. Neither of them spoke a word until they were well on their way back to the house.
“What happened back there, Nikolas?” Lydia asked.
“A couple of things, actually,” he answered. They had to speak loudly over the noise of the carriage, so he wanted them to be out of town before he brought anything out into the open. “One of them has to do with the Coyfield couple we saw earlier. They have an infant daughter about the age of Keagan.”
Lydia brightened up. “Do you think it might be Storm?”
“I’m not one hundred percent sure, Lydia. I would have to touch them, to touch the child, but it’s a possibility.”
She nodded. “Okay, so perhaps that can be arranged,” she said. “You said there were a couple of things going on. What’s the second?”
“I think Sophia has gotten to Sven,” he said evenly. “He’s bedded her. I’m sure of it.”
Lydia hadn’t wanted to say anything in the mercantile, but she noticed the scratches on Sven’s neck. She knew of a few things that could cause marks like that. “I know of one practical use of bedding her. What other cause could there be?”
Glancing at her for a moment, he knew fate had brought her around. Focusing his attention ahead, he said, “Making him a drone. Immortals can do that to humans by a simple mark or scratch. Only feeding upon or reproduction passes on the curse. Marks turn them into shells of their former selves.”
“I had words with her,” she said so low that he almost couldn’t hear. “She is readying for a war, isn’t she?”
“She certainly is,” he agreed. “I need to visit Sven tonight and take away her drone mark.”
Her brow furrowed with confusion and fear. “Take it away? How?”
“You’re a witch, Lydia. You must cast a spell and take it out of him.”
Her heart beat so hard she thought it might jump out of her chest. “I knew nothing of immortals until I met you, Nikolas Tackett. How do you suppose I do this?”
“Think of a way,” he said. “I know you can. I know you have it in you; I see it in your eyes. Why do you think I wanted you as an ally? I know you can do anything.”
“Okay, Nikolas, I will try,” she said. “What do we do if it doesn’t work?”
He swallowed a huge lump. “Kill him.”
“It’s his fate when she is finished with him, isn’t it?”
He looked at her again. “Yes. Either way, he will die.”
* * *
Sven Hansen went home at the end of the day grateful that Nikolas would take his place tomorrow. He needed rest. He certainly hadn’t gotten an ounce last night. He wasn’t lying when he told Nikolas he had been sleepwalking. It was the most logical explanation of all. Otherwise, he didn’t know what was going on. There were chores to do when he arrived home, but for now, he was going to ignore them. He did nothing as soon as he entered the home, nothing that didn’t have to do with lying down. He was ready for bed before the sun set. It wasn’t like him, but then again, he didn’t feel well today, either. Not long after he settled in, he fell asleep.
Confident that Lydia knew what spell to cast, she and Nikolas headed out to the home of Sven Hansen. Little did they know that Sophia was coming after him as well. All were doing so for different reasons, of course. Sophia was obsessed with having a child. She was not educated enough as a lycan to know that simply touching her abdomen would indicate whether or not she was already with child.
Sophia arrived first, with her hair flowing loosely, and wearing another billowy gown. Sven was asleep, but soon enough, he would be awake. She slid up his nightshirt past his waist. His penis was flaccid, innocent. The moment she touched it, however, it sprung to attention. He opened his eyes when she mounted him. He grasped her hips and moved her against him, even though he was denying every move, pleading in Swedish for her to go away and leave him be.
At the moment of his release, both Nikolas and Lydia entered the room. Sven, in a trance, had no idea anyone else was in the room. Sophia laughed. They were too late to stop the coupling. Without shame, she climbed off him, smoothed her gown, and stood to face them. Why on earth were they here? There was no way to stop her now. Nikolas wouldn’t kill Sven. Sven would be her slave the entire time he was alive or until she decided to kill him. She ran her hands down her body, settling it on her abdomen. That was when she received the truth, the news she wanted so badly. She was going to have a baby. Damn them all.
“What is she doing here?” Sophia asked with a satisfied smirk.
“To help loosen your grip on Sven,” Nikolas said calmly. He, like she, knew she was already having a baby. Tonight, he was ready to kill her.
“You can do what you want with Sven, now. I no longer need him.”
Lydia groaned before laughing cynically. “Oh dear Goddess. She’s going to have a baby, isn’t she?”
“Yes, dear Liddie, I am. However, unlike yours, mine won’t be a bastard.”
Although Nikolas knew her words didn’t shake Lydia, he could have seared a hole in her with his eyes. “How can you say that when you’re bedding a man who isn’t your husband? What does that make you?”
Sven Hansen, in a coma-like state, did not see what was before him. It was a good thing. If he did, he might have lost his mind. Nikolas was in the process of changing. Sophia stood her ground, not moving a muscle. She realized that her unclean cousin knew of their secrets. How utterly stupid of Nikolas to confide in her. Just before he completed the change, Lydia put her hand on his arm.
“Nikolas don’t. She’s with child,” she told him calmly.
He turned to look at her, his eyes silver, his canine teeth long and dripping with saliva. “I must destroy her,” he growled.
“No. Don’t let her lose her child. I know how that feels,” she told him. “Send her away and we can deal with Sven.”
Nikolas turned his silvery eyes toward Sophia. She was smiling triumphantly. “If you come near Sven again, Sophia, I promise I won’t hesitate to kill you. This is far from over.”
“Your threats don’t bother me,” she sneered. “Soon, I will have a child of my own. Soon, I will have your son as well.”
“Never, you heartless bitch,” he growled. “Your cousin is the reason I am allowing you to live.”
She walked past them both. At the door, she turned to look at them. “You’re both cowards.”
When she left, Nikolas turned on Lydia. “Why didn’t you let me rid the world of her?” He demanded.
“I know you want her gone,” she said. “But she is going to have a child. If you must destroy her, do so after she gives birth. If the baby is a lycan, we can raise it together.”
“You can never replace your child with another, Lydia,” he said softly. “We must hope that the baby is not lycan. I do not want to spread this sickness any further than it already is. Tonight, I could have destroyed her and it would have been over.”“I know you’re disappointed that I wouldn’t let you kill her,” she said angrily. “I also know how it feels to lose a child. I know Sophia is evil, but she wants a child, and losing it would hurt, Nikolas. You have lost a wife, so you should understand that much.” She placed her hand on his chest and pushed him back a few steps. “Get out of my way so I can free Sven.”
Nikolas had plainly hurt her, but she was too angry to let him apologize. He did as he was told. Lydia approached Sven’s prone body. Whatever Sophia had done to him had put him in a hypnotic state. When they interrupted her, they also interrupted what Sophia did to bring him back around to himself. Lydia went to the bedside and put her hands on his chest. She closed her eyes and began to chant. Nikolas listened carefully, watching in awe as she worked. The language was odd, something he didn’t think he had ever heard.
He took another step back as her hands began to glow. After a few minutes, his chest glowed with the same light. She moved her hands back and forth across his chest. The wounds on his neck began reversing themselves in an odd fashion until they disappeared altogether. His eyes were wide open, bloodshot. Within minutes, his chest and her hands lost their ghostly light. She placed both hands over his eyes and the same process occurred. She chanted more, her voice getting louder and louder until it filled the room. Nikolas had never seen anything like this before.
Lydia threw her head back so far, it looked like her neck was broken. Nikolas wanted to move forward to help her, but she raised a hand to stop him. He did. Perhaps her magic was stronger than his immortal power. She chanted another string of words he couldn’t understand before moving her hand away from his eyes. When the glow died down, he could see that Sven’s eyes were closed now. He knew Sven was alive, because he could see him breathing.
She stood back from the bed. Her hair had been in a neat bun. Now it was straggling loose and flowing down her back. Her simple dress was disheveled. She hadn’t moved hardly a step, but it seemed as if she had perhaps operated on someone. Maybe she had. Lydia smoothed her hair as best as she could and also straightened her clothing.
“Is he okay?” Nikolas asked.
Lydia approached him slowly, standing approximately five feet from him. His words earlier had hurt her. “I think I healed him, but when he wakes up, he is still going to feel lost. Sophia has damaged him.”
“I’m ready to leave, Nikolas. Mrs. Carmichael needs to be dismissed so she can get back to her family.”
The two of them said nothing as they rode back to the house. Lydia said good night to Mrs. Carmichael before she went upstairs to check on Keagan. Nikolas saw Mrs. Carmichael to her carriage and went back into a silent house. Keagan was asleep and Lydia wasn’t speaking to him. What a fine day this has been.
He went upstairs and first headed toward his room, but changed his mind when he saw Lydia’s door was open a slit and dim light illuminated the hall. He reached out and knocked, but she said nothing. Taking a chance, he opened the door and entered her room. She had donned her shift, but wore nothing else. Of course, she hadn’t expected company.
“I know I didn’t invite you in, but considering this is your house, you may do as you wish,” she said with a bitter smile.
“Lydia, I’m sorry. I know I can be thoughtless, but…”
She interrupted him. “I know, Nikolas. Sophia must be stopped. I refuse to help you murder a woman with child, even if the woman is Sophia. Even if she is evil, Nikolas. I refuse. You may do what you wish. You will do so without my help.”
He wanted to approach her, but she sat on her bed, one leg crossed under her. It was a position that would probably leave him numb within moments. It wasn’t proper to be with a woman in her room in such a state of undress. Nevertheless, he approached her bed anyway. Tentatively, he sat on the bottom of the bed, unintentionally miming her position, so that he could face her. He saw that her arms were crossed before her, and she appeared to be studying her bed with great interest. She wanted to ignore him, but not do so at the same time. It was a trick practiced by females of every generation, every world.
“Lydia, I will not harm Sophia as long as she is with child,” he said solidly.
She looked up at him with something between mirth and bitterness in her eyes. “What of the child, Nikolas? What if the child is mortal? We discussed what happened if the baby is lycan. What else?”
He shook his head, not completely understanding where their conversation was going. “If the baby is mortal, and we don’t get to it first, Sophia will not hesitate to murder it herself. She wants a lycan child. The only way to tell if the baby is lycan is to look for the mark on the baby’s hand. There is no other way, even if she touches herself.”
Lydia shook her head, a bitter smile touching her lips. What in the world had attracted her to this man? To LeVale? To his immortal lifestyle? Why didn’t she run the instant he showed himself to her? “I want the baby, Nikolas. Either way.”
His eyes met hers for an intense moment. He understood how she wanted to right her loss, but taking on another baby wasn’t right. When they had discussed this very issue earlier, he thought she got it. Apparently, she hadn’t. Who was he to judge? “Lydia, you know you’re welcome to live here as long as you want. I don’t know what I would have done without you thus far. If the child isn’t lycan, I don’t want to bring a human into this situation. In fact, when Keagan is much older, I plan to move away from here.”“Would you take me with you?” She asked earnestly.
Without the slightest hesitation, he nodded. “Yes, Lydia, I would, but I am not prepared to pass on this curse to either you or another human. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” she whispered. “I can completely get it thoroughly, especially after seeing what has become of Sophia.” She stood up, smoothed out her shift, and grabbed her wrap, suddenly aware that she was before a man improperly attired. She walked over to her window with her back to it. “She hates you so much because you chose Constance over her. When Constance died, you still shied away. She thought you would move on to her once an appropriate grieving time had passed. I know you’ve made it clear that you don’t want her in that way. Am I wrong?”
Her arms were still wrapped tightly about her body. Was she cold inside? Would anything warm her up? “She once offered to marry me so my secret would never be exposed. When I turned her down, she searched out and found Saul Utting.”
“I know she needs to be stopped, but leave her be for now,” she said quietly. “It won’t be hard watching her. If you trust me with your son, you can go back into town more, go on more trips, possibly take us with you so you don’t have to worry that Sophia will try something.”
She turned around suddenly and gazed out the window. She had yet to put up a curtain, so it was bare. There was nothing before her but blackness. She couldn’t believe the words that had come out of her mouth. Lydia had more or less included herself in Nikolas’ life without so much as a hint. So stupid, Lydia. So stupid. What in the hell were you thinking?
“Nikolas, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice empty and sad. “My mouth often gets ahead of me far more than I like.”
She heard the ruffle of the bed as he stood. For a very long time, he didn’t move or leave the room. He appeared rooted to one spot, as if contemplating what he was going to do next. She expected him to grab her things, stuff them into her tattered traveling garments and throw them out the window, with her right behind it. Where would she go now? She couldn’t go home, because her parents didn’t want her. She had no prospects any longer. She would not find out if the baby belonging to the Coyfield family was truly her Storm. None of these things would happen now because she spoke far too candidly, moved much too fast. In the time he stood without moving, she should have opened the window and saved Nikolas Tackett some energy. How dare she insert herself into his life, suggesting that she could mother his son? It was both ridiculous and cruel.
Nikolas moved much quicker than she expected. For when she turned around, he stood before her, mere inches away. Was this the closest she had ever been to him? Had she ever noticed his clear eyes? The way his skin seemed without a flaw? The hair that seemed to never look anything other than perfect? She didn’t know how old he was in immortal years, but he still looked twenty, no more than a child. In body, he was a few years younger than her. In soul, he was hundreds older. It was impossible, but so true at the same time.
“I shouldn’t have suggested what I said,” she told him, looking up into his beautiful eyes. “It was disrespectful, Nikolas, and if you wish, I will pack and leave tonight.”
“I don’t think it was disrespectful at all, Lydia. I wish for you to stay as long as you like,” he told her softly.
He had yet to move a step away from her, and now all she could look at was his lips. They were full, kissable. Was he reading her mind right now? If he was, he would know she wanted badly for him to kiss her. She wasn’t hiding it well, either. However, she knew he wouldn’t, because he was still in mourning for Constance, and given Lydia’s reputation, no one would have anything to do with her.
“Perhaps we should get some rest,” she suggested. His being so close to her was boggling her mind. “We have nine months to wait for the child.”
“And deciding whether or not the Coyfield child may be yours,” he said evenly. Yet to move an inch, his eyes searched her face. He could and was reading her thoughts, interpreting her feelings. Would she move on them? Would he?
“Yes,” she whispered. “That is the prospect which excites me most.”
He moved ever so slightly closer to her. She could feel the heat radiating off his body now. It wasn’t at all unpleasant. “As it should be.”
She smiled nervously. “Certainly.”
“May I say something as long as it doesn’t sound too forward or inappropriate?” He asked blandly, giving off nothing with his eyes.
“Of course, Nikolas…say it. I’m quite hard to rattle.” She laughed nervously. “I think you understand that.”
He smiled. “I surely do, Lydia.” He licked his lips. “Do you want to kiss me as much as I want to kiss you?”
As if relieved, she exhaled a deep breath. “Oh Goddess, Nikolas. You don’t know how much I want to, but what about…”
“Yes, Nikolas. Constance. Her passing hasn’t been that long ago, and I would believe her family would have a fit.”
“You worry far too much about what your family thinks,” he said, smiling warmly down at her. “Especially since they have cast you out, marked you unclean, and said so many nasty things. What they have done is unforgiveable, Lydia. Constance is gone, but if anyone knew her heart, I did. I don’t believe she would strike either of us down if we were to kiss.”
He raised his hand and slowly ran it through her loose, silky hair. “What if we were to make love? What do you think about that?”
“Nikolas, I don’t think either of us is ready for something like this. Intense moments often lead to…”
“Even greater intense moments?” He asked.
“What are your worries with an…entanglement, Nikolas? We’re still standing here, fully clothed, but neither of us has made a move,” she said sensibly. “So there must be something on your mind stopping you from moving forward.”
He smiled down at her, his lips touching her forehead, but going no further. “I have only a few, Lydia. I don’t want to make another baby and I don’t want to feed on you.” He swallowed a lump in his throat. He wasn’t accustomed to having these types of conversations with women. “Lycans often partially transform during intense situations, and there is a chance I could turn you. What are your worries?”
Goddess how she wished he would move just a few more inches away from her. He was too close, too convincing. Seductive, manipulative, and completely driving her mad with lust. This was wrong; there was simply no way to stop it. “First, let me address yours. As for having another baby, it’s not possible. When Storm was born, I couldn’t stop bleeding, so the doctor had to remove everything inside.”
He could see how much her words hurt as she spoke. He placed his hand in the hollow between her neck and shoulder, caressing her skin gently. “I’m sorry, Lydia. I didn’t mean for you to relive a moment like that.”
“Yes. So now you understand my great love for children,” she told him softly. “The only other issue I have, Nikolas, is the timing. Do you really want me? Or are you simply lonely since Constance has been gone?”
“Lydia, since she died, I have had single women danced before me several times, including your cousin. It is my strict belief that the Aptons were hoping I would ask for Sophia’s hand in marriage. Since Keagan is a lycan, there was no way I could do that, even if she didn’t disgust me. I trust you with my son, my life. I still miss Constance greatly, but she is never coming back, and if she had to handpick someone for me, I’m certain she would choose you.” She said nothing, only stood biting her lip, contemplating her next move. “What else, Lydia?”
“I am aware enough of my surroundings to know when I might be fed upon,” she said with a smile. “I will even attempt to cure you. I will do whatever needs to be done to help you. If you feed on me, turn me, then we’ll leave it be.”
“I want you to know you are taking a great chance,” he told her, his lips mere inches from hers.
“So are you,” she breathed.
He brought her body up against his and kissed her hard, tasting her, reveling in the way her mouth molded to his. When the breathtaking kiss ended, they moved around the bed to the foot. Clothing was shed within moments. Before long, they were both on the bed, their bodies tangled together. At the moment of his release, as expected, he changed partially. He was able to divert it by tightening her legs about his waist and holding her against him closely, allowing him to bury his face into the bed. The moan that escaped him was loud, wondrous, and fulfilled. Lydia smiled, wrapped her arms around his body and playfully dug her small even teeth into his shoulder. His moan turned into unexpected laughter.
After, they lay opposite of each other on the bed. Her face was almost level to his feet. “For an old man, you’re a fantastic lover.”
He laughed, which was more of a guffaw. “Touché.”
She shifted on the bed and a few moments later, he felt her warm breath puffing steadily over him. She certainly was a naughty woman. In response, he moved as well. He saw the enticing bright pink skin inside her as she slithered into position.
“Nikolas, you’re only the second man I have ever been with,” she confessed. “The father of my child taught me so many things about pleasure, sensuality, and love. In fact, he introduced me to the craft.” She sighed, her breath puffing on him again, this time much closer. “I know you didn’t make love to me out of pity, and for that, I owe you a great debt.”
“You owe me…”
Before he could speak the word ‘nothing,’ her mouth enveloped him and she began a steady rhythm that was frankly making him somewhat dizzy. Only women of ill repute had done this to him. He had never asked his wife to do it out of respect. When he realized what Lydia was doing, he couldn’t help but think what the hell was going through my mind? He had been a blithering idiot. In response, he shifted his body enough so he could reach her. She reacted with a slight ‘uh’ as his tongue touched her, but she never lost concentration. Soon, both were pumping their hips in time to the motion, and for a split second, Nikolas thought they were going to fall off the bed. They didn’t.
Lydia’s release came first. His mouth flooded with her juices, and God help him, he wanted more. Despite her release, despite the fact that Lydia had stopped pleasuring him to recover, he simply couldn’t stop. Lydia began to work on him with renewed vigor. He wanted to hold out as long as he could. He warned her of his impending release, but she didn’t pay him any mind. He went back to her, dipping his tongue inside her, suckling gently on her tender mound of flesh, the part which brings the most pleasure for a woman. His mouth was flooded again and he was forced to fall back, exhausted, as his release tore through him. He groaned as if it hurt. She crawled up to him and laid her head on his chest.
“Do you think any less of me now?” She asked softly.
He ran his hand down the back of her hair, sliding it further until he managed to cup one of her luscious buttocks. “No. Not in the least. Everyone who thinks of you as less of a person is a fool, Lydia.”
“Thank you, Nikolas.” She planted a kiss on his chest. “I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.”
“Yes, very much so.”
As the new lovers slept wrapped in each other’s arms, there was a woman in a LeVale hotel who was very angry. She had the baby she wanted, but the man who was the bane of her existence had just bedded her unclean cousin. Somehow, she had to make them pay for what they had done to her.
The sound of a baby snuffling was something Nikolas had grown quite accustomed to hearing. It was like how the frost melted off the windows when the warmth of the day melted it. The noise was close to a distinct plunk that normally sent his sensitive ears into overdrive, causing a childish fit of rage to emerge. Since marrying Constance, she had more or less shown him the beauty of things, the way certain noises offered comfort while others only existed to annoy. Lying in her arms, they both giggled when the familiar sound of ice melting began. She knew it aggravated his sensibilities, as it comforted her. There was no one like Constance, one who could make him understand the sound of a ticking clock didn’t necessarily mean one’s life was growing shorter. Instead, it meant the time they had to spend together. It was a good thing, nothing that should be feared.
This morning when he heard the familiar snuffling, he turned over in bed, suddenly realizing he wasn’t in his bed. It then all came back to him in a rush. He had spent a delicious night with Ms. Lydia Mary Louise Blount. He rolled around the wrong way, his elbow close enough to make contact with her open right eye. There was a brand of bawdy amusement in them, the kind that would ordinarily send him into howls of laughter. However, any sound either of them made would send Keagan into screaming fits. For now, he wasn’t quite awake enough to demand attention. Although Nikolas loved his son dearly, he wasn’t one to break up such as moment as this.
Lydia was sprawled out beside him on her back. Her hair streamed about her like a golden pool. Her arms were on each side of her body, as if waiting to be shackled to some horrid torture device. The thought didn’t make him think less of her. In fact, he knew he had never seen her so beautiful before. Her breasts were perfect, round, with nipples popping out as if a pair of lips had just suckled them. Some had. His own, just a few short hours ago. He followed the flow of her body to the very center of her. Golden curls hid what offered him inside. The way she kept her womanhood hidden away like that appealed to him more than if she was there for the world to see. He had seen her, tasted her, she had had a baby out of wedlock, but at the same time, she was demure, a lady on the outside. Once in, she gave way passionately, freely. He thought he would never want another woman when Constance died. He intended to spend eternity without a mate. Now, he could see himself with her as long as she could stand him.
Lydia possessed the spirit of her family. There were little things here and there that reminded him of Constance. It was natural, after all. They were family. Unlike Constance, Lydia conspired like a man, had the heart of a lion, but enough compassion to beg for Sophia’s life, to beg for a wicked soul. It was something he couldn’t understand.
When Lydia noticed he was making a mental note of every curve of her body, she leaned up against the headboard and crossed her arms over her breasts. She smiled at him warmly. “I thought I was dreaming until I heard Keagan…and nearly had my eye jabbed out by your elbow,” she said amusedly, her voice lilted with seduction.
Nikolas sat up and scratched the back of his head. “I’m sorry about that, ma’am. I usually sleep on another side of the bed.”
She laughed; it tinkled out of her mouth like a chime. “Not to mention that your bed is probably twice as large as mine.”
“You’re welcome to it any time, Ms. Blount,” he said warmly.
“That sounds absolutely lovely,” she told him. “Do you think we can make it to your room before your son awakes?”
He brought his lips close to her ear. Warm puffs of breath drifted out, bathing her. “If I carry you,” he whispered. “We’ll be there faster than you can blink.”
And he was right. At the moment of her good release, the one that had the ability to make her scream like a wave crashing against the bow of a great ship. Instead of crying out, scaring both Keagan and Nikolas, she buried her even teeth into his shoulder. He hissed at the pain, but didn’t mind one bit. At times, Lydia felt he was so like her first lover that it drove her crazy. His love making had fervor, just nothing like this. Perhaps it was the wolf ruling Nikolas Tackett that made him a man of heart, one of lust when the time came for it. He grasped her buttocks and pressed her firmly into him as his body undulated against hers, seemingly filling her over and over again until there was nothing left. When their bodies stilled, Lydia licked a drop of sweat dangling from his throat.
“Did you believe we would eventually wind up in this position?” She asked comically.
“After I became acquainted with you, I hoped it would happen,” he said softly. “Constance hasn’t been gone long…”
Without breaking the connection between their bodies, she said, “I never wanted to do that, Nikolas. That was never my intention.”
“Oh, I know,” he said immediately. “I never thought you were. Not once. You’re family, so there are going to be comparisons, but you are a wholly different person.”
“Just after you came into me, I thought briefly about Storm’s father,” she said softly. “He was like you in ways, but you are also different in many more ways.”
Reluctantly, he broke the connection between their bodies so he could look into her eyes. “What happened to him, Lydia? You don’t have to tell me if it hurts too much or you think it’s not my business.”
“We’ve made love countless times in the last twenty-four hours and you feel as if you cannot ask me a personal question?”
Although hurt tinged her words thinking of her lost lover, her eyebrow was cocked quizzically. “I know speaking of him hurts, Lydia, because somewhere your daughter is out there, waiting for you.”
“My father convinced the authorities that he kidnapped and raped me. He was hung,” she whispered quietly. “His name was Wakiza, which is loosely translated as ‘desperate warrior.’” She laughed bitterly. “Ironic, don’t you think? He was Native, but a free man, pushed out and away from his tribe for a transgression he only spoke of when we became lovers. He was a practitioner of the pagan way of life, the ways of Mother Earth and Nature. His tribe was being shifted into a different direction by Catholic settlers, and they thought it was wrong. Evil. He was my teacher, but only until he knew I would be his in every way. When we met, he procured and sold expensive skeins of cloth to all the rich ladies in Riverbay. He dressed like you, like a business man. Everyone knew he wasn’t a white man. The sad part is, no one cared or raised an eyebrow until I caught his eye.” She covered her face with her hands for a few brief moments before meeting his gaze. “He was a good man, Nikolas. When he discovered that Storm was on the way, he glowed with pride. His one wish was to have a family, and he almost had it in his grasp.”
“How did you approach your parents?”
His question startled her as she thought back to those dark days. “They exploded, of course, my father especially. They wanted me to marry a man who was a friend of the family, much older than I, and I hated him.” She shrugged nonchalantly as she remembered the disgusting old coot. “Wakiza and I went together, believing they would accept my decision. I knew they wouldn’t be happy with me carrying a child before marriage, but I thought there would be happiness. They would have a wonderful grandchild, a son in-law with talents beyond humanity. My mother screamed as if someone shot her and my father’s face turned beet red. He immediately held a shotgun to Wakiza until the constable could be called. The bastards dragged him away, not believing we were in love, wishing to marry. I experienced two deaths, Nikolas. I died when they hung my lover and I died again when Storm was taken from my arms.”
“I’m so sorry, Lydia. No one should have to face such pain. I understand why you want me to wait to deal with Sophia. As long as she has plenty of meat, she won’t transform or phase into her lycan form while with child. It’s much too dangerous to embrace the wolf in her condition.”
“As long as we don’t hurt her while she carries this infant, Nikolas, I’m not one to argue what to do with her afterward. If she starts killing, what do you propose we do?”
He shook his head defiantly. “She wouldn’t risk exposing herself right now, Lydia. She wants this baby, especially if it turns out lycan.”
“Goddess help us if it does,” she whispered. “Will she know the baby’s status before it’s born?”
Shaking his head, he said, “No, even if she has the gift of reading minds. She may know whether it’s a boy or girl, but there is no way to tell if it bares the lycan mark. Half human, the baby has a very low chance.”
She blinked her eyes rapidly, the tears soaking her eyelids, threatening to spill over on her cheeks. “But there have been astronomical chances with your birth and Keagan’s. If the first baby isn’t a lycan, she will keep trying until she has what she wants.”
His hand came out and stroked her cheek gently. “I won’t let her get a second chance, Lydia.”
Her hand came up to cover his. “What if she kills you?”
“Not a chance. She thinks she is a supernatural being now, but she’s wrong about that. She is new to the life, so there is no way she can defeat me unless I allow her to get stronger. These next several months will sharpen her skills. Despite that, I don’t think she will gain the skill to outwit me, Lydia.”
“But this,” she whispered urgently. “Us. She will use me against you.”
“If you do not allow her, she can’t touch you. I saw what you did to Sven, and that skill alone will keep you out of harm’s way.” He pressed his lips against her mouth, allowing the kiss to linger. His tongue traced an outline along her lips. They tasted sweet, as if she daubed them with spun sugar. “Don’t worry. Sophia will soon be a memory, and nothing will happen to me.”
She loved the way he touched her, how he growled more than whispered, the way he said her name. His large hands were always warm as if he constantly ran a fever. Nikolas’ long hair was wavy, unruly, and looked nothing as it should for a man of his status. Her next question had nothing to do with Sophia, but something else on her mind. Knowing from Constance that the Tacketts were more or less from Holland, nothing about him looked the slightest bit Dutch. Vaguely, she wondered if Nikolas was an orphan found by his father and given to his mother. He was so like Wakiza physically, it boggled her mind. She knew there was something of Constance within her. They were family. It made perfect sense. Lydia knew whom she saw when Nikolas made love to her. Who did he see?
“What are you thinking?” Nikolas asked suddenly. “I don’t think it has anything to do with Sophia.”
“Digging into my mind might turn you mad,” she teased with a smile. Before he could speak, she shook her head. “No, I wasn’t thinking about Sophia. Nikolas, there are characteristics about you that lead me to believe you have Indian blood flowing through your veins. I don’t want to be with you based on that. Do you…”
Before she could finish her question, he stopped it with a soft kiss. He leaned his forehead against hers. “Constance was my wife, the mother of my son. Of course, I see her in you. Who wouldn’t? You are nothing like her other than the fact you share blood. I want you because you love my son, you make me laugh, you’re bawdy, crazy, and completely the most decent person I have ever met. In the last twenty-four hours that we’ve shared, I’ve felt more alive than I have since I saw my son for the first time.”
She smiled at him through tears and kissed his forehead. “Thank you, Nikolas. Thank you for not writing me off like my own family has. I’ve only known you for a short time, but you’ve given me the best gift in the world. My self-respect.”
“Don’t ever allow anyone to take it away from you again.”
“Never,” she whispered against his lips.
They were about to share another kiss, another round of passionate lovemaking until Keagan’s snuffles turned into flat-out blats. Nikolas chuckled, the sound rumbling up from his chest. “I suppose he is trying to tell me something.”
* * *
Hours before Keagan Tackett woke his father demanding to be fed and changed, another resident had risen much earlier than she should have. Sophia Apton Utting knew she was having a baby. It was too early to tell her husband. If it is my husband’s baby. A woman of her standing should be ashamed to admit to herself that the baby she schemed to get might not belong to her spouse. What did it matter anyway? If the baby was born a lycan, she would kill Saul and run away with her son. If he was human, she would feed on him and bury whatever was left of the body. No one would know.
Sophia was certain she was having a son. She had no use for a girl child. Girls grew up to be women. Women were slaves of their husbands. She would not lay that type of fate on another human. She thought about the child. What if she had a lycan daughter? The thought intrigued her. Perhaps it would be a good thing. Men were, of course, complete brutes. Saul wasn’t exactly a brute, but he expected her to be a maid. Why would she stoop to that level? Once the house was finished, they would have servants. Who was she kidding? The house would never see its completion. After the birth of the baby, she wouldn’t bother staying here. She wanted to go to a large city, where feeding wouldn’t bring much attention. There were vagabonds in the city, prostitutes, and blatant human trash. They would provide sustenance for her and her child.
Thinking of feeding suddenly made her stomach rumble. She was hungry, the life inside her demanding to be fed. However, she didn’t need human food. She needed a human of whom to feed. It was easy to hunt an animal. No one missed a deer or a bear. She didn’t want animal flesh or its blood. There was a human waiting somewhere for her, an easy target. She had damaged Sven beyond repair. The man would make an easy kill. Nikolas would instantly know who would be responsible for his disappearance, but she didn’t care. Little Apton Utting needed food, and she wasn’t one to deny her child anything, even if it meant murder.
It was ironic, really. Her husband was human, but the man absolutely slept like the dead. Nothing woke him up; not one little noise. The hotel was a fine one with thin walls. There were couples all over the place making sounds of passion. Tonight, there was nothing coming from her room. Of course not. Saul Utting didn’t believe in making love to his wife more than once a month. Any more than that was rude, improper. She had never met such a bore of a man before. The thought made her nearly chuckle. It explained what she was in her human form. Didn’t it? It was quite deliciously funny.
She forced herself to be as quiet as possible as she put on the simplest dress she could find, tied her hair back elaborately, and covered her head with a stiff hat in case it rained. The farmer’s almanac Saul insisted on carrying everywhere had predicted it would rain tonight. Although she was a lycan, it didn’t necessarily mean she could predict the weather. Now could it? For no reason at all, the thought made her want to giggle helplessly. She admitted to herself that she was doing everything possible to wake up Saul Utting, so that she could destroy him. She could be long gone from here days before anyone would care to check on him. Other than her, he had no family, and he was a classless buffoon. Even the hotel staff rarely checked on them or their room. In fact, Sophia had had to demand service. The only thought preventing her from carrying out such a nefarious plan was the life growing within her. She had to think of him for now. Once born, she knew what she would have to do.
Without a glance backward toward her husband, Sophia left the room and walked down the hallway, her heels hardly reaching the floor. Even wearing the shoes of the day, her ability to tread lightly did not rouse the lightest of the sleepers. She would be back in bed before anyone noticed that she was gone. The thought blessed her trip. Not one to have ever believed a higher being existed, she was now thoroughly convinced there was no God, Devil, or anything such as that. It was easy to think that way with an immortal status.
Laughing heavily behind her hand, she tromped down the hall, her feet hardly touching the ground, until she reached the main staircase. This might present a problem. The staff was around day and night, as were some of the guests. Most of them knew who she was. Hopefully, they understood that her father’s money bought all kinds of discretion, so her night trip should keep everyone silent. If they weren’t, she would hunt them down and kill them slowly, consume them while they were still alive.
Oddly, as if they read her mind, they didn’t speak as she passed them. They politely nodded her way or smiled almost knowingly. Perhaps they thought she was meeting a lover. Would anyone blame her, being married to Saul Utting? Of course they wouldn’t.
This late in the evening, there were no people milling about. She might come across a few the further away she walked, but that was fine with her. She could handle dozens of ruffians. If the truth were known, she wanted to run into some ruffians. Said buffoons would simply provide more food for her growing lycan baby. Absently, she rubbed her abdomen, uttered the name ‘Apton,’ and continued on her way out of town toward Sven Hansen’s farm. Once she entered into an area considered the countryside, she freed herself of her clothing restraints and within moments, she had embraced her lycan form. There was no one out here to see her, and if they did, they would wave it away as having had too much to drink or delusions. There were plenty of crazy people out there, she knew that easily.
As she pushed her body forward in a full, quite supernatural run, she arrived at Sven’s home within moments. She was inside quicker than she had arrived. He was sleeping, having uneasy dreams about her. Perhaps it was only natural since it hadn’t been long since their last coupling. Hopefully, the child was his. She would hate to see Saul Utting’s face on her little Apton. It just wouldn’t be right. She stood in her full lycan form, looking down at the sleeping man. He certainly knew the ways of lovemaking, didn’t he? He was more than ‘spread your legs’ and poke, poke, like her husband. Vaguely, she wondered with her lycan brain why Sven hadn’t wanted her. What was wrong with her? She was not gorgeous in the conventional way, but she was at least pretty, prettier than those he was sometimes known to flirt with at the store. This thought alone brought on a raging howl like nothing anyone within miles had ever heard. It was this noise which finally brought Sven out of his slumber.
She couldn’t remember if Sven had ever seen her in her full lycan glory. She actually didn’t care. What Sven saw before him was beyond description, but if asked, he would have said she was nine feet tall. Other than a tail, she looked like a wolf standing up on her back haunches. They were elongated, like the leg of a human with the full muscle span of a wolf. It was as if they were in perfect symbiosis. The upper body, neck, ears, and face were that of a wolf. No doubt. When she opened her mouth, her teeth were also longer than an average wolf, ridiculously longer than a human. Saliva dripped from the canine teeth. She chomped her jaws a few times, making it clear why she had come for him.
Suddenly, just the look of her eyes told him who she was. Impossible. “Sophia,” he gurgled. He had to be dreaming. This couldn’t be real. It just couldn’t.
As if the dream she-wolf understood what he said, she opened her jaws wide and hooted a muted noise. It was the chortle a wolf gives when it’s looking for a pack member. However, no wolf like this existed in the woods. The color of her fur was the same color as her hair. Sophia had used his body before. She had taken his seed. For what? For a child? Didn’t she have a husband for that exact purpose? Sven couldn’t move. If he ran, she would catch him. Tonight, she came in her wolf form, and he knew she didn’t come here for a coupling. She came to feed on him. And there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t move. Her eyes held him captive on the bed. As soon as he understood what her purpose was, she pounced on him. A scream ripped out of him as she went for his throat. A warm spurt of blood glutted into her mouth and she joyfully ripped at the muscle, skin, and tendons. It tasted heavenly, like the best food in the world.
When she had her fill, there were few parts left of his body, but there were blood stains everywhere. It would take hours to clean up this mess. Time was not on her side. She needed to get back to Saul before he woke. After hunting around in the dark, she found several cans of kerosene. She carried them back into the middle of the room. What was left of his right hand lay in a glob of congealed blood. Callously, she took the bloody hand and wrote out one word: ‘bye.’ As bizarre as Sven had been acting lately, everyone would believe he had killed himself. If they didn’t believe it, eyes would wander to others before they looked her way. She had no connection to Sven other than what Lydia and Nikolas saw. She was certain they would say nothing. Quietly, she set about her work.
Saul Utting awoke just before daylight. Beside him, his wife sat up on the side of the bed. It appeared as if she had been awake for hours. If truth be known, Sophia had just arrived in time to wash up and put on her night shift. She turned to look at her husband. At first, he smiled lazily her way. After a moment, the smile fell away.
“Wife? Is that blood on the corner of your mouth?”
Her composure almost disappeared. She nearly attacked him right where he sat. She didn’t think about the baby or the consequences it meant for her nephew. The thought passed as soon as it came. She gently touched the corner of her mouth, where there was, indeed, a smear of blood. Absently, she grabbed a small towel near an ancient bedside table and wiped it away.
Saul’s eyesight wasn’t perfect. He couldn’t tell blood from shit. Luck was still on her side. “No, my love. I couldn’t sleep well earlier and a couple downstairs were kind enough to share a few blackberries with me.”
Did he believe her? She didn’t rightly care. If he mentioned it again, he would be dead by nightfall. She was certain she could get away. No one had told her it was tricky transforming while with child, but there was no pain or blood, so she assumed her child was fine. She watched Saul’s reaction until he nodded curtly, grabbed his robe, struggled into it, and discreetly made his way to the chamber pot in a small closet a few feet from the bed.Humans are absolutely idiotic.
* * *
Lydia stood back in the shadows of Nikolas’ spacious bedroom as he held his son. He had taken Keagan out to the veranda that over looked the trees toward the back of the property. He was speaking in low tones to the boy. For once, Lydia wished she possessed better hearing. She wasn’t one to pry or eavesdrop, but today, she wanted to hear what he was saying to Keagan. He knew she was there, and he didn’t mind. In fact, he was glad she was near, especially on a day like this. Lydia hurt for him, wished there was something she could do to help him, to ease his pain.
The town constable had made a visit a few hours ago to break the news about Sven Hansen. Sometime in the last day or two, his house had burned with Sven inside. According to the constable, there wasn’t much left of his body. They found what could have been a hand and a part of his leg. The damage had been too extensive to read the supposed suicide note. The only thing the man was sure of was that kerosene had been behind the fire. It was apparent from the smell. Although it was clear to both Lydia and Nikolas, Sven had been murdered; the constable didn’t have a clue. They knew the suspect. The constable was too stupid, inept, and drunk to know a murder unless he saw it committed right in front of him.
After the constable left, Nikolas picked up his son, carried him to his room, and went to the veranda. He had been out here for some time, enough that Nikolas had had to wrap up Keagan against the chill after the sun passed over the sloping roof of the house. Although it was nearing late spring, the evening hours were still chilly. Lydia ached to go to him, but knew he wanted to be alone with his son. The obvious murder of his best friend and business partner had hit him hard. He was fighting against the promise he made to Lydia. If she were to show her face right now, Lydia was certain he would kill her. He wasn’t a man who often broke promises. This was the exception. Had Sophia left behind enough to point fingers at Nikolas? To lay blame at his door? It would serve her interests well. She would do anything to get her hands on Keagan Tackett, even if it meant framing her brother in-law for murder.
The Tacksen Mercantile served several bordering towns and villages for miles. It was the only place where people could find the scant supplies they needed. Since hearing of Sven’s murder, Nikolas had closed down with no set date in mind of opening it, even after Lydia volunteered to do it for him. He didn’t doubt her ability to run the shop, but he didn’t know if she could handle hauling the stock from one place to another.
The only interaction he had with Lydia was when the baby needed changing or feeding. However, Nikolas managed those duties well, diapering with the skill of a woman who had borne several children, feeding the special formula to his son as if it were second nature. She respected Nikolas for interest in his child. The men she saw always left baby care to a woman. If he didn’t have a wife, such as the case with Nikolas, the baby was pawned off on another female relative. The father would play with the baby or visit him for a few hours, but a son was no good to a man until he was old enough to contribute something to the family. He hunted, razed buildings, married, and procreated to carry on the family name. Females were even less of an interest. Somehow, Lydia felt that even if he had had a daughter with Constance, he would have been the same way. Nikolas Tackett was simply meant to be a father. No doubt about that.
Lydia wasn’t one to speculate on many things. Given that, she had always had one eye narrowed when it came to Sophia Apton. The girl was never right, even as a child. To see all the Apton siblings together, one would believe they were the closest family ever created. One would be wrong. Virginia had attached herself to Constance, defending her to a fault. Gordon attached to Sophia. He loved his other sisters very much, but when it came to Sophia, he would gladly die for her. The rest were insignificant to him. When Constance married Nikolas, Sophia wanted him to hate the marriage. Gordon didn’t care simply because he didn’t care about Constance as much. When the family didn’t take a shine to Saul Utting, it was Gordon who came to his defense, simply due to the fact that he was marrying his favorite sister.
When her legs gave out, she sat on the foot of the bed, the bed which had become hers now. Hers with Nikolas. It was just a few days now, just enough to feel comfortable lying in another man’s arms again. It was more than nice. Watching Nikolas now, she realized he didn’t tire easily. He slept like a mortal man, ate as one did as well. She wondered now if it wasn’t all an act, the act of being human to those who didn’t know his secret. Did he need mortal food? Mortal rest? She wasn’t sure of anything of the sort. So many things ran through her mind right now, and it was hard to contain. There were so many questions that would never be answered. Would he allow her to comfort him?
The sun began to set and the chill in the air grew. He knew it was too much for the baby. The child was an immortal, just like his father, but it still wouldn’t do to keep him out in the cold just because Nikolas didn’t want to come inside. He entered the bedroom, stole a quick glance at Lydia and carried the boy back to his crib. When he had accomplished that for the moment, he came back into the bedroom, slid past Lydia, and settled himself at the veranda again. Without Keagan, he was able to lean against it and set his eyes on the ground below. Lydia was smart. She knew he wished he could topple over, crack his skull simply to join the ranks of the mortals. He wouldn’t do it, even if he were a mortal man, because there was Keagan to think about.
She wanted to go to him, but was afraid that he would turn away. Sven’s death was something he thought as his fault. It was silly, of course. Despite that, there was no way to convince him otherwise. She sat for a moment more before growing tired of what she had to do, to try and get through to him.
Nikolas had the gift of reading Lydia’s thoughts. Today, however, he shut her out. He felt her approaching slowly. Right at this moment, he didn’t want to be comforted or spoken to or coddled in any way. Yet, he wanted her at the same time. It was funny. Constance had yet to be in her grave for a year, but he already didn’t know what he would do without Lydia. As far as he knew, she wasn’t immortal, so he would eventually lose her. It made his heart cold, colder than it already was. If he had taken care of Sophia when he wanted, Sven would be alive right now.
Lydia came up beside him, purposely mocking his pose. He was leaning over the veranda railing, his back straight, and his buttocks pointing directly at the open door. It was an unladylike pose, of course. At the same time, she didn’t care. It was just the two of them and the woods outside blanketed the entire property. He had sent Ambrose, his lone stable boy, home and chose to care for the horses himself. He was the type of man who worked out his frustrations on the farm. Getting his hands dirty instantly made him feel somewhat better. Just not today. Nothing outside Sven coming back to life could make it better.
Taking a deep breath and steeling herself against his reaction, she said, “It’s not your fault, you know.”
He shook his head and laughed bitterly. He expected something like that to come out of her lips. Of course it was his fault. If he had rid the world of Sophia Apton Utting, his partner would still be here. “How can you say that, Lydia? You know as well as I that Sophia was behind this. He was already a slave to her. I had a chance to end it for him, but I didn’t take it. Iallowed Sven to live, I allowed Sophia to kill him.”
“Nikolas Tackett, you are a good man, one who couldn’t dare murder his best friend because Sophia turned him into a drone.” She shook her head. “No, my sweet man. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I’m the person who begged you to allow her to live until she has her child.”
For the first time since he came out to the veranda, he focused his eyes on something other than the trees before him. His eyes fell on Lydia. Her face was pale, her beautiful eyes filling with tears. What in the world was she thinking? He didn’t blame her for the request she made. She lost a child. She didn’t want anyone else to lose one.
“Lydia, pardon me, but that’s ridiculous,” he said through a heavy sigh. “How did this all start? Sophia pushed my buttons and I fed on her, changed her, and gave her the power to do what she has done. Sven’s death is on my shoulders, Lydia. I might as well turn myself in, but I don’t think a trip to the gallows will do any good.”
His laugh rumbled deeply from his chest. It wasn’t an amused sound whatsoever. It was sarcastic, bitter, and filled with hurt. What could she do to help him? “Allow Sophia to believe you don’t care. Take on your normal routine, look for another partner in neighboring villages. Until then, I can help out; I can take Keagan with me. He’s a good baby, old enough to handle this.” She touched his arm. At first, he flinched away from her touch. After a moment, he softened up, allowing her to caress the part of his arm exposed to the light. “Sophia’s days are numbered. She simply just doesn’t know it yet. If she continues to kill, to transform while with child, she may miscarry, and we can carry out our plans.”
It sounded ridiculous, yet made sense at the same time. Sophia wasn’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. She knew how close he was to Sven. However, maybe if she thought she could play for as long as she wanted, they would definitely catch her off guard. It would make the fight that much easier. Was he actually considering it? Was he? He had never met someone like Lydia. She was very much a woman, but also a lot like a man. He could see how she wouldn’t fit in with the snobby Aptons. There had been so many losses lately that he didn’t know which end was up. What made it worse was that Lydia had personality traits that were similar to Sophia without the manipulation. She was a schemer, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He was very glad she was on his side.
“There may be something to what you’re suggesting,” Nikolas said softly, purposely not making eye contact with her.
She nodded and smiled secretly behind her hand. It was an inappropriate move, but she was certain Nikolas would understand if he had seen. She liked the fact that he was coming out of his profound melancholy. “And that’s exactly why I suggested it. You’re taking too much onto yourself, Nikolas. Think of your son. He certainly needs you.”
He looked at her and noticed that the tear filled eyes were now shining with slight happiness. She was pleased that he had said something which had nothing to do with blaming himself for Sven. “You’re a good woman, Ms. Blount. Better than most Aptons I’ve met.”
“Outside of Constance, of course,” she whispered as she took his hand.
“You’ve never stricken me as one who necessarily has needed a man,” he began, “I know you had a relationship with a man you loved.”
A slight blush filled her cheeks. “Are you asking me if I need you too?”
He squeezed her hand tightly, enjoying her warmth and sincerity. “I suppose I am,” he said after mulling it over in his mind for a few minutes.
Lydia was overwhelmed. It felt like it did years ago when her lost love had first made love to her. She was taught it was a vile act, one purely reserved for creating children. Women weren’t supposed to enjoy it; they were to endure it long enough to carry on the family name with sons, and to pawn off their daughters for large dowries. When she realized she enjoyed it, she thought something was wrong with her. Wakiza was a passionate man, wise beyond his years. She often wondered if he came from another world with the way he spoke, moved, and loved her. Perhaps he was. When Nikolas first kissed her, she wanted to blame it on their shared losses. It wasn’t that at all. What it was, what it came to be was the fact that they were both different. Differences had brought them together. Maybe it was Constance. Maybe when she died, she had made some fantastic arrangement with her maker.
“I’m not as strong as I look,” she said, her voice sounding almost sheepish. “Sometimes, I think I’ve needed you since the first day I met you. Sometimes I think I needed you since we sat out in the woods and opened ourselves up to each other.”
“You know I loved Constance with all my heart,” he said. He looked down at the ground before focusing his eyes on her face again. “I must be honest. I don’t know what I would have done if I had met you both at the same time.”
“No, Nikolas. You would have chosen her, because it was meant to be. I strongly believe she had something to do with our meeting as we did.” She lifted his hand up to her mouth and kissed it. “I don’t wish to replace Constance, and I’d never ask you to do that. If you want an honest answer to your question, then I have to say yes. I need you, and I know you need me.”
“After hearing about Sven, the way he died, I definitely need you,” he said.
She tugged on his hand. “Then come away from that veranda and let me get some food into you. You’re no good to anyone if you’re starved.”
He didn’t move immediately. She was right. He was starving, but something else was on his mind. “I put my faith in you because I know you have Keagan’s best interests at heart, and I will keep my promise about finding your daughter.”
“Thank you, Nikolas.” She smiled. It wasn’t pleasant, it was bitter and filled with hurt. “I wouldn’t know what to do once I did find her,” she whispered.
“You would take her back. She would be with her mother, exactly where she belongs,” he said softly.
She wiped tears out of her eyes with the back of her free hand. “If it could be that easy…”
“It will when you find her.”
There was flatness to his voice that wasn’t necessarily negative. She couldn’t explain it at first, and then it hit her. He was thinking of his immortality. His and his son’s. “Nikolas, perhaps if I did some reading, we could find a way to take the wolf away and find the man inside.”
He chuckled bitterly and shook his head. “I don’t think that’s possible, Lydia. I’ve lived far too long and went through far too many procedures that did nothing outside aggravating me.”
She took her hand out of his and ran it through the hair on the back of his head. She held a few strands for a long time, noticing the texture, how Keagan’s hair felt the same. She knew a few things and wondered if it was more of a trait passed along rather than a sickness. The longer she thought of that, the more she decided it was wrong. It was passed from parent to child, but also through bite marks. It fascinated her more than scaring her.
“True,” she told him. “However, you have never known someone like me, either. Have you?”
When she took her hand out of his hair, she put it back in his. He looked at her with a smile that was genuinely happy. It warmed her heart. “You’re certainly right about that.”
Time passed and with it, grief, as is the case most of the time. Nikolas, Lydia, and Keagan spent most of their time at the mercantile since Sven’s murder. They watched Sophia and Saul sporting about town. Most women of the day didn’t squire themselves around, showing off their bulging stomachs, but Sophia was different, as they all knew. She was proud of her condition, so much so that she often took long walks alone, past the store, knowing that Nikolas and Lydia could see her. Nikolas felt especially bad for Lydia. Each time the Coyfields came into the store, it took all her strength to look at little Storm without crying out or demanding that Molly Coyfield hand her over.
What was worse for Nikolas was simply eying Sophia without running to murder her, to take her life as she had taken so many. It took everything he had in him to control the wolf. If he transformed in the middle of town, he might as well give himself over to the constable. His other problem was dealing with his hunger. He always left Sven in charge whenever he needed to hunt. Now, it was out of the question. There was no way he could leave Lydia and Keagan alone. Somehow, he had to find a new partner to keep Lydia and his son safe. During the day, he set out in search of someone to take Sven’s place (though impossible in Nikolas’ mind), but as soon as the light left, he had to be back for Lydia. There were criminals, vagabonds, and all sorts of evil characters out there who would love to victimize Lydia, Sophia included. He often wondered what had gotten into her mind. Perhaps Sophia was finally watching out for someone other than herself. Perhaps she loved the baby growing within her, especially with the knowledge that her child might also be a lycan.
Tired of worrying about Sophia, the mercantile, his hunger, and what was to become of his wretched life, Nikolas left Lydia in charge early one morning, asking her to stay home for the day. He had a mission in mind, for Lydia, because she also needed a break. He didn’t tell her what he had in mind, but Lydia figured he had left to hunt, which was partially true. However, there was more, more for them both. He hoped this trip would make them forget Sophia, her child, and the Coyfield family.
While Nikolas took his day trip, Lydia kept Nikolas’ musket close at hand, just in case. She could use her magic against Sophia or any other foe. Yet, the musket still gave her peace. Keagan, the sweetest of infants, slept most of the day. She kept watch of the mark on his hand, noticing it grew as he did. Someday, he would grow into his lycan body, experiencing all the pain that came with it. She didn’t feel pity toward the boy, just a sense of dread. Would she be alive to see him finish his growing? Would they have eliminated Sophia by then? What about Sophia’s baby? What in the world would happen to them? It was dizzying.
Trying to forget for a moment, she set about one of her favorite hobbies: knitting. Although immortal, Keagan would have to stay warm, wouldn’t he? She quietly began knitting him a blanket, anxiously waiting for Nikolas’ return. Every now and again, she would glance at the antique clock on the opposite wall, wondering what was taking him so long. She knew he hadn’t hunted in a while, but he should have returned by now. A thread of worry began to sprout in her belly, advancing slowly to her heart. Had Sophia found him? No, she decided, that was stupid. Nikolas hunted animals. Sophia’s fare was human.
Lydia didn’t realize she had nearly knitted half the blanket when Nikolas finally came home. Darkness had already swallowed the sun. When the front door came open, Lydia’s hand was on the musket. Praise the Goddess it wasn’t anyone other than whom she had been expecting. Loosening her hold on the musket and her knitting, she approached Nikolas and threw herself in his arms. After seeing her newborn daughter for the first time, nothing else could compare to how happy she was to see anyone in her life.
The embrace broken, he smiled down at her. “Did you have any trouble tonight?”
She returned his smile and gave him a loud, smacking kiss. To hell with modesty. “None. I had begun to worry that Sophia had caught up with you and…”
Before she finished her sentence, her words were cut off by a searing kiss. “No one came looking for me. After hunting, I went to Riverbay and found a way to distract ourselves from worry, at least one night.”
Her brow furrowed. “Nikolas, what in the world are you talking about?”
Kissing her forehead, he then smiled down at her again. “Being a lycan has its rewards at times. I can move lithely on my feet, Lydia. I’ve been home for at least an hour.”
Lydia laughed out loud. “Don’t tease me. There is no way you could have gotten past me, your musket, or your son.”
He mocked her laugh in jest. “I’ll keep my eyes on Keagan. Go on upstairs; I left a gift for you.”
She started to protest, but the words died in her throat. She may not be a woman of her times or conventional, but she could read people. Nikolas had indeed done something kind, sneaky, and loving. He was the type of man who would do the unexpected. Without another word, Lydia flew upstairs to the room she shared with Nikolas.
Lying on the bed was the most beautiful party gown she had ever seen in her life. It was made of the finest silk her fingers had ever touched. It was a bright shade of blue, her favorite color. He must have paid a fortune for this dress. What in the world was he thinking, buying her something so fine?
She whirled around to face him. He moved so quietly, so stealthily, that she didn’t know where he was from one moment to another. Cradled safely in his arms was his growing son. He was smiling warmly her way, noticing the tears in her eyes. She never thought she was good enough for pretty things. He wanted to prove her wrong. The dress was made for a custom fit, and he wanted to show her she was worth it, worth so much more than money.
“Why in the world did you do this, Nikolas?” The tears had begun to flow freely now.
“For one simple reason. You need something to wear to the Mercantile Ball a couple nights from now,” he said evenly.
Leaving her standing for a moment, he took his son and put him to bed. He fussed for a bit, but soon calmed down after Nikolas sang (quite badly) his favorite lullaby. When he was certain Keagan was asleep, he went back into his bedroom and found Lydia in the same position as he left her. She would look from him to the dress and back again. He couldn’t believe the look on her face.
“A ball?” She shook her head as if she didn’t understand the word, then she looked at the dress again.
Nikolas approached her and placed his large hands on her milky white shoulders. “Yes, Lydia. A ball. Have you ever been to one?” He knew the answer to his own question. He wanted to hear her answer.
“You know I haven’t. I shamed my family by falling in love with Wakiza, by having his daughter, and practicing what they refer to as my ‘dark art,’” she answered with a whisper. She had torn her eyes off the dress and back to him.
“I know, Lydia. You always believe you are not worthy to love or touch or to be treated like you should.” He kissed her lips gently. “You are worth more than you know, and I think it is about time a man shows you.”
She took a step back from him and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands, like a child. “In front of all those people, you want me on your arm? Everyone in a five town area knows of my father’s shame.”
“Lydia, there is nothing shameful about your love for Wakiza or your daughter. I would be proud to have you on my arm. In fact, if anything, I am the one who should be begging you to come along with me.” Slowly, he approached her and took her in his arms. He placed a gentle kiss in the hollow between her jawline and shoulder. Even her skin tasted sweet. “Inside and out, you are wonderful, Lydia. Never forget that. Will you attend the ball with me? Or will I be attending alone?”
“You are such a clod,” she said, not unkindly. “I would be honored to go with you.”
He pulled away to look down into her eyes again. “Well, I suppose I need to call on Mrs. Carmichael to see if she will sit with Keagan.”
* * *
Nikolas was downstairs in the sitting room speaking with Mrs. Carmichael when Lydia descended the stairs. Her hair, done by Mrs. Carmichael, was piled high atop her head with paste jewels here and there for dramatic effect. Nikolas stopped in mid-sentence to gaze upon her. The effect was quite comical and Mrs. Carmichael couldn’t help but laugh.
“I think I should tend to Keagan,” she said with a smile. “I hope the two of you have a wonderful night.”
Nikolas still couldn’t speak. His eyes were glued to Lydia, as if he had just seen her for the first time in his life. She was breathtaking in her ball gown. Regardless of how she felt about herself, regardless of how her family felt about her, there was one simple thing he knew. She was a precious, lovely woman who was suited to the bright sapphire dress she wore. She was much better than any member of her family. He felt so much, he didn’t know how to describe it. Yet, there was one he could. It was grief over Constance. She would always be the first love of his life. Lydia was swiftly replacing the hold grief had held onto his heart for so long. Lydia was sent to him, he knew it now. Constance had sent her, for good reason. Thank you so much, my love. I think the pain is subsiding. You would never hold that against me, because you sent her.
When she finally made it to the floor, she gazed upon him as much as he had her. In his stiff, formal suit, he looked quite uncomfortable, but so very handsome. She glided up to him and smiled. “I feel quite unaccustomed to dressing up like this. What do you think? I think you look more than handsome, Nikolas.”
Unable to help himself, he approached her, cupped her face gently in his hands, and kissed her deeply. “You are a vision, Lydia. One I never hope to forget.”
“You romantic fool,” she teased. “Shouldn’t we get under way?”
Nikolas hired a driver and a fancy coach for them. He opened the door for her and helped her inside. He followed behind her, sat down, and took her hand in his. Kissing it, he knew there was so much he wanted to say, to tell her, but like the fool of which she accused, he couldn’t say a word to her. Stupefied was the only way he could describe it. She glanced at him sideways, as if reading his mind. Nikolas had the gift, but he decided to allow her thoughts to remain private. Tonight, there was much they would say to each other. It was a simple matter of time.
Riverbay wasn’t far from LeVale, but the driver took his time on the winding roads. When they left home, it was still light out, now it was nearly twilight. Nikolas had told the driver to take his time as he didn’t want them to arrive first at the ball. For one thing, he wanted to warn Lydia that the Coyfields would probably be in attendance, since Riverbay was practically their town. The problem was, he was still incapable of speaking a word. Her appearance and his feelings for her overtook him. He knew he had to tell her before they arrived.
“Is there something on your mind, Nikolas?”
Her words surprised him out of his stupor. He almost jumped out of his suit. “There is, Lydia. I want you to know in advance that the Coyfields will probably attend the ball. After all, their mercantile is in Riverbay.”
She looked down at her hands for a brief moment before meeting his steady gaze. “I realize that. I can handle being in the same room with the people who are raising my daughter.” She had a half smile on her face. “I promise to behave.”
Not wanting the driver to hear his next words, he brought his lips to her ear. “I can’t make the same vow, Lydia.”
His voice made her shudder. “I hoped you would say that.”
By the time they entered Riverbay and found the hotel where the ball was being held, there were already several carriages parked out front. Thankful for them, they didn’t see anything that Sophia would possibly arrive in as of yet. The real test would come once they entered the ballroom.
After assisting Lydia out of the coach, she looped her arm in his and they entered the hotel. He knew Lydia was nervous with her dress and hair. Colors of the day for party dresses were washed out pastels. Lydia’s dress was meant to allow her to stand out. And stand out, she did. No one knew she was a relative of the Aptons, which was a good thing. Another good thing was that they did not see either Saul or Sophia in attendance. Her condition probably kept her away. Neither of them minded a bit.
The musicians were already busily playing sweeping minuets. Lydia had barely entered the room and was having a wonderful time. There wasn’t a seating chart for the ball, so Nikolas picked out a table in the middle of the room that, for the moment, wasn’t occupied. Nikolas led Lydia to the table and while she sat, he went to get wine for them both.
While Nikolas was away, Lydia looked around the room, marveling at how such a plain ballroom in a hotel could be outfitted so beautifully. Ornate lamps lit the room as brightly as possible. It was a marvel to behold. Even when she saw the Coyfields enter, her mood did not change. She was happy to be here, happy to be wearing a dress that Nikolas had somehow managed to have made for her. He never told her where it was done, but she was positive it was probably shipped from overseas. She watched as several partygoers tried to ask the Coyfields to sit at their tables, they refused. She didn’t understand until they arrived here that the Coyfields were prominent in Riverbay. Yes, she knew they owned a mercantile, much like Nikolas.’ However, everyone wanted their attention. What made it interesting was that they chose to sit with Lydia and Nikolas.
Although Jonas Coyfield was dressed similarly to Nikolas, Molly Coyfield was a beauty in her own right. Her dress wasn’t as outrageous as Lydia’s. It still turned heads. It was pastel pink and complimented Molly’s complexion. It was difficult looking at them, knowing they had her daughter. At the same time, she couldn’t place blame on them. It fell on the shoulders of her parents. Before they had a chance to speak to each other, Nikolas arrived with a decanter of wine and four glasses. It was obvious he had seen the Coyfields sit down before they sat. Nikolas spoke briefly to Jonas before pouring each of them a glass of wine. He saw the look on Lydia’s face and he felt her pain. She was handling the company well.
Nikolas was about to make formal introductions. He knew they had seen Lydia before, but introductions were unnecessary as Molly exclaimed, “Lydia, your dress is unbelievable!”
Lydia averted her gaze for the tiniest of moments, took a sip of wine, and said, “Thank you so much. Nikolas should be complimented for his splendid taste. I love your dress as well.”
Knowing each word dripped with pain, Nikolas drank some wine and presented his hand to Lydia, “Would you like to dance?”
“More than you know,” she said with a grateful smile.
Everyone in the room watched the handsome couple spin about the room as effortlessly as professional dancers. Lydia’s dress accentuated their dance even more. She had no idea, but Nikolas could read every male mind in the room. All the men, including ever faithful Jonas Coyfield, were jealous of Nikolas Tackett. No one recognized her, no one was gossiping about her. The thoughts coming to him in waves were wishes that he would break or sprain his ankle so they could dance with her. He wouldn’t have minded if someone had asked to cut in, but he knew Lydia could only be comfortable in his arms. That suited him fine.
Twirling her around the room was the most romantic action in the world. It almost bested making love to her. After several dances, the two of them went back to their table to have a private glass of wine between them before the Coyfields returned. Suddenly, Nikolas wanted her for himself; he didn’t want to share a table, her affection, or anything she had in her. Selfishly, he wanted her all for himself.
“The two of you make such a lovely couple,” Molly Coyfield chimed. “I never thought I would see you so happy again, Nikolas.”
He fixed his eyes on her. “Neither did I, Molly.” He looked at Lydia and grasped her slightly damp hand. “She has taught me that grief can be overcome.”
“Fantastic,” Molly said. “Lydia, I am so glad you came to the ball.”
“So am I, Mrs. Coyfield. I am flattered,” she said softly.“Please,” she said. “I’m Molly and he’s Jonas.”
Nikolas was about to ask Lydia to dance again when Jonas spoke up. “Nikolas, I have been meaning to tell you that I’m sorry about Sven Hansen. He was a good man.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you, Jonas. He was, indeed, a good man.” A good man I summarily failed.
“I figure you might need a new partner now,” he began. “I’ve been thinking of expanding my mercantile business in LeVale. I know you both run the store, but it’s not safe to leave a woman alone these days, especially as close as you are to the country, where thieving Indians can snatch anything.”
The comment about Indians almost forced Lydia to scratch Jonas’ eyes out of his head. Nikolas clearly heard her thoughts: Your goddamned adopted daughter is half thieving Indian, you bastard. He held tightly to her hand. “I appreciate the offer, Jonas. Why would you expand in LeVale? I think our system is working.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, gentlemen,” Lydia said, “but I truly wish to dance again.”
Without a word, Lydia dragged Nikolas off to the dance floor. “He’s an ignorant bastard, Nikolas,” she said. “But I want you to accept his offer. Perhaps that will allow me to get closer to Storm.”
“I know his comment hurt you, Lydia. I’m not about to accept his offer, not after what he said about his own daughter.”
“Nikolas, darling,” she whispered. “Don’t fret. Go back and accept his offer.”
“I will,” he agreed. “Only because you asked.”
When the dance ended, the couple went back to their table. They noticed Molly was cooling herself with an ornate fan made of peacock feathers. “I apologize for our hasty retreat,” Nikolas said.
“Don’t apologize,” Jonas said.
“I have decided to accept your offer,” Nikolas said. “We can work out the details in a day or two. Tonight, I wish not to discuss business.”
Jonas Coyfield smiled. “Nor do I.”
Nikolas and Lydia danced at the ball until dawn. At the end of the last dance, he looked down into her eyes and smiled. “There is something I have been meaning to tell you since I first saw you in that dress.”
She laughed. “What? That you want me out of it?”
He smiled. “That would be a good thing as well. It’s something else.”
Lydia had never found Nikolas to be so shy or off putting. “Come on, Nikolas. Out with it.”
His lips found hers automatically, without little or no effort. They fit each other like cogs. When the kiss was broken, he said against her lips, “I love you, Lydia Mary Louise Blount.”
She blinked at him as if she had never heard a term of endearment before in her life. “I love you too, Nikolas.”
“What do you say about getting out of here?”
“I’ve been ready since I arrived.”
* * *
As soon as they arrived home, Lydia said good night to Mrs. Carmichael, kissed Keagan, and headed upstairs. Nikolas had never seen Lydia act so flustered before, but it gave him a warm feeling inside at the same time. After taking Keagan upstairs to his room, he hurried downstairs to accompany Mrs. Carmichael back home. He noticed his bedroom door was closed, and he could imagine what she had in store for them both. It made him feel like transforming so he could get back home all the quicker.
He was back soon enough. Before looking in on his son once more before joining Lydia, he looked and found the door still closed. His heart beating hard with anticipation, he approached his son’s crib, looked down upon him, and put his lips to the boy’s tiny foot. One day soon, my son, I will tell you the truth. I will help lead the way into your destiny.
Closing the door softly in the sleeping infant’s room, he opened the door to his bedroom and his jaw literally dropped. Out of a dream it seemed, Lydia stood by the shuttered bedroom window, fully nude, giving way before him unlike any woman he had ever known in his eternity. Her long pale hair was pulled over one shoulder, hiding her right breast from his sight. Of course, his lycan eyes saw all, felt everything she did, and he knew how she would be before he arrived home. None of that mattered right now, as precognition seemed old and worthless. Nothing could have prepared him for this.
“Why are you still fully clothed, Mr. Tackett?” Her husky voice grew huskier still, full of longing and desire. “Show me how fast a lycan can undress.”
He did. Within seconds, his neat ball suit was torn to bits. Why should he care? Nothing mattered right now other than his desire for Lydia Blount. As soon as his clothing was torn away, she was in his arms in seconds. In a few more seconds, they were on the bed, loving each other the best way they knew how.
After, Lydia rested her head on his shoulder. He held her tightly against him as if keeping her from escaping, knowing well she wouldn’t try. She was purposely blocking her thoughts from him, so he knew something serious was on her mind. He wanted to ask, but didn’t know if she was ready to tell him yet. Although he had to keep the wolf hidden, Nikolas Tackett was a man who didn’t like secrets. It smelled of hypocrisy, but what was he to do?
It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her, when she finally spoke for herself. “What will happen to us? I mean, what will happen after Sophia has her baby?”
Her questions were ones he knew weren’t at the crux of the matter. It was something else altogether. Immediately, he knew what was on her mind. He knew the question would come up sooner or later. He had hoped it wouldn’t have come at all. For all her knowledge of alternative views, she couldn’t find a single thing to change what he and Keagan were. Nothing could change what Sophia was, either. As for the child, Nikolas felt Lydia’s desire to have it fruitless. If she had transformed while with child, it was certain it wouldn’t survive. There had been rumors of disappearances of several people in town. The only suspect was Sophia, no matter how much he wanted to believe otherwise. Nikolas could control the wolf inside him. Sophia could not. Her evil thoughts controlled everything she did or felt she had to do.
“Lydia, are you asking about your mortality?” He asked gently, caressing her soft, flaxen hair.
“You have been digging for the real issue, haven’t you?” She had shifted her position and focused her lovely eyes on his face.
He smiled lamely. He could no more hide anything from her than she could him. “I’m sorry, Lydia.”
“Nikolas, would you…could you turn-”
Before she finished her question, he moved away from her touch, as if it scalded his soul. “I could never do that, Lydia. No one deserves to be cursed like this.”
He was up quickly, moving with lightning speed. He was sitting on the side of the bed now, his back facing her. “You told me you loved me tonight, Nikolas. I know you meant it. You were married to a mortal woman; you knew she would die before you. You knew that if Keagan had been mortal, he would have died before you as well. So many people you have known have died before you. Do you feel as if you can watch another lover die?”
Nikolas shook his head. “This is the very reason I avoided marrying Constance. If I wanted to relieve sexual tension, I sought whores. I never wanted to subject myself to the prospect of watching my wife or children die. Constance changed it the instant I saw her. Sophia brought up a valid point. She asked once why I didn’t bite her so she could live. I think Constance knew my secret all along, but she never asked the question you have.”
Lydia moved across the bed and placed her hand on his back. She felt his flesh ripple under her hands, as if his first intention was to flinch away from her. “You accepted me without question, even before we became involved, and I think I fell in love with you a little the moment we met. When you didn’t turn me away after hearing about my daughter, my Native lover, I was certain I had found the man I have been looking for since Wakiza was taken from me. I stayed away from other men, even those my parents arranged for me to marry. I came out and told them blatantly that I had taken a lover before, had given birth, just to keep them away. I found you, Nikolas. We found each other. I know as a mortal woman, I could die at any moment. We have only discovered each other a short time, but the thought of leaving you makes me sad. Nothing in the human vocabulary could express what I’m feeling right now or what I would feel if I had to say goodbye to you.”
Nikolas stared down at his hands. They were hands that dealt death to millions of animals since he was fourteen. They were hands that had taken human life before. These were also the same ones that touched the people he loved with much gentleness. “Lydia, I know you will die someday, and I know it will hurt like a son of a bitch. I can’t do it. I couldn’t do it for Constance. I won’t, Lydia. If that changes your feelings for me, I will understand. If that makes you leave, I will understand.”
She placed a kiss between his shoulder blades. She wrapped her arms around him, and he did the same, holding tightly onto her, enjoying the feel of her body against his, the natural perfume her body exuded. “I am disappointed, Nikolas. However, I love you and Keagan completely too much to simply walk away.”
He believed her fully, knowing from her aura that her words were nothing but the complete truth. Yet, there was more on his mind, and it had nothing to do with Sophia or her child. He wanted to bring up Storm and what she would be willing to do to get her child back. For the first time in his life, a man who sought out honesty like men seek out women, he didn’t broach the subject. For now, loving her was enough. They would discuss her daughter later. Was it a fatal flaw?
While Nikolas and Lydia were in deep conversation, Sophia lay in bed next to her feeble husband. Their manor was still being built and they were in the finest hotel their town could offer. Saul hated the idea of wasting so much money, but since he found out she was with child, he was less stuffy about spending the money Sophia’s parents had given as a dowry. She longed for the day she could feed on him and end the marriage the only way she wanted.
She wasn’t sure, but since the day she knew she was having a baby, her appetite for human flesh grew along with her belly. All she wanted to do was feed. There were dozens of humans roaming about town that no one would miss. Mostly, she found mad men lounging around waiting for handouts. She had always promised them anything they wanted as long as they followed her to dark, lonely places. There she would open her purse, wait for the man to attack her, and then she would pounce. In the daytime, she didn’t need to transform. Her canine teeth would change willfully and she could chew chew chew. During the night, she could summon the wolf inside her. Those were the fun times. She could find whomever she wanted. She was an indiscriminate eater, finding women, men, children, and animals. The best meat actually came from women or children. Their fear salted the meat more, and she savored every single bite. Her hunger had her convinced that her child was lycan. They would form a pack of lycans, and with them all, they could destroy Nikolas Tackett.
Her one problem with this plan was Lydia. She knew the whore had special knowledge and practiced some form of witchcraft taught to her by her savage lover. She regretted the fact that she had not been there to see him hung. The experience would have been brilliant. It made her feel a tingle in her loins that Saul would never satisfy. It was a perfect shame that she could not have eaten the evil bastard. She had yet to taste savage flesh. She wondered if it tasted better than that of her other victims.
Lydia could possibly ruin her plans to rid the world of Nikolas Tackett. She knew that deals were often made with the devil. Although she found nothing wrong with murdering people, Sophia Apton Utting was a religious woman. She read her Bible with relish every night before going to sleep. If deals could be made with the devil, perhaps she could convince Lydia to come to her side and help her destroy Nikolas. Her supposed magic kept everyone around her safe. She was religious, but deeply superstitious at the same time. She believed in magical workings and knew that Lydia had driven her drone spell out of Sven Hansen. The whore couldn’t save his life, though, could she? The thought struck her as deliciously funny. She had to clasp her hand over her mouth to fight back a chuckle.
Sophia’s stomach suddenly rumbled. She was completely ravenous now. Just thinking of blood and flesh made her salivate. She hadn’t had a good meal in two months or more. It was time to feed again. There was nothing in their room that would satisfy her hunger. Dare she get up? She wasn’t afraid to awaken Saul. He slept like the dead. She was afraid to transform. The baby was almost ready to be born, and she didn’t want to risk labor pains while she fed. There was nothing she could do to prevent the hunger. The baby inside her (her son, she always thought in terms of a son) was begging for a taste of flesh. Her little lycan boy wanted his mother to feed him, and she couldn’t wait for daylight. There was no way.
Gently, she placed her hand on her protruding abdomen. “Don’t worry, little Apton,” she whispered. “Mommy will find us both a meal.”
Grace Lister had no business being out in town at this hour of the night. Her little boy had gone missing several months ago and had not been found. Her husband barely spoke to her these days, because he blamed her for the missing child. She hadn’t watched him closely enough; she was more involved with her ‘hen parties’ than being a mother. Everyone in the family blamed her, on both sides. Her own folks had given her more grief than a mother deserved. Abraham was their first born, the only son of six children, the only child to carry on the family name. Since her husband wouldn’t have anything to do with her, and their other children had been sent away to live with relatives, Grace spent her time looking for her child. Nothing else mattered. She didn’t know a female lycan had been responsible for the death of her child. She didn’t know a female lycan was now stalking her. The female lycan did not know someone was stalking her.
Lydia stood only a few feet behind Sophia. She had left the secure arms of her lover, because she knew Sophia was ready to strike again. Heavily pregnant now, her cousin was risking the life of the child she carried to kill. She prayed to her pagan Goddess to help hide her identity so that she could interfere. Once Nikolas found out about this, he would be very angry with her.
Just as Sophia was about to transform, Lydia screamed: “SOPHIA!”
Both victim and stalker cried out and turned toward the fair woman. “It has been ages since I’ve seen you,” Lydia cried while stridently moving toward her cousin. “What on earth are you doing out at this hour?”
Feeling as if she were eavesdropping, Grace left the two women. She had a son to find, and perhaps then, her husband would speak to her.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Lydia noticed that Sophia’s words dripped venom. The she-wolf growled at her as her eyes began to turn silver. Since she had scared away Sophia’s prey, Lydia supposed she would turn her fury around. She began to pray again. Expecting the worst when Sophia’s canines elongated, she remained ready to spring forth her own power. After a moment, she realized Sophia was beginning to calm, her eyes took their normal hue, and her canine teeth no longer resembled the fangs of a dog.
“The right thing,” Lydia answered evenly.
“Shouldn’t the ‘right thing’ have been done before your bastard child was conceived?” Sophia asked sweetly, her smile demure.
“Hypocrite,” Lydia spat.
The other woman laughed heartily and long at her cousin’s words. “I had a purpose conceiving my son, Lydia. Once he is born, I know he will be like me, like your lover. What is it about you? Can you not find a man to marry before you have a child?”
“Nikolas and I will kill you as soon as your child is born,” she said, not allowing Sophia’s words to hurt her, even if they did. “And you don’t know if you have a son inside you. You won’t know until he’s born.” Now, it was her time to laugh. “Nikolas has the gift of seeing inside one’s mind. I don’t think you possess it. Despite the fact that he is technically dead, he still has a soul. He is not like you.”
“Crawl back into the ooze and continue to lie with a murderer, Lydia,” she said softly. “Because that is what Nikolas is. He murdered long before you knew him, and he murdered me. You don’t understand what it means to feed. Lycans, I’ve learned, were not meant to hunt animals for food. Humans are the food. Anything else is fodder. Tackett should have taught you that much.”
“If you keep giving in to your inner wolf, you will lose the baby.”
This made Sophia pause for a moment. Her cousin had a point, but she refused to listen. “Cousin, how much do you want your daughter?”
At the mention of her daughter, Lydia’s bravado began to fade. She regretted leaving Nikolas now. Her prayers for strength were suddenly not being answered. “Mention her again and I will kill you myself right now.”
Lydia’s resolve wasn’t the only to suffer a momentary pause. However, Sophia knew she had the upper hand and was not about to give up. “Well, I know how much you loved her father. I realize how important children are to mothers.” She suddenly placed her hand on her abdomen. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to hold her again? Kiss her? Tell her about her wonderful father?”
She could sense her cousin was breaking. She might be a witch, but her powers were not protecting her. If she wanted, she could have killed Lydia and ended the entire conflict. She thought that if she were to fight against Nikolas, she would win. Then she would have two lycan sons. All of them could change the world.
“Shut up,” Lydia hissed.
“I don’t think you want me to shut up,” Sophia said, almost at a whisper. She approached her cousin, standing no more than a foot away from her. “You care for Keagan like he is your own. He isn’t. Constance was his mother. Lydia, don’t you want to be a mother again? I can make it happen.”
Suddenly, Lydia understood. The thought both horrified and fascinated her. The idea of mothering her daughter was something she could not put in the back of her mind. Every lycan, according to Nikolas, had a gift. Nikolas happened to know the thoughts swimming in people’s heads. Sophia had the gift of hypnotism. It was what made her such an effective killer.“Your way sounds hideous,” Lydia whispered.
Sophia took a few more steps toward her cousin. She put her hand on Lydia’s shoulder. The other woman shuddered with disgust, but did not move. “Does it? I need to feed to nourish my son. Animal blood won’t do. I could feed on Molly Coyfield, and her husband suddenly becomes a widow. You will never have a chance with Nikolas, because he will not turn you, and you cannot have another child. Isn’t that what we’ve always known, Cousin? You could then seduce the poor widower, marry him, and become Storm’s mother again. It would be so easy for you to seduce him. You worked your magic on Nikolas surely, didn’t you?”
Lydia covered her face with her hands. “Stop it!”
She didn’t. She had the upper hand now, and it was time to deal the fatal blow. “All you have to do is say one word. You could say no, trust in Nikolas to do the right thing. Or, you could say yes, allow me to feed on Molly Coyfield, and you would have your chance. Jonas Coyfield watches you when he comes into the mercantile.” She didn’t know this as fact, but it was working, and that was all that mattered. “You could be the next Mrs. Coyfield and have your daughter back again. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
While Lydia cried behind her hands, she didn’t notice that Sophia’s hand was still on her shoulder. Hastily, she shrugged it off. After her tears dried she looked up at her cousin, her dreaded hated cousin, and gave her an answer.
Much later, Lydia returned to Tackett House Manor. Before going back to bed with Nikolas, she checked in on Keagan. He was sleeping peacefully on his back, his sturdy boy’s legs splayed apart recklessly, and his arms in much the same fashion. She loved him as her own, even Nikolas had once referred to her as his mother, the only one he would know. Was that true? Had he meant it? Would she soon regret what she said to Sophia? For now, she didn’t care.
When she went into the bedroom, Nikolas was lying in bed, his position so close to his son’s, that it was startling. She took off her clothes, climbed into bed, and laid her cheek against his chest. She didn’t move for the rest of the night. None of them did. Yet, she was the only person in the house who didn’t sleep the rest of the night.CHAPTER 10
Nikolas watched Lydia for days after the ball. Something had happened that seemed to gall her senses. If he touched or said anything directly to her about her behavior, she would go away in a huff and tell him to mind his business. The only tenderness she conveyed was when she was with Keagan or in bed. Nothing about that had changed regardless of what was burning inside her soul. Unsuccessfully, he tried many times to reach into her mind, but he couldn’t. She had obviously cast a spell against his prying. He didn’t like it. As many knew, Nikolas Tackett was a man who thrived on honesty, even if it sounded hypocritic
Several days after the ball, Jonas Coyfield came into the store to assist Lydia while Nikolas made his runs for new supplies and, of course, to hunt. He didn’t like the way Jonas flirted with Lydia. She was much too shy to act on it. Whatever the case, he didn’t like it one damned bit. Jonas Coyfield had his own woman. Jonas should leave his alone. He definitely intended to speak to Lydia tonight to find out what the hell was going on between them. If anything. Lydia never struck Nikolas as a woman who cheated.
Once Nikolas had left for his venture, Jonas came out of the storage room. “We do not need much in here, Lydia. Why did Nikolas suddenly leave for more supplies?”
The question he asked made her jump as if startled. No. It was true. They didn’t need much. However, Nikolas needed to feed. Since Sven was murdered, food was the most important thing on his mind. How could she fall victim to Jonas Coyfield’s flirtation when she was in love with Nikolas? Dear Goddess, what have I gotten myself into? Am I just another victim on Sophia’s list?
“Oh, you know Nikolas,” she said with a weak smile. “He is always concerned about his customers, and wants to ensure we have everything we need here.”
Jonas scratched under his beard. It turned her off almost immediately. Yet, outside a disgusting habit, he wasn’t a bad looking man. “Yes, Nikolas can be a bit obsessive.”
Suddenly, Lydia’s mouth and throat were very dry. She wished for a cup of water, but if she moved toward it, she would have to walk around Jonas Coyfield. Although he seemed harmless at the ball, he certainly didn’t care to hide his lecherous feelings for her. She couldn’t talk to him further. It was too hard. She swallowed dryly, thinking about her beautiful daughter in the hands of a man who called her father a horrid name. She had the desire to hook out his eyes with her fingernails. She resisted the urge. Perhaps he would go into the storage room and busy himself with the inventory and leave her alone. He did no such thing. He came behind the counter with her.
“I figure you need help up front. I don’t see how Nikolas could leave you alone so much, especially with a baby in tow,” he said mildly, pointing at the small crib where Keagan slept.
“I assure you, Jonas that I can take care of myself. I have for most of my life,” she said evenly.
He smiled and scratched his beard again. He must be proud of that ugly sprout. “Why isn’t a lovely woman such as yourself married? I assumed from the ball that Nikolas is courting you?”
It’s much more than that, you fool. “You could say that, but as of now, I’m unattached. Nikolas is courting me, but hasn’t asked for my hand.”
“Lucky son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath.
Although his comment was meant only for his ears, Lydia heard each word. At the ball, with his wife, he didn’t seem much of a pompous ass. Without her, his true colors showed. She wondered if Molly knew how he was with other women. It wasn’t just her, of that she was certain. Once more, she thought he was no better than a vagabond, those whom Sophia murdered without guilt. And Sophia wanted her to marry him, just to obtain custody of her daughter? What the hell was she thinking?
“I do know you, Lydia,” Jonas finally said.
“What do mean by that?” She had wanted to scream the question, but didn’t want to alert attention or wake Keagan.
“You’re related to the Aptons in some way,” he began thoughtfully. “Weren’t you thrown out the door of your father’s home?”
Angry now, she grasped hold of the counter so hard her knuckles were turning white. “I didn’t get thrown out, for your information, sir. I chose to leave. Nikolas asked me to be Keagan’s new nanny since he no longer needed a wet nurse. Whatever you heard is incorrect.”
He smiled; it was full of innocent mirth. Or so he thought. Lydia knew what lie there. “Your family are idiots. I was only stating what I thought was fact, until you decided to straighten me out. Thank you for clearing up that particular rumor.”
As it were, the rest of the day, Jonas left her alone. No one was more grateful for that than one Lydia Blount. How could anyone marry this man? He was a less psychotic version of her lycan cousin. What would happen if she told Nikolas about Jonas’ behavior and Sophia’s deal? She had been rolling it around in her mind since the night she caught Sophia trying to feed on an innocent woman looking for her son. Grace Lister’s son met the same fate as Nikolas’ stable boy. How could she kill so ruthlessly? It made her sick to her stomach. How she wished Nikolas would return.
He didn’t come back to the mercantile hours after it closed. Jonas had left earlier, not fearing at all for her safety as he first proclaimed. Lydia was soothing Keagan when she heard the rattle of the wagon wheels outside. The way the horses were laboring, it sounded like he had brought back tons of merchandise.
When he entered, she laid Keagan back into his bed and whirled on Nikolas. “What took you so long?”
Her voice was harsh but low. She didn’t want to get Keagan started again. “Lydia, what has been going on since the ball? You refuse to let me in, and I’m afraid something is going on that must not come to pass.”
She grabbed his arm and dragged him to the storage room. As fast as he was, the wagon had already been unloaded. They would take the wagon home with them. At the smell of Nikolas, Gerrit let out a low huff, waiting patiently for his master to let him finish another task. The other horse was new and had already fallen in love with him and the wolf. Nikolas had yet to name her.
“I’m not hiding anything,” she lied. “I think partnering with Jonas Coyfield was a mistake. I thought it would be good for you, for us. It isn’t.”
Lydia’s eyes were alit with a fire he had seen only in the most private moments between them in bed. He tried to pry her mind, but she was still effectively blocking him. “I know you’re hiding something from me. I can sense it, Lydia. What is it? Did Jonas do or say something that made you feel uncomfortable?”
His gaze was more intense than ever. Had she ever seen a look like this before? He was ruthlessly honest with her. Yet, she was hiding something in her mind, something she never wanted Nikolas to know. At the same time, she wanted to tell Nikolas everything that had transpired between her and Jonas today. She didn’t have the courage. Her lover would simply kill Jonas, leaving Molly Coyfield even more vulnerable. What in the world was she to do now?
“No,” she finally said. “It was something of a normal day. I just didn’t expect you to be gone so long.”
He kissed her forehead. “I haven’t fed properly in a very long time, so that’s what took so long. I didn’t intend to worry you.” He stood back and assessed his lover. There was more to it than she said. But what? “Lydia, I think there is more,” he said, voicing his thoughts.
She tightened her frame and glared at him. “Are you insinuating that I am lying to you?”
He shook his head tiredly. “No, Lydia. You’re not lying. You don’t have a dishonest bone in your body. I have the senses to read your mind if I wanted. Did you cast a spell on yourself? To make you invulnerable to my powers? I know you have that inside you. It’s your talent.”
Giving up the ruse, she sighed. “Yes, there are a few things I’m hiding from you so I won’t feel so incredibly terrible. They are ideas best left hidden. No one needs to know everything about everyone. Don’t you agree?”
Soberly, he nodded. “To a point. Although it may sound hypocritical, I am a bear for honesty. You know that. Eventually, I must know what is going on, because it feels ominous when I can read something.”
“You will find out soon,” she whispered. “Can we take Keagan and go home?”
Later, at the hotel, Sophia and Saul were eating together at the restaurant. Other patrons were scandalized that a woman with child would show herself so prominently. Having children was a joy, but one that was to be kept private. Sophia ignored the stares, imagining killing them where they sat, but she had to keep calm for now. Saul ate like the rustic bastard he was, tucking his napkin into his shirt instead of his lap, mopping up gravy with a buttered roll, and eating as if he had never had a meal in his life. She hated her husband most of all. At the right time, she would kill him without mercy. Feed on him; feed on anyone that crossed her path. No one could stop her. Her only vulnerability was silver. No one here knew anything of werewolves other than legends passed down from a silly ditty in France. She wasn’t sure it was a lycan. All she knew was that it was hilarious.
Her plate was barely untouched. She wasn’t hungry for this type of food. She could eat it, if she wanted. She had plans later. There were humans around the city just waiting for her to come along. It was only a matter of time. Usually, her marriage followed the same routine. They would have dinner, and then return to their room, where Saul often fell down drunk on the bed. He never knew when she left or returned. This was excellent timing for her. She could hunt, and tonight’s catch would be an amazing one.
Long after they went to bed, Lydia was cursed with insomnia. Tonight, they did not make love. Nikolas was tired and full. For the first time since they became lovers, she was happy that he hadn’t wanted her. Her mind might give way to the real feelings inside her. As silent as a lithe cat, she slid out of bed and began to dress.
Lydia met Sophia in the alley where Grace Lister almost joined her son as food. The two cousins stared at each other for a very long time before either spoke. Tonight was the one they both had been waiting for.
“The only reason I am going with you is to ensure you do not hurt Jonas or Storm,” Lydia said coldly.
Sophia rolled her eyes dramatically. “I told you no harm would come to the child or her adopted father. All you have to do is cast a spell on the wife, distract her, and I will feed on the gutter slut. Now, Cousin, if you trust me, let us go to my buggy. I would pick you up and run you over there, but I think it would be risky.”
During the trip to Riverbay, Sophia drove the carriage the whole way, whipping the horses mercilessly to get them to their destination as fast as possible. Both Nikolas and Saul would miss them. If Nikolas knew that she had made a deal with the devil, he would probably kill her. It didn’t matter anyway. Once Molly Coyfield was dead, her relationship with Nikolas would be over, and she would then give over to Jonas’ flirtations at the store.
Sophia parked the carriage a quarter of a mile away so as not to disturb the sleeping family. Both women departed it and Sophia glanced at Lydia. “If you don’t want to be hurt, you might stand back a few feet.”
Lydia did as she was told. She had seen a transformation before via Nikolas. She knew what to expect, but if she angered Sophia, she might slaughter the whole family.
Almost to the verge of amazement, she watched as a heavily pregnant woman gave in to her inner wolf. She threw back her head and clenched her teeth so she wouldn’t scream. Her body suddenly bowed backward as the corded muscles appeared from Sophia’s skinny arms. She tore away her fancy dress as her body elongated, then covered itself with hair out of nowhere. Her claws came in, her head began to expand while a snout appeared, and then the deadly teeth came in. Her long, dark hair seemed to disappear and fall back into her flesh. The last thing to come in, Nikolas had told her, was also the most painful after the muscles, were the ears. Her belly hung down, she had no tail, but otherwise looked like a wolf. Lydia wanted to run away screaming. However, a deal was a deal. She had agreed to this so she could raise her daughter.
Smarter lycans like Nikolas, and apparently Sophia, knew the people they associated with when human. There was recognition in Sophia’s animalistic eyes, silvery and impossible at the same time. Lycans could not speak, but they understood speech and other signs. Lydia said nothing to her. The she-wolf began to stalk slowly toward the house. She turned around once, holding out a long arm with razor sharp claws and gestured to her as if saying ‘come on.’
Lydia followed slowly, unsure if she wanted this to happen now. When the house came into sight, her courage began to return. She could do this. This was for her daughter. Like an obedient child, she followed her cousin to the house without comment. It was darkened. The house was sleeping. They would have to bypass the servants, but she was sure Sophia would take care of them as well.
Without caring whether she awoke anyone in the house or not, Sophia took her wolfen foot and kicked in the door as if it were nothing more than a match stick. Lydia stood her ground. This was no time to panic. The people inside were panicking plenty. She heard Jonas tell Molly to hide so he could pick up his shotgun. Downstairs, where the house servants slept, they approached the huge upright wolf. They were so stunned that they barely felt Sophia’s claws impale deep scratches in their faces. They fell dead before they knew it.
Lydia followed behind Sophia as she reached the bedrooms upstairs. One of which was where Storm slept. Sophia gave her a sharp look. It said: It’s time to do your share of the work. Lydia understood. Sophia allowed her to pass on the stairs, so she could shelter both Jonas and Storm from the horror to come. She did not want to see what Sophia did to Molly or any other person present. Mumbling to herself, summoning her powers, she cast out a protection spell for Jonas and Storm. The two of them would thankfully sleep through the attack, remembering nothing the next day.
She lingered by the room she supposed belonged to her daughter. The screams coming from the Coyfield bedroom scarred Lydia’s soul. She would never forget the sound as long as she lived. She heard muscles and tendons tearing, ripping, and Molly’s screams grew weaker, then weaker still. Suddenly, there was silence in the house. To keep their secret, she cast out another spell so that others within hearing distance would think they had all had the same dream.
She only moved when she heard Sophia’s heavy tread come out of the bedroom. Her wolfen fur was covered in blood. She quickly licked the last of Molly Coyfield off her body. The deed was done. The spell would be cast until morning. Jonas Coyfield would never know what happened to his wife.
Once they were both on the first floor, Lydia glanced at the murdered servants. “What about them?”
Sophia gestured with her hand, demanding that Lydia leave her alone. She intended to feed on these poor people who had never done anything wrong to her in their lives? Lydia ran to the carriage and cowered inside. Hearing the snapping of bones, the savage hunger was enough. If she never heard the sound again, she would be happy. Was it like this for Nikolas? Did he do the same with the animals he caught for food? How in the world could she live with herself now? Another thought, worse than any she had thought of the whole time Sophia ravaged the home assaulted her. What if Nikolas finds out I helped in this hellish deed? And he would. There was no question about it. She would lose her home and the man she loved. Again.
Lydia didn’t linger in the carriage. Instead, she pushed out the sound of Sophia feeding and ran. It was a long way home from Riverbay. She didn’t care. Not one ounce. If she had to watch Sophia return in bloody rags, she might lose her mind. After she ran for approximately two miles, Sophia caught up to her. She called Lydia’s name. Despite her feelings earlier, she looked at her. Unbelievably, she wore a dress that was completely free of blood.
Sensing the question in Lydia’s mind, Sophia asked, “Did you not think I would clean up and bring another dress?” She laughed lustily. “Do you think I’m insane?”
Yes, that’s exactly what I think. Lydia didn’t know how long this pact with the devil would play out. She was done. “I don’t know what I think, Sophia.”
“You can’t walk back. It is too far. Get into the carriage and I will drop you off in the woods close to the Tackett house.”
Lydia didn’t trust her. At the same time, if Nikolas awoke and found her gone, he would have questions. And she didn’t want to be the person to answer them. Against her better judgment, she climbed into the carriage.
When she arrived in the woods just off the way from the house, Lydia walked slowly toward it. The house was completely dark, so she hoped Nikolas was still asleep. If he wasn’t, she would still have to leave him in order to allow Jonas Coyfield to seduce her. She wouldn’t play hard to get, because she wanted her daughter. She would do anything to have her back in her arms. Even if Nikolas didn’t know tonight, he would know very, very soon.
Quietly, she entered the house. Everyone seemed to be asleep. She climbed the stairs, noticing every creak and crackle. In reality, it wasn’t very loud, to her, it sounded amplified by ten. It would likely sound the same to Nikolas if he happened to notice. She checked on Keagan as quietly as she could. The boy was flat on his back, his limbs twitching as if he were having a bad dream. Lydia didn’t go into his room. Instead, she crept to Nikolas’ bedroom. To her relief, and perhaps disappointment, he was completely asleep. She had tried to cast a spell on him, but with immortals, the idea was questionable. She wasn’t totally certain she had done it. Without thinking, she took off her clothes and climbed into bed beside Nikolas. He wrapped his arms around her, almost blindly. Once he discovered what she did, she would no longer be welcome in his home. She would accept whatever punishment awaited her.
Unbeknownst to the sleeping couple, Sophia had killed her husband before cleaning up again. She changed into a new outfit, one that was made of emerald green silk. Normally, she dressed very plainly, but tonight, everything was different. It was time to rid the world of Nikolas Tackett and his whore lover. After that was done, she would take Keagan and await the birth of her son. Secrets surrounded her, the kind that excluded her brother in-law. She couldn’t wait to see the fun unfold. There could be no witnesses to her crimes. Lydia would be easy to kill. She might have more trouble with Nikolas, but she was prepared.
What awoke both Lydia and Nikolas half an hour later was an inhuman shriek. Each sat up and looked at each other. Lydia swallowed a huge lump and harshly whispered, “Sophia?”
Although Nikolas had no issue with Lydia’s statement or instinct, but why would Sophia be in the woods beyond the property unless she had finally come for them? “You stay here with Keagan.”
“No, Nikolas, I’m coming with you,” she said, reaching for her wrapper. “If she defeats you, Keagan is as good as hers.”
He pulled on his pants without putting on his galleasses. They hung limply about his body. “She is too weak to defeat me. Remember, she is with child and will be as clumsy and as awkward if she shifts.”
The pleading in her eyes was hard to ignore. It had nothing to do with confronting Sophia. There was more, there was something else she was desperately trying to hide from him. “What have you done, Lydia?”
His fingers dug into her shoulders as he stared down at her. “Nikolas, I…”
They heard another agonized shriek, but for a moment, he ignored it. He knew he was hurting her, so he let up on the pressure. “Tell me!” It wasn’t a command, it was a demand. She damned sure would tell him before he dealt with Sophia.
There were tears rolling down her cheeks and his hold had loosened enough for her to pull away. “I think she’s in labor, Nikolas. Please let us go to her. Her baby might not survive.”
“We’ll go,” he said sharply, “but this conversation is not over.”
They left Keagan asleep in his crib, knowing he was safe. Nikolas didn’t believe Sophia was in distress. Yet, he knew she wouldn’t hurt the boy. She wanted him because he was a lycan. The two of them walked through the darkened woods, both carrying lamps along. The closer they drew to her, the sharper and louder her shrieks became. When they finally happened upon her, both noticed her ghastly party dress. She lay on her back, touching her abdomen, and screaming as if the demons of hell were on her feet. In her case, they probably were.
Without thinking, Lydia ripped away the bottom half of Sophia’s gown, her undergarments, and anything else that would hinder. Nikolas stepped backward. He wanted nothing to do with watching his evil sister in-law giving birth to the monster she so craved. Lydia didn’t notice him at first. As she tried to help Sophia, the she-wolf gnashed her teeth.
“Sophia, if you don’t let me help you, your baby might die,” Lydia barked sharply. “I am only trying to help you.” She glanced at Nikolas. He stood far back into the woods, holding his lamp, and looked quite stupefied. “Nikolas, I need your help. You must position yourself behind Sophia.”
He acted as if he didn’t want to do anything for Sophia. She had done this to herself, so it stood that she could birth her child alone. He looked at Lydia’s pleading eyes, and he was convinced. He did as Lydia asked, disgusted to be touching Sophia like this.
“When you feel pain, you must sit up and push,” Lydia said, more calm than Nikolas was.
She fixed her eyes on Lydia, they were filled with hatred, but she did as she was told. Nikolas, who had never seen a baby born, couldn’t believe his eyes. He kept his eyes closed the whole time. He knew what was wrong before Lydia figured it out. Sophia had shifted too much for too long. He said nothing about it. He allowed Lydia to help her bring her demon spawn into the world.
It took hours; the night was turning to dawn. It was still dark enough for the lamps to be necessary. Eventually, Sophia finished giving birth. She was weak and seemed much younger, vulnerable. Lydia had a bloody bundle in her arms. She looked at Nikolas, shook her head, and went down to her knees beside Sophia. The infant, a girl, had not survived the birth. There was no lycan mark on her body.
“Give me my boy,” she screamed.
“Sophia, your baby was human, but she didn’t survive the birth,” Lydia said gently. “I’m sorry. Do you want to see her?”
“She cannot,” Nikolas suddenly said.
Lydia watched in horror as Nikolas thrust his hand into Sophia’s chest cavity. He grabbed her heart, jerked upward, and pulled it out. Blood spattered everywhere. With the dead infant in her arms, she turned away and instinctively moved back. What were they going to do with the bodies?
As if hearing her thoughts, Nikolas said, “We must bury them immediately.”
Lydia noticed that the ire which had filled Sophia for her entire life, was now gone. Outside the huge hole in her chest, Sophia looked innocent, as if she had never done anything wrong. What a waste of two lives.
She stood back as Nikolas dug the grave. He worked fast with his hands, no shovel needed. In less than an hour, he had the grave ready. He couldn’t touch Sophia’s body. He kicked her into her resting place. She knew he was angry about Lydia’s dealings with Sophia. He didn’t know what they did, but he realized it was going to split them apart.
He turned on her suddenly, his body covered in dirt and blood. His eyes were the wild silver color they turned just before a transformation. “Put the baby in with her.”
His voice had never sounded so dead, so flat. Terribly nervous now, she approached the grave, shocked by Sophia’s dead, colorless eyes. She gently put the dead infant in the crook of her mother’s arm, and then stepped back suddenly, as Nikolas began to cover the grave. He was completely far away, on another plane in some other universe. He covered the unmarked grave as fast as he dug it. By then, he was completely filthy.
He looked at Lydia, whose wrapper was stained with Sophia’s blood. “Go back to the house with Keagan. I’m going to wash up in the river and we will continue our conversation. If you try to leave, I will find you. Do you understand?”
Lydia shook her head automatically. “I’ll be waiting.”
Telling a small lie, she rested Keagan on the ground. The baby hardly noticed. She cast a spell over the grave. When she finished, she took the baby back to the house. Then, instead of waiting, what Lydia did was pace the bedroom from one corner to the other. Before coming into the bedroom, she checked on Keagan, and it appeared as if he hadn’t moved an inch. She couldn’t say the same for his father. Lydia paced and looked up at the ceiling a thousand times. What she had done was wrong, morally, legally, and blithely. However, she had done it for Wakiza and her daughter. It wasn’t murder; it was saving her daughter from a life without her mother.
Nikolas entered the bedroom completely nude. Without a glance at Lydia, he dug out a clean night shirt and threw it over his head. When he looked at her, he saw that she had also cleaned up. Instead of wearing her shift to bed (or nothing at all), she was fully dressed. She sensed what was to come. Too bad she had waited until Sophia died giving birth on his property.
“I know you’re hiding something from me, Lydia. You are blocking it out from me, but I can read you well,” he said calmly. “Tell me what you did.”
Her back faced him. Slowly, she turned around to face him. “Sophia promised to help me with Storm.”
Nikolas approached her and placed his hands on her shoulders. “And then?”
His eyes were boring down into hers; trying to break through the block she had purposely set up. It was no use dancing about words. He knew what she did. He simply needed affirmation.
Lydia lowered her head in defeat. “I was with Sophia when she killed Molly Coyfield and their house servants. I put out a protection spell for Storm and Jonas. Everyone else perished. Sophia wanted to help.”
Her voice was so low, he could barely hear her. “What do you think she was doing coming back out here, Lydia? She was going to kill you, fight me, and try to take away my son. Do you realize you helped Sophia murder a good woman for you? Didn’t you realize there would have been strings attached? She wanted to drop your guard long enough to finish the job.” He turned away from her and slapped his forehead. “How could you?”
“I don’t want anyone to raise my daughter. Iwant to raise her, Nikolas,” she said weakly.
He whirled on her, forcing her to back up toward the bedroom window. “I thought you wanted me to help you. I would have, Lydia. I would have done everything in my power to have helped. Instead, you decided to help Sophia slaughter people to achieve your goal. Do you think Storm’s father would have approved of your motives?”
“Don’t use Wakiza against me!” She was no longer frightened. She faced him now, ready to defend herself. “Wakiza was a fighter, and he definitely would have approved of what I did, because he loved us both, Nikolas. Your way would have taken years. If you had told them Storm is my daughter, do you think they would have welcomed a visit? That they would have given her over to me?”
Her point was valid. Her methods were what gave him pause. “Murdering innocent people isn’t the way, either.”
“Nikolas, did you realize that Jonas Coyfield is a perfect letch? From the day you decided to partner with him, he has said and done inappropriate things. I know he wants me, and it won’t take long for him to make me his wife.”
Nikolas didn’t know how badly the night would become. What in the world was she talking about? “Are you telling me you’re with Jonas Coyfield?”
“Of course not!” Her words were sharp, almost a scream. “Now that he doesn’t have Molly, he will be looking for a wife. I intend for it to be me. I love you, Nikolas, more than you realize. You’re an immortal, I’m not, and you certainly don’t intend to share your eternity with me. All I have in this world is my daughter. What else do I have? Can you tell me?”
Nikolas ran his hand through his long, unruly hair. He had forgotten to tie it back when he heard the shrieks of his former sister in-law. A wind from the north was blowing in from the open window, and although it wasn’t yet harvest time, it was cold. Or perhaps, he had finally begun to understand what the cold actually meant and felt like. Either way, change was at hand, and he was not a man who adapted to it easily. Not until he met and fell in love with Lydia Blount. He was losing her and there was not a damned thing he could do about it. He watched as she slowly moved away from the open window. She was human, so of course the cold wind caused her more discomfort than he could ever experience.
Clearing his throat and flicking his hair out of his face, he stood where the wind would shield them both. He almost closed the window, but he wouldn’t. Not just yet. “Lydia, you had me. We had a plan. There is no reason to take human life. Yes, as you probably suspected, I have slain my fair share of humans. The guilt of that action, no matter how desperate I was, weighs on me, burdens me. I have never felt what it was like to be human. I did, however, feel their fear, their torture as I ate them the way humans eat mutton. If you had asked me the names of my human victims, I could list each and every one for you. I can see how this has put its scar on you, and it’s one that will never go away, Lydia. For the rest of your life, you will never forget what you have done. You are mortal and your agony will end someday. Mine will continue for an eternity. Do you know how much torture that is? You do already.”
“I trusted you, Nikolas, and I believed you when you said I could depend on your help,” she began tearfully, “but we were moving much too slowly. If I didn’t depend on Sophia for help, I don’t know how much I would have missed. Look how much I have missed already! I’ve had more time with your son than I have with my own child. It’s my burden to bear.” The last words from her mouth were spoken above a whisper.
It was completely clear to Nikolas. If she had convinced him to give her the curse of immortality, she wouldn’t have gone to Sophia. It was the thought of a child more or less. Give me what I want or I will find someone else. It was that thought which haunted him the most. There were rumors of war, reaching them here in territories that were not yet staked out by the colonial government. Perhaps he would send Lydia to Jonas Coyfield, let her have his son, and simply disappear. Yet, the simple thought of losing his son was enough to quash those thoughts. He knew how much Lydia wanted her daughter because he loved Keagan more than life itself. How far would he be willing to go if their situations were reversed? He shook his head for a moment as if to clear it. In fact, it wasn’t of the sort. He was almost…almost… beginning to understand her motives. Despite that, he couldn’t. Taking life was serious business, of which Lydia should not have dabbled. He loved her, but couldn’t forgive her, even if it was total hypocrisy on his part. What to do now? What to do? Constance, I once thought you sent her. I still do. Did you send her for the reasons I once thought or just to show me how improper your family truly is?
“Taking time to do the right thing, Lydia, would have gained you the same result Sophia granted you, without so much less murder. You simply don’t understand the ramifications of your behavior. Once it hits, your life will never be the same.”
She gazed up at him with her lovely eyes. In them, for the first time used against him, he saw hatred. “Nikolas, can you imagine what it feels like to lose your child? Can you imagine what it feels like to see her father strung up like a common criminal? Can you imagine living with that vivid scene in your head for the rest of your life? My father made me watch as he was hung. I had barely held my child before she was stripped from my arms. What would you have done? Would you have waited to make a move or would you have taken a chance?”
He took hold of her arms and lightly pushed her forward until her back was at the window, the cold north wind against her back. Glowering down at her, his teeth clenched, he said, “I would have chosen not to take a human life.”
Flinging himself away before he did something he could not later take back, he turned away from her, his back to her now. He could not look at her any longer. His disgust was evident on his face, and for a moment, he needed to gather his wits. If he didn’t, a meltdown was inevitable.
She stepped back from the window, turned around, and closed it. She was already cold and the wind was making it worse. She knew what was going to happen, so it was time for her to make the initial approach. “Nikolas, I have few belongings of my own outside my clothing. I think it best I pack everything and move into the boarding house in town.”
“I think it wise,” he said softly.“After I pack, could I bother you for a ride into town?”
He didn’t turn an inch to look at her. He couldn’t. “Ambrose will be here in a few hours. When you finish, he will give you a ride.”
“Nikolas, would you…”
He shook his head. “I have heard and seen enough, Lydia. I’ll give you time to make your leave, but for now, I need to be away from here for a while.”
“If that is how you would like it,” she said, tears choking her voice.
The words were spoken coldly, without emotion. She reached out to him weakly. He sensed the move and quickly pulled away before she could touch him. Her hand stayed suspended in air long after he left the house, slamming the door behind him downstairs. She buried her face in her hands and crumpled to the floor. Her only comfort was that very soon, her daughter would be in her arms.
Well after he was certain that Lydia had left the house, he went back home grudgingly, slowly. His son awaited him and he had faint hope that, perhaps, Lydia was still there. You dumb bastard. After your conversation you expect her to be waiting with open arms? He almost didn’t care anymore. He lost one love, survived, and would survive another. How many women are left to go through outside common street whores? LeVale was a small town compared to Riverbay, but it had a population of women who were willing to service a man for the right price. Unless Sophia killed them all. It was a cold thought, one as cold as his soulless body. It was time for change. Time to move
Other than the lusty cries of his cranky son, the house was quiet and still. Apparently, Lydia had done as he asked. He went upstairs, trying hard not to stomp up them, which would scare Keagan even more. He had messed with one too many lives this morning, and his son wasn’t one he was willing to lose. He looked down at his son with great love. If he had done the right thing, he would have ended his life, his lonely cursed life. Instead, he chose to keep him and raise him like Constance would have wanted. He lifted his son out of his bed, held him close, and allowed his heartbeat to lull the boy back to sleep.
Time passed as it seems to do for everyone. On the day after he sent Lydia out of his home, it was far too lonely. He relieved Ambrose and kept to himself most of the time. To keep Keagan from ever finding his mother’s grave, he went out and removed the heavy granite headstone, and buried it far away from where Sophia was laid to rest with her stillborn daughter. Nikolas wanted his son to know about his mother, but didn’t want him visiting her grave here, where so much pain had come to pass.
Later on, the constable visited, and told him that Sophia Apton-Utting was missing; her husband murdered. Apparently, on the same night, someone had murdered Molly Coyfield in Riverbay. Nikolas took to the news with the same apathy he used any time his sister in-law’s name was mentioned. Yet, he felt the impact of the news concerning Molly. Tears welled in his eyes. There was nothing wrong with Molly Coyfield. She was a plain woman, pretty in her own special way. Jonas didn’t deserve her. That he said without a qualm. He told the constable he hadn’t seen either Sophia or her husband for a few days. His answers were mostly the truth. The constable let him be when he said he should contact the Apton family. He said nothing of his involvement or the birth of her baby. For all he knew, Sophia Apton had never existed.
Her family, however, weren’t that easily swayed. They believed Nikolas without a doubt. Yet, he was grilled within a hair of aggravation by Gordon. It took all his effort to keep the wolf caged. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. After all, he had killed his sister not once, but twice. The death of the only male heir to the Apton business couldn’t die. Despite that, he definitely wanted to wring the bastard’s neck. There was no doubt about that. They left him alone after an hour or two. Finally. Peace.
Keagan turned two years old without incident. Nikolas went into town less and less, because on the very day of the boy’s birthday, Lydia became Mrs. Jonas Coyfield. Before their marriage, he sent Jonas a letter, telling him he was leaving Coyfield & Tackett in his capable hands. Whatever profits existed, all he need do was mail it to him. Lydia didn’t know, but he saw her with Storm on one of his rare forays into town. Storm was a lovely, dark child from the top of her head to the bottom of her feet. Her eyes were cute black buttons in a face shaped like Lydia’s with her father’s skin tone. Lydia looked very happy to be carrying the toddler against her hip. His heart ached when he saw her delicate face. No one would ever know she had helped murder Molly Coyfield. He hoped the guilt ate her alive. Nikolas tried hard not to hate her and love her at the same time, but it was impossible. For a moment, he wanted to call her name to show her how much Keagan had grown. Instead, he turned around and walked in the other direction. Yes. He was a coward. It was the last time he saw her for years. The money piled in and he continued to collect. On the days when he needed to feed, he would leave his son in Mrs. Carmichael’s care. He didn’t see LeVale, either. He certainly didn’t miss the town or the people.
When Keagan was thirteen, he prepared his son for the coming changes. The boy looked at him wonderingly, not wanting to believe the words, but nevertheless believing them anyway. There was absolutely no reason his pa would lie to him. Like a clock ticked, fourteen came whether Keagan was ready or not. As he had done for Sophia many years ago, he brought a deer carcass to the boy’s bedroom and laid it at the foot of his bed. His mortal body was in the process of dying, just as his and his forebears. Unlike Sophia, it took Keagan’s body much longer to make the transformation. Grimly, Nikolas sat in an antique chair and watched the process with an aching heart. His son was cursed for his father’s sins.
He didn’t bother transforming as he had done for Sophia to establish dominance. In size alone, Keagan was much smaller. He didn’t try to challenge his father. Although when the wolf took charge, the thinking process changed, Keagan knew his father was the dominate lycan. Without glancing at his father, his maker as it were, he attacked the deer savagely, as Nikolas had known he would do. After tonight, he would teach Keagan how to hunt and fend for himself in the new world developing around them. When he turned twenty, he could find his destiny. He certainly didn’t want him in the trading business.
As he grew, Keagan became lethal on the animals he hunted. Sometimes, he would toy with him, like a big cat. Nikolas often told him it was disrespectful to the soul of the animal feeding him. He would grow to appreciate it the moment he grew into his full lycan body. Now, he was just a child, acting as such. He hated watching his son turn into a hunter, a blood thirsty animal on the prowl like a tiger. At the same time, the boy made him proud with his smarts. He certainly couldn’t send an unstable lycan child to a regular school, so he had a tutor brought in to teach him the basics. All the while, he supervised the lessons. Keagan might turn on the teacher as he was not skilled in taming his inner wolf. Those lessons began after the tutor left.
By the time he turned twenty, Keagan finished growing all he could. After many lessons, he learned how to control himself and became obsessed with visiting the constable. Something about his work fascinated the young man. Nikolas discouraged his forays into LeVale, telling him to stay away from the family business. He always dismissed his father’s warning with an impatient wave of the hand, as if he were flicking at flies. His son had Constance’s spirit, but his looks mirrored him. It was funny how he always hoped Keagan would take after his mother in the way he looked. As an infant, he did resemble his mother. Or perhaps it was simply wish fulfillment. They could have been brothers rather than father and son. What was it about the law which transfixed him so?
A day came when Keagan announced his desire to leave LeVale and try to join a battery of the militia. The Colonial government was winning the so-called Revolutionary War. Keagan was eager to fight against the scourge. Nikolas didn’t argue with him. At least he was turning to something else other than the mercantile. He knew that Nikolas owned part of it and received half the profits. It was all he needed to know. He asked about his mother often. There wasn’t much Nikolas could tell him other than ‘she died giving birth to you.’ Her grave remained unmarked.
After giving his son a fierce hug, he allowed him to take a fresh horse, the first of many he would own in his eternity. Poor Gerrit had succumbed years ago. Both Tackett men cried about it. They were horse lovers. Nikolas stood back in the grove of trees behind the house and watched until Keagan was out of sight. When his son was a dot on the horizon, Nikolas made a decision. Perhaps it was time to close the house down. It held too many memories, too much pain. He wanted to be as far away from this place as he could get. After closing up the house, he tacked up his new horse, which he also called Gerrit, and rode away to a place where no one knew him.
Five years passed. Nikolas Tackett called a boarding house for men home. He spent some time drinking, more than he needed. What did it matter? He was in a seedy part of town, but he didn’t fear anyone. Where was he again? Violet Gardens? Green Landing? Alcohol blurred his sharp mind. He hadn’t fed in a few weeks, but it didn’t matter. Drinking helped with the hunger. As soon as he arrived here, he had sold Gerrit, and a courier rode out regularly with profits from the store. He would look at the money and wonder what Lydia looked like now. Her daughter was twenty-five, which meant she was around forty-five? Had she gained weight? Gotten silver in her light hair? It was best not to think about her, Constance, or the lot of them.
One fine, early misty morning, Nikolas brought out a chair from his room and carried it down to the covered porch. His leather pouch of raw whiskey was tucked comfortably in the inside of his coat. The weather had begun to get chilly these days. Winter would be upon them before they knew what was happening in the town that really had no name. He was the only man outside, usually three or four drifters lounged about, talking of going into unknown territories toward the west. Their speech was fevered, as if anything better awaited them. They would probably find another boarding house, try to fleece the woman running it, and then drink their ill-gotten gains just as they always done. He tried to get out early, because their tough talk bored him. They had no idea he could kill them all within seconds if they looked at him in any way he didn’t like.
What he had yet to realize, was that his son had returned to the house, looking for his pa. When he noticed the house had been closed up for what seemed like years, it broke his heart. It was still the same house he grew up in, the one he loved so much. The time away had hardened him. He no longer saw himself as Keagan Tackett any longer. He called for his pa several times before he realized that Nikolas was nowhere near the home place. He found his mount cropping grass at the front. She was snow white, given to him a year ago when his original horse had gotten killed. For no reason at all, to his conscious thought, he called her Lydia.
He climbed onto the mare and steered her toward LeVale. Perhaps Pa’s business partner would know where he had gone. He sighed as he approached the town. LeVale had changed since he left. The mercantile seemed larger, as if Jonas Coyfield had bought another building for their goods. Perhaps he had. He reined in, stopped Lydia, and tied her to a nearby post. He patted her head on the way in. Like his father, he found that each horse reacted differently to him. This one obviously loved him back.
When he entered the building, a bell above the door gave an annoying jangling sound that hurt his ears. A beautiful older woman with white hair stood gaping at him. She did so for so long, he thought something was wrong with her. “Ma’am?” He said uncertainly.
Her look hadn’t changed. The eyes goggled, her mouth hung open. “No, ma’am,” he said. “I’m his son.”
She immediately hardened. He sensed something was off with her. He was trying to delve into her mind, but somehow she had the ability to block him. This was new. “Oh,” she uttered, “Keagan. My. I haven’t seen you since you were a very young boy.”
Her words were spoken without much emotion. “I prefer Lynch now,” he said.
There was a piece of cloth against his neck, which made him stand out more than others. He looked like his father, but had Constance’s eyes. It was disturbing her greatly. “Lynch, then.” She didn’t bother asking about how he came to be called that. Instead, she tentatively asked, “How can I help you?”
“I would like to find out where my father is. I went to the house, but it was locked up, and Pa wasn’t on the grounds.”
He wore no hat. His hair was longer than average, tied back with a hank of rawhide. Deer maybe? “I haven’t seen Nikolas around for a very long time.”
Hearing a male voice, and viciously jealous, Jonas Coyfield came hobbling out of the store room. A fall had hurt his leg and it never returned to normal. “Your pa is no longer a resident of LeVale.”
Lynch flashed his eyes toward the letch. He could read him clearly. He thought the younger man was looking at his wife. He had no interest in the woman, only in finding his father. “I know that, Mr. Coyfield. I’m looking for him.”
“He lives out at Green Lake now,” Jonas said stonily.
“Green Lake?” Lynch said, surprised. “That is three counties east of here.”
With another mistrustful look, Jonas threw a packet of cash toward Lynch. “When you visit your daddy, give him this. It will keep me from paying for a courier.” He didn’t like this man’s way of dress or his defiant stance. This type of man had no business being here. He thanked God Storm wasn’t here.
Lynch nodded and grabbed the packet from the bastard standing quite close to his woman now. He didn’t understand the way she looked at him. There was something wrong with this, but the woman wasn’t letting him in. Maybe Pa could tell him. “Thank you, Mr. Coyfield. I’ll be on my way now.” He nodded toward Mrs. Coyfield. “Ma’am.”
With the young man who could have almost been Nikolas Tackett’s twin was out the door, Jonas returned to the store room. “The next time a man comes in here when we’re alone, would you please yell at me and let me know next time?” He bellowed from the store room.
Lydia jumped as if a ghost touched her. Perhaps one had. One from her past, a man whom she still loved. “All right, Jonas. I doubt very much he meant any harm.”
“I don’t want that man near our daughter!” He bawled.
“Yes, Jonas,” she whispered glumly, desperately wanting to look after Keagan. For the first year of your life, I was your mother. And he didn’t recognize me. The latter thought bothered her more than any today.
Before he made his way out to Green Lake, he saw a young woman step into the mercantile. Her hair was long, black, and flowed freely past the middle of her back. He didn’t have to see her to know that her eyes were the same color as her hair. Vaguely, he wondered who this beautiful creature was. Was she the Coyfield’s daughter? Would he see her again if she were? His heart lurched in his chest. Shaking it off, he went to Lydia, mounted, and began the long journey to find his father.
Nikolas was grateful that he was the only man sitting on the porch with his pouch of elixir. Warily, he looked out with his ancient eyes when he heard the sound of hoofs hitting the muddy road at a high level of speed. He expected it to be another drifter wanting a place to stay. This time, it was different, the rider was a good five miles away and instantly, he realized it was his son. How in the world had Keagan found him here? He had never expected to see him again. After all, he was gone for five years. Nikolas assumed he had gotten killed with the militia some way. Although their kind was hard to kill, there were ways.
As the rider drew closer, it was, indeed, his son. He hadn’t aged, of course. Lynch’s assessment of his father was much different. The drink was strongly attached to him. He hadn’t aged, either, but his hair, unkempt for so long had grown almost down to his buttocks, and appeared to be in a tangled mess. What had happened to the man who gave him life? Where had he gone five years ago?
Lynch noticed that Nikolas didn’t try to walk over for a greeting. It was the drink. Lycans and any type of spirits didn’t quite mix so well. His horse was well trained, so he dismounted and approached his filthy drunkard father. “I made it back, Pa,” he stated simply, emotion touching him, making his voice sound even deeper.
Nikolas scrutinized his son for a very long time. Oddly, he wore a piece of material around his neck that wasn’t befitting of a working man. It resembled the cravats of the aristocrats. There was, however, nothing aristocratic about his son. His hair was long, tied back with the dried hide of a deer. The parts of his body visible were a deep brown; his eyes were shaded by a militia issued hat.
“This area is for no one, Keagan. If I were you, I would go into the territories to the west. I think you would be much happier there.”
“I don’t answer to Keagan any longer, Pa.” He pointed to the tie around his neck. “I was nearly lynched for treason. Falsely, of course. After my name was cleared, my fellow militiamen began calling me Lynch, as a term of endearment. I prefer it. It was actually a tribe of Natives who cut me down, gave refuge, and then helped me prove my innocence.” He threw a thick packet of money over to his father. “This is from the Coyfields.”
Nikolas blinked up at his son stupidly in the sunlight as he grabbed the packet. It was as if he hadn’t heard anything his son said. He had gone to the mercantile? He pondered for a moment whether or not Lydia might have said something. He hoped she had not. When he mentioned a ‘tribe of Natives,’ he immediately thought of the name Wakiza. He wanted to ask what tribe. What did it matter now? “Why did you go there?” He asked without taking his eyes off his son’s shaded ones.
Lynch took off his hat and stuffed it indifferently into a knapsack. “I went home first, noticing after quite a search that you had locked up the house and weren’t on the grounds at all. I assumed the Coyfields would know where you were. Very strange woman, Mrs. Coyfield. As soon as she saw me, she called me Nikolas. Did you know her?”
Nikolas looked away from him for several minutes while he took out his pouch and drank. Damned thing was almost empty. Still keeping his eyes averted, he finally answered. “Only briefly when I partnered with Jonas Coyfield.”
“Pa, you are not being honest with me,” Lynch said carefully. “She had her mind closed like a steel trap. When people can do that, it usually means they have gifts.”
Shrugging, Nikolas put away his pouch and turned a skeptical eye on his son. For a while, she helped take care of you. She probably noticed the family resemblance,” he said with a hard chuckle. “I do not want you using your talents on unsuspecting people like that, Son. It isn’t right.”
“I wanted to know the connection, Pa,” he explained. “Why are you here, drinking, wasting your life, your mercantile all the way here in Green Lake? You have a beautiful house, a thriving business, and I do not believe it’s fair.”
“Always wanting to do the right thing? I don’t care to set foot in LeVale or the mercantile again. I strongly advise you to do the same. You’re here, so some of this money belongs to you. I just don’t want you to waste your life.”
“I don’t consider the family business as wasting my time. I know being who we are, what we are, we can’t live in a small town without people turning a suspicious eye to us. If you don’t want to go back to LeVale, you can simply sit here, drink, and I can take your place.”
Lynch’s words were sensible, logical, but right now, Nikolas was anything but logical. He didn’t need to understand who Lydia was to him or how they wound up losing their hold on love. There was no way he wanted his son to suffer like this. Falling in love with a human was pointless, because they were not hungering after humans. He wouldn’t have that. “I don’t like that idea, Keagan.” When his son raised his hand, Nikolas shook his head. “Sorry, I meant Lynch. You are a young man, and there are many opportunities out there for you. Don’t tie yourself down to LeVale. If you do, you will learn to regret it.” Especially when you see how beautiful Storm Coyfield is, and I can tell you have seen her just by the shine in your eyes.
The younger Tackett shook his head. “I have seen parts of the world, which I never want to experience again, Pa. I know you have seen and experienced more, but it’s time for me to come home.”
A hard chuckle escaped him right before a low belch escaped his mouth. “Go home, then,” he challenged. “LeVale has a way of making you soft in the head. You go on, Lynch. I’ll be staying right here in Green Lake.”
Disgusted with his father, disgusted with his appearance, he approached his father within a blink of an eye. Pa was on his feet, clearly six inches away from his son in half a second. Lynch lifted his father off the ground. The other man was dangling eight inches off the ground. Lynch’s silver eyes glinted with mirth and he growled deeply from within his chest. “Get cleaned up, because you’re returning home with me. You don’t have to interact with the Coyfields. You won’t let me touch that part of your mind; it is buried far too deeply. You won’t tell me where my mother is buried. You have that hidden even more deeply. Clean up your disgusting ass and ready yourself to go back to LeVale.” He abruptly released his father. Nikolas thumped to his feet like a sad sack of potatoes.
“You ever do that again, Son, and I will show you who the father is here,” he said between clenched teeth.
“Pa, I don’t mean any disrespect,” he said, lowering his head momentarily. “I want you to reclaim what is yours. Do you still have a mount? Or will you ride double with Lydia and me?”
The name hit him hard. For the first time since Lynch appeared, he noticed the snow white horse. The mare was the same color as Lydia’s fine hair. Perhaps he remembered more than he thought. Nikolas shook it off. “I can buy a mount. You can have my old job, collecting goods. It will give you time to feed. Just do not expect me to set foot inside that building.”
Lynch nodded his agreement. “Pa, as soon as you clean up, you should feed. It appears that you have not fed in quite some time.”
“I haven’t. I haven’t cared to. I’m sorry, Lynch. I wish I had not failed you or your share of the family business,” he said quietly.
“No need to apologize, Pa. Just come home and open Tackett House Manor again.” He watched the emotional weather wreaking havoc on his face. Although they were technically the same age, he seemed as ancient as he truly was. What had been thrown at him so badly? With the exception of his father, he could read anyone’s mind as long as they didn’t know how to block him.
Nikolas surveyed the area around him with a weathered eye. He had never told anyone how old he was, even Lydia. He remembered the day he transformed for the first time. How scared he was. That had been in the 1400s. Slowly, as if arthritic, he stood, stretched, and wished for another nip of whiskey. “I’ll go back to the house, Lynch. Just don’t ask me to follow you to the mercantile. If you do, you will be wasting your time. I want nothing to do with the Coyfields.” He didn’t want to tell him about Lydia, as he was the type of lycan that wanted his progeny to learn his own lessons. “And I advise you stay away from their daughter. If you touch her, her father might try to kill you.”
Lynch studied his father. A tight feeling squeezed his heart. What if the girl he saw was the Coyfield daughter? This thought he blocked effectively from his father’s probing mind. “He might try, Pa, but we Tacketts are hard to kill.” He fingered the piece of cloth around his neck. “Better have tried.”
“If we’re going, let’s get on the trail. It’s not safe to travel at night around here,” he said.
“I’m sure no one will try to do anything. If they do, we have a way to protect ourselves,” he said with a smirk.
Nikolas flicked Lynch’s right ear. “As I thought. You are still green back there.”
By the time they arrived at the house, it was almost dawn. Both men were tired, their thighs aching from riding so long. While Nikolas opened the house to its occupants, Lynch agreed to feed and water the horses. They were just as tired.
Although his father had already disappeared in the house, Lynch took a leisurely walk around the property and observed the trees behind the house. All of them had grown significantly. How? With no one to tend them? Nature had a way of surprising him.
There was no need to feed, as they had done so on the way back. He had been impatient and he was equally hungry to look at his home, his birthplace. Where had Pa hidden his mother’s grave? Why would he do such a thing? Although Nikolas had this house built for his wife, he said every Tackett would be buried here. He couldn’t read the dead, of course, so channeling Constance Tackett was harder than he thought. He strolled over the grounds until the sun began to rise.
He stood back and watched. After being falsely tried, then hung by the neck, he considered himself lucky that he was saved by a group of people the colonial government hated. They were different, much like him, and perhaps had sensed his dilemma. He couldn’t die, even if hung by the neck. Fire and silver were the only weapons people could use against his kind. Fire was easy, but obtaining tons of silver was not. Maybe someday, silver could be readily had to control the animal urge.
After the sun finished its spectacular rise, he walked back toward the house slowly. By the time he entered, he realized his father had removed the dust covers from the furniture. He climbed the stairs slowly, so many memories flooding back. However, the name Lydia danced on his tongue. He then understood that Nikolas had passed out, dressed in his filthy clothes. He internally sensed his son lingering, so he blocked him out, rolled over, and snored. Whatever secrets his mind held, Lynch would never know them. Filthy and tired himself, he didn’t bother cleaning up before he fell to a bed.
Lynch woke up early, washed up (using three pots of water to finish the job), he tacked up his horse, and rode into LeVale. By the time he arrived at the mercantile, Jonas was just arriving with the beautiful young girl he saw not long before he found Nikolas. Stay away from his daughter. Why did he care? He followed closely, and when the girl noticed a presence behind her, she turned and gazed into his eyes. They were black, probing, kind, and held him hypnotized. He knew from the way she watched that he held her interest as much as she held his.
During the next few months, Lynch did the merchandise runs that Nikolas had done before him. Although Lydia Coyfield surprised him with her power, she couldn’t meet his eyes, because she reminded him so much of Nikolas. Pa never answered questions about his past, never telling him where Constance was buried. Whatever the case, none of it mattered. He and Storm Coyfield were in love with each other. They kept their relationship a secret from everyone, even Nikolas.
When the run was complete, and Lynch had fed (bringing meat to his father), he saw that Storm was in the store with her parents. Lynch pretended to leave, as did Storm. When he closed up shop for Jonas, he reached Riverbay within a few moments. The house was quiet and dark. He saw the figure of Storm, climbing out her window. He called out to her silently and he caught her with finesse. He drove them to their favorite spot.
It was with great restraint when he sat with her under the starlit night. She gave him a glance that set him on fire. She wanted him, he wanted her. He knew there was a great chance he might bite her. His father warned him about this very thing. He couldn’t pass up this chance. He wanted Storm to be his wife. His only obstacles were Lydia and Jonas Coyfield. If they made love tonight, she could become with child as well. There were so many emotions running through his brain. Restraint failed, they made love under the stars, and he remembered his canine teeth scratching her shoulder.
After, Lynch was wracked with guilt. He had remembered the moment of his climax. His eyes had gone silver, his canines elongated, and he scratched her. At the same time, he was elated that they had finally consummated their love. He told her he loved her and asked for her hand in marriage. When she said yes, he told her what he was and what he had done. Storm didn’t care. She had always believed he was different. Her mother told her that nature had its share of peculiarities, and she had suspected all along that Lynch was an immortal. The scratches he left with his teeth hurt, not as much as when her maidenhead was broken, but she knew she would experience great pain. Yet, it also meant she could live happily as Lynch Tackett’s wife for eternity.
Several weeks passed. After having a natural death, Storm saw everything differently with her lycan eyes. She did not become a crazed blood thirsty werewolf, as Lynch told her that as long as she killed animals for food, she wouldn’t thirst for humans. He was right. She didn’t. They intended to tell their parents very soon of their marriage.
During the time that Lynch and Storm were expressing their love for each other, a messenger sent Nikolas a letter. He didn’t expect to hear from anyone. He knew it had to be from Lydia. Temptation goaded him, making him feel as if he should burn it. However, he read it right away. It was from Lydia. She wanted to meet with him tonight at a neutral location. He knew the place, but he had no idea why Lydia would want to see him now. He wanted to see her, but didn’t at the same time.
Nikolas arrived at an old barn where he stored excess merchandise when he was still running the business. The doors stood wide open, so he knew this wasn’t a trick. Lydia was inside, waiting for him to appear. He climbed off Gerrit (the third) and slowly walked toward the barn. Inside stood Lydia and her daughter, Storm. He couldn’t believe what time and a marriage to Jonas Coyfield had done to the woman he once loved. Face it, you still love her. He did. Her silvery hair was touched with gold here and there, along with lodes of bluish-gray. She looked every bit of her forty-five years. There were wrinkles on her face, making it appear creased. Her middle had begun to thicken. On the outside, she looked every bit of an aristocrat’s wife. Inside, she was rotten, so much so that a smell had invaded his olfactory cavity. Then he understood. She was dying. Nikolas was heartbroken at the thought, but he couldn’t feel anything but scorn after she helped Sophia murder innocent victims.
Storm Coyfield looked nothing like Lydia. Obviously, she was the carbon copy of her father. He wondered if Wakiza’s tribe, so entrenched with spirit animals, had been the ones who saved his son from hanging for all eternity. Storm was beautiful with long black hair cascading down to her hips. Her father likely made her tie it up during the day. At night, this was the way she looked. She was wild and free, like his son. Then another scent caught on the air flowing in the barn. She was immortal. Lynch had broken a promise. He had fallen in love with the wrong girl.
Lydia looked at Nikolas with wounded eyes. “I haven’t much time on this plain of existence. I know you sensed it. I also know you sensed what has become of my daughter.”
Storm wrenched her arm out of Lydia’s. “Mama, you don’t understand. I love Lynch, he loves me. Whether you like it or not, I’m going to marry him,” she shot back at her mother.
Nikolas moved somewhat closer to Storm so she couldn’t leave the room. “Storm, your mother is dying. I know you can sense it if my son has done what I think he has,” he began, “your mother loves you, but something is wrong with Jonas Coyfield.”
Before Storm could tell him anything, he held up a hand defensively. He told her everything about his past and Lydia. It was hard for her to separate the facts from fiction. However, why would either of them lie so extravagantly to keep her away from Lynch? She didn’t know what to say or how to say it. “Does Lynch know any of this?” Suddenly, she was angry with her mother. “How dare you lie to me, Mother!”
The words were hurtful. The use of the word ‘mother’ rocked her as well. From the time she married Jonas until now, it was always ‘Mama.’ Using the other word was enough to make her feel like dying right this instance. It made her sound like a mere stranger. “Storm, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t tell you until now. I want you to be happy. I really do. If your father finds out…”
Storm whirled on her mother. “He is not my father and never will be again!”
She started out the doors of the barn. Before she was successful, Nikolas grabbed her arm and dragged her back. Her eyes turned silver and she literally growled at him. He growled back, cowing the girl for the time being. He stalked toward the open doors and shut them, shooting the bolt for good measure. He didn’t notice the slight burn he received from the latch. His senses were tainted by liquor and anger. This would become a fatal flaw. He sensed that Storm was a young lycan, without the strength to burst through the doors. If his son happened upon them, he could.
“Your mother loves you, Storm,” Nikolas said softly. “She went about a terrible ordeal to be. She is your mother and gave birth to you. We should send the two of you away immediately, before Jonas finds out.”
“Nikolas, there’s more,” Lydia said quietly.
While Storm stood by, confused with their exchange and still angered. What did ‘more’ mean? She understood neither of them approved, but suddenly she felt as if they had forgotten she was in the room at all.
“What is it, Lydia?”
Nikolas searched her eyes for the truth as he didn’t believe she would speak the words out loud. She was dying, so it was time to confess her other sin. He read in her that she had cast a spell over Sophia’s grave. Not only to save her soul, but for another reason that was utter blasphemy. She had, in effect, had given Sophia the ability to rebuild her heart and come out of the ground she had poisoned with her evilness.
He sighed. “Lord God, Lydia. No,” he whispered.
They were all distracted and did not know that Jonas watched from a viewpoint that none of them could see or feel due to the poisonous drama. He knew his wife was with Nikolas Tackett. He hadn’t seen his daughter inside or an approaching Lynch Tackett. If the young lycan had seen the man, he could have avoided centuries of pain.
The trio was arguing when they smelled kerosene. Jonas Coyfield was one step ahead of the pack. The barn was on fire, the heat welding the door shut. Both Storm and Nikolas tried to burst through. They realized that no matter how strong or how much speed they possessed, it was too late. Nikolas noticed that the latch was laced with silver. How did they not see that? How had they not sensed it? It was the human emotion creeping in, distracting them. The three of them huddled together as the flames from a hot fire consumed them all.
Lynch saw the fire and his heart dropped. Not only was Storm inside, but so was his father. There was a third person, but he was blocked. That meant it was Lydia Coyfield. Anger consumed him as much as the fire consumed the woman he loved. He threw himself off the horse and allowed the wolf to take over. His lycan eyes fixed on a figure four feet away, safely from the flames. It was the figure of a man, one who laughed as if he had heard the funniest joke of his lifetime. The wolf understood. It was a human, prey. Jonas Coyfield.
Not understanding that he had murdered his daughter as well as his philandering wife, Jonas continued laughing until the sound was cut off. A small ‘oof’ escaped him as something seemingly weighing a ton hit him square in the chest. His head hit the hard pan dirt. He looked up to see what appeared to be a wolf on top of him. It was dark brown with silver eyes, its mouth open revealing long sharp teeth. He closed his eyes when it roared at him. The noise was deafening. Obviously, he was hallucinating or paranoid. Wolves didn’t come into town anymore. Then the wolf raised his body, giving Jonas a better view. It was the wolf who did this, to show the murderer what he was seeing before his death. Jonas saw, he didn’t understand.
The body holding him down was that of a man and a wolf. Every part of his body was that of a man, but it had the head, teeth, and deadly sharp claws of a wolf. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He wouldn’t get the chance. Jonas Coyfield, who had murdered Nikolas Tackett, his wife, and lycan daughter would die tonight. Lynch didn’t care about the tenants taught him by his father. Tonight, humans were his prey. Before Jonas had a chance to react, Lynch dug his claws deeply into Jonas’ throat. He was killed instantly. The human inside him laughed. Before he left the body, the wolf fed. It was the finest meat he had ever tasted. He would learn that those who are inherently evil taste the best. Guilt would come later. For now, he didn’t care.
In the early 1850s, Lynch had found peace and possible help. After that, he had a strong desire to be a law man. He had always been interested in it, but never pursued it. When he buried the remains of his father, lover, and Lydia Coyfield on Tackett land, he lost his mind for quite some time. Although he was taught never to take human life, if he sensed they were evil or hurting other humans, he fed on them. He picked up his father’s penchant for drinking, and damned near floated face down for days. A woman, whom practiced the same type of paganism that Lydia did, showed him how to control his impulses. He drank the solution she gave him and he felt more human than he ever would be. He took the elixir with him.
Just before the war of secession began, he was recruited by the Pinkertons. He had no desire to fight for either the North or the South. He didn’t identify with either group. He knew slavery was wrong, and the South would be punished enough in later years. As a Pinkerton agent, he carried a badge, earned respect, and kept the wolf in control. Eventually, he would meet with the future, and as a man of the law now, he could hardly wait.