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The Immortal Beside Me

By Cruecial All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Fantasy

The Complete Story

THE IMMORTAL BESIDE ME

THE LIFE AND TIME OF NIKOLAS TACKETT, A RELUCTANT WEREWOLF

BOOK I

© 2015 by R.M. South

Dedicated to my sisters, several of whom are from other mothers. I thank everyone who believed I could truly write.

THE BIRTH OF A WEREWOLF

CHAPTER 1

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 back, wiping 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.

CHAPTER 2

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.

“Sophia…”

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.”

“Of course.”

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.

CHAPTER 3

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.”

“Of course.”

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.”

CHAPTER 4

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.

CHAPTER 5

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. 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.

CHAPTER 6

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.”

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 inthe 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?”

“A witch?”

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.”

CHAPTER 7

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.”

“Lydia…”

“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…”

“Constance?”

“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.”

“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.

CHAPTER 8

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. I allowed 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.”

CHAPTER 9

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 hypocritical.

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.

As it were, 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.”

“Nikolas…”

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. I want 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.

“It is.”

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.

CHAPTER 11

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 on.

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.

“Nikolas?”

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.

THE IMMORTAL BESIDE ME

THE LIVES AND TIMES OF A MODERN WEREWOLF

KEAGAN “LYNCH” TACKETT

OFFICER OF THE LAW

BOOK II

© 2015 by R.M South

CHAPTER 1

Keagan “Lynch” Tackett was in trouble. He had been placed in a chair, his hands cuffed behind his back. From the burning sensation he felt on his skin, he assumed they were made with a special silver alloy. He was stripped from the waist up, which showed the many scars scattered about his body. Lynch’s feet were bare. The parts of his body exposed were covered in sweat. He supposed this was part of the deal. The room where he was held captive was a fairly large basement, probably at least nine hundred square feet. Of course, he actually wasn’t in the right place or had the proper time to measure it. There were materials in here that normally belonged in a lab, such as chemistry equipment, slides, microscopes, lab coats, etc. It seemed like the perfect scene for a horror movie.

He eyed the two people standing before him. One was male, standing approximately six feet six with light blond hair that had just begun to thin. He looked to be in his early fifties, but his age was almost impossible to tell in his timeless face. His cheekbones were highly set on his face, giving him a distinct Nordic look. His eyes were ice blue, nearly translucent in color. If one stared into them long enough, that person just might go crazy. He wore an old fashioned set of spectacles that seemed as if they were from another time. The other person in the room was female. She stood much shorter than the man, at least by a foot. Her hair was shoulder length, very light blonde, and fell in thick waves down her back. Her hair would be a problem later; she should have tied it back. She just hadn’t thought that far ahead. Her eyes were the same shade of blue as the man’s. The two of them could have been brother and sister. The only exception was her facial structure. She had delicate features, not prominent cheekbones like her male counterpart.

Lynch thought at one time or another, he knew the names of these people. His memory was failing him at a geometric rate. He was beginning to forget his own details, his name, his age, where he lived. It was an unbalanced feeling, one very uncomfortable. He couldn’t help it. Right now, he didn’t care. He wanted free of these bonds so she could take care of the two people bent toward torturing him.

He began to struggle against his bonds until the metal burned his wrists. He tried to give them a harsh curse, but it seemed his vocal cords did not want to work. He couldn’t speak or think of any words to properly describe what he felt. The tall man watched him as the woman went to a small refrigerator sitting nearby. His eyes made out several syringes within the fridge. Vaguely, he wondered what the hell they were doing. She took one and squirted out some of the clear liquid inside. As soon as he saw that she was nearing him, his struggle increased tenfold. He didn’t know who she was or what she intended to do. What he did know was there was no way she was injecting him with whatever filled the inside of that syringe.

Snarling, he spat and fought. Snarling? What the hell? Since when did he snarl? The more he struggled against the bonds, the sicker he felt. What was happening to him? Would anyone ever explain it? The female drew closer and closer with the syringe until she was upon him. He snapped at her, bloodying his bottom lip in the process. Quickly, surely, she took the syringe and inserted the needle into the big vein in the bend of his elbow. When her chore was done, she stood back with the man and watched cautiously.

“Do you think it’s going to work?” She asked worriedly.

The man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I don’t know. We’ll see soon enough. He responded quickly the last time we had to change the formula.”

After a painstakingly twenty minutes or so, Lynch’s respiration slowed, his heart rate dropped, and the sweat stopped pouring down his body. He watched as the man smiled and the woman began to shed a few tears. It took a moment for him to realize he knew who they were. The man was Andy Hoff and the woman Jenna Vos. Although he had seen Lydia Coyfield three hundred years ago, he didn’t understand or would ever comprehend that Jenna Vos was the mirror image of a woman long since dead. Was his attraction to her from the burnt ashes of his pa’s heart?

As a precaution, Andy and Jenna left Lynch shackled to the chair until they were certain the compound had done its job. This was part of the process as well. He remembered now. His name was Keagan Conner Tackett, known as “Lynch” to his friends and co-workers. He was certain that vampires didn’t exist. Lynch couldn’t say the same about lycanthropes. He had a good reason for denying one while believing the other existed. After all, he was a lycan or werewolf on his bad days.

The couple he thought was hurting him was actually trying to help him. They were his caretakers. Out of the two, Jenna was the scientist. She created the compounds that kept him from fully transforming into his lycan form. Without it, he had the potential to cause a lot of harm to many people. Andy took care of his personal needs while serving as one of his closest confidants. Of course, Jenna served in that capacity as well. Still, there were just things men needed to tell men. Both Jenna and Andy conducted extensive research on the proteins and enzymes to use as a way to keep him in check. If the circumstances weren’t so tragic, the way they went about it so cautiously might have been pretty damned funny. They asked delicate questions, kept their work private, and if asked, lied shamelessly.

When meeting people, Lynch told them he was thirty-five years old, when in fact, he was much older. His birth occurred over three hundred years ago. He had a regular life, normal job, and carried on as any human would. What type of work did he do? Well, according to myths, legends, and popular horror flicks, he should have been out in the woods, kidnapping virgins for which to snack. That certainly wasn’t the case. He was a Detective First Grade at the LeVale Police Department. Thinking about what he did, it actually wasn’t a normal job for a lycan. He had always been drawn to law enforcement, long before the two words had been spoken. His strong sensitivity led him toward resolutions to crimes when other police departments would have remained stumped. All his life, he had held some type of position where his best talents lay. He, Jenna, and Andy lived in a south central state that had long, cold winters and even longer, brutal summers.

As far as he knew, he was the only immortal on the planet. Centuries ago, his father said one immortal would know if another existed. This theory had been overused numerous times in horror movies, but Lynch knew this statement to be one of two in a cauldron of lies. The other was silver. He was ultra-sensitive to it. Silver wouldn’t kill a lycan unless it was used in copious amounts. The point was, immortals just knew. Besides that, no one had sought him out. Perhaps it could have had something to do with his sparkling personality or lack thereof.

Whatever the case, Lynch had become immune to one compound and Jenna had had to create another. Since he had gotten his senses back, he supposed the new one was going to work. For how long? He didn’t know. Whenever they ran out of ideas, Jenna and Andy were instructed to shackle, kill, and burn his body.

For years now, Jenna had asked him to give her an immortal kiss so that he wouldn’t be on the planet alone, and to prevent his eventual death. He couldn’t do it. She was a good girl, terribly confused, but good. He wished he could say that the urges of the flesh went away with time. They didn’t. Two immortals were unable to reproduce. Two dead things couldn’t make a life. Lynch came to be because his mother was a lycan and his father was human. Although Jenna could technically carry his child, he wouldn’t put her through that. She deserved to have a life, be a wife, and a mother; all the things good girls do. She definitely did not deserve the curse of immortality.

Andy and Jenna were what southerners called ‘shirt-tail’ relatives. The two belonged to families that had assisted him since a traumatic event forced him to kill humans, something strictly against the rules of life his father taught him when he was fourteen years old. Before the Vos family became involved, the Hoffs were steadily in his life in some form or another. Andy tried to pass himself off as a servant, a house man. In actuality, he was the brains behind the entire operation and knew everything about immortals that would turn some people’s hair white. If Jenna couldn’t find what they needed, Andy always could.

After such a dramatic experience, Lynch was fully back into his human form now. Jenna and Andy released his bonds. It was time for him to pass out now, to sleep it off, so to speak. Sometimes he slept for a few hours, while at times, he slept for days. It was typical to call in for a sick day. He was certain this time would be no exception. He felt like a busy infant who hadn’t slept all day. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he was out.

* * *

Several days later, Lynch awoke in his bed. It had been some time since a partial transformation had occurred, memories of it felt like a dream. At this point, with his usual life getting in the way, he wasn’t certain anything had happened at all. He dazedly looked about his bedroom, his internal clock telling him it was time to get up.

Lynch, Andy, and Jenna lived in a sprawling old house that consisted of three floors and a large basement. Mostly, it was a piece of shit, but it worked as housing. The house had balconies on each floor, all with crumbling boards. It was probably dangerous, yet he couldn’t think of living anywhere else. This house was where his pa raised him, and the home he chose after putting in time with the colonial government’s militia and becoming a Pinkerton instead of fighting in the Civil War. Until he left home, it was his favorite place. It was once called Tackett House Manor in the old days. Every great plantation house had a name. He could almost visualize two proper southern maidens sipping mint julips on a veranda (or verandah), but he knew Pa hadn’t kept slaves. He didn’t believe in the institution. No matter what happened in his life, Tackett House Manner was his haven. Although Andy and Jenna liked to conduct research, their interests didn’t extend to the house they called home. They were surrounded by vegetation, trees, and grass. Lynch preferred to sleep on the top floor, while Andy and Jenna had the run of the others. They slept in separate quarters on the second floor. The first floor was where they relaxed, talked about their days, and thought of new enzymes to inject into him to keep his transformations from occurring.

As he made his way from the third floor landing all the way to the first floor via a spiral staircase, he could hear Andy cleaning and Jenna singing. When she sang, his heart soared. It also meant she was cooking. Today, however, he didn’t have much of an appetite. He had had a strange dream last night. It was one he didn’t want to think about. Since that was the case, he would put it aside.

When looking her way, he often wondered why he didn’t think about Lydia. It was hard thinking of Lydia’s daughter already. Lydia and Jenna could have passed for relatives, if Jenna happened to be hundreds of years old. He asked her once if she was ever related to the Blount family. She denied knowledge, so he let it go. At times, he often found himself thinking that perhaps, she was lying. Then again, Jenna wouldn’t lie if her life depended on it. She was that honest, annoyingly so. One day, he might tell her of his past.

His male part-time caretaker was from an old family known well, just as Jenna’s was, to the Tacketts. He hadn’t learned of their existence until he came upon Andy’s distant relative long ago when Lynch had been a mess. Andy was a bachelor, like most of the Hoff family males. Not that any of them had ever preferred company of the same gender, it was just so. It was best for them to stay single, so humans would ask questions. Andy was gentle and superbly intelligent. He could research anything, find it, and present it without breaking a sweat. He had always been this way, as were his forebears, for as long as Lynch could remember. Another part of him was the constant butler, although he had never been asked to do so. He just saw what needed to be done and did it. No questions, no protests. Along with Jenna, he considered him family. The man had his quirks, but for each one, he possessed a strength unknown to millions of people. It wasn’t easy to live with a man like Keagan ‘Lynch’ Tackett.

Andy took a moment away from cleaning to nod his way. Jenna was a different kind of animal than Andy. She wouldn’t acknowledge his existence with a slight nod. She had to know everything about his sleep cycles and his nights at work. She was, in this light, more like a wife. Although he loved her greatly, this particular trait she possessed sometimes wore on Lynch’s nerves. He knew it was part of her duties, part of her way of dealing with his transformations. It grated on him when his sleep was particularly bad, when the dreams were strange. Today was one of those days, as tonight would be.

Lynch skirted around Jenna as well as he could. The moment she smelled the smallest hint of his aftershave, which was worn out from the day before, she turned toward him. “How did you sleep?”

He didn’t face her immediately. The question she asked consisted of a mere four words. To him, it was as if she had given him a full teacher-like lecture, waggling her index finger for good measure. Of course, he expected their conversation to bloom into an argument. At times, he wanted to tell her to leave, to find a better way of living her life. Although it sounded harsh, it was another way of giving her a chance to leave whenever she wished. If he couldn’t ask her to leave, he could try to chase her away with meanness. Once upon a time, he was mean, and it wouldn’t take much to do it again. This was true even if he didn’t mean it, and deep down inside, he didn’t. There was nothing more he would have liked than to have Jenna live with him for the rest of her natural life.

Lynch shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “I slept fine.”

Jenna could only see the side of his face, but it was enough for her to judge that Lynch was lying through his teeth. While he slept during the day, she could hear him mumbling in his sleep. His bedroom was on another floor. Despite this, the walls were very thin. His dreams were changing from normal to bad. When the nightmares began, it meant his resistance to the injections was becoming a factor. It worried her greatly when this happened. It didn’t help that they had just begun a new course of injections. Perhaps, it was only an aftereffect and didn’t mean anything. Sooner or later, neither she nor Andy would be able to create another round of enzymes that Lynch had yet to try. It meant they were one step closer to ending Lynch’s life. She wasn’t ready for that day, she would never be ready. If he would only listen to her, help her achieve immortality, he wouldn’t be so alone. He wouldn’t insist on dying.

She wanted to call him on his obvious lie. She didn’t, she chose to play along with him. “Is that right,” she commented lightly. “Glad to hear it.”

Lynch watched as she turned away from him. His brow furrowed for a moment. Something about her response seemed false, forced, totally unlike her. Was she tired? Was she finally letting go of her desire to follow him into the land of never death? He paused for a moment, turning fully toward her. “Thanks,” he said gruffly.

Biting her lip, Jenna muttered, “I hope you’re hungry. I have a turkey casserole in the oven. Andy made his special chocolate cake for dessert.”

Ah, he thought. Mentioning the trivial. He had somehow hurt her. Normally, Jenna wasn’t the sulking kind. She had her days, though. He could have easily bridged the gap between them. He simply didn’t have the energy. When he began to have strange, lingering dreams, it was hard on everybody, and it completely zapped all the strength out of him. He would eat, get ready for work, and arrive spectacularly early. A part of him knew what was happening. The word today, children, is resistance. It had become something of a four letter word in his world. The new injections weren’t going to last very long. Sooner, rather than later, they would have to find something else and start right back at square one.

“Awesome,” he quipped sarcastically.

“We’re all on edge, Lynch,” Jenna suddenly said, her voice piping up several octaves than before. She faced him fully. Her eyes were ablaze, her nostrils flaring, her chest heaving in and out. “You don’t have to be an ass.”

Today was not a day for drama, his dream certainly dictated that. For no particular reason, he thought this moment was captured in film somewhere in a random unwatchable soap opera. Nodding, he uttered, “Touché, Jenna. I don’t mean to be an ass. Let’s just say my sleep wasn’t as great as I let on.”

He sighed heavily, noticing how Jenna’s eyes were still blazing. He noticed a slight shift in Andy’s position in the room. He had, perhaps, decided that their conversation was more interesting than any cleaning he could possibly do. A psychiatrist would probably think they were co-dependent on each other. That was most likely a very apt diagnosis.

She chuckled. “Wow. How did I know that?”

Lynch ignored her sarcasm and turned slightly when he noticed Andy drawing nearer. It was interesting watching the other man move about the room. It was like how a small dog watching his master walking toward him.

“Should we start another program?” Andy asked. Along with his height and presence, his voice was deep and raspy.

He ran his hand through his hair, leaving it on the back of his head. Was it too late to call in sick and go back to bed? “No,” Lynch answered simply. “I think it can wait for a while. We just started a new protocol. Why jinx it? Maybe it’s all a fluke.”

“Your sleep,” Jenna began.

Allowing his hand to drop back down to his side, Lynch shook his head. “It’s not that bad, Jenna. Before it can, be assured I will let you both know. We all know where this will eventually end.”

He noticed how Jenna flinched at his words. It wasn’t something she wanted to hear. He knew this, but it was constantly on his mind. Work was the only thing that kept him focused on something else. It gave him flight, making him feel almost human. His father told him once that he had had a chance of inheriting his father’s genes. It wasn’t to be so. Part of him often wished his father would have ended his life. If they had, he wouldn’t be standing here having this conversation with the two most important people in his life.

“We know,” Andy said before Jenna could open her mouth. “However, if we can stall that outcome, we will.”

Never taking her eyes off Lynch, Jenna harshly whispered, “Definitely.”

* * *

In another part of town, Hugh Norwood sat in his living room watching a football game he had saved on his DVR. In a few hours, he was due at work at the LeVale Police Department. He was also a Detective First Grade at the PD. In fact, he was Lynch’s partner in law and order. At any minute, he was expecting his sister, Callie, to ring the doorbell.

Callie lived in New York, but was strongly considering relocating near Hugh. She had escaped an abusive boyfriend and needed a break from her world. LeVale was the exact opposite of New York City. For Callie, that was a good thing. When Hugh found out Callie was on the receiving end of a fist, he wanted to grab Lynch so they could give the son of a bitch a taste of his own medicine. Hugh was quite protective of his younger sister. He knew his partner didn’t take kindly to abusive men. They saw plenty in their field, enough to make them hardened.

His sister was still in college, studying biology or chemistry or some shit he didn’t quite understand. His baby sister was something of a brain. He was often envious of that. He wasn’t a dumb ass or anything, but when it came to certain subjects, he felt like an idiot. There was a ten year age difference between them, and he supposed it was why he was so protective of her. Hell, truth was, it didn’t matter. Their parents raised them to ensure the other was always protected, no matter what. It was their family code.

It seemed, however, that Callie didn’t want much of Hugh’s protection. He offered to pick her up at the airport. She wouldn’t hear of it. The airport was about a hundred miles away, a long drive. Despite this, Callie persisted until he relented. He simply hoped she would arrive in time for them to have a decent dinner before he had to go to work. He had also offered to take off to show her around. Again, he was rebuffed.

At the best part of the game, the door flew open dramatically. With an excited whoop, Hugh was hit unexpectedly hard by his sister’s body. It was as if she had known he was watching football and had decided to tackle him for the hell of it. Callie was small, but her body felt like a bag of bricks as it hit the middle of his gut. Any other person to do this would have seen the angry side of Hugh Norwood. Since it was his sister, he laughed like a fool, enfolding her small body into the tightest bear hug he could manage.

After mauling each other, Callie rolled over to a spot on the couch beside him. It was then that he noticed how much she had changed. Oh, she still had the same brilliant lapis colored eyes and dark auburn hair. Her hair, once almost to her shoulders, was now cut into a short, chunky, funky style. His once stick thin baby sister had filled out. She had come to be a beautiful woman. No matter what he noticed about her, the one thing he definitely couldn’t miss was the healing bruise on her left cheekbone. That sight alone made his blood boil. Once again, he was tempted to fly out to New York and pay back the son of a bitch for putting a finger on her.

Despite the bruise, her hurt, she appeared to be happy. In his line of work, he had seen several battered women, most of whom cowered at the sight of a man. He was glad Callie walked away before she became another shrinking violet. It hurt his heart to see the victims; it hurt much worse when he realized someone he loved was in the same situation.

Apparently, Callie noticed how her brother’s eyes, so like her own, were focused on her. She could see what he was thinking. Part of her wanted to unleash the hell hound waiting inside Hugh. He wanted to get to her boyfriend like a dog wanted his bone. Although it would be very easy for him to do it, Callie didn’t necessarily think it was a good idea. Violence to solve violence didn’t make since to her. Besides, Clark was special. Not in a good way.

Hugh playfully yanked a lock of Callie’s shortened hair. “How was your flight?”

“It was okay.” She sat upright suddenly, gasping sharply. “Shit! I forgot my luggage outside. I’m such a bonehead sometimes!”

Callie jumped to her feet and darted quickly for the door. Hugh stood so he could follow and help. When she went to the door, he craned his neck to look over her shoulder. There were only a few bags. Furrowing his brow, he reached around Callie, darting his arm forward so he could snag one of the bags. She grabbed two and brought them inside. After closing the door, she turned toward her brother, noticing how he was looking at her.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said with a sigh. “I’m checking out the area, looking at a college to transfer to, Hugh. I’m not moving here permanently yet.”

He set the bag near the door. “Have you told our parents?”

Their folks lived in Georgia. It was a good eighteen hours away from LeVale. Although they were close, Callie had yet to tell them anything. Hugh probably knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it from her.

“No, I haven’t,” she said tiredly. “I haven’t told them anything. They know about Clark, everything with the exception of his knocking me around regularly.”

Nodding, he crossed his arms before him. “I’ve got plans for us before I have to go to work. I also want you to meet Lynch.”

She smiled and shook her head. He was fairly close to his partner and often spoke about their exploits on the job. She assumed he would eventually want her to meet him. “That’s cool. I’m starving, too.”

He met her smile, glad that she could smile. “Let’s go, kiddo.”

* * *

Lynch, Jenna, and Andy sat at the dinner table. Lynch picked at his food, not showing much interest at one of his favorites. There was tension in the room. When it was like this, it was hard for Lynch to eat. He was closer to leaving the table and heading off to work.

As he grabbed for his iced tea, his cell phone went off. Lynch dug it out the inside of his jacket. He had it on vibrate, kept it that way when he was home, and it was completely aggravating. He swiped his finger over it and stuck it up to his ear. “Lynch,” he said gruffly.

“Hey, asshole. Why you sound so down?” Hugh asked.

Lynch could hear the good humor in Hugh’s voice. “What’s up?”

Hugh called often, but never so close to work hours. His first thought was that something had happened. LeVale wasn’t large by New York standards, but it had its problems. He wondered if someone had been murdered. It felt like a premonition.

Hugh picked up on Lynch’s tone of voice immediately. “Oh no, bro. Nothing serious. My sister is in town and I’d like you to meet her.”

His partner spoke of his sister often. Recently, he had told Lynch she was in a bad relationship. Lynch had seen pictures of her when she was a child, but had never met her. He found his eyes moving from Andy to Jenna. He wanted a quick escape for sure. They were family, dysfunctional at best, yet still a family. They might be hurt by his departure from dinner. However, they would understand.

“Sure, Hugh. Sounds great.”

“There for a minute, I thought you were going to say no,” Hugh said jovially. “We’re having dinner at The Palace.”

The Palace was the largest, best restaurant in town. They had dozens of chain eateries in LeVale, but The Palace was as close to fine dining as they could get without driving seventy miles.

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” Lynch said.

Without waiting for Hugh to say goodbye, Lynch pressed the red hang up button before tucking it back inside his jacket. He noticed that Jenna was looking at him curiously. He didn’t want to say anything for a few minutes in case Jenna wanted to speak first. Jenna put a forkful of the casserole into her mouth, chewed slowly, and swallowed. She did this without taking her eyes off Lynch.

“Was that Hugh?” Andy asked casually.

It was bad manners, he knew better, but Lynch couldn’t prevent folding his arms on the table. He pushed his plate away as he slid his arms further onto the table. “Yeah. His sister is in town and he wants me to join them for a few minutes before we go to work.”

Andy took a sip of water. “Good. At first, I thought something was wrong. It’s been a long time since there was a murder. I could definitely live without that.”

A small, crooked smile lit up Lynch’s face. “So could I, my friend.”

Jenna put down her fork and primly folded her hands across her lap. “Have fun,” she said with a small smile. “Be careful at work tonight.”

She was sweet, even if she wasn’t in the mood to be. “You bet.”

* * *

Callie stuffed a huge portion of chicken in her mouth just as Lynch entered the restaurant. She actually saw him before Hugh did. He was tall, well over six feet three, dressed smartly in a dark gray suit without a tie. It was off the rack, though he carried it well. His hair was dark, wavy, and just touched his collar. When he drew closer, she could see that he had a strong jaw with a slight cleft. His eyes were dark, intense orbs filled with passion and life. Although his body was hidden from view, Callie could sense that he was well built, with toned arms and legs. He looked to be Hugh’s age, but seemed a few years younger.

Lynch saw that Hugh’s sister was watching his approach. She was young, probably no more than twenty-two. She had short, dark auburn hair. The style was chunky, flirty, and flipped up at the ears. Her long bangs were combed to the side, lying wildly over her brow, resting almost against her chin. Her eyes were brilliantly blue like her brother’s. Her lips were full, her expression mirthful. He assumed he was looking at a female version of Hugh.

Hugh saw Lynch coming toward them from the periphery of his vision. He turned to look at his partner and deftly slid out a vacant chair for him. Without a word to either party, Lynch sat down, crossing his feet before him. He put on a smile for the two of them. He respected his partner greatly, but he was truly in no mood to associate. This was the only excuse he had to leave home, where the tension was thick, suffocating. At least here, he thought he might be able to breathe.

“I’m Callie,” she said before Hugh had a chance to introduce her.

Lynch eyed Hugh’s sister for a long moment. Her lapis eyes were gleaming as she held out her hand for him to shake. Her cuteness was marred by a light bruise on her cheek. He was automatically curious. Even so, he realized he had no right to pry. He took her small hand into his large one. It was cool to the touch, fresh, and her skin incredibly smooth and soft.

“Nice to finally meet you,” Lynch managed to say. “Your brother speaks of you often.”

Lynch’s hand was warm, strong, and blessedly dry. Most men his age seemed to have sweaty palms. Callie hated that. She had just met this man, but she was more than intrigued. His voice was deep and mellow, like Clark’s. Unlike Clark, he seemed as if he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Before releasing his hand, she slyly noted that his left ring finger was missing the telltale sign of marriage.

What the hell am I thinking? Callie internally shook her head. “You too, Mr. Tackett.”

He smiled at her crookedly. It was another endearing trait she admired. “Please, call me Keagan, or better yet, Lynch.”

Hugh was about to open his mouth, until Callie beat him to the punch. “Lynch? How did you come upon that nickname?”

He had just met this young woman and she had already zoned in on his nickname. It usually took an hour or two for someone’s curiosity to be piqued enough to ask. “It’s a long, boring story,” he began.

“Too long,” Hugh quipped. “We only have a little while before we’re expected at work.”

Callie took her napkin and fluttered it at him. “Oh hush, why don’t you?” She quipped playfully. “Go ahead. Tell me.”

She was fascinated now, her chin resting comfortably on her hand. He sighed heavily, wishing he had a nice stiff bourbon. “I was a law and order type of guy in college, so I worked part-time as a bounty hunter to pay my way through. My asshole roommate said I lynched guys for being stupid. After that, almost everyone I knew started calling me Lynch. It just stuck.” His story wasn’t the truth, exactly. It was just enough to answer her question.

Callie took a sip from her drink before focusing her eyes on his face. Something about the story seemed too simple. “A bounty hunter? Wow. It fits you, I think.”

Her behavior confused him. Hugh had told him her former boyfriend used her as a punching bag. Callie was flirty, giddy, unlike someone who had gotten out of a bad relationship. Lynch shook it off. He figured everyone dealt differently with abuse. Perhaps she was simply happy to be away from New York, ecstatic to be with her older brother again. Whatever it was, it worked for her.

“Not like the famous guy,” he said with a shake of his head. “I did it for a little while; I didn’t make it a career or TV show. If you saw my house, you would surely understand.”

“I told you about that, Cal,” Hugh said. “He has a big old plantation house out in the boonies.”

Her eyes lit up again. “I’d like to see it,” she said excitedly. “Is it haunted?”

If you only knew, he thought distractedly. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that a werewolf lived in it. It sounded crazy, but was the truth. He suddenly wondered if she was one of those paranormal crazies. He certainly didn’t need someone like her nosing around his house, not with the mini laboratory Andy had built in the basement for Jenna. If she saw that, no telling what she would do. He wasn’t sure Hugh had seen the basement.

He laughed gruffly. “Not in the least,” he said. “I don’t really believe in that stuff.”

Lynch dearly prayed for a subject change. He wanted to smack himself and Hugh upside their heads for even mentioning the house. He also hoped that Callie wasn’t some dumbbell chick who whined until she got her way. According to Hugh, she was a smart cookie, so he assumed she wouldn’t be the type he was most afraid of.

Callie took another drink from her glass. She noticed the slight shift in Lynch. Something was definitely bothering him. She was afraid she had somehow hurt his feelings. “Neither do I, really,” she finally said. “However, I do like touring old houses that are supposed to be haunted.”

“Oh, cut the crap,” Hugh said brusquely, ending the conversation. Lynch mentally thanked him highly. “I’ll probably try to cut out one day to show Callie around.”

Lynch chuckled. The sound rumbled deeply within his chest. “There isn’t much to see, I’m afraid. I’m sure you’ll like it here.”

“I’m sure I will,” she said, her eyes focused directly on Lynch’s face.

It was an uncomfortable moment for Lynch. He had been looked upon as meat before. Most of the time, he was able to ignore it and move on with his day. This time, it was more difficult. Something about this young lady was different. He didn’t know exactly what, he didn’t know if he would exactly follow up on anything running through his mind. What he did know was that he wasn’t in such a rush to get to work.

* * *

The kill was fresh, the blood still warm. When it was like this, it was the best. His (until she shifted) hand reached out and dipped into the fresh blood. He brought his blood soaked hand up to his mouth and suckled on his fingers like a child eating the remnants of a chocolate bar off its wrapper. He looked down at his victim. He didn’t really think of her as a victim, she more along the lines of a prey item. Anything human, anything that walked upright was his for the taking.

All around him, it was dark. It didn’t matter. He had the ability to see in the dark, his prey did not. It was what made it so easy to hunt them. If he couldn’t find one like he found her, it was easy to lure them away. It didn’t matter if his prey were male or female. It was best if they were afraid. Fear salted the meat, gave it life, so to speak. The intensity of the kill flowed through his veins, excited him more than anything else could. Lowering his head, he sniffed at the blood. Amazingly quick now, he opened his mouth and sank his fangs into her neck. The blood poured into his mouth, tasting like sweet, sweet nectar. He took a large bite, tearing through veins, tendons, and cracking bones with no trouble. He had to be fast. Once the blood cooled, meat didn’t appeal to him.

When he had his fill, he brought his body up to a full standing position. He was a big man, almost six feet four. His arms and legs were like clubs. If anyone saw him, they might assume he was a body builder. This thought often made him laugh. If they only knew. If they only knew, indeed.

He looked longingly at his prey. When she was alive, she was gorgeous. Her hair was long, bright red, and flowed down her back in a beautiful cascade. Her breasts were quite large, firm, and round. As he attacked her earlier, he tore away her royal blue dress. It was torn all the way to her navel. His sharp eyes identified a navel ring. He had the urge to grab it and rip it out. For no reason at all, the ring irritated him, poked him. He had no reason to hate it, necessarily. He wasn’t a serial killer, he didn’t take souvenirs from his kills, but tonight, he had the greatest urge to take the ring. Fighting it for all he was worth, he stepped away from her.

He knew he would have to leave her bleeding, torn body here. He had no desire to hide her. Why would he? It was much easier to be apathetic in this day and age. He hadn’t killed anyone; he took down his prey and fed. It was nothing different than a lion taking down a gazelle. It didn’t hide its prey, did it? Why should he? In his mind, he wasn’t committing a crime, he was eating. He leaned over slightly, so he could look into her dead eyes. He bid her a fond farewell, saying an apology for leaving her here, in this vulnerable state.

* * *

Lynch rode back to Hugh’s with him and Callie. They stopped at his place to drop off Callie while Lynch waited in the car. Callie said a quick goodbye to Lynch before exiting the car and following her brother inside. He was left to wait, to ponder the events of the evening.

Once inside, Hugh took hold of Callie’s elbow and drew her back to face him. “Wait up, Cal,” he said sternly.

Callie giggled at the tone of Hugh’s voice. He sounded just like their father. She was tempted to tell him just that, but his facial expression stopped her short. “What up, brother?” She chirped smartly.

“Don’t flirt with Lynch,” Hugh said. “He lives with someone. I’m not sure what the status of their relationship is, but I can only assume it’s serious.”

“Hugh, I wasn’t seriously flirting. I was just asking questions.” She sighed heavily and ran her hand through her cropped locks. “Besides, he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, so it can’t be that serious.”

“Callie, you just ran away from a guy,” he said, reminding her of something she already knew.

“I know, I know,” she said tiredly. “It was harmless, I promise.”

With that, she stood on her tiptoes and crossed her fingers on both hands. Her actions brought a smile to his face. “Okay,” he said, resigned. “Sleep well. Big brother’s gotta go fight crime.”

CHAPTER 2

He was running, running hard. The muscles in his legs ached, but they pushed him forward. He had no idea why he was running. It was pitch black outside. Somehow, he managed to see. He buzzed past trees, rocks, bushes, and small forest creatures. They didn’t interest him, nothing did. He was surely running after something. After a seeming mile, he finally saw what he was chasing. It was a woman with long red hair. Where did she come from? How did she get here? Hell, how did he get here? He certainly didn’t know where he was. Shouldn’t he know?

Lynch didn’t know why he was chasing the woman. Was she running from him because she knew he was a cop? That had to be the only reason. He simply wasn’t into chasing women unless they had done something wrong. It was totally out of character for him to be doing this. It didn’t seem to matter. He was running, she was running. She was also screaming for help. She was screaming for help? What the hell? What the hell was going on? He wanted to stop, to regroup, but he couldn’t. His mind, heart, and body were all into the chase. He wanted her. He wanted her very badly, just not in the sexual sense. It took a moment for him to realize this. He wanted her for food. Food! It didn’t make sense. As long as Jenna gave him his injections, there was nothing wild or violent about him. He craved normal foods as any human would. He didn’t think of humans as prey. This time, however, he did.

His strong, super human stride allowed him to catch up to her in relatively short order. He grabbed a handful of her dress. The tug was so violent that the woman jerked her body backward. She tumbled onto the hard ground. Foolishly, he stared down at his hand, it was full of her dress. He didn’t stay this way for long.

Lynch pounced on the screaming woman, ripping at her clothing, her flesh, anything that was in the way of his goal. She fought him valiantly, so sure she was about to be raped. He cared nothing for that. What he wanted was her blood. That was it. He didn’t speak to her, he didn’t have to. As soon as he had her arms batted aside, he sank his teeth into her neck. A wonderful spurt of warm fluid filled his mouth. It was heavenly, a lovely taste he could never describe to a mere mortal. They would never understand the glory of the kill.

Lynch awoke suddenly, his heart pounding in his chest. He looked all around him, immediately relieved to see his bedroom. He looked at his arms and hands. In the dream, they were covered with blood. Before his eyes, they were covered in nothing more than light sweat. It was a bad dream, but it was a dream with one difference. Lycans didn’t simply drink blood, they also ate the flesh. This dream involved something sucking blood from a human. It was odd, somehow wrong.

He had had these before, right at the time he was becoming immune. He again had the thought: how can this be? He had just begun a new course, for God’s sake. He shook the thoughts away. It didn’t matter. Nothing had happened. He hadn’t killed an innocent woman. After a moment, Lynch realized he was shivering; the taste of blood was still in his mouth. It was horrifying. How long had it been since he killed a human as a lycan? He didn’t even have to think about it, really. It was a hundred years ago, still so sickeningly vivid.

At the time, Lynch was a drifter. He had no home, woman, or regular wage. There was no Jenna or Andy taking care of him. Every day, he lived as a drifter, killing only when he absolutely needed to. Mostly, he took down small animals to manage his cravings. He was attacked one night by three men. They saw him as an easy target. He was alone, starving, and on the verge of transforming. He felt the pain of the club as it struck his skull. This would have easily killed a human. It was nothing more than a tap to him. It was enough to turn him into a killer.

The instant the three men saw the silver tint to his eyes, the canines growing rapidly, the muscles rippling through his raggedy clothing, they turned to run. All but one managed to get away. The unlucky one felt deep claws digging into his back. Incredible pain seized him, keeping him from taking another step. Within moments, Lynch was on the man, his fangs making quick work of his neck, piercing the pulsing vein that signified his beating heart. Moments later, he tore into the flesh. He quenched his hunger, two times over. This was the moment he had also watched two people so very dear to him. Yet the horror of what he had done overwhelmed him.

Turning away from the bleeding sack, Lynch walked to the docks and hurled his body over. He washed up, alive and well, at the next town where a young couple took him in. They piled him up into their wagon and took him to what he assumed was a doctor. Instead, the woman was something of a kook. She was the only person knowledgeable of medicine for a hundred miles or more. They left Lynch with her. She was a sensitive woman, she knew things. She fed him a type of soup that was gritty and horrid. It contained an enzyme, she had said, that would help with his ‘temper.’

When he recovered, she gave him the recipe, ensuring he knew of the ingredient which would help him. He continued eating the soup for years thereafter until the medical field improved enough to sharpen the recipe, to make a serum of it to inject. The enzyme eaten gave him relief for a few months, once injected, it lasted much longer until he became immune. Once that happened, another ingredient was added to make it stronger or the serum was refined.

It was a year or two after the incident when he finally met one of Andy’s ancestors. This man was a lot like Andy in body, mind, and spirit. He was sensitive, like the woman who nursed him back to health. It was all over him that he knew of Lynch’s secret. The man introduced himself to Lynch without a thought about his personal safety. In those days, Lynch wasn’t clean cut or particularly concerned with hygiene. He was immediately suspicious of Wit Hoff. Who wouldn’t have been?

The odd thing about it was that Wit’s family was all familiar with lycans. Somehow, they had known of the first group that wandered the earth. It seemed unlikely that lycans had gotten their start in Holland. Lynch didn’t buy it primarily due to that fact. His father never mentioned they were from Holland, but Wit insisted it was true. Although Lynch was unsure of Wit’s angle, he accompanied him to the library where he lived and worked.

Wit presented him an aging book so large it almost covered the desk where he laid it out. It was a ledger of some sort with names and dates written in it. Wit Hoff explained to him that the names were of his now deceased relatives who relied on lycans for protection from a band of immortals, which he called schuifelen, the Dutch word for snake. These creatures weren’t snakes, exactly, but possessed venomous fangs and reptile like eyes. They walked upright, had human features, and could not be killed by mortal hands. Some of them also had the ability to shape shift. They fed on the farm animals before acquiring a taste for human blood. After murdering a young field worker, Wit’s relatives were beside themselves, not knowing who or what the culprit might be.

Upon hiring another person to replace the murdered worker, the new guard was attacked late one night. Wit’s great-great grandfather witnessed as the worker transformed into his lycan form. He attacked the creature, managing to kill it by sinking his teeth into the creature’s left wrist. This move alone reduced the body to nothing more than a powder-like substance. For reasons unknown to Wit’s grandfather, this was the only way they could slay these odd creatures. After this happened, his family were forever indebted to lycans. The way Wit and all his family after him knew the lycan clans were by a small mark visible on their bodies. It resembled a mole in the shape of a crudely drawn ‘V.’ In all cases, this mark was located on top of a lycan’s left hand.

He explained to Lynch that in order to control the urges of the lycans they cared for and protected, it was necessary to keep small shards of silver embedded within their skin. However, they thought of this as cruel punishment for those who protected them. When Lynch mentioned his ‘cure,’ Wit’s eyes lit up tremendously. He knew exactly what they needed to do next. Wit’s family on his mother’s side were the Vos,’ all of whom were brilliant science minded individuals. After meeting Wit, believing in and befriending him, Lynch was introduced to Drak Vos, whose great-great grandson would be the one to sire Jenna Vos, the woman he relied so heavily upon to this day.

It was chance or perhaps fate that led him into their lives. They gave so freely of their time. They created the documents he needed to live a normal life, they ensured someone would take care of him after they were gone, and were the only family he probably would ever have. It was those early days, those so far in the past he often dwelled upon as he walked about the planet. The man he was, the one so pathetic and sick, was a far cry from the man he was today.

The death of William Thornsmith had been a very long time ago. It was fresh in his mind, especially after dreaming about killing the woman. When he fed on humans, he wasn’t particularly interested in blood as much as the flesh. It sated his lust more than anything else about them did. He wanted the image to be erased from his mind. If he had a soul, he would have prayed to God to take it away. Although he fed on human flesh before, he never enjoyed the hunt or the destruction in his wake. It weighed him down with guilt. Yet, he didn’t know if it was the truth or if he was trying to avoid the reality of what he had done.

Lynch had always valued human life. His dream reminded him of the awful stories written about lycans. What he knew for certain, was that most of his kind weren’t nameless, faceless killers. He thought of his father.

Nikolas Tackett was a good man. His only fault was marrying a mortal woman. She never knew her husband was a lycan. Throughout their marriage, it was the only secret he ever kept from her. Lynch never knew her, as she died during childbirth. He only knew her name, Constance Bridget Tackett. Pa had said many times that she was a good woman and he believed him. As an infant, when his father spotted the mark on his hand, he had a breakdown. He hoped Lynch would have been a mortal. He didn’t pretend to understand genetics, but knew it was possible. Even if it would have been an anomaly of sorts, Keagan still had a good chance of coming out human. It wasn’t to be.

Lynch was almost at the onset of puberty before his father told him about the life he would lead. He had no way of understanding it or truly believing it. He had seen horrid images of werewolves in story books, of tales told about babies being snatched in the night. Nikolas explained that these stories were wrong, that Lynch wasn’t a monster. His father knew that as soon as Lynch hit puberty, it would only be a matter of time before his first transformation. It was a dirty little secret in the family, as much as masturbation or wet dreams in human families.

The movies and story books described transformation as painful. It was, but they didn’t come an inch close to how painful it truly was. His arms, legs, and muscles grew, stretched. It could only be compared to how painful heroin withdrawal appears to a junkie. There were unimaginable torturous processes at work. It felt as if his body was on a medieval rack, the kind that would stretch one’s body until the arms and legs were pulled out of their sockets before they were ripped from the body. When the coarse hair began to grow, even that caused incredible pain. The fangs which replaced human canine teeth felt most like the wisdom teeth growing in, but the pain was amplified a thousand times.

Snarling and slobbering was combined with the final process of transformation. It was the body’s way of dealing. It was also the only way a lycan could vocalize. The vocal cords no longer worked, so speaking was impossible. When the change was complete, he felt like begging for death, because if the way he became human again was anything like the change to lycan form, there would have been no way he wanted this feeling to recur.

Of course, the change back was faster, the pain less severe. The first time a lycan changed was the most painful, like sex, but far less enjoyable. His father strapped him down, he had no choice. If he hadn’t, he would have easily made his first kill. He lay on his bed, tied down, and screamed with sheer agony. He wanted to be free, to do what his body was telling him to do. Nikolas Tackett slaughtered a deer, fed him the meat, raw and bloody. Lycans didn’t necessarily crave human flesh; they simply craved flesh, period. For the Tacketts, a prey item would be human if that was their only choice. There were a band of lycans that did kill for sport, his father said. They, however, did so because they had something wrong inside them, much like a psychopath. Although he hadn’t vocalized so much to his son, but he had thought of Sophia when he spoke of killing humans. That was how he knew the image of the red haired woman was a dream. He would never touch a human in a harmful way. His father taught him better, and he would never go back on that conditioning.

Most of the lycans that were turned had done so in one of three ways. The first was the most classic way, the overdone cliché in movies where a victim begins as a prey item, then escapes, only to realize they have become a werewolf when they encounter their first full moon. The second way, which wasn’t explored much in cinema, was through the process of lovemaking. At the moment of climax, a lycan might transform briefly, thereby biting their mate. Any bite from a lycan, no matter how minor, would bring on the curse of immortality. The only exception was using a human as a drone. This was accomplished from a nick with a claw, usually the index finger. The final and less interesting was that some of them were born already doomed. Nikolas Tackett was, and Lynch as well.

His father never discussed how he came to be. Lynch guessed it was the same way as he. One of his parents was mortal. Nikolas Tackett died more than two centuries ago. A foe of his betrayed him, burning him alive, along with his wife, Lydia, and another person Lynch kept buried in his mind, because it hurt thinking about her. Whether in real life or cinema, silver and fire were the true enemies of lycans. He could not begin to explain why. He didn’t care to, actually. He avoided both like the plague.

Sighing heavily, tiredly, he glanced at his bedside clock, realizing he was awake hours before he was due to rise. The house was quiet, so it meant that both Andy and Jenna were asleep. It was a good thing, because he needed some time to deescalate the situation that had built as a result of his dream.

He threw back the covers on his bed, stood, and yawned dramatically. Slowly, he walked over to the worn wooden doors that led out to the balcony. Through the slats, he could see streams of sunlight. He opened the doors and noted that the day would be beautiful and perfect. His property was well shaded by dozens of trees, making the light somewhat weak, hazy, and incredibly attractive. Lynch made his way to one of two chairs awaiting him. He chose the most rickety to settle in. Lazily, he propped his feet onto the balcony railing. Despite the dream, despite the unease, he felt at peace. It was something he definitely couldn’t explain.

Lynch sat in blessed privacy for about an hour before a craving for coffee hit him. He had begun to make moves to get up until he caught the whiff of a familiar perfume. He turned his head slightly and saw Jenna approaching from inside his room. She was dressed in a billowing blue nightgown that floated about her body fluidly. Her hair flowed loosely for once, cascading brilliantly down her shoulders and back. He saw she was carrying two cups of coffee. It was strange how she could read his mind. Lynch thought he should have smelled the coffee perking. He must have been distracted by the pungent odor of the pine trees facing his bedroom.

Jenna sat in the vacant chair and passed a cup over to him. “I heard you mumbling in your sleep,” she said before sipping her coffee.

Lynch didn’t meet her gaze as he drank from his own cup. “I didn’t realize I was so loud. Sorry I woke you.”

She smiled somewhat sadly. “You didn’t. Thin walls. Remember?”

He chuckled. “Oh yeah. Old houses in bad repair tend to have those.”

“Do you want to talk, Lynch?”

At her question, he turned to look at her. Despite the early hour, she looked wide awake, fresh. She wore no make-up yet. Actually, she didn’t need any. Her natural beauty was enough for him, would be for any man. Once again, he felt overwhelming guilt at having trapped her in his hell. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her to leave again. It would be no use. She would refuse, as she always did. Her life’s work was Lynch Tackett.

He started to beg off like he normally did. Something about the dream, the way he felt stopped his usual response. “I had a vivid dream. In it, I killed someone, a woman.”

Jenna bristled at his words. It wasn’t his admission of a dream where he killed a person. What shocked her was the fact that he had finally decided to open up to her. “You don’t often have dreams like that,” she said tenderly, telling him something he already knew. “Usually, it’s about things you’ve done in your…past.”

He noticed the way she hesitated at the word ‘past.’ Both she and Andy knew what he did that led him to Wit Hoff. “This was different, Jenna. It seemed as if I really murdered a woman. It’s how I felt when I killed before.”

Lynch had chosen law and order due to his past. It was something he lived to fight every day of his life. Sooner or later he would have to retire, to move on before anyone grew suspicious. A man who never ages would set off more than one alarm. Jenna understood how much stability meant to him, yet he could never have it. As far as she knew, there wasn’t a cure for immortality. She had tried everything she could think of to create that for him, to give him what he wanted, but she had failed. It was impossible.

“What made it different than before if it felt the same?”

He looked away from her and out into the distance. His sharp eyes identified a squirrel running crazily along the base of a tree. “It was the blood, Jenna. I had a blood lust. It…it was all over me and I loved it.”

Her hand reached out and settled over his. He never moved; even to acknowledge her gentle touch. It was sad how much he longed for closeness only to shy away when he had it. “It was just a dream.”

Her words should have offered him comfort. They didn’t. She knew as well as he that he didn’t just dream. It was always a manifestation of one thing or another. “You know better than that,” he said as he continued to watch the squirrel. Vaguely, he wondered what she would think if he took off after it. He hated those little rodent bastards.

Jenna tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. She tried to see what he was staring after, to no avail. Her eyes weren’t as good as his even on her best day. “I know, but you know how much I like to pretend.”

He chuckled again. “That I do.”

She moved her hand away from his. “Why don’t we go out to lunch today? Act like normal folks for once. I need a day away from acting like the mad scientist.”

He knew what he was about to say would throw her for a loop. After all, it threw him to say it. “I like that idea.”

* * *

Both Lynch and Jenna had simple tastes, so it made sense that he chose a diner for their lunch date. It was a local joint, one that saw patrons who normally stopped by for an early lunch as a short break from farm work. By the time they arrived, it was almost one, which meant it was virtually deserted. This didn’t necessarily bother Lynch. He preferred to eat without a crowd. Although the place was favored amongst farmers, it was often crowded elbow to elbow. Their midsize hamlet was populated with thousands of farmers. When he came here, he ensured it was always after the noon hour. Otherwise, dozens of folks would be all ‘up in his business,’ as an old friend was fond of saying.

Lynch chose a booth beside a window where Jenna sat opposite him. They sat for a while in silence. It might have been awkward if it was another couple. The two of them had lived together for so long, a lot of small talk wasn’t necessary. Their booth already had two menus placed face down before them. While Lynch stared out of the window, Jenna picked up her menu and began to browse. Although he once mentioned his father had a mercantile business that Lynch had also worked. His gaze focused down the street for a couple of blocks. Coyfield & Tackett was now housed by a specialty shop for women who had nothing better to do than look around and choose an expensive perfume or a knick knack for their overpriced China cabinets. It made him sad that no one wanted to know the history behind it. Perhaps someday, he would share it with Jenna. She was the only woman who cared for such information.

After a few moments, Lynch turned to focus his eyes on Jenna. She had donned blue jeans and a smart lavender blouse. Her hair was down, but she had gathered the sides and pulled them back from her face, securing her locks with a black clasp. Jenna was a beautiful woman. Today, she looked younger than her years. She reminded him of a sorority girl out on the town with her football player boyfriend. He smiled and once again focused his eyes on the window. He wasn’t certain if she had been aware of his staring eyes, but she was sharp. She knew. She was simply too proper to say anything.

Lynch heard the cowbell over the front door jangle as another customer entered. He didn’t pay any attention to that as his eyes roamed the block. His sharp ears picked up the sound of Jenna reading the menu under her breath. Human ears didn’t have this capability. He tried to hone in on her words, practicing his most beloved skill of eavesdropping. It had helped make him a better cop. Perhaps it meant he was cheating. It didn’t matter; it was something that gave him an edge. If he hadn’t been so distracted by Jenna’s murmuring voice and the cars at the end of the block, he might have seen a woman approaching their table. He didn’t.

“Lynch?”

At the mention of his name, he turned to look at the person calling him. It was Hugh’s sister. She wore a colorful maxi dress and summer sandals. Her trendy haircut was styled quite differently than when he saw her before. She had it pinned back from her face with a series of tiny clips. Callie looked younger than before, very much so. It was hard to believe she was a woman in her twenties. He looked quickly back at Jenna. Her expression was slightly irritated, but also very curious.

Callie saw that Lynch was casually dressed today. It took years off his appearance. She kept her eyes focused on him, only glancing momentarily at the woman with him. She remembered Hugh’s words about a possible relationship with a woman whom he lived. She deduced that his lunch partner must be her. She was nubile, blonde, and absolutely beautiful. For no reason at all, she felt an instant pang of jealousy.

Not being one of those individuals who ever forgot a name or a face, he smiled at her. “Callie. How are you doing?”

His smile was crooked, appealing. Her jealousy of the other woman grew an octave. “Fine. Since Hugh has yet to get a day off, I’ve been exploring on my own. I went to the university earlier to check out their science programs.”

At the word ‘science,’ Jenna began to pay more attention. She was apparently Hugh’s sister, but Lynch hadn’t said much about his night out with them. “Lynch can be rude sometimes,” she said lightly. “I’m Jenna Vos.”

Lynch’s face pinked considerably. “Sorry about that, Jenna,” he said shame facedly. “This is Callie Norwood, Hugh’s younger sister.”

Jenna reached out to shake the other woman’s hand. With no hesitation, Callie stuck out her hand to take Jenna’s into hers. “Very nice to meet you, Callie.”

Callie didn’t see a ring on Jenna’s finger. Perhaps there wasn’t as much going on between them as Hugh suspected. Lynch didn’t introduce her as his wife or girlfriend or significant other. He said nothing but her name. “Very nice to meet you, too.”

“Would you like to join us for lunch,” Lynch offered.

“Please do,” Jenna said. Although irritated at her intrusion, her offer was completely genuine.

She wanted to have lunch with them, to get to know Lynch better, but she didn’t want to do that with another woman present. “Thank you both. However, I promised Hugh I’d have lunch with him at home. I only stopped by for lemonade. Hugh says they make the best here.”

“That’s certainly true,” Lynch said. “I hope Hugh isn’t cooking.”

She laughed and shook her head. “No, he isn’t. I think he’s nuking something. It was nice meeting you, Jenna. Maybe I’ll see both of you around.”

They watched as she turned to approach the counter to order her lemonade. Lynch picked up his menu and began to peruse it. He was aware that Jenna’s eyes were on him. Right at the moment, he didn’t want to acknowledge her.

“I never thought Hugh would have such an attractive sister,” Jenna said lightly. Lynch didn’t speak. Instead, he grunted his approval. “It’s okay if you think she’s attractive, Lynch. I won’t get jealous.”

He looked over the top of his menu at her. “You know I’m not one to act upon impulses, especially with members of the opposite sex.”

Jenna knew this well, and it was unfortunate. “That is a formula for loneliness, you know.”

He dropped his menu and brought his forefinger up briefly to his upper lip. Thoughtfully, he replied, “Better to be lonely than spreading the sickness.”

Lynch and Jenna had barely managed to get into the front door just before Andy sought them out. Lynch had never seen Andy acting so nervously. He was wringing his large hands. His face was pale save for bright red spots on his cheeks. Something had obviously happened. Something big.

“Andy, what’s going on?” Lynch asked, his voice tinged with deep concern.

“I was listening to the scanner down in the lab. There has been a murder.”

Andy looked as if he was about to pass out. News of murders hadn’t ever affected him like this before. It usually meant Lynch would be putting in a lot of overtime. “Okay,” he said calmly. “Has anyone at the PD called?”

The other man shook his head slowly. He continued to give his hands a work out. “You don’t understand, Lynch.”

“What are you talking about?” Jenna piped.

Andy ignored Jenna, keeping his eyes on Lynch. “The murder is not in your jurisdiction. It happened in Calember County.”

Lynch knew Calember County was only ten or twelve miles from LeVale. Their county sheriff’s office would be responsible for investigating it. He absolutely had no idea what the big deal was. “And?” He asked impatiently.

Andy sighed heavily. “I have a few friends on the inside at the sheriff’s office,” he began. “However, they could give me just a few details. The victim was a woman and it appears as if she was viciously attacked. Lynch, her body was…was torn apart, most of her blood drained. There was no evidence that this was a sexual attack.”

Finally, he understood. Suddenly, the burger and fries he had eaten for lunch felt like a hot lump at the pit of his stomach. Beside him, Jenna drew in a gasped breath. Although Andy didn’t know of the dream he had last night, Jenna did. His friend was being as forward and honest as possible. He knew Lynch had killed humans before, but it had been dozens upon dozens of years since the last time he had done anything of the sort. He clearly didn’t entertain the idea that he thought Lynch was capable of this crime, but he was certainly relying on a large dose of realism.

Andy didn’t understand Jenna’s reaction. “Is there something I should know?”

Lynch fought the urge to vomit with as much strength as he could muster. “I had a dream about killing a woman last night.”

His confession sent Andy reeling. “Surely, you don’t believe…”

Lynch let out a frustrated growl. “I don’t murder humans,” he stated emphatically.

“We know you don’t,” Jenna said softly. “What if there is another immortal, one who clearly targets humans?”

“You know that cannot be. I would know, Jenna.”

“What if you didn’t?” She asked, her voice laced heavily with hopefulness. “Couldn’t another exist without your knowledge? Couldn’t something else help cloak it?”

“Impossible,” he insisted.

“Nothing is impossible, Lynch,” Jenna told him in her most reasonable voice. Sometimes, it worked, and sometimes, he was irritated by it. Today, it was the latter.

With that, Lynch banged upstairs to retrieve his badge and gun. He knew he couldn’t do anything about the investigation, but he relied on networking. His brothers in Calember County would share information. They lived in a small town, so the other county would likely ask for help. He intended on visiting Hugh first. Perhaps he knew something.

Jenna and Andy watched worriedly as Lynch pounded downstairs before slamming out of the house. He began the drive toward Hugh’s apartment, during which he reviewed the details of his dream. It was so real. Was it possible he had left his bed in the night to wind up in another county, killing a human? Jenna was aware of his every move. If he left last night, wouldn’t she have known instantly? Damn it. It was their jobs to ensure he didn’t do anything like this. Yet, he couldn’t blame them, either. It was difficult keeping an eye on an unpredictable lycan, even if he hadn’t been such in a long time. As he pulled his car into a slot near Hugh’s apartment, he realized he had already convicted himself before he was sure of anything.

After leaving his car, he trotted up to Hugh’s front door and banged on it heavily, impatiently. He had opened his mouth to shout out at Hugh as the door opened, but shut it immediately as soon as he saw Callie.

“Wow. I didn’t expect to see you so soon,” she said with a smile.

Lynch hid his irritation with a fake smile. “Hello again,” he managed. “I saw Hugh’s car out front. Is he in?”

“He went for a run about twenty minutes ago. I expect him back any minute. Do you want to come in and wait?”

Lynch wanted nothing more. He needed to see if Hugh knew anything about the murder in Calember County. “Sure.”

Callie moved out of the doorway to allow Lynch to enter. When he was inside the apartment, she closed the door. She turned to see that he had already made himself comfortable on the couch. “Do you want anything to drink?”

“No thanks.”

She watched him with great interest. He seemed quite agitated, completely different than when she saw him earlier. She said nothing else as she moved over to an easy chair and sat down. She was tempted to sit beside Lynch on the couch, but he seemed uninterested in company.

“I realize you hardly know me,” she began. “Is something wrong? You seem out of sorts.”

Somewhat relaxed now, he let out a deep breath. He smiled again, this time, it was genuine. “No offense, but I’d rather speak about this with Hugh.”

“Okay,” she said lightly. “No offense taken.” She looked at the backs of her hands before planting them firmly on her knees, and then she focused her eyes on Lynch once again. “Was your lunch buddy your wife?”

The question was innocent enough. Even so, Lynch could almost read another meaning behind her words. He was sensitive, sharp, and direct. Although he knew what she was truly interested in finding out, he found himself at ease with her. “No,” he said. “She is a friend of the family. I’ve known her for years.”

Wasn’t that statement loaded? He had known her family much longer than that, Andy’s as well. This information was something she surely didn’t need to know. He found himself wishing that Hugh would hurry his ass up and get back home. His sister had a strong, inquiring mind.

“I see,” she said. “She certainly is a beautiful woman.”

He nodded. “That she is,” he finally said. “How do you like it here so far?”

“It’s not so bad. It’s definitely not New York. I’ve found that’s not entirely a bad thing. The university has a good Chemistry program.”

“How much more schooling do you have ahead of you?”

She shrugged. “Oh, I’d say no more than half a year as long as everything transfers.” Callie understood that he was distracted. It still didn’t stop her curiosity about him. Changing the tone of their conversation, she said, “I’ve noticed a small mole on your hand. It’s something I’ve never seen before.”

Unconsciously, Lynch rubbed the mark. “A genetic anomaly in my family.”

“I see,” she said. “I had an interest in genetics a long time ago. It’s not really my forte these days.”

Lynch opened his mouth to respond when the front door opened. Hugh entered the apartment, digging headphones out of his ears while he fiddled with his MP3 player. When he noticed his partner sitting on the couch, he did a small double-take look his way. He certainly hadn’t expected to see him so early today. Absently, he took a bandana out of his shorts pocket and mopped his face with it. His tee-shirt and shorts were soaked with sweat. He wanted nothing more than to hit the shower before dealing with whatever was on Lynch’s mind. However, he seemed quite disturbed, so he decided to wait.

“Lynch? What has made you grace me with your presence?”

There was confusion written on Hugh’s face. Lynch had no way of knowing if he had heard of the Calember County murder or not. “Can we talk for a minute?” He cut his eyes briefly at Callie. “Privately?”

Callie smiled and brought herself to her feet. “I can take a hint. Nice seeing you again, Lynch.”

Lynch watched as she made her way out of the room. He had no way of knowing that she hung back, her lithe body just out of sight. Once she was supposedly out of earshot, Hugh sat in the chair she had just vacated.

Hugh mopped more sweat off his face. “What’s up?”

“I’ve heard there was a brutal murder out in Calember County. Do you know anything about it?”

He eyed Lynch carefully. With their caseload, why was he so interested in a murder they would have nothing to do with solving? “Nope, not a word. Why so into it? Unless they need our help, it really doesn’t matter to us, does it?”

Hugh’s lack of empathy didn’t surprise Lynch. He had been a homicide detective in New York before coming to LeVale. Murders didn’t rock him as much as it would any other citizen. “Not exactly, but I would like more information.”

He rubbed the back of his head. “Okay,” he said distractedly. “I know a guy over there who will probably tell you anything you want to know about it.”

“Terrific,” he said, his voice hardened slightly by sarcasm.

Callie heard Lynch’s request, his interest in a specific murder. She wanted to know about this herself. Suddenly, enrolling in college was a lesser need. She waited and listened.

CHAPTER 3

Hugh’s friend at Calember County was a thirty year veteran of the sheriff’s department by the name of Skip Danson. When he received the call from Hugh, Skip was reluctant to discuss the case with another person. However, any friend of Hugh’s could be trusted. He agreed to meet Lynch at the LeVale diner.

From his friend’s description, he didn’t think he would miss his entrance. Despite that, he found his eyes roaming about the room, settling on each person for a few seconds. People watching was something he learned early on in his career. It was a sociological thing, he supposed. However, Skip considered it an art he quite enjoyed. It also helped identify suspicious looking folks when searching for a perpetrator.

A young woman caught his eye. She was quite attractive, obviously wearing a wig. It was long, flowing, and flame red. Oddly enough, the color was pretty close to the victim. There was nothing wrong with wearing a wig, of course. Yet, it seemed in poor taste. Surely, she didn’t know about the murder. Perhaps in his cynicism of the human race these days, everything offended him after a murder. Was that so wrong? For a moment, he was tempted to approach her and ask that she remove the wig. He didn’t have time.

When the cowbell jangled over the door, his eyes immediately followed the sound. Entering the establishment was a man in his thirties with dark wavy hair. He was tall, dressed casually in jeans, and a dark tee-shirt. Skip immediately deduced that this gentleman had to be Lynch Tackett. He noticed that Lynch trained his eyes on him. He nodded toward the other man and began to wait patiently for him to close the distance between them.

Lynch approached Skip Danson’s table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. He offered his hand to the other man. After a moment’s hesitation, Skip took it, pumping his hand swiftly three times before releasing it. Immediately, Lynch thought of a politician. The Calember County veteran of the sheriff’s department shook hands like a candidate wishing greatly to be elected. Lynch couldn’t help but wonder if this man was out to run for office when he retired.

Although he was certain Skip would conduct his own evaluation, Lynch sat back without speaking. He was right. Skip judged Lynch’s handshake in much the same fashion. The other man seemed aloof, quiet. He was the complete opposite of Hugh Norwood. Skip wasn’t certain why the two men got along so well.

“I’m Lynch Tackett,” he said finally. “Hugh’s partner.”

Skip nodded nonchalantly, acknowledging his introduction with his usual cynicism. Duh. Who else would you be? “Skip Danson,” he said absently. “Hugh said you had some questions about our business out in Calember County.”

Lynch couldn’t blame him for being slightly suspicious. It wasn’t normal for one police agency to share information with another unless there was some type of connection, or another similar murder. Sure, other cops talked, shot the shit and all. They were still protective of evidence and facts about the case. No one knew whether or not someone in the brotherhood would spill their guts to the most interested news agency, therefore ruining their investigation.

“I understand why you’re hesitant,” Lynch began, “what do you believe happened to your victim?” It was the question he most wanted answered. After that, Skip Danson could go back to Calember County and find the killer.

“Before I tell you, Lynch, why are you so interested?”

Lynch saw that Skip’s beady muddy brown eyes were staring a hole into him. I’m a werewolf and I want to know if I killed her. The thought entered his mind as easily as a hot knife through butter. In this situation, it was best to lie. No shit. Telling the truth will get you thrown into the nearest mental institution. “We may have a victim in common.”

“Hugh didn’t say anything about that,” Skip said incredulously.

“Do you want to tell me or not?” Lynch asked pointedly. “I’m not interested in screwing you out of the glory you will receive once you find the killer. Since we have that out of the way, will you please answer my question?”

He wanted to punch the bastard, but internally appreciated his honesty. “Her body had bites all over it. It looked like something wild was at her before and after her death.”

The words hit Lynch like fists. It was definitely not what he wanted to hear. He stayed calm and collected. If he wanted to react like he felt, Skip Danson might as well have cuffed him, stuffed him, and carried him to Calember County. “You’re saying something tried to consume her?”

Skip shook his head. “Not exactly. It appeared as if something was after her blood, not her flesh. We feel it was some kook who had his canine teeth replaced with fangs. We’ve seen it before, in those Goth kids.”

Lynch folded his hands before him. It was the best way to keep them from shaking. “Any way I could see the crime scene photos?”

“No,” he answered shortly. “That’s too much to ask.”

The dream was real, even more so than before. In slumber, he had reveled in drinking her blood, not consuming the flesh. It wasn’t his nature to kill in that fashion. Part of him didn’t believe he was responsible. It was a small part. His heart was heavy in his chest. He felt Skip’s eyes on him, once again evaluating him. What he wouldn’t give for something to drink, something to dull his nerves. Alcohol was not the solution. He had to find a way to view the body.

Lynch focused his eyes on the other man’s face. “Thank you for what you could share.” He stood up without offering his hand in a departing shake. He was usually more polite than this, but their conversation suddenly squashed that inside him. “I need to disappear.”

Skip watched Lynch as he left the diner. Their short meeting had left a bad taste in his mouth. Something was simply not right with this fellow. He didn’t know what it was yet, he simply knew he didn’t like it. Skip made moves to exit himself. Before he could, he noticed that the girl in the bad wig had approached his table.

Smiling at him, she asked, “Can I have a moment of your time?”

* * *

Cursing under her breath, Jenna wiped her eyes and peered down into the annoyingly small microscope. For the past hour and a half, she had been trying to develop a new vaccine. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Lynch was becoming resistant to the current strain she had last concocted. She hated to admit it, but they were running out of compounds, out of choices. Before long, either she or Andy would have to carry out Lynch’s wishes. Completely unable to think about it, she tightened her grip on the tweezers and gently manipulated a speck of the enzyme on the slide.

To her tired eyes, it didn’t appear as if this particular agent was meshing well with the current injections. The cellular growth was nil, seemingly blackening before her very eyes. She lifted her head, caressed the bridge of her nose, and fought the greatest urge to smash the microscope against the wall in front of her. She resisted, only because it would mean spending money they didn’t have on another.

With the exception of Lynch, no one else earned any outside money. Decades ago, Lynch, Andy, and her mother spent the last of Lynch’s inheritance purchasing new equipment. Nikolas Tackett had left his son a modest amount of money. It was enough to keep the house from being foreclosed upon, replace outdated equipment with that more modern, and two cars. One was mainly used by Lynch. The other was left for Jenna and Andy. Money in today’s economy never lasted long. Jenna had a degree, even volunteered to find work. However, Lynch had asked that she forgo her plans so she would have more time to continue her research, especially since it was something her family had done for a very long time. She couldn’t say no.

Those who knew them often asked Jenna why she simply didn’t leave. It was obvious Lynch would never be the man she needed. She couldn’t think of leaving. It was true that she had loved Lynch all her life, from the first moment she met him at the tender age of ten. Her mother brought her to the house when Lynch asked her to move in. Gretchen Vos explained to Jenna that it was her lot in life to follow along with the family, to continue to help ‘Uncle’ Keagan as long as he was alive. She was directed to marry and produce heirs so that Keagan would never be without ‘special’ assistance.

Faithfully, Jenna followed her mother’s orders without understanding what she was giving up in order to do so. Nothing else, except Lynch, mattered. After her mother’s death, Jenna took her room, read her journals, and set about taking her place. Many times through the years, Lynch begged her to leave, to find a life, and have babies. He wanted her to forget her promised duties. She couldn’t lie; she had to be honest with herself. There were times when she wanted to leave, when she had been more than tempted. Although she loved Lynch, it was difficult getting close to him. It took a massive amount of time to simply know him. When they fought, she would creep into her room and pack her things. She would make it only as far as her bedroom door, and then she often crept into his room to watch him sleep. Her love for him kept her loyal. If he would admit he loved her, he would always have her. He could turn her. Jenna realized she wanted that more than any man she would ever meet.

There had been a few other men in her life. She once promised Lynch she would try. None of them compared to him. Each time, she came back, feeling more love for Lynch than ever before. At first, it didn’t matter that he took company with women he didn’t know. She was unaware if any of them were whores, but he often brought home women whom he met at bars. When Jenna was younger, Lynch was a terrible drinker. It seemed alcohol made his resistance grow quicker. After a hard drinking binge, Jenna discovered that Lynch had come home with a nameless woman. She saw them in bed together and watched in horror as he began to transform. Somehow, she and Andy managed to get the woman out of the house. Andy quickly injected him with a new serum which stopped the process in its tracks. The next morning, Lynch swore off alcohol for good.

He also swore off women. He wasn’t blind; he appreciated more than a few. Despite this, he didn’t bring any home. It was on that day, seven years ago, when Jenna professed her love for Lynch. As she expected, he didn’t seem surprised or angry. He took the news to heart, groaned, and rubbed his chest where he assumed his heart was located. Lynch didn’t return the sentiment. Instead, he told her that an affair would be disastrous. He had yet told her about his past. He was certain his father had taken a lover after his mother died, but he would never tell her about it. She treated him like a lover or a husband, always worrying about him, asking questions, showing great concern. She knew this behavior irritated him at times, but he never asked her to leave. He explained that pursuing a relationship with him was completely pointless; she told him his asking her to leave was just as pointless.

It hurt to live with a man who would never return her love. That was why most people she knew in the outside world told her to leave. She imagined her mother was rolling over in her grave. Jenna was close to turning thirty. She had yet to find a man, marry, and produce heirs, one of whom would eventually replace her. Gretchen Vos had been adamant about one thing. Jenna was never to develop feelings for Keagan Tackett. He is a handsome, loving man, Jenna, her mother told her. Ignore that, my daughter. Never fall in love with him. The continuation of our work absolutely forbids it. It was the very rule Jenna had not followed, and it was easier said than done. No one had the ability to control with whom they fell in love.

Loving Lynch, becoming immortal would ruin everything. It was hard enough controlling one lycan. Two would increase their problems tenfold. Although Andy was adept at science, he couldn’t invent compounds like she. Lynch’s self-described sickness would overtake the world. He didn’t want that, he didn’t want to be responsible for unleashing the curse of immortality upon innocents.

Jenna was about to focus her attention back on the slides when she heard the front door crashing open. It was late, but obviously Lynch had come home. From the sound, the news was bad. She was about to head upstairs until she heard his heavy footsteps moving toward her direction. She turned around just as Lynch entered the basement.

His hair was wild and corkscrewed from running his hands through it. She saw that his fists were clenched, his brow sweaty. “What happened?”

Jenna’s soft voice was normally music to his ears. Not tonight. He was ready for them to carry out his plans. “The woman was chewed, her blood obviously consumed.”

She saw that he was crying. It was something he didn’t do very often. She wanted to hold him; certain he would push her away. “Lynch, you’re not altogether certain it was you,” she said gently. “Andy and I are here for you. We can try to find out if there is another imm-”

The instant she uttered the first syllable of the word, he cut her off. “I told you it’s impossible, Jenna. Why won’t you take my word and leave it alone?” He unclenched his fists. “I’ve killed a woman. It’s time.”

This time, she couldn’t avoid approaching him. Within seconds, her hands were on his face, caressing it, wiping away his bitter tears. He was clearly terrified, horrified at what he thought he did. He wasn’t aware of her gentle touch. If he realized what she was doing, he would have withdrawn.

“No,” she said forcefully. “I won’t allow it. Don’t be rash. There are still avenues we can take. It could be anyone. You must understand this.”

He closed his eyes against her words, clearly unable to deal with her explanation. “If that was the case, why would I dream about it?”

Unable to help herself, she kissed each of his closed eyelids. “I don’t know, Lynch. We’ll find out.”

He was close to dropping his guard even further, allowing himself to kiss her. Mere millimeters separated their lips. It would have been so easy. Just as he was about to move in, the spell broke. He gathered his senses and self-consciously pulled away from her.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“I’m not,” she said.

She approached him and kissed him. It felt like she thought it would. His lips were soft and warm. As they parted against hers, a move that allowed their tongues to touch gently, she felt his strong hands at her waist. He pulled her body up hard against his. In moments, he wouldn’t be able to contain the need building inside him. It was incredible letting go, finally kissing her, tasting the sweetness of her mouth, feeling the firmness of her body against his. Lynch most certainly loved her, she definitely knew it, but he had never uttered the words. Was tonight the time for it? Was it?

After a few moments, Lynch broke the kiss so the two of them could catch their breath. He gazed at her, boring his eyes into hers as he noted her lips were slightly swollen. “Jenna…”

As he spoke her name, she heard the desperation in his voice. She knew where this was going; it was a place they had been so many times before. This was the first time they had seriously kissed, just not the first time they had been in this situation. “Why is this so hard for you?”

“You know why,” he insisted.

Jenna lowered her head for a moment before meeting his gaze again. “If you hadn’t expected something like this to happen tonight, why seek me out? You could have unraveled before Andy and left me to my work.”

He sighed heavily. “I can’t do this right now.”

She would hate herself in the morning, knowing how utterly despaired he was. “Fine. Leave me.”

Without listening to her command, he slowly approached her, reached out, and placed his large hands on her shoulders. “Jenna, you don’t realize how much you mean to me. With that said, there is nothing I can do to fulfill either of us. I can’t do to you what is within myself. If I did, you couldn’t be my lover or wife, because I simply cannot allow it. I would spend eternity hating myself, unable to love you as much as you deserve.”

She stepped back quickly, the action made his hands fall away immediately. For a brief moment, they dangled limply at his sides. “Whores were good enough for you? I told you to leave me.”

Her words were sharp, cutting him deeply. “I know you will not listen to me, Jenna. I still have to insist that you move out. You deserve a normal life.”

She turned away from him and walked back over to her desk. She gripped the back of her chair so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. “No matter how much you insist, I’m not leaving you. For now, I simply want you out of my personal space. I should think that isn’t too much to ask.”

Lynch didn’t respond to her comments. Instead, he did as she asked. When he slammed the door upstairs, Jenna visibly jumped. She scrubbed the wetness off her face and went back to her work.

* * *

Callie slipped into the living room just after Hugh left for work. She had stayed in hiding at the library after her encounter with Skip Danson. He offered to give her a ride, but she told him she needed the exercise. After all, the library was not that far from Hugh’s place.

Once inside, she went to her room, stripped off her clothes, and jumped into the shower. Skip Danson might have been an excellent detective or whatever he was in Calember County. As a human being, however, he was severely lacking. When she asked for information, he wasn’t willing to accommodate her request until she produced an official FBI badge, which was as counterfeit as her wig. Yet, it was produced in a manner that completely fooled Danson.

They left the diner and walked out to his cruiser parked nearby. After gunning the engine, he took her for a ride out to Calember County, showing her the crime scene. He gave her as much information as he could, embellishing it more for her than he did Lynch. After their conversation, he parked near the crime scene. The area was wooded and desolate. She completely believed she was in deep trouble. Where could she go? There was no way out. She didn’t understand how she could be so stupid.

Callie completely expected Danson to either ask for a sexual favor or take things in his own hands. Fully anticipating fighting for her life, she waited for his hands to strike. She was wrong. Absolutely nothing happened as she imagined it. Believing her story completely, Danson asked her to say a good word for him at the FBI. He was about to retire and wanted a job consulting for the federal agency. Callie almost burst out laughing. Not only was it amusing, she was relieved as well. Out for sex he was not. Completely stupid he was.

As she scrubbed her hair, she directed her face right into the spray. Somehow, she had to get through the barrier of Jenna Vos so she could get closer to Lynch Tackett. He was the reason she played such a dumb role today. He was in trouble and she felt that she was the only person able to help him.

* * *

After Lynch left for his shift, Jenna came out of the basement, in search of Andy. It didn’t take long to find him. He was already dressed for bed. He sat on the large sectional sofa in the den with his long legs stretched out before him. His feet were resting on the coffee table. He had his nose in a thick book. Andy usually frowned on others when they had their feet on the table, but she supposed he was free to do anything he wanted in the house. If Jenna hadn’t been so disturbed by her encounter with Lynch earlier, she would have laughed.

Jenna chose to sit in an uncomfortable straight backed chair close to the TV. She grabbed the remote, fully intent on rotting her brain for a few hours watching reality TV. Once she lightly fingered the power button, she dropped the remote where she found it. She crossed her arms before her, now deciding that staring at a portrait of Nikolas Tackett would be what she would do for the rest of the evening. It struck her odd that there was no portrait of Constance Tackett in any room of the old house. Lynch’s mother was a touchy subject to breach. Although she clearly wasn’t trying to get Andy’s attention, she could see that he had lost interest in his book.

Andy placed a bookmark inside his novel before putting it casually on his skinny left thigh. “What happened with you and Lynch tonight? He barely spoke two words to me today. I know he is rattled by the murder, but I haven’t seen him like this in a long time.”

He had heard many stories of incidents between the two of them. She hadn’t ever spoken of any heated moments. Of course, until today, there hadn’t been any. Andy was one of her closest confidants. She had other friends with whom she attended college. Since she took on her duties at the Tackett house, she hadn’t seen them in some time. After tonight, she thought she might take a short vacation. Andy knew of her feelings for Lynch. He was one person she could trust above all others. It would be difficult to rehash what happened.

Jenna sighed and placed her palms flat on her thighs. She was quite tempted to dig her fingernails into them. “Lynch burst into the lab to tell me what happened during the meeting between him and Skip Danson. Did he tell you?”

Andy shook his head, pursing his lips for a few seconds, and said, “No, he didn’t mention a word.”

A sinking feeling struck her. Andy didn’t know. Great. “The woman who was killed had injuries that could be consistent with an animal attack. He is certain he’s guilty, and requested we end his life.”

Her words suddenly sunk through to him. He swung his legs over before him and sat up straight. “I don’t think Lynch is alone.”

“Nor do I,” she said, agreeing with him. “There is another immortal very close to us, and I have my suspects.”

“You’re not thinking it’s Hugh’s sister, are you?”

She detected the disbelief in Andy’s response. “I have no way of knowing completely. LeVale is a small town, so it isn’t hard to find a new citizen. Her timing moving here is no coincidence.”

Andy chewed his lip with gusto. “Outside killing her, how do we find out?”

“If I can obtain a small sample of her blood, I can surely test it in the lab,” she said. “You know if she is, there will be the same proteins in her blood that Lynch has.”

“I suppose you’re about to invite them to dinner someday soon the next time they both have a day off?” Andy asked, his eyebrows lifted, a lilt in his voice.

Jenna smiled brightly. “But of course.”

“What happened, Jenna? You seem upset about something else.”

Damn him. She knew he would notice the continued rumble of discourse deeply within her being. “I told you he was upset,” she began, “I offered him comfort, and for the first time, he allowed me to do it. After twenty years, we finally connected. We were so very close to becoming lovers. He…he drew away. I suppose he still sees a ten year old kid when he looks at me. I’m not her anymore, goddamn it.”

Andy nodded sympathetically, all the while gnawing on his lips, which meant he was thinking. “I know how you feel about Lynch, Jenna. Perhaps you should put some distance between you. I can see that he isn’t fit for a mate right now, if he ever will be. You surely do not want to become someone’s…how do you say? Fuck buddy?”

Jenna nearly choked on the saliva in her mouth. Since knowing Andy, she had never heard him utter one f-bomb. “Holy shit, Andy,” she hissed incredulously. “I see your point. I don’t know if I can simply stop loving him. I do have friends I can go see, I suppose.”

He smiled at her brilliantly. “Then you have your answer. When this episode passes, go to your friends. Give yourself some time away.”

She hadn’t been away from home in a very long time. She didn’t know how she would act away from her life here. “I think you might possibly be right, Andy.”

He laughed heartily at that. “Of course. I’m always right. I thought you knew that by now.”

* * *

Lynch and Hugh had been working for hours on their caseload. There were dozens of people who needed to be interviewed. Despite this, they were having trouble locating the folks they had to find. After four or five hours, both men needed a break. They drove to a convenience store and bought coffee for themselves. Instead of drinking it in the cruiser, they chose a small table at the back of the store.

Hugh sipped greedily at his coffee. It was like crack to an addict. He had to have it whenever the craving hit. Otherwise, he thought he might go crazy and run wild in the streets. He watched his partner cautiously. For hours tonight, he had been unusually quiet. Lynch Tackett wasn’t a chatty sort to begin with; however, he was talking less than he normally would. Even when he jokingly told him stories that he was already close to throwing his sister out, Lynch didn’t laugh. Hugh might be an insensitive asshole, but he knew when to tell a joke to get a guy in good humor. Tonight, it failed. He tried asking Lynch several times what was wrong. He simply mumbled ‘nothing’ and went on with whatever he was doing. Hugh knew Lynch had a ‘domestic partner,’ and had asked about her as well. Like everything else, he received nothing other than a blank stare. This wasn’t good cop work.

Lynch wasn’t at his best tonight. It didn’t take a professional to know it. Even so, he honestly wished Hugh would look in another direction. For most of their shift tonight, Hugh had been grilling him over his lack of vocalization. He wasn’t one who said much as it stood, and surely wasn’t a man to share his emotions. Just ask Jenna, she will tell you. There was plenty for him to keep cooped up. He was more than freaked about the murder in Calember County, and he had to deal with Jenna as well. He clearly didn’t understand why she simply could pack her bags, give up, and just go away. He wouldn’t like it if she left. It didn’t matter, it was best for her. Why fight it? Skip Danson’s information had put things in his mind, events he didn’t want to think about again. He had to. There was no other way around it.

“How did the meeting with Skip go?” Hugh suddenly asked.

He almost visibly jumped at Hugh’s question. He gazed into his coffee. It was awful. How he craved some of Jenna’s brew. Hers was coffee, not just scared water. “It went well. He answered my questions.”

Hugh blinked. Lynch reminded him of how cavemen were portrayed in movies. Answers given were grunts, ughs, or two sentence responses. He hated that. When witnesses or suspects did it, he was tempted to shout at them until his voice was gone. “Okay,” he said bluntly. “Care to tell me why you are so interested? You never mentioned that.”

“I know I didn’t,” Lynch admitted. “I simply needed to know what was going on. If something like that happened there, it’s possible it will happen here. We’re not that far from Calember County.”

“That I know, friend,” Hugh said. “Other than that, is there anything else going on? Maybe on the home front? I mean, you never talk about that stuff, about Jenna.”

Lynch shrugged. “I know I don’t, Hugh. Jenna is a friend of the family, that’s all. There’s nothing going on between us.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “Jenna is a beautiful woman. Maybe I’ll ask her out.”

You,” he said rather sharply. “Jenna’s not the slightest bit interested.” He sipped at his coffee. “Hate to tell you that.”

Hugh laughed and shook his head. “Man, don’t bite my head off. If you want to keep her locked up in the tower, I won’t interfere.”

Lynch honestly didn’t mean to be so aggressive in his response. Their fight was too current, too attached to his heart. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to snap at you. This has just been a shitty day and I’m ready for it to be over.”

He finished his coffee in one large gulp. “I hear you, Lynch.”

* * *

Lynch came home from work on time for a change. All he had on his mind was taking a run, jumping into the shower, and hitting his bed for several hours’ worth of uninterrupted, dreamless sleep. He left his car and looked up at the roof. There were more boards beginning to rot. Sooner or later, he would have to call someone in to repair it. The sight depressing him even more, he slouched along to the front door and let himself inside.

Surprisingly enough, Jenna was already in the kitchen. Usually when he arrived, she would either still be in bed or napping on the couch. She was cooking breakfast. From the smell of it, she was preparing bacon, eggs, and waffles. His favorite. Something was up. After their argument last night, there was no way she would be here cooking for him. Jenna didn’t sulk, but when she was pissed, she normally stayed in that state of mind for hours afterward.

Not speaking to her at first, Lynch approached the coffee maker. She had already brewed a pot for him. He snagged a cup from a hook on the cabinet and poured himself a steaming mug. Even though it was very hot, he slurped up a mouthful anyway, swallowing as fast as he could. It burned as it went down; he didn’t care. He loved Jenna’s coffee as much as he loved her. She began to sing as soon as his first taste of coffee was down. He didn’t immediately recognize the tune. It was probably something from the 80s. Her musical taste was definitely stuck there.

“What’s going on, Jenna?” He finally asked. “Last night you couldn’t be in my presence. This morning, it seems like you’re cooking my favorite breakfast.”

She stopped singing long enough to turn her head slightly. “We’ve got to eat, don’t we?”

“I still don’t get it, sorry to say.”

She deftly lifted several strips of bacon out of the pan, laying it on top of paper towels to drain. She then checked the waffle maker, noting that the one inside was almost done. She turned again, just enough to make eye contact with him so the waffle wouldn’t burn. “It’s just another day at Tackett House Manor,” she said with a smile.

Tackett House Manor was the name of the place when his father had it built for his wife in the 1700s. It was pretentious, and his family was surely in that category. “No,” he said carefully. “I can’t say that, especially after our fight.”

“It wasn’t a fight, Lynch. We don’t fight, we disagree.”

He waved her comment aside. “Whatever,” he said distractedly. “Do I have time for a run?”

“Nope. Postpone it until after breakfast.”

He agreed uncertainly. When he took his coffee into the den, he passed Andy briefly in the hallway. He greeted him as he always did when he came home. Andy didn’t answer in his usual fashion. Instead, he quickly nodded his head and kept moving down the hall. This gave him the idea that something was definitely out of place. It didn’t feel like a horrible thing, like another murder. It was still crazy, unreal.

Lynch was called to the breakfast table about twenty minutes later. By then, he was ready for another cup of coffee. He helped himself to it before sitting at the table. Jenna actually served him a heaping helping of everything. This behavior was definitely out of sync. They served themselves on a daily basis. Their meals were lively events, not recreations of family TV shows. He felt as if he stepped into another dimension.

He forked some eggs into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and repeated the process on his waffle. After digesting his first bites of food, he looked from Jenna to Andy. Both were eating as if nothing was out of the norm. Andy was more jumpy, though, and he thought the other man would spill his guts sooner rather than later. He was never one good under pressure.

“Who’s going to tell me what the hell is going on?” Lynch finally asked. His tone of voice was light, even if he didn’t feel like being nice.

Jenna took a sip of hot tea and placed her cup primly on the place mat. “We’re having guests over in a couple of days for dinner.”

He had picked up his cup to take another sip, but when he heard Jenna’s words, he set it down heavily. If it hadn’t been close to empty, it would have sloshed out all over the table. “We’re doing what?” He asked incredulously.

“You heard me,” she said evenly. “I thought we could have a dinner thing to welcome Hugh’s sister to town, as soon as the two of you have a day off.”

They had never done this before. Hugh had been to his house, not in a social setting, just generally. He didn’t know how much he liked that idea. Their house was in ill repair. The furnishings were nice, the house fairly clean. There were just a couple of problems. They had a fucking chemist’s lab in the basement and the homeowner was a damned werewolf. If anyone saw the lab, especially another cop, he might assume they were cooking methamphetamine down there. What if he finally ‘wolfed’ out in front of the guests? What the holy hell was Jenna thinking?

Jenna looked very proud of herself. “Shouldn’t we have discussed this first?” He noticed Andy wasn’t saying a word, which meant this whole thing was Jenna’s idea.

“No, I don’t. I know the risks, Lynch. I don’t think we have anything to worry about. Besides, Hugh is like family to us, isn’t he? I think it would be nice to welcome Callie to the area. Since she is Hugh’s sister, we’ll probably see more of her as well.”

“Andy, what do you think?” Lynch asked, focusing his eyes on the other man.

“I think it’s a grand idea,” he said solidly. “If you’re afraid of any transformation issues, we can inject you doubly if you’d like.”

They were crazy. That was it. They were fucking crazy. It was possible he had killed a woman, and they wanted to throw a goddamned dinner party.

Much later, Lynch jumped into the car and drove to his favorite running spot. It was close to where Hugh usually ran. Today, he had a lot of frustration to work through. Jenna had already called Hugh and asked about the dinner party. Much to his chagrin, the two of them had agreed readily enough. He pushed it all out of his mind and began to focus on his feet pounding on the pavement.

There were normally dozens of other people on the track. Today was no exception. He didn’t notice that another runner was getting close to him. People never distracted him while he was running. He did his own thing, then left. As the person drew nearer, his keen sense of smell kicked in. Perfume. Who the hell wore perfume when they exercised?

“Hello there,” a voice called out.

Lynch slowed down and turned toward the voice. It was Callie. She wore nothing but a sport bra and tight shorts. There was no make-up on her face, save lip gloss, and of course, the perfume. “Hi,” he said vaguely. He came here to run, not socialize.

She had other ideas. “I didn’t know you were a runner.”

His wardrobe consisted of little more than a pair of shorts. It gave her a chance to admire his long, muscled arms, toned abs, and strong legs. He was different from any cop she had ever seen. Her brother Hugh was fit, but nothing like this.

By now, they had slowed to a trot. It was obvious she wanted to talk. Sighing heavily, he moved slower still. He couldn’t blame an innocent kid for his bad mood. “I try to do it at least three times a week. It’s easy to get out of shape these days.”

“I certainly agree with that. One bite of a doughnut and my ass increases tremendously,” she said with a brilliant smile.

When she mentioned her ass, he couldn’t help but look. He might not have been interested; it didn’t mean he couldn’t take a peek. There was nothing about her that screamed she was out of shape. She was beautiful, young, and crazily fit. He was certain she would be very popular when she returned to college.

“It gets worse the older you are,” he commented lightly. What the hell did he know about that? He was immortal and never changed.

“Oh, you look incredible,” she said. Blushing, she turned her face away from his for a brief moment before looking his way again. “Thanks for the invitation to dinner. I’m looking forward to seeing your house.”

“It’s nothing special, needs a lot of repairs, and I don’t think you’ll find anything interesting about it.”

“Hugh has told me you’re the most modest man he has ever known,” she began. “I didn’t believe him, because most men I’ve met aren’t. He was right about you, though.”

Lynch smiled at her. He couldn’t help himself. Optimists in his world were few and far between. “Not modesty, I assure you. Wait and see. You’ll know what I mean.”

She touched his arm lightly. Moving gracefully and fluidly, she closed the distance between them. Before he could react, she placed a gentle kiss on his cheek. Her lip gloss smelled like mixed berries. When she moved back, she noticed a stunned look on his face.

“I think you’re wrong,” she said softly. “I think you’re everything Hugh has said and more.”

Silenced by her words, he couldn’t respond. He watched as she gave him another smile before turning away.

CHAPTER 4

The man who killed a woman in another county was no longer a man. She stood before a body length mirror and examined her body. The mark was there, but there was also a scar over her chest on the left. She had to admit the ability to shift was incredibly wonderful. Lynch had never known her. Soon, they would meet. Soon, she would have her revenge, once Clark allowed her dominate the body.

* * *

Five days had passed since Lynch learned of the murder in Calember County. An equal amount of time passed since he had had a dream more unusual than the norm. This led him to believe his sense of the murder must have been a fluke. Although he was more than angry with Andy and Jenna for setting up the dinner, he still remained as close to them as ever. He discussed it with Andy one morning.

His words were with Lynch today as he completed his usual routine after work. It was Wednesday, which meant it was another day to run. Lynch’s feet pounded the pavement in a rhythmic pattern that was dizzying. Andy told Lynch that he was sensitive to things; he knew things that others couldn’t possibly understand. It didn’t matter what the victim had suffered, even if she had bite marks on her body. Lynch simply picked up on it because he had the talent. There were many disadvantages of immortality, but there were more advantages than he could have imagined. His hearing, sight, and understanding of the way the world worked were clearly good things. His dream was nothing more than a premonition. It had to be. After all, Lynch hadn’t harmed a human in over a century. That fact, by itself, should give him the comfort he needed to work through his dream. See it for what it is, Lynch, Andy had said. Pay attention. When you have another dream like it, know that something has happened, not that you have done anything. Andy’s knowledge was golden.

Shaking it off for the time being, Lynch continued on his run, forcing out the bad, bringing in the good. The day he heard of the murder was one of the worst he had lived in a very long time. Today was much better, even if it meant Hugh and Callie would be having dinner with him in a few days. Something about the whole affair smelled badly to Lynch. As Andy pointed out, he had the ability to pick out certain energies. That surrounding his two closest confidants was one of utter bullshit. Neither Andy nor Jenna had the slightest interest in welcoming Callie to the neighborhood. LeVale was small; they had few people moving in. When they did, Jenna never mentioned the urge to have anyone over. He didn’t understand how she expected him to believe it. He asked about it plenty, of course. What did he hear from Jenna? Absolutely nothing, that’s what. It was enough to drive him crazy.

He didn’t want to admit it, but both Jenna and Callie were getting under his skin enough to make him feel incredibly uncomfortable. Both were alike while being rather different. Jenna was older, wiser, more experienced. She had been living with him and Andy for a better part of twenty years. Despite this, she was hard to figure out at times. Like now. When she wanted to talk, she didn’t care if Lynch was too tired for it. She would drive him nuts until he finally broke down. However, if he wanted to know something, she would be tight lipped for days, years. Their relationship was like a marriage, exhaustive sometimes, yet appealing at others. Callie was younger, completely unknown territory. Her words the last time they saw each other stunned him, giving her a piece of his brain, one that would need to be mulled over before anything could make sense. He saw her as a kid, much like her brother did. Callie thought he was probably in his thirties. She had no idea of his age, of his true footprint on the globe. She had no idea. None. Some time ago, Lynch swore off women, even prostitutes that he used every so often. There were no attachments with whores; there were plenty at home.

As he ran today, he wondered what his true motives were with Jenna. When he had begun to have feelings for her, he absolutely knew what the problem was: her mortality. The day would come when she died. Since learning what it meant to live forever, he had watched more than his share of loved ones dying. Each death left him emptier than the one before it. If he took a life partner, she would not stay with him for eternity. He couldn’t watch it in that sense ever again. Now, it was more complicated. Lynch remembered how it was possible to change halfway during lovemaking. It was true. Before he loved Jenna, he loved someone else.

Lynch promised himself to never utter her name again as long as he stayed alive. He never thought of her mother, his father, or the man responsible for killing them all. He would never forget her or how much she meant to him. He had passed on the curse to her the first time they made love. His change was halfway, the transformation incomplete. The instant his canine teeth pricked her dark skin, he knew it was too late. When he confessed to what he had done, she didn’t care. She loved him deeply and openly, she was prepared to stay with him forever. Naïve, he believed it would be so. It wasn’t. Nothing Lynch ever loved stayed. Her own stepfather murdered her, her mother, and his father, burning them alive in a warehouse with a silver laced bolt on the door. Silver could kill a lycan in massive quantities; fire was quicker, much so. It was the only other way to efficiently end the life of a lycan, by burning him or her to mere ashes. When she died, Lynch was tempted to set himself on fire. The pain of her death was almost too much to bear. Bore it, though, he did.

Bent on revenge, Lynch hunted the murderer down. It would be the first human’s life he took without the need to feed. He wouldn’t admit the sheer joy he felt as he watched the life’s blood draining out of his body. Like some cheesy image from a horror movie, he threw back his head and literally howled. Only the most sensitive of ears heard it. Those that did shuddered uncontrollably. It wasn’t a sound that was supposed to offer comfort. It provided the antithesis of it. He walked away from the body, swearing never to allow this to happen again. From that moment on, when the desires of the flesh overtook him, he chose booze, then the nearest whore.

His sharp ears heard the quick ‘rap rap’ of a familiar step. He prayed that it would not be so. He was sorely disappointed. Within minutes, the other runner caught up to him easily enough. Lynch pretended to ignore her. It was simply no use.

“Hello again,” Callie said breathlessly. “We need to stop meeting like this.”

Lynch hated a bad cliché more than anything. It didn’t stop the stupid grin from forming on his lips. He slowed his stride to be more in tune with hers. “You caught up pretty quickly, didn’t you? I must be losing my pepper.”

He expected her to laugh, mention his age. Instead, she shook her head. “Nonsense. I really had to push myself to catch up.”

Oh dear God. Don’t tell me she was trying to catch me. He managed to look at her, noticing immediately that the bruise she had been sporting since moving here was gone. It had marred her face horribly and he was glad to see it gone. Small talk wasn’t a part of his forte. “How are you?”

“Better,” she said with a smile. “I think I’m finally getting used to living down here.”

“Good. Any word from the university?”

Apparently, Hugh had told Lynch that she was waiting on baited breath to find out if she had been accepted. “As of today, no.” She ran for a while next to him without speaking. Sooner or later, she had to say something. “Lynch, do you mind if I talk to you?”

Completely caught off guard by her question, he slowed even more. She noticed and slowed down as well. He had a few ideas running through his mind about what was on hers. How could he get out of this odd situation without hurting her feelings? “About?” He finally asked.

“I’d rather not mention it out here…in the open,” she began, “my brother and I are having dinner at your place in a few days. Do you think you could give me a tour of the grounds then? We could talk during it.”

His time worn heart began to bang inside his chest. He wanted to deny her request, but he was intrigued at the same time. “I think I could arrange that.”

“Thank you, Lynch,” she said, her voice giving away how relieved she was. “I think I can help you. I think you can help me, too.”

He was about to ask what the hell she meant. Before the words could form, she had turned so she could run in the opposite direction. The last time he saw her, she left him much in the same fashion. What was it with her and running away? Women were always a mystery to him. Callie Norwood was no exception.

* * *

Hugh told Callie what she should expect when they arrived at Lynch’s broken down house. She thought she might see a home on the bitter side of putrid, smelly, with rats slinking along the sideboards. The house was in ill repair, but besides that, it was beautiful to her tired eyes. There appeared to be three floors, each with its own porch railing. What she assumed were the bedrooms had their own balconies, French doors, and antique light fixtures. It reminded her of old plantation houses she had seen in the movies. If the paint job had been newer, if this in fact was a movie, perhaps a southern belle would waltz out onto her private balcony and wait for her beau to come along.

Smiling as she got out of the car, she saw that Lynch’s home was surrounded by woods as far as her eyes could see. Trees littered the entire property. She identified firs, oaks, and magnolias. That wasn’t all. Here and there amongst the others were various fruit baring trees that certainly didn’t belong in this climate. Some were apple, others peach, and what seemed like hundreds of pecan. Pecan trees were native to the state, so she could imagine thousands of nuts lying on the ground waiting to be picked. Although her conversation with Lynch tonight would be serious, she couldn’t wait to explore the property thoroughly. She hoped dinner was a swift affair.

At the door, they were met by a tall, thin man who introduced himself as Andy Hoff. Callie noticed the way he eyed her. It wasn’t in a particularly rude manner. Instead, it was more along the lines of curiosity. She smiled politely when she passed him to enter the living room. The house might have been in need of a carpenter, but she surely couldn’t say the same about the furnishings. They were modern, beginning with the huge overstuffed sectional sofa, recliners, and the flat screen TV hanging on the wall. Callie could sense Lynch all over this room. They followed Andy down the long, expansive hallway into a den area that almost matched the living room. The furniture here was simply another color. The moment Callie and Hugh entered the dining room, she was certain she was in another time. The table was made of heavy oak, polished to a bright sheen. The chairs were of the same wood with thick cushioned seats. The only thing Callie could think was incredible.

Lynch entered the dining room from the kitchen. He was carrying a bowl overflowing with a green salad. He was dressed simply in blue jeans and a light blue button down shirt. His appearance took Callie’s breath away. She was again struck by his good looks, the way he carried himself with authority. Her brother was a cop as well, but tonight, Lynch was the one with the most confidence. She could clearly see that now.

Lynch noticed Callie the instant she entered the room with Hugh. She had on another maxi dress. This one was a solid shade of purple. It wasn’t an easy color for any woman to wear, especially one with red hair. Yet, she wore it better than any other person he had met thus far. She had pulled her hair away from her face again, revealing her youthful beauty. He wanted to speak to her first. Instead, he found himself saying something juvenile and stupid to her brother.

Andy dove into the kitchen as Jenna came out to greet the guests. She saw the way Lynch was looking at the younger woman. A pang of jealousy struck her. It went away almost instantly. Any ideas Lynch had about her would be pushed aside tonight. She was certain that Callie had secrets, the kind that could harm Lynch in the long run. She bumped around Lynch to set a platter of rolls on the table.

As soon as Jenna entered the room, Callie’s eyes fell on the other woman. She had on a weird shirt dress belted at the waist. It seemed like clothing that a woman might have worn in another decade. On her, however, it immediately became a current sensation. The lavender shade of it complimented her blonde hair enormously. Callie didn’t believe herself to be a super model. Even so, she wasn’t bad looking. Jenna’s beauty made Callie feel inadequate. Did she feel as if Lynch’s roommate had somehow become her adversary? She didn’t know. What she did know was that Jenna Vos was gorgeous, and she suddenly understood why Lynch would have feelings for her.

They began dinner not fifteen minutes later. It seemed the meal was specially made for Hugh. They served all his favorites: fried chicken, green salad, baked potatoes, rolls, and Jenna announced they would have peach pie with ice cream for dessert. Callie picked at her food. She wasn’t crazy about any type of meat these days. Not only that, but she was ready for her tour around the property as well. There was a glass of wine beside her, which she hadn’t touched. It turned out that she wasn’t much of a drinker, either. It did quell her nerves, though. She picked up the glass, felt it oddly slick, and it glided wondrously out of her fingers. It hit the dinner table and shattered. The delicate noise it made drew everyone’s attention away from their food. Slightly embarrassed, Callie mumbled an apology, immediately setting out to pick up the pieces. When she grabbed the first one, it snagged her finger.

“Damn,” she hissed under her breath. Her blood was easy to flow, so it didn’t take long for it to drop onto the shattered glass in large plops. “I’m so sorry.”

Jenna jumped to her feet before Lynch could oblige. “Nonsense,” she said gently. “I’m clumsy as an ox myself.”

Callie watched as she carefully collected the broken shards. Her actions were a bit too careful for her taste. Normally, people made quick work of such disasters. It seemed as if Jenna were collecting the glass rather than clearing it. Why did this bother her? The surface of it felt wrong, different. “Can I help?”

Jenna shook her head. “No, that’s quite all right. I’ll get you something for your finger and you can finish your dinner.”

Callie was not the only person to believe something was out of place here. Lynch noticed immediately. He was listening to Hugh as he told one of his battle ground stories to Andy. His eyes were focused on Jenna. The moment Hugh finished the story, leaving Andy in hysterics, Lynch excused himself and said he wanted to help Jenna in the kitchen.

He saw Jenna as she carefully set the bloodied glass on a napkin. The moment she noticed Lynch, she tried to pretend she was busy checking on the pie. “What are you up to, Jenna?”

She smiled his way. “Nothing. I’m cleaning up, giving our guest a helping hand.”

“Bullshit,” he said calmly. “When everyone leaves tonight, we’re having a heart to heart. Got it?”

Jenna saw that Lynch was half amused, half serious. He had drunk wine the first time in many years. It had likely gone straight to his head. “Got it.”

Callie begged off dessert later, surprising Hugh. He knew she loved peach pie. She told her brother that Lynch had promised her a tour around the property. He shrugged his shoulders, muttering it was ‘her loss,’ and then wolfed down two huge bites of pie. Jenna and Andy stayed behind with Hugh. As they left the dinner table, Callie couldn’t help but notice that Jenna’s eyes followed Lynch out of the room.

Lynch took Callie outside via the door in the kitchen. She noticed it had a beautiful southern style awning over it. She thought it made the house even classier. Before they moved into the yard, he flicked on a switch by the door. It bathed the property beyond in light that should have been brassy, antiseptic. There was just enough brightness to see well without attracting every bug east of the Mississippi.

She walked at Lynch’s side for a very long time without speaking. He did a lot of talking, telling her about the trees, the land, and how he absolutely loved living here. She enjoyed listening to him speak. He never bored her, like most men his age. He didn’t hit on her. He shared history with her, stories that made her forget why she wanted to be alone with him in the first place. It was shattered before long.

“What did you mean by that comment you made, Callie?”

She didn’t realize at first that he had stopped walking. She was a few paces ahead of him. Callie stopped, approached where he stood by a tall oak tree. “I think I know your secret,” she began.

Lynch saw that she looked vulnerable, very far away. She actually spoke as if she were miles ahead in the distance. It was surreal. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He played it well, like any good cop would, she supposed. Her brother played the game quite well himself. It was what they did. “I never took you for a man who likes to play games, Lynch.”

Lynch smiled a trifle bitterly and scratched his head. “Funny, Callie, since you really don’t know me,” he said with an amused lilt to his voice. “Since we’re airing a few pieces of dirty laundry, you don’t seem like a typical victim of domestic violence.”

“Very intuitive, Detective Tackett,” she said with an ironic smile. “That’s because I’m not.”

In the house, Jenna left Andy and Hugh in the dining room. She served Hugh a second piece of pie before excusing herself. She told the men she wanted to get a jump on the mess. It wasn’t what she wanted to do at all. While Andy continued to be assaulted by Hugh’s colorful stories, Jenna took the broken glass downstairs to the basement. She wasted no time scraping a sample off the glass and gently placing it onto a slide. Within moments, she had the answers she needed. She returned to the kitchen and found herself staring out the window at Lynch with Callie.

“I didn’t think so,” Lynch said. “Women who come out of a violent relationship usually don’t start flirting with the first man they meet.”

“What made you such an expert on human behavior, Detective?” She crossed her arms before her. “Not everyone behaves the same. Basic psychology teaches you that.”

“What is it, Callie? What do you think we can do to help each other?”

It was obvious he had grown impatient. She couldn’t blame him, she had teased him enough. She needed to get to the point. “I know you’re immortal. I also know that you believe you killed a woman out in Calember County.”

Her words sent shock waves down his spine. There was no other way to define what he felt other than total, unexpected disbelief. He had hidden his secret for many, many years. No one outside their circle or ancestors knew. He was not about to give himself away to a woman he just met. “You need some help.”

Callie laughed saucily at his words. “Oh, that’s rich. I out your secret and the best you can do is suggest I’m insane.” She approached even closer to where he stood. To her surprise, he didn’t retreat. “I know by the mark on your hand, that was the first give away. My ex-boyfriend has a similar mark. He is a hybrid of sorts, he can shift into anything he wants. Once, I saw him shift into a woman with long dark hair. I also know because I was once immortal myself.”

“Ridiculous,” Lynch growled. He had never heard of any such immortal breed. The only species that could shift were lycans. He also understood that there was no such thing as being ‘once immortal.’ It didn’t work that way. It never had.

He tried to walk away from her, stopping only when he felt Callie’s hand clamping down on his forearm. “Clark never beat me, I lied about that. There is something impure inside him. He bit me on purpose because he knew the type of life I’d face. I played around until I created a protein strain that offers a cure. Before I moved here, I injected myself. I checked my blood, Lynch. It doesn’t exist inside me any longer. I’m cured. I want to cure you. Who is helping you? Jenna? Andy?”

“I don’t believe you,” he insisted. “I don’t believe any of this shit.”

Callie saw that his eyes were glowing. Only an immortal could do that when angered. “Lynch,” she whispered. “Let me help you. You’re a good man, one who needs to break free.”

“Collect your brother and leave my property. I don’t want to see you again.”

“That’s not true,” she told him. “I can feel how much you want this to be true. I will forever keep your secret, Lynch. I want to help you more than you’ll ever know.”

She leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. She began to pull away to honor his wishes. What stopped her was how he responded to her kiss. Within moments, their kiss intensified. Before long, she felt her back hitting the oak tree. Lynch’s hands were all over her. If this was what it took to convince him, she was absolutely positively not about to stop him. What she didn’t realize was that it didn’t seem to be her face Lynch saw behind closed eyelids.

From the house, Jenna knew something was going on between Lynch and Callie. She wanted to move away from the window. She couldn’t. If she had eyes like Lynch’s, senses like his, she would know exactly what was happening. Lynch had these senses, of course. He knew Jenna was watching.

Lynch ended the kiss as abruptly as he initiated it. His hand was still on Callie’s face and she was smiling up at him gently. He sensed Jenna’s hurt, could taste it in his mouth. “You should go,” he told her as he slowly lowered his hand, moving away from her as if she physically hurt him.

“Are you going to let me help?” She asked, sorely disappointed that their kiss didn’t lead to further developments.

“I’ll call you later this week,” he promised. “I want to hear everything with no bullshit.”

It was the best offer she would receive. He wasn’t quite ready to admit his immortality. “You won’t.”

They walked back to the house together. Once inside, Lynch didn’t see Jenna anywhere. He automatically assumed she was in her room. For another half hour or so, Hugh told his stories, and then Callie suggested they should go. She feigned a headache, Hugh bought it, and they left, promising to return the favor by hosting a dinner at their place.

Andy was dying to find out what happened. Lynch wasn’t about to go into right now. He was more concerned about Jenna. He promised Andy they would discuss it later, and then he took off upstairs. As expected, Jenna was in her room, pretending to read a book. She had already put on one of her billowing nightgowns with the obvious intent of going to sleep, apparently not caring to discuss the night’s events.

“I know you saw that. Will you give a minute to explain?”

Jenna looked up from her book briefly to acknowledge his words. He stood in her doorway, leaning heavily on the frame. She sighed and asked, “What is there to explain? You’re not my husband.” She wanted to give him a full piece of her mind. She didn’t. Not yet. Instead, she said, “I set up Callie tonight, Lynch. I thought that she was responsible for the death in Calember County. I almost knew she was immortal, so I needed a sample of her blood. I was wrong, she isn’t.”

“She knows I am, Jenna,” he announced. “She claims she once was, that her boyfriend is, and she has a cure.”

Jenna threw her book aside and laughed sarcastically. “So you believed her? Always a sucker for a pretty girl, aren’t you? Is that why you kissed her?”

“I haven’t told her anything, Jenna. I don’t believe her, but I’m not letting her get away, either.” He slowly approached her bed and sat down at the foot. “I can’t explain it.”

She was quite tempted to kick him off her bed. “You’re confused,” she said with another heavy sigh. “I want to speak to her when you do. I’ll know if she is sprinkling her explanation with bullshit.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” He saw that she was about to begin protesting, so he held up his hands. “Let me explain before you bulldoze into me. I don’t think it makes sense. I need to know more, and I’m sure she will not open up to me if you’re there.”

“You like her, don’t you?”

He lowered his head in disbelief before meeting her gaze. “Jenna, what does it matter?”

His tone of voice was pleading. She wanted to give in, to let him do what he wanted to do. “It matters because I love you,” she said stubbornly. “You kissed her tonight, Lynch. If you hadn’t sensed I was watching, you would have taken her up against that tree. You refuse to give your heart to me, but it’s obvious you want her. Why is she so different than I? She’s a mortal woman. I am a mortal woman.”

They had been having this discussion for several years. She asked the same questions as she did when he began to mess around with whores. He didn’t think of Callie as a whore. There was another thought process gnawing at his brain. Before he could help himself, he bluntly stated, “The difference, Jenna, is I don’t love her. I wasn‘t kissing her, I was kissing you.”

Was he finally admitting it? Was tonight the night? “What are you saying, Lynch?”

“What do you think I’m saying?” He was completely exasperated right now. All he wanted was a good night’s sleep. “I love you, Jenna. You know I do.”

Lynch was too tired for this, too tired for everything. Like a defeated soldier, he finally confessed, and he didn’t know how he felt about it. With that said, he was ready to get up and run for his bedroom, possibly locking the door behind him for good measure. He didn’t quite make it. Jenna came to him, leaning up on her knees, and kissed him. He was giving in, he was about to make love to her. The consequences were not what was on his mind. He was certain that no transformations were in store for him tonight, even a partial one. He was too exhausted for it.

Jenna broke their kiss after several long moments. She was ready, yet again, for him to withdraw. He surprised her by staying with her on her bed. Lynch kissed her again, his body slowly pushing her down. His hand heatedly moved from her face to the side of her body until it found the bottom of her nightgown. He left enough space between their bodies so he could slide up the garment. She wore nothing underneath. She sat up slightly to assist him in removing it.

His eyes roamed her body as restlessly as his hands. How many times had he imagined this moment? His imagination wasn’t as keen as he thought. Her skin was creamy, smooth, and as delicate as porcelain. Her body reminded him so much of another woman he had seen so many years ago, but hadn’t pierced his heart. Had Lydia Coyfield imprinted on his soul simply because she was the mother of the woman whose name he had tried to forget? Was this all a coincidence? Was this what he expected? He forced the thoughts out of his head, as his mouth placed gentle kisses along her neck, between her breasts, and just below her navel. She was trembling beneath him.

Lynch wanted to stop, to end this madness before it began. He had begun to psyche himself out to actually avoid this one more time, then he felt Jenna’s fingers at his shirt, unbuttoning it. Once unbuttoned, he struggled out of it, slinging it onto the floor. She worked at this belt next, then the snap and zipper of his jeans. He drew away from her long enough to discard the jeans and rid himself of his socks and shoes. The only barrier left was his underwear. Just as he was about to hook his thumbs under the elastic waistband, Jenna came up to her knees and lowered them for him. He closed his eyes tightly as her mouth planted gentle nipping bites at his lower chest and stomach. His shorts slid lower, lower still before finally resting at his feet. He kicked them aside and came back to her on the bed.

As they shared another kiss, their bodies molded together. Both of them were on fire, ready to make love to each other. Jenna broke the kiss first, her eyes searching Lynch’s. She was giving him the chance to walk away. It would hurt incredibly. Despite that, she would let him leave if he wanted. He had a choice. He would always have it.

“I won’t leave you this time,” he whispered down to her. “I love you, Jenna. I’m sorry I never told you until tonight.”

She didn’t know if it was the wine, their disagreement, or if he half way believed Callie Norwood. Whatever it was, he had given in. He decided he wanted to be hers now. Would tomorrow bring the same? Day after day? Year after year? She didn’t care. She wasn’t thinking of that right now.

“I love you, too.”

He entered her then, bringing her into his world more intimately than he ever had before. When it happened, she certainly didn’t see it coming. If her eyes hadn’t been closed so tightly, she surely would have noticed. Perhaps she didn’t want to notice. Jenna sank her teeth into his shoulder as she had one release after another. Lynch’s body arched upward as he felt his own imminent release beginning to build. As it happened, his eyes opened suddenly, widely. The color changed from dark brown to glinting silver. His canine teeth began to lengthen, the tip almost giving off a sparkle in the lighted room. Feeling it inside her, Jenna arched her body upward to meet his. He kept one arm around her, the other reached down to balance their bodies. He lowered his head and gently sank his teeth into her shoulder.

Jenna felt the sharp prick of his canines as they broke the skin of her left shoulder. She opened her mouth, cried out, mindful of Andy somewhere in the house. She knew exactly what he was doing to her, but in no way could stop him. Almost immediately, she was aware what this meant. Was he? Was he consciously aware of what he was doing? The answer came within moments.

The blood began to flow slowly out of the puncture wounds. He didn’t have time to taste it. The instant his teeth touched her shoulder, his release fully worked within him, and he collapsed on top of her. Jenna somehow realized he had passed out. His breath was heavy, almost at a steady pant. She slowly slid from beneath him until her feet were on the floor. She grabbed her nightgown and hastily threw it over her head. She gazed down at him. He was totally out. She didn’t understand. He hadn’t had that much to drink at dinner. It meant only one thing. He must have transformed partially. When it hit him fully, he normally suffered massive exhaustion afterward, sometimes passed out for hours at a time. If partially, he would probably be out until tomorrow morning.

Jenna ran into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door behind her. She drew her nightgown off her shoulder. Carefully, she wiped the blood away with a damp wash cloth. Once the blood was cleaned off, she clearly saw two puncture wounds on her shoulder; they left a bit of a scrape as they dragged downward slightly. At the same time, she felt instantly ill. Did this mean her mortal body had begun to die, to give way to her immortal one? She covered the wound with a bandage and put her nightgown back in place. She took the cloth along with her.

She went back into the bedroom to check on Lynch. He was still out. Barefoot, she padded into the hallway. From the noise downstairs, Andy was watching something on TV. Good, she thought. She raced down to the basement and approached her microscope. As she had done with the glass earlier, she took a sample of the blood from the wash cloth. She took the tiny bloodied fiber and placed it onto a slide. After a moment, she had her evidence.

Later, she went back into her bedroom. Her shoulder ached miserably and felt feverish at the touch. Her physical condition was deteriorating before her very eyes. Lynch was still out. Sighing heavily, Jenna slid into bed and stared up at the ceiling. Unbeknownst to either of them, Lynch had realized his greatest fear twice in the same eternity.

It was around four in the morning when Lynch came out of his deep sleep. For a long moment, he was completely disoriented. The room looked different and the French doors were on the wrong side. The comforter covering him from the waist down was soft, like satin. It hit him full force the instant his hand touched the material. He was in Jenna’s room, in her bed. He had finally broken a personal rule. The two of them had made love. He hated himself for giving in; the feeling drifted away quickly. He was happy to realize that it felt good, the tension was gone. The bed was empty beside him, and the bathroom door was open, the light out inside. His eyes then made out a small crack between the doors. Jenna was outside.

For now, the ache in her shoulder was dulled with the aspirin she had taken. She knew it was only going to come back, get worse, and spiral down until her first transformation was complete. Lynch told her once that after a bite from a lycan, the human body went through a process of natural death. It wasn’t complete, just a move toward different functioning. The heartbeat, the brain worked, and all the organs would continue to support the body as they always did. There was one exception. As soon as adrenaline began to flood through the body, it would feed a human like never before. She came to the realization that she had to leave until she had the first episode, and then she would begin the same course of injections as Lynch. Jenna had no intention of telling Lynch he had bitten her until the mystery of Callie Norwood was solved. If the things she said to Lynch were true, he would receive the cure first, her after.

The door suddenly creaked open behind her. Jenna visibly jumped in her seat before she tightened her robe about her body. Her vision already adjusting to the dark, she could make out all of Lynch’s features. Naked from the waist up, he was achingly handsome. She said nothing, didn’t smile, or ask him to join her. She wanted to gauge his reaction. She needed nothing more than to awaken in Lynch’s arms. Yet, it had been so very long since their crazy relationship developed into exactly what she desired. Heart ache was normal now.

Lynch saw that Jenna was looking at him. Her hands were tightly clutching her garments around her body. It wasn’t that chilly, so he didn’t quite understand why she seemed so overdressed. His sharp eyes picked up on the way she appeared somewhat ill. A pang hit him as hard as a steel fist. Had he bitten her? He couldn’t remember for the life of him. If he had, both would have known, right? It didn’t seem like an incident anyone could forget. When she looked away, he stepped over to the aging vacant lawn chair beside her.

They didn’t speak at first. Both were focusing their eyes in the distance, each lost in the same thought. Their quiet reflection might have been seen as strained by the untrained eye. However, it was comfortable, more so than Lynch had ever expected. He was ready to deal with whatever implications awaited them, but he would definitely rethink that once he learned Jenna and he had more in common now.

Lynch reached across and laid his hand on top of hers. She responded by gently manipulating their hands until their fingers were entwined. Hers were warm, as if she had a raised body temperature. “I expected to awaken and see you beside me. The bed was cold, Jenna. Lonely.”

Jenna smiled and turned to meet his gaze. “I’m sorry, Lynch. I honestly didn’t know what to do when I woke up. Believe me, I wanted to lie with you all night, relish what we shared.”

Sadly, he shook his head. “I know. You thought I’d push you away as I always have. Didn’t you?”

“I did,” she said, affirming what was on his mind. Like the sound of a faraway train rushing down the tracks, she picked up on what he was thinking, the words he longed to say to her. She heard them. She felt the sting of tears as they slid down her cheeks. Would he ever fully open up to her? “I’ve been with other men,” she began, knowing instantly that this wasn’t news to him. “None made me feel like I did when we were making love.”

He only partially understood her tears. There was something else behind them. She had a wall built up, one he didn’t have the mental strength to scale. He could have easily delved into her mind and dug up her buried secrets. He refrained. With Jenna, it was like spying, and very wrong. “It was the same with me.”

She knew it was true, knew it with her heart and mind. A name suddenly filled her head. It meant nothing to her. To Lynch, it had been everything for years. Although Jenna’s name was stronger in his heart now, this one kept cycling in her brain. Storm. She wanted to ask, but dared not to. Something else came into focus. It was a question near and dear to his heart as well. He was worried that he had bitten her. He didn’t remember, and she wasn’t about to tell him. The time was not right.

“No bad dreams?” She asked softly.

“Not any.” He had passed out after their lovemaking. It was a normal occurrence any time he transformed. He was afraid, terrified. “Jenna, did I…”

Lynch could not finish his thought. It didn’t take a tiny heightened sense to know what he was about to ask. “No, Lynch. Nothing out of the ordinary.” The lie tasted bitter on her tongue.

“I don’t know what I can promise.” The words felt like silver shards piercing his heart. “I wish I had the ability to do what a human could.”

“Baby, it’s okay,” she said. Her tears threatened to resurface. “I want you to love me the best way you can.”

“I want that, Jenna. More than anything.”

She squeezed his hand and brought it up to her lips. She traced her tongue along his fingertips. “I’m glad you finally came to your senses,” she said lightly.

He reluctantly pulled his hand out of hers. Standing, he approached her and took her hand again. Tugging on it, he said, “Make love with me again. When the sun rises, I want to feel what it’s like to wake up with your body next to mine.”

Jenna bit her lip, careful to keep the wall constructed against her thoughts. Lynch could not see her bandaged shoulder. He would instantly know. “There is something I need to tell you.”

He released her hand again and went for his chair. He dragged it closer to hers, so he could sit facing her. When he sat down again, he took both of her hands in his. “Tell me,” he commanded gently.

She swallowed a huge lump that had formed in her throat. He was not a man who took kindly to lying. Someday, he would thank her. “What happened between us tonight was a lot to process. After our fight a few days ago, I considered taking a small trip, just a short one to visit old college friends.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with that, but it was before…this.”

Lynch was studying her with fervor. She kept one word in her head, thinking it in a mantra like state. Wall wall wall. “I know it was, and our lovemaking made all the difference in the world. I need to go away and get my head straight.”

His frown was tremendous. “Jenna, your timing is completely shitty. We need to focus on what happened, we need to be together to keep it straight.”

“I know we do. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to transition from being your roommate to becoming your lover. Look how long it took us to get to this point. Please understand, Lynch. I need you to understand.”

He lowered his head for a moment before focusing his eyes on her again. “Both of us wanted to take this step. We finally leap for it, make an incredible connection, and you want to leave,” he said incredulously, hurt dripping from every syllable.

Jenna pulled her hands out of his, moved her chair, and stood up. She walked over to the balcony railing. It was still dark, the sun not quite ready to make its appearance. “Goddamn it, Lynch, not forever. I need a week or two at best. I’m confused.”

Lynch stood up, grasped the door knob, and turned to look at her a final time before going back inside. “You’re certainly not alone.”

She listened as he slammed the door hard enough for it to rattle in its frame. His footsteps were heavy as he left her bedroom, likely going to his. Hopefully, Andy was still asleep, safe from the sudden drama. An ache began in her shoulder, one that intensified, causing a sharp cramp in her abdomen. A violent blurt of vomit flew out of her mouth, thankfully over the balcony. Jenna had but a few days to get out of town before Lynch truly understood why she pushed him away instead of the other way around. More sickness was on the horizon, more than any of them bargained for.

CHAPTER 5

Callie pretended to read in her room so Hugh would leave her alone. He was truly entrenched in the idea that everyone should pitch in to run the household. She wasn’t like minded. Even though she was now living here permanently, she felt as if she were her brother’s guest. Everyone knew, of course, that guests weren’t required to do housework. Since that was the case, she was going to continue keeping her lazy ass glued to the bed.

The annoying bray of the vacuum cleaner started up, tempting her to grab a pillow and throw it over her head. She had too much to think about, and the annoying noise would not allow her to do so. Moving here had immediately tuned her in to other immortals in town. She thought her senses were directing her toward Clark. Somehow, the psycho had found her. He didn’t know she had ties to LeVale, no one did. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. She was drawn toward another direction instead. Her interest peaked when she heard of the murder. She also picked up on the feelings running through Lynch. He was certain of his guilt. The only factor that kept him sane was Jenna.

As Hugh continued to run the vacuum over and over the same spot on the carpet, Callie’s eyes settled on the black case hidden from everyone’s view but hers. It contained the serum, the cure. If Clark found it, he would certainly destroy it. She had a limited amount of the compound and wasn’t certain she could recreate it. It was her duty to protect it, to help others who might need it. In LeVale, the only other immortal was Lynch Tackett. She could cure him; show him that she was good enough for him.

The vacuum blessedly stopped. She sighed with great relief. Certain Hugh was finished cleaning, she threw her book to the floor. She was about to get off the bed and check on the syringes in her case when her cell phone twittered. Frowning, she picked it up and glanced at the screen. It was an unknown number. She had gotten a new phone and number right after moving here. No one other than Hugh had the number. Thinking nothing about it, she assumed it was a sales call.

She looked at it before putting it to her ear. “Look, don’t call this number again.”

Right before she could disconnect the call, a deep, raspy voice barked, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Callie.”

It couldn’t be. How would he find her number? Was finding her next in line? “How did you find me?”

He chuckled. It rumbled up from his belly and crawled up to his chest to be expelled out of his throat like a noxious fluid. It wasn’t a sound that most people would associate with jolliness. “How do I find anyone?”

“You psychotic son of a bitch. Lose my number,” she demanded. Her teeth were clenched so she could speak quietly, but with authority. She certainly didn’t want Hugh walking in on this call.

“Not until you destroy the cure, Callie,” he said softly. “I know you didn’t want the blessing I gave you. It doesn’t mean I don’t. I want to spread the happiness, my love, even if you don’t.”

“Fuck you, Clark!”

With that said, she snapped the phone closed, hoping that he wouldn’t call back. After a moment, when the phone didn’t ring, she breathed her second sigh of relief for the day. Clark had found her somehow. Obviously, he hadn’t figured out where she was staying in LeVale. However, he was close enough. His call proved it. The closer he drew to her, the sooner he would find her. It was another item of interest that she would have to bring up when she saw Lynch again. She asked herself numerous times a day why she became so entangled with the wrong kind of men. Right now, she asked herself again. What the hell was she going to do now?

* * *

Jenna waited until Lynch left for work before she called her friend Cecilia, Cici to her most intimate of buddies. Cici lived past Calember County, enough miles between her and Lynch. Back in the eighteenth century, this town was once called Riverbay. After a rich family moved in, it was renamed to Karon. There she could finish the business she needed to before coming back home. When Cici discovered who was on the other end of the line, she was surprised. The two women hadn’t seen each other in about five years. That was okay. The two of them had been really close in school, so Cici remained fond of Jenna. She announced that she would love to have Jenna visit with her for a couple of weeks.

After the call ended, Jenna sat up in her room on the bed for a very long time. Her body hurt. It felt like the flu, but ten times worse. Every now and again, she checked her wound. The puncture marks were violently inflamed now, swelled so much that it hurt to touch it. There was one thing she had left to do before leaving for Cici’s.

Down in the basement, where the vials of Lynch’s serum were stowed away, Andy kept a box filled with silver shavings. Jenna had yet to transform, so the injections would do nothing for her. Her last resort was the shavings. They kept them for Lynch. When his immunity increased, the silver would keep him from fully transforming while they waited for a new vaccine. The edges of the shavings were sharp enough to allow them to be inserted in Lynch’s fingertips. It was agony putting them in, watching him grimace with pain. Now it was her turn.

Jenna dug out the box and gazed down at the silver. Just looking at it made her feel sicker. She didn’t know whether this was true or if her mind was playing a trick on her. Whatever the case, she felt a strong aversion to it, a great dislike for the idea of picking it up. Fighting with all her strength, Jenna reached into the box and took hold of a shard. It was difficult work. The slice of metal was about the size of a small sewing needle. She would be forced to insert the silver into at least two fingers. She would then have to take some with her in case it was needed.

She looked at the piece of silver for some time. Then taking a deep breath, she held it high, aiming at the fleshy part of her finger. She made quick work of it. The prick of the razor sharp tip made her jump, cry out, and immediately burst into tears. Forcing it all aside, she pushed it until she could only see a tiny fleck of silver. She repeated the process on another. This time, it wasn’t as intense. The silver connected with her flesh like water and oil. It didn’t match. It didn’t go with her new DNA. An agonized sneer marred her beautiful face. It made her feel as if she was about to faint. Jenna continued to struggle against it, shoving it aside and blessedly out of her body. The silver would keep her safe until such a time that she was ready to dig it out for her first transformation.

Leaning over, she fought a wave of dizziness as she grabbed the container that held the vials. Once opened, she saw that there were many bottles. There was enough for Lynch here. Andy might miss the vial, but he would never suspect her. She hoped to be gone before Lynch came home from work.

* * *

Before leaving home, Lynch told Jenna and Andy he was going to work. That wasn’t necessarily the truth. He was due at work tonight. First, he had a serious meeting with Callie. It was time to find out how true her story was. Lynch was not a man swayed by a pretty face. He had plenty of questions that absolutely needed answering, and he would know if Callie was lying in an instant.

When he arrived at their agreed upon meeting place, he saw Callie seated on an uncomfortable wooden bench. He chose the area where he ran because he knew neither Andy nor Jenna knew about it. This was one secret he kept to himself. Everyone needed a place to unwind on their own without the hindrance of familial ties. He slowly approached her, taking note that she had come dressed in clothing that she wore to exercise. Obviously, this was her way of keeping Hugh out of the loop.

He sat beside her without waiting for an invitation. There was no need for it right now. “Start talking, Callie,” Lynch commanded.

“No small talk? No hello?”

Lynch glanced at her. She seemed hurt somehow, wronged. He didn’t understand. “Callie, I’m not here to socialize today. You told me a story at my house and I want to make sure it’s valid. That’s it. Now go ahead, tell me.”

She smiled bitterly. “Okay. If that’s how you want it.” She curled her leg underneath her. This could take a while, and she might as well make herself comfortable. “I knew nothing about immortals until I met Clark. At first, I was certain he was mental. I thought he was good looking, smart, and well put together…just mental. We had a few dates before I noticed how odd he truly was. He stared at other people in a weird fashion.”

He looked at her, trying to read if she was telling the truth. Thus far, it seemed as if she was. “He was looking at them like an animal looks upon its prey,” Lynch said, suddenly understanding.

Callie nodded. “Yes. As if they were prey. I didn’t understand it at the time. I simply thought he was curious. There is nothing wrong with a little curiosity. I’m the same way; it’s just that Clark was somehow different. Not only was he Clark, he could shift into other people. Mostly, he stayed in a female form, but I never forced a name from Clark about that. We were together a month or more before I slept with him the first time. He might have been different, but he was exciting, always ready to go out, have fun, and mix it up. I started to actually have feelings for him. He wasn’t a casual one night stand for me; I thought I was building something with him. I thought I finally found the one.”

Lynch knew where she coming from. He had felt like that many times in his eternity. “How did you come to know he was immortal?”

Shrugging, she said, “From our first night together. He told me he wasn’t human. I thought it was my cue to pack up my undies and get the hell away from him. Then he did something horrifying, something I’ll take to my grave. He picked up a gun, aimed it at his temple, and pulled the trigger.” She shuddered at the memory. “I rushed over to him, believing I had watched my boyfriend killing himself. There was…a…a…hole in his head.” Her tears came freely and she noticed that Lynch drew closer to her, putting his arm around her. “And like a movie, some horridly awful movie, the bullet slowly emerged from his head and plopped down to the floor. The wound instantly closed up, totally healing within minutes. He stood up, smiled, and yelled ‘aha’ at the top of his lungs as if it were some sick magic trick.”

At that point, Callie completely broke down. Lynch drew even closer and gathered her in his arms. He held her for a long time while she cried. Runners passed them, glancing at them curiously, but none stopped to see if they could offer help. Lynch was happy about that. He didn’t feel like dealing with an onlooker right now. When her tears began to dry up, he noticed the change in her demeanor. He slowly withdrew, staying close enough if she had another breakdown.

Callie wiped the tears out of her eyes with the heel of her hand. Actually, she wasn’t wiping them away at all. Instead, she seemed to be digging them out. “After the shock wore off, I had two choices. I could have run easily. I chose the other option, I stayed. God help me, Lynch, but I was interested. Clark excited me more than any other man I’ve met. I began to think I was crazy. Perhaps at first, I thought I had had a mass hallucination.”

Lynch continued to study her body language, to look into her eyes. He used the typical tools that detectives did to read if a perpetrator was telling him nothing more than tall tales. Everything about her seemed real. “How did he come to pass it on to you?”

She glanced at Lynch, noticed his serious expression, and she could tell he was trying to debunk her words. It should have been offensive. It wasn’t, because she knew he believed her. She felt more relieved now, more at ease. “We were messing around a little. Neither of us intended on taking it any further than just heavy petting, I suppose. I think Clark had other ideas. I don’t know if he wanted to turn me or attack me. He had me down on the couch, touching me, driving me nuts. Suddenly, I felt a sharp sting at my neck. Scared, I pushed him away. Within seconds, there was blood pouring out of two puncture wounds. Clark threw me back down on the couch and he…”

Her words were trying to dry up. There was more to the story. He put his arm around her again, hoping the move would encourage her. “I know it’s hard, Callie,” he said, prodding her along. “Go on.”

Callie nodded and fought back more tears. “He lapped the blood from the wound, like he was drinking it. I have never been so terrified in my life. He then said my mortal processes would die while the sickness took me. I had a week of feeling ill before I felt normal again. I felt like me, but empty. I felt without a soul.”

Her words shook Lynch to the core. He understood the feeling she described. It was if the heart were removed and replaced with a rock. “I see.” He wanted to say more; those two words were all he could manage.

“Clark said there were certain proteins, enzymes, and other compounds that would stop the process in its tracks and revert my DNA back to wholly human. When I asked about it, Clark never told me anything, even if I begged. It was like he had a mission to fulfill.” She turned her head so she could be eye to eye with him. “I didn’t want to be an immortal, Lynch. I didn’t want to live forever, and I sure as hell didn’t want to rely on murdering humans to sustain myself.”

He also identified with that as well. He was more than happy other foods could nourish him as long as he received injections to tame the wild beast inside him. “What is he, Callie? What kind of immortal?”

“He said he was a hybrid mix of two immortals. I’ve never heard of it before. And I can’t remember the name right now. Something like hardros and schuifelen?

Lynch almost froze when he heard schuifelen. This was the creature Wit Hoff mentioned their needing lycans to stand guard centuries ago. As far as hardros could be concerned, it was an alien concept. The words were originated in the Dutch language. He also remembered Andy’s father telling him of a mythological creature apparently found only in lycan lore. The creature was a mixture of serpent and demon blood lines. They were the lycan version of the boogeyman, as it were. They craved blood like vampires, but were more shape shifters. They were hard to detect, relatively easy to kill, but they had to be caught first, and that was next to impossible. When he heard this story, Lynch purely believed it was nothing more than an urban legend. Now, someone completely unknown to him was telling him her ex-lover was one. He didn’t know whether to believe her or not. The cop part of his mind was also working overtime. The murder in Calember County sounded like a kill the creature would commit.

“How long did he say he had been immortal?”

Callie shook her head. “He never said for certain. I don’t think he has been around long. I just don’t know. He never talked about that type of stuff. I looked at samples of my own blood and could see the evidence that I was different. I began to use any and every compound imaginable until I found one that killed the elements. He knew I invented an antidote. He wanted no part of it, because he enjoyed how he lived and what he did. Every time he found the compound on my person, he destroyed it.”

“And that is why you wanted to come here to get away from him,” Lynch said, looking at her again.

“Yes,” she whispered. “I wanted nothing to do with him. He claimed he never killed anyone, but I don’t believe him. He was just too…evil.” She shuddered again. “He somehow found my cell number and called. He wants to get his hands on the compound. I can’t let him. If he is a him. For all I know, his main ‘face’ is the woman. I want you to benefit from it, Lynch.”

Her beautiful eyes were studying him. He remembered he had yet to tell her the truth about his own problem. He had yet to admit it. If he told her, and she was lying, his life would be over. Since connecting with Jenna, he thought his life had begun again. He wasn’t ready to die. If he told her, he would break years and years’ worth of promises not to divulge his secret. Although Callie was cured, she still had the sense enough to detect that he was immortal. There was a choice here, one that wasn’t as easy as a person might think.

Lynch thought of Jenna so far away right now. What if he called her, to tell her he fully believed Callie? Would that make a difference? Would Jenna come back to him? Would she more or less give him permission to tell? Did he need it? After all, it wasn’t Jenna’s issue. It was his. After a moment, his decision was made.

“Callie, can you sit here for about fifteen minutes while I make a call?”

She shrugged. “Sure. I have nowhere else to go. I’ll wait.”

“Thank you,” he said with a gentle smile. His lips buffed the side of her cheek. “If you need me, I’m in my car.”

Leaving Callie behind, he strolled casually over to where he parked his car. Looking back at her and ensuring that she would keep her word to stay, he unlocked the driver’s side door, and climbed inside. Lynch dug his phone out of the glove compartment. He didn’t know the number where Jenna was staying, but he knew she had taken her cell phone in case of an emergency. He dialed the number and waited impatiently for her to answer.

After four rings, a muffled, strained voice answered. “Hello?”

It was Jenna. She sounded ill, like she had the flu. “Jenna? You sound terrible. What’s wrong?”

She recognized his voice right away. She had only been at Cici’s for approximately half an hour. The drive exhausted her, so as soon as she briefly caught up with her friend, Cici set her up in the guest house. She immediately went to bed for a quick nap. Her limbs were aching terribly, the shoulder wound throbbing, and her head was about to explode. “Lynch, I told you I needed some time away. You’re calling me after less than two hours? Do you not understand what ‘time away’ means?”

Lynch discerned that she was beyond upset. There seemed to be tears clotting every word she spoke. “I’m sorry, Jenna. I’m here with Callie and she has told me everything. There is nothing about her or her words that lead me to believe she’s lying.”

Jenna heard the passion in his voice. He was with Callie. Great. “That’s wonderful. Hope you’re having fun.”

He groaned. “Jenna, it’s not like that. Will you please listen to me?”

Jenna knew she was in no shape to listen to anybody right now, especially Lynch. She wanted so badly to tell him she was in the midst of leaving her mortal body. From experience, she knew he would not be happy to hear the news. It wasn’t like they were newlyweds finding out they were having a baby. Fighting the urge, she sighed heavily and said, “Okay, Lynch. I’m listening.”

“I want to tell Callie everything.”

Her fog lifted for a moment. “You want to what?”

“I want to tell her everything. She has the cure; I believe it wholeheartedly, Jenna.”

There was hope in his voice. She hadn’t heard that in a long time. “I don’t agree with your decision, Lynch. Saying that, there is nothing I can do to stop you from doing what you want.”

“Come home, Jenna,” he said gently. “I need you here with me.”

A horrid cramp assaulted her lower leg. She bit down hard on her lip until the cramp passed. “I’ve been there for you twenty years. Why wait until after we make love to appreciate me? I can’t, Lynch. Not yet.”

Her words were meant to be hurtful, vengeful. He didn’t sense it was her true purpose. She was simply trying to get rid of him. It didn’t take his lycan sensitivity to understand that. “What is going on with you? Maybe I should come up there and take you home.”

The passion was back in his voice. Oh how tempted she was to tell him the truth, to let him come here and take her home. She held back her tears. “No, Lynch. Don’t come out here. I’ll be home in two weeks. I have to go now.”

Before Lynch could say another word, Jenna hung up. Lynch growled as he stared down at the phone. Suddenly, he wanted to throw it, maim it. It wasn’t the phone’s fault Jenna had decided to stay away from him. Then he understood. All this time, all these years, he had taken her for granted. Now when he needed her the most, she wasn’t here. Part of him couldn’t blame her. The bigger part of him felt like an unruly five year old denied an ice cream cone. He placed the phone back into the glove compartment. There was still unfinished business with Callie.

Callie looked up as Lynch approached the bench and sat down. She gazed up at him with a quizzical look on her face. “Will you let me help you?”

He met her gaze. “We’re not finished talking yet.”

She held out her hands. “And?”

Lynch sighed deeply. How hard would this be for him? “You’re right, Callie. I’m a lycan. I was born this way. My mother was lycan, my father human. It wasn’t a choice for me and I wasn’t attacked by another. I just am.”

“Thank you for telling me,” she said with a warm smile. “I knew it anyway, and I knew I wanted to help you. Why don’t we go back to my place and I can give you the cure?”

He held up his hands. “Not just yet. Jenna is away visiting friends. When she returns, I will take you up on that offer. I just want her here first. Do you understand?”

She nodded. “Of course.”

“There’s something else,” he said cautiously.

“That is?”

“The murder in Calember County, Callie. Do you think Clark did it?”

“No, Lynch,” she said easily. “Clark could be cruel, he could even play horrible tricks, but I don’t think he is near here. If he was, he would have found me first.”

“And you’re certain of this?” He pressed. If there was a chance the murder could be solved, he was taking it.

“I’m positive. He’s still out in New York constantly partying.” She placed her hand over his. “Come back to my place,” she offered again. “I’ll fix you lunch.”

He sensed an unspoken invitation for other things that had nothing to do with lunch. “Callie, I don’t think that is such a good idea.”

“Why not?” She asked her voice tinged with hurt. “Jenna is not here for you right now. I am.”

She had spoken very true words. As angry as he was with Jenna, he didn’t think it would be a good idea to get tangled up with Callie. “Jenna and I have moved our relationship to the next level,” he began. “I don’t think there can ever be anything between you and me.”

Her hand was still on top of his. When he spoke, she tightened her grip. “When you kissed me, I felt what could be between us. So did you.”

Of course, he wasn’t truthful in his kiss. It lied to them both. He saw Jenna behind those incredibly soft lips, behind the sweet tasting lip gloss. “Callie, I can’t…”

She released his hand. “Just lunch. I promise. I want to hear more about your life, your family, what you have gone through.”

This, he was sure, wouldn’t hurt. “Okay. Lunch amongst two friends.”

She smiled brilliantly at him. “There you go.”

The two of them went back to Callie and Hugh’s apartment. According to Callie, Hugh had left for the gym. He and Lynch would be due for their shift in a couple of hours. Although he thought coming here was a bad idea, he had to admit he was starving.

Lynch sat at the breakfast nook while Callie stood in the kitchen getting their lunch together. She said she was making her special chicken salad for him. He actually liked chicken salad and he began to relax. She served him a glass of iced tea with his meal before getting her own together. Callie sat across from Lynch at the nook and silently watched him eat.

“So,” she began, “what’s your story? What’s it been like to live as you have?”

After taking a bite and swallowing, he drank some iced tea to wash it down. “I’ve lived this life for centuries,” he said. “My mother was mortal, my father a lycan. He said they met at her parents’ estate. Apparently, Mother’s family was blue bloods. My father owned a mercantile.”

Callie took her fork and played around with her food without putting any in her mouth. “Is that right?” She drank a sip of iced tea. “And your father? How did he come to be?”

Lynch shrugged. “He said he was born from a union between a mortal and a human. My father was human,” he said. “Oh, he heard stories of werewolves. Yet, he didn’t want to accept them. He always believed there was good in our breed, just like there is good in any human. Nikolas Tackett wasn’t a man who bought any line of bullshit.”

She laughed at this. “Sounds like you.”

He chuckled and took another bite of chicken salad. “I suppose.”

Intrigued now, she forgot all about her food. She leaned her chin on her hands, placing her elbows firmly upon the nook. “How did he meet your mother?”

“They were suppliers of his. When he went to gather inventory at their estate, he saw a young woman there. Her name was Constance. She was delicate, genteel, but also strong-willed and stubborn.” He smiled fondly as he remembered his father’s words. He was a no nonsense type of man. Despite that, he told his son that he fell head over heels in love with her at first sight. “He immediately knew he wanted to marry her the first time he saw her.”

Callie sighed under her breath. She was a woman of science. That didn’t stop her from believing this story truly romantic. It fit those she read in romance novels, her one guilty pleasure in life. “How did your father muddle through life as a lycan? How did he fall in love without the guilt of possibly turning her?”

Lynch ate another bite of chicken salad, washed it down with more iced tea, and suddenly felt uninterested in food. “Good questions. It was different in those days, I suppose. He didn’t think about the consequences whatsoever. I’m sure he was afraid of himself with her without it interfering in their romance. Like I said, in those days, it was easier to disappear, to deal with the transformation, find wild animals in the woods to use as feed, and return home with the wife as none the wiser.”

“How did your mother’s family deal with their relationship? As you are aware, history tells us that blue blooded families were a bit more choosey in those days.”

He let out a cynical chuckle that dried in his throat the moment he thought about his father’s past. There were secrets even he didn’t know. “History wasn’t far from the truth. It didn’t matter to Constance’s parents. They were successful suppliers and also made coffins for funerals. They were much too busy to care about who Constance had their eyes on. Her brother and sisters didn’t care for him much, but they grew out of that. Other than that, her parents understood what a good business deal their marriage meant. They saw it as practical. I can’t remember meeting any of Mother’s family. Nikolas wasn’t wealthy, but he didn’t do badly for himself. There was more, and he knew it. He could speak of his lost love or his father’s lover, Lydia Blount. A woman who almost mirrored Jenna. Yet, he had no way of truly knowing what happened after his mother died. It was one story his father never touched. The image of his father’s, Lydia’s, and his love’s ashes haunted him.

“Of course they would,” she said with cynicism clearly in her voice. “They produce the products, he sells them. Everyone gets rich. Did your mother ever know about your father?”

“No. It was his one regret in their marriage. He hid it from her well. Whenever he felt the first tinges of change, he left. He had a certain sixth sense of when he was about to have a transformation. Most of us do. When it came upon him, he told her he had to leave for a few days to gather supplies.” He didn’t know, couldn’t, that she had confessed on her death bed that she had known her husband was different all along.

Callie watched him fiddle with his fork. She knew it was difficult for him recalling his personal history, especially with someone he didn’t know well. “What happened to your parents?”

“I never knew my mother,” he said sadly. He drank some iced tea to soothe his throat. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember speaking so candidly about his parents with anyone else other than Jenna. “She died during childbirth. My father was murdered.” With my first love and her mother, he thought vaguely. By her own stepfather. He was a smart man, but never deduced the connection.

She wanted to know the reason behind his father’s murder. She didn’t want to pry, because she could see how haunted his eyes were when he spoke the words. There was more behind it. More she wanted to know. “Did you ever find his killer?”

He gazed straight into her eyes. “Absolutely. It was the first kill I ever made without the need for food.”

“What about lovers? You had to have those.”

Something about his demeanor changed completely. He went from being totally open to closed in nanoseconds. “I don’t want to go into it.”

Her face pinked with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Lynch. I didn’t mean to pry.”

He sighed heavily, realizing he had likely hurt her feelings. “You didn’t pry.”

Without thinking, she reached across and placed her hand over his. “It might help if you wanted to talk about it, Lynch. There are things you have seen, lived through, that I cannot possibly imagine.”

Lynch couldn’t believe what he was about to do. He hadn’t told Jenna anything about the first love of his young life. What was it about Callie that made him feel as if he could speak so freely? “There were women, Callie. Many of them. I had a great love of my life. She died with my father and her mother.” He would tell her that much without mentioning her name. He would not speak it to her, to anyone.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I can see the hurt in your eyes. We never truly forget the people who touch our lives.”

He noticed her hand was still on his. He wanted to move it away; he couldn’t. Without Jenna here, he needed the closeness of a human. “No, we can’t.”

Desperately wanting to change the subject, Callie asked, “What did you do all these years?”

Thankful for the direction she had taken, the ice was once again broken. He slowly moved his hand away from hers and busily attacked his food. Swallowing a bite, he said, “Almost everything. I fought in the Revolutionary War and remained in the military until I was thrown out. Before the Civil War began, I was a Pinkerton. I was in love with the law, and my father once said I followed our town’s constable everywhere he went. I also more or less drifted from place to place. He left a significant amount of chattel. It supported me most of my life, until I connected with Andy and Jenna’s ancestors. They began developing the serums which have sustained my life.”

“And your fabulous house? How long have you owned it?”

“As long as it looks,” he said amusedly. “The home is actually one my father built for my mother before they were married. In those days, Pa called it Tackett House Manor. I was born right up in the master bedroom. Over the years, I’ve changed things here and there. Although my father left a modest estate, his mercantile was sold off after I served with the Pinkertonst to pay the remaining debts on it.” He didn’t mention anything else about those days. Most was still a mystery. “My Pa had a breakdown of his own, which he never discussed, and I began running the mercantile when I came back home. That is how I met…” He stopped speaking for a moment. He had almost said her name. He cleared his throat and continued: “I’ve blown through most of my money on it and a lab I had built in the basement.”

Her ears perked up, she was more than listening now. “A lab? I’d like to see it.”

He shrugged. “It’s nothing special, really. Just the right equipment for Jenna to complete her work.”

She would get back to that subject later. Right now, more questions piqued her interest. “And what about your job now? What happens when people begin to notice you never age?”

“I have been a cop for almost fifteen years. Knowing when I should age, I sometimes take steps to progress the process. Lycans who are pure born stop aging in their twentieth year. I work at a job, dye gray streaks in my hair, and retire. I move on to other careers in fields within different communities. When it’s time for me to leave the police department, I will find something else and start over.”

“Your life must be a lonely one,” she began, “have you ever considered turning someone so you will never be alone?”

He shook his head. “Never,” he stated emphatically. “One day, the compounds Jenna invents will stop working. Both she and Andy have instructions.”

Callie again put her hand on top of his. “They won’t need to use them, Lynch. My cure will end it. That I promise you.”

The two of them finished their chicken salads with conversation floating away from talk of immortals. Lynch allowed Callie to walk him to the door. There, Callie boldly moved forward and placed a kiss on his mouth. Stunned, Lynch didn’t know how to react other than to simply let it happen.

When it ended, Lynch wasn’t sorry. His heart belonged to Jenna. It had belonged to her for a very long time. With this on his mind, he didn’t think allowing Callie to kiss him could honestly tarnish anything. “Callie, I wish…”

She wouldn’t let him finish his sentence. “It’s okay, Lynch. I know you’re not available. I wish you were. If you ever are, you know where to find me.”

* * *

Since his (or her) last kill, the self-proclaimed ender of human life began the hunt for another prey item. Moving from one area around Calember County to another part of the state, he spotted the next human he wanted to make his own. He stalked the area without being seen. He was good at that, actually…better than most. The man he chose moved around at night, which was perfect. The killer moved around then as well. He could hunt during the day, and pounce once the sun set. The problem with that, however, was his prey didn’t stay alone. He had a plan to isolate him. It would work. It had to. He was hungry for blood.

Thinking of his prey, he laughed. Most horror movies liked to portray blood thirsty killers as eyeing women as targets. Why didn’t these pieces of trash ever get it right? True hunters of humans weren’t limited to one gender. They bent both ways. This last thought sent him into hysterics. He laughed heartily, forcing those sitting around him to look at him as if he were crazy. Most people might think he was. He wasn’t. Oh no. What he was could be explained away as something that happens to every living thing. He was hungry and ready to strike. Would tonight be the night? He didn’t know, but he was ready.

CHAPTER 6

In bed, Lynch had another dream, so familiar to the other that it would jar him when he awoke the next day. He felt like he did when the wolf took over. It seemed that he was running after prey, not like the prey he took down. This prey was human prey, a man. He felt his body pushing him over the edge. There was no way to stop the wolf when he hunted. The victim looked over his shoulder, saw what was chasing him, and couldn’t believe his eyes. The prey screamed, but it didn’t do any good.

As soon as he was close enough, he flew in a flying tackle that would have made any football coach proud. The full force of his oversized body hit the back of his victim so hard, he flew a hundred feet or more. As soon as he hit the ground, he was almost dead and surely paralyzed from the snapped spine. As long as the heart was still beating, it didn’t matter whatsoever. He jumped on his prey, ripped, chewed, gnawed, and ate his fill. As soon as he was finished, blood covering the dark hair on his wolfen chest, he stood back and howled triumphantly.

Suddenly, Lynch sat up, nearly screaming. There was no blood on him, yet he could feel the sticky texture everywhere. The only thing covering him was sweat. Breathing heavily now, he threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Jenna wasn’t here, but Andy was. He hoped his movements didn’t awaken his friend. At the same time, he heard the thump of his feet coming up to the third floor and directly to his room.

The door was open, so Andy invited himself right in. “Are you all right, Lynch?”

Andy looked out of his element without his fake server uniform and spectacles. The only thing that was real were the spectacles. He was a loyal friend, research assistant, and one damned brain. Andy had never had a family of his own; he made the Tacketts a part of him, just like Jenna. It was an incredible rush to know they had his back no matter what the circumstances.

“Fine,” he said vaguely, waving his hand at Andy, trying to dismiss him.

“You’re lying, my friend. You had another dream, didn’t you?”

There was no getting away from his concern or glare of those ice blue eyes. “I did,” he admitted with a sigh. “Did I leave the house? I dreamed I killed again.”

“You didn’t, Lynch. Maybe it’s time to get Jenna back here,” he said.

Laughing sarcastically, he said, “Do you think I haven’t already called her? She wants nothing to do with me right now. I can’t blame her, Andy. I could try, but I wouldn’t believe she would come.”

* * *

Jenna was wrapped up in the bed covers when she heard Cici’s car pull into the driveway. After Jenna arrived, Cici set her up in the guest house behind the main residence. She hoped Cici wouldn’t come out to see her for a while. Although she heard her friend come home, she didn’t necessarily make a move toward getting up to greet her. In all honesty, she didn’t feel much like doing anything. She had no idea it was going to feel this bad. Well, duh, you stupid bitch. You are dying. Well, she was sort of dying. Jenna thought about her conversation with Lynch earlier. The hurt was clear in his voice. Again, she remembered how long she had waited for him to admit he needed her. When he finally did, she denied him. It was making her heart ache miserably at the thought. Was she allowing him to move on? Oh, come on. You didn’t leave him forever. Whatever processes were going on in her body were playing tricks with her mind.

Struggling mightily, she sat up. Carefully, she unbuttoned her blouse and slid it off her shoulder. To her amazement, the wound looked better than it had since Lynch bit her. The transformation was happening faster than expected. The swelling had gone down significantly. Right now, it was red, not puffy like it was when she arrived. Despite that, she felt worse than ever. The body aches wracked her; the feverish sensation was still present. Her headache had begun to subside, so that was the one bright spot in her condition. Cici was a busybody, just like she was in college. There was a good chance she would come out to the guest house to check on her. Jenna then decided it might be a good idea to try and get up off her lazy ass.

Slowly, Jenna swung her legs over the side of the bed and made her first attempt to sit up fully since arriving. It went better than she expected. The room spun somewhat, but not enough to cause her to fall over. She stuffed her feet into her slides. She had gone to bed without undressing, so she didn’t have to worry about that. Her head throbbed at the sudden movement. However, it resolved enough for her to continue. Jenna brought herself up to a standing position, again with little issue. She ran her fingers through her mussed hair. When she accomplished those tasks efficiently, she managed to walk into the small bathroom to take a look. Pleased with her appearance, she left the guest house and made her way out the door.

Cici heard a discreet knock at her back door. Knowing it was Jenna, she called out for her to come in. Jenna took her time as she was still wobbly on her feet. When she entered the kitchen, she saw Cici putting away the groceries she had picked up. She didn’t know that her friend had another guest. Sitting at the small kitchen table was a woman approximately twenty-five. She wasn’t on her feet, but Jenna could tell she was tall, probably well over five feet eight. Her hair was long, almost to the buttock and dark brown. From her vantage point at the back door, she could see that her eyes were bright green, with a hint of mischievousness. She smiled her way. It was friendly and contagious. Jenna smiled back in spite of feeling very uncomfortable.

Cici turned from her bag of groceries and smiled at Jenna. “Forgive my rudeness, Jen. I found her wandering around town. I thought she was cute, so I brought her home with me,” she said amusedly.

“You certainly wish, don’t you,” she replied with a very raspy voice.

Jenna approached the table where she sat and offered her hand. “Good afternoon, roaming stranger. I’m Jenna Vos.”

She took her proffered hand and shook it briefly. Hers was warm. Her grip was firm and strong. “I’m Sophia Honsterott. Although she hardly claims me, I’m her sister-in law. I’m married to her brother.”

Cici had mentioned having a brother when they were in college. She had never seen a picture of him or met him before. “Nice to meet you,” Jenna said.

Without waiting for an invitation, Jenna sat at the end of the table, about a chair away from Sophia. She turned hers head to watch Cici. Yet, it seemed as if she were paying attention to Jenna. She did so without giving away what she was truly doing. One of her hands was resting on the wooden surface of the table. That was when Jenna noticed a small scar that looked self-inflicted, but she had seen it before. It piqued her interest immediately. Internally shaking her head, Jenna thought nothing else of it. She had simply been living with Lynch way too long. Everything she saw these days reminded her of Lynch. Not every damned person was an immortal. There were plenty who had scars, dark hair, and deep voices.

“I invited Clark and Sophia to dinner. He’s on vacation here for a few weeks. . Soon, he’ll be back home in New York,” Cici explained. I have no idea where he is right now, but you’ll meet him soon.”

New York. It hit her again. Wasn’t Callie Norwood from New York? Again, she cooled her ticking mind. New York was a sizeable state. Numerous people were from New York. Besides, she was miles away from Callie Norwood and Lynch Tackett. “I thought you didn’t sound like you were from around here,” Jenna said.

She smiled Jenna’s way. “I thought I would come and keep an eye on Cici on Clark’s behalf. He’s so flighty. When her husband and daughter are away, someone needs to look after her.”

Cici looked Sophia’s way and stuck out her tongue. “Screw you. Watch your mouth or I’ll send you packing.”

“I doubt that very much,” she challenged. “What’s for dinner?”

“Clark’s standard man cave favorite. Steak and potatoes, apple pie for dessert.”

Sophia laughed and winked at Jenna. “Nothing like a good piece of meat.”

Cici laughed before she turned to look at Jenna. “Jen, I’m not trying to insult you, but you look tired.”

She shrugged. “I’m getting over a bout of the flu.”

Cici arched her eyebrow. “Really? Are you sure you didn’t let that guy you live with knock you up?”

Jenna cut her eyes at Sophia, then at her friend. She seemed not to have noticed Cici’s crass comment. Either that or she chose to ignore it. “Cici, come on. Not hardly. I told you that nothing is really happening there.” If only it was that simple.

That evening, dinner was a simple affair. Sophia begged off dinner and disappeared somewhere upstairs. Jenna stayed mostly silent. She politely listened to the sibling banter between Cici and Clark. They were very much alike with coal black hair and tall, lithe bodies. It had been a few years since she last saw Cici, but she was glad to note that their relationship had reverted back to what it was. She felt comfortable with her friend. She missed both Andy and Lynch immensely. Though that was the case, it was nice to get away, to live a normal life for once.

After they ate, Jenna offered to help Cici clean up. She completely refused and insisted that Jenna make herself comfortable. Choosing to go outside for some fresh air, Jenna sat in an oversized porch swing. Cici lived in a large house out in the country. It reminded her of Tackett House Manor, the house she had called home for twenty years. The only exception was that the view was better. There weren’t as many trees on the horizon and she was able to see more of the night sky. It was very nice. She could almost count every star out here. She should be sitting here thinking of nothing, relaxing, clearing her mind. It didn’t work. Everything she saw reminded her of Lynch. She was so tired, but she couldn’t move. Even the pain which had wracked her body since she arrived seemed to lift. Coming here almost made her forget what was to come.

Jenna wasn’t alone for long. She watched as Clark came outside. He noticed her sitting alone on the porch swing. “Mind if I join you?”

She didn’t want company, still she found herself nodding his way. “Sure.”

He sat beside her, seemingly enjoying the same view as she. He leaned over, rested his arms on his thighs, and clasped his hands together. “I don’t visit my sister often enough. It’s so quiet here, unlike New York. I love coming here, but I’d probably lose my mind if I lived here.”

She smiled and propped her arm casually on the back of the chair. “Lots of people say that. It’s ironic, really. I’ve already met two people from New York in so many days.”

He turned his head to look at her. “Really,” he said with a smile. “That’s unusual. Small world.”

“No doubt,” she said lightly. “What do you do?”

“Freelance writer,” he said. “I once dabbled in law for a while. You?”

It was a question she hadn’t been asked in years. How exactly would she describe what she did? “Private sector kind of stuff.”

He laughed. “Broad description. Do you live here?”

“Yes, about seventy miles or so away, in a town called LeVale.”

“Never heard of it.”

It was her turn to laugh. “I’m not surprised, not many people have.”

“My sister mentioned a guy earlier. Are you married?”

She shook her head. “Not even close. Attached? Yes. Married? No.”

“He sounds like an ass,” he said, keeping his eyes on her face.

“No, I think I’m the ass this time.”

It was vague, but gave him an opening. “Cici is always working and I’d love to know my way around. Would you like to give me a tour?”

Clark was married, yet he didn’t wear a ring. It was the first thing she noticed. Jenna bit her lip and found herself gazing out into the night. Wasn’t it just her luck? She had lived with Lynch for twenty years, had been in love with him her entire adult life, and when they finally connected, circumstances forced her to run away like a scared teenager. She had been here less than twelve hours, met a married man, and now he was more or less hitting on her. He clearly knew she was from another town, another county. It was more than obvious he wanted more from her than a tour. It was almost absurd. What would he do if she told him she had been bitten by a lycan and was in the process of becoming one herself? Did he want to be shown around town with a creature no one believed truly existed? Honestly, she didn’t know if she wanted to laugh or cry.

“Are you serious?” She asked, her eyes focusing on the swiftly darkening horizon. “What about your wife?”

“Of course I’m serious, but I’m afraid Sophia hates exploration. Why else would I have asked?”

Not believing what was happening to her tonight, she looked at him. “I don’t think I’m the guide you need, Clark.”

He smiled at her. She was sure he thought it was very charming. It might have been to another woman. “No? I think you’re wrong.” Suddenly, he stood in front of her. “It was very nice to meet you, Jenna. I hope to see you again before we leave for home. I’m going inside to say goodnight to Cici, gather Sophia, and head back to the hotel. If you change your mind about giving me a tour, just let me know.”

She smiled up at him and nodded. “It was nice meet you, too.”

Clark went back inside, leaving Jenna in peace. She gently rocked her body forward, making the swing sway lazily. Cici’s brother was very charming, but there was something out of place about him. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. He made her uncomfortable. It was a feeling she couldn’t explain. Forcing it out of her mind, she tried to relax, to forget for a moment everything that haunted her.

* * *

When Lynch went to work, Hugh told him there had been another murder. This one in nearby Green Lake. The name hit him hard. It was where Lynch had found his pa and forced him to come back to LeVale. Why were the murders happening in a seeming circle around LeVale? Andy had him convinced he wasn’t guilty of killing anyone. At the same time, he was either unconsciously running around killing people. Goddamn, I don’t kill humans.

Since it was in another county, they again had no jurisdiction. The Green Lake sheriff was less open than the one he had spoken to about the first murder. What in the hell was happening? Either there was another immortal who was undetectable by him, as Jenna had postulated, or he was killing people. He hadn’t done anything of the sort since the last human he murdered a hundred years ago. He was a different man now, not a killer. He took Andy’s advice and let it come as it may. Hard evidence was needed, just like any police investigation.

* * *

Tonight, she was in Dubois County. Sometimes she came as Clark, others she was Sophia. It was a wonderful way to distract the police. It was one county over from Calember. She almost went there. Deciding it might be too suspicious for her to go back, she chose another instead. She had been watching her prey for a few days now. It didn’t take long to get her routine down. She found several openings for an attack. Craving blood now, it was time to feed.

From time to time, she ate regular food. It satisfied the human part of her well enough. There was another part to satisfy. Tonight, it was ravenous. Oh yes. Very much so. Cloaking herself in the darkness and thick dense vegetation, she heard the heavy footsteps drawing closer and closer. At the sound of her prey coming toward her, her muscles became tight and tense. That was perfectly fine. If she were wholly human, it would work against her. Since she was not, it worked in hers favor.

The moment she saw the man’s ankle from afar, her hand began to ache. The pain came just before her claws were exposed. When no more than a few inches separated her from her prey, her claws suddenly appeared. As it occurred, she swung her arm outward, her claws making contact. They sank into the man’s flesh and he bawled out with pain. Her actions swift and sure, she dragged her prey into the bush before the man had a chance to scream for help. Like a flash, she pounced on her victim with savage strength and deadly accuracy.

Before her prey knew exactly what happened to him, she sank her canine teeth into the soft flesh of the neck. Blood poured into her mouth, tasting sweeter than nectar to a bee. She drank greedily, loving the warmth of the blood as it slid down her throat. Her victim kicked and cawed weakly. It wasn’t long before he stopped moving altogether. The killer drank greedily before her prey died. For good measure, she chewed up a bit of flesh. She had to move quickly.

When she finished, she stood up and wiped the blood away from her mouth. Looking down at her prey, she was sorry the man wasn’t as beautiful as the redhead. It didn’t matter. For now, her thirst was quenched. Soon enough, it would rage to the surface again. Before she began stalking her next prey item, there was something else she needed to do first.

* * *

Lynch awoke suddenly, a scream behind his lips. This time, he saw himself hiding behind dense vegetation, reaching out for a man, and drinking his blood. Like the other victims in his first dream, he could almost taste the blood and flesh in his mouth. He was almost certain that he was not the killer. Yet, it was disturbing all the same.

The first thing he wanted to do was call Jenna, to tell her about this dream. She wasn’t here and his heart felt damaged. It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounded, either. All he had to do was pick up the phone and call her. It wasn’t that simple. Jenna didn’t want to talk to him and he didn’t understand why.

* * *

Callie found herself at the university. She had just completed a tour of her future Chemistry department. From there, she visited the library. The school at LeVale was small, but they had quite an impressive library. Her mind was distracted after her conversation with Lynch, so she thought perusing the dozens upon dozens of shelves would do her some good.

With Jenna out of the picture, she expected Lynch to fall right into her arms. She was wrong. Unlike Clark, he was gentle and kind. He didn’t bask in the glow of his immortality. He was trying to get away from it. She had the cure; Lynch didn’t jump for it. He wanted to wait for Jenna. Why was she so important in this battle? She thought she had pinpointed it. He didn’t completely believe her. If he would only allow her to inject him, he would. Damn him. Damn all men.

She moved from one aisle of books to another. She touched each one, as if trying to become one with them. One major love of hers was books. She absorbed them the way a sponge absorbs water. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t take any of them home with her. She put her finger on one book and suddenly shuddered. Was someone following her? Watching her? She turned around, looking in each direction. There was no one. It didn’t stop her from feeling as if she were being observed.

She stepped to the end of the aisle, looking around again. No one. She went to another. Again, no one. Thinking she was only feeling slight paranoia, she went to a different aisle to pursue the volumes. It wasn’t long before she felt the same sensation once more. It began to work on her nerves. It brought back memories from New York. Memories of Clark. Impossible. He was in New York. Although he called her cell phone, he didn’t know where she was.

She was certain her feelings were unwarranted. She was confident, but shaken, so it was time to go home. She walked to the end of the aisle where she was currently standing when she saw something that shook her to her very core. It was a flash of glossy black hair. Okay, Norwood. Calm down. Clark isn’t the only person with glossy black hair. It was true. Many people fit that description. What chilled her even further was how fast this individual moved. Only Clark was capable of that.

Her heart hammering in her chest, she walked as fast as she could to get out of the library. She would feel safe at home with her cop brother protecting her. Every step she took, she glanced over her shoulder. She never saw anybody back there, could only feel eyes.

Callie drove recklessly all the way home. She didn’t know how she made it without crashing into dozens of cars. She tore her way out of the car, dove for the front door, and slammed into the apartment. She didn’t see Hugh inside, and she cursed him for that. She locked the door behind her and leaned her back heavily against it. Her chest rose and fell. If it was Clark, he could easily blow through the door without trying. Where the hell was Hugh? She had driven his car to the university, so it wasn’t like he could have gone far.

After calming down, she peeked outside. Seeing no one suspicious, she closed the blinds. The sensation of being watched haunted her. She absolutely knew she did not imagine this. On top of everything else, her brother wasn’t home. Where the hell was Hugh? Then, she realized something could have happened to him. She dashed into the kitchen, grabbed the phone, and that is when she noticed the note on the refrigerator door. It was from Hugh. I have gone for my run and will stop at the convenience store for a few odds and ends. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.

* * *

Out in the boonies, Lynch awoke from a troubled sleep. After a few hours, he got out of bed and discussed his dream with Andy. He also finally admitted what happened between him and Jenna. Andy said nothing, simply asked Lynch to ‘spare him the details of their tryst.’ Lynch was sore over it, but that comment broke him up completely. It felt good to laugh again. Worse for Lynch was that Andy had no idea why Jenna left. He did, however, mention that a vial was missing down in the basement. It seemed odd to Lynch, just not enough to make him worry. He batted it aside, drank a glass of water, and went back to bed.

He had just managed to throw the covers back when the phone rang. Hoping it was Jenna, Lynch got up quickly and grabbed it before the voice mail could pick up. “Jenna?” He asked hopefully.

“No, Lynch. It’s Callie.”

Her voice sounded distressed and somewhat disappointed that he said Jenna’s name first. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

She laughed bitterly. “You could say that. I need to see you.”

“Where do you want to meet?”

“Our usual place.”

The three words she spoke sounded like they were intimate. He knew she didn’t mean it that way (or he supposed so). “Give me twenty minutes. I just got out of bed.”

“That’s fine, Lynch,” she whispered. “Just hurry.”

When Lynch arrived at ‘their place,’ Callie was already there. She sat on the bench with her arms crossed before her. It wasn’t cold, she wasn’t trying to avoid a line of questioning, so Lynch discerned that she was scared. Something was very wrong. He got out of the car and slowly approached her. She didn’t acknowledge his existence or utter a single word. He sat beside her and waited for her to speak.

“I think Clark has found me,” she said shakily.

“What makes you think that?”

“I was at the university library, just killing time. All at once, I felt someone was watching me. Then I saw a person with glossy black hair. That’s Clark’s calling card, his hair.”

He didn’t want to make light of her fear. At the same time, she was upset and paranoid. She probably saw him at every corner. “Callie, it doesn’t mean anything. Just because you saw someone with glossy black hair doesn’t mean Clark has found you.”

She looked at Lynch. Hurt was written on her face. “To be so ‘sensitive,’ Lynch, you don’t know shit. That was Clark’s game. When we were together, he did that to me a lot. I thought it was exciting back then. Now it’s just sick. What was even sicker was that Clark would often shift into this female form and demand sex. I didn’t know what the hell he was doing. I went home immediately, looked for Hugh, but he wasn’t there. You were the only other person I could call. And what do you do? You try to be a cop, telling me I’m jumping at shadows.”

He was immediately sorry. “I don’t mean to be, Callie. You’re scared because he has made contact with you.”

“You’re acting like you don’t believe anything I told you. I’m tired of it.”

She made moves to get up, but he took hold of her forearm gently, preventing her exit. “Callie, I’m sorry. Listen. I had a dream last night about someone else getting killed. I think the killer was a woman this time. I’m going to check later today to see if anyone has some information. I have Clark on my suspect list and I will share the information with other departments. If he is around, if he is the killer, someone will find him.”

Callie laughed bitterly. “And what? Execute him by lethal injection? What will the prison do when he simply gets up and walks away?”

“I said someone will find him, not necessarily the police,” he said pointedly.

“Do you know how to kill him? You have never heard of an immortal like him until I told you about him.”

He shook his head. “No, I have no idea what we’re dealing with. You have created a cure. All we have to do is inject him with it. After that, he’s up for the taking.”

“You don’t understand,” she said. “It will take a miracle to catch him. The way he moves is unbelievably fast. No mortal can do it. What are you going to do, Lynch? Stop the serums that keep you from transforming? Are you coming after him as a lycan? That’s the only way he will be caught.”

Lynch absorbed her words slowly. He wasn’t stupid. He completely understood Callie’s words. There was simply no evidence that Clark had even darkened their doors. She was overreacting, paranoid, and upset. He didn’t want to make light of her distress.

“Evidence, Callie. As soon as we prove it’s Clark, we’ll go from there,” he told her. “When he shows his face, we will know.”

She had begun to cry. “We don’t have to see him, Lynch. I already know he’s here. I found you, didn’t I? I’m sensitive enough to know.”

Without hesitating, Lynch gathered Callie in his arms and held her close. She was right. She knew about him, and she knew about her ex-lover. He was now impossibly in two corners. He needed Jenna more than ever. He was so torn he couldn’t think straight. As a lycan, he could find Clark. As a lycan, he would be totally out of control. There might not be any other way.

* * *

After seeing Callie home and promising he would come running if she needed him, Lynch set out to the LeVale Police Department. He wasn’t expected in for another few hours, but he needed to get a jump on things. His dream led him to believe there were three suspicious murders. A few phone calls and Internet searches later, he had his answers.

Hikers in Dubois County found a body in heavy brush. From sources at the police department, the body had been mutilated. There was no forensic evidence left at the scene. These facts bothered him in more than one way. Andy admitted earlier that Jenna was staying with her friend. This small hamlet happened to be located in Dubois County. The most recent murder was in another county. As was thought before, it seemed the killings were literally encircling LeVale. This did not seem good at all. He sat at his small desk glaring at the blank computer screen. What would he do now? If he called Jenna, she would not come home. In fact, she might not even take the call. Then what? The bodies had injuries consistent with the woman in Calember County, and all three police agencies were connecting the crimes. At the moment, they were thinking a serial killer was lurking around, even though two victims were man and the other was a woman. He silently thanked those willing to share information with fellow officers. Otherwise, he would be fucked.

Fighting himself mightily against calling Jenna and also losing in much the same fashion, Lynch picked up the phone. Stabbing the number more than dialing, he waited impatiently for someone to pick up on the other end. It rang four times before the voice mail kicked in declaring that Cecilia Hendrickson was not available. Clearly, she could be working. However, Jenna definitely was not. She knew he was probably on the other end of the line. Without leaving a message, he slammed down the phone, cursing under his breath the whole time. Why the hell wasn’t she answering?

* * *

Callie stayed behind a locked door with blinds covering the windows until Hugh came home. He was confused by his sister’s actions. She explained it away as post-traumatic stress disorder. Knowing the type of ordeal she had just gone through, Hugh believed her.

Until he left for work, Callie stayed underfoot. Hugh was mildly amused, but mostly irritated. He was concerned for his sister and offered to hire someone to say with her. Tempted, she refused. Hugh left for work and his exit was uneventful. The moment he left, Callie locked the door, closed the blinds, and found Hugh’s secret hiding place where he kept his extra gun. It wouldn’t kill Clark. It would, however, alert their neighbors, saving precious minutes that might save her precious life.

* * *

From the pictures Callie kept, Clark was able to identify her brother easily enough. He stayed in the shadows and watched as Hugh climbed into his personal vehicle to drive in to work. He didn’t have to possess any special powers to realize Callie was alone. Their apartment complex was large, there were many units crammed in together. He did not know how easy it would be to force his way into the apartment, grab Callie, and be able to escape. Another fact he knew well was that she had on her person a few syringes of her cure, which she named Lyaisom. Destroying it was only one part of his mission. The other, of course, was doing away with her mortal life, bringing her back to blessed immortality. What good was solving one problem only to leave the other up in air? He also had a score to settle with Lynch Tackett.

Deciding that tonight was not the time to grab her, Clark casually walked through the neighborhood, ensuring that he gave much of his attention to the complex itself. While he strolled around, he wondered if she was aware of his presence. He thought about it. She probably was. He was with her at the library and saw how fast she left. To him, it was a clear sign that despite curing herself, she had some sensitivity left. It wouldn’t be easy kidnapping her because of this very fact. He had to have time to plan.

His other problem was that he sensed another immortal nearby. He picked up on the cues as soon as he fed on the woman in Calember County. He had yet to identify who it was. Once he did, he would be very happy, very happy indeed. As he moved several blocks away from Callie’s apartment complex, he looked back over his shoulder. I’m coming for you, Callie. Perhaps she knew how to find the other immortal. She would definitely be a font of information.

* * *

When Jenna came to stay with Cici, she understood that her friend was a very busy lady. She worked for a private company as a genetic engineer. On her third day as Cici’s guest, she announced she had to go away for a very short business trip. Cici was completely apologetic about it, offering to call down Clark or Sophia to keep her company. Jenna explicitly told Cici she understood. There would be more time to catch up as soon as she came back. She also informed Cici that she truly didn’t need company, and not to burden Clark. Actually, Jenna was hoping this type of thing would happen.

It was time for her first transformation. She could feel it happening. As darkness fell on the day Cici left, Jenna’s mortal life would end. She took to the guest house and waited. It was the primary reason Jenna did not answer the phone when Lynch called. She recognized the number, but was clearly unable to take the call.

Quickly, she stripped off her clothing. When the pain hit, it was intense and struck her limbs first, while she stood on her feet. She had just enough time to stuff a cloth in her mouth to stifle the screams. The moment it began, it brought her down to the floor. Her muscles stretched and changed, elongating in an unnatural fashion. It felt as if someone cruel had grabbed each of her feet and pulled with all their strength, unmindful of the discomfort. Just as the pain began to cease, her feet went through the same stretch/pull process. As it happened, she screamed as loud as she could. She thanked all the Gods that she had had the mind to stuff something in her mouth.

After her feet and legs were assaulted, her arms and hands were attacked next. Her fingers grew long, webbed together, and broadened. If asked, she would tell the person it felt as if a giant stomped on them, squashing them flat before turning them into deformed paw-like structures. The silver she pushed through her fingers popped right out without effort. It smoked as if it had been lit on fire. Claws replaced her toe and fingernails, seemingly pushing them outward and back. Jenna screamed again, this time the sound closely resembled a howl.

Her face and neck distorted. Her cheeks sunk in, a snout magically appearing where her nose once was. Again, the stretching and pulling moved her skin forward, dragging her teeth along for the ride. In her entire life, she had never felt anything so agonizingly painful. Her canine teeth began to grow long, sharp, and dripped with saliva. Her blonde locks, her glory as it were, receded inward, hiding in her scalp, only to be replaced with coarse fur that sprouted all over her body. It hid her skin, covering it fully, producing its own type of pain. Another scream/howl emitted from her mouth. She bit down harder on the cloth, working the material between her jaws. The ears were the last to emerge. This, for reasons unknown to her, was the least painful of all. It happened quickly, so much more quickly than she expected.

At last complete, Jenna lay in her lycan form on her side, panting weakly. Her human mind was replaced by that of an animal. Like an animal, all she was interested in was feeding. It seemed as if she hadn’t fed before. Food and water would satisfy her. Food and water was what she needed. After resting for no more than five minutes, she stood on four shaky legs. Her chest and hindquarters were longer and slimmer than that of a wolf. When she gathered her strength, she was able to lift her body upward on two legs. It was time to find food. Thinking like an animal, she did not look for a door. She looked for the quickest way out. Without a moment’s hesitation, she leaped through a closed window, shattering the glass. She left behind a tuft of white hair and small droplets of blood. To an outsider, she looked like a tailless snow white wolf on two legs.

Before the transformation was complete, Jenna hoped that no one saw what just happened. As a lycan in true form, she didn’t care. What she didn’t know, what would cause more problems in the future, was that she had been observed. Cici, having asked Clark to check on Jenna, had seen and heard everything. Watching the process, a smile spread on his face, one that literally lit it up. Immortals, it seemed, were all around him.

* * *

At dawn, Jenna awoke in a patch of woods. She had nothing on. Near her was a deer that looked like it had just been slaughtered. The belly of the animal was gone. There was a great cavity in its place where it had been hollowed out, or perhaps chewed. She realized it was the latter the closer she drew. The sight of it sickened her. A warm jet of vomit flew out of her mouth.

After she recovered, she brought herself shakily to her feet. She looked all around her, searching for clothing. At first, she had no memory of what happened. Then she glanced at the deer again. It hit her suddenly, like a fist to her stomach. There was dried blood on her hands, arms, and cheeks. Last night, she became a lycan. Last night, she had hunted the deer and killed it to fulfill her hunger, her blood lust. She wanted to vomit again, but she fought it back and turned away from the dead animal.

Jenna assumed she was completely lost. She took several deep breaths until her heightened senses began to kick in. Thankfully, Cici was gone and wouldn’t see her bloodied, nude body making its way back to the guest house. Padding slowly through the woods, her feet crunching down on dead pine needles, she made her way slowly back to the guest house. Once inside, she showered under the hottest water she could stand.

She felt much better afterwards and cleaned up the mess she left behind. Later on today, she would have to make it into town to find replacement glass for the window. Before she could do anything else, she sat on the foot of the bed. She didn’t remember much about last night like her hunt for the deer. She prayed that she hadn’t hurt any humans during her feast. If she did, she would never forgive herself. Thinking clearly for the first time since she showered, she went to her suitcase and dug out the small box where she stored the compound. She grabbed one of the syringes and quickly gave herself an injection. After that, she sat back down to catch her breath again.

Jenna didn’t have much time to relax. The doorbell rang, startling her. Who the hell was that? No one but Andy knew she was here, and he promised not to tell anyone. If Lynch knew the exact location, he would likely be the one. Then again, she supposed if he tried hard enough, Lynch could find her anywhere. She padded from the bedroom, through the tiny living room, and went to the door. She tiptoed up to the peephole. Shit. It was Cici’s brother.

Tightening the belt around her robe, she opened the door to his smiling face. “Good morning,” Jenna said. “Cici will be out of town for a little while.”

“That’s okay. She told me she was leaving and asked that I check on you,” he explained.

His accent was different, one she had a hard time identifying, and oddly, she didn’t notice it before. She knew he lived in New York, but definitely didn’t sound like a native. “I appreciate the thought. I’m fine. Where’s your wife?”

“No,” he said suddenly. “You’re not. Did you notice you cut your foot?”

He ignored the question she asked about his wife. Instead of pushing it, Jenna looked down, immediately noticing the small slice at the arch of her foot. It wasn’t bleeding, just looked fresh. Had she cut it last night or while cleaning up the mess in the bedroom? “Oh, yes. I had an accident in the bedroom last night. I was trying to toss something in my suitcase, missed, and hit the window. I cut it while cleaning up the mess.”

He had a look of concern on his face that was quite touching, considering he was a complete stranger. “Do you need a doctor?”

Embarrassed, she laughed. “Oh no. I took care of it myself.” Not only that, it will heal in record time, anyway. That is how it works for immortals. “I will need a ride into town to get replacement glass for the window.”

“I can absolutely do that for you,” he said with a smile. “If you’d like, you can get dressed and we’ll go right away.”

Again, she had the thought that something was not right with this man. He was married and seemed not to even speak of his wife. She didn’t want him or Sophia anywhere near her. Her politeness won out. “Of course.”

Jenna moved out of the doorway to allow Clark to enter the room. He sat down and started his wait for her. She went into the bedroom and closed the door. Not caring whether it was rude or not, she locked the door behind her. What was it about this man that she didn’t like?

Outside the bedroom, Clark sprang from his chair and walked up to the closed bedroom door. It was locked, but that didn’t matter. He could easily burst through it. Instead, he put his ear to the door and listened for a moment. He smiled, stepped back, and sniffed at it. He smiled again, his canines growing at the second, dripping venom and spittle. Fighting the urge to burst in on her, he licked the door as if he were pleasuring a mate. This woman was an immortal, a lycan. Lycans were sworn enemies of his, of Sophia’s. It would be fun playing with her.

CHAPTER 7

Clark Honsterott woke from a brief nap in his uncomfortable hotel bed. Despite the fact that her brother was already dead, Cici offered to allow him and his wife to stay in her guest house. He refused because of his ‘special’ life circumstances. Cici loved him, but she didn’t push for further information. He was glad. Otherwise, he might have had to kill her. Now, he didn’t have the option of staying there. She had a lycan under her roof. Of course, Cici wasn’t aware of this when she told Jenna she could stay. Then again, he was certain Jenna wasn’t a lycan when she first came to town. Clark was sure last night was the first time she transformed, which left a question. He knew who turned her. And he knew where he lived, had known for over three hundred years. It was time for him (and Sophia) to hunt for another type of game, a foe. He had an idea where to begin.

As he remembered his change to his grand immortal form, he laughed. He also laughed about the role Lydia Blount played in his new gift and resurrection. From that day forward, he never shared the gift until he met Callie. She was definitely his type and he loved her red hair. At first, he thought of her only as a prey item. They could have some fun before he fed. However, when they had sex, something happened. He realized he liked her. He wasn’t certain that his immortal heart was capable of love, but it was definitely suitable for lust.

The more time he spent with her, the further in lust he fell. He began to understand why Iris wanted a companion. As silly as it sounded, eternity would surely be a lonely place. Who was left in his life? Cici, perhaps? But by then, she wasn’t truly her brother. He then decided to put on a show for Callie. She was the kind of girl who would love it. And at first, she did.

She told him of her brother the cop. That didn’t bother either of them at first. What he didn’t count on was the fact that his lover had a conscience. She couldn’t imagine killing someone. He tried to tell her it was no different than what a lion does to a gazelle. It wasn’t killing for the sport of it. It was for the need to sustain them. Yet, he kept it to himself that he thoroughly enjoyed killing. From the second day that Callie lived as an immortal, she began searching for a way to reverse it. He definitely wasn’t against it. When she cured herself, he was close to killing her. He almost managed, but somehow she got away. Now, though, he knew where she was. Soon, it would be time to stop her, and stop her he would.

As he knew, there were other immortals floating about. None so far were like him. He assumed they were in Europe. It was easier to find prey there, to get away with murder. Here, it was quite trickier. Cici’s friend was a lycan. Lynch Tackett had obviously turned her. He had missions to complete, a need for a massive amount of silver, or he needed to commit arson, or perhaps he should frame someone for murder. Either way, his enemies had to die. Lycans had heart. His kind did not. It was as simple as that.

* * *

Lynch and Hugh had a quiet beat that night. He didn’t immediately go home or finish his usual run. Instead, he drove out to Dubois County. At first, his intention was to hunt down Jenna and bring her ass home. Instead, he drove out to the area where the last body was found. He wasn’t associated with the police department there, but he was still a cop. He needed to look around, to see if there was evidence present that the cops missed. He had abilities, sensitivities, and might find something an ordinary person might have missed.

He parked his car about fifty yards away from the scene. There were other people in the area, possibly going toward a jogging trail. This area was similar to the one he frequented. He was surprised that anyone would come around, considering a brutal murder had occurred here. He wasn’t one who understood human nature at times. Most mulling around glanced at him, but considering he wore his badge on a lanyard around his neck, they likely thought nothing of it. Ignoring them, he continued on.

The crime scene tape was strung around a large area of the scene. It wasn’t unusual to leave it behind after a CSI team finished their work. He ducked under the bright yellow material and walked into the area. His heightened scenes immediately perked up. In his mind, he could see himself killing the man, as he did in his dream. It was difficult; he pushed it out and away. He kept Andy’s words in his mind as he looked around. It was a premonition, you did nothing wrong.

Although the area was small, he walked the grid, looking, feeling, smelling, and tasting the air around him. He smelled the blood, the redolence of the killer’s aftershave, which was markedly different than his own. He closed his eyes, focused on the images in his mind, and tried with all his might to see the face of the killer. He wanted to see glossy black hair so badly he could almost touch it. He didn’t. It didn’t go that far. Annoyed, he clenched his teeth and began to focus once more. He knew it was more than possible he would see Clark, because he psyched himself up to do so.

Lynch crouched down and grabbed a handful of grass. The killer was smart. He certainly knew how to clean the crime scene. Present was no DNA he could sense that was immortal. Touching the grass, he tried again to see the face of the killer. Nothing popped into his head, he only saw himself. What the hell was happening here? What the hell was he expected to do? Where the hell are you, son of a bitch? He brought himself up to his feet.

“What are you doing out here?”

He turned suddenly, focusing his eyes on a woman around thirty. She was strikingly beautiful. Her hair, dark brown, was pinned up in a tidy French twist. She was also wearing a badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck.

“I know you’re not from our department and I know you aren’t FBI,” she spouted angrily. “The only thing I do know is that you’re a cop dicking around in someone else’s playground. Care to explain before I call your superiors?”

Lynch slowly approached the woman. She struck him odd. He almost felt as if he knew her. It was impossible, but the feelings were strong. Instead of offering his hand for her to shake, he stuffed them in his pockets. They were covered with grass stains. “I’m Lynch Tackett, LeVale PD. I heard about the murder and it’s close to my backyard. I thought I would take a look and be prepared, especially since the press is hinting at a serial killer.”

She smiled. It wasn’t friendly. Instead it was sardonic, almost bitter. “Julie Lawry,” she said. “The press are nosy and usually don’t know shit. I’m the lead on this case. You shouldn’t be in someone’s yard without their permission, Tackett. I think we can handle things on our own. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a hike.”

He nodded respectfully. “I don’t mean to interfere with your investigation. I’ll get out of your hair, but if our officials decide we need to team up for this, give me a call.”

“You bet I will,” she said sarcastically. “Don’t let me catch you around here again.”

Lynch ignored her warning and made his way back to the car. He turned before he left, noticing how she moved around the area, as if she thought he stole something. Police detectives were surely protective of their crime scenes.

Julie Lawry was actually Sophia Honsterott. She sneered toward him. We shall meet again soon, Tackett. That I promise.

* * *

After Clark left her blessedly alone, Jenna tried to eat. It was no use. All she could see was the dead deer. Part of her was disgusted, the other satisfied that she had made her first kill. What the hell is wrong with me? What made it worse was that she could sense Lynch all around her. He was here, but she had no idea why other than to find her. He wasn’t a man who didn’t follow her wishes. When he didn’t immediately come to Cici’s, she was upset.

Jenna couldn’t make up her mind. She wanted to see him badly at one moment, then the next, she didn’t care if she ever saw him again. Sooner or later, she would go home and tell Lynch he had bitten her. She knew how he would react. He would want them to kill him. It surely wouldn’t solve anything. Her fantasy was simple. She would return home to Lynch, tell him she was a lycan like he, then he would make love to her, marry her, and stay alive with her, sharing their eternity. It was stupid, though, stupid and childish. It was something that might happen in a movie or romance novel. Reality wasn’t quite that simple. Damn it to hell and back, it was what she wanted. How could she convince Lynch of this?

She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Her cell phone was quite close to her. She sensed Lynch was probably on his way home by now. She was alone, she wished for some company. It didn’t matter who it was, as long as it wasn’t Clark. For a few moments, she cursed Cici for leaving her. It was like her. She was the type who would dump her friend if a boy called.

The cell phone suddenly rang, causing Jenna to jump a foot off the bed. She cried out and placed her hand over her heart. When she recovered, she grabbed it, swiped it, and put it up to her ear. “Hello,” she said. Her breath was deep and shaky.

It was Lynch. “Where are you?”

She sighed heavily. “What does it matter?”

“You know why it matters, Jenna,” he told her gently. “I want you to come home. I’m near you right now.”

She knew he was, but couldn’t tell him. “Do you not understand the meaning of giving me time? I’ve already asked you this question, you know. Go home, Keagan.”

Jenna rarely called him Keagan. Truth be told, she was the only person he actually liked hearing say it. “You don’t need time unless you truly don’t love me.”

She sighed deeply. “You bastard, you know I love you. You’ve always known.”

Come home,” he stated emphatically. “I miss you, I need you.”

Jenna took the phone away from her ear and chewed on her lip until it was bloody and raw. What was she going to do? Her first change was over, she had taken an injection, and her lycan urges were quelled for now. What more was there to hide from? She put the phone back up to her ear. “Lynch,” she whispered huskily. “I’ll come home either tomorrow or the next day.”

He, too, sighed. “Thank you.”

One handed, she wiped a few stray tears out of her eyes. “But I…I need you, Lynch. I need you now.”

“Where are you?”

His voice was even deeper, almost raspy. Sexy as hell. Her body quaking, she gave him directions to Cici’s house. When the task was done, she said, “I love you, Lynch. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too. No matter what chased you away from me, I love you. Please always remember that,” he said.

She began to cry again. She hoped that was true, she sincerely hoped so.

Jenna opened the door to Lynch no more than fifteen minutes after their phone conversation. She didn’t give him time to enter the living room. She went to him, wrapped her arms tightly about his body, and pressed her lips to his. It didn’t take long for him to react in kind. His hands went into her hair, moving through it restlessly, his mouth opening against hers, his tongue demanding entrance. She accepted it, touching it with hers, tasting him, and savoring his mint tinged breath. Her hands slid from his strong, muscled back to the firmness of his buttocks. Squeezing tightly, she pulled his pelvis forward, mashing his lower body into hers.

He broke the kiss long enough to gaze down at her. “Are you going to let me come inside?” He asked comically.

“Oh yes,” she answered huskily. “In here and in me.”

Jenna took his hand and led him inside the living room. She turned away from him long enough to close the door, ensuring she locked it as well. If Clark decided to come by, he would simply be ignored. Just before she turned to face Lynch, she felt the solid wall of his body behind her. He wrapped his arms around her waist and began to nibble on the delicate skin at her neck. She moved a bit to allow him access. Her hands covered his and she caressed them lazily.

He shifted his hands slightly as his fingers began working on the belt of her robe. Hers fell to her sides as he untied the sash and worked his inside her open robe. The only material between her skin and his hands was a thin nightgown. She thanked God she decided to wear something so flimsy. She moaned the moment his hands touched her abdomen, rubbing it in a sweetly slow circular motion. Oh, he was so good. They moved upward to her breasts where his fingers at first made lazy circles around each nipple before he cupped them gently in his warm hands. Seconds before she could readily respond, he grasped them firmly. In response, she pushed her bottom against him, undulating slowly. Up and down. He hissed in her ear. To give her payback, he slid his hands further down, settling them between her legs.

“If I didn’t love you much,” she whispered, “I’d hate you right now.”

“You’re one to talk,” he said, his husky voice falling in her ear.

Lynch stopped torturing her so he could remove her robe. When it was discarded haphazardly on the floor, he slowly removed the gauzy frock covering her. It landed next to her robe. Her back to him, his hands moved lazily from her shoulders down her arms where they settled at her hands. They clasped together tightly while his lips continued to assault the side of her neck. She then remembered the wound, but felt relief when she realized it healed after her first transformation. There was no evidence of it. She pushed it out of her mind so she could fully enjoy what the man she loved was doing to her.

He kept one arm around her while the other was free to do delicious things to her body. He slid his free hand down along her abdomen, slipping it further down, where it settled between her legs, mimicking the act before he successfully undressed her. This time, she parted her thighs to give him more room to move, to drive her insane. It worked. His fingers were magic. She swayed her head as his hand moved slower, then faster, then slower still until they dipped inside her. She cried out sharply and threw her head back. She wanted him to stop, desperately needed him to continue. He gently began to manipulate the utmost sensitive part of her sex.

“Lynch,” she begged. “Please don’t.”

“No, I won’t,” he said gently.

He didn’t, not until he left her a huge, quaking mess. She placed her hand atop his and held it tightly, so much so that her knuckles began to whiten. If he didn’t have a firm hold on her body, she probably would have toppled over. As soon as she recovered enough to balance her weight alone, she turned to face him. Her mouth sought his again and they shared a sizzling kiss. She actually didn’t want to take time to undress him. For her, it would be enough to unzip his pants, free him, and make love to him right here, in the same place where he had pleasured her immensely already.

This time, she broke the kiss and stepped back a few inches. Quickly, she took hold of the lanyard and lifted it over his head. Knowing how important his badge was to him, she laid it gently on the coffee table nearby. He smiled down at her as she slid her hands under his tee-shirt. He somehow knew that she wanted to rip it off him, shred it, but he didn’t have anything with him to wear home. She kept her pace steady as she pushed it to his upper chest. He moved to pull it over his head, but she didn’t let him. She pushed his hands away and finished by flinging it aside, not really caring where it landed. Her lips kissed every inch of his chest, her teeth nipping him here and there. He caressed her hair as her hands went to his belt, unbuckled it, leaving it open and dangling. Her hands went to work on the zipper of his jeans, drawing it down slowly, her fingers making slight contact with the male part of him.

Lynch stepped back just long enough to discard his shoes and socks. She didn’t let him stay away for long. She came back to him, her hands on each side of his hips where they began dragging down his jeans. She moved downward as she did so. Kneeling before him now, she took hold of the bottom of his boxer shorts, tugging gently until they joined his jeans in the pile at his feet. She looked up at him, smiling seductively, lazily.

“Are you going to let me kick these aside?” He asked amusedly.

“Uh uh,” she said with a teasing lilt to her voice. “Not just yet.”

A protest was on his lips until he understood what her true motive was. The instant her mouth was upon him, he couldn’t believe how stupid his question was. Her mouth was wonderfully warm and slippery, her tongue wickedly evil. Her hand joined her mouth, and it was his turn to slightly lose his balance, especially considering the pile of clothing at his feet.

“Jenna,” he protested. When he spoke her name, it sounded more like a moan.

Her tongue made a gentle circle at the tip of him. “I know,” she whispered against his skin.

She stood up to allow him a chance to kick the discarded clothing out of the way. After that, he went to her again. She was ready to accept his kiss. Disappointing her, he took her hand, tugging it gently.

“The bed?”

She smiled at his question. “What a traditional guy you are. You can make love to me anywhere you want, my love.”

Shaking his head, he laughed. “I have a bad back, my love,” he replied, mocking her lightly. “The floor won’t do.”

Knowing he didn’t have a bad back, she laughed at him and pointed due north. “That way, Chief.”

They entered the bedroom together, Jenna lying down first, Lynch after. He leaned over her, propping himself on one arm as his mouth planted tender kisses along her neck, down to her chest, where they lingered at her delicate pink nipples. He suckled each tenderly as she plunged her hands into his hair. When his lips moved lower, she removed her hands from his hair and laid her arms limply at each side of her body. She tossed her head from side to side as his mouth progressed lower. He dipped his tongue into her navel, causing her to hiss loudly. Another noise escaped her that sounded close to ‘uh uh’ when he went lower. Parting her thighs, giving him room, she anticipated his next move with something like panicked desire. His tongue dipped inside her suddenly, so suddenly that her back arched severely. He touched every part of her that efficiently set her on fire. He knew this, of course, before they had even made love the first time. She released another ‘uh uh’ as she experienced a strong, shuddering release. His mouth soon filled with the taste of her sweet juices, something he could not describe to anyone if asked. However, he would probably say it was the nectar of the Gods. Dramatic, yes, but oh so true.

When he withdrew, he placed kisses along her body until his lips joined hers again. Against her, she could feel the evidence of his need and she arched her body upward against him. He groaned against her lips, in turn kissing her harder, wanting badly to devour every inch of her. He had thought after their first time making love, it wouldn’t possibly be any better. How wrong he was. This was more so intimate, not rushed, not awkward. It seemed as if they fit better than he ever thought they would. She parted her thighs even wider, urging him to come inside. He quickly obliged, plunging into her lazily, inch by delicious inch, until their abdomens touched.

Each timeless thrust sent them both higher and higher into an unknown world. Nothing mattered to either of them now. Their only thoughts were of each other, the love they shared, understanding that after all was said and done, their lives would change forever. In that moment, in their unrushed lovemaking, it completely came together for them. All the unanswered questions didn’t matter. The secrets left hidden were unimportant.

At Jenna’s release, her eyes changed to a silvery hue. Lynch did not see. She kept them closed tightly, as she felt it happening. He experienced his own seconds later. They each clung to the other, whispering words of sincere endearment, uttering their love for each other as if it would be the last time they would hear the words.

After, they lay very close together. Jenna’s head was on his chest, her finger drawing lines on his skin. “I have to tell you something, Lynch.”

“I hope it’s an explanation as to why you left me,” he said. His hand went to the back of her hair where his fingers played with errant strands. “I have been trying to figure out what I might have done or said to chase you away. Did I come on too strongly?”

She smiled sadly against his skin. “Impossible, Keagan. I think I’m the one who pursued you, not the other way around.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense, Jenna. What is it?”

She reluctantly pulled away from his warm embrace so she could look at him when she confessed. They had made love so passionately, shared a deep connection, and she was afraid she had ruined it all. “Do you remember the first time we made love?”

He smiled at her. The look on his face was that of sheer confusion. “What kind of question is that Missen Vos?”

When he spoke Dutch, it always brought a smile to her face. This time, it made her feel instantly sad. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a stupid question. You transformed, Keagan. You transformed and bit my shoulder. When you asked, I lied to you.”

The smile immediately fell away from his face. It was replaced by a worried, angered look she hadn’t seen in a very long time. “You told me…”

She placed her fingers over his lips. “I know what I told you. I couldn’t admit it, because I knew what you would do, what you would ask me and Andy to do. I left to get through my first change. I did. I’m fine, Keagan, and it’s over.”

He sat up suddenly, took hold of her shoulders, and stared down at her. “Like hell it’s over, Jenna. You’re not fine,” he growled. “You’re cursed.”

“No, baby, I’m not. I’m with you now. I’m a part of you, as we both always wanted.”

An idea popped into his head, one that he should have thought of the moment she made her confession. “I’m taking you back home,” he said. “Callie has the cure and you will be the first to take it.”

“Absolutely not, Lynch,” she said stubbornly. “If anyone deserves it more, it’s you. I won’t hear of it any other way.”

“Jenna, you’re not thinking straight. I know it’s what you’ve always wanted, but I love you too much to allow you a life like mine any longer than necessary.”

She reached up and placed a gentle kiss on his lips. “I value your life more than my own. No matter how you feel about it, it’s something we can do together. If her cure is real, perhaps we’ll both benefit at the same time.”

He moved his hands from her shoulders to allow them to cup her face. “How did you get through it?”

She sighed, but felt a small smile framing her lips. “It was the most painful experience I’ve ever gone through. It was like I forgot how to be human, that I was primarily human. I woke up around dawn…I’m almost certain I did not hurt a human. I fed on a deer.”

“Jenna, I hate myself for what I’ve done to you,” he said gently, sadly. There appeared to be tears in his eyes.

“No regrets, my love. It’s what I always wanted.”

His hands moved away from her face and slid down to hers. They grasped each other’s hands tightly, lovingly. “We’re in trouble, Jenna. There may be a murderous immortal walking amongst us. I have to stop him.”

Confusion was painted on her face. “Him? Are you sure?”

“I’m not completely sure of anything at this moment,” he began. “However, Callie feels as if her lover is near, and I believe her, I can’t feel him and I don’t know why. Someone is out there.”

“You never told me his name, Lynch. Who are you looking for?”

“A man named Clark.”

Suddenly, Jenna’s demeanor changed. She moved away from Lynch as if he physically hurt her. “Clark?” She questioned in shock. “Is he a tall man with glossy black hair?”

It was Lynch’s turn to gaze at her in utter shock and surprise. “How do you know?”

“He’s here, with a creepy wife named Sophia. Clark is Cici’s brother,” she said, completely jolted, rocked from her world. “I had unexplainable feelings about him, but couldn’t put my finger on it.” Bitterly, she expelled a barking laugh. “The bastard tried to hit on me.”

Sophia? Why did that name sound so familiar? It was on the tip of his tongue. However, nothing, including the name could prevent Lynch’s face to redden as the vein on the side of his neck began to pulse erratically. “He didn’t touch you, did he?”

She shook her head quickly, hoping it would calm him down. “No no, nothing like that.”

“One thing we cannot do,” he began, “is give him a clue as to who we are. I want you back home immediately. If he senses that you’re a lycan, he may try to kill you.”

She took it all in, nodding her head to show her agreement. There was nothing more that she wanted other than a trip back home. She placed her hand on the side of his face. “Lynch,” she murmured, “I’m so sorry I left, even more so that I lied to you.”

He placed his hand on top of hers. “I’m not crazy about the idea of what you did. I’m more enraged at what I have done to you. We can only forgive each other and work toward setting this right. Callie can cure you.”

She moved closer to Lynch, her lips mere inches from his. “No, baby. Callie can cure us.”

Us,” he whispered huskily against her lips.

“That’s what I want to hear,” she told him. “Gather your energy, make love to me again, and make it all right, even if it isn’t.”

“That, I believe I can manage.”

As the two made love to each other again, they weren’t exactly alone. Although Clark was several feet away from the guest house, he had the ability to feel things, to know what was going on without being at the exact location. At first, he thought he would be dealing with one lycan, the female. Now, suddenly, there was another. How long had he been searching for other immortals? For a particular immortal?

Unlike the stupid horror movies made recently, immortals didn’t search for others so they could share cake and coffee. Most of the time, it was so they could destroy the other. His kind didn’t like others, even those like himself. He wanted to be alone, the only immortal around. There were billions of humans on this mud ball called Earth, a limited amount of them in the area where he stayed. He had killed enough in New York where it remained much too risky to stick around. The police would be looking for a killer. Hell, they probably already were. So, it was time to move, find new hunting grounds. When he found them, he wanted them for himself. Other immortals were competition for prey. It didn’t matter that neither Jenna nor Lynch wanted to use humans as prey items. Clark didn’t know this. No matter what type of immortal an individual was, they craved human blood and/or flesh, whether they admitted it or not. Those who had heart struggled with it every day. Despite that, the hunger for blood was natural and meshed in their DNA. Lycans were no different.

Tempted, he wanted to interrupt their coupling, kill them both, and go on to find Callie. Again, it simply didn’t feel right. What would Cici do if she came home to a blood bath? He had very little conscience, but if he was capable of loving anyone, Cecilia was it. If she got in his way, though, he knew he would have few qualms killing her. He didn’t want to leave his mess behind for her. Turning away, he made his way back to the hotel. Hopefully, the man would leave Jenna alone soon enough. He had a short amount of time to wipe her eternal self-off the face of the planet. When he accomplished this task, it would be time to seek and destroy the mortality of one Callie Norwood.

CHAPTER 8

It was the time of day when Lynch had finished his run, showered, and crawled into bed. Right now, he was in a bed in a stranger’s house with Jenna in his arms. Honestly, it couldn’t have been any better than this. The last time he felt this way, it was with the woman whose name he refused to utter. As he placed a gentle kiss atop Jenna’s head, he tried hard not to think of her. It was supremely difficult, because their lives had just crossed. It was as if he were living it again. This time, however, he hoped there weren’t any enemies lurking about. He was certain most of those who hated the Tackett family were long gone, dust in their graves.

Sometime today, he would have to make the journey back to LeVale. There wasn’t much he could do about the crimes in either Dubois or Calember counties. If they reached into Chiklis County, they would have a chance. He hoped it wouldn’t happen. Despite the area of the state his badge limited him to, he could do anything he wanted on his own. If he found the immortal, the problem would be solved. Of course, nothing was that easy. It wasn’t like he could approach the other guy, shake his hand, and then happily destroy him. There were no storybook endings. Something bad would come, whether they wanted it or not.

Jenna stirred against him, murmured his name, and kissed a spot on his upper chest. It tickled, but he remained still. He didn’t quite yet want to wake her. Although it was true he hated himself for what he did, and he would regret it for the rest of his eternity, if anyone could share his life or his heart, he wanted it to be Jenna. Perhaps if he had known her years before, she could have easily stolen his heart like the other. Storm. The name came to the surface so suddenly, he didn’t expect it. She was another piece of his history that might be best laid to rest with his other ghosts. If he did so, Jenna would most certainly stake claim to his heart for the rest of her eternity. When he thought of that, he smiled. Callie Norwood had the cure, she would help them both. He had no idea what he would do once free.

“Baby?” Jenna whispered against his chest.

“Mhm,” he answered lazily.

“I had a very nice dream,” she told him. “A woman I never met wished me the best with you. I think her name was Storm.” She leaned up slightly, noticing the way his eyes gleamed with a mix of sadness and fascination. “I’ve had the name in my head before, but never asked. Who was she? Was she real or a figment of my imagination?”

Lynch thought he would never have this discussion with her, as he surely didn’t expect to fall in love so deeply ever again. It was rare during one’s eternity. He thought of what Jenna said about Storm wishing her the best of luck. It was like her, it was something she would have said. “She was real, and her name was Storm.”

“What happened to her?”

He ran his hand through her soft hair. Vaguely, he wondered what she did to it to make it so soft, so comforting. He could hide in it all day. “She was a mortal woman, a daughter of a man with whom we did business. I tried courting her for weeks, but she didn’t seem interested. Eventually, her resolve began to weaken and we wound up falling in love. In those days, it wasn’t usual for a couple to make love until they married.”

She smiled as a soft blush came to his cheeks. Lynch Tackett was a passionate man who made love as if there were no tomorrow. Yet, he couldn’t speak of making love to the first woman he fell in love with. “You couldn’t wait,” she prodded gently.

He chuckled. “No, we couldn’t.” His eyes fell away from her gaze for a moment or so as the memories came flooding back. “During it, I bit her, as I did you. She didn’t care when I confessed and I was never happier. Our only issue was that she could never be with child. There would be no Tackett heirs. Neither of us seemed to mind that much. We were very much in love. Like a lot of families back then, the Tackett’s had enemies.” Sighing, he swallowed a huge lump that had formed in his throat. Telling the story was like reliving it. He felt the bitter sting of tears just behind his eyes. “One evening, an enemy of my father’s set fire to a storage building owned by the mercantile. My father, Storm, and her mother were burned alive. I barely made it out myself.” He didn’t mention anything about Lydia Coyfield, but noticed once more how much Jenna looked like her. Was it his father channeling through him or a simple coincidence? He also omitted the fact it was Storm’s supposed ‘father’ who set the blaze.

“Oh Lynch,” she breathed, her words overwhelmingly filled with emotion. “What a horrible thing for you to have lived with all these years. Did you ever find the killer?”

He diverted his eyes, ashamed of what he was about to tell her. This story was one he shared with Callie. After Jenna, he never wanted to speak of it again. “I did, Jenna. He was the first human I ever killed without…the need…”

She placed a finger over his lips. “You don’t have to say it,” she told him. “He deserved it for what he did to your family.”

“Do you see why I resisted you for so long?”

His question was asked with what she could only describe as passionate desperation. “I understand now,” she said plainly. “I don’t see how you could do it, Lynch. I can’t imagine not loving you now, not ever. Unlike you, though, I don’t think I could ever love another after you.”

“Don’t say that, Jenna,” he said sternly. “The cure is within our reach. If anything happens to me, you must promise that you won’t close your heart like I did for so long.”

She shut her eyes and shook her head stubbornly. “I cannot guarantee that, Lynch. Whatever happens, I’m yours for the rest of my life and beyond.”

Knowing it was no use arguing with her, he kissed her gently on the forehead. “I need to get back home, connect with Callie, and make sure she stays safe. Avoid Clark and his wife at all costs and get back home no later than tomorrow afternoon.”

“Okay. Be careful.”

He kissed her fully on the lips, gently tracing his tongue along them. “Always. Vos, remember I love you.”

* * *

As soon as Hugh came home and did his morning chores, Callie emerged from her bedroom. She didn’t want him to see her, as she did her morning routine of hiding from chores. For God’s sake, it felt as if she were living at home with their parents. They, like Hugh, were chore crazy. She hated it then and hated it even more now. It made her feel like she was ten years old again.

What, exactly, was on the docket today? She hadn’t heard from Lynch in a day and had begun to worry. Inherently, she figured he found Jenna. That thought alone made her extremely jealous. There was nothing she could do about that. If Lynch didn’t want her, she couldn’t make him want her. The one thing she had that he wanted was the cure. For him, she would proudly hand it over.

After putting herself together for the day, she called Lynch’s cell. It went immediately to voice mail. She again felt a pang of jealousy as she thought of him and Jenna in bed together. She left a message and carelessly put her phone in the pocket of her jeans. She left a note to his ‘Hughness,’ grabbed his keys, and made her way to his car. Since she hadn’t been able to land a job yet, she intended to go back to the university. Her sense of Clark having found her went away. Speaking of it to Lynch made her feel safe. Honestly, what could happen to her at the library? It was filled with people. Nothing could happen to her there. Surely, Clark wasn’t so stupid.

Callie made it to the library without incident. Just as she was about to go inside, Lynch returned her call and told her to stay at the library amongst a lot of people. There was definitely something he needed to tell her, but it was too risky to meet alone. His words rattled her. Was she right all along? Was Clark closer than she assumed? It was enough to drive her out of her mind.

She went into the library, found an armload of reading material, and chose a table close to a number of students. For at least half an hour, she pretended to read. There was no way. She had lost her focus. It wasn’t that she sensed Clark in every corner (which she did), it was the fact that Lynch had sounded ultra-concerned. She checked her watch every five minutes; time passed so slowly when waiting for someone. Each time a man entered the main room, she thought he was Lynch. None resembled Clark thus far, and that was fine with her.

Callie was seconds close to calling Lynch again when he finally entered the room. Despite the crowd, she wanted to run up to him and wrap her legs around his waist. Relief was a wondrous emotion.

He sat across from her and amusedly stared at the books. Jenna could have been her sister. Shrugging away the amusement for now, he glanced around them, secure in the knowledge that Clark was not near them.

“I visited Jenna earlier,” he began.

It wasn’t something she wanted to hear, but it was expected news. For no reason at all, she thought he’s off the market. What the hell was she thinking? Now wasn’t a time to act like a woman. “I gathered that,” she admitted.

“There are two things we have to worry about, Callie,” he said. “The first is a strike against me. The other is one against us all.”

“What are you saying, Lynch?” She asked, confused. He wasn’t making any sense. “I don’t get it.”

Without giving her the intimate details, he said, “Jenna has become a lycan, through me. Not at her request or mine.”

Oh now, I get it. You fucked her. “I see,” she said slowly. She was tempted to tell him that the cure wasn’t designed to assist women. That, of course, was a lie. “What else is going on?”

“Jenna is staying in Dubois County, where the last murder occurred. She is staying with her friend, Cici.”

It suddenly dawned on her, and did so horridly. “Jesus Christ, Lynch. Clark has a sister named Cici. You’re not saying…”

She couldn’t finish. Instinctively, he reached across the table and took her hand. It was freezing and shaking within his. He made direct eye contact with her to help her calm down. “Yes, Callie, unfortunately that’s exactly what I’m saying. Clark has been staying very close.”

“Does he know who Jenna is?” Her eyes had begun to tear up. She did nothing to prevent them from falling out of her eyes. “Does he?” Before he could answer, she continued, “if he does, he will know you, and not long after that, he will find me.”

“Callie,” he whispered harshly, authoritatively, as if she were a suspect he was interrogating. “He has met Jenna, but she doesn’t suspect he knows where you are. Not yet.”

She yanked her hand out of his and covered her face. She was laughing and crying, a crazy mixture that drew stares from the people around them. Lynch looked up at them, giving a get the fuck out of here vibe. Just from the look of him, they willingly obliged.

Not yet, you say.” She uncovered her face and stared into his eyes. For the first time since meeting her, he saw hate, deep rooted ire. “Not yet. It won’t be long. And what the hell does Jenna know, Lynch?”

Angered at the slight, he barked, “More than you understand. She would do nothing to hurt you intentionally.”

“When is it going to penetrate your thick skull, Lynch? Clark senses immortals. If he has touched her, he will know about you. Since you’ve touched me, he will know where I am. It’s as simple as that.”

“Callie, you may know of Clark’s immortality, of the creature he is. You, however, know nothing about lycans other than what books and movies tell you. I will and can protect you. I will stop the injections and have the ability to change at will. There is no foolish waiting for a full moon.”

He made the statement using strong tones, determined gazes, and sheer force of will. Other than her brother, she had never heard such dedication in a man’s voice. He said he would protect her, and she believed him. There was something else on her mind, actually someone else.

“What about Jenna?” She asked quietly.

“You both will protect the cure.” He knew Callie had ideas about him, about them together. She knew there was no chance. She was jealous, but she would do whatever was necessary to keep Clark away, to destroy him if they were forced to do so. “Neither of you need blood on your hands.”

She gave him a sardonic, sideways smile. He was a sexist pig. It fell away after a moment. “Whatever you do,” she whispered. “Don’t let him bite you. If he does, your DNA will alter. I can’t say with any certainty that you will die. If I administer the cure when that happens, you will die.”

This was definitely information Jenna could not hear. If she did, she would probably take on Clark herself. “Understood. How easy would it be to trick Clark, give him the cure, and go from there?”

“Not easy at all, Lynch. I don’t know how we would catch him and keep him without bait,” she said.

“All right,” he said. “All of us need to be prepared. There is one more thing. Did you have any idea that Clark has recently gotten married? Jenna said she met both he and the wife, just not at the same time.”

Callie gave him a shocked, open mouthed stare for a minute. “There probably isn’t a Sophia. Not a real one. Clark is a shape shifter and when we were together, I met him as Sophia.”

Indeed they would need to prepare. There was one little thing none of them knew. Clark wasn’t one to make a direct attack. He had destructive plans involving them all. There were several visits he needed to make.

* * *

With Jenna away and Lynch mostly MIA at home, Andy had the place all to himself. He had some knowledge of home improvement, so while he had the time, he repaired what he could and left what he couldn’t to the professionals. After a full day of puttering around the property, he went to his favorite easy chair and began to nap uneasily. His hearing was perfect, even if his eyes weren’t, so when the basement window shattered, Andy immediately knew something wasn’t right.

Living with a detective should have taught him to dial 911, but he didn’t. Instead, he made his way downstairs, baseball bat in hand, to investigate the noise. Their lab had to be protected at all costs. When he finally entered the basement, he noticed the smashed window right away. There was no one here. He frowned, completely out of sorts. What made the noise? The light was bright enough to see just about anything. Then he saw what could have made the noise. It was a squirrel, torn, bloody, and dying. There was a shard of glass in its stomach. Why would anyone throw an animal through a window?

“I would,” a man’s voice said.

Andy turned around just in time to see the true face of evil. Before he had the opportunity to speak, Clark backhanded Andy, knocking him unconscious. He was tempted to kill him, but refrained. Instead, he touched Andy’s forehead. When he woke, he wouldn’t remember being struck by another man. Clark replaced it with a cruel trick played on him by a vile child.

Clark looked around the laboratory. It wasn’t fancy, just built well enough for a few experiments or mixing compounds to keep a lycan in check. He didn’t want to destroy the lab no matter how much he would have enjoyed doing so. Glancing back at Andy, he slowly climbed upstairs to find a few pieces of evidence, stray threads, anything connected to Lynch Tackett and Jenna Vos. His next chore would be stalking new prey items here in good old Chiklis County. As he worked, he smiled. Yum yum.

* * *

Lynch and Callie drove their own cars to the diner. Lynch needed sleep, but right now, all he had on his mind was food. Callie only agreed to accompany him because she needed something else to do, keeping her mind off Clark. They sat a table and looked at two menus. Both seemed uninterested. Callie had her mind on Clark, Lynch’s was on Jenna.

After their drinks arrived, Callie drank her iced tea in an attempt to soothe her dried throat. The server should have just left the pitcher at the table. “Tell me something, Lynch,” Callie began, “if you weren’t so into Jenna, would I have had a chance?”

Lynch nearly choked on his own iced tea. What in the world caused her mind to drift toward that particular topic? “Callie, you’re a beautiful young woman, but as you know, we are so many worlds apart.”

Daintily, she wiped the excess tea off her lips. Laughing, she said, “In other words, no. What is wrong with me, Lynch? All these guys I’ve had were disasters. What is happening to me now seems like a cruel joke, as if my stupid cousin Woody was filming it for fun.”

“Callie, nothing is wrong with you. It’s youth. When you get older, you’ll get it,” he told her assuredly.

“When this is over, I’m going out West, starting over fresh.”

He smiled gently her way. “I think that’s a good idea, Callie. You’ll fit there.”

She drank off the rest of her iced tea in two large gulps. When she set down the glass, she asked, “And you?”

He shrugged. “I belong here.”

She lifted her brow. “With Jenna?”

“No one else,” he said with a firm nod.

“Lucky lady.”

Their conversation was light, nonsensical. They had no idea Clark was just outside their radar. He had what he needed. It was time to begin phase two.

* * *

Cici returned from her short business trip and invited Jenna out to dinner. She accepted, not knowing that Clark was along for the ride. Where the fuck was his wife? Knowing what he did was uncomfortable for Jenna. She kept her mind locked away, as she now had the ability. What she didn’t know was that Clark had the same ability. Unlike Jenna, he couldn’t resist keeping a smirk on his lips for most of the night. When Cici teased him about it, he mentioned he was thinking about a girl. When he spoke those words, Jenna nearly choked on her food. The meal was awkward and she was ready to get the hell out of this county.

Thankfully, Clark didn’t appear any the wiser. He simply ate his food, laughed at the right places, and pretended nothing was out of the ordinary. However, Jenna wasn’t stupid. She knew of him, he knew of her. It was as simple as that. She knew that if she spent another night at Cici’s guest house, Clark would pay her a visit, one that she certainly didn’t want. Jenna never in her life felt as if she needed a man to protect her. Yet, she longed for Lynch to be at her side tonight. Evil literally oozed from Clark’s pores.

Just before Jenna sat down for her awkward dinner, Lynch finally made it home so he could get a few hours of sleep before hitting work again. What he found both confused and worried him. Andy was staggering around the house, rubbing the back of his head. When he asked, Andy couldn’t remember much of anything.

“What I think happened,” Andy began foggily, “is that some idiot kid ran onto the property, killed a squirrel, and threw it through the basement window.”

Lynch had never heard of such an incident before. They had lived here for years and were never victims of vandals. He knew it wasn’t impossible, it simply felt wrong. “Did you see the kid?”

Andy shook his head. “No, I stepped on the poor animal and fell. I must have banged the back of my head pretty hard. I have a huge goose egg back there.”

He didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit. As soon as he sorted Andy out, he was going to dig further into this vandalism issue. “Let’s get you to the ER. You might have gotten a concussion.”

Andy shrugged his shoulders. “Nonsense. I feel fine.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lynch said stubbornly. “You’re still going to the ER whether you like it or not.”

As Andy and Lynch waited in the ER to see a doctor, Jenna finally broke away from the awkward dinner date with Clark and Cici. As Jenna packed, Cici sat in the room with her, chatting away, and telling her how she wished Jenna could meet her husband and daughter. Jenna heard little of what her friend said. She wanted to get on the road and back to LeVale. She was nervous, fearing that Clark might follow her home, mess with her car. Of course, he would do nothing of the sort. He had other plans that didn’t involve either Jenna or Lynch, not directly anyway.

Jenna arrived home to a completely darkened house. Out here, at this hour, it was always creepy. She had a small flashlight on her keychain and she used it so she could see enough to unlock the door. When she entered the living room, the first thing she did was turn on a light. There. Much better. She walked further into the room and approached the phone, glancing down at the answering system. The small red light flashed lazily. She hit it immediately. It was from Lynch telling her that he had to take Andy to the ER. The son of a bitch. He could have called her cell.

Impatiently, she stabbed his number. After three rings, he answered. “What the hell is going on, Lynch?” She demanded. “You leave a message here at home telling me Andy is at the ER. What happened to calling my cell? Have you forgotten the number?”

Taking in her tongue lashing patiently, Lynch said, “I figured you would be on the road. I’m not calling your cell with news about Andy while you’re driving. He’s okay. He said someone vandalized the basement window and he fell, hitting his head.”

It made about as much sense to her as it did to Lynch. “What?” She croaked.

“Andy’s fine, Jenna. No concussion. We’ll be home in about an hour. Don’t go into the basement,” he instructed. “Not until we get home. We need to have a talk about it.”

Relieved, she sighed. “Sorry I ripped into you, Lynch. Hurry home.”

As promised, Lynch and Andy were back home within the hour. He took them both down into the basement. Lynch noticed that Andy had already replaced the glass. Both Jenna and Andy watched as Lynch took a super bright flashlight and searched the area. No one, unless completely stupid, would leave fingerprints. From experience, Lynch knew kids were stupid when it came to vandalizing property. There would be all kinds of lovely evidence to collect and send the brat straight to juvie for a good stretch of time. He knew well it wasn’t a stupid kid who committed a mischievous act. It was an intelligent man, one who could twist the facts to fit the crime. What had the bastard done to Andy to screw up his memory?

“You think it’s Clark and Sophia, don’t you?” Jenna asked, clasping her hands tightly before her.

Andy looked from Jenna to Lynch. The names Clark and Sophia struck a familiar cord. “Why am I the only one here in the dark?”

Lynch eyed his old friend, smiled briefly at his sardonic tone. “Clark is Callie Norwood’s former lover. In between the time she left him, he has allegedly married a woman named Sophia. However, Callie said Sophia is just Clark shifting. We’ve discovered that he is an immortal. I think we have spoken of this before.” He could see by the expression on his face that he had no idea what the hell Lynch was talking about. He placed his hand on Andy’s shoulder supportively. “I think Clark was the one behind the broken window, Andy. I think he did something to you that made you forget everything you’ve heard about him. He’s more concerned with finding Callie, but he also wants to get at both Jenna and me.”

“I can understand why he might be interested in destroying you, Lynch. Why Jenna?”

“He turned me, Andy,” she whispered. “I went away to complete my transformation. I stayed with my friend Cici. The ironic thing about it all is that Clark is Cici’s brother. He has been around all along.”

Although Andy’s memory was strongly affected, he was capable of connecting the dots well enough. “So, the murders are on Clark?”

“You’ve got it,” Lynch said. “Apparently, he attacked you today, but left nothing behind of himself. The two of you should be okay here tonight, but I should get into work.”

After Lynch left, Andy and Jenna went back up to the living room. Jenna sat Andy down on the couch and brought him hot tea. She sat with him and they both tried to pay attention to the TV, but it was no use.

“The only way Lynch can destroy this immortal is by forgoing the injections,” Andy said suddenly.

Up until he spoke, Jenna pretended to watch a stupid infomercial. She focused her eyes on him. “I know,” she admitted. “If it comes to it, I’m helping him.”

He laughed bitterly and shook his head. “He would die first before he allowed you to do that. You realize that, don’t you?”

“I know Lynch can be something of a chauvinist,” she said. “I’m in with him. It may take more than one to defeat him.”

“What about Callie?”

“We’ll have to hide her, tuck her away. I don’t know where. Lynch probably has dozens of places to take her. I’m scared, Andy,” she whispered. “Absolutely terrified.”

“Good prevails over evil,” Andy said simply.

Jenna didn’t know if she believed that at all. It was simple, it was a good idea to live by, but would it work in this situation? Would it?

* * *

Clark was aware the moment Lynch left home to take Andy to the ER. He watched without being seen. He was fairly good at that, better than any lycan that was for sure. He made quick work of selecting a prey item. Normally, he remained choosy. He watched them for days, weeks sometimes, learning their routines, matching them step per step. Tonight, he didn’t have time for that. He found a remote space where joggers frequented. For a few minutes, he watched them, to see how many went through the trails at any given time. After a while, a pattern was struck. There was only one woman who made a pass by the bench where he sat at least three times. If she made a fourth, he would grab her.

She did. He grabbed her and covered her mouth before she knew what hit her. She was a strong woman, a fighter, so her struggles were annoying him greatly. He hated the fighters. Most of the time, he didn’t grab people who were fighters. He was desperate tonight, however. He needed a prey item. He needed someone to die so that the evidence could be laid at the feet of one Lynch Tackett. Unlike his others, he wasn’t killing primarily to feed. Oh, he would certainly feed upon her, but this would be his first murder.

Speed was on his side and he used it. He dragged her further and further into the woods. When they were surrounded by complete pitch blackness, he stuck a claw into the bend of her elbow. He injected her with enough poison to force all movement to cease. Gently, he laid her down. He then crouched down before her. His poison was close to anesthesia, so she couldn’t move. It wouldn’t stop her from feeling everything.

Her eyes were the only part of her body that could move. She was looking all around her, looking at him, begging him with her eyes. He knew she was trying to remember everything around her, as if she would actually survive this. He touched her hair, caressing it lovingly. He knew she wanted to shrink away, but she couldn’t move.

“It’s okay, Rebecca,” he said gently. He smiled when her eyes widened. How do you know my name? He could hear the question she asked in her head very clearly. “It doesn’t matter how I know your name, my lovely little girl. Soon, you will not feel a thing. Soon, you will gaze into the face of your own eternity.”

With the words barely cold on his lips, he lowered his head and sank his teeth into her neck, his taste buds relishing the blood hitting it. He drank and drank, stopping short of killing her. Her body was almost completely drained of her life’s blood. Her face was pale, her pulse extremely weak.

“You fed me well, Rebecca,” he told her. “You will also help me more than you’ll ever know.”

Savagely, he sank his teeth into her neck once more, chewing now, draining her totally without a thought as to what he was putting her through. Chew her, chew like a lycan. Oh, the outcome would be beautiful. He would make certain of it. Without a doubt. Without a reasonable doubt, he thought and laughed at the absurdity of it.

When his work was done, he stood up and peered down at the now deceased Rebecca. After tasting her blood, he learned her life history within moments. She was married at a very young age, had three children, and her husband was cheating on her with her sister. Perhaps death was far better than finding out the truth about her life. It was a total lie. How sad. He bid her a fond farewell, began to drag her away, and went in search of his next prey item. As soon as he was finished, LeVale would be history. It was back to New York…his kind of town.

* * *

After Lynch went to work and Andy to bed, Jenna stayed up for a few hours. She didn’t feel well. Deep inside of herself, she felt something was out of place. What in the hell did Clark want inside the house? What did he do? Take pictures of the lab? Was he planning on going to Lynch’s chief and exposing his secret? What about the lab would say he was a lycan? The best he could do was attempt to say Lynch was into drugs. Everyone knew that wasn’t true. What else was he after? Why didn’t he destroy anything? Why didn’t he take the compounds that would prevent the transformation? None of it made sense and she absolutely hated it.

Just as Jenna was about to give up and go to bed, someone knocked on the door. The hairs on the back of her neck stood out. After a moment, she settled down. Clark wouldn’t knock on the damned door. He would burst it in. You are such an idiot, Jenna. She went to the door, ready to attack if necessary, and opened it slowly. Standing before her was Callie Norwood, looking about twelve years old. There was a small suitcase in her hand.

“Lynch called my cell and told me I should come here,” she said shamefacedly.

Sighing, she stepped aside to allow her entrance. Once she was inside, Jenna closed the door and turned toward her. “Has Clark contacted you?”

Callie set down her suitcase and shook her head. “Not lately. Well, I mean not since I last spoke to Lynch.”

Jenna nodded. “That’s good to hear. I suppose I can set you up in my room.”

Yeah, since you’re sleeping with Lynch now. Good for me. “Great. Thanks for having me.”

Jenna picked up on Callie’s catty thought, but shook it off. One of her own came up without much fuss. Damned right. I hope we have sex a thousand times while you’re staying here. “Does your brother know you’ll be bunking with us for a while?”

“I left a message with Hughie,” she explained. “I told him I was going to stay at the dorms in the university for a couple of days to see how I like living there. He won’t suspect anything, because he knew I didn’t plan on living with him forever.”

“Good cover story. I don’t think we know what we’re going to do about Clark for now. I’m sure that once Lynch comes home, we’ll have a bull session and go from there.” Jenna went over to Callie’s suitcase and picked it up. “I was just heading upstairs to go to bed myself. Follow me up?”

Callie nodded. “Of course. Thank you again.”

Although Clark had killed one woman tonight, he had hidden her body well enough so no one would find her for a day or two. He needed the time to plan his next move. Since there was yet to be a murder victim found, Lynch came home on time early the next morning. He was tired, drawn, and didn’t mind that his paycheck would be short a few hours next week. It didn’t matter. His job wasn’t about the paycheck all the time anyway. Like Hugh always said, it’s the job!

He unlocked the front door and plodded inside. Jenna was asleep on the couch. He half expected her to be in his bed, snuggled against his pillow. That was the image in his mind, the one he wanted to see. Having her on the couch was good, too. Having her any way was fine, excellent actually. He closed the door as softly as possible, but Jenna awoke. Her lycan senses were sharpening. Soon enough, she would know the instant he was heading home and wouldn’t have to fall asleep on the couch waiting for him. Lynch came over to the couch and joined her.

“Callie’s here,” she announced.

He nodded. “Good. Hugh talked about it a little tonight, her suddenly deciding to overnight it at the dorms. He was surprised, but I think he buys it.”

“That’s close to what Callie said,” Jenna told him. “I set her up in my room.” When he smiled, she held up her hands. “I’m not implying anything, Mr. Werewolf Hairy Man Commitment Phobe,” she said jokingly. “It was the only other room even close enough to house a guest.” His smile fell away almost the instant she finished speaking. “I know, babe. Bad joke. I’m sorry.”

Lynch placed his hand on the side of her face. “It’s not that. With this going on, anything light helps,” he said honestly. “We’ve got a big problem that I’m not close to solving without the need for tossing out the injections.”

“What about Callie’s cure? Why can’t we somehow trap him, inject him, and go on?”

“That has been mentioned,” he began, “he is probably too smart for that. He knows Callie has the cure, so I’m sure he’s looking out for that. Starting today, Jenna, only half an injection for me, until I’m weaned down to none.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he shook his head. “No, Jenna. This is the only way. I want you to continue.”

She placed her hand over his and took it away from her face. Instead of releasing it, she held it in her own. “Lynch, I want to help.”

Expecting a war, he swallowed hard, and began to man up. “Absolutely not. I won’t take the chance of your getting hurt.”

“This male female shit doesn’t matter anymore. I’m like you now, with the same power, the same capability,” she said firmly. “You are not doing this without me.”

“Jenna, you’ve never done anything with your power, your capabilities,” he said. He laughed quite bitterly. “The only thing you have done is killed a deer. You’ve never battled other immortals or even another human. It has nothing to do with your gender.”

She pulled her hand out of his before clamping both of hers on her knees. Completely pissed off now, she slowly said, “That’s the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. I know the era when you were born, I know how you grew up. When I was old enough to take over for my mother, you treated me like a woman from your time. You always have. You masked it with gratitude and chivalry, but I’m not stupid. If I were Andy, you would demand a team. Whether you like it or not, I’m in your team, Keagan Tackett.”

“So am I,” Callie said as she made her way downstairs. “Neither of you know Clark like me. You’re both in the dark.”

With Andy in bed, he was outnumbered. He didn’t like the idea at all. What could he do? Trick them? If he did that, he would lose Jenna forever. It was best to have her in his sight than not have her at all. “Fine. However, we need a game plan. A good one.”

Leaving the women behind, Lynch tromped upstairs to grab a few hours of sleep. Callie came downstairs, fully expecting Jenna to go up after him, which she did. Callie went to the couch, plopped down, and buried her face into her hands. For the first time in her life, she wished a person dead. Well, an immortal anyway. Clark wasn’t close to human, hadn’t been in a long time.

Jenna entered the bedroom just in time to see Lynch ripping himself out of his shirt. He had forgotten to unbutton the cuffs, so he was struggling mightily to get it off without ruining it. She didn’t want to laugh at him as angry as he was, but she couldn’t help it. He turned, his shirt still hanging from his wrists, and watched her giggle at him for a good fifteen or twenty seconds.

“I’m sorry, Lynch. I really don’t mean to laugh at you. I know you’re angry. If you could see yourself…”

He sighed heavily and patiently unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt. He was then able to get it off his body. “If I followed along with my forefathers,” he began, “I’d bend you over my knee and whip your ass.”

She noticed that he said the words without a laugh or a smile, yet, she could sense he wasn’t serious, only exasperated. Having battled two women today, she couldn’t blame him. “If I were that kind of girl, I might enjoy it.”

“Too bad,” he murmured lightly.

Jenna had remembered to close the door behind her without locking it. She didn’t think Callie would intrude. In case she did, she turned and engaged the lock on the door. She approached him and ran her hand over his naked chest, dropping it lazily down to the zipper of his pants. Her fingers tripped lightly over him, and she smiled when he uttered a low groan.

“I’m in to other things,” she whispered against his lips. “You might like those as well.”

He licked his lips, thankful for Jenna, thankful for the momentary distraction from their upcoming job at hand. He kissed her very lightly, his lips barely making contact with hers. “Would you like to show me?”

“From the feel of this,” she said, as her hand caressed him, “I’d think so.”

“Woman,” he growled, “when I’m finished with you, you won’t walk for a week.”

She smiled up at him. “Promises promises.”

CHAPTER 9

Lynch awoke much later, logy and out of sorts. This wasn’t unusual for him, but it seemed to be more so now that Jenna was sharing his bed. She was wrapped around him in an intricate fashion that could only be described as a python looped about its prey. It was almost funny. He could still breathe fine; moving, however, would be another thing altogether. He decided it was okay. For a moment more, he wanted to forget the battle ahead of them. Any distraction would do, especially this one. He could manage enough movement to kiss the top of her head. She stirred only a few millimeters. A quiet laugh escaped him, and he would have covered his mouth if he had access to his limbs. He didn’t, which made him laugh even louder. Lynch bit his lip, quieting the laughs before the noise actually forced her eyes to open. Jenna was the kind of sleeper who became pissed when suddenly, and rudely, awakened.

He didn’t have the opportunity to wake her. Her slumber was crudely disturbed by the chirp of his work phone. Her body came untwined from his in a slow crawl, one that was sexy as hell. If it weren’t for the urgency of the matter, he would make love to her again. Instead, she turned to her back, reached for the pager lying innocently on a small table by the bed, and handed it to him in one fluid motion. He looked at the number. As he feared, it was from Central Dispatch. He was paged so rarely, this could mean only one thing. A murder. Deep, aching pain attacked the pit of his stomach. He knew nothing about the crime, yet he was certain of the suspect.

“Lynch? It’s Clark, isn’t it?” Jenna asked, as if reading his mind. Hell, she most assuredly did.

Carefully, he placed the pager between them. “Probably.”

He held out his hand for the phone. Without a word, she took it off the charger and gave it to him. He dialed Central Dispatch by memory and listened to the burring rings until the line was picked up by one of the female dispatchers. He was certain it was the brunette, whose name he thought was Stephanie. Lynch noticed Jenna watched him carefully as if waiting to hear what the hell was going on. For once, he wished she would leave the room. At this juncture, there was no way he was getting rid of her now.

“Both you and Hugh are needed immediately,” Stephanie said as soon as Lynch announced who he was. “Hikers found a body in Martin Park.”

Martin Park was close to where he took his jog every other day. That fact alone bothered him even more. Why didn’t I anticipate this? “I’ll be there in ten minutes. Have you contacted Hugh yet?”

“Yes, but he has not called in.”

Lynch thought nothing of it. He hit the ‘end’ button and tossed the phone carelessly on the floor. Quietly, Jenna watched as he rose from the bed and began putting himself together, wearing jeans instead of slacks and a tee-shirt rather than his usual button-down. He grabbed his badge, which still hung on the lanyard and threw it over his head. In the all years she had lived with him, he wore casual clothing and his badge on a lanyard for rare occasions. One of those, of course, was when he would be in the field for an extended period of time. There was definitely a murder, she could read it from the light sweat emitting from his pores.

“I know I don’t have to tell you this,” she began, “but be careful, mindful, and watch your back.”

He looked at her, noticing how vulnerable she seemed sitting up in bed, her body covered by a thin white sheet. He remembered the little girl she had been when she came to live with him, Andy, and her mother. Dear God. Why was this happening to them now? He slowly approached the bed and sat facing her. He kissed her tenderly, his hand caressing her cheek gently.

“All of the above,” he said. “I promise.”

* * *

Lynch arrived at the PD as promised, checking in with the dispatchers and then heading to the captain’s office to await further orders. When he arrived, Hugh was already sitting in his usual chair. Lynch sat beside his partner and faced their captain. His name was Mick Belmont, a thirty-five year veteran, planning to retire within the next two years. Lynch knew Belmont was already grooming Hugh to take over for him. He was sixty, just under five feet eight inches tall, and balding. What hair he had left was jet black.

“We’ve sent the CSIs to the park already. The victim was a young woman, probably a jogger. Her name was Rebecca Moore. I suggest the two of you get out to the scene ASAP. The last time I spoke to one of the CSIs, they’re waiting.”

LeVale was a small town, so when Belmont mentioned a CSI team, he was talking about two people, Marge Devlin and Brian Flynn. When Belmont finished speaking, neither Hugh nor Lynch waited for another word. They wanted to get a jump on the scene and speak to the witnesses before area TV crews arrived. All they needed was a bunch of news guys fouling up the scene.

After arriving at the remote location near Martin Park, the two detectives flashed their badges and were allowed entrance to the scene. Two individuals were huddled together a few feet away. Lynch assumed they were the ones who found the body. In step ahead of Hugh, Lynch made it to the victim first. Before he did anything, he asked one of the CSIs for a pair of rubber gloves so as to cause as little cross contamination as possible. While Flynn took photos, Devlin collected what evidence she could. Since the area was frequented by hikers and numerous joggers, who knew what was out here?

Lynch crouched low to take a look at the young woman. The condition of her body was shameful, low, and cruel. There were marks about her neck where it appeared as if she had been chewed. There was blood present, but not as much as would have been expected otherwise. How would a normal police investigation explain where the blood had gone? Although he was tempted to touch her, he resisted the urge. If he could lay one finger on her, he might be able to see who did this to her. Of course, that wasn’t really necessary, was it? Deeply within himself, he already knew. It was a simple matter of finding the bastard first. For a moment, Lynch closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could. He saw glossy black hair. Before anyone else could notice, he opened them quickly. Glossy black hair was enough. If he needed any more evidence, it was there, for the asking.

“Whoever did this should fry like a chicken leg,” Hugh said, whistling sympathetically.

Leave it to Hugh to dishonor a life in such fashion. Sometimes, Lynch didn’t know how the two of them remained partners and friends. “It’s definitely a sick son of a bitch,” he said to no one in particular.

“Find anything useful?” Hugh asked Devlin.

“A few hairs, some fibers, but we’re not sure they weren’t already here,” Devlin said. “However, the hairs may be more credible than anything we’ve seen since we arrived. There are tons of footprints around. Again, those may or may not belong to the killer. There are no drag marks or tire tracks. So above flying the body over here, we’re unsure how she got here.”

Lynch nodded and stood up. “I’ll take care of the witnesses.”

Hugh didn’t argue as Lynch approached the two hikers. They were both men of about twenty or so, probably from the college out looking for something for a project. He dug a notebook out of his jeans pocket as he approached. Lynch stuck out his hand, the two men each took a turn shaking it.

“I’m Detective Tackett with the LeVale Police Department,” he said almost absently. The introduction was programmed in him, automatic. “I understand you found the victim?”

The younger of the two hikers shook his head. “I’m Jason Daws,” he said. “I saw her first.”

Lynch scribbled down the name of the young man and the few words he said. “You saw nothing else? No one else?”

“No sir,” he said, swallowing hard. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

He totally understood what the kid was going through. He knew from simply being around him that this was the first dead person he had ever seen outside a funeral home. He looked to the other hiker. “And you?”

The other man shook his head. “No. Nothing, just…her.”

This gentleman was the stronger of the two, the one who might have been able to remember seeing anyone. He didn’t. It was all over him. “And your name?”

“Lucian Daniels.”

Lynch jotted down what he could before handing both men business cards. He knew patrol cops had initially interviewed them, so he would go back to the PD and compare notes. “If you think of anything you might have forgotten, do not hesitate to call.”

For a few minutes, Lynch stayed with the two shaken witnesses, watching Hugh as he stayed with the body. He was examining a bit of evidence that Devlin had collected before they arrived. He was scrutinizing it carefully, as if he recognized it. It tweaked him in a way that wasn’t altogether pleasant.

Somewhere, hidden, Lynch knew Clark Honsterott was laughing.

* * *

After Lynch had gone to work, Callie and Jenna were left with Andy, working on what they could do without getting themselves or Lynch killed. It sounded more factitious than it should have, but they didn’t know what to do with their minds. Shutting them down and going to sleep was definitely one thing they could not do.

Jenna detached herself from the other two for a few moments, allowing herself to stare out of the window. She didn’t know what she was trying to see, if perhaps an image of Lynch coming home, although it would probably be hours. She was angry with him for not calling about the murder. She wasn’t stupid. She knew he couldn’t share information with her. It was different this time. She was his family, he had to tell someone. After five minutes or so, she turned back around and noticed that both of her roomies were watching her curiously.

“I know he isn’t coming home for a long time,” Jenna admitted, knowing this was on their minds. “I wish he would call.”

“He isn’t, you know,” Callie said.

Jenna’s arms were already crossed before her, her hands occasionally caressing them as if she had a deep chill. Callie’s comment sounded quite catty. Was it meant to be? “If he doesn’t call, he will let us know something.”

The other woman laughed sardonically. “Don’t be so sure about that, Jenna. Lynch is a cop. I should know, I grew up with one, I know how they act.”

“That may be true,” Jenna retorted. “You forget that I lived with one as well.”

Andy shook his head and brought his body slowly to his feet. “I think that is my cue to exit.”

He expected a confrontation to occur between the two women. He just didn’t expect it so soon. The funny part of it was that they both loved him in different ways. Jenna’s, of course, was more pure, focused, and centered, as it always had been. Callie was still a kid inside, looking for a good time, believing that she had found the love of her life, when that wasn’t close to being the truth.

As soon as Andy disappeared upstairs, Jenna focused her eyes on Callie. “Let’s do this and get past it. We need to work together, Callie, and both of us are too old for this preschool shit.”

Callie crossed her arms before her, intentionally mocking Jenna. She stared at the other woman from her seat on the couch. “I agree that we’re too old to be playing grade school games, but I have one thought for you. You are only with him because you have the home team advantage.”

“You know what we’re facing,” Jenna said incredulously. “I cannot believe you want to talk about who has the rights to Lynch. I may have been living with him for almost twenty years, Callie. Think about this. How long did it take for us to come together? We’re together, Callie, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it now. We need to put this childish shit aside and figure out what we’re going to do.”

Jenna slowly approached the couch and sat at the opposite end. She stared at the other woman for a very long time, sizing her up, reading her mind, and what she saw there was constant hurt. Every relationship for her was the one. When it didn’t turn out that way, she had a breakdown. It was sad, it was a miserable life, but she couldn’t pine away for a man who did not love her.

She folded her hands and placed them in her lap. “Whether you believe me or not, Callie, I consider you an ally. We need each other, and I don’t think there should be room for jealousy or anger. I’ve had errant, childish thoughts run through my head, and I realize it was very wrong.”

Callie uncrossed her arms, left them dangling at her sides. She was so tired she wanted to scream if it would do any good. “I have too,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t need to tell you my life history, but I don’t have the best track record when it comes to men, especially if you have been around Clark as much as I think.”

Jenna had indeed read Callie’s mind, knew about her men, her screwed up sense of love. She hadn’t wanted to invade her privacy; it was much too easy to read. When someone was hurt or in peril, those feelings came to the surface almost immediately. “Callie, I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through, for what Clark has done to you. If Lynch had known of him, he would not be walking amongst us now.”

She shook her head, feeling the bitter sting of tears behind her eyes. “You still don’t get it, Jenna. Clark is different.”

Andy came downstairs suddenly, carrying a large dusty book. “I apologize for interrupting you. I’ve found something.”

He placed the heavy volume on the coffee table and implored the women to join him. They huddled in a group and read the Old English words with some difficulty. Clark was most likely an immortal known as a Haaidroes. It was a mixture of two Dutch words that translated into nothing more than gibberish. However, Andy figured the creature was a hybrid of possibly a snake and another unidentified immortal, possibly a demon. Since Clark could shift, the old word might have meant ‘shifter.’ It was something similar to what Wit Hoff had described to Lynch quite some time ago. It was the way Clark moved that brought Andy’s attention to this description. When Callie read it, she thought something about it sounded familiar, something she had sensed when Clark changed her. He was something of a shape shifter, an immortal that could erase a person’s memory with the slightest touch. Jenna noticed how excited Andy was at this find. It explained how he didn’t remember the basement incident.

“I haven’t read anything about how to defeat it,” Jenna said suddenly.

“I think I know,” Callie said slowly, dazedly. Both Andy and Jenna looked to her, prodding her along with their concern. “The left wrist must be chewed or cut into.”

“Holy shit,” Jenna whispered.

* * *

All the way back to the PD, Hugh didn’t speak much about what he and Lynch had investigated. They stayed with the witnesses and long after the body was taken away. Lynch sensed a strange vibe from Hugh. It was one he hadn’t sensed ever, not in his entire career: mistrust. Lynch let it ride for a very long time without bringing it out into the open.

The two men entered the department and went to the cubicles which served as their offices. Hugh’s was right across from Lynch’s. The only person who had a private office was the captain. When they arrived, his door was closed. He was probably taking in a load of shit from the murder. It was a rare occurrence here, so when it happened, the captain was mostly unreachable unless one of them needed an ass reaming.

Although Lynch had a pretty damned good idea what happened to the woman, he found himself drumming his fingers against the blotter before him. “What do you think we have?” He asked Hugh.

His partner wasn’t making much noise. He had brought his computer out of its sleep mode and quietly began to type up his report. “Hard to say,” Hugh finally said. “A lot of people use Martin Park as a hiking trail.”

“Agreed,” Lynch said suddenly. “It’s going to be hard to finger one person.”

There was a long burst of keystrokes for about five minutes before Hugh stopped again. Perhaps he was thinking about the next line of words he wanted to type, perhaps he wanted a beer or a woman, or perhaps, just perhaps, he was thinking things he shouldn’t think. Whatever it was, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “You jog out there, don’t you, Lynch?”

Lynch sighed. There it was. Out in the open. There was the hint of mistrust he had sensed the instant they got into the cruiser to head back in. Hugh saw something, a hair perhaps, that looked similar to Lynch’s. Suddenly, he understood what type of game Clark wanted to play. “Sure, I do,” he said calmly. “So does your sister, so does a league of other people. What are you getting at?”

Hugh stood up and leaned over the top of the cubicle wall. “Nothing, Lynch. I just don’t like it when murders occur on my watch.”

“You think I do,” Lynch said. “Something else is going on, man. What is it? What are you really trying to say?”

“I’m just trying to add two and two, my friend,” he explained. “That’s my job.”

It was both their jobs. Suddenly, Hugh didn’t trust him anymore. Before he left for home, he needed to make a visit to the evidence room, examine what was collected, what made Hugh such a bastard so suddenly.

Lynch typed up his report at a slower pace than Hugh. He did on purpose so he could find time to examine the evidence. When he finally typed the last word, he stood up and pretended to stretch. Hugh was not in sight. Not knowing where he was, and not caring at the moment, either, he saved his report and walked away from his desk.

The evidence room in LeVale was located in the back only feet away from the main part of the PD. There were two lockers, from floor to ceiling. Then there were five rows of stainless steel shelves covered with manila envelopes. The lockers held cold storage as well as other items. The items collected during a murder were normally kept in the shelves. Knowing that most of the physical evidence wasn’t the type to be held in cold storage, he dug out his key ring. Every detective had access to the cabinets. Going purely by instinct now, he picked the third shelf from the top. In order to get to it, he would need a ladder. He rolled one over and climbed up.

Putting on a pair of rubber gloves and inserting the key into the lock, he opened the cabinet shelf and peered inside. There were a series of envelopes in different sizes. His sense of what he was looking for became stronger as he fingered each envelope. He picked up the one he wanted. Devlin had written the time, date, and location of where she found this particular item. To any other person, it would look like 3p, aug9, left finger. Deciphering Devlin’s code, it was found on today’s date at three on the woman’s left hand. He opened the envelope, peered inside, and shook his head angrily. It was a simple strand of hair, something that might fall out of a person’s head during a struggle, or while they washed their hair, or from simple shedding. What made it worse was that he was almost completely certain the hair belonged to him. Hugh had noticed. It was why he had gone quiet. He believed his partner had gone rogue on them.

In essence, he was being framed for this murder by Clark Honsterott. He hadn’t wanted much when he entered Lynch’s home, just a few pieces of biological evidence to plant on innocent victims. Knowing this room was both videotaped and guarded, there was no way he could take the evidence without tampering with every piece of equipment in the building. It was time for another strategy, another way to deal with this. He needed to get home.

* * *

Lynch entered the house unexpectedly early. Andy, Jenna, and Callie were still reading through the book. By the look on Lynch’s face, Jenna knew something was wrong. He wanted to first speak with Jenna alone, but realized they were all a part of this now.

“Lynch, we have more information on what we’re dealing with,” Andy announced.

He nodded vaguely, not caring right now. Right now, he was in another world, one that required a silver bullet. “Good. I have something to tell you all.” He watched as they looked up at him expectantly. The only way to handle this was to simply spit it out. “When Clark broke into the house, he took biological evidence from us. Hair, fibers, possibly even blood.”

“Why the hell would he do that?” Callie asked, her voice sounding wondrously horrid.

“Oh dear God,” Jenna breathed. “He’s trying to frame you.”

Lynch was torn in more ways than he wanted to be right now. “I can’t tamper with the evidence without ripping through their surveillance equipment and destroying their security team. Hugh already knows it was my hair found on the victim’s body. It’s only a matter of days before they arrest me.” He gazed into Jenna’s eyes. “There’s no other way.”

Andy understood. Jenna understood. Callie did not. It was Jenna, however, who promptly jumped to her feet and stared down her lover. “No. Lynch. I will not.”

“This is the very reason I wanted no entanglements,” he said quietly.

“What are we talking about here?” Callie asked. “I don’t understand.”

“No,” Andy said. “You wouldn’t. It’s Lynch’s express wish to die if he were to ever harm a human or harm one under a different guise such as this.”

“I’m with Jenna on this one,” she said. “It’s stupid, Lynch.” She pointed at the book. “We know how to get him. We just need to figure out when.”

Lynch shook his head. “It’s too late for that. The three of you will need to continue to work together and promise to stop him.”

Jenna was all but forgotten in this moment. She wasn’t about to have that for any reason. She approached Lynch and took hold of his shoulders. With all her strength, she shook him. Considering lycan blood ran through her veins, her movement packed quite a wallop. He flopped back and forth like a rag doll. Steadying himself against her, he was able to resist her actions, not by much.

“Quit it,” Lynch demanded.

Jenna held up her head queenly, as if she were the most important person in the world. “In anticipation of your demands, Andy and I have been planning an alternate method.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Lynch barked.

“Tell him, Andy,” she said smugly.

Callie out of the loop again, sat back and awaited the next step. Andy looked away from the thick volume upon the table and settled his eyes on his friend. “I have a nephew who lives in North County, up in the mountains. He has a huge estate that his family has offered us for many years. We have an escape route.”

“Don’t you understand that we’re still vulnerable to Clark?” Callie asked.

“While that may be true, we can focus our efforts and defeat him,” Andy said calmly. “We can leave at any time. One hair cannot convict you, Lynch. One hair cannot get you arrested, can it? Especially since you jog in that area?”

“It can,” Lynch began, “as soon as they put it together.”

“What do you say, Lynch,” Jenna whispered. “Give this a chance to work.”

Resigned, Lynch sighed heavily. What other options did they have other than ending his life? As he thought many times before since allowing Jenna inside his heart, he couldn’t think of another way. Death didn’t seem so attractive any longer. “My leaving will look suspicious as hell,” he said. “I don’t see any other choice.”

* * *

As Lynch had figured, Hugh realized whose hair Devlin had collected off the body. He was about to do something he never did in his entire twenty-five year career with the police department. Hugh Norwood was going to tamper with evidence. He waited until the third shift arrived for business. The entire PD was virtually deserted at this time with the exception of dispatch staff, and those responsible for the evidence room. There was a team on standby for any homicides that might crop up in the middle of the night. Hugh distracted the guys sitting in the area of the evidence room. It was easy enough. He directed their attention toward some fabulous joke taped up on the wall near his cubicle. While they were reading it and laughing heartily, Hugh fiddled with the cameras.

Working quickly now, he went to the evidence room, opened the drawer, and found what he was looking for. Without a moment’s hesitation, he slid the envelope into the breast pocket of his jacket. He knew it was Lynch’s hair, but he wasn’t about to let a good cop go down for a bad rap. It was time for him to pay Lynch a visit, to find out who would want to frame him for murder.

* * *

Hugh drove out to Lynch’s house and immediately noticed one thing totally out of place. The property lights were out. He had never seen them off unless there was a power outage. Not thinking anything out of the ordinary just yet, Hugh left his car’s ignition on, turned his lights on bright, and slowly approached the front door. He saw there were no cars or lights on inside. This made Hugh’s cop’s instincts begin to kick in. His hand went immediately to the butt of his gun.

He didn’t believe his friend was a killer. At the same time, if nothing was wrong, why in the hell would the whole bunch of them leave? It was too late to turn back to the PD, return the evidence, and go on with his life. Although this scene was very out of place, he still didn’t believe Lynch was guilty of anything. He took the envelope out of his breast pocket, dug out his lighter, and set it on fire. Once the flames came to life, he threw it on the ground and watched it burn.

“Burning evidence is not a great idea, Detective.”

Hugh jumped at the words. He was facing a young man he had never seen, but who was the infamous Clark Honsterott, the man who allegedly had beaten his sister to a pulp more than once. Even in the dark, Hugh could tell he had glossy black hair and very shiny eyes, so much so that it made him uncomfortable.

“Who are you?” Hugh demanded with his fingers within millimeters of his revolver.

The young man smiled without showing his teeth. It was a good thing. His canine teeth had already grown into the fangs he normally used on prey items. “Calvin Hopkins,” he said, the lie coming easily to him. “FBI.”

Hugh immediately took notice that the supposed federal agent didn’t bother flashing a badge. Playing along for now, Hugh asked, “Do you know anything about what happened to this family?”

Clark stuffed his hands into his pockets, paced about, trying to look official, and then came to stop again. “I’m not certain,” he began. “However, I think they hit the road a few hours ago in the company of one Callie Norwood. Isn’t she your sister?”

At the mention of his sister’s name, Hugh lost most of his professionalism. Callie was supposed to be at the university. Why would she be in the company of Lynch Tackett and his hangers on friends? He slowly took his gun out of its holster and aimed it at the other man’s stomach. “How would you know that if you weren’t involved?”

Clark laughed uneasily, it was becoming harder and harder to hide his teeth. He didn’t want to use them until he was ready. “Come on now, Detective. I didn’t say I was involved. I told you, I’m with the FBI and I have been investigating one Keagan ‘Lynch’ Tackett for quite some time. We have reason to believe he is a serial killer, wanted in five states.”

It was another lie in a series Hugh didn’t believe. If any of them had been under investigation at the PD, the captain would have said something. If another agency played in their backyard, someone would have been informed. “Sorry, kid. I don’t believe your story.” He watched as the guy shrugged his shoulders, the gesture saying ‘so what?’ “Turn around slowly, take your hands out of your pockets, walk forward to my car, put your hands on the hood, and spread your legs apart.”

None of it meant much to Clark. He had been in these positions before. It was how he found more than one prey item. He did as he was instructed. Keeping his piece aimed at the back of Clark’s head, Hugh approached the young man cautiously. He inserted his foot between Clark’s legs and dug the butt of his gun into the man’s back, which allowed Hugh time to rustle round for a set of cuffs. He managed to get one of the bracelets clasped tightly around Clark’s wrist. He managed the same on his other wrist.

Hugh grabbed Clark’s arm. To Hugh’s total surprise, Clark turned toward him with a huge smile on his face. It had to be the lack of light playing tricks on his eyes, because he was certain the other guy had a set of fucking fangs in his mouth. The cuffed man began taking steps toward Hugh, who stood only a few feet away.

“Take another step, and you will know what a bullet in the gut feels like,” Hugh warned.

“Go ahead, you pathetic piece of human excrement,” Clark hissed.

Hugh took the shot. The bullet struck Clark’s chest dead center, which should have brought the man to his knees. It did nothing of the sort. Instead, he only slightly staggered, laughed, and wiggled his hands. Like a magic trick, Clark was out of his cuffs like a crazed magician. Hugh shot again, then again, and kept on shooting until he ran out of bullets. If he had brought an extra clip with him, he would have loaded it, and pumped even more into the lunatic. He didn’t understand why the son of a bitch hadn’t died.

In horror, Hugh watched as the bullets fell out of Clark, one at a time, smoking as if they had been burned out. He did the only other thing he could, he ran. It didn’t matter. Clark caught him after a few feet. Hugh screamed in agony when he felt teeth, fangs, enter his neck. He was brought down as a hawk brings down a woodchuck.

Clark always enjoyed unexpected prey items. When he was finished with the cop, he dragged his body back over to the house. He stared at the crumbling plantation mansion, trying to get a feel for the humans inside. They had left hours ago, but for some reason, he couldn’t sense where they had gone. Angered, he bit his own lip, drawing blood. He spat it out, as he didn’t like tasting his own. When he found them all, he would teach them a lesson, oh he would teach them such a lesson.

He left Hugh’s body lying outside on the grass as if he were no more than a dead sparrow. He went around to the side of the house where he knew the basement was located. It didn’t surprise him that the window had been fixed. However, that was of no consequence to him. He took his fist and pushed it easily through the glass. Like a hot knife through butter. Clark climbed inside, flicked on the light, and looked around the room. Outside the equipment, they had enough forethought to take everything with them. Of course they would. He was stupid enough to think they would leave their compounds behind at the house.

Annoyed, he went up the basement stairs, found the door unlocked, and entered the house. He made his way toward the front door and kicked it out. Hugh’s body was still where he left it. And why shouldn’t it be, he thought. It wasn’t as if Hugh had nine lives supporting him. Sighing, he dragged the cop’s body inside. When that task was complete, he primly closed the door behind him. He stood back approximately twenty feet from the house.

He had an idea, but wasn’t certain all the parts would be available to him. However, he was always up for a challenge. He went around to the back of the house and found a shed. Rummaging around inside, he found several cans of gasoline. When one had a property this size, it took a lot of gasoline to power the equipment to maintain the upkeep. He spent an hour or more dousing the house with gasoline. After lighting a humungous cloth wick and stuffing it down a glass bottle he found, he crashed it through the front window and set the house ablaze. Wow. Molotov cocktails really work!

CHAPTER 10

Around dawn, the merry band of misfits arrived at the home of one Joris Hoff. No one was asleep when the car pulled into the winding driveway. It was no surprise to anyone, with all that was on everyone’s mind. Andy had taken the liberty of informing Joris about the details of their departure from LeVale. Despite the circumstances, Andy tiredly smiled up at his young nephew. He returned the smile and then went out to greet his uncle’s family.

Callie, Jenna, and Lynch all looked up to see a young man of approximately thirty years of age approaching them. They knew he was Andy’s nephew and expected some similarities. They just didn’t see as many as they thought. He was somewhat shorter than his uncle, had dark brown hair that was very long, and tied back into a ponytail. His eyes were as green as olives. He definitely had the Hoff cheekbones, which was the cornerstone of their physical heritage. He was handsome and solid, without one ounce of the aloofness Andy seemed to possess when greeting new people.

Joris first embraced his uncle in a massive bear hug. It had been a few years since he had last seen him. When he pulled away from Andy, he focused his eyes on the rest of the party. He knew of Lynch and what the Hoff family did for him, but this was the first time he had met him. He shook Lynch’s hand, greeted both women by placing a kiss on their cheeks. All of them were travel weary. He wasted no time ushering them inside while he managed what luggage they brought with them. That first evening, there wasn’t much catching up to do. As soon as they were all inside and had their rooms situated, they crashed, feeling completely safe. Only Andy remained awake, giving the necessary details to Joris before finally retiring himself.

* * *

It was finally daylight. Jenna didn’t know what the time was exactly, and really didn’t care. All she did know was that the sun was out. Small beams of light crept into the room where she and Lynch had settled. Joris didn’t have many guests to speak of, so the room was sparsely furnished with a bed, a night table, and a small chest of drawers. There was just one window with a set of blinds covering it. She missed her room with the French doors and balcony. None of it mattered. Lynch was safe. Everything else was completely unimportant.

Beside her, Lynch slept peacefully, on his side, which was his favorite position. In his slumber, it gave her time to appreciate him for what he was. She traced a line along his face with her index finger. Her touch was light. He was so tired, he probably didn’t feel anything anyway. She continued tracing lines along his skin lovingly, slowly, touching each scar. He hadn’t told her many stories of his life or battles, but becoming one with him, sharing his bloodline now, she knew each without him speaking. It was funny how her senses sharpened so well. She had noticed these scars before, but never knew what any of them meant. It was time to explore them, to explore him.

The first mark she touched was on his exposed cheek. To an average onlooker, the scar resembled a small line, where a cat scratched him perhaps. Jenna knew better. In the 1700s, Lynch was a foot soldier. Battling with an enemy on the field, his face was stabbed. The wound wasn’t deep, only severe enough to cause a lot of blood loss and this scar. The next was on his neck, it looked like a bunched up patch of flesh. It measured no more than three inches, mixing well with the wrinkles naturally on his neck. If one didn’t see it up close or know it was there, it would not have been noticeable at all. This, she knew, was how he came to be known as Lynch. In 1760, he had been wrongly accused of treason. He was hung by the neck and would have stayed there forever, if a band of Native Americans hadn’t found and cut him down. She read the name ‘Wakiza’ in his mind. She now understood that he had fathered Storm.

Her finger moved along his neck down to this chest. This scar was the most disfiguring. It was how the skin healed from a burn without treatment. Only one touch was enough to see how this happened. It flashed into her mind more violently than the first two. It happened during the fire that killed his father, Storm, and her mother. The burn was probably a third degree injury. After losing two people he loved more than his own life, he wished for death. She could sense that easily. He hoped the burn would kill him, which of course, it didn’t. She finally understood that the mother of the woman he had loved so much was Lydia Coyfield. Jenna realized she bore a resemblance. She also became aware that Lydia had more to do with the Tacketts than she first thought. She just didn’t know what it was, and probably never would. Lynch, himself, had no clue. His father was more silent than he could ever be.

There were many others along his body, on his arms, stomach, and legs. He had interestingly deep scars on his wrists, which matched some on both ankles. They weren’t as severe as the one on his chest, yet they were ugly reminders of another battle. When she touched one of them, she closed her eyes to see the memory, the way it happened. They were marks from shackles. He had been caught stealing livestock in 1835. Knowing Lynch as she did, he was feeding. A farmer found a dead animal, then saw Lynch amongst several head of cattle. The owner of the animals didn’t believe the man he found had killed the cow for food. He believed it was killed in the process of being stolen. When he caught Lynch with a bullet to his left calf, he went down. Unable to heal himself fast enough to get away, he was as good as captured.

The farmer was a cruel man. Instead of contacting the authorities like any normal person would, he took matters into his own hands. He shackled up Lynch in his barn, leaving him there without food or water in the high heat of summer. The shackles were unique to a farmer. They weren’t simply made of steel. They were crafted of fine nickel and silver. The man was something of a blacksmith as well. He was interested in shackles, chains, and other devices of torture. He always wanted to find someone to try it out. When he caught Lynch, he had a perfect target. Since the shackles contained a small amount of silver, Lynch’s strength was almost useless to him as he had been starved for days.

The way he escaped, was once again, at the hands of a kind person. The farmer had a wife who was terrified of him. She came to the barn one afternoon, saw the suffering man, and finally gave him food and water. Knowing her husband was gone for the day, she found the key to the shackles and released him. Weakened by the silver, Lynch was shaky on his feet, but wise enough to beg her to come along. Tempted, the wife refused, explaining to Lynch that she would tell her husband some great lie how his prisoner had escaped. He is not a very smart man, she explained. He will never question me. Lynch knew this was not true. He wanted to take the woman with him. It came to be that it did not matter. On the way back home, the farmer was killed, freeing his evil soul to hell as well as allowing his wife to have a halfway normal life.

It was bittersweet and amazing to examine the body of the man she loved, seeing the events unfolding in her head. It made her feel so much closer to him, so much more in love with him. As she watched him, touched his body, she hoped he wouldn’t wake right away. This was a moment she wanted to have with him, one that no other ever would after her. If there were women after her, she longed for none of them to know what she did, to feel what she felt.

Jenna moved closer against Lynch, burying her face in his neck. He responded by tightening his embrace on her body. She knew she was probably going to awaken him, but she couldn’t help it. Her lips caressed the skin on his neck. He smelled so good, even without aftershave or showering, his body gave off a special scent that she couldn’t put her finger on. It didn’t matter. Right at this moment, everything was all good. It didn’t matter what faced them. Perhaps her mind would change once it happened. Let it happen, just allow me to have my moment.

“What in the world are you doing?” Lynch half whispered, half growled.

She smiled against his neck. Uh oh. She was caught. “Just having a moment with the man I love,” she said. “Nothing big. Did I wake you?”

“No. I was so wrecked from when we got here, that I couldn’t seriously tell you what day or time it is,” he admitted. “I only remember Joris showing Callie where to hide our compounds and her cure.”

Jenna had not moved from her position. Despite that, she could sense something was out of place with Lynch. His body felt different, moved in another way, and seemed somewhat off center. She knew what it was. It was simply his story to tell.

“I need to tell you this now, Jenna,” he began, “I’m feeling a transformation coming on. I can control the urge after the first change since the compounds have worn off. However, it’s coming soon, possibly tonight. Yours will come on suddenly as well. I have an idea that may work for us both.”

At this, Jenna leaned up to make eye contact with him. “Sounds promising. What are you thinking?”

“As we discussed before, I think we need to try a quarter shot of the compound. It won’t stop the transformation, but should control the urges to feed.” He sighed heavily. “The urge is always going to be there, and I hate attacking helpless animals. At the same time, I don’t want to attack a human. I think that’s what we’re looking at here if we don’t try something small. I’d rather feed on a deer or even a damned squirrel before going after humans. You know that.”

He said the last three words silently, almost imploring her to believe him. It wasn’t necessary. She knew exactly what he was feeling, what his body was putting him through. Humans were easier targets, it was true. Killing them in this day and age only brought murder charges. The times had certainly changed.

“I do,” she whispered.

“When I first killed a human, it was nothing. I felt like hell, the flesh, blood, and bone tasted like nothing I can describe. Inherently, I knew killing humans was wrong. The quarter shot should keep the urge away. I thought about it while I slept.” He caressed her hair gently. “What about you? How did you sleep?”

She smiled even wider, knowing that he had probably read her while he slept, and realized she had gone over every inch of his body, his history. “All things considered, I slept pretty great. No bad dreams, nothing haunting me. Joris has a lovely home. I hope we can do some exploration before Clark finally hunts us down.”

“We’ll be ready for him,” he said, exuding the same confidence Andy had.

What was it about the men in her life that gave her hope even when she wasn’t ready to take it? She would never understand neither Andy Hoff nor Keagan Tackett. Most men she met weren’t mysteries. Everything about them was worn on their sleeves. These two were the exception. It was in their genes, this odd trait. It had to be. They were optimistic when there shouldn’t be an ounce of positive energy around. They thoroughly believed that good would prevail over evil. It was storybook, their thinking. Someday, someone would have to write of this, of these men from another time, another frame.

“I hope so,” she whispered distractedly. “I cheated, Lynch.”

His brow furrowed with confusion for a moment. “Who is he?” He asked with a smile. “I’ll kill him.”

Not that kind of cheating,” she teased. “While you slept, I read your flesh, every bit I could touch. I saw your history, some of your stories, and learned of injuries you’d never think to tell me about. I know I shouldn’t have, Lynch, but I’m glad I did. It gave me so much more insight into you, into your life. My mother told me stories about you, because she knew I’d take over for her. She told me nothing like I learned, babe. You should have been journaling for years. Do you realize how many volumes you would have collected by now?”

He thought of that, of journaling, of writing it all down. He didn’t think it was the best idea in the world. What if the wrong person came upon it? He had been given a journal once and remembered how much he hated that fucking book. He threw it in the fire. If he lived past this battle with Clark, perhaps he would write of it. It was on the tip of his tongue, so to speak, to think he would do it for future generations. There would be no future generations. Jenna was a lycanthrope like he, she would never bare a child. He couldn’t think of any other woman with whom he would have a child. Whoever followed along with him and Jenna would own anything he wrote down and decide what to do with it when the time came. Was the present world ready to know that immortals existed within the mix of humanity? Not even close.

“I knew a time would come when you would awaken before me, touch my scars, know my stories, the things I did. Some were done with shame, while others made me the man I am.” He thought of the shackle scars, the beautiful farmer’s wife who released him, yet refused to leave a man he knew would kill her when she returned home. As Jenna learned, the farmer died on the way home from his trip. It wasn’t fate that intervened. Lynch called upon a friend for a favor. “I had the farmer who shackled me murdered, Jenna. His death certainly wasn’t an accident. If he had come home and saw me gone, he would have killed her.”

Jenna took hold of his arm, lifted his wrist and kissed the scar. “I knew he did, just not how. I don’t think any less of you. He deserved to die for his cruelness. I know what he did to you. I have an inkling of an idea what he did to her. I cannot imagine what he did to others, especially if he had slaves.” She shuddered. “It gives me the creeps thinking about it. And what about the fact that he had silver? How did he get it back then?”

Lynch shook his head. “I have no idea. He probably stole it, like the young, pretty wife. She was a Cherokee woman, whispering to me the word waya as she released me. It means wolf. It was as if she knew somehow. I damned near carried her away against her will. She refused to move, even with the knowledge she would die once her husband returned. That’s why I did it. I couldn’t leave her with him and I owe my life to the Native Americans who released me from the noose. It was my way of paying them back for their deed. You see, Storm was half Native American, and they have spirit animals. One of the strongest is the wolf.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself,” she said. “You did the right thing.”

He laughed bitterly. “I’m a cop,” he said. “There is a protocol about taking the law into your own hands and everything.”

She smiled gently up at him. “I get it, Lynch. It’s just that back then, it was proper. That’s all I can say.”

“You know all my secrets,” he said softly. “I wish I had you with me all through my life. I still have issues changing you. Despite that, it’s something I truly wanted to do for years. The more I fell in love with you the temptation nearly grew out of control. You know I wanted you for a long time, Jenna. What you didn’t know was that I wanted to change you, to make you mine forever.”

“It’s what I wanted,” she said insistently.

“I know, Jenna. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted for you. The times you were away, with friends, with other men, were torture for me. I was terrified that you would find someone else to love.”

“No,” she said with a smile. “Never. I hated every minute of it.”

He laughed. The sound seemed filled with rusty salt. It was jovial, warm, a sound she had grown to love. “I’m glad you hated it. Very much so.”

She playfully slapped his chest. “Bastard.”

* * *

Callie awoke alone in a large room with an ornate bed. This, she figured, probably should have gone to Lynch and Jenna. It was obviously the nicest room in the house. When she was aware of her surroundings, Callie sat cross legged in the middle of her bed. Both her cure and Jenna’s compound were secured in a safe buried by Joris. He had hidden it in a crawlspace under the basement floor. Andy told her his nephew was familiar with the type of immortal Clark was, so their precious cargo should remain undetectable by him. She tried to stress the fact that Clark was special. They reassured her. She wanted to believe them, but couldn’t quite do it just yet. She wanted to live her life without the fear of Clark looking over her shoulder at every turn.

She hadn’t taken off her watch when she went to bed. She never did in a strange place. Besides, she had this thing where she always had to know what time it was. When Callie glanced at her watch, it was close to eight in the morning. It was earlier than she normally liked to get up at home. She smiled to herself. Hugh was probably already up, doing his morning chores, and believing she was perfectly safe at the university. There was no cell service in this area. If there had been, she would have called her brother, even if Lynch told her not to call anyone. She laughed at him, letting him know that Clark didn’t rely on dings at a cell tower to find someone. He simply knew how to track people down. They might be safe here for a while. Sooner or later, Clark would find them.

Callie hated the fact that she had to sit here without trying to call her brother. Hugh wasn’t super protective, but he liked to know what was going on in her life. Ignoring her frustration for now, she got out of bed and put on a robe. She heard noise downstairs and supposed someone was down there doing something, hopefully cooking breakfast, because she was one hungry bitch.

When she entered the kitchen, she saw Joris at the stove, banging around pots and pans, surely cooking as she had hoped. Since he didn’t notice her, she didn’t say anything for a while. She stood back and watched him with an amused expression on her face. He certainly moved with less grace than Andy. Like his uncle, he was sweet and gracious. She found it odd that two men who weren’t together a lot still held such a tight bond.

“Would you like to help or would you rather stand there and stare at me?” Joris asked amusedly.

Callie jumped. She didn’t know he saw her standing in the shadows. She couldn’t believe someone had asked her to help with cooking. Didn’t he realize she couldn’t cook? “I’d love to,” she said. “However, I’m not a much of a cook.”

He waved his hand toward her. “Nonsense. You can do something, can’t you? Boil water? Scramble an egg?”

She smiled. “I pity the person who winds up eating what I cook, but if you need help, I suppose I can do it.”

“Thank you,” he told her. “I’m not accustomed to cooking for so many people. Uncle Andy went out to town for supplies.”

Joris put her to work scrambling eggs while he worked on frying bacon and sausage. His house was a classic gothic looking Tudor-style thing, something she would expect of a fictional character. His appliances were new, though, so it made everything in the home seem more modern. “Joris, what is it that you do?”

“Like my uncle, I come from old money. I do independent investing to keep the funds alive. I travel a lot as a result. Andy caught me during a dry spell.” He deftly flipped the bacon and sausage. “And you? What do you do?”

“I’m in between,” she told him. “I was supposed to start school before this mess began.”

“As soon as it’s over, you’ll get back to it. From what Andy said, you’re into science and chemistry like Jenna?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

“I have a lab down in my basement as well. If you get curious, you can go down and have a look. I don’t think it is anything like Andy had, but it should do if either you or Jenna needs it.”

Callie stirred the eggs and watched them cook until they seemed ready to scoop into a platter. “Thanks, I just might do that. Looks like you have a huge place here. A person could get lost.”

Joris picked up the cooked bacon and eggs with a set of tongs. He set the meat on paper towels to drain. “Whenever you like, I can give you a tour.”

She gave him a sideways glance. He was a cute guy, no doubt. “Sure. It definitely sounds like fun.”

* * *

Mick Belmont sat at his desk with paperwork before him. One bit of that was the local newspaper. It wasn’t huge, more like five pages. Despite that, the front page had news of a fire here in LeVale. The home in question was that of Keagan Tackett. From what he understood, there was a body found inside, burned beyond recognition. They had sent the body to the county morgue to find out the identity. There was no sign of Hugh Norwood around, either. He called his home, his cell, and even went by his apartment. Nothing. He called Lynch’s cell as well, getting nothing but a voice mail.

What in the hell was going on in his department? He couldn’t get hold of his two best men. There was too much going on without his men out in the field working. Before they could solve the murder, they needed to investigate it. How could they investigate it without their men? He wished he could retire tomorrow.

* * *

Lynch had fallen back to sleep along with Jenna after their conversation earlier. Suddenly, without warning, he woke and sat up almost out of breath. He glanced at Jenna. She didn’t seem to notice. He slid out of bed without her moving, and grabbed his clothing from yesterday. After slowly getting himself together, he went to the small window in the room and began to stare out of it. The day looked fine. Downstairs, he could smell the good aromas of eggs, bacon, sausage, and coffee.

For a moment, he ignored it. There was something wrong. There was something very wrong. It had everything to do with Clark as well. He sensed two modes of destruction. The first thought, harsher than them all, was that Hugh was dead. Clark had fed on him first. The second was that Clark had dragged him into the mansion and set it on fire. He was upset about the mansion, but felt worse when he thought about Hugh. He was a good man, one too good to fall the way he did.

It angered him, making his eyes glow silver. He was tempted to transform, burst out of this house, and hunt Clark down. It was time he saw some of the pain he doled out to his victims. The son of a bitch had killed so many when it wasn’t necessary to attack humans to feed. He did it for sport, and that sickened Lynch even more. Standing against the window, he clenched and unclenched his fists. He fought the change with everything in him. It was not the time. They came here to gather their strength, renew themselves, and decide how to deal with Clark Honsterott.

He sighed heavily, feeling his eyes go back to their natural color, as the solid wall of Jenna’s body pressed against his back. She calmed him more than anything known to man or science. He realized she had always had that effect on him. He said nothing as her face buried itself in the middle of his back. Her lips traced gentle lines along his flesh, up the back of his neck, and to his hairline. He once again felt his eyes changing back to silver.

If he had been able to see Jenna, he would have seen that her eyes were changing as well. He noticed her nipping bites were getting stronger, her fingernails leaving scratches rather than faint trails. This happened during lovemaking at times, Lynch had experienced it more than once. Jenna, of course, would be experiencing it for the first time, depending on how far they actually progressed in their lovemaking.

He pushed his body back, allowing her to move so he could face her. Oh yes. Her eyes were definitely changing, and she noticed his were as well. They smiled at each other knowingly and shared a deep kiss. She was still undressed, so when he cupped her buttocks in his hands, he left small scratches on the surface of her skin. She hissed, but it didn’t sound like a pained cry. He released her when he felt her slightly move back.

Wanting to rip him out of his shirt, Jenna chose to unbutton it and take it off normally. She went down easily to one knee to work on the snap and zipper of his jeans. As soon as she completed her task, she noticed he was hard and eager for her. She smiled up at him, her eyes silvery, and her body changing ever so slightly. He closed his eyes tightly, sighing, as she freed him from his briefs. Within seconds, her mouth was on him, almost wildly moving up and down the length of him, her tongue teasing the tip. Dear God, she could keep this up! He wanted her to stop, needed her to continue.

Just as he was on the verge of exploding, she suddenly stopped, leaving him throbbing and unfulfilled. At this, he was almost disappointed, but was certain she wasn’t a tease and definitely intended to take him all the way with her. She pulled down his jeans and briefs at the same time.

“Why bother getting dressed at all, my love,” she whispered, her voice more harsh and grating than before.

He’d heard it. It was definitely the change. It made the voice sound as if one was speaking through a voice distorter. “Pretty dumb move on my part,” he said. His voice was still normal. He knew how to hold off, Jenna was still learning.

They kissed again, seemingly devouring each other. Kicking his clothing aside, Lynch turned, directing Jenna’s body against the window. His hands moved restlessly over her body. She stretched and moved against his hands, trying to meet each touch as it came. She was getting very good at anticipating his moves. That was another advantage of being a lycan. Lovemaking became so much more interesting and deep.

Breaking the kiss, Jenna balanced her weight against the window and the wall as Lynch’s lips moved lower, from her neck to her breasts. When his lips encircled one nipple, she thrust her body forward, giving him more. She opened her mouth to cry out. She didn’t notice that her canine teeth were growing slowly. He moved to her other nipple within moments, his teeth grazing the tender flesh. His body slid even lower, as he came down to one knee as Jenna did before him. His mouth placed wet kisses along her abdomen, his tongue dipping briefly into her navel.

“Hold on, baby,” he whispered up to her, clearly noticing that her canine teeth had grown significantly. He smiled at this, hoping she remembered this as long as they lived.

Panting now, she said, “I am.”

He lifted her suddenly, throwing one leg over his shoulder. The instant his wet tongue entered her, she bit her lip, instantly tasting the blood on her tongue. She was changing. Dear God. She was changing in the midst of making love. Had she ever dreamed this would happen? But nothing mattered except Lynch and the delicious things he was doing with his tongue. She managed to dig her hand into his hair and squeezed as he made loop after loop inside her, flicking, licking, and driving her out of her mind.

Before mind numbing release, he pulled away. She was not terribly disappointed because she knew the best was yet to come. The fine hair was growing in on her now. He smiled at her again and kissed her deeply, tasting her blood. When he broke the kiss, his head was very close to her ear.

“Turn around,” he commanded lightly.

She did as he instructed. Her legs were slightly parted as she awaited his entrance. She dug her nails into the wall before her as she waited. “Lynch,” she begged. “Oh please.”

Hearing her plea, unable to wait any longer, he entered her slowly, deeply. Grasping each side of her hips, he moved within her as leisurely as possible, wanting her to feel each stroke, each thrust. One hand slid away from her hip and slipped down between her legs. As his fingers stroked her gently, Jenna’s body raised upward, her head almost resting on his shoulder. He felt that soon, very soon, he wouldn’t be able to keep up a slow pace. Very close to full change now, she couldn’t vocalize as a human. The sounds coming out of her were low whines and panting sighs. Her change was swiftly bringing about Lynch’s. His human form loved her as best as he could. His lycan form pounded his body against hers. Both man/lycan wanted one thing: release.

It came to both of them in a gigantic, shocking rush. At each of their prospective releases, both were in their full lycan form. It would be like this when they took the quarter shot which would give them an ounce of human control and connection inside them. They weren’t ready to hunt or run wild in the woods. Although they could not vocalize, they brought their heads gently together, their muzzles touching, their bodies still attached. They remained in this position until their human forms returned.

Just after they dressed and before they went downstairs to eat breakfast (Joris had called down a hearty BREAKFAST minutes ago), Lynch took hold of Jenna’s arm. For a moment, they shared a look.

“Our house,” she whispered. “Clark burned it down?”

“Yes,” he said sadly. “And that’s not all. Hugh was inside when he did it.”

“Callie has to know,” Jenna said, telling him something he was already clearly aware of.

“How do I tell her he is dead, Jenna?” Lynch asked the question with such loss in his voice. He had told dozens of families about deaths. This time, it was different. Jenna noticed it immediately. “If the PD is involved, you bet your ass they’re going to call their parents.”

“Callie is going to do everything in her power to get back for this.” Jenna sighed. “If she leaves, she is as good as dead.”

“I know. I hope Andy and Joris can help us with her, to keep her here. Out there, she is a moving target and once he touches her, he will know our location.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Goddamn it all,” he growled angrily. “What are we going to do about this son of a bitch?”

She took his hand and squeezed it hard. “We’ll get him, baby. We’ll get him before he kills another human.”

Although Lynch wasn’t so sure about that, he kept his hand in hers, and the two of them went downstairs to eat breakfast with Callie, Andy, and Joris. They hid their feelings well, but Joris and Andy sensed something was out of place. They ate their meal in near silence, Callie every once and a while asking Joris about the house and property. He answered each question without giving anyone a hint that he believed something was wrong. This felt like something between the four of them. He didn’t quite understand how the air in the room had changed.

Breakfast was out of the way in an hour or so. Callie then asked Joris to give her a tour of the property. They both stood so he could oblige and were on their way toward the back door until Lynch cleared his throat. It wasn’t a regular action. It was one that clearly meant ‘get your asses back to the table.’ Joris and Callie obeyed the command without a word. They sat down at the kitchen table and Callie focused her eyes on Lynch’s face. Actually, both he and Jenna looked like shit. It was hard to believe that just an hour ago, they were making love as if there were no tomorrow. Right now, they sat together, trying to approach the subject of Callie’s deceased brother.

“What’s going on?” Callie asked when no one else spoke. “Did you hear about something from home? Are the police after us?”

Lynch cleared his throat again, this time it was for the distinct purpose of passing along horrid news. Jenna’s hand clasped his hard, conveying support in amounts his mind could not calculate. “I’m sure they will be sooner than I thought. They may be able to trace our steps for a few miles before we changed cars to get to Joris’ house.”

Feeling the first premonition in many weeks, she knew something was terribly wrong. Laughing now, almost to the point of hysteria, she said, “So? Why are you so upset, Lynch?” She looked to Andy. “Why is your face so white, Andy?” She then settled her eyes on Jenna. “And you? Why are you holding onto Lynch’s hand so tightly it seems as if you’re going to snap it off at any minute? What the hell has happened?”

Lynch broke loose from Jenna’s grasp and reached across the table to hold onto Callie’s. “Clark came to the mansion to look for us. Obviously for some reason, Hugh came as well. Perhaps, he came to arrest me. Perhaps he came just to talk. I had a clear picture in my head, Callie. There is no way around this. Clark fed on your brother, threw him into the house, and burned it to the ground.”

He spoke as gently as he could, but the words sounded harsh, ugly, and nonsensical to her mind. He was telling her that Hugh was dead, victimized by Clark. She thought of their parents, both over sixty now. If they heard Hugh was dead and she was missing, they might succumb to shock. No way. This could not be happening to her. No no no no no no no no no! It couldn’t be. She tried hard to pull her hand out of Lynch’s; he was holding on too tightly. Fighting him now, she used her free hand to push his off hers. Lynch didn’t fight with her, he simply let her go.

“I have to go back,” she suddenly announced. “I have to be there when my parents come to…to…claim his body.” She covered her hands with her face. “Oh Jesus Christ,” she screamed into her hands. “Why Hugh?” She sobbed. “Why would he kill Hugh?”

“Callie, he probably hadn’t targeted your brother, he was…” How could Lynch say the next words on his mind gently without sounding like a dick? “He was convenient, Callie. Nothing more.”

She uncovered her face and glared at him. “Convenient? He was convenient? The son of a bitch was after me. He couldn’t have me, so he goes after the closest person to me. Hughie. Oh dear God,” she moaned. “Hughie? Why my brother?” Calming herself with great strength, she stood up. “I’m going back to LeVale to meet my parents. If Clark wants me so badly, I’m giving myself to him. I’ll leave most of the cure here with you and I’ll give the rest to Clark so he can destroy it.”

Joris took Callie’s hand and gently eased her back into her seat. “That will solve only part of the problem. Do you want Clark hurting other humans? Hurting you more? This is something you should not do.”

“We’re acting like a bunch of cowards,” Callie spat. “We’re letting Clark do what he wants while we hide out, eating a fine breakfast, and while two of our party do nothing more than have wild sex all night. What are we doing? What good are we here? How are we going to get at Clark hidden away in the woods? Fuck you all. Fuck you. Hughie was my brother and I’m not about to hide from that psychopath another day.”

She made moves to stand again. This time Andy took hold of her arm and kept her in place. “Oh yes you are,” he said, his voice meaning business in no uncertain terms. “Clark will be lured here to his death. Later on today, my nephew will give you a tour of the secret chambers of his house. Once Clark locates us, he’ll be able to locate the chambers. It is the best way to kill him, Callie. If you go back, you will jeopardize our plan, the way we will stop Clark forever.”

Andy had never used any type of force with her, not since she first met him. It surprised her to hear such passion in his voice. “What about my parents?” She asked. “Can I at least contact my parents?”

“No,” Lynch said, also startled by Andy’s sudden outburst. “If the police are looking for us, they’re going to follow any ping or other form of communication. I’m sure that when Hugh’s body is identified, where he died, and how he died, I’m probably going to be at the top of the suspect list. Clark stole items from me, items with my DNA on them. He planted them on one of his victims, to frame me. I saw the evidence. What is worse, so did Hugh.”

“Lynch, you don’t understand,” she said in tears. “When they find out I’m not at the university, they’re going to be heartbroken. They’re going to believe they have lost two children instead of one. Hughie was their favorite, but they love me too. I can’t see putting them through this.”

During Callie’s speech, Joris stood and went over to the stove. Lynch could see that he was brewing some type of tea, perhaps to calm Callie down. “Once Clark is out of the picture,” Lynch began, “you can certainly go back to them, let them know you’re all right. I’m sorry we have to do it this way. It’s best for us all. We do not want anything to happen to you.”

Callie believed Lynch with all her heart. A stubborn streak lived within her, however. She didn’t know if she could wait until Clark was dead before she contacted her parents. “Okay,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll do what you ask.”

Joris handed her a cup. “Drink this tea, Callie. It will make you feel so much better.”

She didn’t believe anything had the power to do that. Even so, she took the cup he offered and drank from it. It tasted like herbal tea. She didn’t care for it, but drank it anyway. Within half an hour, she was asleep. Without being asked, Joris carried Callie up to her bed. Her young, tragic self appealed to him.

Once Joris joined them at the breakfast table, Lynch asked, “What’s this secret chamber Andy mentioned? No one told me anything about that.”

“It was originally designed during the Civil War, it was a way to tunnel slaves to freedom,” Joris explained. “When I acquired the house, I retooled the chambers. No one knows they’re here. If we can somehow lure Clark into the depths, we can surely get rid of him.”

“Protect the women,” Andy suddenly announced, eyeing Jenna curiously.

“Other than the obvious, Andy, what does that mean?” Jenna asked.

“He has probably raped Callie numerous times,” Joris said. “He may try to rape you, especially if he has the desire to procreate with one of you.”

“What?” Lynch interjected. “Immortals cannot procreate.”

“His kind can,” Joris said. “Lycanthrope DNA is quite different than his makeup. I cannot explain it, but he does have the ability to impregnate any female he chooses.”

“And the son of a bitch is hunting for a mate,” Jenna suddenly realized. “I’m sure he is looking for Callie in more ways than one. Does she know this?”

“Probably not,” Andy said. “It’s something else we need to discuss with her. If a woman carries a baby produced by Clark, she will die at childbirth. Mates are simply vessels of the male’s seed. There is no pairing off with his kind. That’s probably the only reason he was with Callie for so long. He wanted to make her pregnant.”

None of this made sense, especially to Jenna. Perhaps it was hearing that Hugh was dead. Perhaps it was hearing her home had been burned to the ground. Whatever it was, it didn’t make sense. “I don’t see that as a reason Clark was hanging around with Callie at all. Why would a soulless individual such as he want to reproduce? He surely wouldn’t care for the child, would he?”

Jenna’s question was valid, one asked by a human so recently turned. Lynch knew the both of them were basically soulless individuals. If he thought about it long enough, he probably would want to procreate with her. “I remind you that we’re in the same boat as he, Jenna,” Lynch began. She started to say something, but Lynch held up his hand. “Wait.” He cleared his throat. “He wouldn’t care for the child. He would obviously choose a nanny for that. Possibly you.”

She looked at him as if he had lost his mind. “Have you forgotten that I, as well as you, am a lycanthrope? A sworn enemy?”

“No, Jenna, I haven’t forgotten anything. A female lycan would be perfect for the job. For a very long time in our history, we were slaves.”

She sighed. She remembered that history, even if she hadn’t lived it. She knew Lynch had lived it almost every day of his life. The thought of serving as a nurse maid for Clark made her shiver. “That’s something I’d rather die than do.”

Lynch reached across the table and took her hand. “I know, babe. I’d rather die than have it happen.”

“Unless Callie gives away our location, I think we’re relatively safe from Clark. We must keep our eyes on her for the duration,” Joris said. “You can leave her to me.”

Both Andy and Lynch smiled his way. He was beginning to have a soft spot in his heart for the young woman. “Your hands are very capable,” Andy said.

* * *

Although the detectives working the murder of Hugh Norwood were a couple ranks down from him, they were all the captain had. Dirk Havens and Christine Knight were poking along the ruins of the fire along with the fire investigation team. It was definitely arson, because they easily found a gas can and noted that the burn patterns matched those typical of arson. What they had to wrap their minds around was whether or not they thought Lynch Tackett actually had anything to do with it. All fingers pointed his way, especially noting the fact that he ran. However, why would he have killed his partner?

When Christine noticed that one of the fire investigators were poking around an area below ground. She moved the same way, carefully poking through the ruins. She was sent out primarily by the captain because at one point, she had been with the fire department before joining the police academy. Unlike her partner, she knew how to move through the hot ruins of a smoldering fire. She had the right gear and the right attitude.

As she grew closer to the area were the firefighter disappeared, she saw him moving around in an area that was probably once the basement. She shouted down to him to let him know she was going to repel down. Patiently, he waited for her to repel down until she was on her feet. Down here, in this area, it sustained the most damage. The smell of smoke was still heavy, so there was no way they would be able to remain here for long. While the other guy poked around in one area, she was drawn to another. She took a tire tool she had brought down with her and moved the lump around a few millimeters. From her vantage point on her feet, it looked like the remains of a microscope. She knelt down to get a better look. It was a microscope. Other items stuck her attention as well. It was shattered beakers.

Despite her equipment, despite it all, the environment was too heavy. She had to get out of here. She climbed back out of the basement and as soon as she got her feet down on steady ground, she shed the heavy mask and other equipment. It was then that her partner noticed her.

“What did you see?” He asked as he was approaching her.

Christine gave him a slightly dirty look as he came toward her. He didn’t have the balls to climb into the house to look around. He waited on someone else to do the work for him. “Looks like Tackett had a lab down in his basement. I saw a microscope and some crushed beakers.”

He made a face. “That’s weird. What were they doing down there? Cooking meth?”

She rolled her eyes. He was so stupid. If they had been cooking, there would have been a huge explosion. Who was this guy anyway? Belmont’s nephew? “They weren’t cooking anything, but they were surely doing something they weren’t supposed to.”

* * *

The captain sat behind his desk gazing unsteadily at the parents of Hugh and Callie Norwood. Hugh was definitely deceased, but he couldn’t say the same about Callie. He didn’t know where she was. As for how Hugh died, he didn’t quite know that, either.

As he gazed at Patrick and Judy Norwood, he noticed one thing. Hugh looked exactly like his dad. The resemblance was uncanny. It was hard looking at the other man. He had no explanation as to why their son died or how their daughter had disappeared without a trace. Callie was supposed to be at the university, but a quick check verified she wasn’t there.

“I’m so sorry about Hugh,” Belmont began slowly. “He was one hell of a cop and was expected to take over for me when I retire.”

Patrick Norwood’s resolve was solid. He didn’t move. However, Judy Norwood brought a piece of tissue up to her eyes and daubed them dry. He hated moments like this, hated facing parents who were so different in resolve.

“I understand our daughter is missing,” Patrick said. “We haven’t heard from her and if she wasn’t in any harm, she would have contacted us as soon as we heard about Hughie.”

“I understand that, Mr. Norwood,” Belmont said. “The last we heard, she was in the company of Jenna Vos.”

Judy Norwood looked up at the mention of a woman’s name. “Who is she?”

“I believe she is the live in lover of Hugh’s partner, Keagan Tackett,” he said.

Patrick and Judy knew Lynch well. They weren’t as acquainted with his house mates, but they knew he lived with two other people. “Do you think Lynch had anything to do with our boy’s death and our daughter’s disappearance?”

“I can’t deny or confirm that,” Belmont said. “Callie may be in the company of these folks willingly. I understand they were very well acquainted with each other.” Belmont didn’t tell them they suspected that Hugh was responsible for stealing evidence, either. There were many things going on that these people didn’t quite need to know yet. “Hugh and Lynch were very close. I highly doubt that Lynch lured him in to the house and burned it down without someone seeing something. I know the house is way out of town, but Lynch had many neighbors.”

“I don’t think you’re doing enough,” Patrick Norwood said, finally airing what had been on his mind since he and his wife arrived in town. “I think Callie should have already been found. I think Lynch should already have been found. There aren’t many places they can go.”

Norwood’s words testified to the fact about how much he knew about police work, which wasn’t much. Belmont wasn’t impressed with his accusation. Lynch Tackett was a good man. There was no way he would kill his partner or his little sister. “I hear what you’re saying,” Belmont said. “Please, go check into a hotel and we’ll surely keep you updated.”

“Yes,” Judy Norwood said. “Cover your ass.”

As soon as the two of them left the office, Belmont covered his face with his hands and sighed. He couldn’t wait until he had enough time to go out and get a bourbon. He didn’t have time to pause. Christine Knight bounced into his office, dirty, and smelling of smoke.

“Did you find anything interesting?” Belmont asked tiredly.

“Somewhat,” she said. “They had a lab in their basement. I found broken beakers and a damaged microscope.”

He scratched the top of his balding head. “A lab? They obviously weren’t cooking drugs down there,” he surmised. “Any idea what they were doing?”

She shook her head. “No idea, Boss. However, there was also plenty of what looked like syringes and so forth. If they weren’t cooking drugs, they were definitely cooking something.”

The mystery went up an octave. Belmont didn’t see any relief in sight, or a chance to escape and get his bourbon. “Thanks, Knight. Whatever we do, we need to find Callie Norwood and Lynch Tackett.”

“Do you think they’re involved?” Knight asked.

He looked up at her. “My honest opinion?” She shrugged and lifted her eyebrows. “My gut tells me no. Will I have to arrest somebody? It’s a good chance.”

CHAPTER 11

Callie Norwood awoke with a start. The bed covers beneath her were covered in sweat. Someone had brought her in here and dropped her down onto the bed after Joris drugged her with herbal tea. She sat up, brought her knees against her body, and hugged them. For five minutes or more, she cried like a baby. No matter how much tea was pumped into her body, it wouldn’t take away the pain. Her older brother was dead, her parents unaware that their youngest child was still alive.

After her tears dried up, she raised her head and stared at the wall opposite her. The longer she stared, the more bitter she became. Who were these strangers to tell her how to feel about Hugh’s death? Who were they to tell her she couldn’t have any contact with her parents? For a moment-a brief moment-she forgot about Clark. It didn’t matter that they were all being stalked right at this second. All she wanted to do was run back to LeVale and find her parents. It was terrible, the most awful feeling inside having conflict that could not be easily resolved. In her life, there was never such a second.

Although she knew nothing about Joris’ house, she was tempted to flee. If he had ‘hidden chambers,’ how hard would they really be to find? She could slip out of the house and run. It didn’t matter there was an entire group of people waiting outside her door to prevent that very thing from happening. If she was still like Clark, she would have the physical strength to push them away to achieve her goal. The sons of bitches didn’t know anything about loss. Not one. Not any of them.

While her selfish thoughts danced in her mind, she realized she was completely wrong about loss. She supposed all of them had their fair share, especially Lynch. She had no idea how old he was. How many people had he watched die? How many lovers had he lost? What about his other family members? She hated the situation, hated herself more for thinking that no one else but her had lost a loved one. Dear ever loving God. What was she going to do? One thing was sure. She wanted to kill Clark. It was her goal, the one thing that would keep her going until the task was done or when she was dead herself.

Slowly, Callie swung her legs over the side of the bed and pulled her body into a full standing position. The doors and walls were so thick that she couldn’t hear if anyone was outside guarding her door. Chuckling nonsensically at how ridiculous the thought was, she went to the door. Finding it unlocked, she stepped outside into the hallway. She heard little noise. Most of it was coming from the kitchen. Surely, they weren’t still sitting at the table? How damned long had she been asleep anyway? She stupidly hadn’t looked at a clock or watch. Where was her mind? It wasn’t with her. It was with Hugh and the rest of her family. She had to pee, but fought the urge with every ounce of physical strength she possessed.

She slipped down the hallway, as if she were sneaking out of the house. She was only acting like she wanted to leave the house. She did, but not like this. Callie approached the stairs, deliberately taking one at a time. If the truth were known, she wasn’t ready to see any of them. At the same time, she needed their support. It seemed to take a dry age for her to reach the bottom of the stairs. The hallway leading off stretched into the expansive living room. Another dry age passed before she was standing in an empty room. She was right. They were still gathered in the kitchen. A brief look at her watch told her she had been out for more than two hours. Two hours. They were having a two hour bull session and her brother was dead? What the fuck? When she left the room, she wasn’t angry. Now was a different story.

Callie watched as the four of them looked her way, surprised that she was awake so soon. Joris seemed particularly interested. The first words she wanted to speak were less than kind toward the folks that had now become her family. She purposely bit her tongue to keep the filth in. It hurt like hell and had begun to bleed. How could they do this to her? Keep her away at such a time as this? What if she asked Lynch or Jenna to bite her? She could take care of things on her own if someone would just follow their animal inside.

“You didn’t have to drug me,” Callie said suddenly, eyeing Joris.

“Callie, you weren’t acting rationally. That means you were in a dangerous spot,” Joris said calmly.

She wondered vaguely if Joris had a psychology degree, because he could surely spit a lot of psychobabble bullshit. “My brother was murdered. How am I supposed to act, Joris? Can you tell me? Can any of you tell me?”

All of them started to speak at once. They were silenced by Joris pulling his body away from the kitchen table. He breeched the distance between them in two swift steps. Gently, he placed his large hands onto her shoulders. The moment he touched her, she began to tremble. She wasn’t angry with them. It was more than obvious what truly ran through her. The need for revenge. The need to take on Clark by herself.

Gazing deeply into her eyes, he said, “I get it, Callie. I understand what it feels like to have someone taken from you so violently. This is not the time for you to lose sight of what we’re dealing with here. You cannot go on the hunt for Clark by yourself. What I did was give you time to think.”

Her eyes burned with tears yet to be shed. She didn’t want to cry. Although she had barely gotten a moment to grieve her brother, she was already tired of tears. “You all can’t leave me out of your plans. Hugh was my brother.”

“I know,” he said gently, as if he felt like they were the only people in the room. “If you will allow me, I’ll show you around. I will take you to the chambers so you can see for yourself. A man like Clark won’t like it down there. The souls of the good will drive him insane.”

She nodded. “Okay,” she whispered. “I will leave my loss, my emotions, and the grief in your hands. I promise to let you do what you need to. If you don’t, I won’t hesitate to take it into my own hands.”

He smiled at her. It was as gentle as his words before. “Agreed.”

* * *

Clark stood out in an open field. He wasn’t sure where he was at the moment. When his kind was hungry, they hunted whatever crossed their path. He didn’t remember what he killed, but he could taste the faint strains of blood in his throat. He ignored it. He truly didn’t give a fuck. He was on the trail of the next victims on his list.

After feeding on Hugh Norwood and burning down the Tackett house, Clark left the area immediately. Hopefully, he planted enough evidence to put the final nail in Lynch’s coffin. However, he wasn’t altogether certain he would find Callie in the company of the lycans. He hadn’t found the compounds in the lab. He was stupid to assume the formulas would be there. It would have made his life so much easier. However, it was time to finish this business. It was enough to drive him out of his mind. Of course, according to popular opinion, he was already out of his mind. Or was it her mind. It was hard to think of gender during a shift.

He worked his way carefully out of the field. Before him, no more than a few feet away, was a hard top road. Like a dog, he had special senses that could help lead him anywhere he wanted to go. This road was most likely the one Callie took with Lynch and his caretakers. If they were smart, they changed cars along the way. Otherwise, he wouldn’t find them easily. He could only detect their direction so far. His abilities irritated him more than helped him. He wasn’t like Tackett, who could find whatever he wanted. Clark was one who had to touch something they touched, and a paved road didn’t count. He was limited that way. It was enough to make him throw a fit like a three-year-old.

Shrugging it away, he began to walk along the paved road, hopefully following the same trail that his quarry had. As he walked, he allowed his mind to go blank. It was best. Allowing it to work so much would give his enemies an advantage. While he watched his feet take each and every step, he looked forward to cars passing along. Perhaps one would stop, offering him a ride. He would accept graciously, only to feed on the driver first before stealing his or her car. He hated to walk, more than he hated anyone named Tackett or allies of his. Also, there was nothing like the taste of human blood and flesh to get him going.

* * *

Joris held tightly onto Callie’s hand as he led her from the kitchen. She followed along willingly enough as he took her down a long, sloping hallway. The house was so large, it seemed as if they had walked for miles. Callie noticed the color of the carpet. She didn’t know why she focused on it. There was something about it, something old. It neither comforted nor horrified her.

After what seemed like a mile walk, they were now in another wing of the house. She couldn’t believe how massive his home was. They stood in front of a small door. Crazily, it looked like something from a fairy tale. What would they have to do? Drink a potion so they could fit? Her worries were for naught when Joris opened the door. They simply had to bend slightly to go inside.

Callie expected to see the famous chambers as soon as she stepped through the door. She was wrong. What stood before her was a flight of stairs leading down into the darkness. Again, she didn’t know what to expect. Neither of them had thought to bring a flashlight. She watched as Joris slung his arm inside the dark room, feeling for something with his hand. Within moments, he found a light switch. The stairs were then bathed in sickly, dim light.

“You’re kidding me, right?” Callie asked incredulously. “We’re going to break our legs down here.”

Joris smiled at her, squeezing her hand for good measure. “Nonsense. We’ll be fine.”

To her relief, he was right. They stepped down onto the first step. Callie followed Joris, allowing him to lead her along. For no reason at all, she gave him her complete trust. As they made their way lower down, the light became dimmer still. Just when they set foot on the last step, they were cloaked in darkness. At this point, Joris released her hand. Her heart began to pound in her chest. Now what? The light upstairs seemed like a faraway beacon. She had no reason to fear anything. When Joris’ foot hit the floor below, an automatic security light popped on. That was when Callie noticed how oddly Joris’ foot was placed.

He smiled at her again, this one wider than the first. “I set it this way. It only recognizes my foot.”

Amazed, Callie shook her head. “What are you? A superhero?”

Shaking his head, he said, “No. Just prepared. The Hoff family spares no expense.” He took her hand again. “Come on, we still have a walk ahead of us.”

They continued down a long, antiseptic appearing hallway. It reminded Callie of a hospital. It was clean down here. Too clean. There was nothing littering the hallway, no decorations or furniture. Any other person might have thought this place was creepy. Callie didn’t. If Joris was a man of science like Andy, she got it. Most science minded people she knew were orderly and clean. Perhaps she was the exception to the rule, because cleaning wasn’t something she particularly liked so much.

“Joris, how far down are we walking?” She finally asked.

“Be patient, Callie. You sound like a child asking ‘are we there yet?’”

It didn’t come out harshly. Callie actually smiled. She didn’t think she would genuinely smile for a long time. “I feel like I’m in a dream right now.”

“Wait until you see the chambers,” he said with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Eventually, they came to a sharp turn, where Callie expected to see another hallway. Instead, there was another door. This one was normal sized, not something out of a fairy tale. Beside it was an intricate keypad. Callie watched Joris type in a code, his long fingers flying over the pad. A loud click issued out before the door came open. Callie saw there was another flight of stairs, but this one was short, only about four or five steps. Again, she followed behind Joris until they stepped onto the floor. At that time, the light changed. It went from overly bright fluorescents to a pale shade of blue. She almost couldn’t see far beyond a few feet.

“Before you are the chambers,” Joris said.

What Callie saw was a domed ceiling with large columns every few feet along the hallway. The strange blue light was the only thing illuminating it. “How far does it go?”

“For miles. You notice the blue light?” Callie nodded. At this, Joris smiled. “Clark’s eyes will have difficulty adjusting to it. Ours will after a few minutes. This is where he needs to be led.”

“What about Lynch and Jenna? How will they adapt to this light?”

It was a good question, one Joris hadn’t thought much about. The eyes of the lycanthrope were quite different than that of Clark’s species. “I will show them down later. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue with them. Clark’s kind won’t see down here. At the end of this chamber is an exit. As long as he cannot penetrate the door, he will not escape.”

She heard herself sighing, felt the sting of tears dying to be released. This wasn’t just for her, Lynch, or Jenna. It was a fight for Hugh. He had never done anything wrong. He lived his life by the book, by the law. She often thought good people died too young. It was obviously the way of the world.

“I hope you’re right, Joris,” she whispered.

He brought his hand up to her cheek. “I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.”

“You realize you’re risking your neck, don’t you?” She couldn’t explain it, but this man made her feel safe. It was the same feeling she had around Lynch. “Clark is an evil bastard. I would hate for anyone to die at his hands.”

“I’m not afraid to die for something I believe in,” he said.

His eyes were gleaming, beautiful. “You don’t even know me.”

“It doesn’t mean I don’t want to,” he said softly.

If she didn’t feel like shit right now, she would have kissed him. She was happy to stand in front of him and gaze into his eyes. She was confused. Her heart was confused. She thought she wanted Clark when she lived in New York. She moved to LeVale and immediately thought she wanted Lynch. She was in the middle of the boonies, and now she wanted to kiss yet another man. Perhaps she needed to go far, far away. Where ever she went, Clark was sure to follow. It was best to be trapped here.

“Thank you, Joris,” she said. “I’d like to, once this nightmare is over.”

He took his hand away from her face, took her hand, and placed a gentle kiss on it. “And we will,” he said once he released her hand. “One thing you should know about me is that I don’t break a promise.”

“I’m counting on that.”

The two of them turned away from the massive hole that led to the end of the chambers. Callie wanted to go further, but Joris insisted they start back. There was much to be done, planned, and executed. Whatever happened to any of them, one thing they knew for certain was that Clark could not be allowed to live. The world was not ready for an immortal such as him. Callie should have cured him, fooled him some way, and ended his miserable life. She didn’t know why she couldn’t have done so. They would not be here right now, in this situation.

Without warning, Callie stopped walking and dropped to the floor. Crossing her legs before her, she began to rock back and forth. Shock had become her friend more than ever. Joris, of course, immediately knew it, sensed what the problem was. It had to be time to break this chain of guilt surrounding her heart. It would get them nowhere. He didn’t think, feel, or breathe for a moment. He dropped down to the cold floor that made up the creepy feel of the room.

Although his question would most likely sound like the stupidest thing on earth, he couldn’t stop the words coming out of his mouth. “Are you okay?”

Callie liked Joris. She really did. However, his question made her want to sock him. “You know what’s in my head, Joris. Why would you ask such a question?”

“Admittedly, I don’t know you very well,” he began. “I feel as if you are on the verge of confronting Clark on your own. We have beaten this conversation to death.” He looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Don’t you think?”
“Perhaps it would be different if one of you has lost a loved one,” she said, hurt dripping from each word. She matched Joris’ raised eyebrow, mocking it for all it was worth. “Have you? Have any of you?”

Bitterly, Joris laughed and shook his head. “You are a piece of work, Callie Norwood. Lynch has lost more than you’ll never know. I know it doesn’t help your grief or make you understand. You’re a selfish brat at times, Callie. That attitude will kill you if you don’t keep check on it.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” She suddenly burst out angrily. “Excuse me for a moment, allow me to grieve, and let me say fuck you, Lynch, Jenna, and Andy. Fuck you all.” For a moment, she covered her face to allow her hands to soak in her tears. When she looked at Joris again, he was watching her carefully. “If I give myself to Clark, he will leave everyone else alone.”

“And that, my friend, will be the death of everyone in his house,” he told her soberly. “He wants to kill Lynch, possibly rape Jenna, and eliminate myself as well as Andy for the hell of it. He doesn’t want just you. I thought we had already established this. It’s like your tantrum has wiped out your memory.”

Callie couldn’t believe it. Only moments ago, Joris was gentle with her, hinting at a possible relationship if any of them survived Clark’s attack. Now he was speaking to her as if she had just met him. What was he? A temperamental immortal? Was that it? A touch of new understanding flowed through her. What was Joris’ story? What was his interest in this ‘snake people’ bullshit? Was he hiding his own secrets? How could be like Clark without the evil? Was it possible?

“Joris,” she began quietly. “You’re an immortal.”

He shook his head. “Not exactly. I’ve been touched by them, but I’m far from an immortal, and nothing like Clark Honsterott. I sense things, more so than Andy.”

“If that’s the case, do you know what’s going to happen in the end?” She asked quietly, unsure that she wanted to hear the answer.

“Nothing is foretold, Callie. It’s not as easy as that. What I know is that these chambers will bring about Clark’s demise. He could sense it and choose not to come. However, he wants a mate and will go to great lengths to find one, even if it means the blue light blinds him. His kind cannot control their urges.”

She reached out and covered his hand with hers. To her surprise, he responded by gripping it tightly. “I don’t think he wants me to bear his child,” she whispered. “He’s looking to Jenna. Lycans may be his natural enemy, but impregnating her will surely bring about what he wants. My role may be no more than nourishment for the child. Destroying Jenna guarantees that Lynch will die.”

“You are very enlightened for one so young,” he declared. “I will ensure Jenna and Lynch memorize the layout of the house as well as the chambers. You all will have the advantage. That I promise you.”

Callie moved suddenly, surprising Joris with her agility. She straddled his lap, her hands on each side of his face. “You can get to know me before the shit hits the fan. I’ll tell you everything you want to know and more. I expect the same of you. Can I have you? Can I have something that is mine?”

“You’re finding a substitute for Lynch,” he said knowingly. “What will this be, Callie?”

“A connection, Joris,” she whispered urgently. “What’s better than that? I’ve had them with Lynch. But what I think is going on is stronger than that. It’s what I want. Can we talk about our lives later? Can we?”

When he spoke to her earlier, he expected the job to be done, their way of life insured to last forever. He was nice to her, speaking his mind, and she wanted to be connected. What did it mean? What did anything mean anymore?

“Callie…”

His voice ended in a moan as her hands settled below his belt. It was a wicked caress, one she was very skilled at. He had incredible control and could resist the most beautiful women he had ever encountered. Callie was different. She was clearly needy, lost, and grieving. Did she honestly believe having sex with him would make a difference?

Before he knew what was happening, Callie had somehow managed to unbutton her blouse, revealing the slight curve of her breasts. She led his hand inside her blouse. He felt the intense thumping of her heart, the flesh below his hands was hot, swollen, and pushing urgently against his skin. His mind screamed at him to stop, to push her away. It wasn’t working. He wanted to give in to his urges. Although he had had his fair share of young women, it had been a long time since he sank himself into strange, wondrous flesh. They were alone down here. There was no one to save him from this episode. Using her like this was not what he wanted from her, not this soon.

When she kissed him, he lost most of his coherent thought. His hand sank deeper into her blouse, enough so where it enabled him to cup one of her breasts gently, his thumb brushing against the nipple each time her tongue flicked into his mouth. Moments after her mouth seemed to devour his, he felt her going for his zipper, where his erection strained desperately against the material of his pants.

He broke the kiss and watched helplessly as Callie released the zipper, freeing him from his confines. It was obvious that he wanted her badly. She moved slightly, just enough to allow herself to hike up her skirt. Her panties were removed in a whisper quick motion. She raised her body and slid down onto him. At first, there was no movement. Each had to suddenly adjust to the feel of their bodies meshing so passionately well together. Joris didn’t care what brought this on any longer. He grasped the sides of her hips, matching each and every move, matching each and every thrust. Their mouths met as the frenzy of their lovemaking continued. She tasted and felt amazingly wonderful. Whatever connection she needed, he was happy to give it to her. Afterwards, he didn’t know what would happen.

The moment she felt him close to bursting inside her, she broke the kiss, and buried her head inside his neck. He felt nipping bites as he slammed her body against his in a frenzy of lust, insanity, and disconnected sex. Or at least that was what he told himself. Perhaps he was more connected to her than he thought. At his release, he damned near growled, wondering all along if his intention was to do this when he led her into the underground chambers. Their bodies were still connected, even after his release. He knew she had yet to meet hers. His hand slid to the point where their bodies were meld. He touched her at the sensitive small mound of flesh that was slippery, swollen, and hard. Caressing her, whispering softly to her, she took a sharp intake of breath, her body quivering as if she had stepped into a very cold room. Their bodies shuddered together.

As they both recovered, Joris couldn’t help but look down at her almost helplessly. “What did we do, Callie?” He asked. His voice full of wonder. “What did we do?”

Sweat trickled down between her breasts. It was moisture he was tempted to drink in. “We had a connection, Joris. You showed me how good it can be.”

“It was…it was unexpected, almost a mistake,” he said, hating himself for the words coming out of his mouth. “Yet, I can’t lie. I imagined this, wanted it the moment I met you. Just not like this.”

Her lips brushed against his. “If we survive this, we’ve found our connection. That I promise you.”

While Joris and Callie were exploring their bodies and the chambers down below the house, Andy busied himself in the lab. Jenna and Lynch took to the outside, exploring the grounds. Joris’ house and property reminded Lynch of his home, a home he couldn’t return to now. He wasn’t a man who cried often, but thinking about it made tears suddenly well in his eyes. Jenna sensed his grief, so he felt her hand slipping into his, squeezing it for comfort. Although he had serious guilt issues turning her, he was glad she was here. At times, he didn’t know what he would do without her.

“I think Joris and Callie have made love,” Jenna said suddenly, a high blush coming to her cheeks.

Lynch smiled. “You sensed that too?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I saw it coming for miles.”

Lynch stopped walking for a moment, also halting Jenna. They were staring at a very tall tree on Joris’ property. He wondered if it had been alive since he walked the earth. It appeared to be old, but still kept its majesty. This tree was beautiful, the spot perfect. He looked all around them, not a soul was here. He gazed down at Jenna for so long that she felt nervous.

“What is it?” She whispered. “You’re getting all weird,” she said jokingly.

“I want you to be my wife,” he said suddenly.

Shocked, she placed her hand over her heart. “Are you kidding me?”

“No. We’ll be cured soon, when Clark dies. I want a wife. I want you to be her. Your devotion is beyond what anyone else would attempt. You’re my mate,” he said. “It’s not enough for me. Marry me, Jenna. Marry me when I’m able to live a mortal life, one where we can have children, where we can make love for life.”

For a moment, everything for Jenna was moving too fast and too slow at the same time. She didn’t know how that was possible, but it was how it played in her head and heart. Vaguely, she wondered how long Lynch had thought about asking her to marry him. Surely, it hadn’t popped into his mind before they made love the first time, before he changed her? Suddenly, she felt dizzy and sick. It seemed as if she had stepped onto the page of an old-fashioned romantic drama.

“I didn’t expect such an extended slice of silence,” he said with a slight smile.

Jenna shook her head before expelling a brief spill of laughter. “When you’re hit with something left field, it happens.” She looked back at the enormous tree they both had been staring at before focusing her eyes on his face. “How long have you wanted to ask?”

He kicked at the damp grass with the toe of his boot. It was the action of a child, one who had aged hundreds of years without knowing what true adulthood meant. Making the picture complete, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and shrugged. Jenna halfway expected him to utter ‘golly gee.’ She supposed she shouldn’t be standing here, inventing caricatures of him in her mind. Perhaps she wanted to give him a hard time. After all, how long had she waited for this moment? How long had she fantasized that he would ride in on a white horse, take her pale hand in his, and ask her to marry him? It was crazy. It was even more so that she had yet to answer his proposal.

“It’s a hard question to answer, Jenna,” he finally said. “I think it’s that I know a cure is imminent.”

She reached over to him and grasped his hand in hers. “We could always get married at any point in time, Lynch. We don’t have to wait for the cure.”

He began to form words in his mind to reply to her when it hit him with the sudden force of ten fists in his face. Quizzically, he looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Are you saying yes or simply torturing me for never asking before?”

“Maybe something along the lines of both?”

Lynch saw she was smiling at him, her eyes alive with the light that always brought an ache to his heart. It was the same feeling when he heard her sing as she finished her daily chores. She hadn’t sang in so long, he was tempted to ask her to do so today, right at this moment. It seemed cheesy, but at the same time, he had never felt happier or settled.

Helplessly, he looked at her. “Jenna,” he managed to utter.

“If you need something solid, Lynch, I’ll give it to you,” she said softly. “Yes. I will marry you.”

Oddly, he didn’t know what to do next. He never expected to ask her. He never expected her to answer. If they were a typical couple, he would take her in his arms, hold her, and possibly kiss the breath out of her. However, they weren’t a typical couple. Despite this idea, he grabbed her in the tightest bear hug he could manage, and spun her around crazily until he grew dizzy. Both of them collapsed to the damp grass, laughing like children.

By the time they went back up to the house, their clothes were damp. Neither immediately paid attention, instead making their way back to the kitchen. They sensed the others were there. As it turned out, their instincts were spot on. Joris, Callie, and Andy were at the kitchen table. Andy and Joris had cups of tea before them. Jenna noticed a steaming pot on the stove. Jenna thought of what happened between Joris and Callie. She wanted to say something, but didn’t. Instead, she focused her eyes on the teapot. Before she decided what she wanted to say to them all, she went for the tea, fumbling around, finding a cup, and nearly burning herself in the process.

Jenna joined the others after a few moments. “How did you find the chambers?” The question was innocent enough. It still seemed full of innuendo.

Callie looked at Jenna, immediately noticing something in her eyes. She obviously knew what had happened between her and Joris. She couldn’t keep a deep blush from coloring her cheeks. “They’re impressive,” she finally said.

Unaffected by whatever either Jenna or Lynch knew, Joris pushed on, “The lighting is what will bring Clark down. I’ll take the three of you down later and you will see what I mean. There may be some slight residual effect with your eyes,” he said, focusing on Jenna and Lynch. “However, it shouldn’t be enough to keep you from eliminating your enemy.”

The way Joris and Andy spoke of ‘eliminating Clark’ confused Jenna. It sounded like words she read in medieval stories she so loved in grade school. She took a sip of tea, which immediately soured in her stomach. This whole affair seemed sorted, false, and left a bad taste in her mouth. The nightmare had not only begun, but worsened with each passing minute. She pushed her cup aside.

Lynch noticed that there was more on Jenna’s mind than the secret chambers. “Are you okay?”

She looked his way, smiled weakly, and nodded. “Fine.” She slid back from the table. “I think I’m going upstairs for a bit.”

In unison, the men rose to their feet. Again, thoughts of old time chivalry entered her mind. It left as quickly as it came. She didn’t notice that Callie watched her carefully.

Jenna was tired, so the trip upstairs took a few moments. By the time she entered the bedroom, she was ready for a nap. However, she was still unsettled. She drew the curtains away from the window and peered out. There was no sign of Clark here, just woods, grass, and flowers. She sensed he was coming swiftly on their heels. She figured she knew the root of her problem. With the exception of a few woodland creatures and bugs, she had never killed another living thing in her life.

Clark wasn’t human. He was nowhere near that. She also thought he was nothing close to human before he became immortal. He was a monster, a thief in the night, one born to create chaos. If she believed he was human, her job wouldn’t get any easier. Why the hell was she so conflicted? What he had done to the people she loved was enough salt to flavor the meat. There was more on her mind, but she wasn’t ready to think about it yet.

Jenna turned her head slightly when she heard a soft rapping at the door. She hadn’t bothered closing it behind her as she sensed Lynch was with the men. She didn’t really need to look to know it was Callie. However, old human habits died hard.

“You can come in,” Jenna said. “The door is open.” When Callie entered the room, Jenna moved away from the window and sat in one of the high backed wing chairs near the bed. She sensed Callie wanted to talk. It didn’t take special powers to figure that one out, either. “Sit?”

Callie nodded briefly and sat in the vacant chair that sat almost catty cornered to Jenna’s. These chairs were far from functional. They were ugly, old uncomfortable things. “The men are still upstairs polishing the plan.” She waited to see if Jenna would respond. When she didn’t, Callie continued, “Even before I met Clark, I never had what one would call girlfriends. My mother was always there for me, of course, but not to speak about men or relationships.” A sardonic laugh escaped her. “She still thinks I’m a virgin.”

Jenna smiled, understanding the thoughts coursing through Callie’s mind. “I know what you mean. My mother was the same way. And like you, I never had close friends. There wasn’t time for them. It’s the only thing I dislike about growing up the way I did. If one is a Vos, he or she is destined for duty.”

“Do you regret anything that has happened to you since you became immortal?” Callie asked gently. There was a time when she considered Jenna her rival. It was different today, different since they had a common goal in mind.

“No,” she answered quickly, solidly. “Not one day. I simply want this evil to be harnessed and live out my life without worrying if someone is coming after Lynch to either arrest or kill him.”

“Jenna, I have greatly misjudged you.” She sighed heavily. “I know you knew I was interested in Lynch when I first came. I also knew it was probably hopeless. I tried, I did, and I’m sorry for that.”

“It’s okay,” she said, her voice somewhat weary. “Things change, people evolve. We’re educated women, we both know this. With that said, I have misjudged you as well.”

Callie drew her hand slowly through her short hair. If she survived this, she thought about growing it out again, changing up, changing her life. If it was possible. “I suppose you know what happened between me and Joris?”

Jenna smiled again, her cheeks pinking. No matter how passionate she was with Lynch, she wasn’t one who was comfortable discussing other people’s sex lives. “Yeah, I think I do.”

“Will you hear me out?” Callie asked. She sensed Jenna’s reluctance to carry out this conversation.

“Of course,” she said, waving her hand toward her in a circular motion. “Go on.”

“The moment came on so suddenly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just know it felt right,” she explained.

Jenna could commiserate. The moment came suddenly for her and Lynch as well. There were no doubts after she made love to Lynch, not on her part. Whatever Lynch felt afterward was secondary to what was inside her heart and mind. It felt right, just as Callie had expressed.

“Maybe you were brought here to meet Joris,” Jenna said. “Even more so if you believe in fate, if you believe things happen for a reason.”

“As if all your life was building up to this moment,” Callie said, the weight of the words felt enormous coming out of her mouth.

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Whatever happens, Jenna, I hope we can stay in touch,” she said, the moment suddenly feeling awkward, surreal. What the hell? Were they acting out a movie of the week?

“I know,” Jenna said. “It seems outrageous to be having this conversation, doesn’t it?”

Goddamned immortals, reading minds, she thought mischievously. “You’re right. I’m going to head back downstairs and check out the lab. We may have some work to do.” Callie stood and made her way to the door. She turned back to glance at Jenna. At first, Callie couldn’t find the word that described the other woman. Then it hit her. Jenna was haggard. “Maybe you should take a nap.”

“I think you’re right,” Jenna said. “On both accounts.”

CHAPTER 12

Clark Honsterott finally lucked into finding a hapless traveler. It took only a few minutes to disable him. He fed greedily, drinking in the blood as if it were the finest red wine. If he had to take on a group of lycans, he needed all the strength he could muster and as much nourishment as he could find. After kicking the body carelessly out of the car, he inspected the damage to the vehicle. There was very little, which was even better for him. What made this day perfect was the simple fact that this man had passed a road which led to the estate of one Joris Hoff.

At first, Clark didn’t notice this. He was too busy feeding and ensuring that the car was still operable. Once he touched the corpse, in an effort to find something to wipe the blood away from his body, knowledge struck his brain like a lightning bolt. For a moment, he actually swayed on his feet. He didn’t know Joris Hoff from the hole in his ass, but he knew Callie. Oh yes he did. When he touched the sad bleeding sack of humanity, he saw a flash of red hair. He would have preferred to see her face. He took whatever clue he could get. He jumped into the car, forgetting about the blood covering him.

* * *

Dirk Havens and Christine Knight were sent by their chief to follow the trail of Lynch Tackett. They didn’t exactly know where they were going, only where his car was last seen. Luckily for them, it was the same road that Clark had found. The two junior detectives drove for miles, wondering if their boss had lost his mind. While Havens drove, Knight was the look out. She caught the flash of light before her partner knew what hit him.

“Slow down, you dumb bastard,” Knight yelled indignantly. “I see something.”

While Havens backed up the car, Knight kept screaming for him to ‘back up, back up, back up!’ Grumbling under his breath, he did as he was instructed until Knight saw the reflection even stronger. It was feet away, but she could tell the flash was coming from a windshield not quite covered by brush.

Leaving their cruiser parked on the side of an old country road, they slowly exited their vehicle. Keeping their hands close to their weapons, they slowly approached the abandoned automobile. It was Knight’s idea they wear rubber boots, and both were glad to have them. The car was parked in a bad spot. The ground was soupy here, so much so, that they had water up to their ankles.

Knight was smaller, quicker, and hungrier. She made it to the not so well hidden vehicle before Havens. Without thinking, gleefully, she smashed the butt of her service revolver onto the exposed windshield and let out a whoop of joy. It was Havens who reminded her that she just might have ruined whatever forensic evidence existed. Knight didn’t care. She found Keagan Tackett’s car. Her only question was how on earth did they manage to drive it out here to be hidden? She saw footprints in the muck, but no tire tracks. Further inspection of the car showed extensive damage to the front end. It was as if someone had picked it up and threw it over here. There were no tire tracks leading away or ones that might have belonged to a tow truck. Instead, there were bogged down tracks leading from the mess to the road. Did Tackett have others who left with him? Wasn’t one of them Norwood’s sister? How did they get back to the road?

While Knight pondered these questions, Havens stepped gently around the car, removing debris as he went along. He eyed Knight with a hateful gleam in his eye. She stood with her thumb up her ass as he did the real work. He took his flashlight out of his holster, turned it on, and shined it inside the car. It appeared clean, but they would have to bring out a team to fully inspect whatever evidence was left. Since he was the one who did everything around here, he radioed for a team. They found Tackett’s car…now where was Tackett?

When the forensic team arrived, Havens and Knight went back to their cruiser, to continue their journey. Up ahead of them was a fork in the road. How odd. It reminded Knight of the cross roads fable, where a man went to meet the devil to sell his soul in exchange for fame and riches. Havens wanted to go left, Knight decided on right. This time, giving her the benefit of the doubt, he went the way she wanted to go. They drove for another twenty miles until something else caught Knight’s eye. Blood. Havens brought the car to a shuddering halt. Knight was first out of the car and saw the trail of blood before her. The two detectives followed it until they identified a sad, bleeding sack left behind by Clark.

“I’ll call it in,” Havens said.

“No you won’t.”

The voice came from behind them. Clark, thinking clearly now after his meal, came back to the scene of his crime to clean it up. Unfortunately, he found a couple of human complications. Havens reached for his side arm, but it was too late. Clark thrust his fist into the middle of Havens’ body, killing him instantly. He grabbed Knight with his free hand, digging his claws in deeply. She felt as if she had been injected with gallons of anesthesia. She couldn’t feel anything or move an inch. Clark dropped Havens’ limp body near his feet. He gently laid down Knight. She was still alive, yet completely paralyzed. She watched in horror as Clark fed on the dead detective. She tried to close her eyes. Whatever he had done to her wouldn’t allow it. She had to watch everything. It was the most horrible thing she had ever witnessed. Her heart, mind, and soul went to another place, one that wasn’t filled with such violence.

When Clark was finished, he dragged Havens’ body off into the woods. He laid it next to the victim whose car he liberated. Digging like a maniac, he had graves ready for them within an hour. He dropped them inside, covered them, and mocked a blessing. There was still blood to think about. It was all over the place. Clark gathered up as much debris as he could carry. He spat on the blood, every drop he could see, and piled on the debris. His saliva was like glue to the junk he carried over. It stuck to the blood. No other person would be able to figure it out or see it from a car.

Speaking of cars, he forgot about the one he five fingered. What good was super human strength if he didn’t use it sometimes? He went to the car, easily lifted it into the air. He carried it away, as if it was no larger than a paperweight, and threw it into the deepest part of the woods he could find. The only thing he left behind was foot prints. Who would follow them? Who would see them unless they were walking by? Who would care if they did?

The female detective still lay where he had left her. Her eyes were bugging out of her head. The enzyme he injected would leave her like this until he broke the spell. He thought about killing her as well, going on his way. Although he was a greedy eater, right now, he was sated. He had another idea, one he had yet to try on another living thing. However, his kind was shifters. It would work just fine, like everything else had on this journey. Clark Honsterott was about to become Christine Knight.

He slowly approached her and took hold of her arm. The claw marks he left were visible in her flesh. He stood her up, dug his claws into her arm again, and drank in the venom he injected. When she began to regain some sensation, she began to scream. He stopped it with an eternal kiss. He blew his breath inside her mouth, all the while digging his claws into her arm. His essence, his being, was inside her now. When he ended the kiss, he was looking at the shell of his own body. It became faint, then fainter still, as if it were a ghost. However, he was still present. Always. He had never tried this before, but was overjoyed when it worked. He knew the effect would be temporary, so it was time to get moving. By the time he reached Callie Norwood, he would be his old self, ready to do what he had to do.

* * *

Jenna took Callie’s advice and took a nap. Her dreams were fevered, leaving her disturbed. After an hour or so, she was wide awake again. Lynch’s side of the bed was empty. He was probably with the others inspecting the chambers. She didn’t know what they were going to do or how they would end Clark’s life. She hated the thought of killing another being. Despite that, there was no other way to end this without killing him.

She sat up suddenly, feeling queasy instantly. Ugh. She could not be coming down with something, not when everyone else was counting on her to do her part. It wasn’t right. After a few minutes, her stomach settled itself. It was nerves, that’s all it was. It was driving her nuts. When this was over once and for all, she was going to drag Lynch away on a Hawaiian vacation whether he liked it or not.

Giving up on sleep for now, Jenna swung her legs over the side of the bed and slid her feet into her shoes. Slowly, like an elderly woman, she made her way out of the bedroom and downstairs. She heard noise coming from the kitchen. Since they had been here, it was the central room for meetings. She figured everyone would be there. When she stepped into the room, only Callie was present. She was at the stove, cooking using a book propped open in front of her.

“Where are the men?” She asked.

Callie, startled, turned toward Jenna. “You scared the shit out of me. They’re off in the chambers. They meant for you to go, but I told them you were napping. How’d that go?”

Jenna smiled wearily. “As you can see, not so well. What on earth are you doing?”

“Trying my hand at cooking,” she said with a smile. “I can cook pretty much anything as long as I have a recipe in front of me.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Jenna said as she took a seat at the table. She wanted a cup of tea. However, she had no energy for it. “What are you cooking?”

“Veal.”

The thought of eating veal made her stomach queasy again. There was nothing wrong with eating veal. She had cooked it many times herself. Today, she became sick at the thought of it. What in the hell was wrong with her? It was her dream. It had to be. She dreamed that Clark was close to them, too close. She knew his presence here was inevitable. Still, she didn’t think Clark would be here tomorrow. Despite that, her mind was focused on nothing that didn’t have Clark Honsterott stamped on it.

“I love veal,” Jenna said weakly.

At the sound of her voice, Callie turned toward her. Jenna looked even more haggard than before. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t think so,” Jenna mumbled. “I had a dream earlier about Clark. I want this business over so we can all get on with our lives.” Jenna saw the compassion in the other woman’s eyes and she suddenly wanted to share a secret with her. Since they arrived here at Joris,’ the two of them had gotten closer. “Lynch asked me to marry him.”

She didn’t know what to expect. Would Callie curse their union? She had had a thing for Lynch in the beginning, but now seemed fine with Joris. Should she have told someone else? Should she have kept her mouth shut? Say something, Callie. Damn it.

“He did? Holy shit, Jenna, that’s big news,” Callie declared, forgetting all about her veal dish. “What did you say?”

Jenna smiled in spite of herself. It felt good having another female friend. Considering that Cici was Clark’s sister, she would never see her again. Vaguely, she wondered if Cici knew about him. She shoved the thought aside to answer Callie’s question. “I said yes.”

Callie ran over to the table and gave Jenna a hug. When she pulled away, she saw genuine love and admiration in the other woman’s eyes. “That is so incredible. From what you’ve told me, you have been waiting for him to pop the question for a very long time.”

Jenna laughed. “Oh yes, longer than Lynch wants to think about. That’s for sure.” She looked over at the stove where smoke had begun to rise slowly above the pan. “Your veal!”

* * *

Lynch, Joris, and Andy were down in the chambers ensuring that the special lighting didn’t have an effect on Lynch’s eyes. Luckily for them all, it didn’t bother him much. They had no doubt that Jenna would also be able to see down here. It would make their jobs so much easier when Clark finally showed up.

“From what I’ve researched on his kind, he probably will not show up as himself. If so, he would be stupid,” Joris said.

“I definitely agree. If we cannot sense him as someone else,” Lynch began, “how do we know?”

“By touch, most likely,” Andy said. “The thing is, he knows you and Jenna are lycans. I believe he will have something to keep you from transforming. Perhaps silver or something else, if he knows anything about our compounds or has Callie’s cure. It would be to our advantage that he would show up as himself. Of course, it would be naïve of us to believe so.”

Lynch grunted and kicked the floor with the toe of his boot, unconsciously mimicking the motion from earlier today. “We need to get Jenna down here and find out what she thinks.”

“Good idea. Do you need me to lead you two back in?” Joris asked.

He shook his head. “No, I think I can find my way.”

Lynch found Jenna in the kitchen. He noticed that Jenna and Callie seemed to be collaborating on some culinary masterpiece. It was both touching and funny at the same time, especially since the relationship between the two had a rocky start. “Jenna?”

She stopped what she was doing and turned toward her lover. “Yeah babe?”

“It’s time for you to come down to the chambers and check out everything.”

She nodded. “Fine.” To Callie: “I’ll be back to help later.”

The two of them didn’t speak as they headed off to the chambers below the Hoff property. Jenna was amazed at how large the property was, and even more so when she finally saw the elaborate network of tunnels. Lynch told her Joris’ family first built them as bomb shelters. Then, they laid waste until Joris saw fit to turn it into what it was today. Which was something indescribable. The entire network of hallways made her dizzy. It staggered her how much time and money had gone into this. Was Joris psychic? Did he know something like this was going to happen?

“Holy shit, Lynch,” Jenna whispered. “What are we doing down here? How are we going to know what to do?”

“It will come to us,” he said, his voice putting forth a promise he intended to keep. “The guys and I have been discussing this since we came down. We figure Clark won’t come here as himself. He’s a shape shifter. He will come as someone else. The trick to knowing him is touching him or seeing it in his eyes.”

Jenna stopped walking. “Jesus Christ, Lynch. What are we doing here? I didn’t figure Clark would be stupid enough to come as himself. But shape shifting? What the fuck!”

He placed his hand on her shoulder. “Baby, I know. I know how horrible you feel about this. About killing. It must be done. Clark is not human, he does not care to be, and he wants to hurt us all, especially Callie.”

She sighed heavily and absently rubbed her abdomen. She was starting to feel sick again. She needed an industrial sized bottle of that pink shit. “I know, Lynch. I’m ready for this to be over.”

He brought her closer to him so he could kiss the top of her head. “We all are, my love. We all are.” He drew away from her to look into her eyes. She seemed to be squinting slightly. “How is the light?”

She shrugged. “Not good, but not terrible either.”

“Terrific,” he said. “We should have the advantage. Any hint of Clark or anyone else, you and Callie are to come down here immediately, with her cure and our compounds. Got me?”

She managed a weak smile. “Aye, Aye Chief.”

* * *

With Christine Knight’s eyes and her cruiser, Clark followed the image of red hair, hair that would hopefully belong to one Callie Norwood. He drove for miles, almost convinced that his sense was bullshit. That’s when a lovely, unexpected thing happened. He saw a private drive that led to a huge house. The driveway was probably a mile or two away from the house. This had to be it.

Using Knight’s hand, he grabbed for the radio. “Attention all units,” he said with Knight’s voice. “I have located the hiding place of one Lynch Tackett. All units respond to 45983 Draghad Road. Please keep your sirens silent and park down the road from the house. The occupants have video.” After he made the call, he picked up Knight’s cell phone, found Belmont’s number and waited for him to pick up. “Yes, Chief, it’s Knight. We’ve found Tackett. He killed my partner, Chief. In cold blood. I barely escaped.”

* * *

Down in the chambers, everyone stopped. Jenna looked at Lynch. Joris and Andy ran past them to get Callie. It was time. Something was going on. Something bad.

“Jesus,” Jenna whispered. “It’s not Clark, is it?”

Lynch shook his head. “Maybe, but it’s definitely the police. They’ve found us somehow. I don’t know how.” He took hold of her arm. “You stay down here. Joris and Andy will bring down Callie with the compounds. We have some time.”

She nodded. “Yes, they’re down the road. Please, Lynch, I don’t want my future husband doing anything stupid. Keep your ass safe.”

“I will, baby, I promise.” Before he left her alone, he kissed her hard, holding her in his arms as long as he dared. “You stay safe.”

With tears in her eyes, she watched as he left her standing where she was. As soon as he was far enough away, she put her face into her hands and sobbed. She hoped this was not the last time she saw him alive. She couldn’t take it if he were killed.

Lynch watched as Andy ushered Callie with their compound cases to the chambers. They moved their luggage and other personal items down as well. Joris was standing at a bay window that allowed him to see out, but no one could see in. Lynch followed suit and stood beside his friend. Neither of them could actually see anything. Both could sense plenty.

“It’s the police,” Joris said matter-of-factly. “I can’t tell you if Clark is with them. He could be one of them.”

Lynch felt his blood beginning to pump in his heart. It was the adrenaline rush that began as soon as he felt a transformation happening. He and Jenna had taken only half a shot a day, changing would be easier. He had lied to them all, keeping it buried deeply within. For at least twenty-four hours, he failed to take his required dose. If he tried hard enough, a full transformation was within his grasp. Now was not the time to ‘wolf out.’ He had to make sure that the women were safe. It was what they needed to do.

“He is one of them,” Lynch said suddenly. “I feel it to be so.”

Joris could see the silver glint to Lynch’s eyes. He was close to changing. Very close. “Lynch, remove yourself from the situation. I can handle the police. If they made a connection between me and Andy, that is why they’re here. Go down with the rest of them. I’ll handle the police. There is no way they can find you down in the chambers.”

“I’m not afraid of the police,” Lynch announced. “I’m one of them, Joris. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“No,” he said shortly. “You haven’t. But your brotherhood with them is not going to help you this time. You need to worry about your brothers here, Lynch. Go down. I will take care of the police.”

“Joris, they will kill you,” he growled.

“No, they won’t,” he said fiercely. “I promise.”

Reluctantly, Lynch left Joris where he stood. The food in the kitchen Callie had abandoned was burning. Joris jogged hurriedly into the kitchen and put out the fire, just before he heard a banging knock on his front door. It didn’t take an intelligent person to know that it was the police. Calmly wiping his hands on a dish towel, he strolled casually into the living room, went through the door of the mud room, and then opened the front door.

Before him stood three police officers. One of them was female, another was a familiar face. There was something about the female he didn’t like. He didn’t push it, but he was almost positive this was Clark Honsterott. Shape shifters weren’t as clever as they thought.

“Can I help you?” Joris asked casually.

One of the men flipped out a badge. Joris studied it for a long time. It was real enough, he supposed. “I’m Chief Mick Belmont of the LeVale Police Department, and these folks with me are Christine Knight, who is also with my department, and Detective Washington from your local precinct.”

Joris knew Detective Washington. He had seen him out this way a few times for different mischievous acts against his property. Everyone saw Joris Hoff as the local weirdo, so something was always going on out here. Washington was usually the man who came out to inspect everything. He recognized neither Knight nor Belmont. Of course, it didn’t matter. Knight had to be Clark. The woman was looking at him rather interestingly, almost wetting her lips. She wanted to taste Callie on him. A pure male thought ran through his mind. Oh yes. I had her. She was good! He thought he saw Knight shrink back. Joris smiled. It was wide, lascivious, and threatening at the same time.

“Good to meet you all,” Joris said evenly. “What can I do for you folks?”

“We believe you are harboring a fugitive,” Washington said. “Chief Belmont has asked me to serve this warrant to search your home.”

The piece of paper was shoved into Joris’ hands. He looked at it briefly. “You are welcome to search whatever you wish,” Joris said. “They were here last night, but left this morning. I, of course, had no idea they were fugitives.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” Knight growled, her eyes gleaming with an unusual light.

What they didn’t know was that Joris, Lynch, Callie, Andy, and Jenna had time to move everything they touched into the chambers. The only evidence the police would find were messy beds, made in haste, as if someone had left in a great hurry.

Joris stood back, allowed the police to enter, and they began their search. Calmly, Joris went back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. He would leave the burned food where it was, in case they were curious as to why it took him so long to answer the front door.

The police were pretty much tearing up his house from one end to another. It would take them a while, because his house was large. While most of the officers were at work, Knight and Belmont decided to keep Joris company in the kitchen. They were afraid he might run and tell the fugitives the cops were onto him. He didn’t watch them or make eye contact with Knight. If he did, he was certain Knight would attack the other officer and then fall on him. He wasn’t giving off anything that let Clark he knew Knight was him, other than the thing with him having sex with Callie. That was the only tidbit he allowed to leave his mind.

“You said you didn’t know they were fugitives,” Knight began, “how didn’t you? Don’t you watch TV?”

Joris laughed and shrugged. He made only brief eye contact with Knight. “In case you haven’t noticed, my house is too far away for cable and satellite TV is so expensive. I get one channel and it doesn’t show news.”

“Andy Hoff is your relative?” Belmont asked.

Joris looked up at him. This one, he would face head on. He was a good man. He didn’t believe Lynch was an evil cop killer. He immediately liked Mick Belmont. “Yes, he is. Andy is my uncle. He was more or less Lynch’s man servant, wasn’t he? How long have you known Mr. Tackett?”

He could tell the question threw Belmont for a loop. He wasn’t expecting it. “I’ve known Lynch for a long time. He and Hugh came up together through the ranks. It’s why we’re searching for them. There is no reason for Lynch to have simply gone missing with Hugh’s sister unless he knows something.”

“And don’t forget he killed my fucking partner,” Knight growled.

Belmont shot her a look. “I told you to keep that under wraps. You know better, Detective Knight.”

“Sure I do,” she hissed. She pounded on the kitchen table, trying to shake up Joris. It didn’t work. “And this piece of shit knows where he is. So why are you lying about them being here? They have to be.”

“No, they don’t,” Joris said calmly. What were they doing? Playing a version of good cop/bad cop? “They were here, Detective Knight. Today, they aren’t. What is so hard to believe about that?”

“Detective,” Belmont began, “I want you to go back to your squad car. Your presence is not needed here.”

Before she left the room, she pointed to Joris. “You will pay, you piece of shit. That I promise you.”

Joris smiled at her, looking directly into her eyes this time. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”

Of course, it was Clark’s plan to have Belmont send Knight outside. The police were having no luck finding the rest of the crew. He knew they were here. Callie’s scent was all over the place. He pretended to go back out to the cruiser. Instead of getting inside, he stood outside it, glancing up at the house. It was tall, like a castle with no visible foundation. He thought that seemed odd. Why wasn’t there a foundation? Every house had one, didn’t it? Especially old ones like this. However, if it didn’t have a foundation, there was some other means of support or stability. There had to be a tunnel underneath. The fuckers were hiding under the house. Oh, that sanctimonious bastard. He had fucked Callie and was now trying to fuck him. It wouldn’t work. Oh no it wouldn’t. He would make that son of a bitch pay, and painfully.

Under the house, in the chambers, everyone could hear the police tearing up Joris’ house. Andy and Lynch were taking it more personally than everyone else. Of course, they knew how much Joris was putting his ass on the line for them. But these people were Lynch’s brothers in arms. Mick Belmont amongst them. There was no way Belmont thought he killed Hugh Norwood. There had to be another way to work this out without Joris suffering or going to jail himself. It was time to turn himself in.

“Lynch, you can’t,” Jenna said suddenly, picking up on his thoughts immediately.

“Jenna, I must. Joris is putting his ass on the fire for us all. I won’t let him. You’re all safe down here. Joris said as much himself. If Clark comes, he will die down here. You don’t understand. I must put a stop to this before they destroy Joris’ house.”

She took his hand into hers. “Baby, please. Just wait. If they don’t find evidence of us here, they will go away. Everything we own is down here. They won’t find us!”

“Jenna, I have to stop this,” he said through gritted teeth. “As soon as Mick knows I didn’t touch Hugh, I’ll be back before you know it.”

Fighting him all the way, Lynch finally broke free of Jenna’s arms and made his way to the door that would lead him back into the house. Whatever he needed to face, he would do so. Otherwise, he was no more than a coward, like Clark Honsterott. The epitaph on his head stone would not read that he had let down his family.

Belmont and Joris both looked toward the hallway when several cops started scuffling with someone. Cursing, Joris knew who surfaced. Lynch. Goddamn the man for not listening to him. What would they do with Knight outside? Two beefy cops were on each side of Lynch Tackett as he made his way into the kitchen. They had yet to cuff him or read his Miranda, but they hung onto him so he wouldn’t escape.

“So much for not harboring fugitives,” Belmont said sarcastically, his eyes focused on Joris. “Where are the rest of them?”

“Gone,” Lynch said. “Andy, Jenna, and Callie have left the state. Callie came with us willingly. She believes her ex-boyfriend killed Hugh.”

“Let him go,” Belmont demanded of the officers. They did as he instructed. “Sit down, Lynch, and we can talk.”

Lynch took a seat at the table. Looking apologetically at Joris, he said, “I didn’t want Joris to get into further trouble. He’s a good man, Mick. Please don’t take it out on him. Callie came from New York to live with her brother. Her ex-boyfriend is Clark Honsterott. He has a sister who lives in Dubious County. Until recently, he has been staying with her. He is after Callie. When he found her with us, he lost his mind. Clark is the one who burned down the house with Hugh in it.”

Belmont consumed the story like an animal consumes his prey. “If that is the truth, Lynch, why did you run?”

“To protect Callie and Jenna. Clark Honsterott is unstable. Check on him, Chief, and you’ll see I’m telling the truth. He has a record in New York for various violent acts. I sent the rest of them on to keep them safe. Callie is going to call her folks as soon as she’s near a phone.”

“There’s another problem, Lynch,” Belmont said.

“What’s that?”

Before Belmont continued, Joris put a thought in Lynch’s mind. One so clear that Lynch nearly fell over. If written in words, it would have looked like this: CHRISTINE KNIGHT IS CLARK. HE IS OUTSIDE!!! Lynch licked his lips and passed along his own look. His heart began to beat harder and harder. He needed to get rid of Belmont so he could transform and kill the fucker before he touched Jenna or Callie.

“Christine Knight said she witnessed you murder her partner just outside of town, Lynch,” Belmont said. “As much as I hate to, my friend, I’m going to put you under arrest.”

Lynch balled his hands into fists. He felt his fingernails turning to claws. Fight it back. Fight fight fight. “I’ve been here for two days, Mick. I couldn’t have killed anyone. Ask Joris. He can verify my alibi.”

“We have an eye witness, Lynch,” Belmont said.

“Look, he couldn’t have killed her partner. He isn’t lying, he has been here for two days. That I assure you,” Joris begged.

“And you were so truthful before,” Belmont said sarcastically.

Lynch fought back his urge to transform. His fingernails remained fingernails. His eyes had gone back to their natural color. He unclenched his hands and placed them flat on the table. “If you must, Chief. I’ll go.” To Joris, he broadcast a thought: Protect everyone. I will break out and be back in an hour.

He stood up, allowed Mick Belmont to cuff him, and listened as he read his Miranda rights. He allowed them to lead him outside where he saw Christine Knight standing near her cruiser. To his great horror, he saw what Joris saw. This was not the same person he knew for five or six years. This was the monster who killed his best friend and a number of other people. What was worse, she took out her service revolver. She pointed it at Lynch, screamed something nonsensical before firing her weapon. Everyone inside and out heard the report from the gun. Only those waiting in the chambers did not hear. The moment the bullet hit Lynch in the shoulder, he knew what it was. It was silver. The bastard had hit him with a silver bullet. Unless it was taken out, he had no chance of defeating this blood thirsty killer.

Chaos ensued. Joris ran out of the house and was knocked down by an officer on scene. Before Knight could pull the trigger again, one of the other officers took his piece and blew a hole in Knight’s forehead. Of course it wouldn’t matter. Clark Honsterott couldn’t die. After the police left with Lynch, on his way to the hospital for surgery, Christine Knight’s body was zipped up in a body bag. Underneath, Clark Honsterott smiled with her lips. As soon as he made it to the morgue, he would be free to come back, get Callie, and take care of everyone else-including one Lynch Tackett.

As soon as everyone had left, Joris made the trip to the chambers to alert Jenna, Andy, and Callie. When they saw him, it took only seconds for Jenna to pick up on his thoughts. She ran to him, gripped his shirt collar, and shook him like a rag doll.

What the fuck happened to Lynch, Joris? Tell me what happened,” Jenna screamed.

He waited for her to stop shaking him before he spoke. There was no other way to speak to her. He saw that Callie and Andy were watching him closely. Both upset, but in such different ways. “Lynch was arrested for the murder of Dirk Havens and Hugh Norwood. There is much more that is worse. Clark was here, in the body of a female officer. She shot Lynch in the shoulder, probably with a metal covered silver bullet. Another officer shot Clark, but he will be back.”

“I’ve got to get to him,” Jenna said in tears. “I have to be there when he wakes. What will this silver do to him? I have to be there!”

Joris took hold of Jenna’s shoulders and held her tightly without using excessive force. “No. None of you are going anywhere. Lynch will come back to us. They will take out the bullet at the hospital. His chief assured me he is going there right away. Stay here, stay safe. I promised Lynch I would look out for all of you.”

“Oh dear God,” Callie cried. She had sat down on the floor against the wall. She was rocking back and forth like a child. “This is never going to be over, is it? Why didn’t I kill him when I had the chance?”

“No one can fall apart now,” Andy said. “We must stay focused. We know what we must do.”

Joris went to console Callie while Jenna went to Andy. She clung to her old friend like a shipwrecked sailor. There was nothing they could do now, but wait. For Lynch, for Hugh, they were ready to fight and end the menace that was Clark Honsterott.

* * *

Lynch was taken to the hospital in LeVale and sent straight into surgery. As he was given anesthesia, he wondered if anyone would know that the bullet was silver. Since it was, his shoulder had swollen up more than it would have otherwise if the bullet had been normal. He knew he would survive surgery. Death by silver only came with a lot of it. Not one bullet. That was the mistake Clark Honsterott had made. As soon as he was out of surgery, he would transform and get back to his woman before anything could happen to her. If Clark thought he won, he thought wrong.

While the bullet was being removed from Lynch’s shoulder, Clark had been shoved into a drawer at the county morgue. He waited for the lights to go out before he burst out of the bag. When Knight’s body ‘died,’ Clark’s body came to the surface. With a swift kick of his left leg, the drawer burst open. He slid out of it like a snake slithering out of its skin. He was lucky to find the room vacated. Otherwise, he would have had to kill an entire room of people. It was also unlucky in a way. He was hungry. Oh well, that’s what Joris Hoff was for. Food, glorious food.

CHAPTER 13

Lynch came awake slowly. His eyes felt like ancient window shades opening for the first time in decades. He was in his old bed, at the plantation house that he thought burned to the ground. He felt a body next to his. Was everything before he awoke a dream? If so, it would be nice to put the nightmare behind him. He glanced at the body next to him. Sure enough, it was Jenna. She was lying next to him with nothing on. Her body was atop the covers and she seemed to be staring up at the ceiling with a knowing smile. He rose up on one elbow, seeing for the first time, that someone had moved a baby crib into the room. When did this happen? Whose baby was lying in the bed?

“She’s ours, Lynch,” Jenna whispered, as if she was inside his mind. “Don’t you remember our daughter?”

“Our daughter?” He asked as if he had never heard the word before. “We have a daughter? When? Jenna, I don’t understand.”

“It’s okay, you will in time,” she said reassuringly. “You were in a coma after surgery, and I found out I was pregnant. Isn’t it wonderful? To have our own child?”

He gazed down at her smiling face. He placed the back of his hand on her cheek and caressed it gently with his knuckles. “How can we, Jenna? We’re both lycans. Two immortals cannot produce a child.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she said with a giggle.

There was something very odd about this reality. It was off center somehow, like a house with a bad foundation. Lynch turned away from Jenna and stood on shaky legs. Slowly, he walked over to the crib. From his vantage point, he couldn’t see the infant. He heard slight noises, snuffling, and the sound clothing makes when it touches other types of soft material. Basically, it was what babies did in their cribs. Right? He didn’t know. Moving around the end of the bed, he crept up to it and looked down. There was nothing inside other than a blanket and a small baby toy. What the hell was happening to him? He heard Jenna behind him singing softly toward a bed with nothing in it.

Lynch turned to face Jenna, who was still lying flat on her back. She sang an old Dutch love song, “Onze Liefde Alleen,” which translated to “Our Love Alone.” It was one of her childhood favorites. He had never heard her sing it like this, however. She whispered it, as if afraid someone else would hear what she was saying. He didn’t understand any of this. Had he gone mad?

Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun around to see nothing before him. Only air.

“Mr. Tackett,” a male voice said calmly. “Can you hear me? Come on, sir, you must wake up.”

Fuck it. He was dreaming, just the wrong dream, of course. He woke up and peered into the eyes of the man annoying the hell out of him. He believed the kid was either a surgical tech or nurse. All he knew for certain was that he was getting damned tired of being shaken and screamed at. “I hear you,” he growled. “Stop touching me.”

“Good job, Mr. Tackett. Thank you for that,” the fellow said. “In a few minutes, I’m taking you to your room.”

“Whatever,” he groaned.

Lynch raised his head and looked around him. There was an open door several feet from the end of the bed. Standing there, looking quite dejected was Mick Belmont. Now it was coming to him. He had been shot by Clark Honsterott and was under arrest for the murders of two men. Belmont was upset, clearly, because he knew Keagan Tackett was a good man. He was no killer. Lynch knew this as well. Once upon a time, he had killed humans. He had not fed on a human in over a century. Now, he wouldn’t hurt a mouse. The charges were bullshit. Even a hardened cop like Belmont knew that.

He knew Belmont was suspicious of Christine Knight’s actions. This was not the woman either man knew. Knight was somewhat of a tomboy, tough, full of it at times, but she was a good cop. She wouldn’t fly off the handle even if she had witnessed the murder of her partner. It wasn’t part of her character. Belmont couldn’t see it; of course, he did not realize who the true monster was. It surely wasn’t Lynch. If the chief would speak to him, man to man, he could explain it. He couldn’t make it better, just tell truth and point them in the right direction. If the police could take down Clark, his family wouldn’t have to do it. He shook his head. The anesthesia was fucking with him. There was no way the police could handle an immortal.

Belmont walked up to the bed where Lynch was still trying to get hold of his bearings. “Lynch, as soon as they allow you to recover for a few hours, I’m taking you down to the jail.”

As well as he could, he focused his foggy eyes on Belmont’s face. He had known this man for several years. “You know I didn’t kill those people,” Lynch said solemnly. “And I know you know.”

“My friend, it doesn’t matter what I know, it matters where the evidence points. Right now, the finger is on you.”

“Come on,” Lynch said, his voice becoming clearer the more he spoke. “You know in your gut I would never kill anyone. Who do you think you’re talking to, Mick?”

Belmont found a chair, dragged it over to the bedside, and sat down. “There have been other murders around the area as well,” he said. “We’re looking at you for those.”

“That’s bullshit,” Lynch said indignantly. “I wouldn’t do that to a person. I wouldn’t and you know it.”

“It doesn’t matter, Lynch. We’re taking you in as soon as the hospital says you can be moved. The shoulder wound wasn’t serious. It will heal fine.”

Belmont was about to go, but Lynch grabbed his wrist before he could stand. “Before you leave, I have one question.” When Belmont didn’t interrupt him, he continued, “What did that bullet look like? Was it an average side arm bullet or something different than that?”

He saw a glimmer in Belmont’s eye, as if he had noticed a difference. It was gone as soon as it appeared. “There was nothing wrong with the bullet, Lynch. It was a standard, service revolver bullet. No big deal.”

“You’re lying, Mick,” he said. “I see it all over you.”

“We’ll talk more at the jail, Lynch. I promise.”

Lynch wanted to say more, to keep his friend here longer. It was no use. Belmont had had enough. He wanted to leave before he could get sick about a good cop gone bad. Lynch wanted to sit up in bed. When he made moves to do so, he noticed for the first time he had been cuffed to the metal railing of the bed. So it was true. Completely true. His boss thought he was a blood thirsty killer. Somewhere, Clark Honsterott loved this drama. He felt it with every fiber of his being.

He had one free hand left. He used it to peel away at the bandage covering his wound. To his delight, it had already healed. There was nothing left of the damage caused by the altered bullet. Lynch knew he couldn’t escape here. There were too many people around, too much heat. Once Belmont had him in the city jail, he would escape and get back to his family.

* * *

Clark managed to walk right out of the morgue without anyone knowing. How would they? He came in as a chick with a hole in her head. He did, however, have to steal a suit of clothing from an intern. He might have gotten arrested if he walked out in the nude. It might be fun to be arrested. He could share a cell with Lynch Tackett and they could settle their scores right then and there. Yet, getting Callie back was more important than his tiff with Lynch. He was completely uninterested in Tackett and his crew. They were simply in the way. They had taken on Callie as if she were a charity project. They would pay for that. All of them. Especially Joris.

He was never one to use his feet as a mode of transportation unless he was totally desperate. There were some cars parked in the lot and he hoped that someone left his or her keys somewhere inside. He tried several of them before he found one that was blessedly unlocked. If he could find the keys, that would be wonderful. He had learned how to hot wire cars when he was a kid, but it was always nicer if he didn’t have to ruin one. He was a snob when it came to cars, so the inside had to be pristine, with no ugly wires hanging down.

When he opened the door and slid inside, he first thought he found a dud. He looked at every hiding place known to man. No keys. Just when he was ready to start yanking wires, he forgot one place where he had not looked. Up above, on the visor, there appeared to be keys. This was the first place most people looked. He didn’t, because he was tired and just wanted to get Callie back. That’s all he wanted. When he pulled the visor down, the keys tumbled to his lap. Clark laughed like a child. This was the best. It would take some time to get back to Joris’ fortress, but he would enjoy the ride. Perhaps there would be people out and about, people on which he could feed.

* * *

Joris stayed in the house to watch for further movement from outside. He was monitoring his security system closely. The last of the police had left hours ago. There had been no word on Lynch yet. He wasn’t as worried about Lynch as he was Jenna and Callie. When Clark came, he would know. He would throw as much hate to Clark as he could. Right now, the other man was obsessed with Callie. Since he knew that Joris had made love to her, Clark was even more on fire. He would produce as much hate as he could to lead the man into the chamber to his death.

Down below, both women were sitting on the floor with their backs to the wall. Callie’s legs stretched before her, while Jenna’s were crushed against her body. She hugged them like she would hold Lynch when she saw him again. She laid her cheek on her knees and waited. She saw Andy standing before a tall table. He had a laptop down in the depths with them. She didn’t know what he could possibly be looking at on the computer. Was he trying to hack into the hospital’s mainframe to get information? Suddenly, Jenna was alert as hell.

She brought her body up to her feet and stood beside Andy. He had a program open and was typing like a maniac. She couldn’t figure out what the hell he was doing. Then again, she knew nothing about computers, so she supposed it made perfect sense. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?”

Andy stopped typing long enough to look at her. “You’re exactly right. They have incredible firewalls at that place,” he said lightly, purposely trying to make Jenna smile.

It worked. She gave him a feeble one. It was a smile all the same. “Good for you. I’m so worried about him.”

While Andy and Jenna stood together, Callie was having her own special type of pity party. “This is all my fault,” she said suddenly, her voice dead, flat, without a simple tone. “If I had stayed in New York, let Clark have me, I would have been fine. No one here would have to sacrifice their lives, Lynch wouldn’t be in jail. None of this.”

Jenna left Andy to his hacking. Turning toward Callie, she fixed a stony gaze on the younger woman. “Keep that attitude, Callie, and someone will die.”

“I’ve already lost Hughie, so I don’t have much left, Jenna,” she said shortly.

“You still have your parents, Joris, and us. I think that’s a lot,” Jenna said calmly. “Wallowing in your pity doesn’t help us. Get your head right and be ready. Do you understand?”

Callie wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I do, Jenna. I’m sorry. I just wish everything was different.”

“We all do,” Andy said from behind his laptop. “Some things just cannot be.” A sharp dong noise interrupted his reverie. “Jenna, I think I found something.”

She raced over to the computer and gawked at the screen. A nurse had left computerized notes about the surgery, Lynch’s condition, and room number. According to what she saw, Lynch was fine. The bullet had gone clean through the meat of his shoulder without breaking any bones. Tears began to stream down her eyes. Andy put his arm around her and gave her an awkward sideways hug.

“I want to go to him,” Jenna whispered. “I know I can’t, but it’s killing me.”

“I know, Vos,” Andy said gently. “Soon. You will see him soon.”

* * *

Lynch sat in the interrogation room across from Mick Belmont. Usually, suspects were cuffed to the steal chain hooked to the table. However, Belmont decided to allow Lynch to sit here without bonds. That action alone said a lot about his chief. It said he felt the charges were bullshit as well. Clearing his name would not be easy, especially if they intended to kill the primary suspect.

“I realize you have alibis when some of the homicides were committed,” Belmont said. “Others, you don’t, specifically that of Hugh Norwood and Dirk Havens. I know your friend said you were at his house at the time. He’s not a reliable witness, Lynch. He lied about your presence, he harbored a fugitive. How can I believe his alibi for you?”

They had foregone putting him into an orange jumpsuit, so he was still adorned in hospital gear. Some forgiving soul had brought him a pair of sweats, so he didn’t look completely ridiculous. “I didn’t touch either of them. I loved Hugh like a brother, Mick. You know that. I told you who to look for. His name is Clark Honsterott. He is probably on his way to Joris Hoff’s house right now looking for Callie Norwood.”

Belmont had never heard the name spoken from Hugh. Since Lynch insisted that Honsterott was the person responsible for the murders, he had done some digging and made calls to NYPD. Apparently, this fellow had quite a record of battery charges from way back. He was a very unstable kid. His only living family was a sister. He believed Lynch when he said the man was looking for Callie Norwood. He read the faxed report from NYPD, which mentioned her name numerous times. The last was when she came to LeVale. It was an assault report. She had dropped the charges just before leaving town. Hugh had introduced him to her. She was the oddest abuse victim he had ever met. It didn’t add up, just like this.

“Lynch, I believe you’re telling the truth, but I have a few questions plaguing me. Why did you run when your house burned? Why was Hugh there?”

“Chief, we left before Hugh came to my house. He was possibly going to ask the same questions about the other murders on your mind. I simply didn’t know he was coming.” Lynch sighed heavily, wishing for a drink more than ever before. “We were trying to protect Callie from her boyfriend, taking her somewhere she could be safe. Joris Hoff has a tremendous house that is hard to find. That’s why we left. I didn’t set my house on fire. I didn’t kill Hugh, Dirk, or any of the other victims. The man you need to seek is Clark Honsterott.” He tapped the table with his index finger. “He is the person who should be sitting here.”

Belmont scratched his head while shaking it at the same time. “How can one man be so dangerous? He’s a pipsqueak, Lynch.”

He laughed sardonically. “So are a lot of serial killers, Chief. He is deadly, Mick, like a weapon.”

“Nothing adds up, Lynch. Nothing. I have no choice. I’m keeping you here until we can figure this out.”

It was what Lynch wanted. He could escape that way. “If you think it’s best, I won’t fight you,” he said. “Just please send someone out that way. Call their office, tell them to watch out for this guy. He will hurt the people I’m trying to protect, the ones I love.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” Belmont said absently.

Lynch was led into a small holding cell that had a standard cot and a combination toilet/sink. Quietly, he walked over to the cot and sat down, almost bumping his head on the one above him. He crossed his hands before him in thought. What he was actually doing was watching, waiting. As soon as he was relatively alone, he would escape from this cell. He would deal with the consequences later. Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting back to his family.

After fifteen minutes, Lynch felt confident enough to make his exit. Clenching his teeth against the roar about to leave his mouth, he grasped the edges of the cot and held on until his knuckles turned white. The transformation was coming on. He felt it now, loving and hating it at the same time. He fought back another roar as he heard the clothes ripping away from his body.

With his clothing lying in tatters on the cot, he balled his body into the fetal position while his muscles, bones, and skin stretched and pulled. He lifted his head to stifle another roar as the veins bulged in his neck. When the hair began to grow heavily on his body, looking as if it had been drawn there suddenly, he shoved his face into the thin mattress. For him, this part of the metamorphosis was always the most painful. Lynch’s mouth fell open as his canine teeth began to lengthen, his saliva staining the thin mattress. His claws grew long before his eyes, hurting much less. They were to be the power houses tonight.

Lynch stretched his legs out as they elongated and formed super strengthened muscles. It hurt like fuck until the final moment they were grown. Fully lycan now, Lynch could no longer fight the roar coming out of his mouth. It shook the small cell and those around him. He heard voices shouting about it, wondering what the hell it was. Thinking like a lycan, not like the practical man that was Lynch Tackett, he grabbed the bars of the cell and began pushing outward, then back, then out again. It didn’t take long for the bars to give way. When they did, Lynch was free.

He heard the humans coming now. He didn’t want to hurt them. He ran toward a window located behind a sergeant’s desk, crashing through it just as Belmont and two other officers made it into the room. They saw what had been done to the cell, the tattered remnants of Lynch’s clothing, and could not explain what had just happened. They all heard the roar. They all understood what it sounded like, yet none of them wanted to believe. It took several minutes for them to pull themselves together and chase after Lynch Tackett, a man who apparently destroyed a jail cell, escaping out a window without leaving a drop of blood behind.

Keeping away from humans, Lynch tore off into the woods. He would make it to Joris’ house without anyone seeing him. He heard the far away ‘whoop’ of police cruisers. Ignoring it, he ran as fast as he could. They would not find him until he wanted to be found. Clark Honsterott was almost at the Hoff house.

Lynch was right about that. Clark pulled off the stolen car to the side of the road. He knew Joris had an elaborate security system, so he would be forced to use his ability to shift. He ducked low beside the car, his body blending in with the color of it. As he slid past the car, his color changed to match the territory surrounding the Hoff property. He didn’t realize Joris knew his every move. He didn’t need a security system to do it, either.

As soon as Joris knew Clark was on the property, he took off for the chambers. When he burst into the main room, everyone looked at him, knowing it was time. Callie ran to the case which contained the cure and held on tightly. Andy shut off the laptop and stowed it into a cubby hole in the wall beside him. He stood alert. Jenna had taken half a shot today, so she could feel her canines growing, saw the world differently with her lycan eyes, and waited. It was time for the bastard to die.

Jenna suddenly realized Lynch was coming. “Lynch escaped jail,” she whispered. “He’s on the way.”

Clark picked his way around the property. It was well lit, yet, no alarms had gone off. It stuck him quite odd. He didn’t really care whether or not they knew he was coming. He suspected Hoff had a shelter under the house. If that was the case, wouldn’t there be a way inside from outside the house? Why have a chamber without an exit door to the world?

He knew he was getting close, because he could smell them. Whatever he smelled, he could see. The lycan female was partially transformed. Callie held onto a case for dear life. He knew her cure was inside it. It would be destroyed. Oh yes it would. The man, the one who defiled his woman, stood next to her. His death would be painful, his blood drank, his flesh torn. The other stood near a cubby hole in the wall. Why did his vision seem weaker? His eyes were perfect when he began to ‘see,’ but now they were growing hazy, almost hurting. He thought about killing the power to the home. He didn’t, as a man like Joris would have a generator. It would completely defeat the purpose.

Clark moved along the outside walls, not finding a fucking thing. Frustrated now, he decided to break into the stupid house. If he couldn’t find a way outside, he would find it inside. He issued a shriek of frustration that sent chills down the spines of those in the chamber. He ran toward the front of the house. There was a door open that led into what appeared to be a mud room. The other door was closed, but that was fine. Clark had no trouble bursting through it. As he thought numerous times, what good were super human powers if one didn’t use them?

Using the same weird, shriek filled voice, he yelled, “WHERE ARE YOU, CALLIE?”

It shook the house, rattled the door to the chamber. That was not good for those down in the depths. If the door shook, he would find it much easier. Callie, Jenna, Andy, and Joris stood strong. He shrieked again. And again, the house shook, the doors rattled. When they heard the noise settle, they knew Clark was upon them. It was just a matter of time before he burst through the door.

During Clark’s assault on the Hoff house, Lynch ran, moving closer to the house. He was close enough to know Clark was about to find the hidden door to the chambers. He prayed that his family was ready to deal with him.

Those fuckers, Clark thought. They thought they could hide from him down in some modern dungeon. Stupid humans. Why would they feel safe buried under a house? This door was heavier, so it took longer to figure out the logistics of removing it. Finally, he went with violence. It was the only way. He ripped the door off its heavy hinges, only experiencing a slight tug under his shoulder. He flung the door behind him, managing to ruin two rooms in the process. Pieces of wood flew everywhere.

The first thing that hit him was the lights. They seared his eyes like a hot pan. He shrieked again. The full force of it hit the people inside, knocking them down. Callie dropped her case. After recovering a moment, she scrambled to pick it up. Shielding his eyes with one arm, he stepped into the room anyway. He shambled along the walls, finding his way along the best he could. He came upon another door. This one wasn’t as strong as the first. With his free arm, he shoved his elbow against the door. It gave way easily. Inside, he knew they were lurking. Taking his free arm away from his burned eyes, he pointed a clawed finger at Andy and Joris.

“Poof,” he growled, then flicked his finger, sending the two men flying backward, knocking them down and out. They weren’t dead yet, but they would be.

Callie screamed out Joris’ name and forgot about her case. She ran toward him, leaving Jenna to dive for the case before Clark figured out how to get it. Jenna advanced on Clark. He couldn’t see, his eyes were flaming, but he knew she was advancing. Standing her ground, she waited. Suddenly, without warning, Clark moved quickly toward Jenna. Expecting it, she ran toward him without flinching. She saw something in his hand. Silver.

Callie checked on her lover, then ran back to help Jenna. She saw that Jenna and Clark were circling each other, like predators about to fight over their turf. Clark had silver in his hand. At any moment, he was going to hit her with it and Jenna would be a useless foe.

“Turn off the lights, Callie,” Clark demanded. “I have enough silver to kill this lycan bitch.”

“Don’t believe him, Callie,” Jenna countered. “He’s bluffing.”

“I’m not, you doggie cunt,” he said crudely. “Turn off the lights, babe,” he said. “Turn them off or I will finish her.”

Before Callie could move, Jenna rushed Clark, knocking him down with the weight of her body. She dug her claws into his face, raking them along his neck. Clark screeched at her, mostly to throw her off, but it didn’t work. It was hard fighting her with the lights the way they were. Joris Hoff was smart when it came to lighting the place. He never would have anticipated it. Perhaps he would make Callie kill him. He used his free hand and struck out with the silver. He missed the first three times. On his fourth, the silver struck her thigh. He rammed it inside over and over, using it like a knife he cut upward, enjoying the sound of her screams.

Callie couldn’t take this. She couldn’t allow Clark to hurt Jenna. She turned off the lights. Another set came alive, but these were normal florescent tubes. “Leave her alone, Clark,” Callie said calmly. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll go wherever you want. Just leave.”

Jenna’s thigh was torn up. The silver was inside the wound, burning it. She took hold of the shard, gritted her teeth, and yanked it out. The precious metal burned her hand. It was enough to end her ability to change. She didn’t care if she died as long as Lynch lived. That was the most important thing right now.

“I have more silver,” Clark announced. “I will use it if I must. Bring me your case, Callie.”

“Callie, don’t do it. Don’t listen to him,” Jenna demanded, panting heavily.

He turned to look at her. “Shut up, bitch.”

Obediently, Callie brought the case to Clark. He opened it and saw there were four syringes left. Wonderful. He took two of them, smashed them under his feet. He held one out to Callie. “Inject the bitch. Cure her.”

“Why Clark? Why?” She pleaded pitifully.

He shot out an arm and grabbed her neck. He yanked Callie closer to him. Her eyes were bugging out as she couldn’t breathe. Without a thought, he buried his face in her neck, biting her, injecting her with the venom that would bring her fully back to him.

Callie! NO!” Jenna screamed.

It was too late. Callie crumpled to the floor as the venom worked in her body, fusing with her DNA, and changing her into a monster who would become Clark Honsterott’s mate. Since Callie was disabled for the moment, Clark took the syringe and slowly moved toward Jenna. She tried fruitlessly to move her body, desperately trying to get away. It was no use. The wound on her leg made escape impossible.

Smiling sweetly down at her, he took control of her with one hand. Injured, she couldn’t do anything. He jammed the needle into her good leg and rammed the plunger home. Jenna screamed a long string of curses his way, curses that made him feel good. The cure worked fast. Within moments, he sensed no strain of lycan DNA left inside her.

“Do you know why I need a human female, Jenna?” Clark asked a sweet smile still on his face.

Jenna knew. “You will not touch me,” she spat.

“I’m already touching you,” he said. “I’m going to fuck, impregnate, enslave, and take your baby away from you. We can make this very easy or very horrible. Your choice, Jenna.”

He reached down to the waistband of her slacks, his hooked fingers making contact with the flesh of her lower abdomen. Jenna began to buck underneath him. He then punctured her wrist with one of his claws, which stopped her immediately. Crudely, he sniffed her body, stopping short at her thighs. Suddenly, he stood. Without a care as to how much it would hurt, he kicked her wounded thigh. She whimpered, but still managed to curse him.

“Good goddamn,” he hissed.

By then, Callie had come around. His Callie. His immortal lover. Like an angel, she unfolded her crumpled body and brought herself to her feet. Ahead of her, she saw Clark. Smiling, she glided toward him, ever so gracefully, and stood next to him. “What’s the problem with her?”

“The bitch is already pregnant,” he said disgusted. “It won’t ruin our plans.”

Jenna heard the word, couldn’t believe it. How? She had become a lycan the first time Lynch made love to her. Wait a minute. She was still a human that night, when he made her pregnant. His fangs did not penetrate her flesh until moments later.

Jenna covered her ears. She couldn’t believe what happened. If Lynch did not make it in time, everyone would die with Callie as Clark’s accomplice. Dear God. She could do nothing. She was human, wounded, and…pregnant.

It was in that moment when Callie glanced at Jenna from the periphery of her eye. The look said more than Callie ever could in her present state. If Jenna had her lycanthrope power, she would have heard the words: Clark will not hurt you, I promise. She didn’t know if Callie’s look was an offer of a promise once Clark enslaved her or if she was still somewhat her old self reassuring her of the outcome. Whatever it was, Jenna didn’t care. All she wanted was Lynch.

Within moments of the thought, Lynch burst into the room in his full lycan glory. Callie, enchanted by Clark, didn’t react. Clark smiled. The lycan bore his eyes into the other immortals. Then, as if in a magic trick, Clark’s body shimmered, rolled; resembling bad TV reception. When the ‘Clark’ veneer was gone, the real monster came to be. She was a delicate, pristine looking woman with very fair skin, dark brown hair that flowed to her waist. She was dressed like the Colonial aristocrats. Her dress came from another time, one centuries ago. The sight of her brought Lynch back to himself, naked, and vulnerable. Suddenly, he understood more than he wanted.

Standing before them was Sophia Apton-Utting. Lynch recognized her from old family paintings. When Lynch asked his father what happened to her, he always retorted sharply, “she died.” He never asked about her again. Stunned, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

She ran her hands over her hair, down her body, and clasped them before her. “At last I have dominated Clark Honsterott. How was I to know that when I sought him out as prey, he had his own immortal gift? He had sex with another like him. When he became a shape shifter, he killed her. Poor Jenna. Cici’s brother was utterly sick, cruel, and a killer. In this domain, I am dominate. Callie was his project. Mine has been the same for three hundred years.” For a brief moment, she held her arms open wide. “Won’t you give your Aunt Sophia a hug?”

Lynch looked down at his injured lover before settling his eyes on his aunt. “My father told me you were dead.”

She threw back her head and laughed. “I was dead, but only Nikolas knew what truly became of me. Storm’s mother was a witch. She cast a spell to raise me. You see, your lying scum of a father tore out my heart after I gave birth to a dead girl child. Lydia, you see, was family of sorts. She felt so guilty betraying your father that she cast the spell to help normalize me. I was never normal and didn’t want it. When I emerged, I began plotting my revenge. I intend to kill every person associated with the Tackett family.”

He once again looked at Jenna. She was panting heavily in her pain. Her eyes sought assistance, but he had no way of knowing when Sophia would shift into her lycan form. He was ready for the fight.

He had yet to say anything and she didn’t like that. Callie stood beside her, like a drone. For all the time she was Clark and had been having an affair with Callie, the girl had no idea who she really was. “It’s a shame, Keagan. I wish your father hadn’t lied. I took care of you before he and Lydia became lovers. She looked down at Jenna, who was so like Lydia. “The apple does not fall far from the tree, does it?”

“Lynch,” Jenna hissed. “Leave!”

He wasn’t about to do that. He sensed Sophia about to change, to shift into her full lycan glory. She was older, stronger, and filled with hatred. He had no way of defeating her, unless he tried his father’s trick. That meant making contact with her.

Sophia finished shifting and rolled her neck lithely. It felt miraculous. How long had that idiot Clark dominated her? No man dominated her. No man. She stood before them all, silencing them. Her fur was dark brown like her hair. Her eyes were red, mostly due to the other immortal inside her. She gave everyone a toothy, wide snarl. With the exception of Jenna, they would all die. She needed Jenna’s baby.

She advanced on Tackett with one arm extended, razor sharp claws at the ready. She swiped them over Lynch’s chest. He screamed, as did Jenna. The others in the room huddled together, secretly trying to find a way to kill her.

Lynch didn’t strike back. Instead, he stood his ground and waited for Sophia to get at arm’s length so he could take her out as his father did. “Sophia, you cannot win. The odds are not in your favor.”

She roared, the sound filling the room with chilling blood lust. Her red eyes fixed on his. He heard the thought broadcasted loudly. “That is what you think.”

He watched as she struck out with her arm, intending to do to him what Nikolas Tackett had done to her three hundred years ago. With little thought, he willed his human arm to become heavy with fur and deadly with claws. He grabbed Sophia by the thick fur on her chest and plunged his hand into the cavity. His hand emerged with a beating heart lying in his hand. Sophia’s eyes grew large. How had he tricked her again? When he smashed her heart to pieces, her body fell to the floor. They watched as she died, changing back to the woman she once was in the eighteenth century. She was not beautiful, simply plain and pious. The instant her mate died, Callie stood nearby, blinking stupidly at the mess around her. Clark’s poison was still inside her, giving her the immortality she had never wanted. “Farewell again, Aunt Sophia,” he growled.

He checked Jenna’s wounds, determined they weren’t fatal, and collapsed. After gathering herself, Callie helped Jenna approach Lynch. Once she was near him, Jenna wrapped her arms around him, holding him close, listening to him taking deep breaths, calming down, and releasing the part of him that had been the wolf. After he was her Lynch again, Jenna asked Callie to get a blanket for him. She did, also covering Lynch from the waist down. When that task was complete, Callie left them alone to tend to Joris.

“Your leg,” he said, panting. “What did she do to your leg?”

“Silver shard. Ripped it up, from the looks of it,” she said. “She took one of Callie’s syringes and gave me the cure,” she explained. “She destroyed two of them.”

“Cure,” he uttered. “You’re human again?” He asked wonderingly.

She nodded and wiped the tears out of her eyes. “There’s more.”

“Tell me,” he commanded gently. “What else?”

“After she turned Callie, she said that Clark would rape me so I could have a child. That’s why she wanted to cure me.”

He groaned painfully. Why the hell couldn’t he have gotten here sooner? Off in the distance, he heard approaching sirens. He ignored them to focus on his woman. “No, babe,” he said with clenched teeth. “He didn’t, did he?”

She smiled. “No, thank God, he didn’t. Clark couldn’t do it, Lynch, primarily because he said I was already pregnant.”

Lynch gave her a bizarre look. “That’s impossible. I never made love to you when you were human. Two lycans cannot reproduce.”

“Lynch, the first time we made love, I was still human. If I am pregnant, we conceived that very night. Touch me and you will know.”

Carefully, he placed his hand on her lower abdomen. He felt a rush he had never known. Only a heroin addict would understand how he felt at that moment. Yes. There was a little life in there. How had the child survived when she became immortal? “You are,” he whispered.

Happy tears cut streaks down the grime on her pretty face. “Lynch, we’re going to be parents,” she said with a smile.

Callie returned to let them know Andy and Joris’ status. She also wanted to alert them to the sound of approaching police cruisers. However, they were having an intense moment. She didn’t want to disturb them. “I’m sorry. Andy and Joris are going to be fine.” Slowly, she approached the couple huddled on the floor. She had two cases with her. One was the case that held the cure. The other was a medical kit Joris directed her toward. They could deal with the authorities later. “Jenna, I need to help you with your leg. But first, I want to give the last serum to Lynch.”

“No,” he said sternly, forcefully.

Jenna looked at him, reading something in his eyes that she didn’t like. “What do you mean?”

“Give yourself the serum, Callie. You’re young, you deserve a normal life. You deserve it simply for what Clark Honsterott and my aunt did to you. Neither you nor Jenna should live the life of an immortal. It’s not right.”

“Lynch, what are you talking about?” Jenna asked.

“It’s not right, Jenna. I won’t take the cure, not when another needs it more than I do.” He looked at Callie. “I know Jenna’s leg needs attention, I know the cops are coming, but could you give us another minute?”

She nodded. “Of course I can.”

“Have Joris give you the serum, Callie,” he said. “I mean it.”

“Lynch, what the hell is going on here?” She demanded. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m not going to allow anyone else to live like me. I shouldn’t have changed you in the first place. I want you to leave, Jenna. I want you to have a life of your own. You have a baby to think about. That should be your focus. Go away, find another home, another man, and be happy.”

It was rare to see him like this. He was crying steadily, his tears plopping down to his chest. “We have a life together, Lynch. We have a baby to think about. This is our child. With you, I am happy.”

“If you conceived as a human, the child will be human,” he said gently. “No child should live with me. No one is ever safe around me.”

“I can’t do this without you,” she said simply. “What if you’re wrong? What if our child is born a lycan?”

“You’ve proven you can do anything. I don’t want to turn you away. I don’t want to turn our child away. It’s simply not safe. There is little to no chance the baby will have one drop of lycan blood. You have been shackled to me long enough.” Embarrassed, he wiped the tears away. It didn’t matter, they were replaced by more. “Go, Jenna. Tonight. I’m sure Joris will arrange everything.”

“Lynch, don’t do this,” she said pleadingly. “Please don’t do this. I don’t want to have our baby without you.”

He cupped her face in his hands. “You will. You will be the best mother. You will love our child enough so that you won’t even remember your life with me. As time goes on, I’ll be nothing more than a passing thought. Be happy, my love. Promise me.”

“I can’t, Lynch,” she cried. “I can’t!”

He kissed her ever so gently. “I know you can,” he whispered against her lips. “I know because you are the strongest woman I have ever known. Take our baby away from this craziness.”

“What will I tell our child about you?” She asked in tears. “What should I say?”

The police were finally here. He heard them bursting into the house, shouting, demanding that everyone come out with their hands in the air. He didn’t know how to answer Jenna’s question. Despite this, she deserved an answer.

“You say nothing.” He laughed sardonically. “Lycanthropes don’t exist anyway. Right?”

EPILOGUE: ONE COLD DAY

Joris Hoff entered the apartment building straight off the street. Today, it was brutally cold, the wind howling around the building, nearly gale force. It was almost too cold for him in this country. However, it was where his ancestors first put down their roots. He supposed his children would be raised here someday. On days like this, he might have preferred Hawaii.

He pushed his thoughts aside as he climbed into the elevator. Having moved to Holland fifteen months ago, he was finally learning his way around, brushing up on the language, and figuring out how to get to his apartment on the 53rd floor. It was warm inside, so he shed the stifling scarf, his goofy winter hat, and the thick gloves he wore to keep his hands from freezing. At least it was sunny, or he would have had to carry a cumbersome umbrella.

The elevator ride seemed to have taken an hour. When the car stopped and the doors opened, he was glad to be home. It had been a long day at the university. He had more ahead of him. Considering that he had abandoned his estate and the USA, teaching was not so bad. The apartment was quite smaller than his old home, but roomy enough. It had windows everywhere, granting him a wonderful view. He bought it with cold, hard cash. Thank God for offshore bank accounts. Thank God for many things, like his young wife, Callie.

Every day when he came home, she met him at the door with a hug and a kiss. She changed her hairstyle when they first came here, dying it a neutral shade of blonde. It was longer now, past her shoulders. They married right after leaving everything behind. She was pregnant with their first child. Today marked her fourth month.

After greeting his wife, Joris moved further into the room, noticing that Andy was glued to his laptop, as usual. Their apartment had six bedrooms and one was used as a laboratory. While Joris taught at the university, Andy and Callie continued their work, exploring compounds, enzymes, and were dedicated to recreating the cure. On that dark night so long ago, Joris gave Callie the cure meant for Lynch. He did it without hesitation. He was certain Andy and his wife would one day have the serum in their hands. Until then, they would keep fighting the wolf inside Lynch.

What happened after the police arrived was still a mystery to them all. Not following protocol, Mick Belmont separated from the rest of the officers. He found the chamber room first. He saw Lynch Tackett naked from the waist up with a bloody arm and what appeared to be some type of human tissue. He saw a dead woman wearing Colonial garb. Belmont was wise, intelligent, and convinced that fairy tales were utter bullshit. He couldn’t explain what happened to the jail’s holding cell or how Tackett arrived here so quickly without a stitch of clothing on him. No one spoke a word. If Mick Belmont couldn’t explain something, it simply didn’t exist. It might have sounded completely unlike him, perhaps dumb as well. Whatever it was, he turned around, walked out, and closed the door behind him. They were left undiscovered by the others.

After Joris, Callie, and Andy tearfully saw Jenna on her way, they returned to pack. It was no longer safe for Lynch to remain in the US. It was time for him to ‘retire,’ move to another part of the world, and begin a new career. If it weren’t for Mick Belmont, they would not be here today.

Lynch found a job with a government agency. It wasn’t law enforcement, exactly, but close. He was due back in an hour. Joris was anxious to see him. There was something he needed to discuss with him before the day was finished. Hating the waiting game more than any man alive, Joris decided to spend time on the couch, snuggling with his wife. Just as he had gotten quite comfortable, the doorbell rang. He looked at his watch. Damn it. Couldn’t be. It was too early.

Pushing aside his slight irritation, Joris left the comfort of his wife’s arms and went to the front door. They didn’t trust anyone yet, even after this long, so each of them always checked the peephole. When he saw their guest, he smiled. He opened the door and gazed at the beautiful face of one Jenna Vos. Nestled snugly in a portable bassinet was her six month old infant.

“You are early, my dear,” Joris said amusedly.

She shrugged. “Foreign country and all, but they still allowed me to zoom through security.”

Both Callie and Andy cocked their heads to the side, listening to the voices. The effect was completely comic. Their visitor was Jenna? How did she know where they were? Did Lynch find her? Tell her? Bring her back where she belonged?

“What’s going on?” Callie asked as she and Andy went to the door.

Jenna’s eyes grew large when she saw the slight bulge at Callie’s middle. She knew Joris and she married, but she didn’t know they were having a child. “I’m happy to see you, too,” she said sarcastically. “Can I come in? This carrier weighs a ton!”

Ushering her inside, they spent a good amount of time crowing about the baby. Callie showed Jenna where to leave the infant to sleep and brought her back to the living room. They sat down and began the process of reacquainting themselves. Fifteen months apart soon felt like no more than fifteen seconds. Unbeknownst to Andy and Callie, Joris had always known where Jenna and the baby were. He kept the information hidden away from Lynch, who thought of them constantly. However, when Jenna left, Lynch fell apart. Jenna was no better. The only thing that kept her centered was the baby.

Once Jenna knew where the family settled, she immediately wanted to move back, try to persuade Lynch to change his mind. Joris reasoned with her, told her the truth about Lynch’s emotional status. For weeks, he went on drinking binges, and wound up sleeping on the street. There was nothing any of them could do that didn’t involve bringing Jenna back home. If any of them mentioned her name, Lynch went further into oblivion. The booze made keeping him from transforming almost impossible. Rumors began to float about town of a ‘wolf man’ stalking unsuspecting citizens. It was tabloid information, of course, but damaging all the same. If Lynch were discovered in lycan form, he would become a student’s science project.

Lynch woke from a binge one evening. He sat on the edge of a canal, seriously contemplating jumping in the water to see how long it would take for him to die. A passing thought of Jenna, of their baby, stopped him. He didn’t know where they were, what his child looked like, if he had a son or daughter. He didn’t know if either of them had survived the birth. He never asked any questions as he was certain no one had the answers. He suspected Joris knew more than he let on. Still, he didn’t ask. It hurt too much. Thinking about the dark days, when he lost Storm, literally sobered him. He stood, backed away from the canal, and went home. From that day forward, he was back to his old self. When Joris was sure of this, sure of Lynch’s emotional state, he sent for Jenna. It was time for him to meet his child. And it was about to happen…

Lynch left work a few minutes late. He didn’t mind, it gave him time to catch up on other projects that needed his attention. His office building wasn’t far from home. On most days, he walked to and from work. Today wasn’t a walk friendly day, but he did it anyway. Wrapping up from head to toe, he left the warmth of his office and hit the cold street.

The wind was horrendous, which made him smile. It wasn’t a happy one. It usually came when he had a passing thought, a ‘Jenna moment.’ On days when a sad smile touched his lips, he could hear her voice declaring, ‘I told you so, babe.’ She loved saying that any time she was right, which was almost always. He missed her more than he could describe in mere words. Nothing was the same without her. He sent her away with good intentions only to realize he was wrong. I told you so, babe. Thinking of the baby made it worse, made him want to visit that canal again. He hadn’t, he wouldn’t. Another thought entered his mind. Why postpone his death? It was what he wanted, wasn’t it? All these years? Hadn’t he begged for it many times? What made everything different was the fact that out there somewhere was a child…his child.

Perhaps he would have a long talk with Joris. If Joris knew where they were, Lynch would contact her, if only to ensure they were both okay. Was she married? Was she happy? Would she come home with their infant? Shivering in his heavy winter clothing, he pushed his body forward, staring down at the sidewalk. There were others milling about, but he paid them no attention. His mind was not with him today. It was with Jenna and their baby. His mind, heart, body, and soul would belong to no other.

Up ahead, Lynch saw the apartment building. He was utterly ecstatic to see it. It was just too damned cold out here. The wind was literally killing him, making his tired ass even more tired. He entered the building, went to the elevator, and climbed inside. He had no clue what awaited him.

When Lynch tried the door, he found it unlocked. Relieved that he didn’t have to dig out his key, he went inside, not finding anything out of the ordinary. Callie and Joris were sitting together, watching TV. Andy had his spindly body folded up into an armchair. His laptop was balanced precariously on his knees. He hung up his ten pounds of winter clothing. Hungry as hell, he started for the kitchen. A sound stopped him. He had to be hallucinating. He heard the faint strains of Jenna’s voice, singing Onze Liefde Alleen. He turned and looked at Callie first, then glanced at Joris, before finally settling his eyes on Andy. They were in their own zones. Was this what losing one’s mind felt like? Was it finally happening? He heard her voice again. It was coming from his bedroom. Completely unsure what to do, he stupidly stayed rooted to the same spot by the kitchen door. Had Joris recorded her to surprise him?

“I can’t stand this,” Callie whispered to her husband. “Lynch, just go.”

Her words broke his spell. Lynch made his way from the living room, down the hall, and turned right. His bedroom door was closed. Her voice was louder than before, yet so achingly quiet. He reached out, grasped the knob, and opened the door. He let out a breath he had held since he heard her voice. Sitting on the foot of his bed was the proverbial woman who got away. Immediately, he noticed that she cut her hair. The back of it was short, barely touching her neck. The sides were dramatically longer, swinging almost past her chin. Although he missed her long hair, she was insanely beautiful, insanely real.

Jenna’s eyes saw changes in Lynch. His hair was shorter now, dyed black. He had grown a closely cropped beard that almost changed his looks completely. However, his eyes never changed. He was Lynch. She didn’t know how she felt at that moment. She wanted to throw herself in his arms, make mad love to him. At the same time, she was tempted to yell at him for turning her away.

While Jenna had difficulty pinpointing what she wanted to say, Lynch was conflicted at how he felt. The instant he opened his mouth, a noise drew his attention away from her. It was a small noise. He would call it a snuffling sound, one made by babies when they were sleeping. His eyes identified a small carry crib behind Jenna. Moving slowly, he inched toward the crib. Once he leaned over it, he was almost afraid to look, afraid it would be empty. It wasn’t. Inside lay a child…his child.

Jenna stood and went to the other side of the bed. Facing Lynch, she saw his eyes filling with tears. She swore she wouldn’t cry. She did, she couldn’t help it. “Would you like to meet your daughter?”

He swallowed a huge lump. “Daughter?”

“Yes,” she said. “Daughter. I named her Gretchen Constance Tackett.” She fused both his and her mothers’ names. “She has your eyes, Lynch.”

He hadn’t held many infants in his life, and today wasn’t the time to mess it up. He lifted her out of the crib without waking her. “Jesus,” he whispered. “She’s beautiful, Jenna.”

“That she is,” she said with a smile. “There’s another part of you she has.”

“Yeah?” He asked wonderingly. “What is it?”

“Your mark, Lynch.”

He didn’t believe her at first. Then he saw it. “It can’t be possible,” he managed to say. “No way.”

“Obviously, Lynch, you were wrong.” When she said those five words, he looked up at her. She was smiling at him, crying as well. “What are you thinking?”

It was a loaded question. His thoughts were everywhere, nowhere, right here inside his bedroom. Looking down at little Gretchen Constance, he said, “I think I’m in love.” He placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before placing her back into the crib. When this was accomplished, he sat on the side of the bed. “What do we do?”

She sat on the other side. Reaching for his hand, she said, “I think you know.”

He took hers in his; never believing this moment would ever happen. “Jenna-”

She squeezed his hand, cutting off his words. “I can’t ever fathom losing her, Lynch. I can’t see myself losing you again. You and I will make up for lost time by making love to each other. Whatever happens…happens.”

He gazed into her beautiful eyes, eyes that read his soul without an ounce of lycan blood. “What are we waiting for?”

Callie gladly agreed to take care of the baby while her parents ‘caught up.’ Together, they spoke of things unsaid for more than a year, connecting again, falling in love again. Naturally, they consummated their new found love. At the moment of his climax, a silver tint came to Lynch’s eyes. His canine teeth elongated just slightly. The first time it happened, he didn’t remember it. This time, he relished it. He realized he would never be alone. He craved this woman. He craved being with her. His teeth penetrated the delicate flesh of her shoulder. She hissed when she felt the tender bite. It didn’t hurt, and she reassured him. It stung, like a flu shot. Her hold on him grew tighter, her body shuddered against his. Whatever happened…happened.

Much later, the two of them lay on the bed, facing each other, propped up on their elbows. Little Gretchen Constance slept between them. Lynch touched her tiny arm with his huge finger, marveling at the silky softness of her skin. His father had guided him, and Lynch would now guide his child through life as a lycan.

He looked up at Jenna. She had been watching him closely, noticing how enamored he was of his daughter. “Would you consider moving here? Marrying me?”

She smiled lovingly at him, leaned forward, and kissed him deeply. When she ended the kiss, she said, “I thought you would never ask.”

Lynch watched as Jenna turned and grabbed a small box from the end table. She placed it on the bed between her and Constance. Jenna opened it and plucked out an engagement ring. With a pang, he saw that it was his mother’s ring. He kept it hidden in a safe at the old house. When it burned a year ago, he thought the ring was lost. How had she managed to save this? Like a queen waiting for someone to kiss her ring, she presented her hand to him. With the other, she gave him the ring.

“Go ahead,” she said softly. “Put it on my finger.”

With absolutely no hesitation, he did so. He looked down at the baby before settling his eyes on Jenna’s face. Two immortals were beside him. He would never have to roam the world alone again.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

The Dutch song, Onze Liefde Alleen, does not actually exist. It is only a figment of the author’s imagination. It was translated in the Dutch language. My source was E.J. South. Also, all Cherokee translations are also authentic. My source was S.M. Rutherford.

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