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.