By Karen Lynch
Copyright @2017 Karen Lynch
This is a sample. The number of pages is limited.
Things are going well for Roland Greene. High school is
behind him, he has a sweet new ride, a good job, and he’s making plans for his
future. At eighteen, he’s one of the strongest werewolves in his pack, and he
already has more vampire kills than most wolves have in a lifetime. Life is
It’s time for the annual pack gathering. Wolves from all over Maine come to take care of pack business and socialize – and to find mates. Everywhere Roland turns there are unmated females, and as the Alpha’s nephew, he’s prime mate material. The last thing he wants right now is a mate, and he’ll do all he can to stay a free wolf.
Until he meets her.
I smiled broadly at Pete as I cut the engine and got out of my newly restored sixty-eight Mustang GT. “What do you think?”
He whistled and walked around the car. “She’s beautiful, but I thought you were going to paint her red.”
“I changed my mind.” I ran my hand along the Acapulco blue paint job. “Every Mustang in town is red. I wanted mine to stand out.”
I’d bought the car from Dell Madden’s uncle back in January for fifteen hundred dollars. He’d kept her in a shed all these years. What a crime. I’d spent the last six months working on her in my cousin Paul’s garage in my spare time. The car had needed a ton of work, and I’d used up my share of the money Sara had given me in California, but man, this car was worth it.
Pete nodded appreciatively. “Well, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about blending in. I take it you’re driving us to Justin’s?”
“Yeah, unless you want to take your car.”
“My car?” His eyes widened when I pulled a set of keys from my pocket and tossed them to him.
“The Escort is all yours, as promised. I even gave her a tune-up for you.”
Technically, the car Jordan had given me before we left California in January had belonged to both of us, but Pete had agreed to let me keep it until the Mustang was ready. It wasn’t like we’d had a lot of places to go since we got home anyway. Between school, training, patrols, and working at the lumberyard, there hadn’t been a lot of time for anything else.
“Sweet!” He grinned and twirled the keys. “But I’d rather take your car this time.”
I laughed. “I thought you’d say that.”
“Nice ride, man,” called a new voice.
I turned to see Kyle and Shawn Walsh walking up the driveway toward us. The two men were cousins, but they looked enough alike to be brothers. Both of them had straight black hair and matching smiles – or scowls, depending on their moods.
“Dude, who’d you steal this baby from?” Shawn joked as he checked out my ride. “Hey, is that the original interior?”
“Looks good, huh?”
Kyle patted the hood. “What do you have under here?”
The front door to the house opened, and my cousin Francis stuck his head out to scowl at us. “You guys going to play with Roland’s new toy or join us for the meeting?”
Pete and I exchanged a look and followed Kyle and Shawn into the house. It wasn’t Francis’s sour mood that got us all moving; it was the knowledge that Maxwell was waiting for us inside. Our Alpha didn’t like to be kept waiting, and the last thing I wanted was to piss him off today. I’d been on the receiving end of his temper enough this year to last me a lifetime.
Maxwell – Uncle Max – was sitting in his usual chair by the fireplace when we filed into the large living room. Uncle Brendan, his Beta, sat on the other side of the fireplace next to Pete’s mother, the Alpha female. Every other seat in the room was occupied and so were most of the places to stand. Pete and I leaned against the archway where we could still see and hear everything.
“Now that everyone is finally here, let’s get started,” Maxwell said in his deep, rumbling voice. He stood and pinned me with a hard stare before his gaze swept across the room. Tall and broad, and built like a grizzly with reddish-brown hair to match, he was the toughest and most intimidating man I’d ever met. But then, it took a strong man to be the Alpha of a werewolf pack, especially a pack as big as ours. I didn’t envy him that job one bit.
“First order of business is the pack gathering. We’re going to have more wolves than usual visiting this year, and we need to make sure there is room for everyone. Anne?”
Aunt Anne stood. She was short next to Maxwell, but she could be as fierce as her mate when she wanted to be.
“The guesthouses have been cleaned and aired out, and we have enough beds in them for forty people, with air mattresses for the children. Plus, we have a dozen RVs they can use, and some people are bringing their own. It’ll be a tight fit, but we should be able to accommodate everyone who shows up.”
I tried to ignore the pit that opened in my gut every time someone brought up the annual gathering. Pack members from all over Maine came for the month-long gathering to discuss pack business and socialize. That wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that every unmated female in the state would be here, hoping to find a mate.
The last few years, I’d hidden out at Sara’s place during the gatherings, but that was out of the question this year. Pack meetings were mandatory for all wolves eighteen and older. Not to mention the Knolls would be very crowded for the next few weeks, making it impossible to avoid every female. All it took was for one of them to get my wolf’s attention, and it was game over.
Maybe I should ask Sara if I could rent her place for the summer. I needed my own space, and I could afford it with my job at the yard. The pack provided homes for its members, and we had half a dozen new houses under construction now. I could ask for one of those since I was an adult now, but that wouldn’t help me with my current dilemma. Living at Sara’s place couldn’t get me out of every pack activity, but at least I’d be able to escape from the Knolls when I wasn’t required to be here.
“…and we’ll spread out the patrol rotations with all the extra wolves on hand.”
Maxwell’s voice jerked my attention back to the meeting, and I glanced around, wondering what I’d missed. My eyes met Pete’s, and he gave me a warning look before he turned his head toward his father again.
“Now that business is taken care of, I have an announcement to make.” Maxwell crossed his arms, looking even more imposing, if that was possible. “We haven’t had much trouble in Maine, at least until last fall.”
A murmur went through the room at his words, along with a few low growls. No one would soon forget the vampires invading our territory last year, or the crocotta attack less than a mile from the Knolls. Things had been quiet since Sara left, but the pack had been on edge since last fall.
“If recent events have taught me anything, it’s that we’ve become complacent in the last few years. We must always be ready to defend our territory and the humans who live here.”
“Damn right,” muttered Francis, who was a few feet from me. If my cousin had his way, the pack would probably be living off the grid in some remote part of Maine and killing anything that crossed our borders.
“Over the winter, I’ve thought a lot about this and how to ensure we are never caught off guard again,” Maxwell said. “The last Alpha, my uncle Thomas, ruled the pack with an iron fist, but he and his enforcers kept our territory safe.”
Whispers spread through the room again, and I got a sinking feeling in my gut. He couldn’t possibly be thinking about bringing back the old ways. Enforcers were the strongest fighters in a pack, and next to the Alpha and Beta, their word was law. A lot of packs still had them, but we’d all heard the rumors of brutality and abuse. It was one of the reasons Maxwell had abolished the role when he became Alpha. He was a tough leader, but a fair one, and he abhorred unnecessary violence.
He held up a hand, and the room went quiet again.
“Let me put an end to the rumors before they start. There will be no enforcers in my pack, not as long as I am Alpha.”
I let out the breath I was holding.
Maxwell continued. “I’m going to reinstate an older tradition used before there were enforcers, something the European packs still do. Instead of a single Beta, we will have as many as I deem necessary. This will spread the responsibilities around, especially for the groups that live separately from the main pack. The new Betas will have the same authority Brendan has now.”
Pete and I stared at each other. More than one Beta? I wondered how Brendan felt about this. I looked over at him to find him nodding, seemingly happy about the whole thing.
“Who will the new Betas be?”
I wasn’t surprised that Francis was the first to speak up. If there was one thing he wanted in life, it was more authority in the pack.
“Brendan and I will choose the Betas over the next month or so,” Maxwell said. “The gathering will give us a good opportunity to observe candidates. I’ll send word out to the rest of the pack, and anyone here who is interested in being a candidate can let Brendan know after the meeting.”
I saw Francis, Kyle, and Shawn exchange smiles, and I had an image of the three of them as Betas. Francis was four years older than I was, and he’d been trying to boss Pete and me around since we were little kids. I didn’t even want to imagine how life would be if he outranked me.
Kyle and Shawn were tight with Francis, and they used to look down on us, too, until Pete and I killed a pack of crocotta last fall with Nikolas and Chris. Since then, the Walsh cousins were a lot friendlier. That didn’t mean I wanted them telling me what to do, though.
As soon as the meeting ended, Pete came over to me. “Multiple Betas? Wonder what that will be like.”
I looked at Francis, Kyle, and Shawn who were the first ones to go to Brendan. “Not good if those three are in.”
He lowered his voice. “Dad and Brendan know how Francis is. They won’t choose him if they think he’ll cause trouble. And you have to admit, he does care about the pack.”
I let out a puff of air. “Well, all I care about right now is a boat and a certain redhead I’m meeting up with at Justin’s party. You ready to head out?”
Maxwell had pulled strings to get Pete and me back into school after we’d been gone for a month, and the two of us had put in a lot of nights working on makeup assignments for credit. On top of everything else, it had left no time for dating. When Justin Reid had invited us to spend the afternoon on his father’s sailboat, followed by a party at his place, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time.
“Taylor White. She’s been trying to hook up with me since March.”
Pete shook his head. “Lucky bastard.”
I grinned because I was feeling pretty good today. I had my Mustang, I was no longer under house arrest, and I had a gorgeous redhead waiting for me.
We headed for the door, but I came up short when a heavy hand landed on my shoulder. I looked back to see Maxwell and sighed inwardly. I’d been so close to escaping.
“Where are you two off to in such a hurry?”
“Going out on Justin’s boat,” Pete said.
I half expected Maxwell to tell us we were still grounded. Instead, he said, “You forgot to tell Brendan you want to be considered for the Beta program.”
My mouth fell open, and I didn’t try to hide my surprise. Me, a Beta? I’d just graduated from high school. Not to mention, Maxwell had spent the last six months telling me I had to grow up and start behaving like an adult. Was this another one of his tests?
Pete scoffed. “We don’t have a shot at being a Beta over some of those other guys.”
Maxwell motioned for us to follow him into the kitchen. He was wearing his lecture face, and I bit back a groan.
“You two have Alpha blood in your veins, and one day, one of you could take my place. Being a Beta is a good way for you to start learning to lead this pack.”
Whoa! Back up. Alpha? Lead the pack? What the hell was he talking about?
I couldn’t hold back the laugh that burst from me. “Are you serious?”
Maxwell’s brows drew together. “Do I look like I’m joking?”
“Last month you told me I was so slow in training that my grandmother could outrun me, and now you think I could be Alpha?” I shook my head. “No offense, but yeah, I think you’re joking with us.”
He crossed his arms. “I didn’t say you’d be ready for that job anytime soon. Neither of you have shown many Alpha traits, but you’re still young. There’s hope for you if you don’t screw up again.”
I looked at Pete, who seemed as shocked as I was by his father’s statements. Obviously, this was all news to him, too.
“What if I don’t want to lead the pack?” I had some ideas about what I wanted to do with my life, and none of them included being Alpha of the pack. Or Beta, for that matter.
Maxwell shrugged. “Some of the best leaders are the ones who don’t want it. They do it because they know they are the right person to do the job. They do it because their pack needs them.”
He turned to go back to the living room. “I expect to see your names on the Beta list.”
“Great,” I muttered after he left the kitchen. “Let’s go, Pete.”
Most of the members had cleared out when we went to find Brendan, except for a few stragglers talking about Maxwell’s announcement. Brendan didn’t appear surprised when we grudgingly asked him to add us to the list. If anything, he looked amused. I was glad someone was enjoying this.
“I wouldn’t mind being a Beta,” Pete said after we’d climbed into the Mustang. “But Dad’s probably making us do this as some lesson about responsibility. No one is going to pick you and me over the older guys on that list.”
I relaxed a little. “You’re probably right.”
Turning the key in the ignition, I smiled at the smooth rumble of the powerful V8 engine. Satisfaction and pride filled me at the work I’d done on the car. Until I’d started restoring the Mustang, I’d never given much thought to working on cars. But now that she was done, I felt a little pang of disappointment that I wouldn’t be working on her tomorrow. There was nothing like bringing a classic car back to life.
There was also nothing like being free for the first time in months. Tonight was all about having fun. Tomorrow I’d worry about the Beta program, the pack gathering, and the unmated females who’d be hoping to snare a mate.
I suppressed a shudder at the last thought and put the car in reverse.
“Here you go, miss.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly as the shuttle driver set my suitcases on the landing at the top of the steps. I reached into my carry-on for my wallet, but he waved it off.
“The woman who arranged your ride took care of it all,” he said before he headed back down the stairs. “Have a nice stay.”
I watched him get into the blue airport shuttle van and drive off before I pulled a set of keys from my bag and faced the door. Taking a deep breath, I unlocked the door and pushed it open. My hands trembled from nervous excitement when I grabbed the handle of my biggest suitcase and rolled it into the apartment.
My new home.
I dragged the second suitcase inside and closed the solid steel door, sliding the deadbolt home. Dropping my carry-on beside the luggage, I went to explore the apartment.
The first room I found was the kitchen, and as soon as I saw it, nostalgia filled me. The pale-yellow walls and white cabinets took me back to the kitchen in the house my family had owned at Virginia Beach. We’d go there in the summer, and every morning, I’d make French toast for my sister Marie and me, and then we’d go hang out on the dunes. She loved to collect shells and play Robinson Crusoe while I painted. I wondered if she still…
My throat closed off as I ran to the window. It looked out over a bay that was nothing like the view from our old summer house. My fingers clutched at the granite counter as my heart began to race and the dizziness threatened.
Relax. Deep breaths, I told myself, inhaling slowly, breathing from my diaphragm as Margot had taught me.
It took long minutes before my pulse returned to normal and the room stopped tilting. I relaxed my grip on the counter and closed my eyes for a moment.
You knew this would happen. Every day it’s going to get easier.
One more deep breath later, I opened my eyes, feeling in control again. The panic attacks used to happen all the time in the first month after I was healed. Margot and the other healers at Westhorne had helped me learn the signs that an attack was coming on, and how to stop it. It also helped me to know my triggers, which mostly centered around my family and my old life. The life I could never go back to.
Okay, none of that.
If I’d learned one thing over the last three months, it was that dwelling on things out of my control never changed anything. It only made me sad, and I’d had enough sadness for two lifetimes.
I turned from the window and looked around the kitchen again. It was a nice room, warm and sunny, and I could see why Sara loved it. I pictured me cooking meals and eating at the small table, and I smiled. Yes, I could do this.
A sheet of paper on the counter caught my eye, and I picked it up, knowing it was from Sara before I read it.
Welcome to your new home! I hope you’ll love it as much as I do. I can’t believe you’re living in my old apartment and I’m on my way to Russia of all places. Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?
I know you said you wanted to do everything for yourself, but I couldn’t help myself. I stocked the kitchen with some of your favorite foods to help you feel at home on your first day. I also bought a few other things I hope you’ll like, such as the cool new espresso machine in front of you. I know how much you love your mocha lattes. They told me at the store it was pretty easy to figure out. The manual is in the drawer by the fridge.
I left a number on the fridge in case something in the building breaks. Brendan is a friend of mine, and he can fix anything. He’ll send the bills for any repairs to me. No argument. It’s my responsibility to fix things. Brendan is part of the pack, but don’t worry. I didn’t tell them about you. I also left Roland’s number in case you change your mind about meeting him. I hope you do. He’s a great guy and a lot of fun.
Okay, I have to go before Nikolas throws me over his shoulder again. That’s becoming a bad habit with him. I’ll call you in a few days to see how you’re settling in. Bye!
I chuckled, feeling lighter after reading Sara’s letter. She was the best friend I’d ever had. I wished she was here, but she and Nikolas were on a plane right now, flying to Russia to visit his family.
I’d never seen two people as crazy about each other as she and Nikolas were. I’d thought that kind of love existed only in romance novels until I met the two of them. Before I was taken from my old life, I used to dream of a love like theirs. Those dreams had died long ago, along with the girl I used to be. Now, I only wanted some semblance of a normal life and a chance for a little happiness.
I shook off the sadness stealing over me again and went to explore the rest of the apartment. On the first floor, I found a cozy living room, the master suite, a bathroom, a laundry room, and Nate’s old office. I shook my head when I saw the shiny new laptop sitting on the desk. A few things, indeed.
At the end of the hall was a flight of stairs to the loft where Sara’s bedroom used to be. I ran up the stairs, eager to see it for myself. At the top, I stopped, unable to believe my eyes.
Tears blurred my vision, and I blinked them away as I walked over to the large easel set up in the middle of the room that had been transformed into an artist’s studio. Around me were canvases, paints, brushes, easels, and everything I would need, including all my stuff that had been sent ahead from Westhorne. It was perfect.
I walked around the room, touching the supplies and fighting the growing tightness in my chest. I didn’t deserve all this generosity and kindness.
Leaving the studio, I opened the door to the attic to peer inside. It was empty except for a narrow flight of stairs to the roof. I closed the door, making a note to check out the roof later. Right now, it was time to settle in and start my new life.
A sense of anticipation filled me as I descended the stairs to the main floor. The bed in the master bedroom was stripped, so I took a few minutes to make it up with fresh sheets and a quilt from the hall linen closet. The next hour was spent unpacking my suitcases and putting away my things in the closet and adjoining bathroom. As I worked, I made a mental list of things I needed to buy.
I planned to get a job once I found my way around here, even though Tristan had told me it wasn’t necessary. He’d wanted me to stay at Westhorne, but I couldn’t hide among the Mohiri forever. When I’d insisted on leaving, he’d set me up with a bank account and some “getting started” money. I had no idea how much was there, but knowing him it was a generous amount.
It took me a while to realize my stomach was rumbling. After all these months, I still wasn’t used to listening to the demands of my body, and I had to remind myself to eat regularly. Not that I didn’t like to eat. I’d discovered so many wonderful foods since I’d been healed. It was hard sometimes to remember my body needed a different kind of sustenance now, and more frequent feedings.
I went into the kitchen to check the fridge, and a laugh bubbled from me at the sight of the full shelves. How on earth did Sara think I was going to eat all of this food?
Shaking my head, I pulled out some meats and cheese and everything else I needed to make a sandwich. In my old life, my cooking skills consisted of French toast, grilled cheese, and scrambled eggs – Marie’s favorite foods. I needed to learn how to make real meals now that I was on my own. Sandwiches would serve my needs until then. I’d also rediscovered my love of pizza. Sara had told me about her favorite pizza place in town, and they delivered, which was perfect since I had no car yet. One thing at a time.
I ate my sandwich slowly, barely noticing the taste as I tried not to be overwhelmed by the fact that I was truly on my own. Tristan and Sara had done what they could to make it easier for me. I had health insurance, a new driver’s license, and a social security number, compliments of the security people at Westhorne. There wasn’t much those guys couldn’t do.
Dax, their head of security, had even found my family for me. My parents had retired and moved to Charleston, and my sister, Marie, lived in DC. She was a children’s writer now, and an activist for Child Find of America. She also lobbied the government for tougher child laws. It was all because of me, and I wished I could tell her I was alive and well. But there was no way to explain how I looked the same after all these years. As much as it killed me, I had to stay away from everyone from my past, especially my sister and parents. It was best for everyone.
That was why I’d given up my last name. I was no longer Emma Chase from Raleigh, North Carolina. I was Emma Grey from Syracuse, New York, and second cousin to Sara. When Sara had offered me her name, it only seemed right to take the last name of the person who had given me my new life. It also gave me the perfect cover story for why I was staying in her apartment.
I cleaned up after my meal and stood in the kitchen, not sure what to do next. I looked out at the sunny waterfront and thought about taking a short walk, but I quickly dismissed it. I wasn’t ready to go out yet. Maybe tomorrow.
A phone rang, startling me from my thoughts, and I ran to find my cell phone, which was still in my bag. My mouth curved into a wide smile when I saw the name on the screen.
“Hey, chica! How’s life in the sticks?” Jordan asked as soon as I answered.
“So far, so good. I only got here two hours ago, though.”
“Are you bored out of your tree yet?” she joked. She put her hand over the phone and yelled at someone before she came back on the line. “Sorry about that. So, how do you like your new place?”
I walked into the living room and sat in the chair by the fireplace. “It’s nice. Feels weird to have a whole building to myself, and it’s a lot quieter than Westhorne.”
“Yeah, it takes a little getting used to, but it’s a nice place if you go for the small-town life. Don’t forget to check out Gino’s. Best pepperoni pizza you’ll ever eat.”
I laughed and stretched my legs across the ottoman. “Yeah, Sara already drilled that into my head.”
A police siren sounded in the background. Jordan paused until it went past.
“I was only there for three days, but the people seem pretty decent. And Wolf Boy is cool. Just don’t tell him I said that.”
She snickered. “That’s Roland. You know, the werewolf.”
“Oh, yes. Sara’s friend.”
My body tensed, and my insides recoiled. I’d spent the last two decades thinking of werewolves as my mortal enemies whose main purpose in life was to hunt and kill my kind. It was going to take a little while to get past that.
“I guess you haven’t had time to meet him and Peter yet with it being your first day there.” She was quiet for a moment. “Sara told me you don’t want them to know about your past. I get why you feel that way. But I think they’ll surprise you once you get to know them. I didn’t care for them at first either, but they kind of grow on you.”
“That’s good to know.” I cast about for a way to move the conversation to a more comfortable subject. “So, how are things in Los Angeles?”
“Awesome. I’ve been on the trail of a nasty incubus for the last two weeks, and I got the bastard this morning. Let me tell you, that was a very satisfying kill. Although, the team wasn’t exactly thrilled about my methods. But hey, I got the job done, right?”
I could only imagine how Jordan had lured and snared a male sex demon. My warrior friend was dedicated to her work, but she definitely marched to her own drum.
“Any sign of that Egyptian warrior you were hoping to see there? What was his name?”
“Hamid.” She sighed heavily. “I swear he’s hiding from me. Too bad. I wouldn’t mind doing a little foreign exchange with him, if you know what I mean.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I do.”
“But he’s not the only hot male in California. Just going to the beach is enough to give a girl whiplash.” She chuckled. “I actually think Blondie is on to something with the ‘only dating humans’ thing. They’re nice to look at, and some of them even know how to please a woman. And the best part, no strings attached.”
“You’re so bad.”
“I’m a woman who knows what she wants. I might have to hit the clubs tonight. A good kill always puts me in the mood to work off some energy – if you know what I mean.” She opened and closed a door, and the background sounds were suddenly muted. “Maybe when you’re ready for a change of scenery, you can come visit me for a few days. God knows we could use some more estrogen around here.”
A male shouted something that sounded like a retort, and she said something back. “Okay, I gotta go. The guys in charge get pissy if you don’t write up field reports right away. I’ll let you get back to settling in.”
“Thanks for calling.”
“Anytime. You’re my only BFF here with Sara out of the country. Get used to hearing from me. Later, chica.”
The apartment seemed too quiet after talking to Jordan. I found a radio in the kitchen, and I tuned it to a station that played a mix of everything. Turning up the volume so I could hear it all over the apartment, I went upstairs to lose myself in my painting for a while.
I’d been working on a landscape of the lake back at Westhorne for the last few months, but I’d struggled with my painting since I was healed. My talent was rusty after not using it for so long, and it was taking me a while to capture the setting right. Before I’d left, I’d taken a bunch of pictures so I wouldn’t have to work from memory, and I pinned them to the top of the canvas. I spent the next few hours trying to replicate the reflection of the trees on the glassy surface of the lake. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the end result, but the work left me feeling more relaxed and at home here.
It was getting dark outside when I put away my brushes and descended the stairs to shower and change into my pajamas. Outside, people laughed as they walked past the building, reminding me it was a Friday night. There’d been a time when I couldn’t imagine staying in and going to bed so early. But the long day had finally caught up with me, and I was trying not to yawn as I brushed my teeth.
I almost left the lights on when I got into bed, but I made myself turn them all off except for a small lamp in the bedroom. It wasn’t that the dark frightened me as much as it seemed to press down on me. Waking up in the dark made me think for a few horrible seconds that I was back in that sunless world I’d lived in for over two decades. I hadn’t slept without a light on in months.
The queen-size bed was comfortable, and I felt myself slipping into sleep not long after my head hit the pillow. I snuggled beneath the quilt, thinking drowsily that my first day on my own hadn’t been too bad at all. Maybe tonight would be good, too. Hopefully, for once, the dreams wouldn’t come.
“Well, that was a total bust,” I grumbled as I buckled my seat belt and rolled down my window.
Pete laughed and started the car. He was the designated driver tonight.
“You’re just upset you didn’t hook up with Taylor.”
“Ugh. Talk about a close call.” I scowled at the windshield. “Why do people get hammered like that and then end up puking in the bathroom the rest of the night? I’m all for having a beer, but that is so not attractive.”
He made a face. “At least you didn’t have Lisa Reid asking if you wanted to make out in the car.”
“Dude, you did not make out with Justin’s little sister in my car.”
“Give me some credit,” he retorted. “Besides, she can’t be more than fifteen. No way I’m going there.”
I sighed and leaned my head against the headrest. “Is it just me, or did everyone at that party seem way younger than us?”
The question sounded weird to my own ears, considering most of the people at Justin’s had been in our senior class, and we’d partied with them many times. But something felt different tonight. I’d stood there drinking my beer and watching them celebrate the end of high school, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I didn’t belong. It was as if I’d suddenly aged five years, and I was looking at a bunch of kids getting drunk.
“It’s not them. We were just like that last year. We’ve changed ever since that stuff happened with Sara.”
“Yeah, we have.” Seeing one of your best friends get stabbed and fall off a cliff, and thinking she was dead for three weeks, that changes you. Not to mention everything else that happened last fall.
We approached the waterfront. It felt weird driving past Sara’s building these days and seeing all the darkened windows and the empty parking spot. Sara had been such a big part of my life, and I missed having her around. I was happy she and Nikolas found each other, though. He was a good guy, and he’d do anything for her.
“Hey, what’s that?” Pete slowed the car. “Is that a light in Sara’s apartment?”
“What?” I craned my neck and saw a faint glow coming from one of the second-story windows. “That’s Nate’s bedroom.”
Pete stopped the car, and we reached for our doors as a girl’s scream came from inside the building.
I jumped out of the car and raced up the steps. When I reached the front door, I remembered Pete had my keys, and I had to wait for him to join me. He handed them over, and I unlocked the door.
Except for the soft light spilling from the bedroom, the apartment was dark when we let ourselves in. Down the hallway, we heard a girl’s soft cries, and we moved toward the sound.
If I’d been in wolf form, my hackles would have been standing up straight. It was 1:00 a.m., and no one should be here. I’d seen enough awful things in my life for me to imagine what would make a girl scream in an empty building, even here in New Hastings.
I almost shifted, but I decided to see what we were dealing with first. Soundlessly, I approached the bedroom with Pete close behind me. I stepped into the room and stared at the sight before me.
“What the hell?”
In the bed, a girl lay, thrashing and crying out, the blankets twisted around her legs. A quick glance around the room told me she was alone and in no danger. She was asleep and appeared to be caught in a nightmare.
Pete crowded in behind me. “Who is that?”
The girl jerked awake with a small scream. She stared at us, wild-eyed, and scrambled back against the headboard. Her long dark hair covered half her face, but I could still see the stark terror in her brown eyes.
I held up my hands and took a step toward her. She made a small sound and jumped from the bed, grabbing the old brass lamp from the nightstand. She was probably half my size, but she brandished the heavy lamp like she was an Amazon.
“Get away! What do you want?” she yelled, her breath coming in harsh pants. The fear in her eyes told me what she believed we wanted, and the thought of it sickened me.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” I said calmly.
She could be a runaway who had seen the place was empty and decided to squat here for a few days. She definitely wasn’t local, and it seemed odd for a runaway from the city to come to a small place like New Hastings. Either way, I didn’t want to frighten her, even if she had broken in here.
“Get out!” She took a step, swinging the lamp.
I didn’t move. “Who are you? What are you doing in this apartment?”
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded, her voice rising. Her chest heaved, and I noticed she was wearing only a pair of shorts and a tank top. I also saw how pale she was and the damp tendrils of hair clinging to her face.
She inched toward the nightstand where a cell phone lay. “I’m calling the police if you don’t leave.”
I stared at her. She wouldn’t call the cops if she was here illegally. But Sara had never mentioned anyone staying at the apartment. Neither had Brendan or my mother, who were taking care of the building for Sara. It made no sense.
“I’m Roland. Why are you in Sara’s apartment?”
She froze, and her eyes widened. “Roland? Sara’s friend?”
She lowered the lamp, holding it against her chest, almost like a shield. “I’m Sara’s cousin, Emma. She’s letting me stay here for a while.”
Cousin? Disbelief and suspicion filled me. “Sara doesn’t have any cousins.”
She swallowed and nodded. “Yes, she does. My name is Emma Grey, and I’m from Syracuse.”
She looked past me at Pete. “You must be Peter.”
“My wallet is on the kitchen counter. You can check my ID if you don’t believe me.”
Pete went to the kitchen. Emma and I stayed where we were, watching each other. I shifted from one foot to the other, and she reacted by taking a step back. Her reaction bothered me. Why was she so afraid of me? If she really knew Sara, she had to know we wouldn’t hurt her.
Pete came back and held a driver’s license out for me to see. “Emma Grey from Syracuse, like she said.”
I took the card from him and studied it for a moment. No one smiled for their DMV photos, but there was a sadness in the face on the card that tugged at me.
I looked at Emma again. “Sara’s never mentioned a cousin in all the years I’ve known her.”
She bit her lower lip. “You can check with her if you want. Or you can call Nate.”
“I believe you.” Her wary expression told me she was hiding something, but she was telling the truth about who she was. “I don’t know why Sara didn’t tell us you were coming here.”
Emma shook her head, her eyes troubled. “I…asked her not to tell anyone about me. I just want to be left alone.”
Werewolves. There were two werewolves standing less than ten feet away from me. The fact that they were in their human forms did little to dispel the terror clawing at my gut. They were hunters, and for two decades, the fear of them had been ingrained in me. Friendly or not, it was impossible not to feel threatened by their presence.
I should have recognized them. Sara had pictures of them in her apartment at Westhorne, and she talked about them all the time. But I’d been too shocked, waking up to find two strange men in my room.
The red-haired one named Peter smiled at me. They were both tall and well-built like most werewolf males, but he seemed less intimidating than his friend. Roland was another matter. The way Sara talked about her best friend, I’d imagined a sweet, smiling boy. He wore a smile, but the intensity in his blue eyes unsettled me. It was as if he could see through me, right into the darkness of my past.
“You can put down the lamp. We won’t hurt you,” Roland said, reminding me of the heavy weight in my hands.
With trembling hands, I set the lamp down on the nightstand and straightened to face Sara’s friends again. No one spoke for a moment, and I wasn’t sure what to say to them. I felt exposed without the lamp between us, as small as it was.
“Are you okay?” Roland asked, startling me.
“I’m fine.” Or I would be when they left.
He ran a hand through his dark hair, his gaze sweeping up my body. “You don’t look okay. Are you sick?”
I must have looked pretty bad for him to ask that. I shook my head. “It was just a bad dream. I’m good now.”
“That must have been some dream,” Peter muttered.
“It’s a little scary being alone in a new place,” I lied. I was less afraid of their presence, but I wouldn’t be able to relax until they were gone. I looked from Peter to Roland. “Why are you here at this hour? And how did you get in?”
“I have a key,” Roland answered. “My mother and I took care of the place for Sara and Nate over the winter.”
I remembered Sara mentioning the woman who watched the place for her. “Judith?”
He nodded. “That’s her.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. Sara trusted him with her place and he seemed like a nice enough guy, but I didn’t like the idea of anyone else having a key to this apartment while I was here.
“You don’t need to watch the place anymore,” I told him. “You can leave the key here with me.”
He opened his mouth, and for a moment, I thought he was going to argue. But then he gave a small nod and removed a key from the set in his hand. He held it out to me.
I shook my head and pointed at the dresser closest to the door. “You can put it there on top of the dresser.”
Frowning, he did as I’d asked.
I swallowed hard. I hated the fear that clogged my chest, but what if Sara was wrong about her friends? They might be good people, but they were werewolves, and werewolves hated one thing above all others. They also had incredibly sensitive noses. What if they smelled me and somehow sensed what I used to be? What would they say if they knew I’d once been their mortal enemy?
I knew Nate’s story, how he’d been made a vampire just to hurt Sara. Roland and Peter were okay with him and held no animosity for him. But Nate had been a vampire for a week. I’d been one for twenty-one years, and in that time, I’d done unspeakable things. Somehow, I didn’t think the werewolves would be as forgiving if they knew exactly what stood before them now.
I cleared my throat. “Thank you for coming to check on me. It’s late and I-I’m very tired. I’d like to go back to bed.”
Once again, Roland looked like he was going to say something, but he seemed to change his mind. “No problem. Sorry we frightened you.”
I shook my head, attempting a smile. “It’s my fault for asking Sara not to tell anyone I was coming here.”
Peter gave me an apologetic smile and headed down the hallway to the front door. Roland looked at me for a moment longer, and then he followed his friend.
I waited until they were at the door before I walked to the bedroom doorway. The hallway was dark, but there was enough light from the bedroom to see Peter’s quick wave before they let themselves out.
I let out a long breath and sagged against the doorframe. When I heard the faint sound of their feet on the steps, I ran to the door and slid the deadbolt. Leaving the door, I went to the living room to peer through the drapes at the two figures getting into a classic Ford Mustang. The car rumbled to life, and they drove off.
It wasn’t until the taillights disappeared from sight that my strength deserted me. I slid down the wall and sat on the floor with my knees drawn up to my chest as I fought to stop the panic attack hovering at the edges of my frayed composure.
I’m okay. I’m safe. It was my first night on my own in a strange place, and I’d woken up to find two strange men in my room. Anyone in my shoes would have reacted the same way, especially someone with my past.
Except there was no one else with a past like mine. Nate and I had talked for many hours, and he was the only person who could even remotely understand what I was going through. As far as we knew, we were the only two people in the world to have been made human again after being a vampire. It was like being reborn and given a new lease on life.
It was also lonely and isolating to not be able to share your experience, your guilt, and your crushing fears. Nate had been a vampire for a week, and it had affected him so profoundly he couldn’t even come back to the place where it had happened. What did that mean for someone like me?
I still wasn’t sure why I’d agreed to come here when Sara offered it to me. She and Tristan would have set me up anywhere in the world, and I came to live in the home of a former vampire in the heart of werewolf territory. Either I was looking for some twisted form of penance, or I was trying to prove I was stronger than my demons. Perhaps both.
It grew chilly sitting there in only shorts and a tank, but I couldn’t make myself get up and go back to bed. The dreams I’d been able to forget temporarily because of my unexpected visitors came back with perfect and heartless clarity. No matter how much I tried to block them out, the ghosts of my past were always there, forcing me to relive their horrors over and over.
I was raised Catholic, and I was taught there was a heaven and a hell and a place in between. A place where God sent you to suffer your sins until he decided to take you into heaven or send you to hell. I’d stopped believing in God after a week with Eli. God couldn’t be real and abandon me to that kind of horror.
Now I wondered if he was real after all. I’d lived in hell, and my soul was too tattered to go to heaven.
Maybe this was my purgatory.
* * *
I grimaced and scrubbed at the skillet for what seemed like the hundredth time. How could anyone burn eggs so badly, even someone who hadn’t touched a stove in twenty years? I’d thought I’d be able to make scrambled eggs, at least. Good luck there.
Letting the skillet slide back into the hot, soapy water, I looked at the two blackened slices of bread sitting in the toaster. Tears pricked my eyes. I couldn’t do anything right. What was I thinking, trying to do this on my own?
Laughter reached my ears through the window I’d opened to let the smoke out. I looked down at the two teenage girls walking along the waterfront, shopping bags swinging from their arms. They were probably sixteen, and seeing them brought back a memory of going to the mall with my best friend Chelsea. Back then, my biggest worries had been what clothes to wear and how to convince my parents to let me stay out an hour later. I’d had no idea that monsters existed outside of my nightmares.
Stop this. One thing I’d learned since I’d been healed, it was that there was no use in looking back at what might have been. The past was the past, and I couldn’t change it. I’d gotten a chance to start over, something no other vampire victim could do. For them, the only release from that life was death. Sara saw something in me that had made her save me, and I wouldn’t repay her kindness by wallowing in self-pity.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and I was hiding out in this apartment when I should have been out there exploring and getting to know my new home. I came here to start over, and it was time to get on with it.
I dried my hands on a towel and went to my room to change into capris and a light top. There was a slight chill in the breeze coming through the window, so I grabbed a thin sweater in case I needed it. Cold was another sensation I was adjusting to. Vampires didn’t like extreme cold, but they could tolerate lower temperatures than humans. This past winter in Idaho was the first time I’d been cold in a long time.
I stuffed the sweater in my messenger bag along with my wallet and phone, and headed for the door, feeling optimistic and free.
Ringing came from my bag as I opened the door, and I grabbed for my phone. Only a handful of people had my number, and I would happily talk to any one of them.
I didn’t recognize the number on the screen, and I answered hesitantly. “Hello?”
“Hey stranger! How’s Maine?”
Lightness spread through my limbs at hearing her voice, and I realized how much I’d missed her. I’d gotten so used to seeing her every day.
“I didn’t expect to hear from you today. Shouldn’t you be resting after your trip?”
“I have a little jetlag, but nothing I can’t handle. I slept for most of the flight. Besides, I wanted to talk to you and see how you’re doing. Do you like the apartment?”
“It’s wonderful. Thank you so much for everything, especially the studio.” I didn’t mean to get emotional, but my throat tightened anyway. “It’s too much. I can’t ever repay you…”
“None of that,” she ordered softly. “What else should I do with my money if I don’t take care of my family? And you are my family. You couldn’t get rid of me now if you tried.”
I laughed as tears spilled down my cheeks. For so long, my life had been dark, an endless cycle of violence and blood. Sara not only saved me from that, she had shown me her enormous capacity for love, and she’d refused to let me withdraw into myself. Whenever I’d felt alone, she’d told me over and over that she and Nate were my family now. She’d made me believe there was something worth living for on the days I hadn’t wanted to.
“Don’t you cry because then I’ll start, and Nikolas will want to know what’s wrong. You know how he is.”
“Yes.” I swiped at my wet cheeks.
“It’s so weird that you’re living in my place, and you’ll be seeing all the people I used to know.”
“Does it bother you that I’m here? Because I can go somewhere else. It’s no problem –”
“No, I love having you there,” she rushed to say. “I hated the idea of the place being empty, so you’re actually doing me a favor.”
“I guess it’s too early to ask who you’ve met there. You know I’m hoping you’ll change your mind about meeting Roland and Peter.”
I swallowed, thinking of the two werewolves standing in my bedroom doorway. “Um, I kind of met them already.”
“You did?” Excitement filled her voice. “You called them?”
“Not exactly.” I took a breath and told her what had happened last night.
“Oh, Emma, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
“I’m good now. I was a little freaked out last night, but I think they were too when they found a strange girl in your place.” A little freaked out. Talk about an understatement.
“What a way to start your stay there.”
I smiled. “Not what I expected, but I should have known better after all your stories about this place.”
“And now that you’ve met Roland and Peter you can see how great they are,” she pressed gently. “They ran in there to save you even though they had no idea who you were.”
I toyed with the strap of my bag that still hung on my shoulder. “They seemed nice...”
“But they’re werewolves,” she finished for me. “I understand, and I’ll try not to push. It’s just that they’re great guys and I think you’ll love them, too, once you get to know them. That’s all I’m going to say about it. I promise.”
“Thanks.” I let out a breath. “How’s Russia?”
“Amazing,” she gushed. “I met Nikolas’s parents, and they’re great. His dad looks so much like him they could be brothers. It’s a bit weird, actually. I think it’ll take some getting used to.”
“Two Nikolases? I can’t imagine.”
She laughed. “There can only be one Nikolas. And speak of the devil…”
I heard some rustling sounds on the other end of the line along with the unmistakable sounds of kissing. After a minute, Sara came back.
“Where were we?”
I chuckled. “You were telling me there can only be one Nikolas.”
“So true.” She sighed happily.
Nikolas spoke, and Sara said, “Give me one more minute.”
“You have to go?” I asked, feeling a pang of disappointment.
“We’re having dinner with Nikolas’s parents. His mom is making a special dinner to celebrate our mating.”
“That sounds nice.” I’d forgotten they were hours ahead of me, which made it evening there now. “Have fun.”
“I’ll call you in a few days, okay?” She sounded happy, but there was an edge of worry in her voice. Worry for me. “And if you need anything or just want to talk, call me anytime. I’m on the house phone now, but I have my cell phone.”
“I will. Don’t worry about me. I was about to go out and look around when you called.”
“Great! Go to Bill’s Bakery and have a chocolate croissant. You’ll thank me.”
We hung up, and I stood in the hallway, feeling a strange mix of happiness and melancholy. Sighing, I let myself out and locked the door.
Sara’s building was at the end of the row, and I stood at the corner, looking down the waterfront. A line of shops and restaurants ran down the left side of the road. To my right was the ocean. Ahead of me, the town waited to be explored.
The first thing I noticed was the small coffee shop next door to Sara’s building. I could only shake my head and smile. Why on earth would she buy me that fancy espresso machine with a coffee shop next door? She was determined to spoil me.
The sun was warm on my face despite the cool ocean breeze, and I stopped to turn my face to it for a moment before I moved on. For the last two decades, I’d been a creature of the night, too young a vampire to survive daylight. I hadn’t known how much I’d missed the feel of the sun on my skin until I was healed. At Westhorne, I’d spent every minute I could outside when the weather had permitted.
I started walking again, passing a bookstore, a pub, a drug store, a bakery, and a small grocery store that also sold souvenirs, based on the display in their front window. It was all so clean and quaint, the kind of place featured in one of those travel magazines. And people actually smiled and waved at me as I passed them. Where I’d grown up, I knew a lot of the people in my neighborhood, but strangers didn’t greet each other on the street.
I’m living in Mayberry, I thought as I returned the smile of an older man walking a Golden Retriever. I’d been outside for ten minutes, and already I was half in love with this place. Why would anyone ever want to leave here?
I reached the end of the waterfront and stopped, debating where to go next. The intersecting street wound up a hill where a white church steeple peeked above the tops of the trees. Feeling adventurous, I started up the hill, and five minutes later, I came to a Catholic church and a high school. This must be the school Sara had gone to. She’d mentioned it more than once.
I’d never finished high school because Eli took me at the start of my senior year. I planned to enroll in school because I wanted to graduate and go to college. I could probably do online courses or do an equivalency exam, or even ask the Westhorne security guys to fake my senior year transcripts. But I wanted to have the experience that was stolen from me. I wanted to cram for an exam and hang out in the library, as lame as those things probably sounded to every other teenager. I knew school had changed a lot since I was a student, which meant I’d need to brush up over the summer. I used to be an A student, so I was confident I could get back up to speed.
I kept walking. Half a block from the school was a diner called Gail’s with a sign that boasted the best seafood in town. It was a nice-looking place, and my growling stomach reminded me I still hadn’t eaten yet today, so I crossed the street to check it out.
Inside, the diner was clean and bright with a mix of tables and booths and a long counter. Several of the booths were occupied, as were half the stools at the counter. A blonde waitress who looked to be in her forties was behind the counter, and a younger brunette was serving one of the tables.
I wasn’t sure whether to wait to be seated or not, so I stood there until the blonde lady noticed me. She smiled and came over to me.
“Table for one?”
“Yes, please,” I said and followed her to a booth.
“Haven’t seen you around before. You visiting for the summer?” she asked as she handed me a large laminated menu. Normally, I’d think of the question as nosy, but from her, it sounded friendly.
“I just moved here.”
“Well, welcome to our little slice of heaven.” She smiled and pointed at her name tag. “I’m Brenda. I came here twenty years ago, and I never left. And you’re in luck because you found the best restaurant in town.”
“Amen,” said a man in a checkered shirt as he left his booth and headed for the door.
“And the most understaffed,” grumbled the brunette passing us. She sighed loudly and went to greet the four men coming through the door.
“Don’t mind Tina,” Brenda said in a lower voice. “Two of our waitresses quit last week to go to college. That’s what happens when you mostly have high school students working here. Don’t suppose you’re looking for a job? We have a full- and a part-time position available.”
My stomach fluttered with excitement. I hadn’t planned to get a job right away, but I couldn’t sit around the apartment all day painting. I’d go crazy in no time.
“I’ve never worked in a restaurant before,” I said.
Brenda waved a hand. “Nothing to it, and we’re used to training new girls.”
I bit my lip. I wanted to get out of the apartment, but was I ready for this?
“You think about it,” she said. “Now what can I get you?”
I ordered the fish and chips and a Coke, and sat back to study the place while I waited for my meal. It was a nice restaurant, and Brenda was friendly. Tina probably was too when she wasn’t overworked. And it was within walking distance of the apartment.
Brenda returned with my meal and a sheet of paper, which she laid on the table. “In case you change your mind,” she said before she walked away.
I picked up the paper and saw it was a job application. Guess you didn’t need a résumé for this place, which was good because I didn’t have one of those.
I exhaled slowly, suddenly overwhelmed by all the things I needed to learn or catch up on. I was lucky, at least, that I knew how to use a computer. Vampires liked to keep up with technology as much as anyone else.
Laying the paper down, I started on my meal. It was as good as Brenda had boasted, and I was so famished I almost cleaned the plate. I liked food, but my appetite hadn’t been good since I was healed. Looked like it was pretty healthy now. I smiled at my plate and then almost laughed at being happy over something as silly as eating.
Brenda came over to take my plate, and ask if I wanted some of their fresh apple pie. I passed on the dessert, but I asked her for a pen. I didn’t know what made me decide to fill out the application, but I was only going to move forward if I kept pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Besides, if it didn’t work out, I could always quit.
She smiled knowingly, handed me a pen, and then left me to fill out the form. I took my time, and I felt an odd sense of change sweep over me when I signed my name at the bottom. This is a good thing, I told myself as I slid out of the booth and carried the form to the cash register at the counter.
Tina was closest, and she came to take the form and my money for the meal. Her eyes glanced over the form, and she even managed a small smile as she rang up my bill.
Behind the counter, there was an open window into the kitchen, and I could see a man cooking while a dark-haired boy prepared two plates. The boy carried the plates to the window and called out the order. When he saw me, he gave me a friendly smile, and I realized he was my age or older. I gave him a tentative smile in return and took my change from Tina, leaving a nice tip on the counter.
“Gail will look at your application when she gets in on Monday,” Tina said.
I left the diner and headed back toward home. When I reached the bakery, I remembered what Sara had said about Bill’s chocolate croissants, and I ran in to buy one. Next stop was the bookstore. I browsed for a while, and when I came across the cookbook section, I thought about my disastrous attempt to cook eggs. I found a beginner’s cookbook and purchased it, along with a local tourist guidebook that had a map of the town in it. I hadn’t gone far today, but my first glimpse of New Hastings made me want to see more.
My day hadn’t started out well, but it had definitely taken a turn for the better. My steps were light as I walked the short distance to home.
“I knew you missed me,” joked Paul when I pulled up to his garage on Monday. “Couldn’t stay away, could you?”
I laughed and got out of the car. He wasn’t wrong. The garage was on my route home from the lumberyard, and I was so used to coming here after work every day.
Paul wiped his hands on a rag and walked over to me. “How’s she running?”
“Perfect. All the guys at the yard were drooling over her.”
“They’re not the only ones,” he said. “I showed those before and after pictures I took to a guy I know in Portland, and he went nuts over them.”
I laid a hand on the Mustang’s roof. “Tell him my girl is not for sale.”
Paul leaned against the building. “He doesn’t want to buy her. He just got his hands on a nineteen seventy Chevelle. Frame’s solid but the car needs a ton of work. He normally works on his own cars, but he’s getting married and his fiancée doesn’t like him spending all his free time in the garage. He asked me if I could restore her for him.”
“You have time for that?”
Paul only had himself and another guy working here full-time, and they were pretty busy. He’d been talking for a while about expanding and hiring another mechanic, but he didn’t have enough saved yet to do it.
“Actually, I was thinking you might want to take on the Chevelle.”
I stared at him. “You serious? I’m not a mechanic.”
“Yeah. Evan knows that, but he loves the work you did on the Mustang. I told him that was all you, and that I just helped out.” Paul waved me over. “I’ll supply the space and tools and help wherever you need it, and you do most of the work. We’ll split the profits. I haven’t worked out the numbers with him yet, because I wanted to talk to you first. But it’ll be good money.”
It was a tempting offer; more than tempting. I made good pay at the lumberyard, but it was just a job and not nearly as satisfying as working on the Mustang. While I’d enjoyed my hours here at the garage, I’d never thought it could be more than a hobby. The idea that I could make money doing something I actually liked sparked excitement inside me.
Working on the Mustang had gotten me thinking about taking some auto classes, and now I wondered if that might not be a bad idea. I hadn’t applied for college because I wasn’t sure at first if I would even graduate from high school this year. Maybe it wasn’t too late to sign up for a few classes at the community college in Portland. If I could go to school part-time and keep a part-time job, I might be able to make it work.
“Can I have a few days to think about it? I’ll have to cut back on my hours at the yard in order to work here, too.”
Paul grinned. “I can already see it on your face that you’re going to do it. I’ll talk to Evan and figure out the details.”
A red Jeep pulled in behind my car, and two blonde girls got out. Faith Perry had been in my senior class, and I’d never liked her, mainly because she’d always been a bitch to Sara. Sara had never let Faith bully her, but that didn’t soften my feelings for the other girl.
Faith’s cousin Angela was a different story. Tall and curvy with legs a mile long, Angela was a year older than us and a freshman at USM. We’d never hung out, but I’d seen her at plenty of parties in town before she started college. She’d had a boyfriend the last few years, which put her off-limits. Didn’t mean a guy couldn’t look, though.
Paul straightened away from the building. “Great timing, Angela. I just finished your oil change.”
“Wonderful.” She beamed at him and looked in my direction. “Roland Greene, I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“I recognized you right away.”
She walked over to me, boldly eyeing me from head to toe. “You’ve been working out a lot since the last time I saw you. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.”
Faith made a small huffing sound, which her cousin and I ignored. Male werewolves usually filled out when we hit maturity, and I had been working out hard since I got home in January. Between Maxwell’s training and working at the lumberyard, I knew I’d built up some extra muscle. But my male ego still liked being stroked by a beautiful girl.
I smiled to let her know I liked what I saw, too. “Looking pretty good, yourself. I bet Aaron spends all his time chasing away the other guys on campus.”
She made a face. “Aaron and I broke up in March.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“I’m not.” She toyed with her hair, which was pulled back in a ponytail.
“So, you home for the summer?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She gave me a meaningful smile. “I thought it was going to be dull, but now I think I might have been wrong.”
I leaned against the door of the Mustang. “Lots of fun to be had in New Hastings if you know where to look.”
Her lashes lowered. “Is that an offer to show me where the fun is?”
“Yeah.” Hell, yeah. As if I’d turn down a chance to go out with her. Half the guys in town, myself included, had lusted after Angela until she graduated. She was hot and she knew it, but she’d never been uppity like Faith and some of the other girls.
She smiled suggestively. “How about tonight?”
Damn, she didn’t waste any time. There was nothing I’d like better than to go out with her tonight, but Brendan had ordered me to his place this evening. Probably Beta business. And tomorrow night I was on patrol.
“Can’t tonight. How about Wednesday?”
“Wednesday is perfect.” She pulled out her phone. “What’s your number? I’ll send you mine so you can call me.”
I gave her my number, and she texted me to give me hers. Then she went to pay Paul and get her yellow Volkswagen Beetle.
“See you Wednesday,” she called as she drove away, followed by Faith in the Jeep.
“I guess your dry spell is over,” Paul joked when he came out of the garage. “I think she’s gotten even hotter since she went to college.”
I grinned at him, feeling pretty happy with myself. “You noticed that too, huh?”
“Hard not to. Too bad she’s human. Wouldn’t mind imprinting on her.”
Paul was twenty-five and still single. Lucky bastard. Most males imprinted before that age because their wolves were driven to mate. Paul wanted a mate, but he hadn’t found the right one yet. Unlike me, he was looking forward to the gathering.
“Her being human is exactly what makes her so attractive,” I said, earning a knowing laugh from my cousin. My feelings on the subject of mating weren’t exactly a secret.
I knew it would happen eventually, but the last thing I wanted now was a mate. I’d just finished high school, and I wanted to have some freedom for a few years. It was the reason I only dated human girls and I avoided unmated female wolves like the plague. Thank God wolves didn’t imprint on humans or I’d be a bloody monk.
I got into the Mustang. “I’ll let you know about the Chevelle job. I want to do it, but you know how Maxwell has been riding my ass about responsibility since I came home. I’ll need to talk to him about cutting back my hours at the yard.”
As much as I wanted to work on the car, I needed a job, too. The Chevelle job would give me a nice little profit, but it couldn’t replace a full-time income. I needed the lumberyard job until I could get a job that paid enough to live off. My mother had been saving for years for my college fund, so at least I didn’t need to worry about tuition and books if I did go to college. And I’d be staying here instead of Portland, so that would save on rent. I’d have to ask for one of the new houses since Sara’s apartment was out of the question with Emma there.
I thought about Sara’s cousin, who had occupied my mind more than once this weekend. Why had Sara never told me she had a cousin or that Emma was coming to stay at the apartment? Why had Emma not wanted anyone to know she was there? And what kind of nightmares made her scream like that?
Emma had been terrified of us, and even after she knew who we were, she’d clearly been afraid. No one had ever been afraid of me before, at least no human, and it bothered me. It was instinct for me to want to protect a human, especially Sara’s family, and I’d been reluctant to leave Emma alone at the apartment Friday night. Hopefully, she was okay now that she’d had a few days to get used to the place.
I had to be at Brendan’s by six-thirty, so I went there directly. The driveway close to the house was full of cars when I got there, and I recognized Pete’s white Escort. I parked and got out, walking to the backyard where a bunch of men stood around talking. Pete, Francis, Kyle, and Shawn were there, along with Cody Mays, Tim Church, and Richard and Mark Bender. Except for Pete and me, everyone was in their twenties.
Francis scoffed when I walked up to them. His attitude annoyed me as usual, but I didn’t totally disagree with him in this case. I didn’t know why Maxwell wanted Pete and me in the Beta selection when there were only so many slots and a lot more experienced members who wanted them. The only reason I could think of was it was another one of his lessons in responsibility. Not that I hadn’t had enough of those to last me a lifetime. I hoped this one wasn’t as humiliating as some of them had been. One thing about Maxwell, when he made a point, you never forgot it.
The back door of the farmhouse opened, and Brendan emerged. He was two years younger than Maxwell, but they had the same reddish-brown hair and similar facial features. They were the same height, but Brendan was stockier. Brendan was also the least severe of the two.
He stopped in front of us, and everyone turned to face him. His gaze swept over us, meeting each of ours, before he spoke.
“Max and I will be observing you and the other candidates who’ll be here for the gathering. And don’t be surprised if one of us pulls you aside to talk. Stay on your toes because you won’t know when we’ll be watching.”
Francis smiled as if to say, “Bring it on.” I had no doubt he was already planning the changes he would make when he became a Beta. The Alpha had final say in all major decisions that affected the pack, but the Betas would make suggestions to him. I was sure my cousin had lots of ideas for how things should be done.
“Shift,” Brendan barked.
No one questioned him, and we all began to strip off our clothes where we stood. Nudity was nothing to us. Werewolves had to disrobe around each other all the time unless we wanted to shift and destroy our clothes.
I let my wolf out the moment my last piece of clothing hit the ground. A surge of joy filled my chest as my body grew and reformed. When I was younger, the change was painful because my wolf was slower to emerge. Now, he came out so fast I barely felt a twinge.
Shawn’s brown wolf circled me. Damn, Roland, what the hell have you been eating? When did you get so bloody big?
I looked down at my chest, but it didn’t seem bigger to me. I’d always been larger than my friends; my mother said I got it from the males on both sides of my family.
Pete’s eyes met mine, and he gave me a wolfish grin. Guess all those drills paid off.
A growl drew our attention to Brendan who had also shifted. He and Maxwell were the biggest wolves in the pack, and their size and power had always made me feel small in comparison. Even as an adult, I was in awe of them.
According to my mother, both of her brothers were strong enough to be Alpha, but when the time came, Brendan had said Maxwell was the true leader. I’d asked her how he knew that, and she said Maxwell’s Alpha blood was too strong to follow another wolf, even his brother, and he had all the traits that gave an Alpha power to lead a pack. I felt that power when I was around Maxwell, and it made me respect him and submit to him as my leader, even when I didn’t agree with him. It was a power that could be abused in the wrong hands, another reason we were lucky to have Maxwell as our Alpha.
Betas also had power, although nowhere as strong as the Alpha’s. I didn’t know if a Beta got his power once he was made a Beta, or if it was the power that made him a Beta. That stuff was never explained to us. I wondered if I would find out at the end of all of this.
Brendan didn’t speak. He walked up to Cody and locked his gaze with the other wolf’s. Cody shifted uncomfortably, and I felt a knot of unease in my stomach. Staring another wolf down was an act of dominance, and not something adult wolves did lightly. Younger wolves did it all the time for fun, and it didn’t mean anything. But it took on a whole new meaning when you reached maturity, especially when it was the Alpha or Beta staring you down.
After ten seconds, Cody lowered his head and tilted it to the side, baring his throat. Without a word, Brendan moved to Mark and began to stare him down. At first, I’d thought Brendan might have some beef with Cody. Now I realized he was going to do this with all of us, and the knot in my stomach grew. What was Brendan trying to prove? We all knew he was the dominant male here.
Mark lasted a few seconds longer, probably not wanting to be the fastest one to give in. I didn’t blame him, even though I had a suspicion Pete or I would have that distinction, being the youngest.
Pete was next. His head dropped after five seconds, which wasn’t bad when you considered he was staring down a Beta wolf more than twice his age. I’d be glad to last that long.
After Pete was Francis, who managed to keep eye contact for at least twenty seconds. Damn, even I had to admit that was impressive. I watched him shudder and take a step back when he finally lowered his head. If Maxwell and Brendan were looking for aggression in a Beta, then Francis was definitely their man.
And then it was my turn. I steeled myself, but there was no way to prepare for a contest of wills with a wolf as strong as Brendan. Lifting my eyes to his, I was shocked to see we were at the same height, and unlike the others, my gaze was even with Brendan’s. I quickly discovered my height gave me no advantage. As soon as my gaze locked with his, I felt the weight of his power pressing down on me, making my legs shake and filling me with the urge to lie down.
My knees bent, and I knew I wasn’t going to last long. I told myself there was no shame in submitting to a wolf who could have been Alpha if he’d wanted it bad enough. But my wolf stubbornly fought for dominance until I was a quivering mass of fur and my eyes felt like they were burning from the heat in Brendan’s yellow stare.
I dropped my head, struggling to stay on my feet. I might not have lasted as long as the others, but I’d be damned if I would lie down like a whipped dog. I did have my pride.
I opened my eyes and saw Brendan’s legs moving away from me to the next wolf. My breath came in heavy pants, and I couldn’t raise my head for a long moment. Man, how the hell had Francis managed to hold out so long? I felt like I’d just gone through one of Maxwell’s training sessions.
When I finally looked up, I found Pete and the others staring at me. My body stiffened in annoyance, and I felt my hackles rise a little. Okay, so I’d folded like a bad poker hand. Did they have to make it worse by reminding me of it? It wasn’t like some of them had lasted much longer.
Brendan’s voice filled my head. That will be all for today. You can go.
I turned away from the others’ stares to look at him. That was it? We’d come here just to be shown we couldn’t stand up to him in a staring contest. I could have told him that and saved myself the embarrassment.
I shifted and dressed, wanting to be anywhere else but here. Without looking at the others, I started around the house to the driveway. Why the hell had Maxwell made me sign up for this? I didn’t want it, and I obviously wasn’t good enough for it. Brendan’s little demonstration had proven that quickly enough. Maybe it was their way of narrowing down the candidates, and they’d tell me tomorrow I was out of the selection.
“How did you do that?”
I spun to see Pete following me to my car. “Do what?” I growled, still angry at myself.
He held up his hands. “Whoa. Chill.”
I shook off the anger. None of this was Pete’s fault. “Sorry.”
He stared at me for a moment as if he was making sure it was safe to talk to me. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “You want to go for pizza with me? I missed dinner.”
“Yeah, sure, but first I want to know how you did that…without you snapping my head off.”
“How I did what?”
His eyes widened. “How the hell did you last that long?”
I scowled at him. I expected taunts from Francis but not my best friend. “Go ahead and have your laugh with the other guys. And then you can pay for my pizza.”
“What are you talking about?” He frowned, looking confused. “No one is laughing at what you did; trust me.”
“Jesus, was I that bad?” I must have looked pretty pathetic if even Francis was taking pity on me.
“Bad? Roland, you almost stared down Brendan.”
“What?” I could not have heard him right. “I didn’t even last as long as you.”
Pete snorted. “Funny guy. You lasted longer than anyone, almost forty seconds.”
My mouth dropped. “No way! You’re messing with me.”
He shook his head. “I wouldn’t joke about something like that. Brendan looked like he was going to drop right before you did.”
I stared at him, but he didn’t blink. Pete was the worst liar I’d ever met, and I could tell he was being completely honest now.
Movement behind him drew my eyes to the group of men standing at the top of the driveway, watching us with expressions ranging from curiosity to anger. I wasn’t surprised to see Francis’s lips curled in resentment. Some of the others didn’t look happy either, but it wasn’t as if I’d done that deliberately. I didn’t even want to be a damn Beta.
“You in for pizza or what?” I asked more harshly than I’d meant to.
“Yeah. I’ll drop my car at home and you can drive,” Pete said, his voice still holding a little note of wonder.
I opened my car door, wanting to get the hell away from here and all the stares. “I’ll see you there.”
“How are you doing? Hanging in there?” Brenda asked when she came to the counter to ring up a table.
I removed the plates from the last two customers. “So far, so good.”
“She’s doing great,” said Mrs. Foley, the owner and manager of Gail’s Diner.
I smiled, even though I felt she was a little overgenerous with her praise. I’d worked the counter with her for lunch, and it wasn’t hard to pour coffee and soda or transfer plates from the window to the counter. When she’d asked me after my interview on Monday if I could start on Wednesday, I’d been so surprised I almost said no. But she and Brenda had been so nice I couldn’t refuse. So, I had my first part-time job as a waitress.
“Thanks, Mrs. Foley.” I looked at the dining room, which was nearly empty of the lunch crowd. “What should I do now?”
“It’s Gail,” she admonished kindly. “Steve could probably use some help getting things ready for the dinner rush. Can you cut up vegetables?”
“I think I can manage that.” As long as it didn’t involve actual cooking, I should be okay.
I went to the kitchen where Steve, the cook, handed me an apron and a hairnet, and put me to work chopping an assortment of vegetables. He didn’t talk much, but I didn’t mind. It was kind of nice to be off by myself working after the busy lunch hour.
I was almost done with the vegetables when someone opened the back door and entered the kitchen. I looked over my shoulder at the dark-haired boy who’d been here when I came for lunch on Saturday.
He walked over to me. “Hi, I heard you were starting today.”
“Hi. I’m Emma.” I waved at the work laid out before me on the metal table. “Sorry, I can’t shake your hand.”
He smiled. “No problem. I’m Scott, by the way.”
“You’re also late,” rumbled Steve from over by the stove where he was stirring something in a pot.
“Sorry,” Scott called to him. “Dad’s car broke down, and he took mine. You know how he is when he’s late for a meeting.”
“Tell that to your mother,” Steve replied.
I must have looked confused because Scott made a face. “My mother owns this place. I’m working here for the summer until I go to college in the fall.”
“Oh. Are you going to school in Portland?”
“Columbia, actually, to study law. That’s where my dad went to law school, too.” He grabbed a large apron and a pair of rubber gloves, and went to the two large sinks that were piled with pots and pans. He grimaced before he started filling one of the sinks with hot, soapy water.
“So what brings you to New Hastings?” he called over the running water. “Your family move here, or are you just here for the summer?”
I chewed my lip, not sure what to tell him. I still wasn’t comfortable talking about myself to strangers, but it would seem weird if I didn’t answer. I gave him the condensed version.
“I just moved here. I’m enrolling in school in August.”
“I just graduated from there. You a senior?”
“Ah, too bad. We just missed each other.” He started scrubbing a pot. “It’s a nice school. You’ll like it there.”
I finished cutting the vegetables and carried them over to Steve’s worktable. Then I went to help Scott with the dishwashing since there seemed to be nothing else for me to do that didn’t involve cooking.
“You’re a lifesaver,” he whispered as he handed me a baking sheet to dry.
“No problem,” I whispered back.
We worked side by side for an hour until all the dishes were done. Scott spent the time telling me about New Hastings and trying to find out more about me. I evaded most of his questions, and he didn’t push.
He was excited about Columbia, so we talked about that for a while. His best friend Ryan was going to NYU, and the two of them were sharing a little apartment with Scott’s cousin. Ryan was already there, working an internship in his uncle’s ad agency for the summer. Scott couldn’t wait to join him.
I’d spent a few years in New York, but they weren’t happy ones. It wasn’t long after Eli changed me, so he’d kept me pretty close. We’d lived in a nice place in Manhattan, but I didn’t exactly get to go out and explore. The only people I saw were other vampires and the humans Eli brought back.
I closed my eyes to block out the memories of the things I’d seen and done in that apartment, things that nightmares were made of.
“Hey, you okay?”
Scott’s worried voice pulled me from the ugly place my mind had gone to. I gave him a reassuring smile and went back to drying.
“Just a slight headache. I’m fine.”
“You sure? Mom will let you go home if you’re not feeling well. She’s cool like that.”
“No, I’m good, really.” The last thing I wanted was to go home sick on my first day of work. “Tell me more about St. Patrick’s.”
We talked until Gail came to tell me the dinner hour would be starting in ten minutes. She looked around the kitchen and nodded approvingly. “Impressive, Emma. You even got my son to finish the dishes on time.”
Scott smiled at his mother. “I think she’s a keeper.”
Flustered by their warm praise, I turned away to remove the apron and hairnet. When I moved to follow Gail to the front of the restaurant, Scott called me back.
“Hey, Emma, since you’re new in town, why don’t I show you around when we both have a day off?”
“I…” I floundered, not knowing how to respond. He was a great guy, but I was so not ready to date.
“As friends,” he added when I didn’t answer right away.
“Okay.” I could handle just hanging out. “That would be nice. Thanks.”
The rest of the day flew by. Gail and Brenda told me dinner was their busiest time, and they weren’t kidding. I only worked the counter, but I didn’t seem to stop moving for the next two hours.
At seven o’clock, Gail handed me twenty-five dollars from the tip box. “You did well for your first day, and the customers like you.”
“Thanks.” I took the money and stuck it in my messenger bag, which I’d tucked under the counter. I lifted the strap of the bag over my head. “When do you want me to come in again?”
“You can come back tomorrow at the same time. I’ll get you on the schedule in a few days.”
“Okay.” I picked up a takeout bag containing my dinner. I was already tired of eating sandwiches and pizza, and my cooking skills left a lot to be desired.
“Looks like rain,” called Scott, who was taking garbage out the back door. “You have a ride?”
“No, but I don’t have a long walk.” I turned to the main door. “See you tomorrow.”
The air outside was cool and fresh after standing next to the kitchen surrounded by the smells of food all day. Not that working in the restaurant was unpleasant. The people I worked with were patient, and the customers were friendly. My body felt a little tired from being on my feet all day, but it was a good kind of tired.
A blue car passed me and slowed to a stop a few yards ahead of me. Alarm made my fingers clench the handle of the plastic bag, and it took me a moment to recognize the Mustang Sara’s friends had been driving the night they came to the apartment. I let out a breath and kept walking.
“Emma,” called a voice from inside the car.
I slowed and looked over to see Roland sitting behind the wheel of the Mustang with a pretty blonde girl in the passenger seat. Her window was down, and Roland was waving me over.
I stayed where I was. “Hi.”
“Hey, you need a lift home?”
I gave him a polite smile. “No, thanks. I like to walk.”
His brows drew together. “You sure? It’s going to rain any minute.”
I glanced up at the heavy clouds that looked ready to burst open. The idea of getting drenched didn’t appeal to me, but neither did being in an enclosed space with a werewolf, no matter how nice he seemed.
“I’m good. Thanks for stopping.”
He didn’t leave, and his girlfriend was starting to look annoyed. I waved at them and continued on my way. The car passed me a moment later and turned right at the next intersection.
I let out the breath I was holding. Sara believed her friends wouldn’t care that I used to be a vampire. But her heart was so big she sometimes forgot not everyone was as kind and forgiving as she was. I didn’t want to take the chance of proving her wrong.
I almost made it to the waterfront before the first raindrops hit me. A few seconds later, the sky opened up and dumped its contents on my head. I ran for home, but within a minute, my waitress uniform was drenched and my shoes were sloshing through large puddles. I knew I must have looked like a drowned rat when I scurried past the people sitting in the coffee shop.
Even though I couldn’t possibly get any wetter, I raced up the stairs to the apartment and let myself in. Standing in the hallway with water running off me to pool on the floor, I felt a sudden urge to laugh. There was a long mirror near the door, and I stepped in front of it to survey the damage. Half my hair had come loose from my ponytail and was stuck to my cheeks. My light blue uniform was so wet I could see my bra through it, and the hem was splattered with dirt. I shook my head at the image in the mirror. Definitely not my best look.
The laughter that had threatened a minute ago spilled from my lips. I felt strangely buoyant as I stripped off my wet clothes and carried them to the laundry room. I toweled my hair dry, changed into clean clothes, and went to reheat my food in the microwave.
Sitting at the small table, eating my dinner and watching rain run down the kitchen window, I had a glimpse of the normalcy I’d come here looking for. This was what regular people did. They came home from work, did laundry, and ate their dinner. Some people might call that boring, but after the things I’d seen and done, it was bliss.
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