Prologue

Danzig, 1588

 

Snow was falling outside the window of Lily’s bedchamber, making the world appear shadowy and white. It had arrived early this year, though she wondered if it came as an omen to what was to happen on the morrow. She was no different from her sisters or any other young woman of her class. That she felt like a woman drowning in the waters of the swiftly flowing river just beyond the forest trees was of no matter. It was to be done, and her heart was of no concern.

The young lord her father had chosen for her was as brutish as he was ugly. At least her sister, Sophia, had been blessed by God with a kind and handsome man who truly seemed to love her. How Lily longed for a match of the heart.

It could not be, for any nobleman her father chose her would fail to capture her heart. She would never find love, and she would always be an empty vessel. It was the way for those like her. It was not spoken of her kind and would not ever pass her lips. Only in her thoughts could she find solace. Only in her dreams would the touch she longed for come to her.

Soft hands, tender lips, and rounded flesh. Just the thought made her heart race. Fulfillment of that desire was not to be. Not for her. It was to be a hard hand and muscled flesh that took what she had guarded so carefully. Mother had sternly instructed her in the duties expected of a wife, and she knew of what awaited once her hand was joined with that of her husband. What details Mother thought too delicate to voice were shared by her sisters. They did not fill her head with pretty words and matrimonial joy. They used words of truth and brutal honesty. They tried to ready her and, in doing so, to protect her. She shivered at the thought of what she would be forced to endure and reminded herself to do as she must. Her family would not be shamed. Not by her.

Aldrich Adelmene was coarse and dreadful, but he was of noble blood and his family one of great wealth and standing. He was as powerful and well respected as he was crude and repulsive. All applauded the match between the great beauty and the great warrior. She would want for nothing, except for the love of the one she really desired.

As if bidden by the mere thought of her, Alexia floated into her room, followed by Taria. The very sight of Alexia made her breath catch in her throat. In her best gown of dark blue festooned with a string of pearls at her neck, Alexia was the most beautiful woman Lily had ever seen. It took effort not to rush forward and pull her into her arms. To kiss her as though her life was in peril, which, indeed, it felt as though it was.

It would not do to act upon her desire. Alexia had no idea how Lily felt about her, and she would keep her secret until her dying day. It was not proper, not in their world, and Alexia herself was bound to a nobleman by the contract made between her father and yet another groom’s family. It was simply the way of the society into which they were born. Within a month of her own wedding, Alexia too would be the wife of a soon-to-be king and far away from the mountains and the forests of the lands where they had grown to the bloom of womanhood. When that day arrived, she would be helpless to stop the storm of tears that would befall her. Her heart was breaking a little more with each passing day.

Taria, unlike Alexia, was plain and almost man-like in her movements. She was as unexceptional as Alexia was exceptional. Despite their physical differences, they were all as close as if they were blood sisters. The three of them had grown up together, their families living within a horse-ride of each other. While Lily and Alexia were soon to be married, Taria’s hand in marriage had not yet been sworn. Perhaps it was that she was so plain and so often failed to act like the lady she was raised to be. Lily had lost count of the times she had witnessed her dear friend acting contrary. Growing up, Taria could be found in sword-play with her brothers more often than in the manor house learning the ways of a lady. Her unbecoming behavior did not appear to alarm her family. Rather, they smiled and encouraged her willful ways. Lily often envied her powerful will. She just was not strong enough to defy her father and mother. She did as she was told. Always.

She turned and tried to give her friends the brightest smile she could summon forth. It was very hard for she did not feel gay or happy. What she most dearly wanted to do was to run away and be lost in the forest beyond. There she could dream of the freedom that would be denied to her.

Alexia came into the room, her gown sweeping, and gave Lily a kiss on the cheek. “You look so pale, my dearest. You must have some color when you join with your husband. He must witness the full glory of your beauty in order that he understand how he must cherish you.”

Taria shook her head as she stomped in behind Alexia. Her gown was simple and dark, with very little adornment. Likewise, her hair was in a single braid and hanging down her back. Lily would have needed to run like the wind from her own home in order to be able to present herself looking so, for her father and mother would not have allowed her to be out in such disarray. Once more she envied Taria’s freedom to be the woman she wished to be. How she would love to shed this heavy ornate gown and to pull every pin from the hair piled on top of her head. She would give anything to toss aside the heavy necklace at her throat, a wedding gift from Aldrich, and run with abandon.

Taria snorted. “She looks very well, Alexia, and why does she have to be primped for this man? What difference will it make if we put another pearl in her hair or add another gold chain around her neck? Her father has already sold her to the swine. The bargain has been sealed.”

“Taria!” Alexia put her hand on her hips and stared at her in disapproval. “You must not speak of her father in that way. Someone might hear you. Must you always be so contrary?”

Lily sat on the edge of her bed and sighed. Her head felt heavy from the burden of her braided and jeweled hair. “Let her be, Alexia. It matters not, and if we are to speak true, she is correct. I have been sold to the highest bidder.” She shivered at the thought of what awaited her on the morrow, and tears pooled in her eyes.

“See,” Taria huffed. “I speak true. You, Alexia, my fine, pretty lady, are the one who does not. You live in the fairy tales our nursemaids told us when we were but babes. I do not live in that world of dreams and make-believe. I am here with my friend in the world of what truly is.”

“Stop.” Lily put her hands to her ears and tried not to let her tears spill. It was a difficult time, and she did not wish for it to become even more difficult. She longed only to spend a few hours with her lifelong friends before leaving her home forever. To walk out of the doors of her childhood home remembering how it was when they were young and carefree.

Taria and Alexia looked at each other. Taria spoke first as she kneeled before Lily and put her hands on her face. “My apologies, dearest Lily. I did not mean to cause you pain. My heart is hurting at the thought of you leaving with that oaf…that man…and my sorrow falls to you and Alexia. It is not proper and I beg your forgiveness. I only long for tomorrow to never come and for the three of us to be together forever just as we always have been.”

Alexia looked sad, tears forming in her beautiful eyes. “It is true. Our lives will change when the sun rises again, and we will never be the same. We always knew the day would come, and now it has.”

Lily sighed and for a moment closed her eyes. She did not want to give in to sobs, for it would be of no help. Slowly she opened her eyes and stared at her friends, their faces so beloved. “Indeed it has, my sisters of the heart.” How she wished she could sit here forever with the fire blazing and her two finest friends at her side.

“I have something for both of you,” Alexia said, a light returning to her eyes. “Hold out your hands.”

Lily and Taria both did as Alexia instructed. They always did as she told them. Though they were of the same age, it always seemed as though Alexia were the eldest. Their hands held out with palms up, Alexia pulled a small velvet pouch from her beaded bag. From it she produced three necklaces made of finely crafted gold links and sparkling rubies. She put one in each of their palms and continued to hold the third one in her hand.

“Our fathers and mothers may not be the same, but we are blood sisters just as though we shared blood,” she told them. “These rubies will forever seal our pact as sisters. We may be taken away to far-off lands to live with men we do not love, but we will have these rubies to remind us that we will always be in each other’s hearts.”

Lily’s tears could no longer be held back. She put her arms around her two dearest friends and held on tight. They both returned the embrace, and Taria, tough, boy-like Taria, kissed away her tears.

When it was time for them to leave, Lily kissed Taria on the cheek. Her embrace of Alexia went on a breath too long, and she knew it. If Alexia looked at her questioningly when she released her and stepped back, she paid it no mind. Her heart was breaking when the one she wished to spend her life with walked out of her chambers for the very last time.

Later that evening, Lily stood alone at the window of her bedchamber staring out into the night. A full moon rose high, and its bright golden light spilled over the beautiful snow-covered land. She wondered how a place so lovely could feel so much like the donjon of Rheinfels Castle. In the distance, the howl of a wolf cut through the night air. At least the wolf could run with abandon. She envied him.

Her room felt stifling and so she opened the window, though she knew her mother would disapprove. It allowed far too much cold air into her chambers, and Mother did not want her beautiful daughter to fall ill. At least not until after the wedding. After she and Aldrich became man and wife, her mother would be free to turn her full attention to Lily’s brothers. They were the true children of her mother’s heart. She was, and always had been, a burden to the cold woman who gave birth to her.

Resting her palms against the stone windowsill, she leaned out and breathed in the cold, fresh air. It smelled wonderful, and she closed her eyes to let it all wash over her. It brought her a moment of peace, and for that she was grateful. She heard the movement only a moment before she felt teeth against the fine skin of her neck. Roughly she was yanked from the window, and before she knew what was happening to her, she was tumbling through the air, falling down as the ground rushed up. She hit with a painful thump, the snow icy against her back and soaking through the thin cotton of her nightgown. She wanted to jump up and run, but she could not. Her arms and legs did not seem to want to obey her. The wolf that stood over her still body stared at her with eyes that somehow seemed familiar to Lily, though she could not imagine how that could be. As her vision began to fade to black, she wondered why her neck felt so warm and wet.


Chapter One

Colville, Washington, present day

 

Lily stood alongside the highway with her cell phone pressed to her ear. An amazing amount of traffic passed by, and considering where she was, she found it interesting. The breeze stirred up by the highway traffic whipped her hair around her face. She used one hand to hold it back. “You’re sure this is where the problem is?” It really was hard to believe there was a preternatural issue clear out here that required her area of expertise. Of course, just as the volume of traffic coming this far out of the way surprised her, the preternatural activity did too.

On the other end of the call, her handler, Senn Heiserman, was halfway across the world sitting in his nice warm office and his nice comfortable chair. Undoubtedly he was scanning the graphs and reports his supercomputer generated on a daily basis. “Yes, our reports have been verified. You need to connect with the sheriff. What’s her name?” She could hear the click of the keys on his keyboard. Just as she suspected, he was one with his computer. Some things were very consistent. “Oh yes, here it is, Jayne Quarles.”

The name didn’t mean anything to her. “Is she a friendly?” The long trip out here had made her weary, and she wasn’t up to explanations or political correctness. Frankly, she didn’t think she was up to this trip at all. Lately she’d been grumpy and discontented. Not shocking, considering how many years she’d been playing this game. It was way past time for a vacation. A really long vacation. She was going to have a heart-to-heart with Senn as soon as she was done here, and she was going to take, as they liked to say these days, some “me” time.

If Senn had any clue as to her current mood, he didn’t let on. He continued talking without a pause. “I told you before you left, she’s not 210-friendly. It won’t be the first time you’ve had to deal with this, so stop stalling and get to work. I know you’re not thrilled to be there, but the quicker you get on it, the quicker you can get back home.”

Easy for him to say. He hadn’t been out in the field in eons. Quite the opposite for her. She’d been out in the field for years. A lot of years. “Have you seen this place?”

The keys were clicking again. “Can’t say I’ve ever been to Colville. Eastern Washington isn’t a place I’ve visited, so no.”

Hunted is what he really meant. Like her, Senn had traveled to hunt, not to vacation. Holiday was not something hunters like her or Senn ever had the time to enjoy. Except his decision to be the brains of the organization was a lot closer to time off than what she got. “Like you ever leave your little fortress. Give me a break.”

It was true; Senn rarely ever left the sanctuary of his three-hundred-year-old home in Gydnia, Poland, any longer. Granted, it was a beautiful old house on the edge of the Baltic Sea that began its life as a humble little village dwelling in 1789 and eventually evolved into the impressive manor house it was today, but the man needed to get out more than he did. Ever since he’d returned from his last hunt in Quebec he seemed to isolate himself a little more every year. Something had happened there that so far he’d been unwilling to talk about. Whether he realized it or not, she was here for him and would do what she could to heal whatever wound had opened in Canada. He was like a father to her, the only one she’d had in five centuries. She’d always have his back.

That was why if she had to be out here kicking ass, he could haul his butt out once in a while too. Once he would have been right next to her, and she missed those days. Truth was she felt alone these days, or was it lonely?

“I get out.” To her ears, his protest sounded like a pretty weak effort.

The wise thing to do would be to let it go. Then again, when had she ever let anything go? That wasn’t her style. “When was the last time, Senn? When have you packed your bag and hunted? I’m traveling all over the world, and I could use some support of the Senn variety.”

The clicking stopped and she could almost see his hands pause as they hovered over the keyboard. His head would be up, and he’d be staring out the big window that looked over the great expanse of grass outside. His beautiful green eyes would be focused on some faraway spot. After a moment of silence, he said, “We are not talking about me right now, Lily. We need to focus on the mission.”

The expected response made her smile, and though she would like to continue screwing with him, he had a point. She didn’t need to stand here on the side of the highway arguing about his growing agoraphobia. It wasn’t going to change today, and he wasn’t going to meet her here in the Pacific Northwest so they could hunt together. She was on her own, and her jabs weren’t going to make any difference.

Besides, the truth was, there appeared to be a werewolf running amok up here in the mountains of eastern Washington, and she was here to stop it. It was what she did. It was what she’d been doing for almost five hundred years. She was good at hunting anything of preternatural ilk: vampires, gargoyles, witches, warlocks, and werewolves. Especially werewolves.

As the old saying went, takes one to know one.

 

 

Kyle Miller gripped the steering wheel and stared through the fog. This stretch of I-90 was a big pain in the ass, as it were. Though in pea-soup-thick fog it was more than a pain; it was a nightmare. Four hours ago, he’d hit Seattle after driving up from San Luis Obispo. That part of the trip had been awesome. The weather was great, and at the end of the rainbow, Ava had been waiting for him. She’d taken a cross-country flight from New Haven to Seattle, and he’d picked her up at the Seattle / Tacoma airport, known as SeaTac to the locals. Seeing her face as he pulled through the traffic and up to the curb had made his heart pound.

He was always up for a hunt. A hunt with Ava was the best. The powers that be didn’t have to ask him more than once, even though it was about a nineteen-hour drive just to pick her up and then another six hours, give or take, to get where they needed to be. That was okay. He’d have driven across country to New Haven, if need be, just to pick up Ava. Now they were heading from western Washington to the small northeast Washington town of Colville. It would be his first trip here, though not the first time in the area. He had family in Spokane and had been there many times.

This stretch of freeway that went by the rural farming community of Ritzville was flat and, in his opinion, boring even under the best of circumstances. It was no reflection on the area. It could be pretty impressive when the crops were ripe and the wheat fields were swaying in the wind like a massive golden ocean. No, it was more that his tastes ran toward ocean views and warm breezes. He loved the smell of salt water, the sight of sailboats putting out to sea, and the feel of the ocean spray on his face. He felt alive and grounded when his feet were covered in damp sand and the sun was warm on his skin. Up this way, it was flat farmland and four seasons. Nice place to visit but he wouldn’t want to live here.

This afternoon, shrouded in thick fog, the drive across the state was killing him. They’d made it over Snoqualmie Pass in the daylight, and that was good. Gassed up in Ellensburg just to be able to stretch their legs and grab a couple coffees. It was always a stirring sight coming down the final few miles of the Vantage hill and setting eyes on the massive Columbia River. It didn’t fail him today either, except that bit of excitement had been over an hour ago. Now it was just mile after mile of flatlands. The most interesting part was the little signs on the fences describing the type of crop growing in each field. Damn, he was ready to get out of the car, except they still had a couple hours of driving before they hit Colville.

While it was true he might be sick and tired of being cooped up in the car, he wasn’t sick and tired of his present company. He glanced over at Ava and couldn’t keep the smile from his face. She was asleep, her head resting against the folded jacket shoved between the window and the back of the passenger seat. Her flight out of New Haven had been at the inhuman hour of six in the morning, which would have made it three here on the West Coast. Understandably she was exhausted. It didn’t bother him to drive in silence. Time with Ava was good time as far as he was concerned, regardless of whether she was awake or asleep.

A fool he wasn’t, and it hadn’t taken a whole lot of brains cells to figure out he was in love with her. Seriously, though, who wouldn’t fall in love with Ava? She was smart, beautiful, strong, and coolest of all, a witch. If he didn’t know better he might believe she’d used her powers to cast a love spell on him. She didn’t, and his feelings were the good old-fashioned kind that required no assistance whatsoever. As far as he knew, she wasn’t aware of the depth of his feelings, and that was probably just as well, at least for the time being. He wasn’t quite ready to ’fess up to the true nature of them. Not quite yet anyway. It was enough to be Jägers with her and to be sent out on a mission together.

When the Jägers recruited him it was like finding a home at last. Being a necromancer, even in the somewhat enlightened society they now lived in, wasn’t exactly popular. On those rare occasions when people discovered what he could do, ultimately they turned out to be afraid of him or, if he was being honest, more like terrified of him. On some level, they could handle the idea that in their world existed werewolves and vampires, but somebody who could raise the dead creeped them out. More than once he thought about joining the dead he could so easily raise. Being different was okay. Being his kind of different was, at times, a burden.

At least until he met the Jägers. Four years two hundred and thirty-seven days ago, and not once since had he considered bailing on his odd life. For the first time in his thirty-one years he felt useful and, more important, necessary. As he struggled to come to grips with being the guy who reached across the barrier separating the living from the dead, it never occurred to him that there would actually be a place for him in either world. Yet here he was, trained, tough, and, dare he say it, cool. He was a preternatural ninja hunter straight out of an awesome graphic novel. It didn’t get much cooler than that.

He held on to that thought as he worked to stay nonchalant during their drive toward the meeting in Colville. It was hard to do, being this close to Ava. He’d met her on his first field mission and was a goner right then and there. He didn’t even know witches were real until he met her. Then again, most people didn’t realize necromancers really existed either, so he figured that made them about even. She was more than just a witch, though; she was a hereditary witch. At first he didn’t even know what that meant or why it was important. He might have been born a necromancer but he was like most people, oblivious to the reality of the other preternatural beings that walked through the world blending in with the majority who were plain old human. He learned that, like him, Ava was born to what she was. It made her one of the strong and powerful ones. It made her extraordinary. She was an awesome partner when it came to fighting the creatures of the night that didn’t want to share the world with humans but rather rule the universe and destroy the humans. It was their job to stop them and to keep the peaceful balance between preternatural and human.

That’s what it appeared they were up against now, something that was trying to upset the balance. He was excited that once again he was paired with Ava. The minute he got the call and found out who he was to pick up at SeaTac, he was off and racing north like he was running from the law.

The excitement he felt wasn’t solely because he was being paired with Ava. It was to be his first werewolf hunt and his first hunt with the legendary Lily Avergne. Everyone in the Jägers knew about Lily, the sixteenth-century Prussian noblewoman attacked by a werewolf on the eve of her spectacular wedding. She was seventeen years old on the night she was attacked, and word had it that in the almost five centuries since, she still didn’t look much older than thirty. Man, he wished he had some of that juju. Or not. It was weird enough to be a guy who could raise the dead. Being a five-hundred-year-old werewolf just might be even weirder. Just the same, he wouldn’t mind staying young and buff for a couple of centuries.

“Where are we?” a sleepy Ava asked. She sat up and ran both hands through her hair. It was a long, tangled auburn mess and absolutely gorgeous. He had the urge to reach over and run his hands through it as well. He kept them firmly on the steering wheel.

“We just passed Sprague Lake.” A few miles east of Ritzville, Sprague Lake popped up seemingly out of nowhere, the long body of water with the unique housing-free shorelines. Every time he drove past the lake he wondered why it was still as nature made it, and someday he was going to take the time to find out. Not this day, however. He was pressing on. The lake was a sign they weren’t too far away from Spokane.

She squinted, cupped her hands around her eyes, and stared out the side window. “How can you tell? The fog is so thick I can’t see much of anything.”

It was true that the fog wasn’t giving up its hold. All around them stretched a blanket of misty white. He recognized the stretch of road even if the lake was hard to make out in the shroud created by the fog. After his time in the Jägers, he looked at everything a little differently and wondered as he continued driving down the freeway if this was fog or something more sinister. He was hoping for the former.

“It’s over to your right,” he told her.

“If you say so.” She dropped her hands and leaned her head against the headrest. “I still can’t make out much in this soup.”

As he passed the rest stop at the top of the hill outside the small town of Sprague, it meant they were less than an hour from Spokane and, he hoped, less than an hour from clear skies. It was going to get dark before they made it to Colville, and he’d prefer to drive that stretch in as much daylight as possible. Without the fog wouldn’t be unwelcome either.

Silence fell again, and as he focused on the freeway stretching out ahead of him in the fog, he thought about what awaited them up north. He glanced over at Ava and asked, “Have you ever worked with her before?” Being one of the newer Jägers recruits, Ava had him by a couple of years so there was a chance she’d been on a team with her. Despite his preoccupation with Ava, the closer they came to their destination, the more curious he got about the renowned Lily. If even a fraction of what he’d heard about her was true, he was in for the hunt of his life, and he couldn’t wait.

Ava glanced over at him and smiled. “Yes, once. We tracked down a wereleopard in West Africa. It was my first experience with a wereleopard and my first time meeting Lily. You’ll like her, Kyle. She’s pretty intense and pretty amazing. I learned a lot from her during that trip.”

It was just as he suspected. They weren’t like other people, not a single one of them. If they were, the Jägers wouldn’t need them and surely wouldn’t scour the globe recruiting them for their unique talents. Not only did they all possess something that set them apart from the rest of the world, but also they saw things that defied rational explanation. Without already possessing their very special traits, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the beings they searched for. Someone who had been at this as long as Lily had to be incredible to watch. He was pretty excited to get a shot at working with and learning from the best. “That’s what I thought. Pretty good-looking too, or that’s what I hear.” Now why on earth would he say that? Jesus. Nothing like sounding like a male chauvinist.

Ava was shaking her head, a small smile on her face. “She is beautiful, no question there. Don’t get any ideas. From what I hear, you’re not her type.”

He could feel the rush of blood to his cheeks and hoped she didn’t notice. His coolness factor would be trashed if she caught him blushing. “That’s not what I meant.”

If Ava knew what was in his heart, she’d realize how true that statement was. He was fascinated by everything he’d heard about Lily, but it was Ava that made his blood run hot.

“Of course not.” She put a hand on his arm and gave it a pat. Her hand was warm where it met bare skin, and he hoped she didn’t move it away. Ever.

“No, really.” He turned and flashed her a smile. “I’m not into older women.”

He caught the sparkle in her eyes as her fingers squeezed his arm gently. “I’m going to tell her you said that.”

He and his big mouth. Some day he was going to learn to think before he spoke, or not. Probably not. “Oh, God, no. Please don’t. I don’t want her thinking I’m a jerk the first time she meets me. It usually takes people a couple of meetings before they get there.”

This time Ava laughed so hard it brought tears to her eyes. She let go of his arm and wiped tears from her cheeks. “Anybody ever tell you that you’re easy?”

Lord help him, but even when she was laughing at him, he loved it. “Only you and, by the way, that was mean.”

“Yeah, it was but oh so much fun.” She was still smiling, her green eyes glittering.

His heart felt so much lighter now. “You know I’m pretty handsome. She might just fall for me.” He was into her game now.

“Oh sweetie, you are so naïve. Like I said, you’re not her type.”

“She doesn’t like tall, dark, and handsomely buff.”

“In her friends, sure.”

The tone in her voice finally caught his attention, though it took a beat before he started to catch a clue. Then he felt a little stupid. “Oh,” he said. “I hadn’t heard that.”

Ava put her hand back on his arm. “She’d go for me before you, but I don’t think I’m her type either.”

You’re my type is what he thought. What he said was, “Seriously, though, what’s she like?”

Ava turned her green eyes on him and looked thoughtful. “She’s amazing. She’s tiny, and yet I’ve never met anyone so powerful. She’s strong and quick, and sees everything in a glance. I can only hope that someday I might be even a fraction as good as she is.”

“We won’t have as much time to hone our skills.”

“True, but we can learn a lot from her in the time we do have.”

“In a couple more hours, we’re going to get our chance to start learning.” He really hoped the hunt wasn’t too quick. He wanted to spend as much time with Ava as possible. He did realize, of course, his unspoken wish was a double-edged sword. The longer the hunt went on, the longer the werewolf had to kill. That sort of went against the Jägers code.

He cut a glance over to Ava. He was just going to have to make the most of the trip. Do his job, learn from the rock star Lily, and impress the hell out of Ava. Yeah, that shouldn’t be too difficult.


Chapter Two

Sheriff Jayne Quarles stared down at what was once a human being and shuddered. What in the hell was going on in her town? When she’d come back home and taken over the Colville Sheriff’s Department, she’d been under the apparently mistaken impression that things would be different. Back in the day, life had been pretty quiet around here. That was part of the reason she’d left in the first place and a whole lot of the reason she came back.

Well, that and the fact that being interested in other women didn’t exactly set her up for happily ever after in these parts. Not that people were cruel to her. On the contrary, most were good folks who treated her pretty well. She’d been happy enough growing up around here. Plenty of friends and lots of activities to interest her. No, the real problem had been that the dating pool was awfully small. When she left high school she decided to go away to college and swim in a bigger pond.

Of course it seemed that those best-laid plans always came with a hitch. The University of Washington had been a great fit for her, and she’d found a good career with the U.S. Marshals Service. In short, she’d embraced that bigger pond and for quite a while had a grand time. A broken heart followed by her brother losing his battle with cancer brought her back home. She left the marshals service, sold her condo, and returned to Colville.

So here she was, ten years later, standing here staring down at yet another dead body and wondering why she ever left Seattle. If she’d wanted to investigate homicide after homicide, she could have stayed there. It wasn’t supposed to be like this here.

“Sheriff?” Deputy Sam Azzalino was looking a little green.

She brought her attention back to the body, or what was left of the body. “Yeah.”

“What’s going around here, Sheriff?”

Now that was the million-dollar question, wasn’t it? The people who contacted her yesterday had their theory and based on that were sending in a team of hunters. Though she was aware of the Jägers, she’d never had to work with them and didn’t want to now. They were an open secret in law-enforcement circles, but she’d managed to avoid their actual presence in any of her investigations. Something odd was happening here, and one didn’t have to be a genius to figure that one out. Odd didn’t require the services of an organization that operated on the fringes of the rational world.

She also got that there were things in the world that once upon a time were relegated to folk legends and fairy tales and that were now understood to be reality. It still didn’t mean she needed anyone outside of her own organization. They were smart, capable, and skilled, even if they were from a small, rural area. That didn’t equate to hick cops. She and her department were anything but hicks. She had faith in her own skills and faith in her people.

“I don’t know, Sam, but I’m damned well going to find out.”

“Kinda looks like an animal attack.”

“Perhaps.”

“You know, Sheriff, I’ve lived here all my life, except for when I went to college, and I’ve seen my share of animals that have been attacked by other animals.”

“Your point?”

“I have never seen anything like this. If this was done by an animal, it was rabid or sick or something. Nothing around here kills like that.”

As much as she hated to admit it, she agreed with him. This went beyond a cougar or a bear or any other animal that could potentially attack a human. Or at least the types of animals they were accustomed to dealing with. This was not a native, so all they had to do was figure out what it was and stop it. Did it fall into the category of paranormal? She doubted it. That’s why she believed they could handle this and was growing more and more irritated by the thought of the paranormal hunters on the way to her town.

 

 

Her plan was a good one, yet right at the moment, everything appeared to be in complete disarray. Bellona stared at the inside of the barn and shook her head. What a distressing mess. After all the years of being alone, it was nice to have a family again, yet this family could be trying. She would never create such havoc.

Her own fault really. She’d let her lust overcome good sense. She’d been so enthralled by the beauty, and well, yes, the wealth of her precious Little Wolf that she let herself be blinded to her failings. She was exciting and willing and all the things she hoped for. She was also rash and filled with a bloodlust that was going to get them in trouble if Bellona didn’t get her under control quickly.

Not that she wanted to take all of Little Wolf’s fun away. That wouldn’t be fair. She’d earned the right to hunt. No, the real problem was, she had to tutor her student better. The blame had to fall on her shoulders. She was older, wiser, and far more experienced. All she needed to do was spend more time with her, and she would get it. If she was honest, Bellona would have to admit that when she first came into her true being, she’d been just as rash and enthusiastic as Little Wolf was now. The difference was she had family to guide her and show her the way. Years of practicing what she’d been taught had brought her to where she was today.

Right now, however, she had a mess to clean up. Exposure was dangerous, and so she really had no choice, not if she wanted to stay here, and she did. A movement to the left caught her eye, and Bellona jerked back in surprise. Well, well, well. Now wasn’t this a surprising turn of events? She studied the young man sprawled across the pile of hay, his naked body smeared with blood, his long hair tangled.

“He’s pretty sweet, isn’t he?”

Little Wolf stood in the open barn door staring at the man, her eyes bright and her smile even brighter. She was undeniably proud of her guest. Bellona shook her head, a wry smile on her face, and, with one arm, pulled Little Wolf to her side. She kissed her on the cheek.

“You made a mess, you know.” An understatement if there was one.

Little Wolf’s eyes swept the disarray that covered the open barn floor and shrugged. “I didn’t mean to. It just got away from me. I mean, I’m having so much fun I can’t seem to rein it in. And then I saw him…” A smile spread across her face.

Even in the condition he was in right at the moment, Bellona could see why Little Wolf was drawn to him. She had the urge to go over and breathe in his scent, trace her fingertips across his muscular chest, and run her tongue over his full lips. Men weren’t her first choice, but every now and again, they could be fun. She saw potential in this one. “He is handsome.”

“He’s fucking hot,” Little Wolf said confidently. “I want to keep him. Can I? You told me not to turn anyone, but come on. Just look at him. How could I kill him? It would be a waste.”

Was there anything she would refuse this precious one? Not really. She’d searched a long time to find a place like this and a woman who made her feel again, or as much as anyone could, given that no one would ever measure up to the one she’d loved with all her heart. Together she and Little Wolf could create their own utopia. From the doorway she studied the man and thought about what it would mean to bring him into the fold. It wasn’t a good idea, and yet sometimes the bad ideas turned out to be the most fun. In truth, she believed there was plenty of room for the young and, as Little Wolf described, the fucking hot man.

She allowed a rare smile to turn up the corners of her mouth. “Of course you can keep him.”

Little Wolf kissed her hard, her tongue pushing between her lips and skimming over her tongue. “You won’t be sorry,” she said against her lips.

Bellona leaned back, took Little Wolf’s head in her hands, and said, “I hope not, and now, this mess has to be taken care of.”

Little Wolf smiled broadly and raised one eyebrow. “I’ll clean up hottie.”

Bellona pointed to the shredded body in the middle of the floor. From where she stood, she wasn’t sure if it had once been a man or a woman. “How about that?”

Pulling her close again, Little Wolf kissed her hard. “Can you take care of her, pretty please?”

She wanted to say no and make her do it herself, but as her father had always taught her, if she wanted something done right, do it herself. She sighed, patted Little Wolf on the cheek, and said, “Of course.”


Chapter Three

Lily rolled her head and listened to the cracks in her neck. She would complain about getting old if it were not for the fact she was not just old but rather what some would classify as ancient. A few cracks here and there were not a big deal, given how many years she had been walking the earth. Or more accurately, running from continent to continent. “Okay, Senn. I’ll quit giving you a hard time and get to work.”

“Very well. You can dig into my troubled psyche when you find this werewolf and stop him. Until then, I’m not the problem.”

The werewolf. She hated hunting werewolves for what she considered were obvious reasons. Oh yes, she understood them all too well, which was one of the reasons she was always sent in when one was causing havoc. Understanding them didn’t make it any easier to hunt and destroy them. It was a little like looking in the mirror and pulling the trigger. No matter how many times she did it, she never walked away with a good feeling.

“Deal. Now, about this sheriff…”

“Jayne Quarles.”

“Yes, right, Jayne Quarles. Where do I meet her? At the police station or somewhere more covert? If she is not happy to see me, I do not necessarily want to barge into her office uninvited. I have the sense she’s already pissed off, so I don’t need to rile her up even more.”

Those who were 210-friendly were still in the minority despite how things had evolved across the globe. The term evolved came from the time of the first written records of the Jägers to a day two hundred and ten years later, when they came out of the shadows and experienced the first official acknowledgment of their presence. Times had changed over the last few centuries, and no longer did the Jägers exist as something whispered about but never seen. Slowly over time, they had become a resource when all traditional methods failed. In law-enforcement circles they were relegated to a status similar to that of psychics: cops didn’t really believe and they really didn’t disbelieve. When there was nothing else to try, they called in the Jägers. In this instance, law enforcement had not called them in. They’d called themselves in after reports of the recent deaths made their way to Senn’s office. A discreet inquiry with a 210-friendly town council member and they were on their way. When they were certain a preternatural problem existed, they came on scene to assist whether they were invited or not. The reality was traditional law enforcement wasn’t equipped to deal with the kinds of creatures she hunted.

She and Senn talked for a few more minutes and came to a joint conclusion: covert it was to be. Once they’d confirmed the details of when and where, she put the cell phone in her pocket and stood for a moment longer staring at the town spreading out just down the highway. Despite the fact it was halfway across the world, in many ways it reminded her of home. A light dusting of snow made it look as though powdered sugar had been sprinkled across everything. In the distance, mountains rose, their peaks capped with white. The air was chilly though fresh and clear. It did, indeed, remind her of home.

Lily’s mind flashed back to another time when the air was cool and the mountains were capped in snow. It was to have been the start of a new life for her. The term was to have been wasn’t exactly correct. It most certainly was the start of a new life, just not the one so carefully orchestrated by her father. Everything about her life had changed that night, and nothing had been the same since. She wasn’t the same either. The young, idealistic woman was long gone. In all ways that counted, she had ceased to exist that very night. Who she was these days wasn’t quite clear. What she was did not suffer from the same identity crisis.

Back in the car, she covered the last couple of miles into Colville in less than ten minutes. She didn’t stop in town. Instead, following the directions Senn sent to her phone, she drove past stores, the post office, and the town park until she located Onion Creek Road. A few miles down, she pulled up in the front drive of the large log home and whistled. This, according to Senn, was the home of Sheriff Quarles, who, as she’d suspected, was not in favor of meeting her at the police station.

Lily’s first thought as she sat staring at the massive home was that being sheriff in this northern rural county must pay pretty well. Her second thought was that if all the places around here looked like this, she could easily live here. The rustic appearance of the large log home again gave her that wistful feeling of being home, though in another time and in another land.

Her appreciation of the home and lush landscape was interrupted when a woman came striding out the front door. She was medium height with short, sandy-blond hair that had an intriguing curl to it and crystal-blue eyes that caught the rays of sunshine as she walked toward the edge of the porch that ran the entire length of the house. The tan, long-sleeved sheriff’s uniform with a full belt at her waist fit her well, emphasizing her powerful build and toned body. One long-fingered hand rested on the big black gun in her holster. Her lips were set in a thin line, her eyes narrow as she stared at Lily. Translation: one unhappy woman who was not pleased to see a senior hunter of the Jägers walking up to her porch. Even frowning and unhappy, Sheriff Jayne Quarles was, in Lily’s opinion, kind of hot. Perhaps it was the fitted uniform. She always was a sucker for a woman in a uniform, and this woman wore it really well. Could also be that it had been a long dry spell for her, and she was simply reacting, as anyone would, to a good-looking woman. On the other hand, it might be time for a date.

Except she did not have time to go out for dinner or anything else, for that matter. In fact, she could not even remember the last time she went out with a woman on a real live date. There had been a couple of hookups over the last few years, one-night stands that scratched an itch without her having to get emotionally involved. Those nights had been actually pretty nice, and the women, exciting and fun. If she’d given them a chance, perhaps there could have been more. She didn’t even try to find out. One night and that was it. Safer that way.

My, as she thought about that, it occurred to her in many ways she was just like Senn. He chose to hide away in his home, and she chose to hide away inside her own skin. Not a whole lot of difference between the two of them, although she intended to keep that observation to herself. She returned her attention to the woman standing just a step above her.

“Sheriff,” Lily said as she held out a hand. “I am Lily—”

She cut her off and not very politely either. “Lily Aver…how the hell do you even pronounce your name?”

So it was going to be like that was it? “Aver Neen.” She was accustomed to people having trouble with her name. For centuries, she had been patiently giving out the correct pronunciation. Most of the time no one paid attention anyway, so overall it was rarely worth the effort. She did it anyway because, while there was little left of the young woman she’d once been, she still had her name.

“Ms. Avergne.” Now that was pretty impressive. She might be grumpy, but her pronunciation was pitch perfect. It wasn’t often someone got the right tone when they repeated her name. Made her wonder if perhaps she and Jayne Quarles might have some common Prussian ancestry. That would be nice. It had been quite a long time since she was around others from her homeland, even many generations removed, which logically was the most she could hope for. The sheriff even had the directness that reminded her so much of her father when she declared, “Let’s understand each other right from the get-go. I do not want you here.”

Not exactly a news flash in that statement. Lily suspected Jayne might not be aware that she gave off a get-the-hell-out-here vibe. Or maybe she was, because somehow Lily had the impression this woman was hyperaware of where she was, who she was, and what she meant to say. She was strong and decisive, and Lily could respect that. Didn’t mean she agreed with her attitude, only that she could respect her style.

Lily had her own manner, and it was as confident and forceful as that of the woman she faced. What the good sheriff didn’t know was that she’d had a lot more time to hone her confidence and assertiveness. While she might look like a small, delicate woman, it didn’t mean she was one. The reality was quite the opposite. She was small in stature and iron strong in body and spirit. Appearances in her case were most deceiving, and more than one had made the fatal mistake of underestimating her.

In this instance it also meant that getting everything out in the open right from the beginning was a very good idea. They were on the same side and their end goal was the same: stop the killer. Whether she liked it or not, Quarles was going to have to work with her. There were powers far above her head that backed Lily and Jägers, and they wanted her and her team here. They weren’t going to leave until the threat in this area was neutralized, and that job would be finished a lot quicker if they came together as a cohesive unit.

Lily let her hand drop. So be it if she refused common courtesies. Rude was nothing new to Lily. She turned her gaze on Jayne and gave her curt nod. “I understand where you’re coming from, Sheriff. I get that you don’t want me or my team on your turf. To make certain we’re crystal clear, please understand that I don’t give a good goddamn what you want.”

 

 

In Deer Park, Kyle pulled into the service station and stopped next to one of the pumps. As soon as he turned the car off, Ava got out and stretched her arms over her head. She still looked tired though she’d slept off and on for miles. “You want some coffee or something to drink?” They weren’t that far from Colville but still had a good fifty miles to go. It was going to be well past sunset before they hit the town limits. Coffee sounded pretty good to him.

Ava looked over at the convenience store and wrinkled her nose. She stuffed her hands into her pockets and looked at him with a crooked smile. “I appreciate the offer, but honestly black-tar coffee from a c-store doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal.”

Looking around he had to admit she was right. It wasn’t like they were out in the middle of nowhere and their options limited. He had a hunch that this little town might have more to offer than gas-station drinks. “Let’s find a coffee stand.”

She pointed a finger at him and winked. “Now you’re talking, my friend.”

He finished fueling the car, punched the button for a receipt, and then crawled back behind the wheel. Ava was already buckled into the passenger seat. They only had to wait for one car before pulling out on the main street into Deer Park. One roundabout and a quarter mile later they were second in line at a nice little drive-through coffee stand. He loved it when a plan came together.

Once they were back on the highway headed north, he grabbed the tall paper cup and sipped through the two narrow straws. Oh yeah, Ava was right. Way better than coffee out of one those do-it-all machines inside the gas station. This was dark, rich, and brewed just right. He could almost feel the energy flowing through his veins. “Your latte good?” She had opted for steamed milk and espresso.

Ava closed her eyes and a dreamy expression crossed her face. “Heavenly.”

“I don’t know about you, but I needed both the stop and the coffee. Even though we’re not that far away now, I was getting twitchy. I’ve been in this car way too many hours.”

She nodded as she put a hand on his arm. It was becoming a habit he didn’t want her to break. “I totally agree. I’ll be glad when we get there. I’m a bit tired of traveling right now.”

“I’ll bet you are.” It was a long haul from New Haven to Colville. It was bad enough just trying to get from New Haven to Seattle, and then to throw in the road trip from Seattle to Colville would stretch anyone to the breaking point.

His observation after a few minutes was the latte seemed to be helping her as much as the coffee was reviving his flagging energy. Color had come back into her face, and she appeared relaxed. In some ways, he’d be sorry when they reached Colville. He liked this time alone together with her in the confines of the car. Once they arrived at their destination, he was going to have to share her. As selfish as it was, he liked having her all to himself.

All of a sudden Ava stiffened, and the hand holding her latte started to tremble. He jerked the wheel to his right and almost drove off into the gravel before straightening the car. “What’s wrong?”

“The air’s changed,” she said as her eyes scanned the horizon. A whisper of concern in her voice captured his immediate attention. “Something is out there.”

He took a deep breath and tried to pick up on whatever she was sensing. Didn’t smell any different to him, and it sure didn’t feel any different. “I’m not getting it.” Not that he really expected to. He might be able to raise the dead, but beyond that he was pretty much a regular guy.

She was shaking her head. “It’s not like that. It smacked me like a wave or a blast of power that sent every nerve in my body buzzing. I’ve only had that happen a couple of times before.”

Whatever it was that touched her so powerfully blew right over him because he didn’t feel any different than he did a mile ago. They were getting closer to Colville and the day was fading. Dusk was settling in and pushing out the light, making the trees on the side of the road dark and ominous. He glanced over at Ava and believed what she was telling him even if he didn’t feel it. The shadows he could see in her eyes hadn’t been there a moment before, and the color in her cheeks was long gone. Something had hit at her at a very deep, instinctual level. This was a development he didn’t much like.

Kyle took another deep breath and still couldn’t distinguish any difference in the air. To him it was plain old fresh air of the type he didn’t often experience in the larger California cities he often found himself in. “Tell me what it is because I’m not feeling anything odd, and nothing is making the nerves in my body buzz.” Now she was making his body buzz, not that he thought it was a good idea to tell her that right at the moment. He figured there’d be time enough for that later.

Her head was moving right and left as she scanned the landscape outside the car window. “I don’t know,” she told him. “I can’t seem to pinpoint what it is or where it’s coming from. Ever experienced a feeling like someone was running a feather up your spine?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “That’s what it feels like. An ice-cold feather whispering across my nerves. I don’t like it.”

“I’m thinking it’s not a good thing.” He was, in fact, starting to get a bad feeling about this. What he knew from working with Ava before was that she was incredibly sensitive to the environment around her. If she said she was sensing something odd, then she was, and it meant whatever they were about to face was pretty darned powerful. He was even more grateful that their team lead was Lily.

Ava turned her face toward him, her eyes dark and serious. It was nice to see a little of the color returning to her face, even if her words were grim. “I think it’s a very bad omen. Kyle, how quick can you find where we’re supposed to be? I need to talk to Lily.”

Glancing up at the navigator mounted on the dash, he told her, “I say we’re fifteen minutes out, give or take a few.”

“It’s waning,” she said almost absently as she turned around to peer out the back window and the terrain fading behind them. She turned back around in her seat and put her hand on his arm again. “I still think the sooner we meet up with Lily the better. This is pretty unusual.”

She sounded calm, yet the tone of her voice made him jumpy. “On it.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and glimpsed what could have been the flash of a tail disappearing into the trees. “Did you see that?”

She shifted in her seat and once more stared out the back window. “What?”

“I could have sworn it was a coyote running into the trees.” Or a wolf, he didn’t add. But then again, it could have been his imagination. He’d wait and see.


Chapter Four

Despite the appearance of the Jägers hunter on her doorstep, Jayne was still far from convinced that her killer was of the preternatural variety. That the bastard was anything except ordinary old flesh and blood was going to be a hard sell. This person was, without question, an evil soul, only in her experience it would probably turn out to be one who was very human. She’d spent her entire professional career dealing with people who were cold-blooded and could harm others without so much as blinking an eye. This wasn’t much different than cases she’d run up against in the cities across the country where she’d been sent in to stop criminals.

Okay, maybe this was a little different. Actually, things around town had been off lately. Everything had been oddly quiet. Not that Colville was exactly a hotspot for activity. It was, however, a typical small town that happened to also be the county seat, and under normal circumstances, it sort of buzzed with low-key activity. People stopped and talked to each other, and gossip flowed like water. For whatever reason, the last couple of weeks had been hushed. She attributed the change to the suspicious deaths, and she didn’t blame folks for being cautious and sticking close to home. These kinds of things were upsetting even in the big cities. Here it hit the residents even harder. She figured once the killer was apprehended and locked up, everyone would wander back out and life would get back to normal.

The fact that the city council had called in the Jägers and couldn’t wait for her to do her investigation grated on her big-time. If the meddling sons of bitches would just let her do her job, she’d get this thing handled. But no, their dear sheriff needed outside help to bring down the big, bad killer. She’d like to think it was just because they were afraid the perpetrator was not completely human. Deep in her heart she knew it was more complicated than that simple explanation. It really came down to the fact that she was a woman, as in the first woman sheriff ever elected in this county, and they didn’t believe she had the balls to do the job right.

To be fair, not everyone held her gender against her, and she had a lot of support throughout the county. If she didn’t, she’d have never been able to beat Phil Redman in the election…twice. So, the last thing she should have to deal with right now was being second-guessed, yet all it took was a cranky few who still believed in the good-old-boys system to convince the entire council to take the call that pissed her off.

Damn it anyway, she didn’t need that kind of help, and if she did require assistance, she still had friends in the marshals service, not to mention the Washington State Patrol, the FBI, and a couple other agencies with nifty initials that she was comfortable calling. So-called paranormal hunters were nothing she needed at the moment or ever, for that matter. Nope, she sure as hell didn’t.

Now this little sprite of a thing with long black hair and dressed in blue jeans, a black sweater, and a leather jacket was not just coming into her town to show her up but also basically telling her to go to hell. Righteous indignation was hers to own. The problem was she hated herself just a little for finding this Lily and her attitude rather fascinating. She wanted to despise her outright and not feel a little zing of attraction.

After being informed that the Jägers were sending in someone to assist, she’d imagined the kind of person who would show up. In her head she’d pictured a brute of a man who would stomp in and declare that he was here to save the day with his lightsaber or something equally ridiculous. It was most definitely not a beautiful woman with an intense stare and more than a touch of attitude. This could possibly be a far more interesting experience than she’d first envisioned, and she could hardly wait to see the looks on the council members’ faces when they got their first peek at the hunter sent by the infamous Jägers. No good old boy here, and that actually made her want to smile. She didn’t, though, because it would send the wrong message to this Lily Avergne. Regardless of any tickle of attraction, Jayne still didn’t want her here.

“You’re in my town,” she said. Avergne might be cute, but she was also full of shit, and that Jayne didn’t have time for. There was enough shit going down around her lately. She didn’t need it imported too.

Lily squared her shoulders. “I don’t mean to be rude or disrespectful, Sheriff, I really don’t. You just need to understand that I am very, very good at my job, and I intend to do what I came here to do. I would prefer to work with you, but I will hunt this monster down and stop it with or without your assistance.”

She was irritating before, but now she was really getting on Jayne’s nerves. “Look, Ms. Avergne…”

“Lily.”

Jayne couldn’t help it. She rolled her eyes. Enough already. “Lily. I don’t need your help to stop this killer. I don’t know what you’ve been told, but this isn’t my first rodeo.” Not ever having met Jayne, Lily certainly had no idea that she’d spent over ten years as a deputy U.S. marshal before being elected sheriff in this county five years ago. Lacking law-enforcement skills was not how she showed up for her first day at work. She’d been involved in some big and messy cases and cleared them all. When she’d left the U.S. Marshals Service to come back to Colville she had a clean record. As far as she was concerned, she planned to maintain that record here, and she was perfectly capable of doing it without this particular kind of help.

“Exactly how many werewolves have you tracked down, Sheriff?” Lily had her hands folded in front of her and her expression was neutral, though her dark eyes almost sparkled. Her voice was like that of a teacher trying to get a point across to a particularly dense student.

Frankly, Jayne was sick and tired of people throwing around the word “werewolf.” It had been bandied about at the council meeting as well, and it was annoying as hell. How exactly had their society evolved from fairy tales and folk legends to believing it was all real? Yes, she did understand there were some things beyond the realm of what she considered reality. Werewolves and vampires and other such creatures were not, and to her, they were still simply fictional creatures. “That would be zero because there are no such things as werewolves.”

Something flashed in Lily’s eyes that Jayne couldn’t quite define. Up close her eyes were so dark they were almost black, and they were most definitely hypnotic. In the back of her mind she suspected Lily knew that and used it to get her way. Wasn’t going to work on her. She wasn’t the kind to bend her principles on account of long lashes and pretty eyes.

“I tell you what, Sheriff.” Lily didn’t bat her eyes or flutter her lashes. She stared into Jayne’s eyes with a directness that was bold and daring. “Despite your obvious unhappiness with my presence, I’m not leaving, so how about you do your investigation your way and I’ll do mine my way. When it all shakes out, we’ll check to see where you stand on that belief.”

God, how many ways did she have to spell it out to this woman? Were all of them from the mysterious organization this bullheaded? “I don’t need you interfering with my investigation. You’ll only be a liability and get in my way.”

Lily broke the stare by shaking her head. “The way I see it, you don’t have any choice, and as far as anyone becoming a liability there’s far more chance of you being one than me.”

Christ, talk about pissing her off. First, because it was true that she had no choice, and second, because Lily had the gall to throw it in her face. It was beginning to be very clear to Jayne that Lily was as beautiful as she was irritating. She hoped to hell she caught this killer soon so she could send this little spitfire back to whatever dark corner of the earth she’d emerged out of. Biting back what she really wanted to say, she said instead, “No. I don’t have a choice about your being here, so we’ll do what we have to do, and then you can hop back up on the horse you rode in on and get the hell of out of my town.”

Lily nodded. “Fair enough. Now that we understand each other, I’ll go back to town and get a hotel room. The rest of my team should be showing up before long, and I want to get them briefed as soon as possible on how we’ll be working with law enforcement.”

“Great,” she muttered. “More of you.”

“Indeed, and they should be here anytime. Kyle sent me a text when they pulled out of Deer Park.”

Jayne really did want to scream now. “Fucking A, like I need more people in my house.”

“We’ll be staying at a hotel in town.”

She might not have any choice about these people being here, but that didn’t mean she was completely powerless. There were some things she could still control. “No, you won’t. You’re here, and I can’t do anything about that. I can make sure you’re not out running around town and causing problems I don’t need. You and your team will be staying right here. Welcome to Hotel Quarles.”

 

 

Bellona stood on the deck and looked out over the river. The water was blue and incredibly smooth today. It was nice to wake up to this kind of view, and it was one of the reasons the idea of staying here for a while had appealed to her. The landscape was a little like where she grew up, with mountains and forests and fresh air. Sometimes she missed her childhood home. Not very often but every once in a while.

For a change she wasn’t feeling the overwhelming urge to move away, even though she’d been here for a few months. Strangely, she liked it here, and not just because it reminded her of home. It had been a long time since she’d met someone who was so enthusiastic about joining her lifestyle. Most of the time people were frightened of her if and when they learned of her closely held secret. Not Little Wolf. She’d been fascinated, and Bellona was not immune to the feelings of flattery that brought up. When Little Wolf had suggested creating a makeshift family, at first she’d thought no way, and then when she’d pondered it a bit more, it became invigorating. To say it was refreshing was an understatement. As much as she loved what she was and how she lived her life, especially these days, there were times when she was quite lonely. She missed her friends and the feeling of being connected. Lately she was remembering that feeling, and she liked it.

Standing out here with the fresh air filling her lungs, her body buzzed and it made her smile. It always happened this way. The closer the full moon got, the more her nerves tingled with anticipation. The excitement built for days before the night when the moon rose full and golden. Those were glorious nights, and she soared as she absorbed the energy that poured forth from the power of the moonlight. The thought of sharing the full moon with Little Wolf made it even more special.

As if she’d said her name out loud, Little Wolf came walking across the expansive lawn, a coffee cup in her hand. The sight made her smile grow. She loved the way she moved, her long strides and confident manner. It was what had drawn her to Little Wolf in the first place. Every so often she came across someone with the swagger and attitude that matched her own. At least for a while, she would enjoy their company before moving on to her next horizon. This time, the itch to move evaporated, and she knew a lot of it had to do with Little Wolf’s embrace of the lifestyle. She loved it. She loved her.

“Coffee?” Little Wolf offered her the large mug she held in her hands. “It’s cold but it still tastes great.”

Bellona shook her head. Coffee was a beverage she’d never developed a taste for. It had not been something that was part of her formative years, and in fact she hadn’t even been exposed to it until many years later. Excellent tea, now that was a different matter altogether. She rarely turned down a good cup of tea. Her roots showed when it came to her drink of choice.

“No, thank you, love, but I’ll join you for a cup of tea.”

Little Wolf took her hand as she came up to meet her on the deck. She kissed Bellona and then said, “It was so beautiful this afternoon that I had to go for a walk. You were still sleeping so I left you and went out alone. I never noticed how lovely the woods are and how fantastic they smell until you came along. You’ve made everything more interesting and intense.”

She understood what she meant. Most people only noticed things on a superficial level until she gave them what they needed to go deeper. Only then could they appreciate what had been there in front of them all the time. The sights, the sounds, and the smells, all joined together to create a world with depth and flavor.

Her mind turned back to a night long ago. She’d hoped to share the wonders of her world with the woman of her heart, only it ended badly. She’d never quite gotten over what had happened, though she’d learned some valuable lessons that night. Not once in the years since had she made a similar misstep. Now, Little Wolf, on the other hand, was going to have to be watched. She recognized the same sort of recklessness in her that Bellona herself had embodied in her younger days.

“Did you take your boy-toy with you on your walk?” The last time Bellona had seen him, he’d still been in the barn and Little Wolf was doing her best to clean him up.

Little Wolf shook her head and a frown darkened her face. “He’s sleeping in the cell. Typical guy. It’s like he has a hangover and needs to sleep it off. Hot as some guys can be, they can also be lazy bastards.”

The cell was a locked room-sized gun safe in the basement of the large house that Bellona had used to contain Little Wolf until she had mastered at least some control over her change. It was actually well thought out for her to have placed their newest member of the family in there. She’d seen it before with men. The change was brutal when it hit them, and well, as far as she was concerned, they often took it far harder than women. Whoever said males were the tougher sex had never been around a man going through the change. Oh, he’d be fine in a day or two, but in the meantime, the cell was a very good place for him.

“Good idea. You’ll need to keep an eye on him, although he should sleep for at least another twelve hours or so if history is any indication.”

“He was out cold last time I checked. Come on.” Little Wolf held out her hand. “I’ll make you a cup of your favorite tea. I picked up a fresh supply when I went into Spokane yesterday.”

“You know,” she said as they turned and began to walk inside, hand in hand. “I have a better idea. Let’s skip the coffee and tea and open a bottle of wine instead. We can sit out here and watch the sun finish going down.”

This was undoubtedly the last night it was just the two of them, and she wanted to take advantage of it. Not that she minded what was coming. On the contrary, she was experiencing rushes of excitement when she thought about what they were building here. Adam, as she dubbed their newest member, was a wonderful start to their pack.

Her reward was a big smile and a squeeze of her hand. “You always know exactly the right thing to do. My world was so boring before you came along. I can’t even imagine how crazy I’d be right now if you hadn’t brought me into the life. I’d heard stories of werewolves, but I never imagined them to be real. I sure as hell never imagined how incredible it was to be one. Thank you.” Little Wolf kissed her on the top of the head.

Bellona pushed up on her toes and touched her lips to Little Wolf’s. “Happy to help.”