“Ma, don’t be like that. I’m fine,” Lucian said, trying to ignore the tears that stained his mother’s cheeks. He hated when she was upset—and clearly, she was, but it couldn’t be helped. He needed to get away. Nothing had been the same since he’d come back.
“But you’re not ready yet. It’s only be a few months since…” she trailed off as if mentioning his capture would jinx him.
Lucian laid a hand on his mother’s shoulder and gently squeezed. “I’m restless. My beast needs to be free.” But what he really meant was that his bear hated the looks of pity and sorrow more than he did. Everyone in the Sleuth knew what happened to him, even if they weren’t privy to the gory details. In fact, no one knew everything that happened, except those who were locked away with him, and they were long gone by now living their lives, hopefully better than he was. The five of them had been locked up for three months, and he’d been back for six.
Nine long months, and the nightmares continued to keep him awake. Lucian was tired. All he wanted was to move on, but for some reason he couldn’t. The beast felt caged even now that they were free. Lucian even went as far as to shift more frequently to give his bear some relief. But nothing kept the darkness at bay.
His mother sniffed, wiped away her free-flowing tears, and nodded, even though he could see she wanted to change his mind.
Nothing would change his mind. The Sleuth wasn’t home anymore even if his mother and brothers were there. He was a nomad now. The thought of being on his own sent a shiver of fear down his spine, but he shrugged it off. He couldn’t be afraid forever. He was a black bear, made of tougher stuff than that.
At least that’s what he tried to convince himself. He needed to gain back his confidence that he was a strong capable man—and Shifter. His self-esteem had taken a major blow. He couldn’t even believe he’d been caught in the first place. Ma always made sure he and his brothers understood that they had to be careful. They never knew when a Hunter would cross into their territory in hopes of catching more than a regular animal.
Lucian’s shoulders slumped. Ma was not only his mother but the Queen of the Sleuth as well. Da sighed and wrapped his arm around Ma’s shoulder. She buried her face into his chest and sobbed. Lucian realized that his capture had not only affected him but his family too.
Other bears, some family by blood others family by name of the Sleuth stood around watching the scene unfold around them. Everyone was silent as they waited for the drama to unfold. There were only forty bears within their family and everyone knew everything. They mourned the loss of their members whether the bear had decided to move on or passed on to the great beyond. His leaving was going to put a hole into their lives.
“It’s not like I’m leaving forever,” he said and cringed when Da glared at him. That obviously wasn’t the most helpful thing to say. “What I mean is it’s not forever.”
Again, Ma nodded and stepped out from under Da’s shoulder. She walked up to him and brought her hand to cup his cheek. “Be careful, my boy. You know what’s out there now, more than anyone.” She smiled weakly. “And keep in touch so I know you’re okay.”
His eyes burned. “I promise, Ma.”
His mother kissed his cheek and backed away. Da pulled him into a bear hug, pun intended, and squeezed him tight. “Now, don’t go getting yourself into trouble again, boy, your Ma can’t handle that,” he whispered so low other Shifter ears couldn’t pick up the words.
“I know,” Lucian said and took in Da’s scent.
The scent of home. The male scent was much stronger than the female. Males smelled wilder, more animal-like than females. His father took the woods within him.
At least he was done with the emotional part of leaving. He’d known his mother would take it hard, but he hadn’t expected the whole Sleuth to mourn his leaving. It wasn’t a sad moment. Or that’s what he tried to convince himself, and he wondered if he was pushing himself too fast. Maybe he wasn’t ready to go back into the world yet.
It was full dark before he took his first stop. Traveling as a bear was both easier and dangerous. He’d enjoyed the quiet content his bear felt as soon as they left home. It wasn’t only him who needed to get away. He sat and sniffed the air. His lips curled back, and he snarled.
Lucian paused and narrowed his eyes as he took in the area around him. The scent of trees and life filled him and he inhaled. A sweet scent trickled his senses and he frowned. It wasn’t an appealing scent and warning bells clanged in his mind. The scent was a lure.
But to what he didn’t know—and he wasn’t about to find out. He’d walked into a trap before, and his life was forever changed, but thanks to another Shifter that was confined with him he was alive. He might not get so lucky the second time around.
Lucian shifted back to human and quickly dressed in his typical jeans and a T-shirt. He pulled on his boots making sure to stay aware of his surroundings. Something told him he needed to get out in the open—and the sooner the better.
His bear chuffed unhappy to be locked away when danger was near, but Lucian couldn’t very well trot out of the woods as a bear. That certainly wouldn’t go over well with the town folks.
He had no idea where he was, but he knew it was a town full of magic. He sensed it all around him. There were several scents mixed together, confusing him. He realized he had stumbled across some sort of magical hotspot, and the further he walked, the woods thinned but the magic grew.
Lucian stepped out of the woods after walking through the brush. The hairs on his neck stood as if someone—or something was watching him. But whatever it was didn’t show itself. The presence was dark and full of rage. He shuddered quickening his steps. He didn’t dare look over his shoulder, afraid of what he’d find.
Bianca’s smile quickly wilted even as she tied the bow on the box of specialized ointment for one of her best customers. Normally, completing an order was a relief. She didn’t have to worry about money for a very long time, but she didn’t like using the trust her mother had left her. It felt like she was taking the easy way out, and even though she wasn’t the most social person, she thrived virtually, where she could hide behind the World Wide Web. No one know exactly who Bianca was, and that’s the way she liked it.
She couldn’t help being secretive. It’s how her mother raised her. She was different and those difference should be hidden. Bianca blew out a breath as she put the finishing touches on the box. Delivery day was coming, and she always liked to be ready. It gave her a chance to enjoy the simple life she lived.
She spent her life outdoors as much as possible in her ever expanding garden. Something that had always soothed her and annoyed her mother.
“Stop it,” she chided herself when sadness swept over her.
Her mother had passed away three years before, but it still ached as if it were yesterday. It didn’t matter that Mother didn’t like her much. It didn’t matter that she was mocked day in and day out about her looks and her quirks.
Not for the first time in the last few weeks, loneliness overshadowed her. She was used to being on her own, but a part of her wished she were better with people. She was only half-Faerie, and the human part of her wanted to be around humans, but the other side of her scoffed at intermingling with them. They wouldn’t understand her or accept her. She’d always be hiding behind her glamour and that took a toll on her no matter how much she was able to achieve. It was her greatest gift other than her Earth Magic.
Bianca didn’t know much about her Faerie heritage. Her mother didn’t speak of her father other than to tell her how much she looked like him. It hurt her mother to be around her, so much so she did what humans did, she drank—a lot.
Alcohol was a horrible thing. It brought out the worst of people. Or so she saw. When she was in town there was always people in the bar nearby. It was rowdy, and the stench of liquor wasn’t her favorite smell in the world. Maybe it was because her mother always stunk of it. And when she was really inebriated, she was nasty and mean.
She’d been thinking about Mother a lot in the past few days. Maybe because it was close to the anniversary of her death, maybe it was because Marcus, the Mayor of Stratham’s assistant called her—yes, she kept a phone—and requested or rather demanded, that she meet with the mayor. He wanted to speak with her. It shocked her. She didn’t even know anyone really knew she existed. Having kept to the woods most of her life, she assumed no one knew she was there. Her land was warded so her magic didn’t seep out, because no matter how much she was like a human, she wasn’t. The Faerie within her was strong even if she didn’t have as much power as she would were she full blooded.
“Come on Friday at two,” he’d said. “Expect to have lunch with him. He has a very important proposal to discuss with you.”
For days, she’d thought about what that could mean but nothing came to mind. She had nothing to offer him, but she didn’t have a choice. No one could turn down a lunch meeting with the mayor. But she was nervous. She’d been restless and anxious for nearing a week now, and tomorrow she’d find out after she dropped off her deliveries.
Her stomach knotted, letting her know she wasn’t going to like it. Her instincts were usually strong, and something about Marcus’ voice rubbed her wrong. He sounded haughty and acted as though her asking questions were a major inconvenience.
He’d managed to evade them all.
Satisfied she had gotten all of her orders ready, Bianca started to take the packages to the much hated car that her mother used to drive. In fact, she much preferred walking through the nature that surrounded her, but it wasn’t feasible. Luckily for her there wasn’t much reason to go to town, and every time she went, she did everything at once. She took her goods to the post office and shopped all in the same day. Most of the things she ate, she grew, but there were some things she had to get at the market.
Bianca filled the car, and after several trips, she was finished. It was dark and a bit chilly, but she still sat on the porch with her nighttime hot tea. It was the way she winded down for bed. She loved her life and having her routines. To others, it might seem boring, but she liked the simple life. She didn’t want for much and kept busy all day late into the night. Already it was well after midnight and she needed to head to bed. The next day was going to be very busy.
A loud thunderous bang rattled the windows and Bianca jumped from her sleep. She sat up in bed, dazed from how deeply she’d been sleeping when she heard another bang.
“Oh, no,” she whispered, recognizing the sound of a gun. She glanced at the clock and frowned. It was nearly five in the morning, and even though it was still dark she didn’t know why anyone would be using a gun.
A third shot rang out, sounding even closer than the last two, and she jumped out of bed, thrust her feet into her slippers, and walked to the window. The dark night was fading from the sky, but not enough for her to make out anything. She didn’t have the greatest vision, not like the Shifters in town. She’d met Aris and Sophie. Both of them were nice, but she was glad they didn’t seem to know what she was. She was happy that her glamour even worked on them and they didn’t sense that she was different, but she knew what they were. Bianca wasn’t sure how she knew, but there was no doubt in her mind that Stratham was full of beings that the humans thought were only made up for fiction. They didn’t realize that many of their neighbors had a second skin.
A heavy thud shook the windows. Bianca had enough. There was a sense of urgency that made her heart race. She ran from her room and stopped at her front door wrapping her fingers around the door knob.
“What are you doing?” she said to the empty house. “Don’t go toward danger.”
She wasn’t sure what it could be, but it wasn’t likely to be anything good. She unwrapped her fingers deciding she better not go outside in the dark after she heard shots.
But what if someone is hurt?
She chuckled at her thought. Who would shoot someone on her land? Besides, no one human traveled these woods. Her magic ensured that.
But what if they aren’t human?
Bianca nibbled her lip. She knew that Shifters sometimes hunted on her land, and every full moon she stayed locked up tight in her home. There was no way she’d make it long if they caught her scent.
She leaned her ear against the door hoping she could make out any sounds close by. Her heart thudded in her throat and she swallowed when she heard a groan. It was way too close for comfort.
Something injured was outside and from the sounds of it, very very close. She didn’t know what to do. If she opened the door she could be in danger. But if she ignored whatever was outside when she might have been able to help she’d feel guilty.
“Stop being a wimp,” she all but growled before she took a dive and yanked her door open.
At first, she saw nothing. Relief washed over her as she stepped onto her porch. The light she had installed turned on illuminating the area around her and that’s when she saw it.
A big hulking black bear. He lay on his side, and with only the dim light, she couldn’t be sure he was breathing. Bianca studied the area trying to sense another presence, but she felt nothing nearby. Taking a few timid steps, she went to the edge of her porch and bent to get a closer look.
The Bear’s body shook and suddenly she was looking at a human male. A very nude and injured male.
He was a Shifter, and he wasn’t moving.
Bianca gasped and jogged down the stairs. Her breathing was harsh, and she shivered when she knelt beside the man. The grass was damp and cold, but the man radiated heat like a furnace.
She brought her hand closer to him, and just as she was about to check to see if he was breathing, his eyes shot open and he growled. She gasped, and in a movement too fast for her human eyes to follow she was on her back with the man over her. His eyes glowed and claws dug into her shoulders.
She cried out and squirmed under him. “Get off of me, you big lug,” she said, surprised by how calm and forceful she sounded. She should have been terrified, but for some reason, even with the fangs glistening under the light from her porch, she didn’t fear him.
For a second, the man-beast cocked his head and closed his eyes taking in a deep breath. He let out a shuddering breath and when he opened his eyes again to stare down at her, he frowned and shook his head.
Before she knew it, he jumped off of her and bellowed before he fell to the ground.
Bianca rolled to her side and got to her hands and knees to crawl over to him. “Are you all right?”
What a stupid question. Of course, he wasn’t all right. He’d just been shot.
One eye opened to watch her wearily. “Nope, not so good,” he managed to whisper.
“Well, let’s get you inside, then,” she said before she really thought about it. The man could be dangerous.
He already tackled you to the ground and nearly bit your head off, but, sure, invite him in, Bianca, real smart.
Her inner dialogue made her laugh, but it was cut off when the man-bear glared at her.
“This isn’t funny, you know.”
She shrugged. “Can you stand on your own?”
“I’m not sure I can even move, to be honest.”
Each word was laced with the pain he was in, and she felt horrible for making him speak. She sighed and stood up, wiping her sweaty palms on her nightgown and held out her hand, hoping she wouldn’t regret her moment of kindness. Surely, fate wouldn’t be so cruel?