Jaemus McAlator hated his brother. Cowering in wolf form in front of Flidae, Celtic goddess of all wild things, he loathed what he’d become. Once a powerful warrior that kings hired to slay their enemies, Jaemus was nothing more than a mutt now, turned by his werewolf brother in the name of keeping his army victorious in battle.
Winning was everything. Jaemus couldn’t argue with that, but he could protest the manner in which his brother had sought triumph. Turning his four closest men into werewolves without their consent was beyond absurd and definitely unwelcome. Who did Reardon think he was, playing with men’s lives like that? Just because he captained the army didn’t mean he could alter men’s fates without at least discussing it with them.
And now the goddess Flidae was furious. Reardon’s intent to use wolves to kill went against her rules for wild things, and she was tearing into him now.
Jaemus had trouble following exactly what the goddess was saying to his brother. All his energy was focused on trying to shift back to human, but Flidae was too strong. If she wanted them in wolf form for her tongue lashing, they were staying in wolf form, and there was nothing he could do about it. His head throbbed too, as her voice thundered along the Irish shores. The men around him—also stuck in wolf form—whimpered in pain, their large ears turned back against the goddess’s raging voice.
Then one word reached Jaemus.
Flidae couldn’t mean… she wouldn’t… she wouldn’t send them away, would she?
In all his thirty-seven years, Jaemus had known no other home than Ireland. The army had traveled to neighboring countries, but they always returned to the lush green hills of their homeland. Always. Nowhere else in the world could be home.
Did the goddess mean to separate the men? Scatter them to the winds? Jaemus considered these men his brothers, though only Reardon McAlator, Kole McMannus, and Shane McMannus were his true kin. Erik Rheagan was his family—if not by blood, certainly by the number of times they’d saved each other’s hides. They were all he had in this world, aside from his mother whom he hadn’t seen since joining Reardon as a hired warrior. They enjoyed great riches, bathed in immeasurable glory, toured a variety of interesting places, and sampled many beautiful women. He liked his life.
At least he had.
Now he felt like a feral animal, uncontrolled and impulsive. He and the men had been unable to contain themselves at their favorite tavern earlier this evening while celebrating their most recent victory and counting their newest treasures. It was easy to forget—for a little while—what Reardon had done to them.
Until their hunger became insatiable. Their anger bubbling to the surface. Their primal urges unleashed. This was what Reardon had brought upon them.
He’d never forgive his brother. Never.
Jaemus looked around at the other men, the other wolves, then a flash of light so blinding he squeezed his eyes shut zapped down to the ground under his paws. His entire body, from muzzle to tail, buzzed with an energy he couldn’t see. When he opened his eyes again, the men were gone. Reardon was gone. Flidae was gone. The shores of Ireland were gone. He had a weightless moment where nothing was around him.
A complete, black void.
In the next instant, water raged around him and he sucked it into his lungs, choking on it. He paddled with his paws, but had no idea which way was up. The more he fought, the more the water battered his body, filled his ears, drenched his silvery fur, stung his big, golden brown eyes.
Something sharp gouged his cheek and he let out a whimper, but the water absorbed the sound. His blood mixed with the water and the iron tang of it filled his mouth. His lungs were ready to burst. His muscles strained. His vision was foggy.
Perhaps it’s time to let go.
Jaemus had been fighting for so many years. Though he’d won many battles with his brother’s army, what else did he have? He had no plans, especially now that he was an abomination of nature. He had no true home, no cozy place to rest his head. He had no woman to care for him, to love him. He had his sword, his treasures, and the restless soul of a warrior.
Maybe the time had finally come to surrender.
You do not accept defeat. Flidae’s voice vibrated through his skull as he stopped moving and let the water carry him away. You fight.
But at what cost?
Finally, the cost seemed too high. He was giving more than he was getting, and he was tired. So tired. His entire body ached from the water’s abuse, and the cut on his cheek did not like the salt water’s touch. It felt as if someone had poured liquid fire into his flesh, traded his muscles for rocks, and filled his lungs with sand.
He was done.
You are not done until I say you are, warrior wolf.
Jaemus didn’t have the energy to yell back at Flidae, nor did he want to. Nothing he could say would diminish her anger anyway. He’d only make things worse.
As if things could get worse.
He was about to drown in an ocean that was all too eager to swallow him. He had no idea where he was. He didn’t know if he’d ever see the other warriors—his friends—again. He was certain his life only had mere moments left in it.
Werewolves live longer than this. Don’t waste the time you’ve been given. Where was Flidae? Why couldn’t he see her? Why could he only hear her?
Suddenly a spray of water pushed up from underneath his body, hoisting him past the foamy surface and tossing him onto an unknown shore full of hot, white sand. He coughed out a mouthful of grit followed by a gush of salt water. Heaving until there couldn’t be anything left inside him, Jaemus tried to raise himself and realized he was no longer in wolf form. His large silver-furred paws had been replaced with rough, familiar hands that sifted through sand as he grabbed at it. Water dripped from his blond hair into his eyes, stinging them.
He wasn’t sure if he should be happy to be back to human or if that made him vulnerable. Could he shift back to wolf or had Flidae shown some mercy and taken that horrible curse away too? Closing his eyes, he pictured his wolf form and instantly turned.
The one thing he wanted to be rid of stayed with him. He shifted back to human and sat on the sand, slicking his soaked hair back with his fingers. Hot sun overhead blazed down on his exposed flesh, and he looked over his shoulder where trees with wide leaves offered shade. Crawling on his hands and knees with what little strength he still had, Jaemus pulled himself into the shadowy relief of this strange forest. Ireland didn’t have trees like these with curvy barks that swayed in the warm breeze and large, feather-like leaves that whispered as they moved.
He propped himself up against one of the trees and touched a finger to the cut on his cheek. Wincing, his fingertip came away bloody, but he had nothing to soothe the pain.
Add it to the other scars.
Jaemus was no stranger to scars. He’d been sliced by sword blades, poked by spear tips, nearly gutted by daggers, burned, beaten, walloped within inches of his life. He’d always survived. Never doubted he’d wake to another sunrise.
Now? Well, now he wasn’t as confident that tomorrow was a guarantee. If he did live, what was his purpose? He had no army to fight with, no king to protect, no riches to count, no maiden willing to bring him physical pleasures.
His stomach growled and his survival instincts kicked in. Food. He had to locate some. Shelter. He had to make one. Water. He needed the drinkable sort. Surviving would have to be his new purpose. For now at least. Until he could figure out how to get back home to Ireland.
Standing slowly and using a nearby tree for support, Jaemus surveyed the immediate area. He gathered several fallen logs and fashioned them into a frame of sorts. His movements were slow, both his tussle with the sea and the extreme heat of this place exhausting him. Ireland was never this hot, and though he was naked, he couldn’t cool down.
He paused in his laboring and eyed the sea. He wasn’t overly eager to enter it again, but its water would relieve his discomfort. After binding a few more logs together, he walked across the near-burning sand and waded into the water. The waves had calmed quite a bit, and as he scanned along the vast expanse of the sea, its tranquility struck him.
Had Flidae purposely churned up the waters when he’d been submerged in them? Was she trying to disorient him? Thrash him? Kill him?
Jaemus shook his head. The Celtic goddess of wild things didn’t need the sea’s help. If she wanted him dead, he’d be dead. Simple as that.
For whatever reason, Flidae had spared his life, encouraged him to live, and dumped him here—wherever here was. She could have sent him to a more… populated area, but at least he had the means to survive. In gathering logs, he’d noted several types of berries growing about that appeared promising, he’d found a freshwater pond some frogs had deemed suitable, and he’d located a rock that nearly screamed out to be made into a spear tip. With a shelter, food sources, and water, he’d be fine.
But that was all he’d be. He’d be dry. Fine. He’d be fed. Fine. His thirst would be quenched. Fine.
He’d be alone. Not fine.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have any other choices. Reardon had taken all of his choices when he’d offered Jaemus a drink of that water he’d bespelled with the curse of the werewolf.
Now all Jaemus could do was exist and contain the beast residing beneath his skin.
He finished his shelter, feasted on the berries, washing them down with water, and settled down to sleep. With any luck he’d wake up and all of this would have been a dream. A sick, unbelievable dream.
But it wasn’t.
When he woke, he found the odd forest still surrounded him and his hunger had grown tenfold, as had the ache from the slash on his cheek. If he’d still been with the army, one of the men would have tended to the injury as Jaemus had tended to theirs. He remembered sewing the tip of Reardon’s ear once. He hadn’t done an impressive job, but the bleeding had stopped. Reardon’s ear had healed—more quickly than normal due to his werewolf abilities—but the tip was missing and what remained was misshapen. Still, he’d eased his brother’s pain. No one was around to do the same for Jaemus now.
Because of Reardon. He should have let his brother bleed to death. Not that he would have. His werewolf abilities would have closed the wound eventually.
Jaemus fingered the cut again, wondering why his own werewolf abilities hadn’t rid him of the wound yet. It would be his luck to have garnered all the unwanted traits of the werewolf and none of the advantageous ones. Shaking his head at his dark thoughts, he lashed the sharp-edged rock he’d picked up earlier to a long, sturdy branch and set out in search of something a little… meatier to eat. Being part wolf now made him more carnivorous and his mouth watered thinking about tearing some flesh from bone.
He thudded the heel of his hand against his forehead, trying desperately to clear the wolfish notions from his mind. Looking at the makeshift spear in his hand, however, made him stop and consider other options. Wolves were good hunters. They needed no man-made tools to catch their prey.
Setting the spear down, Jaemus shifted to wolf form and raised his nose, sniffing the warm breeze that ruffled his fur. The sun rested on the horizon and everything was cast in dim shadows, but his wolf eyes didn’t care. They saw much more than his human eyes could. A small creature scurried amongst the dense, green brush on the forest floor. Something that moved fast, but Jaemus could move faster.
He stalked the animal for a few moments, becoming familiar with its movements, its patterns, its unawareness of his presence. Coiling his body back, he sprung forward and pounced on the creature. Its small body wiggled under his large paws, but he didn’t relent. With a few squeals of horror, the critter ceased moving.
Jaemus lifted his paws and regarded the lifeless body. He’d killed men in battle. Many men. Without a guilty thought. Without remorse. Without questioning his life. This defenseless creature, however, that he’d sacrificed so easily, caused a wave of regret to crest and crash over him. He backed up several steps, attempting to put distance between himself and the bloody meal he’d garnered for himself. He didn’t want to want it.
His stomach growled again. Louder this time. Like a rumble of thunder. He had no choice but to dine on the kill. Better to devour it than to waste the life he’d taken. In human form, he’d never felt so connected to what they’d hunted, cooked over a roaring fire, and eaten. Why was it different now? Why did he feel as if he’d cut a strand in the spider web of life and the web’s integrity had been compromised?
Animals ate other animals. Cycle of life. Food chain. All natural.
And yet… he felt like a betrayer.
You are not like a regular wolf. Flidae’s voice cut through the growing darkness. You are part man, part wolf. Both. And neither. What you feel is a reflection of that.
What he felt was due to his brother’s selfishness.
Growling, Jaemus shifted back to human form and grabbed the slain animal by the hind legs. It appeared to be some form of rabbit and fat enough to fill his belly for tonight. He pushed aside any kinship he felt to the creature and set about building a cook fire. He rubbed sticks together as he had in Ireland until a spark ignited the dried grass he’d collected. After roasting the meat, he ate greedily until his stomach no longer protested and sleep overtook him once again.
Jaemus did the same thing for weeks. Slept, explored, ate. He did not make contact with any other humans. There were none. He did not hold out hope of leaving this place. No way of escape existed. He practiced fighting imaginary demons with the spear he’d made to keep his body in good shape, but each day that crawled by made him wonder if he shouldn’t lie down in the sand and let himself wither to nothing under the beaming sun.
This was not a life.
This was punishment and nothing more. Punishment for what Reardon had done. Punishment Jaemus did not deserve. If he ever saw his brother again, he’d… he’d… Gods, he couldn’t even come up with a revenge plan harsh enough.
He lowered to the sand as he’d done almost every day since being exiled and rested his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, his fingers raking through his chin-length blond hair. He scratched at his beard that would soon be unruly—except for the spot where he’d been gouged by the sea and no hair had grown after the wound had closed. As the gentle waves rolled along the pristine shore, a flash of light cracked open the sky as it had back in Ireland all those weeks ago.
When his eyes adjusted, Jaemus found himself away from the sand and sea and in a very different forest.
The silver and turquoise bangles on Nika Skarvinski’s slender wrist jingled as she dusted the bookshelves lining the back wall of Maple Ridge Trading Post, a shop her tato, her father, Cezar Skarvinski, had left her in the tree-covered mountains of Canville, Vermont. She loved the shop. She did. Honest.
“Oh, Tato, why couldn’t you have died a billionaire, huh?” She blew a strand of her curly chestnut hair out of her face then sneezed over the cloud of dust she’d churned up. “Would have been so nice to not have to worry about money. To kick up my feet, maybe travel, spends oodles of time making jewelry or something else relaxing.”
Instead, Nika was neck deep in debt and barely scraping by on the meager profits of the trading post. When she was a child, Maple Ridge Trading Post was a booming business during the spring, all summer long, and well into the fall, always full of tourists from all over the country. She’d always enjoyed running about the aisles, meeting new people and learning their stories as she helped Tato work. Her father always had a smile for his customers and everyone who talked to him instantly liked him.
“Damn, I miss you, Tato.”
Nika’s father had been dead for several years, but she felt his presence in that shop. He hadn’t left yet. She was sure of it. He couldn’t let go for some reason, and she had an inkling it was because of her.
“I’m okay. Really.” But she didn’t believe it. Certainly, her father who’d passed to that in-between place didn’t believe it either. “I will be okay. I promise.”
“You’re not going to be okay if you keep talking to empty shops.” Carrie Pine, one of the seventeen-year old employees at Maple Ridge meandered down the center aisle and stopped next to Nika. She pulled her long blonde hair onto one shoulder and surveyed the bookshelves with narrowed blue eyes. She pointed to the upper right corner of the shelves. “You missed a spot.”
Nika squinted at the space Carrie had indicated, and sure enough, a dusty cobweb bounced in the cool breeze coming from the air conditioning vent. She pushed the feather duster into Carrie’s stomach, a small cloud of dust leaving a gray spot on the teenager’s green Maple Ridge T-shirt. “Be a pal and get that for me, will you?”
Carrie closed her fingers around the duster and frowned. “This is what I get for pointing out your inadequacies.”
“Exactly.” Nika fluffed the folds of her long, flowered skirt and brushed a smear of dust off her turquoise tank top. “Where’s Zavier?”
Carrie shrugged as she took care of the rogue cobweb. “Haven’t seen him yet. I just got here.”
Zavier Russo was Nika’s other seventeen-year-old employee. He and Carrie attended Canville High together and had answered the trading post’s help wanted ad on the same day two years ago. They were both so adorable when they interviewed, each of them stunned by the other’s presence and awkward as they stole shy glances at one another. Nika had offered them both a job—not able to afford paying them much, but convincing them the work experience would look good on college applications. They worked opposite shifts, but there was usually a thirty-minute overlap Nika enjoyed watching.
Maybe someday—someday soon—those two would admit they were made for each other and finally go on a date. For now, they appeared to be content pretending to not be interested in one another while flirting every chance they got.
Nika missed those carefree high school days when the biggest problem she faced was which cute boy to flirt with during Algebra class. If she’d known those four years were to be her dating peak, she would have spent more time enjoying herself. Someone should have taken her aside and explained how it would be once she got out into the “real world.”
Listen, Nika. Have fun now. Dance with every boy you can. Enjoy the chase. Let your heart beat excitedly. Kiss and be kissed. A lot. Once you grow up, things will different. You won’t have time for dancing, chasing, kissing. You’ll be too busy trying to survive.
Nika doubted she would have listened to anyone who had taken her aside and told her any of this. When you’re a teenager, everything seems possible. When you’re a grownup—one whose trading post isn’t making any money—everything seems like a giant noose around your neck. One misstep off the rickety wooden stool beneath your feet and crack. Neck broken. Last breath. Life over.
“Wow.” Carrie stared at her, twirling the feather duster so the hot pink feathers fluffed out then settled, fluffed, settled, fluffed, settled.
Nika was nearly hypnotized by the movement then she shook her head and looked at Carrie. “Wow what?”
“That was one powerful sigh you unleashed, Boss.” Carrie angled her head as she chewed on her bottom lip. “Things aren’t getting better around here, are they?”
Nika arced a hand out to the empty shop behind them. “I think the tumbleweed blowing in the aisles answers that question, don’t you?” Her voice was harsher than she’d meant it to be. It wasn’t Carrie’s fault business sucked. “I’m sorry, Carrie. I’m in a mood.”
Carrie set the feather duster down on a beautiful log table, handmade by a local Native American craftsman. The shop had a few of his pieces, but hardly anyone came in to appreciate—and buy—such solidly constructed and artistic furniture. “You know what cures bad moods, don’t you?”
“I do, but you don’t have to.” Nika smiled as Carrie ran off to a corner of the trading post. “Carrie, seriously.”
“You know you’ll feel better!” Carrie called.
By the time Carrie came back with a puppet on each hand, Nika couldn’t deny she needed this.
“Which one do you want to be?” Carrie wiggled Red Riding Hood on her left hand and Big Bad Wolf on her right.
Nika reached forward and plucked the wolf off Carrie’s hand. “You know I’m always the wolf.” The trading post held a show once a day that did in fact draw in a small group. It was an alternate Little Red Riding Hood story in which Wolfman terrorizes not only Red, but the audience too. Somewhere between scary and cheesy, the show pleased onlookers and brought in enough money to stay open.
For the next three months anyway… maybe.
Jared Greene who played Wolfman was awesome. The right amount of grizzly and growly to make audiences squeal and laugh, Jared was Nika’s only money maker right now. She needed him and the other two actors who played Red and Huntsman in the show, though those two weren’t what attracted viewers. The sales she had on show tickets and puppets resembling characters in the show kept her head above water.
“I hold out hope that one day you’ll let me be the wolf,” Carrie said.
“Keep dreaming, kid.”
Carrie laughed, then relaxing her facial expression, she moved the Red Riding Hood puppet and said, “Why, I do declare, Mr. Big Bad Wolf, you are lookin’ fine this afternoon.”
For some reason Red had a southern accent this time, and Nika barked out a laugh. This was what made this so fun. She never knew what accent Carrie would pull out. The kid was a master at so many.
“So we’re going deep south today, are we?” Nika shoved her hand into the wolf puppet and smoothed the gray fur between its ears.
“Appears so, Miss Nika.” Carrie made the Red Riding Hood puppet grab its long brown braid and roll it between its hands as if preening.
Nodding, Nika cleared her throat and made the wolf puppet raise its furry head as if sniffing the air. “Somethin’ smells powerful good ’round here.” Her voice was deep and heavy with southern drawl. She had to fight not to laugh. “Right good enough to eat I’d say.”
“That’s no way to be speakin’ to a lady, Mr. Big Bad Wolf.” Red’s puppet arms stretched out to her sides in exasperation.
“Ain’t seen no ladies here. Just meals.” Nika opened the jaws of the wolf puppet, her finger manipulating the long, pink tongue so it licked the puppet’s lips.
Carrie opened her mouth and bobbled Red’s hooded head, but a voice interrupted her puppet’s next lines.
“Meals? Did someone say meals? I’m hungry. I’m always hungry.”
Nika and Carrie turned around to find the Huntsman puppet sitting atop a display of hand-carved boxes painted to depict local natural settings. Zavier’s face was visible from the other side of the aisle, a grin stretching across his face as he stared pointedly at Carrie.
Hungry. That boy was more than hungry for Carrie. Nika could see it in his green eyes.
“It’s a southern accent today, Zavier.” Carrie’s hands went to her hips, taking Red Riding Hood with her. The puppet’s head was smooshed against her side and Zavier’s eyes tracked the movement to her hips. “If you’re not going to do the right accent, you can’t play.”
She took the wolf puppet from Nika, slipped it on her free hand, and closed its jaws over the Huntsman puppet’s head, ripping it down from the boxes.
Zavier made a muffled screaming noise that made Nika chuckle, but Carrie ignored him and walked away with all three puppets.
“She mad at you today?” Nika asked.
Carrie had quite a bit of sass—which Nika loved about her—but she usually wasn’t so bitchy to Zavier. Most of the time she was watching him—not so secretly—with a dreamy, faraway look in her blue eyes. She definitely wasn’t doing dreamy today.
The boy shrugged one shoulder and straightened the boxes the Huntsman puppet had been perched on. “It’s possible Carrie may have seen me with Amanda Tiller last night.”
Nika winced. Rivalry. “I see.”
“Now you’re going to be mad at me too?” Zavier dropped his forehead to the boxes and rocked his head from side to side.
Nika stepped close enough that she could pat the crown of Zavier’s head. “I’m not mad at you, honey, but when are you and Carrie going to admit you like each other? I mean, you’ve been working here all this time together, you go to school together, you hang out… I don’t get it.”
“It’s complicated.” The boy let out a low groan as if his very soul hurt. So dramatic.
“Things with teenagers usually are complicated.” Nika gave Zavier’s head a gentle slap. “What’s Amanda Tiller have that Carrie doesn’t?”
“Amanda has a father who thinks I’m good enough for her.”
Hmm. “Carrie’s dad doesn’t like you?” This was news to Nika. She knew Carrie’s father. Strict, military type, but he’d always been cordial to Nika. Was it possible he was ultra-particular about who his little girl fell for? Nika smiled thinking of Tato. He always disapproved of her boyfriends when she was a teenager, but he had the good sense to keep mum about it.
Zavier picked his head up off the boxes and shook it. “I don’t even know why her father doesn’t like me. He gives me this steely-eyed glare and a frown every time I’m in his presence. You know he’s Special Forces, right? A sniper.” Zavier swallowed loudly.
“Have you talked to Carrie about this?”
“Talked to her about it? Shit no. But she knows he doesn’t like me.”
“Okay then.” Nika puffed out a breath, deciding Zavier was right. It was complicated. And none of her business. She had enough to worry about without getting involved in the love lives of young adults.
“I’m leaving!” Carrie called from the front door of the trading post. “See you tomorrow, Nika.”
“Bye, sweetie.” Nika gave Zavier a quick glance. The boy hadn’t moved from where he stood in the aisle. “She didn’t say bye to you.”
“Because I’m an asshole.”
“You are not.”
“Carrie thinks so.”
“Then change her mind, Huntsman.”
Nika walked to the small office at the rear of the trading post and sat at her desk, confident Zavier would handle the non-existent hordes of customers. She leaned back in her chair. Why was it so obvious to her what Zavier and Carrie had to do to be together, but when it came to herself and relationships, she didn’t have a goddamn clue?
Probably because I haven’t had a goddamn prospect in ages.
There were dating dry spells. And then there was whatever Nika was going through. A dating famine, perhaps. One of epic proportions. Of course, in order to date, a person had to actually have some free time. And some money. Nika certainly didn’t have any extra time hanging about and as for money, that well would soon be dry too.
She folded her arms on top of her desk—Tato’s desk actually—and rested her head atop them. If she squeezed her eyes closed, she could imagine away the stacks of bills littering the desktop. If she never opened her eyes, maybe she could imagine a completely different life.
One where Maple Ridge Trading Post was a tourist hot spot again.
One where Tato was still alive and giving out smiles to every customer he met.
One where she had a fabulously sexy man to come home to every night who would make love to her as if it were his sole purpose in life.
A sharp knock sounded on the office door followed by, “Nika. You can’t keep ignoring me.”
One where Robert Senclair didn’t want to turn Maple Ridge Trading Post into a foolish Mr. Sprinkles Donut Shop.
“I’m pretty sure I can keep ignoring you, Robert.” She would not be opening the door for him. She didn’t have that brand of patience in stock today.
“At what cost, Nika? I just walked through the trading post and the only person I ran across was your employee. Your employee who is currently sitting at the register reading The Canterbury Tales, for Christ’s sake.”
“He’s adding a little literary culture to our atmosphere at Maple Ridge Trading Post. Zavier is all part of my genius marketing plan to draw in sophisticated, big-spending clientele.”
Nothing grated on Nika’s nerves like Robert Senclair’s voice. She’d known him since elementary school. He’d been a jerk in Kindergarten when he’d destroyed her finger-painted masterpiece—one she’d planned to give Tato for his birthday—and hadn’t changed.
Well, maybe he’d gotten taller and his hair had thinned, but other than that he was the same asswaffle at thirty-five years old that he was at six.
“I’m busy, Robert,” she called. “I’ve got to meet with Jared about some Wolfman costume modifications. I’ve got—”
“No, you don’t,” Robert interrupted.
“No, I don’t what? Have a meeting? Yes, I do. And who do you think—”
“Jared is in jail.”
The four words punched her in the face. Not enough to knock her out though.