Surprisingly, Jackson Durant actually loved Christmastime. Eleven months out of the year, he was kind of a tightly wound grinch. But once his mother started putting out the same cracked, lopsided decorations she’d been putting out for decades, something lightened in Jackson’s heart and stayed light until New Years.
He couldn’t exactly explain it, considering he was 38 and single—the only single brother left in his family—and it wasn’t like his family had huge, elaborate Christmas traditions to look forward to. They simply got together on Christmas Eve and slept over at his mother’s house, and then exchanged gifts on Christmas morning while his mother pumped Mannheim Steamroller through the house and shoved cinnamon buns down everyone’s throats.
Not exactly a life-changing tradition. But he loved it all the same.
It was only two weeks until Christmas and his mother had all the decorations up already. It was an hour after their weekly family Sunday dinner and everyone had migrated from the dining room into the living room. For once, Jackson wasn’t on call at his veterinary practice, so he balanced a dark beer on one knee while he tipped his head back and closed his eyes, letting the blinking lights from his mother’s gaudy Christmas tree play over his closed eyelids.
Jackson listened on and off to his twin brothers, Seth and Raphael, tell a story about their new landscaping client. Jackson listened as Raphael’s girlfriend, Natalie, announced she was going to put everyone’s names in a hat for a Secret Santa exchange. Jackson, dozing slightly now, listened as Sarah, Seth’s wife, talked about the training she’d started undergoing—she was attempting to qualify for the summer Olympics in her sport of archery. His mother chimed in here and there to all the conversations.
There were two other people in the room, besides Jackson, who were utterly silent, however.
On Jackson’s right was Bauer, his mother’s sixty-year-old boarder and something of a mentor for the Durant boys. He was even more quiet than Jackson usually was. He’d only come into their makeshift family a few years ago, but it was already hard to imagine the group without him.
And then, of course, there was the other silent person in the group, the one whose every tiny movement and adjustment Jackson was doing everything he could to pretend he wasn’t constantly aware of. She lounged like an exotic cat across the huge armchair closest to the fire in the hearth. Kaya Chalk. Natalie’s little sister and the thorn in Jackson’s heart for years. She was painfully lodged within him and nothing he’d ever done had been able to work himself free of her.
Kaya was the youngest person in the room, having just celebrated her 25th birthday. She was also the only person in the room who kind of… glowed. Okay. Maybe that was just in Jackson’s lovesick imagination, but anyone would have had to admit that the firelight played tantalizingly over her honey blonde hair and tan skin.
He’d known Kaya since she was a kid, but then he’d left town for college and veterinary school and by the time he’d come back in his early thirties, she’d blossomed into the most desirable woman on planet Jackson. It was chemical or something. Yes, she was physically stunning—she turned heads everywhere she went, even in slouchy sweatpants and a baseball cap. But it was more than that. He was drawn to her on what felt like an elemental level. Like her cells were yins and his cells were yangs. Or something like that.
For most of the years that he’d been back and denying himself the woman who was almost fourteen years younger than he, she’d always been on her best behavior around him. The two of them weren’t friendly, exactly, and they never really had been. For a long time, she’d watched him just like he watched her. Whether she’d liked him or not, he’d never known, but he was certain that she was at least aware of him.
He hadn’t been able to stand her eyes on him, knowing that he’d never be able to have her. So, he’d mucked it all up, intentionally, some time ago. And now he was pretty sure she couldn’t care less about him. She was no longer wide-eyed and aware every time he came into a room. Nope. She was utterly at ease as she almost completely ignored him. Part of him wished that she would ignore him completely, then that at least would show that he still affected her in some way.
Nope. She seemed utterly unaffected by his presence and he’d been introduced to a new side of her. The… soupy side of her. She always seemed to be lounged across something like an Egyptian Queen. More often than not, she was dozing or just listening to the conversation around her with her eyes closed. Gone was the girl who’d nervously eyed him like a black cat. Arrived was the girl he now watched eat an entire slice of pizza with her eyes closed, laying on her back in front of the fire, one of her feet bouncing up and down to a song only she could hear.
She was utterly and completely unconcerned with Jackson’s presence now and her relaxed demeanor only proved it.
Jackson, on the other hand, had been formally introduced to Soupy Kaya and it, unfortunately, only made him love her more. He loved her slouchy, sleepy style. He loved that she could fall asleep in about ten seconds flat. He loved that the entire room would think she’d been asleep for an hour, but then she’d sit up and chime in, obviously having listened the entire time and not missed a trick.
What a weirdo she was.
Jackson pressed his eyelids closed even tighter. God, he wanted her.
“So, we’ll drive up on the 18th, spend a few days, the girls will stay at the resort, and the boys will head to the cabin on the 22nd. We can all meet back here for the 24th and for Christmas.”
Jackson’s eyes sprung open at Seth’s voice. He looked around at his family, who, with the exception of Bauer and Kaya, were all plugging dates and times into their phone calendars.
“Wait, what’s going on?” Jackson asked, looking around.
“We’re planning that ski trip up north,” Seth said, still typing on his phone. “You said you could come, remember?”
Jackson frowned. “I said I might be able to come. And that was before I agreed to switch schedules with JP.”
JP was the other vet at Jackson’s veterinary clinic and probably his only friend outside of his family. She was an older lady who had zero tolerance for what she viewed as Jackson’s crappy attitude and spent a great deal of their friendship attempting to get him to live a little. She’d been appalled that he’d agreed to be on call on New Year’s Eve and had forced him to switch schedules with her so that he could go out and get laid at least once in the new year—her words, not his. Little had she known it would mean missing a trip with his family.
“Shit. Really? You can’t come?” Raphael asked, his eyes filled with disappointment. Though Raphael and Seth were twins, they had pretty different personalities. Seth showed his love and affection for his family by organizing things like this ski trip. Raphael showed his love and affection through too-tight hugs and sloppy cheek kisses and being really, really bummed when you couldn’t come on the ski trip.
“Yeah. Can’t come.”
“I can’t come either,” Kaya chimed in, her eyes closed and one finger twirling a lock of her messy hair. Jackson allowed himself half a second to glance at her golden loveliness and then made his eyes skitter away and stare at the Christmas tree so he wouldn’t get sucked into the vortex of Kaya.
“What?” her sister chirped. Natalie was just as much as a bleeding heart as Raphael was. And just as messy, too. Sometimes Jackson wondered how the couple ever got anything done. How Nat and Raph managed to wade through not only their copious emotions, but the knee-deep pile of unfolded laundry and half-read magazines that were constantly scattered around their house.
“Yeah, I have to work up through the 21st.” Kaya opened her eyes and sat up and Jackson couldn’t help but follow the movement with his eyes. Her hair was up in two messy buns on her head and she tucked her oversized sweater over her knees so she looked like a little ball of woman. He bet it was warm inside her sweater. He bet it smelled freaking amazing in there. Like flowers and fresh bread and oh shit people were talking to him and he was fantasizing about the inside of Kaya’s sweater.
“Uh, sorry. What?”
“You’re still going to meet us for the full moon, though, right?”
His brothers and Bauer spent every full moon at a cabin about two hours north of Boulder that was tucked ridiculously far back into the mountains.
The Durant brothers needed… privacy on a full moon.
Jackson didn’t always join his brothers at the cabin on a full moon. There were times he just spent it in his own basement. But that was depressing and reclusive and just because he was depriving himself of Kaya didn’t mean he had to deprive himself of his family as well.
“Yeah. I’ll drive up on the morning of the 22nd and meet you all there.”
“I guess I could drive up to the resort on the 22nd, early morning,” Kaya suggested, her eyes closed again. “That way I could spend the day there with the girls and then we can all carpool back on Christmas eve.”
“Oh, good!” Elizabeth, Jackson’s mother, chimed in. Natalie and Kaya had been in and around her home since they were very little girls and she viewed them as daughters. Any extra time she could get with them she relished.
“That’s better than nothing,” Natalie conceded. “I feel like I never see you anymore.”
Natalie and Kaya had grown up in the same house, then moved out together the day Kaya turned eighteen. They’d shared an apartment up until last year when Natalie had finally moved in with Raphael and Kaya had downsized to a studio apartment that she could better afford.
Kaya opened her eyes and smiled, tipping her head backward on the armrest to see her sister. “Nat, we literally see each other every day.”
Nat pouted out her bottom lip. “It’s not enough!”
Jackson, though he had his best disinterested look pasted across his face, inwardly agreed with Natalie. Seeing Kaya once a day was not enough. He knew that for a fact, being as they worked in the same complex and he did see her, from afar, every day. He worked at the vet’s clinic at one end and she at the wellness clinic at the other end.
He saw her almost every day, heading in or out of work, and it wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He’d wanted more for years, and for years he’d punished himself for the impulse.
She was not his to want, and she never would be.
“The peanut butter crackers are on me,” a deep voice said from behind Kaya as it came up her turn at the gas station checkout.
She’d already paid for her gas at the kiosk and she’d just popped in to the store for a quick snack to get her through the rest of her drive up to the resort. It was two days before Christmas.
Kaya turned to see who was offering to pay for her snack.
It was a man, of course, late twenties, a wide, bro-ish smile on his face and no coat on. She resisted the urge to narrow her eyes at him. It was damn near twenty degrees outside and he’d foregone a coat? Men were such freaks.
At this point in her life, Kaya knew better than to argue with the man over who got to buy her seventy-five-cent peanut butter crackers. She’d learned the path of least resistance. All she had to do was smile and say a very sweet thank you and then, usually, most men let her skedaddle away. If she argued about paying for them for herself, or didn’t say thank you, she was liable to get called a bitch. Which… sucked. But it was also just the way the world was and Kaya played by the rules even if she didn’t even pretend to understand them.
She knew she was a pretty girl, but right now she wore her hair stuffed under a horribly knitted red cap—thanks to Natalie’s newest hobby—no makeup, a scarf that was about six feet long and three feet wide, an old wool coat, leggings, and an unattractive pair of hiking boots. Why in God’s name was this man trying to start up something with her? She looked like the child of winter’s frumpy cousin.
“Oh. Thanks!” she said brightly, even though she thought it was weird to buy someone peanut butter crackers. “Merry Christmas!”
She gave a bright wave and braced herself for the biting cold of the gas station parking lot.
Kaya sighed. She was halfway across the lot when the peanut butter bro caught up to her.
“Hey, I’m Will.”
“Hi, Will,” she said as she kept on walking.
“Pretty cold out, huh?”
“Headed anywhere interesting?”
“Just to the gates of hell to visit my uncle for Christmas.”
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing.” She sighed again and stood at the door of her car. She didn’t want to linger. “It was nice to meet you.”
She slid quickly into her car and locked the door behind her.
He knocked on her window. “Can I, uh, get your number? Seeing as it’s Christmas and all?”
Seriously, that was such a weird way of asking, but it was not, by far, the weirdest way she’d ever been asked.
“Um. Sure.” She rolled down her window a crack and gave him her number before she waved and got back on the road.
As she drove away, she looked at him in the rearview mirror. He actually was pretty cute. Spiky blond hair and a nice body. He was probably going to be pretty disappointed when he realized that she’d given him the number for the local free STD testing service. It was a number she’d memorized for this purpose quite a long time ago and was the only number she ever gave out when a man asked for hers.
She put her wipers on as the snow began to fall a little harder. It wasn’t supposed to really dump until this evening, but apparently, the storm clouds that had rolled in off the mountains were getting a little impatient.
It wasn’t that Kaya got a kick out of being standoffish with men, it was that she really didn’t know how to be any other way. They simply didn’t excite her.
She wasn’t gay, she’d deduced that much. But she just wasn’t someone who enjoyed flirting with men. She’d dated a guy for a few months last year. And she’d enjoyed kissing him. That was instinctual enough. But his company had begun to grate on her and so had his desperation. They’d kiss for an hour before she eventually got bored. But for him, it seemed that kissing her only revved him up even further. If their desire for one another was on some sort of line graph, his line always ended up in the clouds and hers ended up near her shoes.
She didn’t view any of this as a problem, really. She enjoyed her life a great deal. She had her dream job as the resident nutritionist at the Mason West Clinic in Boulder. She had best friends in both Natalie and Sarah, and Raphael, for that matter. Seth was like a brother. Elizabeth was like her mother, Bauer was like an uncle.
And then there was…
She pursed her lips just thinking Jackson’s name to herself.
Jackson was not like a brother and certainly not like a friend. A long time ago she’d had quite a crush on the Durants’ moody oldest brother. But he’d shot that crush to hell a while ago by being the rudest person known to man and making it clear that he didn’t even find her interesting enough to be friends with.
In a way, she was grateful to him for torpedoing her crush on him. Because it meant that he’d released her from the awkward behavior she used to engage in around him. She used to be hyperaware of his every move, she’d internally document every word he said. Not anymore. Now that he’d freed her of her terrible crush on him, she found it quite easy to ignore him.
She was just destined to be an old lady, happily alone, drowning in terribly knitted gifts from her sister. There were worse fates, that was for sure.
Kaya frowned as the snow picked up. It was really starting to accumulate now and she was less than halfway there. She’d always liked driving in bad weather. It made her feel like an intrepid explorer or something. But her car didn’t love cold weather and it was only getting colder.
She leaned forward over the wheel and thought of the hot chocolate that was waiting for her. The Jacuzzi tub and, if the snow let up, at least half a day on the slopes. She was just starting to spin out a fantasy involving pulling on fresh wool socks after a day of snowboarding while room service delivered a whopping big bowl of soup when her car just sort of sputtered underneath her.
“Whoa, girl. Steady.” She patted the dash and put on her blinkers so that she could lower her speed.
The snow was coming down faster now and there were fewer cars on the highway. The car sputtered again.
At first, Kaya didn’t see the smoke because it was lost in the clouds of snow enveloping her car, but she sure smelled it.
“Shit!” She pulled off the highway, her car bumping along an exit that she knew very well led to absolutely nowhere. That was why she’d gotten gas twenty miles back, because there was a dead zone for the next hour where there were very little amenities or places to stop.
She pulled to a full stop, well off the road, and popped the hood. Thankfully it was just smoke and no fire.
Also thankfully, she had a cell signal.
She didn’t think twice about calling her sister.
“No,” Jackson shouted as he stood at the edge of a stand of trees. The sky was an eerie gray, snow was falling but not hitting the ground. Far away, all the way on the other side of the clearing, stood Kaya. She wore a blood-red coat.
In between Kaya and Jackson was a snow-white wolf, licking its chops. Jackson was too far away. The wolf was too close. The wolf growled at Kaya, lowered its head and started sprinting right toward her.
“No!” he shouted again, and this time, it was in real life. He sat up, shivering against his own cold sweat and dropping his head into his hands. His sheets pooled around his waist as he scrubbed his hands over his face and wished he could scrub the dream from his brain.
It had been two freaking years of this nightmare at least once a week. A white wolf about to attack Kaya.
Jackson knew he had no one to blame but himself.
“It didn’t happen,” he told himself. “Seth stopped you. Kaya is fine.”
He was a crazy man, talking to himself in the dim dawn light that filtered in between his curtains. But it was also helping a little bit, calming him down.
“She’s probably still asleep in her apartment across town. I bet she’s wearing a ridiculously ugly nightshirt down to her knees and knee socks. Two pairs of knee socks.” It was true that Kaya was an exceptionally frumpy dresser. Everything she wore seemed designed to downplay her natural gorgeousness, and for that, Jackson was immensely grateful. If she were actually trying to attract him, he wasn’t sure he could have withstood it.
Picturing Kaya sleeping peacefully in ugly clothes calmed him down just enough to be able to slide out of bed and into the shower. It wasn’t as early as he’d thought because he could smell his coffee automatically brewing downstairs, which meant it was dark outside for a different reason.
“Shit,” Jackson muttered as he looked out his bedroom window, his towel around his waist and his hair dripping wet. The snow had come early.
Which meant that he, his brothers, and Kaya would all be driving through it today. Just what he needed—another reason to worry about the people he loved.
Deciding to get on the road a few hours earlier than was strictly necessary, Jackson dressed and ate a quick bagel over the sink, washing the crumbs away immediately afterward. He put his coffee in a thermos and hit the road.
Against his better judgment, he flipped the local radio on. He almost never liked the opinions he heard there, but he found he had a compulsive need to tune in.
“In the last several years,” the newscaster intoned in a soothing, monotone voice, “there has been a rash of shifter-based violence in the Colorado area, largely spurred by the death of Lee Jones three years ago in October. Jones was believed to have been hiking around the Boulder reservoir when he was attacked and killed by what authorities expected to have been a mountain lion shifter. Amidst public outrage regarding unregistered shifters who are living free of the government-run shifter camps where they are legally required to live out their lives, many Shifter Resistance groups have cropped up.”
Jackson’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. None of this was new information to him, but still, hearing it jacked up his blood pressure.
“Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center has officially declared many of these vigilante groups, largely made up of citizens, to be considered hate groups. One group in particular, called CTAARUS, is based in Boulder, Colorado. Two nights ago, four CTAARUS members were arrested in the midst of what appeared to be a vigilante raid on a group of suspected shifters outside of Aurora. The CTAARUS members, all of whom have been let out on bail, stormed an apartment building and attempted a citizen’s arrest on what could be as many as three unregistered shifters.”
Jackson felt his stomach swoop away and all the blood run out of his face. This part was definitely news to him.
“The alleged shifters were in their human forms when attacked. All three escaped but are currently wanted for questioning in the incident. The police have released the following identifying information: Mid-30s male, red hair, over six feet tall and slightly overweight. Mid-40s female, 5’4” and a very petite build, black hair. And a mid-20s male, approximately 5’8”, 140 pounds, brown hair, and one of his eyes was thought to be injured in the altercation. If you have any information or think you’ve sighted any of these alleged shifters, the police ask that you call the following tip line—”
Jackson slammed off the radio, shaking his head at himself and his foolish hope. Every day he tuned in to the news hoping for some sort of miraculous reversal of public opinion on shifters. Some sort of revolutionary change where the public suddenly believed that shifters deserved to live free, unregistered. Where public funds were used to provide training and support for shifters who were troubled and potentially dangerous. Where the stigma itself didn’t create an environment where shifters grappled with hate and self-hate for the entirety of their lives.
He took a deep breath and slowed down a bit. He’d been driving too fast in the bad weather. The last thing he needed the hours before a full moon was to get pulled over by the cops.
He was an hour north of Boulder when his cell rang.
“Raph, what’s up?” Jackson answered the phone, already tense at what he naturally assumed to be some kind of trouble on the way.
“Hey, man, are you driving? Where are you?”
“Got on the road early. I’m just passing Altona.”
“Thank God.” The relief was palpable in his brother’s voice.
“What’s going on?”
“Kaya was driving up to meet the girls at the resort and her car broke down about a half an hour north of you.”
Jackson went completely silent. That was not good. That was not good on about fifty different levels. One, the snow was getting worse and the idea of Kaya being stranded and alone in the cold weather was enough to have Jackson’s blood pressure skyrocketing to the moon. But on the other hand, he was probably the last person on earth who should be going to get her right now and he was pretty sure that that was what Raphael was hoping would happen.
“Do you think you could pick her up?”
“And drive her all the way up to the resort?” He knew he sounded like an asshole, he should have just said yes, but the idea of four hours trapped in a car with Kaya Chalk sounded like a torturous mixture of heaven and hell that Jackson really didn’t want to find out whether or not he could withstand.
“No way! Dude, haven’t you seen the weather? We’re all stranded up here for sure. We’re going to weather the full moon here. You and Kaya need to get back to Boulder.”
“Shit, it’s that bad?”
“It’s that bad.”
Jackson knew it was bad if Raphael was saying so. He’d once seen his brother snowboard off their roof and into a snowdrift during a literal blizzard. Bad weather didn’t faze Raphael. Jackson’s stomach flipped as the snow hit his windshield with even more vigor. Kaya was out there somewhere.
“All right. I’ll get her and bring her home.” It would only end up being around two hours in the car and then he would drop her home and he would race home to weather the full moon in the safety of his own basement.
“Great. Thank God. Nat and Ma are gonna be so relieved.”
Raphael gave Jackson the exact location of where Kaya was and it wasn’t forty more minutes before Jackson was pulling his black Jeep up behind Kaya’s little turquoise Toyota Corolla.
The windows were covered over in snow already, her car drifted in. It looked like she’d been there for a while.
Jackson jumped out of the car and landed in knee-deep snow.
Moving as fast as he could, he ran around to the driver’s side of the car.
“Kaya?” he shouted, hoping she could hear him through the snow.
The door came open, blowing snow inside the car, and there was Kaya, peeking out from under a horrendous wool cap, a ginormous scarf around her neck, and her lips practically blue.
“Hi,” she said through chattering teeth. “S-s-sorry for making y-you c-come get me.”
He reached down and helped her out of the car, slamming the door behind her. She clutched her small overnight bag to her chest. She tried to say something else but it was lost in the wind. She was obviously freezing, but steady on her feet, and she was able to pull herself up into the passenger side of the Jeep. Glad he’d kept it running, Jackson slammed into the driver’s side and immediately cranked up the heat as high as it would go. He pulled back onto the road right away because he was scared that if the snow piled up any higher, he wouldn’t be able to get his Jeep out.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” she answered. “Just chilly. I wasn’t even there that long. This snow is intense.”
He had to agree. The Jeep was good in bad weather but this was something else. He frowned as they drove slowly over the bridge to merge back onto the highway going south again. His blood froze as he saw that the traffic on that side of the highway was at a standstill. There must have been an accident.
“Oh, no,” she muttered, realizing the same thing. “We’ll be sitting for hours.”
It was still early, not even afternoon, but fear suddenly clutched him. The dead-cold feeling that his nightmare always brought with it came in a sudden tidal wave. He couldn’t afford to be trapped somewhere for hours on the night of a full moon. It was an early moon tonight, too. He had to be somewhere way the hell away from Kaya by six p.m. sharp.
This was bad. This was really bad. Under no circumstances could he be sitting in a car with her when the full moon rose.
“Is there anywhere around here where we could wait out the storm? It’s not supposed to last that long.”
“Nothing but farmland and mountains for at least another thirty miles in either direction.” He trailed off as something occurred to him. “Except for the cabin.”
The cabin where he’d been intending to meet up with his brothers was another twenty-five miles north, away from Boulder and away from any civilization. If that was where he took Kaya, they’d be completely and utterly alone. Together.
On a full moon.
Jackson pulled off to the side of the road and rested his forehead on the steering wheel of his Jeep. “Fuck me,” he muttered.
“What? What’s wrong? The cabin sounds like a perfect solution.”
“Kaya,” he said slowly, knowing that his tone was probably rude, “it’s a full moon tonight.”
“I’m aware,” she replied, in just as rude a tone as he’d used. “So what?”
“So what?” He wheeled on her and really looked at her for the first time since they’d climbed in his car. Her hands were pressed against the heating vents and there was color back in her lips and cheeks. He ruthlessly ignored those facts and tried to focus on being mad at her. “So what? Kaya, you of all people should know exactly how terrible an idea that is.”
“Have you developed amnesia over what happened two years ago?”
She furrowed her brow, like maybe she really was having trouble placing what he was talking about, which was insane to Jackson considering he still had regular nightmares about it.
“Jackson, is there more than one room in the cabin?”
“Then what’s the issue? You’ll be one place, I’ll be in the other, and we both won’t freeze like popsicles. In my book that’s a pretty easy solution.”
He frowned, but what she said wasn’t false. A new idea occurred to him. There was no reason he had to stay inside during the full moon. He always did that at home in order to keep other people and animals safe from himself.
But no other people or animals were going to be out in the blizzard. Kaya could be safely locked inside the cabin and he could be outside, far away from her.
Yeah. That actually might work.
Either way, he was going to have to decide fast because the snow was piling up and the day was slipping away.
“All right. Fine. We’ll go to the cabin.” He pulled the Jeep into a neat U-turn and tried very hard not to feel like he was driving toward his fate.