My rental truck bumped over the potholes of the muddy dirt road, bouncing me so high in the driver's seat that I bashed my head on the low ceiling. I gripped the steering wheel to hold myself in place, using every one of the muscles I'd earned from years of lifting and hard work. I yearned for the paved streets of LA. The city traffic and the gridlock was still a million times better than this. I bumped over an exposed tree root and almost bottomed out in a deep pothole. The road sloped up the side of the mountain at what felt like a ninety-degree angle. Ahead of me were the Rocky Mountains rising to the clouds, and below me, way, way below me, was the valley.
I gripped the wheel tighter, spun around a final bend, and the road widened and flattened a bit into what appeared to be a main street. There were about ten blocky buildings that declared their purpose with bland, uncreative signs simply stating their purpose, such as Groceries, Liquor, and Jail. They were all shoved together, the mountain rising still higher around them.
This so did not look like the sort of place I'd expected my cousin Krista, a petite, delicate blond with a love of all things pink and fragile, to live. When she said she lived in a small Colorado town, I'd imagined a condo in a ritzy ski town, not a few buildings on the side of a mountain, population seventy-five. In retrospect, I guess Krista did warn me Mule Creek was rustic, but I'd never been far from LA and my idea of rustic was clearly hugely different than hers.
There were a few beat-up trucks parked along the side of the road, most of them in front of a building declaring it offered Hot Food. I continued past a building labeled Doctor and almost missed the subtler street sign for Cherry Tree Lane. I spun the wheel hard, spraying mud as I took the corner. In my hurry, I didn't see another huge pothole and I hit it hard, this time bouncing so high I bashed my head on the ceiling and saw stars.
A dark shape darted from the forest onto the road in front of my truck. I slammed on the brakes and skidded in the slick mud. A wolf with pitch black fur leaped out of the way seconds before my bumper made contact, stopped on the other side of the narrow road, and turned to look at me. There was so much mud now covering the side window, I wasn't sure what I was seeing, but I could have sworn the wolf was glaring at me and shaking his head as though he were disappointed. Weren't wolves supposed to be wary of people? At the very least, they should be wary of people in over-sized hunks of metal.
I stared back at the wolf for just a moment. Were his eyes actually glowing? I shook my head. It must be a trick of the light. I pressed the gas, having to gun it a bit to get through the mud and, when I glanced in the rear-view mirror, the wolf was gone.
I'd been in hicksville, USA for less than ten minutes and I was already losing my mind. Krista's small, blue, craftsman-style house was about a block from Main Street, just as she'd said it would be. It was sandwiched between two similar-looking houses, all with steep driveways. I was a bit worried about the foundations, since it looked like they'd been tacked to the side of the mountain with Elmer's Glue. I could only imagine what the place would be like in winter, with snow up to the eaves, but I had no intention of staying that long. I was there strictly to heal and get back to fighting form.
The paved driveway led to the back of the house and a single-car carport. The house was longer than I'd thought from the street and the backyard was tiny and fenced. It was adorable and would probably cost an arm, a leg, and my first-born if it was in LA. I parked, grabbed my bag, and looked for the frog-shaped sculpture that Krista had told me hid her key. The sun was setting, and though the yard was smaller than my bathroom in LA, it had dark corners and tons of plants. Using the flashlight app on my phone, I checked the plants by the back porch first, but found nothing and moved into the yard, my shoes squelching in the wet, muddy grass. It started to sprinkle, the rain cold. It was August, it should be hot, but I was shivering as cold rain slid under my collar and down my bare back. I'd dressed for LA in a tank top and shorts, and my whole body was turning into one big goosebumpy shiver.
I searched one corner of the yard and then the other, and finally found an ugly, chipped frog under an enormous fern next to a small pond. I lifted the frog, grabbed the key, and started back across the yard toward the house. When a dark shadow floated across the lawn toward me, I froze.
I brushed the rain from my eyes and squinted to make out the tall figure. Of course, the rain decided to come down harder, obscuring my view. “Can I help you?” I asked. I dropped my duffel to the ground and widened my stance, preparing to fight if I had to. I slid the key between my fingers, a good weapon in case the guy was stronger than me.
The shadow moved closer and I could see it was an elderly man, his skin lined and leathery, his face shadowed by the hood of an over-sized rain jacket. “What are you doing in Miss Krista's yard, girl?” he asked in a gravelly voice.
Normally, I'd take offense at being called girl, but he was elderly and we were in hicksville, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I forced my lips up into my best approximation of a smile, though I was wet and cold, and wanted to get inside. “Krista is my cousin. I'm house sitting while she's out of town.”
He narrowed his eyes and looked me over. “You don't look nothing like Krista.”
“We're cousins by marriage, but we've always been close as blood.”
He stepped closer and grinned, revealing three missing teeth. “Well, I'll be damned. Krista told me her famous cousin Julie Jacobs would be staying here for a bit and I didn't believe her. Didn't recognize you. You look like you been dragged through a sewer.”
“I wasn't prepared for the rain. Now that you know who I am, you think I can go inside?”
“'Course you can.” He stepped to the side and gestured toward the house. “Julie fucking Jacobs. I'll be hogtied and bushwhacked.”
I picked up my duffel and started toward the house. I kept the key between my fingers, because I wasn't a complete and total idiot.
Neighbor guy followed me onto the porch, his steps heavy on the wood planks. I spun, armed with a smile, but tensed and ready to shove the old man down the stairs if he got too close. Call me paranoid, but I'd been a victim once, and I'd never be a victim again.
The old man stood at the top of the stairs, his features clearer in the glow of the motion sensing light. He pushed off his hood. “I'm Henry Broward,” he said. “I live right next door and I been taking care of Miss Krista's place while she's out of town. You need anything, you just holler.” He grinned, his brown eyes lit, and I got the impression he'd been drop-dead gorgeous in his younger years.
He didn't move, just kept staring. “I was real sorry about your last fight,” he said. “A real shame that was.”
I lifted my left arm into the light so he could see my cast. I'd been kicked in the arm in my last fight and broken my elbow and a couple bones in my arm. It was a bad break, one that had required surgery and pins. People who were supposedly experts in MMA said I'd never fight again. They were idiots. Sure, I'd pulled my right shoulder in a fight last year, and torn my ACL in a fight the year before that, and okay, I'd lost a few fights lately, but I wasn't just going to give up and throw in the towel. I was only twenty-four, I had at least a decade of fighting left in me. “I'll get back out there,” I said. “I'm just here to heal up.”
Henry nodded, but I didn't miss the look on his face. It was the same look I'd seen on the doctor's face when I told him I'd prove him wrong and fight again. It was the same look on my coach's face and on my best friend, Shelly's, face when I'd told them I'd be back to training in six weeks. The same look I'd seen on my boyfriend's face, the same look that was the reason he was now my ex-boyfriend. No one believed in me, but me. That would be enough. “I sure hope so,” Henry said. He raised a gnarled hand in farewell, but stopped before starting down the steps. He gave me a stern look. “I'm sure Krista warned you, but don't forget. It's a full moon tonight, so you're gonna wanna stay inside.” He looked around like someone might pop out of the shadows at any moment. “And lock your door.”
Krista hadn't said anything about staying inside, or about her neighbor being a kook. I didn't have any plans to go anywhere, anyway. “Sure thing, Henry. Have a good night.”
He studied me for a long moment before he shook his head, muttered something about kids never listening to old folks, and hobbled down the stairs. I watched him go and then I let myself into Krista's place. The first room was a fully-decked out, state-of-the-art kitchen. I dropped my duffel on the floor and bent to pull off my boots. My bad knee shrieked in protest, but I didn't take a seat on the floor, I bit my lip and worked through the pain, pulling off one boot after the other.
My knee always got sore in damp weather, but I wasn't about to accept that it limited me in any way. I was twenty-four years young, dammit. I would not sit to take off my boots like an old woman. I picked up my bag and hobbled though the house, turning on lights as I went. My knee was decidedly unhappy with me, so I forced myself not to limp. Mind over matter, that was the only way I'd get back in the cage again.
The house wasn't huge, but it was minimally decorated, which made it feel more spacious. There was way too much pink for my taste, but I could handle it for a couple of weeks. I found the least pink bedroom, dropped my duffel on the bed, and pulled out some dry clothes. I searched the bag for something warm, but all I'd packed was tank tops and shorts, because it was August, damn it. After I'd changed into the one pair of jeans I'd brought and a t-shirt, I laid down on the bed, slipped my cell phone from my back pocket, and dialed.
“Hello?” Shelly said. She had a cell phone like everyone else on god's green planet, but she still answered the phone like she didn't know who was calling.
“Hey, Shel. I made it.”
“Julie!” Shelly spoke like she was beyond excited to speak to me, her southern accent soothing me like warm honey. Shelly and I had been roommates early on, when neither of us had a dime to our names. She was different from me in every way imaginable, but she was loyal as hell and she'd saved my ass more than once. I loved her like a sister and I missed her genteel ass already. “What's it like there?”
“It truly is the middle of nowhere, Shel. There's not a Starbucks for more than a hundred miles.”
“You know you can come back here any time. We've got the guest bedroom on standby.”
Shelly owned a spa in the ritziest part of LA and she was extremely generous to me. She was also recently married and blissfully happy. Unlike me, she'd decided to become an adult and was talking about having kids as soon as possible. I wasn't about to interrupt her wedded bliss with my grumpy self. And I would be exceedingly grumpy not being able to train. “I'm good, Shel. It can't be any worse than our first apartment.”
“Gah,” she said. “Don't remind me. I still have nightmares about that dump.”
“I don't. It reminds me of how far I've come and where I'll never go again.”
Shelly sighed. “You don't have to fight, Jules. You can coach or train or teach self-defense. You're smart and you can-”
I'd heard it all before and I never quite believed it. Fighting was the only thing I'd ever been good at and I needed to keep doing it. “I know, Shel. I gotta go. I'm starving.”
“Okay, Jules. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
I hung up and sighed, a familiar gloom settling over me. When I met Shelly, I'd been a fifteen-year-old runaway and the place I'd run from, it hadn't prepared me in any way for life on the streets. Shel was a year older, a bit more street-wise, and together we'd looked out for each other. She'd run away from poverty in Alabama to become a movie star and had found life in LA a lot tougher than she'd anticipated.
Somehow, we'd found jobs, me at the gym where I'd met my coach, Shelly at an all-night diner, and saved enough money for a rat-hole apartment. It hadn't been pretty, in fact it had been downright terrifying, but somehow, we'd made it. I'd loaned Shelly the money to open her spa after I won my first big fight. She'd paid me back with interest, even though I didn't want it, and she'd given me a lifetime free pass to her spa. I remembered all too well how thin the line between starvation and comfort was and I wasn't going to do anything to risk my current security. I needed to fight, to put more money into my savings, until I had enough to feel safe, to be sure I'd never be homeless and desperate again.
The patter of rain against the window quieted. I stood and hobbled to the kitchen, my knee stiff now that I'd been still. My stomach rumbled as I opened the refrigerator. It was bare, its white shelves glistening and clean. Krista had said she'd leave me some food, but she'd clearly lied. I went to the pantry, hoping for a box of mac and cheese or noodles, but all I found was flour and olive oil. I dug through kitchen drawers for take-out menus, but came up empty. I googled local pizza joints and found the closest one that would deliver was eighty miles away. The same was true for Chinese, subs, Thai, and everything else I could think of that would have been only a phone call away in LA.
I looked out the window. It was dark and wet out there. It appeared to have stopped raining, but it didn't matter if it was a full-fledged typhoon, I needed food. I got back into the truck and headed to main street. I parked on the street in front of the building labeled Groceries and stepped out into an enormous mud puddle. Water splashed up my pant leg and into my boot. I sighed. Maybe interrupting Shelly's wedded bliss would be the better option.
The store was brightly lit, so I hurried inside, grabbed a basket, and looked around. At least the grocery store looked normal. It was enormous and appeared to carry everything a person could ever need, as well as a buffet with steaming warm food. My mouth watered. I filled my basket with the basic necessities, loaded up a plate with food, paid for everything, and sat at the nearest table to chow down.
There weren't many people in the store, in fact there were only two shoppers in my line of sight, both dressed in t-shirts and shorts like they thought it was the height of summer. Which it technically was since it was August, but the temperatures were more December in LA terms.
The woman was wearing a revealing tank top and was…Wow, I was pretty sure she'd just pinned the guy against the wall between the deli section and the bakery. I couldn't see much, but it didn't look like the guy was fighting her off…In fact,…was that a…? I averted my eyes and decided to focus on my meal. Watching the two of them much longer might make me lose my appetite.
Krista had said something about the town being strange, but surely someone would remind them they were in a grocery store. Any minute now. I ate quickly, to the background music of moans and sexy growls. If I was in the city, I would have yelled at them to get a room, or something equally cliché, but I wasn't in LA. I didn't yet know the quirks of Mule Creek, and…Okay, I was mostly worried my shout would make the woman step away from the man and I'd see way more of them both than I wanted to see. Not that I was a prude or anything, but what if the dude worked somewhere I went on a regular basis, like the gym, and every time I saw him I'd remember that I'd seen his cock and I'd know it bent to the left or was radically groomed or ungroomed? No, best to just eat and run.
I dumped my empty dishes, grabbed my bags, and ran from the building. I was halfway to the truck when someone shouted, “Hey, girl,” and grabbed my hips, holding me firmly in place. The hands on my hips and the words, those words my father had said so often, “hey, girl, what the hell you doing?” Or “hey girl, where the hell do you think you're going?” took me out of Mule Creek and sent me back to my teenage years in another city. My father used to grab me by my arm, or the back of my neck, or my hips, hold me in place, and speak in a low voice. “You are a worthless piece of shit. You are nothing and no one. You aren't worth the money I spend to feed and clothe you. Your mother and I are disappointed in you. What are you wearing? You look like a whore.” The words might vary but they were always horrible, always soul-shattering. I'd fought back once and he'd taken his anger out on my mother with his fists. I'd stopped fighting back.
I was frozen, memories washing over me, terror cementing my feet in place, until someone pressed his nose to my neck and sniffed me, something my father never would have done.
I snapped back to reality as the guy behind me growled. “A human?”
I spun on the crazy asshole, leading with my right. I might be left-handed, but I could punch damn hard with my right, too. I hit him before I saw him, a glancing blow to his temple. He was a few inches taller than me, but twice as wide and bulky with muscle. He pressed a hand to his head and looked at me with wide eyes. “What the—”
I didn't give him a chance to finish his sentence. I kicked him twice in quick succession. Two blows to his right leg to take him down before he could come at me again. He barely flinched. The guy had to be on something. I don't care how big he was, he should have been howling like a baby after those kicks. He growled and lunged at me, but I was ready for him. I wrapped my good arm around his neck and used his own momentum to ride him to the ground. I lay my body on top of his and tightened my neck lock. He scrabbled at my fingers, but I held tight. Somewhere, a small voice was screaming that I might be overreacting, but I ignored it. I wouldn't be safe until I'd taken this guy out.
Unfortunately, he was big enough that he was able to pop me up and off him. I rolled under him, the pavement hard on my back, and curled my knees up, ready to kick him. He darted out of range. “Look, lady, I'm just trying to—”
He was a bit off-kilter, probably from lack of oxygen to his brain, and he stumbled back into range. I arched my back and managed to wrap my legs around his neck. I squeezed hard and something changed. His eyes flashed with a weird sort of light and he growled again, but he sounded like an animal. It startled me so much I loosened my grip.
“Hey,” someone far off shouted. “What's going on?”
I tried to get my legs back tight around his neck, but he twisted his head and bit down hard on my calf. I screamed in shock more than pain as his teeth pierced my calf muscle. I'd taken a lot of punches and kicks, but no one had ever bitten me before.
I released my legs and scrabbled on the concrete away from him. The guy was fucking insane. I tried to stand, to get back into a fighting stance, but my bad knee was locking up on me and my vision…I hadn't taken a blow to my head, but everything was blurry and my body felt heavy, so heavy. Despite that, I forced myself to my feet and spread my legs wide. I raised my fists, ready to fight since I couldn't run.
“What the hell is happening here?” Another guy had joined the first and was looking from me to my attacker and back again. “Shit, Jeremiah, get a hold of yourself.” He grabbed my attacker by the shoulders and shook him a bit. “Calm the fuck down.”
“He 'tacked me,” I said, each word heavy and difficult to say. “Bit. Me.”
“She's a human,” a woman said. What the hell was wrong with these people?
I took a step back and wobbled. “Bit. Me.” I said again. I just couldn't get over it. Who the hell bites someone like that?
“You bit her?” A male voice asked. I didn't know which man, because I'd looked down at my leg and it was really bloody. Was it bad for it to be pumping blood like that?
“Shit. Shit. Shit.” That sounded like my attacker, but I couldn't be sure because my vision had become a small pinprick focused on the red of my blood. I tilted and started to fall.
Strong arms wrapped around me before I hit the pavement and I struggled against them. Even in my sluggish state, I knew this was very, very bad. “It's okay, sweetheart,” a husky male voice said. “You're okay.”
His words might have been more settling if my attacker wasn't still chanting “Shit,” in a panicked voice and someone else wasn't asking, “what the hell are we going to do with her?”
“We'll take her to Axel,” the guy holding me said in a calm voice. “He'll know what to do.”
I tried to fight him off, to get out of his arms, but I was too weak and I was losing my grip on consciousness. I struggled against it, struggled to get out of the darkness pulling me under. My last thought, as my world went black, was, This is a shitty way to die.