Every fairy tale has a dark side…
Elodie Rose has a secret. Any day, she’ll become a wolf and succumb to the violence that’s cursed her family for centuries. For seventeen years she’s hidden who and what she is. But now someone knows the truth and is determined to exterminate her family line. Living on borrowed time in the midst of this dangerous game of hide and seek, the last thing Elodie needs to do is fall in love. But Sawyer is determined to protect her, and the brooding, angry boy is more than what he seems. Can they outsmart a madman? And if they survive, will they find a way to beat the curse for good?
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I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.
It seems important to start my story there. The moment when everything changed and my life became a nightmare. The moment when my mother’s madness began to infect my father. Infect me.
The letter that came on my birthday that year was such a shock to my poor dad. So many times, I’ve wished I’d thrown it away. That I’d never let him see it. But at thirteen, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the enormity of what my mother was imparting. I thought it was a joke at first. A cruel one.
Dad didn’t. Instead of believing that she was mad, he took her words as the cold, hard truth. That I am a monster, just waiting for the proper catalyst to be unleashed. That I am cursed as she was.
Today I know it’s true.
I stared at the final line, the period a blotch of blue ink that bled into the page until I lifted my pen. It was worse, somehow, putting my fears into words. Words made a thing real, and I’d spent so long in denial. My ancestors all wrote of the curse in the weeks and months before they died, so it seemed fitting that I begin documentation of my own story to slip beside my mother’s letter, behind the final pages of the thick, leather-bound journal that held my gruesome family history.
With a careful, slanting hand, I continued.
I am seventeen today. Older than my predecessors by a full year. Nothing happened the way she said it would. As far as the history goes, all of them had given birth by now. All of them were dead by now. Some hunted and slaughtered. Some, like my mother, dead by their own hand. Maybe it’s because I haven’t transitioned yet, but I cannot see suicide as a viable alternative. The book hints of madness that accompanies the curse, but my mother seemed right enough in her mind when she penned the letter explaining things to me, arranging for its safe-keeping and delayed delivery, and seeing that the trail to my father was obliterated before she walked away from us. Away from life, when I was only three days old.
I cannot help but feel she took the coward’s way out, even if she thought she was protecting us. But was it cowardice? Each year since I got the letter, I’ve come out here, to contemplate whether I could do it. Each year I’ve brought a different weapon, testing, if you will, my willingness to end my own life, should it come to that. Acclimating myself to the idea. Pills the first year, though I learned from this book that our kind has a stronger constitution and requires something more definitive than an overdose. A rope the next. I wound up making a swing from it. Last year was my father’s pistol. The barrel tasted bitter and oily when I put it in my mouth. I managed to load the cylinder, but didn’t get so far as cocking the hammer.
You see, I don’t want to die.
I want a life, a future. I want to be normal. And I thought I was until yesterday morning.
Then I smelled it. The succulent odor of bacon frying. So innocuous, really. I thought Dad had decided to cook breakfast, like he used to on Saturday mornings before the letter. We made it through the worst year, the worst of the waiting, and nothing happened. Nothing changed. I had hope.
But there wasn’t any bacon frying. There wasn’t even anybody in the kitchen. Just a note from Dad that he’d been called in to work, and he’d be back in a couple of days.
I don’t know what possessed me to follow the smell. I was hungry, I guess. I tracked the scent to the Redmond’s open kitchen window. They are our closest neighbors. A full three-quarters of a mile away.
Humans do not have such fine-tuned senses of smell.
But wolves do.
What will be next? My hearing? My reflexes? The fevers that precede the first shift? How long do I have before I change? Before I lose my humanity like those who came before me.
Will I have the courage to do what must be done?
I glanced down at the bone-handled knife sitting beside me on the stone but didn’t touch it. Of all the weapons I’d tested, this was the first one that truly scared me. Pills were relatively painless. A rope, well if you did it right, that was pretty instant. Same with eating a bullet. But a knife… A knife was something else altogether. A knife meant you had to be sure, had to inflict pain, had to wait and watch as your life bled out, heartbeat by heartbeat.
A knife had been my mother’s choice, according to the coroner’s report.
Setting the notebook aside, I rose and paced a restless circle around the clearing. I had privacy here, out in the depths of the park with the slopes of the Appalachians rising around me like giant hands curved to hold the mist of morning. I wasn’t worried about being interrupted. None of the tourists would stray so far from the trails that snaked their way through the trees. And as far as I was aware, no one else knew about this place.
Which made it the perfect spot to challenge myself.
I circled back around, eyes on the knife. Even sheathed, it made my breathing hitch. It’s not like it was the very knife Mom used. That one was still in an evidence locker somewhere. I’d filched this one from Dad’s workroom, so it wasn’t cloaked in bad juju or anything. But I couldn’t look at it and not imagine blood. Oceans of it, spilling out of a warm body, skin growing paler and paler as the life pulsed across the stone in some horrible sacrifice.
Dad always said I had an active imagination.
I approached the knife, willing myself to pick it up. C’mon Elodie, you can do this. You can face the knife.
Closing my hand around the hilt, I could feel the pattern carved into the bone handle where it pressed against my sweaty palm. A howling wolf. The irony. I was sure Dad would never have bought it if he’d known what I was.
My heart hammered against my ribs, galloping with a fear I hadn’t felt in all my other trials. I wanted to run. To drop the knife and flee back to the sham of a normal life I’d struggled to build over the last four years. Instead, I unsnapped the leather strap that kept the knife in its sheath and slipped the blade free.
It gleamed, polished and sharpened, well-kept as everything my dad tended, though he probably hadn’t used it in months. Nathaniel Rose took care of things—whether he wanted to or not. Mouth dry, I set the sheath aside and crossed to a green sapling. Tugging on a branch about the size of my pinky, I drew the knife across it. Two swipes. That’s all it took to sever the branch.
The Cheerios I’d had for breakfast threatened to make a reappearance.
I moved back to the stone and sat, propping my right arm in my lap, wrist side up. The faint tracery of veins stood out like blue lace against my fair skin. I lifted the knife, but my hand shook so badly I had to stop and rest it against the rock. No way in hell was I going to accidentally slit my wrist while I was facing down this personal demon.
This is a test, I thought. This is only a test. I imagined an annoying, high pitched BEEEEEEEEP! My snicker sounded muffled in the trailing wisps of fog. The sun would be burning it off soon, once it topped the eastern ridge. Best get this done with.
The near laughter steadied me. I lifted the knife again and brought it slowly and carefully to my arm. Gooseflesh broke out at the kiss of the blade, its tip the barest of whispers against my skin, like the touch of a forbidden love. I focused on that point of contact, shutting my eyes, and reminding myself to breathe.
I can do this.
“I’m not going.”
I didn’t yell it, but my dad immediately changed into the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-you-anymore expression that had become the norm in the last eight months.
“Sawyer, you’ve got to finish school. You were so close to graduating when you got expelled. If you’d just go to summer school, you’d finish up, graduate, and be ready to start college in the fall like we’d planned.”
Oh of course, The Plan. Dad had been big on trying to get me back on The Plan since our lives fell apart. It was his way of coping, I guess. Ever the scientist, he wanted to restore order out of chaos. Like that could possibly repair the massive hole that was blown in our lives.
I thought about the GED shoved under my mattress upstairs. It would be easy enough to settle this, but then it would look like I was on board with the program. He’d start trying to push me back into Normal Life, as if there was any such thing for people like us. Besides, it was something else to fight about, and these days, I needed to fight like I needed to breathe.
“I’m. Not. Going,” I repeated, letting the edge of a growl seep into my voice and shifting forward into his personal space. My eyes held his in a dominance challenge that should have spurred him to action to knock me down a peg. I wanted the physicality of fists as a release from the pressure constantly building inside me.
But he answered in words.
“Your mother would be so disappointed in you.”
My breath rushed out in a whoosh, as if he’d sucker-punched my gut. Because it was true. Then I leaned in, so close I could feel his shuddering breath on my face, and delivered the only retaliation I had against the accusation. “And whose fault is it she’s not here to say so herself?”
The question slid home like a knife between his ribs, and even though I believed it, I still felt like a dick for sinking so low. His eyes shifted to gold, his lip curled in a snarl, and I knew I’d gotten what I wanted.
At last. I balled my fists, body tensing to move, to finally let off some pressure. But the punch never came.
“She wouldn’t want this,” he said, and his voice was guttural, already halfway to animal. He stepped back.
Fresh fury boiled up. I whirled toward the back door, needing to get out, to move, to run.
“Where are you going?” Dad demanded.
“For a run.”
He opened his mouth, to issue a warning probably, and I lifted my shoes in a sarcastic wave. “On two feet.”
I slammed the door, cutting off the caution and sprinted for the treeline. Once in the shadow of the trees, I paused only long enough to put on my shoes before resuming my futile escape. You can’t run from what you carry inside.
My rage grew with every thudding step, the fog shredded by my passage. I was desperate to shed my human skin and hunt, but I didn’t dare. Not here. Timber wolves hadn’t been native to the area for at least a couple of centuries, and after what had happened to my mother in Montana, where we didn’t stand out in the least…
I missed the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the Rockies. Not only because we blended in, but because it was wild. Everything here was too low, too worn, too soft, too civilized. I hadn’t been anywhere near civilized since my mother died.
The air pressed close, humidity draping over me like a big soggy towel. A few more degrees and it would edge into truly hot and sticky. East Tennessee felt like a world away from home, where we were lucky if it got up to 70 as a high in the dead of summer. And I was stuck here. Even if I went along with The Plan and headed off to college in the fall, there would be conditions. Rules. Restrictions.
Wolves don’t like restrictions.
Something moved to my left as I burst free of a cluster of pines. A young buck. It spun away, springing toward safety. Even on two feet, instinct demanded I give chase. I bounded after it, pushing myself beyond human limits of agility and speed to keep the powerful haunches in sight. My muscles ached, and the pain helped to burn off some of the anger. By the time I lost the deer at the river, I was somewhat calmer.
But it wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough. Our kind require the tempering influence of mated pairs. Two parents when we’re young and through transition. A mate when we’re older. I was only a few months beyond my transition when Mom was killed, enough in control that I wasn’t technically a danger. At least not once the blood rage had passed. But I certainly wasn’t winning Son of the Year awards.
Dad had let the farmer live. The self-righteous, sanctimonious, son of a bitch who put a bullet through my mother’s brain was still walking around, still breathing. Fucking lauded for his actions. Because he, like the rest of his ilk who head up the calls to “thin out” the number of predators in the area in the name of “protecting” livestock, saw a wolf, saw an opportunity, and took it. One shot. One shot that should never have happened because Mom should have smelled the farmer, seen it coming. Taken precautions. But she’d been careless. Furious and careless because of a fight with my father. She’d gone out for a run to blow off steam, as I often did, and she had strayed where it wasn’t safe.
Maybe my father could have protected her. Maybe he couldn’t. But as her mate, it sure as shit was his job to avenge her. To rip the bastard to shreds.
He said that would make him into the monster our kind is reputed to be in legend.
We weren’t so great with the agreeing to disagree.
I didn’t know what I hoped to accomplish by goading him. Provoking him to some kind of action that let me know he was still an alpha male I could respect? Forcing his hand to go back to Montana and do what needed to be done. Or maybe just fueling the fury that was my constant companion. Anger was familiar and in its own way comforting. It was so much easier to cope with than the grief that threatened to swallow me whole.
The sun peeked over the ridge, burning off the last of the morning mist. I wasn’t anywhere near a path I recognized. My explorations of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park hadn’t been too extensive in the month we’d been in Mortimer. Our house was just at the edge of the Park proper, which made for easy access—something I’d have to take more advantage of in the future.
Rather than following my scent trail back, I stuck to the river. Might as well start mapping the area. I’d gone half a mile when I heard the hitched breath. Veering away from the river, I followed the sound into a copse of trees.
I stayed low to the ground and crept closer until I could see who it was.
The girl perched on a huge flat boulder on the opposite side of the clearing, her face raised to the sun so that her long black hair fell in shiny waves down her back. She was crying. Not that she was being noisy about it. She wasn’t hysterical or red-faced and wailing. She was absolutely silent. I caught the faint gleam of tears on her cheeks, saw her shoulders shudder with the effort of holding in her grief. And it was grief. I recognized the expression on her face as one I couldn’t bear myself, and I wondered who she had lost.
Conscience pricked. I should get out of here. What kind of asshole sticks around and watches a girl cry? But something about her pulled at me, so I stayed. It was as if her tears somehow released my own grief. I felt oddly soothed by it. Part of me wanted to go to her and offer…what? Comfort? I wasn’t any good at that. And she wouldn’t thank me for intruding. No doubt she came out here for privacy.
Feeling like a voyeur, I started to back away.
Spots of brighter sunlight flickered on her face, and I paused, looking for the source of the reflection. My eyes fell to her hands. The sun glinted off the blade of a knife where it lay poised against her wrist. She took a deep, shaky breath.
My heart jolted, a thunder of rage and horror. No! I scrambled up, mustering every ounce of speed I possessed to get to that knife. But my fastest wasn’t fast enough, and the knife pressed into the white flesh.
The knife was winning. Fear pulsed through me in waves, radiating from the epicenter where the blade pressed against my skin. I shook back my hair, trying to dislodge the sticky strands from my neck. And I thought of my mother.
Had she wrestled with the decision like I was? Or had she done it quickly? A vertical slash deep between the tissue, straight to the artery. No going back. How long had it taken her to bleed out? If they’d found her sooner, would she have stood a chance?
My stomach roiled. My shoulders bucked.
If it came down to me facing off with death, I wouldn’t be doing it like this. But by God I was going to face down this knife and sit here until I got myself under control. I heaved a breath and repositioned the knife, steadying my hold.
Something hit my hand, a hard and fast strike that left my fingers stinging. I released the knife, my eyes springing open.
What the hell—
“—are you doing?”
I didn’t register anything but the tone—furious and threatening. Still drenched in fear from my bout with the knife, I couldn’t think, couldn’t process. Some primitive part of my brain urged me into motion, and I scrambled backward and away, automatically looking around for a weapon before I even identified the threat.
My eyes lit on my knife, embedded halfway to the hilt in a flowering dogwood across the clearing. For a few precious seconds, I just stared.
Then someone moved to my right, and I bolted back in panic. My heart kicked hard in my chest. He was huge. A great beast of a boy with linebacker shoulders and an expression of growling menace on his angular face. His hands were held up in a placating gesture, but everything in his posture screamed agitation and aggression. For every step I took in one direction, he countered.
My brain screamed at me to move, escape. But he was a good foot taller, with legs that would easily eat up any lead I would gain by surprise if I ran. I found myself lifting my head slightly and widening my nostrils to smell.
The stink of my own fear clouded everything else. I inhaled again sifting through the scents with some deeper part of my brain. Damp earth. Fresh cut green wood. And something else I couldn’t identify.
The initial panic begin to ebb enough that I started understanding what he was saying.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” That he snarled it in frustration didn’t lend a lot of credence to the statement.
My breath was still coming fast and shallow. “You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not inclined to believe you.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you, but I had to stop you.”
“Stop me?” I asked blankly.
“I don’t care how bad things are, that’s not the answer.”
“What . . . ” Then I stopped, my brain catching up with what he was saying. “I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”
“You’ll forgive me if I’m not inclined to believe you.”
Having my words thrown back at me, I felt the urge to curl my lip in a snarl. I glared instead.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Did I look stupid? “You first.”
While my brain struggled to make sense of that, he sprang toward me, almost too fast to track. I tried to stumble back, but he had my hand in his, tugging me toward him.
Then he pressed the tail of his t-shirt against the cut on my arm that I hadn’t even noticed yet. His touch was firm but careful. The anger seemed to leech out of him, redirected into action.
I said the first thing that popped into my head. “You cut me!”
His face darkened again. “I cut you? I just stopped you from slitting your wrists. I saved your life.”
My own temper started to emerge now that I was relatively sure he wasn’t planning to kill me. “I wasn’t slitting my wrists. You yanking it away from me nicked my vein.”
“Not slitting your wrists. Oh, because there are so many other completely logical reasons for you to be out in the middle of nowhere with a knife, crying your heart out.”
Had I been crying? I lifted my free hand to my face and found it wet. God, how mortifying. Then I stopped myself. This lunatic thought I was out here committing suicide and I was worried that he’d seen me crying? Get your priorities straight, girl.
“It’s none of your damned business what I was doing, but I wasn’t trying to kill myself.”
I glared at him but made no additional reply. He would either believe me or not. Repeating myself probably wouldn’t help my case.
His long fingers were still curled around my wrist, keeping me immobilized, but oddly gentle in contrast to the storms in his eyes. It felt almost comforting. Which was just stupid given that he was some pissed off, misguided, wannabe hero. Still, my pulse slowed, my breathing evened out, and the fear of the knife finally ebbed. For better or worse, the trial was over.
He seemed to calm too as we stood there in awkward silence, him holding my hand and staunching the bleeding. Whatever demons haunted him retreated so that, when he looked up at me, his face was no longer menacing. It was just heartbreakingly sad, marked by the kind of loss that scars a person. I knew it because I saw the same expression in the mirror every day.
My fingers itched to touch his cheek and smooth those worry lines away.
What the hell is wrong with me? I curled them into a fist instead and frowned.
He lifted the edge of the t-shirt, now stained with a darker spot on the black. “I think it’s starting to clot.” Working quickly, he ripped two clean strips off the bottom of the t-shirt. He folded one and pressed it to the cut and wrapped the other around my wrist to secure it. “Doesn’t look like you’ll need stitches.”
My wrist felt suddenly cold without the pressure of his hand around it.
I am losing my mind.
I folded my injured arm across my chest and looked up at him. “Thank you,” I said, though I didn’t really know for what.
His eyes followed me as I moved back to the boulder, snagging the journal and stuffing it in my bag. I picked up the leather sheath and looked at the knife buried in the tree. “How did you do that?”
His shoulders jerked in a motion that was half discomfort, half shrug. “Lucky shot. I can try to get it out if you want.”
I lifted a brow at that. “Aren’t you worried I’ll use it?”
“Not like that.”
I guess he believed me because he crossed the clearing and reached up, wiggling the blade free of the tree. Then he walked back and presented it to me hilt first. “Be careful.”
“Always.” I slid the knife back into its sheath and slipped it into my bag. “Look, I need to go—” I trailed off, turning a fast circle.
The boy wasn’t there.
I stood and listened for sounds of his passage. I heard nothing. Lifting my head and inhaling, I tried to find his scent. But other than a lingering trace of boy and sweat and that thing I couldn’t place, there was nothing but the tangle of green and dirt that was summer in the mountains.
Gooseflesh broke out along my arms, despite the rising summer heat.
He was simply gone. Vanished into the woods he’d come from. Like a ghost.