If Life Bites, Bite Back.
Obviously she, Hope Carter, was insane. She sighed and shifted her weight away from the rough brick wall. What else could one call a person hiding outside her place of work at three in the morning? The word coward might fit, too. She’d ducked out the door only minutes after calling her best friend to come pick her up. Steve, her pity chauffeur, would be here soon. Despite the brisk night, she was waiting outside. She was not going back into the veterinary clinic just to be shanghaied into another shift.
She limped to the corner of the building where a small bench sat hidden from the doorway. She sank onto the bench and buttoned up her light jacket against the cool air.
Steve’s station wagon pulled around and parked illegally right in front of her. The car’s purr broke the eerie quiet, until it too became silent.
“Hey, why are you lurking back here?” He swung from the car entirely too energetically for the time of night, and Hope felt even more worn out by comparison.
“Sandy wanted me to work another shift,” she explained.
“But you’ve already worked a double. She’s taking her title a little too seriously. That’s crazy!” Steve picked up her small bag.
“I thought the same thing.” His cologne swamped over her, making her sneeze. Steve needed to learn the word moderation. She sneezed again and fanned the air with her hand. “Joe never showed up, so they’re short-handed again.”
“You could have told them no and waited inside.” He frowned at her and shifted his weight from heel to toe, then back again.
“I almost agreed to do the shift. If it weren’t for the weather being so crummy today, my legs might have held up for a while longer.”
“No way. You shouldn’t even have done the double, and I’ll tell Sandy exactly that.”
“You don’t have to do that, Steve. I’m fine, really. Let’s just go.” What was with him tonight? He was wired and almost dancing in place.
“Is Julie on tonight?”
“Yeah.” So the receptionist was the cause of his excitement. He was more than a bit sweet on the new girl, and she wanted them to hit it off, but not while his budding romance kept her from reaching her much desired bed.
“Great! Go start the car. I’ll be right back.” He bolted for the front of the building.
“Steve—” Hope broke off. He paused in his fast escape, but she could see he was already mentally browsing through his stock pick-up lines. She could go with him and ask the girl for her phone number, but then she’d have to listen to Steve gripe the whole trip home. So instead, she and only said, “Please hurry. It’s late.”
“I know.” He halted and glanced longingly at the clinic. ”But this is my best chance to talk with her. She’s mostly on nights, and I really want to ask her out.”
“Oh fine, just hurry. It’s been a long day.” To say the least.
“Thanks, Hope!” He tossed her the keys and jogged toward the front of the clinic. Soon he was out of sight. She juggled the keys and dropped them to the sidewalk.
Damn. She glared down at the keys, then over at the car, which surely glared back at her. She would be warmer in it than sitting outside in the cool night air, but she couldn’t force her legs to carry her toward the evil beast. She’d rather wait until Steve returned before getting in for the drive home. She choked back a laugh. Nothing like more evidence to support her insanity plea. She relied almost completely on him to drive her places.
She slouched on the bench and focused on stretching her cramping legs. Fifteen years ago, a car accident had left her a mangled mess. Her body had never properly healed, and she hadn’t yet recovered her trust in the everyday machine most people took for granted. As far as she was concerned, cars were her enemy, and she only held a tentative treaty with the dangerous beasts.
She picked up the keys and debated the rudeness of shouting for Steve, when she saw movement in the alley across from the clinic. Getting only a glimpse, she had the impression of some large, dark animal, a fast moving shadow, and a flash of dark fur.
Please, not tonight. All Hope wanted was her warm bed. Instead, she was about to chase off after a stray. The poor thing was probably someone’s house pet that had wandered off. She had to try to catch it. No animal should be left loose to starve, reproduce, or be hit by a car.
Hope placed her weight on her aching legs and limped slowly across the street toward the alley. Here, alone in the dark, she had no reason to camouflage her uneven steps. She slipped Steve’s keys into her jacket pocket and pulled out a flimsy kennel lead designed to slip over the heads of small dogs. Big as the critter seemed, he’d better be gentle.
She peered into the alley, looking for the dog, or any sign of which way it had gone. Light from the full moon filtered through the clouds, doing little to cut the deep shadows caused by the crowding buildings.
There, about thirty feet away, another movement caught her eye. She made out several elusive shapes.
Not a stray. A pack.
Four large dogs moved toward the other end of the alley. In this urban area, a pack of scavenging, possibly feral dogs would be a menace. A shiver slid down Hope’s spine. The animals crept forward with a stealth that was at once threatening and dangerous, as if they were hunting.
But hunting what?
Helpless, she halted. Tracking a pack was the responsibility of animal control. Already the dogs were far down the alley, nearly out of sight at the other end. With a shrug she turned to go back to the clinic. When she heard a short, cut-off scream, her feet froze. What the hell? She spun back and dropped the lead in shock.
The dogs were gone, and in their place were men.
The scream had come from a terrified woman who continued to whimper as she was pinned against the wall by the biggest of the brutes.
Three others surrounded them.
Hope had to help the woman any way she could. So she followed her instincts and yelled down the alley, “Hey, you! Stop!”
All eyes turned in her direction.
Oh, shit. Damn her misleading instincts! Hope’s heart slammed painfully in her chest, while time seemed to hold the world within the moment.
The man slammed the woman violently against the wall and dropped her on the ground in an unmoving heap, then stalked toward Hope. In the darkness of the alley, the shadows seemed to cling. They were too far away and too dark. The men’s features were blurred.
The man kept coming.
She stepped back. Fear shivered through her. She wasn’t getting out of this one. Tonight, her legs barely managed a walk. She gasped as each jarring step drove shards of pain from knee to hip.
What would he do to her? Somehow, she knew he wasn’t simply planning to chase her off. She could feel his cruel intentions in every angry motion. He’d hurt her, kill her, or worse.
Still forty or fifty feet from the clinic door, she halted. Her breath caught in her throat.
“Help!” Hope yelled.
No one will hear you.
The streets were empty, and the clinic was the only all-night business on the block. But she screamed again anyway. She also turned and quickened her awkward steps, praying to at least reach the road with its slightly better lighting.
She looked back. Two of the other men now flanked the first. The fourth stayed with the woman, kneeling beside her, doing who-knew-what.
Strange. They’d yet to make a single sound. There were no threatening words. No heavy breathing. No sound of footsteps. Hell, not even their damned clothing rubbing together. The only sounds she heard were her own pounding heart, gasping breath, and dragging footsteps.
She limped away from them, looking back several times, trying desperately to see the first man’s features so she could identify him if she did get away. Not if—when she got away.
Almost to the road! The leader’s stalk turned into a languid jog. The other two men froze in place.
The rumble of an engine cut into the quiet. Headlights and relief flooded over Hope as the car drew closer. She stumbled onto the edge of the road, waving her hands and yelling to get the driver’s attention. With his or her help, she’d scare off the men and then call the police and an ambulance. The woman on the ground needed medical attention.
Hope glanced back down the alley to see which way the men went so she could tell the police. But they hadn’t left. They’d only sunk back into the shadows, into near invisibility.
The Buick slowed at her waving and then went right by. The driver and his passenger stared at her out the window.
How could they not stop?
Shit. She’d have to take a rain check on salvation. Just her kind of luck. She’d have to save herself, so she’d better keep moving.
Only the leader continued toward her. The others were gone. No. They’d gone back to the woman. One threw her limp body over his shoulder. Was she unconscious, or dead?
Reaching the other side of the road, Hope stumbled. Why did the asshole only walk, taunting her with every slow strut? As if he had no doubt about his ability to do whatever he wished to her or to anyone.
And, to be honest, she believed it, too. It’s all too creepy. The confusing facts didn't add up. The men’s intensity. Their lack of sound. The damned shadows that clung to them.
The man, not more than fifteen feet away now, walked directly at her, yet she still couldn't make out any facial details. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but like a shadow, he lacked any details she could use to make an identification. All the features the police would want. She couldn’t tell what kind of clothes he wore, the details of his face, his eye color, or even the color of his hair.
Even if she got away, they’d never catch this man. Self disgust filled her at the thought of being a helpless victim all because she’d chased after a stupid homeless dog. She stumbled forward another step then another. She had to make it to the clinic. She had to…
She didn’t. The attacker’s massive weight slammed into her back, knocking her from her feet. Hope hit the pavement hard, face first, and grunted. She let out a strangled cry as her attacker rolled her over, straddling her. His weight trapped her in place. Her scream was cut short when he slammed his fist into her face. Horrible pain shot through her head once, and then again. Black peace clouded the darkness around her. Pain and a burning need for air finally cleared her vision and brought her back to her senses.
He lifted her easily onto his shoulder and started back toward the alley. Hope sucked in the cool night air and began to struggle and scream again. No way in hell would she would go down without a fight. Frustrated by not being able to kick hard enough to hurt the bastard, she flung herself sideways and pounded his back with her fists, managing to throw him off balance.
He growled and threw her back onto the pavement. This time when he fell on her, he followed his punch with a painful, fierce grip on her hair, pulling her head back.
His breath blew hot and foul into her face. “That’s right. Fight me.” The crazy psycho licked her cheek, following it with a biting nip to her jaw.
“Humans are the best prey for so many reasons,” he growled in a dry harsh voice as he tore his hand across her chest. Her jacket and blouse ripped open easily and his nails clawed her flesh.
If the asshole wanted her to fight, she’d oblige him. She braced her arms and heaved her body upward in a sharp arch. When his forearm brushed her face, she turned into it and bit him deeply, tasting the copper flavor of his blood.
He yelped and pulled back and she kicked him with her stronger leg, solidly connecting with his groin. Surely she’d caused him no lasting harm, but his pain was enough of a distraction to give her another chance to scream and crawl the few yards back onto the road.
The clinic door slammed open and Steve stepped into sight calling, “Hope? Are you out here?”
“Steve! Help me!” she cried. She’d never tease him for being late again. His timing was perfect.
The stranger’s grabbing hands let go of her and his weight disappeared. She looked up, but her attacker was gone. Just gone. She lay on the edge of the street, alone.
No, not alone. Two eyes in the shadows glowed malevolent green, feral eyes promising all the agonies of hell. They were the eyes of her attacker, no matter how strange they seemed now. She’d remember them even if she never saw another feature of his face. Those hate-filled, glittering green eyes.
Steve reached her side, firing questions at her. “What happened? Did I hear you scream?” He squatted down and wrapped his arm around her. “Did you fall? Are you hurt?”
“Steve, look,” she said, trying to draw his attention to the alley’s deep shadows.
He followed her gaze, but the man was no longer there. All Hope saw was movement and a quick glimpse of black fur and a bushy tail. If she didn’t know better, she would have said it looked wolf-like. But it must have been the stray dog. Didn’t it?
Had the dog been with the man? Had there been more forming a pack? What had happened to the other woman? What could she tell the police to help them catch this man?
Steve tried to help her stand, but her weak leg buckled. He more than half carried her back to the clinic. As they reached the dim light at the front of the building, Steve let out a gasp. “What the hell! Who did this to you? What happened?” His fingers brushed her tangled hair back from her battered face.
She knew she must be quite a sight. Suddenly, she was too tired to explain. Her whole body ached, and her head throbbed.
“You’re going to the hospital. No arguments.”
Hope didn’t argue. She barely nodded before slipping into the welcoming black of unconsciousness.
* * * * *
Despair crawled over Athair’s skin and tore at his heart. He knew this fog-shrouded clearing and was sickened by the sight of the ravaged village before him. The acrid smell of their smoldering homes burned his senses. Dead sounds echoed through his soul, crying out the last emotions of the many who had died. His family and friends had been killed here only hours before he returned. Sorrow rooted his feet to the ground, holding him in this moment, drawing out his pain.
On the verge of an anguished howl, Athair pulled himself sharply from the dream. The same dream, always the same. But it wasn’t just a dream. This nightmare was a memory of the day the clan had been torn apart. He and his two brothers were the only adults of the clan left alive after that horrible day. Barely into maturity, Athair had become the second eldest of what remained of the Eagle Clan.
They’d been unprepared for the Irish hunters. No one had expected them to find the clan’s village despite their regular hunts. The humans never understood the truth, only believed what they saw in the few who were deranged and dangerous, or drunk on power. Their fear exaggerated the lie behind the legend of the werewolf. The common man saw wolves as evil, and a man-wolf as an abomination that stole children and fed on human flesh. If they saw the more noble side of the canines of the world, maybe his clan and the rest of the Valàfrn could someday be accepted. Athair dreamed of the day when he and his family could live without fear.
A discreet cough drew Athair’s attention to the doorway, where a young man stood. Young was a relative term; the man was nearly three hundred years younger than Athair.
Rath tensed, his body motionless but rippling with discomfort. His golden eyes flicked toward the exit, showing his desire to be done and away. What could be so important?
Quietly, Athair asked, “What is it, Rath?” He hid the strain the nightmare always brought and willed the tension from his own body. He extended his empathy. Yet from the sympathy Athair detected in Rath’s emotions, his effort was wasted.
"Romie and Mo are trying to kill each other. Dàn said to come get you," Rath answered in Gaelic, their native language.
"What?" Athair shook his head. He must still be asleep. Only in a nightmare would the light-hearted twins turn on each other. "Where are they? What happened?"
"What do you think happened? Romach walked in on Molach and Allaidh," he said with a snort. "She is not always clear about when she has moved on to her next partner." Rath was the eldest of the children saved from the village massacre from Athair’s dream. Nine children had been found hiding in a cave with his brother Sgrios’ mate, Cairistione.
In the past two hundred years, Allaidh had shared her beautiful body with the young men of the clan. For a time, her actions helped to keep their wild libidos at least somewhat spent, but recently, the urge for long-term bonds overrode their good sense and caused bickering and bloodshed. Why didn't they realize that Allaidh would not bond with any of them?
"How serious do they fight?" Athair's words were muffled as he pulled on a lightly woven shirt.
"Rather serious, Father. From what I saw, the fight began nearly an hour ago. Allaidh must have run before it started." Rath followed him from the small lodge.
The children called him Father as a show of respect and appreciation for raising them as his own. Several of the younger ones didn’t remember their parents and he tried to fill the role as best he could. Only his stories kept their lost families close, but that would never be enough. Valàfrn thrived within the clan, but suffered greatly without the strength of an extended family.
Growling and snarling pierced the quiet before they reached the front of the dugout lodge the twins shared. The sounds came from the back, so Athair and Rath jogged around the brush that covered one side of the roof. Athair spotted two gray wolves circling each other, each looking for an opening to attack. Their large bodies were both marked by small cuts and bites, but they were not yet badly injured.
Athair stepped between them before either used his appearance as a distraction to initiate another attack. "Romach and Molach! I am ashamed of you. Brothers should strengthen one another, not weaken each of you. Never should it come to this." Although he’d said their names in a low growl, he kept the rest of his words in his usual quiet, firm voice.
The two wolves stood still, panting and bleeding, their flanks heaving. The snarling subsided as the anger faded from their identical, flashing blue eyes.
"Blood is too precious to ever fall to the ground between brothers. You will heal each other and come find me this evening to explain your actions." He used his empathy to read them deeply. They were done with their fight. Both were feeling hurt, but not angry. The only reason their fight had continued so long was because neither of them had wanted to give in first.
Athair gave the brothers one last chastising frown, which encouraged them to drop their hostility and begin licking their wounds clean. A moment later, he caught their remorseful emotions as Romie began licking a nasty cut on Molach’s cheek. Satisfied the incident was under control, Athair considered their deeper underlying problem. The young men needed mates. At nearly four-hundred years of age, they needed the emotional attachment more than simple sexual release. Unfortunately, their sheltered, secluded lives didn’t offer them much choice. The time had come to consider other options.
"Rath, do you know where Sgrios is?" Athair asked.
"No, but Dàn will. He’s down by the stream."
Of course Dàn would know. "I would like to thank him, anyway." Athair wondered if the other clans held to the old traditions. They’d lost so much with the deaths of their elders. How were the other clans dealing with the changing times? Perhaps they would soon find out.
He and Rath walked down the slight hill toward Dàn's favorite spot by the stream. Athair worried about the strangest of his adopted sons. Lately, Dàn had pulled further away from their group, wanting to stay by himself most of the time. While raising the others had challenged Athair, Dàn had always been lost to his care. He needed some element Athair could not provide, no matter how hard he tried.
“You should speak English now, Rath,” Athair said, remembering Rath’s use of Gaelic during their conversation.
“Why?” Rath shrugged in frustration. “We don’t see other people often enough to bother. Why speak another language when we are among ourselves?” He said this in Gaelic, of course.
Calmly, because Athair partly agreed with the younger man, he said, “Because, it is safest to be prepared for the time when we must deal with humans.” This was his usual answer to this question, but it might take on new meaning if his brothers agreed with the drastic measures he was about to suggest.
As expected, Rath gave no verbal response to Athair’s often repeated reply, other than a low grumble as he turned to leave. He continued with a few choice Gaelic phrases, descriptive enough to make Athair smile.
Such lack of respect. Still, it was only stress that made Rath speak so. Rath, like the others, needed a true mate with which to bond. Allaidh leaving him for the twins had brought the lack of a mate into focus. Her loss was even more difficult because it wasn’t in their nature to give up possessions easily, even uncomfortable ones.
Athair walked down to the small woodland steam, where he found Dàn staring at the water as it bubbled peacefully past.
Dàn nodded in deference. His expression remained impassive when he looked up and greeted Athair, “Father.”
“Thank you, Dàn, for having Rath awaken me.”
Dàn dropped his gaze back to the stream. Athair reached out with his empathy and tried to read Dàn’s feelings. He looked so uncertain. Athair felt Dàn’s fear, and then nothing at all as the boy’s defenses fell into place. Being able to read emotions and sometimes thoughts of the younger clan members made Athair’s parenting somewhat easier. But some, like Dàn, had learned how to block being read. It had been quite some time since Dàn had allowed his emotions to be sensed without immediately withdrawing behind his wall of protection.
“Dàn, do you know where I can find Sgrios?”
“He hunted to the west last week, but is with Acair now. You’ll be able to find them both behind the meeting lodge cutting firewood.” Dàn continued to stare at the stream. “He plans to leave soon. I’ll have Lasair ask him to wait for you.” Only Lasair dared to speak with Sgrios telepathically, so only she could convince him to wait.
“Thank you.” Something was definitely bothering Dàn, but Athair knew better than to push him. If he needed to know, then Dàn would come to him with whatever problem had appeared in his visions.
He could have mentally contacted his twin brother, Acair, but he hesitated to do so. He wanted to offer his plan to both of his brothers at once, and Acair was so strong Athair would be unable to hold back information from him. If he connected with him, Acair immediately would know why he wanted to meet. This impromptu meeting could change everything for them. So much of the clan’s future depended on Acair’s experienced leadership, and Sgrios’ violent distrust.
* * * * *
Also check out book two in the Eagle Clan series ~ Destiny