Noelle was in somewhat of a pickle. She had researched the Calhoun firm―Elijah Calhoun in particular―before she made the appointment, but she was having second and third thoughts about hiring the firm after she got there. All her research indicated she could trust them, but big men scared the hell out of her, and the place was full of them.
Elijah had been running a tad late for work, so his brother Trent took his first appointment. Elijah never dreamed that the woman he had an appointment with was his future mate…and she needed his protection.
Noelle’s stepfather wasn’t their only problem. Elijah’s brother Sterling’s nightmares had gotten worse and somehow the creature that had marked him was controlling his actions as well…no one was safe….
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Helenia stood in front of the mirror. She liked this new look. The younger people used so much color in their lives that she was sure that they’d had her in mind when they came up with it. The pink of her blouse, the green of her pants…she thought perhaps that she could get used to this style, unlike the other decades when women wore long billowing clothing and wigs that itched. Not to mention shoes that pinched so badly that she would sometimes go barefoot under her clothing so no one would know. Not that she cared, but it still gave her a sense of freedom. And Helenia was going to be free forever.
She was still trying to decide which other outfit she was going to keep when she felt the movement of air around her. Standing as still as she could, pulling shadows from every corner around her to hide herself, she turned and looked around when she knew no one could see her. Not humans at any rate.
“Hello, Helenia. It’s been a very long time.” Dante flicked at her shoulder when they both knew there was nothing on her. When he did so again, she grabbed his hand and held him tightly in her grip until he dropped to his knees. “You always did overreact. Let me go, Helenia. I do not care for being treated this way.”
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you touched me.” She bent his hand back more until she heard the bones break. His screams went unnoticed by her and the patrons of the store. They were invisible to anyone but other supernaturals. “What are you doing here? You know that I do not like you well enough to have you around me even for a moment.”
“They’re hunting you.” She let him go and asked him who was hunting her. “The Board of Vampires, they’re looking for you. They have every vampire looking for any information about you, and there’s a bonus if they have an idea where you might be staying.”
“And you? You thought to collect on it, Dante? I should hope that you’re smarter than that. To know that to try and profit off of my demise, you’ll be dead before the next sunset. I have no more use for them than they do for me. I like it that way.” She looked around and saw that two others were watching them, vampires younger than Dante and not even close to being anywhere near as old as she was, and far less powerful. “Did you come with others? To hope to trap me?”
He stood then, his wrist healed already, and looked to where she was looking. He must have fed before coming to catch her, she thought, but it would do him no good. The two others, both males, started toward them.
“I don’t know them. They more than likely heard about the bounty on your head, and decided to collect too.” She asked him how much it was. “Twenty-five thousand points.”
“So much?” He nodded. “And all for me? What do they think is going to happen when they send babies for me? That I shall sit idly by and let them take me in?”
Vampires for the most part had no use for money. She had a great deal of it; over the centuries she’d managed to steal a great deal of not just cash, but gems and other valuables that humans used. But after a while, usually after a couple of centuries, a vampire would realize that having it for no other reason other than it was easy to come by held no appeal. She had hers to get humans, stupid animals, to do things for her.
So the Board had been giving out points, or credits, to use when they had committed some crime or had not followed a rule in the strictest sense of the word. Helenia had long since stopped trying to gather points. She was so far in the hole now that even if she got a thousand a day, it would not put a dent in her bad deeds.
“Noah is after you as well.” She looked at Dante just as the two babies, the younger vampires, were closing in. “He is the one that called the Board on you, from what I understand.”
“I thought him dead. He is such a pussy, even for as old as he is. Christ, to think that he finally grew some balls and turned me in. Not that it will do any of them any good. I am stronger than he is by far.” Helenia hadn’t had any dealings with Noah, but she knew what he was. A vampire that stayed alone and followed most of the rules.
The babies were nearly to her when she lifted her hand and blasted one of them with her power. He was nothing more than ash on the shoes of the people who continued to walk the sidewalks in the mall as if he’d never been. She supposed, as far as they knew, he had not. The second man, stupider than the first, lunged at her, and she simply snapped his neck. If this was the best that the Board had, she was going to live for another thousand years, easily. His ash dusted the outfit that she had on.
“I swear to you, Dante, there is no hope for nice things anymore. I get me something pretty to wear and these idiots just come along and mess it up.” He said nothing but looked around. She wondered if he was expecting more babies to come for her, and just grabbed three of the outfits she’d been looking at and left the shop. Dante was right behind her.
“What do you plan to do? Go back to your lair?” She said nothing as she moved in and out of shops picking what she wanted and sending it to her home across town. It was much easier than going around with a large bag in her hands, and it wasn’t as if she needed to keep any receipts. Helenia hadn’t paid for anything in decades. “I was wondering if you need someone to be with. I’m between homes right now.”
“Do you suppose that these shoes will match the dress that I got? No matter.” They disappeared as well. “No, I don’t want you around me. I prefer my own company to that of idiots.”
Two more stores, mostly clothing then a jewelry store, and she had all that she wanted for now. Honestly, Dante had soured it for her by telling her about the Board. She turned to him when he asked her again where she was going now.
“I should have thought that you’d know better than to try and collect on my being jailed, my friend.” He tried to look shocked, but it looked mostly like fear to her. “To think that after all this time, you still think me stupid. When all along, it was you.”
Helenia let her magic go and let her body return to its true self. She felt empowered by it, the shield off her face and her body released. Dante started to step away from her,
but she put her long claws into his chest and felt his beating heart. When he cried out, she pulled his heart from his chest, feeling the power of it like a shock to her system.
“So pretty, don’t you think?” She wanted him to see her eating it, taking the still warm thing to her mouth, but he disappeared, just like the other two had. Frowning, she dusted the ash off her hands from his heart when it, too, was gone. “Did you honestly think that I’d tell you anything, you moron?”
Going to her lair, she put the things that she’d taken in the trash. Like her outing today, they’d been ruined by Dante and his news. She could think of any number of reasons that the Board was after her, but it didn’t really matter. Helenia lived by her own rules. And soon she’d be in charge of everything, including the humans, and it wouldn’t matter at all what they wanted. She looked at her calendar and realized how long it had been in years since that night. He would be ready for her now, her blood rendering him weak enough that she could take his seed.
It seemed longer when she thought of the last time that she’d seen him. An alpha. Watching him all night long with the people he’d traveled with, she knew that he was going to be the one to help her create an army of monsters like her. Helenia smiled. She was under no delusions that she was anything but a monster. She had worked hard in creating herself to be one. And now that she was perfect, she wanted to make more in her image. And the alpha was going to help her.
Everyone knew that wolves carried a gene that was far superior to any other shifter. Vampires had it as well, in great abundance. But a wolf also had the ability to shift and to be stronger still with his other beast. It was this beast, the wolf, that she was counting on. Her creations would be wolf beasts, and she would control them all.
Making her way to the labs that she’d set up years ago, she knew that the man she’d put there, Basil something, would still be sleeping. He’d been asking to go home; his family apparently couldn’t do anything without him there. And if anything had happened to him between then and now, she’d have to start all over. So putting him into a deep sleep had been better for everyone, mostly for her own peace of mind. And his family was no longer around to make demands on him, so that had been a plus for both of them.
As she made her way by one of the big buildings, she saw an ad in the window. Staring at it for a long time, she finally stopped someone to ask them the date. There was no way she’d messed up that badly.
“October tenth.” She told him to tell her the year and when he answered her, she nearly fell backward. It hadn’t been one year as she’d thought, but four. Fuck. There was no telling what her alpha had gotten into since then.
Noelle was intimidated by the big office, mostly because of the guards in the lobby. They were big and armed. Not that she planned on doing anything wrong, but she had a fear of men that were big.
But she was running out of time and this man, the one she was coming to see, had been the one that had come up on her search as the most trustworthy. She hoped so.
When she stood in front of the big desk, she had to clear her throat twice before she could make any sound come out of her mouth. Nerves were making her sick.
“I’d like to see Mr. Calhoun please.” The woman asked her if she had an appointment. “I do. For today at ten.”
It was just shy of nine, but Noelle hated to be late. When the woman asked her to have a seat and that she’d call him, Noelle went to sit on one of the big chairs that looked like a family of five could have used. She watched the people coming and going.
An older man came in and started talking loudly about the weather. She was sure that he talked that way all the time, loud and with a great deal of humor. And everyone here seemed to know him. He stopped by the desk as she had, but he wasn’t asked about appointments but sent up to the elevator with a smile. Noelle wanted someone to like her that way.
Noelle had, for the most part, been alone all her life. She worked and socialized when she had to, but she preferred her own company to that of other people. It more than likely was because of her family and the way that they’d jump out of the smallest places to hurt her.
When her name was called, Noelle made her way to the desk. It was just after nine-thirty by then, and she had to pee. But this had to be done today. Mr. Calhoun’s secretary said that this was his last appointment before December, and that would be too late. Going up in the elevator with the guard, she held tightly onto her plastic bag and hoped she was doing the right thing.
“Hello, Miss Alexander. Mr. Elijah Calhoun isn’t in yet, but his brother Trent is. He wanted to know if he could help you.” She knew that name as well. But he was no longer working here, she’d heard. Noelle asked her about it. “He helps out when necessary. And since Elijah is running slightly behind, he thought he’d help him out.”
Nodding, she was shown into a large office. As soon as she saw them, the older gentleman and the big man behind the desk, she wanted to run. They were too much and too big. Noelle turned to leave and the older man spoke.
“Come on now, sweetie. You’re not gonna deny an old man a chance to sit with a pretty girl, are you? And Trent here, he is just glad to see me today because he won’t have to eat all them delicious biscuits that his lovely wife made him. I’m his daddy, TJ Calhoun, and we’re about as harmless as they come.” She looked at him, then at the steaming plate on the desk. “Come on back and have a seat, and let us see what we can do for you.”
“I won some money.” She didn’t know why she’d blurted it out like that. Noelle had been holding that secret for five and a half months now. “I don’t want anyone to know that I did.”
“All right then. Why don’t you have a seat and we’ll figure this out?” Trent stood up, and she moved closer to the door behind her. When he sat down, she watched him carefully. “I won’t hurt you, Miss Alexander. I promise you that.”
Nodding but still not moving, she wondered why she was even doing this. She’d been making it on her own, without the money in her bag, for years now. This money, all of it that she’d won, would make it better for her, but she was terrified of what it might
bring too. But to have a house of her own with a yard was something that she’d been thinking about for years.
Making her way to the chair, she sat with her bag in her hand and tried to think. “I was sixteen when my stepfather left me at a party. He and my stepmother had other children of their own, and they felt that my check from the welfare office would suit them better if they didn’t have me around needing any of it. Sucking them dry is what they said I was doing to them.” She glanced at the elder Calhoun when he made a noise, and felt her face heat up. He asked her how she was both their stepchild. “My mom died after marrying him. Then he remarried a few months later and she had children of her own. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were his children, both of them. Ron is twenty now, and Daniel is two years older. I’m telling you this so you understand why I’m…I’m afraid, Mr. Calhoun. I don’t want them to come back and try to hurt me again.”
“You think they will?” She was sure of it and said as much. “I see. And this money that you won. I’m assuming that it’s a great deal. That it’s not just a scratch offs.”
“I have those as well. When I would win some money, I would put it back in an envelope until it was close to expiring. I never cashed it all in, just enough to get by on. It was my emergency money, I guess. Every week I would buy one scratch off and one of the bigger lottery money tickets. I haven’t stopped that since I won. The article I read at the library said to go about your business like nothing happened. So I did.” He asked her how much she’d won. “The Powerball. I won the one from five and a half months ago.”
Neither of them said anything for several seconds. Then TJ laughed, and looked at his son when Trent asked him what was going on. His dad was still laughing as he explained to Trent.
“She won the big one. The forty-million-dollar jackpot, didn’t you, love?” She nodded and dug the tickets that she wanted to cash in from her bag. “Holy milk balls, Trent, she’s the winner that they’ve all been looking for.”
She looked at Trent when he asked her if that was true. “Yes. I won and I have to turn in my ticket or it’s going to go away.” He took the envelopes that she’d put into the plastic bag she used as a purse most of the time. It was all she had to carry it around in, and felt silly for it being so mundane. “I read about your firm at the library and everyone said that you can be trusted. I don’t want anyone to know who I am.”
“All right, let me look a few things up here. Just…I have to call in our attorney to help me get this right for you.” She shook her head, but he said it would be fine. “It’s my brother, Tanner Calhoun. Did you read about him too?”
“Please don’t make fun of me.” She wanted to snatch her things back from him, but he stood up again and she sat still. “I’ve never hurt anyone. I work and keep to myself and don’t bother any of them. But they come and take whatever I have on me and then beat me for it. I’m not sure what they’d do about this money. More than likely kill me.” She looked at them both before speaking again. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want the money.”
When he sat in the chair next to her, she whimpered. Men, big ones, scared her. Trent didn’t move, but TJ got up and walked out of the room. She had no idea what he was
going to do, probably call the police now that they had her tickets, but she didn’t care. She wanted to go back to her place.
“You say your family takes your money and they hurt you? Have you ever called the police? Filed a report on them? We can do that now if you want, Noelle. I can do it for you.” His voice was soft, full of something that she’d never heard from anyone when they were talking to her. Compassion. “Tell me so that I can find them and beat the living shit out of them. My wife, Joe? She’ll have to visit me in jail, but I think she’ll think it was worth it to see you safe.” She laughed when he did. “There you go. See, I might be big, but I’m as gentle as a puppy.”
“My stepfather is Howard Merrill. My stepmother wasn’t any better. Her name was Gloria Merrill, but she died a few years back. I think she was in a car accident or something. I can’t afford the newspaper all the time.” She looked at Trent and felt…she wasn’t sure what she felt except no longer afraid, for some reason. “He thinks I made him lose his job. I guess in a way I did. But when he lost his job, he lost everything else too. Like my government money. He didn’t get his pension either, which I suppose is the way it should be with him being fired and all.”
“You think that he’ll try to take your money that you won.” She nodded, then shook her head. “Ah, so you think that he’ll take your life while he’s at it.”
“He will. Like I said, he feels that I owe him for some reason. He’s not been happy with me for a long time.” That was an understatement. “I have a place that I’ve been living in for a while. But I want my own home. A yard. I really want a yard.”
“I understand that more than you can imagine. I’ve talked to…had my dad talk to Tanner, and he’s on his way in. He works for a friend of ours, but he said he’d help us out. I know investments better than I do the letter of the law for this sort of thing. And my wife is coming in as well. She said that she was going to come by today, and she should be here soon. I want to try and get this worked out for you so that you can get you a house as well as be safe.”
“I know what you are.” He said nothing, and she looked at her hands in her lap. “I know that you and your family are wolves. I can’t always tell what a person is, but I can tell when someone isn’t human. I am, but I know that you’re not.”
“No, I’m not. Are you…is that why you’re afraid of me? Is your stepfather a wolf?” She shook her head and told him that her family was human as well. “But one of them hurt you, a wolf or some other shifter.”
“Yes.” He didn’t pry, and she didn’t feel it was necessary to explain. He was going to help her get her money, and that would be the end of their relationship. “There are other tickets too. Not as much as the big one, but I’d like to have that money as well. It’s what I can pay you with.”
“I’m not going to charge you for helping you, Miss Alexander. I think you’ve been hurt enough.” She wanted to cry, to beg him to hold her. There was something so comforting about him that she wanted to let him take care of her. But she knew better than to trust that kind of feeling. “Tanner is here. I don’t want you to be alarmed when he comes in. He has a tendency to not knock, but to come in like he’s been shot from a rocket.”
The door to the office slammed back against the wall. The man who came into the room was talking, as if whatever conversation he’d been having with Trent the last time he’d seen him was still going on. He spoke to Trent about changes in the market and how he was getting his office set up slowly. He looked at her and stopped talking.
“Well, hello there. Aren’t you about the prettiest little thing?” She shook her head and felt her fear double. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. But you are very pretty. I’m Tanner Calhoun. Trent said you need someone to advise you on some lottery winnings.”
When he sat down on the edge of the desk, she had a feeling that Trent had told him to back off. Tanner grinned at her before he asked her about the ticket. She knew then that she might be able to do this. These men wasted no time in getting to the point.
After he was shown the ticket, he asked her a lot of questions about it. The other tickets, mounting to just under ten thousand dollars, were given to the secretary to verify. Tanner said it wasn’t as if they didn’t trust her, but they wanted to make sure they weren’t going to have any problems when they were taken in. The big ticket was put in a safe so that no one could take it from her now that a few people knew about it. A copy of it was made for her to keep, as well as a receipt stating that they had it in their safe for her.
“Does your stepfather have any idea that you’ve got any money? I mean, from your winnings? Did he lend you money for anything? Pay your rent somewhere, or any of your bills? At any time, did anyone help you out with a bill or something?” She told Tanner no, that she didn’t tell anyone. “And your bills? You paid those with your own money, nothing ever coming from him?”
“I’ve made sure that I made my own way. I’ve never been on welfare either…I promised myself that I’d be independent as much as I could. And my stepfather was better at taking than he was at giving. Never the tickets. I never had them on me when they, my stepbrothers or him, found me.” She looked at her hands again. “My stepbrothers weren’t like that when I lived at home with them. They were spoiled, but they never bothered me. I’m still not sure that they do this because they want to.”
“I’m sorry about that. No one should treat anyone badly, especially not a female. But knowing that about him makes it so much easier now. And the fact that you bought it after you left home and were out of his care means he has no claims on it at all. Those are things that I want to keep from happening.”
For the next hour she went over the paperwork. By the time she was finished, not only was she exhausted, but she was also richer. The money from the tickets had been taken all over town and cashed in by different members of the family, so that nothing was ever going to come back on her. She’d never had so much cash on her at any time in her life. And then Joe, Trent’s wife, showed up.
“Hello, Noelle. It’s been a very long time.” Noelle looked at the door, then back at the woman who had been there the day she’d been kicked out of her family. “Don’t. Please don’t run. Noah will be so happy to see you.”
“He won’t.” Joe said that he would. “I hurt him that day. He might…he’ll want to hurt me back.”
“No, he won’t. He looked for you for years after you left. And he’ll be glad to see you, I promise.” She looked at the door again, wondering if it was too late to take it all back. “I know your scent now, Noelle. You won’t be able to hide again. But I promise you, Noah never wanted you hurt by this either. I’m not sure how you think you hurt him, but I’ve spoken to him. He’s glad to know that you’ve come back around.”
Terror like she’d not felt for a very long time skimmed along her skin. Her hands hurt from clenching them. Her head hurt from trying to sort through all the things that were running through her head. She’d hurt Noah because her father had been an important man in his business. Howard had told her that when and if he ever found her that Noah would make her pay for making one of his best employees have to be fired.
The door opened again and she screamed. She had no idea who might have come in or why, but her terror was too much. And when someone grabbed her, Noelle lost whatever hold she had on her fear, and the darkness swallowed her up.