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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.
Elam’s not sure what to think about the beautiful woman coming back to the house with his counterpart Casdon. She has a message for Casdon alone, and the message itself makes no sense to Casdon. One thing is clear though, she is Elam and Casdon’s mate.
Ariannona expects to die once her message is delivered, and isn’t happy to learn that the former king and queen tricked her to get her there.
A dragon hunter is still loose on nearby lands and none of the dragons are safe, especially Casdon. He’s taking shots at anything he sees moving.
Colin McCullough gets the phone call that all military families dread?his brother Hawkins has been shot. Colin only wants to thank Hawkins’s commanding officer for saving his brother’s life, but he can never seem to get past the guards in the hospital’s hallway to personally thank the man.
Major Lauren Burcher is all Army and head of a special task team usually sent in to clean things up. This time, her team is ambushed by friendlies, and Lauren and her best man Hawkins McCullough barely make it out alive?they were set up. Someone wants them both dead.
Another attempt on Lauren’s life in the hospital fails miserably, and when Colin scoops her up in his arms to place her back in the hospital bed, he finds a gun pointed at his forehead at point blank range. In that moment he realizes this bad-assed scary woman is his mate.
Lauren wants no part of this mate business. Relationships get messy and this jerk is bossy as hell. And Lauren doesn’t take orders…she gives them. But it will take all of them, his family and hers, to keep her and Hawkins alive….
Amazon USA http://www.amazon.com/Colin-McCulloughs-Jamboree-Shapeshifter-Romance-ebook/dp/B01BRVLAWM/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455576297&sr=8-1&keywords=Colin+By+kathi+s+barton
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Colin-McCulloughs-Jamboree-Shapeshifter-Romance-ebook/dp/B01BRVLAWM/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1455565753&sr=8-1&keywords=Colin+by+Kathi+s+barton
Amazon CA http://www.amazon.ca/Colin-McCullough%E2%80%99s-Jamboree-Shapeshifter-McCulloughs-ebook/dp/B01BRVLAWM/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456090955&sr=8-1&keywords=colin+by+kathi+s+barton
I Books https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/colin/id1084835778?mt=11
Run. The single word screamed through her mind over and over while she lay hidden in her hiding place under the bed. They were at it again. Her parents never let the setting of the sun go by without hitting and screaming at one another, usually both. Sometimes her as well.
At twelve, RaeAnn just wanted to be safe. And even as young as she was, she knew other families weren’t like hers. She wished every day that she’d not been born…at least not to these people.
The door to her room slammed back against the wall and startled a small whimper from her. Putting her hand over her mouth, she tried her best to not make another sound. Even breathing hard would bring her pain from them. The dark shadow could be either of them. Both her parents had a large build, long hair, and thick, mean hands.
“Girl!” her father screamed. “Come on out here. See to your mother so we can go to bed. You hear me? I said to get your skinny ass out here and fix her face up. It’s bleeding from some kinda cut.”
RaeAnn wouldn’t help either of them by coming out of her hiding place. She’d learned her lesson the hard way about giving aid to one or both of them. Once she’d done what they wanted her to do, they’d find some little flaw with it and would knock her around until she was in worse shape than they had been. When the bed over her was suddenly gone, she held her breath harder, hoping that he’d not come any closer to her hiding place.
RaeAnn had skipped school over the course of several weeks to make this hiding space for herself, working until she was too exhausted to go on most days. Her parents were gone, no doubt to find somewhere that was giving something away, or digging through the dumpster to find a few thrown-away things that they could sell for a quick buck or two. They worked harder at that than they ever had at a job, she thought. But it was long enough for her to have gotten all the work done she needed without them knowing what she was about. Her hidey hole was perfect, so long as they didn’t come too far into her room.
She’d taken up the floorboards. Most were rotted anyway and had been easy to remove. Then she’d dug out the dirt, just enough that she could use old bricks that had been stolen long ago to shore up the floor of the hole. Then she’d taken the dirt and filled old pop and beer cans to make up the rest of the walls around her when the bricks were gone. The place beneath her bed had less wind coming in than the room that she slept in, too.
“Girl, where the fuck are you?” He stomped into the room deeper, holding the dripping knife he had in his hand like he still meant business. Still she didn’t move, even when a drop of whatever was wet on the knife dripped down on her cheek. RaeAnn knew that it was blood, his or her mother’s, but she didn’t move an inch to even wipe it from her. It was simply too dangerous right now.
He was standing on the last solid board before he got to the ones she’d had to makeshift to get her place ready; the first of many that she’d not removed to hide because it had been too solid for her to move without any tools, which she supposed was a good thing. One more, even half a step, and he’d be on top of her. His weight would crash upon her when he broke through to her.
Run, her mind screamed at her. Run now! But even if she did, there was no safe place for her to go. No neighbors that would offer her help, and certainly no one close enough that she could get to before one or both of her parents caught up with her again. Living in the middle of nowhere as they did, and using a long since abandoned house, there were little to no luxuries for her to use as a source of comfort.
No power and no heat. Water for some reason was plentiful, but it was ice cold even in the dead of summer, and even colder when there was snow on the ground, as there was now. Its source, as far as she could tell, was an underground well. A long hose from it to the house had given them at least some way to clean themselves…if her parents ever tried, that was.
They used lanterns for light mostly, but there was seldom money left over after beer and pop was bought to supply them with much more than a thimbleful of lantern oil. Candles, mostly birthday ones and some scented ones that would stink up the place rather than improve on the odors, would be what she’d do her homework by.
“Where is she?” Her mother stood in the doorway, her hulking frame blocking out the little moonlight that came in through the broken window in the living room. “She run off again?”
“Don’t see her, do you? Fucking moron. What the fuck is wrong with you? Ain’t you done heard me calling out for her to come and help you out? She’s not in here now, is she?” Her mom called her father an asshole and they were at it again. This time in her room.
As they tumbled out, their fists hitting whatever was close enough to them, she heard them grunting in pain. Nothing was safe. RaeAnn cried silently as they continued to fight. Nothing in her room was worth worrying about, nor was there anything that she treasured.
It wasn’t long before the silence became enough that she knew they’d either killed each other, which she prayed would happen nightly, or they’d finally tired themselves out. RaeAnn didn’t move. She wasn’t stupid enough to think that the coast was clear just yet. Another ploy that she’d been caught in. She would wait them out, even if it took all night.
RaeAnn must have dozed off at some point. Her room was deadly silent, the place bright with the sun. There wasn’t any sound coming from the rest of the house, so she moved her body first, trying to work out the sore places before she stood up. If she had to run, she wanted to be as ready as she could be.
They were gone. She could see that now. Lifting herself out of the hole, she could see beyond to the other room. The shack was only the three rooms, not even a bathroom inside the place other than a commode that rarely worked and the hose that was brought in from the well in a curtained off area in the living room to wash-up with
when it was necessary. RaeAnn did a wash up every day, but she knew that her parents did only when it was too much for them to sleep together. Moving out of the house, she kept an eye out for them.
She had no coat or shoes that she could put on despite the cold weather. They were both somewhere in the house, she knew that. But she could only use them when she was going to school, and had to remove them both and turn them in every day to whoever was there when she got home. It was like the library, she thought…only on loan to her until she could no longer wear them. Which was pretty much where she was with both pieces of clothing now.
Not bothering to grab up anything, RaeAnn made her way out of the house and took off at a run toward the woods. She had no idea what was this way. The bus picked her up about a mile from the house in the opposite direction, but she figured that this was her best bet at getting away. This time, RaeAnn thought, she was staying away from them.
Her feet were hurting when she’d gone no more than an hour from the house. But she didn’t stop. Stopping now would get her caught, so she kept her eye on the mountain in front of her—her guiding light, so to speak—and kept going. She’d make it or die, which was a good possibility right now. RaeAnn was cold and starving, but she was freer now than she’d ever been.
It had been dark for some time when she came upon the barn. Cows and a bull had been in a field that she’d gone around, and she’d kept an eye on the massive bull that seemed to move along with her but yet never came at her. When the barn’s light went off, RaeAnn stood by the tree she was nearest as a few deer moved, then the light flickered on again. As she watched, the light went off and on twice more before the deer moved on, and she knew they were the cause of it.
Slipping into the barn had been easy. It was a good deal warmer than it was outside, and the snow had just begun to fall again. Several inches blanketed the ground already, and RaeAnn knew that she was making the perfect path for her parents to find her. But right now, she was too hungry and hurting too badly to care if they found her or not. She moved to the bales of hay and lay down on the parts that were broken off. RaeAnn knew that she should keep moving, but decided that she could do so better if she had a little nap.
Peter kissed his lovely wife on the cheek as he made his way out to the barn. They had a lot of things to do today, and one of them was to put together the new baby bed that had arrived just yesterday. In three months they’d be parents, and he was as tickled about that as he could be.
As soon as he opened the barn door, he knew something was wrong. A girl was standing at the feed bin to one of his prized cows, talking. And she was eating the feed and telling the poor cow staring at her that she was so sorry, but her belly was too empty for her to not take what she could. Peter cleared his throat as gently as he could, and fell back when she came at him with a pitchfork. As it was, he was pinned tightly against the barn wall as she stared at him with more fear than he had.
“I’m not gonna hurt you.” Nothing, just that…it took him a few seconds to realize that she was fevered. “You need me to call someone for you? I can. My wife is just in the house and I can have her call your parents for—”
“I won’t go back.” He nodded, not sure what she meant, but right now he’d agree with her if she told him he was a woman. “I won’t go back. Please don’t make me.”
“All right.” He reached for his wife and told her what was going on. He also told her to bring her medical bag. He thought the girl was sick and his wife might be able to help her before he called the police. “My wife is coming out now. She’s a doctor and can help you.”
“I don’t want to go back there. Don’t make me, please.” The door opened and he didn’t look to see if it was his wife or not. The girl still had the fork at his chest, and he knew that if something startled her, he’d never see his child being born. “I won’t go back.”
“I won’t make you. You just have to let me go now.” He looked her over, trying to see if there were any other weapons on her that he needed to know about, and saw the blood on her bare feet. “Where are your shoes? And coat?”
“It’s not a school day.” He had no idea what she meant by that, but she continued before he could ask. “I can’t have them unless it’s a school day. Please don’t make me go back.”
“Put that down right now.” Peter closed his eyes when Mary spoke harshly to the girl. “What do you think you’re doing? I said put it down.”
The glazed look turned from him to look at his wife. Peter wanted to knock the fork away, but he knew that being stupid right now would get them both killed. The girl’s hand started to tremble and the fork came closer to his chest.
“I don’t want to go back.” Mary told the girl that she wasn’t going anywhere, that she needed to put the fork down. The girl looked at it like she only just realized that she had it, and it lowered to the floor. “I can just go now. I can just leave and you don’t have to worry about me coming back. I’m not going back there again.”
“Come on now, you just sit right down and let me have a look at those cuts.” Mary spoke softly now as she took the fork from the girl completely and handed it to him. “Peter, go on up to the house and run a bath…well, make that a shower. And find me something that I can soak her poor feet in.”
Nodding, he didn’t want to leave his very pregnant wife with this child, but she seemed to have things under control at the moment. There was something very off about the girl and it frightened him, not just a little. But Mary told him she was just fine and for him to put the kettle on too.
“I don’t think we have time for tea, Mary. This girl tried to kill me.” Mary only patted him on the cheek and told him to go on now. He was in the house filling the kettle before he realized she’d out moved him. Again.
Ever since he’d met her, thinking her well out of his league, she’d been out moving him. He’d say something and she’d sort of agree with him, but he’d end up doing it her way anyway. Usually she was right…well, she was always right. Like them buying this
farm and raising cattle. Some of them big things, others not so much, but she’d bring him around to her way of thinking before he knew what hit him. She was good at that.
When he went back out to the barn, the girl was asleep. Mary told him she’d given her something for pain, and her exhaustion and starvation had taken her under. He looked at the girl now and could see that wherever she’d come from, it had been a long hard way.
“I don’t think she’s eaten a proper meal in a good long time, if ever. And she kept telling me that she’d not go back. I was wondering if you’d do me a favor.” He knew what she wanted and he wasn’t going to do it. “We have to know if they’re in worse shape than she is. What if someone came to wherever it is she was living and killed her whole family, and she got away?”
“That’s pretty farfetched, even for you.” She did that smile thing again, the thing that made him fall in love with her the moment he’d first seen her. Even before he realized she was his mate. “You want me to go and find where she’s been and see if her family is dead. They could be the ones that were abusing the poor thing; you know that, right?”
“I do.” He started peeling off his shirt. “When you get back, I’ll have you a thick stack of pancakes and some bacon all ready for you. And if you run into trouble, you can call me and I’ll come and rescue you.”
“I don’t care for you much right now.” She laughed, and he bent to pick up the girl when Mary started to. “I’ll take her in the house, but I want you to stay away from her until I get back. Promise?”
“I’ll try to keep away from her.” As they made their way into the house, his burden, he just realized, was lighter than most of the animals they had on the property. Peter decided that he didn’t mind so much that Mary was smarter than him. He loved her that much. He asked Mary how the girl had fared this long. “She’s been starved, Peter. And I don’t think this is a recent thing. Look at her feet and hands. She’s been running for a long distance for some reason, and it frightens me to think she was out there all night without anything to keep her warm or fed.”
“I’ll go and see what I can find.” He laid the girl on the bed and then looked at Mary. “Don’t let her hurt you, love. You’re all I have in the world.”
“We’ll be fine, I promise.”
Peter let his cat take him. His jaguar was glad for the change and stretched twice as he made his way to the kitchen to leave. Again he told Mary to be careful, and she promised him she would. Peter had the girl’s scent, but he only had to follow the footpaths in the snow to find where she’d come from. The blood mixed with the wet falling snow was like a calling card for his cat.
He’d gone perhaps five or six miles when he came upon the building. He was sure that the girl had come from there. Her scent had let him right to it. But to call it a home…Peter was sure that his falling down shed at home had fewer holes in the roof, and the wood would hold out a bit more of the cold too.
Peter didn’t get any closer to it than ten feet because there were humans inside, but he knew that he had to eventually. The scent was fresh blood, and he needed to be
assured that no one else inside was hurt. He was sure, as sure as anything he’d ever felt, that the girl at his house had spent if not her whole life there, then the biggest part of it. His heart broke for her.
The loud voices were violent in nature, and he knew that the sounds coming from the house were people fighting, not just verbally but physically as well. As he made his way closer to the house, he kept an eye out for anyone coming out of the falling down building. Peter didn’t want to get in the middle of anything that was going on right now.
The child had come from this house; he knew it when he crossed over the broken steps onto the porch. There was no doubt about it. And the scents also told him that the people living there had had contact with her. They were related, the three of them, and he was pretty sure that the girl was running from them. As they fell out of the house and into the yard, still hitting each other, Peter made his way into the house through the broken door at the back of the wrap-around porch that had seen better days.
Peter nearly left again, thinking that this could not be a place where people were living, a home. Or what was left of one. But he made his way around the bigger room and found that the girl had been in there a great deal. Then he made his way to one of the other rooms that shot off from the larger one in the middle.
It was hers. He knew that from how strong he could smell her. The bed was broken and shattered against the wall and the floorboards had been ripped up at some point, and he knew that was where she’d hidden before leaving. Peter looked around the room and could see that while it was dirty, it was better kept than the room he’d just left.
There were no pictures on the walls, no girly things to indicate that a child lived there. The bed had a threadbare blanket on it, and no pillow to speak of. The mattress was thinner than his overcoat that he wore in the fall, and the neat stack of clothing in the corner was small and pitiful even for a child. Not even a dresser to put things on, much less inside of it. He moved to the deep hole and looked inside.
Haven. That was all he could think of when he saw what she’d done. Because to Peter, there was little doubt that she’d done this to keep herself safe. Looking around again, he tried to imagine living there. Hearing those people still screaming at each other in the yard, he could not fathom how a person could stand this every day of their life. Moving back through the bedroom, he looked into what he thought was used as a living room.
A couch that was held up on one end with a cinder block sagged dangerously in the middle. The person who chanced sitting there would spill out onto the floor if they weren’t careful as to how they sat. No television graced the walls, and that was when he realized there was no hum of power in the house. The heat, too, was off, if there had ever been any, and he was chilled when an errant breeze blew through the open door.
A curtain was hanging across an area in front of him. Moving slowly toward it, testing the floors as he went, Peter was almost afraid to see what was there; the bathroom, or a makeshift one. A commode sat over a too large hole in the floor, with no plumbing to speak of, and that thought made his belly slightly ill. A hose hung from a
hole in the wall with a dirty towel next to it. The dripping water was freezing in a long stream beneath it, and looked as lethal as any knife or tool he had at his home.
Backing out of the room with the toilet and to his right, he moved through the curtain into another bedroom. A mattress on the floor looked as flat as a board, and probably no more comfortable. Several pillows of varying thickness, from paper thin to almost an inch thick, were at the head of it. Against the walls, all the way around, were piles of junk.
Broken games, torn books, heaters that had been torn apart—for parts, he assumed—and tossed aside instead of dealt with were in the trash. Newspapers that were yellowed with age. Boxes of dented canned goods that he knew were bad even from where he stood. Open bags of chips and popcorn were spread everywhere. Candy bar wrappers and junk food galore littered nearly every available surface of the nasty floor, along with dirty stacks of clothing, stiff with dirt and filth.
Cardboard, like in the other two rooms, covered the windows. There was a little plastic on one of them, but it had long since broken free of the push pins that held it there. It flapped in the wind much like the pretty flag that his wife had in the yard that had their last name on it. Burcher.
Peter? I can feel that you’re upset. What did you find? He didn’t want her to know, but knew also that keeping it from her would eat him alive. He told her what he’d found and who the people were the girl was hiding from. Oh, that poor little thing. To live like that. What do you think we should do?
Peter wanted to tell her that he was going to kill them both, tear their throats out and leave them for the rats and buzzards to fill their bellies on. The feeling was something that he’d never had before, not in all his twenty-seven years. But he also knew that he’d regret it, even if he felt good about it now.
Don’t call the police. Don’t tell anyone that she’s there. And if she wakes and tells you that she’s not going back, you assure her that she isn’t. Not so long as I’m alive she won’t. He heard the couple on the lawn again and moved to the window to get a good look at them. These people deserve to die out here. Where no one will know who they are. And they don’t deserve to have that little girl. People like them should be…Mary, I want to kill them both where they are.
Come home to us. He said he was on his way and looked at the kerosene heater that burned in the living room. The heat, what little the heater was giving off, was being whisked away by the cold that blew through the house like it wasn’t even there. He moved the pillow that had fallen to the floor just a little closer to it. To his way of thinking, if they found it, great; if not, what were they out? Nothing as far as he could see. As he left the house, he decided that he hoped they didn’t find it. He thought they should suffer as much as the child had that was in his home.
“Where is that fucking girl? RaeAnn, damn you girl, when I find you, you’re going to hurt for a damned month this time.” Peter paused to listen to the man yelling again. “RaeAnn Richards, I’m going to beat your ass again. See if I don’t.”
You won’t, Peter thought as he moved out of the broken window. The flame started to flare up just as he heard the man outside stomping his way up and onto the porch
before hearing the jingle of keys somewhere. Hiding deep in the trees, Peter watched the man make his way to a part of the yard he’d not noticed to the big car that had been covered with dead branches and trees. As soon as the engine roared to life, Peter knew that by the time they returned, the house or whatever it was would be gone, and so would all traces of the girl he and Mary were going to raise as their own.
Peter made his way back to his house. He was feeling better about what he’d done to the house with every step he took. It wasn’t fit to live in, he thought, and now that it was gone, perhaps the people there would move away and forget they had a little girl. Although he was pretty sure they’d done that already. After shifting to his human side and dressing, Peter kissed his wife and told her what he’d done.
“Good.” He cocked a brow at her, thinking that she’d be at least a little upset with him over it. “Damned people. They should be horsewhipped.”
His wife never cursed, and to hear her to do so now made him realize that something more had happened. He asked her about it and she burst into tears. Taking her to the bedroom where RaeAnn still slept, he watched in horror as she pulled back the blanket that laid over her and showed him what she’d discovered.
“They branded her. Who does something like that? They put a hot iron to her skin and burned it. Just like she was one of our cows.” He ran his finger over the newly burned skin and felt his heart break. “There are scars on her back too. Like they’d beaten her with a whip. And her feet, they’re going to take a long time to heal. The poor thing. I don’t want to let her go, Peter. We have to keep her here and safe.”
“We are. We will.” He heard the sirens screaming by the farm and smiled. He knew it would be a total loss, and he was even more glad he’d done it now. “Her name is RaeAnn Richards. When she wakes up and is feeling better, I’ll have someone fix up the paperwork with her a new name and identity on it.”
“Good. She’ll be a Burcher and we’ll love her as our own.” Peter hoped it would be that way, but for all they knew the girl was just as bad as her parents. Then he thought of the hole she’d made.
“She’ll be a good girl. And we’ll make sure she has what she needs too.” Yes, Peter thought as he held Mary, she’d be a good addition to their family. Now he had to figure out how to tell her that her new parents were jaguars