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HOPE DROWNED
Deadly Earth book 1, young adult dystopian

CHAPTER 1
 
“Don’t fall in.”
Though sarcastic, the unexpected voice behind her caused Rena to jump and spin. The creak of wood was ominously absent as one foot stepped backward onto… air. A second wave of adrenaline chased the first in a sickening moment of dread as she teetered on the edge of the pier. The startled gasp turned into a scream that lodged in her throat.
She was going to fall in.
The ocean was going to claim her this time.
Suddenly, a hand reached out and grabbed the front of her t-shirt, halting her fall. Her fingernails dug desperately into the tensed muscles of a forearm. Rena’s panicked gaze locked on that of a dark-haired boy to avoid looking down at the innocently undulating surface of her nemesis. The sound of the gentle lap of water against the pier struts and the old half-submerged pier below was enough to fuel her anxiety.
Switching to the role of Hero, the boy tugged her back upright and pulled her a step further from the treacherous edge. Evidently a gentleman, her savior also took a step back so she still had space. With both feet firmly planted, Rena swallowed her fear and finally let out the breath she’d sucked in when he’d startled her. It was shaky and her eyes fluttered closed in relief.
That had been far too close.
The tension on her shirt disappeared, replaced by a warm palm smoothing it back down over her stomach. Rena’s breath hitched, her eyes shot open and she finally saw what she hadn’t noticed before: his irises were blue. A deep, rich blue.
Ocean blue.
“You okay? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he misinterpreted her shudder, speaking gently, in a voice similar to the one her best friend Kayna reserved for her baby brothers—when she wasn’t sick of babysitting them.
Surprisingly the deep timbre did calm her. It was certainly preferable washing over her than the saltwater would have been. Besides, it wasn’t his fault she had let herself be lured so close to the edge. The sea-breeze cooled her stomach as he moved his hand to catch a few strands of green that blew across her face. He rubbed her hair between his fingers, eying the color curiously.
She was used to that.
When she pulled back a bit, he tucked it behind her ear, lingering there. The ghost touch caused tingles to erupt all over. Her pulse shot up again.
She wasn’t used to that.
No one touched her, not since Grandpa first offered her a hug at the hospital and she’d had an embarrassing panic attack, rudely clawing her way out of his trapping embrace.
Part of the PTSD, They said. She’d welcome touch again, They said. The nightmares would fade, They said. She’d speak again after a few months, They said.
They.
They, in the white coats who called her Jane and questioned ceaselessly. Who shone lights in her eyes and poked her with needles. Who handed her small cups of unidentified pills. Supposed medical professionals, claiming to just want to improve her health. But it made her feel like a lab rat.
They, who seemed to know more about her than she knew herself. She didn’t even remember the accident. They told her about that too.
She’d been found on the muddy shore of the inlet, They said. The car had gone over the bridge the night before, They said. Her parents had died on impact, They said. The water that flooded her mind at night was a part of a memory, They said. She’d remember all of it someday, They said.
But They didn’t know how the memories always ended. Nightmares, Rena corrected herself, unconvincingly. Not memories.
“Hey. It’s okay. I wouldn’t have let you drown,” the boy promised, again misreading her discomfort, as if drowning were her fear.
She shut her eyes as guilt churned her stomach, simultaneously urging her to take a step backward into the water and to run far away.
“It’s okay,” he repeated softly. His voice sounded closer and she opened her lids to find his blue eyes filling her vision as he looked back and forth between hers, concerned.
It was too familiar. Her imagination unwittingly pulled up the nightmare.
Instead of the boy’s strong jaw, clean-shaven cheeks and mess of brown hair, she was staring at identically-colored eyes wide with terror and set in an older face, weathered and wrinkled like leather. A full dark beard framed the mouth that opened and closed in a fruitless search for oxygen...
Fingers letting go of the locket, her nails scraped uselessly at the skin on her wrist at the snap of the elastic band she usually kept there missing, but the pinch did its job dislodging the vision. She shook her head to fully remove the image, like it was an Etch-A-Sketch, until the eyes were again framed by a face around her age. The motion grazed her cheek against the fingers he still had stretched out near her ear.
And that was the final drop in the bucket.
Rena ducked under his arm and sprinted off the creaking pier blindly, the slap of her sneakers on the wooden planks turning into the crunch of sand and finally the gentle rustle of forest debris as the path began to incline. Skidding behind a large pine, she pressed her back up against the rough bark, breathing hard, then smacked her head against its trunk.
Nonetheless, as though she’d pressed play on a paused film, the rest of the nightmare unfurled regardless of how tight she scrunched her face. Her nails now dug into wood, though she didn’t feel the rough texture…
Instead, she felt the sandpaper scratch of a man’s beard against her palm as she gazed into blue eyes, the pupils so wide they almost concealed the irises. Her other hand gripped the chain of his necklace just above the collar of his button-up shirt. Its hem teased her bare legs, which were wound tightly around his waist, anchoring him to her while his hands, gripping her shoulders, tried to pry her off of him. She watched wistfully as a few last anemic bubbles slipped from his mouth and surged upward like his soul searching for the surface. She had long quelled that desire.
Then he involuntarily inhaled.
Drowning was never quick. Raw terror, hysteria, and lastly surrender flashed through his eyes replacing the pleading, though they didn’t once veer from hers. Their focus withered and became vacant, the blue alluring depth shallowing into puddles. His arms went limp, letting go to drift around their interlocked bodies like seaweed. His jaw went slack, mouth agape, like a fish washed ashore...
No.
Another head-butt against the tree caused pieces of bark to rain past her face, joining the cascade of tears trickling down her cheeks. She gulped back bile and shoved it all away. Her mind tried to press a solid lid of denial on her mental box, leaking guilt and disgust, inside of which was nestled the thought that her father died in her embrace.
No.
She hadn’t killed him. He’d died on impact with the guardrail, They said, before the car had even gone over into the water. Even if the vision was real, it would have been self-preservation to cling to her parent in a moment of panic. That’s what Dr Spelmann would assure her if she had ever told him the truth during their sessions.
Gods, she was messed up.
And she’d been so close to going in again, thanks to that guy’s sudden and unwelcome appearance. Her stomach gave another tumble. It was as though the water lusted after her, like she hadn’t meant to escape the accident, or maybe it was just her subconscious suggesting a suitable punishment, a way to end the niggling feeling that the nightmares were real—she was a murderer.
Only a few more months, then Rena could move inland, away from her trigger. That was the only thing that kept her crawling into bed at night knowing what was awaiting her in sleep. She needed to stay away from the temptation of the shore for just for a few more months.
Angry with herself for succumbing to its lure again, she palmed the tears off her cheeks with renewed vigor and shoved away from the tree—
—smacking face-first into a very warm and very solid someone.
Shrimp! Grandpa’s favorite cuss-replacement was on the tip of her tongue. The clean, spicy deodorant that filled her now-aching nose was enough of a giveaway, but her suspicion was confirmed when she stumbled back and blinked at the white t-shirt. She looked up from chest to chin and higher, catching the blue gaze.
“Are you okay?” Sound was muffled by the blood pounding in her ears, but she was able to read his lips as they moved.
Was she okay? She was a danger! He should be thankful he was okay. What if they’d both tumbled in the water? Would he have become her second victim? His intentions seemed honorable, but she needed to get away from him and keep him away from her.
Averting her gaze to avoid picturing his mouth opening and closing like that underwater, she noticed his nose was slightly small for his face and up-sloped—not one of those long noses people were always either pitying or sneering down at her with. Grandpa would frown on her next move even more than cursing, but she was sure it’d be effective.
The boy probably could’ve blocked it. Certainly he was strong enough to stop her swing, but surprise was her advantage as Coach always reminded her.
His head snapped back as her fist met with his perky, little nose.
Then she pushed off the tree and darted around where he stood groaning, hands cupping his face, and sprinted away from him and away from the ocean, as if she could outrun her nightmares.
 
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FISH(Y) OUT OF WATER
An adult suspense/thriller standalone

CHAPTER ONE - BELLY UP

The fish was dead.
Suzanna Kane first cursed the movers’ careless transportation then the fish’s suicidal tendencies—which was unfair, given its three-second memory and thus unlikelihood to be depressed—and finally, karma. But the guilt and despondency remained. It was lying on the counter, one eye staring up, in a pool of blood—no, water, it was water—so she couldn’t even tell herself it was asleep this time. There was no point putting it back in the bowl and pretending all was fine until she had time to give it a proper burial after her first day at the new job; it was cold in this city. Even if she had better upper body strength or owned a shovel, she couldn't penetrate that frozen ground. And she didn’t really want to introduce herself to the downstairs tenant while digging a grave in the wintry pre-dawn darkness in what the lease clearly denoted was technically their yard—Zanna got the parking spot out front.
Poor little guy. It didn’t even have a name, yet.
With the help of the second, unused pair of chopsticks from last night’s unhealthy take-away, the fish was back in water: the toilet. Even the irony was dispiriting.
Zanna whispered a few words aloud to herself in its memory, mostly about the progress it had made when she trained it to swim through hoops, thanks to that book she’d found on sale at the mall when she wasn’t even supposed to allow herself in a bookstore.
“What was that?” Her mother’s voice reminded Zanna that she had yet to answer the hanging question she’d abandoned upon finding her horrific discovery. No matter that the calendar indicated moving day had been a Monday, it felt like a serious case of Monday mourning.
“Nothing, I wasn’t talking to you,” she said into the phone.
“Who else—?”
“Mom,” Zanna cut off the nosing into her private life, mostly because it was both ridiculous and depressing—as if she’d find a guy after one night in her new city, let alone be the kind of girl to invite him over after the first date. “Pen was a college student when she lived here,” Zanna answered the previous question, referring to the outgoing Kane sister who had managed to get pick-pocketed several years previously, probably while intoxicated.
“Exactly! Penelope was on a campus with a resident assistant to watch over her and those blue light protection boxes everywhere. And still—.”
Zanna sighed. “Unlike Pen was then, I’m a fully functioning adult who can take care of myself—even better than any RA, who I’ll remind you are also college-aged.” She didn’t mention that her freshman college RA had been her roommate’s dealer.
She also avoided mentioning that she couldn’t seem to keep the least demanding pet possible alive, so caring for herself seemed a little iffy.
A piece of toilet paper floated down to cover the fish’s body like a sheet. Then Zanna flushed, wincing as the little blue fins chased the white square down into the abyss with a loud gurgling noise. She really needed to get the plumber over. It sounded like the toilet was choking. Maybe it had a distaste for fish—something Zanna could relate to. Except sushi. Sushi was delicious. Immediately, she internally apologized to Neptune or Poseidon or whichever god watched over fish souls for her insensitivity.
“Suzanna Iris Kane, are you on the phone with me while using the bathroom?”
                “No. Yes. Not really. I’m trying to get ready for work. Look, Mom. I’m sorry I didn’t call last night when I arrived,” she apologized dutifully in rote, “but I got in late and was tired after the drive and waiting for the movers to unpack all my stuff.” The Murderous Movers is what they should be called instead of Marvelous.
Her homemade horseshoe-crab clock plinked from the living room, another possession coughing out a warning from too many times packed and unpacked and repacked, though her summer-camp-crafting skills could be to blame. Dammit, she was going to be late on her first day.
Late like the fish.
Rushing, Zanna left her puns in the bathroom and found the simple black skirt, sensible turquoise shirt (plain bright colors was as subdued as most of her wardrobe got), shiny black heels, and jacket she’d laid out the night before on a stack of boxes next to the only thing fully unpacked and set up: her large yellow bed. She thanked God or maybe Narcissus for her vain over-planning.
Dropping her phone on another box, uncaring if her mother was speaking, she dressed, not bothering to unbutton and re-button the blouse—that would take too long. “Okay, Mom, I have to go. I’ll call you after work,” she shouted in the phone’s direction through the fabric. Her head popped through the collar, mussing up the already anti-gravity hairstyle her pillow had artfully crafted for her.
She caught the end of her mother’s response. “—great day at work, honey. You know your father and I are so proud of you for getting this prestigious position.”
Zanna rolled her eyes and restrained the urge to repeat the it’s-just-an-assistant-editor-of-a-small-publishing-firm drone. She should be grateful; it was the only call-back she got when she desperately posted her resume to the National Editors of America job-search page after far-too-many (which was any number greater than zero) months back at home.
Plan: Adult Life was in action.
“Thanks, Mom. Bye.”
As she hurried past the closet, her kitten heels clicked on the hardwood floors. She darted back into the bathroom, almost spraining an ankle in the heels, and dragged her chipped and bitten nails through her curls, getting caught in tangles. The dark strands closing in on her vision were forcibly contained in a large claw clip. Zanna managed to scoop up all her moisturizer, foundation, eye-liner and mascara in one hand while using the other to methodically open and apply each in a semi-decent manner. This was probably the longest part of her routine. She never left the house without her mask as Pen called it.
Zanna took a deep breath, the dang button-up pulling between her breasts so it gaped—too late to change now. She gazed one long moment into her freshly outlined green eyes and smiled. Her naturally red lips drooped into a frown as she fretted momentarily at the reflection, vowing to remove all mirrors as her next project in claiming the gloomy second-story apartment as her own, and left.
She skidded into the living room, around the counter in the kitchen, grabbed her bag and keys, and dashed out, slamming the door behind her, then u-turning to recover her phone from the box in the bedroom before locking up. Moving at a pace mastered from years of practice, she suddenly remembered breakfast and dug a smashed granola bar from the depths of her purse. Thank goodness she didn’t like coffee; that’d slow her down. Zanna zipped down the stairs, leaping the last few, and clopped without incident down the porch steps, and threw herself into the little old silver car parked at the curb.
Crap… Where was she going?
Rifling in her purse under more granola bars, mints, cell phone, wallet, and a book—just in case—she found the sticky note and turned her car on. In a lull in traffic, she pulled out, and immediately her foot slid off the gas. She leaned down to slip her shoe off and tossed it onto the passenger seat just in time to brake in the morning commute jam.
A first day was supposed to be fresh and exciting like starting a new grade at school—all 18 of them, in her career—but it wasn’t looking promising. Optimism had to be yanked to the forefront when you woke up confused about whose apartment you were in—something with which her college roommate was more familiar—and found a pet had drowned in the night.
Could fish drown?
No. She forced an exuberant smile, creeping out the driver in the car sitting next to her. This was her chance to start a real adult life. Maybe losing her old beta fish was a symbol to start anew. Yeah, that was it. A dead fish was certainly a good omen.
 
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ONE LOAN SOUL
Loan Soul book 1, adult paranormal fantasy

CHAPTER ONE

Today's possession sucks almost as much as dying does. I don’t show it, of course, sitting primly in front of the massive mahogany desk, blissfully basking in all of the compliments being bestowed upon me. I am, however, grateful the desk prevents my host’s spit-tastic boss from also bestowing his saliva upon me as he waxes on about upholding company values.
I always revel in the praise even if I’m not the precise soul for whom it’s intended. I take what I can get in these brief reprieves from Hell, even putting up with being a guy for a short time. A bird with a worm is worth two in the bush.
In my ninety-nine jaunts back to Earth since my death, I have quickly learned that manspreading is totally justified. I’d apologize for my feministic sneering at the male passengers sitting with splayed legs on the BART … if that were my worst sin.
With a murder on my eternal rap sheet, being rude on the subway is a duck in the ocean — barely a ripple. Which is why I’m a perfect angel, so to speak, of a substitute soul in my afterlife.
“… contract will be sure to elevate the value of our stock shares, encouraging invaluable investors to … invest in our novel synergistic business solutions.” He’s no wordsmith, but I’ll take the extra feather on my mantle. “It won’t be long before the company appreciates, dividends soar, and expansion is in the cards. I could oversee a branch downtown.”
I nod my head to conceal the fact that I almost just puked in my mouth at all the MBA jargon. My double chin makes that a difficult feat. It might even be a triple or one of those ones that just kind of connects mouth to chest, skipping the actual neck part; I was injected into Wallace Brown’s casing as soon as he sat down in this pompous man’s office, I think, so I’ve had no chance to find a mirror to admire my current self. Based on the ballooning stomach stretching the threadbare suit, I’m not sure I want to.
“Wise of you to listen to my advice and pursue this direction,” the man trumpets.
Come to think of it, some of these backhanded compliments are not even owed to Wallace Brown, who’s paying off part of his loan in my new home realm. The magical life boost I get to witness from this tiny chair is all thanks to the Big Guy with the pitchfork with whom Wallace Brown is currently having a grand old time. Neither my possessed casing nor I, Darcie Rose, signed the client noteworthy enough to inflate the balloon of a head belonging to this toad costumed in a suit. A suit that is far more expensive than the one my casing is wearing.
Yet, I smile because I do deserve some acknowledgment for my hard work. I’m the numero uno damned — literally — worker in Hell’s Souls On Loan Exchange (SOLE) Program. And there’s no chance in… well, my home as of the last year and forever more that my boss will offer me thanks. That’s not really the Devil’s shtick.
He may seem great. I mean, offering loans for those who aren’t willing to go all out to the selling-my-soul-to-the-Devil level … that seems pretty reasonable. People still get an invaluable life boost, though bite-sized — fortune favors the sold, after all — and He still gets … whatever He gets from them. I’m not asking Him what that is … or how He manifests his promises.
For one, you do not question the head honcho of the Overworld as I like to call it.
The name makes it just a tad less depressing, and frankly, I’m not convinced his realm isn’t up — somewhere in space or a parallel dimension. I’m no rocket scientist, just a deceased taxidermist.
And two, I’m not sure I want to know. I remain in blissfully ignorant since I never took out a loan while I was alive. My loss. Quite explicitly.
No, I work hard at my job because then Nix gives me the good sub stints. This one, while being uncomfortable and boring, isn’t as bad as some of my first ones. In fact, although my afterlife is destined for eternity in Hell, I think I benefit the most from these deals, not the Devil nor souls like Wallace Brown. I savor the short respite from the realm of the mopey and unsurprisingly morbid, and in addition, I get to be the lucky goose luxuriating in my boss’s omnipotent manipulation.
But really, I’m ready for the next sinner. I can feel sweat droplets snaking down the crevasse of my substantial behind. And this cheap suit itches.
I get a thumbs up, which, based on the meticulous desk and the clear compensating size of it, is a high accolade from this uptight narcissist. He looks the type to offer his wife a pat on the shoulder in gratitude after a tousle in the love shack, the kind who only relents to such uncouth activities after loosening up post-work with a single glass of aged scotch. He probably even keeps his socks on.
“Good job —” The man’s mouth pulls down at the sides as he tries to summon my casing’s name from the paper shredder in his mind.
I don’t offer any clues, just smile patiently and subtly scratch a thigh, hiking up the already too-short trousers.
The man pulls up a second thumb to fill the awkward silence, replacing the gap where a name should be. Wow, a double wield. I resist clasping a hand to my heart and tearing up.
Yesterday, I finally got to possess an actress in that ultimate moment she won an award, and conjuring those tears had been an exciting challenge. The amount of graciousness I spewed without feeling had probably been about as heartfelt as the actress’s would have been and as over-the-top. I thought I’d played the part so well that the award really should have been for me. I am the best in Hell for a reason.
Conjuring up my award-winning acting skills, I begin my pitch while the man is momentarily quiet, watching as the thumbs slowly lower along with his eyebrows. This is a less fun character to portray, but the challenge is tougher. I squirm in my seat as I talk fast, creaking the chair’s joints. I have to pee — probably Wallace Brown’s pre-meeting nerves. Although I’ve had to do it on longer jobs, it’s a bodily function I try to avoid as a guy. That task is outside my field house.
Finally, we reach an agreement, and I stand, offering a fawning “Thank you. You won’t regret this, sir” to remove the tension that filled the room with my negotiating. We do that manly over-tight knuckle-gripping handshake, and I escort myself back into anonymity, leaving the glass fishbowl as a stressed secretary rushes to respond to a bellow.
Waddling back into the massive cubicle cluster where the nobodies spend too many hours of their short lives toiling at menial and inconsequential chores, I scout the open area for a restroom. Thank Go — Hell I never had an office job; I’d mostly lived my snipped life to its fullest … at least, I thought so until those last five minutes or so.
Spying a sign, I toddle in that direction. This casing is getting the super deluxe service. The best acting, the Darcie Rose touch of a promotion on top of the Devil’s Deal that landed him an important client and saved his job along with a much-resented bladder emptying. It’s not a unisex single room either. I should get a promotion myself.
Satisfied customers mean repeat customers that toad would confirm. But Luci is not one on whom to try a promotion pitch. I’ve never met him and hope that fact never changes.
That is my ultimate reason for being the perfect employee. I avoid getting fired, which in Hell is the toastier meaning of that word, dropping down the circles, to use Dante’s tangible description of the realm’s hierarchy.
Thankfully, the men’s restroom is empty, so I’m able to accomplish my mission without anyone noticing my gagging. Making my way back, I identify the only empty desk, and I slump down in the swiveling office chair in front of a decrepit monitor that displays way too much math for my taste, even if Beelzebub’s mumbo jumbo magic gives me all of the skills needed to accurately depict my role. I wedge my wide derriere between the rickety armrests. If I’m still in this body by the end of the day, I vow to take it for a run.
I haven’t exercised since my death. There’s no need. My soul stays exactly as it was when I passed, and I admit I’ve lost the joy for exercise since it prompts memories of the days my fiancé and I were gym rats together.
Shoving that errant out-of-character thought into the grave it crawled from, I debate calling Wallace Brown’s wife. She’s going to be so grateful. I foretell that Wallace Brown is getting an additional reward from this deal in the form of couple’s time, too. I mean the kind of grateful that commences with putting the kids to bed early and switching the granny panties for the single piece lingerie at the bottom of the drawer. Maybe they’ll even splurge in anticipation of his higher paycheck to go out.
You know what? I am even going to get this guy home on time for once. Though, it’d be great if I’m not there for the grateful part. Peeing is weird enough as a guy. Anything else —
Slurp.

X X X X
 
That familiar sucking sensation that feels almost like the urge to vomit lurches me sideways from my casing, leaving it to stare off into space for a few seconds while the trade happens.
Whirling through colors and lights and sounds that had at first overwhelmed me like being drunk on a roller coaster in an IMAX theater after eating fried butter, which is a real thing on Earth and not a torture device from Hell, and wearing a kaleidoscope instead of 3-D glasses all at once now feel like a typical commute home.
The soul of Wallace Brown, identical to his casing, slides past me, and I tip an invisible hat at him. Enjoy the better standing, buddy. You’re most welcome. Stop working overtime, and take up Jazzercise or something, I urge silently. He doesn’t smile back. They never do, solidifying my intentions to never ask what Luci wins from His bargains. It’s probably a blessing that they never remember the event or Luci’s reality upon their return.
Then, I’m squelched into existence in sweltering humidity on a rocky ground that never fails to scrape up my hands each time. Graceful landings are not an option here. That sound of materialization reminds me yet again of the splatter of animal organs dumping onto my work table in my past life — or, I guess, life is enough of a descriptor without needing to add “past”.
“You owe me,” I tell Nix who is slouched over his counter, sorting files as he does pretty much constantly.
“All clean?” he asks without lifting his eyes, ignoring my demand.
“Do you know me?” I push to my feet and wipe the blood on my jean shorts.
He lifts his chin, empty eyes watching me patiently.
I roll mine. “Clean as pie.” I try not to shudder, remembering that long, long night after I’d first started and slipped up, saying hello to someone I’d known formerly, when I was alive. Since it was only a hello — no damage control needed, thus not requiring the Devil’s SOLE managers to involve Him — I was just docked a few points.
But when those points indicate your rank in the circles of Hell, I’d been eager to jump back in and redeem myself. It had been a tense time, waiting for a new stint opportunity to arise. Most deals are signed at night when people are lying in bed, ruminating on their life and lamenting What Could Be, but that time had been as empty as a college library on a Friday.
Jobs are dwindling, Nix confided to me when one finally came, and I almost peed myself with relief while sprinting to his desk. It can’t be that people are becoming more righteous — puritans are long since extinct, and the internet makes it so easy to become envious of what others have. I deduced it was more a case of increasing intensity of naughtiness; many are going for the gold, making a deal for the full-scale soul sale rather than the lowly loan.
Little do they realize that they won’t get to enjoy their side of the deal for long; the Devil always collects on His deals, and you have to read the fine print to know it’s always right after the moment of ascent. The Devil writes the details.
Nix shakes his head. “You never get your idioms right,” he mutters, almost repeating my old taxidermy mentor’s complaint to a P.
I continue magnanimously since he demanded I elaborate, and I strive for perfection always. “Neither rule was broken. Our end of the deal went off without a glitch, and in fact —” I lean forward conspiratorially. “— I worked in a raise and promotion in addition to the business contract. So, you’re welcome for the excellent service. As per usual. Wallace Brown might even be willing to sign another contract after the night he’s going to have,” I confide, waggling my eyebrows sagely.
Nix doesn’t respond to my premonition. He’s back to flipping through papers. “Get the paperwork back to me ASAP.” He dips his head briefly, indicating a binder-clipped stack that looks impossibly thick, comparable to some kind of manual or terms and conditions. Unfortunately, this one I do have to read completely and fill out if I want to stay in the program and, more importantly, in Nix’s favor.
“ASAP?” My eyes widen, and I give a few frog hops of glee, clapping my hands together. My purple-tipped hair flounces around with the movement. If I’d been so fortunate as to die with my hat on, I could keep the dark brown waves out of my face. Of course, if I’d been lucky at all, I wouldn’t be in Hell … or have died at age twenty-nine. Never even made it to my thirties. Tsk. “You’ve got something for me?” I stop and shift my hands to my hips. “This one better actually be a good one.”
With how much I detest being in Hell, which means it’s succeeding in its intention, I’m overjoyed to shrink those once in a new moon occurrences when I’m between stints. On those rare occasions, I can be found mimicking a lawn gnome, perched cross legged below the massive sign that might otherwise be found in a sports arena, waiting for a name and duration to flicker onto the screen in neon orange letters so I can sprint to Nix and claim it first.
“As soon as possible.”
“I know what ASAP stands for.” I grin. “It’s a long one, isn’t it? A few days? A week?” I ask hungrily. “I’ll get to sleep! In a real bed with an actual, soft mattress. I know, I know.” I hold up a palm. “I don’t need it anymore. But sleeping is so restful.” My voice slips to a longing coo. Dreams are another great way to mentally escape my predicament. I point a finger at him. “But not another dude. Promise me.”
He doesn’t. He simply slides the papers closer to the edge of the counter with a single fingertip.
I snatch them before they fall, slicing my thumb on the edge. Paper cuts are a donut a dozen up here. They heal instantly, forming a fresh surface to be damaged repeatedly. But they sting like a —
“Time is ticking,” is all my handler says.
It’s not. Time is not measured, being somewhat fluid — mostly lethargic — down here.
Regardless, I turn and blow that Popsicle stand like the wind.
 
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MORTAL SCREAM
(Harbingers of Death book 1, co-written by LeAnn Mason, new adult urban fantasy/paranormal romance) 

CHAPTER ONE
 
The scream tore out of my throat like acid, scratching from deep in my belly and ricocheting off the walls of the alley. And it wouldn’t stop. My hands shook as I stared at them in horror. Blood smeared across my pale skin, cooling quickly in the night air.
“Oh my God!”
The appalled exclamation snuck into my ears while my depleted lungs sucked in a much-needed breath for another round of caterwauling. My attention switched from my hands to the man who’d shouted while another scream wrenched free from my protesting lungs. He was staring from the end of the alleyway, and he wasn’t alone. My eyes widened. I had a full audience. Behind him, a woman covered her mouth with both hands before lowering them with urgency to grab her child’s head and press his face into her stomach. From the wide stretch of her gaping mouth, I suspected she was also shrieking.
But I was using my outdoor voice and could only hear myself.
My father's voice was loud and clear in my head though, never failing to reiterate his lessons from my childhood. If you’re in trouble, making a lot of noise is an excellent way to attract attention. If stealth is the goal, noise is a great way to get into trouble.
This was definitely the latter even if I couldn't remember how the situation came to be.
The man pointed an accusatory finger in my direction, and the woman pulled out a phone with her free hand, pressing it to her ear as hard as she had crushed the child to her side. When I stood, their eyes unanimously zeroed in on my right hand.
The knife. I was still clutching the butcher’s knife I’d wrenched from the man’s stomach. It wasn’t medically advised to remove anything lodged in the abdomen, which can stem blood loss, but the victim had already pulled it part-way out himself. For some strange reason, I thought I should help.
I dropped the blade. It must have made a noise as it hit the pavement, but my prolonged screams overrode the clatter. Kicking it with my boot, I watched it slide under a dumpster from the corner of my eye.
If you think it’s dangerous to run with scissors, try it with a knife. Or better yet, don’t. Another lesson poked to the fore of my mind: Always secure your weapons before moving to minimize the risk of them being turned back on you.
Then I turned and sprinted away from my audience, down the dark alley. The same direction the actual murderer had gone, stumbling on detritus and wailing away.
Onlookers arrived in that direction to box me in, summoned by my involuntary call. Skidding to a stop next to another dumpster, I eyed it and the brick facade it butted, questioning my ability to reach the fire escape above it. I glanced left and right at the growing crowd barricading my ground-level escape options.
If you’re going to attempt something risky, make sure you have a back-up plan. Failure is never an option.
I didn’t have that. Or anyone to appear miraculously and offer one up.
Up it is.
Scrambling up the dumpster, I choked on the rank stench emanating from within as I inhaled raggedly. Slipping on some unidentifiable sludge nearly sent me toppling into the pile of oozing black trash bags spilling like tar around the bin. The resultant gagging broke my shrieks into sharp bursting screams between heaves. I stumbled over to the middle of the single closed lid, my boots bending the plastic precariously.
Thank the gods, I’d wrinkled my nose at wedge heels and fishnet stockings. Acrobatics would have been complicated by the fashion. What they’d have given me in terms of a few extra inches in height would have been negated by the hindrance of actually moving in the brick-like shoes. At that moment, I appreciated my parents’ push for function over fashion. My newly inflated sense of self-congratulation and my abating screams—due to hoarseness, not active choice—lured me into thinking I might just escape unscathed.
The last few times, it had taken a minute or two for my screams to quiet. But this time, my involuntary reaction had lasted longer than the previous four … or was it five? Long enough that I’d witnessed the man take his last gurgling breath, and his blood had seeped into the knees of my pants as I knelt over him, applying pressure on his wound. Long enough that I’d been observed at the scene.
If you stumble upon a crime scene, dial 9-1-1 then distance yourself immediately.
I had done neither. My reaction to death was getting worse. It had been so all-consuming this time that I’d been incapable of calling for help coherently. It must have been scrambling my other faculties as well. That was my only excuse for touching a murder weapon.
If you forego that step, the first thing you should do is memorize the name of the best criminal lawyer in town.
At least I had my dad with me in my time of need. Nevermind that it was only as a remembered figment of my imagination and barely consciously noticed over my incessant wailing.
“Police! Stop right there!”
My stomach dropped to my toes, my mouth finally shutting as the shit truly hit the fan. The police had arrived. And as anticipated, I had more of their focus than the assaulted man, whose death meant he no longer benefited from their attention. The real culprit was long gone from their view, having had plenty of time to distance himself with the victim’s wallet.
Running wouldn’t help me convince them of my innocence, but ‘don’t get caught’ was the most important lesson my parents had ingrained in me. I’d outrun the cops last time, but they hadn’t even seen me then. My time to escape had been diminishing since the first death I’d been weirdly compelled to witness, about a year ago.
My being present had helped none of them. I’d simply borne witness to their demise. And look at the shit it had gotten me into now. It wasn’t helping me either. Being a fleeting, unnoticed presence in each city I traveled to was kind of the name of the game in my life. Like a ghost.
And I was failing.
Bending my knees deep, I tipped my head back, swung my arms, and leaped for the lowest rung of the fire escape ladder. The lid of the dumpster caved beneath me with a crash and didn’t reach the height I expected, well, hoped. My fingertips barely wrapped around the cold metal, my weight and momentum tearing me from the idea of safety.
Shit!
Dread flared as my bloody fingers slipped, and I hitched the compromised digits, straining for a solid grip. Adrenaline made my heart pound. Legs flailing, I swung my body to get momentum then flung a hand up toward the next rung. Since I’d lost my parents, I hadn’t really done a great job of keeping up my training habits.
This would teach me to stop skipping gym days.
“Get down here! In the name of the law,” a booming baritone ordered, brooking no arguments.
Except, that idea didn’t really appeal to me.
My means of escape didn’t agree.
Without warning, the ladder latch released under my weight. The sliding mechanism engaged, sending the ladder, and me, plummeting toward the ground. My scream of surprise was barely audible, my vocal cords too raw to give it volume.
I slammed into the soft body of a policeman who seemed to have followed my attempt, sending both of us crashing into the crumpled lid of the dumpster and into the decomposing garbage. Groaning in pain, I rolled my head, trying to get my bearings, the violet tips of my silvery hair splaying across my face. I was going to be so bruised tomorrow, but I couldn't dwell on the fun colors my too-pale skin would display. I needed to get out of town and, preferably, the state, to outrun reaching hands.
Enforcement agencies are limited to certain jurisdictions, and cutting through the red tape takes time. Bureaucracy is a friend of the fugitive.
Before I could even roll from my spread-eagle pose, another scream crawled up my throat, my expression likely matching the dead man’s. It never made it out of my chest as the ladder followed my descent, clanging against my skull. Everything went black.
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NIGHT STALKER (Formerly Thirst for Vengeance)
A Branwyn Blood novella (Formerly The Exiled Fae of Texas), new adult urban fantasy 

CHAPTER ONE
 
Landing gently on the roof, Gwrach y Rhibyn folded her membranous leather wings, which spanned nearly the entire width of the quaint bungalow. She tucked a greasy strand of thin black hair behind a hunched shoulder with gnarled claws and let out a low, keening moan toward the moon. 
She could scent the child on the faint breeze passing through the valleys. It wasn’t as delectable as the sharp tang of blood sliding luxuriously down her throat, but the musk of human was like an appetizer, taunting her with the succulent nectar that was to come. Fresh saliva pooled in her mouth and dripped unheeded down pointed, slender, onyx fangs. 
“Too long,” she rasped to herself. “Too long. So thirsty.” 
Weak, the being that some humans called a vampire stumbled toward the edge of the roof above the child’s bedroom from memory. Her bare-footed steps were louder than usual on the clay tiles. The house frame creaked beneath her slight weight, belying its age. Likely, it was younger than the terrifying creature of the night crawling toward the corner above the child’s bedroom. She’d waited too long between feedings. 
The child would sleep soundly, undisturbed by the bumps in the night; a deep sleeper, the human never once awoke during the vampire’s visits. The child had a unique flavor that Gwrach y Rhibyn could not resist. Her favorite source had dominated her thoughts that night when the hag finally succumbed to her thirst. 
Dragging her emaciated body from a starved stupor, she’d emerged from her hidden river cove high in the Welsh forests ready to hunt for blood. It was almost less safe to have waited, because now her attention was scattered and blurry from deficiency. She would not notice if anyone snuck up on her, so focused was she on her own target. 
Twitching a glance over her shoulder, the vampire scanned the dark of the residential street in the sparsely populated town up. Only the trees moved, swaying slightly in the wind. Moonlight played on the shadowed leaves as they danced, generating a shushing sound like rushing water.
Her stomach clenched painfully, long past the point of growling, and Gwrach y Rhibyn dug her claws into her midsection until warm blood flowed dark over pale, nearly translucent skin. The aroma, less sweet than that of any child or even adult human, snaked into flared nostrils. Her lust for blood went berserk, escalating her desire into an uncontrollable craze. 
Grimacing, she urgently dropped to a crouch, wrapping her nails instead around the lip of the roof, feet spanning the apex. Sliding onto her stomach, Gwrach y Rhibyn snapped her wings out again, letting the sharp talon at the curve of each black appendage hook between roofing tiles, then she slid over the edge. Lowering her upper body, her hair dripped like black wax ahead of her descent. Her own blood rushed to her head, dizzying her for a moment. After a few breaths that incentivized her further with the lure of the child, she stretched her wings until her view lowered past the top frame of the window. 
The hag’s ragged breath caught as she took in the lump curled in the bed. So small. So innocent. So delectable. She could almost taste the lifeblood already, warm and heady. Another hunger pang stabbed through her belly, and a wanton moan slipped from her thin lips.
The child tossed and turned.
The monster in the window watched and waited until her prey was still for several minutes before stretching out her narrow arms and pulling up the window. She knew just when to pause and ease it over a particularly creaky segment. When it was no wider than a foot, she slithered inside, her wings tucking tight to her skeletal body to fit through the narrow opening. 
Bent low, Gwrach y Rhibyn felt a gust of wind skim across the top of her hair, fresh air flicking around the otherwise stale scene. Keeping to the shadows, she circumvented the spotlight of the moonbeam. The lock clicked in the bedroom door with a quick turn of her wrist, then the hag crept toward the bed. Her crooked back slid up the wall beside the bed as she rose, her gaze on his peaceful form. A different ache burned her core. 
Age-old grief gripped her heart. Her baby. Her child. Ripped from her. “Too early, too early,” she whispered. A shaking hand stretched out, barely visible in the gloom, and her palm gently brushed the child’s rosey cheek, plump and warm beneath her fingers. Gwrach y Rhibyn’s breath skittered out in a rush. 
The child stirred again.
Bending low over the child’s chubby form, she inhaled talcum powder and lavender soap. A drip of saliva plopped on the blanket tucked up under the child’s chin. Gwrach y Rhibyn pulled it down to expose the girl’s neck and fixated on the pulsing artery. There was no evidence there of past visits, the punctures long since healed.
“Too long,” she murmured.
A frown marred the child’s face, and Gwrach y Rhibyn paused until the girl settled once more. Then, she dipped and opened her jaws wide, the full row of thin black teeth poised over the rosey skin. 
Quickly, she pierced the flesh and the divine taste flooded her mouth, cascading down her parched throat. She moaned again, sucking hard, gulping back thick swallows of rich blood. The child had fully revived after her last encounter with the hag.
A tap on the window snapped Gwrach y Rhibyn’s awareness away from her meal. 
Whipping her head around, huddled over the girl protectively, teeth displayed in threat, the vampire stared at a pair of large green eyes, sharp white teeth, and gleaming silver hair. The hag inhaled hard in a hiss that expressed annoyance, and the scent that filtered through the open window confirmed the identity of the voyeur. Gwrach y Rhibyn snarled softly.
“Tylwyth Teg,” she growled. Another fae. The appearance told her this was an elf. Here. Trying to take her source. 
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WOLVES WOOD

The Fox and the Howl Book #1

Paranormal Romantic Fantasy

CHAPTER ONE

I peered back over my haunches only briefly, just long enough to recognize the intent for victory in golden eyes as bright as the moon looming high behind the wolf's head. My lolling tongue sucked back as I realized the game of tag had become a true chase of predator and prey. Bollocks. The moon had pulled out Cooper's animalistic instinct to hunt. His human side was nowhere to be seen, and he was hot on my tail and closing fast, lips pulled back in a snarl that wrinkled his muzzle and exposed inch-long canines dripping saliva. So much for friends are not food.

I put on a burst of speed. I could take Cooper in my human form, but a common garden fox was no match for a full-grown wolf — which was all he was to me right now.

He should not have come to visit me on a full moon. He shouldn't be here at all. And now I was going to pay for not telling him to bugger off all these years he broke the rules.

My heart pounded almost as fast as my paws pattered across the rain-slicked grass of the Clifton Downs — and much louder. I torqued my ears back, listening to his excited panting in order to track the shortening stretch between us. My lithe form was designed for stealth, his for might.

Options flitted through my mind. To my right, death in the form of a steep drop of the cliff dropped onto Hotwell Road and beyond it, the River Avon. Left ran into the obstacle of the Clifton Observatory — populated by humans at this time of night. Straight led directly from the park into densely packed neighbourhoods, which were natural roaming grounds for foxes... but not for grey wolves who were supposed to be extinct in the UK.

I tucked my head and sprinted straight ahead toward Gloucester Row and the houses beyond, knowing Coop would have to pull up or veer off. He may have trespassed, but he wouldn't endanger the secret of his kind... That was if he had enough cognition to recall that fact. If he didn't, at the very least, I could find a small hidey hole to escape his teeth.

My legs were weak with fatigue and tripped me up more than once. When the anchorage of the suspension bridge reared in my vision, I hoped Cooper would detour back to his territory. Instead, a growl pursued me. I wasn't going to make it to the edge of the park before he caught up.

I cast about in haste for an alternate option. A large sign to my left indicated public toilets for tourists visiting the notorious bridge. It would be locked after dusk but the rubbish bin next to it would be recently emptied to avoid attracting wildlife overnight. Tonight, that cleanliness was the attraction.

With the last of my dwindling energy, I made a few final bounds and launched toward the top of the metal barrel—

A pair of teeth closed around my tail.

I crashed into the ground with a yip of surprise and pain. We had too much momentum, both of us tumbling together until we crumpled against the base of the bin. I landed on the bottom, belly-up, in the worst possible position, unless you were into submission — which in the case of life-and-death is not advised, assuming you’re aspiring for the “life” eventuality out of those two options.

My head twisted to the side, and I squinted open one eye, worried I was about to see an impressive set of teeth before they ripped into me.

My open eye rolled.

The so-called predator was poised over me, braced on his forepaws, tongue hanging loose from his jaw in a wolfish smile that did nothing to endear him to me.

Immediately, I shifted back to human. “Cooper Mills, you are an absolute git. One of these times, you’re going to chew off my tail. And then you’re going to get a muzzle-full of unrestrained magic. Without apology.” Bold words for a Brit… and a fox trapped beneath a full-grown wolf who also happened to be the local alpha’s son. “You know that, right?”

His response to my threat was to sweep his slobbery tongue up the side of my face.

“Gross.” I used a forearm to wipe it off leaving a streak of mud in its wake. I wasn't sure when he'd returned to his senses — maybe when he tasted my fur in his mouth — but I was done putting up with his animal side tonight. “No. Just because you're my friend — were my friend — won’t stop me. Now get off. You’re heavy,” I grunted. “I think you really did break my tail.”

He nudged my hand with his wet nose.

“Used up my magic shifting so fast,” I explained raising the palm to show that there was no sizzling glow. I'd planned to refuel before heading home and shifting back. Coop had forced my hand and thrown off my evening plans.

That made his jaw close, and his head tilt in chagrin.

My eyes rolled again. “I just need a solid night’s sleep to rejuvenate my stores,” I lied, “and then I’ll have enough energy to heal it.” Unfortunately, the pain from the break would not abate until then and I couldn't even cradle the wound without that appendage in human form. “Get. Off. Me.”

Cooper’s eyes shut in concentration and a moment later, a naked man lay across my naked body, grinning in a wolfish manner. The autumn wind was colder without the fur blanket, but he generated a lot of body heat pressed intimately against mine.

I remained very still, my heart picking up pace again. Though this wasn’t the first time I’d shifted in front of Coop, it wasn’t usual that we were interlocked at the time.

“I don’t know,” Cooper cooed, dropping one elbow into a pile of leaves that had drifted against the bin. His other lifted to pick up a strand of my shoulder-length hair. He twisted the pale blond strands around a finger. “I want to make sure you know your place, Polka Dot. Beneath me.” His lips quirked, and he leaned down toward my ear to whisper the next part. “You know. Because I won.”

“That’s it.” I lifted both palms and shoved at his shoulders, which only managed to reposition him against me. If I’d had any dregs of power, I would’ve blasted him off at the cost of leaving my tail injured. “Get. Off. I can’t breathe.”

“Lose your breath at the sight of me, did you?”

“Lost my breath because of the reek of this rubbish bin.” It really wasn’t that odoriferous, being empty as I anticipated. We were laid out like two drunk college students on the edge of a major artery. It was late, but a car was bound to motor past at some point. “We need to move.”

Cooper rolled off with a laugh. When he stood, he winced, sucking in a sharp breath and grabbing the edge of the bin to avoid crumpling to his knees.

“What’s wrong?” I dipped under his arm to support him, trying to find out where he was hurt.

Despite the fact that he tried to keep his weight off me and funnelled into his braced hand, the arm was heavy across my shoulders. It was just like the arrogant prick to procrastinate medical aid in favour of haughty banter.

“Twisted my ankle on that knoll you leapt down.” He gave me a sharp look out of the corner of his eyes.

“I am not apologizing for that. You shepherded me down there. I was going to lose entirely if you caught up to me.”

“You lost anyway,” he pointed out.

“I meant my tail. Lose my tail.” I cocked my head. “Although… If you’re injured, I think I get some credit.”

He shook his head. “You double lose, because it means I beat you even with a handicap.” He tweaked my nose.

"You already have a handicap. Your idiocy." Ducking out from under his arm, I walked away down the road toward the brightly coloured cookie-cutter houses on the hillside, bare feet stinging on the unyielding pavement after being pounded on rough terrain.

It really was a nuisance that I didn’t have enough spark to shift back to my animal form. I was going to have to cut down the Zig Zag to reach the road far below that paralleled the river. The brush along that winding footpath would surely leave cuts on my soles that Aunt Ellen would ask about with a suspicious raised brow.

“Dot Pearson,” Cooper called after me. “You are going to help me out, yeah?”

The fact that Cooper used my full name gave me pause. There were only a number of times — less than two-hands’ worth in fourteen years — that I could recall him using anything but the moniker adopted when we went through puberty and his wolf pup grew, while my little fox form had a less substantial growth spurt. His injury must be bad enough that he was willing to wound his own pride to admit dependency.

I paused for only a second though.

“Nope.” I didn’t look back. “Winners don’t need a hand from losers. I’m walking away with my head up and leaving you to limp home sadly.”

“Looks more like a walk of shame. An alluring walk of shame, mind.”

Without slowing my stride toward Lookout Lectern, I shot him a hard glare over my shoulder.

He had hopped toward me on one foot, keeping his weight off the other one with a pitiful gaze and pouting lower lip.

I stopped, fists curling in annoyance at my weak will for ruining a fantastic exit. “Sorry, Coop. I told you, I have no juice to heal you. Obviously.” I indicated my exposed flesh. Modesty urged me to shift back though I had no means to do so.

“I noticed.” Coop’s eyes dropped only once, fleetingly and without judgment, but a flush bathed my body in a fire-side glow that was followed by a dainty shiver that started at my neck and tripped down the full length of my spine. It had nothing to do with the night’s autumn breeze.

I swallowed, refusing to cover myself as it would only draw more attention and Cooper’s mirth. “And I can’t help you home, if that’s your next suggestion. Not if I don’t want more than a broken tail for trespassing on pack land. Go back to your turf.” I pointed toward Clifton Suspension Bridge. “One of your mates there will gladly help you in order to earn the appreciation of the great Stryder Mills.” My sarcasm was getting heavy, my tail was aching, and I was suddenly bone-tired and chilled through and through in the crisp air on which danced a few lazy leaves. “Besides you already wore me out,” I said honestly.

Cooper grinned at that. “You could do with the exercise.”

I scoffed. In my birthday suit, he could see every rib through my nearly translucently pale skin. Using magic drained my energy and my weight; I'd probably lost a kilogram forcing that shift. My hands landed akimbo. “And you could do with an excuse. Bet you're thrilled that there will be honesty in your words when you tell your father you were out hunting,” I countered. “Isn’t tonight supposed to be your monthly pack hunt?” I twirled a finger toward the full moon. “Shouldn’t you be back there, leading the charge, as it were?”

Coop snorted derisively. “It’s early yet. They’re still riling themselves up for it. You know I’d rather chase you, Polka Dot.” His teeth glinted in the bright moonlight that surely lit our bodies up like beacons to any nosey observers peering out the front windows across the road.

I watched him for a moment. “You’re playing with fire.” The soft warning echoed my aunt's words. The sensible part of me had hoped he wouldn’t come, and the other part? The part needed to bugger off. I quashed it for now.

He shrugged. “My father’s the one who signed the accords, not me.”

I shook my head. “You know they apply to us, too.”

Coop scoffed. “There’s no tripwire. My father doesn’t know where or what I’m hunting. Just that I am. And with this as proof — ” He gestured at his foot. “— he’ll believe that my prey was something impressive.”

“That’s because it was something impressive,” I corrected, lifting my chin.

He laughed. “Maybe next time, Polka Dot.”

“You’re faster today than usual. I did pretty well, considering,” I pointed out, pursing my lips.

“Yeah, well, I'm a bit slow now, eh?”

I tapped my temple. "You're always a bit slow."

I observed Cooper’s pitiful state: a fully exposed body in the middle of the road and he was going to have to head across the gorge, out in the wide open on that expansive bridge, to return to his pack with a weakness for all to see. Would his younger brother take the opportunity to challenge him for the spot of heir?

Then I thought of my tail and Aunt Ellen, who was another candidate for making the tail look like a wee nick if I broke the accords. I had an important errand to do before heading home anyway — an errand I needed to do alone.

“Moon’s out, you lazy sod. You can shift back and use three legs.” Pivoting on a heel, I presented my back to my best and only friend... and my greatest enemy, knowing he couldn't chase me further if he wanted to.

Coop gave an appreciative hum. "And what a glorious full moon it is."

I saluted his remark with a middle finger and a terrible impression of a quiet wolf’s howl of triumph directed toward the night sky.

"Shit."

Coop's exclamation made me grit my teeth. "If you're faking more pain just to get me to help you..." I left the threat open.

No one responded.

"Coop?' I slowed and half-turned, waiting. If he was messing with me, he was getting his other ankle broken, I decided. "Cooper. This isn't funny." I didn’t see him behind me; he’d started his trek toward Wolves Wood. “Did you fall off the bridge?” I asked half-kidding, half-worried.

"Shit!" The way Cooper shouted the swear to the sky chilled me more than the wind on my bare skin.

I began to jog back the way I’d come. "Coop? Where are you?"

He didn't answer, but I found him quickly enough. He hadn't gone far; I was relieved to find he hadn't stepped foot on the bridge yet.

"You okay?"

He didn't seem to register me, just kept staring at the bridge, bare chest heaving with heavy pants.

Following his gaze, I froze. "Shit," I echoed breathlessly.

There, in the middle of the empty walkway along the side of the empty bridge was a large grey lump. The floodlights that lit the bridge cables for all of Bristol to see also illuminated the crumpled form. The dark fur of the wolf was clearly charred on one side, a few tendrils of smoke lifting on the breeze. When I inhaled hard in panic, the scent of singed hair filtered into my nose.

Slowly, Cooper turned wide eyes on me.

"I didn't kill him," I bumbled, though of course Cooper knew that. He'd been with me.

Mutually, we turned back to stare with horror at the body.

"It's Slade.”

Cooper’s whisper punched the air from my gut with more force than any physical tackle he’d ever launched. Terror gripped my core. "Slade... your dad's beta?"

Neither of us moved to see if Slade needed medical assistance. The beta of the Mills Pack was clearly dead, toasted by a blast of power that could only be one thing: magic. Magic like mine.

My eyes lifted to stare at Coop, and he gazed back, too many words behind his eyes. Fear uncoiling in my gut, I fled Bloody Bridge.

Cooper's howl of grief chased me down the path. The responding howls from the wolf-shifter pack about to head out on their full-moon hunt spurred me into a blind sprint.

Completely naked, I streaked down the Zig Zag and along Hotwell Road, ignoring the tooting horn from a passing car on the motorway. I forewent scrambling into my open bedroom window on the second floor. Falling through the front door, gasping and choking, I rushed to slam it behind me and leaned against it as if to keep out the hounds of Hell.

They weren't on my tail yet. But they would be.