I once heard my mom liken the rage of a vampire to a summer storm.
“It can come out of nowhere,” she’d said. “Quiet one minute, roaring the next. And it will destroy everything around you before you even know what hit you.”
When I spot Bran at the doorway, when I see his eyes light up fire orange, I know I’m standing at the edge of a storm.
The air freezes in my throat.
I swear the hair rises along my arms and along the length of my neck.
Don’t let the mutts touch you.
Evan is draped over me, his arms around me one minute and the next he’s flying across the room.
Everyone starts moving, but most wolves can’t match the speed of a vampire the age of Bran Duval.
A split second before Evan crashes against the bar, Bran is there catching him with a fistful of his t-shirt. He slams him straight down to the floor.
The hardwood cracks, shards exploding in the air. The impact ripples out through the floor, and I feel the answering reverberation a half second later as it echoes up through the soles of my shoes.
I don’t think I breathe. Not one breath.
And then Fox is sprinting across the room, fist cocked back, ready to strike.
“Bran!” I shout.
Bran doesn’t turn, doesn’t flinch, and yet he catches Fox’s fist in the cup of his right hand.
The room goes still.
Fox grits his teeth, winds back with his left fist. Bran catches that one too.
“He knew what he was doing.” Bran’s voice is strangled and raw.
Fox curls his upper lip, strain appearing in the raised tendons in his neck. I don’t think he’s trying to punch now so much as he is trying to retreat. And Bran isn’t letting him.
“He knew what he was doing,” Bran goes on, “the second he smelled me on her.”
Evan coughs from the floor, the sound wet and reedy.
A lock of my hair flutters in front of my face. I look to my left just in time to see a blur of muscle and plaid dart past.
Something cracks. More splinters hit the air.
When I turn to Bran, Cal Crawford, Alpha of the Midnight Pack, is at his back, the sharp end of a broken pool cue pressed between his shoulder blades, angled toward his heart.
“Let him go,” Cal says.
The others shrink back, heads bowed.
The tension in the room is thick enough to choke on.
Bran’s nostrils flare, his jaw flexing as he weighs his options.
Come on, Bran! Let him go!
“I know you, Duval,” Cal says. “How much would it piss you off to die in pack territory?”
I think I know that answer.
Bran lets Fox go, and the shifter shakes out his hands as if he’s trying to bring feeling back to his fingers.
Cal tosses the broken cue. “Outside. Now.”
I’m frozen in place as the Midnight Pack’s alpha stalks toward the door, right past me. I’ve seen Cal around, obviously, but I’ve also seen the sun in the sky. Doesn’t mean I can handle standing right next to it.
Cal Crawford is large and impressive. I don’t know his exact age—shifters live longer than mortals, but they aren’t immortal. But if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he just stepped out of a Viking saga.
His blond hair is shaved short on the sides, but left longer on top. There are black tattoos running back along the sides of his skull, down the back of his neck to disappear beneath the collar of his red and black flannel. A neatly trimmed goatee hides what I’m guessing is a sharp jawline, judging by the cut of his cheekbones.
When he passes me, he barely looks at me.
Talk about feeling insignificant.
Bran takes me by the hand and leads me out of the room and through the foyer and out the front door.
Cal waits for us in the dark in the middle of the gravel drive.
Fox trails behind us.
“Let’s get this out of the way first,” Cal says, the boom of his voice echoing around the open space. “One, you are hereby banned from shifter territory. If I catch you on our lands again, I’ll tear out your heart with my bare hands.”
Bran tightens his hold on me when I let out a little hiccup of fear.
“Two, the only reason you’re leaving here on two legs is because I govern this pack with a very clear set of rules. Evan overstepped. He’ll be dealt with.” Cal’s dark gaze cuts to me. I think I catch a flash of pity in his eyes. “Three…Jessie I’ve been waiting for you to come to me for a very long time. You want to know what I saw that night in the woods.”
It’s not a question.
I swallow around the lump forming in my throat.
“You were there?”
“What did you see?”
His gaze slips to the house, then back to me. “Not here. Come. I’ll tell you what I know, and then you’ll be gone.”
Bran and I have no choice but to follow.
Cal leads us along a dirt path that winds back through the pines to a cabin that overlooks the river. Fox stays at our backs, the two wolves boxing us in.
It makes my skin crawl. Bran seems totally fine even though he was threatened with imminent death if he so much as stepped out of line.
The windows of the cabin are lit up from within, but when we step inside, the place is empty. Though the fireplace is cold and dark, I catch the faintest scent of burning wood on the air. There’s a coffee cup on the wooden table in the center of the main space, but I can’t tell if the coffee inside is fresh or not.
“Sit,” Cal orders.
I dutifully take a seat, but Bran stays standing and leans against the wall behind me.
Cal all but rolls his eyes.
Fox stays near the door.
“We’re waiting,” Bran says.
I send him a withering look over my shoulder, but he ignores me, his gaze fixed on Cal.
Cal goes to the vintage fridge and yanks on the metal handle. The glow of the fridge spills out around him as he ducks inside and pulls out a bottle of beer. He doesn’t offer us one. Not that I’d take it.
With a twist of the cap, the beer hisses. He takes a swig then props a hand on the counter and leans a hip into it.
“You want to know what I saw in the woods,” he states.
“Yes. We’ve established that,” Bran answers.
Cal runs his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip as he stares at Bran.
“Please tell me.” I wring my hands in my lap, knee bobbing beneath the table. If there’s something to know, I need to know it now. I can’t take this suspense anymore.
What happened with Sasha when I was a kid?
“I was running,” Cal says. “I run in the woods at night. Always have. I stopped by the riverside to take a drink when I heard a child laughing.”
Fear flutters in my chest.
“I went up the riverbank to see who it was, and that’s when I spotted Sasha coming to a stop with Jessie on her back.”
That I remember. I remember the world spinning to a halt.
“Sasha set Jessie down, and Jessie tripped over some exposed tree roots, and she went down in an instant.”
His gaze lands on me. “You started crying, and you kept saying your necklace fell off. Sasha ducked down to help you, and I immediately smelled blood on the air. Sasha noticed too. I could see her eyes glowing across the clearing.”
My heart beats a little harder.
“’It’ll be okay,’ Sasha said to you. ‘Let me see.’ You lifted your hand to her and there was a cut on your palm, blood running down your arm. At this point, I think Sasha was just panicking that you were hurt and then…then something changed.”
I sense Bran moving closer to me.
“I’ve seen bloodlust in vampires plenty of times before, but this was different,” Cal says. “This was almost…hypnotic.”
My knee bobs faster.
“She was on you in a second, teeth sunk into your wrist. I raced out of the woods. By the time I reached you, she was backtracking and swaying on her feet. ‘Oh shit,’ she said. ‘Something is wrong.’ I tried grabbing you, but she snatched you away before I could and like that—” he snaps his fingers “—she was gone.”
A cold sweat breaks out along the back of my neck.
“Why didn’t you report it?” Bran asks.
“I don’t get in the middle of vampire business. I did tell Jessie’s mom though.”
His voice is distant and muffled like I’m underwater. I swallow hard again, this time because I think I might be sick.
“What did she say?” Bran asks. “Her mother?”
“She made me a deal.”
I lurch away from the table. Bran pulls me into him. “What kind of deal?”
“Keep my mouth shut, and she’d make sure the pack got what it needed. It’s one of the reasons the Guard station was rebuilt on our side of the river.”
“You asked for that?” Bran says.
I’m vaguely aware of Cal nodding. “Vampires hold too much power. My opinion on that likely is no surprise to you. Controlling the Guard station gave me more sway.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
Bran ushers me out the door. I make it just in time to the side yard and collapse to my knees as the retching starts.
Nothing comes up.
Bran kneels beside me and holds my hair back as my stomach violently tries to deal with this information and finds it impossible to get anything out.
It’s just me gagging in the dirt, eyes burning, tears streaming down my face. It’s like I’m trying to purge my soul.
“Mouse,” Bran whispers. “It’s going to be all right.”
I can finally suck down a full breath. “What is happening?”
“I don’t know.”
Footsteps sound behind us. Bran looks up. “Is there more?”
“That’s it,” Cal answers.
“Then we’ll be on our way.” Bran puts his chest to my shoulder and then scoops me up in his arms effortlessly. I want to tell him to put me down, but I have no energy for it. And besides, the feel of his arms around me, holding me close…it’s the only thing keeping me together.
“Thank you,” he tells Cal.
“It’s the last you’ll get from me,” Cal warns. “And mostly I did it for her.”
“Then I thank you for her.”
Arms tight around Bran’s neck, I snuggle in close to him, feeling the burn of tears.
My mother betrayed me. My sister betrayed me.
And for what?
I don’t know who to trust anymore, and the fucked-up thing? I think the only person I can trust is Bran Duval.
It takes Bran less than a minute to get us back to the Bimmer. He gently sets me in the passenger seat and then clips my seat belt around my body. I’m numb and so far away, I barely notice. I barely notice the car ride back to the house either. So when Bran guides me into his house, I don’t protest.
He sits me at his table and pours me a tumbler of bourbon.
“Drink,” he says.
It isn’t until the alcohol is burning down my throat and warming my belly that I finally blink back to consciousness.
“How could they do this to me?” I blurt out.
He’s sitting in the chair next to me, his long body stretched out. He’s got his own tumbler of bourbon in hand, long, pale fingers curled around the glass.
“My guess? Your mom was protecting you. And your sister was passed the torch.”
“That’s far too nice of an explanation.” I take another sip. “You bit me. Did you sense anything weird?”
“You were wearing your necklace,” he points out. “Cal said that night you lost it when you fell.”
“But Rita said in order to undo the binding, it has to be destroyed. So why would it matter if I was wearing it?”
“To undo it, sure. But when it comes off? That might distance the effects of the magic and let whatever it is they’re trying to hide leak through.”
Whatever they’re trying to hide.
Something about me.
My mother and my sister have been hiding something about me. I don’t understand why or how. I don’t care in this moment.
I just want to know.
I sling back the rest of the drink and hiss at the burn. When I set the heavy glass down, it thuds in the quiet.
“Then let’s find out what they’re trying to hide.”
Bran frowns at me.
I unhook the necklace and let the charm dangle in the air between us. We both watch it spin from the end of the chain.
“Bite me.” I drop the necklace and hold out my wrist. His eyes sink to the blue veins running beneath my skin.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
His pale fingers circle my wrist as he angles my arm up to him.
His irises flare, and my heart thuds against the back of my tongue as he licks his lips, fangs sharpening.
I think he wants to know as much as I do.
I think he’s also just as afraid as I am.
He reaches beneath the table, and I hear a loud pop. When he brings his hand back, there’s a sharpened stake in his grip. He gives it to me.
“If something happens,” he says, “use it.”
“I won’t do—”
It’s the first time I’ve heard him use my name, and it kicks up a wave of fear in my gut.
“Promise me,” he says.
I think I might promise him anything if it means getting some answers.
“Okay. I promise.”
He gives me a quick nod and then sinks his teeth into my flesh.