In the dead of January, there were only two reasons for a person to move to upstate New York. One—they had an unhealthy obsession with snowmobiling. Two—they were hiding from someone…or thing.
From the over-stuffed canvas sack tossed over his shoulder to his brisk pace, signs pointed to the new neighbor’s residency edging toward reason number two. Hiding. Which had my curiosity on overdrive and my worry on full alert.
For the past three months, the only renters at the secluded property housing a shed and three decrepit log cabins had been me and my best friend, Ben. We were also residents for reason number two, and I was pretty sure that if the landlord knew their tenants were a werewolf and a country-music-loving reporter, they’d let it slide to keep the rent coming in.
Tilting my head, I studied the neighbor. He sure knew his way around the winter elements. At his clip, the average person would’ve faceplanted. My right glute throbbed in memory of my most recent ice encounter. Not average or human, I still was a klutz all the same.
Well…he looks human.
As I cracked the window, frigid air bit my fingertips, and my sharp inhale had the hairs of my nostrils sticking together. Rubbing the freeze from my nose, I sniffed. Past the exhaust from his rundown vehicle, the scent of leather and sweat carried to me.
Still… I closed my eyes. Buffering one sense intensified the others. Beneath the sweat, a faint tartness of lemon and fresh-cut grass drifted from the neighbor. Bingo. He ticked a box on the nonhuman checklist. Monsters had a distinct base scent. No amount of perfume or body spray could mask it. Sure, the neighbor passed as human, but all it took was a drop of blood or a full moon to lose the act. From my brief introduction to the monster world, good nonhumans were nonexistent.
Unless the neighbor was a half-blood. I’d never had a chance to sniff one. An unsuspecting human with watered-down genes from a long-dead nonhuman race. An instant death sentence if they crossed a vampire.
Shit. Of all the damn days to move in, he picked today.
I opened my eyes to meet the man’s dark narrowed gaze. With no way to duck out of view, I offered a wave. “Why don’t you just go on and leave,” I gritted through my tight smile.
He tilted his chin in greeting, then headed up the steps to his cabin.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” I grumbled at his closing door.
Taking a step away from the window, I knocked my heel against a box filled with Ben’s comic book collection. All that we owned fit inside that box and an overnight bag. On the optimistic side, it made packing up easy-peasy. On the flip side, a life with dozens of throw blankets and candles wasn’t in our future.
I sighed at the box. Once more, the collection waited to be shoved into the trunk of Ben’s rust-bucket. He had a valid reason. Last night a vampire had left his calling card on our doorstep. Well, more like a debt-collection notice. I owed the bloodsucker a favor. However, I had freed his ass from the former Queen Bloodsucker. In my opinion, that was the favor of all favors.
Memories fought to the surface of my mind, setting my heart beating wildly against my ribs. To keep from being dragged into the depths of my subconscious, I focused on the afternoon sun highlighting the comics. The plan was for us to head to Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains within the next hour. Was—keyword. In good conscience, I couldn’t let the neighbor become the bloodsucker’s dinner.
Grabbing my phone, I sent a text to Ben.
On a run.
Instantly, my phone vibrated with his response.
No. I’m fifteen minutes out. We are leaving.
Guilt slunk around my brain as I left my phone on the desk and tugged on my windbreaker. Before the neighbor’s unfortunate appearance, I had been gearing up for my daily run. Physical fatigue kept the wolf under my skin content-ish. With a two-day road trip ahead, stuck in a car with Ben yodeling to country music, I’d need to run a freaking marathon. Dropping a stick of cinnamon gum into my pocket, I headed for the door.
Outside, a snow squall offered me a greeting of pelting ice crystals and blistering wind. I tucked my head and, with great caution, trotted down the steps. Fifteen minutes. Plenty of time to break a sweat and scare the shit out of the neighbor.
* * * *
Deep in the evergreen forest, I forced myself to continue trudging through the new foot-worth of powder snow. In the distance, snowmobiles whizzed by on the trail. Although my thighs and lungs burned, pleading with me to take the path of least resistance, I didn’t want to end up as roadkill, so I kept on my trailblazing course toward the cliff’s jetty.
Soon, all that mattered was paying respect to my past transgressions. Not the vampire and his stupid favor. Not the neighbor and his lemongrass scent. Not Ben and his country music remixes. Just my regrets. Two very big, handsome…monster mistakes. Plenty enough to distract me from the elements by setting my blood boiling and mind spinning.
Minutes later, dripping in sweat, I made it to the clearing. Thankfully, no one had ventured off the snowmobile trail, leaving the patch of land unmarred by humans. In the center stood a massive evergreen. Yep. Some fine human world esthetics. The scenic view belonged as a backdrop to a holiday card…not as a gravesite.
Every day, I made a pilgrimage to the boulder leaning against the evergreen’s trunk. Tears prickled my eyes while I brushed away a blanket of snow, revealing dozens of frozen gum wrappers clinging to the stone façade. Pausing, I folded my arms around myself.
“Nathaniel found us,” I whispered to Andrea’s makeshift grave. “I thought we were safe.” A gust of wind screamed against my ears, triggering memories of the Vampire Queen’s lips painted with Andrea’s blood. I gasped. “I’m sorry. I promise—”
Snow dusted the crown of my head and I snapped my attention upward to a large crow perching on a branch. Under the judgment of the bird’s beady eyes, my ears warmed with the heat of embarrassment.
“Nothing to see here.” I glared at the crow. “Shoo. Go.”
The bird blinked its creepy third eyelids at me.
“You know, I’ve never eaten crow before.” Raising my lips off my teeth, I let a growl rumble from my chest.
Unamused at my threat, the bird ruffled its feathers.
“Fine. Freeze your beak off.” Fishing the stick of gum out of my pocket, I settled to my knees and placed my offering on top of the boulder. With my focus locked on Andrea’s grave, I strained my ears, willing to hear her snarky advice. As always, silence answered.
“I promise, I’ll keep Ben safe,” I said. “I’ll keep them all safe.”
Mere seconds passed before frostbite gnawed at my knees. Shivering, I rose to my feet. “You better not eat that gum.” I jabbed my finger at the empty branch. Turning, I scanned the vacant surroundings. Weird. When I glanced back at the tree, glaring sunlight reflected off its ice-coated bark. The crow wasn’t the only thing that had vanished. At least a half-hour had flown by.
Tearing down my path, I prayed that no humans caught a glimpse of me hauling ass through the three-foot-deep snow, and if they did, they’d chalk it up to their day drinking. Hopefully.
When I rounded the forest edge, I skidded to a halt. Only the neighbor’s car sat in the snow-covered driveway. Smoke, drifting from the neighbor’s chimney, hinted at his whereabouts.
I circled to the back of the cabin. Inside, footsteps milled around to the beat of seventies rock music. Nice. Lengthening my claws, I locked my attention on the woodpile stacked alongside the backdoor while formulating a plan to send the neighbor packing.
Step one—I used the woodpile as a ramp to propel myself onto the roof. To keep from sliding off, I dug my claws against the shingles. Once I hoisted myself upright, I tore off my windbreaker, then stuffed it down the chimney. With a hip slide, I exited the roof, falling into a snowdrift.
Step two—I hauled ass back to my cabin.
While I rounded the side of the building, a grin spread across my face. Still no sign of Ben’s rust bucket, and now the neighbor would be good and gone before we left for Georgia. With a little victory dance, I climbed the steps to my cabin. “Nathaniel can suck on our exhaust fumes—” I froze mid-fist-pump.
The neighbor stood at my front door.