Heat surrounded Nerina on all sides. Everywhere she turned there was smoke. It clouded her vision, suffocated her senses, and burned her lungs. The clothes on her body had long burned away. Chunks of her flesh hung off her arms and legs. Her body pulsed in agonizing pain. In the other room, she could hear her mother and father screaming as the fire blazed around her. Still, Nerina tried to look for a way out, for fresh air. She was determined to reach them. Fire crawled up the sides of the walls like waves rushing to the shoreline. She needed to find the door. Had to.
By the time she found it, the screams had ceased. She was too late; she knew they were gone, but called out to them anyway.
“Mom! Hold on! Dad! I’m coming! I’m coming!”
Reaching up, she grabbed for the knob, the skin from her hand sticking to the metal. Muscle and nerves she thought had long burned off, flared in excruciating pain. With a high-pitched scream, she peeled her hand from the hot metal.
Nerina woke tangled in her sheets. Her bed damp from her body’s perspiration. The nightmare never got better. It had been two years, and she could still smell the smoke, feel the heat of the fire on her skin. She’d lost her entire family that night. Her beautiful mother, Simone; and her father, Roman.
Her father had loved her and her mother. Nerina was the result of her mother’s forbidden relationship with Roman. Simone was an escort, and they were never meant to fall in love. After Nerina was born, they’d been targeted by Roman’s wife and his brother Oscar. It was the consequence of Roman choosing to care for them instead of leaving them destitute. She’d known it would come down to her father making a choice. She’d even understood he’d have to leave at some point. It was one of the reasons she’d taken on additional work with the Mistress when she became of age. Nerina never thought her uncle and her father’s wife would take measures to completely eradicate what they deemed a problem. You should have seen it coming. Her uncle was the main reason she had moved to Alaska. There was a price on her head. It also helped that her uncle loathed the cold climate and would never think to look for her in a place like Talkeetna, Alaska. Population two hundred and one, three if you included her dogs.
Nerina slowly rose from her bed. Demon and Daar lifted their heads to check on her as she limped towards her dresser. Darn leg still hadn’t gained its full mobility. Doctors said it might never.
“I’m all right, guys, heading to the outhouse.”
Both dogs stretched out, bellies flat on their beds as they watched her put on her boots and clothes. She’d only been in Alaska six months. She still wasn’t used to walking outside in the freezing cold to use the bathroom. But this was the only place no one would think to look for her. Talkeetna was about as unwelcoming as anyone could get. She only went to town for supplies, and in the six months she’d lived up on her hill, no one from the community except for Thorn, the town patriarch, and his grandson, Teak had ever come up to say hi or welcome her to town. Besides the Malamute and Alaskan husky, she was alone. Her cozy, one-bedroom, no-indoor-bathroom cabin overlooked the Alaskan range and faced Mt. McKinley. It was a great view, complete with a running creek and a wood-burning stove. Talk about roughing it. The landscape alone was enough to sell her on the place, though; and with it, came Demon and Daar. The previous owner, Mrs. Raines, had decided she’d had enough of long nights and cold winters. She’d packed her bags and moved to Florida.
Both dogs were loyal to the bone, and they welcomed her wholeheartedly. Daar was a massive, grey, white, and black husky with ice-blue eyes. Demon was huge, with black fur and silver eyes. He weighed over one hundred and forty pounds. He was the strangest dog she’d ever seen. In the dark, his eyes seemed to flash amber. Nerina attributed his strange eyes to a trick of the moon’s light. There was no way he was something other than a dog. Although, if she were truly honest with herself, he seemed more wolf-hybrid.
Walking out to the outhouse in the middle of the night had been scary the first couple of months she’d lived in Alaska. She’d moved to Talkeetna during the winter months when the nights were longer and the sun was scarce. The wind nipped at her face as she made her way to the shed. She didn’t need her flashlight. The lights from the Aurora Borealis danced high in the sky. Beautiful green and red outlined the black backdrop, lighting up the night. Nerina smiled as she opened the shed door. She was happy, truly happy with her slice of life.
The townspeople didn’t bother her up on her hill, and she was secluded enough no one could spy on her. And it was always a bit cold, even in the summer months—to a New Yorker, sixty degrees was considered hot—so it gave her a reason to keep her scars covered. No one knew about her past, and no one inquired about her future.
Finished with her business, she made her way back into the cabin where both dogs waited for their breakfast and daily walk. It was still dark and would be for most of the day. The sun only came out for a few hours this time of year. Her breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, and grits. She served the dogs caribou meat and a can of tuna. The smell of breakfast always reminded her of her mom’s kitchen. A bittersweet memory that gave her comfort.
Snapping out of her haze, Nerina quickly finished her meal. Thorn would be expecting her in town for her monthly round-up of supplies. He preferred she come in early to avoid the townspeople. It wasn’t a matter of safety; it was just easier that way. If she avoided the good folks of Talkeetna, they avoided her; and in turn, Thorn wasn’t as grumpy. She threw on her skullcap and stepped into her snow pants and Keen Targhee waterproof hiking boots before zipping up her hooded parka. She looked like she was going on an Arctic expedition. She may as well have been. It was freezing cold outside. Slipping into her gloves, she whistled for the dogs and headed out into the frigid dark. Even though it was technically seven in the morning, the sun wouldn’t be up for a while.
Nerina knew taking the dogs out would be a strain on her. She couldn’t keep up with them because of her limp, and she wasn’t comfortable attaching the dogs to her sled. But she knew the exercise was good for her. They walked down by the creek behind her cabin, where colorful ice pillars could be seen off in the distance. By the time they made it back to the house, Nerina was exhausted and chilled from the cold air.
Readying the snowmobile for her trip into town, Nerina thought about her upcoming phone call. She only talked to Raven once a month. Each call was a reminder there was a price on her head. The dogs looked on as they stood by her front door.
“Don’t let me forget the wood, Demon, we’re low.”
She spoke to both dogs more and more. A sign she was going crazy, maybe? Most likely.
The people in town weren’t mean to her, but they weren’t particularly friendly either. Occasionally, she’d talk to Thorn’s daughter, Cassandra, who was the owner of the bed and breakfast she’d stayed at during her first visit to town. Nerina was treated fine as a tourist, but the moment she’d decided to stay, people became distant. A small part of her thought it was because she was bi-racial, but Thorn had assured her race had nothing to do with the negative treatment. He’d used the words ‘breed’ and ‘kind.’ If that wasn’t racist, she didn’t know what was.
Nerina was the owner of nine acres of beautiful Alaskan countryside, and Thorn had promised he’d help her add plumbing as well as a workout room. Huge spruce trees bordered her land. Beyond that was a national preserve that was owned by the town. She’d already received a warning to stay off their property. As if she wanted to explore their lands. There were bears in the woods, large wolves, and other carnivorous animals. She wasn’t stupid. The wind picked up as she headed into town. Harsh and cold, it bit into what little skin was exposed. Both dogs followed along effortlessly as they made their way down the hill.
“You know how important this meeting with Sasha and her parents is.” Victor stood from his chair across from his sister, Cassandra, and grunted. She was so dramatic.
“Everything will be fine, Cass.”
“The engagement is not official; you need to ensure everything is perfect. Uniting the Packs is top priority.”
He knew she was right, of course. Fewer males were taking mates. They’d offer up their seed to produce offspring, but that was all. Females were of the same mind. His sister had participated in the breeding program. She refused to take a mate. A hundred years ago, that would not have been tolerated. Now, everyone had choices. Who to bed, who to mate, and, of course, who they could reject.
His father and Sasha’s father, Eric, had arranged his union with the female from the time they could walk. Sasha was twenty-four moons his junior, and to him, she was also immature. The tales of her temper tantrums had reached even his ears. However, she was beautiful, and in perfect breeding condition. No one could argue that fact. Her pale skin and golden hair were more than to his liking. She had a slender frame, and her eyes were the color of wheatgrass. A peculiar color, but intriguing all the same. There were two things Victor was sure of: they would be mated, and she would obey him in all things.
Thorn and Eric had agreed on a spring mating ceremony. All the Packs from Canada and Alaska would be there to witness his union to Sasha. It was his duty to the Pack to ensure that their way of life continued. He would still have to take down his father and Eric in a brutal battle, but they’d agreed it wouldn’t be a death challenge. The wolf in him would try to conquer, showing any onlookers he was not one to be challenged. He had to prove he was able to lead with a strong hand. However, the human in him knew it was the best course of action to show mercy and restraint. Things were different now.
He’d still have bedding rights to all the unmated women in the territories. Sasha was afforded the same courtesy with all unmated males. A throwback from the earlier days, but a practice kept around due to the intense sexual needs of their kind. They could also enact bedding rights on the other if they decided. Which meant Sasha could intervene with him and another female if she so chose, and vice versa.
“I won’t let the family down, Cass.” Victor reiterated. His sister and his mother both wanted the mating between him and Sasha to go off without incident.
“Good to hear,” his father, Thorn, said as he walked in with Victor’s nephew, Teak.
“Hey there, Uncle Vic. What can I do you for?” His nephew held up his hand in a fist and gestured for them to bump knuckles.
“Cass, stop letting the boy watch MTV and those dumbass movies. It’s ruining his brain.”
Cassandra laughed and untied her apron as she made her way over to her son, hugging him fiercely. Teak was twelve moons from becoming a mature adult male. To humans, he looked sixteen. Really, he was twenty-nine.
“It’s not me, brother. He keeps sneaking up to the Simpson place to watch the woman. I told him it was rude, but the boy has a crush.”
The Simpson place? He’d only been gone for six months. Had a lone wolf moved in?
“You mean the Raines place? Did someone new move in?”
“Yeah, she moved in about six months ago while you were away on business.”
This was news to him. Mrs. Raines was the only human they’d allowed in town, so whoever this Simpson lady was, she must be a wolf.
“Demon and Daar?”
“They’re up there with her. Demon refused to leave her side when old Mrs. Raines sold the place to Nerina.”
Nerina? What kind of name was that? No one had even consulted him about possibly moving a stranger into their midst. He was, after all, going to be the new Alpha.
“Father?” Victor questioned.
“It was my choice, son. She’s harmless enough, likes her privacy. And she’s human.”
Human? Seriously, like the town really had time to get acclimated to a new human. It had been bad enough with Mrs. Raines. And she was only accepted because she’d mated Picar, who was from their Pack. Something that wasn’t widely accepted, but exceptions were made all the time. This newcomer could be a problem, or worse, she could be a Hunter. They could appear to be human, and in some cases, were. It was the older Hunters that posed the most threat. There was a good reason the Packs had relocated to Alaska. Hunters didn’t like the cold. But he wasn’t ready to take any chances. Hunters were vampires. Their one true enemy.
“Teak, stay away from the outsider.”
His nephew arched a brow, smiling devilishly.
“Yeah, right, like I could ever ignore her. Nerina Simpson is hot. Like fire in my pants hot.”
Cass hit Teak over the head, making him duck. Victor grinned.
“I don’t care how hot she is, keep away from her. She could be a Hunter.”
Hunters were hell-bent on destroying all Werewolves. It was an ancient war that had killed more than a third of their population. It was also the reason they’d migrated to the New World and up North to harsher climates.
Pack Canidae were the true founders of Talkeetna. His father’s father had founded the town officially in 1919, but the Pack had settled in the area long before there were towns and railroads. His ancestors were originally from Mesopotamia, by way of Egypt. Captured as a boy and recruited into the Secret Order of Anubis, Enil had been forced to drink the god’s blood, changing him forever. There were Hunters then, and there were Hunters now, and Nerina Simpson could very well be one of them.
“Give him a break. Nerina keeps to herself, and Demon hasn’t said anything ill of her.” Cass turned to her son and stood on her toes to kiss the towering male.
“Listen to your uncle, Teak. He’ll soon be Alpha.”
“Yes, Mother. Sorry, Uncle. I’ll keep my distance,” his nephew said, looking down at his feet.
Victor nodded and sat down at the counter, pouring himself a cup of hot chocolate.