"A must for fans of the genre. A series to watch!" -Romantic Intentions Quarterly
Book one in the completed Unseelie Court series
Any hunter will tell you that understanding an animal’s routines are essential to trapping it.
Hunting humans is no different.
Instincts are what most animals rely on to notify them of potential harm. Millennia of being the most dominant life force on earth have suppressed the biological early warning system in most homo sapiens. There’s a level of arrogance that comes with being the pinnacle of the food chain. An air of go ahead, let ‘em try. The signals are still in us though, if one knows how to interpret them.
That’s how I know someone is following me.
Even before I hear the heavy footfalls, the hair rises on the back of my neck, almost as though the stranger’s breaths land against the exposed skin. I stagger from the rave like a wounded antelope, through the rear door into the dark alley, leaving the thumping music and seizure-inducing lights in my wake. The trash that litters the cracked concrete beneath my boots and the scents of damp air from earlier rain mingling with decaying leaves are my only companions.
Wind whips through my thin dress. I didn’t bring a coat or purse, just what I need sewn into a pocket at the fold of my skirt. It is big enough for a tube of lip gloss, a few bills, and my cell. I consider hiding, but there isn’t enough time. My pursuer is closing in and there’s no real shelter to be found. I don’t run—never run from a predator. Fleeing is a sign of weakness and invites chase from the wrong sort. I put one foot in front of the other and don’t look back. Maybe I’ll make it to the street, out into the open. Maybe he really isn’t after me.
My heart races, blood pounds in my ears, every nerve ending aware of my situation. Distantly I hear the thumping club music and the sounds of tires on rain-slick pavement. And him. The footsteps quicken.
The mouth of the alley is feet away when he catches me around my waist and pushes me face-first against the cinder block wall.
“What’s a hot little piece like you doing out here all alone?”
His voice is thick and accented by New Jersey. His body feels massive pressing into mine. He towers over me and is massively built with thick shoulders and arms.
“Please,” I whisper. “Don’t hurt me.”
One hand traps both of mine behind my back as the other travels along my spine. I can’t keep from shivering in revulsion at his touch.
I beg again, “Please, what do you want?”
In a sudden burst of movement, he spins me and pins both of my hands above my head in one of his. His face is cast in shadows but there’s no mistaking the sinister intent gleaming in his dark eyes. “I want to fuck you,” he rasps, that hand fumbling for the side zipper of my dress.
“I’ve never done that,” I tell him honestly through my trembling lips. “I’m only sixteen. Please.”
“You want it. Girls like you always want it.” His gaze fastens on my mouth. My lips are slick and shiny with my recently applied gloss. I can see his intentions clear as day. He is going to force me in this filthy alley, use my body while he enjoys my screams of terror and pain.
He is a monster.
His hand snakes inside my dress, touching bare skin that crawls at the contact.
Heart racing, I look up at him and ask, “Would you at least kiss me first?”
I can tell my request throws him. He studies me for a minute as though wondering what game I’m playing.
“So, I can at least pretend,” my voice trembles.
He appears to come to a decision. The free hand fists in my hair. He yanks hard. Even in this, he wants me to feel pain. My lips part and then his mouth is on mine, brutal, punishing, an invasion.
Monster, meet your match.
He attacks me on several fronts, pressing his body into mine as though promising the punishment to come while meting out the full-scale assault on my mouth.
I don’t struggle or try to fight him off in any way, my heart thunders—with anticipation. Any second now.
He breaks away suddenly and shakes his head as though dizzy. I straighten my disheveled dress and watch dispassionately as he staggers back and then slumps down to the ground.
“What did you do?” His eyes grow wild even as his gaze glazes over. And then it happens, the moment I crave. The light of true understanding dawns an instant before it flicks out forever.
Our roles have been reversed. Now he’s the hunted. The victim.
“You have been found guilty.” A small smile curves my bruised lips as I watch him die.
He twitches once, a final spasm as his central nervous system shuts down for good. The last of the spark leaves his eyes and then I am alone once more in the alley with only a corpse at my feet.
Stooping down, I check his pockets, removing his wallet from inside his jacket. It’s a battered old thing, nylon with a cracked plastic sleeve holding a few credit cards as well as a driver’s license. My victim’s name is Paul Anderson. I study the photo and compare it to the dead man at my feet. He’s porked up since the image was captured, extra adipose tissue gathering at his midsection. Probably an athlete gone soft. It’s too dark in the alley to make out his eye or hair color but the license lists him as blond-haired and blue-eyed. Possibly of Norwegian descent. I’d been right about the accent. His address tells me his permanent residence was in Hackettstown, New Jersey. No explanation to why this middle-aged man had been at a rave in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Not that I need one.
Like me, he’d been out hunting.
I pocket the license and keep digging. Credit cards are too easy to trace. I keep the cash though. Waste not, want not as my Aunt Addy always says. A photo of a plain woman with a pretty smile and a blonde toddler is stuck behind a Starbucks card. Distantly I wonder if I’ve done her a favor or ruined her life. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be tethered to cheating, raping scum, but I’m zany like that. Not that it matters. Paul’s fate was sealed the second he tracked me into the alley.
“Speaking of Fate,” I grumble as my phone lets out the obnoxious hamster dance ringtone. Aunt Chloe’s idea of a joke. “What?”
“Status?” Addy asks in a tight tone.
The echo on the line tells me she’s put the call on speaker, so I talk directly to Chloe. “One of these days that ringtone is going to scare one of them off.”
“Don’t be such a worrywart,” Chloe calls from the background. “You sound just like Addy.”
I toe my victim’s bulky arm. “It’s done. The package is big though. I’m debating leaving it here.”
“No.” Like everything else about her, Addy’s tone brooks no nonsense. “Not in our own backyard. The three of us will manage.”
“Something to look forward to,” Chloe hollers. “Been too long since I got a hold of a big package.”
“We’ll be there in thirty,” Addy informs me tersely.
And they would have the wood chipper ready to rock.
If you’re wondering why my kiss can fell a full-grown man like a rotting tree, well, join the club. It’s been that way as long as I can remember, all the way back to before Addy and Chloe adopted me.
Giving a man the Goodnight Kiss is one of my earliest memories. I’d been six at the time and he too had been of the Uncle Bad-touch persuasion. I attract that type like flies to roadkill. Ten years of practice has taught me how to handle them.
I shut Paul’s eyes and prop him up against the wall, knowing it’ll be better to have him seated before full rigor mortis kicks in. Also, it’s easier to pass my cover story with him slumped over rather than lying flat on his back.
“Come on, Dad.” I speak loudly, putting on a show for the three millennials who exit the alley the same way we’d come. Out of the corner of my eye, I size them up and dismiss them as a minimal threat. Probably looking for a nice quiet spot to get lit. “Mom and Aunt Franny are on their way. If they see you like this again, there’ll be hell to pay.”
My theater is a little Weekend at Bernie’s, but it works. The college students scurry on their way, not wanting to get caught up in our family drama. If they’d bothered to take a closer look, they would note that good ol’ Paul and I look nothing alike. My hair is also blonde, but a much paler shade, almost white. I’m short, barely five feet four with pale blue eyes. Icy eyes, my best friend Sarah called them once. He wears ratty stained jeans and a flannel shirt and a grubby parka where I’m dolled up in what Chloe refers to as my best “bait” outfit. A stretchy purple dress and black over the knee stiletto boots.
Lucky for me, most people are more concerned with their own ends and tend to see what they want. If I talk to the dead man like he is my drunken lout of a father, then they have no reason to think otherwise. With any luck, they’ll smoke away the memory of us in this alley long before the police start asking questions.
The forest green Subaru Outback parks at the mouth of the alley exactly twenty-nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds after I’d hung up the phone. The brake lights illuminate the corner of the cinder block building and I hear the engine idling. Addy’s as punctual as a drill sergeant so I know she’s behind the wheel.
“Oh, you weren’t kidding,” Chloe says as she joins me in the alley. Her red-gold hair is piled on top of her head a big twist of beautiful curly cues that frames her perfect features. So close I smell her strawberry aroma. Chloe always smells like food for some reason and her scent changes with her mood. “He’s a bigg’un. Good catch, Nic.”
Addy only shifts her waist-length brown braid over her shoulder and mutters, “Each of you, get a leg. I’ll get him under the arms.”
“This ain’t our first rodeo,” Chole grunts as she hefts a limb.
I also do as she instructs. Paul is, as advertised, deadweight but as Chloe pointed out, we’ve done this before.
“You coming with us, doll?” Chloe asks once Paul is secure in the backseat, hidden beneath the heavy blankets Addy keeps there.
I shake my head and toss the wallet in on top as another item for disposal. “Need to be seen inside. I’ll be back later.”
“Have fun!” Chloe waves cheerily and Addy gives me a reassuring nod before driving off.
Most people think Addy and Chloe are lovers. I can understand why. They bicker like an old married couple. They share a house as well as an adopted child. It’s rare to catch sight of one without the other. They even run the veterinary clinic together. Addy’s the straight-laced vet and Chloe’s the bubbly receptionist. The odd couple vibe suits them perfectly. Neither is married or, to my knowledge, has ever been involved with anyone else. To the untrained eye, the underlying tension between them might be attributed to a sexual relationship. My aunts are completely content to let normals think whatever they please as long as the truth stays hidden.
Their truth, as well as mine.
After one final scan of the alley, I circle back around to the front of the building and let myself in through the unlocked glass doors.
The music assaults me first. Raves are not my usual scene. Too much chaos and light for me to relax. Too many people on different drugs letting go of their inhibitions. Bodies press too tightly together. Anyone can sneak up on you. Now that Paul is taken care of, I half hope the sheriff will come shut it down, so I can go home early.
“Nic!” My best friend, Sarah Larkin gyrates between two mouth-breathers who occasionally double as football players. She’s tall and graceful. Her hair is dyed black as ink and streaked with crimson strands. Her pupils are so dilated her eyes look black instead of brown. “I’ve been looking for you for ages!”
“I was in line for the bathroom.” A plausible lie. The building had originally been some sort of furniture warehouse, back when America still made furniture. Abandoned for at least a decade, it isn’t exactly well facilitated and never meant to hold a few hundred drunken normals who need to pee.
Sarah isn’t the brightest bulb in the strand and a steady diet of ecstasy chased with vodka doesn’t help. It never occurs to her that any time we party together I spend an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. Or maybe it does, and she just chalks it up to a nervous bladder. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s just glad she doesn’t have to compete with me for male attention. I’m her perfect wingman—always sober, always willing to go out.
Now that I’ve been identified, I make my way to the corner where the bottles of water and cans of beer are stashed in a giant ice vat. I grab an Aquafina, check to make sure the cap is still sealed and then put my back to the wall, propping one stiletto boot against the painted cinder blocks for balance. From my position, I see Sarah swaying like a willow between two giant hardwoods. The comparison makes me snort.
Because of the whole deadly lip lock shtick, I’ve never had a boyfriend. It’s too bad. Like having a BFF, a boyfriend would help sell my cover. Nic Rutherford, normal teenage girl. Sarah, who changes guys as often as she changes underwear, once asked me point blank if I was gay. The question startled me, not because I was offended but more so because it had never really dawned on me that normals would view me as a sexual being. Predators, yes, but they seek power, not intimacy.
“If you munch rug, that’s cool. Like your “Aunts”.” Sarah had been stuffing tissues into her bra at the time but paused to do the air quote thing.
I don’t think I’m gay. Or straight for that matter. I’m asexual. No relationship could possibly give me the satisfaction I derive from taking down the biggest game going. Of course, explaining that to a hormone-crazed teenage girl is like trying to get a cow to walk on its hind legs.
Oblivious to my struggle, Sarah did what she does best—fill the silence with her prattle. After giving me a slow up and down, she turned back to the mirror. “I’m only asking because if I ever like, want to experiment, I’d totally do it with you.”
I offered a tight-lipped smile and no comment. Mercifully, she’d dropped the subject. How like Sarah to believe that every being who encountered her would want her. Sometimes late at night I wonder if I’m so arrogant. After all, I always assume any game I sight will pursue me. And so far, they always have. I have a perfect record when it comes to perverts. Batting 1000 for a decade and counting.
“You want to dance?” A tall, lanky guy wearing a host of glow in the dark bracelets swings his hips in what normals might consider an alluring rhythm.
I study him for a moment. Eager yes, but not one of mine. Even if he had been I won’t hunt in the same spot twice. I move about to lessen the risk of exposure. With what passes for a regretful smile, I decline his offer. He shrugs as though I’m the one missing out and then wanders off in search of greener pastures.
The strobe light flickers annoyingly. I shut my eyes, tired of the whole scene. Partying bores me and I’m always fatigued after a takedown. Addy explained why to me once. The chemical process that goes along with the hunt. Anticipation combines with a spike of adrenaline to see me through the danger. When it’s over, the spike crashes and depletes my reserves. I want to get in Sarah’s rattletrap Camry and head back up to the farm, see how Chloe and Addy are getting on with Paul’s remains and then stumble to my room and pass out cold.
But judging from her bump and grind, Sarah doesn’t look at all ready to leave. One of the meatheads has left, but the other seems determined. I could hound her, feign sick, perhaps. I know she’ll take me home if I ask. For all her many faults she is a decent friend. My only friend. I like it better that way.
I decide to give her a few more minutes to enjoy herself though. Sarah’s home life is rough, and she lives for the nights when we escape. Though I desperately want to take her drunken lout of a stepfather out of the picture, Addy has forbidden it.
She’d been wearing her bifocals, studying one of her medical texts when I’d brought the subject up. She’d peered over the top of them at me all school-marmy and stern. “It’s too close to home, Nic. Don’t shit where you live.”
“He’s one of mine,” I’d whined like a child denied a treat. The aunts had never said no to me before. “I’ll take extra precautions. Lure him to a city.”
It was Chloe, fun-loving, live-in-the-moment Chloe, who’d tipped the balance against me. “There are too many angles, sweets. If you give him the Goodnight Kiss too far from where we can properly dispose of him, he’ll be on record. You know the FBI has a task force looking at your victims already.”
It was true, though they had nothing concrete other than a stream of missing persons and unexplained deaths. On the rare occasions the aunts and I leave the body behind, the toxin in my kiss doesn’t appear on an autopsy. Still, you can only gank so many convicted sex offenders before the red flags go up.
Sarah endures as best she can while I continue to seethe in impotence. With any luck, her stepfather’s liver will implode before the thin thread of my patience snaps.
Self-denial isn’t my designer handbag of choice.
The noise and the crush of bodies are getting to me. Decided, I wind through the writhing bodies until I can lay hands on Sarah’s bare shoulder and shout into her ear. “Going to wait in the car.”
She rolls her eyes but forks over the keys. “Take it. Cliff’s giving me a ride.”
Cliff, who I assume is the knuckle-dragger groping her ass, smirks at me. “There’s always room for one more.”
I taste bile even as I force my lips to tilt upwards. “I don’t share.” Except with Death herself.
The night air caresses my skin like a lover, lifting my hair off the base of my neck in a playful tease. I drink in the breeze and it restores me, as fresh air always seems to do. I could never exist in a city, where the wind is blocked by tall buildings and thick with the scent of humanity. Car keys in hand, I stride briskly toward Sarah’s POS. It’s a standard, but I’ve driven it before. Our farm is only twenty miles from the factory but still a world apart.
The engine catches and I roll down the driver’s side window, glad for the breath of fresh mountain air that joins me for the ride. The dashboard clock reads 12:01. The spring equinox. No wonder I’m tired. Since I’m a nocturnal predator, longer nights mean more time to hunt. At least I live in North Carolina, not Norway or somewhere where the summer nights are practically nonexistent. If I ever visit the land of the midnight sun, I’ll be sure to do so in winter. The cold doesn’t bother me the way daylight does.
I turn off the factory road and onto the main highway that’s more a series of switchbacks giving way to the higher elevation of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The high country is quiet this time of year. Too late for skiers, too early for hikers and after full dark, I have the road to myself.
I’ve just turned off onto the gravel drive that leads to our farm when the small hairs lift on my arms. The reaction has nothing to do with the plummeting temperature. Someone is watching me.
Not following. I don’t have that same urge to escape as I had earlier with Paul. No headlights in the rearview either, not since I turned toward our land. My instincts, carefully honed over the years, give me no clue where to look for the source of my discomfort. It’s a physiological response. A tightness in my stomach, an increase in heart rate. There is a predator out there. One who has me in its sights.
My foot taps the brakes lightly, halting all vehicular forward motion. The Camry’s headlights form two clear trails through the darkness. I scan the shadowy shapes of the evergreens on either side of the road, trying to pick out whatever it is that doesn’t belong. Naked branches stir in the wind and some of the heavier boughs creak with age, but otherwise nothing.
I sit longer than any normal would sit. My instincts have never steered me wrong when it comes to prey or predators. Of course, I’m tired. It’s the first day of spring. And I did just hunt. Even a well-disciplined mind can play tricks if the reserves are too low.
I prepare to lift my foot and creep ahead when he appears in my headlights. A massive black shape on all fours. I suck in a breath, stunned by the sheer size of the wolf. We have bears and mountain lions in this area, but wolves are rare and never so large.
He turns and looks right at me. Something electric shoots down my spine. His eyes are the color of new spring leaves and he stares, not half as nonplussed at spying me as I am at seeing him.
My heart stops as our gazes lock. He seems to take me in and not just my appearance. Me, he sees me, Nic. All my misdeeds, every secret I keep as though I’ve been laid out for him like a sumptuous feast.
Not a wolf! My instincts scream.
But before I can question them, he turns and vanishes into the trees.
"A must for fans of the genre. A series to watch!" -Romantic Intentions Quarterly
"I was hooked from the first chapter. Nic is a badass teenager who is a judge, jury, and executioner...I freaking love her." -Bookish Thoughts Blog
"...phenomenal and compelling. It grabbed my heart and ripped out my soul..." Linda Lou, Goodreads Reviewer
"Faeries, Norsemen, the Wild Hunt- How can you say no?"
-Amazon reviewer Rambling Reader
"I freaking LOVED this book!!! FINALLY, a book that's WORTHY of the five stars."
- Swathi Goodreads reviewer