Holding her breath, Bianca Archer pressed the flashlight on. She crouched low, doing her best to keep the light hidden. Opening the well-creased map, she smoothed the paper. Desperation trumped common sense where Chessa, her missing teenage daughter, was concerned. She pointed the beam of light down at the notes and marks to study the places she’d personally searched. There wasn’t much left except the inside of the compound.
The wind whistled, blowing hard outside. Rubbing her chilly arms, Bianca glared at the entrance to the compound through her windshield. Her eyes followed the massive wall keeping her from searching. Law Foster—even his name was weird—and his band of off-the-grid types knew something about what had happened to Ches. Her maternal instinct thrashed against the walls of her brain demanding she scale the fence and find her child, but the little bit of rational thought left in her mind kept her seated.
No traffic traveled down the gravel path this late at night. Everything was quiet except the leaves blowing wildly in the trees as the wind danced through them. The air held the crisp tang of fall and somewhere an owl sat hooting. Bianca would have appreciated the sight of headlights right now to chase away her unease.
The full moon hung high in the sky and Bianca could see well for such a late hour. As usual, she couldn’t sleep. Watching the compound for any sign of her child was the only solace she found. She hadn’t enjoyed uninterrupted sleep since Ches went missing because ghoulish nightmares took a toll on her. Every. Single. Night. Chessa should have started seventh grade today. Bianca avoided the stores and their colorful aisles of school supplies for so long she was down to eating ketchup on saltines.
Yawning, she shook her head, fighting to stay awake. She closed her eyes, just to rest them a second.
“Let me go! Mommy! Help me, Mom!” screamed Chessa.
Bianca caught a glimpse of Chessa’s long, dark blonde hair as she was pulled around a tree.
“Lucas, where are you?” Bianca stumbled through the woods. “Ches? Please don’t hide. Where are you?”
Where were they? She looked down. Why was she wearing her Coach heels for hiking? She took another step and her foot caught in a rotted log. A terrified scream ripped through the stillness of the night. She yanked with all her strength, but her foot remained trapped tight. Another scream echoed and when she looked up the moon wasn’t yellow anymore; the celestial orb was blood red. Looking down again, she wasn’t stuck. Now she stood in a field. Lucas’s body lay at her feet, torn and broken. His blood covered the ground. A frozen expression of horror remained on his face, just like when she’d identified his body at the morgue.
A loud pounding on her window made Bianca jerk. Her short, unrestrained shriek burst out as she struggled to remember where she was. Car. Road. She looked around until she understood what woke her.
Both men standing next to her car had wide stances. Their arms crossed and the scowls gave them matching pissed visages. With the moon shining bright, she could see them clearly. Foster, and his number one minion, Nik Martin, glared at her. For a second she debated rolling down her window, but courage demanded she face her nemesis. A small bottle of pepper spray was in her purse and Bianca reached into her oversized bag, pulling the canister out, and hiding the weapon by her side for reassurance. Taking a deep calming breath, she started the engine in case she needed to make a quick getaway. Motorized noise from her window going down was the only sound. Even the crickets had quieted as if they were also afraid of Foster.
For about a minute, she gazed up at the duo, and they just glared back at her. Annoyance gave her the nerve to be the first to speak. “What’s your problem, Foster? I’m not on your land this time. I checked the deed with the city and this road isn’t yours.”
Bianca tried to ignore how his rugged features made him, even more, handsome as the moonlight played over his face. Foster cleared his throat and his full lips twisted into a frown. His dark blond hair was just a little too long. He glared at her with his icy gray gaze. He was tall and male model beautiful. Too bad he’s a psycho.
Foster crossed his arms over his chest and the furrow in his forehead deepened. “Bianca, we don’t have your daughter. You know we don’t. You’re upsetting my family with this stalking routine. You shouldn’t be here every night.”
“You can’t stop me.” Bianca glared. “I know you, or one of your family members has her or knows something about what happened to her. Lucas didn’t mean to trespass on your land. I’m sure he didn’t. Please, just give her back to me.” Bianca realized how desperate her pleading sounded. Emotion rushed through her, shutting off common sense. “Please, I’ll do anything. I’ll never tell the police. We’ll just say she ran away because she was scared. Please, I can’t live without her.” Foster’s hard expression never cracked. Bianca’s heart sank. “Please.”
“We don’t have your kid,” Nik’s tone was so menacing she could have sworn he growled. He reached inside her car window and grabbed her shoulder.
Instinct took over. In a single motion, Bianca swung her arm forward and sprayed Nik right in his eyes. He reared back, letting go. His agonized howl he made sounded more animal than man.
Bianca slammed the car into reverse, backed up, and floored the gas pedal. Her car fishtailed, kicking up the gravel with violence to match her erratic emotions. She sobbed herself into a blinding torrent of misery, but she didn’t dare stop, or Foster and his pals would make her disappear too. She had to find her daughter, which meant she couldn’t let them kill her. She was the only one who believed Chessa was still on that property, alive.
“Fuck!” Nik cried. “Aww shit, she blinded me.”
“You should’ve kept your hands to yourself,” Law said without any hint of sympathy. He watched his friend struggling. Law’s jaw ticked as he clenched his teeth. The fear on her face, when Nik grabbed, had twisted his gut. “The lady has a big set of balls. She’s not easy to intimidate. If she were, she’d have stayed away by now.”
Nik grunted and moaned as the change began. His body twisted and the popping-tearing sounds of his limbs and torso morphing into his primal form made Law look up into the sky. Two nights until the full moon. An injury like the pepper spray would set any wolf into a transformation this close to the sacred night. Nik’s ability to stop midway through the process was proof of his friend’s strength. Law was just glad Nik had been able to hold the wolf back until Bianca Archer was gone. Her blue eyes always saw too much. There was something about her that he couldn’t fully explain, and that bit of mystery made her dangerous. The moonlight had sparkled in her hair making the strands look like silver. And just like real silver, everything about her was just as dangerous to him. Humans weren’t good for his kind. He’d never been into fancy blondes, but that woman made him hard as hell. She smelled better than most human women too. Her curves were a turn on. What the fuck is wrong with me? The last thing I need in my life is a human.
Nik howled again, his body caught between beast and man. “We have to stop her,” his deep voice rumbled with a demonic cadence brought about by the transformation.
“I. Won’t. Kill. Her.” Law’s firm certainty punctuated the statement.
“Unless you’re willing to start a war with Tobias there’s nothing we can do to help,” Nik growled. “She’s good as dead.”
“But not by my hand, or yours. We aren’t like Tobias’s pack. We’re human.”
Nik gasped as his expression twisted with agony. His ears and snout began shrinking so he was starting to look more human. “We’re wolves.”
“Yeah, we are, but we’re also men. People will miss her.” Law ran his hand through his hair. He gave the beta wolf of his pack a piercing look. “I won’t have a war, but I don’t agree with the murder of that woman. We don’t kill.”
“We do to protect the pack,” Nik said. “That’s been the rule since the beginning of time. Even your dad would have killed a woman if she’s a threat. Why don’t we just lead her to Tobias and wash our hands of her?”
“There’s something about her—I don’t want her killed. Let me handle her.”
“Like you’ve handled her so far?” Nik smirked. His face was almost back to human again. “What is it with you and that woman? You’re not thinking clearly.”
I wish I knew. Maybe I just need to get laid. “You want to challenge me for alpha?” Law’s voice rose. Accusing his friend made his heart race. He saw Nik as a threat for the first time in their lives.
Nik flinched. “Hell no, but I don’t want you to put yourself in a position where some else will.” Nik crossed his metamorphosed arms over his chest. “You know Kort would to take the pack from you.” Nik’s face was starting to look a little more human. “She’s making our people nervous. There are men with mates and families to look out for. You’re a good leader, but that doesn’t mean you don’t make some bad decisions once in a while. Letting that woman live isn’t the right thing for our blood.”
Law’s exceptional wolf’s eyesight could still see her taillights over a mile down the road.
The pack always comes first.
The diner was noisy. Even with the sun barely up the dim interior of the Daily Grind was full of people in line for fresh gourmet java or a sandwich to go. The place had the best coffee in town. Bianca and Kloe Masterson sat at a table in the back of the restaurant.
“So the guy just grabbed you?” Kloe asked. She pushed a lock of auburn hair behind her ear. Her lively hazel eyes widened.
A hum of voices from customers in line to take their orders to-go kept Bianca from whispering as she wanted to.
Bianca shrugged. “Yeah, but I used the pepper spray Randal gave me. Tell him the stuff came in handy.” The shock on her friend’s face made Bianca look away.
Every inch of the small restaurant was decorated with old coffee cans and crazy mugs. Some of the cups had unique handles. One entire wall had all fifty states commemorated on ceramic. The last time she’d been here Chessa had enjoyed her first real cappuccino. The memory twisted Bianca’s lips into a sad smile and tightened her throat with grief.
“You’ve got to stop going out there. Randal said the sheriff just leaves those creepy bastards alone. He said they’re dangerous. I asked him what he meant, but he did his closing-me-out-thing—like usual,” Kloe said a little louder than Bianca would have liked. Several people turned to look at them.
Bianca turned her attention back to her friend. “Are you and Randal still going to marriage counseling? He loves you. I know he does. Maybe the counselor is right and he just has a problem letting people in. He’s always been quiet, even when we were kids, it’s just his way.”
“No it’s more than that. He’s been odd, especially since Ches went missing. I almost feel like he’s hiding something,” Kloe confessed, whispering.
“Oh God, he’d never hurt her. Right? You don’t suspect your husband of having something to do with this, do you?” Bianca’s voice rose in alarm.
“No! Of course not. I—I just can’t explain his attitude. He’s been so weird the last few months that I think he might be having an affair. He’s acting strange about Foster’s people too. It’s like he’s not telling me something. People go missing in the woods, and the deaths are always blamed on animals.” Kloe reached out and put her hand on Bianca’s, but her gaze remained steady. “I couldn’t survive if you went missing too.”
Pity in Kloe’s eyes forced Bianca to look away. Bianca focused on a poster of a cat drinking coffee. Kloe cleared her throat before she continued. “They didn’t find Chessa’s blood on the scene. Randal’s been a game warden for half his life, but he’s only seen animals kill humans in the hills around Wild Rose Valley. We have more animal attacks than any other county in the state,” Kloe’s voice was tight as if her throat was clogged with sorrow. Bianca heard the same thing in so many people’s words. Since the nightmare began everyone in her life treated her like she’d lost her daughter, but she refused to give up.
The waitress brought them each a refill on the coffees. They nodded at her with appreciation. Their server gave them a grin before giving them privacy. “You shouldn’t keep going up there alone, at least let me come along next time,” Kloe’s tone changed to worry.
“I go when I can’t sleep. I love you for offering, but no, I won’t take you with me,” said Bianca in a firm, no-nonsense tone. Kloe wouldn’t give up if she sensed any weakness in Bianca’s response, of that Bianca, was certain. She knew Kloe’s tenaciousness well after a lifetime of friendship.
“I’ve got your back B.”
“I know you do, but I won’t stop searching. My daughter is out there, and she needs me.”
“I love Chessa like my own. You know I do. I’ll never have a child, so I treasure the bond I have with yours.” Kloe grabbed Bianca’s hand in a white-knuckled grip. There were lines around her mouth and her brows drew together. “I want her home too, but when we find her if something has happened to you she’ll be devastated. You have to stay safe for her.” Kloe’s grip felt as if she was trying to keep Bianca in town with the sheer force of will.
Bianca hated how much sense Kloe was making. “I’ll be more careful. I haven’t used Daddy’s handgun in years. It’s time I went back to the range.”
“What killed Lucas was bigger than what one little handgun can handle. Please don’t go out there again.”
Bianca reached out and took Kloe’s hand. She gave it a squeeze. “You know I won’t make a promise I’ll break.”
Sorrow drew Kloe’s features down into a frown. “I can’t lose you too, B. I just don’t want to face life without both of you.”
“There is no life for me without my daughter.”
Kloe nodded and let go of Bianca’s hand. Bianca sat back in her chair. They each took a sip of coffee.
“Did you sleep at all last night?” Kloe asked.
“No, not a wink. When I close my eyes, I dream of what it must have been like for her. Lucas was just starting to be a father. She was so happy to have his attention, finally. Seeing him die had to be terrible.” Bianca held her head in her hands and fought back a shaky sob. “To know his killer has my child is to know the truest definition of hell. I just want to save her. I—I don’t deserve to live a normal life while she’s suffering.”
Kloe shook her head sadly. “You didn’t make this happen. Lucas was an experienced outdoorsman. Randal said he was one of the best. He was only just barely off the state land, and that was a spot without marking. They were close to the road too. He didn’t put her in danger, at least not intentionally. You could never have foreseen this so please stop beating yourself up. We’ll find her,” Kloe said firmly.
“Every day it’s like she’s slipping farther from my grasp. I’m scared I’ll lose hold of her completely soon.”
Kloe had tears on her cheeks. “I won’t let that happen, and neither will Randal. We’ve been family too long.”
Bianca nodded. Kloe was her oldest and dearest friend, but this was something she couldn’t help with.
Trinity Louvel came up to the table. She was a cute girl with dark hair and serious eyes. The kid was smart too. She was Chessa’s dearest friend. Seeing her was a fresh wound to Bianca’s soul.
The girl had spent a lot of nights with her and Chessa. Trin’s parents were the coldest people Bianca had ever met, so the girl relished the loving atmosphere at the Archer house. Even after Chessa was gone, Trin had come over a few times to check on Bianca. She’d even come around with pizza one random pizza night, and sent flowers for Bianca’s recent birthday. Trin had helped with the search, but like everyone else she’d given up as time stretched out.
“How’s eighth grade?” Bianca asked. Trin was a grade older than Chessa.
Trin set down two to-go cups and gave Bianca a hug. When she straightened back up, she picked up her coffee. “It’s good, fun. I’m involved with a lot of activities. We’re going to be dedicating the yearbook to Chessa this year.”
Bianca tried to hide her pain. She gave Trin a tight smile because she knew the girl thought she was delivering good news. “I’m sure when we find Ches she’ll be honored.”
Trinity paled. “I’m sorry, yeah when we find her she’ll like it.” She looked at the door. “My mom is waiting. See you.” She scurried away.
Kloe reached out and squeezed Bianca’s hand. The understanding look on her friend’s face brought her back to the brink of tears. Bianca cleared her throat before speaking.
“I need to catch Foster and his cult doing whatever it is they do out on that compound. They called it a farm, but it’s a commune.”
The waitress returned. “Is there anything else today, ladies?”
Bianca looked to Kloe, who shook her head. “No, but thanks,” Bianca replied. The server put the bills down on the table and left. Bianca watched the young waitress sashay away as if she didn’t have a care in the world. The sight stirred Bianca’s envy. How long has it been since I had a moment of peace? She turned her attention back to Kloe.
Kloe’s eyebrows drew together, and her mouth turned down with a very troubled expression. Her gaze never left Bianca’s. “Please be reasonable about this.”
“Were they reasonable when they took her and killed her father? Did she see Lucas die? I identified what was left of the body. Pieces. That’s all that was left. Yes, animals gnawed on him, but no one will ever convince me that some animal was responsible. We don’t even have bears this far south. What kind of horror did she see?”
Kloe wiped moisture from her eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know, but when we find her those are things she may need to tell us. Maybe she’ll never tell us. We have to be here for her. Getting yourself killed won’t do her any good.”
Bianca sighed. “I know. God help me, I know, but I can’t stop. Finding her has become the only thing that gets me out of bed.” Pity in Kloe’s big brown eyes made Bianca turn away again. She studied her feet to avoid the sorrowful gaze of her friend.
“I love you, B.”
Kloe stood up and grabbed both bills. “This is on me.”
“You don’t have to buy my coffee,” Bianca protested half-heartedly.
“It makes me feel better,” Kloe said. Bianca let her friend have her way since she’d taken the extended unpaid leave from her job money was scarce. “What are you going to do today?”
Bianca paused, considered lying, but decided on the truth. “I’m going to go for a hike up to the top of the bluff, Wild Rose Ridge, and take pictures of Foster’s place. I’m not a cop. I can do things they’d never get away doing. She’s there. I feel it.”
“Just be careful. I have a light client load right now. Why don’t I call in today and go with you? Jennifer can reschedule my appointments,” Kloe said.
“Kloe, you hate hiking. No, go to work. If you don’t hear from me by noon, call the police.”
“Jesus, that’s a hell of a thing to make me think about all day,” Kloe replied anger resonated in her tone.
“I was going to lie,” Bianca admitted.
“You’re atrocious at fibbing, but I almost wish you had. I—just be damn cautious. What if it was a bear? What if one of Foster’s cronies is a serial killer? I don’t like you going out there alone.”
“I’ll be careful and going alone gives me my best odds of getting away with spying. That man must have cameras everywhere, or darn good hearing. Every time I’ve tried to get close he catches me and lets his creeps chase me off,” Bianca said. She pushed the bangs out of her eyes and sat back to slump in the chair, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m trying something new. Don’t forget that my dad and Randal’s dad practically raised us as siblings in those woods. Daddy might have been a pharmaceuticals mogul, but he never forgot his roots or how to hunt. I know my way around the trails.”
Kloe rolled her eyes. “Travis Archer was a prick. Whenever I think of him, I go rage-blind. I still can’t believe your father left everything to that damn wildlife foundation and didn’t even give you enough money to finish college. A little outdoors time doesn’t make up for what he did. All you got from the estate was a box of personal effects and the title to your car. When your mom died, he just changed overnight.” She paused and sighed, shaking her head. “It’s probably been years since you went out in those woods. Do you even own a pair of hiking boots anymore?”
“Nope, I thought I’d wear heels and my little black dress,” Bianca said in such a sarcastic tone that Kloe raised her eyebrow.
“I wouldn’t put it past you,” Kloe grumbled.
Bianca scowled. “Ha, ha very funny. I have Dad’s little Remington pistol in my closet.”
“This isn’t a joke. I hate you going out there alone.”
“I know. I have good reception, even in the woods. I’ve been in that area enough recently to know my phone works, and I’ll send you a text.”
“If you forget, I’m going to kick your ass. Text me,” Kloe said stern and severe. She scowled.
“I will. Don’t worry about me.”
“When my best friend is hunting for a murderer I have the right to worry.” Kloe gave her a hug before taking the bills to the counter. The line had died down, and she was able to pay right away.
Bianca left before Kloe had finished settling the tab because she didn’t want her friend to see the tears in her eyes.
Randal rested his hands on the trunk and let go of a long sigh. He stepped back and wiped his sweaty forehead with his arm before turning the key. He looked down at the body of the man. He’d never seen the guy before, but when Tobias called, he came. Hate stole Randal’s ability to draw a full breath for a second. He wanted to scream, but instead he calmly picked up the shovel lying on top of the body. He needed to get this done. Dawn had burned off the morning fog and sun was already peeking through the trees. One of these days, his luck would run out, and someone would catch him cleaning up after Tobias. He just hoped that day wasn’t today. Kloe would never understand, and if he had his way, she’d never need to try.
“Sorry kid,” Randal muttered as he turned around and started to dig the shallow grave. “Hell, I don’t even know if you were a werewolf or a human.” His eyes blurred from moisture, but he wasn’t sure if it was sweat or tears. His father shot himself in the head when he couldn’t take the horrible deeds anymore which left Randal to inherit nothing but the old house and a blood debt he refused to pass down to another generation.
Bianca drove the three blocks back home. Finding the energy to get out of the car took her a moment. She walked up the driveway, ignoring the full mailbox. Right now, she didn’t have the heart to look at overdue bills. Trudging into the house and shutting the door she sighed, resting her head against the cool oval glass pane. The house was as quiet as a tomb.
A trilling melody and vibration from Bianca’s phone gave her a start. She fumbled to pull out the thin smartphone out of her pocket.
“Hello,” Bianca said hoping it wasn’t a creditor.
“Bianca, how are you?”
“Oh, hello, Pastor George.”
The elderly man cleared his throat. “I’ve meant to check in with you since Lucas’s funeral. I hope you don’t feel this is an intrusion,” he said.
“No, never. Thank you.”
“I—times can’t be easy. We’ve missed you at services. The choir isn’t the same without Chessa’s sweet voice.”
She heard the sorrow in his tone. The sound tightened her throat. She nodded, even if he couldn’t see her, and blinked back tears.
“God is here for you, child, and so am I. The congregation took up a benevolence collection for you.”
“No…” Bianca started to say.
“Please don’t protest,” he cut her off. “Many people have missed you at the community center. We care about you.”
She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t have enough funds to make the bills this month.
“Bianca, are you still there?” The pastor asked softly.
“Y-yes. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You have more friends than you know, young lady. We didn’t just lose Chessa. We’ve lost you too. I don’t have children, but the kids who’ve grown up in the congregation have always felt like family.” He paused. “Don’t disrespect Chessa’s memory by fading away.”
“She’s not dead,” Bianca said with a little more vehemence than she’d intended.
“I pray for her safe return every day, and I pray for your healing. I’ll be over in the morning with our gift, coffee, and donuts. I could use some company before I go down to the office.”
“Aren’t you diabetic?”
“Old men don’t live forever. Don’t tell my doctor, and I’ll make sure you get one with sprinkles.”
She wiped at a stray tear on her cheek. “Okay, it’s our secret.”
“Wonderful. It will be nice to have company, and I’ll look forward to our visit. Is there anything else you need?”
“No, really, no. I’m overwhelmed.”
“Just know you’re family at Holy Harmony misses you. You aren’t alone. I’ve seen a lot of good people blame God when they hurt. You don’t blame God, do you, Bianca?”
I blame Foster. I blame Lucas. I blame the whole fucking universe. What’s the point of faith?
But she said none of her thoughts. “No, Pastor.”
She heard him exhale, as if he’d been holding his breath. “Good, that lightens my heart. I’ll see you in the morning, say eight?”
“That works. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
He gave a gruff, emotional sounding noise and mumbled a goodbye. Everything made Bianca want to cry, lately, and she let go of a long shaky breath after she was sure the line disconnected. She didn’t have time for the ugly cry she needed.
Law Foster looked at the faces of his pack members. He’d known some of these people his whole life, but right now everyone looked pissed, even his mother. Mari Anna Dutch bounced her toddler, James, on her hip. She appeared the least angry, and so he made eye contact with her as he began.
“I know everyone is getting sick of the Archer woman. I am too, but she’s just a grieving mother.” He turned to look at his mother, Janna Foster. “Any mother who’s lost a child can understand her pain. Tobias has destroyed more families than ours.”
As hurt filled his mother’s big amber eyes, Law ignored the quick flash of guilt surging inside him. Grief pierced his heart as an image of his sister, Joy, smiling stumbled across his memory.
“We just have to be mindful of her suspicion and presence a little longer. I contacted Kane. As much as I hate dealing with him, he’s got our back. We aren’t going to have any issues with the human police. Our pack is proud and self-sufficient. We’ve had our share of problems with Tobias over the years, but right now we need to keep calm and lay low.”
“So you’ll just let the fucking woman spy on us?” said Kort Dutch. “Humans are nothing but trouble, and I have a family to worry about,” Kort said. Paul and Ethan, two wolves who supported Kort’s desire to become pack alpha, came to stand behind the angry younger man. They both crossed their arms over their chests. “Just let Tobias take care of her.”
“That’s not our style, not even yours Kort; we’re not animals.”
Kort’s angry noise echoed in the small room. His cronies laughed without humor.
Law glared, and the men quieted. “We’re wolves not killers. We don’t let the moon rule us. Anyone who wants to be that kind of monster is free to go up into the bluff and join Tobias and his savages. Is that what you want for James?”
Kort shrank back just a bit. His pals dropped their arms to their sides and stepped back into the crowd. Their outrage died down, and Law let go of a sigh.
“You are my family, all of you. I don’t like this woman’s threat, but I won’t become a murderer and neither will any of you. We’ve survived a lot of scrutiny in the past.”
A few of his people nodded, but not everyone appeared ready to agree.
Law ran his hand through his hair. “My grandfather left the town pack, because of Kane’s father, and took many of your grandparents out here so we could live apart from brutality and senseless killing. He paused and waited for a nod or two of encouragement. A few people shifted uncomfortably. “But now I see that some of you have forgotten that a pack leader blurring the line between morality and his own rules can become the threat he seeks to eliminate. Anyone who believes I have the right to destroy a desperate mother, speak up.”
Law stood taller and made eye contact with as many of his pack as he could. “An alpha who doesn’t have a code isn’t a man I want to follow. I won’t throw away my morals away when it’s convenient. I’ll die to protect you, but I want to be a leader worth following.”
Kort and his pals backed down. Law rubbed his sore neck. His temples were throbbing. Saving Bianca Archer was giving him a migraine. At this rate, he was lucky if that was the worst she did to his health.