Lorena Mills followed the woman in white through the valley, beneath the branches of a thousand trees heavy with late summer leaves and the pale silver light of a harvest moon. Lorena carried a rusted lantern with a flickering yellow flame inside, a witch’s lantern, as old and arcane as the magic that coursed through her veins.
The woman in white seemed to drift above the ground. She left no footprints, nor did she stir the foliage as she passed. She looked like an angel, or a ghost. No matter how fast Lorena walked, she couldn’t catch up to her.
“Neala?” Lorena called. Her voice was muffled by the oppressive vastness of the valley. “Is that you?”
Though Lorena hadn’t seen the woman’s face, she recognized her form, and the curtain of chestnut hair that tumbled down her back. She was the woman of many names: Neala, Melanie, Chelsea. Deacon’s sister. Witch. Mate of a Wolvite.
The woman didn’t reply or look back.
They passed into the long broad shadow of Black Mountain. The energy in the land seeped through Lorena’s skin and burrowed down to her bones. Nature pulsed in every leaf, through each blade of grass, in the rock below her feet, and along the deep coal veins beneath the mountain. It sang inside her head, a tune only she could hear.
“Neala!” Lorena called again.
The woman continued walking.
In time, they came upon a clearing. In the center of the clearing was a pool, ringed by rocks. The still surface of the water reflected the sky, a mirror of stars and moon in the tall grass. The woman in white drifted to the pool and stood at a spot where the ring broke and provided access to the water.
Lorena stopped. She held her lantern aloft, though the moon was so bright she didn’t need it.
The woman knelt and her gown spread around her in a snowy puddle. Lorena crossed the grass until she stood a few feet behind her.
At last, the woman turned.
Indeed, it was who Lorena thought; however, she wore neither the mousy expression of Melanie—the woman who had married Jack and tried to trick them all to their death—nor the brash, proud expression of Neala, the witch who was mated to the Wolvite named Dafydd. Instead, her face was twisted in grief, her eyes bright and cheeks wet.
“What’s wrong?” Concern clenched Lorena’s gut, despite her reproach. “What’s happened?”
Neala extended a trembling hand to her. “You have to help him.”
Lorena reached for her in return, but Neala suddenly seemed much farther away. Lorena tried to step closer, but she couldn’t move.
“Who?” Lorena asked. “Dafydd?”
Neala’s eyes were aglow with agony. Lorena shouldn’t feel sympathy for her, shouldn’t care. She knew perfectly well what treachery this woman was capable of, what horrible things she had helped perpetrate. Something deep inside of her wouldn’t let her turn away, though.
“I don’t know what you want me to do. How can I help? What’s going on?”
Neala turned back to the pool. She wept.
“I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s going on.”
Neala bent forward and dipped her hands into the pool. The stars and moon shuddered on the surface. She lifted her hands and the water flowed from them, silver like the moonlight. She looked back at Lorena.
“This is where the power is.”
Lorena shook her head. “What do you mean? What is this place?”
“You have to help him. You’re the only one who can.”
The lantern swayed as if the wind had picked up, though the night was still. Then, a sound came from the trees. A growl.
The back of Lorena’s neck prickled. The sound was ominous and terrifying, the warning growl of a Wolvite.
Lorena stumbled back. “What’s happening?”
The growl came again, louder and fiercer. A low dark shape shot out of the trees and ran toward the pool. Neala whipped around toward it and screamed. “Help me!”
Lorena jerked awake.
She sat bolt upright and found herself no longer in the woods, but in the dark, quiet bedroom of the house she shared with her boyfriend. Her heart hammered beneath her ribs and thumped in her ears. She sucked in quick, hard breaths.
Just a dream.
She flopped back and stared at the shadowy ceiling.
Not the first dream like it she’d had. She should be used to them by now.
The bed was uncomfortably warm in the summer heat, despite the fan in the corner, despite the fact she’d kicked the sheets off and wore only panties and a tank top. The furnace of a man lying next to her dashed any hope of staying cool. Running the air conditioner was expensive and they tried to keep it off at night, when the temperature went down a bit.
Deacon was sprawled on his stomach, his arm draped across her middle. His massive forearm was both ridiculously heavy and sweetly protective. She removed it, as gently as possible. He grumbled in his sleep as she slipped out of bed.
Her hair stuck to her neck. She gathered the damp, thick strands in her fist, held them on top her head, and walked over to the fan.
The clock next to the bed said 3:45. Another night, another nerve-jangling dream.
Lorena had dreamt of Neala many times in the months since the Wolvite massacre. She’d thought about her plenty during her waking hours, as well. Was she still alive? And if so, where was she hiding? What was she planning next?
She held her tank top up in the front and let the air flow beneath it, then turned her back to the fan and held the back up. She glanced toward the bed and a lecherous smile curled her lips.
The sinuous curve of Deacon’s spine glistened in the moonlight, the swell of his ass in his tight boxer briefs a sumptuous temptation. She wanted to bite it. He was sleeping soundly though, a happy puppy. She wouldn’t wake him.
She lowered her top and left the room. Padding down the hallway to the kitchen, a soft jingle sounded behind her, accompanied by the click of paws on the hardwood.
She glanced over her shoulder. The old hound dog loped after her.
“Just getting a drink of water, Clem. You need one?”
He watched her as she filled a glass at the sink. She poured it in his water bowl and refilled it for herself.
While Clem lapped up his water, she walked out on the enclosed back porch. She leaned next to the screen door and gazed at the night.
Deacon had replaced the screen in the top half of the door after a Wolvite tore a giant hole in it. No Wolvites had been spotted in the area since everything happened, and there were few signs of them in the woods. While their absence was good news to most, it meant her job in Blue Ditch hung in peril. How long before her employer, Dr. Winston, declared the area Wolvite-free and she no longer had a purpose there?
Clem joined her and sat at her feet. He thumped his tail listlessly against the floor.
A few minutes later, faint sounds came from inside the house. Deacon’s energy curled around her before she even heard his shuffling footsteps on the kitchen tile.
“Lorena?” His voice was gruff with sleep. “You okay?”
“Yeah, it was just hot in the bedroom. I needed some air and water.”
He filled the doorway behind her, a muscular bulk of a man. His scent, musky and clean, enveloped her as he stepped up behind her.
He wrapped his arms around her midsection and snuggled his hot sweaty self against her back.
She grimaced. “So much for that.”
He nuzzled her hair and cupped her breasts in his broad hands. “Woke up and you were gone.” His voice rumbled through her. “I panicked.”
“Sleeping beside you is like sleeping next to a bonfire. You make me sweat.”
He huffed down her neck. “You weren’t complaining earlier.”
“We could go outside.” He rested his chin above her ear. “Pitch a tent out back, throw down some sleeping bags. Have us a little camp-out. Might be cooler out there.”
She twisted her arm behind her and gripped the bulge in his boxers. “I know you love to pitch a tent.”
He growled, a sound that sent shivers through her, completely opposite the kind a Wolvite’s growl elicited. He kneaded her breasts. Her boobs were big, but his hands were even bigger, and he held them entirely in his palms.
Clem circled their legs, his tail thumping against their calves.
“I had a dream,” she said. “That’s what woke me up.”
Deacon dragged his scruff across her cheek. “What about?”
They didn’t talk much about what happened, and when they did, he usually became agitated. She tried to avoid the subject as much as possible.
“It was about Chelsea.” She paused. “I’ve had other dreams about her.”
He slowed his kneading and then stilled entirely.
She continued, since the name had already passed her lips. “I was following her through the valley, and she was dressed in white. She led me to a pool.”
He grunted and eased off her back. “Reckon she wanted to drown you.”
“She asked for help.” She slipped out of his grip and turned. “She wanted me to help ‘him,’ but I’m not sure who she was talking about. Dafydd, probably.”
Deacon towered over her, his face touched by the moonlight, so his eyes shone and it picked out the golden flecks in his beard.
“She told me there was power in the pool.” She placed her hand on the solid wall of his chest. “It didn’t seem like normal water, though. It glowed.”
“Then I heard a growl in the trees, it was a Wolvite. It came at us, and she started screaming, but I woke up.”
He dragged a hand down his face. “I’ve had dreams about her too. They were all bad. If she’s dead, she’s a haint, and she comes in our bedroom at night to torment us both.”
“I don’t think she’s dead.” She curled her fingers in the soft hair on his chest. “I think we’re dreaming about her because she’s alive.”
He said nothing.
“Stacy taught me dreams have meaning.” Stacy was Zeke’s wife, the witch who was teaching Lorena how to use her own powers. “They’re mostly symbolism, but they’re guideposts that lead us toward something we need to know.”
“I think the only symbol here is she wants to drown you and feed you to her mate.” His voice sharpened. “And if she’s alive, she’ll aim to do it, too. Mark my words.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you. I know it upsets you to talk about her.”
He wrapped his arms around her and engulfed her in his embrace. The tension in his muscles eased and he kissed her forehead. “I don’t mean to snap. You can’t control what you dream, no more than I can.”
He nuzzled her. She felt marked by him, his possession. The thought gave her comfort, where once, the idea of being claimed by anyone had been a terrifying notion.
She spoke softly. “Hell of a time for me to have a dream like that, with what’s coming up tomorrow. Maybe that’s why I had it. My mind’s on her.”
“Don’t worry, it’ll be a good day. We ain’t gonna remind him of her. This is Jack’s home and he ought to feel comfortable here.”
She tilted her head back to look at him. “I think you and Zeke will make him feel at home again. I better not have to bail your asses out of jail.”
He stroked her hair back. “If you do, you know where I stash my mad money.”
“I swan, I’ll behave myself.” He reached down and squeezed her ass. “I can’t say much for them, though. You comin’ back to bed? I’ll keep off you so you cool down.”
“Well now, that’s hardly an incentive, is it?”
He slapped her ass. “C’mon, then. Let’s put you to bed.” He grabbed her around the waist and hauled her up and over his shoulder, quick and easy as if he were picking up a child.
She yelped, and then laughed, kicking her feet. “You’ll never behave yourself. I don’t believe you.”
“Probably for the best, I reckon.”
* * * *
Deacon had a few dreams himself about Chelsea, ever since that awful night in the holler. She came at him in the darkness behind his eyelids, a twisted demon swooping down on him like a hungry buzzard. The blue heart dangled from her neck, to remind him of when she used to be someone else. He’d never see that little girl again. She was dead.
In some of the dreams, his Mama and Daddy stood over the corpse of that little girl, and Melanie, Neala—whatever the hell her name was—came swooping down on them too, laughing and mocking. Tears fell from Mama’s eyes and Daddy gnashed his teeth, and there was nothing Deacon could do, nothing to change things or stop their pain. He felt like it was his fault, like if he hadn’t kept looking for her he wouldn’t have found her and none of them would know.
In other dreams, she circled Jack, sneering and poking. She ripped him up with her claws and tore his heart out. Deacon couldn’t see her as his sister then, only the monster she really was, the creature that betrayed them all and tried to kill them for nothing more than protecting their families and homes.
He hoped she was dead, that her ghost would fade into the earth eventually. But he knew, deep in his gut and in his heart, that she was still out there somewhere.
Lorena dreaming of her wasn’t no good sign, neither.
In the early morning light, Deacon lay next to her and watched her sleep. Her face was slack, not a care to crease her forehead or tighten her jaw. Her lips were parted and she drew in slow, shallow breaths. Her hair scattered in dark tangles across the pillow and sweat glistened on the slope of her neck. Her nipples pressed dark against the sheer white fabric of her tank top.
They’d been living together four months now. He’d adjusted well, if he did say so himself. He did the cooking and she did the cleaning, as he wasn’t none too good at ridding up and she wasn’t handy with a stove. They didn’t argue, at least not yet. He expected he’d do some damn fool thing sooner or later, though, and she’d have to call him out.
He still took her on dates, into town and up to Harlan a few times, and some nights they just spent on the couch watching Netflix. They had lots of sex. That was the best part. Waking up to it, falling asleep to it. After dinner, before dinner, after work. Any old time. She made him burn like a wildfire, scorching and out of control.
He wanted to marry her, but he hadn’t brought that up yet. Still too early. And here he was, the man they all said would never snag him a wife. He could just imagine his family’s faces when he told them.
He sighed and rolled onto his back. He couldn’t get to sleep again. Too much on his mind. He never slept much anyway, never had. Something about his Lycan blood, he didn’t need much rest. He crawled out of bed, careful not to jostle her.
The sun was coming up. A nice day ahead, the weatherman said. A good day for the cookout they’d have. A good day for leaving the past behind and starting fresh.
Clem followed him to the kitchen. Deacon looked down at him. “You want some grub?”
Clem wagged his tail.
Deacon filled his bowl and then contemplated breakfast for himself. He’d been working early at the lumberyard all week and hadn’t been able to cook up a big meal. Since he was off today, he ought to surprise Lorena. Maybe even take her a tray in bed.
As he stood at the sink and stared out the window above it, mulling over what to fry up, something caught his attention: a quick flash in the tree line at the bottom of the yard. Something white.
He narrowed his eyes. An animal? His imagination?
He walked out on the back porch and stared through the screen door. Even at that distance, his eyesight was keen and clear.
Probably just an animal. Maybe a deer.
As he started to turn away, he saw it again, a quick flash between the trees. The way it moved wasn’t like an animal, but a human. Like someone was peeking out at him and then ran away.
He opened the screen door and stepped out into the muggy morning, without regard to the fact he was in his skivvies.
He sniffed the air. Nothing to smell but the flowers Lorena planted around the side of the house. He had half a mind to grab his shotgun and walk down there. If it was a person, they didn’t have any business on his property.
Nothing else stirred. Clem whined at the back door. Deacon turned.
“Go on and eat, ain’t nothing out here that concerns you.”
Clem hurried back to the kitchen as Deacon stepped inside. Maybe he was seeing things. Maybe the ghosts were chasing him now.
It gave him a shiver, but he quickly shook it off.
“You need to stay where you are,” he muttered. “Get outta my head and back in the ground.”