Deacon Kelley filled the doorway of the old farmhouse with his massive frame. The word “rugged” didn’t do him justice. Tall and broad-shouldered, hewn from muscle, he was a mountain man carved right out of a mountain. His arms bulged below his rolled-up shirtsleeves and his burly chest strained at the few buttons of his plaid shirt he’d chosen to do up. He wore tight blue jeans and black work boots, as well as a thick leather belt that supported the gun holster on his hip.
Over his shoulder dangled a humanoid bundle, wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. He heaved this gory package off his shoulder and dropped it on the foyer carpet.
Lorena Mills yelped and jumped back as it touched down a few inches from her bare toes. She gaped at him.
A close cropped, coffee colored beard covered Deacon’s square jaw, the same hue as his short, messy hair. He had clear blue eyes. Devilish humor glinted in them as he spread his gigantic arms.
“Will you have dinner with me now?”
The smell hit Lorena then, and she clamped a hand over her mouth and nose. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Yep. You said you wanted one to study, didn’t you?”
“Oh my God. You shouldn’t have done this.” Her tone was not “how thoughtful” but more “you freaking maniac.” Two days ago, when they first met, she had a feeling this man would be trouble, and not just because he asked her out ten minutes after meeting her.
“The thing needed taking care of,” he said. “Got too close to town, was gonna have to take it out anyhow.”
He had a southern drawl, seeing as how they were deep in Appalachian Kentucky. It was a twangy, lazy accent, colloquial but charming.
“I thought we discussed this.” She removed her hand from her face. “We’re here to take care of things, so you don’t have to put yourself in danger. It’s dead, right?” She stretched her leg out and nudged the blanket with her foot.
“As a doornail. And I don’t see y’all out here shooting them down for us, so we still gotta do what we gotta do.”
“You’re supposed to stay inside after dark.”
He placed his hands on his hips and she tried to ignore the majestic thickness of his forearms. He could probably pick her up and sling her over his shoulder as easily as he did the creature.
“I ain’t afraid of the dark.”
She knelt and wrinkled her nose. The odor that wafted from the blanket reminded her of a wet, decaying animal. She tugged the blanket aside. A humanoid arm covered in shaggy black hair flopped out on the carpet. The equally humanoid hand had long fingers that ended in curved yellow claws.
“You ever see one of these critters up close before?” Deacon asked.
“Yes. I was hoping to never have to again.”
“Guess this ain’t your lucky night, then.”
She adjusted her robe and stood. “I better get Holden.”
Upstairs, her research assistant grumbled at being woken up. When Deacon had called her—she’d given him her number for purely professional purposes—and said he had something important to show her, she made the choice not to wake Holden then, just in case it wasn’t that important.
Holden followed her downstairs, his blond hair sticking up and his eyes bleary behind his glasses. They widened and he curled his lip when he saw the thing on the floor.
“You brought us a dead Wolvite?” he demanded of Deacon.
Deacon snorted. “You wanted one to chop up and study, right?”
“You were told not to engage them.” Holden huffed and stormed over. “That’s why we’re here.”
Lorena folded her arms and eyed Deacon. “Told you.”
“When you can keep them out of our backyards”—Deacon thumbed over his shoulder—“we’ll stay inside.”
“We’re trying to locate the root of the infestation and eradicate it.” Holden circled the Wolvite. “The safest thing you can do is stay inside your homes after sundown.”
“We been turning these things back for weeks now. While you sit here wringing your hands, we been picking them off one bastard at a time.” Deacon glanced at Lorena. “Pardon.”
Apologizing for his language, like a true southern gentleman. She might have laughed if she wasn’t concerned about other things. Lorena scowled at him. “Mr. Kelley, if you continue to interfere, you’ll be detained for your own safety. As soon as we get to the bottom of this, the agency’s extermination squad will take care of it.”
“My safety?” He arched a furry eyebrow. “But if I got hurt, I could just come to you and you could heal me right up, now couldn’t you?”
She cringed. She shouldn’t have mentioned she was a witch. An unpracticed, terrible witch.
Holden spoke up. “I’m making an official declaration. Mr. Kelley, if you or anyone else deliberately puts themselves in danger again by confronting Wolvites, our agency will put this town on lockdown.”
Deacon’s gaze darkened and became baldly intimidating, with a touch of anger. Lorena would have melted under a look like that, but Holden just drew himself up in response. If only he had as much sense as he did brains.
“All right.” Deacon’s voice dropped a notch. “I’ll just get this out of your way, then.” He bent to pick up the blanket.
“Wait!” She held a hand out. “This is a big help, actually, and we appreciate it. We just…don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Deacon righted himself. His gaze traced her bare legs and then the rest of her body on the way up. His eyes weren’t as angry, but no less intense, as they met hers.
“Stay inside and be careful.” She tugged her robe across her chest. “These things are dangerous and they kill painfully.”
“Do as she says.” Holden glared at Deacon. “She’s not kidding.”
Deacon looked her over. “It’s chancy she kids about much.”
She stepped around the blanket and gripped Deacon’s arm. It was like trying to wrap her hand around the trunk of a tree. She pulled him toward the open door. He followed her and stepped out on the porch, she suspected only because he wanted to, not because she actually had the power to move him. She caught a whiff of him once they left the stinking Wolvite behind. He smelled like musk and sweat.
“I don’t need your escort.” He gestured to the driveway, where a black pickup truck sat. “My boys are with me. We got all the protection we need.”
She looked back in the house, at Holden who stood, grimacing, over the blanket.
“He’s a stickler for rules,” she whispered. “He really will call for a lockdown. I don’t want you guys under martial law, so please try to behave yourself?”
The night pressed around the porch. The house, located outside the town proper, was surrounded by a dense forest. That meant there could be Wolvites lurking nearby. Hungry, furious Wolvites who knew one of their kind had been killed and hauled into a human domicile.
“So, dinner?” He cocked that eyebrow again. “I hoped my gift would win me some points.”
“Deacon. I’m here in a professional capacity. I don’t have time to socialize.”
“You can’t work every hour of the day and night.” He stepped closer, big and imposing and all in her space. “Besides, ain’t no one around here knows as much about the Wolvites as me.”
An attempt to peacock, but she refused to stroke his feathers.
“Don’t bring me any more gifts in the middle of the night.” She pointed to the truck. “And warn your ‘boys’ what we told you.”
“You’ll come around. Like I said, you can’t work all the time, and we all gotta eat.” He stepped away.
She wasn’t used to tenacious men. Most men in her line of work were boring, overeducated, and under-socialized. Maybe that was why she enjoyed this more than she wanted to. “Please be careful, and get home as fast as you can.”
He started down the porch stairs, but then stopped and turned. He drew a Browning Hi-Power from the holster on his hip, a customized piece, with an engraved pearl handle. “I’m plenty careful. Don’t worry, I know how to use it. You better be careful yourself.”
Lorena dropped her arms, so her robe fell open across her white silk nightgown. She tugged the lacy hem up over her knee. Her black leather thigh holster stood out against her pale skin. She gripped the handle of her Glock tucked inside.
“Don’t worry. I know how to use this, too.”
The look on Deacon’s face was worth the relinquishment of her modesty. She lowered her nightgown, yanked her robe shut, and flashed him a smile as she turned back to the house. “Good night, Deacon.”
She closed the door behind her and slumped against it. Holden still stood over the blanket.
“Ugh.” He fussed. “Now we have to drag this damn thing downstairs.”
* * * *
Blue Ditch, Kentucky, in the western Appalachians, sat within spitting distance of Black Mountain and roughly twenty miles east of Harlan. Tucked into thick forests and rolling hills, the town was picturesque, quaint, and living there was as simple as it got in the modern world. The area around it was steeped in rich history. Echoes of the Scots-Irish and Native Americans who once dwelled there still resounded in the trickling streams and narrow pathways that cut through the tall trees.
Like most of Appalachia, it was also no stranger to the supernatural, an enclave for spooks and monsters and things that went bump in the night. The only difference between now and the old days was they had an official government agency to deal with the issue, instead of just men with shotguns.
Wolvites weren’t new to the area, but up until several months prior, they were scarce and easy to pick off when they did come sniffing around. Something had changed. Their population seemed to grow overnight and they emerged from the forest to threaten Blue Ditch. City council called in the FASCC—the Federal Agency for Supernatural Creature Control—something they hadn’t had to do in decades.
But Deacon and his family, who inherited the job of monster control through many generations and for good reason, took exception to the assistance. Or at least, Deacon took exception until he met Lorena.
He and his cousins went out to the old Thomas place to start a fight the day the agency rolled in, but the second she stepped out on the porch all the fight in him switched off.
She strolled right out of his fantasies: a leggy, curvy, long tall specimen of female beauty. Her hair rippled down her back, black as a coal vein. Her skin was smooth as cream. She had big brown eyes and plump pink lips. He was terrible at judging a woman’s age and that could only get him in trouble, so he didn’t speculate on that. She had a sleek-lined supple figure he wanted to chase with his hands and he ruminated long on how he might make that happen. She smelled like flowers in springtime, and beneath that, a womanly scent that made his mouth water. He’d never been so happy for his heightened senses.
She told him that day, in no uncertain terms, he and his cousins were to stay inside after dark and keep out of the way. She said she was a witch, as if to provide legitimacy to her position with the agency, and that clinched it for him. He nearly fell over himself asking her to dinner.
She fed him a big line about how she was there to do her job and couldn’t fraternize, but interestingly, she didn’t mention a boyfriend or husband. So he had to get creative.
He thought the dead Wolvite was pretty damn clever.
He drove back to town with Lorena’s thigh holster heavy on his mind and even heavier on his loins. His cousin Jack sat on the bench seat next to him, their cousin Zeke on the other side. Jack was shorter than Deacon, but broad and brawny and just as solid, his muscles built from hard labor. Zeke was tall and wiry, but tough, and quick, and he could handle a shotgun with the best of them.
“So.” Jack finally broke the silence. “She impressed with your gift, Deacon?”
Both men next to him laughed.
“I’ll win her over.” Deacon flexed his fingers on the wheel. “She’s got her heels dug in, but I’ll yank them out.”
They kept laughing.
Jack’s laughter tapered off enough for him to speak. “That’s what you said about Mary Ellen Bradford.”
“Hell, that was high school.” Deacon scoffed. “I’m a lady killer now.”
They both laughed again. Deacon hated them, fondly.
“I got fifty on it,” Zeke said. “She won’t go nowhere with you.”
“I’ll back that,” Jack said.
Deacon had the notion to run them off the road and into a tree to teach them a lesson, but he liked his truck too much.
“Awful nice of city council to put them up at the old Thomas place.” Jack sprawled on the seat. “Out there in the woods, all alone and dangerous. You might get to swoop in and save her. Be awful romantic. You’d be just like Prince Charming.”
As they continued with their jollies, Deacon settled his mind again on Lorena’s thigh holster, and the Glock in there—if he wasn’t mistaken. He imagined sliding his hand up her sleek thigh, and pulling it out to see if he wasn’t mistaken. Then he’d really settle in, a bit higher up, where she must smell so damn good, where she’d taste even better.
“I’m gonna take your hundred dollars,” Deacon said, “and I’m gonna shove it sideways up your—”
A dark shape shot across the road in front of them, something big and hairy and hunched. Deacon jerked the wheel and slammed on the brakes, which caused the truck to slide and kick up gravel as they were all flung forward. The thing shot off into the trees next to the road. Zeke grabbed his shotgun from the floor and scrabbled at the door handle.
“Damn these things!” Deacon jammed the truck into park. “Can’t wait till we drive them back to Hell where they belong.”
Deacon pulled his gun as he climbed out of the truck. Dust swirled in the headlight beams, the tires resting in the rut of the long tracks they’d made. A thick canopy of autumn leaves blocked out the sky, the night cool and crisp and silent.
“You see where it went?” Jack aimed his gun into the trees.
In answer there was a snarl, right behind Deacon and next to his ear, combined with the sick heat of the beast’s breath on the nape of his neck.