Friday, September 26, 2014

Release Day Wolf Claim - Chapter One #NewRelease #wolves #paranormalromance

Beams of sunlight raked through the clouds, offering a tentative promise of the end of four straight days of torrential downpours. Owen parked across the street and down a couple of houses from the Alpha’s place. Christina Tate, the house’s owner, glanced out her window. He raised his hand in greeting, then nodded to his truck. Though Mrs. Tate was one of the oldest wolves in the pack, and a natural submissive, Owen had no problem asking for her permission to leave his vehicle parked in front of her house—it was polite.

Mason Clayborne’s driveway was full and three more cars occupied spaces right in front of his place. A meeting of the Willow Bend council—Mason’s council—meant everyone who could be there had already arrived. Mrs. Tate gave him a benevolent smile and nodded. She retreated from window, probably to watch one of her shows or to work on some project for one of her fifteen grandchildren.

Hers remained a huge family within the pack structure, something he knew gave Mrs. Tate enormous pride and joy. Had it been earlier in the day, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the youngest of her grandpups out running and playing on her massive lawn.

Ryan Huston, the pack attorney and their current Alpha’s father-in-law, pulled in to park right behind Owen. His spotless, dark blue Lexus made a powerful counterpoint to Owen’s muddy, beat-up Ford. The attorney must’ve taken the time to change into the jeans and t-shirt he was currently wearing before the meeting, as he normally favored overpriced three thousand dollar suits.

“Hey, Owen.” The wolf nodded to him and slid an envelope into Mrs. Tate’s mailbox. No doubt a gift of some kind. Mrs. Tate’s mate passed away more than twenty years before, and they liked to make sure she was getting on okay.

It was the mark of a strong pack—children who played in the streets without fear, widows and widowers who were cared for, and dominants having conversations instead of pissing matches. Task accomplished, Ryan paused to stretch out his hand. Owen met his gaze and held it for a few seconds longer than necessary. Their wolves didn’t have a problem with each other, nor were the men particularly unsettled about their places in the pack.

Old habits, however, died hard. Grinning at the thought, Owen shook Ryan’s hand once before nodding toward Mason’s. “I thought I’d be the last to arrive.”

“I just got back from the city and wanted a shower first.” A reasonable choice from a reasonable, if very crafty, wolf.

The front door opened the moment they hit the steps. Alexis danced outside and threw her arms around her father. He caught the Alpha’s mate in his arms and lifted her. “Hi, Daddy!” she said.
“Hello, little girl.” Ryan’s demeanor gentled and his voice softened. He pressed a kiss to her temple. After setting her down, he gave her a once over. “You’re dressed up.”

“Going shopping with Vivian and Claudia, and I’m late.” She gave her father a kiss on the cheek and waved to Owen. “Go on in, make yourselves comfortable. We brought fried chicken, loads of mashed potatoes, veggies, and there’s even ice cream for dessert.” With that she headed down the sidewalk and leapt over the gate with the smoothness of a natural born wolf—a vast improvement that spoke volumes for how much Alexis had adjusted since being turned. But the Alpha’s mate was not going to wander from Willow Bend alone without protection; it flew in the face of every instinct Owen possessed.

“Don’t worry,” A.J. Buckley said from inside the doorway. Owen’s wolf went predator still inside him. A.J. was pack and a friendly, but their wolves still had a few issues to settle. “Linc and Ty are going with them.” The line of tension in Ryan’s posture eased a fraction and Owen relaxed. “She’s walking over to my place and—” As if on cue, Linc met Alexis on the sidewalk and fell into step with her. “They were going to pick her up, but Melissa is sleeping and she didn’t think she’d go if the baby woke up.”

Not even a year old, and the baby ruled her parents. As though reminded, Ryan surged forward, into the house, only pausing long enough to clap A.J. on the shoulder. Owen followed at a more sedate pace, his wolf in his eyes.



Not six months before, they’d come to blows over A.J.’s intention to pursue his mate into the woods. Owen’s orders had included keeping A.J. and Vivian contained to the guest cabin on the Carlyle property. They’d fought to a near standstill—an impressive achievement for a wolf as battered as A.J. had been at the time. Even now, neither felt the need to look away. Strength of personality and dominance did not always equal physical strength, but A.J. had recovered in the intervening months and his chest, shoulders, and arms had thickened.

He’d be a hell of a good fight now.

As if reading the direction of his thoughts, A.J. grinned slowly. “Later.” Offer accepted. “Mason wants to get started.”

“Sounds good.” He allowed A.J. to lead, but Owen scanned the street before shutting the front door. He’d been a Hunter since he’d left high school. Trained by his father, he’d grown up on the fringes of pack life and made his peace with it. He didn’t want a position of power or the responsibility of contact, preferring to stay on the edge, ever watchful, and keep them all safe.

Hunters like Owen ensured the children could play safely in the streets and that widows like Mrs. Tate enjoyed their golden years without fear of invasion, attack—or worse, discovery. A number of familiar scents alerted him to the presence of the other council members.

Mason stood in the center of the living room, his daughter in his arms. The baby had been asleep, huh? Yes, she was sound asleep with her head cushioned on her father’s bare chest. Having the baby present at the meeting wasn’t that unusual. Normally surly tempers cooled in the presence of the young, and level heads—and voices—prevailed.

Ryan stood near Mason and the two conversed in low tones. Ryan’s hand on his granddaughter’s back emphasized the family ties between them. A.J. took a spot against one wall, arms folded. The wolf had spent years in a human prison and, shortly after his return, Mason elevated him to second in the pack.

A clever move on the part of the relatively new Alpha. Like Mason, A.J. carried the Alpha potential in his demeanor and personal strength. Few wolves could have survived the isolation and crippling effects of enforced captivity. Not only had A.J. survived, but he’d come out whole on the other side.

His mate Vivian brought a uniqueness to the pack and it’d only been three months since her first turn.
Mason and A.J. had a great deal in common. Each brought outside perspective to Willow Bend, as well as formerly human mates who’d recently joined their pack. Young blood, Mrs. Tate called them both. Young blood to bring fresh life.

Owen crossed the room to drop down on one knee next to Felicia Carlyle’s chair. The elegant older wolf, with her snow white hair and kind eyes, gave him a gentle smile. Felicia Carlyle had once been Felicia Chase, sister to Owen’s grandfather.

“Hello, darling boy.” She smiled and accepted his kiss before stroking her hand over his head in welcome. He permitted few to touch him, bowed to far less. Felicia, however, could have whatever she wanted. With a quick smile, he rose and took a place behind her chair.

Settling, he met Mason’s gaze, held it for the space of two heartbeats, then lowered his in deference. From the day he’d returned to the pack, Mason Clayborne earned Owen’s loyalty with two simple, yet utterly inarguable, acts. First he’d challenged Toman and defeated the Alpha. Though Mason had been tempted to offer the man mercy, Toman made the choice to continue the fight, forcing Mason to kill him. That could have been the end of it, but Mason had gone to Felicia and helped keep her with them.
Surrounded by the pack and with the strength of the new Alpha to lean on—strength Mason had freely shared—Felicia Carlyle lived. Grief had left its mark on her, but she’d begun to thrive as the pack looked after her and relied on her in turns.

The only others present were Emma Halifax, the pack’s healer, Virgil Buckley, A.J.’s father and a vehicle mechanic and Vance, a relaxed beta male who served as administrator for the local schools.
“Good, everyone is here.” Mason nodded to the sideboard, a nonverbal invitation for others to eat. Though the food smelled good, Owen decided to wait. He was the only Hunter present, therefore responsible for protecting every single person in the room, particularly their most vulnerable. Passing his daughter over to Ryan, Mason stroked a finger across her hair. “We have a few things to discuss tonight, including a request from Hudson River.”

The last caught the attention of every wolf present. The five packs of North America respected each other’s borders, avoided more than the most tacit of skirmishes, and mostly kept to themselves unless under severe duress. One notable exception had been the death of Delta Crescent’s Alpha several years before. The old man had won and held the respect of not only his pack, but also the Enforcers and the other Alphas. In a rare demonstration, representatives from all the packs had attended his funeral. Later, they remained to witness the battle for dominance between his top lieutenants. A battle Mason had participated in, but not as contender for the title, rather as a supporter for Serafina Andre, the Alpha who won. Owen had gone along with his father to witness and represent Willow Bend.
“We’ll get to that last item.” Mason continued speaking, seemingly unperturbed by their silence. “I’ve also heard the rumors of a disagreement brewing between the other packs, but not one that will touch us yet. For now, we will watch and we’ll be aware. Ryan, I may need you to go to Sutter Butte and Delta Crescent next month.” Ryan’s skill at legal maneuverings and diplomacy made him the obvious choice for a mission requiring finesse and intelligence.

The attorney nodded and continued to sway in place, rocking his granddaughter. No one brought up the Yukon pack. The less they dealt with them, the better.

“That said, go ahead and give me your reports.” Rather than waiting for them to begin, Mason loaded a plate with food and carried it to Felicia. He made the rounds to Emma, Virgil, and Vance. The need to care for his pack seemed as strong in Mason as his need to defend it. These qualities made him a good leader, one worthy of being followed.

“We’ve got a youth problem,” Vance began without preamble. “About a dozen young dominant males, all vying to be Alpha of the youth groups. Your last visit settled them some, but it’s beginning again. Summer is close, schools will shut down, and we’re going to have fights.”
“Owen, how many Hunters do we have?” Though he likely knew the answer, Mason included Owen in the conversation by asking.

“Forty active.” Owen knew every single one by name. “Another thirty or so retired.” Including my father. Hunters worked until age or infirmity dictated they give way to the younger generation, though they were hardly useless to the pack. Retired Hunters served within the community, guarding the schools, patrolling the streets, and generally offering a soothing presence to the populace.

 Younger Hunters existed on the fringe and borders, discouraging and repelling potential invaders.
“See who is willing to take on an apprentice or two. We’ll place a dozen of the most obvious troublemakers first. We’ll give them a job, and they can start learning to be productive. If we have any other Hunters willing, we can make an offer for additional volunteers.”

A solid plan. Owen nodded. “My father will definitely take one or two. He knows how to handle hard-headed boys.” Laughter greeted his statement. “I’d rather they stay with the retired.” While it would be safer for the boys, limiting who they were partnered with wouldn’t do them any favors.
“Fair enough.” Mason made himself a plate. “You’ll take care of it.” It hadn’t been a question, but Owen gave his ascent regardless. He was the lead among the Hunters, the most dominant, and so the task was his. “Virgil, how about you?”

“Spirits are up, so is the confidence level. A.J.’s homecoming has done a great deal to comfort the anxious. We still have a few naysayers. Gerald will be the last you sway, but he’s a farmer and very set in his ways. He and Toman were friends for years.”

“Gerald is harmless,” Felicia said, her soft voice carrying across the room. “He’s an old man and, yes, set in his ways. You just keep doing what you’re doing, Mason. You’ll prove it to him and he will accept it. Whether he agrees or not, however, he won’t challenge you.”

No one said anything as Mason seemed to contemplate Felicia’s words. Finally, he said, “If he isn’t stirring up problems, he’s entitled to his opinions and earned the right to express them.” While not a comfortable position to assume, it was the kind of decision that earned him their loyalty. He put the pack before his personal comfort and likely would in all matters that didn’t involve his wife or daughter—exactly as he should.

Emma spoke next. “We have no major issues within the pack. A few pregnancies, two broken legs that will take some looking after, but I don’t want the boys to rush off and do anything stupid. Overall, very quiet.”

“And Vivian?” Mason glanced at his second, then the healer.

“She’s perfectly fine,” Emma said, a smile in her voice. “We were correct. She has no brain anomalies and she’s adjusting even faster to pack life than Alexis.” They didn’t turn humans every day, so two newly turned wolves in less than a year kept their healer busier than normal.
For his part, A.J. looked content. “I told you so.”

“Yes, you did.” Mason chuckled. “Never hurts to ask. So, this brings me to a question, Emma. Can you spare Gillian, or would you be interested in a trip yourself?”

Surprise creased the older wolf’s face and rippled through murmurs from the wolves in the room. “A trip?”

“Brett Dalton, Alpha of Hudson River, called me this morning.” With that statement, Mason had their undivided attention. Owen narrowed his gaze, studying his Alpha’s body language and scent.

Concern tightened the corners of Mason’s eyes, and his shoulders set in a hard line. “They’ve suffered some losses over the last several months. One or two in separate incidences, nothing to tie them together, and no real pattern that aroused suspicion, except for his healer. Three days ago, Brett found his healer dead.”

No one moved, save for Emma. “What happened?”

“Natural causes, Brett hopes.”

“But?” Owen asked. Alphas didn’t reach out to other Alphas every day, and the death of a healer hurt a pack. Even if it was due to natural causes, it created an injury that didn’t heal easily.

“But he isn’t sure, and he found records in the healer’s home for each of the deaths in the last eighteen months.”

“How many?” Emma continued to focus on Mason.

“Fourteen. With the death of his healer, Brett makes the count fifteen. They have no apprentices, and only one child with the potential. He’s asked me for a favor, and I am considering granting it.”

Ice slithered through Owen. Emma was a vital, healthy wolf, but sending their healer beyond their territory didn’t sit well with him. Nor did…

“He wants to know if Gillian or I can go,” Emma said. It wasn’t a question.

Owen curled his fingers into his palms. He knew no reaction would show on his face and, with the tension levels in the room already on the rise, whatever the others picked up would be seen as natural concern. Gillian was a doll, a perfect wolf in every way. Kind and guileless to a fault, she would rip off her own arms to help a stranger.

Another pack would tear her apart.

Neither choice sat well with him.

“Yes, but I won’t order it.” Mason folded his arms, his attention on Emma. “I have Brett’s blood oath to protect whomever I send. You’ll have his guards, and they will care for you as if you were their own.”

“You trust him?” Ryan asked, his gaze measured and assessing.

“I spent a few months in Hudson River when I left here. Brett gave me a place and he didn’t mind a Lone Wolf staying until I got my feet under me. He helped me get my first job and found someone to teach me some trade skills. The only reason I left Hudson River was because he couldn’t have an unbound dominant of my strength in his territory—it was causing issues. But he gave me money and a fresh start. He didn’t owe me any of those things.”

A good Alpha didn’t need an excuse for kindness. Mason didn’t say it aloud, but Owen heard the words. Dalton had shown Mason a courtesy he could never imagine being repaid, one that earned him no special privileges and one, Owen would bet, he wasn’t calling in now.

Instead, the reason Mason considered his request was his relationship with the other Alpha.

“That said, I won’t force anyone, Emma. It has to be your choice. I won’t ask Gillian unless you think she’s ready.”

Owen’s relief at that statement was short-lived because the healer said, “She is. She has been for months. Her title of journeyman is more a courtesy than anything else. I think this might be a good experience, but I worry about sending her into danger.”

“Agreed,” Mason said. “But Brett is aware. He won’t let Gillian out of his sight. If you have no objections, I’ll talk to her tomorrow.”

“The hell you will.” Owen’s words slammed into the silence with the ring of challenge, and the tension in the room altered perceptibly. Mason swung around to face him, and Owen met his gaze and held it.

Over his dead body would he let Mason send Gillian away from Willow Bend.

Ready to read more! 

Get your copy now at Amazon, B&NARe, iTunes or Kobo

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Get Ready for the Men of Calder County #Cowboys #BoxSet #Romance

The countdown is on, the Men of Calder County releases on Monday!

Valentine McQueen hates the small town of Sage Creek from the blue-haired ladies that make it their business to know all the gossip, to the tired old ranchers who have no patience for the next generation to the four men who were supposed to be his best friends. Paroled after five years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Valentine is home for one reason and one reason only—his mother is dying.

Becky Cooper never had a chance to get the hell out of Calder County. Her mother died when she was still a baby and her father spent most of her childhood and early teen years in the bottom of a bottle. Barely scraping by, Becky takes any odd job she can get—and including working for Sara McQueen after the woman refused to stay in the hospital. The McQueen ranch is in sad shape, but Becky made a promise to the fierce lady, she’d get the place up and running no matter what.

But her biggest problem just might be Valentine McQueen, because he shattered her heart once and she isn’t sure she’ll be able to put it together a second time…

Monday, September 8, 2014

It's a #CatShifter Book Birthday: Mischief, Mongrels, & Mayhem is here!

She has a future to decide on.…

Mischief Jones—Missy to her friends—has never taken the easy route in life. She turned down a full ride to a four-year school to attend her local college because it kept her close to Nene, the woman who raised her. A fosterling, she knows better than to share her secrets, and she has choices to make for her uncertain future, but the TA in her history class challenges and fills her with wary interest every time they meet.…

Nature made him a leader.…

Cade Hayes has a mission, and the last thing he expected to find on the tiny college campus was a mongrel—shifters of dubious parentage and mixed blood. But the mountain lion can’t deny the provocative nature of her scent or the allure to stalk her and make her his. He should drive her away; her presence threatens his claim for territory and his pride needs land, but he rapidly discovers he hungers to take this mongrel for a mate.…

In a fight to survive…will a mountain lion tame a liger?

What readers are saying:

Mischief, Mongrels and Mayhem put a new twist on shifter books, following Missy, a college student, who believes she is the only one who turns into a large cat.

First off I have to say I loved the name of our heroine liger shifter Mischief Jones. Missy is strong, smart and has earned the right to be comfortable in her own skin even if she is only 19.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cover Reveal - Back in Time #RenFaire romance

Back In Time
4 Flames
Coming 3/17/2015
Find it on Goodreads

Lady Daffodil Davola grew up traveling Ren Faires with her family. She’s not ashamed of living life off the grid, content with her world and the bawdy band of misfits and wanderers who share it with her.  She doesn’t seek the approval of the outside world…not even from the one man who ever made her want something more.
Gregory Wilder grew up in a family obsessed with politics, determined to become movers and shakers. He remembers a fluke visit to a medieval faire and the girl he met once upon a time. After a messy divorce, he’s determined to find her and see what if…
Assigned to play King and Queen, they have to work together for Knight’s week, like it or not, because Daffy’s father insists. Can they make it through a week without killing each other, or will they end up Falling Back In Time?

About the Author
Virginia Nelson believed them when they said, “Write what you know.” Small town girl writing small town romance, her characters are as full of flaws, misunderstandings, and flat out mistakes as Virginia herself. When she’s is not writing or plotting to take over the world, she likes to hang out with the greatest kids in history, play in the mud, drive far too fast, and scream at inanimate objects. Virginia likes knights in rusted and dinged up armor, heroes that snarl instead of croon, and heroines who can’t remember to say the right thing even with an author writing their dialogue. Her books are full of snark, sex, and random acts of ineptitude—not always in that order.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Release Day - Caged Wolf - Chapter One #NewRelease

Two thousand one hundred and ninety one days, three hundred and twelve weeks, seventy-four agonizing full moons—the full sum of the six years since he’d been consigned to hell weighed upon A.J. Buckley. He faced the courtroom dressed in a new suit he hadn’t purchased as they dangled the bait of freedom. The suit still stank of human tailors, a fact which barely registered past the curtain of his isolation. Not even the presence of a dominant male wolf acting as his attorney ruffled him. He sat without comment or expression as they debated his future.

What did he care? They’d taken him out of the cage, dressed him, shackled him, and shuffled him into the heart of human justice. They should have left him alone, but even on that point he could barely bring himself to react. Ryan Huston appeared at his cell, ordered him into clothes then accompanied him to the courthouse. He went because he was told to do so.

When they were done, he would go back because he’d been told.

“Your Honor, the following affidavits, signed and certified by the Medical Examiner, his assistant, and one crime scene tech, states the police failed to properly preserve the crime scene prior to their arrival and continued to contaminate the scene during the investigation, thereby obstructing justice.”  Ryan Huston touched the folder on his desk. “The expert testimony of these witnesses was certified by the prosecution during the initial trial.”

The judge was an older man with a stern visage. He flipped through the papers in front of him and glanced from Ryan to the men in suits at the opposing table. “Mr. Langfield, Mr. Huston is correct. You certified all of these witnesses as experts, which means their affidavits are also certifiable to this court.”

“Yes, Your Honor.” Mr. Langfield sounded particularly glum about the subject. The faint odor of bleach almost drowned out the sour note of his disdain, or maybe it was the lemon polish used on the wooden table and fixtures throughout the room. Both burned A.J.’s nose.

“Why wasn’t this testimony entered during the original trial, Mr. Huston?”

“The witnesses were never asked, Your Honor. Their testimony and reports were given and only the facts of those findings were questioned, not the condition in which the evidence was collected nor the interference of the police officers on scene.”

The prosecutor hurled words into the air, but they still sounded pro forma. “Objection, Your Honor. Relies on speculation.”

“I thought these three were all involved in the processing of the scene and the body?” The judge’s inquiry was met by icy silence before the prosecutor nodded. When the jurist continued to ask questions, A.J. stopped listening. He didn’t give a damn about their squabbling over the bones of information. What good did it do?

Ryan answered several questions, never resuming his seat. On his feet, he commanded attention. Why Toman decided to send the pack’s attorney to liberate him after so much time passed already escaped A.J.. Maybe his task wasn’t to liberate, maybe it was simply to tease. What else could his Alpha do, except dangle the opportunity of escape then snatch it away?

He could kill me. That action, however, would be a gift. One he didn’t think Toman would bestow upon him. He hadn’t before, not when A.J. had been arrested. He hadn’t during the trial. He hadn’t when they’d thrown A.J. into a cage and locked the door.

No, the Alpha of Willow Bend had simply ignored him. Exile would have been kinder. Death would have been easier. Cool, creamy strawberries with a bite of chill teased his nostrils. A.J. jerked his attention from the distance to focus on the room. Like a promise of refreshment, the fruity scent stroked his senses, evoking memories of hot summer days and a treat to escape the heat.

“Mr. Huston, are you prepared to present these witnesses to the court for cross-examination?”
“Yes, Your Honor. They are waiting outside.”

A shuffle of movement, a halting panicked breath of air and A.J. turned his head a fraction. She sat in the back of the courtroom, her wan expression too pale and sallow beneath her natural skin tone. No longer supple and lithe, she looked as though all the vitality had been drained from her. Skin stretched over her cheekbones too tautly. Her caramel eyes were large, the pupils constricted.

The doors opened and pushed a fresh wave of her scent toward him. Hands clenching, he switched his attention to the new arrivals. Deeming none a threat, he returned to studying her. Her gaze collided with his, and awareness clanged off the hardened layers of apathy encasing his soul.


“Your Honor, in the event you throw out the evidence collected at the scene, I move for an immediate reversal of the conviction as the prosecutor never had a case to begin with.”

Another hurried discussion brought the attorneys to the judge’s bench. A.J. could hear every word they said, but very little of the subject registered. He’d ordered Vivian to not testify. Was she here for the prosecution? Would they try to force her testimony as they had the first time? Despite her steadfast refusal, the prosecutor had hammered at her on the stand. It had taken every ounce of his control to stay in his seat.
He’d wanted to savage them all—more so when they’d arrested her. The image of her being taken from the room in handcuffs had been burned into his brain.

“You’re growling,” Ryan said, his voice too soft for most ears. “Stop.”

Closing his eyes briefly, he swallowed the sound. When he opened them again, Vivian was gone, leaving only the faintest hint of her scent.

“Your Honor…”

“You do not have a case,” the judge said, not allowing the prosecutor to finish. “Your case was built on a house of cards with contaminated evidence at the crime scene as the foundation. Without that evidence, the grand jury wouldn’t have handed down an indictment. You wouldn’t have taken the defendant to court, and you wouldn’t have been able to obtain a conviction.”

A.J. had no idea what was going on.

“Mr. Buckley, please stand.”

Rising slowly, A.J. kept his gaze on the judge. Ryan bumped his shoulder, a light brush. The grounding of pack helped him to keep the fraying threads of his straying attention from wandering. Vivian’s scent hung in the air, an elusive reminder of the forbidden.

“Mr. Buckley, it is the decision of this court to overturn the lower court’s decision due to the lack of uncontaminated evidence. While I do not believe that means you are not guilty of the crime, I do believe you should not have been found guilty in this matter. I am ordering your immediate release from Fannon Prison.”


The prosecutor rose and said something, but A.J. couldn’t make out the words through the roaring in his ears. Ryan spoke up immediately and the other man shouted. The judge slammed his gavel down and silence fell.

“Motion for a new trial denied, Mr. Langfield. Sheriff, please release Mr. Buckley. Sir, you are free to go.”

A.J. barely reacted as they removed the shackles from his ankles and the handcuffs from his wrists. The officer said something and, when A.J. stared at him blankly, not entirely certain of what he’d said, Ryan answered in his stead. The judge left the bench and the courtroom began to empty.

Placing a hand on his shoulder, Ryan studied him. “Breathe. We’re going out to the car and then we’re going home.”

Home. He wasn’t even sure where that was. Maybe this was his reward, he would go home to Toman. The Alpha would snap his neck, and it would be over. Glancing to the corner where he’d thought Vivian had sat, A.J. shook off Ryan’s hold and paced to the spot.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. Cool, sweet strawberries.

Had she really been there?

An arm around his shoulders distracted him, and he looked at the older wolf. “Come on.” Though his voice was gentle, Ryan’s tone was unyielding. The command shivered through A.J. and he nodded.

The sun was too bright outside. Too much noise. Cars roared past, their engines growling and knocking.

“Are you hungry?”

“What?” A.J.’s voice sounded rough, raw, and guttural.

“I asked if you were hungry, but I think we’ll just stop and grab some food on the way. I sent a message. Your brothers are waiting for you, so let’s get you home…” Ryan held a flat data device in his hand. Cell phones changed a lot over the last few years. 

Brothers. Linc and Tyler. Younger than him by two and four minutes respectively, they were the missing parts of his soul. Triplets, they’d done everything together, but he’d always taken the lead. Always looked out for them. Never had they been separated.
Yes, he would like to see his brothers. Perhaps Toman would allow him the reunion as a last wish. “All right.” He followed Ryan like an obedient pup. Six years of backbreaking, heartless, soulless captivity didn’t leave him with the energy or the desire to do anything else.

At the vehicle, he touched the sun-warmed metal and the scent of strawberries wrapped around him. Tracking the scent with only his gaze, he spotted her across the street. Raising her hand, she curled her fingers in a half wave. Her mouth turned up in a soft, almost sad smile and she whispered, “You’re free.”

Yes. Free. Lifting his hand, he tried to wave back, but she’d disappeared again. She must be free as well, and she’d found her voice. The last time he’d seen her, she’d been shocked mute by trauma and he’d told her—ordered her—to keep her silence.

“A.J.?” Ryan’s patient voice reached out from inside the car. “C’mon, man. I know you’ve had a rough go of it. Get in. Let me take you home.”

Comforted by the knowledge of Vivian’s freedom, he allowed himself to be coaxed.

“Buckle up.”

Obeying, he settled back and let his lungs fill with the scent of wolf and wild pervading the car. Ryan’s scent and his mate’s. His children. A.J. could identify the nuances, just barely. The combination overwhelmed his system and he closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. For the first time in years, he fell into sleep easily, surrounded by the sense of pack.

The car gave a little jerk and as he drifted off, he heard Ryan’s voice. “Yeah, I have him. We’re on our way.”

Home. Yes, A.J. was ready to go home.

Ready to die.

Vivian Knox leaned against the stone building and watched the Lexus disappear into traffic. Tears burned in her eyes, yet she refused to shed them. Elation and sadness swirled together, a potent cocktail, leaving her nauseated. Seven agonizing years since one horrible night destroyed their lives, yet she’d found a way to make it right—finally. A.J. Buckley never deserved to go to prison. He’d never deserved anything that happened to him.

“You ready?” Dr. Nathanial Hawthorne had waited for her while she’d crept into the courtroom. She hadn’t planned to go inside, she’d told herself it was the last place she needed to be, but she had to see. She had to know.

“Yes,” she said. Ready to put the past behind her, to get on with her life. “But I still need a minute.” Refusing to look at the doctor, she stared after the car she couldn’t possibly still see. Her heart had twisted when he’d turned to look at her in the courtroom. A.J. had become a shell of his former self. The glorious, robust man had lost weight; his face was haggard and gaunt. A scar bisected his lower lip and the suit he wore fit him badly.

That hadn’t been the worst of it. No, the worst had been his eyes—hollow, empty, and lifeless. Pale chips of ice where once they had been burning orbs of blue, more vivid and startling than a summer sky. She’d wanted to lay down and die. Curling her fingers into her palms, she clenched her fists. If only she’d been able to free him sooner. It had taken her hundreds of hours—pouring through information, files, and reports. She’d talked to every single person involved in the case, from the original prosecutor, to the cops who’d investigated, to the technicians in the labs.

She’d unraveled his freedom only after she’d found the right string to pull, then she’d tugged, yanked, and jerked until it came loose. Bundling the information together, she’d sent it to the only address she could think of—his brothers. After that, Vivian had prayed. She hadn’t seen either Tyler or Linc since her stint in jail.

“Vivian.” Nathanial edged closer to her. The doctor had been her therapist for three years. He’d walked her step-by-step from the brink—saving her life after she’d nearly killed herself with an overdose. After the hospital pumped her stomach, he’d kept her in a seventy-two hour lockdown, then gave her meds to make her sleep.

She hadn’t slept a full night since the attack until those three days. If she had any sanity left, it had been thanks to him. “I know,” she said, still unwilling to leave. Autumn had arrived, still waving the blistering flag of a hot summer. Sweat slid down her neck. “I just…” What? How could she put it into words?
“Remember what we discussed,” his gentle reminder boosted her.

“When I walk away, it really is over. I won’t see him again. I can’t ever tell him how sorry I am or how much I wish it had been different.”

“True.” Another great point about her therapist—he didn’t sugarcoat his responses or feed her platitudes. “You don’t need to see him, however. You made it right for him. You overturned injustice. This was your goal. This is what the finish line looks like.”

Really? This emptiness is what the finish line looks like? Why had she expected so much more? The drive to free him had come from so far inside her soul, she couldn’t define the source. Beyond the desire to repay his actions, beyond the simple truth of true justice—and yet over meant she faced a long dark road.
“You’ve been battling for so long, struggled so much, you don’t recognize winning when you see it. You’re too used to fighting, Vivian. You set out to free the man, and if not for you, he would still be languishing in a prison cell. It’s over. You did it.” Maybe if the doc repeated the sentiment, the reality would sink in.

“I guess,” she said, facing him finally. “I thought it would feel different.”

“It will,” he said, his smile gentle and encouraging. “In a few days, a few weeks, maybe a few months. You have to focus on you now. It’s time to let yourself heal. I’ve made all the arrangements. You leave for Flagstaff on Friday. I’ll drive you to the airport, if you like.”

“No.” The doctor had saved her, listened to her, encouraged her, and supported her throughout her quest. But that was done now, too. “Nathanial, you’ve been amazing. I know I couldn’t have survived the last few years without you. Literally.” After she’d swallowed those pills, she’d waited for peace to sweep over her and instead, she’d panicked. Wild fury had left her shaking and desperate. Survival, Nathanial had told her later, came in many forms. The night she’d tried to kill herself, she’d finally found the courage to keep living.

By the time she’d called him, she’d trashed her apartment, desperate to find something. When she found his card, she’d stared at the numbers blurring on the thin stock of paper and fought—with herself—against calling. In truth, she still had no memory of dialing the number or saying the words.

I tried to kill myself. I took pills. Help me.

Later, in the hospital, he’d repeated what she said back to her. Whatever drove her to call him, she was grateful for it.

“You’re my friend. I know, you’re my patient, and it flies in the face of ethics, but I was and am happy to help.” He shook his head. “Flagstaff is a good start. The Sunrise Legacy Facility has a place where you can work, rest, and get the best possible treatment.”

Leaving the city had been her plan. She’d wanted to go after the attack—but a year in jail for contempt when she’d refused to testify and then A.J.’s conviction kept her bound to St. Louis. “I know. I think I’ll look forward and not back. I’m going to pack the car this week and drive.”

The moment she said the words, a feeling of rightness settled in her gut. It was time. She had a plan. Sliding her hands into her pockets, she headed away from the courthouse. Nathanial fell into step beside her. “You don’t need to be on the road…”

“I know I don’t have to, but I want to. I’ve spent all my time trying to achieve one thing. It became my reason for existence. Now I want to stop. I want to breathe. Driving—driving is freeing.” Take her destiny in her hands, live again. The more she considered the idea, the more she embraced it. “I’ll call you,” she promised. “On the road, when I get to Flagstaff. I’ll spend a few weeks at Sunrise, as we agreed, resting and taking the time I need for me, but I’m also going to look for a job.”

“Good girl.” Arriving at the lot where they’d parked, Nathanial walked her to her car. His handshake was firm, warm and encouraging. “I’m proud of you, Vivian.”

She smiled, and the act stretched muscles in her face that felt frozen. Had smiling become alien to her? Wow, she needed to work on herself more than she thought. “Thank you for saving my life.”
“My pleasure. You hang onto that card. Call me whenever you need, for whatever you need.”
“You know if I hadn’t been such a screwed up mess and if you weren’t so happily married to a wonderful woman…”

Nathanial laughed. “Avery says that to me all the time.” His wife had become a friend every bit as much as Nathaniel. Few women would tolerate their husband bringing a project home to sleep in the guest bedroom or the calls in the middle of the night when the nightmares drove her out of her bed.

He kissed her cheek. “Be safe.”

It wasn’t until she’d parked at her apartment that the reality of her situation truly sank in. Three years of having Nathanial to lean on and she’d walked away without a second thought.

Well that’s not true. I’ll miss him and Avery, but… The idea of leaving the safety net didn’t paralyze her. After her stint in lockdown, she’d been a guest in their home for six months—a roommate, patient, and project all rolled into one. When she’d finally gone apartment hunting, the need to be close to them drove her to choose a place only a few blocks away.

Now she planned to relocate hundreds of miles away. Talk about your big steps. It was time, though. Time to go, time to—

Why is my front door open? The walk from her parking spot to her apartment was short, but she’d damn well locked the door when she left that morning.

She’d tripled checked. Paranoia was a survival instinct. She drove around the block and by her apartment at least twice when leaving to make sure the door was shut. Gripping the handle and checking the lock when she came home was another habit.


Adrenaline flooded her system and she pivoted, heading back to her car at a dead run. A man blocked her access to the vehicle—a very familiar one, Lincoln Buckley. Though A.J. and his brothers were triplets, seemingly identical in all ways, she’d never had an iota of trouble telling the three apart.

Unlike A.J., Linc looked exactly as he had the last time she’d seen him. Tall, broad-shouldered, square jawed with a firm, even mouth. Rugged, in an outdoorsy kind of way, with hair the color of sun ripened wheat—dark and shot through with strands of gold. The brothers had the prettiest hair and, where A.J.’s had been shorn close to his skull, Linc’s remained long.

“You need to go,” he said, not waiting for her to respond to the sight of him. He held a hand out for her keys. “Come, I’m going to get you out of here.”

“What’s going on?” Her fingers curled around the keys, not willing to give them up. Six years without a word, while his brother had rotted in prison, and Linc showed up only after she’d done everything she could to free A.J.?

“I will explain, but get in the car. We need to—” He didn’t finish the sentence. His gaze traveled past her and he moved. One minute he stood between her and the car, the next he was on the other side of her. Twisting, she couldn’t see past him, but she didn’t have to.

“You’re not supposed to be here, Lincoln.” The woman’s voice was unfamiliar, but her tone sent a chill chasing down Vivian’s spine.

“I’m where I need to be.” Linc’s voice deepened to a growl. “The woman has nothing to do with this.”
“That’s not your decision.” The arrival of a man directly behind her sent Vivian’s pulse skyrocketing. She jerked and backed away, colliding with Linc. He twisted, steadying her and then adjusted his stance. How he was supposed to deal with two of them, she had no idea.

“I didn’t think this was your style, Owen.” The verbal jab landed, or maybe Vivian only imagined “Owen’s” face tightening at Linc’s response.

“Be quiet, Linc. You’re violating an order and you know it.” The artic chill in his voice sent a shiver over Vivian and awoke a very real, visceral fear. Danger roiled around the man and she suddenly wanted to look away when he rested his gaze on her. “Miss Knox, we’re here to escort you to Willow Bend. I apologize for the drama. This will go smoothly for everyone if you simply cooperate.”

“Leave her alone.” But Linc went from being next to her to being on the ground. Owen had him by his throat and the growl vibrating in the air snapped what was left of her will.

Whirling, she ran—away from Linc, away from Owen, away from her car. She had to get away.
Behind her, the woman made a rude noise and Vivian could have sworn she heard her say, “Men.” The thought sparked a note of hysterical laughter, but she didn’t slow down. Shadows twisted in her mind and one moment she raced up the sidewalk toward—where she had no idea—and the next she was on a dark street, struggling on bruised feet to flee from the house she’d woken up in.

It had been dark then, and rain had fallen. The streets were wet and air damp. Blood oozed from her lip, and every muscle in her body hurt. She could barely see out of one eye. Today, the sun was still in the clear sky, though the humidity blanketed the air with dampness. The sick feeling cresting in her stomach threatened to hurtle her back to that horror—because today, as then, someone chased her.

I didn’t escape then… How the hell would she manage it now? A hand grabbed her and she fought. Whirling, she struck out with her purse and her nails, but she hit nothing. Instead, both of her arms were wrenched behind her. Fighting the hold twisted her muscles and pain screamed through her.

“Stop, I don’t want to hurt you.” The cold snap in the woman’s voice slapped her out of the past.
Staring into her eyes, she couldn’t read her, didn’t have any idea why she was there and couldn’t think of any reason to believe her. Run, dammit. The surge came from that primal part of her brain, the animal hindbrain as one of her professors had called it jokingly. Higher functions like reason and logic helped people govern and make decisions, but the hindbrain? It kept them alive.

Vivian opened her mouth and screamed.  The woman shifted her grip, scowled and then shoved a hand over her mouth.

“Dammit,” her captor growled. “We don’t want to hurt you.”

Not wanting to hurt someone and not hurting them were two incredibly separate things. She couldn’t breathe. The force covering her mouth and nose cut off her air. Spots danced in front of her eyes. Nothing she did broke the woman’s hold.

In the distance, Linc fought with the other man. He was trying to help her. Drowning in déjà vu, she fought harder and her lungs burned. The spots became darkness and the world blinked out.

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