This contains spoilers. If you haven’t read books 1 & 2, please back away, not slowly, but as quick as you can.
I am aneira. My heart was strong. Now it’s broken.
I am broken.
Completely broken…sitting wide awake at ten in the morning, hiding in closet, hiding from the memories of the time when a massive werewolf by the name of Goliath carried me out of hell.
I’d spent almost two weeks as a vampire’s prisoner. He’d wanted to break me. He succeeded.
How much more broken can you get? Cowering in a closet, clutching a knife, praying the monsters wouldn’t find me.
In the closet, where I could I hide.
In a closet where eyes wouldn’t roam over my naked body—it didn’t matter that I was dressed. In my dreams, yet again, I’d been helpless, naked, and trapped.
Hiding in a closet.
It infuriated me. But I couldn’t stop it, either.
It had been four months since my rescue and although I no longer cringed in my room every second of every day, I still felt like a shadow of myself.
I could handle the nightmares. Those are nothing new. I’ve lived with nightmares off and on most of my life. But up until Jude Whittier kidnapped me, I’d gone years without waking to the sound of my screams.
I’d spent two weeks as his prisoner and he reduced me to a…thing. To a creature who hides in the closet.
I’d been a thing before…there for the abuse and the mockery and the pain others could mete out. He’d reduced me to this again. I hated him so much. I feared him so much. I wanted him dead with every bit of strength I had in me.
But even thinking his name reduced me to a pitiful pile of nothing and the nightmares sent me…here. Hiding in my closet and clutching a knife. How could I find a way to kill him when I was too weak to even face my nightmares?
I shifted and the stinging pain on my arms told me I’d done it again. Cut into myself. In my dreams, I lashed out at my attacker but there was nobody to fight. So I fought myself. Bloodied myself. I could feel the blood that had dried on my arms.
This was what he’d made me into. This was what I had become.
I hate this…
Coming off the heels of a bad nightmare was enough torture for one day, but the fun wasn’t over.
I wasn’t alone. Somebody was out there, prowling around in my room and even though my gut told me who it was, the fear inside me wouldn’t let me breathe. I eased myself upright and did a mental check of all body systems.
Nothing on me hurt, except the muscles in my back from sleeping on the floor and the sting from those minor cuts, already healing. Nothing bad. I could fight. I could flee. All things in working order.
Or close enough.
My back complained as I moved into a crouch, preparing myself to face the man who awaited me.
The sound of it made me flinch and I rose to my feet, braced. Ready.
“Come on, Kit,” Justin said quietly. “You can’t keep living like this.”
Justin. A friend. Or sort of. Once he’d been a lover. Then a partner. Then…just a part of my past. Now he was trying to drag me back into life, the way he’d done years ago, and I didn’t want it. Closing my eyes, I pressed my head to door and swallowed. “Go away, Justin.”
“For the love of all things holy, Kitty-kitty, you’re sleeping in a closet.”
The door opened with a suddenness that sent me sprawling forward. I caught myself before I could touch him and danced backward before he could touch me.
Dark brown dreadlocks hung down past his shoulders and his eyes, vivid, bright green stared at my face. “Hi, Kitty.”
“Go away, Justin.” I turned my back on him and now that I was out in the light, I studied my arms, my legs. The synthetic cotton yoga pants were trashed, slashes showing in the thighs, revealing my bloodied wounds. A few of them were already mostly healed so apparently I’d been tearing into myself throughout the night.
The shirt I’d worn was short-sleeved and black. It had blood on it, but since the dark color wouldn’t show the stains as well, I could salvage it.
“The nightmares aren’t getting any better,” Justin said.
I managed, barely, not to flinch at the sound of his voice. Instead, I cleaned the blade and checked the sheath. It had managed to avoid getting bloodied, which was good. The leather wasn’t cheap.
Once I’d put the knife away, I grabbed my med-kit and headed to my bathroom. It wasn’t much bigger than the closet and when Justin came to stand in the doorway, it felt like the walls closed in around me even more.
I barely managed to keep my hands from shaking as I turned on the water to scrub the blood away. “What do you want, Justin?”
“How much longer are you going to hide in a closet and tear into yourself while the dreams eat you alive?”
I clenched my jaw and focused on the rust-colored water. “If that’s all you needed to talk about, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.”
He swore and turned away, starting to pace. Oddly, having him a little farther away didn’t make me feel any better.
I shut the door, finished scrubbing the blood and slathered some ointment on the deep ones—the magic-infused gel started to tingle. The cuts would have started to heal by the time I left my room. Good enough.
I put the kit away and grabbed some clean clothes from the basket I’d yet to empty. Once I’d changed, I forced myself to open the door. I couldn’t hide in there forever. I knew it for a fact…I kept trying to hide and people like Justin or TJ just kept showing up to drag me out of here, kicking and screaming.
Justin was still pacing out in my room. The dim light that filtered in through the narrow slits in my curtains danced over the silver worked into the sleeves of his jacket. I never had figured out what it was for, but lately, I didn’t much care.
As I moved out of the bathroom, he paused by the foot of my bed and reached out, touching his fingers to the blade there. The sword rested against the bedframe. Just seeing her hurt. I made myself look away.
That sword…so much a part of me. Once.
Now it was just another bitter memory.
Tearing my gaze away, I looked at Justin. “I have to work in a little while. Was there something you needed?”
“Work. Shit.” He spat it out and made a face. “Pulling drinks and serving half the lowlifes here who look at you like they want to eat you for lunch?”
“Lowlifes?” Wolf Haven was a breeding ground for all sorts of troublemakers, lowlifes and thugs. But the bar where I worked, TJ’s, was my safe haven.
I’d run away from home when I’d been fifteen. The first two years, I’d continued to run, with nothing but the clothes on my back and that sword, so certain the monsters from my childhood would hunt me down and take me back. When I finally stopped running it had been here. TJ’s had been my first real home. TJ had been my first real friend.
I shouldered past Justin. “Try to remember one of those lowlifes was there when you saved me.”
”I haven’t forgotten.” He glared at me. “I was the one who got word to Goliath, remember? I know him, and I trust him. Him and TJ. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know the kind of people who come in there. And that’s not the damn point. This isn’t you, Kit. You’re a fighter. A fucking warrior…not a bartender.”
I shook my head. “I’m not a fighter anymore, Justin.” I shot the blade another look. She no longer answered to me. I no longer heard her music. I wasn’t a warrior. If the blade that made me strong enough to handle these people no longer answered me, what good was I? “I’m not anything.”
Jude had made sure of that. The vampire had wanted to break me, and that’s exactly what he’d done.
* * * * *
Justin might not think this was my place, but I fit in here well enough.
You didn’t need to be a warrior to serve drinks in a bar. Knowing how to fight didn’t hurt. I wasn’t the warrior I’d been, but I could still handle a weapon and I had a Desert Eagle strapped to my thigh as I headed down into the bar. It was one big-ass gun, especially in my hands, and that was one of the reasons I liked it. It looked big, it looked mean and it caught a man’s attention damn quick.
Tucked inside my vest, I had several blades. Nestled just under the counter on a pair of hooks there was a silver-plated Louisville Slugger. It would knock sense into just about any shifter. And just in case, there was a solid length of sharpened wood—a little long and large to be called a stake, but it would go through a vampire’s chest just fine.
I had enough weapons to buy the time needed for Goliath to get his giant ass in there. Relying on somebody else’s strength…it churned and twisted my gut, but I couldn’t trust myself anymore. I didn’t even know myself anymore.
Although, in all honesty, I hadn’t needed my weapons, or Goliath, even once. I’d been here for months and not a thing had happened.
It had taken TJ nearly two weeks to coax me out of my room. The first few days, though, I’d been flat on my back, healing up from blood loss and the other various traumas. But the second week, that was just me cowering in the corner like a mouse.
Once she’d talked me into leaving the room, I’d spent the next couple of days cowering down here in the bar…like a mouse. Those first days had been the worst. Then she’d convinced me to help pull drinks one busy night. It had been hell. Every loud noise had freaked me out and I’d slept in awful stops and starts once I was done.
It was better, though. I could handle it. The job, I mean.
I still wasn’t sleeping worth anything. I don’t know if I’d ever sleep well again. Every time I closed my eyes, I feared I’d find myself back up in that cell, held prisoner by a vampire and I half-expected to be forced in wakefulness by the brutal dousing that had come from an industrial-strength water hose.
As I pushed through the doors, I felt the crawl of energy spread across my skin. Only one thing caused that.
Shifters. The bar was lousy with them. We got more than a few in here, yeah—it wasn’t called Wolf Haven for nothing.
The place was crawling with cats, though, just like it had been for several weeks. If I could have given myself a minute to smash my head against a wall, I would have.
I didn’t want to see cats.
Cats made me think of another thing I’d lost and I wasn’t up to even crossing that line yet. I handled it the same way I handled everything else lately— shoving it down deep inside so I didn’t have to think about it. Sooner or later, I was going to run out of room and maybe I’d bust open at the seams.
As I ducked under the bar, I found TJ back there with Gio. He was a new wolf she’d taken in, so skinny, his bones pressed against his skin and his eyes never seemed to rest in one place for longer than a second. He looked like he was going to attack at any given moment, but not because he wanted to hurt.
He just didn’t trust people not to hurt him, so he’d rather take them out first. That was the impression I got from him.
I didn’t give Gio my back. I didn’t dislike the guy, but I didn’t trust him any further than I could throw him. Something about him bugged me, a lot. It wasn’t just the way he kept eying everybody like he was trying to decide if he should kill them on sight or run.
“Heya, Kit,” TJ said, her voice a rough, gravelly drawl. She didn’t glance at me as she continued to go over things with Gio. She’d been doing the same thing every day for a week. The same material. Almost the same words. I think she was trying to get him used to her, the way she’d get a stray dog used to her voice before she tried to pet him.
If she tried to pet Gio, he’d try to take her hand off.
“Sexy-Sexy left in a bad mood,” TJ said once she finished with Gio. He disappeared into the back, like he couldn’t wait to be away from us people. People, bad. Smart kid.
I curled my lip at TJ. Sexy-Sexy. Yeah. Justin was that. And I didn’t care. He could be as sexy as Adonis and it wouldn’t matter. I didn’t care if he was in a bad mood, either.
“So what was up his very fine ass?” TJ stared at me as I moved to settle in behind the bar.
A werewolf took the seat just off to my right and grumbled something. I heard the words beer in there and served him up, added a floater of Red to it, the specially-made grain alcohol that would hit even the metabolism of shifter hard. Of course, if a human tried it, they’d likely keel over dead of alcohol poisoning after more than a few sips.
Shifters still burned through it pretty fast and it took a lot to get them drunk. We didn’t let them get drunk in here. Drunk and powerful didn’t mix well. Especially when you were a werecreature. But there was something just…relaxing about sitting in a bar, talking crap, shooting pool.
It wasn’t the best stress reliever in the world, but it worked as well anything else, I guessed.
Giving him his drink, I turned to look at TJ. She was still waiting for me to answer her about Justin. I glared at her. “How am I supposed to know what his problem is?”
The werewolf dumped a fistful of bills on the counter—a hell of a lot more than the price of a beer. I scowled at him and fished out what I needed, leaving the rest.
Behind me, I heard a familiar whine—somebody else trying the wards. Anybody who came into TJ’s place had to fight them. Most people could get inside, but it wasn’t just as easy as opening a door and walking through. The wards would have their way with you and it wasn’t a fun way, either.
The wards resisted for a moment and then yielded, spitting somebody out onto the floor.
For a second, my heart stuttered. Dark haired…cat…
No. We don’t think about him. Not ever.
But it wasn’t him. This werecat was tall enough, but too leanly built. Too elegant.
Dressed too nice for Wolf Haven and that had my instincts humming. As he started for the bar, I turned my attention back to TJ, still keeping half of my attention tuned on the newcomer. He didn’t belong in Wolf Haven. Didn’t belong here at all.
That right there had me wary. People didn’t come to Wolf Haven just for the ambience. Either they came because they wanted to hide, because they had no place left to go…or because they were looking for something. Somebody.
And automatically, even though it did me no good, I flexed my wrist.
“So what did Sexy-Sexy want?” TJ asked.
“You realize he has a name, right?” I asked, although I didn’t know why I bothered. If TJ had decided she was going to call him Sexy-Sexy, then Justin might as well add that to his Banner ID. “Look, he’s just aggravating me. I pissed him off. He pissed me off. End of story.”
“What’s he want?” TJ asked.
“Shit. What is this, twenty questions?” I glared at her and then looked at the werecat sitting at the bar, regarding us with unreadable eyes. “What do you want?”
“Redcat whiskey. Neat.”
I sighed and got it for him. High-end stuff like that never used to be served here, but over the past month, more and more weres were showing up, asking for it.
TJ believed in supply and demand.
I dumped it in front of him as TJ said, “He ain’t wrong, you know.”
“TJ. Drop it.”
“This isn’t your place anymore.”
“TJ…” I picked up the bottle of Redcat and turned to face her. “If you don’t drop it, I’m dropping this.”
Her eyes narrowed on my face. “That shit costs a thousand a case. If you drop it, I’ll beat it out of your ass.”
Somewhere out in the bar, somebody growled. Swinging my head, I glared out over the bar and tried to figure out where it had come from. The wolf still sitting at the bar? The cat? What the hell—?
Both of them seemed fixated on their drinks and it had seemed too faint to have come from so close.
Brushing it aside, I switched my attention back to TJ. “You are so full of shit, it’s amazing you don’t reek of it. You won’t touch me and you know it. Now are you dropping the discussion or am I dropping more than a hundred bucks worth of booze?” I waggled the bottle in the air and held her gaze. She might be bluffing, but I wasn’t. Maybe it made me childish, but I’d decided a little bit of regression felt good. I hadn’t felt good in a long while.
“You can’t hide forever, Kitty.” She blew out a sigh and then shrugged. “You know that.”
“I don’t plan to.” I put the Redcat back on the shelf and washed my hands. “I’ll die sooner or later. That’s good enough for me.”