Authors: Julia Chase
Copyright 2014 Julia Chase - All Rights Reserved
Published by Julia Chase
This book is a work of fiction. All characters are products of the author's imagination and any resemblance to your actual life is awesome, and purely co-incidental.
The Crestwood Chronicles is all about shifters, romance (steamy and sweet), and the paranormal occurrences around the small town of Crestwood. A new installment is released every two weeks, and to make sure you get each one as soon as possible, please click below to sign up for the newsletter.
When I pulled off the cracked pavement road onto our long dirt driveway, I felt good. I was home. Finally.
Crestwood - my home town. The fresh air. The fields, where our animals grazed, and I played as a child. Even the forest that our lot backed on to - which I had always found creepy - was welcoming. I'd never been away for so long. A whole year at University. Sure, I was glad to have gotten away from home, but I really was looking forward to a summer at home.
That plan didn't exactly work out.
As my truck bumped down the driveway, I saw my mom, Darla, standing on the porch. The second she saw it was me, she ran inside, and by the time I reached the house they were all outside. Her, my dad Jack, and my little sister. Daisy. Daisy was wearing a very stylish brown jacket - not the kind you'd ever see a kid wearing. So I guess she's not little anymore, but she'll always be the baby of the family.
I hopped out of the truck and walked over to them. Daisy spread her arms for a hug, and we shared a long one while Mom stood with her hands up in front of her apron. "Long time no see," said Daisy. "I've missed you, Ruby."
"Missed you too, sis," I said.
Finally Daisy let go and stepped back, giving Mom a chance to swoop in. "I gotta hear everything," she said. She spoke into my ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear. "Every little detail."
"Now Darla," said Jack, "I'm sure Ruby's tired. It's a long drive."
My stepped back and held onto my shoulders. She looked my up and down for confirmation that I was tired. Maybe it was the bags under my eyes, the messy head of brown hair, of the few pounds I'd put on since she last saw me, but she said, "Alright. Maybe not tonight. But really am interested."
She stepped back and it was Dad's turn. His hug was short and curt. He was never big for affection, but this seemed like even less than normal.
He stepped away and I looked into his eyes. I could tell something was bugging him. But now was not the time to ask about it.
"So," I said, "I'll grab my stuff. What's for dinner?"
"I'll get it," said Dad, walking over to the truck and grabbing my blue suitcase.
"Shepherd's pie," said Mom.
I let out a happy sigh. I'd gone entirely too long without any of my mom's famous shepherd's pie.
Dad carried my bag up the stairs and I followed him into my old room. Everything was exactly as I remembered it. White sheets tucked in nicely. A desk by the window, looking out at the field and the forest. I could only see a couple of cows, but I just assumed the rest were in the barn. They'd even left up the boy band posters that I was now thoroughly embarrassed by.
He placed my bag onto my bed then joined me looking out the window. His eyes were not filled with the same childish joy as mine. His were filled with something darker.
I was about to ask him what was wrong, but then his eyes locked with mine. It was a darkness that he didn't want stirred up moments after I got home. So instead I said, "I'll unpack, and then I'll be downstairs for dinner."
"Great," he said. "It'll be good to have you 'round for a while. Place has felt a bit empty since you been gone."
And with that he was gone, out my door and down the stairs.
I unzipped my suitcase and noticed the stark difference between the clothing in the bag and the decor of the room. A year at college really had changed me. For one thing I'd finally started dressing in a way that compliment my body type. No more skinny jeans for me.
I looked better in clothes that fit, but never quite good enough, I felt. Sure, I wasn't constantly ashamed, but I never felt beautiful. I shook those thoughts of out my head and grabbed the brush out of my bag. Stood in front of the mirror trying to take the mess, while the smell of the dinner that was waiting for my swirled in the air.
Unpacking could wait, I decided. My hair went up in a tight ponytail and I went down the stairs.
My mom was serving the mix of potatoes, peas, and beef into bowls for us. Daisy was on the couch texting, and Dad was on the back porch for a smoke. It felt good how few things had changed. It felt like I hadn't been gone a day.
My rang the bell for dinner, a relic of her childhood, and we all gathered around the dinner table. Dad said grace, and we all dug in.
It tasted just as amazing as I remembered. Creamy. Salty. And oh so warm. And there was a basket of fresh baked dinner rolls. I was trying to diet, so I decided to limit myself to a single serving.
"So," said Mom, "How was everything?"
"We have talked on the phone," I said, making eye contact with Daisy. She giggled a bit.
Mom stared intently. "But I need more details. I want to see your face while you talk about it."
"That's kinda creepy Mom," said Daisy. Then it was my turn to giggle. It was like we were kids again.
"I'm serious," she said. "How were your classes?"
"They were great," I said. "A couple of very interesting profs. Lots of hard work though."
"Which class did you like best?"
I stalled with a mouthful of potatoes while thinking about my answer. Finally I swallowed and said, "Anthropology?"
She tilted her head. A stay at home mom. Her and my dad are basically a couple from the fifties.
"It's the study of humans and human culture."
"That sounds real neat," she said. "You are going to be a very smart woman."
I smiled as I grabbed for one of the rolls. "Dad, could you pass the butter?"
Looking up at him, I saw that he hadn't even heard the words I'd said - he was completely zoned out. I looked at the other two, not sure how to react.
"Honey," said Mom in her shrillest inside voice. He turned to face her. "Ruby needs the butter."
"Right," he said, sliding it over. "Sorry."
"What's up?" I asked, feeling it was a natural point to ask. It didn't seem like I'd noticed any darkness in his eyes. Just wondering why he'd been distracted.
He looked at the other two, then at me. "It's the cows," I said.
I was relieved. This meant that gran and gramps were still alive.
"They've been... well they've been thinned out a bit," he continued. "Found a couple of carcasses near the back of the lot. Next to the forest."
"My God," I said.
"Language!" said Mom.
"Sorry," I said. "What's happening to them?"
"I couldn't tell ya," said Dad. "Something's killin' 'em. Tearing the meat right off the bones. Leaving a bloody mess at the back of our property."
"That's awful," I said. We aren't poor or anything, but cows are worth a lot. Then a thought occurred to me. "It's safe for us though, right?"
"Right," he said. "Whatever it is, I don't think we need to be worried. No one's reported any sightings of anything us humans need to watch out for."
"Oh good," I said.
"If you do see anything though, let me know. If I knew what, or who, it was then I'd be able to deal with it."
"Will do," I said.
"So what's this anthronology stuff about?" said Mom.
"Anthropology," I corrected. Then I explained as best I could and answered all the questions that she had.
We finished up dinner without incident. Afterwards I ended up on the couch with Daisy and Mom, watching this makeover show we like. Normally I liked to read before bed, but I didn't want to be away from my family on my first night home.
Eventually the sun was setting, and I decided I'd been social enough. I wanted some fresh air. I wanted to check out the field. Someone who grew up on a field can only last so long without one.
"I'm going for a walk," I said.
"Have fun," said Daisy. Mom was too glued to the show to notice that I'd even spoken.
I walked out onto the back porch, where Dad was. "Going to patrol the property?" he asked.
"Sure am," I said.
"Be careful out there," he said.
He said those four words every single time me or Daisy went into the yard. He also said it the day I'd left for university. And when I left on my first date with a nice white boy he'd vetted. But tonight it felt more ominous than it had in the past. It carried a bit more weight.
I walked through the field. The setting sun painted the sky orange. The grass was up to the knees on my jeans in the places the cows hadn't been in a while.
Those words had reminded me of him. Matt. My first and only boyfriend so far. We'd actually gone all the way. Sex. And then after that he dumped me. Saying that he wanted a girl he could marry, and he wasn't going to marry someone who wasn't a virgin. Unsurprisingly, that hadn't left me eager to get into another relationship.
I reached the back of the property, where the field met the forest. There was a wood and wire fence dividing the two, and I began walking along it. From here the house looked like a miniature.
Then I came across a disturbance in the grass. It had all be pressed down, but not uniformly. It stuck out in all directions, as if there had been a struggle. In the middle there was a large patch where the grass was levelled completely - where the cow had fallen.
The ground had dark red sections, but Dad must've already taken away all that was left of the body.
Then I heard a snap.
My head spun around and I stared into the woods. In the light of the setting sun, it was no use. I could hardly see three feet into the forest. The trees and underbrush were thick.
Just as I convinced myself that the noise hadn't been anything, it happened again. This time several twigs snapping at once, like a paw had landed on them.
My eyes darted around, looking for any movement. Any shape that indicated something other than plant. But I came up with nothing.
I turned to walk back to the house, but once again a noise forced me to look back.
And this time it wasn't just a twig snapping.
There was something in the woods. Not ten feet away. It thrashed in the bushes, jumping from wherever it had been hiding, and then bolted. The scrunching of earth beneath its paws faded as it got farther and farther away. And then it was gone.
I stood still, wondering what I'd just seen. It was too big to be a dog. Too fast to be a bear. A cougar would have been much more graceful. I concluded that I had no idea, and then returned to the safety of my house.
Dad was already in bed, and I didn't want to panic anyone else. So I went to bed as well. I stripped down to just a pair of panties and slid underneath the covers. I made a plan to tell Dad that I'd seen something first thing in the morning.
I had no idea that I would be far away before the morning sun rose.
I fell asleep the second my head hit the pillow. Dad had been right - it was a long drive. And that night's sleep came with a very brief dream.
I dreamt that the town we lived on the outskirts of was attacked. Not by an army or terrorists or anything. But by smooth talking regular people. They all moved to town, made friends, and then started slaughtering them. In the dream I watched this happen, and the second that I saw Daisy's neck get snapped I shot up in bed.
Awake. Covered in cold sweat. The details of the dream were gone from my head. But the feeling remained. Panic. Worry. Fear.
And then I realized what must have woken me up. There was a noise. Downstairs. I glanced at my clock. It was three thirty in the morning. Still dark outside.
I listened carefully. It was the sound of paws. Paws with claws, skittering on the hardwood floor. A sound I only vaguely remembered from the week we'd had a dog living in the house before realizing that Mom's allergic.
The noise woke me up fully. I had no idea what to do. I pulled up my duvet to cover my chest. Then the sound started moving up the stairs. It was accompanied by soft panting.
It stopped right outside me door. I wanted to yell for help but I didn't want to let this intruder know where I was. But why did it sound like a big dog? Maybe the burglar had brought the dog with him?
Then I heard a few new noises. Noises I'd never heard before. It sounded like joints cracking deep in the flesh. There was a sequence of them that lasted not ten seconds. And then my doorknob started to twist.
Dad? Daisy? Darla? Nope. A man stepped into my room. Tall. I froze with panic. A bit of moonlight from the window shone on his face, but I still couldn't see it clearly. Then I realized why. He was black.
Thousands of thoughts were rushing through my head. What to do. How to react. So many ideas and plans that none of them broke through. I was paralyzed.
He took a few steps towards me. The look on his face wasn't malicious. But it also wasn't exactly a smile. He looked... curious.
I decided that I'd talk with him. Try to reason with him. But before I had a chance he took something out from his pocket. A black length of fabric. He took one end in each hand. And then his hands were behind my head. And the fabric was in my mouth.
My eyes went wide. I tried to talk, but no noise came out. Then I tried to scream, but it barely made a sound. Not nearly enough to wake anyone up.
The next thing I knew his arms were around my waist. And then I was in the air. Head dangling against his back. Feet in the front.
I began to kick. Kick his stomach. As hard as I could. He hardly seemed to notice, and it felt like I was kicking a brick wall.
He snuck down the stairs like I weighed less than a purse, and then we were out the back door. And then he started to run.
I was banging on his back with my fists. Kicking him as hard as I could. But he showed no signs of letting up. No signs of slowing down. He was running towards the back of the property. Towards the woods. Where I'd seen something. Where the animals that killed the cows resided.
It dawned on me that I was being kidnapped. Stolen. Taken. By this stranger. I had no idea what he was going to do with me. What his plans were.
He picked up speed as the fear spread through my whole body. I went limp. His grip became loser. The house became smaller and smaller as he ran.
Then he jumped. We were going over the fence, into the forest. I was leaving the property. The place where I'd wanted to spend my whole summer.
And at that moment, I decided to fight back again. I pushed myself as hard as I could. Off his back. Towards my house. He'd loosened his grip when I stopped kicking, and it was enough that I managed to escape from his grip.
I was in the air. I was falling. But at least I wasn't being kidnapped.
Then I looked down. To where I was about to land. One of the wooden fence posts was just below me. It grew quickly until it filled my entire field of vision.
Then there was a sharp jolt of pain that shot through my whole body, starting at the forehead.
And then there was nothing.
* * *
There were voices. I was not in a bed. I had clothing on. There were sharp things underneath me. My eyes were closed. I was face down. My head hurt. My eyes were open. Everything was bright. Everything was blurry. There was something tied around my wrists.
The blurriness began to fade. Dirt. Trees. Rocks. The forest. I was in the forest. I spun my head towards the voices. A group. A pack. Seven guys? All black. All tall. All strong. Some shirtless. Talking.
One of them turned to look at me, then pointed and said something. My ears were ringing. The tallest - and the one who everyone had been listening to - walked over to me. He grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me into the air.
"Ruby?" he said. It was the first thing I heard clearly.
I nodded. I was Ruby. I knew that much.
"How do you feel?"
I felt like my stomach lining had melted away and the acid was eating away at all my other organs. But I didn't want to talk, so I just shook my head.
He had to lean so that his face was level with mine while we both stood there.
"Water?" he asked.
I nodded. The inside of my mouth felt like sandpaper.
He walked back to the group and then returned with a metal bottle that he held up to my mouth. He tilted it back and the water poured into my mouth. I drank it back, and even the bit that dribbled down my chin felt good.
When he stopped, I was feeling much better. Well, my head was clearer at least.
"Who the fuck are you?" I asked. I took a self defense class a while ago, and you're never supposed to act weak.
He smiled. "Darriel," he said. "My name is Darriel."
"Alright, Darriel," I said. "What the fuck are you and your gang doing with me?"
He took a step forward, his face becoming stern. "My pack," he corrected. All the men in the group were silent. "And we're taking you with us. Back home."
I had no idea what to say to that. I tried to figure out where I was. The sun was low in the sky, but I had no idea whether it was morning or twilight. If I was going to run, I didn't know which direction to go.
"I want to go back to my home," I said. "You can't just take people like this."
"Your home is far, far away," he said. "And yes. Yes I can."
"How long was I out?"
"Just for the night."
It was morning. The sun rises in the east. I glanced towards home. Towards the way I needed to run. Somehow outrun this group - er, pack - and with my hands tied no less. "We can't have gotten that far in a single night."
"You'd be impressed," he said. "Would you like some breakfast?"
I looked back at the group. They were sitting around a fire, and there appeared to be a couple of eggs sizzling on a pan over it.
"No," I said. "No thank you."
"Suit yourself," said Darriel, who returned to the fire.
I tried to understand what on earth was happening. This was a pack of men, and they'd taken me into the woods. Travelling by night. They wore normal clothing. Jeans. Tee shirts. Jackets. They were some sort of wilderness group. So why were we in the middle of a forest?
I shook my head, while the conversation started up again in the group. It didn't matter. I didn't need to understand these men. I just needed to get away from them.
The underbrush was thick, but there were a few paths that seemed clear enough. And I had no idea if I'd ever get another chance. So I went for it.
I took off, running as fast as I could, staring at the ground to try and avoid tripping on anything. It took all of fifteen seconds for someone to yell, "She split!"
Then I heard something. That same sick, knuckle-cracking noise. Twigs and leaves broke beneath my feet. And then I heard panting.
Suddenly a huge black wolf pounced onto the path in front of me. I screamed, and stood still. I looked to my left and right, and saw two more wolfs. Huge. Bigger than most bears.
Growling. Teeth bared. Hunting me. In a pack.
The men. In the group. They might be able to help me. I needed to get back to them.
I turned and took a step. My eyes fell on the fire, where the men had been, and saw no one there.
My next stepped jolted as my right foot had wedged itself under a tree root. With my hands behind my back, I fell.