Authors: T. S. Joyce
(HARPER’S MOUNTAINS, BOOK 1)
By T. S. JOYCE
Copyright © 2016 by T. S. Joyce
Copyright © 2016, T. S. Joyce
First electronic publication: April 2016
T. S. Joyce
All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the author’s permission.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental. The author does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for third-party websites or their content.
Published in the United States of America.
Cover Image: Furious Fotog
Cover Model: Chase Ketron
The knock was always the same—delicate like a hummingbird. It was deceiving. That soft rasp on the door was the unassuming knock of a monster.
From where he sat, Wyatt James glared at the doorknob and hated the hole he’d dug himself into. He had no one to blame but himself, but that fact didn’t settle the tremor of disgust in his stomach.
He could tell Arabella “no” this time. He could tell her to leave and never come to his cabin again, but then he would be right back to square one. He would be back to amounting to nothing.
Harper deserved better.
Wyatt swallowed the bile that crept up the back of his throat. He had no business thinking about her. Not here, and not now as the monster outside knocked politely again.
Clenching his fists, he stood slowly, then inhaled deeply to steady his pulse. Arabella would hear it. She would mistake his quickened heartbeat for fear. Arabella fed on fear. She would make it hurt worse.
She could save you
, his inner bear snarled.
If you can’t save yourself, Harper can.
Wyatt gritted his teeth and threw open the door, careful to keep his eyes hollow. It hurt less if Arabella thought he was broken. Broken. He wanted to snort a laugh. No one could break him anymore.
Arabella was beautiful in that cold, hard Grecian-sculpture sort of way. She had perfect honey-colored curls that cascaded down her delicate shoulders. She wore a black, curve-fitting dress and burgundy lipstick. Her eyes were gray—a color he’d found striking on her in The Before.
Before he got desperate.
Before his bear went out of control.
Before he knew what Arabella was.
Now her eyes reminded him of the gray hue of a corpse. With a wicked smile, she canted her head and dragged her gaze down his face to his throat, then back up to his eyes. “You’re thinking of her again.”
Wyatt wanted to rip off her head. He wanted to tear her limb-from-limb for even talking about Harper. “Stay out of my head.”
“You invited me into it,” she whispered, stepping into his house and running a seductive hand up his chest. “Remember?”
Remembering hurt, though, so Wyatt winced away from the flashes that could bring him to his knees. Gripping her hand, he stopped her progress up his chest. She wasn’t going to make him feel trapped. Not this time. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Mmmm.” Arabella pouted. “No fun, Wyatt.” She licked her lips and tossed him a fiery gaze, then let a wad of money fall from her fingertips to the table beside the door. “Don’t forget that we both need each other, consort.”
. Wyatt swallowed hard and closed his eyes. He was the son of Tagan James, the long-running Alpha of the Ashe Crew. He harbored a dominant grizzly bear and wielded a power not even the humans understood, yet here he was, reduced to this—to nothing.
Arabella’s teeth were like razors against his neck. She wasn’t careful, but she didn’t have to be. He had shifter healing. He wouldn’t die easily. He wasn’t some human she could drain and toss away. No, he was her chosen one. He was her prey. She’d hunted him for a long time so she could buy moments like this, when she would feed and know she was cowing a predator shifter. It was all about power for a woman like Arabella.
Wyatt linked his hands behind his head so he wouldn’t touch her any more than necessary as she drank him up. God, it hurt. Every second dragged on for an hour. Her teeth were sharp, but she had a terrible habit of gnawing when she hit the veins just right. His hands grew cold behind his head, the tingling sensation flowing down to his palms, his wrists, his forearms.
“Enough,” he murmured sternly.
His legs were feeling it now, too, the numbing sensation that came with the loss of so much blood. Arabella made a possessive hissing noise deep in her chest and clutched his neck, bit deeper.
Wyatt gripped her hair and yanked her backward. With as much hatred in his voice as he could muster, he gritted out, “Enough.”
Arabella had that drunk look in her eyes as her pupils dilated. Her smile was tipsy as she wiped crimson off her lips. “So stingy, love.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Wyatt gave her a dead look and backed away slowly. “Because you don’t know what love is.” She never had and never would. She only knew fealty. She only knew what money could buy her.
Her bodyguards stood just outside the door, dressed in black three-piece suits, their hands clasped in front of their thighs, grim expressions on their pallid faces. “Careful,” one of them murmured. “You’ll hurt our queen’s feelings.”
Wyatt thought he saw the other guard smile, but perhaps he was mistaken. He’d come to learn monsters didn’t have senses of humor.
Arabella sashayed out of his cabin, but turned on the porch, lips parted. Unable to listen to another word, Wyatt slammed the door.
The sound of Arabella’s nails scratching down the wooden barrier that stood between them made his skin crawl.
Warmth trickled down his neck, and he let off a soft grunt as he pitched forward and landed on his balled-up fists and the toes of his boots. Blood made a sick pitter-pattering sound as it painted his dark wood floors red and trailed into the seam between planks. It wasn’t the pain or loss of blood that made him retch. It was how dirty and used he felt. He couldn’t force himself to look at the money on the table. Sure, it would help him establish a territory, and his bear needed it desperately, but no longer could he convince himself he was just donating his blood to help Arabella survive.
If he’d ever had a chance of winning Harper’s heart, that had disappeared the day he sold his soul to the undead. Feeling like his heart was outside of his chest cavity, Wyatt let off a long snarl. He rested his forearms on the floor, buried his face in his hands, and screamed as loud, and as long, as he could.
He couldn’t do this again. Couldn’t risk his bear going on a bender. He was too close to town until he could afford his own territory. Wyatt staggered upward and strode for the bathroom. His reflection sickened him. Pale features, chest heaving, muscles tensed, eyes haunted, blood staining the neck of his shirt. If Harper saw him now, she wouldn’t even recognize him from the boy she used to know.
Harper, Harper, Harper
. She deserved so much better than what he’d become.
His eyes lightened to an icy blue, the color that said his bear was right there, right under the surface.
She can save you
, his inner animal growled.
Wyatt slammed his fist into the mirror, shattering it into an intricate spiderweb. Fist throbbing, he turned on the tap as hot as it would go and cupped scalding water against his face and neck over and over to erase the filthy, clammy sensation Arabella’s lips and teeth had left behind.
And when his throat finally stopped bleeding, when red stopped staining the porcelain white of the sink, when he felt like his bear wouldn’t rip out of his skin as punishment for his weakness, Wyatt strode into the kitchen and pulled down the bottle of whisky. This was his “forget her” elixir. It was necessary on nights like this when Harper’s memories were scratching at his mind.
He’d been good once. He’d been worthy of her, and now look at him. Consort to the Queen of the Asheville Coven. Nothing more than a blood-bag for a woman he hated. Wyatt took a long, deep drink of the whiskey and settled onto his couch, clenching and unclenching his cut-up fist.
Harper was suffering with The Unrest, and here he was, doing not-enough.
He pulled his cell phone from his back pocket and stared at her number, as he always did when he was struggling to keep from shattering. Perhaps she’d changed it years ago.
Just to see how it felt, Wyatt opened the message screen. He could call her and see her face when she answered before she realized it was him and hung up. Maybe if he just saw her, it would ease this spinning sensation he couldn’t seem to get rid of.
But then she would see him. See how different he looked. She would see his unshaven face, his ruined neck, and his empty eyes, and she would know the boy she loved once was dead.
But it felt so good, sitting here pretending he could talk to her. So before he could change his mind, Wyatt punched in the words he’d wanted to say to her for the last ten years.
I miss you. I miss us. I miss who I was when I was with you.
It’s getting cold outside.
And then, feeling utterly reckless and desperate to connect with something in this world…with someone…he hit send.
It’s getting cold outside.
Harper had read the last part a hundred times over the last week. If she’d had any doubt who texted her from the unknown number, it had been laid to rest with
It’s getting cold outside
That was the code she and Wyatt had used as kids when they needed to meet up at their secret spot to vent, cry, or later in their teens when they’d fallen hard into love, to hold each other.
But why now? Why had he reached out to her after all this time? Wyatt had done a bang-up job of ignoring her for an entire decade. He barely even talked to her when he came to visit the Ashe Crew for the holidays. In fact, he’d only spent a handful of days there since he’d blown out of town when he was eighteen.
Harper shook her head and frowned out the window of her rental car. Rain was pouring down into the parking lot of the local bar in Bryson City, North Carolina. Who in their right mind named the bar Drat’s Boozehouse?
She sighed, and the sound tapered into a low rumble in her chest. Her dragon didn’t like being cooped up, and sitting on a plane with a bunch of whiney humans all day had her wanting to make some ash. Harper stopped fidgeting with a loose thread on her sweater sleeve and pulled out the brown contact from her left eye. One quick glance in the mirror, and that was better. One brown eye, one blue, and the lighter one had a dragon’s elongated pupil, proof of what dwelled inside of her.
She tracked a pair of bar-goers through the muddy parking lot. The man was holding his jacket over his date’s head, protecting her from the downpour. It was sweet.
God, what was she doing here?
Wyatt had probably meant to send it to someone else. No, she could’ve convinced herself of that if he hadn’t included the last sentence. He’d tacked that on because he’d wanted her to be certain it was him.
He missed her? He missed how he’d been when they were together? Did he even remember that far back? Harper did, but she’d assumed he’d deemed what they had a childhood crush and forgotten all about her.
She lifted her hand, palm flat, and screwed her face up at the shake she witnessed there. She was a motherfuckin’ dragon shifter, and she had the tremors over a message from a man she didn’t know anymore? Wyatt was a stranger who’d probably just got drunk and messaged her as a prank. Perhaps as a way to rip her up even more. As a way to tether her heart to him for another decade. Prick. Another rumble rattled from her chest. Wyatt was about to be a burnt prick.
A sudden urge to turn back around and catch the next flight out of North Carolina froze her against the seat. If she did this, if she tracked him down, she would knowingly put her heart right in front of him to trample again. He wasn’t careful with other people’s feelings. His father, Tagan, had told her time and time again it was because he had a dominant brawler bear inside of him, and he would settle when he was alpha someday. But she didn’t buy it.
Wyatt had been a sweet boy once, until he wasn’t.
A sudden humming took her chest, and she doubled over the vibration. She hated this—The Unrest. It made her feel sick, like she was going to Change. Like she would get stuck between her human form and her dragon and be trapped in here as
. It ruined her sleep and made it hard to keep food down, and sometimes it went on for so long she thought she would die from it. Not this time, though. This time, the humming stopped. She gasped for breath and relaxed against the squeaky leather of the seat.
She’d loved her dragon until The Unrest began.
As she got out of the rental, the rain felt good against her flushed face. She couldn’t look like a drowned rat for Wyatt, though, so she hurried to the front door of Drat’s. Inside, the walls were covered in vintage, neon beer lights and rusted-out, metal street signs. She wiped her feet on the mat only to nearly bust her ass in a puddle on the stained laminate flooring.
This was obviously the local hangout if the dirty looks and tight-knit groups of patrons were anything to go by. Perfect. Weston Novak, one of her childhood friends, had said the last he heard of Wyatt, he’d been living in some mountain hideaway near Bryson City, North Carolina. And if she was going to find him, this was her best shot at tracking him down in this small town. She’d bet her left tit Wyatt was a drinker now.
“S’cuse me,” she said politely to a trio of beer-gutted stale-smelling humans. “Can you tell me if Wyatt James lives around here?”
“Who wants to know,” the dark-headed one asked through a suspicious glare.
She pursed her lips to bite back her impatience. “My name is Harper. I know Wyatt from way back.”
“Are you another one of them dragons?” he asked, twirling his finger in the general direction of her left eye.
“One round,” a beefed-up muscle man slurred at the bartender. “Come on, Kane. One round, and if I win this one, you let us all have drinks on the house.”
Ignoring the taunts Muscle Man was throwing to the bartender, Harper offered Beergut an empty smile and excused herself. She wouldn’t have any luck with shifter-haters.
As she approached the bar, the man behind lifted his chin and yelled, “I’m not playing with you tonight, Carl. No free drinks.” He swung his gaze to Harper. “Except maybe for you.” He ran a rag down the counter and cocked his head.
Out of habit, she scented the air, but he didn’t smell of fur. Human. Her sense of smell might not be as good as a grizzly shifter, but she did all right.
“You passin’ through?” he asked.
“Just here for a little visit. I have a f—” Her mouth still stuttered over that word. “Friend. I have a friend who lives here, and I’m looking for him.”
The bartender had pitch black hair, shaved short on the sides and longer up top. A tendril of tattoo ink peeked out from under the long sleeve of his sweater. The black ink extended past his wrist and stretched down his hand to his knuckles, though she couldn’t make out the design. He had chiseled cheekbones and faint dimples that probably deepened when he smiled. He looked about her age, maybe a little older, but his eyes were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. Perhaps he had vision problems. But when she shifted her weight on the barstool, his face turned with her. A fashion statement then.
“Nice eye,” he said with an edge of something she didn’t quite understand in his deep timbre.
“Thanks,” she murmured, uncertain. “Do you know a Wyatt James?”
The bartender, Kane, poured a shot of whiskey and slid it over to her. “On me.”
She narrowed her eyes thoughtfully, then tipped her head back and shot the burning liquor. Hissing at the sharp aftertaste, she set the empty glass down and asked again, “Do you know Wyatt James?”
“People around here are real protective of each other,” Kane said, drying a glass slowly.
“I’m not here to hurt him.”
“Surely you can understand my hesitation. I don’t usually have shifters like you show up in this bar. You’re a little dangerous for my taste, and if, theoretically, Wyatt did live around these parts, and if, theoretically, you tracked him down to his cabin in the woods, I’d feel mighty guilty if he turned up burnt to a crisp and in the belly of a Bloodrunner Dragon.”
Harper froze. “How do you know that word?”
The corner of Kane’s lip lifted in a feral snarl. “I know lots of things, Harper Keller. But I don’t know any Wyatt James.”
“See, lots of humans think we can tell a lie from the eyes, from the inability to hold our gaze and say the fib. Your voice gives your lie away, though.”
“Or maybe I don’t care if you catch me lying. I owe you nothing, Bloodrunner.”
She swallowed down a growl. “Don’t call me that. That’s not a term for humans.”
He set his dry glass on the countertop at the end of a row of clean ones “How about this?” he murmured in a dangerous voice. “How about you and I arm wrestle?”
Her face went completely slack. “What?”
“Arm wrestle me, Bloodrunner. If I win, you turn back around and leave my town the way you came.”
Harper shook her leg in quick succession. She wanted to char this asshole for using the name of her ancient clan. “And if I win?”
“I’ll point you in the general direction of Wyatt James.”
Dumbass human, thinking he could best a shifter. “All right. Deal.”
“Carl,” Kane called, making his way from behind the bar. “This nice lady wants to arm wrestle me. If she wins, you can have your free round.”
Carl swayed on his feet like a tranquilized bull. “Aw, man! She got skinny arms.” He sat heavily into a chair, crossed his arms over his paunch, and pouted.
“But she has a dragon eye,” Beergut called from a few tables down. “She’s a match for Kane.”
And then the betting started. Not well, because alcohol plus math equaled disaster, but some five dollar bills were handed around as Harper sat across the table from Kane.
Kane smiled an empty expression, then settled his elbow on the table and offered his hand. Gripping his warm palm, Harper blew out a steadying breath and nodded when he asked if she was ready. Beergut said, “Ready, steady, go,” and Harper was shocked to her bones when she tried and failed to slam Kane’s hand to the table.
He was strong. Inhumanly strong, and she scented the air again as she strained against him. No fur. A bird of prey shifter perhaps? Gritting her teeth, she growled a deep rumbling sound as the dragon surged with power inside of her, and at least now he looked like he was trying.
Kane’s arm muscles strained against his sweater as she moved him closer to the table, but he countered and brought them back up to even again.
“What are you?” she gritted out, pushing with all her might against his hand.
Kane yanked his glasses off, revealing two blazing gold-green eyes, both of which had elongated pupils. “I’m a Blackwing.”
Harper gasped, and he slammed her hand against the table. A Blackwing Dragon? No. No, no, no, Marcus’s line didn’t exist anymore. Harper’s grandfather, Damon, had killed him. Only Bloodrunners remained.
She yanked her hand out of Kane’s and stood so fast the chair behind her toppled backward.
“I win,” he said through a hollow smile. “Now get out.”
The small drunken crowd cheered and booed around them, but the sound was muffled compared to the volume of her pounding heartbeat. She rubbed her throbbing hand where he’d gripped her too hard and whispered, “Wyatt was mine once.” Because Kane should know who she was. Not the Bloodrunner ancestry that ran through her veins, but the real her, the one who had loved Wyatt once upon a time.
Kane’s face faltered, and some emotion slashed through his unnerving eyes too quickly for her to decipher before his mask of disdain was back in place again. “This place isn’t what you think,” he said. “You should go for your own safety.”
Harper dared to hold his gaze for a few seconds more, then nodded and made her way to the door. She’d lost the bet, and she had to live with that. She’d underestimated Kane and let him surprise her into losing, and that was her fault. She was walking out of here with no clues on Wyatt because she’d let her guard down.
A Blackwing. She couldn’t even wrap her head around that. Kane was an ancestor of one of the last immortal dragons, turned mortal in a war with her grandfather. His entire lineage was poison, and what the fuck was Wyatt doing living in a town where a Blackwing had set up territory? The Unrest doubled her over in the rain. The humming was so heavy in her chest it was hard to breathe. One minute of hell was all it took to snap her out of hating Kane’s ancestor.
And when she sucked that beautiful oxygen back into her lungs, Kane was standing against her car, directly in front of her, arms crossed and head canted like he’d been standing there for the entire show. “Yours how?”
“What?” she rasped out.
“You said Wyatt was yours once. Yours how?”
She shook her head for a long time. How did she explain what they used to be without exposing the deep fissure in her heart? How did she tell it to this unfeeling Blackwing without her voice shaking?
Just say it.
“How?” Kane demanded louder, his eyes flashing with impatience.
“He was everything to me. I wasn’t the same to him.”
Kane dipped his chin to his chest, but his eyes didn’t leave her. “Fuck,” he murmured. Scratching his forehead in what looked like a gesture of irritation, he stared off down the dark street and said, “You’ll find Wyatt’s cabin off Old Sycamore. Third drive on the right. He’ll be into something you aren’t ready for. You picked the wrong night to come for him. He won’t be your everything anymore.” Kane sauntered off toward the bar. “Try not to die tonight, Bloodrunner.”
“So you can kill me yourself?”
Kane turned and walked backward with a cocky gait and a bright grin. “Something like that.” And then he spun back around and disappeared inside.
Under the thick fabric of her sweater, Harper’s arms were covered with gooseflesh. Kane might have done her a favor by telling her where Wyatt lived, but there was something very wrong about him. He felt dangerous and had her dragon clawing to escape her skin and defend herself.
Harper rubbed her arms, desperate to get warmth back into them, then got into her car and locked the doors.