Authors: Amanda M. Lee
© 2016 by Amanda M. Lee
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
, this is just the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”
My boyfriend Aric Winters bit his bottom lip and arched an eyebrow, his ridiculously handsome face reflecting both amusement and annoyance. “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Really?”
“That’s what I just said.”
“Zoe, you’ve been hunted, stalked and threatened with decapitation more times than I can count,” Aric said, feigning patience. I had a feeling he wanted to tug on my hair to get me to shut up, but he was trying to rein in his temper these days. It gets loud when we argue. Come to think of it, making up gets loud, too. “This isn’t even the worst thing that’s happened to you this week.”
“How can you say that?”
“You ran my truck into the ditch while backing down the driveway on Tuesday,” Aric pointed out.
“That was not my fault,” I protested. “The driveway moved or something.”
“You were yelling at the radio because some new age hippie on that talk show you like was talking about how people should give up meat for the betterment of society and you were so animated you forgot what you were doing.” Aric’s expression was serious, but his eyes sparkled. He wasn’t really angry. He just likes messing with me. “I heard you through the window when I was stacking the wood. Instead of paying attention to where you were driving you were paying attention to your mouth, as usual.”
I was pretty sure that was supposed to be an insult. “That would never hold up in court.”
“I’m not taking you to court,” Aric said, spanking my rear end playfully. “I merely want you to take a moment to calm yourself before you try to drive this problem into the ditch.”
I put my hands on my hips and glared at the bee hive. I considered burning it even though I’d promised to do nothing of the sort. Aric didn’t like it when I used my powers to burn things – mostly because I am woefully out of practice and he had to extinguish the fires.
“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying a different tactic.
Aric rolled his eyes. After six years together, five of them sharing the same roof, he was used to my theatrics. “The only thing you’re allergic to is being quiet.”
“No, I’m allergic to bee stings, too.”
“You are not,” Aric challenged.
“I am so.”
“Zoe, I’ve seen you get stung by a bee. Nothing happened.”
“When did you see me get stung by a bee?” I asked, fixing him with my best “I’m right and you’re always going to be wrong” look.
“Two summers ago we spent a week with my parents on Lake Michigan,” Aric replied, not missing a beat. “You were stung by a bee when we were on the boat. Other than complaining for two hours straight that your arm was going to fall off, you were fine.”
I hate it that he knows me so well. “Have you ever considered that I welcomed the allergic reaction because spending so much time with your parents’ friends made me wish I’d die from an allergic reaction?”
Aric smirked. “No. That’s good to know, though.”
I rubbed my hands on the front of my cutoff shorts and turned back to the bee hive. I’d discovered it during my afternoon walk. I was supposed to be writing, but I’m a big fan of the “why do today what you can put off until deadline?” mantra. Oh, yeah, that’s what I do now. I’m an author. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.
My name is Zoe Lake and I write schmaltzy romances. I don’t do it under my own name. Don’t worry. I keep my street cred intact when at all possible. Because I don’t get along well with others and I have an active imagination, Aric suggested I give writing a shot three years ago. After complaining for two weeks, I sat down to prove to him what an awful writer I am.
Three years later we live in our dream log cabin in the middle of nowhere – no neighbors to bug us or to see Aric shift into a wolf when the mood strikes – and we’re happy. Yeah, I said it: We’re happy.
Well, other than for this bee hive.
“I need you to kill them,” I said, adding a little whine to my voice for his benefit. “They’re going to give me nightmares.”
“I’m going to give you nightmares,” Aric warned, wagging a finger in my face. “You can’t kill bees. They keep disappearing. If bees die, we’ll all die.”
He was making that up. “Is this like that bad movie with Mark Wahlberg where the trees try to kill everyone? Is that what you’re telling me is going to happen if you kill these bees?”
Even nine years after our first meeting, Aric’s handsome face took my breath away sometimes. His strong jaw clenched now, and he ran a hand through his black hair as he tried to decide whether he should kill me or kiss me. The expression on his face was dark. He was still a sight to behold despite his irritation.
“I’m not killing the bees,” Aric said, his tone serious. “You’re not killing them either. I’m counting them, Trouble. If one of these bees goes missing you’re going to be in big trouble.”
“You’re counting them?” I scoffed.
“I’m naming them, too,” Aric added. “There are miles of woods in every direction of this house. You don’t have to walk here. You can avoid the bees. Pick another direction.”
After graduating from Covenant College – and purposely leaving the whispers about Zoe the magical mage behind – Aric and I settled in mid-Michigan for two years. Living together in a small apartment was an adjustment, but we made it work. He took on a management position at his father’s lumber company while I took a handful of entry-level jobs at various newspapers.
Since I can’t get along with anyone – especially someone trying to boss me around – I got fired three times before I decided being a reporter wasn’t for me. People are stupid sometimes. There’s no getting around it. The trick to being a journalist is that you can’t tell people they’re stupid when they do something stupid. People don’t like that. You have to smile and pretend they’re not stupid. That’s not in my wheelhouse.
After my third job meltdown, Aric suggested I try writing books. I was being funny – well, and obnoxious – when I banged the first one out. It was a paranormal romance, and I threw a ton of sex in it. I figured Aric would be the only one to read it and it might make for fun foreplay. It definitely did. Imagine my surprise when Aric liked the story, too.
Instead of laughing off my writing endeavors, Aric encouraged them. Now my pen name – Veronica Hart – is a household name with those who frequent bodice-ripping sections of bookstores and Amazon. No one knows the author is really a loudmouthed mage in Michigan who spends her nights cuddling up with a werewolf while trying to pretend there isn’t any number of paranormal beings who would love to suck up her powers if given the chance.
We live in an odd world. Still, it’s a happy one.
I reached over and squeezed Aric’s hand, innocently widening my blue eyes so he’d be forced to succumb to my whims. “I love you, Aric.”
Instead of melting, Aric growled. I hate it when he does that.
“I love you, too, Zoe,” Aric said, resting his forehead against mine. He’s tall – and built like a marble god – but his heart inexplicably belongs to me. I think he secretly likes my mouth. Wait, that came out dirtier than I envisioned.
“I need you to kill those bees for me,” I said, my tone sweet.
Aric kissed the tip of my nose and then pulled away. “No.”
Did he just shut me down? “But … .”
“Zoe, I am not killing those bees,” Aric said, striding toward our two-story log cabin. He’d designed it himself, and he was especially proud of the layout. The living room bay windows looked out at the woods, and we spent most of our nights snuggling on the couch and staring out at the trees. Aric loves the woods. It makes him feel all manly and … werewolf-y. That’s a thing, right?
“I can’t believe you don’t love me enough to kill those bees,” I said, playing my last card. “You told me you loved me more than anything. Our life is a lie.”
Aric slowed his escape and glanced over his shoulder. “Are you really going to play that card?”
Was I low enough to keep this up? Yup. “When you told me you loved me, I thought you meant it.” I sighed dramatically. “I thought we were forever.”
Aric stalked back in my direction and grabbed the front of my T-shirt, lifting me so I had to roll to the balls of my feet to keep my balance. “I love you more than is conceivably possible,” he said. “If I could figure out a way to wrap the moon, I’d give it to you as a gift.
“You make me laugh and I enjoy living with you, even though you’re a pig and I have to pick up all of your clothes and do all of the dishes and laundry,” he continued.
Sometimes I go weak in the knees when I look at him. I know it’s weird, but he’s that good-looking. I still can’t figure out why he picked me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m cute, but he looks as though he belongs on a runway. Sure, the models would be wearing flannels and low-hanging jeans in his show, but they would still be hot.
“I will love you forever, Zoe,” Aric said.
“I love you, too.” I meant every word.
“I’m still not killing those bees and if you kill them we’re going to have a huge fight,” Aric said, smacking his lips against mine for a deep kiss and then lowering me back to the ground. “I bought steaks for dinner, by the way. I figured I could do the manly grilling and you could do the womanly strawberry shortcake preparation.”
I wrinkled my nose. Cooking isn’t one of my talents. “Do we have a recipe for that?”
Aric grinned. “You’re lucky you’re cute. You know, most wolves are supposed to pair up with nurturing women who enjoy cooking for them … and cleaning up after them, for that matter, right?”
I made a face. “I also heard that most wolves pair up with women who worship them and walk around on their hands and knees begging for affection.”
Aric wrapped his arm around my waist and snapped my body against his. “That sounds like a dream I had the other night.”
“All you have to do is slice the strawberries, put them in a bowl and throw some sugar on top of them,” Aric said. “Do you think you can handle that?”
“Do you promise to do all of the grilling shirtless?”
Aric’s eyes flashed. “You told me the other day that you were sick of me walking around shirtless because you were convinced I was doing it to get you to jump me.”
“I didn’t say I was sick of it,” I countered. “I did say you only do it because you want me to jump you, though. I stand by that.”
“Are you going to jump me if I grill without my shirt?”
“Sold.” He offered me a soft kiss. “Let’s cook dinner, Trouble. I’m starving.”
As if on cue, his stomach growled. “Did you get whipped cream for the strawberry shortcake?” I asked.
“Okay. I’ll help … cook.”
Aric leaned closer and kissed my ear, causing me to involuntarily shudder. “I bought whipped cream for after the strawberry shortcake, too.”
“Oh, well, now I’m happy,” I said, smiling. “The only thing that would make my day better is if you killed those bees.”
“Let it go, Zoe.”
Aric linked his fingers with mine as we walked up the slope that led to the house. The unmistakable sound of a vehicle pulling into the circular driveway in front of the house caught our attention and we exchanged a look.
“Are you expecting someone?” Aric asked.
I shook my head.
We live a solitary life by choice. We stayed in mid-Michigan because of Aric’s work, but we bought a piece of property in the middle of nowhere under the name of a dummy corporation so people wouldn’t have an easy time finding us.
Aric constantly worries that old enemies – or new ones with old gripes – will come looking for me. He doesn’t say it, but I know he’s terrified someone will come looking for the mystical mage who took Covenant College by storm and brought the monster-hunting academy to its knees. When I started writing, he insisted I arrange things so that no one could discover my real identity. His father, a state senator, came in handy in that department.
While Aric leaves for work five days a week without complaint, I can almost see the relieved expression on his face when he returns. He doesn’t want to crowd me, but he’s worried. I think we’re both worried. The longer we go without an attack, the more imminent one feels.
We don’t get a lot of visitors out here.
“Why don’t you go in the house,” Aric suggested, squeezing my hand. “I’ll see who it is and then … get rid of them. You start slicing the strawberries.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“Zoe … .”
“Don’t argue,” I said. “We’re stronger together. You told me that a long time ago. I can take care of myself.”
“You shouldn’t have to,” Aric grumbled, but he trudged up the hill without further complaint, tugging me behind him.
When we crested the hill, we found a black sedan in the driveway and a woman studying the house. When she turned, I instantly recognized the high cheekbones and dark hair, even though I hadn’t seen them in person in almost three years.
I let go of Aric’s hand and raced toward her, excited.