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About the Author
This is dedicated to my Aunt Sheila, whose love and support got me through many hard times.
Even during rush time between six and nine a.m., there were spikes of customers who came in to Jake's Fillerup gas station like zombie hoards craving coffee. The early morning shift was Liz Hart's favorite because it was busy enough to make the time go by quickly, but she sometimes ran out of patience when the line to the cash register was a mile long. The sudden onslaught of a cold upper-New York state autumn had slammed into Harmony Heights the night before, reminding everyone that summer was long gone and snow — so much snow — was on theway.
No one was happy.
"You're out of the blueberry?" Josh, one of the business-suit wearing crowd, held up a box of pre-packaged plain donuts. He was second in line but talking around the haggard-looking mother of three who was trying to pay for her gas with dollar bills she struggled to pull out of her dirty clutch, the kids anxiously tugging at her jacket. Liz had sympathy for her but the line was just getting longer.
"Yeah, Josh, what you see is what you get." Liz grabbed at the money and finished ringing up the sale as the woman yanked her kids out the door behindher.
"Could you check in theback?"
Liz groaned. The morning donut selection was brought in at five a.m. by a regional distributor, so there was nothing "in the back" and Liz was pretty sure Josh damn well knew that. She glared athim.
"We're out. Do you want those?"
"Hey Liz, you could at least check." Josh fumed with the same scrunched up face he had worn since middle school. That much had not changed even if he had leveled up to a middle-management job with the city. She opened her mouth to shut him down but was cutoff.
"Look, everyone's in a hurry, buddy. Make your choice or get out of theway."
Liz tipped her head toward the speaker, a guy who was about fifth in line. She blinked. He was a solid wall of muscle in expensive slacks, a gorgeous dark green sweater and a long, tailored cashmere coat. He wore a short, cropped haircut that was neatly styled, his skin was tanned but soft, and he looked generally immaculate…and rich. Liz was familiar enough with wealth to know it when she saw it. He lacked the arrogant veneer though, and his tone was sharp and commanding but not snotty. Liz felt that familiar tug of annoyance and attraction she always got around confident, soft-spoken men. The old saying, "familiarity breeds contempt" came to mind, and she wished it was a bit truer than the other applicable old saying, "hot like burning."
Josh was visibly rattled to be called out so blatantly by both a stranger and someone so obviously far above his own off-the-rack-suit social standing. "Yeah sure, man. Okay." He turned back to Liz and plopped the box and his coffee on the counter. Liz ran the sale and wished him a good day anyway because he would be back the next morning while Mr. Hot Stranger Guy was probably just passing through on his way to New York City. She kept her eyes on the stranger as he got closer in line. Finally he set his own black coffee and a banana on the counter (of course someone that fit and beautiful was a health nut, because of course) and smiled winningly atLiz.
She smiled back, wondering what his game was while she rang up the sale. Was he slumming? Or did he just have no clue what damage that smile coulddo?
"Didn't mean to cause a scene," he said as she totaled up the items. His voice was rich and deep, with a hint of East Coast prep, or Boston proper. As he pulled out his wallet and credit card to pay, Liz noticed that his hands were a little rougher than she expected, more like working man's hands than pampered trust fundbaby.
"Josh has been a jerk since we were kids and he's still sore about the time he tried to push me off the swing set but I kicked him in the nuts and—" She stalled the verbal toxic waste spill, noticing Hot Guy's grin getting broader and broader. She coughed to cover her nerves, reminding herself that at thirty-four years old, she was older and better than the teenage girl who used to blush at every handsome guy in the room. "But thanks, things are busy this morning."
"I noticed." He paused while she pushed buttons on the register. "Who did theart?"
Liz paused, looking over her shoulder at the only art in the place he could be talking about. "Why? You likeit?"
"Is it forsale?"
Her head snapped around to stare at him. "You're joking."
"No. It's St. Andrew's, right?"
Despite the glares from the people in line, Liz stopped for a moment to really look the guy over. The old abandoned church was not a location someone who was passing through would know anything about, but for the life of her, she did not recognize him at all. "Yeah, it is. You knowit?"
"Seen pictures of it. That's a beautiful drawing, though."
It was, and Liz knew it, which was why she had hung it up in a cheap frame once she finished it. It was ink and colored pencils, very atmospheric and almost spooky (according to her son, Augie). It showed the pretty old historic building at dusk, with a full moon on the rise behind it. She smiled, happy that someone took the time to appreciate it. "Thanks."
"Oh? Oh! Uh, three dollars and fourteen cents," she said, handing his cardback.
He stared at her for a second, his face a mask of confusion. "For the drawing?"
"What? No! For the banana and coffee."
"I meant, how much for the drawing?"
Liz tried to contain her surprise, then glanced at the line behind the guy. "Not for sale. Sorry. Uh, do you mind?" She waved a hand at Ralph, the car mechanic who was already late for work and bouncing back and forth on his feet impatiently.
Mr. Not-a-Movie-Star looked behind him at Ralph and the approximately bazillion people in line. He turned back and smiled at her. "I wouldn't want to hold thingsup."
Liz sighed in relief. "No problem."
"Hardey." He held his hand out after putting up his creditcard.
Liz paused, but her manners kicking in automatically as she shook his hand. "Liz."
He tilted his head, and she thought his nostrils flared as if he was sniffing her. She pulled her hand back with an awkwardtug.
"I know." He nodded at her name tag as he stepped aside for Ralph to throw money at her and run. Picking up his coffee and banana, he sauntered away. "Thank you!" He said with a wink over his shoulder as he passed through the doors.
"Huh. Kind of a masher." Another regular (whose name Liz never remembered but was easily recognizable by her bright pink hair and nose ring) snorted, but eagerly watched the guy walk across to where his Lexus SUV was waiting next to one of the gas pumps. Liz sighed at the predictability of it all. The girl snorted again. "Not that I don't enjoy watching himgo."
"Is that all?" Liz suggested loudly. The girl jumped a little but quickly paid for her coffee and hustled out into thecold.
By the time the line disappeared, it was ten minutes until eight, so Liz paused and checked her phone for text messages.
Augie-Bug: At school. Cry forme.
Liz: Second week of classes, you'lllive.
She smiled as she put her phone up. She liked hearing from Augie when he made it to school. She had not ever intended to get her kid a phone but by middle school it was clear she needed some kind of metaphorical leash on him because her work schedule at the gas station was too unreliable back then to always drive him to school or pick him up. Since he had started high school he usually rode his bike or the bus depending on the weather, but he was often still asleep when she went in for her shift, which started at six a.m. Liz was the daughter of a stay-at-home mom and she sometimes regretted not being able to give Augie that kind of constant, steady attention. He was a high school sophomore and turning fifteen in less than a week, though, so she figured those opportunities were well and truly past them anyway. Sighing and pushing those thoughts aside, she took advantage of the lull and went around to start cleaning the coffee counter. It looked like the victim of a caffeine massacre with sugar, creamer, and coffee strewn across every surface.
"Hey Liz!" Shawnna, her morning relief and her best friend, waltz through the door right at eight. "Wow, they really hit the place hard," she added, squinting at the coffee counter. The bright blue smock that they all had to wear while on shift almost glowed against Shawnna's dark, ebony skin. On Liz's pale skin the color made her look washed out and old, which she thought was unfair. Another in a long list of injustices in herlife.
"Monday, first real hit of cold weather, major accident on I-30." Liz shook her head as she wiped down the coffee machines and set up making freshpots.
"Oh yeah?" Shawnna shimmied behind the counter and logged into the register. The Fillerup was a fairly small mart, nowhere near as tricked out as the big franchise stations off the highway, so stock was shoved into every available inch and the register area itself could technically hold two people but only if they worked well together and used deodorant regularly.
Liz worked on restocking the sugar packs. "Some guy offered to buy the drawing."
Shawnna looked over her shoulder at it. "Didn't offer enough?"
"It's not for sale and you know it," Liz grumbled.
"You could make some coin selling landscapes to tourists, I keep tellingyou."
"Extra work." Liz moved on to the flavored creamers.
"Like this job isn't? You just keep it to spite your oldman."
"I keep it because I like not being on food stamps."
"He'd pay your bills if you let him." Shawnna glared at the cigarette wall, which also needed restocking after the morningrush.
"We've had this talk, okay? I spent my whole childhood doing everything his way. He can keep his money."
"Yeah, yeah." Shawnna rolled her eyes. "Oh, oh! Head's up!" she said, her eyes focused out the windows to the gas pumps.
Shawnna, like Liz, was a single mother well out of her twenties, and one thing they had in common outside of difficult kids was an appreciation for good looking men. There were not a lot of them in the small town of Harmony Heights, so it was professional courtesy to point one out when he stopped for gas. Liz casually moved over to start straightening up the newspaper rack so she could get a betterview.
It was a hell of view. He had come in on a motorbike but was dressed in heavy leathers for the weather. They only accented his lanky, graceful body as he stepped away from the bike and pulled his helmet off. His hair was not much longer than a crew cut, his features sharp and angular, his gaze almost predatory as he looked around. He was younger than Liz, but not by much, and wore the distinct air of a man who knew he was dangerous. He wasn't kitted out like a biker, though, and there were no tattoos on his neck. He moved in precise motions as he filled up the tank on his bike, every gesture screaming self-assured confidence and control.
"What is it with today?" Liz whined.
"He's not the first?"
"The first biker, yeah, but not the firsthunk."
"Early arrivals for the tricentennial?"
The town's 300th Founding Anniversary was in two weeks, but Liz had put it out of her mind for a lot of reasons. "Maybe? The other one, earlier; he was money. He's the one who wanted to buy the drawing."
"Probably here to meet your dad, then," Shawnna clucked, checking the money in the drawer.
"Seemed too nice for that," Liz snarled, slapping around some newspaper stacks.
"Wait, incoming!" Liz hissed and tried to look busy again as the biker guy came in. He held a thermos in hishand.
"Hey, you guys do refills?"
Liz looked up into his bright green eyes, framed by long lashes. His lips were not full or pouty, shaped delicately like a bow. He was tough but pretty, and Liz took a second to remember what his question was. "Yes. Yes, we do. Uh, costs same as a small. Which, you know, is really small, I think we use six ounce cups or something, it's ridiculous! Who drinks that little coffee? No one who shops hereI—"
"Right over there," Shawnna broke in loudly, pointing at the coffee counter.
The guy smiled politely, glancing at both of them as he headed for the coffee. Shawnna rolled her eyes at Liz behind his back, and Liz threw her arms up in the air. There really wasn't any question where her son's tendency to randomly free-associate come from, she thought with a vicious mental swipe at herself. She liked to pretend that it was the price of her creative, artistic nature, but she was convinced it was just a personalityflaw.
The guy doctored up his medium blend coffee like a scientist, adding sugar then three different flavored creamers, then more sugar, before topping off the mess with a shot of the ultra-dark brew that only the cops actually liked. He stirred it all carefully for a few long seconds, took a careful sip, grimaced, and added two more hazelnut creamers. Liz watched, wondering why the guy just didn't go up the road two miles to the Starbucks, if he was that damn picky. Even the super-rich hunk from earlier (Harry? Hardy?) had been happy with just the plain black breakfast blend.
But Lean, Lanky and Pretty looked more high-maintenance than most of the tennis wives that Liz knew, if his coffee was any indication. Shawnna's perfectly manicured eyebrows crept up her face the longer the show went on, obviously sharing Liz's surprise.
Finally he sighed in approval (after another packet of sugar and another minute of careful stirring), capped his thermos, and bounced up to the register like the teenager he clearly wasn't and slapped cash down. Liz was trying not to stare at his ass but was really unsuccessful at it, up to the moment she noticed the outline of a gun tucked up against his side, under the jacket.
Startled, she looked up at Shawnna and tugged her ear, the sign Liz had long ago taught staff to use when someone sketchy and possibly dangerous was in the store. Shawnna gave an off-hand nod but did not react otherwise, taking his money and smiling at him. He paused though, picking up on the change of atmosphere, and glanced back at Liz. She knew better than to pretend she wasn't looking, so she met his gaze without flinching. He narrowed his eyes for a moment, but he broke into a smile again, raised his thermos in salute, and simply walkedout.
"What the hell?" Shawnna said, confused, as they watched him put his helmet on and get on hisbike.
"Well shit. Cop?"
"Seriously doubt it," Lizsaid.
"Out of state, then. No one in New York is that stupid." Shawnna frowned and stared at him as he rode off property.
Liz nodded. The gun laws in New York state were notoriously strict and heavily enforced, which was not something she had a problem with at all, especially given where she worked and that she was a mother of young, mixed-race teenager. Augie's father, who was a professor down at Tulane in New Orleans, had warned her from the time Augie was born that their son would experience racism of the kind she had never imagined still existed. Even though he only had Augie for a few weeks out of the year, Jason worked hard to stress to his son how dangerous it was for a black boy to be anywhere near guns. Liz worked just as hard to make sure her community was a safe one for her son and so was glad she lived in a state that practiced gun control.
"Could still be alphabet soup or something," Shawnnasaid.
"I don't think FBI or NSA travels by custom cruiser motorbike."
"More's the pity," Shawnna snapped with a grin before getting back to sorting out the cigarette wall. "Was a Honda, though, not a Harley. He loses points for that." She added absently.
Liz thought he lost all the points with the gun, but went back to straightening up the coffee aisle. She had a sneaking suspicion that the tricentennial of Harmony Heights was going to bring all the weirdos out of the woodwork. She loved her hometown, but it was a strange place sometimes.
Hardey Gochenour didn't even bother to check into his hotel when he finally made it to Harmony Heights that morning. After the three hour drive from Boston and a long night spent talking strategy with his unusually worried Alpha, Hardey was focused on his goal and purpose. He stopped for coffee, a bad idea made slightly better by the attractive woman behind the counter who had a bewitching smile. He laughed at his own joke; given the nature of the town, there was a good chance that she really was a witch. She also smelled of petrichor and coffee and the spark of electricity — it was hard for a werewolf to describe smells, sometimes, but that was a unique and compelling mix that spoke to Hardey of home and sex, of lazy morning cuddles and contentment. There were so few people who smelled that good to him, who had that undercurrent of "potential mate" to their scent, that he had been reluctant to leave the run-down gas station.
Although a witch drawing beautiful pictures of St. Andrew's Methodist Church? That was something different, enough to push his interest past the low-level attraction. But it was a mystery he was not in town to solve, and it was not like he would ever seriously consider a witch as a mate, so he had dragged himself out of the gas station and headed straight out to the church.
He sipped at his coffee as he went through the center of the township. It was still a small city, roughly 20,000 permanent residents, and of those most were families who had lived there since before Colonial times. There were already signs and decorations up for the tricentennial celebration, although Hardey couldn't care less about it. His people were long gone out of Harmony Heights, and part of him felt like he was betraying family pride by coming back right when the anniversary was taking place. That choice, however, had not beenhis.
He pulled up into the parking lot of St. Andrew's sooner than he had expected, his coffee still mostly full. His grandmother always talked like it was far out of town, nearly in the woods, but things had changed a lot since she left in 1965 and the suburbs had started encroaching a generation ago. For a decommissioned church that was no more than an abandoned building with a graveyard attached, it was in fairly decent shape, especially given that parts of it were as old as the town itself. There were weeds growing up through cracks in the asphalt of the parking lot and the building was dirty, but the windows looked unbroken and the landscape was tattered but obviously still managed. He stared at it in surprise. None of the old werewolf families of Harmony Heights had bothered to keep up with the place once they had left, he knew that for a fact, but he was looking at a place that still had someone mowing the lawn during the summer and fixing things that broke. Even the old shingles on the ancient building were in place, if weathered. As he circled it, he noticed a big lock on the front door, and then towards the back, one of the windows had been boarded over. He guessed that maintenance was not going so far as to replace broken windows, which confirmed that werewolves were not the ones watching out for the building. It seemed inconceivable that any of the old witch families would care, but someonedid.
Seeing the damage, he felt his wolf bristle at the thought of strangers in pack territory. Hardey gave himself a physical shake to ward off the anger. There was no rationalizing with the deep-set instincts and emotions that werewolves called their "inner wolf" but they weren't savages, and Hardey was not going to play to stereotypes over a broken-down old church in what amounted to permanently unclaimed territory.
The back door broke open with embarrassing ease, suggesting that no one thought it important enough to bar it shut. Hardey feared the worst but the interior was not vandalized other than few, older graffiti tags on the walls of the main hall. He walked through the sacristy and the back offices, which were all completely empty. That was no surprise, but in his mind Hardey had thought he would find a scene of destruction, with chairs toppled over and desks ransacked. It made sense that the town had the place stripped down, though. In both the sacristy and the pastor's office he knocked around the walls listening for secret compartments. It was a foolish dream but he had a small fantasy of being the one to bring the St. Andrew's Bible back with him, of finding the long-lost relic that held so much werewolf history. Harmony Heights had played a large role in the early colonial life of werewolves in North America, and the lost bible had been the primary source of that history. But it was, of course, long gone — in the hands of an unsuspecting book collector, or possibly even hidden away by a werewolf family for safe keeping. No one knew. It could have been destroyed at some point, especially if the witches had found it. Sighing, he shoved the back door into place and headed for the graveyard.
He slowly approached the gate to the fenced-in cemetery, trying to take in every feature of it as it spread out before him. It was over two acres in size, the dates on the headstones going all the way back to 1715, when the church was founded by Hardey's direct ancestors a year after the founding of the city itself. He had to kick at the narrow, heavily decorated wrought-iron gate to get it open because it was nearly rusted shut in place. He figured whomever was doing the landscaping was probably coming through a different, larger gate along the backside. There were a few overgrown bushes and vines, but the grass was fairly short and trimmed around the stones.
The names were all familiar, the Germanic lilt of his extended family echoing through his brain, his fingers drifting over the headstones as he passed. He did not know the layout, but he knew that the Gochenour family plot was pretty much in the center, and it helped that their monuments were the largest. The biggest pillar had a high-relief marble carving at the base of it, featuring a pack of wolves in full run and a crescent moon sitting on the top, well over a foot above Hardey's head. Standing in front of it, he felt a sense of pride seep into his bones. He could smell the death and decay, even after decades and in many cases centuries of burial (there was a reason the magic of graveyard dirt was so peculiar), but it still smelled of werewolves, even in death. It was the headstone monument for the premier generation of the Gochenour family, that of Harrison Gochenour and his wife Amanda, both of whom died in 1909. She had been the Alpha, but he was the patriarch, and together they had pulled their family and pack into the forefront of Harmony Heights society. For a few decades it had looked as if werewolves would share the power and leadership of the town equally with the witches, and Hardey's heart ached for how badly that had turned out only a few generations later.
He walked around to look at the other stones, names familiar and strange, most of which included carvings or statues of wolves, the moon in half-phase, and wolfsbane flowers. There were the other usual graveyard images — angels and lilies and urns — and he did not think anyone who wasn't a werewolf would find the lycanthropic imagery anything other than slightly peculiar, perhaps a unique regional variation on death symbols. Given that the place had not turned into a kitchsy "supernatural tourist attraction" he figured that was thecase.
Out beyond the drooping fence, the landscape rolled into patches of the old forest still standing, and a lot of farmland. The church sat on one of the taller hills and the view was stunning, a post-card perfect landscape of the southernmost Adirondacks in all of their red and burnt-gold autumn glory. Hardey had been born and raised in Boston, but he wasn't immune to the sight. Everywhere in his grandparents' homes were pictures from around Harmony Heights, and there wasn't an older photo album that didn't have endless photographs of the area. He couldn't find his way around town without GPS and he did not know anyone in the town personally, but to his wolf it still felt like coming home, like he could circle in place three times and lie down and sleep safely under the guard of his ancestors.
The feeling fueled his anger. Every soul in that graveyard had earned the right to rest in peace, and Hardey wanted to howl and snap his teeth at the thought of their graves being disturbed. That was why Hardey was there, to go up against Lamentation Hart, owner of Hart Property Development and a leading town council member. The old, powerful bastard of a witch was planning to eradicate every piece of evidence that werewolves ever lived in Harmony Heights, up to and including razing the old church and graveyard to make way for a new "mixed use development." Hardey had read the proposal, which was publicly available online while still in the discussion stages with the town government, but he knew the promise to "relocate the graves and markers in total" was, at best, a lie. Every former Harmony Heights werewolf family knew it, but there was little they could do about it from a distance.
So they sent Hardey. The expectation of hundreds of werewolves was for him to protect and preserve their heritage, and the responsibility hung on his shoulders like a lead weight. He knew that Lamentation Hart was not doing any of this for the money. Hardy could — and would — offer millions for the property, but it was a lost cause. The Harts and most of the other witch families of the township hated werewolves with a passion, and Hardey doubted that he was going to sway the fate of the church on appeals to any witch's sentimentality.
His Alpha, who was also his mother, had wanted Hardey to travel with a couple of pack enforcers (at least). Hunters and witches were natural allies, most of the time, and there was at least one hunter family that still had ties to Harmony Heights. Hardey tried not to think of them, either, because the Chase family was more personal history than he was willing to delve into. But the knowledge that Lamentation Hart was bedfellows with several hunter linages made Hardey's mother paranoid, and he had spent most of the past week convincing her that showing up with any kind of entourage would be taken as an implicit declaration of war against the witches. He had to go alone, despite the danger, because as far-fetched the possibility of success was, it was higher with him acting as the pack's sole representative. He had been pretty miserable arguing with his Alpha, and tried not to think about how accurate his sisters' accusations of being a "mama's boy" were. There was a job for him to do, and he was about the only one who had a chance of doing it given his background as an Army officer, his current status as corporate lawyer, and his likely future role as a pack soffa, or den-maker. He was the best prepared to handle anything thrown at him, either literally or legally.
As the morning mist pulled away and the sun broke over the edges of the mountains, Hardey put a clawed hand on his ancestor's headstone, pulling on the rough, residual wolf magic that crept through the graveyard like an afterthought. He was heedless to passing traffic or early morning risers in the subdivision up the road, because he knew they could not see him up on the hill and surrounded by large monuments, so he let the shift roll over him just enough to alter his throat. Tipping his head up to the sky, he let out a long, mournfulhowl.
Message sent, he headed back to his car and toward his hotel downtown. He figured that once word got back to Lamentation Hart that a werewolf had been heard by the old church, he wouldn't have any problems getting an appointment to see the bastard.
Liz picked up Augie after his soccer practice at school that day. Things had run behind in practice and it was well after four p.m., on top of Liz's own shift going late due to a change in the gas delivery schedule. It was a typical Monday all over. She usually worked weekends so it was technically her mid-work-week hump but it was still a regular, pain-in-the-ass Monday all the same. She let out a heavy breath as her car was assaulted with the potent mix of teenage boy hormones and soccer sweat.
"Deodorant, Augie. God!" She cracked the window, which negated the car's heater but at least made the enclosed space habitable.
Augie sniffed his pit. "What?"
"You want to act like a grown up? Then don't smell like wetdog."
"It's not that bad." He shrugged, squirming around in the seat to get comfortable.
"Yes. Yes, it is. You will never impress the girls this way," Liz said, shaking herhead.
Predictably, Augie's sepia brown skin turned dusky with embarrassment. "Shut up!" He palmed his face and groaned. "I do fine," he added meekly from behind hishand.
"How is Teresa, anyway?" Liz grinned. She felt bad about teasing him with his crush, but on the other hand, he stank to high heaven and deserved punishment. She never signed up for stinky boy sweat as a mother, she had not signed up for that atall.
"Shut uuuuuuup." He crossed his arms and stared out the windshield. Before Liz could continue torturing her only offspring, his phone broke out with a few bars of Bach. Augie pretended not to notice.
"Answer it, Augie."
"Fine!" He reached into his jacket and pulled out the phone, answering the call with a swipe. "Hey, Grandfa."
He made a lot of faces as his grandfather spoke, then shook his head. "I, uh, just got out of practice, I'm kind of sweaty. Mom says I stink."
Liz sighed, figuring that her father had invited them over for dinner, which was always served early at his house. It was appealing, the thought of a full, hot meal cooked by the family chef, old "Auntie" Rose, and served on real china. The idea was only slightly dampened by the thought of her father being there, judging her for all her life choices that led to polyester work clothes and practical shoes.
Augie sighed. "Sure, I could do that. Yeah, I know you keep clothes there for me, Grandfa…you're just trying to get me into khakis again, aren't you?" Augie yelped at the reply. "Okay! Let me check!" He muted the phone and opened his mouth but Liz cut himoff.
"Sure, why not. We can be there in twenty minutes."
"He wants me to shower and 'dress for dinner,' oh my God." Augie collapsed as if that was the worst punishment in the world. "With atie."
"Stop whining and tell him we're headed over," Liz said, trying to sound stern but mostly feeling the same way. It was actually the best offer they were going to get because she had not done grocery shopping on Sunday after work like she normally did, so it was dinner with her father or take-out pizza. Again.
Augie sighed and unmuted the phone to confirm their plans. After hanging up, he went back to squirming and sighing. Liz had learned long ago to tune thatout.
"Do you have much homework?" She asked, careful to keep the question vague and open-ended. Her friends complained that they could not drag words out their teenage children for love nor money, but Liz never had that problem, and if she had time to fill, she knew exactly how to get Augie to fillit.
"Oh my god! Like! Mr. Harjo? He hates us! He hates people! I think he hates math too, it's obviously why he wants to see us destroy it on a regular basis. So of course he gave us, like, 500 word problems to do tonight—"
Liz mentally reworded that to mean the infamous math teacher had given them twenty problems, because that's what he always assigned.
"—and then! Ms. Stone is going crazy, I'm telling you, no one should be that excited about Melville, it's not natural, yeah I get the metaphor okay already, whale is god is blah blah blah let my people gooooo!" Augie howled up at the roof of the car and Liz tried not to laugh. The conversation rambled on with Augie explaining his homework and then describing soccer practice in terms that were meaningless to Liz, because for all of her off-hand interests, sports was one thing she never got the hangof.
They pulled up into the long driveway and parked in front of Ash Tree Manor. Large and imposing despite its plain exterior, the house reflected the spartan sensibilities of the colonial era in which the main part of the house had been built. It was two stories on top of an exposed basement with a shallow attic, and over the centuries it had been remodeled and expanded until it genuinely met the criteria for "manor," but even so it maintained a humble presence. It was painted the somber brown that Liz's father preferred, once again plain and simple. Their family had never been Puritans but Liz thought her father would fit in well with that society, if he got the chance.
Augie thundered up the front steps and threw himself into the house, not quite slamming open the heavy and wide front door. Liz heard him running up the stairs to "his" bedroom, which was the third guest room towards the back (in the newest wing) and had an attached bathroom. Liz moved more sedately, traveling up the twenty stairs in a slow, steady pace, pulling herself together with each step. When she finally walked through the still-open door, she came face-to-face with her father. He was in great physical condition for man of sixty-five, lean and stately looking with his close cropped, wiry white hair. Liz would never say it to his face, but her father and her son had a propensity for sharing hair styles, despite the differences in hair color and type. The Hart men preferred convenience.
"Hello, Father." She nodded, keeping herself at arms-length.
He smiled at the familiar greeting. "I'm so glad you could makeit."
"Augie is going to complain about wearing a tie." She walked into the front parlor as her father shut thedoor.
"I would expect nothing less." He sighed as he followed, moving to pour a couple of tumblers of whiskey for them while they waited for Augie to get presentable. "However, it's best he get accustomed to it." He handed one of the glasses to her. "Of course, if he went to St. Jerome's, he would wear a tie every day since—"
"No, Dad." Liz glowered at him over the rim of her glass.
"I'm as much a fan of the public school system as the next person, which is to say, not at all. He should be at a good prep school, Elisabeth."
"St. Jerome's is hellaciously expensive, and I don't think they want Augie anyway."
He sighed again. "There are more than a few black students there now, this isn't1960."
"No, Dad." Liz tried not to grind her teeth.
"Hey, am I interrupting?"
Liz and her father turned to look at the strange guy standing in the door to the parlor. He wasn't a stranger, though, because Liz recognized him immediately as the motorbike-riding-pretty-boy from early that morning. He looked different enough in dark jeans and a button up plaid shirt with a neat gray sweater-vest over it, but his sharp features were unforgettable.
"Ah! Brandon! Please, come in, let me introduce my daughter, Diligence Elisabeth AbleHart."
The guy visibly tried not to scrunch up his face at her name, gamely holding out his hand instead. "Brandon Chase."
"Everyone calls me Liz, don't worry," she said, smiling despite herself as they shook hands.
He relaxed and smiled back, which made him look so very young and gorgeous in a fresh-faced, boy-next door way. Liz tried not to wince, wondering if he was even legal to drink. "Pleasure to meet you, Liz. Sorry to interrupt, I was on a phone call when you first showedup."
Her father hooked an arm over Brandon's shoulder and tugged him closer. "You don't know it, Liz, but the Chases are old friends of the Harts. Last I saw Brandon he was maybe August'sage."
"No embarrassing stories, Lamentation," Brandon warned, rolling his eyes. Liz's father chuckled and broke off to fix a tumbler of whiskey forhim.
Liz carefully studied Brandon as he traded light-hearted small talk with her father. He was well presented, but not in a way suitable for the company he was keeping. Liz was in her work slacks (stretch knit, she loved them) or else her father would have sent her to the closets to change just like he did Augie, but Brandon got a pass on wearing jeans. His accent was hard to place, possibly mid-Western, and while he carried himself confidently there was a rough edge to his mannerisms and expressions. This was no scion of the country club set, Liz figured that out pretty quickly.
"Hey Grandfa, help!" Augie walked in, freshly showered and still damp in his nice slacks and button-down shirt, yanking at his poorly knotted tie. He paused mid-step when he saw Brandon and glanced over quickly at Liz, who left him hanging. He would have to figure out awkward social situations eventually. Augie tried to school his features, dropping his hands away from his messy tie and holding one out to Brandon. "Uhm, hi, I'm August Hart." He stood there frozen after that with his hand out. Liz's father sighed.
"Nice to meet ya', August. I'm Brandon Chase. Your grandfather invited me." Brandon slapped his hand into Augie’s.
"Yeah? Why?" Augie pumped hishand.
"August!" Liz's father chided, coming over to rest his hand on Augie's shoulder.
Augie scrunched up his nose, realizing the faux pas. "Sorry, I just mean, uh, so what do youdo?"
It was all Liz could do not to bang her head against the closest hard surface, but she really had no one to blame but herself. Her own social skills had never been the best, and she also had a habit of being scandalously blunt. From the look that her father was leveling on her, he was thinking the same thing.
"Private investigator," Brandon said. Liz could tell by the way Augie's eyes went wide that the boy was hopelessly smitten already. The two of them together were of a type, although next to her son, Brandon looked tall and imposing. Augie was not exactly a delicate boy, but he was thin and lanky and had not yet hit the "fill out not up" growth spurt yet. Liz could tell that eventually he would have his father's broad shoulders, and with her long waist, he was set to be an attractive, masculine man. Eventually. Not quite yet, she reassured herself as she measured her weedy son up against the professional detective who sported hard muscles under his shirt and a surprisingly well-defined chest for someone so thin. Not that Liz was looking. She slammed the last of her whiskey. "Dinner?" She asked, breaking up the thousand-question run that Augie had going.
"Yes, quite." Her father still had his hand on Augie's shoulder and steered him towards the dining room with some disappointed comments about half-windsor knots.
Brandon looked at Liz and shrugged. "Nicekid."
"Thanks. You're his hero now, I better warn you. He loves cop dramas and mystery stories." She led Brandon into the diningroom.
Brandon snorted. "Then he's going to be sadly disappointed. I spend a lot of time sitting in a car trying to catch people cheating on their spouses. The cops get all the interesting murder cases," he said, pitching his voice a little louder, probably for Augie's sake. Liz nodded minutely in approval.
"Still! Man! Sometimes things get cool, right? Like people trying to flee the country or something?"
Liz's father looked scandalized as they sat down. "Liz, I told you this would be the price of too much television." He turned to Augie. "Fix your tie, youngman."
Augie grumbled as he re-knotted his tie - twice - before Auntie Rose wheeled out the cart with their salads. She claimed to be too old to carry much, but she had been with the family since…forever, as far as Liz knew. She had been a maidservant for Liz's mother's family, a hereditary role that somehow actually went back all the way to their Russian nobility roots, when her mother's family had immigrated wholesale with their jewelry and their servants before World War I. Liz sometimes thought that she would not have been surprised to find out that Rozochka Krupin actually was that old. The woman was plain in every way, not thin or fat, not pretty or ugly, just weathered and small and, stereotypically, strong as an ox despite her protestations. Her sharp, vicious green eyes saw everything. As an adult, Liz was terrified of her, although she would be hard pressed as to say why, in much the same way she could not explain why kids seemed to love her. Auntie Rose always looked like she thought you had stolen something from the kitchen, or that maybe they were about to be attacked by demonic hoards. She had come into Ash Tree Manor when Liz's mother had married Lamentation, and she probably should have retired decades ago, but Liz could not imagine the house running withouther.
"Thank you, Rozochka. Looks wonderful."
"It's salad, Elisabeth," she snapped as she laid out thefood.
"Great looking salad! Yum! Thank you, Auntie Rose!" Augie chirped, smiling and nodding at Rose. Liz was grateful that he was willing to throw himself on that grenade. Auntie Rose gave him a tight smile — the only kind in her repertoire — before placing the last bowl down. Augie really did love the old woman, because she made pots of warm shchi soup for the soccer team during matches and heaps of cookies for every holiday known to mankind.
"Butternut squash soup tonight, then a pork roast," she announced before leaving the room, the trolley rattling loudly in front ofher.
Brandon stared after her, looking a little too stunned for a simple run in with Auntie Rose. He blinked, then turned to Liz's father.
Her father waved a salad fork around with a sharp, short motion. "She's always been that way," he said with that vague, enigmatic tone of voice he used whenever he didn't want to explain something. Liz was very familiar with that tone. Augie shot her quick, knowing glance, which told her that he had picked up on it too. She was glad to finally have someone else in the family as confused as she was by her father.
Still looking unsettled, Brandon nodded, then plastered on a smile. "So! August, what grade you in, man?"
"Ugh, call me Augie." He attacked his salad. "I'm just starting tenth."
"So you're, what, sixteen?"
Liz cringed. This was a sore point more often thannot.
Augie shrugged, though. "Nah. I'm turning fifteen on Friday."
"You're still having that, ah, quiet evening with friends?" Liz's father broke in. He was galled that Augie did not want the Harmony Heights version of a beautillion party, although he had finally laid off with the heavy-handed bribery.
"That's the plan: me, my buds, hanging out watching movies and eating a lot of cake." Augie gave his mother a narrow-eyed glare.
"For heaven’s sake, I told you, I've got the cake taken care of!" Liz stabbed her fork in his direction. She turned to Brandon. "I'm picking it up after my shift on Friday, and for some reason my son thinks I might forget, or drop it, or something."
"Cake, Mom. Cake. Don't play withme."
Brandon had been watching the exchange like a tennis match. "I'm sensing that you don't eat cake too often."
Liz's father snickered as she groaned. "I don't allow sugar in the house."
Augie flapped his arms while chewing, possibly trying to relate his deep sense of betrayal aboutthat.
Liz powered on. "I know he eats it at school and at friends’ houses, I'm not stupid, Augie." She glared at him. "I just don't want it in the house. Don't start with me! You eat your body weight in peanut butter pretzel bites!"
Brandon burst out laughing, breaking the standoff. "Glad you're getting cake," he offered to Augie with a bright smile. In that moment he was completely relaxed, not playing to type or trying to fit in. He was carefree and amused, not as young as she had thought but vibrating with a sense of innocent glee that was palpable. He was beautiful, and Liz had to do something. Something desperate and rude, before she did something embarrassing and unforgivable.
"And you? How old are you?" She snapped. Augie and her father looked at her in surprise.
Brandon, though, moved smoothly back into his role as polite guest. "Twenty-seven."
"Seriously?" Augie gasped. "How did you get your private investigator license? Do you live here in New York? Did you go to college?"
"August!" Her father set his silverware down. "Stop."
"Sorry, sorry," Augie grumbled into his salad. The rest of the course was mostly quiet, and Liz got a moment to wonder exactly why Brandon was there. She was more than used to random business associates joining her father for dinner, it was one reason he was so strict about the dress code in his own house. Usually they were pretty easy to pin down as Realtors or bankers or similar, not so much with the hard-living, motorcycle riding private investigators. She suspected her father was hiring Brandon to look into some property that he wanted to buy, possibly to get dirt on the owners to force a sale. Her father was a good man overall, but Liz was under no illusions as to how ruthless he could be when it came to business, or family. She had been on the receiving end of it once, and it still burned.
The soup appeared with another loud entrance by the trolley and Auntie Rose's judgmental glare. Talk turned to weather and, in Augie's case, soccer.
"Cool, man, I played soccer in high schooltoo."
"Yeah?" Augie looked at Brandon, and Liz swore she saw stars in his eyes. She thought that if her son had been even a hair less straight, they would all be dealing with a serious crush. As it was, Augie was just going to make Brandon into his personal idol, and that was definitely bad enough.
"Yep. My family moved around a lot, getting in on the soccer team where ever we landed was a quick way to make new friends. Had a couple of years at the same high school and made varsity during junior year. We were a pretty poor team, honestly, never made it to regionals or anything, but it was a blast."
Before Augie could properly convey his awe, there was a knock on the front door. Liz's father looked completely flummoxed and just sat there — they hadn't had a butler since Liz's mother died, and everyone in town knew not to call during the dinner hour. Sighing, Liz got up to answer it. On the other side was Deputy Van Gervan, who looked surprised to see her. "Liz?"
"Hey, Stanley. We're eating dinner. Comein."
"Thanks, thanks. Sorry to interrupt. Is your father around?"
Liz frowned. "Yes, he—"
"Deputy Van Gervan!" Her father broke in, holding out his hand. The sheriff's deputy shook it, looking slightly cowed to be in the presence of Lamentation Hart himself. Liz glowered at Augie and Brandon, who were peeking in from the otherroom.
"Uh, yes sir. Thank you, sir! Sheriff Keller asked me come by, let you know, uh—" He trailed off, staring at Liz, who staredback.
"Anything serious?" Her father asked, concern softening his features.
"No, actually." The deputy took a deep breath, as if steeling himself. "She just wanted you to know that we heard a wolf tonight. Out by the old Methodist church."
Liz was surprised with the gravity with which her father took this unremarkable news. Wolves weren't too common, although they were protected. Sometimes they wandered down from Canada and terrorized the deer for a season or two. She glanced over at the boys to find Brandon looking downright murderous, his expression hard and locked down, his sharp eyes turned dark. Augie on the otherhand--
"Wolves? Really? That's cool! It's all about habitat, you know, what can support their population, I did a report last yearon—"
"August, please return to the table," Liz's father said. His tone was as sharp as his expression, bringing Augie up short in surprise.
"Yes, Grandfa." Augie gave Liz a quick glance but went back in to the diningroom.
Then, surprisingly, she found herself on the receiving end of her father's gaze. "If you would give us a minute, Elisabeth?"
"Oh. Sure." She headed back to the dining room. Brandon followed her in, leaving the quiet tones of discussion in the fronthall.
"Weird," Augie said, plopping down in his chair.
"Unexpected." Brandon frowned.
"There's no hunting wolves here," Liz said, trying to get a bead on Brandon's reaction.
"There's hunting, and then there's defensive measures," Brandon replied, crossing his arms as he sat back in his chair.
"Neither of which is the case here," Liz's father announced as he returned. "The sheriff is just letting large property owners know, on the off chance there are campers on our land. Which there aren't, at least not that I'm awareof."
Brandon was staring at her father as if he was crazy, but the expression flitted away and he gave Liz a calculating look. "Still unexpected."
If anything, Liz's father's expression turned even colder. "Perhaps a discussion for anothertime."
Liz knew she was being left out of the conversation, but comforted herself with the thought that she was probably better off that way. Her father had always been somewhat secretive about aspects of his business, and Liz learned to respect that boundary.
She returned to her meal, listening to Augie ramble on and on about wolves while Brandon kept shooting her confused, wary looks. She ignored him, knowing that she was never going to be privy to her father's business, whether she wanted to be or not. They had both closed that door a long timeago.
The notice that there was a werewolf, live and in the flesh, visiting Harmony Heights took back seat to the fact that Elisabeth Hart seemed oblivious to…everything. Brandon had dropped cues in the dinner conversation several times, but Old Man Hart railroaded over them. Liz noticed when her father did that, but politely ignored it, and always let the subject matter drop. Brandon would have put it down to the kid, Augie, being in the room, but it was more than that. Liz just didn't know anything. Brandon did not have any ideas of what to make of that bit of information, or how it fit in with what he knew of the family's history.
After dinner, Liz bundled up her pride and joy and headed out. She had been wearing stretch polyester slacks and a worn button up shirt, both of which fit her short, curvy body well but showed their age. Her car was old and faded by sun and winter weather, nothing like the sleek Cadillac that Brandon knew was her father's. Liz's "soccer mom" persona belayed a grace that spoke of being athletic herself at some point in her life. That was where "average" ended. Her face was a study in contrasts, a sharp chin countered by full cheeks, an adorable upturned nose, and a classic heart-shaped face framed by dark, brunette hair in an untamed pixie cut. Brandon was attracted to her from the time he saw her at the gas station, even though at the time he did not know who she was. Finding out that the daughter of Lamentation Hart had been one of the gas station clerks who had been checking him out earlier that morning was a shock. The story of Elisabeth Hart was known to be one of rebellion, how she had ran away from Harmony Heights when she was seventeen, but Brandon had not been prepared to see just how far outside of the inner circle shewas.
Liz Hart very clearly had no idea that her father was a witch, or knew anything about werewolves. Brandon could not even imaginethat.
Lamentation sent his daughter and grandson off with a happy wave, reminding Augie to hang the tie up when he got home and not "crumple it up in a ball like the last one!" Augie rolled his eyes but hugged his grandfather fiercely, but Liz only gave her father a crisp nod before pulling Augie after her. Lamentation smiled at them paternally, but once the door was closed he turned his focus on Brandon, who tried not to squirm. Lamentation reeked of authority and danger, and Brandon was in too precarious a position to antagonize theguy.
"Did the werewolf follow you?" He asked sharply before turning on his heel and walking down a side hallway opposite the dining room. They ended up in what had to be his study, a smaller room packed floor to ceiling with books. Old books, the kind that were culled by centuries of being traded around, lost, and then found. Brandon had trouble even focusing on the oldest ones on the desk, which he guessed was due to some kind of protection ward the witch had placed on them. Not that Brandon could blame the guy if the books were that valuable or dangerous.
"Pretty sure that's not the case. Stupid of him if he did." Brandon took one the chairs before Lamentation could offer it. The older man side-eyed him but let itpass.
"He could still be a problem for us, either way. The timing is suspect." Lamentation sat down at his desk, peering at some paperwork before moving it aside.
"What did the deputysay?"
"Not much more than you heard: male werewolf, howling at the old wolf church on the outskirts of town." Lamentation looked lost in thought. "Is he here to cause trouble for the tricentennial of thetown?"
Brandon shook his head. "No, if he was here to cause trouble, he'd just do that. This was a message. He's letting you know he's in town and he's going to be contacting yousoon."
Lamentation didn't move but his eyes shifted to Brandon. "You're sure ofthat?"
"As much as I can be. Witches live by the laws of magic; wolves live by the laws of pack. It's a traditional introduction for parlay, a way to warn you that he's here and willing totalk."
Lamentation nodded, as if deciding something. "I want you to killhim."
Brandon stilled himself, taking a quick breath before going into negotiation mode. "That's not why I'mhere."
Lamentation shrugged. "You're here representing your family, yes? This would just be extra. You'll be well compensated, I assureyou."
Brandon leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "My brother Tommy took a deal like that. Never gotpaid."
"He didn't kill the wolf." Lamentation had the gall to shrug it off as nothing. "It's unfortunate what happened to your brother, but that's the risk hunters take when they take money to go to kill monsters of the night." He tapped the desk with his long fingers. "We both know it was unwise of him to take thatdeal."
"Are you the one who hired him?" Brandon narrowed his eyes, trying to catch the old witch in alie.