Okay, last snippet tease from different projects. Starting Wednesday, I’ll get serious about doing writing related posts. There may be more snippets later, but they will be on my current WIP — when I decide what that might be ;-p
This is the opening chapter to Nocturnal Serenade, the sequel to Nocturnal Origins. I hope you enjoy.
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From the deepest shadows he watched, just as he had every night for the past week. He didn’t know why he watched. He didn’t need to. Past experience had taught him the less he knew, the better.
His job was simple enough, at least at first glance. All he had to do was let Novacek know if the target moved and where she went. Simple enough, right? No. Nothing was ever that simple, especially when Novacek was involved.
Not that he’d ever tell Novacek. Heavens, no! Stanley Middleton might be many things, but he wasn’t a fool. Aaron Novacek had the reputation of never leaving those who criticized him unscathed and Stanley had absolutely no desire to be the next to fall victim to the lycan’s anger.
Stanley shivered as another gust of wind cut through the trees. If only he hadn’t been foolish enough to think he could play the two lycan camps against one another. But it had seemed like such a good plan at the time. For the last several months, the pack had been fracturing. No one had yet challenged the pack leader, but it was only a matter of time.
Not that they’d succeed. Stanley had watched from the outside for too many years as Ferguson fought his way to becoming pack leader. That’s why, when Ferguson came to him and asked him to be his spy in the other camp, Stanley had agreed. After all, no one expected a weasel like him to be brave enough to actually plot against Novacek.
Of course, like with so many other things in his life, Stanley had been wrong. At least he’d been lucky enough that Novacek hadn’t killed him out of hand.
Lucky? Bitter resentment filled Stanley as he once more looked toward the house. Luck had nothing to do with it. If it had, he wouldn’t literally be up a tree, doing his best not to fall and break his neck as he spent yet another night waiting for the target to do absolutely nothing.
Nor had luck had anything to do with it when he thought about where the target lived. Her house was a relatively new “McMansion” in one of the thrice-damned gated communities that seemed to have sprung up virtually overnight across the country. The guards at the neighborhood entrance wouldn’t let him pass without authorization – something he most certainly didn’t have and couldn’t get. Even if he managed to bluff his way past the guardhouse, he wouldn’t be able to settle down in his car near the target’s home for the long hours of waiting and watching. If the neighborhood rent-a-cops didn’t roust him, the real cops would.
Nor could Stanley simply scale the stone walls surrounding the neighborhood. Security cameras mounted strategically along the perimeter would surely spot him. If the guards didn’t immediately descend upon him, the way his luck usually ran, some law-abiding resident would shoot him as a prowler and then call the police.
He couldn’t even shift and sneak in. His animal was a weasel. Small and crafty. Unfortunately, like so many shifters, once in his animal form, he didn’t retain enough of his human mind to do the job. Nor could he sneak in as a weasel and then shift back. The residents of this upscale neighborhood most definitely would shoot a naked man hiding in the shadows. So that left him with just one option.
He’d parked his car on a side street several blocks away and trekked through the trees separating the houses from the neighboring golf course. Now he perched in an oak tree just beyond the brick wall. Ten feet above the ground, his legs wrapped tightly around a thick limb, his back firmly pressed against the tree trunk, Stanley did his best to become one with the oak tree. The rough bark bit painfully into his legs and back, but he didn’t dare move. Moving was bad, very bad. Moving meant a change of balance, of possibly falling. So he sat as still as possible, praying the wind didn’t suddenly decide to pluck him from the limb and toss him down to the ground. And he watched and waited, fervently hoping tonight turned out to be just as uneventful as the previous six nights had been.
In an attempt to forget how precarious his perch happened to be, Stanley once more turned his attention to the house before him. A single light shown from the second floor window he had quickly figured out was the target’s home office. For the last two hours she’d sat at her desk, presumably working on something important. Perhaps she was preparing a case for trial. Novacek had said she was an attorney, so that would make sense. Whatever it was, it must be important enough, or compelling enough, to alter the schedule she’d kept the past week. Every other night, she had turned off the lights and gone to bed by midnight.
But not tonight.
What was so interesting it kept her up so much later than usual?
Not that he minded. It was so much easier to stay alert when she was awake. As long as she was, he had something to concentrate on. More than that, it kept him from fixating on how cold his feet were and how badly he hated hiding in the trees. Every noise startled him, leaving him convinced he was about to be discovered.
As afraid as he was of Novacek, Stanley was even more afraid of the police finding him. He had no doubt what their response would be. They would accuse him of being a stalker. After all, he was hiding in a tree in the middle of the night, watching the home of a divorced woman without her knowledge. The only reasonable explanation for his actions was that he was stalking her. The only reasonable response would be to throw him in jail.
But even the threat of jail wasn’t the worst possibility he faced if discovered. This was Texas after all. One of her neighbors might just decide to take matters into their own hands and shoot first, ask questions later – assuming he was able to answer any questions once the neighbor finished emptying his gun. He might be a shape-shifter but any shifter could be killed if hit with enough bullets. All it took was severing the head or destroying the heart so it couldn’t regenerate.
A shudder ran through him and his balance shifted. As his stomach pitched, Stanley grabbed convulsively for the branch he sat upon. He breath exploded as fear raced through him. For one moment, he teetered on the brink of falling. Then he slammed his chest forward against the branch and held on for dear life. Nothing, absolutely nothing could pry him loose now.
God, he hated this assignment. Too much could go wrong, too much he could and would be blamed for. So here he sat, his feet cold, his heart pounding and his eyes glued to the house a hundred yards away. He prayed the target didn’t suddenly decide to fly the coop. If she did, he might as well start looking for a very deep, very dark hole to hide in, because he would never be able to keep up with her, not with his car parked so far away and not with his arms locked in a death-grip around the branch he lay upon.
And Novacek would never forgive him if the target got away.
Elizabeth Santos Wheeler dropped her head into her hands and closed her eyes, fighting back a sob as she did. This was all just a bad dream and she would soon awaken. It had to be. No other explanation, reasonable or not, made sense. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was real? Then what was she supposed to do?
Damn it, why was this happening? It had nothing to do with her, not really. So why was she the one forced to deal with it?
Because you’re the one with the most money as well as with the most to lose. That’s why.
Resentment warred with fear, anger with the maternal instinct to protect. For the first time in so very long, she didn’t know what to do. It was as though her worst fears had suddenly sprung to life and she simply didn’t know how to react, didn’t know if there was anything she could do to protect herself and those she loved.
She shoved back from her desk and climbed to her feet. As she did, she glanced outside. Beyond the window, darkness swathed the yard. Only the light cast from her window and the pale lights surrounding the swimming pool broke the darkness. The leaves of the ornamental fruit trees on the opposite side of the pool rustled gently in the light breeze. The oak trees shielding the yard from the golf course formed a dark curtain against the night sky. In the distance, a neighbor’s dog barked one, twice, as if calling for someone or something to answer. Everything looked so normal. Yet it wasn’t and it might never be again.
Her lips pressed together in a thin, angry line. She moved from behind her antique Georgian desk and began to pace. Her steps were muffled, almost silenced, by the thick carpet. She no longer heard the soft strains of the music she’d put on earlier in the evening when she’d come upstairs to work. Instead, the sounds of her teeth grinding and her heart pounding filled her ears. She didn’t have time for this. She should be focusing on the Allingham case, not this – this stuff of nightmares.
As she turned back, her sea green eyes fell on the photos scattered across the top of her desk. No one else looking at them would be this upset. They would know with a certainty that the pictures had been faked. After all, the images showed the unbelievable, the unreal.
But she knew better. No matter how badly she wanted to dismiss the photos as a simple prank, she couldn’t. She knew the images captured by some unknown photographer could be all too real, no matter how unbelievable they were. After all, she’d lived with this particular nightmare all her life, waiting, fearing for the moment it would manifest itself in either her or one of her children. Now it had and she didn’t know what to do.
Her fingers trembled as she reached for the nearest photo. Her chest felt as though an iron band had tightened around it, making it almost impossible to breathe. Instantly she was transported back to that terrible moment she she’d first seen the picture. Despite the fading light caught by the image, she’d immediately recognized the subject of the photo. In that moment, she’d died just a little. Even as her brain tried to close down, to deny what her eyes saw, she knew the truth and she damned herself for it.
Sharp pain and the bitter taste of blood brought her thoughts back to the present. Absently, she dabbed at the lower lips she’d been gnawing without realizing it. But her eyes remained glued to the photograph she held in her right hand and a soft moan escaped her lips.
Why? Dear Lord, why?
A young woman knelt on the ground, her head thrown back, her expression filled with agony as her hands ripped at her tee shirt. Her green eyes, just a shade darker than Elizabeth’s, reflected terror at what was happening to her. Even then, the change was obvious, if you knew what to look for – and, much to her regret, Elizabeth did.
The young woman’s hands were altering, her fingernails lengthening even as the features of her face blurred. Muscles rippled and bunched as her body was reshaped. Hair seemed to sprout from every pore, short hair that was more fur than hair. All of this was documented in the other photos strewn across the desktop.
A soft sob caught in Elizabeth’s throat as the photo fluttered down to the floor. No, the image was all too real and her nightmare had finally come to life. What was she going to do?
Not even the note included with the photos helped her decide what her next step should be. A single sheet of ordinary white paper with just a few lines printed on it mocked her, revealing nothing about the unknown sender or what he wanted from her.
I thought you might want to see what your eldest daughter is up to these days. Being a parent is such a trial at times, isn’t it? I wonder if your other children will show the same bad habits as their sister. But don’t worry. I’ll be in touch soon to discuss what needs to be done.
That was all.
Mackenzie, what happened?
Unable to stand it any longer, Elizabeth abruptly turned on her heel and started out of the room. Then reality once more intruded and she hurried back to her desk. She couldn’t leave the photos where they might be found.
Without really thinking about what she was doing, she scooped up the photo she’d dropped and then those scattered across the desk top and shoved them back into the envelop they’d arrived in. Once she had, she locked them in the top drawer of her desk and pocketed the key. At least they were safely hidden from view, for a while at least. But how long would it be before the photographer made them public?
And what would she do when that happened?
Her left hand slammed against the light switch on the wall by the door as she passed, throwing the room into darkness. She had to do something, anything to find out who had sent the photos. The envelope had been delivered to her office. Hopefully, the receptionist had made an entry as to who brought in the innocent looking brown envelope. She’d check the log and then decide what her next move should be.
The back door slammed, shattering the silence of the night. Startled, Stanley’s head jerked up and his arms and legs once more tightened their death-grip around the limb before he could fall. The relief of moments ago fled, replaced by a frustration so great he wanted to scream. Damn it, why couldn’t she have stayed put like she had every other evening?
The tall, slender woman all but raced across the short expanse of the yard separating the house from the detached garage. Her long legs covered the distance quickly, effortlessly. Her purse, grasped firmly in her right hand, swung against that leg, accenting every step she took. As she neared, the garage door groaned as it slid open, the inner light flooding the night beyond.
What had spooked her? She couldn’t have seen him. He hadn’t moved from his perch in the tree. Not that it really mattered why she was leaving. He had one job that night – to keep track of her. If he didn’t move fast, he would lose her and he didn’t want to think about how Novacek would react to his failure.
Fear replaced frustration and he quickly dropped to the ground, wincing as pain shot up his legs from the impact. Ignoring it, he turned in the direction of his car. Even as he pelted through the trees, he knew it was an exercise in futility. He would never cover the distance to his car and then manage to get to the front gate of the neighborhood before she was gone. But he had to try. He had no choice.
Maybe he’d get lucky and she wouldn’t be able to leave the neighborhood before he could get into place to follow. If not that, maybe the earth would cease to exist. At least that way he wouldn’t have to face Novacek and admit he’d failed.