Since the first of the year, I’ve been periodically posting snippets from Vengeance from Ashes, a science fiction novel I’d been working on. I’d posted probably close to a quarter, maybe a bit more of the novel when the snippets stopped. It wasn’t because the book was ready to go to my editor. I wish that were the case. No, they stopped because I realized the book had gone off-course. (I was, at the time, maybe 2/3rds of the way done with the book, or so I thought.) Somewhere along the line, the book had taken a left turn that made no sense for the characters or for the ultimate story arc, not only for the book but for the other two planned in the series.
That meant I had to go back and try to figure out where things had gone wrong. But it was more than that. Not only did I have to figure out where things had gone wrong but why. Finally, I had to decide if the book, as it stood, was salvagable or if it was one of those things where I made my notes and just started over.
This was something new for me — or at least new since the time I started actually writing for publication. I’ve had a couple of project where I’ve had to go back a chapter or three to fix a plot problem but I’ve not painted myself into a plot corner this badly since everything I wrote was shoved under the bed when finished. I know now that part of the problem was that I was writing while sick, a lot sicker than I realized I was. That is one of the pitfalls anyone faces when caring for other people. In making sure that other person is taking care of himself, you tend to let your own health go down the tubes. Let’s just say I did it badly enough that I am still fighting my way back to health like so many folks right now.
Yes, I am ready for Spring and a stop of the seesaw weather that keeps me from getting completely well. But back to the story.
This time, I realized that the wrong turn started in the snippets I’d posted. That’s one of the reasons I’ll periodically remind folks that the snippets posted might not necessarily reflect the final published product. In this case, it really applies. I’ve had to go back to the beginning of the book to lay the cookie crumbs for what comes later and then do major rewrites from chapter four on. This is a very different writing process from anything I’ve done before. I’m usually one of those who doesn’t do any editing or rewriting at all until the book is finished. Oh, there have been a few times where I’ve had to go back a chapter or two just to tweak something because I did see that corner coming up and didn’t want to write myself into it. But this was a full-stop, the book isn’t working and now you have to go find out why, situation.
So, that’s why there have been no snippets of Vengeance the last few weeks. At this point, I’m not sure whether I’ll resume the snippets or not. For one, I’d have to go back and repost the edited chapters so the new material made sense. Otherwise, it would look like I’d lost my mind and my characters were now doing things or talking to folks they shouldn’t be.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m not sure what to snippet right now. I posted a snippet to Hunter’s Home earlier. Home is the next book in the Hunter’s Moon paranormal romance/urban fantasy series I’m writing under the Ellie Ferguson pen name. I could continue those snippets but the book will be out in a couple of weeks. After that, the next book due to come out is Vengeance. But, well, you know the issues I’m having about snippeting any more from it.
So, if I continue weekly snippets, they can be from either the romantic suspense that is next up on Ellie’s plate. It’s a sequel of sorts to Wedding Bell Blues (I say that because it isn’t direct sequel. It will be more like the books in the Hunter’s Moon series. The main characters from WBB will be supporting characters in the new book, Monday Morning Blues.) Or it could be the sequel to Nocturnal Interlude. I guess what I’m asking is if you have any preferences.
(Just a reminder that this is the rough draft of one of my current works -in-progress. What appears here has not yet been edited in any form and I guarantee there will be changes before it is published. Also, as always, this work is © Amanda S. Green, 2014. All rights reserved. Do not copy, distribute or otherwise disseminate without the author’s name and a link to this page. You do not have the right to alter it. You do not have the right to claim it as yours. For permission to do anything other than quote it for review or recommendation purposes, email me.)
* * *
I closed the door behind my last client of the day sighed in relief. Every muscle ached. Other than a brief break for lunch, I’d had clients back to back, which was probably a good thing. It meant I hadn’t had time to think about my father, much less worry about what he might try next. It also meant I hadn’t had time to check in with Finn and make sure she’d gotten home all right after leaving the shop before lunch. Maybe I’d do that now, before cleaning up my work space and getting set up for the next day.
I pushed away from the door and then stopped, fishing my keys out of my pocket. I’d had enough surprises for the day. Locking the door, I nodded slightly in satisfaction. There. Now no one could get inside unless I let them in or they drove a truck through the front of the shop.
I was halfway across the waiting area when a knock at the door stopped me. I closed my eyes and counted to ten, convinced that when I turned, I’d see my father standing there. That would be just like him. He’d been furious with me because I hadn’t instantly done as he wanted. Worse, he’d been embarrassed when he realized just who – and what – Finn was. I didn’t want to think about how he might react now.
Relief filled me followed quickly by wry amusement when I turned and saw a tall woman, her brunette hair pulled back into a tail, standing on the other side of the door. Maggie Kincade grinned and waited as I hurried to unlock the door. The moment I had, she stepped inside. It didn’t surprise me when she turned the key in the lock before handing it back to me. Then, before I could react, she reached out and grabbed my chin, tilting my head this way and that, much as Finn had earlier.
“He really clocked you a good one, CJ.” Her eyes flashed angrily.
No doubt about it. Finn had called her after my father’s little show that morning. I’d expected it but that didn’t make it any easier. The morning’s events embarrassed me more than they angered me. I didn’t like knowing one of my clan leaders – and my best friend – had witnessed my father in all his foolishness.
“I should have ducked.” I gave a slight shrug and turned toward the door leading to the work area and my office. Maybe she’d take the hint that I didn’t want to talk about it.
Or maybe not.
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I made my way back to my work area, knowing Maggie would follow. As I did, I knew I was lucky. If I’d tried that with Finn, I wouldn’t have gotten far. Finn didn’t like being put off. Maggie, on the other hand, would follow and wait until I was ready to talk.
At least I hoped she would.
“All right, CJ,” she said almost ten minutes later as I finished putting away the last of my equipment. “Talk to me.”
“What’s there to say, Maggie? It’s obvious Finn called you and told you what happened this morning.”
She nodded to the stool I used when working. For a moment, I balked. Then, knowing it wouldn’t do any good to stand there like a resentful teen, I hooked the stool with my right foot and pulled it close. I’m sure the look I gave her as I did translated into “Happy now?” Why couldn’t she just let the subject drop?
“As your friend, all I want to know is if you need me to file a restraining order against that son of a bitch.”
Well, that surprised me. I’d been expecting a lecture or at least questioning about why I hadn’t called her as my pride’s female alpha. Instead, there was no censure in her expression and no anger, only concern.
“No, but thanks for asking.” I gave a slight smile. “He wasn’t always like that, Maggie. Before my mom died, he seemed happy with life. Her death changed him.”
“You’ve never really told me much about your childhood. How old were you when your mother died?”
“Almost ten. We were living outside Bozeman. The pride has an enclave of sorts there. It’s a small town basically where most of the pride lives. There’s a large working ranch, larger than the one you and Jim have. There are also shops, a school, a bank, that sort of thing. There are some families in the pride that don’t live there and, of course, much of the clan doesn’t. The arrangement is a good one because the pride doesn’t always have to be on guard against discovery of what we are. It was also fun as a kid because it meant I had plenty of playmates and surrogate parents.
“From what I’ve been told, Mom moved to town before she married my father. She was one of three or four normals living there. But I never saw anyone treating her any different from one of our kind. They loved her and she loved them. She was teacher and, even though she wasn’t one of us, she worked with the pride’s youngsters as they neared their first shifts. She understood what they were going through as teens, all the hormones and emotions. Because the kids trusted her, they accepted her help and often came to her when something was bothering them. She might not have been able to shift but she was one of us in every other way.”
And I’d loved her.
“What happened to her?” Maggie’s voice was soft, gentle. She wasn’t going to push.
“Winters in Bozeman can be brutal. She’d gone into town to teach. It’d been cold that morning but no snow or anything. That changed. There was a freak storm that dropped what seemed like feet of snow. School was let out early but Mom stayed until the last of her students had been picked up. Then she called and said she was heading home. Dad told her not to. He was worried about the roads. So he told her to stay in town. But she wouldn’t. She’d promised that she’d help me with a project for school and she wasn’t going to break her promise to me.” I closed my eyes and fought back the tears as I remembered that terrible night and the guilt I’d lived with for years.
“She was less than a mile from home when a semi going in the opposite direction lost control and hit her car. Even if she’d been one of us, she’d not have survived the crash.
“Dad changed after that. For a long time, it was like the life had just gone out of him. He simply went through the motions. Then, about three years after Mom died, he started seeing Angelle Dumont. She was the daughter of the clan’s former alpha and had a reputation for sleeping with any male she thought could help further her quest to be leader after her father stepped down. Dad had started advising her father, and others in the clan, on investments and they seemed to feed off of one another. He liked being the mate to the former clan leader’s daughter. There was a certain cachet to it that appealed to him. She liked the fact that Dad suddenly had ambitions to take over the pride, and possibly the clan.
“The only problem with all that was that neither of them were, or are, alphas.” And that had been the real sticking point and the cause of all the rest of the trouble between my father and me.
“When they realized they’d never be chosen as to take over pride or clan, they started looking for alternatives, namely me and Mark Blackwell, son of the pride leaders. The problem with that is Mark and I were more like brother and sister and the thought of being mates – or anything else – was wrong. That didn’t stop my father from trying to get Mark’s parents to agree to a pledging. Something he obviously still thinks happened, even though Mark is married to a wonderful young woman who reminds me of my mother in a lot of ways.”
“I think I get the picture. Your father has decided that it’s time you come home and do your duty, at least your duty as he sees it. Well, I think our clan might have something to say about that.” Maggie stood and reached down to pull me to my feet. “Go grab your bag. It’s time to go.”
For a moment, I just looked at her. The sudden change in topic surprised me. Then I narrowed my eyes, wondering what she was up to.
Instead of answering, she disappeared into my office. A moment later, she tossed me my backpack and jacket. My motorcycle helmet dangled from her left hand. She watched as I shrugged into the black leather jacket, a slight smile touching her lips as she recognized it as one she and Jim had given me a few months earlier. When they’d presented it to me, Jim told me he’d worked too many accidents where motorcyclist had met the pavement and lost. The jacket, with its matching helmet, were top of the line protection and should, assuming I didn’t do something completely insane, keep me safe.
“Now let’s get out of here. I’m ready for a drink.”
I nodded and reached for my keys. After the day I’d had, a drink sounded really good.
Except I knew there was more behind her visit the moment we left the shop. Parked next to my Harley wasn’t her black BMW M3 convertible. Instead, she’d driven Jim’s work truck, a huge Dodge Ram. The back gate was down and a ramp was angled down to the concrete of the parking lot.
Something was definitely up and I wasn’t sure I liked it.
“All right, Maggie. What’s going on?” Arms crossed, I waited. I wasn’t going anywhere until she explained.
“We’re going to the ranch, CJ.” She held up a hand before I could protest. “Your father actually did contact Matt. So there’s a meeting between your pride leaders and your clan leaders and your father tonight. I told Finn I’d pick you up and make sure you understood that there is no way in hell we’re letting him think for one more moment that he has any power over you.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d never really thought my father would do as Finn said. I certainly didn’t think he’d actually contact Matt. Something had to be behind this sudden desperate attempt to get me home. But what? And why hadn’t I called Mark or someone back in Montana to find out what was going on?
Well, I knew that answer. I hadn’t really wanted to know. Now I had a feeling I was going to regret that decision.
“And the pickup?”
“Finn was adamant about one thing. You aren’t to ride your Harley until we’re sure Reamer is out of the area. She doesn’t trust him and, after what happened this morning, neither do I.”
“Maggie, she’s overreacting.” Besides, there was no way I’d give anyone the satisfaction of knowing they’d scared me enough to alter my regular routine.
“Overreacting?” Now it was Maggie’s turn to stare at me in disbelief. “CJ, he hit you. There’s no telling what he would have done if Finn hadn’t been here.”
“What would have happened is I’d have tossed him out on his ear.” I ground it out, anger building once again. “You are my friend and the female alpha of my pride. But I will not change how I live just because my father lost his temper. And, before you say anything, it isn’t the first time he’s hit me. I don’t know how you were raised, but I was slapped more than once but never like today. Well, that’s not quite right. He did it one other time and that’s when I left home. Before that, he’d never really hurt me. He was usually too busy ignoring me and trying to secure a position of power in the pride and clan.”
“Fine, but you will do this tonight. This isn’t just me. It’s Finn and it’s Matt. Believe me, Matt is furious and not just because that SOB hit you. He’s in full alpha mode right now because Finn was there and it scares him silly to think of what might have happened to her and their baby if your father had tried to attack her. So you will help me load your Harley into the back of the truck and then we’ll head to the ranch. You want to fight with anyone, you can do it with Matt – and with Jim who is just as angry as his brother.”
With that, she stalked to the Harley and started maneuvering it into position at the base of the ramp. Sighing, knowing it was a lost cause to argue with her, I moved to help. Maybe by the time we reached the ranch, I’d have figured out how to reassure my friends and alpha that I really was all right.
We’d been driving maybe twenty minutes. In that time, neither of us had said much. What was there to say? Since I’d arrived in Dallas so long ago, I’d worked hard to build a life for myself, both in the pride and as part of the normal world. I’d proven my worth to the pride, and to the clan, not only as a tattoo artist but also as an archivist. I’d made friends and had an extended family that filled the gap left in my life after my mother died.
Now those friends wanted to stand up for me against my father. I loved them for it but I’d never been one to let others fight my battles for me. Besides, Maggie had said something back at the shop that had made my blood run cold. For a moment as my father and I argued, I’d known Finn was ready to step between us. Hell, she’d actually done so at one point. What if he’d lost his temper enough to actually strike her? If he had and anything had happened to her or the baby, my father’s life would have been forfeit. There wouldn’t be a hole deep enough or cave dark enough for him to hide in.
“I’m fine, Maggie. Just tired.”
“I’m not going to push. But I do want you to know that we love you.” She reached across the cab and gave my hand a quick squeeze. “But because we love you, we worry about you. So you have to understand that as soon as Jim found out what happened, he started a background check into your father. I hope you aren’t angry at him for it but it was that or go looking for your father and I think you’ll agree a background check is the better alternative.”
I nodded and smiled. It most definitely was the better alternative. As a cop, Jim had seen too many women who had been abused by husbands or pimps or whoever. He’d told me not long after I’d joined the pride that there were two types of men he’d as soon shoot as arrest – those who abused a woman and those who abused a child. So it wasn’t difficult to imagine his reaction upon hearing what had happened that morning.
“I know, Maggie. It’s just that I haven’t had to deal with my father in a long time and, to be honest, I’m more than a bit mortified that Finn had to be there to see what happened this morning.”
“But there’s more.”
“Yeah. I might not be an alpha like you or Finn but that doesn’t mean I like having you step in to fight my battles for me.”
“That’s your pride talking, CJ.” She flipped on the turn indicator and pulled off the highway. We weren’t far from the ranch now. “You know better than that. The only reason we are getting involved as your alphas is because your father struck you and then tried to force you to do something you didn’t want to do. Frankly, striking you is what brought it into our jurisdiction. Add to that the fact he’s here without letting Matt know and there is no way we could ignore what happened.”
I knew she was right. There are certain rules shapeshifters operate under, rules put in place for our own protection. One of them is that we let the local clan leader know when we are in their territory. In the last eighteen months, that’s a rule Matt has demanded we all adhere to. Between finding Finn being chased by trackers sent after her by the shifter who had been responsible for her parents’ death and then Maggie coming into the territory in search of a renegade shifter and his ferals, he’d seen just how important that rule was.
“I know and I love you guys for caring.” I rested my head against the back of the seat and sighed. “Maggie, I just don’t understand why he suddenly showed up. My brothers or friends back in Montana would have let me know if there was trouble.”
“So we ask him tonight and then we make it clear that your home is here for as long as you want and no one has the right to force you to go anywhere you don’t want to go.”
She spoke so confidently I had to smile and the knot of tension in my stomach began to unwind. This was home and all I had to do was remember that.
Ten minutes later, we were making our way up the long drive to the ranch house. I didn’t surprise me to see Maggie’s BMW parked out front. Next to it was Finn’s Mustang. What did surprise me was the sight of the sleek black Camero with Oklahoma plates parked next to the Mustang. Before I could say anything, not that I knew what to say, Maggie parked the truck and reached over to touch my arm.
Maybe those weren’t the most brilliant questions I’d ever asked but they were the best I could do.
Any other questions I might have asked were forgotten as the front door to the house opened and several people stepped outside. One part of my mind registered the fact that Finn stood next to her grandmother. Irene Walkinghorse, clan leader for Oklahoma and possibly the strongest alpha alive, slid an arm around her granddaughter’s waist and smiled up at her.
I knew all that but my attention was focused on the man who emerged from the house just after Finn and her grandmother. He was tall, not as tall as Jim, but he stood a good four inches taller than my five feet ten inches. His black hair, the color of a raven’s wing, was pulled back and I knew it would be in a braid that fell below his shoulders. His dark brown eyes were focused on the truck and my breath caught as a slow smile spread across his expression. At the same time, my cougar leapt forward, eager and more than a bit perturbed there were so many other people around.
Not that I blamed her one bit. But what was Rafe doing here?
“Maggie?” My voice was little more than a hoarse whisper.
“Don’t look at me, CJ.” She smiled and switched off the engine. “Finn made several calls this morning. I suggest you talk to her about it.”
That was all the explanation I needed. I don’t remember opening the truck door. I know I told myself not to rush forward. I needed to find out what was going on. But it was hard, so very hard, when both my cougar and I wanted to do nothing more than race to where Rafe stood. I wanted to feel his arms around me and I needed to hear him remind me that there really was nothing to worry about.
At least I could fall back on protocol. Finn was the clan’s female alpha and needed to be greeted as such. More importantly, her grandmother was one of the most respected leaders of our kind. Not even the desire to be with Rafe could make me forget to show her the respect and obedience she deserved.
Six feet from the porch, I dropped to my hands and knees. By the time I reached the steps, Finn and her grandmother had descended to them. I paused before Finn, showing my submission to her, my clan alpha. When I felt her lightly touch my shoulder, I lifted my head. Her palm was there and I rubbed my cheek against it. Then I moved to where her grandmother stood, dropping to my belly before her.
“Stand up, child. You never need to stand on formality with me.” Irene Walkinghorse’s voice was full of amusement as she reached down and helped me to my feet. “You are my granddaughter’s friend, her sister in many ways. That makes you family.”
“Thank you.” My throat tightened with emotion. “But why are you here?”
I wanted to look at Rafe but didn’t dare.
“I called her,” Finn said. “I thought she might have some information about your father that would be useful. After we talked, I put in a call to Rafe. I figured you might want him with you tonight.”
I didn’t know whether to groan or roll my eyes. I think I did both. Here I thought I’d been so circumspect about my relationship with her cousin. We’d been careful not to be seen together in the area. At least I thought we had. Whenever Rafe came to town, we would meet at my house, staying in and enjoying one another. He’d cook – necessary since my culinary expertise ran to burning boiling water – and then we’d watch a movie, play board games or engage in other, much more enjoyable activities.
When I finally dared to glance at Rafe, he looked as stunned as I felt. Then he grinned and, with a quick shrug, stepped past his grandmother and cousin and came to my side. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to reach out and twine my fingers with his as soon as he was within reach. Then, seeing how Finn watched us, a grin on her face, I blushed and ducked my head.
So much for trying to keep our relationship secret.
“Are you all right?” Rafe pulled me close and looked down at me, his expression darkening to see the bruise along my jaw and the swelling to my nose.
“I don’t know.” I rested my cheek against his chest. “Right now I feel like I’m in the middle of a dream and I can’t quite decide if it is going to be a farce or a nightmare.” When his fingers gently lifted my chin, I slid my arms around him and forgot the rest of the world for a moment. “I’m glad you’re here but I still don’t understand.”
“You’re not usually this slow but I guess it’s understandable. I still get that way around Matt,” Finn said with a soft chuckle. “CJ, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on with you two. Anyone with eyes in their heads realized there was something special between you the day Matt and I got married. You two were joined at the hip and when you weren’t, you were watching the other like you’d jump anyone else who tried to even talk to them.
“Then, about six months ago, Gran wanted to know why I kept asking Rafe to come down to Dallas. Seems I’d been asking him down on a regular basis almost since Matt and I returned from our honeymoon. She didn’t object. She was just curious about what was going on, especially since those weekends when he wasn’t down here, he was often unavailable for anything but emergencies. Funny thing, when I started thinking about it, you were often unavailable those weekend as well.”
“CJ, don’t pay attention to her,” Irene said with a smile. “All I want to know is if you love my grandson.”
Oh boy, she certainly didn’t mince words. I looked past her and saw Matt watching me, a look of understanding on his face. A slight smile touched my lips as I realized he’d probably undergone a much more intensive interrogation from Finn’s grandmother when they first met. At least I knew the answer to that question and maybe it was time to quit denying it, even to myself.
“I do.” I lifted Rafe’s hand to my lips and kissed it. Then I released it. I dropped to my hands and knees once more and crawled to where Irene stood. Relief filled me as Rafe quickly mirrored my actions until we knelt here, shoulders and hips touching. “I love your grandson very much.”
“And I love her, Grandmother.” There was no hesitation or doubt in his voice and my heart soared.
“Gran, I think they need some time to talk,” Finn commented and motioned for us to get to our feet. “Your father will be here in a couple of hours, CJ. I suggest you and Rafe spend the next hour discussing what you want to do.”
“What my granddaughter is trying to say is that, while we don’t want to pressure either of you, this will be much easier to deal with if you acknowledge that you are mates before you father arrives, CJ,” Irene took up. “But that is up to the two of you.”
“Use the first guest room. It’s made up,” Maggie said. “We’ll be in the barn.”
With that, everyone walked off, leaving Rafe and I staring at one another. Then, realizing they were right, I reached for his hand and together we started inside. Hopefully by the time we were behind closed doors, I’d have some idea what to say.
* * *