Okay, I am not dead (thank you for all your emails of concern). Also, I have not stopped writing. My long bout of silence was due to me grinding away on my book (and the fact that I’m a piss-poor blogger), but all of that is now behind me because, guess what? The book…is DONE!!! Gabe’s Bride, the second in the Hollow Hills series and sequel to Karly’s Wolf, is set to be released this Saturday! Like Karly’s Wolf, this is a Penny Alley book, which is a mainstream paranormal romance. No spankings, guys. Sorry.
How about a sneak peek at the cover and maybe a sample of the prologue and the first chapter over the next two days? How about a chance to win a free copy?
Same rules as usual apply. Leave a comment to be entered to win, one comment per day, each day’s comment gets you a separate entry. :) Have fun, good luck, and I hope you enjoy it!
Neoma is the low wolf. For years, she has lived under the cruel eye of Deacon, the Alpha of Scullamy. But when Deacon decides to attend the Bridal Hunt of long-time territory rival, Hollow Hills, hosted by its new Alpha, Colton Lauren, at last Neoma thinks she’s found a way to escape. All she has to do is enter to run, become the Bride of whomever is fast enough and strong enough to catch her, and so long as that male isn’t from Scullamy, then she and her son will finally be free. But on the eve of the Hunt, Deacon discovers what she’s done. Rather than suffer the disgrace of backing out of the Hunt, he orders Neoma to run…and to be caught by the new mate he’s assigned her.
When Gabe Michaelson learns that childhood sweetheart, Maya, has entered the Hunt, he joins as well, determined to bring her home as his Bride. But in the heat of the run, just as Gabe springs to catch her, Maya is knocked out from under him and the skinniest, scrawniest Scullamy female he’s ever seen takes her place. Robbed of the love of his life, Gabe has no choice but to accept Neoma as his Bride, but—Hunt or not—he vows never to forgive or forget what she’s done.
Everyone knows Scullamy isn’t to be trusted, but right from the start something about Neoma doesn’t fit Gabe’s preconceptions of what a Scullamy spy should be. She’s too skinny, too nervous, too…haunted, and with the shadow of Deacon never far behind her, gradually he comes to see there’s more to Neoma than anyone realizes. She needs him—she and Scotty both—in ways no one has ever needed him before. As the words ‘love’, ‘honor’, and ‘protect’ take on whole new meanings, Gabe realizes he has to find a way to cut Scullamy out of both their lives.
Before he loses Neoma forever…
* * * * *
Neoma was half her husband’s age, but she tried to be a good wife. She hadn’t been his first choice of Bride and he’d made no effort to hide the fact that he’d never really wanted her. But he did like the house and car bequeathed to him at their mating, and he certainly seemed to want the cash bonus the Alpha Deacon paid the day their son was born. Of course, none of that mattered the night Matson came home late, with blood on his shirt and a face that showed fear instead of his usual tired resignation.
Dressed for bed in an old sports t-shirt, Neoma jerked out of a nodding doze when she heard the truck door slam. She jumped up from the end of the sofa and hurried to set the table for his supper. The leftover pot roast was still warm in the crockpot and she was just filling his plate when Matson burst through the door hard enough to lodge the doorknob in the wall plaster beside the china hutch. From his cradle in the back bedroom, Scotty began to cry the reed-thin hiccupy wails of a newborn startled awake, but Neoma didn’t offer one word of censure. She was too surprised. She took in the blood spatters and the pallor of Matson’s too-pale face, and when she finally looked into his eyes—wide, the whites showing all around his brown pupils, a contrast of panic behind the gold of an inner wolf barely held in check—that was when she got scared.
“Get the baby,” he ordered. Old enough to be her father, at times it was his favorite way of talking to her, but this was different. His voice wasn’t just hard, it was trembling. “We’re leaving.”
Leaving? That shocked Neoma all over again. Nobody left Scullamy.
The plate in her hand forgotten, Neoma didn’t move until Matson charged across the room to catch her shoulders. He shook her once, hard, sending long locks of golden blonde hair flying about her face and the dish crashing to the floor. It shattered between their feet.
“Now,” he told her, his tone at once both calm and shaking. It shook almost as badly as his hands, bruising where he grabbed her. And still she could only stare in shock until the yellow of his eyes flashed, fear giving way to anger. For the first time in the ten months they’d been together, Matson fixed that anger on her. “Go,” he growled. “Right now, or I swear I will leave your ass here.”
Letting her go, he shoved her backwards. The glass edge of the table bit into her hip when she fell against it, the cast iron legs digging groves as it slid across the hardwood flooring, stopping abruptly when the table hit the kitchen wall. Shaking now herself, her arms aching from the strength of his grip, Neoma bolted for the bedroom.
She didn’t get dressed, she simply grabbed the baby from his cradle by her side of the bed. Red-faced and wailing, he turned his wobbly head toward her shushing voice, clawing the air with both tiny hands until he found the warmth of her chest.
“It’s okay,” she whispered while he nestled in, his cries dwindling to grunts as he found the back of his own small fist and began to suckle.
“Move, Neoma!” Matson yelled. A chorus of small crashes came from the bathroom, as if an entire shelf of toiletries had just been thrown into the bottom of the tub. She jumped a moment later when, in a shattering of glass, something much larger followed them.
A thin quiver of panic taking root inside her, Neoma knew something must be very wrong. What she didn’t know was whether it might be ‘phone call’ wrong. It was always better to err on the safe side and yet, clutching and caressing the baby’s small back, she hesitated. A good wife gave her husband every obedience, but a duty to one’s alpha preceded all other considerations.
And no one ever left Scullamy.
“Neoma!” Matson yelled, making her jump all over again. The fear she could hear under the anger in his voice made the quiver in her chest tighten. She had to make that phone call. Now. Before she was pulled into this—whatever this was—any deeper. And yet, she made no move toward the phone on the bedside table. She clung to Scotty instead, stroking and caressing him in her nervousness. In the end, a second’s indecision was all she gave the bedroom, the house, and the life she’d had here in the city of her birth.
Panic growing, she grabbed nothing—not the baby’s bag or an extra diaper. She didn’t even grab a pair of pants, much less her shoes. She simply abandoned the bedroom, almost slamming into Matson when he emerged from the bathroom. He yanked shut the zipper on the blue sports duffel bag he carried before she caught a glimpse of what bulky thing lay inside. What she did see was the gaping hole he’d left in the wall above the sink where the mirror used to be.
That knot inside her breast became full-blown horror in the space of a single heartbeat.
“W-what is that?” She backed from him as far as the wall behind her would allow. His jaw clenched, that flash of anger in his eyes in an instant becoming something akin to resentment.
Without a word, he grabbed her arm and shoved her out ahead of him, hurrying her through the house and back out the front door. Late as it was, the streets were lit in the amber glow of the streetlamps that crowned the posts on the razor wire fence, high atop the block wall that surrounded the volka compound in the city of Scullamy. Tiny rocks in the pavement cut into her bare feet, but Matson didn’t slow his pace. He propelled her down the walk to his truck, idling in the narrow driveway—in full view of all the other townhouses that lined their street. Almost all had at least one lit window. The knots in Neoma’s chest grew suffocatingly tight.
Matson didn’t bother helping her up into the truck. Yanking open the passenger door, he ran around to the driver’s side. They didn’t even have the baby’s car seat. The old leather sticking to the backs of her bare thighs, Neoma hugged Scotty tighter as Matson stuffed the duffel bag into the very narrow gape between the back of the cab and the seat and hopped up into the truck beside her. Neither one of them had their lapbelts on when he threw the vehicle into reverse. The sudden jolt as they lurched into motion made the baby cry all over again, and they peeled out of the driveway.
“Shut him up, please,” Matson said, tense as he eyed both the rearview mirror and the road. One short city block separated this residential street from the guard shack and the well-armed volka soldier who paced in front of the gate. It was the only access in or out of the five city blocks that separated the compound from the human portion of the city that had grown up around them.
That guard was not going to let them leave. Neoma’s chest grew tighter still, her breaths coming in quick, shallow pants.
Coming to the same conclusion, Matson swore under his breath. He rubbed his mouth, silently weighing his options. There were only two: Go through that gate or go home. He swore again. “I’m serious. Either quiet the kid or muzzle him.”
More scared than she’d ever been in her life, Neoma rocked Scotty against her shoulder, actions that only accelerated his cries until she realized it was because she was crushing him. She struggled to relax her grip. “I-I think I changed my mind. Take me home.”
Matson cast her a hard glare. His eyes still glowed gold, the wolf in him very close to the surface. He did not turn the truck around. Rubbing his mouth again, when the sentry ahead motioned for him to slow down, Matson did.
“Don’t say a word,” he warned, rolling his window down as he eased up to the gate and the guard.
Afraid her eyes might betray exactly what they were doing, Neoma dropped her gaze to the shadowy floor mats. Shushing and rocking, she tried her best to quiet her crying baby.
“Hob,” Matson said, once he’d eased the truck to a stop beside the armed sentry.
“Pass?” Hob countered, all business. Rifle slung over his shoulder, he stepped up to the window, glancing once at her before returning his attention back to Matson.
“Emergency hospital run,” Matson told him.
“Not without a pass,” Hob replied, leaning one hand against the door frame. His cool gaze flickered with curiosity when he looked at her again. “What do you want a chevolak doctor for anyway?”
“Young mothers.” Tone dripping derision, Matson indicated her with a nod of his head and it became all Neoma could do not to cry out when he lied, “Turned my back for one minute and she damn near boiled him in his bath. Kid’s got burns all over him. Just talked to the Alpha, he said he was going to phone you his approval.”
“No one’s called all night.” Hob shot her a withering look. “Poor kid,” he sympathized with a frown. “Still, Doc Numen oughta be home. He didn’t have a pass either.”
“I pounded on his door a good ten minutes without answer.”
“Probably three sheets to, then. Already.” Hob scoffed, his frown deepening as he regarded the baby. “How bad is it?”
“Cooked lobster red from the chest down,” Matson said.
Unwittingly boosting the story’s credibility, the infant loosed another shrill cry. Neoma rocked him, but too many upsets in too short a period left him red-faced and tight-fisted as he refused to be comforted.
The sentry studied them, sympathy for the infant seeping into his expression. But in the end, he still shook his head. “Can’t let you out, Matson. But, I think I got some aloe in the first aid kit. Maybe a baby aspirin we can crush up for him. Hang on.”
“I appreciate it,” Matson told him, his hand dropping to the stick-shift as Hob patted the truck twice and shoved away. Switching the rifle to his other shoulder, the sentry returned to guard shack. “Buckle up,” Matson told her, raising a two-fingered wave when Hob conversed with a second guard inside the shack and both turned to look at the truck.
One-handed, Neoma reached for her seatbelt, but quickly grabbed the dash instead when, waiting only until Hob stepped into the shack and both men looked away, Matson stomped on the gas. Yelping, she clung to Scotty and braced for the impact as the truck rammed the security gate, snapping the wooden arm like a ruler and leaving shards of clear and yellow plastic from both headlights and blinkers scattered on the pavement. The truck fishtailed when he took the corner, but Matson didn’t slow down. Shifting into a higher gear, he floored the gas and, like the compound, left the speed limit well behind them.
And she still didn’t have her seatbelt on, and Scotty still wasn’t in his car seat.
“What are you doing?” she cried.
“Shut the kid up!” Matson snapped back. For a man who rarely showed his true feelings, that scared her more than the recklessness of his driving. She gasped when they blew through a stop sign and through the empty parking lot of an abandoned Wal-Mart supercenter. The truck bounced so hard when they re-entered traffic on the far side, if she hadn’t ducked, she’d have whacked her head on the ceiling. She lost her grip on the dashboard and almost lost her grip on the baby.
Abandoning the seat, Neoma dropped to the floor of the truck. Squeezing up under the glovebox, she folded herself around Scotty, though she knew at this speed that wouldn’t keep either of them safe for long. “Slow down!”
“So they can catch us?” Matson stomped the gas pedal all the way to the floor. The engine roared as they shot down Main Street, past two miles of chevolak shopping centers, hardware stores and restaurants. Past the new highway, a toll road nobody had wanted, heading for the old country highway that wound its way up into the mountains. He would have to slow down then, or those narrow lanes and sharp corners would kill them all.
Matson did little more than glance at the rearview mirror, but Neoma knew when their trouble deepened because the entire rear window suddenly lit up with flashing police lights. The wail of the police siren made her heart catch but, big hands gripping and re-gripping the steering wheel, Matson only shook his head. He shot through the next red light, but at the last intersection before they reached the end of town, traffic was stopped. Without slowing, he swerved, driving up onto the sidewalk to get around them. She whacked her back on the underside of the glove box as they bounced back off the curb. This was madness!
“Stop!” Neoma wrapped as much of herself around the screaming baby as she could, crashing sideways into the door panel when Matson swerved again. She felt two tires leave the pavement, needles of dread prickling up her back at the blaring horns and screeching tires that followed his deviation, up over another curb and through a Home Depot parking lot. “Please stop!”
“They’ll kill you too, damn it!” Tiny beads of sweat glistened across his brow. Hands tight on the wheel, Matson swerved back out of the parking lot and onto the road.
They had reached the end of town. Trees were flying past the windows now, not buildings or streetlamps. Cowering under the dash made it impossible to see the police cars she knew had to be closing in around them, but there was no missing how the splash of their flashing lights lit up Matson’s face. A bare second later, however, just as the truck reached the first hilly incline of the old highway that cut through the mountains, the wailing sirens suddenly ceased and the lights disappeared. Matson shot nervous glances from the rearview to the side mirror.
“Shit,” he breathed, flickering panic coming back into his eyes. He swore again. “It’s Alaric.”
A wash of absolute cold moved through her. It squeezed into her too-tight chest, leaving no room at all for breath. “What did you do, Matson?” she quavered, staring up at him in dread disbelief. “What did you do?”
“Shut up,” he muttered as they swerved into their first winding turn. It was dense forest around them now, dark and ill-defined shadows making the black inside the truck seem all the more foreboding. She felt the sharp incline of the road, the hard pull of gravity as they took the winding road faster than his old truck had ever done before. The engine was struggling now to put out the power their escape demanded. “Hang on!”
They were hit from behind. Neoma folded herself even tighter around the baby as the truck swerved violently. She heard the peppering spray of gravel hitting the vehicle’s underside as they went off the narrow shoulder, but somehow Matson got them back on the road.
“Slow down!” she shouted, so frightened she was almost in tears.
They were hit again, and this time the truck spun out of control. The scream of the tires drowned her out completely, and then the vehicle tipped, crashing sideways down a short ravine before they banged into a tree. The force of the sudden stop slammed her underneath the dash and then face-first into the hard edge of the seat. Wet heat gushed from her nose. Hissing steam escaped from under the crumpled hood, filling the air with a hot, mechanical smell.
Not just crying now, the baby screamed. Neoma shook. Everything else was silent, still. As if the world had simply ceased, or they had ceased to be in it.
Bent over the steering wheel, Matson lay as if sleeping. Thin trickles of sweet-scented blood dripped down his nose and off his chin. His fingers twitched, the only sign she had that he was still alive. Then the whole truck rocked and both front doors flew open.
Matson was yanked out. So was she. Hands grabbed her arms and her hair, ripping the wailing baby out of her desperate grasp. Neoma screamed then too, tasting her own blood in her mouth as she was thrown to the ground. She was dragged, branches and grass slapping her face, to the rear of the crashed truck. An amalgam of foreign scents—dirt, blood, and broken vegetation mingling with oil and spilling gasoline—assaulted every breath, along with an army of frighteningly familiar ones. The Alpha’s lieutenants, trusted soldiers, people she had known all her life now stalked around her, the wolfish glow of their yellow eyes burning with cold contempt. One pinned her to the damp forest floor, his dirty boot on the back of her neck. She froze, every maternal instinct frantic to reclaim a child she couldn’t see, but too terrified to move lest her struggles be mistaken for a challenge.
On the far side of the truck, crashing brush told her Matson had no such reluctance. He fought the hands that held him, grunts turning to snarls as his wolf at last broke free. Shifting didn’t help. They pinned the wolf just as easily as they pinned her, careful only of his teeth as they brought him to ground. Only then did Matson seem to realize he was caught. His growls turned to whines, and Neoma knew the reason the second she heard the snapping twigs and soft-earthed sliding of footsteps coming down the steep ravine.
Flanked by his first lieutenant, Alaric, the Alpha Deacon parted his men simply by strolling in among them. With ice blue eyes and a few strands of salt mixed in among the dark pepper of his hair, he looked like someone’s grandfather, albeit with the physical fitness of a man much younger than his fifty-odd years. Still, it was what Neoma thought every time she saw him. He looked so…kind, good-natured. But in spite of his appearance, this was one grandfather she never looked forward to seeing.
He paused mere feet from her. That boot still pressing down on the back of her neck, making each breath she took a struggle to achieve, Neoma tried to lift her chin. She averted her eyes, too afraid of what she might see even if she could see as far up as his face. On the other side of the truck, she heard Matson whimpering.
But from Deacon, there was nothing. He was quiet for a long, long time before he finally said, “I am so very disappointed.”
Though she couldn’t see more than his legs, Neoma knew who he addressed. She almost whimpered too.
“Always have I doted on you,” he said, lowering himself onto haunches beside her. “I’ve given you everything you could have wanted: Food, home, family. Favored treatment no one, not even my own children, enjoy. And this is how I am repaid? So very disappointed, indeed.”
It wasn’t until she smelled the ammonia that Neoma realized she’d just pissed herself.
Picking a leaf from her bangs, Deacon caressed them back from her eyes before brushing specks of dirt from the cheek not currently being pressed into the earth. “You should have called me.”
Shaking, Neoma almost couldn’t speak. “I wanted to.”
“Did you?” He was quiet again, a small eternity broken only by the despondent wails of her baby, the still hissing truck, and the whisper of the cool night’s breeze rustling through the trees. “How hard did you try?”
Guilt washed over her, making the truth impossible to confess.
Eventually, the Alpha got tired of waiting. “A good Bride is ever obedient to her husband’s rule,” he finally said, and stood. “For as long as I have known you, little Neoma, you have practiced the traits of being a very good Bride. Perhaps the fault is mine. I did, after all, give you to this man, this traitor. Still, we are all adults, are we not? We must take responsibility for our actions. This lapse in judgment cannot go unaddressed.”
The smell of damp earth and rotting leaves laced every frightened gasp she managed. Dread quivered her, otherwise she couldn’t move. She wasn’t sure she would have even if someone were not standing on her neck.
“Whip her,” he at last decided, and walked away.
Neoma lost every ounce of breath she’d been hording, terrified disbelief combining in the wild ringing that filled her ears. She couldn’t hear anything else. Just the ringing, and then the chinks as multiple buckles unfastened and worn leather hissed out of pant loops. The boot left the back of her neck, and for one frozen second in time, Neoma had a choice: submit or try to run. Her shaky exhale shuddered the dead leaves, but Neoma didn’t move. Then they were on her, a brutal storm of snapping belts that rained down, striking everywhere at once—her shoulders and back, her cheek, scrambling legs, even the bottoms of her feet. They branded her in welts and fire until she screamed. Until her voice cracked and her blood ran, tickling everywhere it dripped, flung by each impact until it sprayed the leaf litter. She could not hold sill, despite her best intentions and all her resolve, but she could not run either. Scotty. He was her only thought, his name lighting up in her heart and mind with every crack of every belt. Scotty.
“Enough,” Deacon called.
The storm ceased, leaving Neoma writhing in the dirt, each breath a gasping whimper. Everything hurt. She throbbed, burning as though doused in fire, willing the agony away, but it refused to go.
The throb of each new welt pulling across her skin, she dragged her arms and legs in under her and tried to rise. Part way up, her stomach rebelled and she vomited in the dirt between her hands.
The ice blue of his eyes darkening with cool calculation, the Alpha Deacon studied her in silence. Motioning to the soldiers nearest her, he ordered, “Stand her up.”
Two sets of hands grabbed her arms. One still clutched his belt, stained red with her blood. The length of it knocked into the welts down her side as she was dragged to her feet. Pain flared so bright it was almost blinding, but still Neoma managed to get her legs under her. She shook, though nowhere near so badly as when the Alpha’s gaze slid to the wailing baby, held by loyal soldier Lyman, a volka with seven children of his own and the drawn blade of his hunting knife already in his hand.
Without expression, Lyman waited until Deacon gestured him forward. With gentle hands, he drew Scotty into the cradle of his arms and her buckling knees nearly went out from under her.
“No,” she begged, the rising swell of tears blurring them together.
“Shh, shh,” he soothed, his gaze never leaving her as he rocked and swayed and gradually walked the baby back to her. “Healthy lungs on this one. That must be your good genes contributing. Too bad the other half of him stems from a traitor.”
Her hands itched, but Neoma didn’t dare snatch. She waited, shaking with pain, anxiety crawling through her veins, until her Alpha deemed her punished enough. A knowing smile curling his handsome mouth, he offered the baby back to her. Neoma couldn’t help snatching then. Holding him quickly became agony, his minor weight almost more than she could cling to.
“Pay attention, Neoma,” he said, tapping a finger lightly upon the baby’s nose. On the other side of the crashed truck, Matson whined as, drawing a hunting knife of his own, Deacon started toward him. “I should hate to have to teach this lesson more than once.”
Ignoring the pain, Neoma’s arms tightened around her infant son and, from first cut to last, dared not look away. Not even during the worst of it when they peeled her husband out of his pelt.
For the rest of her life, she would remember how Deacon had watched her, the cold of his eyes never once leaving hers. She would remember the shame of simply standing there, helpless and shaking and bleeding, until those awful cries fell silent. She would remember the guilt and the horror, and the way her Alpha patted her cheek once it was over, his once more gentle hand coated in blood and fur.
“Forgive my severity,” he’d said with a smile, tiny laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes.
Those memories fed her nightmares damn near every night.
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