Friday, April 4, 2014

EXCERPT: The United and The Divided

Title: The United & The Divided (Tooth & Claw #3)
Author: L.A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format: ebook, paperback


“Ian.” Someone nudged my shoulder. Darius, my brain figured out after a moment. “Hey, you awake?”

I burrowed my face into the pillow. “Do I have to be?”

“We’re here.”

And with that, I was awake. Apprehension burrowed under my skin and dug itself in.

Sitting up slowly, I rubbed my stiff neck. The muscle would loosen itself soon enough, and if I’d actually slept on it badly enough to do some damage, it would be healed within the hour. This vampire deal wasn’t all that bad sometimes.

Darius’s dark hair was disheveled, so he must not have been awake long himself. He rested a hand above the bunk and swayed a little, adapting to the slow rocking of the boat. That constant motion had alternately nauseated me and put me to sleep since we’d left Levi’s grandmother’s house in Sitka. Now that we’d arrived at our destination, a tiny island off the coast of Alaska near Kodiak Island, it wasn’t the rocking that made me queasy.

I took a deep breath. I was so not ready for this. An island full of wolves belonging to the same clan that had been trying to kill us did not feel like safe harbor to me.

“This still seems like a really bad idea.”

“Relax.” Darius touched my shoulder. “We’ll be all right.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” I muttered, running a hand through my hair in a half-assed attempt to straighten it.

He scowled but didn’t say anything. As much as he tried to reassure me, I was pretty certain he wasn’t any more thrilled about this arrangement than I was. He kept a calm demeanor and a relaxed front, but his slightly elevated heart rate gave him away.

A pair of booted feet came down the ladder behind him. Darius turned around and, a second later, Levi dropped into full view. He looked better than he had recently. He was more put together than Darius, his near-black hair perfectly arranged except for a few strands the wind had blown into his face. Still, he was obviously exhausted. He hadn’t been a vampire long enough to be quite as pale as Darius or myself, but what lack of sunlight hadn’t yet done, pure exhaustion certainly had. The life of a fugitive wasn’t an easy one, as we’d learned all too well recently.

Levi sank onto the bunk beside me. “Grandma’s going ashore to talk to the Elders. They already know we’re coming, but she wants to make sure everything is clear with this arrangement.”

“And if it is?” Darius asked. “I mean, what happens now?”

Levi shook his head. “No idea. I know this isn’t going over well with the pack, though. And even if the pack on the island is okay with it, the clan is going to be pissed.”

“Are we sure there’s nowhere else to go?” I asked. “This just doesn’t seem safe.”

Darius shook his head, sighing heavily. “Remember? Levi and I can’t feed off humans. Only wolves.”

I groaned. That issue was going to be the death of all three of us. Levi and Darius were both wolves now, and both vampires; a bite to feed the vampire would convert a human into a wolf. Without willing wolves, we were fucked.

“So what happens if the shit hits the fan?” I asked. “Or if no one allows us to feed? This is an island. And there’s only a few hours of daylight at a time right now, but it doesn’t take much, you know?”

Levi sighed, shaking his head again. “I don’t know. I really don’t.” His shoulders sagged, and when he reached up to brush a few strands of dark hair out of his face, that simple movement seemed to take all the energy he had.

I wrapped my arms around him and let him lean against me. Watching Levi like this was hell. He’d always been the stronger of the two of us, but now he was so beaten down, demoralized, on the verge of total defeat. As much as he’d tried to stay strong, he was cracking under the weight of everything that had happened recently. His entire world had crumbled beneath him in a matter of weeks, and he was starting to crumble right along with it.

“We’ll be okay,” I whispered and kissed his cheek, wondering if he believed me any more than I’d believed Darius.

The boat listed a little to the left, and then heavy footsteps thunked on the deck above us. All three of us looked up, silently tracking the steps as they approached the ladder. Then a pair of faded baby-blue arctic boots appeared, and I released my breath.

“How did it go?” Levi asked.

“Well,” Grandma said as she came fully into view. “They’re not happy, but the Elders are explaining the situation to the rest of the pack in the morning.”

“What do we do until then?” Levi asked. “Just…stay here?”

She nodded and stepped off the ladder. “I’m not taking you into that village until every wolf in the pack knows they’re not to lay a hand on any of you.” Her expression hardened. “There’s plenty left in that shotgun for anyone who objects.” For a woman who’d originally turned us over to the wolves before deciding at the last second to save our asses, she was certainly protective of us now.

The three of us exchanged uncertain glances.

“Relax, boys.” Grandma patted the air with both hands. “The Elders and I will keep the pack in line. You three keep your heads low and don’t make any waves.” Her gaze landed on Levi, and she arched an eyebrow. “Am I clear?”

All three of us nodded. Even Levi.

“All right.” She patted Levi’s shoulder before heading back toward the ladder. “It’s just about dawn right now, so you boys hang tight for a little while. I’ll be back when the sun’s down.”

We all nodded. She disappeared onto the upper deck, and the three of us sat in apprehensive silence for a moment. I wasn’t sure which was worse: the constant running for our lives, or waiting to be running for our lives, especially since I wasn’t yet convinced that the whole running-like-hell part was over yet.

“Well.” Darius exhaled hard and ran a hand through his hair. “I guess now we wait.”

“Yep,” Levi said.

I chewed my lip, then looked at Levi. “As long as we’re just sitting here, there’s something that’s been bugging me the last few days.”

“Only one thing?” Levi smirked. “Lucky you.”

“Very funny.”

He squeezed my leg. “Sorry. What’s on your mind?”

“When we got cornered up at your grandmother’s house, and one of the wolves had me pinned down, why did you and Darius surrender? Why didn’t you just tell him that biting me would kill him too?”

The brief flicker of humor in Levi’s expression was long gone, and he slid his hand over my leg, a gesture that was as affectionate as it was protective. “Because the wolves had the upper hand, and reminding them that vampirism is contagious would have just gotten us all killed. Starting with you.”

“Not that biting me would have done him any good.”

“Shooting you—or me or Darius—through the heart would have.”

I shuddered.

He slid his hand up and down my leg. “I thought about it. Believe me, I did. Whatever I had to do to save you, I was willing, but that?” He shook his head. “I couldn’t take the risk.”

“We got out,” Darius said. “All three of us. That’s all that matters.”

“Agreed.” I put my hand on top of Levi’s. “I was just curious. Not making any accusations.”

“I know.” He kissed me gently. “I’m just glad we all made it out.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Definitely,” Darius said quietly.

And though no one said it, I had no doubt we were all thinking it.

We’d made it out alive, but how long would that last?

Since winter days in Alaska were incredibly short, sundown was only a few hours away. Shortly after, as Levi and I were sitting at the small table belowdecks and Darius was restlessly pacing back and forth, Grandma returned.

“Coats and boots, boys,” she said as she stepped off the ladder and into the cramped quarters. “We’re going ashore.”

Levi’s heart sped up. “And everyone knows? They’re…okay with this?”

“They will be,” Grandma declared. “There’s going to be what amounts to a town meeting tomorrow, with all of us and everyone in the village.”

Leaning against the bulkhead near the ladder, Darius shifted his weight. “No one’s bringing stakes, are they?”

“I dare them,” Grandma said.

Levi laughed. “I’ll take that.”

“Good.” Grandma squared her shoulders. “Now let’s get you on land so we can all sleep in real beds tonight.”

I pushed myself up out of my chair and reached for my sweatshirt. As I put it on, I gave myself a moment just to savor the soft warmth against my skin. It seemed like a silly thing, enjoying the feel of a sweatshirt, but then again, it was amazing how quickly things like this could become priceless luxuries. Tyler and Levi’s grandmother had gone ashore in one of the small towns between Sitka and here, and they’d brought back an armload of parkas and some clothes that weren’t saturated with half-frozen blood. I’d never take a clean, warm shirt for granted again.

Especially since even after the last few weeks—had it been that long?—of running around in Canada and Alaska in the dead of winter, I hadn’t begun to get used to being cold. If we were going to be here for a while, I supposed I’d better adapt. And I would. Tomorrow. Maybe.

But for now? Sweatshirt. Heaven. I’d take any little creature comfort I could get.

Once I was dressed—ahh, I’d have to thank Tyler again for these arctic-grade boots—I headed abovedeck to join everyone else.

The boat was moored at the far end of an old pier. One by one, we stepped onto the graying wood, and once everyone was off the boat, we started toward the shore. Tyler and Grandma walked ahead, and Levi stayed between Darius and me. All the way down the long dock, the pointed bows bobbed and rocked on either side of us like a fiberglass gauntlet, each hull eerily bright against the darkness, thanks to this vampire night vision. Everything was clear, like in daylight, but against a dark sky and deep shadows.

And thanks also to that sharp vision, I had a completely clear view of what waited for us at the other end of the pier: a large group of people standing on a patch of ground that was only partially snow covered, like it had been trampled numerous times since the last snowfall. The northern lights cast an eerie green glow over all of them, the light rippling across faces and glinting off narrowed eyes. Most of them were in human form, watching with everything from curiosity to outright contempt. The few who were in wolf form growled quietly. Their lips curled up over their impressive teeth, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as I remembered a few too many instances of being on the wrong end of a wolf’s fury.

As we stepped off the dock, our boots crunched on the semifrozen ground. We halted in front of the gathered crowd. I tried not to think of them as a mob. Least of all an angry mob. The glares, though, and the vaguely threatening semicircle they formed around us didn’t help me get that thought out of my head.

One of the wolves in human form stepped forward, hands tucked into a zipped-up parka. “I’m Martin, one of the Elders of this pack.” His voice was as taut as his expression, and he didn’t offer a handshake. I told myself it was because of the biting cold. “We’ve heard about your…situation.”

Levi cleared his throat. “And we appreciate you allowing us to stay here for the time being.”

“Well.” Martin glanced at another man beside him, who offered a subtle nod. Martin shifted his attention back to Levi. “Before we guarantee that the three of you will be allowed to stay—”

“Hold on just a minute,” Grandma broke in. “This can be discussed tomorrow, but they need to rest. Tyler and I need to rest. The world won’t end if we let everyone catch their breath and get some sleep before we hash this out.”

“Sleep?” Someone scoffed. “With them in our community?”

A low growl rose in Levi’s throat. I touched his arm, glove to sleeve, and he quieted. He rested his hand over the top of mine, which drew some contemptuous looks from the crowd in front of us.

“She’s right,” Martin said. “This will be better handled when everyone has had a chance to rest and settle in.”

A wolf in canine form beside Martin snarled and gnashed his teeth. A wave of Martin’s hand silenced him, though, and the dog lay down on the frozen ground with a soft whine.

Martin turned back to us. “We’ll discuss this after everyone has rested. Julie will show you to the cabin that will be yours for your visit.” He emphasized the word visit in an odd way, as if to make sure we all knew damn well we wouldn’t be staying here long.

A woman stepped forward, brown hair tied up in a loose ponytail and her expression as taut as the Elder’s had been. She gestured sharply for us to follow her. She must have been the one named Julie.

“This way,” she said tersely.

“Oh, I don’t think so.” A broad-shouldered guy, hair and eyes dark like Levi’s, elbowed his way through the crowd. “She’s not going off alone with them.”

Julie glanced at him, her expression a mixture of annoyance and relief, like she was thankful not to be stuck alone with us, but also irritated at the intrusion.

“Fine.” Martin gestured dismissively. “Just go. Show them to their cabin, where they will be left alone. Is that clear?”

A few people nodded; others murmured affirmatives. Levi, Darius and I exchanged uncertain looks, but it wasn’t like we had a lot of choice, so we followed Julie and the other guy.

The night was deathly silent except for our boots crunching on the snow and the subtle chorus of heartbeats that only the three of us could hear. Darius’s and Levi’s would always be more pronounced to me since Darius had converted me and I had converted Levi, so I felt every bit of their apprehension, underscored by the varying degrees of nervousness coming from those who quietly watched us walk into their settlement.

As we crested a small hill and entered the village itself, my skin prickled. Whoever hadn’t come out to see us in from the boat was watching us now. I could feel their stares. It was a creepy feeling that reminded me of the day Levi and I had gone to the temple for that ill-fated bonding ceremony. People had watched me so intently I swore they were burning holes in my skin. I knew damn well they didn’t want me there, in their community or in their temple, and the whole place had vibrated with quiet contempt.

We followed Julie into the village, and I hoped against hope that wherever they put us would be at the very edge of the small settlement. Maybe near the forest or something.

But no, we got a cabin right smack in the fucking middle, just a few doors down from the island’s temple, the huge structure that loomed over everything from the center of several rings of houses and buildings. Far too close to everyone else. Maybe that was the only empty place. Or maybe it was conveniently located so the pack could keep tabs on us. Either way, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the arrangement.

The cabin was a lot like the ones at the farm where Levi’s pack lived back in Washington. Though the blackout curtains over the windows relaxed me about the impending sunrise, they also made me wonder who had known we were coming. If this pack was anything like Levi’s—which they probably were, since they were all part of the same clan—they wouldn’t be happy about vampires in their midst.

Especially not the three of us.

Levi, who’d insisted on bonding to a human male instead of his predestined female mate, which had been the catalyst for this endless disaster.

Darius, who’d converted Levi’s bonded human mate into a vampire.

And me, the mate who hadn’t been able to withstand the year apart from Levi after that hellish bonding, and had ultimately gotten Darius entangled in all this and had pretty much secured my spot as the wolf clan’s public enemy number one for the foreseeable future. The fact that I’d shot a wolf in Oregon hadn’t helped matters, even if it had been in self-defense. And not long after that, the death of Selena, Levi’s clan-chosen mate, had been another nail in all our coffins. All the bodies we’d left in our wake? More nails.

The last place in the world I felt safe was among wolves. Keeping us here smacked of dropping some mice into the middle of a pride of lions and insisting it was for their own good. Levi’s grandmother had turned on us once before. She’d been the one to sound the alarm and bring in the wolves who’d damn-near killed us all. Yeah, she’d turned around and been our savior in the end, but who was to say she wouldn’t change her mind again? Or that this wasn’t part of some elaborate plan to get us to complacently, quietly, willingly face the clan’s judgment?

I didn’t like this. I didn’t like it one bit.

But I didn’t have a choice.

None of us did.

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