Rivals and Retribution, p.1Shannon Delany
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Dedicated to my brother, who knows me completely and still manages to love me, even on my worst days.
Everyone needs someone in their life like him, and I am tremendously fortunate to have him as my own.
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FIVE HOURS AGO IN JUNCTION
The girl enters the barn, slipping between hay bales and a stack of buckets. It is that rare time in winter when hay smells like springtime to her, bringing both the scent and sensation of hope. The temperature difference between the inside of the barn is striking against the brisk pull and drop of the air outside, and Jessie tugs off her knit hat, brown hair tumbling out to brush against her shoulders. She tucks her gloves in her pockets, unzips her jacket, and prepares to clear her mind by doing some good old-fashioned manual labor.
She’s never shied away from work. She’s not the type who thinks herself too pretty to earn calluses on her hands or muscles in her shoulders and back to match her strong arms and legs. Few people have called her pretty, but few people’s opinions matter to her.
And the people whose opinions truly matter? They’re her dad, her mother (now dead more than half a year), her best friend, Amy, and her Russian-American ex-werewolf boyfriend, Pietr Rusakova.
Pietr thinks she’s beautiful.
And to a teenage girl in a tremendously complicated situation, sometimes that’s all she needs to keep going.
Jessie reaches for the pitchfork. But she stops, her hand outstretched, frozen, in midair. Her mind jumbles through images, flashing back to the time Pietr and another boy from her high school got into an epic rumble here, crashing into hay bales and rolling across the paddock outside, each using their paranormal abilities to fight for control of Jessie: Derek to possess her body and the power he could leech from her, and Pietr to protect and own her heart.
Her head buzzes with warning, her scalp prickling as if Derek is still somehow nearby.
Part of him is nearby, she knows—there is a part of him that lingers, unchecked and roaming inside her head, even after his final gruesome moments connected Jessie, Sophia, and the girl Amy calls Jessie’s frenemy, Sarah.
It was here Derek tried to kill Jessie’s pride and joy, her four-legged best friend, the chestnut mare, Rio. He used the pitchfork.
Shivering at the memory, Jessie decides against the tool in her hand and grabs the nearby shovel instead.
Rio is the first horse to spot her and lets out a happy snort of recognition. The other horses each respond in their own particular way, with a toss of a mane, a nod of a head, or a single stomp of a hoof—trying to get Jessie’s attention first.
But there is no competition. Rio always wins. When it seemed no one else was there for Jessie, Rio was her stalwart companion, her faithful friend. She listened to all the complaining, crying, screaming, and stomping with barely the flick of an ear, and after each of Jessie’s rages or depressions ended, Rio pushed her snout into Jessie’s back or shoulder and made the girl move forward again.
More than a horse and more than a pet, Rio is a member of Jessie’s family—a family whose number has dwindled with the sudden death of Jessie’s mom. Jessie props the shovel by the wall and picks up the brush hanging by Rio’s door.
“Hey, girl,” she says, opening her stall door and sliding inside to stand beside her, her hand on Rio’s cheek and drifting down the well-muscled neck to trace gently along her graceful shoulder and back.
Jessie rests one palm on the mare’s rib cage, the soft-bristled brush following the sleek and gentle patterns her short coat grows in.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Jessie confesses. “He’s different. Changed.”
Rio paws the floor, straw crackling beneath her hoof.
“I know, he was supposed to change—to not be this half-man, half-wolf that was dying as fast as he could live. I expected that change.…” Jessie moves back to the horse’s head and begins brushing out her dark mane. “I expected victory,” she says, her voice slow. Tired. “But I never thought a single victory could feel so much like defeat.”
Rio pulls away, stomping a hoof. Jessie makes shushing noises, realizing she’s pulled a little too firmly on Rio’s mane. She’s too focused on herself—again.
“Sorry, girl,” she whispers, adjusting her grip and pressure. “I had different expectations. I thought I’d get all the heat and the fire that was Pietr but without the danger of him being hunted because he was a wolf. I thought I’d have the passion but not the limitations. But it was a devil’s bargain. Maybe it was destiny that he could only be Pietr—this studious boy—or Pietr: the quickly dying werewolf. Maybe I can’t have it both ways.”
She focuses on separating one stubborn tangle, determined that today something will go right.
“The thing is, I told him I’d never let go. I promised I’d stick by him.… And when I said that, I meant it. But it’s harder than I thought. He’s so very different. He’s not the Pietr I knew at all. It’s like he’s not the Pietr I want.”
She jumps, her cell phone vibrating in her pocket, and she pulls it out. Seeing Pietr’s face, she pauses.
It’s the first time she’s ever ditched anyone. And as much as she thinks she still loves him, it’s freeing to know she can step away to clear her head. She still has enough independence to take a few hours away and think of things other than werewolves and Mafia and the madness that so recently swirled around her.
It’s reassuring to know he cares enough to notice she’s gone.
Unless he’s calling for some other reason …
She sighs, not ready to face an answer she fears, and turns off the phone, returning her attention to Rio.
The mare’s coat glistens, and Jessie steps toward the stall door. She freezes, noticing a strange and sudden stillness fall over the barn. All the horses turn their attention in one direction, all eyes fixed on one location.
A slender young man stands near the entrance, his short red hair bold against sharp and pale features, his nostrils flaring. Catching her scent, his narrow lips turn up in a smile that borders on the terrifying.
Gabriel has found her.
Although most girls might balk, scream, or run in a blind panic knowing a werewolf from a new and dangerous pack has tracked them all the way home and that they are alone, Jessie isn’t like most girls.
She can’t afford to be anything but an individual. So she sucks in a breath, straightens her back, and shoves back her shoulders.
“Hey,” she says, her bravery a bluff. “You need help with something?”
“Yes,” Gabriel says, striding closer. “Yes, I think you can help me wi
Her eyes slide, examining her options. Out the back and she’ll wind up in the main paddock and pasture. Out the front and she’ll be nearly nose to nose with Gabriel.
Decisions, decisions …
“What can I help you with? If you wanna learn to ride a horse, I can teach you. But I don’t do impromptu lessons.”
“Come out here and we can talk about scheduling something,” Gabriel suggests, his smile unfurling into a grin.
“I’m fine where I am,” Jessie says, her stomach churning as her feet remain still in the stall’s straw.
Her lips press together in a frustrated line, and she mentally berates herself. She’d known when he sniffed her in the hallway at Junction High that he’d be able to find her anywhere. She’d expected trouble, and yet, there she was, unprepared. Again.
“So when’s a good time for you to come back and start lessons?” she asks, her eyes scanning the area for potential weapons. Her gaze falls to the brush in her hand, and she smirks at her own pitiful luck.
Considering all she’s lost, the one thing Jessie Gillmansen has managed to keep throughout everything is a sense of humor. Certainly it’s grown darker and more fiercely cutting, but at least it’s remained.
She sizes her opponent up, glad she’s continued training in hand-to-hand combat with the only non-werewolf member of the Rusakova family: Alexi. He’s taught her to be swift and sly. To deceive with her body language.
And if there’s one thing Alexi’s good at, it’s the art of deception. History’s greatest traitors? Judas Iscariot? Benedict Arnold? They’ve got nothing on Alexi. His entire life’s a lie.
But the fact remains, no matter how well trained Jessie is, or how sturdy her farm girl build, she’s going to be facing down a werewolf. And that shifts all the odds against her.
He stands at the stall’s door, his hand resting on the handle, his face close to the wide-set bars. “Looks like there’s a schedule out here, a calendar of some sort,” he says. “We should look at it together. I’d hate to come up with a time that we find out later just won’t work.”
“How very considerate.”
He shrugs, the grin spreading to gleam maliciously in his eyes. “I do my best.”
Jessie’s hand slides along her hip, reaching subtly into her jeans pocket to withdraw her phone, but Gabriel notices and yanks the door open, leaping into the stall.
“I wouldn’t,” he snarls, grabbing her wrist and pulling her tight to him.
“I’d say I’m sorry, Jessica, but I’m not. You’re the means to an end for me—the greatest gift I could give someone. The weird thing is I don’t even know why you’re so valuable to her. I mean, I get that you’re connected with curing werewolves. But we don’t want the cure. We’re happy being who we are. And that’s something most people can never say.” He pauses, stepping back to drag her forward. “And the fact you’re dating Pietr? I couldn’t care less. But you’ll help me achieve my goals. And I’m very much into achieving my goals. So come with me, like a good girl, and do exactly what I tell you to.”
“The hell I will!” Her booted foot slams down on his instep as her elbow catches him in the gut.
He’s barely winded.
She shoves away from him, past Rio, and falls against the door leading to the pasture. The rush of cold stings her face as she shoves the door open, but he’s grabbed her waist and hurls her to the ground. Rio snorts and dances away, struggling not to step on Jessie as she thrashes beneath her attacker on the straw-covered floor.
With a spin Rio jumps them, rocketing past, and out into the cold. The door swings back and forth, squealing, and Jessie pounds on Gabriel’s face and chest with all the strength in her arms and hands and all the anger roiling up inside of her—anger at him and anger at herself because she’s again playing the role of the victim.
Next time, she promises herself, I’ll be ready next time.
The only problem is, she needs to live through this time in order for there to be a next. She begins to wail on him with her knees and feet, kicking and yelling.
She bites him.
He shouts in pain, blood pouring from the teeth marks in his ragged cheek, and rolls away from her.
With his pinched and sharp features, he probably wasn’t considered good looking before, but now the likelihood is even less.
But he’ll heal. Quickly.
It’s a blessing if you’re in love with a danger-prone werewolf like Pietr was before he took the cure, but it’s a curse if you’re trying to fight one off and you’re simply human. If you’re only a normal girl.
But Jessie hasn’t been normal for a while now, and the things she’s learned about what lurks in the small town of Junction has made her reexamine her lifestyle and choices several times.
She used to think Junction was just another dull small town with no excitement. Now part of her is wishing she’d been right.
She plows into the other stall door, forcing it open, and grabs the shovel leaning against the wall.
Gabriel is back on his feet and outside the stall right after her—just in time for her to swing the shovel and barely miss his head.
“Come on,” he coaxes, reaching his hands out, arms spread wide. He wiggles the fingers closest to the wall, a distraction Jessie’s seen Pietr and his elder brother, Max, use when they spar.
So when he comes at her with his other hand, she’s thinking about an important difference between werewolves and starfish. Other than being covered in fur. Or having to live in salt water.
And she strikes, the shovel’s blade pinning his hand to the wall for the space of a single, throbbing heartbeat. Caught, he struggles a moment before pulling free in a hasty blur of panic and rage.
With a soft thump, two of his fingers drop to the hay bale below.
Unlike starfish, werewolves can’t regenerate parts that are cut off. Like a middle and ring finger. Of course, unlike werewolves, starfish don’t have fingers to begin with.…
“No more scrrrewing around—” he growls, his face contorting as his teeth grow into wicked and curving ivory points.
Yes, if he’d ever been considered handsome before, he’s far from it now.
With a grunt of effort, Jessie tugs the shovel’s blade free of the wall and swings it again, connecting with Gabriel’s shoulder as his fist connects with the side of Jessie’s head.
Limp, she falls into the straw alongside the shovel.
Grinning and bleeding, Gabriel leans over his prize.
* * *
She wakes in the dark, her hands stuck behind her back, a gag in her mouth.
She tests her bonds and winces when the fine hairs on her wrists tear out as she twists.
She focuses on her surroundings, trying to get a clue about her location.
In the movies a bright heroine can save herself from her captors if she learns enough to use her location against them. But this isn’t a movie. This is Jessie’s real life.
It’s not long until Gabriel is back and wrenches her onto her feet. With no explanation he forces her out into the breeze and makes her stagger a distance, blinded by snow flurries before he shoves her just hard enough that she falls.
* * *
He leaves Jessie then, seeking his true quarry—the alpha female and leader of the pack he considers his family: Marlaena. She’s on the second floor of the dive motel they’re staying in—a dive motel, yes, but still much better than their normal living quarters.
Her long red hair, a few shades deeper than his own, falls along her shoulders and frames her face, setting off her high cheekbones and fierce mouth and making a fiery curtain that threatens at any moment to obscure her teasing eyes. He pauses to catch his breath, to get his mind and mouth under control. He’s risked a lot doing this and he’s about to find out if it’s all worth it.
If he’ll finally win th
And the girl—Marlaena.
She’s leaning against his usual rival for her attention, the broad-shouldered, dark-skinned Southern boy, Gareth. The gentle gentleman of the crew who acts more the lover than the fighter, but Gabe’s seen him draw his claws and bare his teeth.
Marlaena’s wanted Gareth since the moment she first saw him back in the sticky heat of Mississippi. He’d just been released from jail on good behavior. Good behavior was the last thing Marlaena expected of her kind.
They’d attracted like polar opposites always did.
And Gabriel had hated Gareth since the moment he’d realized …
He clears his throat and waits.
He clears it again.
Gareth turns to face him first, his eyelids low over purple irises, giving him a sleepy look. His dreadlocks shift, and Gabriel catches sight of the beads the other girls have recently added to their hair ends.
He hates Gareth a little more for that.
“Can we help you?” Gareth asks gently. He spots Gabe’s hastily bandaged hand and the chunk of flesh missing from his face. “You okay, man?”
Marlaena glances his way now, too, finally noticing Gabe’s existence.
“Yeah. I’m fine. And, no, you can’t help me,” Gabe says to Gareth. “Just Marlaena,” he clarifies. “I need to speak to you. Alone.”
She squints at him, finally noting the blood that marks him. For a moment his heart speeds and he thinks that she’ll be worried about him. But his hope is short-lived. She sighs. “Right now?”
She had hesitated to even get in the backseat with him and help staunch the bleeding when he’d been shot.… So why does he still want her? Why does he hold out hope?
He repeats himself, “Yes,” and adds, “now,” for good measure wondering why, after everything, he still crawls and begs for any scrap of attention from her.
“Wait here for me?” she asks Gareth.
“I’m still on duty, ’Laena,” he says with a smile.
Gabriel chokes down a growl, dabbing his cheek with his bandaged hand. ’Laena was his nickname for her first. He was her number one before Gareth was even discovered. He’d established precedents Gareth was benefitting from.
Rivals and Retribution by Shannon Delany / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes