EXCERPT: Cloaked in Christmas

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CARY

Some people were born with bad blood. Me, I attracted it. A permanent blemish on my yellow dress. A discolored stain on the sleeve of a pajama shirt. Or a splatter from fighting with my wulfkin jerk ex. The red stuff always found me.

I glared at the crimson on the fur lining of my knee-length boots and cringed. My inner wolf surged forward, pressing against my breastbone, sniffing the coppery scent from my patient. Ever since dawn, my wolf had been jittery, eager for release, or food, or something. She hadn’t behaved this way since Tianna and I ran away to Finland from Denmark. That was eight months ago.

A crisp breeze swept into the room from the open window and curled icy fingers around my arms. I scrubbed the blood with a paper towel. No luck. Damn. These were new boots too. With a grunt, I scrunched the soiled towel and tossed it into the wastebin across the room.

As the only doctor in town, I had rented the supply room at the back of the grocery store from Henri for my medical practice. Best decision ever. I provided the pack of wulfkin with a service they lacked, and in exchange, they gave Tianna and me a home. A win-win situation, and if there was one regret, it was that I hadn’t done this years ago.

“Run out of hydrogen peroxide again?” A male voice cut my thoughts in half.

I lifted my gaze to Mr. Vasara, a 145-year-old wulfkin with white hair parted above his right temple. He was slouched on the surgical bed I’d fashioned out of a long table and blankets.

“I’ll be fine. But you need to promise me you won’t go hunting alone again. Take your son with you, or next time you might do more than split open your leg on rocks.” The neat stitches along Mr. Vasara’s calf appeared glossy from the antibiotic ointment. I placed a nonstick bandage over the wound. “This will heal soon, and the stitches are self- dissolving. Just take care until then.” At his age, he had plenty of life in him, but his healing would require a full week. The same injury on me would take less than two days. I rolled down his trouser leg for him.

“You’re a gem, Cacey, a real asset to our town. Manu did right to accept you into our pack.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled, and for the first time in forever, my body and mind relaxed. I took a deep enough breath, loving my new home, because for the last few months, I hadn’t woken up with a nightmare about my ex.

Since moving to Susi, there had been only laughter, warmth, and lots of smiles. No apologizing for someone else’s mistakes, no tiptoeing around aggressive pack members, no hiding my daughter in the closet whenever my ex arrived home drunk. Nope. Those ghostly memories were tucked into the darkest recesses of my mind. All that filled my mind now were sounds of my daughter giggling with her new friends and the thankfulness I owed Manu for taking me into his family. I blinked away the tears. No more running.

My last alpha was also my ex, and after Daan had threatened to take our daughter away because I dumped him, I had two choices. Lose Tianna or run. So, my time in Denmark had come to a swift end.

Mr. Vasara patted my shoulder and used me for balance to get on his feet and off the exam table.

I held on to his arm as he found his footing. “Well, don’t make me regret the decision by having to keep patching you. Anyway, come and see me if the pain doesn’t ease.”

His grin had a way of brightening my day, akin to most wulfkin living in Susi, which ironically meant wolf in Finnish. “Girl, the moment I stop moving, I’ll die. I’ve got to keep going.” He eased his shoulders back and hobbled toward the door before leaving.

He was the last patient of the day, and I released a long exhale, standing alone in the fluorescent-lit room. Freestanding metal shelves against the back wall were jam-packed with canned foods and dried meats. I’d tacked a photo of Tianna on the filing cabinet last week. Not much else screamed medical practice in here. I’d added a chair and a table to replicate the appearance of an exam room in any physician’s office. It wasn’t much, but the job afforded us a house and a spot in the pack. Sure, it placed us at the bottom of the hierarchy, but I didn’t care as long as Tianna was safe. Hell, I’d scrub toilets if it meant my daughter and I could stay here forever.

I tugged on my sleeves, trying to cover my arms better. The locals insisted on keeping their windows open for fresh air even during winter. That would be great in the tropics, except we lived north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland.

Thunder roared. A threatening storm. Outside the window, the night was a flurry of winds, throttling the trees. Yellow street lights illuminated the only road in town. Snow painted the dense woodlands with its white strokes, and feathery flakes cascaded. I took a huge inhale, letting the cold seep deep inside me. Cleansing me. Even though I’d lived here for eight months, the scenery still was spellbinding. Serene northern lights, the soaring mountains, and an ocean of trees in every direction. The magic of this place had me believing that any moment, Santa Claus would poke his head out from behind a fir tree. Tianna gave me new insights into Santa or his reindeer twenty times a day and assured me we’d get presents first before all the others in the world since this was Santa’s backyard. Her enthusiasm and the welcome I felt since we arrived here had made the decision to move here an easy one.

With the equipment sanitized and window locked, I shut the door behind me and stepped into the general store. The town had once been a popular tourist resort, but after the place went bankrupt, the human owners lost everything. Manu had approached the bank and bought the site for a steal. He moved in with his wulfkin pack and claimed it as his territory. Now it served as home to a pack of thirty wulfkin. Like an abandoned gift, Susi still had running water, underground power, and a ton of backup generators. A few wulfkin now occupied the former snow resort welcome center. My new home was located deep in the Finnish woods, away from prying eyes, making it the perfect spot to hide. Though according to Tianna, the Santa Village in the nearby human city of Rovaniemi, just south of Susi, was what made this place a magical location.

A nutty and cinnamon scent wafted through the air of the store. Dried herbs hung from the ceiling, along with tinsel of every color, casting shadows across the walls. Oak shelves lined the walls, filled with everything from clothing and condiments to buckets of jerky. Plus baubles. The decorations were tucked into every crevice, and each time I entered the store, I swore I’d stepped into a Christmas wonderland.

I salivated for a moment, unable to move past the fresh meat behind the refrigerated glass panel. But without missing a beat, I pulled out several strands of mistletoe from a wooden barrel, along with a bag of jelly candies. Tianna insisted they were necessary for Christmas, and something about this place caused the child in me to linger. But the rumble and whistling gale outside reminded me blizzard conditions were headed our way.

“The weatherman said we had two days to prepare, but I can already feel the storm in my bones.” Henri stepped around the counter, wearing a Santa’s hat and dressed in a red jacket. All he was missing was a beard. The wulfkin was incorrigible when it came to all things festive, so no wonder the kids in town visited the store several times a day. He grabbed a notebook from the shelf behind him. His angular face and large eyes reminded me of my dad. Strange, because my old man insisted that working inside was a female’s job. My father had been very opinionated about his old-fashioned beliefs, but I still loved him. Maybe it was the way Henri studied at me—without a smidgen of judgment—that brought me comfort. I’d lost my parents three years and five months ago in a car accident. A day didn’t pass when they didn’t enter my thoughts, and still, their memories cut right through me. The loving moments we’d had were a double-edged sword, a reminder that I’d never experience those times again. So instead, I made new memories with Tianna.

Henri scribbled my purchases in his notebook. No need for money in Susi. Each citizen contributed. Hunters brought in fresh meat for the store. Others sold deer meat to the local city for money in order to pay for the electricity and water used in the town. A teacher taught the young ones, and a singer entertained the pack. I provided services as the local doctor. Something my parents had forced me to study, and I thanked them every day because it meant helping others.

“I hear Tianna’s spending the night at Anja’s.” Henri’s gaze lifted from his book, his eyes smiling. “You can finally enjoy an evening to yourself.”

Anja had greeted me the first day Tianna and I arrived in Susi. She asked no questions, but took us into her home and gave us food, and we’d been inseparable friends ever since. Plus, she had two young girls, one aged six, and the other nine. They’d bonded with Tianna right away.

“Yeah, Tianna was so excited, she packed her bags last week.” I broke into a laugh. “Time to myself sounds fantastic, even if it did take me more than a week to agree to this sleepover. I’ve never spent a night without her under the same roof, you know.” Besides, it was selfish of me to deny Tianna the opportunity to create her own childhood memories.

“Anja will take good care of her, don’t worry.”

I nodded, anxiousness tickling through my veins. Focus on the positive. Everything is going to be fine. “Without Tianna shadowing me, I’ll have more time to prepare the house for the blizzard.” She’d be home before the full brute force of it.

My attention shifted to the meat counter, and my stomach growled at the thought of treating myself to a nice adult meal. “I’ll take two deer steaks.” Usually, I’d only eat one steak, but tonight I wanted to gorge on food, take a bath, and read a book.

Henri bustled with the order and bagged it in no time. “I’ve added a small sachet of my special Christmas blend. Add heated milk and you’ll forget your troubles for the night.” He winked the same as my dad had when he used to sneak another glass of blood wine, three parts fresh animal blood and one part red wine.

“Thanks. Have a great evening.” With a skip in my step and bag in hand, I hurried toward the exit as the winds outside rattled the building walls. Hopefully, this storm was all bark and little bite. Otherwise, in a couple of days, the blizzard would demolish the forest.

“Oh, Cacey I almost forgot. You received a letter today.”

Every muscle froze. Surprise wasn’t an emotion I ever accepted well. I’d run away from my last pack because my ex wanted to harm my daughter and me. And for that reason alone, I kept my new home a secret from my past. So who was sending me mail? No one knew we were here, and I preferred it that way. It had to be a mistake.

I twisted around and the knot in my stomach tightened, but staring at the envelope in Henri’s hand wasn’t helping. My fingers trembled as I accepted it. We couldn’t move again. Not so soon. Tianna would be heartbroken. I couldn’t do this to her. I bit the inside of my cheek, hoping the mail was a fluke.

“Have a nice night, Cacey.” With a few quick steps across the room, Henri entered the storeroom and a clank of cans resonated.

My gaze fell to the envelope with my name gracing the front in cursive writing. Shakily, I turned it over and found no return address. I shook my head at my nerves and let out a short chuckle. Could be one of the fashion stores I’d signed up for online to receive discounts.

The old wound on my wrist itched, and I rubbed it against my hip, remembering I got that by deflecting one of Daan’s drunken tantrums. It happened the night I decided to leave because he was swinging at Tianna who wouldn’t stop crying. I’d been stupid and defended his behavior for years, but that night was the last straw. We had to escape.

I ripped open the envelope.

Fear crouched quietly in my chest as I unfolded the letter. My eyes kept going over the one handwritten sentence, repeatedly, and still it wasn’t registering because this had to be a mistake.

Boo. I’ve found you, C!

~

CONTINUE READING CLOAKED IN CHRISTMAS HERE.

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