Todd and Nick Ruger are alive and on the run in the Yellowknife Protectorate, but maybe not for long. After narrowly escaping New Colorado, where they were implicated in the assassination of Chancellor Shaffer, they’re running out of steam: Todd is gravely ill and Nick’s injured. Just when it seems like the harsh winter will get the best of them, they find refuge with a doctor in the isolated town of Elk’s Ridge.
On the surface, Elk’s Ridge seems the ideal place to rebuild their lives. Nick begins training as the doctor’s apprentice, and Todd works in a lumberyard until they’re recovered enough to return to their duties as Sentries. They make friends, forge a new life, and most importantly, there’s no sign of anyone from New Colorado.
They should have known it was too good to be true. Victor Raleigh, the new Vice Chancellor of New Colorado, knows all about Nick’s psychic abilities, and he wants them in his corner. When Nick is betrayed and captured, Todd sees no alternative but to head back to the war zone to rescue him. But will Nick be the same man Todd loves after Raleigh’s pet psychic vampire is through with him?
Nick’s movements drew Todd’s attention. His mate rolled to his butt, sitting there leaning on one hand, legs half-stretched in front of him and crossed just below his knees. Shaggy, dark hair was brushed away from his face, and sleep-blurry eyes blinked at Todd, making his young mate look even younger… more like a sleep-tousled little boy.
There was no way Todd could, or would even try, to stop the smile from spreading over his face. Scooting closer to Nick, he combed his fingers through Nick’s hair, appreciating how soft it was. He pressed a gentle kiss to Nick’s forehead. “Morning.”
One side of Nick’s mouth twitched up for a second before he yawned.
“Christ, Nick, some days you make me feel like a pedophile.”
Nick yawned again, scratched at his chest, and mumbled out, “Huh?” He inched along the ground until he wedged himself between Todd’s legs and laid his head on Todd’s shoulder, face pressed against the side of his neck. Nick yawned again. His entire body relaxed as he nestled against Todd, ribcage expanding with yet another yawn.
“Lemme see this.” Todd lifted Nick’s shirt and inspected the bandaged wound as he had during the night. “According to the map, there’s a town not too far from here. How about we check it out, see if there is somewhere we can get some supplies? We need more bandaging material and more medicine to put on your wound. I’m going to heat some water and get it cleaned out again.”
“I don’t think it’s ever going to heal,” Nick grumbled. “It’s been almost a month.”
“I wouldn’t mind finding a doctor to take a look at it either.” Todd smoothed Nick’s shirt back into place and took a deep breath. “Nick, you keep having those nightmares.”
“How are we going to explain this kind of wound?”
Tapping Nick’s nose with one finger, Todd warned, “No changing the subject.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t stop them. They keep coming.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. We need to work on stopping them.” Massaging the back of his neck and shoulder, Todd gave some more thought to what Nick had told him last night. “Is there a part of the nightmares, or a certain scenario that bothers you more than the others?” Nick snorted.
“The whole thing bothers me.”
“Nick, work with me, here.”
“Well, it really scares me that there might be a second kelbit, a mate, and that she wants revenge and is tracking us. The nightmares always end with me cutting off your—its—head.”
Nodding, Todd said quietly, “I’ve proved to you there is no mate near here. We’ve searched and checked and not seen a single sign of another one. They can change form to look like someone else but not turn invisible. And it has no psychic power to get into your head. All it can do is take the memories and emotions of the person whose form it takes.”
“I know, and I do try telling myself that every day.”
Easing away from Nick, Todd stood up, at a loss for what else to say that might be helpful. Moving farther from the wagon, he got a fire started and set a pot of water on to heat. Nick wandered off toward the nearby river. Todd grabbed his clothes and headed after his mate.
He’d considered the possibility that Nick was right and the kelbit did have a mate who was somehow able to infiltrate Nick’s dreams. More likely, it was trauma. Nick’s ability to sense evil entities also made him incredibly sensitive emotionally. That trait didn’t always work for them, which strengthened Todd’s resolve to find them somewhere bigger than their wagon to stay. A place more easily defended and sturdier than a wagon would naturally offer a higher sense of security.
Once they were done washing in the cool water, Nick quietly sat by the fire, naked from the waist up, while Todd scrubbed out the round bite wound, smeared some more of the antiseptic cream over it, and applied a fresh bandage. The only sign of discomfort Nick let show was the occasional hissed in breath and a shifting of his shoulders forward. After the cream was smoothed over him, he turned and looked over his shoulder, rubbing at it with one hand. “That makes it feel better.” He offered Todd a sweet, easy smile. “Thanks.”
“How about we get a real meal in town? It should be over that rise. It’s called Elk’s Ridge, and from the looks of it on the map, it’s a decent-sized town. Then we can hit a store if they have one. We’ll need somewhere a little more permanent and stable for the winter. This area is as good as any I suppose. If we want, we can head out again in the spring, but for now, we have enough money to get us through.”
“We can always get work, Todd. There will be lots of our sort of problems kicked up by the war. You know, ghosts to dispatch, monsters to slay, curses to break.” Nick shrugged and grinned. “I sort of miss doing our good deeds.”
“Well, me too, but not until that wound is healed, we can’t. Besides, time to give it a break for a bit, I think, and stay as far away from that war as possible. I hope if they have a store, there’s a post office, too, so we can send our letter to Jimmy and maybe get a newspaper, see what we’re missing.”
Todd saw how Nick’s face softened when he mentioned Jimmy. He knew the tone of his own voice clued Nick in to how much he worried about Jimmy Cantor. He wasn’t only the coordinator of sentries in New Colorado, but he had partially raised Todd and was their friend.
Nick nodded and pulled his shirt over his head, then added the sweatshirt Todd had given him on their first day together and he still insisted on wearing. They dowsed the fire and packed their camp into the wagon before securing the team, choosing instead to ride the saddle horses into town.
“We can’t ride the same horse?” Nick stood beside Obi, looking up at Todd who was already sitting on the other horse. It’d taken Nick a while longer, but he’d come up with a name for the young, buckskin gelding. Todd’s horse had been named Arenite. “What if it’s a problem, me riding on a horse?”
Motioning to Nick to mount up, Todd smiled softly. “It’ll be okay. No law says you can’t ride one as long as you’re with me. I know you like when we ride together better, but we’re going to need both horses and the packs to haul back supplies.”
“No law in New Colorado,” Nick grumbled and swung onto the horse.
“I doubt the laws in Yellowknife are much different, but if they are, we’ll worry about it then. I’m willing to bet the laws here might be looser since they don’t have their own slavery industry, just don’t take the offense to it that West Caldera does.”
Nick didn’t say anything else, simply nodded and nudged Obi into motion, keeping close enough to Todd their legs brushed as the horses moved. It was sunny, with large, puffy, white clouds dotting the sky. The air had a crisp, clean scent to it that always put Todd in a good, mellow mood.
The town, Todd discovered, was a pleasant one. There was maybe around a thousand inhabitants, smaller than the tens of thousands who lived in bigger cities like New Colorado City or Yellowknife City, but not so small that they were totally unaccustomed to people passing through.
On the way into town, they had passed apple orchards and an abundance of maple trees. Farms dotted the area; Todd had seen that on the map. Even as far north as it was, it was a hub for travelers, which was immediately evident by the several inns and variety of shops and businesses. There were also a few cafés and restaurants, a larger sized livery, libraries, and a fair amount of homes scattered around the outskirts and farther out in the countryside. Leaving their horses in the care of the livery, they decided to hike around and check the place out.
The buildings were mostly stone and wood with slate and shingle roofs. The streets were cobblestone or brick-paved with wide, wooden sidewalks on either side. Flowerboxes hung under the windows of the businesses. Many of the houses and the inns had gardens with both flowers and vegetables. It was easy to see treelined, residential streets off the main roads. The houses looked like larger homes perfect for families, and Todd counted two schools.
This was a little oasis of civilization in the rugged, mostly uninhabited, far northern part of the Rocky Mountains.
Their first stop was the Rambling Moose café a few blocks over from the livery. It was the type of place that attracted both people wanting a quick bite to eat as well as those enjoying a relaxing meal out. Inside was a bar surrounded by a dozen or so tables with big, comfortable-looking chairs. A deck ran around three of the building’s sides, affording patrons the opportunity to eat and drink outside in the nicer weather.
Just like they did at the café near what had been their home in New Colorado City, Todd and Nick took an outdoor table. They settled into the heavy wooden chairs and looked over the menu. A waiter came along, greeting them and welcoming them to Elk’s Ridge. He made some small talk while providing them with water and coffee. Todd kept his answers neutral, and the man never acted as if anything were amiss or that he’d recognized them, immediately putting Todd at ease. As soon as he relaxed, he saw how Nick did the same.
The fact that Todd was a stranger, wandering the streets and now sitting at an outside table at the café with a slave, drew little attention other than a few people who’d greeted them on the street. As he’d always done, Nick’s tether was hooked to his collar and then tucked into his back pocket making it easy to grab if needed.
The letter to Jimmy started a few days ago was finished while they sipped very good coffee and waited for their meal. Todd was pleased that people here had slaves. He’d seen several on their trip through, and no one seemed much fussed over how he treated Nick. In fact, this town reminded him of the New Colorado City neighborhood he’d chosen to live in, where most of the owners and slaves were a part of a family.
Todd got a good feeling from the town; people minded their own business and were open to newcomers, not that he was ready to find a real estate office just yet, but this was definitely a place to check out more closely. They would probably be fine if they could find a small cabin or even a cave for the winter, keep an eye on the town, and decide if this was where they wanted to live.
“The coffee here is good.” Nick had finally stopped shoveling food in and was leaning back in his chair, looking up and down the street. He looked content and was smiling; another good sign as far as Todd was concerned.
When they left the Rambling Moose Café, there was a five-pound bag of coffee beans to add to their packs. The doctor, they discovered, lived just west of the town and outside of it on a small piece of 14 property. If he didn’t find something for Nick’s shoulder in town, then Todd decided a visit to the doctor was in order.
They wandered down the street to the next main intersecting street and took a right, walking along. There was a large store not far from the intersection; they’d gotten directions from a waiter at the café. It took up nearly half the block. It was several stories high with a store on the main floor, lodging on the second floor, and whatever was on the third wasn’t open to the public, but Todd suspected it was storage. He could see houses behind the store that were attached to it. Probably whatever family owned it lived in those houses. To one side was a barn that was home to a half dozen horses if the small windows running in a line across the middle of the building were any indication.
In unison, they stopped and looked at the large, wood sign with the words Foxtail General Store carved into the wood. A fox lounged across the top of the letters, while its tail was wrapped underneath. Nick nudged Todd’s side and pointed at the sign, grinning. “People around here like the wildlife. They can’t be so bad,” Nick said.
“Let’s hope you’re right. This is a nice town.” Todd pushed the door open and went inside, Nick a step behind him.
As they walked through, Nick was all eyes, checking out everything, making Todd smile. It’d been a while since he’d truly seen Nick’s insatiable curiosity come bouncing to the forefront, and it gave him hope his young mate would be on the mend if they stuck around this area for a while. Heading toward the back where there was a counter, and looking beyond it, Todd did indeed see that there was someone’s home.
Two small children, a boy and girl, maybe about four years old came running from behind the counter. They were small, blonde, cute, looked like twins, and nearly ran Todd over.
“Whoa, whoa, easy there,” he laughed and scooped one kid—the girl—up, swung her around, and set her on the counter all while deftly sidestepping the little boy plowing into his shins. Nick covered his mouth and snickered.
“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. Karen, Kieron, you’re both supposed to be in the house helping Nana not annoying our customers. Now go.”
A woman about Todd’s age rushed after them. She was small, equally as blonde as her children, with crystal-blue eyes, and had long, wavy hair that fell to below her shoulders. She offered Todd a dazzling smile. “I am very sorry. What can I do for you?” She skimmed her fingers over his forearm lightly before coming to rest on the counter.
A quick glance back at Nick who was brushing his hair back from his face and looking a little grumpy, and Todd stepped up to the counter after the little girl, Karen, vacated it for the house and her Nana. The woman’s gaze flashed to Nick for a brief instant before landing back on Todd. He hoped he really didn’t look like some kind of pedophile after all. His mate looked too damn young sometimes. Todd resisted the urge to blurt out Nick was twenty-three.
“Do you have any postal service here?” Todd fished the letter out of his coat pocket.
Nick stepped up behind him, dropped to one knee, crossed his arms over the bent one, and looked around the store casually. Todd recognized that for what it was; Nick’s little bouts of jealousy and insecurity hadn’t bothered him since the night not too long after leaving the Chancellor’s Estate that he’d chased after his mate. Nick behaved this way the most when he wanted reassurance from Todd; he understood that and found giving Nick his needed security and letting it ride was his best course of action. He let one hand drop casually to his side and moved it back far enough to skim across Nick’s hair for a few seconds before bringing it back up to rest on the counter. Todd didn’t often demand Nick take a kneeling position behind him, but he wanted Nick to know when he chose to do so on his own, Todd completely understood the reasoning behind Nick’s actions and that Nick would never be reprimanded.
“We do.” She held out her hand, and Todd set the envelope with their letter to Jimmy in her palm. It took her a minute to weigh it and figure the postage, and she chatted away at him while she worked. “I’m Amelia Wilbourne, and you’ve met my children. Are you new in town or passing through?”
He also found out in those few minutes that she was a widow; her husband had been killed in an accident earlier the year before. She lived with her grandparents and children. Her brother and his family ran the local lumberyard about a mile down the road. It was way too much information, definitely way too much hair flipping and touching of Todd’s forearm while she was giving it out.
“Not sure yet.” Todd smiled at her and handed over payment for the postage then gave her a quick handshake when she offered her other hand. “We’re definitely here to pick up some supplies.”
Reaching behind him, he slipped one finger under Nick’s collar and tugged lightly. Nick stood, stepped closer, and waited placidly beside him. “I’m Todd Ruger. This is Nick, my mate.”
Amelia’s gaze barely flicked to Nick who smiled politely and nodded. “Hello.” His voice was soft, and Todd was likely the only person who’d ever hear the note of insecurity in it.
“Well, Mr. Ruger, if you need anything at all, let me know.” She had a sort of predatory sweet smile that made Todd want to shake his head. Nick more glared at her than anything. “I hope we see more of you in here. If there is anything you can’t find, let me know, I’ll have it ordered.”
“I bet you will,” Nick grumbled. If she heard him, she ignored him. In fact, other than the first glance she’d spared Nick, she hadn’t acknowledged his presence at all.
Todd gave Nick a slight bump on his arm, and they grabbed a basket, and walked up and down the aisles. Thankfully, Todd found some medicated cream as well as the rest of the supplies they were getting low on to replenish their stock. Nick finding a book that interested him made Todd happy, and he made it a point to hand it back to Nick after paying for it. Amelia’s looks were making him nervous, and he decided he really wanted her to understand Nick was his mate, and Todd was not looking for any other sort of company.
It was early evening when they left the town and headed back to their wagon. Todd wasn’t comfortable enough to get a room at one of the inns for a few nights. He wanted to watch the town and the area for a while first. That night, a cold wind blew in heavy rains, forcing them to sleep in the wagon. Todd spent the night shifting from one side to the other, trying to ease aches and cramps, never seeming to find a position that allowed him to relax and sleep, all while trying to stifle a cough he figured came from the damp air and not wake up Nick. That turned out to be a nonissue since Nick didn’t really sleep much. If he wasn’t flinching awake from nightmares, he was rousted by Todd’s tossing and coughing.
By early morning, the two of them finally got to sleep. It rained most of that day, making Todd even antsier. He’d decided he wanted to check the area, watch the town, and bad weather was thwarting his plans.