My first encounter with Michael’s mother had been less than ideal. Hopefully dinner tonight would provide an opportunity for improvement. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, though. She and Michael didn’t end the conversation on the best note, and now there was the added bonus of meeting the rest of his extensive family this evening as well.
To that end, I put a serious effort into making myself presentable for dinner. I took my time in my en suite bathroom, showering again but actually washing my hair this time. I didn’t consider myself a vain creature. I’d always called myself run-of-the-mill pretty. I was on the taller side, with an athletic frame. My bra size was in the A-B range, depending on the brand, and my limbs were long and muscular from all my time spent running through the woods with my pack. I liked to think I had a decent set of facial features. Vanity kicked in when it came to my hair and my eyes. My hair fell to my waist, a medium brown with natural highlights from where the sun bleached it out. My eyes were almond shaped and heavy lidded. They looked killer in winged liner and three coats of mascara.
I found a hair dryer and a curling iron in one of the bathroom drawers. Thank you, Marlena. It took me over twenty minutes to dry so much hair. It was such a pain in the ass that usually I let it do its thing, but I couldn’t risk it deciding to frizz out on me tonight.
I paused afterward and made myself another cup of coffee, padding out into the kitchen in my faded flannel bathrobe. I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, and I felt like I needed the jolt of caffeine to keep me going.
Michael sat with his laptop propped up on the coffee table in our common area, his phone pressed to his ear. On the other end of the line, a man droned on about acquisitions.
“Coffee?” I said, voice low.
He pointed to the kitchen.
I stared at him. No shit that’s where I’d find coffee.
Be nice, Layla. Don’t tease the strange werewolf too much.
“I mean do you want some?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I did my best to ignore his conversation as I went about learning how his fancy coffee machine worked. The man he talked to had a kind of monotone voice that was easy to drown out. Michael only spoke to ask questions, silent for long stretches in between. He sounded perfectly calm and polite, but a mounting annoyance came through the bond that belied his impatience.
A few careful button presses later, I had myself a latte. I turned and walked back to my new bedroom. Michael lifted his head from his computer and watched me go, his gaze steady. What was going on behind those intelligent dark eyes? I would have given anything to find out. I didn’t like enigmas, and I definitely wasn’t used to self-contained shifters. The people I grew up around were loud, boisterous, and blunt. No use pretending not to be angry when your scent would give you away.
I was still freaked out by the way his mother’s had just…disappeared. There was something off about that woman.
I glanced at Michael one last time before shutting the door behind me. There was something off about him too. Our bond was brand new. From everything I’d been told, I should have felt his every emotion come through loud and clear. Like I had last night right after the bond had snapped into place. It was almost like he’d learned how to mute it, but I knew that wasn’t it. Because the thing was, I should have still smelled his emotions, and I didn’t. You can’t mask scent. Not that I knew of, at least. Michael’s emotions weren’t coming through the bond that strongly because he wasn’t experiencing them that strongly. He wasn’t letting himself get upset. He had his feelings under lock down. I would have been impressed at his level of control if I wasn’t so weirded out by it.
My thoughts ran in a loop as I carried my coffee over to one of the taller wardrobes and pulled out my favorite red dress. It wasn’t anything fancy, tight in the bodice and looser over my hips, falling to mid-thigh, but it set off my shape well, made me look like I had more curves than I did.
I pulled it on after finishing my coffee, then went back to the bathroom and curled my hair. That took less time than blow drying it did, since I opted for loose waves. Afterward, I spread a natural tinted moisturizer over my face, brushed a little blush over my cheeks, and applied my go-to winged liner and multiple coats of mascara.
It was funny how putting on a dress could feel like donning chain mail. How easy it was to think of my makeup as war paint. Ready for battle, I left my room.
Michael waited in the kitchen. His expression hardly changed as his gaze took me in – just a slight rise of his brows – but through the bond came a newfound…awareness. His mouth pinched, and the emotion disappeared, like he’d mentally quashed it. Too late. I knew what it meant: my mate thought I was hot.
“You look well,” he said, with almost no inflection.
Not nice, or pretty. Well. I leveled my gaze at him and strode over, my hips rolling thanks to the heels I wore. I’d had just about enough of him trying to hide his emotions from me. “Michael, thanks to the bond, I’m aware of just how well you think I look.”
His gaze raked over me again, quickly, like he couldn’t help himself, and then he turned half away. I felt his mounting discomfort. His cheeks colored slightly. It was a glorious sight.
“But thank you,” I said, taking pity on him. “You look nice too.”
He pushed his right arm straight, exposing his watch, and then bent his elbow to read it. “We should be leaving soon. Are you ready?”
Guess we’re not going to talk about this.
“I am,” I said. “Better to be early than late. I’d rather not risk your mother’s wrath. You might be her son, but I’m just the inconvenient cannon fodder you got bonded to.”
I’d meant it as joke, but he didn’t take it that way. Anger wafted off of him, like the breeze that precipitates a hurricane. His voice dropped into a near growl. “She will not make a move against you.”
I held up my hands. “Woah, my bad. Guess teasing each other about our personal safety is out.”
He closed his eyes for a long moment. In the back of my mind, I felt him battling against a sudden mix of fear, panic, and what must have been protectiveness. The fear and panic felt familiar. Oh. They were mine, rebounding like my parents had warned they would.
Michael took a deep, shuddering breath in through his nose and gripped the edge of the kitchen island. I hated to see him like this, and even though I knew it was the bond driving my need to comfort him, the urge was impossible to ignore.
I reached out and rubbed his back in the same soothing way Mom did mine. He stiffened in response, and I almost pulled my hand away. But then I felt some of the tension ease from the muscles his suit hid, and instead I pressed in a little harder. He relaxed in increments, his anger draining away along with the stiffness in his body. After a few minutes, he bowed his head and pushed backward into me. Interesting. Maybe he wasn’t allergic to surprise hugs after all. Maybe he just wasn’t used to them.
“You doing okay?” I asked. “Mr. Iron Self Control?”
He stared down at the floor. “I am unaccustomed to this feeling of…helplessness. And while I pride myself on being the master of my emotions, yours are proving somewhat more difficult for me to wrangle. They seem to be amplifying my own at the moment.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m trying.”
He lifted his head and met my gaze, a small, humorless smile playing over his full lips. “We are forever apologizing to each other.”
“Want to just call it even?”
He nodded. “Thank you for…”
“Rubbing your back?” I asked, grinning.
He nodded again, a hint of pink in his cheeks.
Was he shy? Or just a prude? And why did I suddenly want to keep teasing him until I found out which it was?
Michael proffered his arm. “Shall we?”
If it was anyone else, I would have told them that I could walk on my own, thank you very much, but there was a hint of…anticipation maybe, coming through the bond that made me think this was just an excuse to keep touching. I wrapped my arm through his, careful not to brush my fingers over the exposed skin on his wrist, and together we made our way downstairs.
I thought we were still early. Dinner was supposed to be served at eight, and it was fifteen till. But when Michael led me into the dining room, it was to be met by a crowd of people. The only ones I recognized were his mother and Lizzy.
I forced my spine straight as they turned toward us, taking shallow breaths through my nose to sniff out the mood of the collective. Wariness pervaded the room. Their heartbeats ran the gauntlet from pulsing at the speed of a hummingbird – Lizzy – to the slow cadence of boredom – a handsome man near the windows who wore laconic disdain like other people did designer clothes.
I felt several soft points of pressure along my psyche, their power stretching out to brush against my own as they gleaned the unique signature of a new wolf. The probing was delicate, like they were trying to be polite about it. With difficulty, I managed to pull my power back even further. Hopefully they assumed that I was leaking metaphysical mojo because I was nervous to meet them and didn’t think I was an alpha trespassing on their territory.
A tall man with salt and pepper hair detached himself from the crowd and came over to us. “I hear congratulations is in order,” he said, unsmiling.
“Thank you, Father,” Michael answered smoothly. If he was annoyed by his father’s rudeness, I didn’t feel it. “May I introduce Layla. Layla, this is my father, Derrick.”
Derrick didn’t offer to shake my hand. He made no effort to welcome me either. His wife’s hostility must be infectious. I should say something. Bridge this gap. Be the bigger wolf and offer to shake his hand. But by being rude to me, he was also showing disrespect to my mate, and while the former was no skin off my back, the latter made me want to gouge his fricking eyes out.
A dark haired, heavily pregnant woman pushed her way in front of Derrick, breaking the awkward silence. She was closer to Michael’s age than my own, pretty, sharing some of Michael’s features, only softened by femininity. She extended her hand toward me. “Layla, hi. I’m Amy, Michael’s sister.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, taking it.
Her grip was warm and firm. The smile on her face seemed genuine. She released me and shot an annoyed glance at her retreating father, who hadn’t even bothered to excuse himself. “Well, he’s in fine form.” She turned back to us and looked down at her distended abdomen. “Really wish this kid would hurry the hell up and get out of me so I can go back to drinking my way through these family dinners.” She hadn’t lowered her voice, and across the room, Lizzy snorted.
I did my best to tamp down my own amusement.
“Where are the other children?” Michael asked.
“With the nanny,” Amy answered. She turned her back to the rest of the room so she could role her eyes in relative safety. “Mother insisted it be only adults tonight.” Her scent spiked, turning prickly, telling me that she was pissed at her mom for some reason.
Michael felt wary, no doubt responding to this small show of family drama. My arm was still slung through his, so I rubbed my thumb over the fabric of his jacket sleeve a few times, more out of commiseration than to soothe him. Still, the motion calmed us both.
Amy’s gaze dropped to where we were joined, and she smiled to see it.
The smarmy, handsome man with laconic disdain face joined us then. “Thomas,” he said, sounding insufferably bored.
“My husband,” Amy explained.
I looked between them. Their hearts didn’t beat as one. Their scents contrasted. Definitely not bonded. Married for political or financial reasons? Or true love? “Nice to meet you.”
He raised his glass to me and then sauntered away. Amy didn’t watch him go. Must be a political alliance. Either that or whatever love they’d shared had soured long ago.
I met two more of Michael’s brothers after that, Matthew, who was in his first year of college, and Winslow, who fell somewhere in between Amy and Nathaniel. Winslow’s wife, Kristin, was a short blonde woman with an eerie resemblance to their matriarch. I really hoped that it was because she was trying to emulate her and not because the Kolbecks formed alliances like the former heads of European monarchies and she was a cousin or something.
A servant came in to announce dinner shortly after the introductions were over, and we moved toward the chairs.
“Not there, Derrick, over on the other side of our guest of honor,” Michael’s mother said.
Her husband had been halfway to sitting and arched a brow at her – must be where Michael got it from – before he straightened and came to sit beside me. I thought nothing of it, at first, but then she made similar commands on several other occasions, and by the time everyone was in their seats, I sat in the corner with my back to the windows, the largest of the males in her family spread out around me like my own personal harem.
Michael drummed his fingers on the table as though impatient, while deep beneath the surface I felt him doing his best to tamp down his unease. He seemed like he was succeeding, but then I started to worry because he was worried, and our mirroring emotions circled around each other in my mind until he lifted his arm from the table and draped it across the back of my chair. How he made it look so casual was beyond me. His expression was one of supreme nonchalance. His bicep brushed past my shoulder blades on the way down, like an invitation. As naturally as I could, I leaned back into him, and the contact served to settle us down.
I made a mental note. Touching skin to skin: bad. Touching with layers between us: good.
The room was uncomfortably quiet while the first course was served. Michael’s father gave me a sharp look when I thanked the young man that set my food in front of me. Apparently, that wasn’t something they did here.
The last of the servers left the room.
Michael’s mother pinned us with her cold eyes. “Tell us what happened.”
I stuffed a huge forkful of chicken into my mouth to get out of being the one to do so. Ladylike? No. Desperate? You betcha. I had no regrets.
Michael answered his mother with measured calm. “As most of you know, I accompanied Nathaniel to the bonding ceremony in New Hampshire last night. The magic was corrupted, by what, we’re not entirely sure, and many among those in the audience found ourselves bound against our will.”
Conversation broke out then, his siblings and in-laws voicing their surprise or offering condolences.
“So find a way to unbind yourselves,” his mother said, voice snapping like a whip over the din.
Everyone else shut up.
I reached for my wine and took a healthy swig. Across from me, Amy eyed my glass with longing. Poor thing.
“It has come to my attention that there is no known way to undo it,” Michael said.
His Mother’s expression darkened. “There’s one way.”
Woah. Did she just hint at having me taken out?
Beside me, Michael chuckled, like he found her idle threat amusing. In my head, he felt deathly calm. “You so casually threaten the wellbeing of my mate over dinner? Come now, Mother, I thought your manners better than this.”
Goading her. Right. Sound plan, my dude. Totally going to end well.
The rest of the family wisely looked down at their plates, wanting no part of this exchange. I stuffed another piece of chicken in my mouth.
“Mate,” she said, spitting the word out like it tasted bad. “Ridiculous.”
Michael met her glare with a face wiped clean of all expression. “Your distaste for our bond won’t in any way negate it. Nor will your reticence. I’ll say this one time. What happened to us is real. Even now, I can feel her here.” He lifted his hand and tapped a finger against his temple. “I can feel her anxiety, her fear. The smell of her is overpowering to me. Even our pulses beat in tandem. Listen.”
Everyone at the table turned to us. Sets of eyes narrowed in concentration. Heads tilted to point ears in our direction. It looked like they had to strain to pick out the sound. I stared back at them in shock. They should have noticed our heartbeats the moment we walked into the room. It was second nature. In conjunction with scents, it was how werewolves gauged each other’s moods. Even adolescent shifters were able to do this with ease.
What the hell was wrong with the Kolbecks?
“Fine,” his mother said. She gestured at us with a hand. “There’s something between you two. But it can’t be worth throwing away a two-year engagement that comes with the promise of extended territory and great financial gains.”
“Marlena and I have already agreed to go our separate ways,” Michael said.
I sat back in surprise. That was news to me.
Michael’s father leaned forward to look at him. “Tell me you didn’t.”
At the head of the table, his mother growled. “Call her back and fix this. Beg for forgiveness if you have to.”
“You assume that I was the one to break things off,” Michael said. “I assure you, the decision was hers. She was quite adamant that we end the engagement.”
“Idiots, both of you,” his mother said.
I put my hands beneath the table so she wouldn’t see me clench them into fists.
Deep breaths, I told myself, battling back the all-encompassing need to defend him.
“So, we lose a political alliance that would have added to our fortunes and territory and gain…what?” she said, her gaze boring into me.
I looked away again, in submission. No way in hell was I answering such a loaded question. I doubted there was an answer that would satisfy her.
“Careful, mother,” Michael said. His smile was as sharp as a knife.
“What do you even know about her?” she demanded in response.
“Admittedly, very little,” he answered. “But what I can tell you is that in the past,” he paused to glance at his watch, “not even twenty-four hours, she has suffered the shock of being bonded to me against her will, agreed to drop out of her current school, packed up her life and moved down here so that I could continue working for this family, was forced to say goodbye to her loved ones without knowing when she would see them again, has had to endure the stress of meeting a new pack, and now your onslaught of insinuations, threats, and insults, all without a single complaint.”
The way he described it, I deserved a sainthood at this point.
His mother remained unmoved by his speech. “Said goodbye to her parents?” Her tone was leading. The way she cocked her head sideways seemed antagonistic. A sinking suspicion opened in the pit of my stomach. “How little you know about her after all. In the several hours since meeting her, it seems I’ve learned more than you. The Fitzpatrick’s are her adoptive parents.”
Uh-oh. My heartbeat picked up, adrenaline coursing through my veins.
“I assumed they were when I met them,” Michael said. “But that was her news to share with me if and when she chose to.”
“Her real surname is Moretti.”
Oh, shit. She knew.
“Please don’t do this,” I said.
She bared her teeth at me. “Don’t tell me what to do in my own house.”
Michael leveled his gaze at her. “I would ask you to keep a civil tongue when speaking to Layla.”
This was turning into an unmitigated disaster.
At the head of the table, his Mother opened her mouth and made it worse. “She’s from the MacKenzie Valley tribe.”
The reaction around the dinner table was immediate. Shock ripped through the bond. Kristin jerked back like she’d been shot. The men closest to me swelled forward in their seats as if to protect the women at the opposite end. Amy put a protective hand on her belly. Several people rose from their chairs.
I sat amid the confusion trying to control myself. My power beat against the bars of the cage I’d corralled it into, threatening to break forth. A burning anger gathered inside me, so overpowering at first that I didn’t realize it was coming from Michael.
“Is this why you sat me here?” I asked his mother. “Crowding me with all these big men so they could act as a shield? Why the kids aren’t here? You thought I might be a danger to your family?” Hurt, bone deep, coursed through me. So much for trying to integrate myself into Michael’s family.
Beneath the table, he reached out and gripped my thigh through my dress. It distracted me so much that the threat of blasting them with wolf power subsided.
I turned to look at him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find out like this.”
He squeezed my leg and then let me go. “There’s no need to apologize. You should have been allowed the opportunity to tell me on your own time.” He turned to his mother. “These theatrics are uncalled for. If you were worried, you should have said something this afternoon instead of making such a scene at dinner.”
“They needed to hear it,” she said. “Besides, I was taking a page out of your own playbook. What was it you said to me earlier? You didn’t want to have to repeat the tale for the entire family?” A cold smile spread over her face.
That settled it. Michael’s mother was a complete bitch.
“Who are the MacKenzie Valley tribe?” a small voice asked from near the head of the table. Lizzy. “Why have I never heard of them before?”
The alpha regarded her youngest child. “Because they were wiped out before their stupidity exposed our kind to the world.” She turned to pierce me once more with those mercenary blue eyes. “Go ahead, tell her the story.”
Michael’s hackles rose. “No.”
“The family deserves to know what you’ve saddled us with,” she shot back.
“I will not sit idly by while you force my mate to recount her tragic past like some sort of macabre dinner show.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“It is far from fine,” he said, nearly drowning me in the sea of his anger.
I wasn’t going to argue with him. I also wasn’t going to be the reason his family ripped itself apart at the seams. His mother did have a point, after all, though she was making it in the most disruptive way possible.
“I’ll tell you,” I said, focusing on Lizzy. “A few hundred years ago, my ancestors fled the preternatural overcrowding of Europe to look for packland in a new country. They settled in Alberta, Canada, deep in the wilderness that surrounds what is now known as the MacKenzie River, though it had many different names back then.”
“Please tell us we’re not about to be subjected to a history lesson,” Michael’s mother said.
“You wanted a story,” I told her. And then, to Lizzy, “We were the first white people the Native Americans there, the Sahtú, had encountered, and though our interactions with them were limited at first, our peoples soon developed an alliance. We brought steel tools and gunpowder. They had an encyclopedic knowledge of the area. We petitioned them and were granted lands they didn’t use, due to their inhospitableness. Lands that wolves would thrive in.
“There was peace for several generations, but even the remote wilderness couldn’t keep the European immigrants out forever. Fur trappers, explorers, and hunters soon began to infiltrate the Sahtú’s territory. We adopted the policy of killing them on site, because where humans go, vampires follow. It wasn’t enough.
“It was the mid-1700s by the time the vampires eventually found us, and from our very first confrontation with them, it was war. They saw us as a barrier to their blood lust. To them, the Sahtú had no knowledge of vampires and little fear of white men because of the peace that held between them and the pack. They believed they could take them entirely by surprise.
“They were wrong. The Sahtú practiced a powerful form of earth magic, and with it they turned the very land against the vampires. We worked with their shamans tirelessly, acting as their runners, spreading word and warning to the outlying villages. We also formed a forward guard, shifting our enforcers to give advance warning of vampire incursions.
“But even with our combined efforts, it was a war we soon realized we would lose unless we found a way to tip the scales. The vampires we faced were old world. Too strong and too fast for a wolf to take out in single combat. The only way we held our own with them at first was through sheer numbers and the aid of magic. When they began whittling us away, we took drastic measures, starting what amounted to a breeding program. Only the largest, the strongest, and the most brutal of our kind were allowed to procreate as we attempted to engineer a strain of werewolf that could stand on equal footing with the bloodsuckers.
“It worked, in time, though we lost hundreds of wolves to the war in the interim. And no matter how desperately we fought, we still struggled to stem the tide of humanity from washing over the area. The only thing that proved effective in keeping them from the Sahtú’s doorstep was a glimmer of the truth. The shamans ordered the tribes to tell every white person they saw of mythical creatures that hunted humans. Every now and then, when a particularly stubborn group of settlers tried to erect a village, we would descend upon them and terrify them into leaving.
“There’s even record of the stories in an old book by the man the river is now named after. “We were also to encounter monsters of such horrid shapes and destructive powers as could only exist in their wild imaginations,”” I quoted. “Eventually, the vampires gave up, searching out easier food sources among the chaos of the Wild West, where people died so easily to cholera and typhus and gunshot wounds that no one would notice all the corpses drained of blood.
“We didn’t trust them not to come back. So far removed from modernity, the breeding program continued right up until the 1970s, when decades of petty infighting among our clans erupted into outright civil war. We’d bred ourselves to be powerful and vicious, and we tore each other apart.
“Technology was moving in, and we, in our wilderness enclave, were unaware of the threat it posed. A very old vampire came to speak to us one night about it. She told us why we must set our differences aside, that protecting the truth of preternaturals from the rest of the world was paramount to the continued existence of all of us.
“We didn’t listen. By the 80s we had decimated our own population and exposed ourselves several times to nearby humans. Thankfully, that vampire was there to clean up our messes. But by the late 90s, she’d had enough. It was clear that nothing would stop us until we’d destroyed ourselves in such a spectacular way that the entire world would know about it.”
My gaze drifted past Lizzy, memories clouding my sight, a haunted note creeping into my tone. “She came in the night, alone. I’ve never felt anything else like her. Vampires get stronger with every passing decade, and she was so old that her power made my bones hurt. How we could have been foolish enough to ignore her, I’ll never understand. Even with our superior numbers and two hundred years of selective breeding, we didn’t stand a chance. She culled all of the adults who wouldn’t see reason, which was most of them, including my birth parents. Sometimes I still dream about that night, my six-year-old self wandering barefoot through the slaughter as I called out for them.”
“Jesus Christ,” someone swore.
I blinked and came back to myself. “The survivors were split up, sent to live with other packs. I landed with the Fitzpatrick’s, and the rest is history. So to answer your earlier question,” I said, turning toward the Kolbecks’ alpha, “that’s what I bring to the table. Monstrous size in wolf form, so much power that I have to constantly mute it or else fight every wolf I encounter, and enough strength to beat a young vampire to death with an affordable mid-sized sedan.”
Across the table, Amy choked back a laugh.
Her mother was less amused. “We walk a delicate tightrope of a ceasefire masquerading as peace. Your people’s brutality is a risk we can’t afford. If you snap and take someone’s head off, it will be shattered.”
“They’re not my people,” I told her. “The Fitzpatrick’s are. And just so you know, I’ve never so much as seriously maimed someone. I’m sure you’re aware that the White Mountain pack is known for their control of the shift. Few wolves outside our area have mastered it like we have. I was damn near feral when I was adopted, and my parents spent years trying to save me from myself or from being killed by Brian, our alpha, because of the threat I represented. You might not trust me, but he’s only a phone call away. He can assure you that I’ve never been a problem.”
“Up there, perhaps,” she said. “But you’ll find the city will afford you with far more opportunities for violence than the backwoods you’re accustomed to.”
In answer, I set my right elbow on the table and raised my hand. Concentrating, I opened my mind, calling to my wolf form. The cage around my power weakened, enough escaping that soon my fingertips began to tingle. I flexed them and fur pushed up through my pores. My nails thickened and lengthened, turning into claws.
The mingled smells of surprise, unease, and deep discomfort filled the room. I guess the Kolbecks hadn’t seen this little parlor trick before.
I stopped the shift halfway down my forearm, then pulled my left hand up and placed my other elbow on the table, showing them a still fully human hand. It wasn’t until I’d proven to Brian I had this much control that he stopped ordering his enforcers to trail my every move.
“Holy shit,” Lizzy breathed.
“Language, Elizabeth,” her mother said.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Michael place his right hand, the same hand I had shifted, on top of the table, his fingers spread wide as he stared down at it. Near panic came through the bond. With a thought, I pulled my power back and let my human form reclaim dominance. The fur melted smoothly back into my skin. My claws retracted with a prickly sensation. Michael rubbed his fingers together as though scratching my itch.
I turned back to the head of the table. “If I have this much control over my shift, imagine the reign I have over my more problematic instincts.”
Michael’s mother smiled at me, the first warm look I had seen on her face. “In that case, welcome to the family, Layla.”
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.