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Present Day, England
Desperation bordering on the edge of insanity filled Emma McGovern as the wolves'howling broke through the stillness of the early evening. She stood at the window, looking out onto the bleak countryside, the raucous baying bringing a tremble to her fingers and a burning sensation to the scars along her cheek. Phantom pains, she'd been told, but that didn't make them hurt less, or make the memories any less vivid.
"They're back, Lucia," Emma said without turning to look at the woman who was bending into the oven and basting the roast. The rich aroma of tender pork and glazed vegetables wafted through the kitchen but couldn't warm the chill in Emma's bones, nor mask the underlying scent of fear.
Lucia closed the oven with a sharp thud, then turned and opened a cabinet next to the stove and pulled out an antique tin. She removed the lid and took out a brooch fashioned with dried heather and gardenias. "Here, put this on," she said.
"It's beautiful," Emma murmured, then lifted the brooch to her nose and breathed deeply. Instantly, she pulled away, her face twisting in revulsion. "Eww. What is it?"
"Fish oil. It will protect you from the beasts. Now put it on and wear it, at least until the night of the Equinox has passed," Lucia insisted, and returned the tin to the cabinet.
Reluctantly, Emma pinned the brooch to her lacetrimmed top, knowing deep down that nothing would protect her from the beasts. Her destiny was catching up with her. "It will never end, will it, Lucia? Every year I think, this year will be different, but then the wolves come back." She stepped over to the window, watching, waiting for the inevitable.
Luciashook her head. "I will find a way to break the curse. Gypsy magic created it, gypsy magic can destroy it. In the meantime, you must take precautions."
"I know." Emma gave her a half-hearted smile. "You don't have to worry on that front. Love isn't in the cards for me." Emma took a sip from her tea, and quickly averted her gaze. She didn't need a curse to keep love from her doorstep. Even if she could find love out here in the middle of nowhere, love would take one look at the scars on her face, turn and run.
Lucia's voice softened. "You can still have companionship, Emma. Friendship and a deep mutual caring are very important in any relationship. But you'll never find even that if you don't ever leave the house. Take a chance. Venture into the village. Meet people."
"So I can have what Mum and Dad had?"
How could Emma explain that she wanted more than a half-hearted relationship based on mutual interests? She wanted she blew out a sigh. She wanted what she couldn't have.A deep passion and a forever kind of love.
"Have you seen Angel?" she asked. "That stubborn dog hasn't come to my calls."
"No." Lucia's voice filled with concern as she moved to stand beside her at the window. "Has she been gone all day?"
Emma nodded, the worry gnawing at her. "She's usually back by now. She'd better come home soon, before"
"I'll find her," Lucia assured her, patted her on the arm, then walked back to the stove and opened the oven door. She put on her mitts, and took the roast out of the oven.
Part of Emma knew it was foolish to worry. Angel often ran off in the late afternoon. The silly dog would catch a scent of some rabbit or squirrel, and off she would go, chasing it through the countryside. Always before, she'd come home by dark. Tonight wouldn't be any different, she thought, trying to reassure herself as the sun sank below the horizon.
Only, before now, the dog had always returned when she'd called for her. The scars set deep in her cheek burned. She touched them, rubbing gently.
"Is the pain getting worse?" Lucia asked, the worry back in her eyes.
Emma nodded. "It always does this time of year." And not because of the cooler days and nights, as Dr. Callahan liked to say, but because it marked the return of the Equinox, of the wolves, of hopelessness.
"I'll make the salve," Lucia muttered. "In the meantime, take this tray up to your father, but don't let him see your fear." She ladled a hefty serving of potatoes and carrots onto a plate.
Emma pulled her fingers from the jagged edges of the scar tissue. "I know. Dr. Callahan told me to keep him calm. I won't upset him." She took the tray, and walked upstairs to her father's room. For a moment, she stood outside his door, trying to compose herself. She didn't want him worrying about her. Not now, not when his heart was so weak.
She took a deep breath, then walked in with the tray holding his dinner and medications balanced in her hands. "Ready for supper, Dad?"
"Emma," he said, his eyes narrowing as he smiled at her. "Have you been avoiding me?"
"Don't be silly. Why would I be avoiding my favorite dad?"
"Oh, do you have another dad I don't know about?"
She grinned and placed the tray on his lap. "Lucia's made pork roast with carrots and new potatoes. She's really outdone herself tonight."
"You should have brought a tray for yourself and eaten with me," he said, and gave a small pout.
"I should have, you're right," she agreed, reluctant to tell him she couldn't eat. How could she, with her stomach all tied up in knots? She busied herself turning up his light to chase the shadows back into the room's deep corners, then sat in the Queen Anne chair next to the bed.
He took a bite of the meat and chewed thoughtfully. "The Cadre called again today."
Emma stilled as her heart tensed in her chest. "And you talked with them?"
"They were very persuasive."
"I'm sure they were last time, too, and look how that turned out. Mum is dead." The bitterness in her voice almost choked her. The Cadre, an organization that for centuries had protected people from evil, had promised to protect her mother against the curse plaguing their family. Instead the agent they'd sent had ignited the flames that killed them both.
She would have continued railing about the injustice of losing her mum when she was so young, and how she blamed the Cadre for it, but the sadness filling her father's face made her stop. "I'm sorry." She hated to see him looking so lost and vulnerable.
His gray-blue eyes caught hers. "It's not good for us to be living out here all alone. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you, too."
She forced a conciliatory smile. "That's why nothing will."
"I think we should take them up on their offer and move to St. Yve Manor. We can start a new life there. You can meet people, go to school, make friends."
A ripple of fear shimmered through her heart at the thought. "Wolvesrain is our home. I"
"This isn't a home," he insisted. "It's a foxhole where we've both been hiding for far too long."
Emma stood and walked toward the window that faced the long drive stretching in front of the house. She heard him set down his knife and fork and push away the tray.
"I love you, Emma, but we both know I'm not going to live much longer. I need to see you settled before I go. The Cadre can help you."
"I can't leave," she said, her voice breaking. She hated to hear him talk this way. She wanted to appease him, but they'd tried before. She left once when he'd sent her to boarding school. Nightmares had plagued her sleep, but worse were the days when she'd been tormented by the taunts of the other students, because she was different and didn't fit in, because of her face.
Rage, forever simmering below the surface, surged within her. "I can't go through that again. Not to mention the curse. I'm better off here away from"
"Don't even say it. There is no curse. I've told you time and time again. What happened to you and your mother was a horrible tragedy. Not a curse."
She turned and faced him. "Wolves attacked us, Daddy. Without provocation. Wolves that aren't even supposed to exist in England. And now they're back, can't you hear them?"
"Did you call Animal welfare? The RSPCA?"
"Of course! They say there are no wolves. They can't find them. Nor any sign of them. They think I'm insanethe poor daft woman who's spent too much time locked up in her old crumbling manor." Her hands clenched into fists at her side.
"I'm sorry for that, but that doesn't mean there's a curse, it just means they're not very good at their jobs."
"They're right! There are no wolves. They're demons, called by some jilted gypsy two hundred years ago to rain terror down on our family."
"Don't you hear how ridiculous you sound? This family is not cursed. Now I don't want to hear any more about it, is that clear?" Her father's face flushed as he said the words, and he started to cough and wheeze.
Emma sucked in a breath and rushed forward. "Daddy?" She knew better than to upset him. She grabbed a glass off the bedside table and filled it with water, then handed it to him.
He took the glass, then waved her away as he took a long drink. "I'm okay, really."
Relieved, she dropped into the chair next to the bed. She knew better than to bring it up. But she was the one who'd seen her mother die. She was the one who'd heard her last words. Don't ever succumb to love, Emma. Promise me.
The howling started again, creating a nasty racket.
Emma blinked back the burning in her eyes and the bitterness in her throat. She stood and once more returned to the window. "They've been coming closer and closer to the house lately," she whispered, as a rash of shivers puckered her skin, prickling the three deep gashes cut through her face.
A figure on horseback moved out from behind a cluster of trees and looked up at the house. Her breath caught in her throat and she quickly stepped back from the window.
"I know you're afraid," her father said. "It's almost the Equinox. As soon as that bloody night passes, they'll leave again. They always do. And then things can get back to normal."
"Yes. Normal," she murmured.
"Until then, just to be safe"
"I know. I won't leave the house." She couldn't even if she wanted to, even if she did have somewhere to go.
"Enjoy your supper, Dad." She turned on the television to the evening news and left the room. She wasn't up to a long visit with him, not tonight.
"Emma?" he said, stopping her.
She turned back. "When he comes, don't turn the Cadre agent away."
She closed her eyes, and tamped down on her growing frustration, then nodded. She might have to invite him in, but that didn't mean she had to talk with him.