Beneath a hunter's moon blood turns from crimson to black . . .
Once upon a time they called me Ms. Tyler, Leigh to my friends. I was a kindergarten teacher who dreamed of love, children and that cliché picket fence. Then my worst mistake came back and brutally took away everything I ever loved.
Mistakes . . . they can haunt you. Until you make them stop.
I became a hunter, a Jager-Sucher. Specialty: Werewolves. My starry-eyed dreams might be dead, but that doesn't mean everyone else's has to be. But now there's a bigger, badder beast in town and it's doing my work for me.
Distractions can be deadly and Damien Fitzgerald, a drifter with a questionable past is the ultimate distraction. When I gave up love, I gave up sex. Damien makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, that was a mistake. However people who hang around me too long wind up dead, and I can't live with any more souls on my conscience.
In the end, the only way to save anyone, including myself, is to come face-to-face with my past. But am I strong enough to triumph over an evil no one else has ever vanquished before?
About the Author
Lori Handeland is the USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of the Nightcreature Novels, The Phoenix Chronicles and Shakespeare Undead. She is the recipient of many industry awards, including two RITA awards, a Romantic Times Award for Best Harlequin Superromance, and the Prism Award from Romance Writers of America. She lives in Wisconsin with her family and a yellow lab named Ellwood.
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By Lori Handeland
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Lori Handeland
All rights reserved.
They say the hunter's moon was once called the blood moon, and I know why. A full moon shining through a crisp autumn night turns blood from crimson to black.
I much prefer the shade of blood beneath the moon to its shade beneath the stark electric lights. But I digress.
I am a hunter. A Jäger-Sucher to those in the know — of which there are a select few. I hunt monsters, and in case you're thinking that's a euphemism for today's serial killers, it's not. When I say "monster" I mean hell unleashed, tooth and claw, supernatural magic on the loose. The kind of thing that will give you nightmares forever. Just like me.
My specialty is werewolves. I must have killed a thousand and I'm only twenty-four. Sadly, my job security has never been in jeopardy. A fact I learned all too well when my boss, Edward Mandenauer, called me early one October morning.
"Leigh, I need you here."
"Where is here?" I mumbled.
I am not a bright and shiny early person. This might come from living most of my life in the dark. Werewolves emerge at night, beneath the moon. They're funny that way.
"I am in Crow Valley, Wisconsin."
"Never heard of it.
"Which gives you much in common with the rest of the world."
I sat up, awake, alert, senses humming. That had sounded suspiciously like dry humor. Edward didn't do humor.
"Who is this?" I demanded.
"Leigh." His long-suffering sigh was as much a part of him as his heavy German accent. "What is the matter with you this morning?"
"It's morning. Isn't that enough?"
I did not greet each day with joy. My life was dedicated to one thing — ridding the earth of werewolves. Only then could I forget what had happened, perhaps forgive myself for living when everyone I'd ever loved had died.
"Liebchen," Mandenauer murmured. "What will I do with you?"
Edward had saved me on that long-ago day filled with blood and death and despair. He had taken me in, taught me things, then set me free to use them. I was his most dedicated agent, and only Edward and I knew why.
"I'm all right," I reassured him.
I wasn't and probably never would be. But I'd accepted that. I'd moved on. Kind of.
"Of course you are," he soothed.
Neither one of us was fooled by my lie or his acceptance of it. Which was how we both kept ourselves focused on what was important. Killing them all.
"The town is in the northern part of the state," he continued. "You will have to fly to Minneapolis, rent a car, go ... east, I think."
"I am not coming to Shit Heel, Wisconsin, Edward."
"Whatever. I'm not done here."
I'd been working in Canada at Mandenauer's request. A few months back hell had broken loose in a little burg called Miniwa. Something about a blue moon, a wolf god — I hadn't gotten the details. I didn't care. All I knew was that there were werewolves running north, plenty of them.
But as much as I might like to, I couldn't just blast every wolf I saw with silver. There were laws about such things, even in Canada.
The Jäger-Suchers were a secret branch of the government. We liked to envision ourselves as the Special Forces of monster hunting. Think The X-Files versus Grimm's Fairy Tales on steroids.
At any rate, we were supposed to work on the sly. A pile of dead wolves — threatened at the least, endangered yet in some places — would cause too many questions.
The Jäger-Sucher society had enough problems accounting for the disappearances of the people who had once been werewolves. Sad but true — it's easier to explain missing humans than dead animals, but such is the way of the modern world.
My job, should I choose to accept it — and I had, long ago — was to catch the werewolves in the act. Of changing. Then I was well within my rights to put a silver bullet in their brain.
Bureaucracy at its finest.
Catching them wasn't as hard to do as you might think. Most werewolves ran in packs, just like real wolves. When they went to the forest to change, they often had a lair where they left their clothes, purses, car keys. Going from bipedal to quadrupedal had certain disadvantages, namely, no pockets.
Once I found that lair ... well, does the phrase "like shooting ducks in a pond" mean anything to you? It's one of my favorites.
"You will never be done there." Edward's voice pulled me from my thoughts. "Right now you are needed here."
"The usual reason."
"You've got werewolves. Shoot them yourself." "I need you to train a new Jäger-Sucher." Since when? Edward had always done the training, and I ...
"I work alone."
"It is time for that to change."
I was not a people person. Didn't want to be. I enjoyed being by myself. That way no one around me could get killed — again.
"I am not asking you, Leigh; I am telling you. Be here by tomorrow, or find another job."
He hung up.
Sitting on the edge of the bed in my underwear, I held the phone against my ear until the line started to buzz; then I replaced it in the cradle and stared into space awhile longer.
I couldn't believe this. I wasn't a teacher; I was a killer. What right did Edward have to order me around?
All the right in the world. He was my boss, my mentor, the closest thing to a friend that I allowed myself. Which meant he should know better than to ask me to do something I'd given up along with my life.
I had been a teacher, once upon a time.
I flinched as the memory of children's voices lifted in song drifted through my head. Miss Leigh Tyler, kindergarten teacher, was as dead as the man I'd once planned to marry. And if she sometimes skipped through my dreams, well, what was I supposed to do, shoot her?
Though that might be my usual method for solving problems, it didn't work too well on the happy-go-lucky dream Leigh. More's the pity.
I dragged myself off the bed and into the shower, then packed my things and headed for the airport.
No one in Elk Snout — or wherever the hell it was I'd been hunting — would notice I was gone. As I did in every area I visited, I'd rented an isolated cabin, telling anyone who asked, and it was shocking how few people did, that I was with the Department of Natural Resources, studying a new strain of rabies in the wolf population.
This excuse conveniently explained my odd hours and my penchant for walking with a gun or three, as well as my cranky nature. The hunting and fishing police were not well liked by the common folk. Which got me left alone — my favorite thing to be.
I arrived at the airport, where I was informed only one plane a day flew to Minneapolis. Luckily, that single flight was scheduled late in the afternoon and there were plenty of seats.
I had ID from the J-S society, which established me as a warden and allowed me to ship my weapons — a standard-issue twelve-gauge Remington shotgun, my personal hunting rifle, and a Glock forty-caliber semiautomatic, also standard DNR issue. An hour after touching down, I hit the road to Crow Valley.
I didn't bother to call ahead and announce my arrival. Mandenauer had known all along that I would come. No matter what he asked of me, I would agree. Not because I respected him, though I did, more than anyone I'd ever known, but because he let me do what I had to do. Kill the animals, the monsters, the werewolves.
It was the only thing I had left to live for.CHAPTER 2
By the time I reached the little town in the north woods, the moon was rising. Not that I could see more than half.
But the orb was out there — waiting, breathing, growing. I knew it and so did the werewolves. Just because the sky wasn't glowing with a silver sheen didn't mean the monsters weren't changing and running and killing.
As I slowed my rental car, which I swear was the same four-cylinder piece of shit I'd turned in at the airport in Canada, a flicker of movement from an alleyway caught my attention. I coasted to a stop at the curb and got out.
The place had a deserted air that all small towns get after the supper hour. However, I wasn't sure if this was the usual "rolling up the sidewalks" tradition or the populace had started to stay indoors after dark because of the wolves.
Edward had to have a more serious motive than the common werewolf outbreak for bringing me here. Even if I was training a new guy, there had to be a reason to do it in Shit Heel. I mean Crow Valley.
The shuffle of a shoe against concrete drifted to me from the alleyway.
"Better safe than sorry," I murmured, and reached into the car for my sidearm.
The rifle or the shotgun would be better, but as much as I might like to, I couldn't waltz along Main Street carrying a firearm as long as my leg. I might have the necessary ID, but I wasn't in uniform. Someone would stop me; then there'd be questions, answers. I didn't have time. Nevertheless, if there was a wolf in that alley, he'd be close enough to pop with my Glock.
I crept to the opening and glanced down the aisle. The single streetlight threw the silhouette of a man against the wall for just an instant before he disappeared at the far side of the building.
I'd have let it go, except for the howl that rose toward the waiting night. The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I shook my head. Once upon a time the thick braid that had reached to my waist would have waggled and rubbed away the itch. But I'd hacked off my hair long ago and now sported a near military crew cut. Life was so much easier that way.
As I was slinking along the front of the structure in the general direction of the man I'd observed, a chorus of answering howls rose from the forest that surrounded the town.
I glanced around the corner just as a wolf padded toward the trees. I let out a sigh of relief. I wouldn't have to wait around. Only an amateur would shoot a werewolf midchange. Then you're left with a half-man, half-wolf, which is a little hard to explain. Believe me. I've tried.
Though I always burned the body, I never knew who'd wander across my path while the bonfire was blazing. Always better to wait until they were complete wolves to do the deed.
But dallying can be hazardous to the health. Lucky me, I'd come across a fast changer — either an overachiever or a very old werewolf. This one wasn't as large as the usual male but definitely a wolf and not a dog. Even huge dogs have smaller heads than timber wolves, one of the differences between Canis familiaris and Canis lupus.
The wolf loped toward the woods as the howls faded into the night. I let him get as far as the trees before I followed. The wind was in my favor, blowing across my face as I scuttled across the street. Still, wolves had excellent hearing, werewolves even better, so I didn't want to get too close, too fast.
I didn't want to get too far behind, either. I took three steps at a half-run and entered the cooler, darker arena of the forest.
Immediately the lights from Crow Valley became muted; the air cooled. I'd been born in Kansas, land of very few trees, and to this day whenever I entered woodlands I got spooked.
The evergreens were gargantuan, as ancient as some of the things I hunted, and so thick it was hard to navigate through them. Which was probably why a majority of the wolves, as well as most of the werewolves, gravitated north.
My eyes adjusted to the gloom quickly, and I hurried after the bushy gray tail, my gun ready. I'd done this enough times to know better than to put my weapon away. I wasn't Wyatt Earp, and I didn't plan to draw down on a werewolf. They were quicker than spit and twice as nasty.
A sound to the left made me freeze and spin that way. I held my breath, listened, looked. Heard nothing but the wind and saw even less. I'd stopped in a small clearing — the shadowy sheen of the moon lightened the area just a bit.
I turned back, hurried forward, blinked. Where was that tail? Nothing lay ahead of me but trees.
"Son of a —"
A low growl was my only warning before something hit me in the back and drove my face into the dirt. My gun flew into the bushes. My heart was beating so fast I couldn't think.
Training kicked in as I grabbed the wolf by the scruff of the neck and flipped the animal over my shoulder before he could bite me. If there's one thing I'd hate more than being alive, it's being alive and furry.
He hit the ground, yelped, twisted, and bounded to his feet. I used the few seconds I had to spring to a crouch and yank the knife from my boot. There was a reason I wore them even in the heat of summer. Kind of hard to conceal a knife in a sneaker.
I'd yanked out tufts of gray fur when I flipped the wolf, and they fluttered in the breeze. The animal growled. Eyes pale blue and far too human narrowed. He was pissed and because of that didn't think before leaping.
The beast knocked me to the ground. As I fell, I shoved the weapon into the wolf's chest to the hilt, then twisted.
Flames burst from the wound. Silver did that to a werewolf, one of the reasons I preferred killing them from a distance.
The animal snarled in my face. I held on to the knife despite the heat, despite the blood, and as the thing died in my arms I watched his eyes shift from human to wolf. It was an oddity I'd never get over, that change at the end.
Legend says that werewolves return to their human form in death, but that isn't true. Not only do they remain wolves, but they also lose their last remnant of humanity as they go straight to hell — or at least I hope that's where they go.
When the fire was gone and the wolf stopped squirming, I shoved the body off me and yanked out my knife. Then I saw something disturbing. The wolf I'd killed was female.
I scanned the area, searching for the male I'd expected. I was certain the shadow I'd observed in the alley had been a man's. I'd followed the wolf that had come out the other side. Hadn't I?
This one? Or had the male from town been following her as I had? If so, he would have attacked when she did. They couldn't help themselves.
Another mystery. Why wasn't I surprised?
I retrieved the gun, cleaned off my knife in the grass, then stuck it back in my boot. I wiped my bloody hands on my jeans — they were already stained, as was my shirt, but at least the dark material of both, combined with the less than bright sky, helped disguise what was staining them.
My palms tingled. A quick examination proved they were sore but not blistered, so I ignored them, following standard J-S procedure as I made a wolf bonfire to get rid of the evidence.
After sprinkling the body with a special accelerant — a new invention courtesy of the scientific division of the J-S society — I threw on a match. The flames shot past my head. Hot, strong, fiery red. Just what I needed to get my job done quickly.
Until recently, burning wolves took a long, long time. In order to remain secret and undetected, Jäger-Suchers needed to do their jobs and dispose of the evidence before anyone was the wiser. The new accelerant was a big help in that direction.
I thought to check in with Edward while I waited for the flames to abate. Unfortunately, I'd left my cell phone in the car. Oh well, if I woke him it would be payback for his waking me. And I liked payback — almost as much as I liked killing things. "Isn't that illegal?" The voice, coming from behind me without warning, had me pulling my gun as I spun around. The man stared at my Glock without blinking.
I frowned. Most people flinched when you stuck a gun in their face. And mine was in his face. He'd gotten so close I had nearly clocked him in the nose with the barrel.
How had he snuck up on me like that?
Narrowing my eyes, I gave him the once-over. This was fairly easy, since he wasn't wearing any shirt.
The veins in his arms stood out, as if he'd been lifting — reps for definition rather than weight for strength. His chest was smooth yet defined, with flat, brown nipples that only accentuated the pale perfection.
I'd never been much for beefcake. Hell, be honest, I'd never been much for men. Seeing your fiancé torn into bloody pieces in your dining room did that to a girl.
However, I found myself staring at this one, fascinated with the taut, ridged muscle at his abdomen. Even his shaggy brown hair was interesting, as were his oddly light brown eyes, which shone almost yellow in the wavering light of the moon. I figured in the daytime they'd be plain old hazel.
His cheekbones were sharp, his face craggy. As if he hadn't been eating well or sleeping any better. And despite the pale shade of his eyes, there was a darkness to them that went deeper than the surface. Still, he was handsome in a way that went beyond pretty and stopped just short of stunning.
He had managed to pull on some black pants, though the button hung open, and his shoes must be with his shirt. Which explained how he'd gotten so close without me hearing him.
Excerpted from Hunter's Moon by Lori Handeland. Copyright © 2005 Lori Handeland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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