The Afters Brothers are Cursed.
Grizzly bear shifter Houston Afters’ every waking moment serves as a reminder that time ticks against him. Alpha of his sleuth, Houston rages against the dark magic that forces him into seasonal hibernations. With only three days before the summer solstice, Houston knows there is only one way to survive his final spring: he must find and claim his true mate.
Seasoned hiker Hope Hemmington never imagined her venture up the Appalachian Trail would lead her into the world of the paranormal. At the mid-way point in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia where two great rivers converge, Hope learns to trust her instincts and the tall, dark, and devastatingly handsome man who is intent on protecting her from the shadowy figure that stalked her on the Trail.
As the solstice looms over Ever Afters Farm and Orchards, Houston and Hope must come together to face the unfolding mystery surrounding the Afters sleuth.
This full-length novel is intended for mature audiences.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
The Appalachian Trail had kicked Hope Hemmington’s ass. Repeatedly. But she’d kept going. Through torrential rainstorms, exhaustion, skinned knees, chaffed thighs, and the creepy assholes who tended to hang out around trailheads, she’d kept going.
Through-hiking was an endurance trial. She’d discovered her physical limitations, and then she’d discovered how to push past them.
The real test had been mental. Once upon a time, her father had told her, “If you’re gonna to set out into the wild, you better make sure you like yourself. More than that, you better trust yourself, too.”
Sage advice. And she’d mulled over it off and on, usually at night when the forest lived and lurched around her.READ MORE
After departing from Springer Mountain in Georgia, Hope had been excited. She’d had a plan. And damn it all to hell, she’d had purpose.
Two-and-a-half months into her trek up the trail, she’d seen and smelled it all. Black bears. Foxes. The occasional skunk. She’d made a game of counting chipmunks, but she’d lost count a quarter of the way through North Carolina. She’d broken bread with strangers, had shared sleeping quarters with mice, and had even earned herself a trail nickname after she’d offered her last Honey Bun to a flagging older gent who’d needed a bit of Trail Magic to help him through a rough patch of rocky terrain.
Honey Bun Hope and her Doggy Dog Dodger had made good time overall, and Hope had been happy enough. Tired and achy, sure, but happy enough.
The halfway point in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia should have felt like a true milestone. It should have been a victorious checkmark on her overall plan. Instead, the signpost felt like salvation. She headed toward the trailhead’s exit into the National Historical Park, pulling Dodger along with her.
She usually never had to pull. She and Dodger had always been in accord. The German Shepherd could be as sweet and soppy as anything when it was just the two of them, but he was as fierce as a wolf when his canine instincts kicked in. He was the ideal trail companion, and she’d been especially thankful for his presence on more than one occasion. Dodger kept Creepy Trailhead Assholes at bay, after all.
But last night, Dodger had been tense. Hope shared his unease.
Once she’d almost cleared her home state of Virginia, she’d noted a distinct lack of fellow hikers on the long stretches of trail leading into West Virginia. Hope hadn’t seen another soul in twenty-four hours, and she’d passed only a handful of others in the preceding days.
Last night had seemed off. Even now, in broad daylight, the tree line felt dangerous.
Down in Georgia and Tennessee, she’d spotted modest-sized black bears that had gone about their business without giving her much notice. Her heart had hammered to see them so close, certainly, but those fleeting moments of rational fear were pitiful blips compared to the skin-crawling sensation that now threatened to consume her.
“Come on, Dodge,” she said, giving the leash a firm tug. “Let’s go.”
Dodger followed, but his gait remained stiff. Every minute or so, he’d cast a glance back toward the dense clusters of trees. Hope didn’t follow the direction of his gaze. Since the early hours of morning, she’d been certain something—or someone—was watching her. She hadn’t seen anyone, of course. Still, a thousands-of-years-of-evolution-taught-us-to-sense-these-things instinct told her she needed to get off the trail. And her father had raised her to follow those types of instincts.
As Hope passed a weather-worn sign reading, ‘Welcome to Harpers Ferry,’ the hair on the nape of her neck stood upright. Her stomach knotted. Her throat tightened as if to contain a brewing scream behind her tonsils.
She picked up the pace until she was outright running down the path, with Dodger snarling a warning behind her.
Houston Afters slashed his claws across the old sycamore, shredding its trunk. As anger management therapies went, mauling a tree was only mildly helpful. So much of Houston’s life had always been out of his control. He was proactive by nature. His dominant animal refused passivity. But even a massive black grizzly couldn’t claw its way out of dark magic.
The final days of spring heralded change. Houston was no stranger to the bittersweet breeze. He’d once damned the humid nights and their reminder of the looming seasonal change, but he now mourned for all the future winds that would never rustle his fur or kiss his human skin.
This was to be his last spring.
Soon, he’d sleep. Like every other late June, he’d crawl into his den—well, a spacious bedroom in his family’s sprawling farmhouse—and close his eyes. Unlike previous years, however, his eyes would not open again after the long crawl past summer, fall, and winter when his brothers would rouse from their own enchanted slumbers.
The Afters brothers were cursed. Spelled by a witch, the quadruplets’ close bond had been severed before they’d even reached their twentieth birthday. Houston had not spoken to Braxton, Dalton, or Clayton in almost a full decade, but he watched over them daily. When it was his season to rouse, at least.
Houston’s routines were simple. Frustrating, but simple. In the mornings, he’d steal into their respective rooms and sit by their sides for however long he deemed appropriate. Some days involved more idle, one-sided chatter than others. Clayton usually ended up with the largest earful of Houston’s rambles.
Houston couldn’t say why he’d always been closer to Clayton. The four of them shared everything, from faces to birthdays, but Clayton had always been special.
After a sleepless night, dawn had demanded a break from routine. Houston had gone out back and changed into his truer self without so much as a pause by his brothers’ rooms. The night had been chilly. Not that the cold air affected him; bear blood pumped hotter than any normal human’s. Still, the creeping chill served as a reminder of Houston’s failure.
He hadn’t found his true mate.
Spring after spring, he’d searched. And spring after spring, he’d returned to his forced hibernation.
True mates were rare, if they even existed at all. Houston and his brothers had been damned with an impossible fail-safe. And here he was at spring’s end, ten years into a curse he couldn’t shake with no true mate in sight and an eternity of sleep stretching out before him.
So Houston did the only thing he could: he raged. By full sunrise, he’d reduced the old sycamore to a pile of splinters.
Once he’d pulled himself together—and pulled on some clothes—he headed back to the farmhouse. He scented coffee brewing in the kitchen before he even entered through the back door.
“I happened to like that tree, you know,” said his scowling sister.
Evangeline Afters had a tongue as sharp as her grizzly’s canines. Out of the five of them, Houston’s bear had always been the largest and most dominant, but Vangie was their constant guardian. Though Houston was technically the alpha, he often wondered if his sister hadn’t earned the status through her unwavering vigilance. Ever Afters Farm and Orchards wouldn’t be standing today without her careful, calculated management. More than that, it was Vangie who watched over them throughout their long months of forced hibernation.
“It was blocking the light,” Houston groused.
“Boarshit.” She poured coffee into Houston’s usual mug and slid it across the island countertop. Houston captured the mug before it slid overboard. Hot coffee sloshed onto the worn wooden surface.
“That kind of language is unbecoming of a sow.” He offered an affectionate grin with the hope of distracting her ire. Vangie merely narrowed her hazel eyes and raised her right middle finger.
Houston turned to the window over the sink and took another sip of coffee, pretending to scan the aisles of the western orchard containing their crop of Afters apples. Pink-tinged blossoms dotted the green-covered branches on all of the trees except one. That particular tree teemed with fully ripened apples. It hadn’t always, of course. Something had happened to it over the winter, but Vangie would never explain short of a cryptic remark. It’s Clay’s tree now. Whatever the hell that meant.
“We gotta talk about this some time.”
“Not today we don’t.”
“When, then? Tomorrow? The next day? How about we schedule it for a week from now? Oh, wait. We can’t. You won’t be here.”
“We don’t know that.”
“Vee, we don’t even know if it’s for real.” That was a lie, and they both knew it.
“Now you doubt? A damn decade of being awake for three months out of the year, and now you choose to become a cynic?”
“What else am I supposed to do?” Squaring his shoulders, Houston faced his sister.
Vangie’s reply came out in a whisper. “Don’t give up.”
He’d expected her to snap at him. He’d wanted her usual snark. He needed his sister to rear up with her claws out, ready to brawl. The bear inside his chest was still pacing back and forth, spoiling for an outright battle, for anything to assure him that he was still here. Her broken whisper was so much worse than the battle-inflicted damage he craved.
Vangie inhaled deeply as if to steady herself. “I made a call.”
“What kind of call?”
“I’ve been researching. I found this seer, and—”
“No.” Houston held up a hand. “Fuck no! Have you lost your damn mind?”
“Vangie, we’ve been down this road. How many sandals-wearing, shawl-draped assholes did Ma bring in over the years? And not a damn one of them ever did jackshit except take our money. If this is my last week, I’m not spending it with a charlatan!”
“She’s a real witch.”
“According to which Yelp review, exactly?”
“I didn’t use Yelp,” Vangie said, indignant. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I was on this Facebook group, and—”
“Do you hear yourself?”
“We have to do something! We can’t lose you. I can’t lose you. You have less than a week and then you won’t ever wake up again. If this seer lady is a bust, fine. Then we’ll look for something else. But we have to try.”
The last time Houston had seen tears in his sister’s eyes, they’d just finished burying their mother. Three springs had passed since Evelyn Afters’ sudden death, but time hadn’t lessened the weight of their loss.
Houston didn’t speak. He threw his gaze to the scuffed kitchen floor and clenched his jaw.
“I’ll be damned if I cry about this.” Vangie wiped at her cheeks with the palms of her hands. She tossed a tumble of her dark hair behind her shoulders and pulled it into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. “And I’ll be double-damned if I have to cry over you. We’re gonna find a way out of this. She’ll be here in the afternoon. I expect you to play nice.”
Rubbing a hand down the side of his face, Houston groaned.
“Don’t give up yet, Hou,” Vangie urged. “Don’t lose hope.”