The Afters Brothers are Cursed.
Every winter solstice for the last eight years, grizzly shifter Clayton Afters has roused from an enchanted slumber brought on by a dark curse. While his brothers are locked in their own forced hibernations, Clayton is allowed three months to tend to his family’s wintering apple farm.
With only two winters left before the curse swallows him whole, Clayton faces the impossible task of finding the one road to salvation: his true mate. Bordering on hopelessness, he has no reason to think his ninth winter under the curse will be any different from the last eight. True mates are rare, after all. Clayton isn’t even sure he has one.
He isn’t sure, that is, until he almost rear-ends her Camaro in the midst of a blizzard.
Penitent witch Clementine Weatherspoon has a penchant for fire, a knack for communing with the dead, and a complicated family tree. She never expected to meet her beloved in the middle of a snowy country road. She definitely didn’t expect him to be a towering bear shifter, either. But from the second she sets eyes on Clayton's inner light, she is smitten by the wild beast lurking beneath his golden stare.
On the darkest day of the year, Clayton and Clementine’s connection sizzles the snow. But fate has a peculiar sense of humor, and the winter solstice proves to be full of surprises for this fated pair.
This novella is the prequel to the Ever Afters series. It is intended for mature audiences.
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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Winter Solstice, 2014
“That oughta do it.” Clementine Weatherspoon tightened the cap on the vial of her favorite oils. Sage and frankincense would purify the entryways. Verbena would keep darkness at bay.
“It’s really gone, isn’t it?” Greta Carmichael breathed in deeply. A shock of white hair cut through her frizzy chestnut waves. “The air feels so different.”
“She’s gone.” Clementine employed her gentlest tone. It never sat right with her when people referred to ghosts as its. Ghosts were once people, too, after all.
“Honey, you should pull out that trick on the Fourth of July. I ain’t never seen such a light show.”READ MORE
Clementine hummed as she stored the bottle in her satchel, ensuring that it was slotted into place beside her container of rock salt. “She’s found peace now. That’s all that matters.”
“It’s funny, old Aunt Aggie’s been creaking and groaning her way around the house all these years. It almost won’t feel right without her.”
“It was long past her time. Restless spirits become angry. I’m just glad I could help before she got a little too—”
Greta widened her blue eyes and nodded in quick succession. Clementine didn’t need to finish that thought, but she still felt an urge to comfort.
“Homes are like an old quilt. Everyone who’s ever stepped foot inside becomes a patch on the top layer. Even after they’re gone, they’re still woven into the house’s memory.”
“That’s a nice thought. You know, I was never one to put much stock in w—” Greta trailed off, hesitating over the word. “In what you do. But I’m mighty glad you can do what you do.”
Clementine pulled on her jacket. Not that it would help much against the building blizzard outside. “Happy to help.”
Greta reached into one of her dress pockets and retrieved a handful of cash.
Clementine shook her head. “You hang on to that.”
“Don’t be a fool. You saved Christmas! It’s my turn to host the family this year, and it just wouldn’t have done at all to have old Aggie throwing the plates against the wall. Please, take it.”
After she’d draped her satchel over her shoulder, Clementine pushed both hands into her jacket pockets. “No, ma’am. Thank you, but I don’t do this for money.”
“Balls,” Greta huffed. “Hang on, you wait right there.”
Clementine considered sneaking out before the woman could return, but Greta was spry for her age.
“Here,” she said, forcing a covered pie dish into Clementine’s arms. “And take these, too.” She offered a canvas sack containing a few Mason jars filled with preserves. “There’s a jar of apple butter and two jars of apple sauce. All handmade from the best damn apples in the whole state.”
“Mrs. Carmichael, I couldn’t pos—”
“You can and you will.”
Clementine relented with a sigh. The pie was still warm. Cinnamon and nutmeg clouded her judgment. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“You enjoy. You earned it.”
When Greta opened the front door, a frigid gust of wind greeted her. Bracing herself, Clementine stepped out onto the porch.
“You all right to drive in this?” Greta asked, eyeing Clementine’s Camaro. “It’s awful dark out. You’re gonna slip and slide all over the roads in that thing.”
“I’ll be just dandy,” Clementine said, heading down the sidewalk. She cast a fleeting smile over her shoulder. “I’m a witch.”
‘I’ll be Home for Christmas’ wafted from the Ford’s old speakers. Static obscured Bing Crosby’s melancholy delivery.
Clayton Afters had been awake for seventeen hours. Not that he planned on sleeping anytime soon. He avoided sleep during the few short months out of the year he was actually conscious.
Snow fell in heavy sheets around his trusty blue truck. He kept his speed measured and his gaze fixed on the road ahead. What little he could see of it, anyway. Enhanced shifter sight didn’t matter much when someone shook the snow globe.
Clayton didn’t mind the perilous drive. Blinding flurries aside, the rumble of the engine soothed both man and beast. Every bump in the road felt like breathing.
It’s funny what you miss when you spend most of your life trapped under the weight of a curse.
Clayton tried to avoid those thoughts as best he could. As he grew older, though, the thoughts were inescapable. His future hung over his head like a question mark.
From today until the spring equinox, he was free to live and just be. But it was hard to be anything when you knew your brothers were trapped in their own enchanted slumbers.
Braxton had the summers to roam. Dalton had the autumns to harvest. And Houston got to watch their endless acres spring back to life. Clayton got the cold and the dark.
He hadn’t felt the summer sun or watched the leaves turn gold in almost a decade. He hadn’t shared a joke or a beer or a shift with his brothers in just as long.
At least he still had Vangie. The lone Afters sister had been pardoned from the curse. She hadn’t gotten off easy, though. As far as Clayton was concerned, Evangeline Afters was a damn saint. She was their very own guardian angel. In place of wings, she wielded razor-sharp teeth and claws with a wit to match.
Vangie still believed there was a way for them to break free of the curse. Clayton could never bring himself to shred her hope. Braxton probably could. He’d always been the one with the temper to mirror his animal.
Clayton had always been the runt. The cerebral one, as Vangie liked to say. The one who thought before he spoke. The one who plotted and planned before he made a move.
He wasn’t sure that had ever served him well. Considering he’d yet to find his true mate, all his careful thinking and planning had never really amounted to much.
Cold crept into the old truck, and Clayton tightened his grip around the steering wheel. He passed the familiar sign for Ever Afters Farm and Orchards.
God, he hated that name.
Once upon a time, it had seemed charming. But the Afters were cursed, and there was nothing whimsical about their unhappy ever after.
Their lives were a fairy tale, sure. Complete with an evil witch. Most people forget that traditional fairy tales almost always end bloody.
There was no magic apple to bite. No castle wall to scale. No flaming sword to slay a beast.
They were the beasts. And Clayton had read enough to know that no one ever comes to save the beast.
He slowed, preparing to make the turn onto the long, private driveway that led back to the family farmhouse. A shock of red cut through the flurry of white, staining the air crimson.
He slammed his foot onto the breaks. The truck skidded on the slick asphalt. He winced, readying himself for the inevitable collision.
Seconds before his truck met a canary yellow Camaro, everything went still.
Clayton blinked. It took a second for him to realize he was holding his breath. Exhaling, he threw the truck into park and hopped out of the driver’s side door.
Rounding to the front of the Ford, he squinted through the heavy snow. The truck had come within a hair of the other vehicle. The ass of the Camaro and the nose of the truck were so close, he couldn’t have slid so much as a toenail between them.
“The hell are you doin’ out here?” He strode toward the other driver’s door. “Farm’s closed! Come back for your tree tomorro—”
The window rolled down. A pretty redhead with green eyes peered out at him.
Cinnamon. She smelled like cinnamon. No, that wasn’t right. Sage. And rosewood. Verbena petals.
She smelled like snow and lightning. Like an old book and a mug of honeyed tea laced with whiskey. Like long nights by a crackling fire and endless mornings under crisp sheets.
Most of all, she smelled like mate.
Bear blood always ran hot, but Clayton’s grizzly now burned beneath his skin. This was it. He felt it in his marrow.
She was his. And she was beautiful. From her artfully arched brows to the slight cleft on her chin, her delicate features crumpled into a thunderstruck expression.
“Oh hell,” she whispered, gawking at him as if he’d just burst into flames.
Startled, Clayton straightened. Had he frightened her?
Before he could reply, she’d rolled up the window and snapped her attention back toward the road.
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