Dawson King walked off the jet bridge into the Asheville, North Carolina airport, closer to home than he had been in three years. He still wore the same camouflage fatigues that he’d had on when he left the Army base in Afghanistan, and everything he owned filled the worn duffel bag on his shoulder.
He looked around the terminal, taking in every detail of a “normal” civilian setting, something Dawson had dreamed about while deployed. The smell of hamburgers from the food court, the chatter of voices with familiar accents, and the signs written in a language he could read—all of it assured him that he was finally, permanently, home.
Four years of infantry training and combat, dangerous patrols, injuries, and near-death experiences had changed him. Dawson hadn’t been a green recruit, not after having been raised in a monster-hunting dynasty and making his first kill at age ten. But it was one thing to shoot a werewolf or behead a vampire, and another thing entirely to be locked in a firefight with other human beings, kill-or-be-killed. He wasn’t the same man who had run away from a problem he didn’t know how to handle. But now, Dawson hoped his self-imposed exile was going to pay off.
He finally had the chance to make the life he dreamed of, with the man of his dreams. And he intended to make good on his promise to himself not to fuck it up.
Dawson picked up his pace. The Army didn’t allow personal electronic devices in a hot zone. He had hoped to buy a cheap cell phone in an airport store during one of his many layovers, but between the flight changes and missed connections, he had barely managed to get himself onto the planes in time.
His stomach growled, reminding him that food was long overdue. Dawson had traveled through enough time zones that he had no idea what meal he ought to be hungry for. According to his watch, he’d gone backward in time more than nine hours from when he lifted off from the military airport; a long flight made even longer by the delays. Sleeping on the plane didn’t work well, not when his six-foot-two-inch frame didn’t fit in a cramped airline seat. He was jet-lagged enough to feel like he’d been out drinking, with a headache and scratchy throat from the dry cabin air.
None of that mattered. Dawson was finally home.
“Thank you for your service.”
The speaker, another traveler, didn’t slow for a response. Dawson had heard the same many times as he connected through civilian airports. He appreciated the sentiment, but despite his commendations and honorable discharge, Dawson didn’t feel like a hero. He’d signed up to do a job, and he did it well. And if his superior marksmanship came from being trained to hunt creatures few people believed existed, well, Dawson had made sure the U.S. Army remained none the wiser.
He paused long enough to wolf down two hot dogs and an order of fries, hoping it would silence his growling stomach, then slurped a Coke, savoring the familiar tastes. Up ahead, he could see the exit from the security area. He grinned and felt his heartbeat speed up in anticipation.
Uncle Denny had promised to pick him up. He’d be waiting and maybe Grady, too. Grady, Dawson’s best friend, favorite hunting partner, cousin, and now, maybe more.
Grady was still a King, even though not related by blood, since Grady’s father, Aaron, had been adopted. That makes it so much less complicated for the two of us.
Dawson passed the security guard and walked into the regional airport’s atrium, looking one way and then the other, but he didn’t see Denny or Grady.
Maybe they went to get coffee. My flight was late. Still, Denny had all of Dawson’s flight numbers and had assured him he would get alerts about any changes. He should have known about the delays. Dawson pushed away the worry that surfaced in the back of his mind. There were all kinds of reasons why Uncle Denny might be late.
Except that there really weren’t. Not after Dawson had been gone for so long, and not after all the plans they’d made.
Something was wrong.
Dawson’s combat senses shifted into high gear as he scanned the atrium once more. Compared to the huge international airports he’d flown through, Asheville didn’t have many places a person could be overlooked. Dawson could see into the sundry stores and coffee shop, and his “welcome home” party was definitely AWOL. Memories of his latest nightmare surfaced, along with a prickle of worry in the back of his mind.
Do they even have payphones anymore? he wondered, figuring he’d need to find a customer service desk.
Just as Dawson scanned the overhead signs for a clue about which direction to head, the glass entranceway doors opened and a man jogged inside, looking worried like he might miss his flight. It took Dawson a moment to realize that he knew this man, hunted with him, trusted him with his life. His best friend, next to Grady.
Colt Summers wore a frantic expression as he did his own scan of the lobby, freezing when he spotted Dawson. The welcoming smile didn’t reach his eyes, and Dawson now felt certain that something was not right.
“Daw! Good to see you, man. Glad you’re home.” Colt slapped him on the shoulder, pulled him into a quick bro hug, then stepped back.
“Good to be home,” Dawson murmured. “Where’s Uncle Denny?” And Grady.
Colt’s smile dimmed. “They sent me instead. They’re at home, waiting for you. Probably gonna whip my ass for running late.” He glanced down, looking for luggage. “You got stuff at baggage claim?”
Dawson shook his head, playing along for now. “Nope. Just this one.”
He wanted to ask a million questions and bit them back. They’d have a long car ride to talk. His stomach was tight, the way it got going into a mission—or heading out to hunt a ghoul or a wendigo. Dawson had depended on his instincts to survive for a long time, and he wasn’t about to ignore the gut warning he felt now.
If it had been anyone else but Colt, he would have dug in his heels, refused to leave the airport until he knew what was going on. But he trusted Colt, and Uncle Denny knew that. If his uncle couldn’t come himself, he knew Dawson would accept Colt as a substitute.
From the tension in Colt’s shoulders, Dawson figured his friend knew he was in for an interrogation as soon as they got into the car.
Dawson couldn’t help feeling another pang of disappointment when Colt led them to his black Ford F-150.
“You didn’t drive the Mustang?” Dawson’s red 1969 Boss 429 Mustang was his pride and joy, and it had come in handy outrunning the sheriff on more than one occasion when a hunt went wrong.
“Didn’t figure you’d take kindly to anyone behind the wheel but you,” Colt replied with a shadow of his usual grin. “Thought I’d let you two get reacquainted in private.”
Dawson hoped he kept his wince hidden, as Colt’s words hit a little too close to home. He had been planning a private reunion, one that was a long time coming, to set things right and make good on a promise. It wasn’t with his car.
Colt’s eyes widened just enough Dawson knew his friend registered the mistake. “Come on,” he said. “We’ve still got a drive to get you where you need to go.”
Dawson settled into the passenger seat, quiet as Colt navigated the airport parking exit and headed for the main road home. His cluttered thoughts and ricocheting emotions made him glad for a chance to collect himself.
The King family had named Cunanoon Mountain in Transylvania County, North Carolina, before the Revolutionary War, and staked out the land for a homestead and the village of Kingston. Then they got down to the business of hunting monsters, which had been their charge from the British king back in their native Wales.
Few noticed that “Cunanoon” was the sound-alike for Cwn Annwn, Welsh for hellhound.
Their neighbors brewed moonshine, and while the Kings didn’t run stills of their own, they kept the werewolves away from the bootleggers. Most young men in the Carolina mountains honed their driving skills outrunning the revenuers during Prohibition. The King boys out-drove vampires.
Dawson’s father and his two brothers inherited the King family legacy. His Uncle Denny never married, but he doted on his nephews like sons. Dawson’s father, Ethan, had been the oldest. He and Dawson’s mom had died in a plane crash when Dawson was seventeen. Aaron, the youngest of the brothers, was adopted. Aaron had always been treated like one of the family, and while the adoption wasn’t a secret, nobody except Aaron ever seemed to care. Aaron had two sons, Grady and his older brother, Knox. They were both Kings, but not by blood.
Aaron had been ten when his parents died on a hunt. Robert King, Dawson’s grandfather, had been good friends with Aaron’s parents, and adopted the boy, loving him like his own. Ethan and Denny had accepted Aaron as a brother, making him welcome. But Aaron had always been insecure, feeling the need to prove himself, to show that he was a “real” King. No one else demanded that and efforts to reassure Aaron never seemed to get through. Fortunately, neither Grady nor Knox felt that burden, accepting that they were Kings of the heart, as well as by name.
Aaron’s wife, Camille, had her fill of rural life and hunting even before Knox got sidelined by a bad fall while hunting a wraith. She divorced Aaron and went back to Asheville, a more “civilized” place, according to her. They never heard from her again.
Aaron and Grady often hunted together, but just as often, Grady hunted with Dawson from the time they were in their teens. Those were some of the best times in his life, Dawson recalled, smiling in spite of his worry. He and Grady had been fearless, reckless—and damn good at what they did.
Dawson was two years older than Grady. They were inseparable, partners in crime, hunting buddies, and brothers-by-another-mother. Dawson had never known anyone—before or since—who seemed to just “get” him on every level. The two of them were always in sync, finishing each other’s sentences, sharing in-jokes, anticipating the other’s moves.
Then Grady turned seventeen. And suddenly he wasn’t the gawky, lanky kid-sidekick anymore. He grew into his shoulders, filled out, and seemed to delight in finding excuses to take his shirt off around Dawson whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Dawson had never hidden that he was gay from family and friends, but he’d usually gone off the mountain to scratch that particular itch. Early on, he and Colt had a friends-with-benefits arrangement, but that was years ago, and they’d long since decided that being just-friends suited them both. Grady hadn’t made any declaration about his orientation, but more than once Dawson had caught Grady checking out a good-looking guy, so he had his suspicions.
The two years’ age difference between them shouldn’t have mattered, but it did to Dawson. Especially when he couldn’t shake the feeling that Grady was flirting with him, intentionally trying to goad him into noticing. Grady’d always had a bit of hero worship in the way he looked at Dawson, and Dawson had always taken his responsibility seriously as the older of the two to protect Grady. Even from himself.
The longer they spent time on the road and on hunts together, the more Dawson felt a powerful attraction to Grady. He’d always been fond of the younger man, but Dawson found himself admiring the person Grady was growing into. Grady deserved to find the right guy—if that’s what he wanted—who could make him happy. And as much as Dawson wished fervently that could be him, he knew he couldn’t take the chance that Grady might feel pressured or obligated to respond if Dawson made any advances.
Not to mention how Grady’s mother had always carried on about how awful it was to marry a “cousin,” something that she claimed no one in her family had ever done. She’d made her position loud and clear while she was married to Aaron, which had not endeared her to the rest of the community. Such marriages were legal in North Carolina, and not uncommon in the rural areas.
The fact that Grady wasn’t a cousin by blood probably wouldn’t matter to Camille. But what if Grady had accepted his mother’s bias? Maybe Dawson had imagined the flirtation, or worse, projected his own feelings onto the other man. So Dawson took the edge off with hookups and out-of-town one-night stands, very aware that he tended to choose partners with a resemblance to Grady.
Until he couldn’t stand it any longer.
That’s when Dawson enlisted.
Once they were on the main highway, Dawson turned to watch Colt’s profile.
“So…what happened with Uncle Denny and Grady?”
Colt’s grip on the steering wheel tightened, and the tic in his jaw told Dawson that the other man didn’t want to have this conversation. “They’re both alive. But a hunt went wrong a week ago, and Grady isn’t dealing with it very well.”
A week, Dawson thought. That was when he’d stopped getting emails from Grady. He had tried to convince himself the silence was due to any number of impersonal reasons, but Dawson knew in his gut something wasn’t right. His responses from Uncle Denny had gotten short and less frequent around the same time.
Was this what his nightmare had been warning him about?
“Could you be a little clearer?” Dawson knew Colt could read the warning in his tone.
“Grady got hurt. Aaron was killed. Grady’s not dealing well with it. Uncle Denny didn’t want to leave Grady alone. So they sent me.”
Dawson’s head swam. Uncle Aaron, dead? That’s hard to even imagine. He was always so full of life. And Grady—it’s got to be bad if he couldn’t come. Oh, God. I almost lost him. Plus there’s something Colt isn’t saying, something even worse. Because if Uncle Aaron died on a hunt, then Grady had to have been right there when it happened. That’s bad, really bad. No one should see their parent die, especially not like that.
Colt still didn’t look at Dawson, and Dawson felt fear and anger roil in his belly, a reaction to the grief. “How about you tell me the whole damn truth, Colt? Why are you holding back?”
Colt sighed and seemed to deflate a little. “Because Uncle Denny wanted to tell you himself.”
Dawson scrubbed a hand down over his face, struggling to rein in his temper. Scared to find out just how bad it was, and feeling guilty because he left for the Army, Dawson thought he might have a meltdown.
“Dude, you can’t keep me hanging for over an hour until we get home. Please.” Dawson didn’t care about begging. He needed to know what had happened, so he could figure out what to do when he got there.
Colt slid him a sidelong glance and relented. “If I tell you, you’ve got to keep Uncle Denny from whupping my ass, because he told me not to.”
“You know I will.”
Colt tightened his grip on the wheel, his knuckles bone-white and kept his eyes on the road, a convenient way to avoid looking at Dawson. “We’ve had some problems with rogue werewolves and feral shifters lately. They like our neck of the woods because it’s remote. If they didn’t bother anyone, we might have let it ride. But there’ve been livestock kills and some attacks on people that just barely got pushed back.”
“How did you know you’ve got weres and shifters?” Dawson fell back into hunting mode out of old habit.
“It’s that time of the month,” Colt replied with a smirk. “Seriously? The weres are only out the three days of the full moon. You know this shit—did you forget it all while you were gone?”
Dawson flinched. “Just confirming. Didn’t want to assume.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time you made an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’” Colt’s smile faded. “Anyhow, we’ve all been out trying to track down one particular werewolf. He didn’t stay in the forest and feed off the deer. If he had, no one would have bothered him. Kept coming near towns, snatching farm animals. Grady and Aaron thought they’d figured out a pattern and guessed where he’d strike next. So they did a stakeout.”
Dawson found he was holding his breath. He had an awful feeling about how this was going to go.
“They were right,” Colt continued, his voice flat. “The werewolf got the drop on Aaron. Grady shot the wolf—silver to the heart—but he’d already bit Aaron.”
“Aaron begged Grady to shoot him. Grady refused. Grady also wouldn’t just leave his gun and walk away.”
“He knew how it had to end,” Dawson said quietly, his voice thick with sorrow for both Grady and Aaron.
Colt shrugged. “Maybe he needed more than a few seconds to be okay with killing his father.” At Dawson’s wince, Colt relented. “Sorry. I don’t know what happened to Aaron’s gun; he probably lost it when he got jumped. Anyhow, Aaron went for Grady’s gun, and in the struggle, it went off. Killed Aaron. Grady walked home, covered in blood, and told Uncle Denny what happened. Denny took care of the body.”
“Jesus,” Dawson murmured. “What did they tell the cops?”
“Sheriff Rollins knew about the rogue were. He had his men out looking for it, too. So what went down could have happened to anyone.”
At least no one was going to jail. That was a small comfort. “What about Knox?” Grady’s older brother ran a hardware store in town, now that he couldn’t hunt anymore.
“Knox is Knox,” Colt replied. “He was already in danger of losing the store since he’s been drinking all the profits. This isn’t going to help. But you know Knox…no one can tell him anything.” Dawson knew that the impatience in Colt’s voice came from years of frustration, trying to help Knox get clean and being rebuffed at every attempt. “From what I heard, Knox turned his back on the whole thing.”
If Knox was crawling into a bottle, he wasn’t going to be any good to Grady.
“You said Uncle Denny didn’t want to leave Grady. What’s that really mean?”
“It means that for the first week after Aaron’s death, Grady wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk. Uncle Denny got him to move into the second guest room at his house, and Grady didn’t come out except to use the bathroom,” Colt said. “He blames himself.”
Dawson knew the pain of losing parents first-hand. Still, knowing that his parents had died in a plane crash was a world apart from being right there when it happened, spattered with blood, fighting for a grip on the gun. He didn’t even want to imagine what Grady must be feeling.
“We take turns being home with him,” Colt added quietly.
“In other words, you’re afraid he’ll hurt himself.”
Dawson closed his eyes and tried to breathe. He’d imagined his homecoming so many times, but never like this. He and Grady had finally worked things out between them, after the first three rocky years of Dawson’s deployment. They’d agreed to give this new aspect of their relationship a shot once Dawson returned. For Dawson, this was more than “a shot.” He meant for this thing between them to last. And now, he didn’t know what to do.
Grady knew that there was no cure for a werewolf bite. Aaron would have become one of the monsters that he’d spent his life hunting. Letting him live wasn’t an option.
Except it shouldn’t have been his son pulling the trigger, even if Grady had been trying to take the gun away. Dawson knew that Uncle Denny had to be mourning Aaron’s death, leaving him the last of the three brothers. Aaron might not have been a King by blood, but he was loved just as much all the same. But Grady…
Oh, God. Just let him make it through this okay, Dawson begged, though he’d never been overly religious. Grady was his best friend and the man he’d been in love with for four years. Whatever Dawson could do to help, he was on board. All his protective instincts came to the fore and pushed his hopes for their reunion firmly to the back of his mind.
Grady needed him as a friend right now. He certainly didn’t need the complication of a relationship. So just like when he enlisted, Dawson swallowed down his feelings and resolved to do what was best for Grady. Taking care of Grady was all that mattered.
He just hoped it would be enough.