The Big, Bad…

Riding Hood Tales Book 1

Nina S. Gooden

 

Chapter 1

“Ow! What the―” Something banged against the closet door, and the heavy wood vibrated hard against my knees. I jerked awake and let out another unflattering yelp as my forehead slammed into the vacuum, which was jammed into the tiny space of my makeshift bedroom.

Collapsing back against my scattered “bed” of pillows and sheets, I took a deep breath of fortification before I gripped the knob.

“Come on, Dad,” I whispered, knowing he couldn’t hear and wouldn’t respond even if he could. “At least let it all be in one piece this time.”

Opening the closet door, I remembered why I cheerfully volunteered to sleep in the small, cramped anti-room. What it lost in luxury, it redeemed itself in being the only safe place in the house to sleep. A dark plume of smoke wafted toward me with malicious intent, but I quickly ducked out of the way and into the living room. As per the norm, my father sat at his desk pouring over a dozen books and notebooks written in a language, I’m pretty sure, only he could read.

Beakers and questionable liquids sat scattered around the room, and I suspect the smoke came from one of them.

“Morning, Daddy. Did you find anything last night?” I kept my tone as bright and cheery as possible, but it didn’t matter. I could have been speaking in tongues for all the attention he paid. “Oh well, maybe next time.” I said it casually but with little hope. There was really no chance of him speaking to me. After all, he hadn’t done so for as long as I could remember. Why would anything change now? I didn’t even know what color his eyes were.

Glancing at the clock above his head, I hissed in surprise. I was going to be late if I didn’t get a move on. Luckily, getting ready in record time was my specialty. I rushed through a shower and breakfast as if I was training for a marathon.

“Bye, Daddy. I’m going to work now! I’ll be back later tonight.” I held my breath, hoping and praying the crouched figured cloaked in darkness and gloom would acknowledge hearing me. Actually, at this point I would have been happy if he looked at me instead of through me.

When nothing happened, I let out a rusty little sigh. My father continued to ignore me, and I tried to ignore my continued disappointment.

I used to think it was normal. After all, why would you suspect something was wrong when you had nothing “right” to base it on?

I closed the door and locked it, resting my forehead against the wooden entryway. I hadn’t expected anything different, but a little part of my heart still wilted each time he glided past me like I was invisible.

I’d never really heard him speak. At least not directly. Occasionally, I'd wake up to hear him knee deep into a vicious cursing stream. On those days, I would press my ear to the closet door and hold my breath. That’s how eager I was to be a part of his life, even from afar.

As far as I knew, my father never spoke beyond the frustration he felt when pouring over his notebooks. So, when I heard a soft voice while I stood outside the door on that morning, I assumed it was just my imagination.

I had work to do, and if I didn’t get a move on, I would be late. Still, I couldn’t shake the memory of the charged voice and its harsh warning that sounded like a threat. “No you won’t.”

* * * *

The walk to the office usually helped me relax and forget about my stony parent. Harmony was a great town and I was happy to live in it. Aptly named for the harmonious way the people managed to thrive alongside nature and all of her creatures. The most obvious being the Wolf Pack. The Pack was comprised of mostly secretive wolf shape-shifters—don’t ever call them werewolves if you know what’s good for you.

The peace between the humans and the Pack was fairly new, only about as old as me, and it had been forged because of a common enemy.

“Hello, Roux!” called a pair of simultaneous voices. Blaise and Ophelia ran the town store. They stocked pretty much everything anyone would ever need, from food to clothing to tools. If you wanted it, they had it. I waved to them as I moved along the simple dirt roads connecting the shops and homes.

"Roux! I'm so glad I caught you. Will you take this shipment of gauze to the Community Watch with you? We're a little swamped since the Anderson boys all managed injuries while hiking yesterday."

"Sure thing, Louise." I took the boxes with a playful smile. "I bet Mrs. Anderson is driving you crazy."

The town medic rolled her eyes to the sky before tossing me a wink. "We all know how she gets when the boys are scuffed. Thank goodness for Mr. Davis, or I'd go nutters."

I laughed while she told me the latest news and gave me a couple messages to hand out on my way. That was how it was in this town. Everyone helped each other out.

Down the road, D’Arcy and Jaye were squabbling again. I sent them home with a threat to box their ears, knowing they were supposed to be helping their mother with the groceries. They were the only children under ten in Harmony, which had a human population of about twenty. Still, they always seemed to find themselves in trouble.

The office was mostly empty, so I set the shipment down on the counter and walked into the back room. “Mina, I’m sorry I’m late, but I brought the gauze from Louise. She said to make sure Mr. Tristan had extras, he was pretty banged up after the fall he took last week.”

Wilhelmina, my best friend, was probably the only person in all of Harmony I felt I could really talk to. Sure, she tended to be a little bit overbearing and aggressive, and once a month she turned into a total bitch…but who didn’t?

It wasn’t until we’d been working together for a while and I commented on how beautiful and shiny her thick curls of blonde hair were that she revealed herself to be a wolf. Typical Mina, she responded as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She was completely nonchalant about something so big

“Oh yeah.” She shrugged. “It’s so shiny because it’s part of my coat.”

After those words, she had answered each and every one of my questions about wolves. She’d even introduced me to her brother.

She had a shrewd eye, and even with my little walk to get it out of my system, she knew immediately something was wrong.

“You’re not down about your father today, are you?” She asked it as if it were a crime. Before I could respond, she dropped the clipboard she held and marched over to me. “I don’t know why you let him get to you. You know everyone thinks he’s crazy.”

I huffed but couldn't work up the usual steam to defend my father. “He’s not crazy; he’s just a little lonely.”

“He’s been this way for twenty years—it’s time to move on.”

I ran my fingers through my hair and picked up the clipboard she’d dropped. It held the day assignments, and I didn’t see my name listed on the pages.

“Hey, where’s my name? Where’s my assignment for the day?”

Mina eyeballed me, seeing me change the subject. I gave a sigh of relief when she decided to let it go. “You’ll be helping Grandma out today.”

I stifled a groan. Grandma, as the Community Watch liked to call her, was the only elderly person in all the rounds who nobody wanted to go see. Cruel and mean with a wicked tongue, fast cane, and a shotgun, she liked to make volunteers feel as worthless and slow as possible when they brought her groceries. She never really appreciated it, but still something about her drew me. Even when she was particularly mean, she still had this wise glow about her.

“She isn’t all bad,” I said, swallowing my own doubts for the sake of her reputation. “And we should really stop calling her Grandma. She’s not even as old as you guys make her sound…she’s just overly tired.”

Mina snorted. “Only you think so, which is why you’re the one who always gets assigned to her.”

Though everyone normally had four or five visits scheduled, the person who drew Grandma only had her for the day. Between her attitude and the hike to her house, Grandma was usually all anyone could stomach.

Even with the promise of a quicker work schedule, no one volunteered. Thus, we took turns and drew straws, though I usually ended up taking it anyway.

“I don’t mind, though,” I said in a chipper voice. “It’s not like she’s always mean. She even gave me her pretty cloak.”

Mina let loose the bark of a laugh she was so known for. “She didn’t give you that cloak out of the kindness of her heart. She gave it to you so she would know when you were coming and not shoot you with that twelve gauge of hers.” She absentmindedly rubbed her side where she had been nipped by shrapnel from the gun in question.

It was true, the old lady did tend to shoot first and ask questions later. The hood she’d given me was a bright scarlet red and impossible to miss in the woods surrounding her cottage. It was also true the Community Watch had threatened to stop making deliveries if Grandma kept trying to kill them. Still, I liked to think she was genuinely concerned about causing me harm.

“C’mon, Mina, it’s not as bad as you're making it sound. She probably knew you were a wolf. Everyone knows wolves heal much faster than humans, and you told me yourself: the only way to get rid of one of you is with silver. That little bit of gunpowder was probably nothing more than a mosquito bite to you.”

“Which is completely not the point. She can't just go around shooting people because she knows it won't kill them.” Mina scolded me. Her eyes glazed over with a far off look she sometimes got, and she sighed. A comfortable pause settled between us. “Ulric and I still haven’t decided if we truly want to be a part of the Pack. I mean…we might not really belong there. We weren’t born into it; we just kind of wandered here when we were little. We could just…leave Harmony, be with regular people.”

I knew better than to try to offer my friend any outward sign of comfort, but I really wanted to. She and her brother had been dubbed the Undedicated by the other wolves long ago. They were the only ones who had the option of whether or not to assimilate into the tightknit group. Everyone else became part of it at birth.

Even though I knew they were thinking it over carefully, I’d never heard her talk about not joining.

Sure, I imagined it would be tough to be part of the Pack with everyone knowing who you were and what was going on with your family at every waking moment, but it never occurred to me a wolf would turn down the offer of family. Even with all the problems, they were such a close group. It was hard for me to consider the possibility of someone not being happy as part of the pack.

To be honest, I was a little envious.

They always knew where they stood, always belonged. “Oh my, what a long face you’re wearing." I said. "If you left Harmony, you wouldn’t be able to be yourself in public. You’d have to pretend to be just any normal human. Why would you want to be normal when you can be extraordinary?”

Mina shook her head and laughed. “Ugh, only someone as ordinary as you would think something so fanciful. It’s sometimes more of a burden than a gift.”

I ignored her unintentional jibe even though I was a little offended. I pulled out the riding hood and wrapped it around my shoulders. “A burden? To be special?”

She gave a little one-shouldered shrug. “There’s a thin line between special and freakish.”

“Your brother is pretty special.” I didn’t mean for it to come out the way it did, but the moony lilt in my voice caused Mina to sigh.

“If you like him so much, why don’t you just…I don’t know, ask him out?”

I blushed and coughed lightly, looking away. “I couldn’t ever dream of being so bold. He’s so far out of my league…”

For a second she looked amused, but then something dark fluttered across her face. “Your low opinion of yourself is only because of that father of yours. He treats you like dirt.”

I sighed. “Not this again, Mina.”

“Yes this again. And again and again until you do something about it. Why don’t you leave that little house? Surely you can afford your own at this point. At the very least you can afford your own room.”

I laughed off her complaints. “Look, I know he seems neglectful, but he’s just caught up in his research. He loves me…he just doesn’t show it well.”

Her hands went to her hips, and she shifted her weight onto one leg. “So you think he loves you. How do you figure that? Has he ever even told you he likes you?” She continued over my sputtering response. “Of course not. He never speaks to you. But fine, maybe he’s just quiet and actions speak louder than words. Has he ever shown you he loves you?”

I blushed and closed my eyes, listening to the waves in my memory. “There was this one day…when I was really little. He dropped all of his work and took me out to the sea. I remember the hum of the engine and the way the seagulls cried out. It is…my most precious memory. A day with just the two of us.”

I sighed wistfully and ignored Mina’s scoff. She got so worked up when we spoke of my father. Still, she was my best friend, and I could forgive her for her opinions. She was precious to me.

I cast Mina a worried look. “I know sometimes you get tired of it, but you’re not really thinking about leaving, are you?”

The dark look on her face faded away and was replaced with her usual smile. “Oh no, don’t worry about me. I’m just feeling a little restless waiting for the next run.”

I smiled. Mina was always edgy a few days before the full moon, and I had to admit I felt it with her. “Well, you don’t have to wait long. It’s just around the corner. Tomorrow, right? I feel like it was just last week you were running naked through the woods.” Mina’s life was a rollercoaster of excitement and possibilities.

She grinned. “And don’t you pretend you didn’t enjoy finding me the next day.”

We laughed away the hard lines of edginess in her face and once we sobered, she pointed to the clock. “You better set out on your hike to Grandma’s house, or you’ll be out past nightfall.”

“Yeah,” I said, turning toward the door. I grabbed my basket and gave a little sigh. Another day, another boring run. I secretly wished, just once, for something exciting to happen to me.

* * * *

“Oh my, how my legs hurt.” I muttered some hours later. “Here we are.” Grandma’s cottage stood out against the lush emerald forest; a prick from a green thumb oozing pink and purple pus.

From the deep stains of dark pink on the walls to the various shades of lavender smeared on the shutters, the building that housed Grandma was a striking highlight of her personality. It was overbearing and jolting, and she was about as rude and disarming as a thick black cloud on a promising sunny day.

“Or maybe not,” I said to myself. “She seems to be a fan of sticking out and making others do the same.” I walked slowly toward the huge lime-colored door, careful to hold out the sides of the scarlet cloak while I moved. “Granny?” I shouted, knocking lightly. Usually she met me on the porch; I’d never had to knock, let alone shout.

“I brought your goodies…” A wave of unease spread through me as I leaned against the front door. I couldn’t explain it further. The moment I pressed the heel of my hand against the wooden barrier, I knew something was wrong. The air behind the door reached out to me, still and yet abuzz with an odd kind of kinetic energy.

Reaching for the knob, I shoved the offending thing open and fell into a chaos of dark furniture and paper.

The cottage wasn’t a great big place. It had three overall rooms consisting of a bedroom, bathroom, and an “everything else” room. Still, it was usually a tidy space.

Not anymore.

Chaos had erupted in the small space. Shattered lamps threw glittering shards of glass across the floor. Flour from the kitchen dusted unsuspecting surfaces of battered wood and scratched stone. Chairs slumped in corners, missing vital limbs. The entire place smelled of dust kicked up from the exposed depths usually hidden by heavy furniture.

“Grandma? Are you…doing some cleaning?” I adjusted the basket on my shoulder, swallowing my unease. An answering shiver down my spine was all I got in response. The room I stood in was completely trashed. The dishes in the kitchen were mostly broken. It looked like someone was looking for something. And to say I was worried would have been a terrible understatement.

“Grandma, are you in the bathroom?” My voice cracked. I knew how dangerous slipping could be for the elderly, and despite the mess, I wasn’t convinced anything truly criminal had happened here. After all, nothing violent ever happened in Harmony. It was a city called Harmony for good reason!

My hands trembled as I reached for the door separating the “other room” and the bathroom. I gasped as the hum of an unnerving energy pushed against the door and seeped into my skin, causing goose bumps to bloom. Every ounce of intuition I possessed told me not to open the door.

“Come on, Roux. You can do it. What if Granny is hurt back there?”

The barrier of fear crumbled as I pushed the door open, only to be replaced with a head filled with sickness.

The smell of heated iron hung in the air, thick and metallic. Ruby-red liquid painted every surface in the small white room. Stark and ugly, it resembled violent words scribbled on beautiful crisp paper.

Blood.

My scream stuck in my throat and refused to budge. The wild thud of my heart slammed against my rib cage and forced my trembling body to jerk violently. I took an uncontrolled step forward and slipped in a large puddle, before bracing my weight against the wall beside me. I stood shakily, smearing a slash of blood on the wall and staining one of my hands as well as my shirt sleeve.

Slamming the door shut against the red-painted room, I forced myself to try to breathe and thus think. Unfortunately, my fight-or-flight response was stuck squarely in whimper-on-the-ground-rocking-back-and-forth.

“So much blood. There’s so much blood. Oh my, so much blood.”

I don’t know how long I stayed in that pool of tears and shock, but eventually I managed to convince myself to get up. “Have to get up, Roux,” I whispered to myself, the sound of my voice faint and strained compared to the rush of blood in my ears. “Have to get to the phone.” The only phone Grandma owned was in the bedroom. I was so deep in the fog of sickness and terror I couldn't remember walking into the quaint little bedroom.

I do, however, remember my next two thoughts as if they were etched in stone. First, the logical side of my brain took note of the fact the room was untouched by the storm that had blown through the rest of the house. My second thought was a tad bit less clear, but it still managed to dominate a good portion of my brain.

“Oh my,” I breathed. There, in the middle of an embarrassingly large four-post bed, lay a naked god, sleeping on his side. Bronze skin was held taunt and captive over the hard planes of a strong male back. His shoulders shouldn’t have been visible under the thick curtain of long, purple-grey hair flowing down to his hips, but they spanned such a wide berth that they did.

Somewhere deep within my mind, I knew I was forgetting something important. Something horrible. Still, I couldn't force myself to sway my attention back to it. Given the options between a nightmare and a fantasy, my brain made a clear choice and I decided to let it, if only for a few moments to cope.

I stared at his back, completely enthralled by the way his muscles coiled and bunched as he lay dreaming, and I wasn’t the least bit ashamed. Any other women who suddenly found themselves in my shoes would have done the same. The man was perfection. Naked, vulnerable perfection. Yes, I probably should have been thinking about calling the police but…but…butt.

My mouth went dry drinking in the smooth, tantalizing skin of his tush. Now, I’m not normally into butts, but this one…it was like a brilliantly shiny red apple, begging me to take a bite. But seductive apples belong in another story.

I made my way around the monstrous bed, never taking my eyes off him. A sudden wave of voyeuristic shame had my gaze locked squarely on his chest, but when I looked upward, my breath caught in my throat.

If his body was a work of art, his face was a damned masterpiece. Full jaw, a hard-set mouth that managed to seem inviting and disapproving, a straight, unyielding nose…the man looked like he could kill with a glare. I found myself wishing I could see what color his eyes were, even if I had to die for the glimpse.

My inspection of his face made me curious about his…other attributes. Sure, it wasn’t about size (cough), but it would be a shame for such a beautiful canvas to be ruined by an inadequate…paint brush.

Allowing my eyes to travel south, I again found myself in a state of mind which lacked a pesky thing called air. Though I did manage to make note the light purple was indeed his natural shade.

The brush in question twitched, and I couldn’t help myself. “Oh my,” I whispered aloud without realizing it. “What an impressive tool you’ve got there.”

“The better to please you with, my dear.”

The deep bass of voice would doubtlessly have scared me into a stupor if my fight-or-flight response hadn’t decided to get going. At least this time it decided to go toward flight. On reflex, I swung with all my might the basket of food I had all but forgotten I held, right toward his deliciously seductive face.

It happened so quickly I barely had time to register the movement, let alone to react. Before I knew what happened, my basket was on the ground across the room, and I was pinned beneath an immobile wall of man.

The shock wore off quickly. “Get off of me!” His chest held me still even as I tried to struggle.

“Now why would I want to do such a thing? So you can hit me again?” His thick, velvet voice rolled over my skin like a bath of invisible melted chocolate. Everywhere he touched me, whether with his skin or his breath, warmed.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to swing at you. I was taken by surprise.”

He laughed, and the rusty sound was enough to take my insides from a state of melting…to liquefied. I continued to fight him, rocking my chest from side to side until he was forced to wrench my arms up above my head to keep me still.

“No, little girl, I mean the first time you hit me.” He lifted off me a little, just enough for his chest to go from full-out crushing my breasts to lightly skimming across my treacherously hard nipples. While he took in the room with a slow turn of his head, he bathed me with his scent. I whimpered in appreciation and prayed he would mistake the small sound for fear. “Though, if you had told me why you wanted me, I would have come willingly, no knocking me out required.”

I'll admit my body sizzled, and I felt quite a bit of evidence he was just as heated up. In fact, if the straining muscle pressed against my thigh was any indication, he may have been close to igniting. Passion clouded my mind, which was why it took me so long to grasp what he was saying. "Huh?"

He smiled at my vastly intelligent response and forced my head to the side. The moment those parted lips touched my neck, I was shattered. My eyes drifted closed and my back arched toward him. My ability to think rationally faded, and I was left with nothing more than the way he made me feel.

Breath and soft, warm tongue skittered across my pulse, working it into a higher frenzy.

He was just as good put into practice as he was in fantasy. I rubbed my thighs together, silently begging him to do what I knew he most desired.

He released one of my arms, and I forgot I wanted to fight him…that I wanted him to get off…well, I didn’t forget that. My definition for “off” had just been altered.

He dragged his gloriously eager mouth along my jaw until he found my lips. And when his big, rough hand lifted upward and cupped my breast, he swallowed my moan of desperate pleasure.

The heat between us spiraled and shifted into an inferno, and I heard the sound of shredding cloth as if from a distance. I felt like he was trying to devour me, and I wanted him to. Needed him to. He overwhelmed me: his scent, his feel, the sound of his fevered breath mimicking the pace of mine. For a moment, I felt completely connected to him. His mind opened to me, and I knew his thoughts were as muddled as my own. Something deep and primal pushed us forward.

I reached between us, finding my skin blessedly bare and didn't bother to wonder why. Wrapping my fingers around his thick, pulsing shaft, I lifted my hips, trying to guide him to the entrance weeping for his penetration.

Pressing him against my slick, puffy folds, it was his turn to swallow a moan. I felt his lungs expand to the bursting limit and a guttural sound exploded from his throat. He held his body still, denying me, and no amount of pulling I did could force him to move.

“Mine,” he rasped, his voice huskier than before…with lust and something else. His chest took in more air, expanding to almost dangerous proportions, but still I tried to guide him into me.

“Mine,” he said again.

I whimpered, nothing more than a writhing mass of sensitive tissue and hormones at this point. I kept lifting my hips trying to draw him in, but he held me back. Tears of frustration began to sting the backs of my closed eyelids. I wanted him more than I ever wanted anything else and was desperate for him to be inside of me. So the next time he said “Mine,” I answered him in kind.

“Yours.”

The roar of satisfaction he let loose would have made me open my eyes if he hadn’t decided to reward me for my agreement. That big mushroom head of his pressed against the part of me that throbbed and begged for attention, the pearl of my womanly being, and I lost the ability to do anything but moan as waves of vibrating pleasure began to pulse through my body.

He rocked his hips and, slippery with my juice, played my instrument like a pro. My body vibrated every time he dragged his skin over my swollen bud, and I clung to him, matching his movement awkwardly with my own.

I didn’t know his name, so I shouted to the gods when my mind finally shut down, and I was engulfed with the feeling of being strung to a bow and plucked as a string. “So close, so close.”

He didn’t stop, pushing my body forward, telling me he wanted more. My body tightened, and I moved up to the next level, every fiber of my body focused on what he was doing. I whined softly, tortured when he still refused to fill me up. Desperate to encourage him, I wound my arms around his neck and my fingertips moved over something familiar. Just like that, the train of my climaxing arousal came to a grinding halt.

He bore the Mark of a Wolf.

He must have felt the change in me because he immediately stopped, and I could feel his eyes searching for mine. “What’s wrong?” An inhuman voice asked me.

I shook my head, slowly unweaving my hands from his neck. A growl permeated the air again, but this time it sounded of displeasure. This time I recognized it as what it was: a wolf's claim.

“Open your eyes, little girl.”

I bristled at…well, at this point, I bristled at a lot of things, but I still couldn’t open my eyes. The fire cooled in me, and I felt it steadily draining out of him, but he didn’t move. Which must have meant he was still…

“Look at me!” The bark was so forceful my eyes popped open. Two different-colored eyes stared down at me, one silver, one black, and both vastly annoyed. Elongated pupils shifted and shone, growing and stretching as I watched sharpened fangs slide back into his gums. I swallowed, realizing how close to being bitten I’d been. “Oh my…what long teeth you have.”