Seven years earlier
“COME ON, Homer, you afraid of ghosts?” Dirk said. The sneer was evident in his voice. Dirk was one of five idiot males in their group. There were two girls as well, because idiocy knew no gender.
Yet Travis stood there, one of them. What did that say about him?
Travis didn’t even bother to sigh. At least they were educated when it came to their nickname for him: Homer, the blind poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. They knew about his yen to write and took full advantage of the seeming irony of a blind man writing.
Travis crossed his arms over his chest and wished, not for the first time, that he could glare at them. One full year and a birthday after arriving in Haven, Montana, the town founded by shifters for shifters, and these were the best friends he could scrounge up? Not that he wanted friends, not really. He wanted revenge for his family… and his blindness.
“Leave him alone, assholes,” Jack said. Travis tilted his head slightly toward the wolf shifter. He had a good voice, strong and just a little rough. It was a sexy voice, he’d give the wolf that. And ever since Travis had set foot in Haven, Jack seemed to have taken an interest, regarding himself as Travis’s protector. Travis resented it.
“Chill out, Jack.” Travis flicked a hand in the air. “I’m not a helpless cub in need of a protector. As I’ve told you before.”
“Yeah, Jack,” Dirk said. There was the sound of a thump and Travis suspected Dirk had slapped Jack’s shoulder. “Leave Homer alone. He’s a big boy.”
Travis nearly snarled. “Cougar. Don’t call me a boy.”
“Whoa, easy there. No need to get your fur in a bunch.”
“Dirk,” Jack said, cutting off Travis’s heated response. “I will get flogged by my dad if any of us sets foot in there. And I ain’t going down alone. The old mill is off-limits; says so on the sign.”
There was a louder thump and a grunt. Travis smirked. Seemed things were going to deteriorate into all-out warfare. Finally allowing himself a sigh, Travis judged where Jack was standing, reached out, gripped his arm, and yanked.
“Lay off him, Jack. He isn’t worth it. He’s all talk, no guts. He taunts me into going into the mill, but do you see him going in? Nah, he’s too much of a coward.”
“Homer’s right,” Simon said. He was a fox shifter with a weak voice who always sounded nervous to Travis’s ears. “If you’re going to dare him, Dirk, you should be willing to go in too.”
“I’ve already been in.”
“Any witness to that?” Jack demanded.
It would figure the sheriff’s son would ask such a question, and in such an official voice.
“Sure there is. Macy, back me up.”
“He went in, I swear.” Macy was Dirk’s girl and a born liar.
“Dude, is this really what we’re going to do on Halloween?” Jared complained. He had a nice voice, firm and controlled, and was the most decent of the bunch. Besides Jack, that was. Although his protectiveness was unwanted, Jack was always kind to Travis. Travis didn’t understand why, since he never gave Jack any encouragement. Jack’s wolf pack, of which his parents were alphas, didn’t much care for Travis either. Oh, they didn’t hate him, and he knew they were loyal to all shifters and took care of the town. He guessed the tension came from Jack’s attention toward him, which the pack didn’t appreciate. No matter the type, canines and felines didn’t get along very well.
“The veil between the living and the dead is thinnest on this day,” Dirk insisted, trying to sound creepy. He only confirmed his position as an idiot. “Homer can’t be officially welcomed into Haven until he’s spent the night in the mill and not been spooked away by the ghosts.”
“Oh yeah,” Jack said, dripping with scorn, “that’s a great way for him to make an impression in a new town: getting arrested by the sheriff for trespassing on government property.”
“Yank that rule book out of your ass for once, Jack.”
Sensing another imminent bout of violence—really, the tension was as thick as bubble wrap—Travis grabbed Jack’s arm again.
“Hold it. I’ll go. I’ll go and prove this douchebag as the idiot—and liar—he is.”
“I’ll go with you,” Jack said instantly, grabbing Travis’s arm in return.
Travis yanked his arm away and scowled. “I don’t need a damn babysitter. I’m not helpless!”
“I never said—”
“Oh, look, a lover’s spat.”
Travis took a short step to his right and shot out his fist. He ended up hitting Dirk square in the chest by the feel of it, and it hurt his hand, but it was damn satisfying.
“Jesus Christ!” Rachel said. “Are we in kindergarten?”
“Just proving a point.” Travis made a show of straightening his shirt before walking in the direction he knew the mill was located. “See you all in the morning.”
He strode confidently with his cane, counting the steps, but then he heard the pounding of boots and didn’t need to smell the follower to know who it was.
“Damn it, Jack! Get the hell away from me.”
“Whether you like it or not, you’re not staying in that death trap alone.”
“And your father?”
There was a significant pause. “Let’s just make sure he doesn’t find out.”
Travis felt a pang of grief spike through him. He wished he still had a father to be mildly afraid of. For that matter, he wanted his mother and siblings back. He wanted his family here, with him, not dead, not with the image of their dead eyes seared into his retinas. Their lifeless corpses were the last things he’d seen.
Travis shuddered. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat, ruthlessly pushing back the dark emotions. When there was a light brush of a hand on his arm—Jack’s hand—he jerked away with a scowl and took a step to the side. Jack didn’t close the distance Travis had created, but he did match Travis’s stride. When they reached the mill, Jack did most of the fiddling with the wooden boards and planks to find an opening.
“I’m going to get flogged for this,” he murmured under his breath.
Travis felt a laugh bubble in his chest but suppressed it. Laughing would only encourage him.
When they were finally inside, Travis sniffed. Then sneezed. The air was horribly dusty and thick. He felt it press against him, a nearly suffocating cloud. The mill had been boarded up nice and tight for a decade. The floorboards creaked under their feet as they walked, and a shiver went up Travis’s spine.
He could have sworn they were being watched—in fact, that they were being hunted. The feeling intensified as they crept deeper into the mill, but he said nothing. He stayed close to Jack this time only because, even with his cane, he feared tripping or running into anything. Some of the machinery in here, he knew, could be sharp.
Jack suddenly stopped walking and Travis bumped into him, stopping as well.
“What is it?” Travis whispered.
“The floors. I’m not too wild about the floors. Don’t you feel the sag—”
There was a snap, a groan, and then the floor under their feet broke, tumbling them into the unknown.