Today ~ London
TRISTAN NORTHLAND moved around his room picking things up and depositing them in the open suitcase on the bed. He paused to skim the contents: clothes, shoes, his grandmother’s Book of Shadows, his own leather-bound journal and a small intricately carved wooden box that contained various stones, crystals and a few precious tools carefully wrapped in silk. He had an entire armoire of spell materials and reference books that stood in the corner of his workroom, but he couldn’t transport everything he might need across the ocean. What he had packed was indispensable. He was fairly certain he could find the rest of what he needed in New York.
William walked into the room, watching his brother lost in thought as he stared into his suitcase. “If it were me, there would be at least six bags.”
Tristan’s reverie snapped and he laughed at his twin, pulling him into a tight hug and touching their foreheads together, their dark curls falling forward like a curtain, shielding the private moment. “I think your hair has gotten even longer than mine,” Will commented. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Tristan zipped the suitcase closed, sitting on the bed beside it. “I really don’t feel like I have a choice. Our ancestor is responsible for the Sterling family bearing a terrible, terrible curse for almost half a millennium. If there is even a slight chance I can break it, I have to try.”
“You should at least write first. See if he wants you to come.”
Tristan shook his head. “No. I don’t want to give him the chance to say no. He has much reason to distrust the Northland family name. I’m hoping it will be harder to turn me away to my face than to shred a letter.”
Pulling his twin to his feet, William hugged Tristan close. “Be careful. I fear what would happen to me if I lost the other half of my soul.”
Tristan looked seriously into his brother’s eyes. They had always been closer than normal siblings or even twins, reading each other’s thoughts and feelings. They shared the blessing of their grandmother’s gifts. William had the sight and Tristan the ability to channel the power of natural elements. They were the first set of twins to be born into the Northland family since the pair that had cursed the Sterling line. It seemed poetically just that one of them would break the curse, just as one of the first set had cast it.
1668 ~ New York Colony
EDWARD NORTHLAND ran through the woods, shaking and sweating with fear. The scent of dark magic was thick in the air. He could feel his twin’s anger, her broken heart hardened by the betrayal of her lover. Praying he would be in time, he followed the magnetic pull of powerful magic.
“Please, please, do not do this,” he beseeched his twin through their bond, praying to an impressive list of deities to intercede before it was too late. Anne had always scoffed at his love of books and research, having a much more natural approach to their gifts. The trees thinned as he approached the clearing, allowing the silver light of midsummer’s full moon to fall to the forest floor. He could hear his sister’s voice, harsh and cold, so unlike her usual jovial tone. The smoke coming from the clearing was so heavy with the scent of herbs and dark magic that his eyes burned. He gasped as her chanting to raise power turned into the words of an intricately designed curse.
“Anne, no!” he called, but she did not heed him. She stood in the center of the clearing, surrounded twice by circles of stones and trees. He fell to his knees, unwilling to break her circle of protection. With the evil powers she was calling, to leave her unprotected almost assuredly meant her death. His eyes drifted to her belly swollen with child. What would the evil she was raising do to the innocent, unborn babe? “You will curse us all!” he yelled in desperation.
“He deserves eternal damnation. One life isn’t enough pain. I’ll curse him as he’s cursed us,” Anne replied. Picturing the face of her lover in the flames leaping from the cauldron in front of her, she dropped a handkerchief bearing his seed into the fire, followed by a handful of carefully blended herbs. With a quick, precise motion, she cut the palm of her hand, adding her blood. “Rage for rage, pain for pain, life for life, blood for blood,” she spoke, swaying and stroking her belly.
“Anne, please! Don’t do this!”
“As our babe shall walk alone, tainted by a curse not of his making, so shall yours,” Anne continued, ignoring her twin’s pleading. Edward was a man and a man had captured her heart, crushing it to dust with a twist of his heel as he promised to marry another. “As he shall be shunned, so shall yours.”
Edward searched his pockets. Blessing his habit of always carrying his journal and charcoal, he began to write. Perhaps, in his books, he could find something to undo the terrible wrong being done.
“Your firstborn son shall know the lure of the night and the lust of the moon,” Anne intoned, looking up at the silver disc hanging full in the black sky, tears streaming down her face. “As shall his son, and his son’s son, for as long as the Sterling seed produces heirs.”
Edward searched around him frantically during her pauses, gathering branches of rowan, poplar and willow and scattering them around the circle, whispering words of protection, hoping they might shield some of the force of the spell.
“From sunset of the first full moon that a Sterling becomes a man, the beast shall take him, blood will be his wine, hunger will fill his soul, and he will become a creature of nightmares. He will know a woman’s lust but never a woman’s love and he will have no peace as he searches for his heart’s desire. Thus it shall be, thus it shall remain, until the true love that should have been, finally is. So mote it be.”
Edward laid down his journal, staring at Anne as she grounded the power she had raised and released the circle. He couldn’t believe she had acted so vindictively. She knew the dangers of throwing out a spell to harm another, especially when done in anger. The curse would fall back on Anne threefold, but because of her pain, she had ignored all of their grandmother’s careful teaching. Edward knew that because she had cursed the entire Sterling line, it would fall back on their entire family. He could almost hear the desperate heartbroken screams of innocents not yet born.
Anne walked toward him, her eyes full of hate and triumph.
“You haven’t won, sister,” Edward said, getting to his feet and brushing leaves from his clothes. “You have damned us all. How could you do this?”
“How could I? Ask that of the one that stole my heart as well as my innocence.”
Edward closed his journal, slipping it into his pocket, shaking his head.
“What have you there?” Anne asked, her eyes flashing.
“I’ve recorded your words in the hope of finding a way to break the curse.”
“You must destroy it,” Anne ordered. “’Tis proof of black magic. We will both be burned.”
“Nay, Sister, I will hide it well and study it in secret, but whatever the consequences of this night, we will both accept them. The only hope of undoing the evil you have wrought is on this page. If I should fail, maybe someone smarter than I will succeed in the future.”
Today ~ New York
BENJAMIN STERLING paced the length of his office, stopping to stare out the window at the moon already visible in the late afternoon sky. The full moon was still a week away, but he was already beginning to feel the pull. He needed to finish with his work in the city and get back to his country estate where he could hunt at night without fear of discovery.
Penelope Marsden, his assistant, slid into the room unobtrusively, waiting silently to be acknowledged.
“Yes, Penny?” Benjamin asked, returning to his desk and rifling through the papers covering the surface in a halfhearted attempt to get his mind to focus.
“There is a young man outside to see you, sir. He says he has come from London and won’t leave without speaking to you personally.”
“I don’t see anyone without an appointment,” Benjamin snapped.
“I told him that, sir. He said to tell you that his name was Northland.”
Every hair on Benjamin’s body stood up. He had never actually met anyone from the Northland family line, but it was unlikely to be a coincidence given the circumstances. When he was younger, he had read every scrap of documentation he could find in a useless attempt to discover a cure for the curse he carried. Letters, diaries and detailed descriptions of the lengths his ancestors had gone to, to rid themselves of the disease that afflicted them had led him to decide that there was no “cure.” From that point on, he had dedicated his efforts to making his life as normal as possible, amassing the wealth necessary to allow him to travel at will, own several homes and hundreds of acres of land.
During his research, he had examined the town and church records thoroughly, but it appeared that after the witch, Anne Northland, had died in childbirth, her twin had disappeared off the face of the earth. Only to have his ancestor turn back up again today, apparently, Benjamin mused. Realizing that Penny was still waiting patiently for instruction, he sat back in his chair. “Send him in.”
Penny was paid well to show nothing but businesslike efficiency. Her personal opinions about her boss’s odd behavior she kept carefully to herself. After gliding through the polished mahogany door, she returned moments later with a slender young man in tow. “Mr. Tristan Northland, sir,” she intoned before retreating and closing the door behind her.
Benjamin’s first reaction was that his visitor’s name fit him; unique, old-fashioned and slightly romantic. The young man’s scent tickled his nose, causing his body to react in a surprising way. He smelled of trees, moss and the leaf litter of the deep forest, making Benjamin want to bury his nose against his throat and breathe deeper. He was tall and slender, but you could see the sinewy muscles that covered his limbs. Possibly the most striking detail, though, was the matching chestnut color of his eyes and the hair that fell well past his shoulders, curling in gentle spirals from the band that attempted to tame it.
Tristan fidgeted, still standing just inside the door, unsure what to do next. “Ah… thank you for seeing me. I realize hopping on a plane without calling first was probably not the most responsible decision I’ve ever made, but I was desperate to be able to talk with you and I was….”
Benjamin smelled the fear rolling off of the young man and could see his pulse fluttering rapidly at the base of his throat. He hated it, but he always had a visceral response to fear. His body was screaming “Attack!”, and he wanted nothing more than to close his teeth over that rapidly beating pulse. “Do you always babble when you’re nervous?” he asked matter-of-factly, trying to ignore the signals his visitor was unconsciously sending. If he could put the young man at ease, the fear response and corresponding bloodlust would lessen.
Tristan sputtered to a stop, a disarming grin lighting up his face, making him insufferably more beautiful. “Yeah, actually, I do. Sorry. Will—my brother—says I’m not good at hiding my feelings, leave them right out on my sleeve for anyone to see.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Benjamin murmured, walking around his desk toward the sideboard that held a collection of crystal decanters. “Just don’t take up poker. Have a seat, Mr. Northland,” he said, gesturing toward a cluster of tobacco-colored leather chairs. “Would you like a drink?”
“Um… no. Thank you. I’m not much of a drinker. It makes the babbling worse, I’m afraid.” Tristan grinned again, shrugging as he lowered his lissome frame into one of the chairs.
Benjamin poured himself a generous portion of scotch and selected the seat across from his unexpected guest. One of the side effects of the disease was an increased metabolism. He could drink just about anyone under the table, feeling very few effects himself, a fact that had worked to his advantage during many six-martini business dinners. It was more the feel of the heavy glass in his hand, the slightly smoky smell of the scotch and the smooth feel of it as it traveled across his tongue that he found soothing.
“So Mr. Northland, you have flown a great distance and been granted an audience. Do I get to know why you are here?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Can we dispense with the Mr. Northland? Mr. Northland was my father and I keep expecting him to be standing behind me. Given that he’s been dead for twenty-five years, it’s a bit unsettling. Just Tristan, please.”
Benjamin inclined his head, the corner of his mouth twitching in spite of his resolve to show no emotion. Tristan was quite charming. “Tristan,” he conceded, the name rolling across his tongue with the same satisfaction as the scotch.
“Thank you. How much of the history between our families are you aware of?” Tristan began, having to stifle the urge to stand and pace. He clasped his hands under one knee instead, pulling it up toward his chest, his foot resting on the chair.
After years of keeping carefully guarded secrets, Benjamin was justifiably paranoid about revealing too much of his family history. “I know that Lucas Sterling, my several-greats-grandfather got a local girl by the name of Anne Northland pregnant out of wedlock in the late sixteen-hundreds. Lucas was married to a very well-connected young woman out of Boston shortly after, abandoning Anne and her unborn child, who both later died in childbirth.”
Tristan nodded as Benjamin talked. He had no doubt that if Benjamin knew that much, he knew much more that he wasn’t willing to reveal yet. Tristan didn’t blame him. If he gained this man’s trust, he was certain they could break the curse, and the only way to gain his trust was to trust him. Much misfortune had befallen his family due to the curse, but nothing that would harm him or William in any way if it were discovered. “I’m certain you know through document or rumor that Anne was considered a witch and that it is said she cursed your ancestor before she died. I know that your family carries the effects of that curse to this day… as does mine.”
Benjamin’s ears pricked at that last statement. Was Tristan saying his family suffered the Sterling abomination? “Are you telling me you bear the same curse?”
Tristan’s face became instantly contrite. “Oh no, though I believe it would be just if we did. How much do you know about magic, Benjamin? Can I call you Benjamin, or would you prefer Mr. Sterling?”
“Benjamin seems only fair, seeing as you’ve invited me to call you by your given name. And to answer your question, more than I’d like.”
Tristan smiled again at the heavily sardonic tone in Benjamin’s voice. “I’m sure. Magic follows the karmic law of the universe. Whatever you put out comes back threefold. Anne may have cursed your family with a very specific affliction, but the intent of the spell rebounded on her own family. She set out to deny Lucas Sterling and his descendants love. Every member of the Northland family to find true love has lost that person to an early death for over three hundred years. Though we’ve had some live to old age with partners they could barely stand.”
Benjamin sat his glass on the table beside him when he realized that his hands were trembling slightly. Forming a steeple with his fingers, he considered the man across from him. Negotiations were frequently like a game of chess; to win a better position, you often had to give something up. “So you understand the nature of my affliction, do you?”
Tristan nodded earnestly. “I believe I do. I think you, like every firstborn male before you, suffers from a form of lycanthropy. Based on the animals you breed and raise on your estate, I would guess werewolf.”