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About the author:
I'm Gray. I'm a teacher by day and a writer by night. During the little free time I have, I try to spend it romping around the Pacific Northwest with my two cartoonish dogs – one of whom inspired the hellhound sidekick in my series 🙂
What inspired you to write your book?
This book was an unfinished nanowrimo (national novel writing month) project a few years ago. During the pandemic, I decided to return to it….
Now, I'm releasing Book 6 in the series 😀
Here is a short sample from the book:
Ro’s fist flew straight towards my face. I ducked behind an old tree. My fingers dug into the coarse bark as the sound of his fist pounding into wood brought a smirk to my face.
He swore like a drunk sailor and unrestrained laughter spilled from my lips.
From the snap that echoed around us, I knew that at least one bone was broken. I didn’t feel too bad about it though—he’d have a fully functional hand by nightfall. Ro was an extraordinarily fast healer. It made sparring with him dangerous since he was always willing to go to risky extremes.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t shake off the injuries quite as quickly. It was frustrating, but at least it kept our bouts interesting and unpredictable.
“Jesus, Max. That fucking hurt.” His voice was a low growl, the sound at odds with his boyish features. Beads of sweat trailed down his forehead as his brows narrowed together.
I’d pissed him off. Excellent.
I grinned at him and winked. This would be easier now. Ro sucked at fighting once he was flustered.
“Yeah, well imagine if it’d been my face. Then I’d be the one whining. Guess you’ll have to move faster next time,” I taunted, swinging around the tree like I was straight out of Singing in the Rain. “Besides, serves you right for stealing the last piece of pizza. I was saving that.” I danced around him, my fists raised, ready for the next round.
He tilted his head from side to side until his neck let out a satisfying crack.
Rocking on the balls of my feet, I smirked up at him. Ro was huge, both in terms of height and bulk. Which meant that my five-foot-four frame definitely gave him the advantage when we trained. I was significantly faster than him though. Not that he’d ever admit it. Brothers were stubborn that way.
“You good to go another round or do you want to head back to the cabin for ice and a diaper?” I swept a few stray strands of hair from my face, relishing the cool breeze against my neck.
He bared his teeth in a grotesque caricature of a smile and pounced. He kept his right hand tucked close to his chest, but he was still a force to be reckoned with, even with only one functional arm.
I dipped low when his left fist moved towards my shoulder, but it was nothing more than a distraction. His leg swung out, sweeping my feet from under me. I landed unceremoniously on my butt, a loud thud that ricocheted through my body. There was nothing more annoying than getting your ass handed to you after a healthy dose of gloating. My pride would need some massaging later.
Before he could make his next move, I swept my leg, smiling when his mirrored thud landed next to me.
We’d been sparring for hours and both of us welcomed the short reprieve as golden leaves fell softly around us, like we were in our own personal autumnal snow globe. My head and ears were filled with the heavy thump of my heartbeat. I loved this feeling—the gentle soothing sensation of absolute exhaustion. Muscle fatigue coasted through my body like an unexpected balm.
“You going out with Jason tonight?” I asked. My eyes covertly slid to the side, satisfied with the uncharacteristic blush that colored his usually pale cheeks.
He cleared his throat nervously, subtly shifting his body away from me. “Er, who?”
My laugh bubbled over, shaking with the leftover adrenaline from the fight. “I saw you two gazing at each other adoringly last weekend at the diner, Casanova. Judging by the fact that you laid out your best plaid shirt this morning, I’d say you’re trying to impress someone. Twenty bucks says it isn’t me or Cyrus.”
It was Saturday, the one day each week that Cyrus let us go down into town for provisions and to socialize, though he only sanctioned the former. The rest of the week was left for training and studying. And in our free time, we consumed all of the old movies and shows I’d stockpiled over the years. Just saying, my collection of eighties and nineties romantic comedies was pretty damn impressive.
But even when we went into town, there wasn’t a whole lot of socializing to be done around here. Ro, Cyrus, and I lived high in the mountains. We were literally in a cabin in the woods, only no horrific or interesting stuff happened like the movies would lead you to believe. We were in complete isolation. It took a good half hour to drive to the closest town.
And even if we were near a big city, Cy didn’t like us spending too much time around humans. Although, he didn’t exactly allow us to spend any time around our own kind either. The man was stubborn and protective as hell. It was infuriating.
A soft thud and Ro’s grunt drew my attention to my left. Cyrus stood over us as Ro wrapped his hand around the bag of ice draped across his chest.
“You knuckleheads going into town or what? I left a list on the counter.” Cyrus glanced around the woods, his long black hair, peppered with gray, blowing softly in the wind. He was always hyper vigilant and checking the perimeter, even though we’d never been visited by uninvited guests in the eighteen years that I’d lived here. Incidentally, we’d never had any invited guests either. Cyrus worked his mojo to make sure no humans ever accidentally stumbled upon our super humble abode.
We were protectors—an ancient race suspected to have evolved from angels. It was speculation though, since no one had seen a true angel in centuries. Maybe even ever. Long enough that they were considered a myth at best, extinct at worst.
For the most part, we were human, just with added strength, speed, and healing powers. We also had a tendency to live longer, if left alone. But when we followed our true nature, the hunt, we died long before our human counterparts. Kind of like superheroes, only way less interesting. And without the badass costumes.
Outside of Ro and Cyrus, I’d never met another protector. Cyrus adopted me eighteen years ago, when I showed up at his doorstep in a cradle. He found Ro ten years later, in an orphanage. From what Ro could remember, his family was dead. He was left behind in a foster system that was completely unaware that the eleven-year-old it had taken in was something not quite human. The town’s locals were shocked to learn that Cyrus had adopted two children. Kids were a handful at the best of times. Ro and I? We made regular kids look like saints.
And Cyrus wasn’t exactly parental material. He was, to the average eye, a middle-aged recluse who did everything he could to avoid talking to people. Half of his responses were nothing more than grunts. Hence the small cabin in the middle of a mountain.
Still, here we were, at eighteen and nineteen, living with a man whose idea of affection was teaching us a new fighting style. He was our grumpy version of Mr. Miyagi. Lucky for us, his particular flavor of grump had grown on me over the years.
“Aw, you’re not coming with, old man?” Ro teased. Ever since Ro turned sixteen and learned to drive, Cyrus had allowed us to go into town alone. Apparently something about earning a license satisfied him that we could handle the trip and any threats along the way. Not that there were ever any real threats, outside of overly curious townspeople. That left Cyrus free to spend his time in the cabin, in the woods, and occasionally disappear for a day or two. The man enjoyed his privacy, even from us.
Cyrus shoved Ro in the hip with his battered boot, and turned back towards the house grumbling something about teenagers.
Ro smiled at me before pulling me up with his good hand. Cyrus liked to pretend we were a burden, but we both knew he loved us. Since we were technically of age, he could have kicked us to the curb if he didn’t want us around. And well, just saying, we were still here.
Half an hour later, I was freshly showered and dressed, singing along to some pop song at the top of my lungs, while Ro drove down the winding dirt road towards town. The air was crisp and my limbs were sore from a long training session. It was going to be a good day.
I ran my hand playfully through Ro’s dark blond hair, smiling at the way his blue flannel top brought out the light blue color of his eyes. “You look good, Ro. James will be impressed.”
“Jason,” he mumbled, his face coloring slightly when he realized I’d tricked him into acknowledging his crush, “not that I’m trying to impress anyone though.”
“Right, right, of course you aren’t, lover boy.” I added a dramatic wink, enjoying the opportunity to be playful after a long morning.
“You need to stop watching old movies, nobody actually says ‘lover boy’ these days, sis.”
He was mocking but I grinned anyway. He didn’t refer to me as his sister often, but it always made me feel warm and gooey when he did. Unlike me, he knew his family before they died and he joined our ragtag group in the woods. He remembered what his mother looked like, the kinds of things she loved to do, her favorite perfume. But me? He was the closest thing I had to family, other than Cyrus.
We even kind of looked like brother and sister.
If you squinted really, really hard. Or, you know, didn’t look at us at all.
Everything about Rowan was fair: his eyes were pale like the afternoon sky and his skin only had color when the sun darkened it. Despite my ability to spark his frustration, he was generally calm, rational, level-headed. It always made me laugh because while my black hair and brown complexion resembled Cy’s more than his, they were two peas in a pod. I looked like the bio-daughter, but Ro acted like the bio-son. It was a weird thread that connected the three of us together, like an unusually-constructed puzzle.
Ro also had an ‘awareness’ about him. That’s what Cy always said anyway, and usually only as a way to highlight my lack thereof. I just wasn’t as serious and paranoid about the world.
“Yeah, well, whatever. You just let me know if you want me to disappear and give you and Jason some alone time.” I opened my window slightly, soaking in the fresh, crisp smell of fall. Pretty soon, we’d be dealing with snow and ice, so it was important to appreciate the season while we had it. Training in the dead of winter was absolute agony.
“Yes, because clearly you’d be doing me the favor by hanging around town alone.” He eyed my black dress and leggings as I pulled the hem down, uncomfortable in the unusually dressy outfit. Cyrus thought fancy clothes were pointless. And I mean, since we didn’t really go anywhere, they kind of were. I was typically lounging around in leggings or sweatpants, always paired with a raggedy tank or t-shirt for sparring. My favorites were the ones Ro tossed out—they had holes and faded print, but were soft with wear and fell to my knees.
While it was amusing to poke fun at Ro, since he got embarrassed so easily, he wasn’t the only one to notice the new family in town. Jason had a younger brother, Michael, who was the best-looking boy I’d seen in real life. At least I thought so, anyway. He looked just like the nice-boy jocks in all those CW shows. And, well, when you spent most of your time living virtually alone on a mountain, you took notice when fresh meat moved to town.
Our first stop was always the post office, to check if Cyrus had any mail. He almost never did, unless bills and advertisements counted, but today there was a crinkled letter with no return address. Ro and I tried holding it up to the light, to see if we could read it without opening. The technique seemed to work frequently enough in spy flicks, but we had no such luck. I shoved the letter to the bottom of my bag, hoping that Cyrus would share it with us when he opened it.
We played guessing games all the way to the diner, creating elaborate stories about who could be writing to him. I was secretly counting on it being a long-lost love interest, with some tragic backstory. In all the time I’d lived with him, Cyrus had never gone on a date. I’d caught him checking out a few of the women in town a couple of times, but nothing ever came of it.
And it wasn’t like he was terrible looking for an old dude. He somehow managed to make long hair look badass instead of homely, and he was strong and lean from all the sparring and training. He had a slight limp from an old injury, but it kind of added to his mysterious persona.
Ro opened the door for me, and I sank into that burning feeling against my skin as my body transitioned from the crisp air outside, into the overly heated diner atmosphere. The diner itself wasn’t anything to write home about, but we loved it all the same. Truthfully, it was probably my favorite place in the world, and felt just as much like home as our cabin did.
The countertops were clean, but slick with years of grease buildup and stained an odd yellow color—the kind of yellow you just knew beyond a shadow of a doubt wasn’t the original color. The padding on each of the booths had a few holes and burn spots from the days customers could smoke inside. I usually found myself distractedly picking at the pieces of tape meant to keep the stuffing from falling out. Darlene, our favorite server, was working as usual and she had two steaming cups of coffee ready for us as soon as we made it to our favorite table. Ro and I both ordered our usual—steak with a side of fries—and discreetly searched the diner for the two newish faces we hoped to find.
Jason spotted Ro almost immediately, and made a beeline for our table as soon as their eyes connected.
“Hi. Rowan, right?” he asked, fiddling with the hem of his dark wool sweater. He was nervous, and I just about melted into a puddle from the cuteness. Jason looked a lot like his brother, with tousled blond hair and bright green eyes. His angles were a bit more defined, and something about the way he held himself just made him seem older than he was, like he’d experienced so much in his short life. “I’m Jason. I think we met last weekend.” He glanced around, rubbing the back of his neck, like he was checking to see if we were being watched. “I haven’t really seen you around since then.”
“Oh, that’s because we live outside of town and only come in on the wee—” I cut myself off when I caught sight of Ro’s glare. Right, Jason wasn’t talking to me. In fact, he hadn’t even so much as glanced in my direction.
“You can call me Ro. This is Max.” He nodded towards me. “Would you like to eat with us?” Ro scooted over to make room on his side of the booth, his expression open, hopeful.
I wiggled my eyebrows at Ro before his quick glare told me to cool it.
“Yeah sure.” He sat down, letting out a long relieved breath. His eyes brightened considerably, taking his cues from Ro. “Would it be okay if my brother joined us in a bit? He’s finishing some things up at work, but he’s supposed to meet me here soon for some food. He’ll be stoked to meet some new people in town.”
“Totally!” Ro and I echoed each other, giant smiles on our faces. Clearly neither of us was very good at playing it cool. But tonight was shaping up to be better than we’d hoped, the puzzle pieces falling together perfectly, just like a romance novel.
I absentmindedly scratched at the scar on my wrist, forcing myself to sit back and let Jason and Ro get to know each other without my butting in. My fingers curved over the smooth, familiar lines that almost resembled a star. Protectors didn’t really scar, but I’d had this one since the day I showed up at Cy’s.
I choked on my water when Michael walked over, embarrassing myself as a few droplets dribbled down my chin before I could catch them. While Jason was a lot more hesitant in his approach, Michael exuded confidence and excitement. He sat down next to me after officially introducing himself, and I twisted my brain into knots trying to come up with things to say. Jason and Ro seemed to have no problem finding conversational topics, but Michael and I mostly sat in an awkward silence while I scarfed down my steak. Which was unusual for me. Generally, I never shut up. According to Cy, it was my most annoying quality. I took a deep breath and decided to be myself, trying to mimic Ro’s relaxed pose.
“So um, how do you like it here?” I cleared my throat and stared at the smooth skin between Michael’s eyes, too nervous to look him in the eyes but wanting to fake confidence by looking in their general direction. “Where are you guys from? Are you going to college?” I glanced at Ro, noticing the way his eyes were slightly bugging at me. Right. I was rambling. Bad habit of mine. “Sorry, that was too many questions in a row, wasn’t it?” I cleared my throat. “I should’ve paused a bit in between,” I added, mostly to myself.
Michael smiled, and my stomach did this swirly thing when he looked over at me and chuckled. “I’m liking it better now, we’re from southern California, and no.”
“California? That’s so cool. Do you surf?” Hollywood made it seem like everyone from California surfed. His tousled blond hair definitely fit the stereotype.
“No we lived on the east side of the state, plus I’m kind of afraid of the ocean.” He ruffled his hair and looked at me from the side of his eye. “Not being able to see what you’re walking on top of sort of wigs me out, you know?”
I nodded enthusiastically, even though I didn’t really know what he meant.
With the ice broken, we sat in pleasant conversation for the rest of the meal and I did my best not to put my foot in my mouth. Dating was one thing Cyrus and Ro didn’t really bother teaching me. All I had to go on was movies and books. Not for the first time, I found myself suddenly wishing for girlfriends to hangout and chat with.
“Could I maybe get your phone number, Max?” Michael cleared his throat, and I smiled at the nervous tremble in his words. Maybe he sucked at this whole dating thing too? And maybe we could help each other and learn together?
“No, sorry.” I paused, realizing how that sounded. “I mean, not no because I don’t want you to have it, but no because you can’t.”
My cheeks reddened and I kicked Ro in the shin when I heard his laughter crack through the awkward silence.
“I mean, I don’t have a phone. So I can’t give you my number. Because, you know, since I don’t have a phone, I don’t have a number…to give…to you,” I finished awkwardly, mentally smacking myself with a hammer and hoping like hell that I wasn’t as bright red as I felt.
Jason and Ro were both laughing behind their hands, and I shrank a few inches into the booth, silently promising myself that I’d kick Ro’s ass tomorrow during training.
“We’re in town every Saturday.” Ro said. “I think what Max is trying so eloquently to say, is that maybe we could all just grab dinner again next weekend and go from there?”
Why was Ro so much better than me at this? It wasn’t like he had much more practice when it came to socializing or flirting. I pushed my jealousy at his easy conversation down, determined to take notes for next time.
Michael nodded, a bemused expression on his face. “Yeah, next Saturday works.” His hand brushed against mine and my nerves disappeared a bit, which was odd. In novels the heroine’s stomach was supposed to explode with butterflies at the first touch of her hero. “Could I walk you to your car?”
I averted my eyes and tried to stop the grin from exploding all over my face. “Yeah sure.” I turned back to Ro. “Meet you there in a few?”
We threw some money on the table and made our way out the door. I didn’t have too much time to kill since we still had to grab some groceries before the store closed, but Michael and I took the long way, walking around the town square a bit before we made our way back to the mouth of the alley where our car was parked. Sometime between leaving the restaurant and crossing the street, he grabbed my right hand. My first instinct was to kick him in the knees, but I realized at the last second that this was normal teenager stuff and I didn’t have to worry about fighting tactics.
Then again, maybe he’d be impressed by my reflexes?
“How come you guys only come down from the cabin on the weekends? Is your dad really strict or something?”
I wasn’t totally sure how to handle that question. I was, however, perfectly sure that telling him we spent our time training to kill supernatural creatures wasn’t normal conversation for a human.
“Yes, he’s just really overprotective,” I lied. Really, he just didn’t want us getting too close to humans. And considering that’s all Ro and I seemed interested in doing when we came into town, he had good reason to be worried. Cyrus enjoyed solitude, but Ro and I craved a social life. I looked around for a safer subject. I knew that dating a human would come with some lying, but I wanted to avoid it as much as I could. “Your brother mentioned you were at work earlier. What do you do?”
“Currently I’m working at the auto repair shop down the road, but I’m taking some online classes. Hopefully in a year or two, I can get my associate’s degree and apply to a four-year school. That’s my endgame, anyway.” He shrugged before leaning his back against our truck. What about you?”
Ro and I were homeschooled. Cyrus taught us traditional subjects, but he also made sure we understood the basics when it came to the hell realm. Still, we both knew that as protectors, we couldn’t have real careers. And, honestly, now that we were both technically adults, we needed to start thinking about our own endgames. If I had a choice in the matter, I’d spend all my extra time reading, but I didn’t think that could ever really count as a career. Unfortunately, the same was probably true for being a professional Netflix-watcher. If I were human, I’d probably want to be some sort of scholar. I loved fighting, but if I wasn’t doing that, I was just as happy with my nose in a book or computer.
Michael cleared his throat loudly, which I think was a sign that I’d been silent for too long. Sorting through my head for human careers, I landed on one I wouldn’t hate. “I guess I’d like to be a veterinarian one day. I really love animals.”
He smiled, his features brightening with interest. It was the best I could come up with, since I couldn’t exactly tell him that my career would involve saving unsuspecting humans from supernatural creatures that escaped from hell. Then again, maybe he watched Buffy—in which case, he might think I was kind of cool?
Our conversation grew easier, as he cycled through questions and lighter topics, and I carefully wove through and around them the best that I could. After a long, rambling monologue about one of my favorite books, I looked up at Michael only to find that he’d moved a few inches closer, his nose just a breath away from mine. Before I had a chance to say anything, his lips pressed against the corner of my mouth.
It was an awkward first kiss, but he corrected his positioning after a moment, enveloping my lips more fully. His tongue parted the seam of my mouth, and I tasted the baked cod he’d ordered for dinner.
Not exactly great first-kiss flavor.
Still, in a town this small, I had to take what I could get. I waited for my stomach to explode with butterflies or for a light to ding in my head signaling that he was the one. Would my lips be swollen? Romance novels always went on and on about swollen lips after a kiss. While all of this ran through my head as our lips collided awkwardly, all I could focus on was how I would never order the cod from the diner if I could help it.
He gasped into my mouth, a nanosecond before he was torn from my lips. Before I could make a corny comment about how I literally took his breath away, his body flew back into the truck and I watched, mesmerized, as a giant brown wolf dragged him further into the alleyway behind the diner. The wolf had to be about two hundred pounds, and came up to my chest while standing on all four legs…which meant it would be a lot taller than me if it were standing on its hind legs. The bright yellow glow in its eyes told me everything I needed to know.
This was a straight up werewolf.