Betrayer of Blood by Cassandra B. Andreucci

I’M IN DESPERATEneed of a nap.

My eyes burn with exhaustion as I turn the beaten up pick-up truck through the black iron gates and onto the small, curved driveway of Sanctuary Hotel. A tall, ornate lamppost emits a soft glow over the garden nestled against the gates and the aging white stairs.

The scents of the city abuse my senses; New York has a unique aroma of steel, car fumes, and decay mixed in with fresh pretzels and sweetness, like cotton candy. I ascend the steps, fatigue screaming in my bones. Screw the nap, I’ll take a light coma.

Pushing through the frosted glass doors, warm air rushes out of the foyer carrying a vetiver scent, which loosens some of the tension in my shoulders. The space is simple with its soft cream walls and dark wood floor. I approach the large, black desk against the back wall, passing double doors with a switched off, neon sign above that reads ‘Bar’.

The door behind the desk opens and an aging, human woman walks out. Her silver hair is braided into two thick strands that reach her waist and her caramel brown eyes shine with knowing as her thin lips curve into a small smile.

I set my bag down by my feet as I reach the desk. “Are you Sidelle?”

She nods, coming up to stand in front of me. Sidelle is one of the rare humans in the world who know of the creatures that roam the shadows.

“I’m—”

Sidelle holds up a hand. “I don’t know your true name, and for your stay, I suggest picking another.”

I clear my throat. “You can call me Aster.”

“Aster, welcome to Sanctuary. Please, call me Sid.” She opens the large green book in front of her, flipping through pages and pages of signatures. “How was the drive?”

“Long, but fine.”

It took me only four days to get here, when it was supposed to take me a week from Texas through the contacts that my sister-in-law Patricia gave me. I needed more space between me and the nightmare I just left, so once I hit North Carolina, I made the nine-hour drive directly here with minimal stops.

Sid flicks back and forth a few pages, settles on one with a nod, then scribbles something at the bottom of the page. She lifts the book onto the raised part of the desk, turning it toward me, placing a pen on the book.

“Sign here,” she instructs as she points to the blank signature box next to my newly appointed fake name, ‘Aster Wilford’, then turns to the wall of mailing pigeonholes, pulling a set of keys from one.

I pick up the pen, noticing the date on the top of the page. “This is dated a month ago.”

“Yes,” Sid murmurs as she slips into the back office.

Too tired to question the woman, I sign, ensuring I use my new name, and set the pen down. Sid returns with a few other pieces of paper, placing those in front of me along with the keys.

“I need you to sign these too,” she states.

“What am I signing?”

Sid perches on a stool I didn’t realize was there and leans her elbows onto the desk. “Sanctuary has rules if you are to stay here.”

I nod, waiting for her to continue.

“Sanctuary is a haven for all supernatural species, from all walks of life. There is no judgement or discrimination here. Once you step through those gates, everyone and everything is off-limits. No vendettas, revenge, or maliciousness of any kind is allowed on Sanctuary grounds. This is a neutral zone, and if anyone disturbs the peace, they are banished, no exceptions and no redemption. Is that understood?”

I nod again.

“One paper in front of you is an agreement and acknowledgment of the rules and consequences that everyone signs the first time they stay here. The second one is just an incidental form for the room and payment information.”

My heart stammers. “I… I don’t have much money.”

Sid sighs. “I’m trying to run a business here. I can suggest somewhere—”

I sink my hands in my parka’s pockets, fisting the few bills I have left and putting them on the desk along with my keys. “You can have the pick-up truck. And I’ll work for you. Any job, even grunt work. Just, please, don’t send me out there alone.”

Her tan, weathered face softens as her eyes scan me, snagging on my neck. My hand flies up to the scarf, readjusting it to cover up the bruises.

“What happened to you?” she asks softly.

“I…I can’t. Please, any work you have, I will do for my keep.”

Sid reaches for the keys in my hand before unhooking a carabiner from her belt loop, rifling through and then pulls off a set of three silver keys. She slides them across the desk in front of me and gives me a slow once over.

“Have you ever worked at a bar before?”

I shake my head. “No, but I’m a quick study.”

“Good. Meet me here at noon tomorrow,” she takes the payment sheet back and the car keys, pushing the cash toward me, “just sign the one to confirm you understand the rules, then follow me.”

I do as instructed, handing the paper back to Sid and hoist up my bag, shoving the scarce funds I have left back into my pocket. Sid walks around the desk, her slight frame moving with a surprising amount of grace as she leads me up the steps.

“You’ll stay in room 113. There’s not much to it, just a private bathroom and a bed,” Sid calls over her shoulder. We walk down a long hallway bare of any color, passing a few doors, most of them with signs that say ‘private’ or ‘staff only’.

We stop in front of the second-to-last door on the left, and Sid turns to me. “I don’t know the exact circumstances for our meeting, but know that you are safe here. No one will bother you, and if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m across the hall.”

I nod. “Thank you, Sid. See you at noon.”

Sid steps to the side. “Don’t be late,” she calls as she retreats down the hall.

I unlock the door to a moderately sized room. The bed sits against the far right wall with a nightstand on either side. I dump my bag and keys on the dresser by the door. Shrugging off my parka and draping it over the edge of the bed, I move to the armchair across the room. I pull the curtains back, revealing a window overlooking the front of Sanctuary.

Sid descends the front steps below, climbs into the truck and a few seconds later pulls out of the driveway, turning left into the street.

I sink into the armchair and hug my knees to my chest, my thumb brushing over the white stone bracelet wrapped around my wrist.

How did I end up here?

Almost a year ago, I was to complete my mate bond, and now I’m a murderer.

What am I supposed to do now?

I close my eyes as exhaustion tugs at my consciousness, sending the world into silence.

White light blinds me and pain explodes across my face. The force of the slap throws me off my vanity stool and onto the plush carpet. I try to curl up into a ball to cushion the next blow, but a stiff boot lands a hard strike into my ribcage. Tears roll down my face freely as my father pulls me up by my jaw, crushing our foreheads together.

His eyes are no longer their usual turquoise blue, but his wolf’s deep gold, and he growls. “Listen to me carefully or you will end up dead. You will mate with Viggo tonight, and like the good little bitch you are, you will breed. Do you understand me?”

My voice comes out haggard, “I would rather be dead than let that vile creature look at me, let alone touch me.”

My father forces me back into the floor, his hand squeezing my neck, cutting off all air. My eyes burn, feeling like they’ll pop out of my head, and my tongue is thick in my mouth. I claw hard at his hand; despite the skin being broken, he won’t let go. Black spots crawl across my vision as unconsciousness looms.

I hear a commotion through the fuzziness in my brain, and suddenly I have air in my lungs. I roll over, coughing and heaving in as much air as I can.

I sit up, blinking away the spots and tears in my vision to see my older brothers Junior and Stefan both struggling to hold back our father. He’s blind with rage as his wolf growls and crawls under his skin. The residual energy from the full moon from last night morphing his face slightly and changing his fingers into claws. They manage to drag his thrashing body out of the room.

Patricia rushes in as they clear the doorway and slams it behind her. I sit back onto my stool, wincing at the pain in my ribs as she reaches me; taking shaky breaths, I wrap my arms tight around her swollen belly and allow tears to soak the material under my cheek. She strokes my hair with her small hands, saying comforting words I can’t decipher. I focus on my nephew’s heartbeat just under her skin. His fast, steady rhythm calms my breathing and stops my crying.

A sharp knocking on the door makes me jump, my heart pounding hard.

“Nova, it’s me,” my twin, Kristjan, calls from the door.

Patricia pulls away, opening the door. The first thing I see is the busted lip and blotchy red skin around his left eye.

“What happened?” I ask as he rushes towards me, sinking to his knees.

His feather light hands and familiar jade green eyes skim the side of my face, my neck and prods my side, making me hiss as pain shoots across my ribcage.

“Fucking bastard,” Kristjan mutters.

“What happened to your face, Kris?” I demand, clutching the sides of his head, keeping his focus on my face.

Kris shrugs. “I told Dad you’re not going to do it. And we got into it.”

“How many times have I told you not to—”

“He’s trying to mate you with that fucking psycho, Nova,” Kris growls.

My hands drop as Patricia gasps behind Kris. “He really agreed to offer you to Viggo, even after last year?”

Kris jumps up and starts pacing. “I knew something was happening when Dad sent me to those Bitten Pack meetings instead of Stefan. The bastards knew I’d fight them on this.”

“And Junior agreed to this?” Patricia asks.

“It was unanimous, Pat,” I murmur.

My father and my brothers offered me to Viggo of the Daygrsson Pack, a vile man with no respect for Pack law, as his mate.

“I’ll talk to him, make him change his mind,” Pat insists.

“There’s no point, Pat,” Kris states, continuing to pace, “your husband is a stickler for the rules, and won’t go against the High Alpha’s decision.”

“But he’s your brother,” she counters, talking to me, “he wouldn’t want his sister to be hurt.”

Anger runs hot in my veins. “I’m not more important than the Pack’s alliances, Pat, you know that.”

Kris stops pacing, facing me. “We’re getting you out.”

I scoff. “Sure.”

He steps forward, sinking to his knees again. “I’m serious. You’re done here.”

I blink at him a few times. “I… I know nothing else.”

He grabs my hands in my lap, squeezing. “So you’ll learn. You survive this hellhole every day, you can do anything.”

“Come with me,” I whisper, eyes stinging with unshed tears.

“I can’t. People know who I am, but only the other High Alphas and a few of their sons know who you are, and they’re easily avoidable.”

“You need to go, baby,” Pat adds, coming forward, “I would rather you not be here, than you follow your mother’s path.”

I swallow back the bile threatening to choke me. I pull my hands out of Kris’ grip, turning back to my vanity mirror. The red hand marks on my neck will definitely bruise, even with my fast wolf healing, but, fortunately, the slap mark has already faded from my face.

“How are we going to do this?” I ask Kris, catching his gaze in the mirror.

A wicked glint sparkles in his eyes. “I have a plan.”

I startle awake, pain lancing down my back as I straighten from my curled position on the armchair. Lowering my stiff legs to the floor, I squint at the brightness streaming in from the window and fish out the burner cell from my pocket checking the time; it’s already mid-morning.

I stand, stretching out my muscles, and return to my backpack, pulling out my last remaining fresh clothes and toiletries as I cross the room into the bathroom.

The space is small but functional. I have a quick shower, change, and twist my waist-length hair into a high bun. I check the knot in the leather cord around my wrist, making sure the amulet is secure, and the high collar of my top covers my neck before lacing up my worn combat boots, scooping up my keys and phone and leaving the room, locking it behind me.

Sid is at the front desk handing over the guest book to a man before turning to the wall behind her. The scent of burning sage stirs around me and my heart freezes. He’s a werewolf.

I tremble, frozen halfway down the staircase. Is he hunting me? Does he know who I am?

Sid pulls the guest book toward her and passes the keys to the wolf. “You know the rules. Enjoy your stay.”

He nods, taking the keys and heads for the elevator left of the front desk. I wait until he steps in and the doors close behind him, before making the rest of the way down the stairs.

“Good morning, Aster,” Sid murmurs as she writes in a small, red book.

“Mornin’,” I return. Being called by another name will take some getting used to.

“Have you eaten?” Sid asks, continuing to write.

“Um, no, but I’m fine.”

Her head whips up, eyes narrowed. “If you’re going to work and live here, don’t lie to me. I don’t need you wasting away on me. I have too many other things to worry about.”

I nod. “Sorry, Sidelle.”

“It’s Sid. Take the elevator to level two. There’s a dining hall to the right. Speak to Chef. He knows who you are. Once you’ve eaten, come down and I’ll teach you how to check in a guest.”

I follow Sid’s instructions, finding the dining hall and the human man, Chef, chopping vegetables in the open kitchen at the back of the large space behind a long serving counter. His ochre brown face beams as he instructs me to sit at one of the long communal tables while he gathers up some food.

After scarfing down an overflowing plate of eggs, sausage, toast, and having two cups of coffee, I return to the reception where I spend the rest of the day shadowing Sid, learning the methods of checking guests in and out, and taking a quick tour of the hotel.

The hotel’s sixteen-story, red brick building holds around ninety rooms over twelve floors; the first four house reception, bar, Sidelle’s private floor, the kitchen and dining hall, and hotel amenities.

“There’s also a basement,” Sid says as we step into the elevator, taking it back down to reception. “I mainly use it for storage. The kegs for the bar are down there too.”

“I assume your bar is quite a busy one?” I ask, stepping out of the elevator.

Soft honeysuckle tickles my nose as a small, human woman stumbles into the foyer. Her eyes search around wildly as she clutches a duffel bag close to her side, her breathing heavy. Her dark eyes find Sid and she sobs.

Sid rushes across the foyer, catching the trembling woman before she hits the floor. She steers the woman towards the desk when the front door swings open again.

A tall man heaves in gulps of air as he takes a step into the foyer. His scent of pungent eucalyptus stings my nose. He’s a wolf.

“Baby,” the Bitten wolf pants, stepping further into the foyer, “come back home. I’m sorry.”

The woman sobs harder, sliding along the front desk, and backing up behind it. I step into the wolf’s line of sight, blocking his way to her. “I don’t think she wants you here.”

Rage sours his features. “You know nothing about us, breeder.”

Breeder? I take a step toward the wolf. “Do you know where you are, wolf?”

“I don’t give a fuck. I’m here for my woman.”

“You should leave before I have to remove you,” I warn.

The wolf barks out a laugh. “What’s a pathetic, Bitten bitch going to do to a Beta? Go back to your master before you hurt yourself.”

I smirk. The amulet works well if he thinks he’s dealing with a Bitten wolf. Little does he know, I’m a First Blood wolf, so I outrank him.

The wolf tries to step around me, but I move with him. He growls, his hand swinging down toward my face, but I catch his wrist. “Wrong choice, asshole.”

I deliver a swift punch to his gut, winding the wolf and sending him bowing forward. I drive my knee into his face, connecting with his nose, hearing bones crunch. He grunts as he lands on his ass, clutching his now bleeding nose.

“You broke my nose!” he bellows.

“And I’ll break more of your bones if you don’t leave this woman alone.”

“You can’t keep me away from my mate.”

“Are you mate-bound? Have you completed a mate bond?” I ask. He responds by spitting blood on the wood floor. I cross my arms over my chest. “I’ll take that as a no, so you have no claim on her. Now, leave, and never come back.”

His brown eyes burn with fury as he scrambles off the floor and stalks out of the foyer.

I turn to the woman and Sid, who are both watching me with wide eyes. “Sorry if I overstepped,” I breathe, “it didn’t seem like you wanted to go back.”

Sid’s mouth twists into a sly grin. “You’re going to fit right in around here.”