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Chained Hearts [MultiFormat]
eBook by Elizabeth Noble

eBook Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: Sequel to Together Bound Sentries: Book Three Todd and Nick Ruger are alive and on the run in the Yellowknife Protectorate, but maybe not for long. After narrowly escaping New Colorado, where they were implicated in the assassination of Chancellor Shaffer, they're running out of steam: Todd is gravely ill and Nick's injured. Just when it seems like the harsh winter will get the best of them, they find refuge with a doctor in the isolated town of Elk's Ridge. On the surface, Elk's Ridge seems the ideal place to rebuild their lives. Nick begins training as the doctor's apprentice, and Todd works in a lumberyard until they're recovered enough to return to their duties as Sentries. They make friends, forge a new life, and most importantly, there's no sign of anyone from New Colorado. They should have known it was too good to be true. Victor Raleigh, the new Vice Chancellor of New Colorado, knows all about Nick's psychic abilities, and he wants them in his corner. When Nick is betrayed and captured, Todd sees no alternative but to head back to the war zone to rescue him. But will Nick be the same man Todd loves after Raleigh's pet psychic vampire is through with him?

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2012

1 Reader Ratings:
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Larry Witze spent the majority of his adult life as director of the Slave Sanctuary on the Chancellor's Estate. His passion, however, was reading. He especially loved to read history books and had read enough of them to understand better than most how and why, centuries later, the world he knew had changed so much from the world of the past he read about.

He was fascinated by the wars of the past. Wars that grew larger with every discovery of new lands and new people and were eventually fought on such a massive global scale with such devastating weaponry that death could strike with the guiltless touch born of long distance.

Back then, he'd read, it was commonly thought nuclear weapons, economic disaster, and widespread disease would be humanity's downfall. Ironically, the fall, when it came, was not of human manufacture, but in the form of a natural disaster. An unstoppable volcanic eruption hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than any weapon humans could have conceived of or constructed.

The people in those written-about bygone times fought a different type of war than the one Larry Witze and others were fighting today. Now, the geographic scope was far smaller, death was more intimate, more hands-on. The weapons today's army fought with were less massively destructive, but in Larry Witze's time, war was fought with additional weapons that were the fodder of myth, magic, legend, and fairy tales. The society before wasn't faced with an enemy wielding supernatural weapons. Nor did they possess the allies Larry Witze did, capable of equally powerful supernatural weaponry.

Boundaries had been drawn, and when West Caldera had declared war on New Colorado over the rights to the Gulf Coast waterway, a motive for war as old as humanity itself had reared its head.

Fortunately, two very extraordinary young men, each with unique and special gifts, some known and some, no doubt, as yet undiscovered, had crossed Witze's path. In them, and those like them, Witze realized, lay hope for tomorrow.

He couldn't help but wonder what the history books would have to say about that.

* * * *

Chapter One

Its tongue slipped inside Nick's tunic, slithered over his pecs, teasing at his nipple before sliding up and forcing between his lips. Oily bitterness dripped down the back of his throat.

Not yours. He didn't want this. Not yours.

Nick jolted awake.

Sitting up, he gulped in large breaths, trying desperately to vanquish the images dredged up from his mind to invade his sleep. Something reached across his chest and pressed against his sternum, startling him enough he jerked away from the touch, gasping softly.

It slid across his jaw, leaving a wet, slimy trail over his cheek.

"N'kky." Todd's voice was rough and slurred. Todd shifted beside him, pushing up on one elbow. Exhaling a loud, shaky breath, he stretched his other arm farther across Nick's chest. "Juss me. Stay. Shhh," he mumbled, tightening his grip so Nick was pulled back against Todd's chest, his lips soft on the back of Nick's neck, and his warm breath blowing over Nick's skin as he talked. "What's a matter?" Todd's words ran together enough it took Nick a few seconds to work out what he'd said.

"I... a dream... Todd." Nick turned so he could face his mate. "Nightmare. Really bad."

Nick was pulled even more tightly against Todd. "Another one?" he exhaled.

"What if the kelbit had a mate? There had to be more than one, right? What if it wants some sort of revenge?"

Todd squinted at him. The moon was barely a quarter full and set low in the sky. It was stuffy inside the wagon and still nice enough they often slept outside, though realistically, they probably only had a few more weeks before weather forced them inside every night. They were moving farther north every day. He rubbed at his neck before wiping at his eyes and shook his head. "Huh?"

When Todd scooted away, Nick couldn't help reaching out and grabbing hold of his arm. "Don't leave, please."

Stopping, Todd turned and looked Nick up and down then reached out and brushed two fingers through Nick's bangs. "Shush. I'm not going anywhere, just to the wagon." He stretched far enough to reach the water barrel and cups hanging off the back of the wagon. Todd always camped them somewhere close to a stream or pond; somewhere they could get fresh water. They were far enough north that at this time of year, early fall, the streams and rivers cooled down at night, and the water was pleasantly cold. The barrel was emptied and refilled nightly.

Opening the spout, Todd poured water into one of the tin cups and slid across the ground until he was beside Nick. "Here, drink this."

Nick didn't realize how thirsty he was until the cool water slipped down his throat. He had to admit it tasted good and did make him feel a bit better. He emptied the cup and held it against his knee, hands shaking. "They reproduce somehow, right? What if the one we killed had a mate?"

"Why do you think that?" Todd filled a second cup of water for himself, downed half, and left the rest in the cup, setting it off to the side.

"It could, right?"

"I suppose. You read the same information I did, Nick. They mate and reproduce when they're in their natural form, not when they have a host."

"And they mate for life." Nick drew in a few shaky breaths.

"Nick," Todd sighed, took Nick's cup, and refilled it, pressing it back into Nick's hands. "We have no proof there was a mate. And if there was, I have no idea how it'd--"

"She. It would be a she."

Todd rubbed the skin under his eyes. "I have no idea how she'd track us."

"Todd, there's... every time I sleep... it's there... she's there. Right along with him and how he was all over me. I can still feel that tongue and everything it did, every touch...."

Scooting closer, Todd held Nick's face in both hands. "Nick. Nicky... shush... stop. Nothing is here. We've seen no sign of anything following us. You and I check every day. You've been with me." Sliding one hand down to Nick's shoulder, Todd urged him to lean forward. He lifted Nick's shirt and peeled away the bandage over his scapula. "Let me see." Nick felt how Todd pulled in a breath and let out a long sigh. "It's still not healing well."

Nick shivered when Todd's fingers gently touched his skin. He turned his head as far as he could, trying to see over his shoulder. Todd chuckled soft and low, leaned in, and brushed a light kiss over the back of Nick's neck between his slave collar and where his hair curled up.

"It's like what I dream is worse than what actually happened."

"You're my boy, and I'm never leaving you alone and vulnerable like that again. Anything will have to go through me first. Even if she is following us, we'll deal with her, just like we dealt with him." Todd patted the bandage back into place. "In the morning, when there is better light, I'll clean that again, scrub it good, and re-bandage it. I think it might be getting infected again."

That probably explained why Nick hadn't been feeling so well for the last day and a half. Rolling his shoulder a few times, Nick stretched his arm up and around in a circle. "I wish the stupid thing would get better already."

"There is still some of that antiseptic cream the doctor gave me before we left the Estate. We'll look for more when we stop to stock up on supplies." Nick felt the movement of Todd's lips as he talked against his skin. Todd inched close enough that his legs bracketed Nick's. Todd wound his arms around Nick's waist and pulled Nick flush against his chest. Nick let out a long, slow breath when his head was tipped to the side, and Todd licked slow, luxurious trails along Nick's throat.

Reaching back, Nick felt along the covered wound with his fingertips. "It's starting to hurt more."

Todd moved his hands to roam lightly over Nick's shoulder and pressed his lips more urgently against the skin of his neck. "And not letting you sleep well either, I bet."

He moved his tongue and lips in soothing strokes up and down Nick's neck, and he lightly massaged over Nick's back, shoulders, and arms. Eyes drifting closed, Nick relaxed back, sinking against the warmth and muscle of Todd's body.

Tongue oozing over his jaw, along his lips, it forced its way inside. Nick jerked to the side, away from the long tongue. It was Todd's face he saw, not the kelbit's. The long tongue, dripping with oily venom, was coming out of Todd's mouth. Nick was stunned and confused. This shouldn't be happening, wasn't real, his mind screamed. Still, the scene played on. Todd's face split into a manic grin, then his lips curled into a snarl. His face morphed into Shaffer's then into the kelbit's. Lashing out, Nick connected with the hideous face, knocking the head away from the body. Todd's head rolled away, eyes staring up. Cut off its head. Sever spinal cord. Todd's eyes blinked, and the bodiless head rolled back and forth a few times while it laughed.

"Nick!" Hands Nick immediately knew were Todd's gripped his shoulders, turned him, and shook him--hard. Nick blinked and rubbed at his eyes. Todd's hands dropped away, and he lifted one to rub at his jaw while sliding it side to side. "Ow. Christ, who taught you to hit so hard?"

"I... you... I didn't mean... Todd, I'm sorry." He'd hit Todd? His mate. His master. The thought made his stomach turn and his eyes sting. Yet, nearly every night since killing the kelbit, Nick relived driving a knife into the creature's neck and severing a head wearing Todd's face, seeing it roll away, eyes open and staring up. Each nightly show his subconscious put on was ten times worse than his final fight with the kelbit and even more frightening. Nick shuddered.

"Nicky, come on... come here." Todd pulled him close again. "Stop this. It's okay. We're okay. Tell me about them, everything."

Sighing, Nick straightened, leaning away from Todd far enough to look out at the trees for a minute. He nodded slowly. "They're always the same. The kelbit comes after me, just like it did at the Chancellor's Estate, but then it gets worse. I can't get away, and what it does... it goes a lot further. There are two in my dreams, and the one still alive is pissed we killed her mate. Then...." His voice cracked, and he shivered again. "Then I have to kill it--kill you. I can see that thing's head with your face on it coming off the body and rolling away. Watching me, always watching me."

Todd rubbed his hand up and down Nick's spine. It felt good, and Nick relaxed into the strength of Todd's hand and gentleness of his touch. "Nicky, you have to let it go. For me, please?"

Winding his arms around Todd's middle, Nick swallowed down his fear and memories, nodded, and nestled against him, hanging on tight and relaxing when Todd pressed his arms in close, holding him just as tightly. "I'm trying. It doesn't want to let go of me."

* * * *

Todd woke up coughing. He hacked, pulled one hand to his mouth, and rolled to one side, pushing up on his elbow, trying not to spit all over Nick. Sliding away and rubbing Nick's head when he mumbled something Todd had no prayer of understanding, he sat up and stretched far enough to snag the cup of water left on the ground from the night before. There was enough in the bottom to clear out his throat.

He rubbed his jaw and rolled his head side to side, getting a few loud pops and cracks from his neck. Sleeping on the ground was starting to suck--a lot. Sleeping in the wagon was almost as bad. The nights were cooling down, but it was still humid enough, and there was so little air movement inside the wagon all he and Nick would do was toss and turn.

Not that Todd didn't toss and turn instead of sleep lately anyway. Where Nick had gotten the idea the kelbit had a mate, a mate who was now after them, was beyond him. Nick's nightmares and imagination were getting out of control, and Todd was getting the bruises to prove it.

They needed a home. Even if it was some rundown shack they'd have to rebuild, he wanted to find them somewhere to live. He desperately wanted Nick to have some sort of stability and sense of safety. His mate never once complained about their sudden nomadic life, but Todd hated it, hated that everything had been torn away from Nick, and Todd needed more than anything to make it right, fix it. Right now, fixing it meant finding a home.

Todd had no doubts that Nick's nightmares and inability to deal with what the kelbit had done to them both--including killing it while it looked like Todd--were caused by the fact they had nowhere to live. Nick had lived in two places, the village where he'd been raised and their apartment in New Colorado City. Much of Todd's childhood and teen years had been spent moving every year or two. Even though he had mainly lived somewhere in or very near New Colorado City, he'd come to hate that life. It was not the life he'd worked for and planned for Nick and himself. A home was somewhere permanent.

Making it worse, winter was coming at them faster the farther north they traveled. Only in the last day or two was he beginning to relax and think they were far enough from the border between New Colorado and its northern neighboring protectorate, Yellowknife, that they might be safe. After one time in the town close to the Chancellor's Estate where they'd heard of a runaway slave and the very sketchy description of Nick, Todd hadn't heard or seen any sort of report. Nothing to give him the idea they were looked for or even wanted.

Even though Nick never complained or mentioned it, Todd realized he probably picked up on Todd's disquiet and distress, neither of which was helping Todd's cause. Nick was much too sensitive and empathic for either of their own good sometimes.

Nick's movements drew Todd's attention. His mate rolled to his butt, sitting there leaning on one hand, legs half-stretched in front of him and crossed just below his knees. Shaggy, dark hair was brushed away from his face, and sleep-blurry eyes blinked at Todd, making his young mate look even younger... more like a sleep-tousled little boy.

There was no way Todd could, or would even try, to stop the smile from spreading over his face. Scooting closer to Nick, he combed his fingers through Nick's hair, appreciating how soft it was. He pressed a gentle kiss to Nick's forehead. "Morning."

One side of Nick's mouth twitched up for a second before he yawned.

"Christ, Nick, some days you make me feel like a pedophile."

Nick yawned again, scratched at his chest, and mumbled out, "Huh?" He inched along the ground until he wedged himself between Todd's legs and laid his head on Todd's shoulder, face pressed against the side of his neck. Nick yawned again. His entire body relaxed as he nestled against Todd, ribcage expanding with yet another yawn.

"Lemme see this." Todd lifted Nick's shirt and inspected the bandaged wound as he had during the night. "According to the map, there's a town not too far from here. How about we check it out, see if there is somewhere we can get some supplies? We need more bandaging material and more medicine to put on your wound. I'm going to heat some water and get it cleaned out again."

"I don't think it's ever going to heal," Nick grumbled. "It's been almost a month."

"I wouldn't mind finding a doctor to take a look at it either." Todd smoothed Nick's shirt back into place and took a deep breath. "Nick, you keep having those nightmares."

"How are we going to explain this kind of wound?"

Tapping Nick's nose with one finger, Todd warned, "No changing the subject."

"I'm sorry. I can't stop them. They keep coming."

"Don't be sorry. It's not your fault. We need to work on stopping them." Massaging the back of his neck and shoulder, Todd gave some more thought to what Nick had told him last night. "Is there a part of the nightmares, or a certain scenario that bothers you more than the others?"

Nick snorted. "The whole thing bothers me."

"Nick, work with me, here."

"Well, it really scares me that there might be a second kelbit, a mate, and that she wants revenge and is tracking us. The nightmares always end with me cutting off your--its--head."

Nodding, Todd said quietly, "I've proved to you there is no mate near here. We've searched and checked and not seen a single sign of another one. They can change form to look like someone else but not turn invisible. And it has no psychic power to get into your head. All it can do is take the memories and emotions of the person whose form it takes."

"I know, and I do try telling myself that every day."

Easing away from Nick, Todd stood up, at a loss for what else to say that might be helpful. Moving farther from the wagon, he got a fire started and set a pot of water on to heat. Nick wandered off toward the nearby river. Todd grabbed his clothes and headed after his mate.

He'd considered the possibility that Nick was right and the kelbit did have a mate who was somehow able to infiltrate Nick's dreams. More likely, it was trauma. Nick's ability to sense evil entities also made him incredibly sensitive emotionally. That trait didn't always work for them, which strengthened Todd's resolve to find them somewhere bigger than their wagon to stay. A place more easily defended and sturdier than a wagon would naturally offer a higher sense of security.

Once they were done washing in the cool water, Nick quietly sat by the fire, naked from the waist up, while Todd scrubbed out the round bite wound, smeared some more of the antiseptic cream over it, and applied a fresh bandage. The only sign of discomfort Nick let show was the occasional hissed-in breath and a shifting of his shoulders forward. After the cream was smoothed over him, he turned and looked over his shoulder, rubbing at it with one hand. "That makes it feel better." He offered Todd a sweet, easy smile. "Thanks."

"How about we get a real meal in town? It should be over that rise. It's called Elk's Ridge, and from the looks of it on the map, it's a decent-sized town. Then we can hit a store if they have one. We'll need somewhere a little more permanent and stable for the winter. This area is as good as any I suppose. If we want, we can head out again in the spring, but for now, we have enough money to get us through."

"We can always get work, Todd. There will be lots of our sort of problems kicked up by the war. You know, ghosts to dispatch, monsters to slay, curses to break." Nick shrugged and grinned. "I sort of miss doing our good deeds."

"Well, me too, but not until that wound is healed, we can't. Besides, time to give it a break for a bit, I think, and stay as far away from that war as possible. I hope if they have a store, there's a post office, too, so we can send our letter to Jimmy and maybe get a newspaper, see what we're missing."

Todd saw how Nick's face softened when he mentioned Jimmy. He knew the tone of his own voice clued Nick in to how much he worried about Jimmy Cantor. He wasn't only the coordinator of sentries in New Colorado, but he had partially raised Todd and was their friend.

Nick nodded and pulled his shirt over his head, then added the sweatshirt Todd had given him on their first day together and he still insisted on wearing. They doused the fire and packed their camp into the wagon before securing the team, choosing instead to ride the saddle horses into town.

"We can't ride the same horse?" Nick stood beside Obi, looking up at Todd who was already sitting on the other horse. It'd taken Nick a while longer, but he'd come up with a name for the young, buckskin gelding. Todd's horse had been named Arenite. "What if it's a problem, me riding on a horse?"

Motioning to Nick to mount up, Todd smiled softly. "It'll be okay. No law says you can't ride one as long as you're with me. I know you like when we ride together better, but we're going to need both horses and the packs to haul back supplies."

"No law in New Colorado," Nick grumbled and swung onto the horse.

"I doubt the laws in Yellowknife are much different, but if they are, we'll worry about it then. I'm willing to bet the laws here might be looser since they don't have their own slavery industry, just don't take the offense to it that West Caldera does."

Nick didn't say anything else, simply nodded and nudged Obi into motion, keeping close enough to Todd their legs brushed as the horses moved. It was sunny, with large, puffy, white clouds dotting the sky. The air had a crisp, clean scent to it that always put Todd in a good, mellow mood.

The town, Todd discovered, was a pleasant one. There was maybe around a thousand inhabitants, smaller than the tens of thousands who lived in bigger cities like New Colorado City or Yellowknife City, but not so small that they were totally unaccustomed to people passing through.

On the way into town, they had passed apple orchards and an abundance of maple trees. Farms dotted the area; Todd had seen that on the map. Even as far north as it was, it was a hub for travelers, which was immediately evident by the several inns and variety of shops and businesses. There were also a few cafes and restaurants, a larger sized livery, libraries, and a fair amount of homes scattered around the outskirts and farther out in the countryside. Leaving their horses in the care of the livery, they decided to hike around and check the place out.

The buildings were mostly stone and wood with slate and shingle roofs. The streets were cobblestone or brick-paved with wide, wooden sidewalks on either side. Flowerboxes hung under the windows of the businesses. Many of the houses and the inns had gardens with both flowers and vegetables. It was easy to see treelined, residential streets off the main roads. The houses looked like larger homes perfect for families, and Todd counted two schools.

This was a little oasis of civilization in the rugged, mostly uninhabited, far northern part of the Rocky Mountains.

Their first stop was the Rambling Moose cafe a few blocks over from the livery. It was the type of place that attracted both people wanting a quick bite to eat as well as those enjoying a relaxing meal out. Inside was a bar surrounded by a dozen or so tables with big, comfortable-looking chairs. A deck ran around three of the building's sides, affording patrons the opportunity to eat and drink outside in the nicer weather.

Just like they did at the cafe near what had been their home in New Colorado City, Todd and Nick took an outdoor table. They settled into the heavy wooden chairs and looked over the menu. A waiter came along, greeting them and welcoming them to Elk's Ridge. He made some small talk while providing them with water and coffee. Todd kept his answers neutral, and the man never acted as if anything were amiss or that he'd recognized them, immediately putting Todd at ease. As soon as he relaxed, he saw how Nick did the same.

The fact that Todd was a stranger, wandering the streets and now sitting at an outside table at the cafe with a slave, drew little attention other than a few people who'd greeted them on the street. As he'd always done, Nick's tether was hooked to his collar and then tucked into his back pocket making it easy to grab if needed.

The letter to Jimmy started a few days ago was finished while they sipped very good coffee and waited for their meal. Todd was pleased that people here had slaves. He'd seen several on their trip through, and no one seemed much fussed over how he treated Nick. In fact, this town reminded him of the New Colorado City neighborhood he'd chosen to live in, where most of the owners and slaves were a part of a family.

Todd got a good feeling from the town; people minded their own business and were open to newcomers, not that he was ready to find a real estate office just yet, but this was definitely a place to check out more closely. They would probably be fine if they could find a small cabin or even a cave for the winter, keep an eye on the town, and decide if this was where they wanted to live.

"The coffee here is good." Nick had finally stopped shoveling food in and was leaning back in his chair, looking up and down the street. He looked content and was smiling; another good sign as far as Todd was concerned.

When they left the Rambling Moose Cafe, there was a five-pound bag of coffee beans to add to their packs. The doctor, they discovered, lived just west of the town and outside of it on a small piece of property. If he didn't find something for Nick's shoulder in town, then Todd decided a visit to the doctor was in order.

They wandered down the street to the next main intersecting street and took a right, walking along. There was a large store not far from the intersection; they'd gotten directions from a waiter at the cafe. It took up nearly half the block. It was several stories high with a store on the main floor, lodging on the second floor, and whatever was on the third wasn't open to the public, but Todd suspected it was storage. He could see houses behind the store that were attached to it. Probably whatever family owned it lived in those houses. To one side was a barn that was home to a half dozen horses if the small windows running in a line across the middle of the building were any indication.

In unison, they stopped and looked at the large wooden sign with the words Foxtail General Store carved into the wood. A fox lounged across the top of the letters, while its tail was wrapped underneath. Nick nudged Todd's side and pointed at the sign, grinning. "People around here like the wildlife. They can't be so bad," Nick said.

"Let's hope you're right. This is a nice town." Todd pushed the door open and went inside, Nick a step behind him.

As they walked through, Nick was all eyes, checking out everything, making Todd smile. It'd been a while since he'd truly seen Nick's insatiable curiosity come bouncing to the forefront, and it gave him hope his young mate would be on the mend if they stuck around this area for a while. Heading toward the back where there was a counter, and looking beyond it, Todd did indeed see that there was someone's home.

Two small children, a boy and girl, maybe about four years old came running from behind the counter. They were small, blonde, cute, looked like twins, and nearly ran Todd over.

"Whoa, whoa, easy there," he laughed and scooped one kid--the girl--up, swung her around, and set her on the counter all while deftly sidestepping the little boy plowing into his shins. Nick covered his mouth and snickered.

"Oh my gosh, I am so sorry. Karen, Kieron, you're both supposed to be in the house helping Nana, not annoying our customers. Now go." A woman about Todd's age rushed after them. She was small, equally as blonde as her children, with crystal-blue eyes, and had long, wavy hair that fell to below her shoulders. She offered Todd a dazzling smile. "I am very sorry. What can I do for you?" She skimmed her fingers over his forearm lightly before coming to rest on the counter.

A quick glance back at Nick who was brushing his hair back from his face and looking a little grumpy, and Todd stepped up to the counter after the little girl, Karen, vacated it for the house and her Nana. The woman's gaze flashed to Nick for a brief instant before landing back on Todd. He hoped he really didn't look like some kind of pedophile after all. His mate looked too damn young sometimes. Todd resisted the urge to blurt out Nick was twenty-three.

"Do you have any postal service here?" Todd fished the letter out of his coat pocket.

Nick stepped up behind him, dropped to one knee, crossed his arms over the bent one, and looked around the store casually. Todd recognized that for what it was; Nick's little bouts of jealousy and insecurity hadn't bothered him since the night not too long after leaving the Chancellor's Estate that he'd chased after his mate. Nick behaved this way the most when he wanted reassurance from Todd; he understood that and found giving Nick his needed security and letting it ride was his best course of action. He let one hand drop casually to his side and moved it back far enough to skim across Nick's hair for a few seconds before bringing it back up to rest on the counter. Todd didn't often demand Nick take a kneeling position behind him, but he wanted Nick to know when he chose to do so on his own, Todd completely understood the reasoning behind Nick's actions and that Nick would never be reprimanded.

"We do." She held out her hand, and Todd set the envelope with their letter to Jimmy in her palm. It took her a minute to weigh it and figure the postage, and she chatted away at him while she worked. "I'm Amelia Wilbourne, and you've met my children. Are you new in town or passing through?"

He also found out in those few minutes that she was a widow; her husband had been killed in an accident earlier the year before. She lived with her grandparents and children. Her brother and his family ran the local lumberyard about a mile down the road. It was way too much information, definitely way too much hair flipping and touching of Todd's forearm while she was giving it out.

"Not sure yet." Todd smiled at her and handed over payment for the postage, then gave her a quick handshake when she offered her other hand. "We're definitely here to pick up some supplies." Reaching behind him, he slipped one finger under Nick's collar and tugged lightly. Nick stood, stepped closer, and waited placidly beside him. "I'm Todd Ruger. This is Nick, my mate."

Amelia's gaze barely flicked to Nick who smiled politely and nodded. "Hello." His voice was soft, and Todd was likely the only person who'd ever hear the note of insecurity in it.

"Well, Mr. Ruger, if you need anything at all, let me know." She had a sort of predatory sweet smile that made Todd want to shake his head. Nick more glared at her than anything. "I hope we see more of you in here. If there is anything you can't find, let me know, I'll have it ordered."

"I bet you will," Nick grumbled. If she heard him, she ignored him. In fact, other than the first glance she'd spared Nick, she hadn't acknowledged his presence at all.

Todd gave Nick a slight bump on his arm, and they grabbed a basket, and walked up and down the aisles. Thankfully, Todd found some medicated cream as well as the rest of the supplies they were getting low on to replenish their stock. Nick finding a book that interested him made Todd happy, and he made it a point to hand it back to Nick after paying for it. Amelia's looks were making him nervous, and he decided he really wanted her to understand Nick was his mate, and Todd was not looking for any other sort of company.

It was early evening when they left the town and headed back to their wagon. Todd wasn't comfortable enough to get a room at one of the inns for a few nights. He wanted to watch the town and the area for a while first. That night, a cold wind blew in heavy rains, forcing them to sleep in the wagon. Todd spent the night shifting from one side to the other, trying to ease aches and cramps, never seeming to find a position that allowed him to relax and sleep, all while trying to stifle a cough he figured came from the damp air and not wake up Nick. That turned out to be a nonissue since Nick didn't really sleep much. If he wasn't flinching awake from nightmares, he was rousted by Todd's tossing and coughing.

By early morning, the two of them finally got to sleep. It rained most of that day, making Todd even antsier. He'd decided he wanted to check the area, watch the town, and bad weather was thwarting his plans.

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