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WHISPERS IN THE DARK EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

Not again

Madison White pinched the bridge of her nose and released a long breath. This wasn’t happening. She had to be trapped in some hell dimension where she’d been put in charge of her demon cub sister—the only possible explanation, really. Because her baby sister knew better than to pull this shit again, especially considering they’d just had a chat about this yesterday.

Apparently not, though, because there it was. Blood, torn feathers, ragged flesh dangling from the beast’s gnawed bones… And the little punk hadn’t thought to bury the massacred beast. Oh no, she’d dragged the mutilated carcass into their friggin’ house and displayed it like a prize on Maddie’s goose down pillow.

Worse! Her stomach actually growled as though the half-mangled corpse were appetizing.

No. A snarl vibrated within the deepest pit of Maddie’s chest. Inwardly, she swatted her wretched cat on the nose and forced her back into the quietest recess of her mind. Focus. She would not encourage such behavior. Being half-animal hardly meant she could go through life acting like one. When she stood on two legs, she was human, and she bloody well intended to behave accordingly. Humans did not leap onto a bed and bat around a dead bird. They just didn’t, no matter how badly her mountain lioness wanted out to play.

“Paige!” Her youngest sister’s name spilled from her downturned lips in a yowling shriek. “Get your fuzzy little ass in here right now!”

Because it had to have been her. No one else in this house would have trounced a friggin’ hawk and left it as a gift on her pillow. Yesterday, it’d been a half-eaten gopher draped across their kitchen counter. Their cook had nearly suffered an embolism when she’d come across the dismembered creature. Madison had struggled to provide an explanation. Her pitiful girls will be girls excuse hadn’t cut it, and now they were short one cook. Seemed her baby sister took great joy in playing whack-a-mole out in the fields, but that didn’t forgive the behavior.

Which, all right, after the past three weeks, seeing her sister take joy in anything was a relief. But that hardly meant the little brat could drag the remains of her play toys into the house. A whole world of hell no.

“Paige!” Maddie spun on her heel in time to catch sight of a fully shifted cougar cub darting into the nearest bedroom. A deep growl scraped past Maddie’s curled lips. “I’m not playing with you, kid. Get in here, right now.”

A soft wheeze rose to Maddie’s ears, the distinct sound of a laughing feline. Lord save her from little children. She’s ten, Maddie reminded herself. At that age, she’d been a hellion too, a real handful for her parents. But never—never—had she taunted them with dead animals. Their father would have tanned her already tan backside.

“Paige.”

She sucked in a deep breath and counted to ten. Repeatedly. This was her job now. She had to play the role of the calm and collected guardian as opposed to the indignant sister. Had to teach her siblings this sort of conduct was inappropriate—shifter or not. So no, she couldn’t go chasing after Paige, no matter how badly her cat wanted to. If she gave in to that side of herself, there was no telling what sort of chaos the house would descend into. With their father’s death so fresh, she had to keep hold of herself and had to show her sisters she was a responsible adult.

“Paige. Get out here. Now. Don’t make me start counting.” Though she hadn’t a clue what she would do if her sister called her bluff. No one had ever been stupid enough to ignore their father. When he’d yowled, they’d come running. So far, her demands had only been met with giggles.

A great start to her new role as guardian.

Seemed luck was on her side today, though. Perhaps Paige sensed her frustrated tone or knew that this was not the time to upset her further. Either way, she popped her head out the door, her playful grin slipping at the sight of Maddie’s face. Her sister was a right mess, her fluffy fur muddied and knotted, her spotted sides barely visible beneath all the dirt and blood. Not to mention, she reeked of horses, cattle, and carrion. The joys of living on a ranch.

Sighing, Maddie raked a hand through her own hair. How the hell was she supposed to handle this? It hadn’t been a month yet since their father’s death, and Paige had only begun to bounce back. Yesterday was the first time Maddie had seen her in cougar form since the funeral. Scolding her felt wrong, but she had to set boundaries. She couldn’t allow either of her sisters to run rampant.

Brooklyn had never given her this sort of trouble. Of course, she was also seven years older than Paige. And nine years younger than Maddie. When Brooklyn had been learning to shift, Maddie had been out helping her father in the fields. Now, at seventeen, Brooklyn came with her own set of problems, ones that downright terrified Maddie. The thought of getting her sister through prom and boys and sex made her shudder.

A cold nose pressed against her palm, startling Maddie out of her thoughts. Right. Dead animal. Shifted sister. She needed to handle this.

Maddie released another long breath before crouching down to her baby sister’s level. She took her scruffy cheeks between her hands and held her face still. “You have ten minutes to shift back, get dressed, and clean my room. Do you understand me?”

Her sister’s hot tongue scraped against her hand.

“I mean it, Paige.” Today was not the day for this. Two of her father’s associates intended to drop by today to discuss some concerns. Always something, it seemed, and she doubted that would change anytime soon.

Her days had once been simple. Riding in the fields with the men, tending to the cattle and grain. Now, everyone expected her to sit behind the big desk and maintain the entire estate. She’d always known her father would leave White Ranch to her, but she’d never dreamed it would happen at the ripe age of twenty-six.

The feel of her sister’s fur shifting against her palms drew her attention, and Maddie watched as the cougar melted away, leaving behind a sweet little girl with a filthy face.

“Clean this up?” Maddie asked.

Paige nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Maddie leaned forward and brushed a light kiss against the tip of her sister’s nose. “I know you are. Just get washed up. We’ll have company any minute now.”

Her sister turned and bolted toward the bathroom, her grubby fingers marring the clean walls. Maddie tipped her head back, and once again found herself asking for a little help. Managing the girls had been different—easier—when their father was alive. It had felt simpler, somehow, with the two of them tag-teaming them. Now, all the responsibility rested on her shoulders, and she wasn’t sure she could handle it. Overnight she’d become a single parent.

“Knock, knock!” a baritone voice shouted from across the house.

Maddie cursed under her breath, then stepped into the hall and wrenched her bedroom door shut behind her. Both of her father’s associates were shifters—they would undoubtedly pick up on the dead bird’s scent. Not much she could do about that.

“Anyone home?”

“Come in,” Maddie called out.

She knew the voice. It belonged to her father’s lawyer, Scott Delaney. Maddie shuddered when his sharp aroma invaded her house. She drew in a breath and shook her head. Nine years, and still the scent of werewolf evoked a visceral response deep in her gut. Every bone in her body ached to tear him to shreds, but she tamped it back. Her father had never understood her distaste for the wolfier kind. But even though the ranch was in her name now, she had no intention of replacing Mr. Delaney. He’d worked with her father for years. The issue was hers, and after close to a decade, it seemed about time she worked through it.

Of course, it didn’t help that they lived right outside a city full of the wretched beasts. Hell, they’d even named the place after them: Wolffe Peak.

Heavy footsteps echoed in the foyer. Maddie glanced over her to shoulder to ensure her bedroom door was shut, then started toward the kitchen. The fewer people who approached her room, the better. At least until she cleaned up her sister’s mess…and possibly fumigated.

“Mornin’,” Scott rumbled the moment she came into sight.

With a weak smile, Maddie gestured toward the kitchen table. “Hello, Mr. Delaney. Coffee?”

His nose wrinkled, and her breath caught. He was a werewolf, surely he understood the hassle of raising a cub. “Might I suggest something a bit stronger. Like bleach?”

Her shoulders slumped. “Is it that bad?”

A light laugh fell from his lips. “My son keeps me on my toes. Believe me, I’m no stranger to the smell of dead animal.”

For the first time ever, Maddie cracked a smile at the werewolf. “I never pulled anything like this when I was young.”

“Good for you.” He tapped his briefcase, then popped it open and retrieved a thick folder. “Now, let’s get this sorted quickly so you can clean that up. In here is everything your father had laid out in the event of his death.”

She cringed at the blunt statement. It’d been three weeks since her father had passed, and the pain wasn’t as fresh now, but it still stung.

“I’ll need you to look this over and sign some papers for me. Just general things, like transferring the ranch and land all to your name.”

Maddie blinked. “Just me? He didn’t leave anything to Brooklyn or Paige?”

“Paige is ten,” Scott reminded her. “And Brooklyn…well, your daddy knew who best fit the ranch. Now, that isn’t to say he didn’t take care of them. They both have a home here for their rest of their lives or until you sell, and both have a very substantial inheritance ready for them when they reach the right age, but the primary business and properties will be listed under your name.”  

Nodding, Maddie’s gaze dropped to the briefcase. Inside was the sum of her father’s pride and joy…the deed to the ranch. Even though it was little more than a slip of paper, she felt the weight of responsibility settle on her shoulders. Her parents had poured every ounce of themselves into White Ranch. It’d been more than a business to them—it’d been their home. And now that they were both gone, it was up to her to ensure it thrived.

She ran her fingers down the folder. “I’ll take good care of it.”

“Now, hold on there,” Scott interjected. “You aren’t the sole owner of White Ranch.”

Maddie froze, her gaze narrowing on the werewolf. “What? Who else is there?” She and her sisters were the last of the family. Their mother had died during Paige’s birth, their grandparents long before that, and her father had been an only child. There wasn’t anyone else left.

Scott flipped open the folder and tapped a fresh sheet of paper. Skim-reading, her mouth gaped, her insides burning when she caught sight of the breakdown.

Dean Brewington, she could understand. He’d been her father’s silent business partner for years. Handing him ten percent made complete sense.

But— “Axel Galliard?” His name fell from her lips in a fevered shout. “Are you freaking kidding me?”

She snatched up the papers and held them to the light, as though searching for a misprint or some sort of stupid joke. Unfortunately, Axel’s name had been scratched into the pristine paper, the familiar swirls of her father’s handwriting doing nothing to settle her now seething blood pressure.

She continued to read, a threatening growl rumbling deep in her chest when she saw his allotted portion. “Twenty-five percent?” she howled. Maddie slapped the sheet down on the table and shoved to her feet. This was ridiculous! Why the hell would her father give him anything?

“Maddie?” Scott leaned forward and read over the sheet.

“He was a foreman,” she sputtered. “Nothing more than that. He…he…” She raked a ruthless hand through her hair and scrunched up her nose in thought. He was also the reason she hated werewolves. What the hell had her father been thinking? She spun on her heel, pinning Scott with a severe glare. “Does he know yet?”

“Uh, no.” Scott cleared his throat, clearly stunned by her reaction. “I’d thought I’d leave that to you.”

Her eyes slipped closed. This was a nightmare. What had her father done? And why? There was no logic to it. She hadn’t seen Axel in nine years, not since… No. She forced that memory aside. Now wasn’t the time to relive her girlish fantasies. Or nightmares, as it were.

Why would her father do this? Write a man they barely knew into his will, a man who’d shown no loyalty to her or the ranch. Anger churned in the pit of her stomach. Axel must have done something to leverage her father.

Trembling, she met Scott’s gaze once more. “I don’t even know where he lives anymore.” Nor did she want to. It’d been hard enough to keep him out of her thoughts.  

“I have his address. He lives in Wolffe Peak.”

Of course he does. But speaking with him was the last thing Maddie wanted to do. Unfortunately, she had no choice in the matter. Legally, she had to seek him out. But when she was done with him, the man would be begging to sell her back his portion.