Happiness

THE PSY COUNCIL TRIED TO OUTLAW CHRISTMAS ONCE.

It was in the year 2019, four long decades after the implementation of the Silence Protocol. The Protocol itself arose out of the overwhelming incidence of insanity and serial killing in the Psy populace. Driven to the edge, the Psy made a choice. They conditioned their young to feel nothing—not jealousy, not rage, and definitely not joy at the thought of Christmas morning.

So it was that by 2019, only ice ran in the veins of the Psy politicians who wanted to make Christmas illegal. Since the Psy race controlled government then as it does now, Law 5198: Deletion of Christmas and Associated Holidays was near certain to pass.

There were a few minor hiccups. Some elderly Psy—those who had been too old at the inception of Silence to allow for true conditioning—weren’t certain they wanted the holiday outlawed. But the old ones were few; the last, unwanted vestiges of an emotion-filled past the Psy preferred to forget. They were ignored, their fading voices drowned out by the Silent majority.

Law 5198was read into the statute books and life moved on.

Except that the humans and changelings, the other two parts of the triumvirate that is the world, took no notice. Christmas trees went up as usual, gifts were bought, and carols were sung. Human business owners did a roaring trade in mulled wine, fruit cake, and roasts with all the trimmings.

In comparison, Psy who owned interests in companies that usually profited from Christmas suffered a sharp drop in income—Law 5198meant they could no longer advertise their products in conjunction with the outlawed holiday.

The Psy Council found itself faced with both a mass revolt by the other races, and considerable opposition from the very businesses that backed up its regime. Psy might not feel, but they also did not appreciate their profit margins being compromised. The businesses weren’t the only ones who felt the negative impact of Law 5198 —Enforcement could find no way to prosecute everyone who violated the law against Christmas.

The churches simply acted as if the law didn’t exist. But they, in their solemn dignity, weren’t the worst offenders. The changelings, in particular the nonpredatory deer species, took great amusement in walking the streets in their animal forms, dressed up as Santa’s reindeer.

Then the horse-changelings decided it wouldn’t hurt their pride to be harnessed two by two to large sleds in order to transport shoppers around the cities. Finally, the humans, the weakest of the three races—with neither the psychic powers of the Psy, nor the animal strength of the changelings—came up with the killing strike.

They changed the name of Christmas to the Day of Happiness.

It was unacceptable for Psy to feel happiness. Those who did had their minds wiped clean and their personalities destroyed in a horrifying process known as “rehabilitation.” But it wasn’t illegal for anyone else to celebrate happiness. And if they wanted to do it by singing songs, gathering with loved ones, and attending certain ceremonies dressed in their Sunday best, well, that wasn’t illegal either.

The powerful, deadly Psy Council was used to instant obedience in all things. However, in the year 2021, the Councilors admitted that wasting Psy resources to ensure compliance with Law 5198 made no financial or strategic sense. The law was quietly repealed.

Now, some forty years later, Christmas is a celebration unlike any other. Though the Day of Happiness was retired soon after the repeal of Law 5198 , changelings and humans have always known that they are one and the same thing. Of course, happiness isn’t guaranteed by the magic of Christmas. Sometimes, a woman has to fight with everything in her, with her pride and her fury, her love and her anger, with her very soul, in order to claim the joy…or the man, meant to be hers.

One

TAMSYN LOOKED ACROSS THE PACK CIRCLE TO THE MEN AND women who stood on the other side. Lachlan, their alpha, his hair going the white of wisdom and age, was saying something to Lucas, who was barely fifteen but carried the scent of a future alpha. The past and the future side by side. One day soon, Lucas would lead them. Everyone knew that. The boy had been drenched in blood, his parents murdered in front of his eyes. But he would lead. It didn’t matter that even if they waited a decade, he’d still be far too young.

Just like Tamsyn was too young at nineteen to be the senior healer for the DarkRiver leopard pack. Her mentor had been Lucas’s mother, Shayla. The attack on Lucas’s family had not only stolen their healer, it had left DarkRiver in a state of constant alert. That didn’t mean they had given up. No, they were quietly building their strength until the day they could destroy the ShadowWalkers—the pack that had murdered their own.

She knew Nate would be one of those who went after the rogue pack when the time came. He stood tall and strong beside Lachlan, his concentration on whatever it was they were discussing. At twenty-nine years of age, he was one of the pack’s top soldiers and would soon be a sentinel, assuming Cian’s position when the older man retired from active duty. The sentinels were the pack’s first line of defense. They were the strongest, most intelligent, and most dangerous predators of them all.

“Tammy, you’re back!”

Startled, she looked away from Nate and into Lysa’s bright green eyes. “I only got in an hour ago.” Even now, she didn’t quite believe she was home—the six months she’d spent at the teaching hospital in New York had been the hardest of her life.

“So the course is over?”

“Yes. That part of it anyway.” She could finish the rest of her medical training in nearby San Francisco. Most changeling healers relied on their inborn gifts, but Tamsyn had made the decision to study conventional medicine as well. It was one more way to compensate for her inexperience, for the healing gifts that hadn’t yet matured to full strength. She refused to allow her youth to disadvantage her pack.

“Nothing went wrong while I was away?” She’d hated leaving DarkRiver in someone else’s care, though she fully trusted the healer who’d stepped in to hold the fort during her absence. “Maria?”

“She left this morning. Itching to get back home exactly like you.” Lysa smiled. “It was nice of Maria’s pack to lend her to us and she was great, but damn, I’m glad to have you back.”Tamsyn returned her friend’s fierce hug. “I’m glad to be back.”Lysa set her free. “Go on. I know you’re wanting to catch up with Nate.”“No.” She glanced over her shoulder. “He’s busy with Lachlan.”“The man’s your mate, girl. You can drag him away.”Mate. The word made her heart skip as it had since the day she’d turned fifteen. That was when the mating instinct had awakened, when she’d realized she was one of the lucky ones—she’d been born into the same pack as her mate, had known him since childhood. “It’s not official yet.”Lysa rolled her eyes. “As if that matters. Everyone knows you two are meant for each other.”Maybe, but they were nowhere near to consummating the relationship. Nate was determined she get the chance to explore her freedom before settling down. What she had never been able to make him see was that he was her freedom. She didn’t want to be apart from him. But Nate was stronger than her. And at ten years her senior, he was used to giving orders and having them followed.“I should freshen up,” she said, dragging her eyes away from him a second time. “I just dropped off my bags before coming here.” Searching for him.“All right. I’ll see you after you’ve settled in.” Lysa smiled. “I have to go talk to Lachlan about something.”Nodding good-bye, Tamsyn began to move away from the large clearing ringed by trees that was the pack’s outdoor meeting place.NATE HAD SEEN TAMMY ARRIVE, WAITED FOR HER TO COME to him. And now she was walking away. “Excuse me,” he said to Lachlan, no longer caring about the discussion at hand. Some Psy named Solias King was apparently making what he thought were discreet inquiries about DarkRiver’s territorial reach and ability to defend itself. Lachlan was fairly certain the man wanted to steal their land.“This is important—oh.” The DarkRiver alpha looked up and followed the path of Nate’s gaze. His frown turned into a grin. “No wonder you’re distracted. Guess we won’t be seeing you for a while. We’ll have to track this idiot down ourselves.”Good-natured laughter followed Nate out of the Pack Circle as he tracked his mate’s scent through the trees. He caught her in under a minute. The second his palm clasped the back of her neck, she froze. “Nathan.”Her skin was delicate under his hand and he was very aware of how easily he could damage her. With her hair swept up into a long tail, her neck appeared even more vulnerable. He rubbed his thumb over the softness of her. “When did you get back?”“Around four.”It was now five-thirty and winter-dark. “Where have you been?” The leopard who was his other half didn’t like that she hadn’t come to him first.She turned her head, eyes narrowed. “It’s not like you left a note as to your whereabouts.”His beast calmed. She’d gone looking for him. Gentling his hold, he slid his hand to the side of her neck and pulled her to him. She came but her body was stiff against his. “What’s the matter?”“Juanita was very happy to tell me where you were.”He heard the jealousy. “She’s a friend and a fellow soldier.”“She was also your lover.”The beast wanted to growl. “Who told you that?”“I’m a decade younger than you,” she retorted. “Of course you’ve had women. I don’t need anyone to paint me a sign.”The jagged edge of anger turned his next words razor-sharp. “I haven’t taken a lover since your fifteenth birthday.” He was a healthy leopard male in his prime. Sexual hunger did not sit well with him. But neither did cheating on his mate. “And if someone’s telling you different, I’ll tear out their throat.”