You don't have to wait! Read the first 5 chapters of The Darkest Hour right now. Be warned there are some spoilers for the first three books in the series. If you haven't read them yet, head here for excerpts and buy links!
Sofia Stepanov’s journey toward happily ever after started the way so many do—with a beautiful, tortured pair of eyes staring straight into her soul.
She gulped before taking a closer look. These eyes didn’t belong to a charming prince, but rather a mottled gray dog chained to a stake in somebody’s front yard.
Help me, those striking amber orbs begged, but Sofia rolled past the stop sign and continued toward her destination. It’s not that she was heartless, though sometimes her friends teased that stodgy Sofia kept her heart locked up tight in a tiny box hidden deep within her chest.
She wanted to help the poor, neglected mutt, but what could she do? She was already late for work. She didn’t have a lick of experience owning a pet, and stealing was just a touch against the law.
Regardless, Sofia thought about that poor, scraggly creature the whole day, ultimately making a deal with herself. If I drive past there tonight and he’s still out there, then I’ll break him free.
And, sure enough, the dog she’d taken to calling “Wolfie” in her mind remained chained in place when she drove back through the dilapidated Mountain View neighborhood more than eight hours later.
She’d “borrowed” a leash from the mall’s pet store on her way home from work, reasoning that she didn’t have to pay if it was only meant to be a loan. Besides, she was doing the Lord’s work, protecting his creatures and all that.
Yeah, it definitely would have been far worse to do nothing. The universe wanted her to free this poor sap of a dog, and so she would.
She drove by the yard a few times just to make sure that no one was home, then parked down the block and began her rescue mission.
Wolfie let out a low whine as she approached. He kept his head and body on the ground, but slowly, hopefully, began to thump his tail in the dirt beneath him.
No bared teeth—a good sign if ever there was one.
Sofia had never kept a pet growing up, then hadn’t wanted the added responsibility once she’d finally struck out on her own. Even so, she’d always had a way with animals, especially the downtrodden ones. They seemed to somehow sense a kindred spirit in her which, she had to admit, was accurate.
Nobody had ever chained Sofia to a stake, but they’d done plenty of awful things to her growing up. Gossip, rumors, pranks, all the usual mean girl fodder had all been directed squarely at Sofia.
In seventh grade, she’d gone through an adolescent revolution and finally found out exactly who she was meant to be, which unfortunately also meant finding herself as the official Bartlett High outcast. Previously a blonde, pink-cheeked clone of her mother, Sofia had dyed her hair black and never looked back. She’d begun avoiding the sun as if she really were a vampire, like one of the less imaginative rumors about her had claimed.
And now here she was, creeping around at night, getting ready to steal somebody’s dog.
She had to remind herself of that over and over again until she was sure she believed it. Sofia was the good guy here. Had always been.
Reaching into her bag, she wrapped her fingers around the food court hotdog she’d picked up for just this purpose.
Wolfie’s whining intensified when he saw the snack.
“You want this, boy? Yeah?” Sofia tiptoed up to the dog and handed him the hotdog while she switched the chain for the leash.
Quick, quick. There. Atta boy.
Checking that the clasp was secure, she removed a second hotdog from her bag and flashed it before the dog. “We have to hurry, okay? Just follow me, and I’ll give you another one of these. Got it?”
Wolfie barked, his tail swinging at a frenzied pace.
“Shhhh,” Sofia warned, slowly letting herself back out through the gate with Wolfie in tow. “Let’s go.”
If anyone saw the dognapping in action, they did nothing to stop it. It was almost too easy. Sofia kept waiting for an angry, gun-waving homeowner or the whir of sirens, but nothing happened. It felt like mere seconds. One moment, she was just passing by, and the next she’d somehow become a dog owner.
Did easy mean right? Well, she guessed time would tell on that one.
So now what?
Once safely back at home, Sofia coaxed Wolfie into her apartment and offered him a bowl of water. It had been a warm day, making Sofia squirm in her black A-line dress. Wolfie must have been downright miserable out in the sun all day with not a drop of water in sight.
Sure enough, he drank the water in less time than it took Sofia to fill the dish. After refilling it a few times, she grabbed her largest pot from the cabinet under the sink and filled that to the brim with water as well.
Wolfie didn’t want to stop. He drank and drank, making Sofia wonder where all that fluid went in such a scrawny dog.
In answer to this question, Wolfie wheezed, coughed, then vomited a clear puddle at her feet.
Apparently that made him feel better, because he began to run around the apartment in fast, tight loops—jumping onto the couch and off, onto the table and off, moving so fast he was little more than a gray blur.
Sofia’s head spun. “Wolfie, calm down!” she cried, and surprisingly, he did listen.
Almost at once, the dog dived beneath the table and cowered in fear.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you,” she mumbled, crouching down and offering the dog her hand.
Wolfie began to shake violently but didn’t resist when Sofia gently lifted her hand to scratch between his ears.
“They really treated you badly, didn’t they?” she asked, motioning for the dog to come out from his makeshift cave. “It’s okay. I’ve got you now. C’mon, it’s okay.”
Slowly, Wolfie came toward her, his posture still stooped, a line of urine trailing behind him.
One thing was for certain: she had been sent to save this dog and she would not be turning him into the shelter where they’d just stick him back in a cage and he’d be passed over for cuter and less frightened puppies.
“There, there. It’s okay,” she whispered as she ran her fingers through Wolfie’s thick coat. Little tufts of fur came out in her hand, but Wolfie seemed to like the physical touch, so she kept talking to him, stroking him, promising him she would take care of him from here on out.
When he started to relax, she grabbed the scissors out of her junk drawer and worked on the mats clinging to his belly and legs. Wolfie shifted and whined, but ultimately let her help him. Already they’d reached some understanding. Already they were becoming a team.
“We need to get you to a vet,” she said, studying the angry red mark on the dog’s back knee. Was this a sign of abuse? And if it was, would she call in an anonymous tip about Wolfie’s former owner?
She didn’t want to do anything to risk losing the dog she’d promised to care for, but at the same time, people like this deserved to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. And then some.
After a few brief moments spent weighing her options, Sofia placed a call to her former employee, Liz Benjamin—who now went by Elizabeth Jane.
“Hey, girl. What’s up?” her friend asked, the sound of wind whipping past the speaker.
“Hate to bother you like this, it’s just…” Sofia had to choose her words carefully, because whatever story she told Liz now was the one she’d be stuck with going forward. “It’s just, I found this dog on my way home from work, and I think he needs to see a vet.”
Liz sounded distracted, but not surprised. “You found a dog?”
She gulped before speaking the first of what would surely be many lies about how Wolfie came to be hers. “Yes, he was walking by the side of the highway. I didn’t want him to get hit, so I let him into my car. And now I’m kind of fond of the old guy.”
“Yeah, I know how that goes,” Elizabeth Jane said with a laugh, then after a slight pause, “Umm, most vets are closed by now, but there’s an emergency animal hospital on the in Midtown if you want to swing by there.”
“Great, thanks.” Sofia could tell her friend’s hurried responses that she needed to go. Sofia needed to go herself if she was going to get Wolfie into the vet sometime that night. For all she knew he had ring worm, or rabies, or something even worse. She glanced at the dog, who tilted his head in response.
“Do you want me to come with you?” Liz asked after a brief shuffling on the other end of the line.
Sofia smiled at Wolfie and ran her fingers through his fur once more. “No, I’m sure you have lots to do. I’ve got this.”
Elizabeth Jane sounded relieved. “Well, call me if you need anything. Maybe stop by the ranch with him over the weekend, and I can give you some of Samson’s old stuff to get you started as an official dog owner.”
“Awesome. Gotta go.” Sofia hung up, then pushed herself back to her feet.
Wolfie let her clip him back onto the leash without the bribe of a hotdog, and they were off.
What had Liz been doing that she needed to keep a secret? Sofia wondered briefly before opening the window and letting the cooling wind rush through the car.
Sofia and Wolfie arrived at the Benson Animal Hospital less than half an hour later. The large waiting room sat mostly empty, except for an elderly woman holding a cat carrier in her lap and a man about Sofia’s age sitting beside his dog on the other side of the room.
Spotting the other dog, Wolfie let out an excited whine and began to strain against the leash, dragging Sofia with him to the far end of the waiting room.
“Is it okay if we say hello?” she asked the man, hoping that Wolfie wouldn’t attack the other dog he so desperately wanted to meet.
“Of course. This is Scout. I’m Hunter. Hunter Burke.” The man stood and gestured to the German Shepherd at his side.
Sofia had heard that having a dog helped you meet people, but she was surprised by how soon Wolfie was making new friends for the both of them—especially when those friends were as handsome as the man standing before her. “I’m Sofia, and this is Wolfie,” she said with what she hoped was a confident smile.
The dogs sniffed each other, both with tails wagging.
Hunter held out his hand to Sofia, a crooked grin hidden beneath his beard. Sofia had always been a sucker for a man with a bit of scruff. If he had tattoos, too, she’d be a goner.
“New dog owner?” he asked with a knowing tilt of his head. His sandy hair fell onto his forehead, and he reached up to push it back.
Sofia watched the muscles in his arms tighten, then relax again. She even spied a patch of dark ink peeking out from beneath his shirt sleeve. That made it official: Hunter Burke was the perfect specimen of masculinity.
“Is it that obvious?” She suddenly felt very awkward beneath his studious gaze. Had he seen how the dress Sofia had designed hugged all her curves in just the right places? Could he tell that the candy apple red lipstick she wore was the exactly perfect shade to go with her complexion? “About being new to dogs, I mean?”
“Yes, but it’s okay. I’m sure you have your hands full with a wolf hybrid. And is he a rescue, too?”
“Wait, wolf hybrid? What makes you say that?”
“His eyes, for one. Also his size. That isn’t your standard sled dog. Didn’t the rescue organization tell you that?”
“Umm, not really. They mostly just seemed happy to have a home for him.” Sofia back-pedaled quickly. She’d already mixed up her story, and she’d hardly had Wolfie for an hour now. This did not bode well for her ability to keep his theft a secret.
“Don’t worry. He’s probably not a hybrid. That being illegal and all. Besides. I’d hate to have to put a pretty girl like you in jail,” Hunter said with a gentle smile that made Sofia’s breath hitch.
Had he really just called her pretty? Usually the feminist in her hated being called out on her looks, but from Hunter… Oh, mama.
She chanced a smile back at him. Normally, she wasn’t so shy around… well, anyone. But something about Hunter and the situation left her a bit speechless.
“Don’t worry. I’m only kidding.” Hunter reached into his back pocket and pulled out a badge with a laugh. “I always forget that people don’t like it when guys like me make jokes like that.”
A cop? Sofia swallowed the lump forming in her throat. Well, that wasn’t good. “Oh,” she said.
“Why the frown?” he asked with a chuckle. “I promise I only arrest people who deserve it.”
“Yeah.” She forced a laugh. Had God set Hunter Burke in her path to remind her that she had obtained Wolfie by illegal means? Was this a test? Should she come clean?
She looked to Wolfie, who was enthusiastically sniffing Scout’s butt. No, she couldn’t betray her new dog so soon—or ever. She’d made a promise to protect him and couldn’t let a guilty conscience get in her way. So, she’d stolen a dog. It wasn’t technically legal, but it was the right thing to do. She could have very well saved his life.
Yeah, taking Wolfie had been right. Keeping him was the right call, too.
Hunter spoke up again. “Okay, you seem a bit intimidated. Don’t be.”
She shifted her eyes from the dogs back to the handsome man standing beside here.
“We’re all fighting something, right? Like you. What do you do?” he asked.
“I work at the mall. Clothing store, but I also design and sell my own fashions on Etsy.” Why was she telling him this? She didn’t need to justify herself or her job. She just needed to get Wolfie checked out by the vet and then to get them both back home.
“So, you’re fighting against bad fashion decisions and nakedness.” His eyes flashed with mischief, as if it was his goal to make her squirm.
And squirm she did.
“I… Um…” She felt heat rush to her cheeks and tried to hide her embarrassment.
“Too forward?” He laughed and shook his head. “Yeah, probably. But look, the vet could call either of us back any minute and, well, I don’t want to go without at least getting your number or giving you mine.”
“Umm, okay.” She handed him her phone, wishing he’d been anything other than a cop. Otherwise, she’d be jumping for joy at Hunter’s flirtations. “I’ll take yours,” she said, knowing that she would never, ever call him.
Just then, the back door opened and a woman wearing a white lab coat smiled over at them. “Scout?”
“Well, that’s us.” Hunter hesitated before placing Sofia’s phone back into her hand. They stood so close, she could easily lean forward to kiss him—or he her. But Hunter Burke was not meant for her.
“Bye, Sofia,” he said, holding her gaze before finally turning toward the dogs. “Bye, Wolfie. It was nice meeting you both.”
Sofia watched in silence as man and his dog disappeared through the door.
Luckily, the welt on Wolfie’s knee turned out to be a heat spot, but the sore did require a pricey medication in order to clear it up. The vet also gave Sofia a huge list of items she needed to buy for her new life as a dog owner. The thing was so long, it had been printed on both the front and back side of the paper.
No way I'll be able to afford all this.
She’d already spent her extra money for the month on a new dressmaker’s dummy and a few reams of fabric that she planned to use for her summer looks.
Sofia knew she should charge more for her designs on Etsy, but she’d always said money wasn’t important, that what really mattered was getting people into clothes she’d designed. Of course, now as she stared down at this unexpected shopping list, combined with the bill for Wolfie’s exam, shots, and after-hours visit, she wished she’d taken a different stance when it came to pricing her online boutique.
But more than that, Sofia wanted to cry.
She’d never been a crier, but at the moment, it seemed as if she’d have to choose between her promise to Wolfie or her budding business as a fashion designer. Both were important to her, and she couldn’t picture her life without either. Wolfie needed her just as she needed fashion. Creating the perfect outfit had always been a refuge, a way of celebrating her body instead of feeling confined by it.
A life without her design work would mean being trapped in her dead-end job for eternity—and that would obviously murder her soul.
On the other hand, Wolfie was an actual living thing. He’d been put in her path for a reason. She’d liberated him and thus was now responsible for whatever became of him next. How could she choose something as insignificant as clothing over a living, breathing creature?
There was no way around it. This sucked.
She’d already “borrowed” a leash from the pet store. Would it really be so wrong if she took a few other supplies, too? She would pay, once she could afford to, but her next paycheck was practically a full two weeks away and Wolfie… Well, he was here now.
Besides, it’s not like she’d have to stick a thirty-five-pound bag of food up her dress. Her friend who worked for the pet supply store would happily put the supplies she needed aside so Sofia could pick them up after her shift.
Guilt gnawed at her gut. She’d always believed in making her own rules, but usually those rules merely raised a few eyebrows. They didn’t break the law.
First, she’d committed a dog-napping, next up would be theft… What about after that?
No, she couldn’t think like that. She was the hero here. She’d saved a dog’s life, for crying out loud! So what if some billionaire CEO had a couple hundred bucks less in his pocket? Boo freaking hoo.
Yes, this is what she had to do, and she had to do it today before she left the mall. Once she rang out the lone customer in the store, Sofia picked up her phone and send a text to her friend, Blinky, who worked at Pets R Us. Meet me for lunch in the food court at 12:30? I have a favor to ask.
Having made up her mind now, the time, of course, dragged by. At least when Elizabeth Jane had still been working here, Sofia had someone to talk to. Ever since Liz had turned in her notice to go back to school and use her surprise inheritance to buy a horse ranch, Sofia had been left to work most of her shifts alone, turning her okay job into one she’d now come to loathe.
Their mall had undergone an expansion, complete with a new luxury department store and thus far fewer customers for their dinky chain boutique. Besides, who really went to the mall anymore? It was the twenty-first century. Normal human beings did their shopping at Amazon, eBay, or Etsy.
Heck, Sofia would never step foot in the place if it weren’t for her job. She wished she had the discipline to live as a starving artist, but in the end, working for a soulless franchise would always be preferable to living on the streets… if only slightly.
When at last her lunch break rolled around, she temporarily shuttered the store and raced to the food court. She had less than a half an hour to herself, although the owner preferred she pack lunch and eat it in the back room rather than taking the legally mandated break.
It was hard to miss her friend, Blinky, who sat waiting for her in front of the A&W as he munched on fries and took long, slow sips from his root beer. “Sofi!” he said with a wave when he spotted her.
She hated when he called her that, but whatever. That wasn’t what was important today. She needed a favor, and she needed it bad.
She plunked down into the chair across from her friend and stole a fistful of fries.
“Hey, get your own!” he said, batting her hand away before blinking three times hard. This was exactly why everyone called him “Blinky.” His real name was Matt, but whenever he felt under pressure he developed this nervous tic where he’d—you guessed it—blink hard, fast, and a whole heck of a lot. And, apparently, Sofia stealing his fries warranted the twitch.
“I can’t,” she answered with a sigh. “I’m dead broke.”
“Then why did you ask me to lunch? Miss me?” He puckered his lips at her and winked, which led to another fit of blinks.
“Sure, let’s go with that.” She had to fight back a groan. Blinky was so not her type. Sofia’s type was the tall, inked, and handsome cop she’d met last night at the vet’s office. As she liked to say, the forbidden fruit always tastes the best. She’d even gotten a tattoo to that effect.
Blinky teased her by plopping another fry into his mouth, letting a look of ecstasy cross his squinty features.
“Yeah, they’re delicious,” Sofia said, letting her groan out in full force. “Okay, you win. Look, I need a favor…”
Matt smiled as if he’d known all along Sofia needed his help with something crucial. Apparently he was the kind of friend who delighted in making others squirm. “I’m listening.”
Sofia hated that she needed him as much as she did, but Wolfie was counting on her—and she refused to let him down.
After closing up her store for the night, Sofia met Blinky by the dumpsters behind the mall as he’d instructed.
“Hey,” Blinky called, motioning her over with a noticeable lack of twitching. Apparently stealing was already second nature to him. Would it soon be for Sofia as well?
No, she wasn’t a criminal—merely a woman providing for her dog by whatever means necessary.
“I thought you’d lose your nerve for sure.” Her partner in crime looked her over with an approving gaze.
Sofia kicked at a broken hanger on the asphalt. “You thought I was joking? That I’d joke about something like this?”
“Not joking. Not exactly.” He waited for her to look back up at him before saying, “I just always thought rebel was more of a fashion choice than a way of life for you.”
“Har har.” So, she was too different to fit in with the normies, but not different enough to belong to Blinky and his crew. Lovely.
Blinky scuttled behind the dumpster, talking to her as he worked to dislodge whatever he’d hidden back there. “Seems I underestimated you then. And, honestly, I like this version of Sofia Stepanov way better, anyway.
“Here you go.” He pushed a box into her arms, then went back for more loot. And kept going back. The amount of contraband he’d set aside seemed like way too much for just one dog.
“Okay, that’s everything,” he said at last, dusting his hands off on the seat of his work-issued khakis.
“Great. Thanks for the help.” Sofia turned to go, eager to be done with the actual act of stealing from Blinky’s unwitting employer, but he stopped her by placing a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Look, I’ve got a meeting with my probation officer next week. I need to show him I’m working on turning my life around. That’s what they expect, you know?” He shook his head and let out a soft chuckle. “Anyway, I sure could use a good outfit for that meeting.”
Sofia’s heart twisted in her chest. Everything came with a price. Of course. So why was she surprised that Blinky expected something in return for helping her? “When is it?”
Blinky dropped his hand from her shoulder, now that he had Sofia’s full attention. “Next Tuesday.”
She sighed, hating this. “I’m sorry… There’s no way I have time to make you something that fast.”
He laughed at her again, still no trace of his signature tick. “No, not make. Just borrow me something nice from your store.”
She took a deep breath. Of course she’d known what he meant the moment he said it, but she still didn’t want to believe it was true. “You want me to steal?” she asked for clarification.
Blinky continued to laugh at her. She’d never heard him laugh so much in all her life. Apparently, little fledgling criminal Sofia was a real hoot. “What do you think we’re doing now, cupcake?”
“But that’s different. I need this stuff for my dog, and I’ll pay for it as soon as I get the chance.”
He rolled his eyes and yanked the box away from her. “Yeah, and I need my new outfit. So, you want this stuff or not?”
“Fine.” Sofia grabbed the box back from a laughing Blinky. “Just text me your sizes and I’ll figure something out.”
“Now that’s more like it. Besides, one good favor deserves another, right?”
Sofia frowned. The stolen supplies felt unnaturally heavy within her outstretched arms. “I guess.”
At last her friend’s tic made itself known. He didn’t speak until the blinks had worked themselves out. When he did, he seemed almost sorry, his voice kind and placating. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re the one who asked me to do this for you.”
And it made her feel terribly guilty. “I know. I’m sorry. Thank you so much for the help. I’m just nervous, is all. This isn’t something I normally do.”
“It gets easier,” he said with a conciliatory pat on her shoulder.
“I don’t want it to get easier,” Sofia said with a frustrated groan. “This is a one-time thing, remember?”
“Sure. Yes, of course.” He hoisted up the large bag of dog food and carried it over to Sofia’s car.
Once they’d packed all the supplies into her trunk, he turned to her and said, “Hey, listen, a bunch of us are hanging out at the Miners Pub Friday night. You should come on out. It’s about time we took our friendship beyond the mall, don’t you think?”
Guilt. Always with the guilt. She hated to say no, but she also hated the thought of saying yes. “I don’t know. I have Wolfie now, and that’s not really my scene, so…”
Blinky puckered his lips flirtatiously, laughing at her again. “If you’re worried it’s a date, it’s not. My girlfriend will be there, too.”
“Oh. Okay.” That helped a little, but still, Sofia didn’t really want to hang out with the kind of people who were okay with stealing. Even if she was suddenly becoming one of them.
Hope lit in his eyes. “So, you’ll come?” he asked, slightly out of breath from the work of carrying the heavier supplies.
“I’ll think about it,” she promised.
Turned out she had a lot to think about these days. Too bad all this thinking wasn’t providing any of the answers she needed.