The Prodigal Returns
Zhere Ghan was at work in the dining hall, plotting strategy. He had not returned to his office for any length of time since the night of the attack. To his nose, it still stank of sheep urine. Just his imagination, he knew. Nevertheless, he’d taken to switching work stations, choosing rooms at random and moving about the manor frequently, with no set pattern. The House of Ghan was preparing for war. It never hurt to take precautions.
A harried servant opened the far door and glanced inside. His breath left him in a relieved hiss when he spotted Ghan. He bowed low. “Your son has arrived, my Lord. Shall I present him to you here, or would you prefer a different venue?”
Ghan frowned. “My son?” He shook his head and set aside his tablet. “Bring him here.” The servant bobbed even lower and withdrew.
Now what in Vishnu’s name was Tasman doing here? He was under strict orders to maintain a presence at the tigers’ club, Nirvana. Carry on as if nothing was amiss. Ghan wanted a second set of trusted eyes in Talbot’s Peak, trained on Hancock’s agents. It also reduced the risk of both himself and his heir falling victim to another assassination attempt. Ghan had his household guard; Tasman had his assistant, the lethal snow leopardess Leila. If one of them fell to Hancock’s machinations, the other would see about revenge.
It wasn’t like Tasman to disobey orders. Not without at least a phone call first. He’d better have a damned good reason for an unnecessary personal visit.
The servant returned. He bowed low, ushered the young tiger shifter into the dining hall, and backed away without ever raising his eyes to Ghan’s. The tiger adjusted his lapels and nodded respectfully. “Father.”
Ghan leaped to his feet, dumbstruck. “Ravi? What the hell are you doing here?”
“I heard about the attempt on your life. Of course I came at once.”
“Why?” For a second his professional mask slipped, and a snarl tried to curl his lips back. Ravi mastered it quickly, and returned his face to neutrality. In spite of himself, Ghan approved. A year of running the Indian branch of the business had done Ravi good. It looked like he might have learned how to curb his impulsiveness, and his often hair-trigger emotionalism. He still wasn’t Tasman, but he’d improved tremendously. “Because if we’re engaged in open warfare, then my place is here.”
“Who says we’re at war?”
Now Ravi’s lips did curve, in a bit of a knowing smirk. “Tasman. We report to each other on a regular basis, you know. He’s very thorough.”
Ghan grunted. He was indeed. “Surely he didn’t order you here. Best that one of you stays out of the line of fire.”
“Seriously? I’m supposed to sit on my tail safe in India while some mongrel dog takes a run at you? And nearly succeeded, from what I understand.” Ravi stepped further into the room. “Safety be damned. If your life is threatened, my place is at your side, as befits a dutiful son.”
“Maintains the Ghan presence in Talbot’s Peak, as I’m sure you would have ordered him. Am I correct?” He must have read the answer on Ghan’s face, because his smirk widened a little. “Leaving you with no trusted kin to guard your back. It’s Hancock behind it, am I right? There you go, then. All a wolf understands is rank. He thinks you’re an alpha with no pack to back you. If we present him with a united front, you and Tasman and I, he’s liable to roll over and show throat.”
“Not that one,” Ghan growled. “I think his brains have finally curdled. He called out the Seven on me.”
“The assassins? And you were going to leave me sitting in India while you took him on alone?” Ravi shook his head. “Sometimes you worry me, Father.”
Ghan chuckled, and relaxed. How many times had he said that to Ravi, and in the same indulgent tone of voice? His second-born might have finally achieved maturity. Leaving the table, he walked to his son and laid his hand on Ravi’s shoulder. “Perhaps you’re right. Dogs fight in packs. We should meet them in the same manner. Lull them in, then face them as tigers. They’ll never know what hit them.” He patted Ravi’s arm. “It’s good to see you, son.”
“Thank you, Father.” He glanced around. “Where’s Sergei? I would have thought he’d be hovering over you, given the circumstances.”
“Sergei … ” Ghan growled under his breath. He let go of Ravi’s arm. “Sergei has … terminated his employment.”
“He’s left you? At a time like this?”
“It’s of no import.” So he’d been telling himself. “He was on assignment for me when the attack happened. He returned in time to save me. Then he declared his debt repaid and left. We needn’t worry about him.”
“Are you sure?” Ravi said. “He’s always been a strange one. Didn’t he have ties to the Seven?”
Ghan had been pondering that as well. The timing of the sheep’s attack had been awfully coincidental. Or well-planned. “Tasman has him and his lover under surveillance. If I decide action against him is warranted, Tasman will see to it.” He smiled suddenly. “But that can wait. My son is with me again. Come to the kitchen, have tea with me. Tell me how things are at home.”
“Boring,” Ravi said. “I wanted to be where I’m needed.” They left the dining hall, Ghan with his arm around Ravi’s shoulders.
“Not yet. I need all my wits about me. Afterwards, leave the bottle.” He glanced at the clock in the screen’s corner. This call had been arranged earlier. The one he could count on to respond. The other? Still up in the air. He prayed both would listen. Lives, perhaps more than their own, might be at stake.
At precisely 7 pm he activated Skype. The screen split as he connected with the two incoming calls. One hurdle cleared: both horses had been successfully led to the water. Now to get them to drink. “Gentlemen,” he said. “Thank you for hearing me out.”
“You haven’t said anything yet,” Damien Hancock growled. The image from his end was slightly out of focus. Brand studied it as best he could. The Alpha wolf didn’t look good. He appeared somehow bloated, and hairier than usual, as if he hadn’t shaved or even combed his hair in days. By contrast, Zhere Ghan’s image practically crackled with clarity. He looked the same as always: handsome, dignified, polished, urbane. Dangerous. That burned in his narrowed eyes and was picked up by the camera. Hancock’s eyes were harder to read from his blurry image. They looked bloodshot.
“I’ll get right to the point,” Brand said. “By now you both probably know I was attacked in my home the other night. I know the two of you were also attacked the same night. Supposedly each of us ordered the attacks on the others. For example, the pair that came after me made a point of telling me they were Hancock agents, under orders from—”
“Like I’d bother,” Hancock snarled. “Stinking little flying rat. Scrape you off the bottom of my shoe.”
“While my attacker,” Ghan said smoothly, “dropped your name rather casually into the conversation, Mr. Fledermaus. Care to explain?”
“That’s why I arranged this meeting,” Brand said. “After asking around and weighing the evidence, I’ve concluded—”
“What evidence?” Hancock broke in. “Who’ve you been talking to? My wolves wouldn’t talk to you. They’d chew you up and spit out the wings. You’re just trying to—”
“Damien,” Ghan said, “be still. I wish to hear what our neighbor has to say.”
“Stuff it up your tail, you striped bastard. He’s not your neighbor. You don’t have a damned rat gnawing at your borders. You just hide in your den and send others out to skulk around. What’sa matter? Too good to get your paws dirty? You want a piece of me, you come at me yourself! See what it gets you!”
“Cram it, stripey. I will not ‘be still.’ You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Still as in dead, right?”
“I will admit,” Ghan said, “your demise would give me a measure of satisfaction. One less annoyance to concern myself with. But I didn’t order an attack on you or on anyone else. Not this time.”
“The hell you didn’t. Hump you. Hump the both of you.” Hancock’s blurry image vanished from the screen.
After a moment Ghan said, “Well. That could have gone better.”
Brandon didn’t answer right away. Hancock had a reputation for aggression—he was an alpha wolf, after all—but that outburst had been over the top even for him. “Something’s off,” he murmured.
“With Hancock?” Ghan sniffed. “You needn’t have disturbed me to tell me something both of us already know.”
“And I didn’t. I called to tell you both my findings. I’m convinced none of us ordered any attacks on the others. But somebody wants us to think that. Someone’s trying to pit us against each other. Someone from outside.”
“A common enemy?” For the first time, Ghan showed a modicum of interest. “Who would benefit from our mutual demise?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to ferret out. Either somebody wants the three of us to destroy each other so they can move into the power vacuum, or one of us was the real target and the other two are a smokescreen.” He half-smiled grimly. “I’m sure you have a number of enemies with a personal axe to grind.”
“Too many to count,” Ghan confirmed. “Including Hancock. You?”
“Hancock wants my land. He’s never made any secret of it. But that attack on me seemed awfully impersonal. They weren’t assassins, or fighters, for that matter. They weren’t even there to kill me. They said as much. I don’t know the details of Hancock’s encounter, only that someone got in, and also left him alive. What about your attack? Anything hit close to home?”
On the screen, Ghan stiffened. Ah, Brand thought. Struck a nerve, did I?
“My attacker did try to kill me. And mentioned your name,” the tiger reminded him.
“Then your life could be in serious danger. Hancock’s too, from his reactions. I suspect I was thrown in to muddy the waters.”
“And now you’ve called to inspect your handiwork?”
“I called to report my findings to you both,” Brand said patiently, “and to propose an alliance. I was hoping the three of us together—”
“Ah. The plot reveals itself.” Ghan turned brisk. “Remove us both and secure your own position, all the while playing the innocent. A tiger does not have allies, Fledermaus. A tiger has servants and enemies. I will deal with Hancock, as I should have long ago. And then I will deal with you.” He cut the connection.
Brand was still staring at the empty screen when Jerboa approached with the brandy. He set the bottle on the desk. “Well,” he said, “you tried.”
“I had to. Even though I think we both knew it wouldn’t work.”
“Yep. That’s a predator for you. So what happens now?”
Brand sat back and reached for the bottle. “We keep digging,” he said, “and try to contain the collateral damage before all Talbot’s Peak gets caught in the blast.”
The Ripple Effect
Actions have consequences. Throw a stone into the center of a pond and the ripples spread out to the shoreline. The nameless person behind the scenes has just thrown huge stones into a number of lives. Now the ripples are starting to spread …
# # #
Brandon Fledermaus is looking for answers. The attack on him made little sense, and his instincts tell him Damien Hancock wasn’t really behind it. That opinion strengthens when he learns Hancock and Zhere Ghan both experienced similar attacks on the same night. Oh, the two kingpins themselves aren’t talking, but they have staff, and their staff tends to gossip, and speculate.
Hancock and Ghan are predators, and so are their employees. Most of the population of Talbot’s Peak is prey—herbivores, rodents. When predators talk, prey is always listening, in the form of a diner waitress, a clerk in a grocery store, a bartender in a local pub, a janitor mopping the floor in the offices of Hancock Real Estate or the tigers’ nightclub, Nirvana. Listening for the movements of predators is how the prey survives.
Brandon Fledermaus is a bat, and bats have excellent hearing. He flits through the night from one contact to another, and listens as the stories grow.
# # #
The doctor holds up a hypodermic. “This is what we have. It still hasn’t been fully tested—”
Damien Hancock thrusts out his arm. “Start testing.”
The scientist grimaces, but Hancock’s money keeps his pups in private school, away from human and herbivorous taints, so he swabs the prominent vein in the crook of the old wolf’s arm, slides the needle in, and prays he hasn’t just poisoned his financial well.
Nothing happens, at first. Hancock growls, down low in his throat. The sound has an edge of panic to it. The Asian cat who ambushed him hit too close to home. An Alpha who can’t shift might as well be dead. If his pack learns the truth, his life won’t be worth scat.
And then …
It starts in his gut, a twist like his innards are reshaping themselves. He doubles over, dry-retching. His heart slams against his ribs like a caged wolf against iron bars.
Then the power hits. Raw, crackling energy blasts through his veins, building and building with no end in sight. All of a sudden he’s twenty again, fierce and hungry and ready to hunt the world and crack its spine in his powerful jaws. His muscles thicken, his neck bulges. A howl starts up in the pit of his lungs and bursts free in a lusty bellow that almost seems to rattle the windows.
Still got it! he thinks exultantly. He’s still the king of Talbot’s Peak. Still the Alpha wolf.
When his body’s shudders stop he rises up. He’s suddenly a foot taller than he was before. He jabs a taloned finger at the empty hypodermic. “Make more.”
The doctor nods bleakly. Secretly, he wonders if it might be best to yank his pups out of school, pack up the wife and the SUV and move to that nice town in Oregon.
# # #
Zhere Ghan stands silently by while housekeeping removes the remains of his wrecked office jungle. One hand grips the edge of his desk. The other clenches and relaxes, clenches and relaxes. Each clench drives his nails more deeply into his palm. His men have searched the manor grounds, and beyond. They have yet to catch the assassin.
A sheep. Someone sent a sheep to kill him. A bloody herbivore. The blatant insult curdles in his gut.
Allegedly it was Fledermaus, but Zhere Ghan has his doubts. He’s studied the bat. Fledermaus certainly has funds enough to afford the Seven’s services, but would he be so crass? This attack reeks of contempt. It’s something Hancock would think of, had he the wit or the subtlety.
Worse still, it nearly succeeded. That rankles even more.
And now he’s lost his favorite and most powerful chess piece. Sergei’s in the wind, no longer at Ghan’s beck and call. Sergei, who knows every inch of this compound, who can ghost past its alarms, defenses and warriors any time he wants to. Who trained Stefanya, leader of the Seven.
The phone atop his desk goes off. The housekeepers jump. Ghan does not. He answers calmly. “Yes?”
“Father?” Tasman, from the club. “Are you well? I’ve been getting jumbled reports—”
“It’s nothing. A glitch in the security system. Stay where you are. No need for you to come home.”
Tasman pauses, reading between the lines. “I could send Leila.”
“No. Keep her with you. Better than a battalion, that one.” He might not have been the only target tonight. At least now he knows his son and heir is safe and, with his lethal assistant to guard him, likely to stay so.
Enough standing about. Time to take action.
“I have matters covered on my end, but there’s something you can do. That dancer, the red wolf, Genevieve Bordeaux. Is she still there at the club?”
“Not any more. She quit the other night. Went over to that new place, with the freaks and the perverts.”
“Did she now?” First her, then Sergei. Interesting timing. “Can you spare an agent? I want her watched. I want to know who comes and goes at her house, and where she goes, and why.”
Tasman makes a small noise, like he’s about to ask a question, but instead responds, “Yes, Father.”
“Good lad. We’ll discuss matters when you get home.” He’ll need to find out if Sergei at least killed Warner Hancock’s bitch and spawn. The House of Ghan is under attack. He can’t afford to take anything for granted any more.
After ending the call with his firstborn, he summons the head of his personal security team. “I want all your current intelligence on Fledermaus, the Hancock pack, Sergei, and that new upstart nightclub in town.” He sighs. It’s a happy sound, full of anticipation. “Looks like we’re going to war.”
# # #
Genevieve awakens from a restless sleep to the sound of a light tapping at her bedroom window. She squints through the gloom and spots a hulking silhouette that can only be Sergei. She springs from her bed and hurries to the kitchen door to let him in.
He does not waste words. “I have left Zhere Ghan,” he tells her somberly. “My life may be worth nothing now. Yours also, I’m afraid.” He bends to kiss her forehead. “I am so sorry, my firewolf. I should have killed him.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” She isn’t upset. She’s been getting hints of this through her dreams for a while now. She’s known something along these lines was coming. “We’ll need a place to hide, at least for a bit.” A smile curves her lips. “And I know where.”
# # #
Working the late shift on the desk at the Rocky Top Motel, Hoover suddenly straightens when a poignant, musky scent assails his sensitive nose. His phenomenal sense of smell is how he got this job. Hancock’s corporation owns this motel, and Damien Hancock owns Hoover. His job is to assess the travelers who pass through the strip by the interstate exit. Most are humans, nonthreatening and oblivious, on their hurried way from here to there. Some are shifters. Some could pose a threat to the Hancocks and their hold on Talbot’s Peak. Any time Hoover sniffs someone iffy, he’s to contact the Alpha immediately.
One whiff of the man approaching the desk and Hoover figures he’s earned his pay for the week, and then some.
The man walks with a slow, effortless stride, like he’s stalking prey. Hoover doesn’t even need the walk. He knows a tiger when he smells one. He’s got smooth skin, paler than most Indian tigers, and straight black hair that falls to his shoulders. He smiles at Hoover. His eyes chill the wolf to his bones. The tiger’s eyes are blue. Hoover knows only one other blue-eyed tiger: Sergei, Zhere Ghan’s freak albino pet.
He swallows hard and offers up a wide, friendly smile. “Welcome to Talbot’s Peak, sir. Would you like a room?”
“That’s usually why one comes to a motel,” the tiger says dryly. His voice holds the hint of an accent, and it isn’t Indian. “I’ll need lodging for a week at least, possibly longer. Have you any available?”
“This time of year? Not a problem. You’ve got your pick of the second floor. How about one near the ice machine?”
“That will do nicely,” the tiger agrees. He nods toward the motel entrance, and the garishly-lit street beyond. “That road out there. Where does it lead?”
“Up into the mountains.” No point in holding back. He has a sinking feeling the tiger already knows and is toying with him. “There’s a town up there about the size of a pinhead. Nothing of interest, really.”
“Talbot’s Peak, yes?”
Scat. “Yeah, that’s it. They’re kind of insular up there, though. Survivalists. Home-grown Montana militia. You don’t want to go up there.”
“Perhaps not.” The man signs in and produces a credit card. Hoover makes close note of his name. Mikhail Dvorak. That answers some questions and raises a ton of others. Mr. Dvorak gives him a cold, thin smile and climbs the stairs. He’s brought no luggage with him.
The second he hears the upstairs door clap shut, Hoover dives for the phone and speed-dials the Hancock stronghold.
Dizzy and blinded by banana cream, Ghan tensed for the death blow. Seconds ticked by. Nothing. Then a bleated yelp, and a crash within his indoor jungle.
Sensing reprieve, Ghan shifted to human. Fingers wiped the cream away more expertly than paws. He blinked his eyes against the sugary sting.
Half the plants by the window had been knocked askew. A lanky form struggled among them, trying to right itself. Then a huge shadow loomed between Ghan and the window, blocking his view.
He recognized the coat before the scent penetrated his reeling awareness. The coat, and the immense height. Sergei.
The Siberian was already moving, toward the remains of the mini-jungle. He plucked the assassin from the ruins of several dwarf bamboo and held him aloft by his shirt collar, like Frankenstein’s monster lifting a kitten by the scruff of the neck. The man kicked futilely at Sergei’s legs. He might as well have been attacking steel girders.
Sergei regarded him with mild curiosity. “I don’t know you,” he said, “but you are one of Seven, yes?”
Flat, grass-chomping teeth flashed in the weak streams of moonlight. “Bite me.”
“In time. First we talk.”
“No. We talk.” Ghan struggled up onto his elbows. “He’s mine.”
The sheep-man looked from one to the other. Unexpectedly, he bleated a maniacal laugh. “Oh, no. No you don’t. Not the two of you at once. Maybe another time, after I’ve had a chance to set up the playground. Until then, arrivederci, gents.”
On that note, he shifted. The shirt collar tore loose in Sergei’s hand as the sheep dropped to the floor. Before either tiger could stop him, he gathered his hooves beneath him and bounded clear over Zhere Ghan, out the open door to Ghan’s office and into the hallway beyond.
“Stop him!” Ghan bellowed at Sergei. “What are you just standing there for? Go after him! Bring him back!”
Sergei gazed blandly after the escaped assassin, then down at Zhere Ghan on the floor—naked, bloody, panting for breath, with smears of banana cream on his cheeks. Helpless. Then he bent and picked up the pointed stick the assassin had abandoned.
One stride set him looming over Ghan. His eyes flashed like the ice of deepest Siberian winter. An even deeper chill flashed through Zhere Ghan’s blood.
He dropped the stick to the floor. It bounced on the carpet next to Ghan’s hand.
“Life for life,” Sergei said. “My debt is paid in full.” He tipped his black slouch hat to Ghan and strolled out of the office.
Ghan lay on the floor, shuddering. He couldn’t stop himself. When the lights abruptly snapped back on, he yelped.
So his guards found him shortly afterward, still on the floor of his office. Fortunately the shudders had stopped by then. The guards spread out to cover the office. Two knelt beside him with their knives out. Another inspected the wrecked mini-jungle for possible hidden danger. “Are you unharmed, my lord?” asked the guard by the door.
Ghan shoved the two beside him away and climbed to his feet. His knees shook. Pride and years of discipline helped him still them before the underlings noticed. “I am,” he snarled. “No thanks to my expensive security system. The assassin may still be in the vicinity. Gather a team and search the grounds. You’re looking for a sheep.”
“A sheep, lord?” the guard said, incredulous. Ghan pierced him with a glare that would melt titanium. The guard bowed low. “Yes, lord.”
The other continued to poke at the plants. His nose wrinkled against the reek of ovine urine. “What happened in here?” he muttered.
I nearly died, Ghan thought. I. Zhere Ghan, lord of tigers. He recalled the look in Sergei’s eyes. Twice.
The shudders returned. He was able to hold them in check until the guards filed out and left him alone again.
# # #
“Well, that was a wash,” Cloyd muttered as he scrambled over the fence. He loped through the forest, putting distance between himself and the compound before he circled back toward Talbot’s Peak.
Sergei. Son of a freakin’ gun. The Big Bad himself. That was one feather any killer for hire would love to add to his cap. Stefanya had declared him off-limits, but …
“Accidents happen,” Cloyd whispered, and tittered. He picked up his pace and added a few twists and turns, in case of any pursuit.
Strike Three, You're Out
With the exception of the women’s quarters, of course. Ghan snorted. “Safe” was a relative term where Kali and her moods were concerned. He’d rather face the Seven than deal unnecessarily with his senior wife.
He stepped into his office and shut the door. He didn’t bother locking it. Bad enough his guards insisted he hide like a woman just because the alarms had gone dead. If an enemy made it this far he’d dispatch them himself, and then deal with his staff’s carelessness.
The room remained dimly lit by whatever moon- and starlight could squeeze through the curtains. The lights should have come on automatically. He tried the switch and got no better results. The power in general was probably out as well. So much for getting anything done.
What was that odor? It smelled like … lanolin?
Not so unexpected. The butchers had made a delivery just this afternoon. Along with the sides of beef and venison the driver had presented the kitchen with a live sheep, and produced the proper paperwork to account for it. Someone must have had a yen for mutton. One of the women, no doubt. The girls did so enjoy playing with their food.
Odd that the smell of wool should be here in his office, however. Unless Guri had discovered the sheep and decided to play one of his infantile jokes. Time for yet another stern talking-to. Would his youngest cub never mature?
Someone giggled in the room, and not in Guri’s voice.
Ghan went still. As his tiger’s eyes rapidly adjusted to the gloom he became aware of a hunched silhouette that didn’t belong among the clean, straight lines of his mini-jungle by the window. It spread its legs slightly. He heard a familiar tinkling sound, and smelled the plant-edged stink of herbivore urine.
“About time you got here,” the figure said. “My own fault, really. I came up early. It’s no fun being a sheep in a kitchen, let me tell you. The way the cooks kept looking at me … ” The top of the hunch turned toward Zhere Ghan. The weak light glinted off unnervingly bright eyes. “Sort of the way I’m looking at you right now. Fledermaus said I was just supposed to deliver a warning, but I was hoping we’d get to play.”
The tinkling stopped. The figure’s arm moved.
Just in time, Ghan dodged aside. A kitchen knife whizzed by his head. The assassin ducked between the plants and lost himself amid the fronds and leaves.
“And who might you be?” Ghan said coolly. He slid behind his desk. “You’re definitely not Stefanya.”
A titter answered him, with only flecks of sanity in it. Now his office smelled like pissy wool. Pinpointing his attacker’s scent would be difficult. No doubt what the assassin intended.
Wanted to play, did he? With a tiger? Very well. Ghan quickly shed his clothing and shifted. Member of the Seven or not, the intruder was as good as dead.
He padded toward his jungle in a silent hunter’s crouch. An herbivore. A sheep. They’d sent a sheep to kill him. Had Stefanya lost her mind? And Fledermaus. Stupid little rodent. What had he been thinking, to challenge the Ghans?
His ears picked up the whisper of a rustle in the leaves. He leaped.
Right into a banana-cream pie.
The assassin’s maniacal laughter rang out over Ghan’s outraged roar. “My compliments to your dessert chef,” the sheep said. “Come on, little kitty cat. Catch me if you can.”
Ghan swiped cream from his muzzle. The dratted stuff had got into his eyes and nose. He had only his ears to guide him now. I will shred you like a cheap sweater, he vowed. His claws came out. And then the other six.
For fifteen tense minutes he hunted the assassin. Several times he came close, missing by inches. “Kitty kitty kitty,” the sheep taunted him. “Puss puss puss.” The voice came from among the plants again. Hah! Got you cornered now, Ghan thought, and rushed the dwarf bamboo.
Again the assassin was ready. He clouted Ghan on the skull with a heavy earthen pot. The tiger reeled, snarling, disoriented.
“Bored now,” the sheep announced. Ghan heard a crack, one of his trees being snapped in half. Then the sheep kicked him in his throbbing head. Ghan stumbled and fell on his side with part of his belly exposed.
He felt more than heard the assassin approach him. “We weren't supposed to kill this time around,” the sheep told him. “Screw that.” The silhouette that stood over him now held a length of slender broken tree in his hands. “Not as pointy as I wanted it, so this is going to hurt. Tough titty, kitty. Say g’night.”
To be continued …
About the time Castor and Pollux were getting their asses handed to them by a pair of martial-arts rodents, Damien Hancock was prowling the halls of his stronghold once more. He couldn’t relax. He couldn’t be still. There was something on the wind tonight, a peril that teased at his senses but refused to reveal itself. He couldn’t put a finger on what disturbed him, and that made him both angry and afraid.
So he figuratively went to ground, to the Alpha suite. Nothing could reach him there. The door was reinforced steel, and the balcony was inaccessible except by air. The day he couldn’t deal with a stupid bird-shifter, or a bat, he’d—no. He’d never give up his position as Alpha. Some other wolf would have to take it, and no Hancock wolf had the guts. He’d made sure of that by ripping said guts out of any wolf who showed gumption. This was his pack, by Lupa, and he’d hold it in an iron grip until the day he died.
He climbed behind his desk and glared out the windows, wondering from which direction the next attack would come. There was always a next attack, when you were Alpha. You had to stay alert.
His gaze moved from the windows and scanned around the dimly-lit room. The couch where he brought lower-rank she-wolves when the mood struck him. The stone fireplace, currently cold, with a pile of dead ashes on its floor. Before it lay a tiger-skin rug. He’d bought the thing at an estate sale, not long after Ghan started bumping up against his borders. A private joke to himself, a promise to the tigers. His eyes swept beyond the rug to the walls, straight and smooth with no crannies to hide in, to the balcony door—
Which stood ajar.
Damien gripped the edge of the desk. He’d locked that door. He always locked the doors. Nothing could have climbed up the side of the Peak. Nothing could have broken in. The alarms would have gone off. Somebody would have smelled or heard an intruder. One of his own, looking to advance? Impossible. He had them all cowed.
He was about to get up when the rug before the fireplace turned its head toward him.
Damien grabbed at his desk drawer, for the gun he kept there. The drawer resisted. Locked. The key. Where had he hidden the key?
When he glanced up again, the cat had risen up on two legs. Scent and the dim light filtering through the windows told him it wasn’t a tiger. It wasn’t any American cat, either. They wouldn’t have the balls. Only one bastard could have sent him.
Damien rose up with a snarl. “Nice try, but no dice. You tell Ghan—”
The cat kept on coming, right up to the desk. “I will tell my employer,” he said, in a smooth, deep voice, “how easy it was to get in here. How easy it was to slip past your wolves and your security.” He stopped on the other side of the desk. He smirked at the alpha wolf. Suddenly he lashed out and slapped Damien hard across the face. “How easy it would have been to slash your throat. You’re the great alpha wolf who rules Talbot’s Peak? My employer has nothing to fear.”
Damien roared and leaped across the desk. It might have been an impressive attack, thirty years ago. The cat-shifter simply stepped aside. Damien’s own momentum slammed him to the floor. In the next second the cat caught Damien around the throat. His grip was powerful, merciless. Younger. Nevertheless Damien struggled until he was frothing at the mouth.
The cat merely held on. He didn’t even squeeze. He seemed perplexed. “Why don’t you shift?”
Damien continued to thrash, but there was desperation in it now. He had to take the cat out fast, kill him if he could. Before he guessed. Before he—
“You can’t,” the cat-man realized. “You’ve gotten old. Your body’s aged beyond its ability to shift.” He let go of Damien and stood. His voice was rife with scorn. “That’s why the old wolf hides away. That’s why you only allow meek followers. You can’t face a challenge. You’re no longer a threat.” He left Damien and strolled toward the balcony. “I’ll tell my employer he has nothing to fear. You won’t be around much longer. Once the pack finds out, your own wolves will tear you apart. We’ll make our arrangements with your successor.” He went out through the balcony door.
“Don’t you dare,” Damien tried to roar at him. It came out a wheeze. “Don’t you dare!”
Now he remembered. The key to the drawer was taped to the bottom of the desk. He struggled to his hands and knees and scrambled to the desk. His groping fingers found the key. He jammed it into the drawer's keyhole. After an eternity, the drawer slid open. Damien dug around inside and found his gun. No threat any more? We’ll just see!
Still wheezing, he lurched to the balcony and peered over the rail. Nothing. No sign of the cat. It was as if he’d simply vanished.
Vanished with his knowledge. Knowledge he would deliver to Zhere Ghan. Ghan would see that the world spread around. And then—
“No,” he whispered thickly. “I’m the Hancock Alpha, dammit. I rule the Peak!”
Hurrying back to his desk, he called his security team. Someone had gotten into his office, and where the hell were they? What happened to the alarm system? Heads would roll and guts would spill for this. After he chewed out his head of security he made another call, to his private medical lab. “I want it,” he said.
“We still need to test—”
“You’ve done enough testing. Give me what you’ve got and get it up here now!”
He slammed the receiver down. Better late than never. As long as he was Alpha, never would never arrive.
# # #
The wolves were trackers, chasers, killers. Not climbers. Yuri avoided them easily. In his youth he had scaled the Himalayas in both human and snow leopard form. To him, this baby American mountain was little more than a ladder.
So the old wolf had aged past the ability to shift. That could be a game changer. Stefanya must be told. Silent as a spirit, he crept down the face of the Peak.
Brandon Fledermaus leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. All day long he belonged to the ranch, a never-ending litany of chores, decisions and the responsibilities of running a cattle and business empire. Dusk belonged to him. This was his time to kick back and relax and let the day’s tensions drain out of him.
For his personal time he came here, to his personal space. These underground quarters predated the ranch house above. Dieter Fledermaus had built these rooms first, before he even started on the above-ground cabin. Call it a den, lair, burrow, rec room, basement, or bunker, all rodent shifters had an inborn need for a private place underground. Even those who normally took to the sky.
Brand had added his own touches—flat screen TV, Internet, softer lighting, sound system, library, more comfortable furniture. The rough-hewn rafters had been left bare and untouched since Grandpa’s day. Sometimes a fellow just needed to roost.
No one ever called it the Batcave. Not to his face, at any rate.
He’d poured himself a drink and had the glass at his lips when someone rapped briskly on the door. He sighed and set the glass back on the desk. “Come in.”
The door swung inward and Jerboa stuck his graying head in. “Just checking in.”
“I’m fine, Jer, thanks.” He waited. Jerboa remained stubbornly in the doorway. “I don’t need anything. Including a babysitter.”
“Beg to differ, boss. There’s been rumblings in town. Hancock’s in one of his moods again. Better safe than sorry.”
“Hancock isn’t fool enough to make a direct attack. I’ll check with my attorney and find out if he’s been up to anything. That will be all, Jer,” he added pointedly.
Jerboa had gone silent, intent. Brand swung his feet off the desk. “You hear something?” Jerboa said, his voice hushed.
His keen ears had already caught the noises in the house above, whispery scratches that didn’t belong. Like claws on the hardwood flooring. Jerboa gestured at him to stay put. “Shut the door. I’ll look—”
He disappeared from the doorway. Brand shot to his feet even before he heard the loud crash in the hallway. He lunged for the door.
Before he even reached it a wolf leaped inside. Or maybe not a wolf. Its body was too narrow and stringy, its muzzle long and pointed, its ears large. Coywolf, Brand thought. The men had mentioned a coyote nosing around the trash heap. Going so far as to rear up and peer through the windows. He revised his initial assessment. Shifter.
The beast cocked its head to regard him shrewdly. Deducing the jig was up, the coywolf shifted. A lanky, narrow-chested man with brownish-blond hair and a cocky grin stood before him. Brand waited for the coywolf to make his move.
“I’ll bet you’re wondering what’s up,” the shifter said. “We could have just emailed, I suppose, but this is so much more fun. Damien Hancock says hi.” He charged Brand.
If he was expecting a shift from his target, he was doomed to disappointment. Brand preferred the unexpected. When the shifter came at him he simply sidestepped, grabbed the man’s arm and flipped him into the desk. The crash was spectacular. Similar noises from the hall, and a decidedly feminine yelp of dismay, told him Jerboa was holding his own. But against how many?
The coywolf rolled off the desk and landed on four feet. He whirled toward his target—and found only a pile of clothing. Automatically he looked to the rafters, scanning for a small, flitting shape.
Exactly as Brand had predicted. The biggest advantage to having a shape with wings was everyone expected an aerial attack. With the coywolf focused on the ceiling, Brand crept from beneath the pile of his clothing and scuttled across the floor. In seconds he reached the wolf. His fur provided all the holds a bat could want.
Just because Brand wasn’t a vampire bat didn’t mean a lack of sharp, dangerous teeth. He battened onto the coywolf’s throat and burrowed through the fur.
# # #
Even as he turned toward the sound behind him, Jerboa was grabbed and yanked off his feet by—well, goddamn. By a woman. A petite bit of muscle with hair like a desert sunset and a sharp, vixeny face. She crouched over him in an attack pose. “Stay down,” she ordered. “It’s your boss Hancock’s after.”
“Can’t do that, little lady,” he drawled, and kicked her in the stomach. She went down, hard. Clearly she wasn’t expecting resistance from the old guy. He got to his feet before she did, and aimed a kick at her head. She dodged it, but just barely.
The little lady sure had pretty eyes. Right now they were huge as the Panhandle, with recognition growing in them, quickly followed by panic. His ego flared up briefly. Dammit, it felt good to be remembered.
# # #
“Now then,” Brand said. He had the coywolf pinned to the floor. The fur around his throat was tinged with blood. Brand had bitten just deeply enough to prove his point. Unlike his distant vampiric relations, blood gave him stomach cramps. No need for the coywolf to know that, however. “How about you tell me what’s going on here.” He tightened his grip on the coywolf’s ruff. “It will be easier if you shift.”
His captive did so. He wasn’t smirking any more. “You’re dead,” he gasped out. “Hancock wants you dead. You don’t stand a—”
A woman came flying through the open door. She hit the wall, slid to the floor and didn’t get up. Jerboa strolled in and hauled her upright by her hair. “Looks like it’s just the two of ‘em, boss. You’re lucky you didn’t get this one. Filly’s got a punch.”
“So much for your backup,” Brand said. “Now tell me what Hancock thinks to gain by sending two clearly untrained fighters to attack me in my own home.”
But the woman picked that moment to shift. Her wolf form had reddish fur, a sharp snout, dark legs and a thick brush of a tail that was tipped with white. She snapped at Jerboa, who dropped her. At the same instant the coywolf-man suddenly bucked and shifted and shot out from underneath Brand. Both raced out the door at top speed. Jerboa followed, yelling for the hands.
He returned some minutes later. “Got out through the kitchen,” he reported. “The boys’ll run ‘em down. Loco. But then, it’s ol’ Damien we’re talking about.” He brushed reddish hairs off his sleeve. “Looks like we’re at war with the Hancocks.”
Brand rubbed his own set of hairs between his fingers. Tawny hairs, that hadn’t come off a full-blood wolf. “I wonder.”
# # #
“Never,” Castor panted. He kept his eyes on the sky, alert for swooping, sharp-fanged forms. “Never again. Let the killers do the fighting. Nothing but spying for me from now on.”
“Relax,” Pollux said. “We lost them.” But she also stared at the sky. A leaf fluttered between her and the stars, and she flinched. “I hate bats. And kangaroo rats. And rodents in general. I’m with you. Intel-gathering all the way.”
“You didn’t recognize Fleddy’s pal? That was Jerboa Calhoun. Retired MMA fighter, world-class kickboxer. I’m lucky he didn’t take my head off. What the hell’s he doing working for Fledermaus?”
“Health benefits?” Cas fingered his throat. Thank Lupa the bleeding had stopped. “I better not need a rabies shot. You watch MMA?”
“Hey. Sweaty men in tights beating up on each other. What’s not to like?”
“Dunno. I’ve always been into roller derby. Let’s get back and report. As of now, I’m out of the assassination biz.”
Moment of Truth
Sergei stood among the trees, his long black coat and black slouch hat turning him into just one more looming shadow. He looked down on the shabby little cabin in the hollow. It sat right on the border of Hancock territory, just far enough from the hub of power to be overlooked. If Damien Hancock knew who’d taken up residence there, he wasn’t showing interest, testament to his arrogance. It was Zhere Ghan who’d seen a danger in this particular chess piece, and wanted it off the board.
He prowled around the cabin twice, drawing ever closer. He found no wolf-sign in evidence. Warner Hancock wasn’t about to announce his presence until he was ready. Would the current crop of Hancocks even know his scent? Doubtful. They wouldn’t see much threat in an aged Alpha, his child bride and an infant. Only a Ghan would hear a challenge in a newborn’s cry.
A thin curl of smoke ghosted out of the chimney. From within he heard the chime of a girl’s laugh.
The front door, when he gingerly tested it, was locked. The back door off the kitchen was not.
One of his targets, the infant’s mother, was standing at the sink. Her laughter cut off on a squeak when Sergei threw open the kitchen door and stepped into the cabin. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth formed a perfect O. Soapy water dripped from her fingers. She stared at him in shock for only a moment, then grabbed a saucepan that still smelled of beef gravy and swung it at his head.
A poor weapon, poorly handled. The girl was no fighter. The saucepan missed his chin by a wide margin. He caught her arm easily and squeezed until she dropped the pan. She struck out with her free hand, fingers aimed at his eyes. He caught that arm as well. She snarled and snapped at air with her human teeth and kicked his legs. She might as well have been striking at a redwood.
From the little room just off the kitchen he heard a baby cry.
And a roar. Warner Hancock charged out of the bedroom and launched himself at Sergei. He’d grown too old to shift; he was forced to defend his family in his human form. Sergei shoved the girl away and grabbed him by the neck. A simple thrust through the open doorway sent him tumbling into the back yard. One threat disposed of.
He turned toward the other and was hit by wiry muscle and leaping fur. The girl had gone wolf. He caught her by the scruff of the neck, like a cub, and tossed her outside after her husband. Then he shut and bolted the door.
The infant continued to wail. He followed the sound into the little bedroom.
# # #
Ilsa hit the ground, rolled, scrambled upright and threw herself at the door. She clawed at it frantically while Warner first tried the latch, then slammed his shoulder and then his foot against it. Neither helped. “The axe,” he panted. “Where the hell’d I leave the axe?”
She forced herself still, nose working and ears pricked. Her own panic, more than the reek of tiger musk, nearly choked her.
She couldn’t hear her baby any more.
Both doors were locked. The axe would take too long. She had to get in there now.
The window. She’d been cooking. She’d left the kitchen window open.
She dashed around the corner of the cabin and leaped for the window. Her paws scrabbled at the sill before they found purchase. Ilsa hoisted herself up and shoved her wolf body through the opening. She landed with her paws in the sink, slipped, and tumbled onto the rough wood floor. The impact jolted her back into her human form. Warner was right behind her, levering his aged body over the sill.
Ilsa didn’t wait for him. She dashed into the silent bedroom and skidded to a halt.
Sergei stood beside the bed with Anitra cradled in his arms, crooning a lullaby in Russian. The infant sighed and snuggled more firmly into his huge arms.
“So tiny,” he said. He did not even look at Ilsa. “I have not held baby in long, long time. Such a little bit, to cause so much trouble.”
Shaking, Ilsa took a step forward. She held out her arms to him, silent, pleading. He handed the baby to her. She all but snatched Anitra from him. The baby squirmed and growled a little, but didn’t wake.
Warner charged in with the axe raised. He stared with mouth agape at the tableau.
“You must leave here,” Sergei said. “Is not safe.”
“No shit,” Warner snarled. “Where the hell’d Damien dredge you up?”
“Not Hancock. Zhere Ghan. The tiger lord has plans, and you are in his way. You need to go.”
“Go where? We go into town and the wolves’ll get us, just as soon as they figure out who we are.”
Sergei looked at the wall above their heads. “West of here, on other side of mountain, is farm owned by lion and wife. They will shield you. They owe me favor.”
Ilsa eyed him doubtfully. “Lions?”
“With no love for either Hancock or Ghan. His wife is young and looking to start family. She will welcome chance to practice.” He smiled down at her and her baby. “Husband does as she tells him. He is well-trained American male.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Warner said with a snort. He lowered the axe. “West of here, over the mountain? There’s nothing that way except—”
“Armed turkeys. You will be careful, yes?”
“So Abram Turkle’s still around? Why didn’t you say so?” Warner cackled. “That old son of a buzzard. Maybe we can strike a deal. I wouldn’t mind having him at my back. At least he and his clan can shoot straight.”
“Is best you go now, before others come. I will show you trail.”
# # #
The two wolves gathered up their belongings—mostly things for the baby—and set out along the path Sergei pointed out. He gave them a long head start, then followed at a discrete distance. Warner must have known this mountain once, because he never once wavered from the trail. They crested the mountain and found the farm with no trouble. Sergei watched from concealment as the lion and his tiger wife opened the door. The wife had Ilsa and her infant inside before the lion could even get his rifle up. He held a brief and bemused conversation with Warner before the elder wolf was also ushered in. Only then did Sergei turn back.
His arms still felt the slight weight of the baby. So little, so helpless. Undeserving of death.
A grown tiger, on the other hand, one who would order such an atrocity—that was another matter entirely.
With purposeful strides he retraced his steps across the mountain, aimed for the Ghan compound.
Let the Games Begin
Stefanya lay in the quiet peace before dawn, drowsing and only semi-awake, curled in Yuri’s arms. His soft breathing stirred her hair. She sighed into the pillow. She cherished these moments, because there were so few of them. Quiet moments in the dark, awash in the forgetfulness brought on by Yuri’s passionate loving. For a handful of seconds, the world and its tensions simply didn’t exist.
As if to mock her, the phone on the nightstand buzzed.
Stefanya’s fingers hooked into talons. Only one caller used this phone. Her quiet moment was over. Careful not to disturb Yuri’s sleep, she reached for the phone. “Yes.”
Her employer’s electronically-filtered voice spoke to her. She listened.
# # #
An hour later she called her team together. This time they met at the diner, where the clatter of plates and chatter of customers would mask their words. No one asked what was up. They knew their leader and could read her eyes and energy. No longer seven individuals, they came together, focused on the mission.
“It’s time,” Stefanya said over the lip of her coffee mug, in a voice that didn’t carry beyond the table. “We move tonight. Can you disable the security systems, Alec?”
“On the Hancock and Ghan buildings, yes. Everything’s in place. The Fledermaus house, I don’t know. I couldn’t get in. I couldn’t even get near it.” He turned to Castor. “How about you?”
“I got right up to the ranch house before the bats chased me off. No signs of electronic security that I could see. Remember, it’s bats. Maybe Fleddy doesn’t have an outside security system. Maybe the hands just squeak and see if anything funny bounces back.”
“They saw you?” Stefanya asked.
“Relax, boss. They think I’m a coyote. A real one, not a shifter. I know how to fake the body language and I hang out around the garbage cans. Nobody’s taken a shot at me yet. As far as indoors, no idea. I got a peek inside the kitchen once. It looked like a kitchen. Best I could do. Whoever goes in will be going in blind.”
Which meant they might not be coming out again. Stefanya raised that possibility. Nobody voiced any objections. They knew the risks. They were professionals.
“Not a problem,” Cloyd said. His teeth gnashed through his fried eggs. “I’ll take the bat. What’s life without a bit of risk?”
“Keep an eye out for a way downstairs. A panic room. A fortified cellar or something,” Castor advised. “Bats like to go underground. Don’t forget to watch out for the vampires. They go right for the eyes.”
“So do I.”
“Enough,” Stefanya said. “Cloyd, you’re not going to the ranch. And no one is to kill anybody. Our employer was quite specific in who was to attack where, and what they’re to say once the target’s secured.”
“Say?” Cloyd sputtered egg.
Fastidious Irwin brushed off his sleeve and edged his chair away from the sheep. “We’re just supposed to talk to them? Bloody hell. If that’s all he wanted, he could have sent emails. Save us the trouble and himself a wad of cash.”
“This is how he wants it to go down. It’s not our place to ask questions.” She handed out the assignments, and read them their brief scripts. “No one dies,” she emphasized. “Not yet. I assume that will come later.”
“Damn well better,” Cloyd muttered, and assaulted another egg, this time with gusto. It was clear he was happy with his target. Those who would also be on the move tonight showed no emotion one way or the other. This was a job, nothing more.
Alec had visibly relaxed. He had the easiest job, disabling security. He didn’t even need to be on-site. “Once the Ghan and Hancock systems go down, I can fly to the ranch. If I keep the bats busy—”
“You’re needed at communications,” Stefanya said. “If the bats need to be dealt with, I’ll handle it. Is everyone clear on their instructions?” She looked around the table. No one had any questions. “All right. We’ll meet at the inn at sundown. I expect you all to be at the top of your game.”
“Can’t wait.” Cloyd giggled. Irwin edged a little further way.
They stayed at their table through a second cup of coffee, chatting and laughing like regular patrons. Like they were no different from anyone else in the diner. Stefanya picked up the check, and left a generous tip.
# # #
Once he’d dispatched his instructions to his team of international killers, the man on the other end of the line dialed a second number. Time to put his final player on the board. For this call he didn’t bother with the electronic filter. They knew each other’s voices, and each other’s hates.
The other picked up on the third ring. “This better not be another tease.”
“No tease. He’s here, and he won’t be leaving any time soon.” He gave coordinates. “Wait twenty-four hours and then move in. They’ll be much too busy to notice you. When you’re finished with your tasks, you may … indulge yourself. Make sure he dies slowly and painfully.”
The other chuckled. “It will be my pleasure.” The phone clicked off.
And that was that. By this time tomorrow Talbot’s Peak would be at war. The man laughed softly to himself. It was going to be glorious.
Zhere Ghan took the news of his impending assassination well. “So the Seven are gunning for me, eh? Well. Someone thinks an awful lot, to spend so much and dispatch so many just to end my life. The Seven. When you care enough to send the very best. Not there,” he snapped at the gangly man in Apex Greenhouse coveralls. “By the window. They do best in sunlight. Don’t you know anything?”
Sergei watched the man silently heft the small potted tree and move it over to join the small forest growing beside the broad windows of Ghan’s office. He well understood Ghan’s desire for thick natural cover. However, the king tiger’s office was not the place for it. All the greenery would provide cover for an assailant as well. And with the Seven here, gunning for Ghan …
The delivery man arranged the tree with the others. “There y’go, mate,” he murmured to it. Sergei’s ears pricked at the accent. Australian? Not that Talbot’s Peak didn’t host a myriad of out-of-staters. He himself was living proof of that. But the Seven were an international team. He took a careful sniff and found a contradiction, a crocodile with only a thin trace of meat in his scent. Word of someone that odd would have circulated in this gossip-happy town. Perhaps he was a recent arrival? As recent as Stefanya?
Given their profession, the makeup of the Seven changed constantly. Stefanya he knew of, and that Yuri was still with her. Who were the others? He hadn’t even bothered to find out.
“I’m sorry, am I boring you?”
Ghan’s heavy sarcasm jerked Sergei’s attention away from the crocodile. “I was considering strategy,” Sergei said. “Means of defense. The Seven will not strike directly, like wolf. Stefanya is cunning. She—”
Ghan waved that away. “My guards will see to it. It’s not as if anyone can get at me, not here in the house. On to more important matters.” He strolled to the window to inspect the new arrangement. The crocodile froze instinctively. “Much better. Where are the orchids? I paid for orchids.”
“In the truck, sir. Be right back.” The delivery man sidled past him and darted out of the office. Sergei watched him thoughtfully. Ghan paid no attention.
“My agents tell me,” Ghan said, nudging a potted tree closer to the window, “that the elder Hancock’s mate has given birth.” He shot a razored look at Sergei. “Surely you remember her. I ordered you to kill her and the pup several weeks ago.”
Sergei shrugged, not as carelessly as he’d wanted to. “Is not so important. Threat of the Seven outweighs threat from baby wolf.”
“Not if the wolf is allowed to grow up. I thought I’d explained this to you. That pup is a Hancock of the old Alpha’s bloodline. That’s all wolves understand. I’ve already got my hooks in the legal heir, through my daughter Rakshasi. I want Damien Hancock to die knowing everything he’s built will pass into my hands without a shot being fired. That alone should destroy him. I don’t want another heir muddying the waters. That bitch and her whelp are going to die, and you’re going to do it.”
Ghan stiffened. “I’m not familiar with that word,” he said silkily. “Explain to me what it means.”
“Will be no point in killing pup if Seven kills you first. You should be taking precautions. Not threatening babies.”
“And there’s your problem,” Ghan said, “one of your many faults. You’re too short-sighted, Sergei. You’d think one could see further from a height as great as yours. You keep missing the bigger picture. It’s why you’re here, and why she died. I don’t understand why I need to keep reminding you of that.”
Sergei’s face remained a mask. Behind it, his guts were churning. He understood, all right. Zhere Ghan liked to play with his victims. Her death was a knife he enjoyed plunging into Sergei’s heart and twisting, twisting, twisting.
He shut his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. Genevieve’s features filled his mind. His love for her filled his soul. Another knife for Ghan to twist in his pursuit of his bigger picture.
But some things were even bigger than Ghan’s stupid pictures. More powerful than power. Zhere Ghan couldn’t see it. That was his major fault.
His eyes opened, to fix in an icy stare on Ghan. “Pup is not important,” he said.
Ghan was occupied with examining a flaw on the leaf of one of his trees. Without even looking around he said, “And what about Genevieve Bordeaux? An exotic dancer in a backwater nightclub. Not even a tiger. How important is she, in the grand scheme of things? Not very, I’m thinking. Although she may matter to some.” He glanced up at Sergei, smiling. “How would you measure the worth of her life, old friend? Against, say, the lives of some wolf bitch and her whelp?”
His growl ripped out of him before he could stop it. Too late, he cut it off. It had already betrayed his one weakness to Zhere Ghan, who had no mercy.
He could kill Ghan, here and now. Wipe that smug grin and those cruel eyes out of existence. He knew a dozen ways to do it. Ghan was strong, but not in Sergei’s league.
And yet he didn’t move. The blood debt, Sergei’s failure, stood between them like a wall.
“I’ll tell you what,” Ghan purred. “Kill Warner Hancock, his bitch and his spawn. Do that and I’ll consider your debt repaid. No strings. All free and clear. I won’t even bother with the dancer. What was her name again?”
Genevieve. He could see her face plainly. How it would twist in revulsion if he completed his mission. How it would appear in death, all light gone from her golden eyes. He felt Ghan’s blade go deep, twisting as it sank.
He ground his teeth and clenched his fists. And nodded.
The delivery man returned, with a second coveralled man in tow. This one was younger, more compact, with huge eyes behind owlishly-large glasses. Both carried pots of orchids. “On the desk,” Ghan ordered. He examined the flowers, then grunted, satisfied. “Excellent.” His dismissal included Sergei. “That will be all.”
The greenhouse workers hurried out. With a more ponderous, leaden tread, Sergei followed.
They parted in the courtyard, the Apex Greenhouse men hastily clambering into their truck. Sergei paid no more heed to them. He didn’t even watch the truck escape through the gates. He stood like a marble statue before the manor door and stared blindly in the direction of Talbot’s Peak. What would she say when she learned he’d bought her life with the murder of a helpless infant? He didn’t even need to speculate. He already knew.
His heart was cold within him. Cold and broken.
# # #
The truck sped down the drive to the main road. Alec couldn’t stop shivering, or saying shit. “Oh shit. Oh shit. They know. They know we’re here and we’re after Ghan. How did they find out? I thought we were—shitshitshit. Was that big monster Sergei?
“Don’t worry about it,” Irwin said. “It won’t be us going in there, so who gives a fart? You get what you needed?”
Alec settled a little, back on firmer ground. “Easy peasy. He’s got an older system. I send the right signal at the right time and the whole thing goes down, just like with the Hancocks. Oh shit. You don’t think she’ll send Yuri, do you? He’s good, but Sergei—shit.”
“Stefanya knows what she’s about. Long as it’s not us.” Irwin grinned. Alec sort of smiled back. “I keep telling you, mate. No worries.”
Ill Met by Moonlight
Stefanya soared above Talbot’s Peak on gyrfalcon wings. At first she told herself she flew with purpose. To prove it, she made a point of performing aerial recon over their targets’ strongholds, even though the Seven had already gathered such intel. Updating, she justified it. When all along she knew she was only marking time.
She took the farthest first, the spreading cattle ranch owned by Brandon Fledermaus. His vast herds covered the even vaster plains, fattening themselves on rich grass with no cowboys in sight. That was because the guards were in the trees, and in the air. She’d barely crossed into Flying F territory when a flock of bats darted up to meet her, shifters by their size. Among the browns and flying foxes she spotted the snub-nosed vampires Alec had warned them about. Brand’s enforcers. If they ID’d her as anything other than a normal bird, she’d be deep in trouble indeed. She dipped her wings and slid away, back to neutral ground. The bats did not pursue, returning instead to their hidden roosts to await other possible threats.
No such aggressive security met her at Hancock’s mountain fortress. The Hancock pack had ruled this territory for decades. They considered themselves invincible. A single bird lay beneath their notice. Stefanya circled the Peak unchallenged and studied them at her leisure, noting numbers, guards, schedules. This was information she already had. Busywork. She left the mountain for the lower forests, and Zhere Ghan’s palatial manor.
Like the wolves, the tigers patrolling the grounds in both forms paid no attention to her. All but the one on the roof. He watched her steadily from beneath the brim of his broad black hat. Of course he recognized her. At one time they’d been as close as father and daughter, when she was younger and far more naïve. Stefanya was neither now. She wondered if Sergei had ever been.
She dropped, though not low enough to rouse suspicion in the other tigers. She fluttered her wings in their old code. He nodded once, then left the roof. Stefanya returned to Talbot’s Peak, and considered the lies she must now tell Yuri about where she’d be going tonight and why he could not come with her. The first lies of many, she feared.
# # #
After dark Stefanya returned to the compound, with only the moon to see. The white tiger waited for her in the forest just beyond the walls. She came to earth as falcon, but landed in her human form.
Sergei also shifted. “Little diver,” he greeted her. The old endearment. She tried not to flinch, but he noticed. He noticed everything. His habitual grave expression grew darker. “This is not friendly visit, yes?”
"Teacher." Stefanya bowed her head briefly. She had loved him as a father, and respected him still. “We’ve received our orders,” she told him without preamble. “Zhere Ghan is one of the targets.”
She waited for a reaction. His face remained impassive. “It will mean death for him,” she added. “When we strike, we never fail.”
Sergei shrugged. “Zhere Ghan has too many enemies to count. Get in line, as Americans say.” He narrowed his icy eyes. “Why tell me this? Does this not ruin attack? You know far better, Stefanya.”
“You’re not a target. This isn’t your fight. There’s no reason for you to die for his sake. I—” She clamped her lips shut against Don’t want to see you hurt.
Her former teacher didn’t answer. Perhaps he read her unspoken words in her face. Yes, of course he did.
“I’ve already told him the Seven are here,” he said finally. “I will tell him this also. You know I must.”
“Why?” she burst out. “He’s evil. He’s proved that repeatedly. You’ve never served evil. Why serve him?”
He looked away, towards the surrounding treetops. “Is old debt. The kind not easily repaid. Honor, blood and death bind us. If threat comes, I must defend him.” He lowered his gaze to meet hers. “Even from you.”
“That won’t be so easy. I know you, teacher. Your favorite moves. The way you think.”
“Opposite is true,” he reminded her. “I didn’t teach you everything I know.”
“I’ve learned new things since.” She flexed her fingers like talons. “Walk away. Remove yourself from the fight. Ghan has enough guards. He won’t even notice your absence.”
To her surprise, he chuckled. “You are not first woman to tell me this.”
“You should listen to that woman. She’s wiser than either of us.”
“Da. She is.” He regarded her somberly. “I won’t ask you to abandon your mission. It would be futile, yes?”
She couldn’t meet his eyes any longer. She wanted to look toward the sky, her second home, but knew she’d find no consolation there. “Yes,” she echoed.
“Then do what your honor demands. And so will I.” She heard a swish of leaves. When she looked up at last, Sergei was gone.
I tried, she told herself. It’s business now. The mission. She hurriedly shifted and shot toward the sky. Besides her wings, her falcon form had the advantage of being unable to cry.
Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Far from Talbot’s Peak …
The man behind the antique mahogany desk carefully considered the reports his agents, the Seven, had sent him. Things had gone quiet of late in the hidden shapeshifter town. The inhabitants scurried to and fro in pursuit of their wretched little dreams. Meanwhile, those who mattered sat back and kept wary eyes on one another, but did nothing other than grow fat.
That would not do. That would not do at all. Peace, even a tenuous peace, did not suit his plans.
He reached for his phone. Time to shake things up a bit.
# # #
The Seven gathered in a corner of the dining room at the inn where Alec had found lodging. The room was practically empty, and the food was indeed as delicious as he’d promised. If only I could enjoy it, Stefanya thought, or anything right now. But they weren’t in Talbot’s Peak on holiday. All enjoyments would have to wait until after their assignment was complete.
She greeted the members of her team and let them engage in a bit of small talk before she got down to business. “I’ve received communication from our employer,” she said.
“About bloody time,” Cloyd the assassin muttered. He stabbed his fork into his salad and decapitated a slice of tomato. “When do we start killing?”
“Not just yet,” she said icily. She knew she should put her emotions on hold, but the sheep just ruffled her feathers. The sheep ruffled everyone’s feathers. She resolved to find a replacement, once their current mission was done. “Our employer gave specific instructions. No deaths yet. Terrorism first. He wants to play a bit.”
Cloyd flashed a smile with little sanity in it. Somehow Stefanya repressed her shudder. “That’s better. My kind of guy.”
“Targets?” Yuri asked. His strong, low voice brought them back on track. She squeezed her lover’s hand beneath the table. Yuri squeezed hers back.
“Three,” she said. “The rancher, Brandon Fledermaus. The real estate mogul, Damien Hancock. The businessman, Zhere Ghan.”
“Don’t you mean the crime boss?” Castor said. “Oh, wait. That could be Hancock.”
“The money men,” Irwin mused, chewing thoughtfully on his lettuce. Stefanya watched in wonder. The Australian botanist had been with the team for three years, and she still wasn’t quite used to the concept of a vegetarian crocodile. “The big boomers. Security out the arse. Getting to them won’t be easy.”
“Which is why I’ve called you together,” Stefanya said. “You’ve had time enough to study the town and its people. What can you tell me of these three?”
“Got it covered,” Castor said. He flipped his placemat over, bummed a pen from his partner Pollux, and swiftly sketched a crude map, with a tall triangle in the center to represent the Peak. “Hancock holdings,” he continued, drawing an irregular circle around the triangle. Most of the town of Talbot’s Peak fell within its radius. “He also owns properties down at the exit. This little wedge here is a dude ranch, right between his western boundary and the start of the Fledermaus spread, which is here.” He drew another circle.
“And here,” Pollux finished, outlining a third circle with the tip of her finger, “is the Ghan compound. Rumor has it he bought the land from Hancock through a proxy, so the wolves didn’t know they’d sold to a cat until the ink was dry. Word is the Big Kahancock isn’t happy about it.”
Castor stared at her. Clearly this was news to him. “Says who?”
Pollux tossed her red-fox hair and grinned at him. “Says every Hancock employee who bought me a drink while you were out marking territories. They’re wolves. A girl just has to shake her tail and they’ll tell her anything.”
Stefanya smiled thinly. Her spies had done well. “Our employer wants us to strike at them in the heart of their own territories. Where they feel the most secure. Which would be … ?”
“Stately Fledermaus Manor is here,” Castor said, marking an X within the one circle. “If you want to call a ranch house stately. He likes the simple life. That’s just the surface, though. Bet he’s got an underground sanctum. Most bat shifters do.”
“If that’s true, he won’t be easy to get at,” Alec said. “I’ve already done a flyover. No outside alarm systems I could see. Inside, no idea. He runs regular patrols, to protect the cattle, I guess. Some of his employees are vampires.”
“Real, or bat shifters?”
“Shifters.” He shivered beneath his pullover sweater. “Fast. And very suspicious.”
“I can get in,” Castor said. “I’ve been there enough in my coyote form. They know I’m not a Hancock wolf, so I get a pass.” He draped his arm over Pollux’s shoulders. “Bet Pol could get in too, if she shook her tail.” She growled at him and shoved his arm away.
Stefanya nodded. “Hancock?”
“He’ll be tougher. His stronghold’s here.” Castor put an X halfway up the side of the triangle. “You and the owl are fine, but those of us without wings are SOL.”
“Not necessarily,” Yuri spoke up. “These American Rockies are no challenge to someone who’s scaled the Himalayas.”
“There’s an elevator inside the mountain,” Alec added, “but yeah, you’d be better off outside. He has next to no electronic surveillance. Mostly relies on his bodyguards. Alpha wolf, y’know. Arrogant.”
“But still a wolf,” Stefanya said, with a worried look at Yuri. “And you’re a cat. If they see you—”
He shook his head with a gentle smile. “They won’t.”
She relaxed. He had a point. Leopards, especially snow leopards, could disappear like ghosts when they wanted to.
Which left their final target, the one that concerned her most, for reasons she would not voice aloud before Yuri. She made sure her voice was steady before she spoke. “Zhere Ghan?”
“Here.” A final X appeared beneath the tip of Castor’s pen. “High walls, armed guards, and tigers out the ass. Good luck getting a closer look.”
“No worries,” Irwin said. “While the rest of you were sitting on your tails, or shaking them around …” He beamed at Pollux, who shot him the finger. “I got a job. Part-time with that greenhouse at the edge of town. They supply plants to offices and other businesses. And to the Ghan place. It’s like a bloody jungle in his office. Tigers do like their greenery. I can draw you a floorplan of the whole flippin’ house.”
“What about a security system?” Alec asked.
“That I don’t know. But tell you what. I’m scheduled to make a delivery at his place three days from now. Come along with me. I’ll distract any prying eyes while you have a go at his systems.” His crocodile grin got wider. “This spying bit is fun. Cas, can I team with you and Pol on our next job?”
The coyote/wolf grinned back. “If you think you can keep up.”
“All right,” Stefanya said. “We narrow our focus to our targets and wait for further instructions. Any questions?”
“Can we kill now?” Cloyd asked.
“Not until we’re told to. Anyone else?”
“I got one,” Irwin said. “Who are we working for? Bloke’s got money, that’s a given, or he couldn’t afford us. But who gives a good bite about a bunch of shifters off in the woods in Montana? I don’t see where bogging up their lives makes a bloody difference to anybody.”
“Clearly it makes a difference to our employer,” Stefanya said, “which is all any of us needs to know. Any other questions? No? Then let’s enjoy our meals. After this we go to work in earnest.”
# # #
Following their meal the team moved on—Castor and Pollux, Irwin with Alec, Cloyd as always alone—until only Stefanya and Yuri remained at the table. She lingered over her coffee, avoiding Yuri’s eyes.
“You’re troubled,” he said. “You don’t care for this assignment any more than Irwin does.”
“Irwin doesn’t like the climate. He can’t stand any place too far from the equator.”
Yuri huffed. “Who are we working for?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “He never gave a name. I have no way to contact him. It may not even be a him. He alters his voice electronically and uses an untraceable phone. Alec already tried,” she answered before he could ask the obvious.
But the deposit to her account had been quite real, and quite substantial, if also untraceable. As had the subsequent payments. Normally she would not have questioned so closely. However …
This was Talbot’s Peak. And he was here.
“I don’t know,” she repeated. Except … there’d been something in that altered voice that had seeped through even the masking technology, something that put up her guard. Their employer had an axe to grind with one if not all of their targets. An axe he fully intended to see buried in somebody’s skull before this job was over.
She got up. “I need to fly,” she said. “I’ll be back before dark.” She bent to kiss Yuri. “I promise.”
He nodded, and let her go. He trusted her implicitly. That hurt her most of all, because this time that trust was misplaced. She hurried from the dining room, and barely made it to the inn’s front door before her clothing fell away from her falcon form. She soared into the blessed purity of the open sky, to begin her hunt.
Riders on the Storm
Genevieve awoke to darkness, out of a greater darkness. Sweat chilled her skin. Her heart pounded. The images from her nightmare still played out behind her eyes in sharp, almost painful detail. The visions hadn’t come upon her so powerfully since … she couldn’t remember when.
Two tigers, one black, one white, circling each other like a yin-yang pendant, but in conflict rather than harmony. Change. Lives in the balance. Death. New life: a serene she-wolf with a pup in her arms, like a lupine madonna. And behind it all, a figure with no face, too far away to see distinctly but destined to draw closer. A figure that radiated hatred and insanity.
Then light appeared, pigmentless skin that almost seemed to glow in the dark. Her lover’s hand. Her lover’s voice. Her Sergei.
He spoke to her in Russian, out of habit, then remembered and switched to English. “Lyubimaya. You are safe. Is bad dream, nothing more.”
“Dream, my eye. That was a vision. One bad vision. More than one bad vision.” She heard her own voice cracking under the weight of the Deep South. Whenever she was upset her accent retreated to Georgia, like a puppy crawling under the couch. She swallowed several times until she was sure she could speak clearly and rationally. As if visions of death that came in her dreams could be considered rational.
All the while she wrestled with her nerves Sergei massaged her neck and shoulders with his huge yet gentle hands. That helped. That helped immensely.
At last they settled back against the headboard. Sergei pulled her against his shoulder. “Tell me.”
Gen swallowed one last time, then recited what she’d foreseen. She felt him jerk at the mention of the black tiger, and tense when she described the she-wolf and her child. Oddly, her mentioning the faceless madman did not provoke a reaction. “Aren’t you worried?”
“Did you see yourself? Were you in danger?”
“No … ”
“Then is no need for worry.”
“Says you.” She leaned into him and let herself melt against the strength of his powerful body. “You worry me. What you do and who you do it for.” She turned in his arms to gaze up into his frank blue eyes. “There are shadows in your path. They swirl around you. They threaten to engulf you. You walk a dangerous road, my love. It’s coming to a fork, and both paths lead to destruction.”
He only shrugged, and brushed his lips across her forehead in a feather’s caress. “I have lived a long time. I intend to go on living.”
She thought of the faceless stranger. “What if someone disagrees?”
“Pah. What can they do?”
What indeed? She knew his past, his profession. A seven-foot Siberian tiger shifter trained as an assassin had little to worry about. Except, perhaps, from those who gave the orders.
“Leave him,” she said suddenly. “Leave Zhere Ghan.”
“Eh? What does he have to do with this?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. Somehow he’s at the heart of this. If you stay with him, you’ll die.”
“You work for him too. You must quit, then.”
“Oh, I’m gonna.” Dammit, there was Georgia again. Genevieve cleared her throat. “I’m sick of wagging my tail at that club of his. There’s a new one going up. Miss Penny’s in charge. Lamar’s already jumped ship. He said he’d get me a job if I wanted it. You should, too. Something, anything. Just get away from the Ghans.”
Sergei took her hand. “I can’t. Is blood debt. I can’t leave until debt is discharged.”
“He’ll never let you go. You have to know that.”
“Da. Yes.” He nodded somberly. “That is my charge to bear.”
She clung to his hand. The hand that had caressed her body and brought her to ecstasy so many times. The hand that had killed, also many times. “If we leave the Peak—”
“He will follow. And you will pay the price.” A growl deepened his already cavernous voice. “I will not have that. You see the future, yes?”
“Glimpses. Snatches here and there. My gift’s never handed me a road map.”
“Is enough. We see where to make detour. Nobody dies.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “Let’s hope. I’d be happier if—”
“So would I. But is not to be.” He kissed her cheek. “Sleep now. In the morning we look for side roads.”
Gen sighed. There’d be no arguing with him. With his arms around her and her head pillowed on the broad, white expanse of his chest, eventually she fell back to sleep, this time with no dreams.
# # #
While his red wolf lover slept, Sergei lay awake. Thinking. Pondering. Afraid.
He’d told her much about his life, but not in great detail. She didn’t know about the deed that bound him to Zhere Ghan. She didn’t know the Seven had arrived in Talbot’s Peak.
She didn’t know the truth about Mikhail.
He leaped back from that thought to the previous. The Seven hadn’t come here to sight-see, and they didn’t come cheap. Ghan swore he hadn’t hired them. Who else would have the resources?
And why were they here to begin with?
He brooded long on Genevieve’s vision of the wolf and pup. There was something else she didn’t know: his orders from Zhere Ghan regarding Warner Hancock, his wife and their unborn child.
I have plans for Damien and his holdings. We can’t have another heir muddying the waters. Kill the bitch and her whelp. The old dog too, if he gets in the way. I leave that to your discretion.
Sergei had yet to carry out the order. Ghan was becoming impatient.
He didn’t realize he’d tightened his arms around Genevieve until she whimpered for breath in her sleep. He eased up at once. Destruction for sure, my firewolf. If I ignore my orders, Zhere Ghan will destroy me. If I follow my orders, it will destroy the love in those glorious eyes. A broken heart is worse than death. Whose heart must break? Yours or mine?
Not hers. That would never be an option.
Sergei was not a man for prayer. Yet now his lips moved silently in supplication, asking for one side road.
Lin Hu rapped on the door of the remote rustic cabin. She gave silent thanks to the waning daylight. Twice she’d missed her turnoffs on the winding back roads, and almost missed the near-invisible track that led to the cabin. She didn’t want to imagine trying to find this place, hidden deep in the forest at the very edge of Hancock territory, in the dark. Especially with time of the essence.
The door opened and a grizzled, gray-haired wolf shifter stuck his nose out at her. “About time,” he growled. “She’s already in labor.”
“I didn’t have to come,” Lin snapped back. “This isn’t precisely my specialty. You would have done better to hire a midwife.”
“What? A bunny?” He showed his yellowed teeth. “Don’t think I didn’t look. Nothing but bunny midwives in this Lupa-damned town any more. No stinking carrot-cruncher’s touching my pup.”
“Perhaps I should be going, then.”
“Oh, you’re okay. You’re a bear, right? Aren’t pandas bears?”
Lin sighed. Predators and their prejudices. If not for the young woman inside, she would never have left her office. The woman, and the tiny life she was trying to bring into the world.
A howl from within propelled Lin into action. She shoved past the old wolf and all but charged into the cabin. The wolf shut the door and dashed after her.
The sounds of desperate huffing guided Lin to a small bedroom off the cabin’s single, central space. The woman had taken her birthing-bed’s quilt between her teeth and was currently savaging the hem. This mother-to-be lay at the far distant end of the age spectrum from the grayhair who’d brought her to Lin’s office barely three months ago and introduced them as husband and wife. This was to be her first child.
At least she was fully adult in body, if only just. Her youth would be an asset here. She should have no trouble birthing the oldster’s precious pup. Should the worst happen … Lin had a small notebook in her jacket pocket, and a cell phone. Bunny shifters lived everywhere, even way out here. If complications arose, the old bigoted dog would get a bunny midwife whether he wanted one or not. Somehow Lin suspected his laboring wife wouldn’t object.
She moved to the bedside and took the young woman’s hand. “I’m here to help you,” she said. “You’re Ilsa, correct?”
The girl snarled, and for a second Lin thought she would bite. Then she got hold of herself. She offered up a pained, sweaty smile. “Thank you for coming. Warner says you’re a bear?”
“Close enough,” Lin said with an answering smile. She reached into her bag and pulled out a large rawhide bone. “If you need to bite down on something, use this. When did your labor begin?”
“Almost an hour ago. Right after Warner called you.” Ilsa practically grabbed the bone out of Lin’s hands. She chewed on it vigorously in between straining and panting. Lin timed her contractions while the oldster, Warner, hovered in the doorway. Whenever she stopped growling, he started, but made no move to get in the way.
“You’re remarkably calm, for a father-to-be,” Lin observed.
“This isn’t my first pup,” he said. “How’s she doing?”
“They’re coming faster. It won’t be long now.” Lin set down her bag. “We must prepare.”
They washed their hands, gathered sheets and towels, kept close watch on Ilsa. Lin ordered Warner to brush his teeth. Although she’d brought a pair of scalpels, she knew wolves preferred to bite the cord themselves. She also knew the females sometimes wanted to birth their litters in private. “Do you want him here?” she murmured to Ilsa, “or shall I—”
“He stays,” she gritted around the bone. "I want—ahhhhh!” The bone dropped out of her mouth as she howled. Warner darted to the bedside as nimbly as if he were her age. He grabbed her hand, and she crushed it. Ilsa howled again.
“This is it,” Lin said calmly, and knelt between Ilsa’s legs. “One more good push should do it. Can you do that for us, Ilsa?”
She could, and did. Lin reached forward, cloth at the ready. A tiny thread of a howl joined Ilsa’s as her and Warner’s pup announced its entry into the world.
Warner knelt by the bed with his arms around his wife. “What is it?” he demanded.
“See for yourself.” Lin handed the baby over to the new parents. Ilsa practically snatched the child away, with a ghost of a snarl for Lin. Lin only smiled.
“A girl,” Warner whispered in awe. “We’ve got a daughter, Ilsa.”
The new mother nodded absently. Her entire being was now focused on her child. She cuddled her daughter snugly in her arms. “Anitra,” she murmured.
Lin set about cleaning up, keeping clear of the new parents. Now that the birthing was done, being wolves they would become nervous, territorial and overprotective. She was therefore surprised when Warner got up and touched her arm with a quiet, “Thank you. I can’t begin to repay you for—”
She nodded toward the bed. “Take care of her. Call me if problems develop.”
“That goes without saying.” He went silent. Lin watched alpha wolf instincts begin their feral takeover in his expression, and Ilsa’s. They had a newborn cub to protect, and she was an outsider.
Fortunately Lin had prepared for this as well. She took one last item from her bag, a Tupperware container. She handed it to Warner. “Liver and kidneys. Elk. Fresh from the butcher. Wild caught. No one either of us knows. Ilsa will be hungry, and will need to rebuild her strength. Come to my office next week and we’ll discuss my fee.”
She doubted if either wolf heard a word she said after “liver.” With the parents distracted, Lin made her escape. She had no wish to see what the new mother did with her “birthday gift.”
Perhaps it was fortunate she hadn’t insisted they call in a bunny midwife. Fortunate for the bunny.
And now she was hungry as well. She’d have to drive all the way down to the exit to get any decent Chinese. Provided she could find her way out of this forested maze. Lin hurried to her truck to catch the last of the dwindling daylight.
# # #
Long after dark, with his wife and new daughter sated and sleeping, Warner Hancock stole out of the cabin. This event called for a triumphant howl, but he didn’t dare. Not here, on the Hancocks’ hereditary turf. Damien kept up constant patrols. He and Ilsa had been lucky so far, but they couldn’t afford to draw attention, especially not now.
Though the trees blocked his view, he turned unerringly north. Beyond the sea of pine boughs lay the peak the town was named for, with its mountainside stronghold that had once belonged to the Talbot pack, then to Warner, and was now held in the iron grip of his usurper son. But not for long. Warner bared his teeth. Not for bloody long.
“Heads up,” he snarled into the night. “You’ve got a sister, Damien. You’re not the only game in town any more.” To hell with patrols. He threw back his graying head and howled, long, loud and triumphantly. Let Damien, let all the world know Warner Hancock was here. The rightful alpha was back in Talbot’s Peak. Let the games begin.
Sunday Afternoon, With Skeet
Leila activated the trap. Tasman Ghan took aim at the small clay plate and fired. The bit of crockery shattered. Six others followed in rapid succession. At that point, Tasman called a halt. “Enough. It’s gotten tiresome already.” He regarded the shotgun in his hands with a mixture of respect and resignation. “I still don’t understand the point of this sport. All the violence, yet nothing dies. Where’s the blood? The effort of tracking the prey? The thrill of bringing it down with your own fangs and claws? This takes all the pleasure out of killing things.”
Leila abandoned the trap to step to his side. She moved like a snake, smooth and sinuous, powerful and deadly. Even out here, in this remote corner of the Ghans’ estate, she wore her tailored business suit. Her platinum-blonde hair was swept up in a flawless chignon. Her flat heels were her only concession to the realities of the great outdoors. “Why bother to learn it, then?”
“Because the humans do this, among other incomprehensible things. If we’re to expand the Ghan empire, we must learn to move in their circles. That includes embracing the gun culture. The apes do love their guns.”
“Perhaps we could shoot something that’s more of a challenge?” She nodded toward their horses, grazing a short distance away. The animals had been trained to remain calm around gunfire, and especially around big cats. “At least we can eat them afterwards.”
Tasman made a face. “Considering what we paid for them, we’re better off shooting skeet. Besides, Sanjay would be heartbroken.”
“Birds, then. Those awful crows.”
“The humans have laws against that. They’ll fight to the death to keep their guns, then don’t want anybody to kill anything with them.” He shook his head. “Americans.”
She reached for the shotgun. “Might I take a turn, sir?”
“You can shoot?”
“It’s been a while, but yes. I like to stay sharp.”
Tasman shrugged and passed her the weapon. He took over command of the skeet launcher. Leila reloaded and called, “Pull.” Five shattered plates later she lowered the shotgun. “That will be sufficient. Thank you, sir.”
He eyed the remains of the plates and smiled. “Flawless, as always,” he praised her.
“I’m better with small arms, though I should practice more. Is Lord Ghan considering adding a shooting range to the compound?”
“Vishnu, I hope not. My father still prefers the natural ways. I’ll see about finding a range so you can hone your skills.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“It isn’t kindness. I want you sharp.” His life depended on it. Perhaps not so much here in America, but he was not a man to take chances. He was Zhere Ghan's first born, the heir. Hence the need for a bodyguard. Because he was also both thrifty and practical, he’d hired Leila. And never regretted it. As his personal assistant, she knew his needs and wants before he did. As a snow leopard trained in attack and defense, she could handle any threat to his safety. As a beautiful, polished, professional woman, she presented the perfect distraction. His enemies saw only the face and the breasts and the legs, and not the silent, deadly killer standing so demurely at his back.
Perhaps he ought to marry her. With Father’s approval, of course.
She briefly lowered her eyes, then raised her gaze to his. “In all aspects, sir?”
“What do you mean?”
“I notice all this target practice has stirred your hunting blood.” She placed the shotgun on the ground and went to him. She pressed her hand boldly on his crotch, where most of that hunting blood she’d remarked on had gathered. “Perhaps we might use the situation to hone our other skills?”
Tasman smiled savagely. The perfect assistant. Always one step ahead of him, and always to his advantage.
He gazed down into her lovely green eyes and guided her fingers to his fly. “Pull,” he ordered.
The Little Prince
Nirvana, Zhere Ghan’s club, was packed tonight. At Nirvana, so the adverts promised, the customer was king. The main floor housed the bar, restaurant and dance floor. Upstairs was a second, more intimate bar for parties and assignations. Downstairs were the special rooms. Here all whims could be indulged, and word of any indiscretions would never pass beyond the ornate doors. More exotic whims came with a higher price, with the same privacy guaranteed.
Such policies appealed to a certain segment of Talbot’s Peak’s population. Especially the wolves. Especially the lower-ranked wolves. For a few hours in a private room, every wolf was an alpha. The empty wallet afterwards was worth it.
But not tonight. Not for Devon Hancock.
He slouched at his table in the upstairs suite, and paid no attention to the limber she-wolf currently performing on the stage. “Old leg-lifter,” he muttered into his cocktail. “Old mangy flea-bus.”
Rakshasi draped herself across him and nuzzled his neck. This was an old refrain. Most of the time he was a pleasant assignment: fun, free with his money, exciting in bed. She’d quickly learned, however, to keep him away from excess drink. Too many Punjabi Punches and he tended to turn morose. She much preferred the devil-may-care heir to the Hancock fortune who, she was certain, had fallen in love with her. Who she, against her father’s orders, had found herself falling in love with.
Yes. She, Rakshasi, trained assassin, daughter of Zhere Ghan. In love with the son of her father’s greatest rival. Karma was a bitch indeed.
She’d been told to get close to him, glean what she could of his sire’s doings from him. Kill him, if the situation called for it. That last had been swept off the table some time ago. How her father would roar if he knew!
Her brother Tasman, the club’s manager, prowled along the edge of the room, as always aware of everything. Though not aware of her shifted allegiance. That tidbit she’d kept to herself. He nodded fractionally to her with a wisp of a smile. Keep up the good work. She faked a smile and nodded back.
“You know who I feel sorry for?” Devon said abruptly. “Charlie. Here’s to you, Chuck.” He raised his glass and drained it. A waitress in a skimpy harem costume hurried over to bring him another. Rakshasi waved her away.
“Charlie?” she asked. “Is he a wolf?”
“No, no. Prince Charles. The human. Big shot British ape. Now there’s a dude with a destiny. He was supposed to be the King of England. That’s the only reason he’s here. Heir to the friggin’ throne. And what happened to that? His mom is what happened. The old bitch won’t get off the seat. Won’t retire, just won’t freakin’ die. Where does that leave Charlie? He’s been raised his whole life just for this one thing and now it’s not gonna happen. When Her Maj finally does keel over, Charlie’s pup will be King. Not him. His entire life’s been a waste. He might as well cash it in right now. His time came and went while he was playing polo and waving at the crowds.”
He glared into his empty glass, then stared about for a waitress. Rakshasi caught his face in her hands and turned his head toward her. “This is about your father again, isn’t it?”
“What, me? Mad at Daddy?” he snarled sarcastically. “Now why would I be mad? Just because he hasn’t bothered to train me to take over. Just because he barely talks to me. Always busy. Always the big bad wolf. I might as well not even be here. Why the hell did he even have pups if he never planned to step down?”
Rakshasi laid her hand on his crotch and let her claws out, just a little. Ah. Now she had his full attention.
“Perhaps,” she suggested, “he’s waiting. Waiting for you to challenge him. Prove yourself worthy to lead the pack. Isn’t that how it’s done among wolves?”
Devon blinked, as if this had not occurred to him before. “You think that’s it?”
She moved her hand and slid onto his lap. Her rough tongue brushed his lips. “He fears you,” she whispered. “Your quickness, your youth. How much the other wolves admire you. He won’t give up his power. You’ll have to take it.”
He glanced uncertainly at his cocktail glass. “Is that how tigers do it?”
“Tigers don’t bother with succession. They carve out their own territory.” As she was doing now. A life apart from Father, away from the machinations of the Ghans. Why be content to be a wife, when she could be a queen?
True, a queen of wolves. But wolves were predators, only little different from a cat. And wolves ruled this little piece of America. She could live with that. It was enough to satisfy her, but only if Devon came with it.
All he needed was a nudge in the right direction.
“It doesn’t have to be a public challenge,” she purred. “Private would be better, in fact. No support, no guards.”
Devon paled. “You mean kill him?”
“Not necessarily.” She shrugged. “Defeating him should be enough. He’s old. Ruling a pack so huge must wear heavily on him. He’ll probably be relieved to have you beat him. I understand wolves admire shows of strength.”
“But he’s … ” Devon swallowed. “Big. Bigger than me. He keeps himself in shape.”
“That can be dealt with. I can teach you. Tigers know how to take down prey larger and stronger than themselves. You have only to want it.” Her hands on his face turned demanding. “Do you want to be king?”
For a moment he wavered, and so did her heart. Then his eyes hardened, and she relaxed. There was her predator. Her king wolf. “Yes. About time. About damn time, by Lupa.” He caught her hand in a grip that thrilled her. “You’ll help me prep?”
She had been trained to kill in a dozen different ways. This move would all but kill her father. She relished the idea. “I can teach you how to compensate for his size, plus a few things he won’t be expecting.” Such as a tiger in charge of the Hancock lands. A tiger who was not Zhere Ghan. She savored the taste of that notion as well. “And afterwards … ”
He smiled at her and shoved the empty cocktail glass aside. “I’ll bet there’s a room free downstairs. Would you like a taste of ‘afterwards’?”
“My lord,” she murmured, as her mouth moved to devour his.
Quiet nights like this were supposed to be restful. Instead, clear nights with a bright moon and plenty of stars tended to make Damien Hancock stalk the halls of his mountaintop stronghold and snap at whatever wolf had the misfortune to cross his path. Soft breezes only prickled the hairs on his neck, and moonlight made it harder for his aging eyes to see his enemies coming. An alpha wolf in his position had foes at every turn.
Tonight, though, the next turn in the corridor simply brought him to the servants’ wing. Here the Hancock low-ranks who saw to the household had their meager rooms. Damien rarely bothered to patrol here. He must not have been paying attention.
A group of maids were clustered around a flat-screen TV, watching a movie. Those too low on the ladder to rate a seat lolled on the floor in wolf form. On the screen, Gerald O’Hara tongue-lashed a sullen Scarlett on the importance of land. It’s the only thing that matters, he insisted.
Damien’s lips curled. Territory. Holding one’s turf. Sometimes the monkeys got it right.
Wolves also knew the importance of territory. Land meant power. Land meant wealth. Dealing in real estate had made Damien a wealthy alpha and the Hancocks a powerful pack. He’d had the foresight to buy property before the interstate went in, back when land was cheap. Now he had a hotel on Boardwalk and restaurants on Park Place, so to speak. He wondered sometimes what the apes would think if they knew those pizzas and Chinese dinners they shoved into their gaping monkey mouths were being provided by werewolves. He doubted they would even slow in their chewing.
The Talbots hadn’t had such foresight. Look where they were now.
Damien’s smile twisted into a half-snarl. He shouldn’t have thought of the Talbots. They’d claimed the land and founded the town and built their own secluded mini-empire. Now they only served as a reminder of how fragile it all could be. How quickly power could be lost, and territory stolen.
He whirled and charged from the low-rankers’ enclave, back to his seat of power. The she-wolves caught up in Gone With the Wind hadn’t even noticed his presence.
# # #
The Hancock mansion’s alpha suite had belonged to Damien for almost thirty years. From his chair behind his huge mahogany desk he could gaze out the wall-length window at the surrounding peaks, or step out onto the balcony and peer down at the town snuggled at the mountain’s foot. Of late neither view could cheer him, so he welcomed the dark. Night turned the outside to shadowy dreams, and shrouded day’s stark reality.
For the first time in his three-decade reign, Damien faced competition.
Not from within the pack, of course. He was still strong. Still undisputed. His sole legitimate offspring, Devon, showed no inclination to challenge him. Frankly, Devon showed little inclination for anything other than fast cars, strong drink, and lovely tail. He wouldn’t last ten seconds as the Hancock alpha, which suited his sire just fine.
The threats that ate away at him came from outside sources.
His glare stayed fixed on the view straight ahead, but his thoughts turned to the west, and the Fledermaus spread. Those damn bats had been a thorn in the Hancock flank since his own sire’s time. The Flying F should be Hancock land. He’d made his move to grab it after old Johann’s unfortunate “accident.” But Johann’s son Brandon had proved tougher than expected, canny in the ways of power and with the money to back it up. After a number of futile sorties Damien had been forced to back off.
No matter. Brandon had no sons and, given his choice to date outside his species, was unlikely to sire any. Ditto for his psychotic brother, Jack. With no heirs as backup, Brand’s hold on the spread remained tenuous. Damien had only to sit back and wait for the inevitable crack in his defenses.
That left the tiger, Zhere Ghan.
A growl ripped out of him unbidden. Ghan posed a bigger threat than any flighty bat. He was a cat, for starters. Cats were patient, and given to stalking. Cats never played by the rules. You couldn’t meet them in a straight-on confrontation. They were always leaping on you from behind.
Worst yet, Ghan had sons. Four legitimate, and Lupa only knew how many bastards. The younger two were bigger idiots than Devon, and his agents reported the second-born, Ravi, had returned to India. But the oldest, Tasman … there lay the problem. He had a cat’s sly brain and Ghan’s aptitude for business without the elder tiger’s vicious streak. His ability to keep a cool head and not give in to instinct made him a deadlier foe than all the other tigers combined. Only the knowledge Tasman would take command had kept Damien from going after Zhere. Why the cub hadn’t deposed the old rug already, Damien had no idea.
Perhaps he actually honored his sire. Perhaps that was a weakness Damien could use.
He’d better move fast. The damned stripies had opened a nightclub on what should have been Hancock turf, and prelim reports said it was already doing a healthy business. The downstairs sex rooms catered to anyone with sufficient funds. Including, his spies told him, low-rank wolves. He trusted his betas and the sub-alphas of the many Hancock satellite packs, but low-ranks, all too often, could be bribed or bought. It was one of the many reasons they were low-ranks.
Something had to be done about the stripies. And the bats. And all those flat-toothed herbies walking the streets of his town like they owned the scatted place. For Lupa’s sake, that feeble-brained McMahon mutt had gone and married one. What the hell was up with that?
He’d put an end to that, by Lupa, and to everyone else who threatened him. He’d put the Hancocks back on top again, and this time keep them there.
Power. The only thing that mattered. The hardest thing to hold.
“So, Doctor,” Brandon Fledermaus said, “what’s the good word?”
Lin Hu bit her lower lip. Normally no-nonsense and direct, she found it difficult to face the owner of the Flying F ranch in this instance. Brand was quite wealthy, and generous with that wealth. Currently he was funding her special research project. True, he stood to benefit from it, but so would many others. Financial aid aside, she liked the man. He was polite and pleasant, for a bat. And never once had he made any jokes regarding her name and that silly TV show.
How could she look this man in the eye and tell him she had failed him yet again?
“Not so good,” she said at last. “The word, I mean.”
Curse it all, it was as she feared. The eagerness, the hope, slowly seeped out of his face. “That’s not to say it’s totally out of the question,” she hastened to add. “I’ve put out a call for volunteers. Those of mixed ancestry, human and shifter. For some reason humans have no trouble interbreeding with shifters. The offspring nearly always have some shifter ability. If I can isolate the genetic factor—”
“No.” He was already reaching for his Stetson. “It’s not that important, not at this time. Leona and I haven’t even discussed marriage yet, let alone … ” That part trailed away. “I’ll continue to contribute to the clinic, of course. You do vital work here. You’re needed.”
Vital to the varied denizens of Talbot’s Peak, perhaps. And to him, though he wouldn’t admit it. Lin touched his arm. “It’s not as if one of you were a bird or a reptile shifter. You’re both mammals. And your bat is at least partly carnivorous, which helps. The odds—”
“The odds of a bat and a jaguar conceiving, let alone birthing a healthy child, fall somewhere between slim to none,” he said, with a wry, humorless smile. “It’s fine, Doctor. I have the ranch, and Leona’s involved with her career. It will be a long time before either of us is ready to have a child. I suppose we can always adopt.”
“But it isn’t the same,” she said. “I know. I feel it too, more often than you know. The beast in us cries out to reproduce. I’ve as much chance of finding a compatible male panda as you do of breeding with a cat. Even if I were still in China. But although the odds are microscopic, they are not nonexistent. And so I keep looking. As I will keep looking, on your behalf.” She tilted her head to peer at him. “You’ve discussed this with Leona, of course?”
“We’ve touched on it. She says she has no interest in becoming a mother right now. Jaguars do tend to be solitary. But sometimes I catch a look in her eyes … I know she’s been thinking about it. I have too. My father and grandfather worked hard, and built an empire. I’ve worked just as hard to keep it successful. I don’t want it all to fall apart when my time comes. I’ve got something I’d be proud to pass on to a son. Or a daughter.” He winked at Lin. “A little girl with Leona’s courage and drive would be a world-beater.”
“There’s still your brother,” Lin reminded him. “Unless that’s out of the question?”
Brand snorted. “Jack hasn’t shown any sign of settling down. I don’t even know where he is right now. But if it came to that … hell, I’d take in a child of his in a second. Even a bastard child. Jack’s borderline psychotic, but he’s still family. If he ever has children, I’ll welcome them. Even leave the ranch to them.” He shrugged and offered up that crooked grin again. “Bats aren’t even that territorial. It must be an alpha male thing.”
“Must this child be a bat? Or part bat?”
“It would be nice. Helpful, even. But beggars can’t be choosers. If we adopt, we’ll have to take whatever breed is available. And hope they want to run a ranch when they grow up. That’s a risk Leona and I will face even if we do conceive together. Children do tend to grow up being who they’ll be.”
Liar, she thought. He spoke so glibly of adoption. The truth, his real desire, his need, still lurked within his eyes. The bone-deep, ancient need to create life and pass on one’s genes to a new generation.
If pandas were lacking she, at least, could fulfill her drives with a raccoon or a human. Brandon and Leona had fallen in love. Two breeds whose genetics would deny them the one thing their most powerful instincts wanted above all.
She’d seen a lot of this in Talbot’s Peak. Shifters, humans, joining, mating, playing mix and match. Sooner or later they all wanted that one basic thing. Some had a fighting chance. Those her gynecological training could help. Others were reproductively doomed from the start. Those she saw as a challenge.
Even if she never had a child of her own, she could see that others weren’t denied.
“I will keep looking,” she promised. “As I said, you’re both mammal shifters. You have a running start. We need only find a way to blend your genes. You may need to find a human surrogate. I can’t guarantee Leona could carry a hybrid to term. Humans seem capable of birthing anything. Genetically they’re quite resilient.”
“You don’t need to do that,” he said, too quickly. His eyes continued to lie. To plead.
She smiled. “Let me continue anyway, for my own amusement. The research is sure to help someone.”
“Yes, that’s true. Especially here. Thank you, Doctor. If you need anything—”
“I will call you. And I will be sure to keep you apprised of my progress.” She lowered her voice. “At some point, I will have to speak to Leona. And run tests.”
Brand grimaced. “Good luck. She’s tough to pin down, and she hates doctors. Better let me talk to her first.” He sighed. “We’ll work something out.”
“I’m sure the three of us will. Good day to you, Mr. Fledermaus.”
A girl entered her office as Brand went out. “You the doctor looking for medical volunteers?” she asked. “I heard you pay.”
“Let’s discuss the details first. You may change your mind. You’re a human-shifter hybrid?”
Her head bobbed. While she spoke, she hopped from foot to foot. “I’m supposed to be. Mom said Dad was human. I don’t know, I never met him. Mom’s a hare. When I shift, my ears are too short and my ass is too big, so who knows? Dad wasn’t a bunny, that’s for damn sure.”
This was good. This was excellent. Rabbits and humans were the most fertile of the breeds. Their genes mixed with practically everything. If she could isolate the common factor— “A simple test will determine your ancestry. Yes, I will pay you. Anything beyond that we’ll have to discuss.”
“Kewl.” The girl was staring at her medical credentials, framed on the wall. “Your name’s really Dr. Who?”
Lin swallowed an ancient Chinese curse. “If you’d please come this way?”
The Magnificent Seven
The old school bus rolled up the interstate and crossed into Montana at speeds at odds with its shabby appearance. Inside it had been refurbished into a mobile transport with generous living accommodations, and more defenses than one would expect from its faded yellow exterior.
Like the bus, its passengers were more than their outward appearance suggested. There were seven of them.
The casual observer’s attention is almost always drawn first to the leopard. Though only of average height, he’s generously muscled and uncommonly handsome. He has a habit of staring down others, as if constantly assessing how their flesh might taste.
Surely one so powerful in body and personality must be the one in charge. You might think that. You’d be wrong. Watch closely, and you’ll see him defer to the diminutive woman with the striking black-and-white hair. Cool, quick-witted, quicker still in flight, the gyrfalcon leads this team. Her keen eyes miss nothing. She has commanded these commandos for five years now. Under her watch, they’ve never failed.
The two wolves are the trackers of the group. They’re so similar in appearance and personality, as alike as twins, that it’s hard to credit they’re from separate packs. The male counts coyote blood among his ancestry; the female boasts of fox. These genetic combinations make them more imaginative than the average wolf. It also makes them reckless, and dangerous. Only their respect for the gyrfalcon keeps their wilder impulses in check.
The owl is their tech man. There isn’t a system on the planet he can’t crack, no computer program he can’t hack. He likes to fiddle with random electronic devices just to see what new inventions he can come up with. He once fashioned a Taser from a garage-door opener and a TV remote. As a boy he’d had two posters on his bedroom wall: Nikola Tesla and MacGyver.
Out of the seven, most people instinctively recoil from the crocodile. He honestly can’t understand this. He’s an Australian freshwater croc, mild-mannered and a trained botanist. What the owl is to gadgets, the freshie is to plants. He can whip up a poultice or a poison with equal ease, as the situation demands. He’s also a talented cook. The team might eye their dishes sidelong, but the falcon trusts him. That’s all the others need.
Except, of course, for the assassin.
The team’s hired killer trusts no one, not even the falcon. He’s an English Dorset sheep, and quite psychotic. The others don’t particularly care for him. The sheep is fine with that. Raised as prey in a world run by predators, he developed a philosophy of “get them before they get you.” When it comes to getting people, the sheep can be quite inventive. He doesn’t partake of the freshie’s meals, preferring to prepare his own food. He doesn’t sleep much, or soundly, and often bleats wild unexpected laughter.
Given a choice, the gyrfalcon would not have had him or any assassin on her team. But she hadn’t been given a choice. Their orders had been depressingly specific. “Infiltrate Talbot’s Peak,” their master said. “Become friendly with its people. Learn its secrets. Here is the list of people I wish you to pay particular attention to. When the time is right, I shall contact you with further instructions.”
That time is nearly here. Lives will change. And end.
Excerpt - Lost and Found by J. J. Collins
Declan stretched full length on the bank with his feet in the water. Yeah. This was how it should be. Water, trees, shade and soft breezes. If only it wasn’t so quiet. Already he missed the mini forest of deerhide tents, lupine bodies whispering through the underbrush, murmured words, growls, snatches of laughter, and the aroma of food cooking over a crackling fire. The thousand and one sights, sounds, and scents of the camp.
Most of all he missed the presence of the others, the simple comfort of knowing his pack was around him and safe. In better days he’d lain like this beside their little stream but with a hard-muscled body curled against his, both of them panting after sex. Without the pack this little wood was as empty as that unforgiving sky and the horizonless flat miles of grass.
The sooner he took back his pack and his home, the better off he’d be.
He drew his feet out of the water and sat up. Could he trust the hawk? The bird had been helpful so far, but he wasn’t a wolf. He wasn’t pack, even though he’d guided Declan to safety. Even though…
Yeah, that was it. He smelled trustworthy. Declan put a lot of stock in scents. Killian didn’t carry any whiffs of deceit. He smelled like the sky, fresh and open. Hot as a splash of blood. Fire with feathers on. Declan found that sexy as all fucking get-out.
But not wolf. A wolf he could dominate, trigger submission with simple alpha posturing. That cocky little bird with his fiery eyes and threats of disemboweling wasn’t about to submit to anybody. Declan snorted. Just as well. Skinny little twig-bones anyway. He’d probably split in half at the first good thrust. Probably couldn’t even perform unless he was airborne. How the hell did birds survive their own mating rituals?
Forget about him. Focus on the important things—killing Seth and regaining control of the pack. Declan’s dick could wait until he once again had a territory to sling it around in.
He was congratulating himself on his mastery of priorities when the fish hit him on the head.