The full moon shone in the night sky like a coin of white gold, sliding in and out of ragged clouds. I sat on Tulip’s back, in the shadow of a large dogwood on the edge of what used to be West End Park. Decades ago, the trees inside the park had rioted, fed by magic. They grew at a shocking rate, spreading their branches, stretching their roots until the park became a forest.
Across from me, on the other side of Lucile Avenue, a solid two-story building rose in the middle of a lot. Built like a fortress, with thick stone walls and windows shielded by steel and silver grates, it sat alone, the nearest neighbor five hundred yards away. Nick liked his privacy.
A lone oak spread massive branches near the house. Technically, it presented a security issue since someone could hide in its branches, like Abra was doing right now, but Nick clearly didn’t care. Anything that could climb that oak could likely climb the building, and the tree shaded the house. In a time when air conditioning was an unbelievable luxury a shady spot was worth its weight in gold.
It took me half an hour to get here and I had disconnected from Abra for most of it. Eavesdropping on Nick and Desandra’s private time was close to dead last on the list of things I wanted to do.
Why Desandra? I wouldn’t have imagined those two being together in a million years. Nick was a rock in a storm, calm, steady, unmovable, never losing his temper. Desandra was a crazy whirlwind, funny, unpredictable, and often wildly inappropriate. She said things that made boudas blush. Derek used to have the hardest time with her. He had a horrible childhood and he took great comfort in order and stability. He needed to know things were going to be a certain way, and Desandra was chaos.
She was also dangerous as hell.
Years ago, Mom and Dad went to the Mediterranean with some heavy hitters from the Pack to get panacea, an herbal remedy that reduced the occurrence of loupism, the shapeshifter madness. They came back with Christopher, who was now Barabas’ husband, and Desandra and her twin newborn sons. She made her first kill two days after she joined the Pack and within a year clawed her way to becoming a Wolf Alpha.
Was she using him? I couldn’t imagine what for. Well, I could imagine, but I didn’t want to.
If I delayed any longer, they might fall asleep. I shut my eyes and gingerly tried to listen through Abra’s ears. I could see through his eyes from a good distance away, although the connection was spotty, but while the eagle sight was superb, his hearing was about human level. To actually listen to a conversation through him, I had to stay close by.
The sound came through as if the words were spoken next to me.
“… Haywood murder,” Nick said.
Oh good, good, good. Talking. Talking was great.
“Good people don’t last, but assholes live forever,” Desandra murmured.
I sank into the glowing web of Abra’s sight and saw them through the window. They were lying in bed, Desandra’s head resting on Nick’s arm, her golden hair spilling over the pillow in a tangled curtain.
“Where was Desimir last Thursday night?” Nick asked.
“Where he usually is, home.”
“Are you sure?”
Desandra turned, leaning her head on her bent elbow so she could look at him. “Do you think my son murdered Haywood?”
Her tone wasn’t hostile, just softly chiding.
“The killer flew in through the skylight, ripped the body to shreds with its claws, then went back out through the skylight. It was a cat kill.”
“He’s going through puberty,” Nick said.
“Yes. Between him and Miladin I can barely get into the bathroom. Every sock is a possible landmine.”
Was there something wrong with Desimir? Desandra had a weird pregnancy; her two sons were born at the same time but had different fathers. Miladin was a wolf, and Desimir was a lynx. I’d babysat both of them when they were toddlers a dozen times. They were normal shapeshifter babies. Why would Nick think that Desimir could fly? Weirder and weirder.
“You see him every weekend,” Desandra said. “Why don’t you ask him?”
“Because I don’t want him to think I suspect him.”
“But you do.”
“No, I don’t. But other people might and if it ever comes up, I want to have all my facts ready. If I have to defend him, I need to be able to honestly say where he was at the time of the murder. If you tell me he was home, I believe you. I just need you to be sure we can prove it.”
Desandra sighed again. “Was it eaten? Haywood’s body?”
“They took his heart, but no.”
“Well, there’s your answer. We both know what my son is. He also knows what he is. We raised him well. He’s a smart kid. He has no interest in power or turning into a monster. He spent Thursday at home doing what he usually does, which is reading old comic books and listening to music. There are half a dozen people besides me and Miladin who can confirm this.
“I know mothers don’t know everything, but I don’t see him doing this. He is a thirteen-year-old boy. Can you picture him smashing through a skylight, ripping apart a holy man he’d never met, and devouring his heart?”
“No,” Nick said. “Even if he turned, there are easier targets. He could hunt homeless in the Warren and nobody would know for years.”
Desandra traced his jaw with her fingertips. “Then why did you ask?”
“Ferrara is sniffing around this case.”
Desandra collapsed onto a pillow, her arms in the air. “Of course, he is.”
“Do you think he knows about Desimir?”
“If he does, Andrea or Raphael told him. Kate would never. Neither would Doolittle or the bears.”
She was right. Besides Curran, I was the closest person to Mom, and I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. Shapeshifters gossiped like old ladies in church. This was clearly Pack business, and somehow everyone who came back from that trip managed to keep this secret.
“Does Jim know?” Nick asked.
“I imagine he does.” A low snarl reverberated in Desandra’s throat. “He was the chief of security at the time. Curran would have told him.”
“So, this could be coming from the top or from the Boudas.”
“Jim and I never had a problem. We have our disagreements, but he isn’t petty. If he suspected something, he would’ve given it to the Rats. They run Pack security, and you know Jim, he does everything by the book, with a paper trail and receipts. No, this is coming from the Boudas.”
“He could be acting on his own. He’s ambitious,” Nick mused.
“There’s the understatement of the year.”
“Suppose Desimir had done it and now Ascanio has proof. What does he gain?”
“The ability to blackmail me.”
“I have some ideas. I’ll need to consult with a couple of people.” A golden sheen rolled over Desandra’s irises. Her hand flexed on the pillow as if it had claws. “I don’t know exactly what his game is, but I’ll find out.”
A chill dashed down my spine. Nope, she hadn’t mellowed. Not even a bit. Ascanio wasn’t stupid. Why would he screw with her? Maybe this had nothing to do with her or her sons and Nick was barking up the wrong tree.
Nick leaned to the side, pulled a piece of paper out of something I couldn’t see, and held it out to Desandra. “Smell this.”
She grinned. “Oh baby, such inventive come-ons you have.”
Nick rolled his eyes.
Desandra plucked the paper from his fingers and sniffed it. “Why am I smelling this?”
“A woman showed up at my office. This is a form she filled out. She has a badge that dictates that I assist her in every way possible.”
“Mmmm, kinky. How do I get one of those?”
“You have to render a great service to the Order.”
Desandra grinned and smelled the paper again. “Oh, I’ve done that. Many, many times.”
Nick smiled. Oh my gods.
“Have you smelled this scent before?”
Desandra shook her head. “No. I would remember. Why?”
Nick frowned. “There’s something familiar about her. I can’t put my finger on it but…”
“Keep your finger and everything else away from her.” Desandra’s eyes flashed again. She toyed with the paper. “Is she pretty?”
“Pretty is the wrong word.”
Desandra’s voice dropped into dangerous territory. “What is the right word?”
“Regal.” Nick grimaced and held out his hand. “I need the paper back.”
“No.” Desandra held the paper out of his reach and sniffed it again. “I like smelling it.”
My magic gave me an affinity to horses, birds of prey, and wolves. They liked my scent.
“Seriously.” Nick reached for the paper.
“You can’t have it. Mine.” Desandra waved the paper and stopped abruptly, her eyes looking straight at me like two shiny moons. “Honey, where is your crossbow?”
“By the bed. Why?”
“There is an eagle in your tree.”
“I grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. We had many eagles. They sleep at night.”
Busted. I sent a mental push to Abra. Go!
The eagle took off. I tossed a handful of wolfsbane into the air, spun Tulip around, and urged her into a canter. She flew through night-soaked streets like a ghost. Wind tugged at my hair. Even if Desandra chased me, she’d have a hard time catching up, and the wolfsbane would leave her nose-blind for a couple of hours.
Ahead, Lucile Avenue dead-ended into Abernathy Boulevard. We made a right and headed north west.
An eerie howl floated on the night wind. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, an instinctual reaction coded in my genes when humans were food and we feared being eaten.
It came from the left. If Desandra had chased me and howled, it would’ve come from the right or behind us. Were there wolves guarding her? She could’ve brought a team with her. Had I blundered into a trap?
I sent my magic out in a pulse. It splayed out, searching, collided with bodies, and I felt them, wolves, running fast through the ruined houses on my right. One, two…
A second group, on the left, gliding through the overgrown wood that used to be Westview Cemetery. Three more, all larger than a wild wolf had a right to be.
Another howl rose, a vicious song of hunt, a promise of sharp fangs and swift death. A second howl answered. The pack was closing in.
Tulip neighed, more outrage than fear, and broke into gallop. We thundered up the deserted street past the husks of abandoned homes. The wolves sang again. Ice rolled down my spine. This wasn’t a pretend chase. I was being hunted.
A new presence came in from the right, moving fast on the edge of my magic. It lashed my senses like a knife, emanating power. Not Desandra. Something else. Something savage, something more… Moving way too fast.
Tulip screamed in alarm.
The presence tore through the field of my magic like a dagger.
We had to get clear.
We rounded the curve. Ahead, something blocked the road. The moon peeked through the clouds. An overturned semi, flanked by a bunch of smashed cars.
Wolves burst from the woods behind me.
Forest on the left, semi in front. Turning right, toward East I-20, was my only option. I swung Tulip onto MLK Drive.
The overpass in front of me had crumbled. A hill of debris blocked the road.
A dead end. They’d run me to ground.
I let the reins go slack, so Tulip could stop on her own. She made a wide arc by the rubble, slowing, and I turned her toward the road and the cemetery on the other side, our backs to the overpass. I was done running.
No more howling. It was quiet now. The only sound was Tulip breathing hard.
Shadows congealed from the gloom between the trees on the other side. Slowly, paw over paw, the wolves padded out into the open. Three from the woods, two from the left, coming from Abernathy. Two grey Eurasians, one white Arctic, and the other two grey sprinkled with cinnamon – Timbers. Every single one was over two hundred pounds. Five pairs of glowing eyes stared at me.
Tulip bared her teeth.
The odds weren’t in my favor. With the magic up, I could take them, but then the Pack would come after me in force.
A huge shape leaped from the roof of a brick building on the left and landed in front of the pack. Magic screamed a warning in my head.
A beast. A massive grey monster, bigger than any lupine shapeshifter I had ever seen. He was almost as big as Dad and Dad was a fucking prehistoric lion.
Two golden eyes focused on me, their gaze pinning me in place. Suddenly it was hard to breathe. My body locked up, convinced that I was prey. The Alpha stare.
I stared right back. Holding his gaze was like trying to lift a car.
The moon tore through the clouds, spilling pale light onto the intersection. It slid over the giant wolf’s fur, setting it aglow. He wasn’t grey. He was silver. Unnaturally silver.
I blinked, bringing my magic vision up. A faint mint green rippled over his coat. Fuck.
The wolf took a step forward, bathed in moonlight.
My hands went cold. A bitter metallic taste coated my tongue. I blinked the magic colors away and reached for my bow, attached to Tulip’s saddle.
I raised my bow. Everything came into crystal clear focus. My breathing was deep and even. The world shrank down to three things: the wolf, my bow, and the distance between us.
A third step.
I plucked an arrow from the quiver.
His black lips stretched, showing me a forest of fangs.
Keep smiling. You’ll look really funny with an arrow sticking out of your mouth.
His silver fur tore. In an instant, bone melted like wax, reshaping itself, muscles stretched, snapping over the new frame, and human skin sheathed the new form. A man with golden eyes stared at me, tall, broad shouldered, corded with muscle. The moonlight played over his face, highlighting the network of thin scars.
My heart stopped. It couldn’t have, because I would’ve died, but it felt like it had.
His eyes were ice-cold. He looked at me as if this was his land and I’d trespassed.
Derek opened his mouth.
I had to run. Now, before I heard his voice.
I sent a mental scream to Tulip. Go!
The magic command whipped Tulip into motion. She reared, pawing the ground. A faint outline of a horn shimmered on her forehead. Tulip spun, surged toward the rubble, leaped, landing on the broken concrete like a gazelle, and dashed over the fallen overpass. For a moment we went airborne and then we were galloping down the road at a breakneck speed into the night.