"Hello?" Adam's voice was brisk.
"It's been nearly a week," I said. " Littleton 's not coming after me-he's busy playing games with Warren and Stefan." Warren had kept me more or less updated on the hunt for the vampire-sorcerer, such as it was. Somehow Littleton was always a step ahead of them. "Call off the bodyguards."
There was a little silence on the other end of the phone line, then Adam said, "No. We're not discussing this over the phone. If you want to talk to me, you come over and talk to me. Wear something to spar in, I'll be working out in the garage." Then he hung up.
"How about some different bodyguards?" I asked the phone plaintively. "Someone I actually get along with shouldn't be too much to ask."
I set the phone down and glared at it. "Fine. I'll just deal with her."
When I got home from work the next day, I grimly put on my gi and called him again. "You win," I said.
"I'll meet you in my garage." To his credit, he didn't sound smug-proof that Adam is a man of tremendous self-control.
As I trudged across my back field, I told myself it was stupid to be so worried about talking to him. He was hardly likely to jump my bones without permission. All I had to do is keep this on a business setting.
I found Adam practicing high kicks on a sandbag in the dojo he'd made out of half of his garage, complete with a wall of mirrors, padded floor, and air-conditioning. His kicks were picture perfect-mine would be too if I'd been practicing them for thirty or forty years. Maybe.
He finished his reps, then came up to me and touched the side of my face. His scent, stronger for his exercise, enveloped me; I had to fight not to press my head against his hand.
"How's the head?" he asked. The bruises had faded a bit, enough that customers didn't look embarrassed when they saw me.
"Fine." This morning was the first time I'd woken up without a splitting headache.
"All right." He walked away from me, out to the middle of the padded floor. "Spar with me a bit."
I'd been taking karate at the dojo just over the railroad tracks from my shop for a few years, but even so, I was doubtful. I am nowhere near as strong as a werewolf. But, as it turned out, he was the perfect sparring partner.
My teacher, Sensei Johanson, doesn't teach the "pretty" karate most Americans learn for exhibition and tournament. Shisei kai kan is an oddball form of karate Sensei likes to call "reach out and break someone." It was originally designed for soldiers who were facing more than one opponent. The idea is to get your attackers out of the fight as soon as possible and make sure they don't come back. I was the only woman in my class.
The biggest problem I've had is slowing down enough not to raise questions, but not so much as to allow myself to get hurt. That wasn't a problem when sparring with Adam. For the first time ever, I got to fight at full speed and I loved it.
"You're using aikido?" I asked, backing away after a brisk exchange.
Aikido is a kinder, gentler method of fighting. It can be used to break people, too, but most of the moves have a milder version. So you can lock the elbow and immobilize your opponent, or put a little more force behind it and break the joint instead.
"Running a security business with a bunch of ex-soldiers, I've found it necessary to do a little sparring once in a while. Clears the air," he said. "Aikido lets me take them down without hurting them or-before this year-advertising that I'm not exactly human anymore."
He closed with me again, grinning as he caught my strike and guided it past his shoulder. I dropped down and swept his leg, forcing him to roll away from me before he could do anything nasty. When he regained his feet, I noticed he was panting, too. I took it for the compliment it was.
Though we fought at full speed, we were both still careful about how much force we used. Werewolves heal fast, but their bones still break and a punch still hurts. If Adam hit me full force, I suspected I wouldn't get up soon, if ever.
"You wanted me to pull the guards I set on you?" Adam asked in the middle of a quick exchange of soft-blocked punches.
"The sorcerer thinks I am a coyote," I explained impatiently. "He's not going to come looking for me."
I landed a blow that forced him off balance, but didn't fall into the trap of getting too close to him. Grappling with a werewolf is really stupid-particularly one trained in aikido.
"Look, I didn't mind Warren or Mary Jo. Mary Jo even knows one end of a wrench from another and helped out. But Honey... doesn't her mate desperately need her to sit and be pretty for his customers?"
Honey's mate-and-husband was a plumbing contractor, Peter Jorgenson. He was a wiry, homely, quiet man who did more work in an hour than most people did in their entire lives. Despite being a bimbo with no appreciation for anything except what she could see in a mirror, Honey loved her husband. Though when she said so, she always prefaced it with how she didn't care that-unlike herself-he wasn't a dominant wolf. Not that she ever talked to me: she didn't like me any more than I liked her.
"Peter follows my orders," Adam told me.
Adam was Alpha, so Peter followed his orders. Honey was Peter's wife, so Peter gave her orders-which she followed. Male werewolves treat their mates like beloved slaves. The thought set my back up.
It wasn't Adam's or Peter's fault that werewolves had yet to come out of the Stone Age. Really. It was just a good thing I wasn't a werewolf or there would be a slave rebellion.
I aimed a kick at Adam's knee that he caught and used to drag me forward and off balance. Then he did something complicated and I ended up face down on the mat twisted like a pretzel while he held me there with one hand and a knee.
He smelled like the forest at night.
I slapped the mat quickly and he let me up.
"Adam. Close your eyes and envision Honey in my shop. She wore three-inch heels today." The thought of her was like a dash of cold water in my face-which I needed.
He laughed. "Out of place, was she?"
"She spent the whole day standing up because she didn't want to risk staining her skirt on any of my chairs. Gabriel has a crush on her." I frowned at him when he laughed again. "Gabriel is a sixteen-and-a-half-year-old male. If his mother finds out he's flirting with a werewolf, she'll quit letting him work at the shop."
"She won't find out Honey is a werewolf. Honey isn't out yet. And Honey's used to male attention, she won't take Gabriel seriously," Adam said, as if that was the point.
" I know that, Gabriel knows that-his mother won't care. And she will find out. That's just the way my luck runs. If Gabriel leaves, I'll have to do my own paperwork." I hadn't meant to whine, but I hated paperwork and it hated me back.
Sylvia, Gabriel's mother, had just found out that Zee was fae. She'd been okay with that, because she already knew and liked Zee when she found out. But I doubted she'd be so accommodating about werewolves, especially pretty female werewolves who might be after her boy.
"I don't want to lose Gabriel just because you're paranoid. No more guards, Adam. It's not like Honey would be much of a defense anyway."
He sighed unhappily. "Stefan is hunting out this sorcerer full-time. With Warren, Ben, and a few other wolves helping him, it shouldn't be too much longer before they take care of him and you're free. As far as Honey's suitability as a guard goes-she fights mean. She's taken Darryl down a time or two in training." Most packs don't have "training." Sometimes Adam's background as a soldier really shows. "If Honey weren't a woman she'd be someone's second or third."
I wasn't surprised that Honey fought mean. I was a little surprised she fought well enough to take down Darryl, even a time or two. As second, he'd have had plenty of experience in real fights, not just training.
I knew why Adam was only sending female guards-for the same reason he sent Warren and Ben to accompany me to the seethe. Warren wouldn't make sexual overtures toward me because he wasn't interested-and Adam knew how much I disliked Ben.
Werewolves are very territorial. Since, supposedly for my protection, Adam had claimed me as his mate before the pack, I was his territory. As far as the pack was concerned, Adam's word was law. Just because I hadn't agreed, didn't change what the pack took as truth. Adam had managed to come to some agreement about it with Samuel. I didn't really want to know what it was because it would only tick me off.
So I got Honey because Mary Jo was working twenty-four hour shifts at the fire department and Darryl's mate
Auriele, the only other female in Adam's pack, was in Ellensburg taking a class to keep up her teaching certification. Complaining about Honey wasn't going to get me a different guard-there wasn't anyone else Adam could send.
" Littleton is a vampire," I said, trying to infuse a little logic into the situation. "He's not going to attack during the daytime. I could make sure to be home before dark until he's caught. He can't get into my home unless I invite him. Not that he would, since he has no reason to think I was anything but a prop for Stefan's costume."
"I had a talk with the Marrok about sorcerers," said Adam gently. "He's the one who told me to put a guard on you, day and night. No one knows what kind of monster a demon-ridden vampire is going to be, he said."
"I know that," I snapped-if Bran had ordered me guarded, I was doomed. Adam knew it, too.
" Elizaveta told me you called her and asked about sorcerers," he said.
"Yeah, well, you should be happy. All she told me was that you had given her orders not to tell me anything." Which wasn't exactly true.
What the witch had said was, " Adamya says you are to leave it alone. He is a smart man, that one. Let the wolves hunt this sorcerer, Mercedes Thompson. A coyote is no match for a demon."
"Warren and Stefan will take care of Littleton," Adam said. There was sympathy in his voice. He could afford to be sympathetic because he knew he'd robbed me of any chance of argument.
"Stefan and Warren are both out hunting tigers with slingshots," I told him. "Maybe they'll get a lucky hit, and maybe the tiger will turn and kill them both-while Honey wears white slacks and watches me tune up cars."
I walked over to one of the hanging sandbags and began practicing punches. I hadn't intended to say that, hadn't realized how worried I was. Adam could be confident, but he hadn't been in the same room with that thing.
"Mercy," Adam said after watching me a while.
I switched to sidekicks.
"A screwdriver is a very useful tool, but you don't use it when what you need is a blowtorch," he said. "I know you are frustrated. I know you want to be in on the kill after what you saw Littleton do. But if you went out with them, someone would get killed trying to protect you."
"Don't you think I know that?" I snapped. It was scary that he knew me well enough to understand it was waiting while others went after Littleton that bothered me the most. I stopped kicking and stared at the swinging black bag, fighting the urge to kick Adam instead.
I could change into a coyote. I was faster than a human. I was partially immune to some of the vampire's magics, but I wasn't even sure which ones. That was the extent of my preternatural abilities. It wasn't enough to go after Littleton.
If I'd been able to break the harness that night, the sorcerer would have killed me. I knew that, but it didn't diminish the guilt I felt for watching the maid struggle alone. I wanted to go after the sorcerer myself.
I wanted to feel his neck under my fangs and taste his blood. I took a deep shuddering breath. What I really wanted, what I hungered for, was to kill that smiling, cadaverous son of a bitch.
" Elizaveta won't go after him," Adam said. "Demons apparently have an odd effect on witchcraft. You're not the only one sitting on the sidelines."
"You know, today one of the TV stations interviewed the sister of the man the vampires framed for the murders." I kicked the sandbag twice. "She cried. She admitted that her brother had been having marital problems, but she'd never imagined he would do something like this." I kicked again, grunting with the effort. "You know why she'd never imagined it? Because the poor bastard didn't do anything except be in the wrong place at the wrong damn time."
"None of us can afford for the vampires to come out now," Adam said.
I could tell the lies bothered him, too. Adam was a straightforward person-but he understood necessity. So did I. That didn't mean I had to like it.
"I know the vampires have to hide their presence," I told the sandbag. "I know people aren't ready to find out about all the things that hide in the darkness. I understand keeping them hidden saves us all from mass hysteria that would lead to a lot more people dying. But... that trucker-you remember, the one who was set up as the murderer-he had kids. They'll have to grow up with the idea that their father killed their mother." I'd written down their names. Someday, when it was safe, I'd see they knew the truth.
Their pain, the murders, and every time I woke up with the memory of the smell of the poor woman's death, and the sound of Littleton's taunting laugh, all of those things were on the sorcerer's account. I wanted to be on the collection committee.
"He played with her." I sent the bag swinging with a roundhouse, my best kick, hoping if I spoke the worst of that night, it would stay out of my dreams. "I bet she knew that he'd already killed those other people. I bet she knew he was going to kill her. He tortured her, cutting her a little at a time so that it would take her longer to die."
"Mercy," Adam's voice was a purr, ready to offer comfort, but I wasn't going to fall down that hole. Everything meant too much to werewolves, and too little. If I let Adam comfort me, he could, and probably would, take it as an admission that I acknowledged him as my leader-maybe as my mate. It wasn't his fault, werewolf instincts are very strong. Samuel was safer, though he was a powerful dominant, because he wasn't Alpha of a pack.
Being Alpha was more than dominant. There is magic in the bindings of a pack that gives power to their leader, he can draw on their strength and give some of it back to them. I'd seen Adam's pack heal him and give him the power to force his dominion on another group of werewolves.
Being Alpha also gives a wolf the need to protect-and control-everyone they believe falls under their command. I didn't. But Adam had declared me his mate so he disagreed with me. I couldn't afford to soften my position at all.
I backed up the length of the garage, then ran hard toward the bag. A jumping, spinning back-kick is one of those moves that my sensei said had one purpose-to intimidate. Sure, if it hit, the kick was devastating, but any martial artist who was any good wouldn't allow one to hit because flashy kicks are too slow. Usually.
I launched as hard as I could, spinning fast enough to leave me dizzy. The heel of my foot caught the bag just below the top edge, as it was supposed to. If the sandbag had been a person I'd have broken his neck. I might even have landed on my feet.
The chain that suspended the bag kept it from falling back the way a person would have, and I hadn't expected the force I generated: I landed bruisingly hard on my butt.
I lay back quickly, flat on the floor, but Adam caught the bag before it could swing back and hit me. He whistled softly as sand started sifting down from a small tear in the seam of the bag. "Nice kick."
"Adam," I said staring up at the ceiling, "he saved her for dessert."
"What? Saved whom?"
"The maid. Littleton saved her like a kid hoarding his chocolate Easter bunny. He put the maid in the bathroom, out of sight, because he didn't want to kill her too soon. He was waiting for Stefan." There were other reasons he could have stashed her in the bathroom-like he'd fed already on the other people he'd killed-but there had been something in his face when he'd brought her out that had said, "at last."
"Was he waiting for Stefan in particular? Or for whoever Marsilia sent?" asked Adam, seeing the important part of it before I did.
I thought of how much Littleton seemed to know about Stefan, intimate things, though Stefan had never met him. But it was more than what he'd said that made me certain, it was the way he'd seemed so pleased-as if everything was happening as expected.
"For Stefan," I said, then continued to the obvious question. "I wonder who told him Stefan was coming?"
"I'll call Warren and tell him you think someone told Littleton Stefan was coming for him," Adam said. "Stefan will have a better idea how Littleton might have found out, and if it means he has a traitor in his camp."
I stayed where I was while Adam got the phone off the wall and began punching buttons.
We'd spent years as adversaries, two predators sharing territory and a certain, unwelcome attraction. Somehow, during all those years I spent outwardly acquiescing to his demands while making sure I held my own, I'd won his respect. I'd had werewolves love me and hate me, but I'd never had one respect me before. Not even Samuel.
Adam respected me enough to act on my suspicions. It meant a lot.
I closed my eyes and let the flow of his voice surround me and drive away the frustration. Adam was right. I wasn't suited for going after a vampire, any vampire, and certainly not one aided by a demon. I'd just have to be satisfied when Warren or Stefan did it. If Ben killed Littleton, though... I didn't know if that would satisfy me. I hated to owe Ben any more than I already did.
Adam hung up the phone. I heard the quiet sound of his feet walking toward me on the padded floor, and the hiss as the mat gave way when he sat beside me. After a moment he untied the top of my gi and pulled it off, leaving me in my T-shirt and white gi pants. I let him do it.
"Passive isn't like you," he said.
I growled at him, though I didn't open my eyes. "Shut up. I'm wallowing in misery, here. Have a little respect."
He laughed and rolled me over until my face was pressed into the sweat-scented mat. His hands were warm and strong as they dug into the tense muscles of my lower back. When he dug into my shoulders, I went boneless.
At first he was all business, finding the knots left by sleepless nights and days of physically demanding work. Then his hands softened and the brisk rubs became light caresses.
"You smell like burnt oil and WD-40," he said, a smile in his voice.
"So plug your nose," I retorted. To my dismay, it came out with more sugar than vinegar.
I was so easy. One back rub and I was his. My susceptibility to him was the reason I'd been avoiding him. Somehow, lying on my face with his hands on my back, it didn't seem like a good enough reason.
He didn't smell of burnt oil, but of forest, wolf, and that exotic wild scent that belonged only to him. His hands slipped under my tee and spread wide over my lower back then feathered over my bra strap. I could have told him that sports bras don't have clasps, but then I'd have to take an active part in my own seduction. I wanted him to be the aggressor-a small part of me, the very small part of me that wasn't turning to jelly under his hands, wondered why.
I didn't want to delegate responsibility, I decided lazily. I was more than willing to accept responsibility for my own actions-and allowing him to slide his warm, calloused hands into my hair was certainly an action on my part. I loved a man's hands in my hair, I decided. I loved Adam's hands.
He bit the nape of my neck and I moaned.
The door between the garage and the house popped open suddenly. "Hey Dad, hey Mercy."
Ice water couldn't have been more effective.
The hands on my butt stilled as Adam's daughter's quick steps paused. I opened my eyes and met her gaze. She'd changed her hairstyle since last time I'd seen her, going from startling to even more startling. It was no more than a half-inch long and yellow-not blond yellow, but daffodil yellow. The effect was charming, but a little bizarre. Not what a rescuer ought to look like.
Her face went blank as she realized what she'd interrupted. "I'll, uh, go upstairs and watch a show," she said, not sounding like herself at all.
I scooted out from under Adam. "And Jesse saves the day," I said lightly. "Thank you, that was getting out of hand."
She paused, looking-surprised.
I wondered uncharitably how many times she'd walked in on her mother in similar situations and what her mother's response had been. I never had liked Jesse's mother and was happy to believe all sorts of evil about her. I let anger at the games her mother might have played surround me. When you've lived with werewolves, you learn tricks to hide what you're feeling from them-anger, for instance, covers up panic pretty well-and, out from under Adam's sensuous hands, I was panicking plenty.
Adam snorted. "That's one way to put it." To my relief he'd stayed where we'd been, sinking face down into the mat.
"Even with my willpower, his lure was too great," I said melodramatically, complete with wrist to forehead. If I made a joke of it, he'd never realize how truthful I was being.
A slow smile spread across her face and she quit looking like she was ready to bolt back into the house. "Dad's kind of a stud, all right."
"Jesse," warned Adam, his voice muffled only a little by the mat. She giggled.
"I have to agree," I said in overly serious tones. "Maybe as high as a seven or eight, even."
"Mercedes," Adam thundered, surging to his feet.
I winked at Jesse, held my gi top over my left shoulder with one finger, and strolled casually out the back door of the garage. I didn't mean to, but when I turned to shut the door, I looked back and saw Adam's face. His expression gave me cold chills.
He wasn't angry or hurt. He looked thoughtful, as if someone had just given him the answer to a question that had been bothering him. He knew.
I was still shaking as I gingerly climbed over the barbed wire fence between Adam's land and mine.
All my life I'd blended in with those around me. It is the gift of the coyote. It's what helps us survive.
I learned early how to imitate the wolves. I played by their rules as long as they did. If they pushed it beyond reasonable limits because they thought I was less than they, being coyote rather than wolf, or because they were jealous that I did not have to heed the moon's call, then all bets were off. I played my strengths to their weaknesses. I lied with my body and eyes, licking their boots-then tormenting them in whatever way I could come up with.
Wolf etiquette had become a game to me, a game with rules I understood. I thought I was immune to the stupid dominance/submission thing, immune to the Alpha's power. I'd just had a very visceral lesson that I was not. I didn't like it. Not at all.
If Jesse hadn't come in, I would have surrendered myself to Adam, like some heroine from a 1970s series romance, the kind my foster mother used to read all the time. Ick.
I walked across my back field until I stood beside the decrepit Rabbit that served as my parts car, as well as my means of getting back at Adam when he got too dictatorial. If he looked out his back window, it sat right in the center of his field of view.
I'd pushed it out of the garage several years ago when Adam had complained about my mobile home spoiling his view. Then, every time he bothered me, I made it uglier. Right now it was missing three wheels and the rear bumper, all stored safely in my garage. Big red letters across the hood said for a good time call followed by Adam's phone number. The graffiti had been Jesse's suggestion.
I dropped down in the dirt beside the Rabbit and leaned my head against the fender, trying to figure out why I'd suddenly been overwhelmed with the desire to submit to Adam. Why hadn't I felt like this before-or had that been why I'd run so hard? I tried to think back, but all I remembered was worrying about getting so involved with another werewolf.
Could he have made me submit to him on purpose? Was it physiological or parapsychological, science or magic? If I knew it was going to happen, could I resist it?
Who could I ask?
I looked at the car parked in the driveway. Samuel was home from his shift at the ER.
Samuel would know, if anyone did. I'd just have to figure out how to ask him. It was a testimony to how shaken up I was that I got to my feet and headed home with the intention of asking one werewolf, who had made it plain that he was only waiting to make his move on me, about the way another werewolf had made me desire him. I'm not usually that dumb.
I was already beginning to have doubts about the wisdom of my plans by the time I reached the front porch. I opened the door and was met by a frigid blast of air.
My old wall unit had been able to keep my bedroom about ten degrees cooler than the outside, which was all right with me. I like hot weather, but most of the wolves had trouble with it, which is why Samuel had installed the new heat pump and paid for it. A considerate roommate, he usually left the temperature where I set it.
I took a look at the thermostat and saw that Samuel had punched it down as far as it would go. It wasn't forty-two degrees inside, but it was trying. Pretty decent effort considering it was over a hundred degrees outside and my trailer had been built in 1978 before the days of manufactured homes with good insulation. I turned it to a more reasonable temperature.
"Samuel? Why'd you turn the temperature down so low?" I called, dropping my gi top on the couch.
There was no reply, though he had to have heard me. I walked through the kitchen area and into the hallway. Samuel's door was mostly shut, but he hadn't closed it all the way.
"Samuel?" I touched the door and it opened a foot or so, just enough that I could see Samuel stretched out on his bed, still in his hospital scrubs and smelling of cleanser and blood.
He had his arm over his eyes.
"Samuel?" I paused in the doorway to give my nose a chance to tell me what he was feeling. But I couldn't smell the usual suspects. He wasn't angry, or frightened. There was something... he smelled of pain.
"Samuel, are you all right?"
"You smell like Adam." He took his arm down and looked at me with wolf eyes, pale as snow and ringed in ebony.
Samuel isn't here today, I thought, trying not to panic or do any other stupid thing. I had played with Samuel's wolf as a child, along with all the other children in Aspen Springs. I hadn't realized how dangerous that would have been with any other wolf until I was much older. I would have felt better now, if those wolf eyes had been in the wolf body. Wolf eyes on a human face meant the wolf was in charge.
I'd seen new wolves lose control. If they did it very often, they were eliminated for the sake of the pack and everyone who came in contact with them. I'd only seen Samuel lose control once before-and that was after a vampire attack.
I sank down on the floor, making certain my head was lower than his. It was always an interesting feeling, making myself helpless in front of someone who might tear my throat out. Come to think of it, the last time I'd done this it had been with Samuel, too. At least I was acting out of self-preservation, not some buried compulsion to submit to a dominant wolf-I was faking it, not submitting because of some damn buried instinct.
After I told myself that, I realized it was true. I had no desire to cower before Samuel. Under other, less worrisome circumstances, I'd have been cheered up.
"Sorry," Samuel whispered, putting his arm back over his eyes. "Bad day. There was an accident on 240 near where the old Y interchange was. Couple of kids in one car, eighteen and nineteen years old. Mother with an infant in the other. All of them still in critical condition. Maybe they'll make it."
He'd been a doctor for a very long time. I didn't know what had set him off with this accident in particular. I made an encouraging sound.
"There was a lot of blood," he said at last. "The baby got pretty cut up from the glass, took thirty stitches to plug the leaks. One of the ER nurses is new, just graduated from the community college. She had to leave in the middle-afterward she asked me how I learned to manage so well when the victims were babies." His voice darkened with bitterness that I'd seldom heard from him before as he continued, "I almost told her that I'd seen worse-and eaten them, too. The baby would have only been a snack."
I could have left, then. Samuel had enough control left not to come after me-probably. But I couldn't leave him like that.
I crawled cautiously across the floor, watching him for a twitch of muscle that would tell me he was ready to pounce. Slowly I raised my hand up until it touched his. He didn't react at all.
If he'd been a new wolf, I'd have known what to say. But helping new wolves through this kind of situation had been one of Samuel's jobs in the pack I'd grown up in. There was nothing I could say that he didn't already know.
"The wolf is a practical beast," I told him, finally, thinking it might have been the thought of eating the baby that bothered him so much. "You're more careful what you eat. You aren't likely to pounce on the operating table and eat someone if you aren't hungry." It was almost word for word the speech I'd heard him use with the new wolves.
"I'm so tired," he said, raising the hair on the back of my neck. "Too tired. I think it is time to rest." He wasn't talking about physically.
Werewolves aren't immortal, just immune to age. But time is their enemy anyway. After just so long, one wolf told me, nothing matters anymore and death looks better than living another day. Samuel was very old.
The Marrok, Samuel's father, had taken to calling me once a month to "check on things," he said. For the first time it occurred to me that he hadn't been checking on me, but on his son.
"How long have you felt this way?" I asked, inching my way up onto his bed, slowly so I didn't startle him. "Did you leave Montana because you couldn't hide this from Bran?"
"No. I want you," he said starkly moving his arm so I could see that his eyes had changed back to human grey-blue.
"Do you?" I asked, knowing that it wasn't completely true. "Your wolf might still want me, but I don't think you do. Why did you leave the Marrok to come here?"
He rolled away, giving his back to me. I didn't move, careful not to crowd him. I didn't back away either, just waited for his answer.
Eventually it came. "It was bad. After Texas. But when you came back to us, it went away. I was fine. Until the baby."
"Did you talk to Bran about it?" Whatever it was. I put my face against the small of his back, warming him with my breath. Samuel would see suicide as cowardice, I tried to reassure myself, and Samuel hated cowards. I might not want to love Samuel-not after the way we'd once hurt each other-but I didn't want to lose him either.
"The Marrok knows," he whispered. "He always does. Everyone else believed I was the same, just like always. My father knew something was wrong, that I wasn't right. I was going to leave-but then you came."
If Bran couldn't fix him, what was I supposed to do?
"You left the pack for a long time," I said, feeling my way. He'd left the pack shortly after I had, over fifteen years ago. He'd stayed away for most of those fifteen years. "Bran told me you went lone-wolf in Texas." Wolves need their pack, or else they start to get a little strange. Lone wolves were, in general, an odd bunch, dangerous to themselves and others.
"Yes." Every muscle in his body tensed, waiting for the blow to fall. I decided that meant I was on the right track.
"It's not easy being alone, not for years." I scooted up a little until I could wrap myself around him, tucking my legs behind his. I slipped the arm I wasn't lying on around his side and pressed my hand over his stomach, showing him that he wasn't alone, not while he lived at my house.
He started to shake, vibrating the whole bed. I tightened my arm, but I didn't say anything! I'd gone as far as I was willing to go. Some wounds need to be pricked so they can drain, others just need to be left alone-I wasn't qualified to know the difference.
He wrapped both of his arms over the top of mine. "I hid myself from the wolves. I hid among the humans." He paused. "Hid from myself. What I did to you was wrong, Mercedes. I told myself I couldn't wait, I couldn't take the chance that another would take you from me. I had to make you mine so my children would live, but I knew I was taking advantage of you. You weren't old enough to defend yourself from me."
I rubbed my nose against his back in reassurance, but I didn't speak. He was right, and I respected him too much to lie.
"I violated your trust, and my father's, too. I couldn't live with it: I had to leave. I traveled to the far corner of the country and became someone else: Samuel Cornick, college freshman, fresh off the farm with a newly minted high school diploma. Only on the night of the full moon did I allow myself to remember what I was."
The muscles under my hands convulsed twice. "In med school, I met a girl. She reminded me of you: quiet with a sneaky sense of humor. She looked a little like you, too. It felt like a second chance to me-a chance to do it right. Or maybe I just forgot. We were friends at first, in the same program at school. Then it became something more. We moved in together."
I knew what was coming, because it was the worst thing I could think of that could have happened to Samuel. I could smell his tears, though his voice was carefully even.
"We took precautions, but we weren't careful enough. She got pregnant." His voice was stark. "We were doing our internships. We were so busy we hardly had time to say 'hello' to each other. She didn't notice until she was nearly three months pregnant because she assumed that the symptoms were from stress. I was so happy."
Samuel loved children. Somewhere I had a picture of him wearing a baseball cap with Elise Smithers, age five, riding him as if he had been a pony. He'd thrown away everything he believed in because he thought I, unlike a human or werewolf, could give him children who would live.
I tried not to let him know I was crying, too.
"We were doing internships." He was speaking quietly now. "It's time consuming and stressful. Long irregular hours. I was working with an orthopedic surgeon, nearly a two hour drive from our apartment. I came home one night and found a note."
I hugged him harder, as if I could have stopped what happened.
"A baby would have interfered with her schooling," he said. "We could try again, later. After... after she was established. After there was money. After..." He kept talking but he'd dropped into a foreign tongue, its liquid tone conveying his anguish better than the English words had.
The curse of a long life is that everyone around you dies. You have to be strong to survive, and stronger to want to do so. Bran had told me once that Samuel had seen too many of his children die.
"That infant tonight..."
"He'll live," I said. "Because of you. He'll grow up strong and healthy."
"I lived like a student should, Mercy," he told me. "Pretending to be poor like all the other students. I wonder if she knew that I had money, would she still have killed my baby? I would have quit school to take care of the child. Was it my fault?"
Samuel curled his whole body around my arm as if someone had punched him in the stomach. I just held him.
There was nothing I could say to make it better. He knew better than I what the chances of his baby being born healthy had been. It didn't matter, his child had never gotten any chance at all.
I held Samuel while the sun set, comforting him as best I could.