Wren felt as if he were caught in a vicious nightmare as he looked around a room that he hadn't seen in over twenty years. Hell, he hadn't even really remembered what it looked like. He'd only seen the room a time or two in his youth, and even then only briefly.
He flinched as he remembered the sight of his father lying dead on the floor between the bed and door.
Shaking the image off, Wren glanced around. The room was the height of high-tech, 1980s fashion, done in dark blues and greens, with a king-sized water bed. Abstract art hung on the walls along with the skin of a tiger his father must have killed. It was a common Katagaria trait to mount their first kill as a reminder of their prowess and a warning to any other animal who might want to tangle with them.
By the size of the skin and the wound marks on it, Wren could tell his father must have had one hell of a fight on his hands at the time. But the important thing was that his father had survived while the other beast had perished.
His heart hammering, Wren walked slowly to the open windows to see the bustling traffic that ran behind his father's carefully guarded estate.
"Is this the house that was burned down?" Maggie asked.
Wren nodded slowly, wondering again who had set the fire and when. "We have to get out of here before someone sees us. My father tended to eat trespassers, and I don't want to prove my uncle right by being the one who kills my father when he attacks us by mistake."
She shook her head at him. "We have to find evidence."
"There won't be anything in here," he said simply. "My mother wasn't that stupid."
Suddenly, there were voices outside in the hallway that seemed to be coming nearer to their room. It was definitely a man and a woman...
And they were fighting.
Wren grabbed Maggie and pulled her into an extremely large closet that appeared to only have his father's clothes in it. He briefly considered flashing them out of the house with his powers, but since he didn't really remember the layout of the place or the schedule of the staff or his parents, he could end up reappearing right in front of himself as a cub or his father.
Both of those could be disastrous.
For the time being, the best thing would be to stay here and wait until he got a better grasp on the situation.
He heard the bedroom door open and then slam shut.
He went cold as he recognized his mother's angry tone. There was a harsh brittleness to her voice that was unmistakable even after all these years of not being subjected to it.
"Why have you called me back from Asia, Aristotle? I need to run wild for a while."
His father gave a dark laugh. "You've been running wild for too long now, Karina. It was long past time for you to come home."
"Why?" She slammed something down.
"I've learned some interesting things about Wren. As his mother-"
Something shattered. "Don't you dare start that. I gave you your heir that you stupidly accepted. You have no further need of me."
He heard his father's voice deepen. "You need to see what Wren can do."
"So it can change into a human now," she said in a bored, sarcastic tone. "Well, la-di-da. It's long past time for it to start changing. I told you it was retarded."
Marguerite drew her breath in sharply at those harsh words. She saw the pain on Wren's face that he tried to hide and felt rage consume her. Honestly, she wanted to kick open the door and beat his mother for her cruelty.
How could anyone say such a thing about a child she'd birthed?
"Don't you dare walk out of here, Karina," his father growled.
Marguerite heard cold laughter from Wren's mother. "I'm not one of your people you command, Ari. Nor am I your bitch. I don't have to listen to you."
"Fine. But just so you know, I changed my will while you were gone."
Dead silence came from the bedroom for several heartbeats.
"You did what?" Karina finally screeched in a tone that should have shattered glass. As it was, Marguerite was rather certain her eardrums would never be the same again.
"You heard me." Wren's father's voice was cold and emotionless. "I'm sick of you catting around and flaunting it in my face while I pay your bills. I know about your leopard lover and I know he came back here with you. Fine. I set up a separate residence for you in New Jersey."
"New Jersey?" she snarled. "Are you insane?"
"No, I'm pissed. If you think I like the fact that the Fates damned me to mating with you, you're wrong. You are my mate by their decree and yet you won't let me touch you. I am damned to celibacy while you whore around with any leopard male who comes near you. Yet you expect me to keep you up. Dream on, my love. Your days of freeloading are over."
"You owe me," Karina said from between clenched teeth. "I didn't ask to be your mate any more than I asked to give birth to a mutant abomination. If you were really a tiger, you would have killed that thing when it was born instead of stopping me from doing what was necessary to preserve our species."
"Wren is my son."
"You human," Karina sneered in a way that said "human" was the worst insult she could imagine.
"Yes," his father said angrily, "and like a human, I've made Wren my sole heir. If something happens to me, your entire future rests in his hands. So if I were you, I'd be praying that he's more human than animal. Maybe he'll take some mercy on you. But I wouldn't count on it."
"Yeah, and before you tear the house apart looking for the will to destroy it, it's already on file with the Laurens firm in New Orleans."
"I hate you!"
His father's response was immediate and filled with the same scathing hatred. "The feeling is entirely mutual. Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go spend some time with my son. When I come back to this room, I expect you to be gone. Permanently. Taylor will drive you over to your new home, where you'll find your new checkbooks and credit cards waiting there for you. You're off all my accounts entirely and eternally."
A door closed an instant before something shattered. Marguerite could hear Karina screaming and breaking things in the room. It sounded like she was about to tear down the walls. Then Marguerite heard the sound of a feral cat roaring and hissing.
Finally, it stopped.
The sudden silence was unnerving.
Marguerite froze, half-afraid the woman would come into the closet to shred Aristotle's clothes or something.
Instead, Karina made a phone call. "Grayson?" she said in an almost reserved tone. "It's Karina. I believe you now. Aristotle has completely lost his mind. I'm back in town. Is there someplace where we can meet and discuss what needs to be done?"
Marguerite was stunned by how rational Wren's mother sounded while speaking on the phone. It was hard to believe this was the woman tearing the house down only a few heartbeats before.
His poor father for having to tolerate such a volatile beast. Marguerite was just grateful that Wren hadn't inherited his mother's personality.
There was a brief pause. "Yes, I know where that is. Three o'clock. I'll see you then."
Then Marguerite heard Karina hang up the phone and leave the room.
Marguerite turned to Wren, unable to believe what had happened over the last few minutes. "I think your mother and my father should have married each other."
There was no trace of amusement on Wren's face.
"I'm sorry, Wren," Marguerite said, feeling instantly contrite. How could he find humor in the fact that his mother was a vicious cur who was about to murder his father? A cur who had practically ruined his life. "But at least you know your father did love you."
"That's what hurts," Wren said in a low whisper. "I keep thinking that if only he'd lived... My life would have been so different."
She hugged him as she felt for his pain. "I know. I spent a long time hating my mother because she left me. At least your dad didn't go by choice."
Wren's eyes flared at that. "No, he didn't." He gave her a harsh stare. "Thank you."
She was completely baffled by his words. "For what?"
"For making me come back here." There was a grim determination that burned brightly in his eyes. "I was happy to let them get away with what they did to me and my parents. You were right. There is more human in me than I thought. 'Cause right now I want revenge, and I'm not leaving here until I get it."
"So what do we do?"
He glanced away as an angry tic beat furiously in his jaw. "First thing, we have to make sure that we don't alter anything here in this time period. We need to try and stay away from anyone who might remember us in the future. Second, we have to make sure I don't run into myself."
She nodded in understanding. "It'll cause a paradox."
"Yes, and it would cause me to drop completely out of existence-really not a good thing for either me now or me then. But luckily, at this time and place, I'm pretty much confined to a bedroom down the hall."
He opened the closet door and peeked outside, into the bedroom. "It's clear."
She followed him back into the bedroom. "Any game plan?"
"Follow my mother. Grayson is my uncle, and since they're meeting, my money says that this is when they planned my father's murder."
That made complete sense to Marguerite. "Okay, but how do we do that?"
Marguerite gasped as her clothing changed into a bright red, ruffled shirt and a beige prairie skirt. It was an outfit very similar to some of the ones she'd seen her mother wearing in old pictures taken around the time she'd been born.
Wren grinned at her confusion as his own clothes changed to a black Izod and dark jeans. "We need to look like we belong in this time period."
"How do you do that?"
His grin widened. "It's magic."
Yeah, but his magic was starting to creep her out. It was one thing to travel through time, quite another to find herself wearing outdated clothing that was actually the height of fashion right now.
A woman could really lose her mind thinking about these things... Then again, maybe she had. Maybe all of this was nothing more than a grand hallucination...
It was certainly a possibility.
As Wren took a step toward the door, it swung open.
Time seemed to hang still as they both faced a man who was an exact, only older, copy of Wren. Dressed in an elegant black suit, the man had blond hair cropped short. His blue eyes were electrifying as he narrowed his gaze threateningly on them.
Wren wasn't sure what he should do. He could flash him and Maggie out of the room, into another part of the house, or even outside, but his father would be able to trace them and follow.
Damn, they were caught and they were screwed.
His father sniffed the air, then frowned in obvious disbelief. "Wren?"
Wren swallowed as he met Maggie's wide brown eyes. Repressed emotions tore through him. Grief, rage, but at the bottom was the part of him that had wanted to love his father.
The part of him that had wanted his father to love him.
His father moved closer to Wren with a deep scowl marking his brow. "It is you, isn't it... from the future?"
There was no need to lie. His father was far from a stupid man, and there was no other explanation for the two of them being in his house.
Double damn. This was against every rule Wren knew of time traveling... not that he knew many. Since he didn't practice jumping, he wasn't all that familiar with the laws of it.
He took a deep breath before he answered his father's question. "Yes."
"Why are you here now?" His father frowned as he looked back and forth between them. "You're not supposed to be, are you?"
As every second ticked by and nothing odd happened-like he didn't cease to exist-Wren began to wonder about that. "No... Yes... Maybe? Since I'm not dead now, I'm not sure anymore. If I wasn't supposed to be here, wouldn't I have died when you came through the door?"
His father let out an exasperated sigh. "You still haven't mastered your powers?"
Anger flashed deep inside him. How dare his father judge him lacking? He wasn't a callow cub anymore. He was an adult who was more than able to take care of himself, and he resented his father thinking otherwise. "I could take you down, old man, and not blink or flinch."
His father looked at him with pride in his eyes. A slow smile curved his lips. "But you don't time jump?"
"No," he answered honestly. "I was told a long time ago that it wasn't in my best interest to learn it."
"He was raised in Sanctuary," Maggie said. "There are a lot of people who want Wren dead."
Wren narrowed his eyes on his father in case he misunderstood Maggie's words. "Not that I've ever feared a fight or backed down from one-"
"That's the truth," Maggie inserted. "I swear he's half beta fish. He'd fight his own reflection to prove a point."
Wren ignored her interruption. "But likewise, I'm not stupid and I've never wanted to make it easy on anyone. Especially not my enemies."
There was no mistaking the pride on his father's face. "Good, boy. I'm glad to know they haven't killed you yet."
"And they're not going to."
His father looked at Maggie. "Is she your mate?"
Wren took her hand into his and squeezed it as Maggie watched him expectantly for that answer. "Not exactly... but we're working on it."
His father laughed until he sniffed the air again. He cocked his head curiously. "She's human."
Wren wrapped his arms around her as if to protect her. "You have a problem with that?"
"Not at all," his father said firmly. Sincerely. "My mother was human, too."
Wren gaped, letting Maggie know that his father had just imparted a secret to him. "Pardon?"
His father moved to lock the bedroom door as if he was afraid of someone overhearing them. "You heard correctly. It wasn't something that we ever spoke about outside of the immediate family, but yes. My mother was an Arcadian tiger." His face softened. "Hell of a woman she was, full of fire and spirit. I wish to the gods that I had been mated to a human, as opposed to the bitch I fathered you with."
Marguerite felt Wren tense around her, but she wasn't sure why. She rubbed his arm to offer him her support. Poor guy was having one hell of a day.
But then, they had come back here for answers. Even hard ones.
"I want you to know that I don't regret you," his father said, reaching out to touch Wren's shoulder. "I never did." And then his handsome face turned sad and wistful. "I take it by your presence here that I'm not around in your future."
Wren leaned his head against hers. His tenseness increased before he answered. "No."
His father winced as he dropped his hand and sighed. "Do I... Did I do right by you in the end?"
Wren didn't answer the question. Instead he asked, "What day is today?"
Marguerite gasped at the date as a chill went down her spine.
"What?" both of them asked.
"I'll be born at noon tomorrow," she said incredulously. "It's just kind of eerie, isn't it?"
Wren's father snorted. "Not in our world. You get used to such weirdness."
Wren took a deep breath while he continued to hold her close. "Three days from now, I'll be in the back of a car headed for New Orleans."
His father opened his mouth as if to say something, then snapped it shut. Emotions played across his face while the reality of his imminent death hit him.
Marguerite couldn't imagine anything worse than to know just how limited your future was. All the regrets. All the concerns. His poor father.
He sighed heavily. "I'm going to assume that I'm not the one who sends you there."
His father sat down on the edge of the bed with a sad, faraway look in his eyes. She could tell he was struggling with the news.
"I only have three more days left alive," he breathed.
"You shouldn't know that," Wren said.
"No." His father looked up at them. "If you're here, then it was meant to be."
A weird feeling went through Marguerite as she considered that. "I think he's right, Wren. Remember what you said about running into the man in the woods who took you to Sanctuary? He knew who and what you were. He knew to be there. How?"
Wren looked as perplexed as she felt.
His father frowned. "Why didn't you go to Grayson for protection? He's your guardian."
Wren shook his head. "Bill Laurens was my guardian until I came into my own."
His father scoffed at that. "Bill is a child."
"No, he's twenty-one right now, and for reasons I never understood, you made him my guardian. Bill's the one who saw to it that I was tutored in my powers and kept safe until I could protect myself."
"Grayson is the one who kills you," Marguerite told Aristotle. "He would have killed Wren, too, had Bill not been his guardian."
Wren's father snarled as he came off the bed. "That sorry sack of shit. I always knew he was a scabbing bastard." Hatred and anger burned deep in his blue eyes as he paced back and forth in the room. "I should have killed him. I should have..." His voice trailed off.
Aristotle paused as he looked back at the two of them. "Your mate is right. You were here before. You had to be. Because if you weren't, Grayson would have had full rights to you. I would never have left my only son in the hands of a human child."
Aristotle growled and cursed... and returned to pacing even faster. He definitely reminded her of a caged tiger that was ready to tear the arm off anyone who came near it. "Who runs my company after I die?"
He screwed his face up in disgust "He's an incompetent nerd."
"Yes, but he's a visionary," Wren said quietly. "In the next twenty years, he makes this company second only to Microsoft."
Disgust gave way to incredulity as his father stopped pacing again. He gaped at them. "Microsoft? Don't tell me that kid from the West Coast really got that stuff to fly?"
"Oh yeah," Marguerite said with a laugh, "Bill Gates pretty much takes over the world as we know it."
Wren's father growled again. "Damn, see what happens when you get killed before your time? Someone else dominates the market you've spent your entire life grooming. It's just not right."
"It's okay, Dad. Your company makes it on the hardware side anyway. That and the World Wide Web. Not to mention plasma TVs and cell phones."
His father's eyes burned with intensity as he locked gazes with Wren. "Not my company, cub. Your company." He wrinkled his brow as if another thought occurred to him. "What's this World Wide Web thing?"
Marguerite laughed again. "In short, money. Lots and lots of money. Especially for Tigerian Tech."
Wren's father smiled. "Good. I like money. Always have. It doesn't ever betray you, and unless someone steals it, it stays where you put it. But mostly, money keeps us safe from the outside world." The humor fled from his face as he let out a long sigh. "I guess my problem was that I wasn't looking within. I should have kept a better eye on my family."
He returned to pacing with his hands behind his back and his gaze on the floor. "So I only have three days to get everything in order." He glanced back at them. "But that doesn't explain why the two of you are here, does it?"
Marguerite stepped away from Wren. "We're both being hunted."
"Why? By whom?"
"Grayson wants to finish what he started," Wren answered. "He wants me dead so that he and his son Zack can take over the company."
"That'll be over my..." Aristotle ground his teeth. "I guess it is over my dead body."
Marguerite moved to pace beside him. She wasn't sure why, but it seemed a natural thing to do. "They framed Wren for the deaths of you and your wife."
Both of his eyebrows shot upward. "Karina dies as well?"
Wren nodded. "But not until after she kills you."
He wrinkled his nose as if that was the most disgusting thing he'd ever heard. "How the hell does that bitch kill me? There's no way she could do it."
"She had help," Marguerite said. "Her lover is here with her."
Aristotle shook his head in denial. "That worthless leopard cub? He can barely tie his own shoelaces. Never mind take me on. That's just stupid."
"I never understood it, either. But as a cub, I will hear something break in this room and I will come in here and find you dead. Mom and her lover will be in the study across the hall, laughing about it."
Still Aristotle shook his head in disbelief. "And who kills her?"
Wren shrugged. "My money says Grayson. But I don't know. When I woke up after her lover attacked me, she and her lover were dead, too. I never saw hide nor hair of who did it."
His father ran his hand over his face before he sighed wearily. His eyes were sincere as he looked at Wren. "I'm so sorry that I wasn't around for you, Son. Here I've been thinking that I would have time to make it up to you that I left you alone so much as a cub. I should never have ignored you."
She could tell exactly how much those words meant to Wren. And she was grateful that she and Wren had come back so that he could hear them.
"No," his father said sternly, "it's not. I spent all my time building a company that I won't even be around to see prosper. You must hate me."
"I never hated you, Dad. Not really."
He reached out and pulled Wren into a tight hug.
Marguerite watched the look on Wren's face as he tensed, then returned the hug. Tears welled in her eyes as she reached out and patted Wren's back.
"I love you, Wren. I'm sorry if I ever said or did anything that hurt you."
"I love you, too, Dad."
Wren pulled back and cleared his throat, but even so she could see the tears that were glistening in his eyes.
His father turned toward her. "I hope you've been taking good care of my boy."
She smiled at Wren. "I've been trying to. But he can be very difficult. He doesn't listen."
Wren rolled his eyes at her before he spoke to his father. "Karina's going to meet Grayson this afternoon. Would you keep Maggie safe while I track her?"
Marguerite growled at that. "Wren..."
"No, Maggie," he said, his voice thick and commanding. "It's better this way. It'll be easier for me to search her out alone."
Both of them ignored her.
"I'll guard her with my life," Aristotle promised.
"Wren!" she snapped.
He cupped her cheek in his warm, callused palm. "It's okay, Maggie. Really. I have to do this."
Marguerite didn't want to listen to him, but she saw the turmoil inside him. The fear he had for her. That reached down and touched her deeply.
She wouldn't be stupid. Her luck, she'd just get them caught anyway. Spying wasn't something she was good at.
For that matter, she'd been busted anytime she tried to get away with anything.
She let out a long, exasperated breath. "Don't you dare strand me here without you."
"I won't." He kissed her cheek, then vanished from in front of her.
Marguerite seethed at his actions. "I hate it when he does that."
His father laughed. "I'm glad to know he's at least mastered that trick."
"He's mastered many. I think you'd be very proud of him. He's managed to stay alive against incredible odds just since I've known him." Then she held her hand out to his father. "I'm Maggie Goudeau, by the way."
He shook her hand gently. "Pleased to meet you, Maggie. I have to say you are a beautiful companion for my boy."
Aristotle's words warmed her. At least until a weird thought went through her. "You wouldn't happen to have any old photographs of Wren, would you? I would love to know what he looked like as a young boy."
His father smiled devilishly. "I've got something even better than that for you."
She didn't understand what he meant until he led her down the long, elegant hallway to another room at the very end of it.
He opened the door, then stood back so that she could enter the darkened room first. Marguerite entered, then froze as she saw a young Wren on the other side of a two-way mirror.
"Isn't this dangerous?" she whispered.
"No." Aristotle closed the door and moved to stand right behind her. "Wren can't see, hear, or smell either of us. I had this room built a long time ago so that I could watch him without his knowing it."
She scowled. "Why?"
There was much regret and hurt deep in those turquoise eyes that reminded her so much of Wren's. "Because I have always loved my son even when he repulsed me, and I want you to make sure that he knows that. That he really understands it."
She looked at Wren, who appeared to be around the human age of thirteen or fourteen as he lay on the floor of the other room. His blond hair was long and shaggy, his body frighteningly skinny. He looked so vulnerable. So scared and unsure. Things she had never known the man Wren to be.
"How could he have ever repulsed you?" she asked Aristotle.
He indicated the window that showed Wren on his back in human form. He was completely naked and writhing as if he was in pain.
"It is the nature of animals to kill those who are weak. Those who are different. For the last twenty-five years, I let Karina's coldness color my own views of my child. Wren was born neither tiger nor leopard, but a mixture of us." His gaze burned her. "You've no idea how much of a handicap that is in our world."
He moved over to the glass, so close that she was surprised Wren couldn't see him there, staring at him. "All his life, I thought it was a deformity. I didn't know that when he hit puberty, it would be a gift. You see, as a rule, our kind can only be two things. Human and whatever animal we're born to. There's no choice in it. But Wren... he's special. He can be the tigard that he was born-"
"Or a tiger. I've seen him as a tiger."
His father nodded. "And he can be a leopard. Snow or normal. Day or night. He's not bound by the same laws that the rest of us must heed. It's an incredible gift he has. I had heard myths of such creatures. But like the fabled unicorn, I thought it was bullshit. Until I saw him."
He looked back at Wren, who was starting to tremble. "At his age now, he shouldn't be able to take human form until after dark. It's very hard for Katagaria to be humans in the daylight. I have an advantage because my mother was human. I'm able to maintain this form longer than most of my kind. For Wren to be able to take human form in the daylight at the age of twenty-five is unbelievable."
Marguerite's heart pounded as she watched Wren struggle with some unseen discomfort. "We should help him. He looks like he's in pain."
His father shook his head. "There's nothing we can do."
"Watch and see."
He left her alone in the viewing room, then entered the room with Wren.
As soon as Wren heard the doorknob turn, he shifted into the form of a tigard. He growled low in his throat as he saw his father joining him.
"Easy, Wren," his father said, crouching down. "Come here."
Wren backed up as he eyed Aristotle warily.
He moved toward Wren as he continued to back up into the corner. When his father reached out, Wren swatted him with his claws.
His father pulled back.
She could see the disappointment on his face. The more he tried to reach out to his son, the more Wren rejected him.
After a few minutes, he left.
She watched as Wren shifted back into human form. He tried to stand, but for some reason his legs buckled.
His father rejoined her.
"What's wrong with him?"
"He doesn't know how to walk or talk as a human. He's like a baby now. Everything that you learned as an infant he has to learn as an adult. If he would accept me, it would be easier to teach him. But I'm afraid we left him alone too long. He's feral. If anyone enters the room, he lashes out at them."
Marguerite wanted to go to him so badly that she ached. But she knew she couldn't-it might alter their future, and that was the last thing she wanted.
"Would you do me a favor, Maggie?"
She had no idea what Aristotle might ask, so she answered hesitantly. "I guess so."
"Tell Wren that if I could change me past, I would have kept him by my side and not locked him away."
Her heart clenched at Aristotle's words and the tragedy that would become their relationship. "It seems cruel that you can travel through time and not fix it."
He agreed. "It is cruel and it's why many of us don't jump. It's way too tempting to right the past, but every time you try-"
"You screw it up more."
Marguerite watched as Wren pulled himself by his arms across the floor into a corner. His entire body was trembling while he tried to make what seemed to be words. He reminded her so much of the Wren she had met in Sanctuary.
Withdrawn and solitary. Hurting.
Wanting something he didn't think he was allowed to have.
But the man she knew now... he was a whole other being. Wren was slowly starting to come into his own, and she hoped that maybe part of it was because of her.
His father let out a sad sigh as he watched Wren struggling. "I hope you never know what it's like to look at your child and know that you hurt him. I think back to when I was a cub how my mother would roll on the ground with me and play. She didn't care that I was an animal while she was human. She loved me regardless. Just as she loved my father. You would have thought that I'd be the same way with my own son. And now... now there's no time to apologize."
"I think you're wrong. I know Wren, and what you did while he was here... it helped more than I think either one of you realize."
Aristotle gave her an appreciative look. "I need to make sure that everything is set so that when I die, he gets to the future he's supposed to have. But first, there's one other thing I want to give him."
"And that is?"
"The future he deserves."