Marguerite slowed as she again felt the sensation of someone watching her from the shadows. She was heading down Chartres, toward Jackson Square, so that she could grab a taxi and get home before it got any later.
Looking around, she half-expected to find Wren there.
She didn't. What she found was four scruffy-looking men who were eyeing her with an unfounded interest. They were keeping to the shadows as if they didn't want her to identify them. Fear assaulted her. Their attention was just a bit too focused. A bit too intense and threatening as they made their way straight for her.
She glanced about, looking for other people, but this time of night, there weren't any around.
Not even a tour group...
It's okay. Stay in the light and keep heading forward. They won't hurt you if you stay in plain sight.
She sped up as she heard the sound of running feet.
Just as she was sure they would run past her, one of the men grabbed her and slung her into a partially opened courtyard.
Marguerite tried to push him away to run.
He slapped her hard. "Give me your purse, bitch."
She was so scared, she couldn't even think to pull it off her arm.
The other men ran into the courtyard and slammed the gate shut. One of them grabbed her bag and tore her shirt in the process of ripping it off her shoulder.
"Hey," he said to the other three. "Y'all want to have some fun with her?"
Before they could answer, the one speaking went sprawling to the ground. Someone came out of the darkness and handed the purse back to her.
Marguerite looked up at the newcomer and wanted to cry as she saw Wren there. No longer slumped, he stood at his full height... and it was commanding. Intense. There was a feral gleam in his eyes that wasn't quite sane as he put himself between her and the others. He looked as if he could easily kill everyone there and not even wince.
The men attacked.
She staggered back and watched in awe as Wren fought them off with an incredible skill. One mugger came at him with a knife. He caught the man's wrist and twisted it until it snapped and the knife fell from his hand. Then Wren backhanded the man so hard, the attacker rebounded off the wall.
Another came at Wren's back only to be flung over his head to the ground while another rushed him from behind. He hit Wren full force, but Wren didn't so much as stagger or flinch. He turned on the man and knocked him back.
Marguerite was relieved until one of the muggers pulled out a gun and aimed it at them.
Her breath caught as Wren froze.
A heartbeat later, the man fired the gun. Wren rushed him and knocked it out of his hands. The other three ran off as Wren slugged the one who'd held the gun. The man fell to the ground, then scurried away.
"Are you okay?" Marguerite asked as she ran over to Wren. "Did he shoot you?"
"I'm fine," he said, picking up the gun from the ground. He opened it up and removed the bullets before he smashed it to pieces against the old stone wall. He dropped it, then turned to look at her as he tossed the bullets into the darkness. "Did they hurt you?"
"No. Thanks to you, I'm fine." Relieved beyond belief, she was shaking so badly that she wasn't even sure how her legs could continue to hold her upright. She ached to reach out to touch him in gratitude, but there was something about him that said he didn't want to be touched.
Anger darkened his eyes as he glanced to her torn shirt. She could sense that he wanted to chase the muggers down on her behalf, and it warmed her greatly.
"I don't normally do things this stupid," she said quietly. "I tried to call a taxi on my cell phone, but they said it would be a thirty-to-forty-minute wait. I thought I could make it to the Square to hail one down there or to at least wait at the Cafe du Monde, where it would be safer. And then the next thing I knew they were after me-Thank God you came when you did."
Her gratitude seemed to make him uncomfortable.
"C'mon," he said, tilting his head toward the street. "I'll walk you home."
She hesitated at his offer. "I live down by the zoo. It's too far to walk."
He looked as if he might argue. "I'll get you home. Don't worry."
Marguerite put her purse on her shoulder as he tucked his hands into his pockets and led her out of the courtyard, back to the street. His white shirt was gone and instead he wore a black T-shirt that hugged a fit and tight body. Even though he wasn't overdeveloped, like a bodybuilder, she could see every muscle clearly defined on him.
He was incredibly hot and sexy. And at that moment, he was her hero. She'd never been more grateful to anyone. Little did he know that he could do anything he wanted to with her right then and she wouldn't mind in the least. In fact, she wanted him to hold her to help calm her ragged nerves, but he didn't appear interested at all.
She felt the familiar pang of being nothing but a friend to guys. Just once in her life, she wished that a man would look at her with passion in his eyes. That a man would find her sexy and attractive. But they never did, not unless they were courting her father and were using her to get to him.
She might as well be invisible. She crossed her arms over her chest and sighed as the familiar grief settled deep in her heart.
As they walked, Wren didn't speak. In fact, he kept his head bent low and his gaze on the ground. Even so, she could tell that he was very much aware of everything around them.
She just wished he was every bit as aware of her.
Wren kept his teeth clenched. He could smell her desire and her uncertain nervousness. But he didn't know how to make her more at ease. He'd never been one to talk very much to anyone. Most people seemed to prefer him silent, or they ignored him entirely. Which was normally fine by him.
Not to mention it was taking a lot of concentration to remain in human form while he was wounded. The gunshot hadn't missed him. It'd hit him in his right shoulder and it hurt like hell. He was burning a lot of extra magic energy to hide the tear in his shirt and the blood.
But he didn't want her to know. It might make her feel bad to realize he'd been hurt defending her. Or, gods forbid, she might want him to seek medical help, which was the last thing he could do.
Or even worse than that, she might feel nothing at all, and that would make him angry. Humans could have strange emotions that he didn't quite fathom.
"Have you worked at Sanctuary long?" she asked.
"A little while."
That didn't seem to quite placate her. "Do you go to school anywhere? Or do you just work full-time at the bar?"
"I go to school." It was a lie and he wasn't even sure why he'd told it. Kyle Peltier-the youngest member of the Peltier bear clan-and a couple of the other waiters went to college, but Wren wasn't the type to mingle enough with humans to bother.
What he needed to know to survive had never been taught in a classroom.
But for some reason he didn't understand, he wanted to appear normal to her. He wanted her to think of him as just an average guy whom she might have met.
Being different had never bothered him before, but tonight it did. It was really stupid. He was odd even in the Were-Hunter world. When it came to the human world... they would lock him in a cage if they ever learned of him.
"Which school?" she asked innocently.
"UNO." The University of New Orleans was always a safe bet. Two of the waiters, Tony and Mark, went there, and Wren had overheard them enough to be able to lie about classes, professors, and the campus if he needed to. Not to mention, she looked a little too upper-crust to go to a state school. She most likely attended Tulane or Loyola.
She stopped and offered him a smile that made him instantly hard. "I'm Marguerite Goudeau, by the way."
Recognition hit him at the mention of her name. It was one he'd heard a lot in the past couple of years. "You're Maggie, Nick's study partner."
Marguerite smiled again. "I take it Nick must have mentioned me."
Yeah. Nick'd had a tremendous crush on her. He'd wanted to ask her out but never had. "She's like Venus, and having met Venus a time or two, I know that no mere mortal man has a right to touch her."
Wren supposed that went for tigards as well. Nick had been right, there was something about Maggie that was very special.
"He said you were the most intelligent woman he'd ever known, but that you couldn't study for shit."
She laughed. The sound was musical and soft, and it warmed him more than it should. "That sounds like Nick."
Marguerite cleared her throat as Wren pierced her with that intense stare of his. There was something so animalistic about him that it was almost frightening. She felt like someone in the jungle, cornered by a hungry beast.
"Sorry," he said, dropping his stare back to the ground. "I didn't mean to make you nervous again. I know people don't like for me to look at them."
She frowned at his deadpan tone. Even so, she sensed that it hurt him. "I don't mind."
"Yes, you do. You're just being polite." He started back down the street.
How did he know that? Most men were far from intuitive.
Marguerite rushed to catch up to him. "Is the monkey I saw you in the bar with your pet?"
He shook his head. "Marvin owns himself. He just likes to hang out with me."
She laughed at the sweetness of Wren's words. "I've never met anyone who had a monkey for a friend before."
He snorted in disagreement. "I don't know. I think those two guys you were with would qualify as primates, but then, that's an insult to the primates and I don't want Marvin to get pissed at me. He has higher sensibilities, you know?"
Wren's words amused her. "You might have a point with that. But they're not my friends. I only study with them."
She saw his frown as he glanced at her. "Why do you study with assholes?"
Maybe she should be irritated at him for insulting her group, but then, why? She actually agreed with him. "Habit. I've known Todd and Blaine since we were kids. You have to understand that they haven't had an easy life. They both have severe bonding issues brought on by apathetic and absent parents."
He looked less than impressed by her excuses for their rudeness. "Did their parents ever try to kill them?"
"No," she said, stunned that he would even ask such a thing, "certainly not."
"Did their mothers ever tell them that they were abominations who should have been eaten the minute they were born?"
"Of course not."
"Did their parents ever try to sell them to a zoo?"
He was being ludicrous now and it was all she could do not to roll her eyes at him. "No one's parents would do such a thing."
The look he gave her said she was a fool if she believed that. "Then trust me, their life wasn't so bad."
Marguerite paused as he continued walking. Was he serious? No, he was just toying with her. He must be. No one's parents would try to sell them to a zoo. That was stupid. Wren was throwing out random weirdness just to prove a point.
She rushed to catch up to him. "What about your parents?" she asked, trying to make light of his words. "Did they ever do any of that to you?"
He didn't respond, but something in his manner said that it might not be a far-fetched conclusion...
No, no parent would do that to their child. Her father was a total jerk most of the time and not even he'd ever been that bad.
"Wren?" she said, pulling him to a stop. "Be honest. Did your parents ever really try to sell you to a zoo? C'mon. Be real."
He immediately twisted his arm out of her hold. "There's a Dead Milkmen song that the Howlers cover a lot when they play at Sanctuary. It's called 'V.F.W.: Veterans of a Fucked Up World.' You ever heard of it?"
"You should. There's a lot of truth in it." Something flashed in his eyes like a nightmare he was trying to banish. The deep sadness there tore through her. "Everyone has scars from their life, Maggie. Just forget I said anything and let's get you home so you can get cleaned up." He turned and continued on his way.
She followed after him, wondering just what his scars were. For a young man, he had an ancient wisdom in his eyes. One that said he'd lived far beyond his apparent twenty-something years.
"You know, it helps to talk about it. It really does. It's a lot easier to let go of the past when you share it with someone else."
Wren arched a brow at her. "I notice you're not reminiscing your childhood with me, Maggie. I definitely don't know you well enough to reminisce about mine."
He had a point. There was a lot of pain she kept hidden inside her, and it made her wonder what he had inside of him. He wore the look of a street kid. The kind who'd been thrown out to fend for himself far too young. He had that fierce toughness that often marked them. That jaded look of someone who expected to be used and then cast aside.
It was what made her want to reach out and hold him. But she'd seen enough of his anger to know he wouldn't welcome it All things considered, she had to give him credit. He hadn't turned completely mean. He did work and he went to school. Those two things said a lot about his moral fiber. Most of the people she'd ever heard of who'd been thrown out had ended up as criminals who preyed on others.
Wren had saved her life, and now he was making sure no one else bothered her. He was a decent human being.
He led her to Decatur Street, in front of the Square, where he quickly hailed a cab to take her to her renovated condo, which was only two blocks from the Audubon Zoo.
As they rode through the Quarter, she could sense Wren watching her even though she couldn't see his eyes in the darkness. The sensation was hot and unsettling.
Without a word, without moving a single inch, he stayed in the shadows like some lounging predator that was eyeing his next lunch. There was something completely eerie about the way he was able to sit like that. If she didn't know better, she'd think he'd stopped breathing. He really was a human statue.
Nervous, she watched the streetlights cut across the angles of his lower face from the corner of her eye. It was extremely unsettling to be with a man who exuded such a primal aura and yet she had no idea what he really looked like.
The silence was only relieved by the low thrum of the cabdriver's Zydeco CD. She wanted to think of something to say, but since Wren wasn't making an effort, she thought it best to follow his lead.
When they finally reached her driveway, Wren had the driver wait for him while he walked her to her door.
There was something strangely sweet about his actions. They were totally incongruous with the air of lethal danger that clung to him.
"Well, this is it," she said as she dug her keys out of her purse. "Home sweet home."
Opening the door, she stepped inside and debated whether or not she should invite him in. Part of her wanted to, but she was afraid of being rebuffed. As a rule, guys thought of her as a friend, never as a girlfriend. It'd always bothered her, and tonight she didn't think she could deal with his rejection after all she'd been through. Not to mention, she wanted to be alone for a while and just calm down.
Wren sensed her uncertainty as he stood on her doorstep. It reached out to the animal in him and set it on edge. It was always in his nature to attack when he sensed weakness, but with her it was different. He wanted to soothe her.
And that scared the shit out of him.
"Good night," he said, stepping away. He needed to put some distance between them.
He paused to look back at her.
"Thank you so much. I owe you more than I can ever repay."
He inclined his head to her. "It's okay, Maggie. Just stay out of trouble." He headed back for the cab.
"How much do I owe you for the taxi?" she called after him.
Wren just waved at her over his head. He was tempted to laugh at her offer. Why would she think that he'd charge her for seeing her home?
Women... he'd never understand them.
He paused at the cab's door and dared a quick look at her to see her framed in her doorway. She looked so fragile and beautiful. He wanted to kiss her so badly that he could already taste those full, tempting lips. But more than that, he wanted to taste the rest of her body. He wanted to know every scent and curve of her flesh...
His hormones were playing havoc with him. His entire body felt as if it were on fire and alive. He wasn't sure how to cope with this. In truth, it frightened him. If he were to lose control, he could easily hurt or even kill her.
In his mind, he could envision her naked. See her underneath him as he claimed her not as an animal, but as a man...
He had no choice. He didn't belong here and he didn't belong with her.
There was no place where he did belong. No matter how much he might want otherwise, there never would be. His life had to be spent alone.
Marguerite forced herself not to react to Wren's hot, devouring stare. She'd never been so interested in any man, especially not one who she really had no idea what he looked like.
It was ludicrous and yet there was no denying the way her body felt. She should have at least asked for his number or e-mail.
He got into the taxi and slammed the door shut with a finality that echoed through her.
Marguerite watched the cab drive away as she felt an inexplicable urge to call Wren back. There was something so lonely about him that it had reached out and touched her deeply.
But it was too late now. He was gone. And she would most likely never see him again.
As Wren paid the driver only a block away from Maggie's condo, he was starting to sweat from the effort of remaining in human form. He had to get out of here and back home ASAP. If he lost consciousness as a human, he would immediately turn into his true state. And the last thing he needed was to be passed out in large-cat form.
That would be a one-way ticket to a government lab somewhere. He'd seen enough episodes of X-Files and Buffy to know that was the last place he wanted to be.
Ducking into a dark shadow behind a garage, he flashed himself back to Peltier House and into Carson Whitethunder's examination room.
A Were-Hawk, Carson was the resident vet and doctor for all the nonhuman inhabitants of Nicolette Peltier's Sanctuary-of which there were many. Sanctuary had been set up a little over a hundred years ago to be a haven for any and all species. The Peltiers themselves were Were-Bears, while the rest of the inhabitants were leopards, panthers, wolves, and even a dragon. The only species missing from their ranks was the jackal, but then jackals were even more peculiar than the normal oddballs that made up their race. And as such, jackals usually stayed away from the other Were-Hunter branches.
As was typical, Carson was in his office, reading a medical text Native American in human form, which was due to his human father, Carson had long black hair that was always worn pulled back with a western tie. His black brows slashed above eyes that were a peculiar hazel green. Tonight he was dressed in a dark green turtleneck, blazer, and jeans.
Wren walked over and tapped on the door's glass before he pushed it open.
Carson glanced up. "Hang on a sec, Wren."
Wren tried, but his legs buckled. An instant later, he flashed to his true form of half white tiger, half snow leopard. It was something that disgusted him. Normally, he picked one form or the other, but wounded...
This was all he could manage.
Carson got up with a curse and rushed over to Wren. "What happened?"
Wren couldn't respond. He was trying to stay conscious, but the instant Carson touched his wound and pain shot through him, everything went black.
Carson cursed again as he saw the blood that completely coated the underside of Wren's chest. He grabbed the Nextel phone off his desk and paged his assistant "Margie, get up here to the lab. It looks like Wren's been shot."
Carson also paged a couple of the bears from downstairs to help pick Wren up and move him to a surgery table. Though Carson as a Were-Animal was stronger than most humans, Wren was an extremely large tigard that weighed in at a good eight hundred pounds whenever he was in animal form. There was no way in hell Carson was going to get the behemoth cat off the floor without help.
Papa Peltier was the first one to appear. At a cool seven feet in height in human form, he posed a fearsome sight. His long, wavy blond hair floated around a face that appeared about forty in human years. In reality, the bear was closer to five hundred. Dressed in a navy T-shirt and jeans, Papa Bear was rugged and tough... the kind of man or bear that only a fool would tangle with.
He frowned as he saw me tigard on the floor. "What the hell happened?"
"I don't know," Carson said as he held a pressure bandage to Wren's chest. "It's definitely a bullet wound. I have no idea how he got it. He knocked on the door, then fell down unconscious."
A second later, three of the Peltier quadruplets came in and helped Carson lift Wren to a surgical table. Margie joined them and quickly set about prepping the room for surgery.
Margie Neely was one of the few humans who knew who and what the members of Sanctuary were. She was a petite redhead who had been a waitress in the bar until a mishap had betrayed the Weres to her. She'd been so calm and accepting that they had embraced her as one of their own and then paid to have her trained to be an assistant to Carson.
Dev Peltier, who like his brothers was a younger copy of his father, moved back to let Carson near Wren again. "He was in a fight earlier tonight with some humans," the young bearswain said. "I broke them up and sent them home. You don't think one of them came back and did this to him, do you?"
"Nah," his identical brother Remi said as he stepped away from the table they had placed Wren on. "They were rich pukes. They wouldn't have dared endanger their trust funds for something like this."
Dev sighed. "Since it's Wren, there's no telling who he pissed off. But at least we know it was a human. No Were-Hunter would ever use a gun. It's too crass."
Papa agreed. "C'mon, boys, let Carson work and we'll find out what happened whenever Wren wakes up."
The bears withdrew while Carson scrubbed his hands.
As Margie touched Wren's side to prep him, he came awake with a vicious snarl, then lashed out at her.
She jumped back with a curse and cradled her arm to her chest.
Carson scowled as he realized Wren had torn her arm open. "Dammit, tiger," he snarled an instant before he tranked Wren. Still he tried to fight Carson until the sedative took effect. "Watch that temper of yours."
"I'm okay," Margie said as she wrapped a towel around her savaged arm. "It's my fault. I didn't realize he'd wake back up. I should have known better."
Carson shook his head as he inspected the damage Wren had wrought. She'd definitely need stitches. "I should have warned you. His kind are extremely vicious when wounded. They don't like others anyway, and they've been known to shred anyone who comes near them."
"Yeah, I was down in the bar when the humans threw a drink in his eyes. I'm still not sure how Justin and Colt managed to pull him away from them before he pounced."
Carson let out a tired breath. "Wren's getting more unstable. I don't know how much longer he can stay here."
He saw the concern in her eyes as she looked up at him. "That's what Nicolette said after she sent Wren into Peltier House. If he pounces like that again, she's going to make him leave."
Carson looked back at his unconscious patient. "God have mercy on him then. The best thing we could do is strip him of his powers and dump him back in the past in a rain forest somewhere. It's probably what they should have done to him instead of bringing him here."
"Nicolette is already making those preparations. Since his father went mad, she assumes Wren will follow."
Carson looked back at Wren. His chest tightened. He'd known the tigard since Wren had been brought here almost twenty years ago. Traumatized by the violent and gory deaths of his parents, Wren had just been entering puberty then. His powers had been unstable and shaky. But the powers had been too strong for them to strip, especially since the boy's guard had been up. He'd trusted no one to come near him, and as a result, there had been no way they could control him.
Now Wren's guard was extremely lax around them. At least most of the time. It would be easy to catch him off-guard and strip him of his powers.
Such a thing was a last resort for their kind. It was reserved solely for those who couldn't pass in the human world. Or those who threatened to expose the Were-Hunters to public scrutiny.
Wren had never wanted to blend. He prided himself on being a misfit and outcast. No one had minded since he did his job in the bar and didn't even try to speak to the humans.
Tonight that had changed. He had gone after a human female. Not that contact with females was forbidden. Most of their males took human lovers from time to time. But they had to be careful who they chose.
If Wren's indiscretion threatened them, then there would be no choice.
He would be sacrificed in a heartbeat.