Wren felt like warmed-over shit as he walked through the back door of Sanctuary. He forced himself to shut the door gently and not slam it. He didn't want to be here. The only place he wanted to be was with Maggie.
Even now he could smell her scent on his skin, feel her body pressed to his. He craved her with a consuming madness that wanted him to turn into his true form and bound back after her.
But it could never be.
There was no place in his life for her.
"You're late, tiger," Remi growled at Wren as he entered the kitchen. "Where the hell have you been?"
Wren ignored him as he pulled a white apron from the hook by the door, shrugged it on over his head, and tied it around his waist. Marvin came running up to him, chattering in an angry tone as he expressed his upset at being left alone with the bears for so long.
"Sorry, monkey," Wren said quietly. "I had things to do this afternoon."
Marvin pursed his lips before he bounded up Wren's arm to perch on his neck and muss his hair. Wren smoothed it down but didn't comment.
Remi gave him a hostile glare before he went to get another keg out of the supply room.
Tony came through the kitchen door from the bar area with a load of dishes. He passed a relieved look at Wren as he set them in a large stainless-steel sink. "Man, we have been busy today. I swear it feels like Mardi Gras or something."
Wren glanced to the clock on the wall. He was fifteen minutes late and Tony still had traffic to deal with.
Tony inclined his head to Wren. "Don't worry, I'll make it. But watch out for Remi, he's been in a pissy mood all day."
Wren snorted at that. Remi stayed in a pissy mood. The bearswain had perpetual PMS.
"Don't speed," Wren warned Tony as he shrugged off his apron and pulled his keys out of his back pocket. "There's a cop just down the street."
"Thanks for the tip."
As soon as Tony left, Remi paused with the keg and glared at Wren again. "What? You talking to the help now?"
Wren ignored him as he picked up an empty dishpan.
Remi cocked his head. "You wreak of human, tiger. Where were you this afternoon?"
He could sense the bear wanted to attack-it was as much Remi's nature as it was his own. But luckily the bear had better sense. Without acknowledging him at all, Wren headed out to the bar to bus tables.
It was a typical evening with the tourists and bikers mingling against the backdrop of heavy metal songs that played over the stereo. The Howlers wouldn't take the stage until much later. With the exception of Colt, who was their guitarist, the band tended to sleep all day and only rise at dusk. It was hard for an animal to retain its human form in the daytime.
Only the truly strong could manage it.
Since it was dinnertime, the table areas were packed with people eating. There weren't many Were-Hunters about. Wren was one of the few who came out this early. But then, daylight had never bothered him that much. Even though he was young by Were-Hunter years, he'd never had a lot of trouble remaining in human form before dark. He wasn't sure why.
Maybe it stemmed from the fact that it took just as much effort to hold a pure tiger or leopard form as an animal as it did to look human. He'd honed those skills early in life as a way to at least try to blend in with the other animals.
Unfortunately, it had been moot, since they could smell that he was a hybrid. His scent was the one thing that he couldn't change even with magic. And he hated it.
As soon as he filled his pan, he headed back toward the bar for the kitchen door. Behind the bar, Fang moved to hold the kitchen door open for him.
Wren inclined his head in thanks. Fang was a wolf who had come to Sanctuary almost a year and a half ago. He'd spent the first few months here in a coma brought on by a vicious Daimon attack that had left the wolf completely defenseless. Unlike the vampires of Hollywood legend, Daimons not only drank blood but also sucked living souls into their own bodies to elongate their lives. Since Were-Hunters were able to wield magic, they were particularly sought by the Daimons, who could use the magic themselves after they killed a Were-Hunter.
It was a harsh thing for a Were-Hunter to be attacked by them, and Wren could understand Fang's coma from it. The wolf was damned lucky to be alive.
Since that weird Thanksgiving when Fang had managed to leave his bed for the first time, he'd been slowly coming back around, but the wolf was still seriously scarred by his attack.
"What happened to your hair, tiger?" Fang asked.
"It fell off."
Fang shook his head as Wren walked past him, into the kitchen. He stopped at the sinks. Marvin leapt from his shoulder to the shelf above while he unpacked the pan for the dishwashers.
"How did it go this afternoon?"
He turned his head to see Aimee behind him. As always, she was stunningly beautiful, with a tight red T-shirt and a pair of jeans. A wide smile curved her lips. She looked hopeful.
Wren shrugged. "It was all right."
Her smile faded. "Did the flowers not work?"
"Then why aren't you happy?"
He shrugged again.
Aimee grabbed him by the arm and pulled him out of the hearing range of the others, into a corner. "Wren, talk to me."
She'd been the only person he'd ever really spoken to, which didn't say much, since he seldom said more than a handful of words to her. "I don't belong with a human."
She glanced toward the door that led to the bar where Fang was working. "Yeah, it hurts to want something you know you shouldn't. But-"
"There are no buts in this, Aimee," Wren said between clenched teeth. "Katagaria don't have human mates, you know that. When was the last time one of us was mated with a human?"
He knew better. "Even if it did, we'd be sterile. An animal can't have children with a human." Which might not be so bad. The gods knew the last thing he needed was to sire more freaks like himself. But that wasn't the point. The point was that Maggie was out of his league. She was everything decent in the world, and he was everything that gave humans nightmares.
It was impossible.
Wren sighed in resignation. "I got her out of my system. Now I need to work."
But the problem was that Maggie wasn't out of his system. If anything, she was more a part of his thoughts than ever before. He didn't understand the hunger he felt. The need.
The beast within him wanted out to hunt for her. It was salivating inside, simmering. It was a good thing he knew how to control the beast, otherwise there was no telling what he might do.
He left Aimee and went to get his pan.
"Wren?" she said, pulling him to a stop.
Wren cast a meaningful look toward the bar where Fang was waiting for the bearswan. "Stop being a dreamer, Aimee. Our reality is too harsh for that."
He saw the doubt in her blue eyes. "But it's the hope of something better that keeps us going."
He scoffed at her blind optimism. "I abandoned the idea of hope the day my own mother lunged at my throat to kill me." He gave Aimee a hard stare. "And if I were you, Aimee, I'd heed that warning well. Neither of us has a human mother. If you think for one moment that Nicolette wouldn't turn on you, too, you're crazy."
"I'm her only daughter."
"And I was an only child-the last of my mother's kind-and yet she didn't hesitate to come after me. Think about it." Wren brushed past Aimee, back into the bar.
Still, Aimee's words rang in his ears.
Hope. He snorted bitterly at the thought of it. Hope was for humans. It wasn't for animals or freaks.
He glanced up to see a young woman in an extremely short skirt and tight midriff shirt approaching him.
She leaned her head back and polished off her drink. "I thought I'd save you some time and bring my glass to you," she said, giving him a hot once-over. She slid her empty glass over her breast before she handed it to him.
Amazed that he felt absolutely nothing for her, Wren inclined his head and took it from her before he moved away to another table.
The woman pouted before she returned to her seat.
"What the hell is wrong with you, tiger?" Justin asked as he joined Wren. "What kind of beast would turn that down?"
"Go get her, panther," Wren said quietly. "She's all yours."
"Yeah, I think I will."
Wren watched as Justin made straight for the woman and struck up a conversation. A few minutes later, the two of them were headed off toward the storeroom near the stage that had been soundproofed by one of the bears as a place where they could take willing human females for a quickie or two.
It was weird that Wren felt absolutely nothing for the woman. Not even a slight stirring. If he didn't know better, he'd swear he was mated. But there was no mating mark on his hand, and even if there were, he would never mate with a human. Especially not Maggie. Her father was too prominent a man.
The idea was to keep their world a secret from humans. Mating himself to a member of a politician's family was suicide.
Marvin came running up to drop a glass in his pan before he dashed off again.
Nicolette paused just outside the door to her office as she watched Wren cleaning tables. Every animal sense she possessed told her that it was time he left Sanctuary-not that she had ever really wanted him here.
If she had her way, there wouldn't be anyone staying at Sanctuary except her own family. But that wasn't their laws. It was necessity that dictated she allow other Were-Hunters to come and go and even live in her beloved home.
That didn't mean she liked it.
Her gaze softened as it drifted toward her son Dev, who was talking to her other son Cherif. She'd lost two sons to the Arcadian Were-Hunters who had once pursued them to the ends of the earth and beyond for no other reason than because her kind were animals. She refused to lose any more children to tins bloodthirsty war of Arcadian against Katagaria.
She would do anything to protect her family.
She turned at the sound of her mate's call. Aubert was staring at her with a concerned gaze. "Oui, Aubert?"
He glanced over to where Wren was. "The tiger isn't hurting anyone."
She curled her lips as she watched Wren cleaning. "His very presence offends me. He isn't right and you know it."
"He has nowhere else to go."
"And neither do we." She jerked her chin in the direction of the monkey as he bounded back toward the tigard. "That is unnatural, too. I hate that damned monkey. He is filmy. Animals such as that one are food for us. They should never be kept as pets."
"Marvin isn't a pet," Aubert said quietly. "Wren doesn't own him. They are friends, and the monkey keeps the tiger calm. It is why we allow him to stay."
She made a disgusted sound. "Why must we cater to him? We are bears. We are the more powerful. One strike and we could kill the tiger."
Aubert conceded the point with a nod. "In the wild, beast to beast, yes. But Wren is part human, as are we. He knows not to attack us from the front, but rather to attack us from behind. What he lacks in strength, he makes up for in speed and agility. He could kill us. I have no doubt."
She looked at her mate with rancor. "You fear him?"
"No," he snapped. "But I'm not a fool. Don't let your hatred blind you, ma petite. Better to use his strength to fight for us than to make an enemy of him."
She considered that. "Perhaps, but he isn't like the others. He sees through us and our hospitality."
"Oui, but he keeps it to himself. Seldom does he speak to anyone."
Still Nicolette didn't trust Wren. She could sense the tigard's unrest. Sense his volatile state. He could turn violent at any moment "I think we should take our concerns to the Omegrion." The Omegrion was the ruling council for their kind. It made and enforced the laws of all Were-Hunters, and its members could call out a blood hunt for anyone the Weres deemed a threat to their world.
Aubert rolled his eyes. "There is no need for that. Wren is not a Slayer."
"No, but he will be. I can feel it."
Wren let out a deep breath as he finished wiping down the table. With his new haircut he was attracting way too much attention, and he hated it. He'd always liked blending into the background. In the past, people might notice him, but they quickly looked away. Or curled their lips in repugnance.
Either was preferable to the women watching him now. To the men narrowing their gazes because their girlfriends were ogling him.
Tigers by nature were solitary creatures. They lived their lives alone.
And yet his thoughts kept drifting back to the afternoon. To the sight of Maggie's face.
I have to forget her.
The only problem was that he couldn't.
Marguerite sighed as she straightened her bed. But it was hard to not think of Wren while she made up the bed where they had spent most of the afternoon.
"It's for the best that he's gone," she told herself.
It was true. Law school wasn't easy. Her classes were hard, and they required a lot of concentration. The last thing she needed was the distraction of a troubled bad-boy boyfriend.
The last thing she could afford was to flunk out of school. That would just tickle her father no end.
Marguerite stepped back from the bed and stumbled over something under her foot. Frowning, she saw the small black wallet on the floor.
She grimaced at the sight. "Damn." Of all the stupid luck. It must have fallen out of Wren's pocket while he'd been dressing.
She picked it up and opened it to find his license and money. Yeah, it was his. Not like it could have belonged to anyone else, but she'd still been holding out for a clumsy burglar.
"I should mail it to him."
But he would most likely need it before then. "I can be a grown-up about this."
She'd take it to the bar, leave it with the waitress, and duck out before he even saw her.
Okay, that was a little cowardly and less than adult, but it would be the way to save her feelings. If he didn't want to see her, then she didn't want to be seen.
Wren was in the kitchen unloading dishes when something strange went through him. It was hot and scintillating. Like something had brushed up against his very soul.
Eyes narrowed, he lowered his head and scanned the room.
There was nothing out of the ordinary. But still the beast within him sensed something.
Grinding his teeth, he left the kitchen to head to the bar. He'd only taken one step inside when he found the source of his discomfort...
And she was talking to Dev.
Wren's gaze narrowed even more as a jealousy the likes of which he'd never experienced before took hold of him. It was all he could do to stay in human form and not run headlong and attack the bear until he had Dev lying dead in his jaws.
But he did cross the bar in quick, fierce strides.
Marguerite felt the air behind her stir. Even before she turned her head, she knew it was Wren. She could feel his presence like a tangible touch.
She looked up at him over her shoulder. His blue eyes scalded her with heat. The intensity of his stare made her shiver.
"You left your wallet," she said quickly, not wanting him to think that she was tracking him down. She took the wallet from the man she'd given it to and handed it to Wren. "I was just going to leave it for you."
She started for the door.
"Wait," Wren said, pulling her to a stop.
"Wait for what?" she said more harshly than she meant to. "I'm not a yo-yo, Wren. You made it clear that there's nothing more between us. I was-"
He cut her words off with a scorching kiss. Marguerite actually moaned at the feral taste of him.
Even so, she pulled back. "This is cruel." She saw the bitter longing in his eyes as he stared at her.
"Have you ever wanted something that you knew was bad for you? Something that you ached for so much that you could think of nothing else?"
"Yes, which is why I always end up eating the whole chocolate bar anyway."
His grip loosened on her arm as he laughed. She saw the shock on the man's face over his shoulder.
Wren pulled her against him, nuzzled her, and took a deep breath in her hair. "And I want to inhale my chocolate, kitten. Even if it kills me."
She frowned at his words. "I would never hurt you, Wren."
He tensed as if he heard or felt something. "You need to go now. It's not safe here for you."
Wren didn't answer. The two of them were getting way too much attention from the other Were-Hunters in the bar. He couldn't afford to let them know just how much this woman was coming to mean to him.
"I'm taking my break," he said to Dev before he took her arm and led her for the door.
"What's going on here?" she asked him as they walked outside.
"I can't explain it. I really can't." There was no way to tell her that the feelings inside him were completely wrong. He wasn't supposed to feel for a human. Not like this.
Like a human being. And that was something he most definitely wasn't.
Wren took her to her Mercedes, which was parked on the side street. He clenched his fists as his body roared to life, demanding he take her again.
Why was he feeling like this? Dammit, it was wrong.
Lifting one hand, he laid his fingers against the blush of her cheek.
He wasn't what she needed in her life. He wasn't what anyone needed, and he knew it. But for the first time ever, he wanted to be with someone.
And a human woman no less.
What was wrong with him? Was this the trelosa that could come upon Were-Hunters when they hit puberty? He'd never really felt it as a young man and hadn't understood the rabies-like madness that appeared with hormonal surges.
But he felt it now. It gnawed and it demanded.
Maybe the trelosa had been delayed because he was a hybrid. He didn't know. But humans weren't supposed to attract him. Not as anything more than a possible bedmate or prey.
She stared up at him with those accusing brown eyes that were shining in anger. "I don't understand what's going on here, Wren. You push me away and yet you look at me as if you're a starving beggar and I'm the only steak in town."
"That sums it up about right," he said softly. "You are so out of my league."
"How do you figure?"
"I'm not right, Maggie. Physically, emotionally, socially... I shouldn't be with you."
"That's just stupid. You keep saying that and I don't see anything abnormal with you. What is so wrong with you that we can't date?"
How he wished he could tell her, but that was stupid and he knew it. To tell her he was an animal would scare the life out of her. Instead, he settled on human arguments. "I'm antisocial."
"So am I. I'm socially awkward and I hate parties and mixers."
"I hate people."
"Then why is your hand still on my face?"
He swallowed at the truth he couldn't deny. "Because I don't hate you."
"Well that's a relief to know, especially after this afternoon."
A tic started in his jaw as he dropped his hand away. "I need to get back to work."
"Will I see you later?"
He wanted to say no, but there was a part of him that was so calm around her. It was the only time in his life that he had felt such.
Dear gods, she had actually tamed some part of him.
Shove her away.
He couldn't. He needed to feel her against him. Against his will, he felt himself nodding.
Marguerite breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn't realized that she'd been holding her breath in expectation.
He hadn't rejected her this time. It was a good sign.
She looked past him to see the mean older woman on the street, glaring at them. Apparently the woman hadn't warmed up to either one of them since the last time she'd thrown Marguerite out of her house.
Wren glanced at the woman, then growled a sound that didn't seem quite human as he returned to stare into Marguerite's eyes. "I have to go now."
"Okay." Marguerite leaned forward and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek. As she pulled back, she saw the way he savored it.
He picked her hand up and brought it to his lips, where he placed a hungry kiss on her knuckles. "Be careful."
He stepped back as she got in her car and he didn't move until she'd driven away.
Turning, Wren walked to where Nicolette was still standing. The bear didn't say a word as he walked past her, but he felt the heat of her stare.
Ignoring it, he returned to the bar and went back to work.
Nicolette followed the tigard inside and paused by her son Dev's side. "It is unnatural for our kind to be attracted to a human."
"He's becoming unstable."
She nodded. "I spoke with a cousin of his a few hours ago."
She narrowed her eyes on the tigard. "He said that Wren had killed both of his parents."
Dev looked stunned by the news, but she hadn't been. It was what she'd expected to hear. There was something evil about that tigard.
"How?" Dev asked. "He was barely more than a cub when he was brought here."
"It is the curse of his breed. Why do you think the snow leopards are nearly extinct? They go mad and turn on the ones they depend on. The ones who care for them."
"You think Wren is going mad?"
"What do you think?"
Dev glanced to where Wren was cleaning a table with Marvin on his shoulder. "I think he's in love with that woman. I actually heard him laugh."
Nicolette sneered at the very thought. "It is unnatural for a Katagari to love a human. Not to mention, that woman," she spat the word, "is death to all of us. Can you imagine what would happen if her father ever learned of us? We would be hunted and killed."
Dev nodded. "The humans would panic, no doubt."
Nicolette ground her teeth as raw, bitter anger consumed her. "I will not allow that hybrid beast to jeopardize all of us."
"What do you plan to do, Maman?"
She didn't speak as she watched the tigard curl his lip at her before he took his dishes to the kitchen.
She couldn't tell Dev what she had planned. For some reason, her son was rather fond of the tigard. Something that truly appalled her. But then most males were weak. It was why bearswans were the stronger of the species and why she was the one who led this household.
"Don't worry, Devereaux. Maman will handle everything. You go back and monitor our door."
And soon her house would again be safe from the threat that Wren posed to them all.