The wind was chill and the cold froze the ends of her toes. One of these days she was going to break down and buy boots – if only she didn't need to eat.
Anna laughed and buried her nose in her jacket, trudging the last half mile to her home. It was true that being a werewolf gave her greater strength and endurance, even in human form. But the twelve-hour shift she'd just finished at Scorci's was enough to make even her bones ache. You'd think that people would have better things to do on Thanksgiving than go eat at an Italian restaurant.
Tim, the restaurant owner (who was Irish, not Italian for all that he made the best gnocchi in Chicago) let her take extra shifts – though he wouldn't let her work more than fifty hours a week. The biggest bonus was the free meal she got each shift. Even so, she was afraid she was going to have to find a second job to cover her expenses: life as a werewolf, she had found, was as expensive financially as it was personally.
She used her keys to get into the entryway. There was nothing in her mailbox, so she got Kara's mail and newspaper and climbed the stairs to Kara's third-floor apartment. When she opened the door, Kara's Siamese cat, Mouser, took one look at her, spat in disgust, and disappeared behind the couch.
For six months she'd been feeding the cat whenever her neighbor was gone – which was often since Kara worked at a travel agency arranging tours. Mouser still hated her. From his hiding place he swore at her, as only a Siamese could do.
With a sigh, Anna tossed the mail and newspaper on the small table in the dining room and opened a can of cat food, setting it down near the water dish. She sat down at the table and closed her eyes. She was ready to go to her own apartment, one floor up, but she had to wait for the cat to eat. If she just left him there, she'd come back in the morning to a can of untouched food. Hate her he might, but Mouser wouldn't eat unless there was someone with him – even if it was a werewolf he didn't trust.
Usually she turned on the TV and watched whatever happened to be on, but tonight she was too tired to make the effort, so she unfolded the newspaper to see what had happened since the last time she'd picked one up a couple of months ago.
She skimmed through the headline articles on the front page without interest. Still complaining, Mouser emerged and stalked resentfully into the kitchen.
She turned the page so Mouser would know that she was really reading it – and drew in a sharp breath at the picture of a young man. It was a head shot, obviously a school picture, and next to it was a similar shot of a girl of the same age. The headline read: "Blood Found at Crime Scene Belongs to Missing Naperville Teen."
Feeling a little frantic, she read the article's review of the crime for those, like her, who had missed the initial reports.
Two months ago, Alan MacKenzie Frazier had disappeared from a high school dance the same night his date's body had been found on the school grounds. Cause of death was difficult to determine as the dead girl's body had been mauled by animals – there had been a pack of strays troubling the neighborhood for the past few months. Authorities had been uncertain whether the missing boy was a suspect or not. Finding his blood led them to suspect he was another victim.
Anna touched Alan Frazier's smiling face with trembling fingers. She knew. She knew.
She jumped up from the table, ignoring Mouser's unhappy yowl, and ran cold water from the kitchen sink over her wrists, trying to keep nausea at bay. That poor boy.
It took another hour for Mouser to finish his food. By that time Anna had the article memorized – and had come to a decision. Truthfully, she'd known as soon as she read the paper, but it had taken her the full hour to work up the courage to act upon it: if she'd learned anything in her three years as a werewolf, it was that you didn't want to do anything that might attract one of the dominant wolves' attention. Calling the Marrok, who ruled all the wolves in North America, would certainly attract his attention.
She didn't have a phone in her apartment, so she borrowed Kara's. She waited for her hands and her breathing to steady, but when that didn't seem to be happening, she dialed the number on the battered piece of paper anyway.
Three rings – and she realized that one o'clock in Chicago would be considerably different in Montana, where the area code indicated she was dialing. Was it a two-hour difference or three? Earlier or later? She hastily hung up the phone.
What was she going to tell him, anyway? That she'd seen the boy, obviously the victim of a werewolf attack, weeks after his disappearance, in a cage in her Alpha's house? That she thought the Alpha had ordered the attack?
All Leo had to do was tell the Marrok that he'd come upon the kid later – that he hadn't sanctioned it. Maybe that was how it happened. Maybe she was projecting from her own experience.
She didn't even know if the Marrok would object to the attack. Maybe werewolves were allowed to attack whomever they pleased. That's what had happened to her.
She turned away from the phone and saw the boy's face looking out at her from the open newspaper. She looked at him a moment more and then dialed the number again – surely the Marrok would at least object to the publicity it had attracted. This time her call was answered on the first ring.
"This is Bran."
He didn't sound threatening.
"My name is Anna," she said, wishing her voice wouldn't quiver. There was a time, she thought a little bitterly, when she hadn't been afraid of her own shadow. Who'd have thought that turning into a werewolf would turn her into a coward? But now she knew the monsters were real.
Angry with herself she might have been, but she couldn't force another word out of her throat. If Leo knew she called the Marrok, she might as well shoot herself with that silver bullet she'd bought a few months ago and save him some trouble.
"You are calling from Chicago, Anna?" It startled her for a moment, but then she realized he must have caller ID on his phone. He didn't sound angry that she'd disturbed him – and that wasn't like any dominant she'd ever met. Maybe he was a secretary or something. That made better sense. The Marrok's personal number wouldn't be something that would be passed around.
The hope that she wasn't actually talking to the Marrok helped steady her. Even Leo was afraid of the Marrok. She didn't bother to answer his question – he already knew the answer. "I called to talk to the Marrok, but maybe you could help me."
There was a pause, then Bran said, a little regretfully, "I am the Marrok, child."
Panic set in again, but before she could excuse herself and hang up, he said soothingly, "It's all right, Anna. You've done nothing wrong. Tell me why you called."
She sucked in a deep breath, conscious that this was her last chance to ignore what she'd seen and protect herself.
Instead she explained about the newspaper article – and that she'd seen the missing boy in Leo's house, in one of the cages he kept for new wolves.
"I see," murmured the wolf at the other end of the phone line.
"I couldn't prove that anything was wrong until I saw the newspaper," she told him.
"Does Leo know you saw the boy?"
"Yes." There were two Alphas in the Chicago area. Briefly she wondered how he'd known which one she was talking about.
"How did he react?"
Anna swallowed hard, trying to forget what had happened afterward. Once Leo's mate had intervened, the Alpha had mostly quit passing her around to the other wolves at his whim, but that night Leo had felt that Justin deserved a reward. She didn't have to tell the Marrok that, surely?
He saved her the humiliation by clarifying his question. "Was he angry that you had seen the boy?"
"No. He was... happy with the man who'd brought him in." There had still been blood on Justin's face and he stank with the excitement of the hunt.
Leo had been happy when Justin had first brought Anna to him, too. It had been Justin who had been angry – he hadn't realized she'd be a submissive wolf. Submissive meant that Anna's place was at the very bottom of the pack. Justin had quickly decided he made a mistake when he Changed her. She thought he had, too.
For some reason she had the strange feeling that he did.
"Where are you now, Anna?"
"At a friend's house."
"No." Then realizing he might think she'd told someone about what she was – something that was strictly forbidden – she hurried to explain. "I don't have a phone at my place. My neighbor is gone and I'm taking care of her cat. I used her phone."
"I see," he said. "I want you to stay away from Leo and your pack for right now – it might not be safe for you if someone figures out you called me."
That was an understatement. "All right."
"As it happens," the Marrok said, "I have recently been made aware of problems in Chicago."
The realization that she had risked everything unnecessarily made his next few words pass by her unheard.
" – I would normally have contacted the nearest pack. However, if Leo is murdering people, I don't see how the other Chicago Alpha wouldn't be aware of it. Since Jaimie hasn't contacted me, I have to assume that both Alphas are involved to one degree or another."
"It's not Leo who's making the werewolves," she told him. "It's Justin, his second."
"The Alpha is responsible for the actions of his pack," replied the Marrok coolly. "I've sent out an... investigator. As it happens he is flying into Chicago tonight. I'd like you to meet him."
Which was how Anna ended up naked between a couple of parked cars in the middle of the night at O'Hare International Airport. She didn't have a car or money for a taxi, but, as the crow flies, the airport was only about five miles from her apartment. It was after midnight and her wolf form was black as pitch and smallish as far as werewolves were concerned. The chances of someone seeing her and thinking she was anything but a stray dog were slight.
It had gotten colder, and she shivered as she pulled on the T-shirt she'd brought. There hadn't been room in her small pack for her coat once she'd stuffed it with shoes, jeans, and a top – all of which were more necessary.
She hadn't ever actually been to O'Hare before, and it took her a while to find the right terminal. By the time she got there, he was already waiting for her.
Only after she'd hung up the phone had she realized that the Marrok had given her no description of his investigator. She'd fretted all the way to the airport about it, but she needn't have. There was no mistaking him. Even in the busy terminal, people stopped to look at him, before furtively looking away.
Native Americans, while fairly rare in Chicago, weren't so unheard of as to cause all the attention he was gathering. None of the humans walking past him would probably have been able to explain exactly why they had to look – but Anna knew. It was something common to very dominant wolves. Leo had it, too – but not to this extent.
He was tall, taller even than Leo, and he wore his black, black hair in a thick braid that swung below his bead-and-leather belt. His jeans were dark and new-looking, a contrast to his battered cowboy boots. He turned his head a little and the lights caught a gleam from the gold studs he wore in his ears. Somehow he didn't look like the kind of man who would pierce his ears.
The features under the youth-taut, teak-colored skin were broad and flat and carried an expression that was oppressive in its very blankness. His black eyes traveled slowly over the bustling crowd, looking for something. They stopped on her for a moment, and the impact made her catch her breath. Then his gaze drifted on.
Charles hated flying. He especially hated flying when someone else was piloting. He'd flown himself to Salt Lake, but landing his small jet in Chicago could have alerted his quarry – and he preferred to take Leo by surprise. Besides, after they'd closed Meigs Field, he'd quit flying himself into Chicago. There was too much traffic at O'Hare and Midway.
He hated big cities. There were so many smells that they clogged his nose, so much noise that he caught bits of a hundred different conversations without trying – but could miss entirely the sound of someone sneaking up behind him. Someone had bumped by him on the walkway as he left the plane, and he had to work to keep from bumping back, harder. Flying into O'Hare in the middle of the night had at least avoided the largest crowds, but there were still too many people around for his comfort.
He hated cell phones, too. When he'd turned his on after the plane had landed, a message from his father was waiting. Now instead of going to the car rental desk and then to his hotel, he was going to have to locate some woman and stay with her so that Leo or his other wolves didn't kill her. All he had was a first name – Bran hadn't seen fit to give him a description of her.
He stopped outside the security gates and let his gaze drift where it would, hoping instincts would find the woman. He could smell another werewolf, but the ventilation in the airport defeated his ability to pinpoint the scent. His gaze caught first on a young girl with an Irish-pale complexion, whiskey-colored curly hair, and the defeated look of someone who was beaten on a regular basis. She looked tired, cold, and far too thin. It made him angry to see it, and he was already too angry to be safe, so he forced his gaze away.
There was a woman dressed in a business suit that echoed the warm chocolate of her skin. She didn't look quite like an Anna, but she carried herself in such a way that he could see her defying her Alpha to call the Marrok. She was obviously looking for someone. He almost started forward, but then her face changed as she found the person she was looking for – and it was not him.
He started a second sweep of the airport when a small, hesitant voice from just to his left said, "Sir, have you just come from Montana?"
It was the whiskey-haired girl. She must have approached him while he'd been looking elsewhere – something she wouldn't have been able to do if he weren't standing in the middle of a freaking airport.
At least he didn't have to look for his father's contact anymore. With her this close, not even the artificial air currents could hide that she was a werewolf. But it wasn't his nose alone that told him that she was something far rarer.
At first he thought she was submissive. Most werewolves were more or less dominant. Gentler-natured people weren't usually cussed enough to survive the brutal transformation from human to werewolf. Which meant that submissive werewolves were few and far between.
Then he realized that the sudden change in his anger and the irrational desire to protect her from the crowds streaming past were indications of something else. She wasn't a submissive either, though many might mistake her for that: She was an Omega.
Right then he knew that whatever else he did in Chicago, he was going to kill whoever had given her that brused look.
Up close he was even more impressive; she could feel his energy licking lightly over her like a snake tasting its prey. Anna kept her gaze fully on the floor, waiting for his answer.
"I am Charles Cornick," he said. "The Marrok's son. You must be Anna."
"Did you drive here or catch a cab?"
"I don't have a car," she said.
He growled something she didn't quite catch. "Can you drive?"
She nodded. "Good."
She drove well, if a little overcautiously – which trait he didn't mind at all, though it didn't stop him from bracing one hand against the dash of the rental. She hadn't said anything when he told her to drive them to her apartment, though he hadn't missed the dismay she felt.
He could have told her that his father had instructed him to keep her alive if he could – and to do that he had to stick close. He didn't want to scare her any more than she already was. He could have told her that he had no intention of bedding her, but he tried not to lie. Not even to himself. So he stayed silent.
As she drove them down the expressway in the rented SUV, his wolf-brother had gone from the killing rage caused by the crowded airplane to a relaxed contentment Charles had never felt before. The two other Omega wolves he'd met in his long lifetime had done something similar to him, but not to this extent.
This must be what it was like to be fully human.
The anger and the hunter's wariness that his wolf always held was only a faint memory, leaving behind only the determination to take this one to mate – Charles had never felt anything like that either.
She was pretty enough, though he'd like to feed her up and soften the stiff wariness in her shoulders. The wolf wanted to bed her and claim her as his own. Being of a more cautious nature than his wolf, he would wait until he knew her a little better before deciding to court her.
"My apartment isn't much," she said in an obvious effort to break the silence. The small rasp in her voice told him that her throat was dry.
She was frightened of him. Being his father's chosen executioner, he was used to being feared, though he'd never enjoyed it.
He leaned against the door to give her a little more space and looked out at the city lights so she'd feel safe stealing a few glances at him if she wanted to. He'd been quiet, hoping she would get used to him, but he thought now that might have been a mistake.
"Don't worry," he told her. "I am not fussy. Whatever your apartment is like, it is doubtless more civilized than the Indian lodge I grew up in."
"An Indian lodge?"
"I'm a little older than I look," he said, smiling a little. "Two hundred years ago, an Indian lodge was pretty fancy housing in Montana." Like most old wolves he didn't like talking about the past, but he found he'd do worse than that to set her at ease.
"I'd forgotten you might be older than you look," she said apologetically. She'd seen the smile, he thought, because the level of her fear dropped appreciably. "There aren't any older wolves in the pack here."
"A few," he disagreed with her as he noted that she said "the pack" not "my pack." Leo was seventy or eighty, and his wife was a lot older than that – old enough that they should have appreciated the gift of an Omega instead of allowing her to be reduced to this abased child who cringed whenever he looked at her too long. "It can be difficult to tell how old a wolf is. Most of us don't talk about it. It's hard enough adjusting without chatting incessantly about the old days."
She didn't reply, and he looked for something else they could talk about. Conversation wasn't his forte; he left that to his father and his brother, who both had clever tongues.
"What tribe are you from?" she asked before he found a topic. "I don't know a lot about the Montana tribes."
"My mother was Salish," he said. "Of the Flathead tribe."
She snuck a quick look at his perfectly normal forehead. Ah, he thought, relieved, there was a good story he could tell her. "Do you know how the Flatheads got their name?"
She shook her head. Her face was so solemn he was tempted to make something up to tease her. But she didn't know him well enough for that, so he told her the truth.
"Many of the Indian tribes in the Columbia Basin, mostly other Salish peoples, used to flatten the foreheads of their infants – the Flatheads were among the few tribes that did not."
"So why are they the ones called Flatheads?" she asked.
"Because the other tribes weren't trying to alter their foreheads, but to give themselves a peak at the top of their heads. Since the Flatheads did not, the other tribes called us 'flat heads.' It wasn't a compliment."
The scent of her fear faded further as she followed his story.
"We were the ugly, barbarian cousins, you see." He laughed. "Ironically, the white trappers misunderstood the name. We were infamous for a long time for a practice we didn't follow. So the white men, like our cousins, thought we were barbarians."
"You said your mother was Salish," she said. "Is the Marrok Native American?"
He shook his head. "Father is a Welshman. He came over and hunted furs in the days of the fur trappers and stayed because he fell in love with the scent of pine and snow." His father put it just that way. Charles found himself smiling again, a real smile this time and felt her relax further – and his face didn't hurt at all. He'd have to call his brother, Samuel, and tell him that he'd finally learned that his face wouldn't crack if he smiled. All it had taken to teach him was an Omega werewolf.
She turned into an alley and pulled into a small parking lot behind one of the ubiquitous four-story brick apartment buildings that filled the older suburbs of this part of town.
"Which city are we in?" he asked.
"Oak Park," she said. "Home of Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Scorci's."
She nodded her head and hopped out of the car. "The best Italian restaurant in Chicago and my current place of employment."
Ah. That's why she smelled of garlic.
"So your opinion is unbiased?" He slid out of the car with a feeling of relief. His brother made fun of his dislike of cars since even a bad accident was unlikely to kill him. But Charles wasn't worried about dying – it was just that cars went too fast. He couldn't get a feel for the land they passed through. And if he felt like dozing a bit as he traveled, they couldn't follow the trail on their own. He preferred horses.
After he got his suitcase out of the back, Anna locked the car with the key fob. The car honked once, making him jump, and he gave it an irritated look. When he turned back, Anna was staring hard at the ground.
The anger that being in her presence had dissipated surged back full force at the strength of her fear. Someone had really done a number on her.
"Sorry," she whispered. If she'd been in wolf form she'd have been cowering with her tail tucked beneath her.
"For what?" he asked, unable to banish the rage that sent his voice down an octave. "Because I'm jumpy around cars? Not your fault."
He was going to have to be careful this time, he realized as he tried to pull the wolf back under control. Usually when his father sent him out to deal with trouble, he could do it coldly. But with a damaged Omega wolf around, one that he found himself responding to on several different levels, he was going to have to hold tight to his temper.
"Anna," he said, fully in control again. "I am my father's hit man. It is my job as his second. But that doesn't mean that I take pleasure in it. I am not going to hurt you, my word on it."
"Yes, sir," she said, clearly not believing him.
He reminded himself that a man's word didn't count for much in this modern day. It helped his control that he scented as much anger on her as fear – she hadn't been completely broken.
He decided that further attempts to reassure her were likely to do the opposite. She would have to learn to accept that he was a man of his word. In the meantime he would give her something to think about.
"Besides," he told her gently, "my wolf is more interested in courting you than in asserting his dominance."
He walked past her before he smiled at the way her fear and anger had disappeared, replaced by shock... and something that might have been the beginning of interest.
She had keys to the outer door of the building and led the way through the entry and up the stairs without looking at him at all. By the second flight her scent had dulled of every emotion besides weariness.
She was visibly dragging as she climbed the stairs to the top floor. Her hand shook as she tried to get her key into the deadbolt of one of the two doors at the top. She needed to eat more. Werewolves shouldn't let themselves get so thin – it could be dangerous to those around them.
He was an executioner, he said, sent by his father to settle problems among the werewolves. He must be even more dangerous than Leo to have survived doing that job. She could feel how dominant he was, and she knew what dominants were like. She had to stay alert, ready for any aggressive moves he might make – ready to handle the pain and the panic so she didn't run and make him worse.
So why was it that the longer he was around, the safer he made her feel?
He followed her up all four flights of stairs without a word, and she refused to apologize again for her apartment. He'd invited himself, after all. It was his own fault that he'd end up sleeping on a twin-size futon instead of a nice hotel bed. She didn't know what to feed him – hopefully he'd eaten while he traveled. Tomorrow she'd run out and get something; she had the check from Scorci's on her fridge awaiting deposit in the bank.
There had once been a pair of two-bedroom apartments on her floor, but in the seventies someone had reapportioned the fourth floor into a three-bedroom and her studio.
Her home looked shabby and empty, with no more furniture than her futon, a card table, and a pair of folding chairs. Only the polished oak floor gave it any appeal.
She glanced at him as he walked through the doorway behind her, but his face revealed very little he didn't want it to. She couldn't see what he thought, though she imagined his eyes lingered a little on the futon that worked fine for her, but was going to be much too small for him.
"The bathroom's through that door," she told him unnecessarily, as the door stood open and the bathtub was clearly visible.
He nodded, watching her with eyes that were opaque in the dim illumination of her overhead light. "Do you have to work tomorrow?" he asked.
"No. Not until Saturday."
"Good. We can talk in the morning, then." He took his small suitcase with him into the bathroom.
She tried not to listen to the unfamiliar sounds of someone else getting ready for bed as she rummaged in her closet for the old blanket she kept in it, wishing again for a nice cheap carpet instead of the gleaming hardwood floor that was pretty to look at, but cold on bare feet and sure to be hard on her backside when she tried to sleep.
The door opened while she was kneeling on the floor, folding the blanket into a makeshift mattress as far as she could from where he would be sleeping. "You can take the bed," she began as she turned around and found herself at eye level with a large reddish-brown werewolf.
He wagged his tail and smiled at her obvious surprise before brushing past her and curling up on the blanket. He wiggled a bit and then put his head down on his forepaws and closed his eyes, to all appearances dropping off immediately to sleep. She knew better, but he didn't stir as she went into the bathroom herself or when she came out dressed in her warmest pair of sweats.
She wouldn't have been able to sleep with a man in her apartment, but somehow, the wolf was less threatening. This wolf was less threatening. She bolted the door, turned out the light, and crawled into bed feeling safer than she had since the night she'd found out that there were monsters in the world.
The footsteps on the stairs the next morning didn't bother her at first. The family who lived across from her was in and out at all times of the day or night. She pulled the pillow over her head to block the noise out, but then Anna realized the brisk, no-nonsense tread belonged to Kara – and that she had a werewolf in her apartment. She sat bolt upright and looked at Charles.
The wolf was more beautiful in the daylight than he had been at night, his fur really red, she saw, set off by black on his legs and paws. He raised his head when she sat up and got to his feet when she did.
She put a finger to her lips as Kara knocked sharply on the door.
"Anna, you in there, girl? Did you know that someone is parked in your spot again? Do you want me to call the tow truck or do you have a man in there for once?"
Kara wouldn't just go away.
"I'm here, just a minute." She looked around frantically, but there was nowhere to hide a werewolf. He wouldn't fit in the closet, and if she closed the bathroom door, Kara would want to know why – just as she'd demand to know why Anna suddenly had a dog the size of an Irish wolfhound and not nearly as friendly looking in her living room.
She gave Charles one last frantic look and then hurried over to the door as he trotted off to the bathroom. She heard it click shut behind him as she unbolted the door.
"I'm back," said Kara breezily as she came in, setting a pair of bags down on the table. Her dark-as-night skin looked richer than usual for her week of tropical sun. "I stopped on the way home and bought some breakfast for us. You don't eat enough to keep a mouse alive."
Her gaze caught on the closed bathroom door. "You do have someone here." She smiled, but her eyes were wary. Kara had made no secret of the fact that she didn't like Justin, who Anna had explained away, truthfully enough, as an old boyfriend.
"Mmm." Anna was miserably aware that Kara wouldn't leave until she saw who was in the bathroom. For some reason Kara had taken Anna under her wing the very first day she'd moved in, shortly after she'd been Changed.
Just then, Charles opened the bathroom door and stepped just through the doorway. "Do you have a rubber band, Anna?"
He was fully dressed and human, but Anna knew that was impossible. It had been less than five minutes since he'd gone into the bathroom, and a werewolf took a lot longer than that to change back to human form.
She cast a frantic glance at Kara – but her neighbor was too busy staring at the man in the bathroom doorway to take note of Anna's shock.
Kara's rapt gaze made Anna take a second look as well; she had to admit that Charles, his blue-black hair hanging free to his waist in a thick sheet that made him look strangely naked despite his perfectly respectable flannel shirt and jeans, was worth staring at. He gave Kara a small smile before turning his attention back to Anna.
"I seem to have misplaced my hair band. Do you have another one?"
She gave him a jerky nod and brushed past him into the bathroom. How had he changed so fast? She could hardly ask him how he'd done it with Kara in the room, however.
He smelled good. Even after three years it was disconcerting to notice such things about people. Usually she tried to ignore what her nose told her – but she had to force herself not to stop and take a deep lungful of his rich scent.
"And just who are you?" Anna heard Kara ask suspiciously.
"Charles Cornick." She couldn't tell by the sound of his voice whether he was bothered by Kara's unfriendliness or not. "You are?"
"This is Kara, my downstairs neighbor," Anna told Mm, handing him a hair band as she slipped by him and back into the main room. "Sorry, I should have introduced you. Kara, meet Charles Cornick who is visiting from Montana. Charles, meet Kara Mosley, my downstairs neighbor. Now shake and be nice."
She'd meant the admonition for Kara, who could be acerbic if she took a dislike to someone – but Charles raised an eyebrow at her before he turned back to Kara and offered a long-fingered hand.
"From Montana?" asked Kara as she took his hand and shook it firmly once.
He nodded and began French-braiding his hair with quick, practiced motions. "My father sent me out here because he'd heard there was a man giving Anna a bad time."
And with that one statement, Anna knew, he won Kara over completely.
"Justin? You're gonna take care of that rat bastard?" She gave Charles an appraising look. "Now you're in good shape, don't get me wrong – but Justin is a bad piece of business. I lived in Cabrini Green until my mama got smart and married her a good man. Those projects, though, they grew a certain sort of predator – the kind that loves violence for its own sake. That Justin, he has dead eyes – sent me back twenty years the first time I saw him. He's hurt people before and liked it. You're not going to frighten him off with just a warning."
The corner of Charles's lip turned up and his eyes warmed, changing his appearance entirely. "Thank you for the heads-up," he told her.
Kara gave him a regal nod. "If I know Anna, there's not an ounce of food to be found in the whole apartment. You need to feed that girl up. There's bagels and cream cheese in those bags on the table – and no, I don't mean to stay. I've got a week's worth of work waiting on me, but I couldn't go without knowing that Anna would eat something."
"I'll see that she does," Charles told her, the small smile still on his face.
Kara reached way up and patted his cheek in a motherly gesture. "Thank you." She gave Anna a quick hug and pulled an envelope out of her pocket and set it on the table next to the bagels. "You take this for watching the cat so I don't have to take him to the kennels with all those dogs he hates and pay them four times this amount. I find it in my cookie jar again, and I'll take him to the kennels just for spite because it will make you feel guilty."
Then she was gone.
Anna waited until the sound of her footsteps reached the next landing, then said, "How did you change so fast?"
"Do you want garlic or blueberry?" Charles asked, opening the bag.
When she didn't answer his question, he put both hands on the table and sighed. "You mean you haven't heard the story of the Marrok and his Indian maiden?" She couldn't read his voice and his face was tilted away from her so she couldn't read that either.
"No," she said.
He gave a short laugh, though she didn't think there was any humor behind it. "My mother was beautiful, and it saved her life. She'd been out gathering herbs and surprised a moose. It ran over her and she was dying from it when my father, attracted by the noise, came upon her. He saved my mother's life by turning her into a werewolf."
He took out the bagels and set them on the table with napkins. He sat down and waved her to the other seat. "Start eating and I'll tell you the rest of the story."
He'd given her the blueberry one. She sat opposite him and took a bite.
He gave a satisfied nod and then continued. "It was one of those love at first sight things on both their parts, apparently. Must have been looks, because neither one of them could speak the other's language at first. All was well until she became pregnant. My mother's father was a person of magic and he helped her when she told him that she needed to stay human until I was born. So every month, when my father and brother hunted under the moon she stayed human. And every moon she grew weaker and weaker. My father argued with her and with her father, worried that she was killing herself."
"Why did she do that?" Anna asked.
Charles frowned at her. "How long have you been a werewolf?"
"Three years last August."
"Werewolf women can't have children," he said. "The change is too hard on the fetus. They miscarry in the third or fourth month."
Anna stared at him. No one had ever told her that.
"Are you all right?"
She didn't know how to answer him. She hadn't exactly been planning on having children – especially as weird as her life had been for the last few years. She just hadn't planned on not having children either.
"This should have been explained to you before you chose to Change," he said.
It was her turn to laugh. "No one explained anything. No, it's all right. Please tell me the rest of your story."
He watched her for a long moment, then gave her an oddly solemn nod. "Despite my father's protests, she held out until my birth. Weakened by the magic of fighting the moon's call, she did not survive it. I was born a werewolf, not Changed as all the rest are. It gives me a few extra abilities – like being able to change fast."
"That would be nice," she said with feeling.
"It still hurts," he added.
She played with a piece of bagel. "Are you going to look for the missing boy?"
His mouth tightened. "No. We know where Alan Frazier is."
Something in his voice told her. "He's dead?"
He nodded. "There are some good people looking into his death, they'll find out who is responsible. He was Changed without his consent, the girl who was with him was killed. Then he was sold to be used as a laboratory guinea pig. The person responsible will pay for their crimes."
She started to ask him something more, but the door to her apartment flew open and hit the wall behind it, leaving Justin standing in the open doorway.
She'd been so intent on Charles, she hadn't heard Justin coming up the stairs. She'd forgotten to lock her door after Kara left. Not that it would have done her much good. Justin had a key to her apartment.
She couldn't help her flinch as he strode through the door as if he owned the place. "Payday," he said. "You owe me a check." He looked at Charles. "Time for you to go. The lady and I have some business."
Anna couldn't believe that even Justin would take that tone with Charles. She looked at him to gauge his reaction and saw why Justin had put his foot in it.
Charles was fussing with his plate, his eyes on his hands. All his awesome force of personality was bottled up and stuffed somewhere it didn't show.
"I don't think I'd better go," he murmured, still looking down. "She might need my help."
Justin's lip curled. "Where'd you pick this one up, bitch? Wait until I let Leo know you've found a stray and haven't told him about it." He crossed the room and took a handful of her hair. He used it to force her to her feet and up against the wall, shoving her with a hip in a gesture that was both sexual and violent. He leaned his face into hers. "Just you wait. Maybe he'll decide to let me punish you again. I'd like that."
She remembered the last time he'd been allowed to punish her and couldn't suppress her reaction. He enjoyed her panic and was pressed close enough that she could feel it.
"I don't think that she's the one who is going to be punished," Charles said, his voice still soft. But something in Anna loosened. He wouldn't let Justin hurt her.
She couldn't have said why she knew that – she'd certainly found out that just because a wolf wouldn't hurt her didn't mean he wouldn't stop anyone else from hurting her.
"I didn't tell you to talk," Justin snarled, his head snapping away from her so he could glare at the other man. "I'll deal with you when I'm finished."
The legs of Charles's chair made a rough sound on the floor as he stood. Anna could hear him dust off his hands lightly.
"I think you are finished here," he said in a completely different voice. "Let her go."
She felt the power of those words go through her bones and warm her stomach, which had been chill with fear. Justin liked to hurt her even more than he desired her unwilling body. She'd fought him until she realized that pleased him even more. She'd learned quickly that there was no way for her to win a struggle between them. He was stronger and faster, and the only time she'd broken away from him, the rest of the pack had held her for him.
At Charles's words, though, Justin released her so quickly that she staggered, though that didn't slow her down as she ran as far away from him as she could get, which was the kitchen. She picked up the marble rolling pin that had been her grandmother's and held it warily.
Justin had his back to her, but Charles saw her weapon and, briefly, his eyes smiled at her before he turned his attention to Justin.
"Who the hell are you?" Justin spat, but Anna heard beyond the anger to fear.
"I could return the question," said Charles. "I have a list of all the werewolves in the Chicago packs and your name is not on it. But that is only part of my business here. Go home and tell Leo that Charles Cornick is here to talk with him. I will meet him at his house at seven this evening. He may bring his first six and his mate, but the rest of his pack will stay away."
To Anna's shock, Justin snarled once, but, with no more protest than that, he left.