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Bargains and Betrayals
By Shannon Delany
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Shannon Delany
All rights reserved.
TWO DAYS LATER
My cigarettes called to me, urging me to step outside, to light one smooth cylinder and suck down the richly tainted air before the autumn wind could tug it away. To breathe deep the poison that calmed me. My hand shook, fingers raking through my hair; overanalyzing our current predicament rattled my nerves.
Max, Pietr, and Cat remarked on my smoking once: how could an oborot be a smoker? How could anyone with a werewolf's nose stand such a stink? I was, briefly, a puzzle to them.
Did I not disappear at all the right times to run beneath a moonlit sky? Did I not learn to pick out subtleties of sound and oddities of scent like the rest of them? Was I not quick on my feet and strong as a beast when I had to be?
Of course I was. I was trained by the best. Our parents built me up to be a perfect fraud — a fine work of fiction.
On the balls of my feet I descended the stairs as soft-footed as any full-blood Rusakova. At the bottom of the steps I turned, breathing deep. The mix of scent and sound told me Pietr and Cat were cloistered together in the sitting room, deep in discussion.
We lived, as my Russian predecessors would have said, like a cat and a dog — suitable in some ways but frequently quarreling and snapping at one another. I, once the domineering alpha, was now the too-human interloper skulking at the fringes of conversation until someone realized a need for my expertise.
Time spent working the black market came in handy, though I'd closed those doors as firmly as I could.
"I need to get her out," Pietr complained. Stating the obvious was only one of his ample gifts. Still bruised, battered, and with bones reset by Wanda, the very woman we'd been going head-to-head with over Mother's imprisonment, Pietr was healing more slowly than ever before. Faster than a simple human might, but at a pace unbearably slow for an oborot — one transformed.
We did not discuss the fact he almost died trying to keep his girlfriend free. That was the main rule Pietr, as the current and yet understated alpha of the family, enforced.
"Da, Jessie should be out," Cat agreed, and I peered around the door frame to watch a moment, patting my shirt pocket to make the cigarettes cease their insistent call.
Cat leaned over, a slender shadow stretched across the freshly repaired love seat's arm. What any of us bled on or tore up or warred across — as a result of Pietr's or Max's past reckless actions or our attempts to free Mother — Pietr made sure was cleaned or repaired. He knew appearances mattered to our sister most.
Cat patted his hand. "She is only to stay there what? — a month?"
Pietr groaned and sat back in the chair, his eyes narrow as he gazed at his twin. "Da. A month. More, if she does not behave."
"Then let her behave. Do not interfere."
He groaned again.
"Think, Pietr." She nudged his knee with her foot and laughed. "Think with the more proper part of your anatomy," she teased.
"Do not become like Max, salivating over a girl." Though I could not see them, I knew she rolled her eyes dramatically as she waved a hand to dismiss the idea altogether. "A month is not so long."
"Not to you," he said, cocking his head to examine her heart-shaped face. "Not now."
Did she seem different to him since she'd taken the cure? Was she somehow less now she had more years to her life span? To me, she was still and always Ekaterina — Cat — beautiful and troublesome as ever. A danger to young men's hearts ... and anyone willing to try her cooking. Was there something about her my simple human senses overlooked? Something in her complexion, her carriage, her gait, her scent?
I drew back, slinking around the banister to head to the rear of the Queen Anne house we still called home, and the solitude of the back porch.
Each child in a family had a role to play; the eldest was often the leader — the alpha. For a while the role was mine. When it was necessary I shouldered the heaviest responsibility, took the greatest risks. I learned the ins and outs of the dark side of commerce. I sold my soul as much as anything on the black market to make ends meet once our parents were gone and our safety was at risk.
Everything I did, I did for them. My brothers. My sister. My family.
But the night of the twins' seventeenth birthday — the night the Mafia came for them — they learned the truth behind all my years of deception: Although I was their brother in name, I was never their brother in blood. Therefore my usefulness was limited and officially at an end except as their legal guardian. That usefulness might yet conclude when Maximilian turned eighteen.
I froze at the back door, my hand upon the knob; the lace of the small window's curtain teased across my fingers like an ant traipsing over the mountains my knuckles formed.
Seated on the porch, Max hung his right leg over the edge, his left tucked beneath him, so he sat near enough to shadow Amy. Her feet swung back and forth, beating an angry rhythm into the cool air, her fingers curled around the edge of the decking. Beneath the thin gloves she wore I imagined her knuckles were white in frustration.
In the yard beyond them, leaves flew and splintered in the snapping wind of approaching winter. No snow had fallen yet, but the clouds threatened daily. The earth was brown and crisp, the bright colors of autumn's leaves dulled.
Max spoke. Amy heard, her head nodding at appropriate intervals. Max believed she was listening, but I knew better.
From her closed body language I realized he was back to the same words that had so recently made her storm away and slam the basement door in his face.
It was the discussion survivors of abuse dreaded. A discussion Max tried to have with the very best of intentions, but ... how could he understand? He was the hero. She was the victim. There could be no even footing between them until she found her place in the story of her own life. Stood on her own.
Max was new; she and her abuser, Marvin Broderick, shared a past. Max had chosen to give her an option beyond her abusive boyfriend: him. She had taken it, but still she and Marvin had a connection: They shared a town, a school, and acquaintances. Her life was a daily mix of stressful decisions.
Max had difficulty understanding that. He made his choice. He did not realize she had to continue making choices moment by moment and day by day.
I considered leaving my spot inside the back door, knowing well the ground being retread.
A breeze snatched at Amy's auburn hair, lifting it up and away from her face in snapping angles. Her eyes closed and she turned to face Max, her mouth opening to bite off a reply just as her hair struck out and blinded him.
He choked, flailed.
And made a greater ass of himself.
From the door I nearly made my presence known by snickering at him — my idiotic little brother.
Amy laughed, seeing him so off balance. She gave him a little shove, her hands flying up and shaking between them as if to say, If you weren't sitting on top of me, you gigantic oaf ...
Or perhaps that was merely my interpretation.
In the time it took to blink an eye, the heated discussion had fallen to the wayside and they had returned to what they did best together — flirting and teasing. It seemed years were added to his life just being around her.
He said something. Stupid, no doubt, and she slapped him playfully — how did she phrase it? — upside the head. I would have gladly helped put words in Max's mouth, but it was always awkward fitting them around his foot.
He sputtered, seizing her wrist to drag her hand slowly across his stubbled jawline. In that singular moment, that heartbeat when she shivered and he straightened ever so slightly to watch her reaction, in that moment alone was more intimacy and passion than in all the flings and one-night stands he'd ever reveled in.
Priding myself a scientist of sorts, I watched their body language: her leaning toward him, falling into the shadow he cast, him rolling his shoulders forward to envelop her more completely without even raising his arms. A subtle slide of movement, a gentle curve to her posture and the rays and angles — the lines their bodies drew — the very math that existed between their two separate figures, spoke more accurately than any words in either of our first languages.
This was something stronger than anything he'd ever known — ever felt — before. Something deeper. Something new to both of them. It was love, made clear in geometric terms.
Once, in Moscow, I had been able to measure the distance from a girl's heart to mine simply by noting the few degrees of separation between our forms, the dimensions devising our expressions. I loved that girl.
And I realized this might yet be the death of us. Not the werewolves — neither the mafiosos who called themselves werewolves nor the oboroten, living the abbreviated and violent life span that would eventually kill my siblings. Nyet. It has never truly been about werewolves, has it?
It has always been about life and death. About choices. About love and loss.
I made my choice and left Moscow. Left Nadezhda. My brothers have made theirs, so we stay in Junction.
Someday soon all our most dangerous decisions, all these choices, will catch up to us and we will drink what we have brewed — reaping and sowing not being nearly as fashionable.
Clutching the dry comfort of the cigarettes nestled in their box, my hands trembled and the doorknob squeaked.
Without even turning to face the door, Max rolled out words underpinned with the growl that had become his normal tone when mentioning or addressing me. "He's watching us again."
Amy peered over his shoulder and winked at me as I stepped past them on the porch and headed down the stairs to light up. "Then let's give him something to watch," she suggested.
Behind me, I heard him growl. She giggled when he pounced.
Perhaps leaving Nadezhda in Moscow had been a bigger mistake than I'd ever imagined. Time would surely tell, as it did in all things.CHAPTER 2
Trapped in Dr. Jones's office at Pecan Place for another session, being asked the same questions and getting none of mine answered, I was becoming frantic.
"What does it matter?" she asked. Leaning back in her leather chair she watched me from behind her wide desk. "You are here. Safe. You're already making progress with your therapy."
It might have been congratulations, but it rolled out of her mouth through a sneer.
"Just tell me," I whispered — implored — bending forward to narrow the distance between us. "Tell me how he is."
My eyes pressed shut and I clamped my teeth together to bite back a shout. Three days and no word about Pietr. No message from Dad. Nothing from beyond Pecan Place. Nothing to anchor me to my past or to the people I loved. "Damn it." The words squeezed out from between my lips.
Dr. Jones pitched forward and jotted a note on her clipboard. "You need to stay in control. Remember our facility's rules against profanity."
Against profanity, contact with the outside world, and freedom of thought.
Dr. Jones stood. "I'd hate for you to be placed on restriction."
Words curled up in my throat, spiraling around as uselessly as dry leaves. There were a few things I'd learned over the three days since I'd agreed to come to the institution to keep Dr. Jones's guards from killing Pietr ...
... from killing Pietr ...
I struggled for focus. Of the things I'd learned in the sparsely populated Pecan Place, when to keep my mouth shut was the most vital lesson.
But that lesson was being tested.
"Pietr Rusakova's situation has nothing to do with your mental health."
"His situation has everything to do with my mental health." The chair was suddenly too confining, so I stood. "I'm the reason he was attacked."
"I disagree," Dr. Jones said, her tone level and cool while her eyes flicked down and forward. I followed her gaze to my hands — gripping her desk so hard my fingers were splotched red and white. "He is the only one responsible for his behavior and the results of that behavior."
"His behavior was an attempt to protect me."
"Protect you? From what? From achieving better mental health? He was obviously obsessed with you."
I twitched. Obsessed? Hardly. In love? I hoped. But the word that bothered me most in that sentence? Was.
As if Pietr was firmly in the past tense.
"Put me on restriction — I don't care! Just tell me if Pietr's okay. Is he alive, or did your guards — my guards — did they kill him?" With a growl I pried my fingers from the lip of her desk long enough to clear it with one violent sweep of my arms. Files and papers of all shapes and sizes flew off its surface and snowed down around us in deceptively slow and gentle arcs.
She grinned and took one hard step forward, her shoe slapping the floor.
An alarm sounded.
Behind me the door burst open and a nurse rushed in, flanked by my mountainous guards.
The nurse paused, eyed me — judged and weighed me and pulled a hypodermic needle from behind her back. She nudged the syringe's thumb rest slightly so a brief trickle of amber liquid dribbled down the needle's sharp tip before slipping onto the syringe's transparent shaft.
"No!" I dodged to avoid the guards' grip, but their fingers hooked into my arms like icy sausages. "Just tell me," I begged, throat tightening, tears fuzzing my vision as they burned free of my eyes. "Tell me if Pietr's alive!"
But the needle was in, the plunger was down, and everything wobbled in my sight like heat waves hovering above blacktop.
"Tell me." My tongue slow, the words were thick, as blurred as my vision. I fought to focus, desperate for an answer ...
"What does it matter? You'll never see him again."
And the darkness chewing at the edge of my failing vision finally stole my senses away.
In the foyer, Pietr readied to again sneak off into the night, to hope for still winds and calm air and a few precious minutes to press his face to the thick glass that separated him from the girl he adored. To stare at her a mere moment before the dogs caught his scent. "What good comes of this? Does she want to see you — like this? Knowing the danger you put yourself in? Does she even know you visit?"
He turned away, unmoved by my question except for the telltale rise of a single vein near his temple. "I know I'm there. Jess needs me."
"Jessie, even locked away in an insane asylum — did you not say she's been sedated? She makes more sense than you," I stated. "She would not want you there if it meant you risked your safety."
His hand was already on the door, his mind made up. "Maybe I'm not doing this just for her," he said, his eyes a cool blue though I knew he seethed within, "maybe I'm doing this for me."
"Then you've finally succeeded in combining stupidity with selfishness," I congratulated him. "You know pining over her does nothing for any of us. It is a distraction — not a solution."
"Why don't you focus on the solution, then, brother," he snarled, whipping around, "rather than your multitude of distractions?" He grabbed the pocket of my shirt and, with a quick squeeze of his fingers, crushed the box of cigarettes resting there.
The front door slammed shut behind him.
I dragged the crumpled box out and examined its bent and broken contents.
Little brothers were so difficult.
Sliding the paper from its normal place between the cigarettes and my heart, I unfolded it carefully so as to not drop the small photograph nestled within. In my grasp the letter quivered, the flowing Cyrillic script of Nadezhda's uncompromising hand wobbling until it became nearly impossible to decipher. But I knew the words by heart.
Part Pushkin's "Night" and part her own words of love, the letter was a perfect example of the superiority of longhand correspondence to the stale vanilla of e-mail and text.
She and I had been apart too long, because I did what Pietr never would. I broke a promise. A promise to the daughter of one of the most dangerous men in Russia — head of one of the largest districts of the Russian Mafia. A promise to take her away from the danger, the drug lords, the whores and violent criminals, to settle with her in a modest dacha all our own.
Excerpted from Bargains and Betrayals by Shannon Delany. Copyright © 2011 Shannon Delany. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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