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San Francisco, May 1882
Cort Renier glanced one last time at the girl on the stage and spread his cards with a flourish.
"Royal Flush," he drawled with a lazy smile. "It seems the luck is with me tonight, gentlemen."
They weren't happy. The game had been grueling, even for Cort. The players were the best, all speciallyand secretlyinvited to the tournament, all hoping to win prizes no legitimate game could offer.
Prizes like the girl, who stared across the room with a blank gaze, lost to whatever concoction her captors had given her. She was most definitely beautiful. Her figure was slender, her face, even beneath the absurd white makeup, as classically lovely as that of a Greek nymph, her golden hair begging for a man's caress.
She couldn't have been more than fourteen.
Cort's smile tightened. It was her youth, as well as her beauty and apparent virginity, that made wealthy, hard-hearted men fight to win her.
Many girls could be bought in the grim back alleys and sordid dives of San Francisco's Barbary Coast. But not girls like this one, who so clearly was no child of San Francisco's underworld. Who was of European descent, not one of the unfortunate Chinese immigrants who routinely fell victim to unscrupulous traffickers in human flesh. Someone had taken a risk in offering her as a prize, if only the secondary one. The organizers of this contest were no doubt confident that she would simply disappear, hidden away by the winner until anyone who might look for her had given her up for dead.
Cort's gaze came to rest on the man whose hand had lost to his. Ernest Cochrane wasn't accustomed to losing. His lust for the girl had been manifest from the moment they'd sat down at the table. He had a bad reputation, even for the Coast, even if he deceived the high and mighty with whom he associated in his "normal" life. If he'd won her, she would have suffered a life of perpetual degradation as a sexual plaything for one of the most powerful men in California.
Until he tired of her, of course. Then she might, if she were lucky, have been sold to another man, less discriminating in his desires.
Or she might have ended up in the Bay. Cochrane wouldn't want to risk any chance that his wife and children and fellow entrepreneurs might learn what a villain he truly was.
The others were no better. Even those Cort didn't know stank of corruption and dissipation. They were dangerous men, and every one of his instincts had rebelled against becoming involved. He wasn't some gallant bent on protecting womankind from a fate worse than death, however well he played the role of gentleman. If she hadn't been so young, he might have ignored the girl's plight. Yuri had urged him not to be a fool.
But it was done now, and Cochrane was glaring at him with bitter hatred in his eyes.
"Luck," Cochrane said in his smooth, too-cultured voice, "has a way of turning, Renier." He nodded to one of the liveried attendants. "We'll have another deck."
Cort rose from his chair. "I do thank you, Mr. Cochrane, gentleman, but I am finished for the evening, and I believe this game has been won in accordance with the rules of the tournament." He tipped his hat. "Perhaps another time."
"Another time won't do, Mr. Renier. And I have doubts that this game was played honestly."
"If I were a less reasonable man, Cochrane, I might choose to take offense at your insinuation." Cort inclined his head. "Bonsoir, messieurs."
He knew it wouldn't end so easily, of course. He heard Cochrane's hatchet man come up behind him before the hooligan had gone a foot beyond his hiding place behind the curtains on the left side of the stage. Cort casually hooked his thumb in the waistband of his trousers. The man behind him breathed sharply and shifted his weight.
"Now, now, Monsieur Cochrane," Cort said. "We wouldn't wish this diverting interlude to end on an unpleasant note, would we?"
"Another game," Cochrane said, less smoothly than before.
"I think not."
The hatchet man lunged. Cort turned lightly, caught the man's wrist before his fist could descend and twisted. The man yelped and fell to his knees, cradling his broken limb to his chest.
Cort sighed and shook his head, flipping his coat away from his waist. "As you see, gentleman, I carry no weapons. However, I find it quite unmannerly to attack a man when his back is turned." He bowed to Cochrane. "I bid you good evening."
His ears were pricked as he walked away, but no one came after him. They'd been at least a little impressed by his demonstration, though how long that would last was another question entirely. It would be the better part of valor by far to leave this establishment as soon as possible.
And he would have to take his prize with him, even if he didn't want her and had no place to put her. He was threading his way among the gaming tables toward the stage when Yuri came puffing up to join him.
"Why did you do it?" Yuri whispered, his accent thick with distress. "You have lost us half a million dollars and made enemies we cannot afford. Have you gone completely mad?"
Oh, yes, Cort thought, recognizing the true height of his foolishness. He could avoid Cochrane's henchmen for a while, but he didn't want to spend the rest of his time in San Francisco watching his back, and fighting was always a last resort. His strength and speed had a way of attracting too much attention. And the kind of attention he liked had nothing to do with being loup-garou.
"Don't fret, mon ami," he said. "Has my luck ever failed us yet?"
The question was sheer bluster, of course. He had not always had such luck. In fact, he and Yuri had been nearly penniless when they arrived in San Francisco. He had won just enough over the past several months to pay for room and board, and to get himself invited to the tournament, which had been intended only for the wealthier patrons of San Francisco's gambling establishments.
But he had chosen to compete in the secondary match for the sake of a sentimentality that should have been crushed long ago, like all the other passions he had discarded over the years.
"Would you have me leave a child to such a wretched fate?" he asked.
Yuri had just opened his mouth to make a sarcastic reply when a tall, thin man with a crooked nose rushed up to them. His gaze darted from Yuri to Cort and then warily over Cort's shoulder to the table he had left.
"Cortland Renier?" the newcomer asked.
Cort bowed. "At your service."
"You're ready to claim your prize?"
"Come this way."
The thin man scurried off, and Cort strode after him. Yuri rushed to keep up.
"I think you'd best stay behind," Cort said over his shoulder. "The girl may be frightened if both of us approach her."
Yuri snorted. "And you care so much for the feelings of this girl you have never seen before?"
"I intend to protect my winnings," Cort said.
"I am not going back into that room," Yuri said, gesturing behind him.
"In that case, I would suggest that you go home."
Yuri muttered a curse in his native language and stopped. The thin man went through a door at the left foot of the stage, which opened up into a small anteroom. A second door led to a larger room, empty save for a few broken chairs, a table laden with various prizes and a quartet of rough-looking characters Cort supposed must serve as guards.
The girl sat in the only sound chair in the room, utterly still in her white nightgown, her hands limply folded in her lap. The smell of laudanum and some sickly perfume hung over her in a choking cloud. She looked like a doll, which Cort assumed had been the point of dressing her to appear the waif, innocent and pliable and ready to be used. What she might be like free of the narcotic was anyone's guess.
His guide disappeared and the guards glowered at him as he approached the girl. She didn't look up.
"Bonjour, ma chere," he said softly.
Her fingers twitched, but she continued to stare at the floor some three feet from tips of her small white toes. Cort moved into her line of sight.
"It's all right," he said. "No one will hurt you."
Slowly, so slowly that the movement was hardly visible, she lifted her head, her gaze sliding up the length of his body. Her eyes, when they met his, were remarkable, even clouded with the effects of laudanum or whatever else they had given her. Their color was neither green nor blue but some intermediate between them, the color of the sea on a clear, still day.
The knowledge struck him all at once, stealing his breath. He had been more of a fool than even he had realized. This girl wasn't merely some unfortunate who had run afoul of the most vicious elements of the Bar-bary Coast. It was remarkable that she had been taken at all.
For she was loup-garou. And he understood then why he had been compelled to rescue her.
There were a number of very colorful curses Cort had learned in childhood, before he had become a gentleman. He swallowed them and smiled.
"Come," he said. "It is time to leave this place."
Her tongue darted out to touch her lips, but she didn't acknowledge his words in any other way. Her shoulders slumped, and her chin fell to her chest.
Werewolf or not, it was clear that she couldn't walk without help. Gingerly Cort reached for her arm. It was firm under his fingers, not at all like that of the passive doll she appeared to be.
Taking hold of her shoulders, he raised her from the chair. For a moment it seemed that she might stand on her own, but that moment was quickly gone. Her legs gave way, and her head lolled to the side. Her eyes rolled back under her eyelids.
"Cochon," Cort growled. "You have given her too much."
Only the guards were there to hear him, and their indifference couldn't have been more obvious. Cort lifted the girl into his arms, looking for a door that didn't exit into the main room. There was another narrow doorway at the back of the room that Cort's nose told him led outside. He strode past the guards, shifted the girl's weight to the crook of one arm while he opened the door and walked into an alley heaped with rubbish and stinking of urine.
Early morning fog was rolling over the city, bringing with it the damp chill so familiar to San Francisco's residents. Knowing that he was more vulnerable while he was carrying a helpless female, Cort moved quickly into the street, listened carefully and continued at a brisk pace away from the saloon.
The cacophony of smellsexotic spices, liquor, unwashed bodies, brackish water and things even Cort couldn't namenearly choked him, even after so many months as a regular visitor to the Coast. Inebriates and opium-eaters crouched at the sides of the street, some so lost in their foul habits that they didn't notice him pass, others stretching out their hands in a pitiful plea for money. Shanghaiers, lingering in the shadows, followed Cort's progress with calculating eyes. On more than one occasion he heard footsteps behind him, too regular and furtive to be those of a drunkard.
But his stalkers refrained from attacking him, no doubt recognizing that he would not be easy prey, even with the woman in his arms. Still, Cort released a sigh of relief as he turned onto Washington Street, where he shared a two-room apartment with Yuri. The woman who ran the boardinghouse never asked questions of either of them, and she wasn't likely to begin now, no matter what strange cargo Cort brought home with him.
The girl still hadn't stirred by the time he walked up the creaking stairs and passed down the hall to his room. He kicked the door, wincing at the idea of possible damage to his highly polished boot, and waited for Yuri to answer.
Fortunately, the Russian had taken his advice and gone directly home. Yuri opened the door, grimaced and stepped aside. Cort carried the girl to the moth-eaten sofa that graced what passed for a sitting room and laid her down, taking care not to jar her.
"Chyort," Yuri swore. "What are we supposed to do with her?"
Cort took off his hat and hung it from the hook on the wall by the door. "That is my concern."
"It's as much mine as yours as long as she is here. I trust that will not be long."
"I do not intend to keep her," Cort said, returning to the sofa.
"Even a day is too much. Cochrane is not easily thwarted. He will have no difficulty in finding us."
That was indeed a danger, but Cort was in no mood to cower in fear from a man like Cochrane. "You are free to move on if you wish, Baron Chernikov."
Yuri drew himself up. "I am no coward."
"Bien. If she has any family in the city, we shall find out soon enough."
"Family? What family would allow this to happen?"
Indeed. There were few enough werewolves in this part of California, and those of any honor would hardly permit one of their own young females to roam alone on the streets or be exposed to the rough elements of San Francisco's less polished neighborhoods. Yet it was also true that most of the loups-garous with whom Cort was personally acquainted were hardly models of virtuelone wolves all, making temporary alliances with each other only when circumstances demanded it.
"I don't know," Cort said, "but as she is loup-garou, I do not believe she can be completely cut off from her own kind."
The Russian's eyes widened. "She is oboroten?"
Cort gave a curt nod, and Yuri breathed a laugh. "Ah. Now I see why you saved her."
"I would have done the same had she been human."
"Would you?" Yuri brooded as he looked the girl over. "Werewolf females don't usually wander about in the city unescorted, do they?"
"Not as a matter of course. The men who took her could have had no idea what she was."
"Then" Suddenly Yuri grinned, showing his even white teeth. "Someone must want her back very much."
"Naturally. There are only two established loup-garou families in San Francisco. If she doesn't belong to them, we will inquire" He broke off, struck again by his own stupidity. It should have occurred to him the moment he recognized what she washell, he should have thought of it when he first set out to win her.
"We could get back some of what you lost," Yuri went on, recognizing Cort's comprehension. "Most of it, in fact, if we handle this correctly."
"You do realize that we are speaking of loups-garous? "