MY BIG FAT SUPERNATURAL HONEYMOON
Werewolves Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers are the protagonists of the first two novels in the Women of the Otherworld series, and appear as major characters in succeeding books.
I HAD TO GET RID OF THE MUTT
Killing him would be easiest but, unfortunately, out of the question. If Elena found out, she'd be pissed. Ten years from now, I'd still be hearing about it: "Clay couldn't even get through our honeymoon without killing someone."
She'd laugh when she said it ... in ten years. Right now, she'd be furious.
She'd argue there were better ways to handle the situation. I disagreed. The mutt knew we were in town and that by sticking around, he was taking his life into his hands. If he'd skittered into the shadows and stayed out of our way, I'd have said, "Fuck it," and pretended not to notice. After all, it was my honeymoon.
Even if he'd just stood his ground and refused to hide, Iwouldn't have made a big deal of it. Beaten the crap out of him, yes. Had to. The Law was the Law, and it stated that a non-Pack werewolf had to cede territory to a Pack one. Unfair, maybe, but if you let one mutt break the rules, the next thing you knew, they'd be camping out back at Stonehaven, knocking on the door, asking if they could use the facilities.
But this mutt wasn't hiding or defending his territory. He was stalking Elena. He'd been following us all morning and was now sitting across the restaurant, gaze glued to her ass as she bent over the buffet table.
When your mate is the only female werewolf, you get used to other wolves sniffing around. I'd spent the last eighteen years dealing with it or, more often, watching her deal with it. With Elena, interference is not appreciated. She can fight her own fights, and gets snippy if I rob her of the chance. But this was our honeymoon, and damned if I was going to let this mutt spoil it. He had to be dealt with before Elena realized he was stalking her. The question was how.
When Elena walked back to the table, the mutt had the sense to busy himself gnawing on a sparerib.
"You okay?" she asked as she slid into her seat. "You've been quiet since the Arch."
The mutt had started following us there.
"Just hungry. I'm fine now."
"I should hope so. After three plates." She buttered her bread, then studied me. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I don't know ... ." I shrugged and pretended to ease back in my chair, then lunged and snagged bacon from her plate. I folded it into my mouth. "Nope, still hungry."
She brandished her fork. "Then get your own or"
I snatched another slice, too slow this time, and she stabbed the back of my hand. I yelped.
"I warned you," she laughed.
The women at the next table stared in horror. Elena glanced their way. Five years ago, she would have blushed. Ten years ago, she would have found an excuse to leave. Today, she just murmured a rueful "whoops," and dug into her potatoes.
I got another plate of food, avoiding the temptation to pass the mutt's table. He'd made a point of staying downwind outside and now sat partially obscured by a pillar, too far away for his scent to carry. For now, I'd let him think he was safe, undetected.
When I came back, Elena said, "I think I have an outing idea for us. Someone behind me in line was talking about a state park. Could be fun." Her blue eyes glittered. "Of course, we shouldn't go during the day when there are people around."
"Nope, we shouldn't." I speared a ham slab. "This afternoon, then?"
She grinned. "Perfect."
WHEN YOU RESORT TO EVERYDAY ACTIVITIES ON YOUR honeymoon, you know it's not going well. Planning our second run in as many days meant Elena was bored and trying very hard not to let me know it.
The first couple of days had been great. With two-year-old twins at home, the only time we normally got away was when our Alpha, Jeremy, sent us to track down a misbehaving mutt. Being on a mission doesn't mean we can't enjoy ourselves. There's nothing like celebrating a successful hunt with sex. Or working out the frustration of a failed hunt with sex. Or dulling that edge of pre-hunt excitement with sex.
But there was also something to be said for skipping the whole "track, capture, and maim" part and being able to go straight to a hotel room, and lock the door. Still, we could stay in there for only so long before we got restless, and when we came out, we'd discovered a problem with our honeymoon destination: there wasn't a helluva lot to do.
BACK AT THE HOTEL, WE CALLED HOME AND talked to the kids. Or they listened as we talked, and had their answers interpreted by Jeremy. As much as we loved our daily call, we spent most of it braced for the inevitable "Momma? Daddy? Home?" or in Kate's case: "Momma! Daddy! Home!" Jeremy managed to spare us this time, stopping as soon as Logan asked "Momma where?" and bustling them off with his visiting girlfriend, Jaime.
Next Jeremy and Elena would talk about the kids and discuss any new Pack or council business. Normally, I'd listen in and offer my opinionwhether they wanted it or notbut today I told Elena I was going downstairs to grab a map and a bottle of water, and took off.
I WAS REASONABLY SURE THE MUTT HADN'T FOLLOWED us from the restaurant, but wanted to scout to be absolutely certain. We'd walked to the Arch and then to the restaurant, meaning we'd had to walk back, which gave him the opportunity to follow. A cab would have solved that, but if I'd voluntarily offered to spend time trapped in a vehicle with a stranger, Elena would have been on the phone to Jeremy, panicked that my arm was reinfected and I was sliding into delirium.
So I'd suggested we take the long route back. The mutt hadn't followed. Maybe he'd had second thoughts. If he'd heard the rumors about me, he'd know he could be setting himself up for along and painful death. But if he'd believed that, he should have hightailed it the moment he crossed our path. So while I hoped, I didn't trust.
I grabbed a brochure on state parks, stuffed it into my back pocket, then headed out the front door to circle the hotel. I got five steps before his scent hit me. I stopped to retie my sneaker and snuck a look around.
The bastard was right across the street. He sat on a bench facing the hotel, reading a newspaper. Cocky? Or just too young and inexperienced to know I could smell him from here?
I straightened and shielded my eyes, as if scanning the storefronts. When I turned his way, he lifted the paper to hide his face, but slowly. Cocky. Shit.
Normally, I'm happy to show a cocky young mutt how I earned my reputation. At that age, one good thrashing is all it takes. But damn it, this was my honeymoon.
I crossed the road and headed into the first alley.
THERE WERE TWO WAYS THE MUTT COULD PLAY this, depending on why he was stalking Elena. It could be his misguided way of challenging me. Stupidany wolf knew his mate wouldn't lift her tail for the first younger male who sauntered her way. Only a human would fly into a jealous rage and call a man out for it. But if challenging me was his goal, he'd follow me into the alley.
Or he might really be after Elena. He wouldn't be the first mutt to think she might not object to a new mate.
I walked far enough into the alley to disappear, then crept back along the wall, lost in its shadow, stopping when I could see the hotel door. After a few minutes, a car horn blasted and a figure darted through the heavy traffic. It was the mutt, heading straight for the hotel.
I circled around the block, then came in the hotel side entrance, beside the check-in desk. I stopped there, partially hidden by a huge fake plant. The stink of the plastic fern overpowered everything else.
I peered through the fronds. There he was, hovering at the other end of the desk, sizing up the staff. Hoping to get our room number? I stepped out. Just as he turned, a pale blond ponytail bounced past on the other side of the lobby. Elena.
I turned away from the mutt before he realized I'd made him. I opened my mouth to hail Elena, then stopped. If she saw me, she'd head over here. Better for her to keep walking and I'd catch up outside the front doors
Shit. He'd walked in the front doors. His scent would still linger there, and Elena had a better sense of smell than any werewolf I knew. I started walking fast to cut her off. She caught sight of the brochure rack and veered that way.
I yanked the park guide from my back pocket and waved it. I moved to the left, blocking her view of the mutt. She couldn't smell him from here, but she was in charge of the Pack's mutt dossiers and might recognize him.
"Got the maps," I said. "I was looking for water. I can't find a damn machine"
She directed my attention to the gift shop.
"Shit. Okay, let's grab one and go."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the mutt watching us. Elena's gaze traveled across the lobby, as if sensing something. I took her elbow and wheeled her toward the gift shop.
She peeled my fingers from her arm. "I'm looking"
"The gift shop's behind you."
"Where I just pointed. No kidding. I'm looking for the parkinggarage exit. I was going to say we can get a drink on the way. It's too expensive here."
"Good. I mean, right. The stairs are back there, by the elevators."
She nodded and let me lead the way.
THE PARK WASN'T BUSY, SO AVOIDING HUMANS WAS easy. That took some of the challenge out of it, but a new place to run is always good.
We spent most of the afternoon as wolves, exploring and playing, working up a sharp hunger for the hunt. We'd found a few deer trails, but all our tearing around scared the small herd into hiding. Probably just as wellin places like this, people pay attention to ripped-apart deer carcasses, and we'd have felt guilty later, knowing we'd nudged the line between acceptable and unacceptable risk. We settled for rabbits, the fat dull-witted sort you find in preserves with few natural predators.
The snack was enough to still the hunger pangs without making us sleepy, so we followed it up with more games, these ones taking on an edge, the snarls sharper, the nips harder, fangs drawing blood, working up to the inevitable conclusiona fast Change back and hard, raw sex that left us scratched and bruised, happy and drowsy, stretched on the forest floor, bodies apart, feet entwined.
I was on my back, shielding my eyes from the sun shifting through the trees, too lazy to move out of its way. Elena lay on her stomach, watching an ant crawl across her open palm.
"What about a second stop for our honeymoon?" I asked.
Her nose scrunched in an unspoken "What?"
"Well, I know this isn't shaping up to be everything you'd hoped ... ."
"This afternoon was." She grinned and rubbed her foot against mine. "I'm having a good time, but if you're not ..."
How the hell was I supposed to answer that? No, darling, our honeymoon sucks. I'm bored and I want to go somewhere else.
If it was true, I wouldn't have minded saying so, though I supposed, being a romantic getaway I'd have to phrase it more carefully. Walking away from a threat set my teeth on edge, but it was better than having this mutt ruin our honeymoon. Still, given the choice between staying and making Elena think I was having a shitty time, something told me option oneeven if it meant fighting a bigger, younger werewolfwas a whole lot safer.
"I'm fine," I said. "You just seemed a little ... bored earlier."
Alarm brightened her eyes and she hurried to assure me she was, most certainly, not bored. I should have known. Any other time, Elena would have no problem admitting it. But a honeymoon was different. It was a ritual and, as such, came with rules, and saying she was bored broke them all.
Shortly after I met Elena, I'd realized that while she squirmed and chafed under the weight of human rules and expectations, there was one aspect of them she embraced almost to the point of worship. Rituals. Like Christmas. Ask Elena to bring cookies for the parent-and-tot picnic and she'll buy them at the bakery, then dump them into a plastic container so they'd look homemade. But come mid-December, she'll whip herself into a frenzy of baking, loving every minute because that's part of Christmas.
When the subject of "making it official for the kids' sake" came up, I knew she'd want the rituala real wedding, the kind she'd dreamed of eighteen years ago when we'd bought the rings, her face lit up with dreams of a white dress and a new life and happily ever after.
Instead of the happily ever after, she got a bite on the handand the kind of new life that had once existed only in her nightmares.
I won't make excuses for what I did. The truth is that your whole life can change with one split-second decision and it doesn't matter if you told yourself you'd never do it, or if you stepped into that moment with no thought of doing it. All it takes is that one second of absolute panic when the solution shines in front of you, and you grab it ... only to have it turn to ash in your hand. There is no excuse for what I did.
After I bit Elena, it took eleven years for her to forgive me. Forgetting what I'd done to her, though, was impossible. It was always there, lurking in the background.
When Elena vetoed a wedding, I thought it was just the weight of human mores againthat it didn't feel right when we already had kids. So I'd decided I'd give her one, as a surprise. Jeremy talked me out of it and it was then, as he waffled and circled the subject of "why not" that I finally understood. There could be no wedding because every stepfrom sending invitations to walking down the aislewould only remind her of the one she'd planned all those years ago, and the hell she'd gone through when it fell apart.
But the honeymoon was one part of the ritual we hadn't discussed. So, if a wedding was out, the least I could do was give her that.
I'd made all the arrangements, trying to create the perfect honeymoon. My way of saying that I'd screwed up eighteen years ago and I was damned lucky we'd ever reached the stage where a honeymoon was even a possibility.
THE MUTT RESURFACED AT DINNER, SPOILING MY SECOND meal in a day. Not just any meal this time, but a special one at a place soexclusive that Iwell, Jeremyhad to reserve our table weeks ago. It was one of those restaurants where the lighting is so dim, I don't know how humans can see what they're eating or find what they're eatingthe tiny portions lost on a plate filled with inedible decorations. But it was romantic. At least, that's what the guidebook said.
It matched Elena's expectations, and that was all that mattered. She'd enjoy the fussy little portions, the fancy wines, the fawning waitstaff, then fill up on pizza in our room later. Which was fine by me ... until the mutt showed up.
As I was returning from the bathroom, he stepped into the lobby to ask the maître d' for directions. Our eyes met. He smiled, turned, and sauntered out.
I knew I should walk away. Take care of him later. But there was no way I could enjoy my dinner knowing he was prowling outside. And if I didn't enjoy it, Elena wouldn't enjoy it, and we'd get into a fight about why I'd take her someplace I'd hate only to sulk through the meal. I was determined to make it through this trip without any knock-down, drag-out fights ... or, at least, not to cause any myself.
I waited until the maître d' escorted a couple into the dining room, then took off after the mutt.
I FOUND HIM WAITING FOR ME IN THE lane behind the restaurant. He was leaning against the wall, ankles crossed, eyes closed.
Who raises their kids like this? That was the problem with mutts. Not all muttsI'll give them that. Some teach their sons basic survival and a few do as good a job as any Pack wolf, but there are far too many who just don't give a damn. At least in a Pack, if your father doesn't teach you properly, someone else will.
Here stood a perfect example of poor mutt-parenting skillsa kid stupid enough not only to challenge me, but to feign confidenceto the point of boredom, lowering his guard in the hopes of looking "cool." Now I had to teach him a lesson, all because his father couldn't be bothered telling him I wasn't someone to fuck with.
Werewolves earn their reputations through endless challenges. Twenty-seven years ago, when I'd wanted to protect Jeremy on his rise to Alphahood, I didn't have time for that. So I'd sealed my reputation with a single decisive act, one guaranteed to convince every mutt on the continent that the infamous child werewolf had grown into a raging lunatic. To get to Jeremy, they had to go through me, and after what I did, few dared try.
I could only hope this mutt just didn't realize whom he'd challenged and, once he did, a few abject apologies and a brief trouncing would set the matter straight and I could get back to my honeymoon.
I walked over and planted myself in front of him.
He opened his eyes, stretched, and faked a yawn. "Clayton Danvers, I presume?"
So much for that idea ... .
I studied him. After a moment, he straightened, shifting his weight and squirming like a freshman caught napping during my lectures.
"What?" he said.
I examined him head to foot, eyes narrowing.
"What?" he said again.
"I'm trying to figure out what you've got."
His broad face screwed up, lips pulling back, giving me a shot of breath that smelled like it'd never been introduced to mouthwash.
"So what is it?" I asked. "Cancer, hemorrhagic fever, rabies ..."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You do have a fatal disease, right? In horrible agony? 'Cause that's the only reason any mutt barely past his first Change would call me out. Looking for a quick end to an unbearable existence."
He let out a wheezing laugh. "Oh, that's a good one. Does that line usually work? Scare us off before you have to fight? Because that's the only reason a runt like you would have the reputation of a psycho killer."
He stepped closer, pulling himself up straight, just to prove, in case I hadn't noticed, that he had a good five inches and fifty pounds on me. Which did not make me a runt. I'd spent my childhood being small for my age, but I'd caught up to an average size. Still, mutts like to point out that I'm not as big as my reputation, as if I've disappointed them.
"You do have a daddy, right?" I asked.
His face screwed up again. "What?"
"You have a father, don't you?"
"Is that some kind of Pack insult? Of course, I have a father. Theo Cain. Maybe you've heard of him."
I knew the Cains. Killed one of them a few years ago in an uprising against the Pack. "And your daddy warned you about me? Told you about the pictures?"
"Pfft." He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I've heard about those. Photos of some dude you carved up with a hatchet."
"Whatever. It's bullshit."
I eased to the side, getting my nose away from his mouth. "And the witness? He's still alive, last I heard."
"Some guy you paid off."
"It was almost thirty years ago."
I shook my head. The problem with stupid people is you can't reason with them. Waste of my time, while my meal was getting cold and Elena was spending our romantic dinner alone.
I surveyed the dark service lane. There was never a convenient Dumpster when you needed one. I eyed the garbage cans, eyed Cain, sizing him up ... .
"So when do we fight?" he asked.
"You know. Go mano a mano. Fight to the death. Your death, of course. I'm looking forward to enjoying the spoils." His tongue slid between his teeth. "Mmm. I gotta thing for blondes with tight little asses, and your girl is fine. Bet she'll fix up real nice."
"You know. Get some makeup on. Get rid of that ponytail. Trade the jeans for a nice miniskirt to show off those long legs. You gotta keep after chicks about things like that or they get comfortable, let it slide. Not that she isn't damned sweet right now, but with a little extra effort, she'd be hot."
I shook my head.
"What?" he said. "You've never tried?"
"Why would I?"
"Why wouldn't you?"
I opened my mouth, then shut it. Another waste of time. He wouldn't understand my point of view, no more than I understood his. "So you think if you kill me, you get Elena?"
"Sure, why not?"
"If it didn't require my death, I'd be tempted to go along with it, just to watch you tell her that."
"Whatever." He rolled on his heels. "Let's get this over with.I'm hoping you brought your chain saw, 'cause otherwise, this fight isn't going to be nearly as much fun as I was hoping, with your fucked-up arm and all."
I stopped, then slowly looked up, meeting his gaze. "My arm?"
"Yeah, Brian McKay said you busted his balls last year for having some sport with a whore. He said something was wrong with your arm. You kept using your other one. Tyler Lake says he did it, as payback for what you did to his brother."
"Yeah? Did he mention which arm it was? This one?"
I grabbed him by the throat and pinned him to the wall, hand tightening until his face purpled and his eyes bulged.
"Or was it this one?"
I slammed my fist into his jaw. Teeth and bone crackled. He tried to scream, but my hand against his windpipe stifled it to a whimper.
I dragged him down the wall until his face was level with mine, and leaned in, nose to nose. "I'd say that will teach you not to listen to rumors, but you're a bit thick, aren't you? I'm going to have to"
A thump to my left stopped me short. I glanced over as the restaurant rear door swung open. We were behind it, a dozen feet away, out of sight. I held Cain still as I watched and listened, ready to drag him into the alley if a foot appeared under that door.
Garbage can lids clattered. They were right next to the door. No need to step outside. Just dump the trash
Cain let out a high-pitched squealthe loudest noise he could manage. Then he started banging at the boarded-up window beside him. I tightened my grip, my glower warning him to stop. A foot appeared under that door, someone stepping out. I dropped the mutt and dove around the corner.
"Hey! Hey, you there!"
I pressed up against the wall. Footsteps sounded. A man yelled at Cain, mistaking him for a drunk. The mutt mumbled something about being jumped, struggling to talk with a broken jaw.
I gritted my teeth. Ending a fight by alerting humans was bad enough. Trying to set them on my trail? That toppled into full-blown cowardice.
I shook it off and retreated before someone came looking for the "mugger."
BACK IN THE RESTAURANT, I LONGED TO VISIT the washroom and scrub Cain's stink off me. But I'd been gone too long already. So I grabbed a linen napkin from a wait station, wiped the blood from my hands as I strode through the dining room, and tossed the cloth onto an uncleared table.
Elena looked up from the last bites of her meal.
"Hey, there," she said, smiling. "Thought you'd made a fast food run on me."
"Nah." I took my suit coat from the chair and slipped it on, blocking the mutt's smell and covering the blood splatter. "Something didn't agree with me."
"Lunch, I bet. That's the thing about buffetslots of food, none of it very good. So, is dessert out of the question?"
I shook my head. "Just give me a second to finish dinner."
OUR HOTEL WAS A FEW BLOCKS FROM THE restaurant, so we'd walked. Heading back, I had to switch sides every time we turned a corner, staying downwind from Elena and keeping a foot's gap between us. She didn't notice the extra distance. Neither of us was much for public displays of affection, so walking hand-in-hand wasn't expected.
That worked only until we got to our room. She leaned against me as she pulled off her heels, then ran her hand up the back of my leg, grinning upside down, hair fanning the floor. She swept it back as she stood, her hand sliding up my leg and into my back pocket.
"Pizza now?" she asked. "Or after we work up an appetite?"
I tugged her hand out, lacing my fingers with hers, elbow locked to keep her from getting close enough to smell Cain.
"Hold that thought," I said. "I'm going to grab a shower."
Her brows shot up. "Now?"
"That problem in the restaurant? I'm thinking it might be something I rolled in this afternoon. My leg's itching like mad. Let me scrub it off before I pass it along."
Her head tilted, the freckles across her nose bunching as she studied me, her bullshit meter wavering. Normal-Elena would have called me on it, but honeymoon-Elena was struggling to avoid confrontations just as much as I was, so after a moment, she shrugged.
"Take your time. I'll catch the news."
I RAN MY HANDS THROUGH MY HAIR AND lifted my face into the spray. My forearm throbbed as the hot water hit it. Tomorrow I'd pay for overworking the damaged muscle, but it was worth it if Cain took home proof that Clayton Danvers's arm was definitely not "fucked-up."
For two years, I'd been so careful in every fight, convinced no one would notice I was favoring my left. I should have known better. Like scavengers, mutts could sense weakness.
Damn Brian McKay. If Elena had listened to me, we wouldn't have had to worry about him talking to anyone. When he'd killed a prostitute in El Paso, Jeremy sent us after him, but left hispunishment up to Elena, as he often did these days. To me, the answer was simple. McKay was a vicious thug and we should eliminate the threat while we had the excuse. Elena had disagreed and we'd let him off with a beating. Let him return home to spread his story about my arm.
I squeezed the water from my hair as I moved out of the spray and looked down at the pitted rut of scar tissue. All these years of fighting without a permanent injury and what finally does it? One little scratch from a rotting zombie. At the worst of the infection, I'd been in danger of losing my arm, so I couldn't complain about some muscle damage.
But if rumors were already circulating, I had to squelch them. And maybe even that wouldn't be enough. Was Theo Cain's son only the first in a new generation of mutts who'd heard the stories about me and fluffed them off as urban legends or, at least, ancient history?
I'd first cemented my reputation to protect Jeremy. Now I had fresh concernsa mate, kids ... and a fucked-up arm that was never going to get any better. So how was I going to convince this generation of mutts that Clayton Danvers really was the raging psychopath their fathers warned them about?
I rubbed the face cloth over my chest, hard and brisk enough to burn. I didn't want to go through that shit again. What the hell would I do for an encore? What could I do that wouldn't have Elena bustling the twins off to a motel while she reconsidered whether I was the guy she wanted raising her kids?
Elena understood why I'd taken a chain saw to that mutt. If pressed, she might even grudgingly admit it had been a good idea. Anesthetic ensured the guy hadn't suffered muchthe point was only to make others think he had. Still, only in the last few years had she stopped twitching every time someone mentioned thephotos. Admitting I might have been right didn't mean she wanted to think about what I'd done. And she sure as hell wouldn't want me doing it again.
I shut the taps and toweled off, scrubbing away any remaining trace of Cain.
As I got out, I could hear the television from the next room. So the news wasn't over. Good. I had no interest in local or world eventshuman concernsbut Elena would be engrossed in them. Distracting her was always a challenge ... and a sure way to clear my head of thoughts that didn't belong on a honeymoon.
I draped the towel around my shoulders, then eased open the door to get a peek at the playing field. Through the mirror, I could see the bed. An empty bed, the spread gathered and wrinkled where Elena had sprawled to watch the news.
A sportscaster was running through scores. Shit.
I tried to see the sitting area through the mirror, but the angle was wrong. It didn't matter. If she was finished with the news, I'd lost my chance to play. I gave my dripping hair one last swipe, tossed the towel on the bathroom floor, walked into the suite, and thumped onto the bed, springs squealing.
"All done. Still ready to work up that?"
The room was empty.
I strode to the door, heart thudding as I sniffed for Cain. I knew my fears were unfounded. No way could he get Elena out of this room ... not without blood spattered on the walls and carpet.
But what if he'd been lurking outside the door? If she'd heard him? Peeked out and he bolted? She'd give chase.
I opened the door and was crouching at the entrance when a yelp made me jump. Down the hall, a middle-aged woman stumbled back into her room, chirping to her husband. For a moment,I thought "Hell, I wasn't even sniffing the carpet yet." Then I remembered I was naked.
I slammed the door and stalked into the bathroom for a towel. Humans and their screwed-up sensibilities. If that woman saw Elena dragged down the hall kicking and clawing, she'd tell herself it was none of her business. But God forbid she should catch a glimpse of a naked man. Probably on the phone to security right now.
Towel in place, I cracked open the door. When I was certain it was clear, I crouched, smelling the carpet. No trace of Cain. A quick glance around, then, holding the door open with my foot, I leaned into the hall for another sniff. Nothing.
I paused for a few deep breaths, sloughing off the fear, then strode into the room to search for clues. The answer was right there, on the desk. A page ripped off the notepad, Elena's looping handwriting: salty crab + no water= beverage run.
As I pulled on a T-shirt, I told myself Cain was long gone. I'd had him in a death-hold before he could lay a finger on me. A sensible mutt would take it as a lesson in arrogance, swallow the humiliation, get out of town, and find a doctor to set his jaw before he was permanently disfigured. But a sensible mutt wouldn't have gotten himself into that scrape in the first place.
Cain would back off only long enough to pop painkillers. Then the humiliation would crystallize into rage. Too cowardly to come after me, he'd aim a sucker punch where he thought I was most vulnerable: Elena, who'd just strolled out alone into the night, having no idea that a mutt had been stalking her all day because I hadn't bothered to tell her.
As I tugged on my jeans with one hand, I dialed Elena's cellphone with the other. Elena's dress, discarded on the chair, began to vibrate. Beneath lay it the purse she'd taken to dinner, open, where she'd grabbed her wallet, leaving the purseand her cell phonebehind.
I grabbed my sneakers and raced out the door.
I DIDN'T BOTHER CHECKING THE GIFT SHOP ELENA had already decreed the water there too expensive. Jeremy and I might have had some lean times during my childhood, but Elena knew what it was like to wear three sweaters all winter because you couldn't afford a coat. Even if she could now buy the whole damned gift shop, she wouldn't give them three bucks for water that cost a dollar down the block.
Normally, I respect that, but this was one time when I wished to hell she'd just spend the damned money.
I strode out the front doors, stopped and inhaled. A couple glowered when they had to drop hands to walk around me. I scanned the road, sampling the air. Finally it came. Elena's faint scent on the wind. I hurried down the steps.
THERE WAS A CONVENIENCE STORE ON THE CORNER, but Elena's trail crossed the road and headed down the very alley where I'd lain in wait for Cain that afternoon. What the hell was wrong with the shop on the corner? Was the water ten cents cheaper three blocks away? Goddamn it, Elena!
Even as I cursed her, I knew I was really angry with myself. I should have warned her about the mutt. If I'd honestly believed I could keep her in my sights twenty-four hours a day, then I was deluded. Elena would see no reason why she shouldn't run out at night for water. She was a werewolf; she didn't need toworry about muggers and rapists. But a pissed-off mutt twice her size?
I broke into a jog.
THE MOMENT I STEPPED INTO THE ALLEY, I smelled him. He must have been lying in wait outside the hotel, formulating a plan. Then his quarry had sailed out the front doors ... and waltzed straight into the nearest dark alley.
By the time he got over the shock at his good fortune, he'd lost his chance to catch her in the alley. She'd exited, walked a block then ... cut through another alley.
I raced to that alley, then pulled up short. Cain stood at the far end, his back to me, gaze fixed on something across the road. Elena.
I could drive him toward her ... if she'd known he was coming. I circled to the next side road, hoping to cut him off. As I approached the end, I moved into the shadows.
Elena was still there. I could sense her, that gut level calm that says she's near.
The streets and sidewalks were empty. Our hotel was in a business section of town. That had looked good when I'd picked it onlinesurrounded by restaurants and other conveniences. But we arrived to discover those conveniences weren't nearly so convenient when they closed at five, as the offices emptied.
Around the corner, I saw yet another quiet street, vacant except for a lone shopper gazing at the display of a closed clothing store. I had to do a double-take to make sure it was Elena. It certainly looked like hera tall, slender woman in jeans and sneakers, her pale blond hair hanging loose down the back of her denimjacket. But window-shopping? At a display of women's business suits? This honeymoon was boring her even more than I thought.
As she studied the display, her gaze kept sliding to the right. I squinted to see what was drawing her attention, but the streetlights turned the glass into a mirror, reflecting ... Reflecting Cain across the road behind her.
She knew he was there. I exhaled in relief. The sound couldn't have been loud enough for Elena to hear, but she went still, then pivoted just enough to see me.
She grinned. Then her smile vanished as she jerked her attention back to the window and motioned, palm out, for me to stay put.
A quick sequence of charade moves as she kept her gaze on the display. Nose lifting to inhale, fingers gesturing to the alley to her right, the stop signal againwarning me there was a mutt in that alley.
Another flurry of gestures to say she'd handle it and I could settle into backup mode. Then, midmotion, she stopped. A slow smile, teeth glinting in the darkness. Seeing that smile, I knew what she was thinking before she glanced over, lips forming the word.
My grin answered.
NO GAME IS FAIROR MUCH FUNWHEN one of the parties doesn't realize he's playing. So Elena took care of that first. She started by drumming her fingers against her leg, her head twisting his way, a subtle hint that she knew Cain was there and was growing impatient waiting for his next move.
While I couldn't see the mutt, I could picture him, poised at the end of the alley, rocking on the balls for his feet, seeing Elena's signals but afraid to misinterpret.
She glanced over her right shoulder, hair sweeping back as her face tilted his way, and I didn't need to see her expression to imagine that too. I'd seen it often enough. Lips parted, eyes glittering beneath arched brows, a look that translated, in human or wolf, into "Well, are you going to come get me or not?"
Cain shot from the alley so fast, he stumbled. Elena laughed, a husky growl that made me lock my knees to keep from answering it myself. As Cain recovered, she turned my way with a grin. Then she took off, in a sprint, hair flashing behind her.
Cain teetered on the curb and stared after her in confusion and disappointment, the human telling him that a woman running in the other direction wasn't a good sign. She stopped at the next corner and turned to face him.
He stepped off the curb. She took a slow stride back. Another forward, another back, and it wasn't until the dance had gone on for five paces that the wolf instinct finally clicked on and he realized that to her, running away meant not "I'm trying to escape" but "catch me if you can."
His broad face split into a grin. He winced, slapping a hand to his broken jaw. When he looked up, Elena was gone. One panicked glance around, then he started to run.
HAD ELENA BEEN A WOLF PLAYING THIS MATING ritual for real, she'd have ditched Cain after five minutes, deciding he either wasn't interested enough or competent enough to track her and, either way, wasn't worthy of her attention.
He kept losing her trail and backtracking. Or he'd glimpse a pedestrian down another road and take off that way before his nose finally told him it wasn't her. Without a Pack, a werewolf grows up immersed in human society, feeling the instincts of a wolf, but not trusting them, not knowing what to do with them.Cain seemed to be running on pure lust and enthusiasm which, while amusing, wasn't much of a challenge ... or much fun.
After he backtracked over my trail twicethankfully not noticingElena decided it was time to end this segment of the game before Cain realized there was a third player. She'd intended to take it to the next level anyway. Hunting in human form was like playing "catch me" with this muttnot very challenging ... and not much fun.
She led him to a park down by the river, then darted into a cluster of shrubs to Change. Cain caught up quicklyElena had made sure he'd been right behind her. This time, once he realized what she was doing, there'd been no indecision. After a few seconds of trying unsuccessfully to see her naked through the bushes, he tore off to find a Changing spot of his own.
I guarded Elena until I heard Cain's first grunt, assuring me he wasn't about to change his mind. Then I ducked into a hiding place and undressed.
WHEN I CAME OUT, ELENA WAS ALREADY LYING in the shadows, tail flicking against the ground, eager to be off. Seeing me a dozen feet away, she let out a soft chuff, her blue eyes rolling, saying, "Settle inthis could take a while."
I was looking around when Cain's bushes erupted in a flurry of rustling, punctuated by very human grunts. He'd barely begun.
Elena's head slumped forward, muzzle resting on her forelegs as a sigh rippled through her flanks. I growled a laugh and loped off to set up the playing field.
I LAY ON A FLAT ROCK OVERLOOKING THE path, nose twitching as the river scents wafted past, making me salivate at the smell of fish. I hooked my forepaws over the rock and stretched, back arching,nails extending, foot pads scraping against the rough broken edge. I'd been waiting a while, and I could feel the ache in my muscles, urging me to get up, get moving, get running.
I stretched again and peered over the edge. The perfect launchpad. Elena would lead Cain along the path, and with one leap, I'd have my workout. The chase, the hunt, the takedownall more satisfying than the actual fight.
A low whine cut through the night. I lifted my head, ears swiveling as they tracked the sound to a brown wolf a hundred feet away. Cain, whining for Elena, probably worried she'd given up and taken off.
After a moment, she appeared, a pale wraith sliding silently from the shadows. Cain let out a sharper whine and danced in place like a domestic dog seeing his master come home.
Elena continued toward him, taking her time, tail down, head high. She stopped about six feet away, making him come to her, gaze straight ahead, a queen granting her subject permission to approach.
Cain paced, keeping his distance. Her body language was perfectly clearshe was establishing hierarchybut he didn't know what to make of it, and kept pacing.
When he didn't accept the invitation to approach and sniff her, Elena started turning away. Again, clear wolf behavior, not snubbing him, just coquettishly saying "Well, if you aren't interested ... ."
Cain went still. As she presented him with her flank, his head lowered, hackles rising. I leapt to my feet, nails scrabbling against the rock, a warning bark in my throat, but before it could escape, he sprang.
Cain grabbed Elena's shoulder, teeth sinking in, whipping her off her feet. I raced down the slope as he threw her in the air. Shehit the ground, spun, and dove at him, snarls slicing through the night. Cain let out a yelp of surprise and pain as she ripped into him.
I skidded to a stop fifty feet away, still unseen. Ears forward, eyes straining, sight now the most critical sense as I watched and evaluated.
After a moment, I retreated to my perch, my gaze fixed on them, ready to fly back down if the battle turned against Elena.
They continued to fight, a rolling ball of growls and fur and blood. I could smell that blood, his and hers, the latter making a whimper shudder up from my gut. I shook it off and locked my legs, standing my ground.
Finally, Elena backed away, snarling, head down, hackles up. Cain got to his feet, shaking his head, blood spraying. As he recovered, Elena glanced in my direction, wondering whether she should finish this herself or follow through on the plan.
My muscles coiled and uncoiled, as my gaze fixed on him, twice her size, too much for her to handle if she didn't have to, praying she made the right choice, the safe choice. Of course she did. With Elena, common sense always wins over ego. With one final, lip-curling snarl, she ran for the path.
She'd covered half the distance when her muzzle jerked up and she swerved, circling an oak tree and going back the other way. I was scrambling up when I caught the scents: dog and human. I followed the smell and saw a man walking a terrier, heading this way.
Elena looped back, darting a weaving path around every obstacle she could find, trying to buy time. I glanced at the dog walker. An elderly man and an old dog, creeping along, oblivious and unhurried.
As Elena circled a small outbuilding, she dipped, paw probablycatching a rodent hole, not enough to make her stumble, but slowing her down. Cain lunged. He caught only a mouthful of tail hair. As his snarl of frustration reverberated through the park, the old dog lifted his muzzle in a lazy sniff, then went back to dawdling along beside his master.
Elena disappeared behind the building. A yelp, loud enough even to make the man look up. Elena's yelp. I sprang to my feet. She shot from behind the building, a pale streak, low to the ground, running full out now, Cain on her heels.
A third shape raced from behind the building, larger than the first two. That was CainI could make out the odd drop of his jaw. My gaze swung to Elena and the new mutt behind her. Cain had brought backup.
I crouched, ready to leap from the rock. The man and dog rounded the corner, bringing them right into my path below. I looked over my shoulder, at the long route, then at Elena, now tearing across the park, heading for the river, getting farther from me with each stride.
A split second of hesitation and then I leapt, sailing over the man and dog and hitting the ground hard on the other side. The little dog started yelping, a high-pitched aii-aii-aii. The old man wheezed and sputtered, his gasps echoing the pound of my paws as I raced away.
With my first sprint, I started closing in on Cain. But he wasn't the one I was worried about. I recognized the other mutt's scent now. Brian McKay. The mutt who'd spread the rumor of my injured arm.
McKay wasn't an arrogant kid like Cain. He was an experienced mutt with a deadly reputation. And he was right on Elena's tail, the gap between us only getting larger.
Come on, circle around! Bring him back to me!
I knew she couldn't. She finally began to veer, but east, toward the river, heading up an embankment to a set of train tracks. At the top, she started to run back down, then sheered again, staying the course. McKay bought the fake-out, turning to race down the hill, probably hoping to cut her off in descent. When she swerved back, he tried to stop himself, but spun too sharp, losing his footing and tumbling down the embankment.
I adjusted my course, heading straight for McKay. He saw me bearing down on him and found an extra spurt of energy, flying to his feet, bruises forgotten as he bolted after Elena.
The clatter of nails on wood told me she was on the train tracks. As we crested the embankment, I saw her tearing along the railway bridge, Cain a half dozen strides behind.
I caught up with McKay at the bridge's edge. I launched myself and landed on him. We went down fighting, rolling and biting, ripping out fur and flesh.
Last year, fighting in human form, McKay had pushed me closer to my limits than I'd been in years. He was a first-rate fighter and a decade my junior. I'd reached the age where those extra years were starting to make a difference and my arm hadn't made it any easier. In wolf form, though, it was all about teeth and claws. There I had the advantage, understood how to use the wolf, how to be the wolf better than anyone else, mutt or Pack.
That didn't make it an easy fight. McKay had a score to settle. I'd sent him packing from El Paso with broken bones and a bloodied face. The worst, though, were the bruises ... the ones on his ego. When he took home the story of my "fucked-up" arm, the obvious question would be, "If his arm's in such bad shape, why couldn't you take him?" I'm sure McKay came up with a reasonable storyin his version, I'd probably had every Pack brother atmy sidebut that wouldn't stop the cut from stinging. He'd had a chance to beat me and he'd blown it.
We rolled, struggling for a hold, fangs slashing, aiming for that critical throat bite. I managed to get close, but ended up with a mouthful of fur. When I drew back, he butted his head against the bottom of my muzzle. Pain blinded me. I staggered, head shaking.
McKay let out a snort of a laugh and charged. I kept shaking my head, acting disoriented, until the last moment. Then I sidestepped. He swung around. In midturn, when he was off-balance, I dove, hitting his side. I knocked him off his feet and we skidded over the grass, plowing through a small bush, twigs crackling.
He yanked his head down, instinctively covering his throat. I slashed at his belly instead. A yelp of surprise and pain as my fangs ripped through flesh. He tried to scramble up, legs kicking, claws scratching any surface they could reach, tearing through my coat, scraping the skin beneath. His teeth clamped down on my hind leg, chomping through to bone. A gasp burbled up, but I pushed it back before it reached my throat. If I let go, he'd run. Here was my chance to prove I wasn't growing old or soft, wasn't crippled with a fucked-up arm. My chance to squelch the rumors by taking out the very mutt who'd started them.
I bit down on his belly, ignoring the pain as he chewed on my leg. When I had the best grip I could manage, I ripped back with everything I had, eyes shut against the flood of hot blood as his stomach tore open, intestines spilling out.
He let go of my leg then. He twisted around, as if he could still escape. I grabbed him by the throat and whipped him into a bridge girder. A huge chunk of flesh came free, filling my mouth with blood. I dropped him. He fell, shuddering, dying. I bit the back of his neck, swung him up, and pitched him into the river below.
A quick kill, but during those few minutes, the blood pounding in my ears blocked everything else and it was only as McKay's body splashed into the water that I finally heard Elena's snarls. I started running. My hind leg throbbed from the bite, but it wasn't broken or gushing blood. Good enough.
Halfway down the bridge, she'd stopped and was facing off with Cain, head down, ears back, fur on end. At first, the mutt seemed uncertain, prancing forward, then back, like a boxer bouncing on his heels waiting for the signal. As I rocketed down the tracks, paws pounding the railway ties, he dropped into fighting position, as if hearing the sound he'd been waiting for: the arrival of his backup.
I slowed, rolling my paws, footfalls going silent. Then, right behind him, I hunkered down and let out a low growl. He turned, and had he been in human form, he would have fallen over backward. On four legs, he did an odd little stumble, paws scrabbling against the gravel as he veered toward me.
I snarled, teeth flashing, blood flecks spraying as I shook my head. He glanced over my shoulder, probably praying the blood came from some bird or rabbit. Seeing no sign of McKay, he knew, and swerved back, in flight before he'd finished his turn. He made it two strides before Elena landed in his path, snapping and snarling.
I backed up two steps and sat. He looked from Elena to me, the challenger and the road block. Confused, he kept glancing back as if to say, "You're going to jump me, aren't you?"
Elena gave up and rushed him. She caught him in the chest, knocking him backward. They went down fighting.
It didn't last long. Cain was spooked and distracted, knowing his buddy was dead and the killer sat five feet away, waiting to do the same to him. He managed to do little more than rip out tufts of fur while Elena sank her teeth into his flank, his shoulder, his belly.
Finally, when one bite got too close to his throat, the coward kicked in. He threw himself from her and tried to make a run for it. Elena flew onto his back. She grabbed his ear between her teeth, chomped down hard enough to make him yelp, then yanked, leaving tatters. He howled and bucked. She leapt off the other side, putting him between us again.
He flipped around and took a few running strides my way. I growled. He looked from Elena to me, hesitated only a moment, then flung himself between the girders and plummeted into the river.
As Elena leaned through the metal bars to watch him, I circled her, inventorying her injuries. A nasty gash on her side was the worst of it. A lick to wipe away the dirt. When I tried to do a more thorough job, she nudged me aside, then checked me out, nosing and licking my back leg, before deciding the bite wasn't fatal and moving up beside me.
We watched Cain flail in the water below.
She glanced at me. "Good enough?" her eyes asked.
I studied him for a moment, then grunted, not quite willing to commit yet. An answering chuff and she loped off across the bridge. I went the other way.
WE TOYED WITH CAIN FOR A WHILE, RUNNING along the banks, lunging at him every time he tried to make it to shore. When he finally showed signs of exhaustion, Elena gave the signal and we left him there.
A lesson learned? Probably not. Give him a year or two and he'd be back, but in the meantime, he'd have to return to his buddies with a shredded ear and without McKay, and no matter what slant he put on the story, the meaning would be clear: situation normal. I wasn't suffering from a debilitating injury or settlinginto comfortable retirement with my family. I'd bought myself a little more time.
ELENA LIFTED HER HEAD, PEERING INTO THE BUSHES that surrounded us.
"Don't worry," I said. "No one can see."
"Something I really should have checked about ten minutes ago."
She pushed up from my chest, skin shimmering in the dark. She sampled the air for any sign of Cain.
"All clear." A slow stretch as she snarled a yawn. "One of these days, we're actually going to complete an escape before we have sex."
She laughed. "Why, indeed."
She started to slide off me, but I held her still, hands around her waist.
"Hmm." Another stretch, her toes tickling my legs. "So when are you going to blast me?"
"For taking off and running down alleys at midnight?"
"Unless you slipped something past me in the wedding vows, I think I'm still entitled to go where I want, when I want. But do you really think I'd go traipsing down dark alleys in a strange city for a bottle of water? Why not just stick a flashing 'mug me' sign on my back?"
"Well, you did seem a bit bored ... ."
"Please. That mutt's been following us since this morning. I was trying to get rid of him."
"Yes, I know, I should have warned you. I realized that later,but you worked so hard to plan our honeymoon and I didn't want this mutt ruining it. I thought I'd give him a good scare and send him packing before you noticed him sniffing around."
I tried to sound surprised. Tried to look surprised. But her gaze swung to mine, eyes narrowing.
"You knew he was following us."
I shrugged, hoping for noncommittal.
She smacked my arm. "You were just going to let me take the blame and keep your mouth shut, weren't you?"
Another smack. "That's what you were doing at dinner, wasn't it? Breaking his jaw. I thought it looked off, and I could swear I smelled blood when we were walking back from the restaurant." She shook her head. "Communication. We should try it sometime."
I shifted, putting my arm under my head. "How about now? About this trip. You're bored." When she opened her mouth to protest, I put my hand over it. "There's not a damned thing to do except hole up in our hotel room, run in the forest, and hunt muttswhich, while fun, we could do anywhere. So I'm thinking, maybe it's time to consider a second honeymoon."
She sputtered a laugh. "Already?"
"I think we're due for one. So how's this? We pack, head home, see the kids for a couple of days, then take off again. Someplace where we can hole up, run in the forest and not have to worry about tripping over mutts. A cabin in Algonquin ..."
She leaned over me, hair fanning a curtain around us. "Wasn't that where I suggested we go when you first asked?"
"I thought you were just trying to make it easy on me. We can rent a cabin anytime. I wanted this to be different, special."
"It was special. I was stalked, chased, attacked ... and I got to beat the crap out of a mutt twice my size." She bent further, lips brushing mine. "A truly unique honeymoon from a truly unique husband."
She put her arms around my neck, rolled over, and pulled me on top of her.
KELLEY ARMSTRONG is the author of the Otherworld paranormal suspense series. She grew up in Ontario, Canada, where she still lives with her family. Her Web site is www.KelleyArmstrong.com.
STALKED. Copyright © 2007 by Kelley Armstrong. HEOROT. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Butcher. ROMAN HOLIDAY, OR SPQ-ARRRRRR. Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Caine. HER MOTHER'S DAUGHTER. Copyright © 2007 by P. N. I. NEWLYDEADS. Copyright © 2007 by Caitlin Kittredge. WHERE THE HEART LIVES. Copyright © 2007 by Marjorie M. Liu. CAT GOT YOUR TONGUE? Copyright © 2007 by Katie MacAlister. HALF OF BEING MARRIED. Copyright © 2007 by Lilith Saintcrow. A WULF IN GROOM'S CLOTHING. Copyright © 2007 by Ronda Thompson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.