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I folded the morning’s newspaper and set it down on the kitchen table, the headline of the Big City section reading, “Stocks Soar for Wondermann Corp.” As intrigued as I was about what caused Mr. Wondermann’s decidedly dangerous business to quadruple stock values overnight, the antics of my siblings Max, Cat, and Pietr, and Max’s girlfriend, Amy, demanded my more immediate attention.
“So I said to him,” Max began, pointing at Pietr, “‘I thought she was with you.’ We had split up for a little and—”
Cat stepped in, still carrying a shopping bag from their recent outing to the mall. “And I said: ‘You mean to tell me you’ve lost Jessie?’” She gave Max a hard look before returning her gaze to me. “He manages to lose his sneakers and at least one sock out of most of his pairs—and do not get me started about how very remote the TV remote becomes once he’s used it—but to lose an entire person?”
“I didn’t lose her!” Max bellowed, glaring at Pietr instead.
I cleared my throat, and all eyes were on me, my position as eldest brother and previous alpha a help. “Are we quite certain Jessie has not just gone home?”
They all looked at one another.
“Seriously? You think I didn’t try calling her?” Amy asked me. “She’s not answering her cell.”
“Does she always answer her cell?”
“I had Pietr call with his,” Amy said, as if that was all the answer I needed. It was. Jessie would always pick up a call from Pietr.
“Who was responsible for Jessie last?” I asked.
“Don’t ever let her hear you talk like that,” Amy said. “She’ll kick your ass.”
“Language,” Cat warned with a sniff.
I shrugged. “She has a gift for getting into trouble.”
Amy leveled her gaze at me. “Pietr’s in charge of stating the obvious. And just because a thing is true, it doesn’t mean we say it out loud,” she scolded.
Max chuckled. “We were at the mall. Pietr and I hit the Game Shop. The girls were trying on clothes. Is it any surprise they lost track of her when Cat was distracted by what color makes her boobs look better?”
“It’s green, you oaf. And they don’t need to look better, but it does somehow make them appear bigger.” She paused, blinking at him in frustration. “And that was most certainly not the issue,” she added with a hrumph. “Jessie said she was going to catch up to you two and talk with Pietr.”
“Well, it seems obvious she did not succeed.” Unease unfolded in the pit of my stomach. “It is very unlike Jessie to simply…”
“Pick up and leave?” Amy asked.
“Da. Unless…” Turning to Pietr, I asked, “Were you somehow a jerk to her?”
“Nyet,” he said, defensive. “I barely paid her any attention at all—”
Cat and Max groaned in unison.
“Jerk,” I confirmed, nodding my head.
“You’ve been kind of aloof since you got cured,” Amy stated more gently, reaching for Pietr’s arm.
He looked down, shoulders slumping. “I never intended for that to happen. We searched the mall.…”
“This may all be quite simple,” I assured him. “Call the Gillmansen household.”
They blinked at me.
“Use the landline,” I clarified. “Her father may be home. Or Annabelle Lee. Either might have answers.”
Pietr nodded and pulled out his cell, punching the proper button. “Mr. Gillmansen? Da. Is Jess around? Nyet. She is not with us.” He looked at us, worry etching a crease between his brows. “He is yelling for her now.”
Pietr’s focus returned to the phone. “She is? Nyet. Da. I understand. We will be there immediately.” He headed straight for the door.
“Hold up,” Amy said, grabbing his arm. “You said ‘she is.’ She’s there?”
“Nyet,” Pietr returned, paler than his normal pallor since taking the cure. “Rio is loose in the paddock. Spooked. Her stall door is hanging open.”
Amy pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and groaned. “This is bad.” So fast he jumped in surprise, she grabbed Max’s arm, saying, “We need a tracker.”
Max did not need encouragement. He nearly beat us to the front door.
We piled into the convertible, Pietr, Amy, and Cat buckling into the back while Max took the driver’s seat and I, as the girls said, rode shotgun. It was a very American phrase, sounding far more dominant than it was in reality.
The Gillmansen farm was not a long drive in good weather, but peering up through the windshield I realized we were not entering optimal driving conditions. Snow fluttered down from fattening clouds.
Travel might take significantly longer, and if Jessie’s horse, Rio, was spooked, Jessie was most certainly in trouble. Time was, again, not on our side.
Leaning forward, I peeked out through the thin sliver of space between the door and doorjamb and looked down the motel’s second-story breezeway toward Gareth’s room. He’d be napping now, his shift guarding us recently over.
I didn’t get it. What did Pietr see in Jessica Gillmansen? Why’d I even care? She was like anyone else in the world: brown hair, brown eyes, a medium athletic build … freckles spotted her nose and cheeks like any country girl who’d stood in the sun for a few minutes. She was a simple human being living in small-town America.
Absolutely unremarkable in every way.
But Pietr, who seemed every inch the alpha, saw something in her. Not that I cared. I didn’t want to see any redeeming quality in her. For some weird reason she felt like competition.
Kyanne stalked along the breezeway, watching the parking lot below, keeping an eye out for trouble.
Maintaining a guard at all times was one thing I insisted on even though the motel seemed safe. I seemed like just an average college-age girl, but that was far from reality.
Gabriel teased me about not trusting anyone. He was very nearly right. I didn’t trust anyone but Gareth. And he was the main reason I didn’t trust myself.
Not far away, another reason I didn’t trust myself—Jessica Gillmansen—was stashed in a forgotten storage shed. Her very existence made me undeniably insane. It had only been an hour since Gabe had delivered her as a belated birthday gift and I needed to decide how everything was going to play out. And decide what—or how—to tell Gareth.
God. I rested my forehead on the door. Where I was raised, kids wore those WWJD bracelets to ask themselves what Jesus would do. My guardians, Phil and Margie, pushed religion on me so hard I rejected it. I was more worried about what Gareth would do.
A door clicked open at my other side and Gabriel came into view, his eyes popping wide when I opened the door before he raised a fist to knock.
His eyes raked over me, taking in my thin cotton pajamas and pausing so long in his examination of my low-cut top that I thought he had to be memorizing the statement scrawled across my front. “It says, ‘Sleep Is for Quitters.’”
He blinked up at me, his mouth opening. I stopped him before words—or drool—came. “If you’re done staring at my tits, say whatever you came to say.”
He pursed his lips and dropped his line of sight again to piss me off. I smacked him, my fingers tingling in the aftermath of the sudden strike.
He touched his face, my palm hitting the same spot just starting to heal from Jessica’s defensive strike. He worked his jaw, testing it. “You can’t think you’re sleeping tonight … not with her here.…”
I shrugged. “This doesn’t have to go down tonight.” I needed time to think.
He cocked his head, his naturally narrow eyes becoming sparkling slits. “I’m not sure.”
“Not tonight, honey.” The only thing I wanted to think about was getting rid of Jessica without Gareth knowing.
I began to close the door on him, but he wedged his shoe between my door and its frame. “Are you going to screw this up?”
“I don’t screw things up. I make things happen.”
A smile twitched at the corner of his lips. “I hope so. This could make big things happen for us. You just have to be ready.”
“I’m ready. I just need…”
“What? What do you still need?”
He snorted. “How much do you think you’ll have before they get here? It won’t take them long to realize she’s missing and then connect us to her disappearance.”
“I need time,” I insisted, shoving him back so I could slam the door shut. Silent and seething, I waited there until I heard him walk away, muttering.
Dread lodged in my gut, I knew I needed to talk to Gareth. Always on my mind and nudging his way into my heart, Gareth was the one I trusted. He’d help me see things clearly, although it seemed whenever I was near him all I could see was him.
Until recently. Now being around him made me think of Pietr Rusakova. And that made me as queasy as knowing that I had Jessica in the shed made me happy.
Rio was still racing around the paddock when we arrived at the Gillmansens’ farm. Leon and his youngest daughter, Annabelle Lee, edged toward the horse with soft words and slow gestures.
I caught Leon’s eye, and he nodded toward the barn. He had noticed something inside and wanted us to see it, too.
Max’s nostrils flared when we stepped into the richly scented interior of the barn. I coughed at the hay and the dust motes swirling in the air.
“You might not want to be here,” Max said to Amy, resting a heavy hand on her shoulder.
“Why?” Her eyes widened, and her mouth drew into a little “o” of fear. “Why, Max?” She started to move around him, but he looped his arm around her waist and pulled her close.
“There’s blood ahead,” he said, his eyes searching hers.
“I don’t know yet.”
“It’s a lot, isn’t it?” she whispered. “For you to smell it over here.”
“It is a significant quantity,” he confirmed.
“I want to know whose it is,” she said, determination setting her jaw. “Now.”
“Then stay here and let me work.” He gently pushed her back so she stood at arm’s length from him.
She eyed him a moment and, as he turned toward what must have been the site of the fight, she burst past him with her best runner’s sprint.
He roared, but as fast as she had run past him, that fast again she came to a stop.
It was a substantial amount of blood. It marked the wall, spraying and dripping down its length and leaving sloppy drops at close and regular intervals from there to the barn door. I was on the scene in a moment, searching for clues as Max pressed toward the wall.
“Oh. Look.” Amy pointed to the floor and I squinted to see what she had discovered. My stomach turned on itself. Fingers.
Amy and Max reached a conclusion at the same time. “Not hers.”
We breathed a collective sigh.
“Those are some guy’s fingers,” Amy said. “So who…?” She looked at Max and me for an answer.
“Gabe,” he muttered. “His oily scent is thick here.”
Pietr stiffened. “Gabe’s Marlaena’s second in command. Why would he take Jess?”
Max shrugged. “You piss him off?”
Pietr shook his head.
“Not everything is about Pietr, as much as he might believe the world revolves around him,” I reminded. “Now think. What motivation does Gabriel have? What does Gabriel want?”
“Marlaena?” Max asked with a shrug. “She’s a hot little number.”
“Standing right here, Tiger,” Amy snapped, hands clenching into fists on her hips.
“Not that I noticed,” Max backpedaled. “But what male in a pack wouldn’t want to be the alpha’s partner?”
“Is that what it’s always about?” Amy muttered. “Control?”
“Nyet,” I said. “Not for all of us. But”—I hesitated before grinding out the most difficult combination of words to make sense of in any language—“I think Max is right.”
“If Gabe wants to be alpha, why take Jess?” Pietr wondered aloud.
“As an offering to Marlaena?”
I countered Max’s question with my own. “But why Jess?”
“Because Marlaena wants…” Amy paused. “Wait. Because Gabe wants you—”
Pietr’s eyebrows shot up.
“Not like that,” Amy said with a snort. “Let me finish. He wants you—all of you—to go after Jessie. Maybe he wants a fight,” she concluded.
I nodded. “He wants to be alpha, but he does not have a chance of winning Marlaena. So he is uniting the pack beneath him through a foreign war strategy.”
“Come,” I said, leading them back toward the modest house. “It is a traditional strategy among governments that when things are going poorly at home—domestically—the way to get people’s minds off the failure of their own leadership is to make someone else appear to be a bigger enemy than they are. Start a foreign war and people unite beneath whoever declares it.”
“That’s insane,” Amy muttered.
“Study your history and you will see it may seem insane, but it works time and time again.”
“So we go with the ‘start a foreign war’ theory,” Pietr muttered. “Fine. He wants a fight, he’ll get a fight. Let them unite under Gabriel. We can worry about the fallout later. Our priority needs to be getting Jess back safely.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let us do so. Now.”
Mr. Gillmansen followed us to the house, and unfortunately now was minutes from my designated now as we explained the situation and told him why he should not come along and why we were the best solution.
I found myself being creative about the last bit.
We, of course, were also the problem.
Without us in Jessie’s life, she never would have become entangled in such strange and dangerous situations. In the end, Mr. Gillmansen offered his truck, saying, “Four-wheel drive.”
Annabelle Lee dashed inside and back out of the house again, and held out three flashlights to me. “You may need these.”
“Maglites,” I said.
Annabelle Lee nodded. “Jessie’s favorite type,” she said with a shrug.
I reached out and gave her a quick hug.
We took the flashlights and squeezed into the cab. Pulling the truck out of their gravel drive and onto the country road I allowed myself a moment to speculate while Max, Cat, and Pietr argued what we should do next and Amy punched holes in their plans.
If we had never come to Junction, Jessie would have never known us—although she was doing significant research on the Phantom Wolves of Farthington. Perhaps she still would have crossed our path.
I shook my head. What were the odds that a chance meeting regarding her research would have sparked such a mutual interest as had developed between Pietr and her? Love at first sight? That was not how things truly worked.
If we had never come to Junction, Jessie’s life would have remained relatively simple. Nice. She would have dated someone who attended school with her for years, not a recent arrival who happened to be a Russian-American werewolf, an oborot, as my people said: one transformed.
The boy would have been from a family with a more legitimate income than that obtained through the black market and hustling pool tables. He probably would have been a bright, handsome, clean-cut sort of guy.
Not unlike Derek.
I blinked. She had dated Derek.
With or without us, Jessie would have found the same danger. But without us there would have been no Max to make a rescue from Derek’s bedroom when rescue was most definitely needed.
Derek had proven himself to be one of the most insidious of our opponents: a charming football player with a bright future and tremendously destructive psychic abilities allowing him to manipulate anyone with a touch. Even though he was dead, it seemed he had left a handprint on the psyches of Jessie, her friend Sophia, and Sarah Luxom.
I slapped the steering wheel, noting the silence that had filled the truck. Our appearance in Jessie’s life had been a blessing of sorts, considering.
What a screwed-up place small-town America was. “What is the battle plan? Home first?”
Pietr opened his mouth to respond, but Amy glared at him. I had missed something.
Pietr shut his mouth again, and Amy began: “You’re going to take me to the house. I’ll get a gun—”
I turned in my seat to better look at her. “Exactly how much weapons training do you have?”
She tried to stare me down.
I clenched my jaw and stared back. “How much?”
She looked away, her lower lip sticking out and her chin trembling before she puffed out a breath and regained control. “None,” she admitted. “But you need as much help as you can get, and I don’t want to be sitting at home just hoping for the best.…”
Max reached out for her, but she pushed his hand away.
“Amy,” I said in a voice both soft and firm, “we cannot have someone untrained going into a fight. It is more dangerous for all of us. A gun”—I paused, having her full attention—“is as dangerous in the hands of the untrained as it is in the hands of the enemy. You may have the best of intentions, but without the training to back them up, you, my dear, are more a liability than an asset.”
“Then teach me so I’m no longer a liability,” she said, crossing her arms.
“We will,” I promised. “If that is what you want, we will. But it takes time, and we have none to spare today,” I said. “Our first stop should still be the Queen Anne. I presume we should then head to the motel where they are staying.”
Pietr leaned back as far as he could, his brow lowering. “Da. That is a logical place to start.”
“Has anyone wondered how they’re affording a motel?” Amy asked.
Pietr and Max turned to look at her.
“Seriously?” Amy sighed. “Okay. Maybe I’m more valuable to this crew than I realized.” She wiggled in her seat belt. “There’s a lot of them. A lot of werewolves. And werewolves—at least these werewolves—are territorial. They like having room to move. So it’s not as if you can stack them like cordwood. You can only get a few in a room. Maybe four—that’s the legal maximum, anyhow.”
Max peered at her.
“Long story. Let’s just say there was a really long weekend in a motel with a bunch of us when things were really bad at home.” She shrugged to dismiss it, the topic marked as off-limits.
Max slipped his hand over hers.
“So there’s what—thirteen of them? That’s like three or four rooms. Let’s say three rooms every night. Even at a dive motel’s rates, that adds up. Fast.”
“We know they are not averse to theft,” I pointed out.
“Right. The vending machines, the candy bars at the Grabbit Mart that Jessie saw Gabe take … petty stuff.”
“The owner of Skipper’s wound up dead,” I said solemnly. “That was a theft.”
Amy’s lips pursed. “I didn’t know that.”
“Okay, Skipper’s is by the Blockbuster, right? What do you think he took in a day? Several hundred—maybe a thousand dollars? I mean, it is after Christmas, so people have Christmas cash to burn—”
“Or Christmas bills to catch up on,” I reminded her. “Let us be generous. Say he took in two grand a day.”
“Fine. Two thousand dollars. Three hotel rooms a night…” Her eyes rolled up in thought, her lips turning down. “I don’t think you can even make it a month in a dive motel for that.… And they’ve been wearing much nicer clothing.…”
“You are really paying quite a lot of attention to them, are you not?” I asked.
“You sound impressed.”
“I never expected you to be so involved.”
“I have my reasons to be invested,” she assured me, her gaze falling on Max.
“So I think they’re being sponsored by someone with resources. Someone with deep pockets.”
Pietr’s eyes narrowed. “Who?”
Amy twitched. “There’s only one person who comes to mind. Are you sure Dmitri left Junction?”
The temperature dropped at the mention of his name. The idea that “Uncle” Dmitri was lurking around and had made connections with the new pack after Pietr did his best—sacrificed the wolf within himself—to be rid of him …
We did not answer her. The chance she was right was too frustrating to put even in monosyllabic words.
Max rolled down his window, sticking his face into the biting cold. The breeze tore at his eyes and turned his cheeks pink. “Maybe I’ll pick up her scent when we get closer,” he finally said, closing the window and slumping down, his eyes on the landscape rushing by.
“What will we do when we find her?” Pietr asked me.
I gave him a sidelong glance. “Whatever is necessary,” I said with a coolness my racing heart betrayed.
“Hurt Marlaena? Kill her?” Pietr asked, peering out the window.
“Whatever is necessary.”
He nodded and mimicked Max, slouching down in misery. “And if there is no scent to find—if they’ve covered their tracks so well there is no trail to discover? If Jess is gone—forever?”
I pulled the truck over so fast we skidded, everyone jerking against their seat belts. “There is something you are not telling me.” I studied his impassive face. “Why would anyone kill Jessie? What else is going on here, Pietr? Kidnapping Jessie I understand to an extent. It seems nearly standard operating procedure in Junction. Things run smoothly, everyone feels comfortable and plans for a better future, and then it is time for someone to endanger a nearly average girl who lives on a wonderfully unremarkable horse farm. I think it is time to consider getting Jessie her own personal bubble,” I concluded.
Pietr looked at me in the completely dramatic-hero fashion he had cultivated and—I peered closer at him to confirm my suspicion—da, he had perfected since meeting Jessie.
“It is completely logical they would take Jessie. It makes us come against Marlaena and engage a foreign war strategy. But killing her … Why would Marlaena want Jessie dead? How does she benefit?”
He shook his head, the mop of his hair falling into his eyes. “I have a feeling,” he muttered. “There is something more here—something deeper … like someone wants to get at me by hurting Jess.…”
“Dmitri is far from your biggest fan,” Amy said.
Both Pietr and Max looked at her and then away again. None of us wanted to believe Dmitri had returned, regardless of how likely it seemed.
Copyright © 2012 by Shannon Delany