A little more than a year ago
In a seemingly standard suburban sprawl outside the city of Farthington something has gone wrong. Sharp sidewalks and carefully clipped lawns hem in the town houses and flank the expected allotment of single homes. It's a quiet neighborhood, where everyone appears to know everyone else. But things are not always as they seem, and people are seldom only what their neighbors expect.
In one such innocuous yard a man naturally inclined to an animal grace staggers. Tall and broad shouldered like his elder son Max, and lean as his youngest, Pietr, he's dark as any Rusakova, with only a hint of silver in his hair.
Even so young a father, his life is nearly over. Not because of the poor choices he made as a younger man—choices that caused his wife to give their children her name rather than his—but because regardless of how normal the setting seems, Andrei is far from the norm.
He sways by the picket fence, the traditional American symbol for happiness, success—the elusive American dream. But to him, even pretty fences make a common cage. He glares toward the neighbor's house, a powder blue Cape Cod, and his wife lopes out of their home, crossing the yard on quick and quiet feet.
Slender and lithe as their daughter Catherine but with heavy highlights of red streaking her rich brown hair like coppery lightning, Tatiana tilts her head, nostrils flaring in question. Her eyebrows draw together, and she circles him. "Come inside," she pleads, laying a hand on his arm.
He shakes it off like a dog throwing off the rain. Face red with rage, his fiery gaze stays fixed on their neighbor's home. "The way he watches you . . ."
She blushes, fearing the shame is shared although she tempts the man unwittingly. With its very existence the animal that skitters and claws beneath her human skin calls to some men, entices and ensnares their weaker senses.
The door of the blue Cape Cod opens and the man steps out, waving boldly at her. The smile stretching his lips does nothing to mask his unwanted attentions.
The sun slips away, leaving a bloody smear across the southern mountaintops. These are the dangerous hours, when the skin feels loosest on the wolf within and the beast in the human-seeming breast grows more anxious to burst free.
"I will rrrip out his hearrrt—"
As her husband springs across the fence with a snarl, Tatiana fears that although this is not the first time a man has acted indecently toward her, this might be the only time it matters.
It's a race up the broad porch stairs to the neighbor, who doesn't even have enough sense to go inside, bolt the door, and lock himself in a closet—to wait out the dawn and pray for reason to override rage.
Instead he stands there. Spreads his legs in a fighting stance. "Off my porch, Rusakova," he growls.
The sound is nothing compared to the noise tearing out of Andrei. Coursing through his chest, the twisting growl erupts as he takes the porch's final three steps in one smooth leap.
His hands on the man who stares openly at his wife, Andrei's words are too thick with anger to be clear. A growl, a slur—language matters little when actions speak louder than words. And Andrei's actions speak wrath, revenge—hate. So fluently.
The man flops in his grasp, fighting stance forgotten as he screams and lands sloppy and panicked punches on Andrei's face as it twists and pulses and pops. Changes . . .
Someone appears at the window, shoves the curtains aside, mouth drawn into an "o" of terror. The leerer's wife—the mouse he ignores except when he publicly berates her. She thrusts her son from her side, and the curtain falls back across the window.
Behind him, the man's door clicks shut; the lock bolts into place with a slithering sound. There will be no retreat.
Tatiana pushes between the men, grunting with exertion. "Stop," she urges, eyes wide.
Lights flash, coloring the dimming neighborhood quickly falling into dusk with red, white, and blue as a siren wails its way down the normally quiet suburban street.
"Not finished with you," Andrei, half-turned, yowls. He throws the man across his shoulder and lopes around the house, into the tree-filled backyard and the shadows that threaten to solidify beyond.
With a glance toward the street, Tatiana sets her jaw and follows her husband, disappearing into the growing darkness.
A swarm of uniformed officers mount the porch stairs, as one unmarked SUV slips silently past the house, daring to scatter the darkness with its piercing headlights.
In the Rusakovas' home Catherine presses her face to the window, Pietr by her side. Unable to be much help, the twins are more than a year outside their first full change.
Pacing, Alexi refuses to change and go. His shaking fingers drag through his hair, but he rejects Catherine's pleas and ignores Pietr's threats. Begging until her voice is nothing but a reedy whine, Catherine sobs; her tears smear the glass, and the world outside seems to ripple. Pietr pulls her away, silently wrapping her in his arms.
And as vehemently as Alexi refuses to go, there is no place he'd rather be than beside the parents who adopted him and have kept his secret—that he is nothing like his siblings and is simply, horrendously, human.
The one Rusakova—the one wolf—able to help is missing. Spending one more night in the arms of anonymous girls, Max is living his short life as fast as he can.
In the woods not far from the backyard stands the tragic threesome. Tatiana, shaken by frustration into her ruddy wolfskin, circles the rivals for her attention, growling. Andrei releases the man, speaking to the worried wolf in a most guttural Russian. His words impeded by long and pointed teeth, he searches for an explanation, some justification. Distraught, he wavers as his metabolism—his canine bits—burns through the drug or drink that had such a hold on him.
Their neighbor looks around, contemplates escape. His jeans soiled from something fouler than the tears streaking his frightened face, he watches the werewolves warily.
All eyes suddenly focus on something—someone—shrouded in the shadows. The wolf Tatiana howls at the betrayal as a smile once again slides across the leerer's lips.
A sliver of moonlight shimmers across the barrel of a gun swinging into view, giving directions. Tatiana obeys, the wolf stalking to the side. But obedience is too much for Andrei and he lunges, completing his transformation in midair . . .
. . . one moment of fluid grace . . .
. . . brought down by a muzzle flash so bright it blinds.
He falls, pulled from midair with a grunt and a spatter of blood, never to rise again. The copper wolf noses the limp body of her mate, a whimper tearing at her throat. Rage empowering her, she leaps, willing to fall dead at his side, her husband. . . .
A muzzle flash tears at the inky night again and she tumbles to the earth, falling limp.
"So, after the loss of your mother in the car accident, you started work to redeem her amnesiac murderer, met a new boy at school, who you hid your attraction from in order to protect a friend's feelings. Then you learned the boy was being hunted by the CIA—one of their agents who happens to be trying to date your dad . . . hunted because the boy's a werewolf."
There was a long pause. I ran over her summary, mentally ticking off the checklist of the bizarre that my life had so recently been reduced to. "You forgot about the Russian Mafia's involvement and the shoot-out we were in."
Looking at her clipboard, Dr. Jones replied, "Yes. So I did." She jotted something down. "Well. It looks like our time is up." She clicked her pen and set it down definitively on her broad ebony desk. "Your story is absolutely fascinating." She confirmed what I knew too well. "But."
I sat up, the leather couch creaking beneath me. I gave her my best but what? look. I'd talked forever.
As much as I hated to admit it, the school counselors were right. It felt great to get it all out and tell an objective professional. So I waited, looking at her expectantly. She could surely say more than but after all I'd confessed.
"But, if you really want to get past the trauma of your mother's death—which is truly the crux of your situation—you'll need to get real here." She stood, lips twisting.
Get real? I had told her everything. I had risked the Rusakovas to save my own crumbling sense of sanity.
I couldn't help it. I laughed so hard I snorted.
In the two months since I'd met Pietr Rusakova I could number on one hand the times I'd told the truth. The lies? The phrase totally out of hand had special meaning when trying to keep track of them.
But to finally try and straighten things out and be shut down? Not what I expected.
She blinked at me. "Seriously, Jessica. Russian Mafia? Government agents? Werewolves?" She laughed. "I should be like other psychiatrists, I guess, and blindly prescribe something with an exciting new name. But I want to help you get better, not medicate you. I want you to get a grip."
"You don't believe me."
"It's my professional opinion that you're screwing with me. Most kids clam up on their first visit or avoid the heart of their issues. But you"—she glanced at the clipboard—"are an editor for the school newspaper. Surely inventive. So you chose the other route, exhibiting a commendable streak of creativity. But I have a high crap tolerance."
Her voice lowered and she ruffled the corners of her freshly written notes. "You have to, working with kids," she muttered. "You're no more delusional than the average teenager."
"I killed a man." God, for all the notes she seemed to take, did she not listen?
"Yes, Jessica, so you said. But where's the body, sweetie? I'd expect some part of the aftermath of a bloodbath like you described to be seen by someone. Why wasn't there anything in the papers?"
"I told you before. The agents called in a—" I chewed my lower lip. Why wouldn't the right words come when I needed them? "A cleaning crew."
"Yes, the agents." She made quotes in the air with a twitch of her fingers. "Including"—she flipped through the papers on her clipboard until she found it—"Wanda the librarian."
"No one gives librarians the credit they deserve," I snapped. "Yes. She works in the reference department and is a gun-toting government agent."
"Of course," Dr. Jones said, still smiling. "So. Creative, and probably with a large number of overdue books causing you to be creatively suspicious about librarians. Interesting."
I had no idea what else to say. I'd surely said it all.
"Anyway. It's your insurance coverage. You decide if you want to waste it on fantasies."
She turned away to look out the window—a clear dismissal. I stood, slung my purse over my shoulder, and headed out the door, as confused as when I'd first arrived.
I'd decided to adjust to my new normal. Regular counseling. A life with no mother. No more shoot-outs with the Russian Mafia. Nearly no CIA presence. And a werewolf sort-of-boyfriend who was also still seeing my not-quite-stable friend Sarah because we hoped to avoid triggering her return to absolute psychosis.
Okay, so my new normal wasn't nearly normal by other people's standards, but it was the best I could do.
I was back to horse riding and farm chores and trying to keep up with my classes and working on the school newspaper.
I still had my friends. Amy had my back, and Sophia, well, she was hanging around enough that I knew she cared—or was fascinated by the tragedy that seemed to continually wash over me. And there was Sarah—beautifully angelic and with so little of her original memory she was almost safe to be around.
Derek (the star of our football team) shadowed me now, too, frequently appearing and smiling at me in a way that made my heart race. I'd had a crush of Titanic (and I do mean like the ship that nailed the iceberg) proportions on him. For years.
Well, until Pietr showed up and everything changed.
Anyhow, my new normal should have been a good thing. Not perfect, but acceptable. Nearly sane.
In the nonthreatening beige waiting room people hid behind newspapers and magazines so old their readers were learning history—not catching up on current events.
All but one.
Catherine Rusakova waved to me and rose, following me out the door. Normally as unnoticed as a shadow slipping across shade, she was also impossible not to notice when she wanted.
The office door clicked shut behind me. "Hi, Cat." I wasn't sure how to proceed. I wasn't used to being stalked by Pietr's twin sister. Werewolf number two.
Her eyes sparkled, astonishingly blue and faintly slanted, with a fringe of thick lashes. Cat's strong features and high cheekbones made her look more like a goddess of old than a werewolf.
Of course, there was probably someplace where the goddess of old was a werewolf. . . .
The Rusakovas were at once strong and beautiful: an elegance and brutality blended in their features. Once I'd seen what they became—what they truly were—it was impossible not to see some shadow of the beast slinking within their eyes, some hint of it hiding in the glint of their smiles.
"Privyet," Cat greeted me. "I did not realize you were seeing a psychiatrist until your sister told me," she admitted, the faint roll of her first language softly coloring her words.
Nice. I'd have to have a little chat with Annabelle Lee later. Sometimes she was far too helpful. Just not to me.
"Does Pietr know?"
I shook my head. It was one thing I hadn't found a way to tell him. It was far easier to talk about school and books than admit to seeing a psychiatrist about serious issues.
"Considering circumstances, I agree it is wise." She smiled, and I repressed a shiver. That beautiful grin turned into a devil's nest of fangs when she wanted. "You have seen a lot of horrible things recently."
I paused by a potted plant that looked like it needed water—or proper burial. "But?"
"I love talking with you, Cat, but why are you here?"
Cat tilted her head and peeked at me from the corners of her eyes. "It's not often people outside our family know our truth, Jessie. It might make us nervous to hear the one who does know is talking."
"I don't want to make anyone nervous." My palms grew damp. Nervous was not a descriptor I wanted applied to any member in a family of werewolves.
"That is why I chose to come," Cat explained. "To get a better understanding before the boys find out. You are very important to our family, Jessie. I am convinced of that."
"Because I opened the matryoshka and found the pendant?"
I watched her, waiting. "And?"
She sighed. "And because of what your tea leaves said." Shaking her head, her smile ghosted away. "I must ask you what—"
"Everything, Catherine. I told her absolutely everything."
She stepped back, solemn. "The CIA?"
"The Russian Mafia?"
"Yes." Tears filled my eyes, threatening to spill.
"And werewolves. Jessie, you said you'd seen werewolves?"
"Yes!" I winced, closing my eyes and remembering the dreadful moment I'd seen in so many movies recently—the moment the werewolf changed and tore out a victim's throat.
I held my breath.
I opened my eyes to find Catherine gazing at me with curiosity. Predators did that, though. Studied their prey.
"I'm sorry, Catherine. I had to say something . . . had to tell someone. . . ."
Her fingers twitched by her hip.
I shut my eyes again, ready as I could be for certain disemboweling. I'd gutlessly betrayed their family, in an attempt to save my sanity. I deserved no better.
"What are you doing?" Cat's words rushed out; she stood so close now her breath was a warm breeze brushing across my face.
"For what?" she asked.
"Death?" I squeaked, peeling one eye open to watch her—the way I watched most werewolf films.
My heart throbbed against my ribs.
She grabbed me so fast I nearly peed myself. Holding me in a powerful hug, she whispered, "You are a strange, strange girl, Jessie Gillmansen."
Says a werewolf.
"You should stop watching those awful horror movies."
"How did you—? Of course. Annabelle Lee."
"She is worried about you."
"We are not Hollywood's creations. You know that."
"Rationally, yes." Not Hollywood's creations, but rather the descendants of one of the USSR's surprisingly successful scientific experiments from the earliest years of the Cold War.
Cat nodded. "Does the doctor believe what you said?"
"Not a word."
"Excellent." She grinned her most wicked grin. "Now you can tell her the truth without repercussions." She stepped back, toying with her short, dark curls, glittering eyes fixed on me. "Might she medicate you?"
"Nope. She insists I embrace sanity without chemical assistance."
"You are such a clever girl!" She threw her hands into the air. "Strange in your methods, but clever. Oh." She pinched her ear. "Your father is coming. He should not see me here."
"Cat!" I called as she retreated down another hallway. "I need to talk to you about Pietr—"
She nodded. "I will find you. Tonight. Listen for me."