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"Half my ass is hanging out." Sophie tugged on the skirt's hem. There was nothing like wearing your friend's clothes to remind you of your shortcomings. "I'm, what, only an inch taller than you?"
"Oh, you look fine." Lucy swept her short, sleek dark hair back, blotting her lipstick. Luce even lit a cigarette before opening her door, the brief flare of the lighter painting her face with gold. "You look hot. Why don't you ever loosen up and wear a miniskirt?"
"I wear appropriate attire for my job." Sophie pushed her glasses up, wishing her curls weren't falling in her eyes. Lucy insisted she leave her hair down. The car was nice and warm, so the touch of cold wind on her bare legs was shocking when she stepped out. She pulled the back of the skirt down one more time and wished she'd just worn jeans. Jeans covered up a lot. "There's a dress code, you know." And I don't have anything else in my closet. Food first, clothes later, that's the rule.
Luce was already tapping her foot, eager to be off down the cracked sidewalk. "Oh, please. Margo the Battle-Ax wears scrubs all day. You could, too, you know." She'd squeezed into a short evening-blue silk sheath that showed off her ample curves, and her legs looked long and beautiful in a pair of fishnets, ending in a lovely pair of glittering silver heels.
Heels, for a night of dancing? Well, Lucy had more endurance than Sophie did in a lot of areas. Sophie could stay, have a drink, watch everyone making fools of themselves, then catch a cab home.
Though cabs were expensive.
Lucy slid her arm through Sophie's. "Besides, you need to put your toesies in the dating pool again, sweetheart. It's been six months since the decree came through. You're a free woman."
A free woman. I wish someone would tell Mark that. "I guess so."
"You guess so? Come on, Soph."
"Okay, okay. I'm a free woman." As long as he can't find where I live. Stop worrying so much, dammit! But that was like telling herself to stop breathing. And good God, but she had no intention of ever dipping a toeor any other appendagein the dating pool ever again.
Once was enough.
The street pulsed with neon. Here on Broadway, Jericho City's nightclubs were all clustered for warmth, a long row of them on either side of a square bounded by leafless trees and trellises with strings of decorative all-weather lights woven into them. A chill wind came up Fifth Avenue and teased at Sophie's bare legs. Her back was already aching from the low black heels Lucy had talked her into, a familiar pain she put up with during the week but could have happily done without on a weekend. "Why am I doing this again?"
"Because I need to practice my lambada, and it won't hurt you to get out from under all those books," Lucy said sharply.
Thank God for you, Luce. Sophie straightened her shirt. Well, maybe shirt was an ambitious word for a silk spaghetti-strapped tank top that showed a slice of midriff. This was Lucy's, too. Sophie didn't have anything that satisfied Lucy's exacting standards for a night out.
She had precious few clothes at all, and was sneakingly glad her best friend had rolled right over the top of her objections and squeezed her into something she didn't have to buy or wash. Luce wasn't always the soul of tact, but she almost never referred to Sophie's situationexcept to note that Mark had been a bastard, and to lament that Sophie hadn't taken him to the cleaners.
"I'm having one drink, and I'll stay to drive you home. Okay? That means that we have to leave at a reasonable hour." Which would solve the whole problem of getting a cab, too.
I want to get some sleep this weekend. And I have rent due. Jeez, I can't even afford to go on a drinking binge.
"Reasonable?" Lucy's laugh belled out again. "What the hell? Who's reasonable on a Friday night, out on the town with a hot babe? Live a little, honey."
Luce thought "safety" and "reliability" were highly overrated. It was one of the things Sophie loved about herand the same thing that drove her to tooth-grinding distraction.
Still, Lucy was a good friend. And she never asked questions, even when Sophie had showed up at her door, bruised and bleeding, terrified and
That's an Unpleasant Thing. Don't think about it. "Seriously, Lucy. I have stuff to do this weekend." Like sleep. And figure out next month's budget. If they don't give me some overtime I don't know how I'll make it.
"For Chrissake. Don't think about that. Think about how good you look right now." They reached the entrance to the Paintbox. Pounding music spilled out, neon lights flickering, cigarette smoke and sweat exhaling into the cold.
The night was chill, but Sophie's heart was already galloping along uncomfortably hard. It was strange to be out in public at night. And unsettling. The sky was too big, and there were too many people to keep track of.
Sophie kept breathing. The therapy books all said deep breathing was key. You couldn't control a lot of things, but you could control your breathing.
On Friday nights, if you paid ten dollars, you got to go into every club and bar on Broadway Square without a door feeand get a free drink in most of them. It wasn't worth a whole roll of laundry quarters, to Sophie's mind. And the thought of so many people clustering around her made her a little sick. Just keep breathing, she told herself.
"God, Soph, you're divorced, not dead. Come on."
I'm wondering if one is analogous to the other, really. She dropped Lucy's keys in the teensy plastic-jeweled purse at her hip. Lucy pulled Sophie through the door into blessed muggy warmth full of pounding bass played way too loud to be healthy. The bouncer wolf-whistled; Luce swished her hips in response and laughed.
This is going to be trouble. Sophie sighed, but the sound was lost under the music. What the hell, right? Lucy was just being a good friend. The only friend she had left, really, since the others had fallen away one way or another during the first year of her marriage to an egotistical bastard. Stop thinking, she told herself as Lucy actually hopped with excitement, aiming straight for the crush of people around the bar. The Paintbox's major attraction was its dance floor, blocks of light in the floor turning different colors in time to the beat. The place was packed and only going to get more so. Sophie kept her arm carefully over the tiny jeweled purse, borrowed from Lucyjust big enough for ID, keys, cash, and a tube of pale-pink lip glossand let her friend tug her along. That's an Unpleasant Thing, and it's in the Past. Leave it there, for God's sake. Look at how hard Lucy's trying.
She plastered a smile on her face and followed her friend, wincing every time the music hit the decibel level right before "jet takeoff."
This is going to be a long night.
"Now, all of you behave." Kyle's eyes glittered with a random reflection of silver, catching the glow of a streetlamp. "This is for food and supplies. We can't afford another incident."
"Aw." Julia rubbed at her forehead, her long dark hair falling forward over her shoulders. The pale streak at her temple, just beginning to grow in, glowed dully. "Can't we have a little fun?"
Fun is one thing. Almost eviscerating a man because he's patted your ass is another. "Kyle says to behave." Zach looked back from the front passenger's seat of the blue minivan. "That means behave." His tone was soft, but the windows in the van rattled.
"Sure." Julia ducked her head to the side. So did Brun, mimicking her submissive posture. "You got it, big brother. Behave." She made a low, soft sound, the please-don't-rip-my-throat-out-I'll-be-good sound. Zach's nostrils flared. She was overacting just enough to be sarcastic, and her pheromone wash was spiked with thinly veiled aggression.
"We can have fun just fine without blood," Kyle said. His hair stood up in soft spikes. "We're Carcajou. Eric?"
"No blood," Eric said from the backseat, his bitten leather jacket creaking. "Brun?"
"No blood," Brun said, his light tenor almost piping. "We're not savages."
"Good." Kyle took the keys out of the ignition. "Everyone's dressed?"
"Quit fussing." Julia tossed her head impatiently. "Let's just go. I'm hungry." She was whining a little, already. Brun rubbed at her nape, and she shoved her twin's hand irritably away.
It's not her fault, Zach told himself. She was young, barely past her first Change, and a spoiled brat to boot. Kyle pretty much allowed her to run wild, because she was the only female in the Family. It was his call but she was getting harder and harder to control.
You're not the alpha, either. It's not your job. Zach settled himself, one boot on the dashboard, and waited. He wouldn't move until his little brother did. Ky stared out the windshield, the glass beginning to fog up with five healthy young animals breathing inside. Little brother was wearing his scruffy face today, a shadow of stubble across his cheeks, the circles under his coal-dark eyes attractive instead of worn down. Women liked him with a little bit of rough on; otherwise, Ky was too pretty.
Better to be tough than pretty, Zach reminded himself for the thousandth time. He studied his boot toes, ran over the situation again inside his head. They needed cash, and the kids needed to bleed off some energy. It was dangerous, especially with the young ones in such a state.
He'd almost talked Kyle into letting him and Eric do it alone. They had the quickest fingers and the best control of their tempers. But Kyle didn't want to be left home to babysit, and he especially didn't want them separated if Julia had another one of her fits. It took a lot to control her sometimes, and Zach was the best at it.
Though sometimes he wished Kyle wouldn't always take the easiest way out.
But thoughts like that were dangerous. They were the thoughts of someone who was about to challenge the alpha, and Zach had made up his mind. No challenging Kyle, that was the rule.
It had been the rule ever since the night of the fire, when Zach held his little brother back from plunging into the flames.
"All right," Kyle said. It was the signal, and they got moving.
It was an autumn night full of rattling naked branches and the faint smell of dry-cinnamon leaves. The sound of thumping bass was clearly audible, running under the concrete like a pulse in the throat of sweating prey, and Zach breathed deep, rolling the cold air over his tongue.
There was danger on the wind tonight, and it wasn't just the danger of starvation haunting their little Family.
The beast in the floor of his mind stirred restlessly. Instinct blossomed into certainty. Something's gonna happen.
"I don't like this," he murmured. Kyle paused as the others preceded themslim dark Julia, Brun trailing in her wake as usual, Eric hunching his shoulders and glancing from side to side warily. "It smells odd."
Kyle agreed silently, his chin dipping in the facsimile of a nod. "Wish we had a shaman."
You and me both. We could settle down if we had one. And Zach wouldn't be half so tempted to do something drastic.
But resisting temptation was getting to be his middle name. "I'll keep an eye on Julia." I'm such a diplomat.
The half-blind, animal part of him raised its head, interested in a thread of scent. Brunette and young, tantalizing in its evanescence. Hmm. Wonder who that is. Smells interesting.
"Good. We can blow town if we get enough tonight." Kyle glanced up at him, as if Zach was the alpha. "South, I'm thinking."
Nice and warm. Easy pickings, too, if we just stay under the radar. "Sounds like a good idea." Except we're traveling blind, without a shaman. Nobody to throw the bones, and Julia's unstable. She's too headstrong. She should marry into another Tribe, if we can find a male strong enough.
But good luck finding a mate for her without a shaman. Good luck finding anything. None of the other Tribes would so much as give them the time of day if they didn't have a shaman of their own. Not even the Tanuki would talk to them, and Tanuki were some of the most gregarious around.
He sighed, a cloud of breath hanging in the cold air, and Kyle gave him another one of those odd sidelong glances. Quit looking at me that way. You're the alpha, I'm the secondthat's the way it's going to stay. God, I wish Dad was here.
"You've got the quickest fingers," Kyle finally said. "You take point tonight."
Zach nodded. "By this time tomorrow we'll be driving toward orange groves and white-sand beaches." And still running one step ahead of disaster.