“There’s no easy way to say this. There’s not even a cool, clever way to say this. So I’ll just come out with it. I need you move to St. Paul indefinitely and keep an eye on the vampire queen.”
Rachael had suspected nothing when the summons came. In fact, she had assumed the Pack leader, Michael Wyndham, was wishing her a belated happy thirtieth. He was notorious for remembering significant dates about seventy-two hours too late. It was possible to time him. Sometimes he would round up all the cousins for a big b-day blowout that left the little ones in sugar comas and the adults reaching for sunglasses long before the sun rose high. Could a werewolf get a hangover? Sure. How much booze did it take? Gallons.
But he’d had his hands full with the newly discovered vampire issue (vampires! In Minnesota! Thousands! Controlled by a moron who loved designer shoes!), so she thought nothing of never hearing from him three days after her birthday. She loved her cousin, but he had many responsibilities. As, of course, did she. Tax season was nearly upon them.
So she had suspected nothing when she drove to Wyndham Manor (how too, too aristocratic East Coast!), once a monastery, now the seat of North American werewolf power and home to several generations of Pack leaders.
The monks must have had a keen eye for both architecture, mood, and luxury, for the pile of deep red bricks they had abandoned (or had been turned out of and devoured . . . history was not Rachael’s gift) was truly castlelike.
It was built of enormous red bricks and stones, with a dazzling number of windows on all sides, sweeping porches, turrets, multileveled decks, swimming pools (idiotic, given that the Atlantic was right behind the mansion), miles of private beach, and even a golf course. Not that she played; it seemed too much like fetch.
She herself liked to drive out here in her blue Kia Rio when her Change was upon her. She liked to park in the private lot on the beach below the bluffs, Change, then race up the cliff until she was looking at the back of the mansion, nearly always abandoned because her Pack had all Changed and gone away.
Then she would trot around to the immense green lawn in front of the manor, a lawn so wide and deep it was like a dark green lake, one that would take her a while to swim across. She’d flop on her back, wriggle to work out some kinks (human form to wolf form left a nagging ache in her vertebra), and look up at the bright, bright stars while the wind groaned in her ears and everywhere there was the smell of the ocean, so salty and strong and alive it was almost like the smell of fresh blood.
Now here she was, being packed off like an embarrassing relative (“Away to the sanitarium with you, crazed Aunt Petunia!”), and who knew when she’d be able to roll around on that green lawn, that lake of grass. The stars in Minnesota couldn’t be as big, or as bright, or as clear. No oceans. The Land of Ten Thousand Lakes had no oceans.
Lakes often smelled like dead fish.
And he wouldn’t be there. Michael, her Pack leader and, always more important, her cousin and friend. Her protector. Sending her away when he had many stronger and rougher and smarter—all right, maybe not smarter—but there were literally hundreds of werewolves who would leap at the chance to scout and sneak and spy. But Michael wanted her to go . . . and for what?
She opened her mouth and coughed; for the moment, her throat had been too dry to speak. She tried again. “Spy on the vampire queen?”
Michael winced a bit at spy, and from his furtive manner, he was clearly hoping his mate, Jeannie, couldn’t overhear any of this. It was also probably why the door was closed. Jeannie Wyndham hated intrigue or, as she sometimes called it, werewolf sneakiness. Also, from what Rachael had seen and heard, Jeannieliked the vampire queen. That was . . . difficult to swallow. Not that there was anything, uh, wrong with the big blond woman from Minnesota . . .
“Keep an eye on,” he said again. “Okay? Keep an eye on. That’s all. I’ve already arranged for you to rent a house in her neighborhood—”
“Rent?” She tried, but not very hard, to keep the sharp tone out of her voice. She hated renting. Land was the only thing they could not make more of; owning property was the way to go. It had been true a thousand years ago, it had been true five hundred years ago; it was simply that the masses teeming over the planet knew that, now.
Her cousin knew that, now.
“Rachael, I’m sorry.” He spread his hands and gave her a wry smile, no teeth. Werewolves were terrible at deceiving each other, and she and her cousin had grown up together. She knew he was sorry.
She didn’t care. Because she knew what he was sorry for, and it left her unmoved.
I’m sorry I’m sending you away from your home and everything you’ve known. I’m sorry you have to leave your lands. I’m sorry I’m making you uproot your life for my whim du jour. Sorry, sorry, so sorry, hey, you want to go play with my kids while I explain that to keep their way of life safe I have to uproot yours? No? Maybe another time.
Or maybe never.
“Rachael, your house here on the Cape will always be yours. It passed to you when your mother died; it will be yours, and your children’s, and theirs (assuming that part of the Cape doesn’t drop into the bay) forever.”
Well. That was something, at least. She restrained herself from sniffing.
“While you’re away we’ll take care of maintenance, send someone out to shovel and mow, get in there for some light cleaning every month or so, pay your utilities, keep the lights and phone going . . . like that.”
“That’s the least of it,” she replied, and he nodded. It was. He was a billionaire. He could keep a thousand houses going with electricity and garbage service. It wouldn’t take up much of his time. It wouldn’t take up much of his assistant’s assistant’s time. “What if I can’t get established in Minnesota? All my clients are from around here, and I’m only licensed on the East Coast. Super-sneaky paranormal intrigue is one thing, but I have to earn a living. I have to be able to fund,” she finished, “my super-sneaky paranormal intrigue. Which isn’t covered by my CPA.”
Her licensing issue was a result of her mother’s insistence, years ago, before she died. Probably died. They’d never found the body, and if Rachael learned one thing from reading comic books, they gotta find the body.
Gah, she could actually hear the woman. Had for years . . . before she (probably) died. “Why limit yourself to Massachusetts? What, because most of the weres in this country are here? What, you’ll never need to help the family in, say, New Hampshire?”
Sound advice, but it hadn’t covered the Midwestern states, so right now, she couldn’t, either.
“We’ll get you licensed for Minnesota. Paperwork’s already in motion.”
“No doubt,” she said dryly.
He shrugged, and kept his expression neutral. They were close kin, but he was still her Pack leader. Just because he had never, ever asked her to jump before did not mean he never would . . . or that she never would.
She studied him while he droned about licensing and software and boys who mow. It was funny how, the older he got, the lighter and denser he got. When they were kids, his hair was jet black, long and curly. He started getting gold streaks in his teens, streaks that exactly matched his startling yellow eyes.
Now in his thirties, his hair was the dark gold of an autumn sunset; he remained one of the few men on the planet who could pull off a mullet. (Perhaps the only . . . ? But that could be mere Pack loyalty.)
The older he got, the less like one of them he looked. Funny how the humans never noticed. But then, as a species, they weren’t known for such things.
Lucky for us.
“. . . and your laptop goes everywhere. What’s the difference between a living room ten blocks from here and a living room in a rented house in St. Paul?”
Oh, let’s see. Ambience, lighting, wallpaper, smell, windows, carpeting . . .
“Same laptop, same software, right? You’ve been telling me for years you hardly have to visit your clients face-to-face anymore.”
And now to pay the price for candor.
“You already get everything electronically, right?”
“Mmmm.” This was Rachael’s way of saying, Dammit, I know there’s a flaw in your stupid plan, and when I figure it out, I’m giving you a ground-glass suppository though will obey you anyway because that’s how we do things around here.
“And you won’t be on twenty-four/seven.”
“On the vampire queen?” Ugh.
He nodded, jerking a gold wave out of his eyes. “If you need to fly back here to meet a client or see one of us or, I dunno, pick apples or something—”
“Pick apples?” When in the blue hell would she ever turn to tourist agriculture? If I kill him, I have to kill Lara, too, and then Jeannie will shoot me in the face, which will ruin everyone’s weekend.
“—someone will keep watch on the queen while you’re gone.”
The flaw! Not only was she being sent away, there would occasionally be a blundering werewolf she didn’t know and probably didn’t want to know stumbling through her rental house, making messes and generally being a pain in her sometimes-fuzzy hindquarters. When she returned to St. Paul, it would doubtless be to clean up whatever mess he or she left.
Wherever you are, Mother, you’re laughing, aren’t you? Even as an infant, Rachael had disliked having her things moved around. Back then, her only weapons had been poop, pee, and drool, and she had heartlessly wielded them. Mighty had been her poops of wrath.
“The economy’s still pretty bad,” she added with more than a little warning. “You might not have noticed, O Mightily Wealthy Pack Leader, who never once worried about a meal in his spoiled silly life—”
He started to grin, then his gold brows rushed together and he did a credible job of looking stern. Too bad he didn’t smell stern. He could fool the sapiens, he could even fool werewolves who didn’t know him very well. He couldn’t fool family, ever.
She was trying to stay annoyed, but the truth was, she loved Michael Wyndham and would do what he asked, no matter how annoying or time-consuming or stupid or dangerous or irritating or inconvenient.
Her earliest memory was of falling through the ice of a cranberry bog not even two miles from where they were having this annoying conversation. It would have been her last memory, but her tall cousin leaned down with his yellow eyes blazing and, with a mittened hand that held hers so hard he broke two of her fingers, yanked her from the awful cold water and the dreadful freezing sucking mud.
She scowled, hoping to cover her out-of-character sentimental journey. She would do as he asked but had no interest in making the asking part easier for him.
He saw her look and again held up placating hands. “Aw, Rache, give me a break. Can’t help it that the Wyndhams have never missed a meal. It’s my fault they went into lumber at the exact right time in the exact right part of the country? You remember Aunt Forcia?”
Rachael made a determined effort not to giggle. Must . . . remain . . . umoved . . . Must exude . . . hatred . . .
Aunt Forcia had loved sheep. Loooooved them. During full moons, she’d pull down as many as she could and just gorge. Then she’d pass out on the side lawn for a week or so. The cousins had all thought it was hilarious. (The sheep, less so, but it was a werewolf-gobble-sheep world. At least it was in Cape Cod.)
“You know perfectly well you’ll inherit a chunk of our ill-gotten gains in another generation or so. You’d have it now, even!” At her eye roll, he continued. “Your mom asked me to keep most of it in a trust for you until—”
She knew the parameters of the will and waved that away. Being wealthy was complex and annoying, caused too many questions and created too much paperwork. She supported herself very well as a CPA. Let the money remain in trust for another decade; she truly did not care. Perhaps if she had cubs someday she would change her mind, but it wasn’t likely: changing her mind, or having cubs.
“Look, even if you weren’t a blood relative, we wouldn’t let your house crumble into ruin, no matter where you were in the world doing your duty for the family, and no matter how long it took.”
“My duty for the family.” She said it in a flat tone. She, like her cousin standing before her, was a werewolf: lupi viri (strictly translated to “men of wolves” . . . When was Latin going to get with the program with their female tenses?).
And the lupi viri gave their habits not much more thought than the sapiens pondered their humanity. When sapiens pondered anything. And weren’t dreaming up more excuses for global devastation. A less potty-trained species she had never met in her life. There was a perfectly good reason most werewolves stayed in Massachusetts, and it had nothing to do with all the beaches. Or the Freedom Trail. Or the New England Aquarium.
“So that’s what this is, Michael? My duty?”
“It’s not just that I need someone to go out there. I need someone who wouldn’t go solely out of duty. Rache, you’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. You’re blood, too. But you’re a better choice because . . .”
“Because . . .” His scent, which had been a mild and unwarlike vanilla, suddenly shifted and now she could smell dry sea grass, a lot of it, ablaze.
Ah. Here came the precautionary tale.
“Rache, I can’t lie to you.” It was true. He was a dreadful, laughable liar. “The last person I sent out there died in the vampire queen’s service.”