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Wolf Tales V
By KATE DOUGLAS
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Kate Douglas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneManda stood motionless beside the window but she didn't dare part the shades. Not even for a peek. No, that was much too risky, but she listened. Listened and flinched at the double backfire that always reminded her of gunshots, listened to the slow, steady tread of heavy boots climbing the twelve steps to her front door.
Still, when the loud knock broke the silence, she jumped. Then she caught her breath and moved away from the window and shuffled closer to the door. Leaned the side of her head against the solid wood. "Is that you, Harry?"
Damn. She so wished her voice sounded normal. The scratchy, rasping growl wrapped around her words only added to the rumors.
"Yes, Ms. Smith. I have your order. Do you want me to bring it in?"
Bring it in. It would be so simple to show herself and be done with it. Manda sighed. "No, that's okay, Harry. The check for the groceries is under the mat. Your tip, too. Thank you."
She listened for the scrape of the rubber mat as it was pulled aside. Heard the crinkle of paper and knew he'd probably shoved the check into a pocket, and one of the last of her crisp five dollar bills into his wallet.
"Thank you, ma'am. I'll be going now."
"Thank you, Harry." Manda leaned her back against the door and listened for the solid clump of Harry's boots as he walked down the stairs. She sensed the long pause he made at the bottom and imagined him looking up toward her closed door.
Pictured him standing there, scratching his bald head and wondering what kind of freak she was. Manda waited until the unmistakable double retort of backfire told her Harry's truck was truly gone. Still, she waited a full ten minutes longer, her senses open to any disturbance, any suggestion Harry, or even someone else, might yet linger on the stoop.
Finally, stomach rumbling in hungry protest at the long but necessary delay, she cracked open the door and peered down the empty staircase. Then, hooking her long, black nails into the sides of the cardboard box, Manda slowly dragged the goods inside and closed the door.
The aroma of fresh, raw meat brought a rush of saliva to her mouth and made her throat convulse. She tried to stay in control, but the blood scent found a deeper level. She caved to her needs, the visceral reaction to fresh blood, to meat. Snarling deep in her throat, Manda ripped open the box with teeth and claws and used her sharp canines to tear into the first package on top. Raw sirloin steak. Almost two pounds of bloody meat.
She shoved the plastic covering aside with one curved nail, then fell on the steak, tearing at it as if it were prey, alive and struggling to escape. Growling, snapping at the bloody flesh, she devoured the slab of meat in seconds.
Hunger assuaged, Manda sat back on her haunches, breathing heavily. She glanced at the torn wrapping, the bloodstains on the floor, then at her hands. At least, what had once been hands. They were paws. Okay, so she had rudimentary opposing thumbs, but still, they were nothing but paws and she was cursed. Cursed for whatever sin she might have committed, cursed to live as a beast. She stared at the fur-covered paws, the extended black claws, the bits of meat caught on the sharp nails. Stared at them until the form wavered and her eyes watered, though no tears fell.
Damn Papa B and damn the people who followed him. Damn Mother and Father, the rebels and their guns, the hill people and God and His ugly curse. Damn them all.
Then she bowed her head, whimpering like a lost puppy, and curled into a shivering, shaking ball of fur and bone and flesh.
* * *
Baylor Quinn stepped out of the elevator and stood patiently in the doorway to San Francisco's elegant Top of the Mark restaurant. He tucked his motorcycle gloves inside his helmet and stuck the helmet under his arm, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible in his full-body black leather riding suit and heavy black motorcycle boots. While he waited for the maitre d' to seat him, Bay studied the large, laughing group sitting together on the far side of the restaurant and wondered once again why he should presume to feel a part of such an illustrious assembly of individuals.
Each one of them, perfect in every way possible.
All of them mated to someone ... loved by someone. Even his sisters had found mates. Sisters from the same dysfunctional beginnings as his own, yet they laughed and loved as if they had every right to so much happiness.
The maitre d' grabbed a menu and gestured for Bay to follow. Baylor looked beyond the small, neatly attired man and glanced through the large windows. The skyline of San Francisco was almost lost in the low-lying fog below the top floor of the hotel, but the misty view out the windows created a perfect backdrop for such a gathering of the obviously rich and beautiful.
If only the other patrons seated nearby had a clue. Bay bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from grinning like a fool. Shapeshifters all, from the handsome older man with white hair to the young African American mother gently cradling her newborn daughter.
Chanku. Creatures with the ability to leave their human bodies-if not their humanity-behind, and run as wolves. They might hunt and kill without remorse, yet they were just as comfortable sharing a linen-covered table set with the finest crystal and silver, conversing quietly over coffee in an elegant dining room.
It looked as if everyone had made it to brunch this morning. Considering the amount of alcohol consumed at the wedding reception the night before, Baylor'd had his doubts. He nodded to Anton Cheval, the obvious occupant for the space at the head of the table, shook Ulrich Mason's hand at the other end, and pulled out the vacant chair between his two sisters, across from Stefan Aragat, who sat beside his lovely mate, Alexandria.
She looked about ready to pop. Bay wasn't sure, but her baby had to be due any time ... like maybe now? He gave each of his sisters a quick kiss. Then, for some obscure and probably foolish reason, he leaned across the table and kissed Xandi's cheek.
He sensed more than heard the low snarl coming from her mate. Bay sat, and at the same time flashed a quick grin when Xandi rolled her eyes at Stefan's purely wolven response.
"How're you feeling this morning, Xandi? You've got to be getting close." Spreading his napkin over his lap, Bay nodded to the waiter who poured his coffee.
Xandi laughed. "Definitely close. I feel like a beached whale about to burst." She glared at Stefan. "And it's all your fault!"
Stefan raised both hands in surrender. "Not completely," he said. "You did have the choice."
Xandi merely snorted and laughed, but Bay noticed the white lines around her mouth and the strain in her eyes. It was true-all Chanku females had a choice to breed or not. Pregnancy required the conscious release of an egg for fertilization. As miserable as she looked right now, Bay wondered if Xandi regretted choosing motherhood.
Stefan certainly seemed excited about the impending birth. What would it be like, knowing the woman who loved you carried your child? Bay sighed. It was doubtful he'd ever find out. There were so few of them, so very few Chanku of either sex.
Bay's odds of meeting the perfect mate seemed insurmountable. He sat back and listened as the others teased Stefan and Xandi about her impending delivery, but as he sipped his coffee, Bay felt once more that sense of being apart from the whole. Even with a newly rediscovered sister on either side of him, he remained the one lone wolf among the group.
Bay glanced up and caught Stefan watching him, smiling broadly. "Take a look at this," Stefan said. "I may have found you a woman." He handed a folded newspaper across the table, a cheap tabloid from the looks of it. The headline screamed across the front, WOLF GIRL TERRIFIES RURAL NY NEIGHBORHOOD!
Below was a grainy photo, obviously retouched, of a snarling wolf with just enough human features, including long, blond hair, to look truly hideous. Anger shot through Bay. Did everyone find it humorous that he among them was alone and hating it? It took him a minute to find his voice. He tossed the paper back on the table and snarled, "Not funny, Aragat."
Still smiling, Stefan shook his head. "You don't get it, do you? I'm not kidding and this is not a joke. Xandi, tell Bay how you found me."
Xandi reached across the table and covered Bay's clenched fist with her soft hand. "It wasn't that long ago, Bay, that Stefan looked almost exactly like the woman in that photo." She flashed her mate a wry grin. "Other than the hair. He was already going gray."
"Watch it, woman." Stefan smiled at Xandi, obviously urging her to continue.
"He'd been stuck like that, part wolf, part human, in midshift, for over five years. That picture's probably not real, but there's often a kernel of truth to tabloid stories. We found Keisha through an article in that same publication. It was just as lurid, but there was enough truth to send us searching for her. Point being, don't discount the possibility of this woman being real, and very much in need of help."
Bay felt as if someone had tilted his reality. He looked carefully at Stefan and tried to imagine the horror of being caught between shifts. "What happened?"
Stefan shook his head. "It's a long story and too intense for a 'breakfast after the wedding' conversation, but the point is, it can happen. There just might be a young woman in upstate New York, living the same horror I lived. And you, my friend, might be able to find her and save her."
Bay picked the paper up and looked at the article with a new sense of purpose. It named a small town in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. He read the entire piece and then glanced at his packmates, Jake and Shannon. Shannon smiled, Jake gave him a thumbs up.
Suddenly breakfast with the group didn't seem nearly as important. Nor did the day ahead loom so bleakly. Bay stood up, chugged the last of his tepid coffee and grabbed his helmet and gloves. Already his mind spun with plans and possibilities. "It's been wonderful to see all of you, to meet you," he said, nodding to the members of the Montana pack. "It's been especially wonderful to see you two rats." He leaned down and gave both Lisa and Tala another kiss on the cheek. "But it looks like I'm going to take a little trip east. I'll be in touch."
Xandi felt a catch in her breath, remembering Stefan, remembering the night she'd found and learned to love the man hidden within the body of a wolf. She watched as Bay tucked Stefan's tabloid into a side pocket on his leather suit, saluted all of them at the table and strolled out of the restaurant with the black helmet under one arm.
Damn, but the man was hot. She glanced at Stefan and smiled. Her mate was thinking exactly the same thing as he watched the tall, dark-haired Chanku leave the restaurant. He wasn't even trying to hide his thoughts.
Another twinge crossed Xandi's middle. She realized this had nothing whatsoever to do with Baylor Quinn or her mate.
Oblivious as only a man could be, Stefan leaned back in his chair, slipped an arm around Keisha on one side and Xandi on the other. "Well, folks. My work here is done," he said, grinning broadly.
"No, Stefan. It's not." Xandi gasped as another contraction stole her breath away. She rubbed her palm along one side of her taut belly. "I think it's just beginning."
* * *
Ulrich Mason waited outside the delivery room with Anton Cheval. Stefan and the women had gone into the birthing room with Xandi, while Jake, Tinker, Mik, and AJ, cowardly males all, went off in search of lunch. Anton's gaze hardly left the closed door, but he'd declined Stefan and Alexandria's invitation to join them for their child's birth.
He sat beside Ulrich instead, holding his own newborn daughter while Keisha and the other women used their Chanku skills to ease Xandi's pain.
Ulrich brushed his fingertip over the baby's satiny cheek. "It's frightening, isn't it, the responsibility you feel holding one that tiny? I remember when Camille delivered Tianna. The doctor handed that tiny bundle to me and all I could do was stare and worry about her future."
Anton sighed, but it was a contented sound. "I know. I can already feel the changes fatherhood has made in my perceptions, the sense I have of myself and those around me. It's good, though, my friend. All good. These little ones won't grow up wondering why they're different, wondering what drives them to be so unlike their friends. They'll know their heritage, their potential."
Ulrich nodded, lost in memories and old regrets. He'd not been so open with Tia. His daughter hadn't known a thing about the Chanku, beyond the fairy tales her mother had told her as a youngster. Thank goodness all had turned out so well.
"I have a favor to ask of you, but I'll not be unhappy should you refuse."
"A favor? Of me?" Ulrich sat back in his chair and looked closely at Anton, the acknowledged leader of the Chanku. He was a shapeshifter as well as a powerful wizard adept at many arcane skills, and it was difficult imagining Anton needing anything from anyone.
He smiled at Ulrich, obviously aware of his thoughts. "The High Mountain wolf sanctuary in Colorado has an interesting director. Her name's Millie West. She's lived in the area all her life." Anton glanced away from Ulrich's direct gaze and brushed his daughter's fuzzy head. "I met her briefly, a few weeks ago. She's Chanku. I'd almost swear it, though obviously I have no proof. I want you to meet her, see if my suspicions are correct. If she is, I want you to help her, to bring her over. She's got to be at least fifty ... to my knowledge, she's never married."
Anton turned his attention back to Ulrich. "I know how you feel about Camille, but your wife's been gone for a long time. Chanku mate for life, but once a mate's life ends, I believe we can still find love."
It might have been merely his imagination, but Ulrich was almost sure his heart skipped a beat, skittered a little and then settled back into rhythm. He'd never imagined another woman and love in the same thought, never allowed himself to consider loving anyone but Camille.
He raised his head. When he stared into Anton's amber eyes Ulrich saw both compassion and encouragement. "Was this your goal," he asked, "when you brought Camille's spirit back for me? To free Keisha from her presence, or was it to free me?"
Anton's smile was bittersweet. "Couldn't it do both things? Camille needed to move on, Keisha needed peace, and you, my friend, needed to remember that, while your wife is no longer alive, you are. What are you? Fifty-nine? Sixty?"
"I'm sixty-four, and on days like this I feel every one of my years and then some." Ulrich chuckled, but there was little humor in his heart. Damn Camille. He'd hoped that one magical night he'd spent with his long-dead wife's spirit would help him move beyond the grief, but he still missed her. At least the anger was gone. For that, Ulrich would be forever grateful to Anton Cheval.
"Do you realize you're only a dozen years older than me, and I'm holding a newborn?" Anton leaned down and kissed the sleeping baby in his arms. "You have a life to live, Ulrich. A future ahead of you. Think about it. I need someone to bring Millie over, if she truly is Chanku. You're the one to do it."
Anton watched Ulrich where the older man stood by the window, staring out across the city. His thoughts were as clear to Anton as a written page. Anton debated whether or not to intrude. It was so easy, this slipping in and out of the minds of others, but he honored privacy whenever possible. From this distance, it would be almost as easy to tell by Ulrich's body language what the man thought.
The door to the birthing room opened and Stefan slipped outside. Anton bit back a grin. His packmate, usually so carefree and lighthearted, looked rumpled and exhausted. Stefan rubbed his injured shoulder, still healing after their plane crash just a few weeks earlier.
"How's she doing?"
"Better than me." Stefan flopped down on the chair beside Anton and ran his finger over baby Lily Milina's silky cheek. "But, if this is the reward, I imagine I'll be able to cope." He chuckled quietly. "The women are amazing. They sit beside Xandi while she labors, touch her body gently and take her pain. All of them are showing the strain of her efforts, yet she looks wonderful, still rested and strong."
Excerpted from Wolf Tales V by KATE DOUGLAS Copyright © 2008 by Kate Douglas. Excerpted by permission.
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