With the threat of the mafia seemingly gone and the company's headquarters in Junction destroyed, Pietr Rusakova is adjusting to being a normal teen and Jess is realizing normalcy may not be what she wanted after all. But both Jess and Cat know the truththat normal can't be taken for granted. Their precious cure isn't permanentand when a new danger stalks into their small town, Alexi decides he must overcome his issues with the mother who abandoned him to be raised by wolves and make a brand new deal to save his adopted family.
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I wrapped myself around Pietr, holding him while the cure tore through his body. Together we tumbled the rest of the distance to the floor; my arms never once relinquished their hold on him. Within the human halo of my grasp, his clothing ripped and fell away in shreds and tangles of cloth. Fur sprouted in thick tufts, filling in awkwardly and obscuring the way his muscles slid beneath his sleek human skin as he became the wild-eyed wolf.
One last time.
His fingers curled tight into the meat of his palms, bones slipping free to re-form and reshape into broad paws that thrust out claws and scrabbled weakly against the hardwood floor of the foyer, catching in the rug’s long fringe. Frantic at knowing its time was over, the wolf struggled, whining in my grasp, and I adjusted my grip—glad the cure already weakened the beast. I would have never been able to hold back Pietr in his wolf form if he’d been himself.
The thought spun loose in my head, seeking traction like wheels slipping in mud. If he’d been himself … I laced my fingers together and buried my face in his thickly furred side, breathing in deep the scent of pine forests and winter’s vast chill—the scents I’d come to recognize as his.
If he’d been himself … Closing my eyes tight, I dragged in another breath, my arms burning at the stress of holding on. Wasn’t this Pietr, human and free of the beast always clawing at his heart and shortening his life span—wasn’t this Pietr as himself?
He’d been at my side when things were undeniably dangerous—the least I could do was embrace the danger that plagued him since he became a teen. I loved him. And I had promised him I always would.
This was only one small test.
The wolf snapped its wicked teeth threateningly, closing inches from the top of my head—toasting my scalp with its fiery breath. I felt it twist, struggling to escape by dragging us some other direction. The bones in its spine and ribs wiggled against my rib cage, wobbling between wolf and man. I pulled my nose out of his soft fur to glimpse his eyes. They glowed the red of some dangerous sun setting the laws of gravity in a distant galaxy, and I knew we were close … close to a freedom he’d wanted but had never been free to choose.
There was a sound like a clap of thunder as his wolfskin ripped brutally in half. Pietr, completely and undeniably human, slipped free of the animal to rest nude and slick with sweat on the foyer’s Oriental rug. His body heaved with the effort of being nothing but human after four fast and hard years of being so much more.
I released the damp pelt, empty and strangely like the husk of some alien lifeform as it cooled, and I scooted forward on the floor to embrace him—my Pietr—once again.
After everything—all the fighting, the danger, and the drama—finally, we were going to have our chance at being a normal couple. Everything was going to be okay. I was going to get my happily-ever-after after all.
“Jess,” he whispered, his voice ragged. Worn.
I squeezed him gently, tucking my head into the curve of his neck. “I’m here, Pietr.”
He sighed and pulled back from me, slowly opening his eyes.
They seemed different somehow, a softer blue, like the sky after a summer storm washes the darkness away, leaving nothing but a gentle, flat shade perfect for institutional clothing. I looked away a moment, shoving the thought back. When I refocused on him I noticed his forehead had wrinkled, a crease settling at the end of one dark eyebrow. He blinked and looked at me, cocking his head; puzzled. Pulling completely out of my arms, he sat straight up and rubbed his ears.
“What?” I leaned forward and stroked his hair. Odd. The red highlights—such small and seemingly obscure bits of color that sparked within his nearly ebony shock of hair—seemed dull now. I glanced up at the light hanging above our heads. Of course. The trouble had to be with the lighting. Or the fact I was still shaken. I was imagining things. I was seeing differences everywhere because I wanted him to be as different, or as much the same—I wondered now which it truly was—as he wanted to be. “Is something wrong?”
My heart sped as soon as the idea formed words.
Was it possible the cure killed his mother—that my blood or some other ingredient in the gruesome mix had somehow poisoned her and now was taking hold of Pietr?
“What’s wrong?” My eyes scoured his lean form.
“What time is it?”
“What?” Pietr always knew the time—it was as close to him as breathing, as regular as his rapid heartbeat.
He grabbed some anonymous shred of clothing and threw it across his lap.
My eyes narrowed at his suddenly discovered modesty, but I pulled out my cell phone and told him the time.
“Talk to me, Pietr—tell me what’s going on.”
He shook his head, and his eyebrows tugged together as he fought for words. “I don’t … I can’t … I can’t hear the birds.”
He straightened and leaned his head back against the door, eyes wide and darting.
I shifted, twisting one arm around his while I stroked his bare shoulder with trembling fingertips.
“There were birds,” he insisted. “Before…”
I brushed the hair out of his face. “There were birds singing outside?”
“Da. But now … there’s nothing. God,” he whispered. “Mother is dead.…” His voice cracked.
The only thing I could think to do was redirect him. “I didn’t hear them,” I admitted. “The birds.”
A vein near his hairline twitched, and I knew my words did nothing to reassure him. But if they distracted him from the greater loss …
From upstairs the sound of Max’s change taking hold of him threatened to tear the bathroom door off its hinges.
“Maybe the birds left?” I tried.
Pietr twisted in my grip and stood, hauling me up with him to peer past the lace curtain and out the small window of the porch door. He pointed.
I saw them then, a few stubborn sparrows animated as if song was bursting from their fluffy breasts. Still, I heard nothing.
“Is this it then?” he breathed. “Is this how quiet it is when you’re only human?”
What sparked in his eyes was part wonder and—my heart stuttered in my chest recognizing the emotion—part fear.
“Yes, I—” I stroked his cheek and he shivered. “I think it must be.”
“I had forgotten. I feel so…” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat as he swallowed hard. “… so alone?”
I held him tighter, my joints aching with the effort. “You aren’t alone.”
He nodded, sticking his chin out like an obstinate child being brave just for me. “Hmm. Okay then.” But he clutched me to him, winding my arms tightly around him. “Jess?”
Closing his eyes, he leaned down, resting his head on my shoulder, and whispered, “Just—don’t let me go.”
“Never,” I promised as my eyes lifted to catch Amy watching us, propped against the dining room’s doorjamb, arms crossed, tears edging out of her eyes.
I realized we’d all lost something precious. And not just with the loss of Mother’s life. Because in the end, it’s not love—or werewolves—that breaks us. It’s the choices we make—the cures we scramble to find, to take, both good and bad—and the lack of time we get to study and make better choices. Because it’s always our choices that either save us or screw us.
So I chose to make sure Pietr knew he wasn’t alone and would never be alone again. Maybe there were other werewolves—oboroten—from the experiments that made the Rusakovas, and maybe not. But there would never be another Pietr, never another us. So as long as we stayed together, neither of us would truly be alone again.
We were so screwed.
The winter wind pulled me along, claws dug deep in my nostrils, dragging me toward destiny. With hunters barely two states behind and snow hemming us in on all sides, our choices had been limited since we lost Harmony by the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier. The gunshots still rang in my ears like they’d been fired yesterday, although Chicago was far from the mountains we now raced across.
I wanted to shake free of my humanity—the stain seeping through the wolf in me and reminding me I’d failed, that I’d made the choice to leave the Windy City too late. That my failure had cost my pack.
In lives. Every human cell in my wolf body whined, weak and slow, sluggishly processing our loss.
Lingering over worthless emotion.
Muscles burning with effort, I pushed on, clawing into thickly frosted ground, my eyes slitted against the sting of the snowflakes threatening to blind me. Warmer weather wouldn’t have narrowed our options. My snout wrinkled. We should have gone south with the migrating birds.
I should have known better. As alpha, I should have been smarter—more prepared. I glanced around the fur rippling across my shoulders and counted the wolves fighting to keep pace.
Eleven stumbling, bleary-eyed wolves with bellies rattling like beggars’ bowls followed me. And one ran ahead, laying down our path with nothing but scent, a thinning reminder of his red hair and fox-like features. All together twelve wolves looked to me to keep them all safe.
All we had was one another.
And that amounted to next to nothing with hunters on our tails.
Closing the door to Pietr’s room, I leaned against it and caught my breath. Only a few hours had passed since Tatiana’s death. Inside, Pietr dozed on his bed, exhausted from the impact of the cure and the emotional strain of losing someone he’d only just won back. Disbelief and anger at our failure warred within him.
The same way they’d battled inside me when I lost my mother.
Over the past months I’d dealt with my grief (certainly not gracefully), but it didn’t make me any better at helping Pietr through his pain.
I was failing. I should’ve known the right thing to say or do to make things better. But every time his eyes met mine, my throat clogged and all the words stopped.
There had to be something I could do.
The temptation to have Dad come get me was strong. I could head home and saddle up Rio. A ride in the crisp wind might help clear my head.
I closed my eyes. What would a ride do for the Rusakovas?
Now was not the time to be selfish. Now was the time to buckle down and do whatever I could for the people who needed it most.
Even if most of those people were werewolves.
… were werewolves. Past tense.
With a groan I pulled away from the door and stumbled down the hall. I paused by the bathroom to assess the damage Max had done: towel racks torn from the walls; tile broken; chunks of plaster and a coating of white dust covered a floor that wallpaper brushed, trailing raggedly from the walls in long shreds. The mirror over the sink was shattered—by fist or paw, I couldn’t tell.
What had he seen to make him lash out, intent on destroying his own reflection?
The sink, tub, and shower were still intact. That was good, at least. I’d talk to Max about cleaning up a little later—but before Cat decided to talk to him and the tension between them grew even more difficult to control.
Or … I stepped into the bathroom, glass grinding between my sneakers and the tile. Maybe I’d just clean it up myself.
I jumped, but breathed a sigh of relief seeing Amy in the doorway.
She held a bucket and mop in her gloved hands. “I can’t do nothing,” she said. “I’ll do the physical cleanup, and you handle the emotional. You understand this better.” Her eyebrows pulled together, and she looked at the bits of glass sparkling on the floor. “I just don’t know what to say,” she admitted, squeezing past me.
I nodded, although words seemed just as elusive to me.
Out of the bathroom and down the stairs I went. I paused on the last step. I could straighten up the sitting room. Remembering that was where Alexi had Max move Mother’s body, my stomach twisted, deciding there’d be no straightening up there after all.
Not yet, at least.
Thinking I could clear the last things off the dining room table, I turned toward it but stopped short when I caught Cat reflected in the china cabinet. Her back to me, she focused on the wineglass that had held the cure—a wineglass that seemed even emptier than before.
What could I say to her? I’m sorry it didn’t work—but we knew there was a risk when you broke past the cure? Maybe we should’ve said something right after that…?
I backed away as quietly as I could and made my way to the kitchen.
Maybe I could cook something so Cat wouldn’t have to, and Max wouldn’t make some comment that’d hurt her already battered feelings. It was a small gesture, but better than doing nothing. Tugging open the refrigerator, I saw the casserole Wanda had brought over only a little while ago. And the pie. Even though almost no one knew about Tatiana’s death, it seemed the few who did felt a need to feed the mourners.
And in record time.
My cell phone buzzed, vibrating against my hip. I yanked it free. Sophie. I let it go straight to voice mail. If I didn’t know what to say to Cat, I sure didn’t have a clue about what to say to Sophia. She’d been instrumental to our temporary success but she’d also made it clear she wanted a normal life.
Just like I did.
The phone buzzed again and I shut it off, reaching over to turn on the radio instead.
Maybe if Soph and I never talked about any of this, it’d just go away.
A girl could dream.
“The first large snowfall of the season is expected to make its way into our region late tomorrow night,” the DJ announced. “We’re expecting between three and six inches in the course of twelve hours.”
Opening the fridge again, I discovered my mission, lame as it was. Snow was coming, and the Rusakovas were nearly out of milk. And bread. I dug into my jeans and counted my assortment of bills and coins. Yes. I could get supplies at the Grabbit Mart two blocks away and not bother anyone to drive. That’d clear my head almost as much as a horse ride and it’d get something they needed.
I shrugged into my coat, pulled on a knit hat, and wrapped the scarf that made Hogwarts standard-issue scarves seem bizarrely short around my neck.
With a final glance toward the stairs, I shoved out the front door, plunged down the porch steps and into the wind.
Copyright © 2012 by Shannon Delany