In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It's as if the people picked up and left their possessions behind. With a mystery on their hands and no jurisdiction on private property, the FBI dumps the whole problem in the lap of the land owner, Aspen Creek, Inc.aka the business organization of the Marrok's pack.
Somehow, the pack of the Wolf Who Rules is connected to a group of vanished people. Werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham are tasked with investigating, and soon find that a deserted town is the least of the challenges they face.
Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerousand it has met werewolves before.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Series:||Alpha and Omega (Anna Latham & Charles Cornick) Series , #6|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)|
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Autumn: Aspen Creek, Montana
Anna let her hands press the ivory keys of the old upright piano in a few preparatory chords, enjoying the rich sound. Music, for her, was not just an auditory experience-she loved the feel of the vibrations running through her fingers. The bass notes resonated in her core, leaving her energized and ready to play.
In all senses of the word.
She glanced over her shoulder and up at her husband's face. She wasn't sure anyone else had ever played with him. No one in their pack, for certain, including Bran. Oh, they played music with him, but they didn't play games.
The piano wasn't her instrument, but like most people who had ever attended college with the aim of majoring in music, she was reasonably competent. For this game, the piano was more flexible than her preferred cello, which was limited to two notes at a time, a few more with harmonics.
"Ready?" she asked him, then launched into the song without waiting for his response.
She hummed where the melody came in-it was his job to figure out the words. It didn't take him long this time. Charles, his warmth against her back, though he didn't touch her, began singing the lyrics to "Walk on the Ocean" with her two beats after she'd started humming.
The game had originated when Anna found out Charles hadn't heard of P. D. Q. Bach, who had been a favorite of one of her music teachers. A lack she had remedied with the help of the Internet. In return, Charles had shared a few singers he liked. Some of them left her cold. Some of them had been unexpectedly awesome. Of course, she had heard Johnny Cash before she'd met Charles. But Charles had turned her into an unabashed Johnny Cash fan-though she liked Cash's songs even better if Charles sang them. They suited his voice.
She would have loved Charles if he hadn't been able to carry a tune in a bucket, but Charles's facility for and love of music had been one of many unexpected gifts her mate had brought to their union. She had been so lucky to find him.
Gradually they had begun challenging each other, finding singers, groups, or songs that the other didn't know. It was the best kind of game: one with no losers. Either they figured out the song the other pulled out of their store of obscure or favorite songs (or obscure and favorite songs) or they didn't.
Sometimes they kept score-the loser to do dishes or cook or something more fun. But mostly they just enjoyed making music together-the game giving the activity more variety than it might otherwise have had.
Toad the Wet Sprocket, evidently, had not been a challenge at all.
Anna laughed in surrender, then sang the rest of "Walk on the Ocean" with Charles, letting him anchor the melody while she worked out a descant an octave above him-pushing her alto into a register mostly reserved for sopranos. Sometimes crafting harmonies on the fly could go terribly wrong, but this time it sounded good. Their voices complemented each other, which, even with good singers, wasn't always true.
"That's one of Samuel's favorites," Charles told her when they were finished.
Anna hadn't spent much time with Charles's brother; he'd left his father's pack by the time she'd joined, but she knew he was a musician, too. Listening to Charles, Samuel, and their father perform the old Shaker song "Simple Gifts" at a funeral had been the first indication Anna'd had that she'd married into a very musical family.
She'd thought her music lost the night she'd been attacked and turned into a werewolf. Charles had given it back. In return, she hoped, she had given him playfulness.
He bent down, put his mouth against her ear, and said, in a mock-villain growl, "You'll have to do better than that to defeat me."
The rumble of his voice sent chills up her spine. She loved it when he was happy. She was so easy-at least as far as Charles was concerned. She leaned back against him, then tilted her head up. He bent over and kissed her lips.
He started to pull away, hesitated, and came down for a second round. His lips were softer than they looked, sweeping from the corner of her mouth in a gentle caress before pressing her lips open.
His breath became ragged. His muscles, still warming her back, tightened until she might have been leaning against a wall instead of a living being. If there was anything sexier than being desired, she didn't know what it could be.
Her body became liquid as their lips lingered together, taking the gift of desire and returning it to him. His hand pressed briefly on her breastbone, just above her breast, his touch gentle. Then he slid his hand up until it covered the arch of her throat, fingertips spread to span her jawline, encouraging her to keep her head tilted for his kiss. As if she needed encouragement.
When he finished with her mouth for the moment, his lips brushed her cheekbone and over to her ear, which he nipped. The sharpness after the soft and light touch sent a shock reverberating up her spine.
"Mmm," she said.
He stepped away from her, breathing hard. His smile was sheepish. "That was a little more than I intended," he said.
She shrugged, knowing the dismissive gesture would be given the lie by her reddened lips and the arousal he probably would not have to be a werewolf to sense. "I am not taking any of the fault for that, sir."
He laughed, the sound low and soft. Hot. But he still took another step away-backward, as if he couldn't quite make himself turn his back on her.
"I have a song for you," he said. "I've been working on this for a while."
He grabbed one of the cases stacked along the wall of their music room and took out a flute. He gave Anna an assessing look and then pulled her guitar off the wall where it hung with several of his.
She had come to him with nothing, but she had the feeling, given the pleasure he took in giving her things, that her collection of instruments might outpace his in time. She took the guitar when he handed it to her.
"Just what am I supposed to do with this?" she asked archly, but she reversed her position on the piano bench so the piano was at her back and gave the guitar strings an experimental strum, adjusting the high E until the pitch was true. They were new strings, and the E liked to slip.
He didn't answer her, just pulled up a chair so he would face her when he sat in it. He dragged a low table over beside his chair and set the flute on it. Then he searched the cases and pulled out an instrument she hadn't seen him use-a viola.
"Oooo," she said. "Can I see?"
He raised an eyebrow but handed it over. "It's Da's," he told her.
She glanced in the f-hole and found a maker's ink signature and the date 1872. It didn't tell her much. She reached out blindly and he gave her the bow. She tested it, tightened a peg an eighth of a turn, and stroked the bow across the strings, smiling at the rich tone.
"Bran has good taste," she said, handing the viola and bow back to him.
He took more care in tuning it than she had with the guitar-as one does, she thought with amusement. Violas-like their little sister, the violin-were temperamental. When he was satisfied, he sat down, the viola held like a cello, instead of the more usual under-the-chin method.
"Ready?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes. "No? What are we playing? Or do I get to make something up? How about a key signature?"
He grinned. "I have faith. Join in when you are ready."
He picked up the flute and . . . he was right, she recognized the tune.
She'd been making an effort at reconnecting with a few of her friends from Northwestern. A few months ago one of them had shared a link to a self-proclaimed Mongolian folk metal band. They called themselves the Hu. They played modified traditional Mongolian instruments in addition to those more commonly found in rock bands. They also used a type of throat singing in which a single singer produced more than one note at the same time.
They sounded exactly like what she'd have expected musicians from Genghis Khan's troops to sound like if they'd been given the power of modern instruments. She loved it.
She'd shared their music with Charles, he'd listened to a couple of songs, nodded his head-and she'd thought that had been that. Apparently, she'd been wrong.
He began, as the original song did, with the flute, switching seamlessly to the viola, which he used to mimic the traditional horsehead fiddle. When he sang, he used the throat-singing technique-in, as far as she could tell, the original Mongolian.
It was a gift. He'd done a great deal of work-and he was a busy man-to prepare this song for her. For a quiet man, Charles was very good at saying "I love you."
When the song drew to an end, Anna, flushed with enjoyment and pleasure, applauded enthusiastically. "Holy cow. Just wow. I didn't know you speak Mongolian. You are full of surprises."
He put the viola away and gave her a lighthearted grin that lit up his face. "I just mimic. Doubtless my song would leave anyone who actually spoke Mongolian scratching their head. And I don't have the throat singing down right. There's a vibration technique I haven't figured out yet. I had to do that on the viola."
Anna hung her guitar up, shaking her head with mock reproof. "That's it. You might as well give up music altogether and go live on the top of a mountain, where you can wallow in your shame."
Big arms wrapped around her, pulling her back against him. She gave an exaggerated oof as if he'd squeezed out all of her air.
"Only if you come with me," he crooned. "Then I won't get bored as I wallow."
"What makes you think I could help you with boredom?" she asked in an innocent voice, pushing her hips back against him suggestively as one of his hands moved down, an iron bar across her belly, while the other moved up, pushing her hair aside to bare the side of her throat for him. "What is it you think we can do all alone-"
Upstairs, the doorbell rang.
They both froze. It was late for casual visitors.
"The door isn't locked," Charles growled.
"And anyone who is pack is likely to just walk in," she agreed reluctantly.
He didn't release her.
"Charles?" she asked.
He inhaled her scent. "I am second in the pack," he said with obvious reluctance. "If someone is ringing our doorbell, I have to answer."
She twisted in his arms and stood on tiptoe to kiss his chin, liking that she was going to smell like him for a while. Jeez, being a werewolf had changed her point of view on a lot of things, she mused, turning to climb up the stairs, Charles at her heels.
The phone rang-the landline that never rang but hung from the wall above the light switch like a tribute to the past. Charles stopped beside it.
"It's Da," he told her, then answered the phone.
Bran could make his voice heard in the minds of his wolves (and probably anyone else he cared to). He maintained that he could not hear responses-which was, Anna assumed, why he had decided to use the phone.
"Tell Anna to get the door," Bran said. "You need to let the wolf greet them." And then he left them with a dial tone.
Huh, she thought, meeting Charles's eyes.
He shrugged. He didn't know why Bran had bothered calling, either. Maybe just to make whoever was at the door wait a bit longer. Trying to work out the hows and whys of Bran's actions tended to leave Anna with a headache and no wiser for the struggle.
Anna obeyed her orders, walking the twelve feet or so to the door and opening it. She was still trying to work out what Bran's call had been about, so she blinked a little at the unexpected visitors.
The nearest, illuminated by the porch light, was a fortysomething black woman, looking athletic and smart in a white polo shirt with the FBI logo on one shoulder and dark blue trousers. Beside her was a short, fine-boned white man who could have been anywhere from his midfifties to midseventies. His hair, which had been dark, had been shaved completely off. His tan jacket and blue slacks fit him well and were free of wrinkles or creases. Still, he struck her as more fragile than he'd been the last time she'd seen him, and she wondered if he had been sick. He didn't smell sick.
For a moment she felt an automatic smile of welcome flow up toward her face, borne of a genuine liking for Special Agent Leslie Fisher and a generally favorable impression of Special Agent Craig Goldstein.
But they weren't supposed to know who she was now or where she and Charles lived. A wide streak of wariness shoved her smile aside as she contemplated the two FBI agents and wondered what this visit was about to change in their world.
"This is unexpected," she said.
As the daughter of a lawyer, Anna had a natural inclination to respect the law. But the FBI had no real jurisdiction over her. They would not be permitted to question her or arrest her or take her to trial without a great deal of trouble-maybe not even then. They were all on pack territory now.
She wondered if they understood just how dangerous that was for them. She certainly understood how dangerous their presence here was for the werewolves. This was above her pay grade, she thought. But it would not help matters to let Charles take over.
Leslie looked at Goldstein. Anna remembered that he'd been the senior of the two when she'd first met them. It seemed that still held true.
"We have some information for you, Ms. Smith," he said without apology. "We felt it was best delivered in person. We also felt that you were the best person to deliver it to."
Goldstein knew very well Smith wasn't her name-Anna didn't like him rubbing her nose in it. She and Charles had made it plain that Smith had been a nom de nßcessitß, and not their own-for heaven's sake, why else would they have used "Smith," notorious in fact and fiction as a false name?