DedicationFor Collin, Amanda, and JordanHere's to less interesting times.
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.
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.
"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 eyebrown 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 bown 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 nécessité, and not their own—for heaven’s sake, why else would they have used “Smith,” notorious in fact and fiction as a false name?/p>
Goldstein’s words smacked of a power play—and Anna disliked politics intensely. Too bad her mate was only slightly more inclined to diplomacy than certain axe-wielding Vikings of her acquaintance. Which left the role of negotiator to her.
This, she thought ruefully, was bound to be a disaster.
Several years of being trapped in a pack where brutality was a fact of everyday life had given her some skills in negotiating with terrorists, however. She wasn’t quite ready to put Leslie Fisher in that category, but it was probably best to assume the worst.
First, show no fear. This was much easier to manage with Charles waiting behind her than it had been when she’d been alone, especially since the FBI had sent people she knew and liked. This was probably not a hostile move on their part. Not yet, anyway.
“My name,” Anna said, letting ice coat her voice, “is Anna Cornick.” Since they were standing on her porch, they already knew her real name.
Second, give the appearance of cooperation - but don't give them anything you don't have to.
"He was trying to be tactful," Leslie said, though she didn't believe it.
Anna raised an eyebrow. “Werewolves can smell lies.” This was something, like her name, that they also already knew.
Leslie flinched subtly and gave her cohort a grim look. The next sentence out of her mouth was the truth, and she sounded more like a professional agent than a friend. “I’m sorry for the surprise, but we do need to talk to you. Rather than advertising that the FBI came to call on you, can we come in?”
Anna crossed her arms over her chest and snorted. “This is a small town. Everyone already knows you’re here. Sometime in the next ten minutes they’ll look up your plates.”
"It's a rental car."
Challenge accepted, Anna thought. “Helen Oxford has a sister who works in the airport in Missoula with the rental car agencies. She won’t have any trouble finding out who rented the car.”
"We drove in from Spokane, not Missoula," said Leslie.
““Rental car agencies are nationwide companies,” Goldstein remarked to no one in particular. Then he said, “Point taken, Ms. Cornick. If you wish to discuss this on your doorstep . . .” He looked around.
They were surrounded by mountains and forest. There were no nearby houses. The closest neighbor was a half mile away.
"...then I see no reason we cannot do that."
Invite them in, said Brother Wolf.
Anna glanced over her shoulder to see the red wolf standing in most of the available floor of their galley kitchen. She wondered, again, why Bran had decided to give the FBI a werewolf to look at.
It was not a bad idea to remind your enemy of who you are, she supposed. Though she hadn’t thought the FBI were their enemies. She had considered Leslie a friend. But she couldn’t afford them to be friends now.
“We have two items of business to bring before you today,” Goldstein was saying. “We know some things we think you should know. And we’d like to start building toward a more formal relationship that could help us both.”
Brother Wolf had said to let them in, but Anna wasn’t sure it was a good idea. She was reasonably certain that Charles wouldn’t tear into the FBI agents without violent provocation. And she was reasonably certain, having dealt with both agents in the past, that neither of them was likely to be violently provocative. But Brother Wolf was an entirely different kettle of fish.
We'll behave, Brother Wolf assured her. You can let them in.
"I see," said Anna. "Perhaps you should come in."
She stepped back, opening the door as an invitation. The open door also gave them a very good view of Brother Wolf. If the sight of the werewolf bothered them, neither of them let it show. They had met Charles’s wolf before.
Anna waved a hand, directing the agents through the living room and into the dining area beyond. Leslie let Agent Goldstein take the lead, and Anna followed behind them.
Leslie paused, looking at the large painting hung over the fireplace. Other than the various instruments that were scattered about, it was the only piece of art in the room.
It was a new painting, still smelling of oils to Anna’s sensitive nose. The smaller piece it replaced had been moved to their bedroom, both works by the same artist.
On one level, the painting was of a gray wolf—not a werewolf—standing in winter woods. But that wasn’t the lingering impression it made. Whenever Anna looked at it, she could feel the tension drain away and optimism flood in to replace it. Anna had stared at the painting for hours, and she still didn’t know how Wellesley had done it. Wellesley’s work had always been spectacular—but this one, painted after his curse had been removed, was more . . . more something.
Asil had brought it over after Wellesley had left. It had come with a note that read: For Anna. He hadn’t signed either the note or the painting.
"Beautiful piece," Leslie said, reaching out but not touching the canvas. "Who is the artist?"
“A friend,” answered Anna. She had no idea if Wellesley would be interested in painting as a career again, or what name he would choose when and if he did. But she did think if he had wanted people to know who had painted it, he would have signed it. If she and Leslie were being friendly, she might have told her so. As it was, the words lingered in the air.
Leslie frowned at Anna but continued on to the dining room to sit beside Goldstein. Once she was seated, she glanced over her shoulder at the painting again.
Anna pulled up a seat opposite the two agents. Charles moved to her side and stared at them. Neither agent stared back at him, which was smart of them. Charles was not happy.
"We are," Anna began softly, "very interested in who told you where we live."
Goldstein nodded and put his briefcase—a battered leather case that had seen better days—on the table and opened it. He pulled out a thick file in a folder and held it out to Anna. Taped to the front of the folder was a thumb drive. When she didn’t take it, he set in on the table between them.
“Most of what we know about werewolves has been gathered in bits and pieces for decades, if not longer.” Goldstein’s voice had a faint New York accent Anna hadn’t caught before. “A slip here, a note there. A colleague of mine has been riding a hobbyhorse of werewolf lore for the entirety of his forty-year career at the bureau. You’ll find most of the general information comes to us from the armed forces—apparently there have been a great many werewolves over the years who have served their country.”
He pulled another file out with another thumb drive. “This is from the Cantrip archives.” He didn’t say how they had gotten it. “Cantrip has been fed information about you from various groups—some of them supernatural hate groups like Bright Future or the John Lauren Society. Some of them are other supernatural groups. One informant was a witch—and she provided them with the equivalent of a biology textbook. Her information was classified and only the very top echelon of Cantrip has access to it. There was a vampire, too, at some point. But he killed two of their agents and they killed him.”
Leslie cleared her throat. "There is information in there you would not want to be public knowledge."
Anna didn’t make any move to take the offerings on the table—that would be for someone else to go through. Goldstein did not say who had told them where Anna and Charles lived, which would have been more interesting information.
Charles had long ago hacked into the Cantrip database. He probably had hacked into the FBI files, too. The wolves knew there were people in the government who understood just what the wolves were and mostly who they were. It was not the government Bran was worried about—at least not yet.
It was the public in general - and what the public would urge their government to do.
“You’ve obviously had this information for a while,” she said. “So why the candor now? What do you mean to accomplish with this?” She waved her hand at the files on the table.
Goldstein smiled grimly. “Some of my superiors were quite stuck on Hauptman. It took some persuading to bring this here instead.”
Anna didn’t know what kind of reaction she was supposed to have, since the Columbia Basin Pack and Adam Hauptman, its prickly and extremely handsome Alpha, were the most famous werewolves on the planet—at least in the eyes of the purely human.
“Okay,” she said. Leslie’s face didn’t change, but from Goldstein’s expression, Anna knew her response hadn’t been the one he was looking for.
“The FBI feels that the various supernatural groups pose a threat to the public. We are reasonably certain if all hell breaks loose, our superior numbers and weapons will leave us the last ones standing. But that only means we all lose.”
"Yes," Anna agreed, having heard variants on this assessment - albeit from the werewolf side - for years.
“We feel with allies to lend us knowledge, finesse, and firepower, we could avoid the zero-sum ending. We need a large group, one we can trust—and who can trust us.”
Anna must have made some sort of derisive sound, because Goldstein grinned appreciatively.
“For some levels of trust,” he agreed. “The FBI is a large organization—and our upper management is politically appointed. We have . . . not involved the political appointees at this point. We do understand why you might be less than happy to ally yourselves with us. That’s why I brought you our files, as a gesture of goodwill.”
"Not much of a risk" Anna observed. "Since it's all information about werewolves - and we already know all about werewolves."
"Right," said Goldstein. "But you can find out how much we know about you."
Anna wasn’t sure she believed that last part even if Goldstein did. But she didn’t think that conversation would be useful.
She shrugged. "All right. So why bring it to us?"
Goldstein frowned at her a moment. He tapped a finger on the table and said, “I think our opportunity to ally with the fae died when that thrice-be-damned court let Heuter walk. Everyone in the courtroom, judge and jury, knew he’d raped and killed people who came from the supernatural groups. Everyone knew he’d raped the daughter of a Gray Lord and intended to kill her—and they still let him off because he was human and his victims were not. Do you remember the cheers from the courtroom?”
They had all been there.
His assessment of that situation was right on target, Anna thought. Gwyn ap Lugh, who went by the name of Beauclaire, was the most prominent member of the faction of Gray Lords who had been friendly toward humans. It had been his daughter who had been brutalized and scarred.
“Charles told me the world would have been better off if he’d just killed Heuter when he had a chance,” Anna agreed. “It wouldn’t have been just to kill a man who had surrendered—but what the courts delivered wasn’t justice, either.”
"I could have shot him, too," Leslie observed regretfully. "I thought about it pretty hard."
Goldstein grunted. “That ship has sailed. So, while we hope for a cease-fire with the fae, we are aware the fae will never trust us. My bones will be dust and Beauclaire will still remember a human court chose to protect their own monster rather than give a Gray Lord’s daughter justice.”
"That is a problem when dealing with immortal creatures," murmured Anna.
"The only other large and organized group we know about is the vampires. It is difficult for a chicken to make an alliance with a fox - you never know when you'll be eaten for breakfast," Goldstein said.
And the vampires were still allowing the world to pretend they didn't exist. It was easier for everyone concerned. An alliance would surely mean the vampires had to come out of the shadows.
"That left the werewolves," Leslie said. "But we didn't know how to approach it. We knew there were packs directed by Alphas. We even knew several of the Alphas very well - Hauptman, for instance. Then you and Charles came to Boston."
They hadn't mentioned the witches, Anna noted. Maybe they didn't consider them an organized group.
“Before that,” said Goldstein, “we had always thought the wolves to be individual packs run by unaffiliated Alphas. As soon as we reconsidered, it wasn’t hard to look at certain events and see the wolves are highly organized. That they are able to act as a single unit if necessary.”
Anna controlled a snort. He made it sound like a business arrangement. Bran controlling the werewolves was more like shoving tigers around with cattle prods. Marginally effective, if potentially fatal to all involved.
“Is that person, the person in charge - is that you, Anna Cornick?" asked Goldstein.
She’d been stuck trying to make her tiger metaphor work. She had to blink at Goldstein for a minute to process what he’d said. She decided that was a good thing, because it wasn’t hard to keep her face blank while she thought about what to do with his question.
“Why do you ask?” she said, without letting any expression enter her voice or face. Her years surviving in a brutal pack had given her that ability. “You know who I am. Anna Latham, age twenty-six, college dropout.”
“Anna Latham, musical prodigy,” said Goldstein somberly. “Who disappeared after work one night and was never seen again. Oh, her father and brother both say that she is alive. But no one else who knew her has heard from her. No concerts have been scheduled, though she used to do them as an invited guest.”
She’d been working at reconnecting with her friends. Either the FBI had asked the wrong people or her friends thought she was in trouble and were trying to protect her. The concerts, though, were unlikely to happen. She missed performing to a big crowd.
“Werewolves are immortal,” said Leslie very quietly. And Anna remembered how worried Leslie had been when she’d first met Anna that someone as young as Anna had been married to Charles—who did not look young, no matter the lack of wrinkles or gray hair. No one with eyes as old as his could look young.
"Issac, the Alpha of the Boston pack-" began Goldstein.
"Olde Towne Pack," Anna corrected.
"Olde Towne Pack," Goldstein repeated, and she bet he wouldn't get it wrong again. "Isaac had no trouble following your orders."
That they had seen, anyway.
"I thought at first you were playing front man to Charles," Leslie said. "But he does your bidding, too."
And they had added two and two and come up with twenty-two.
Anna opened her mouth to tell them they were wrong.
Wait. See what they have to say. Do not lie to them, that could come back and bite us. But for now, let them believe you are leading the packs. It was Bran's voice in her head
Aha. That was why Charles had had her invite the FBI in—so his da could listen from outside the house. It had taken her a long time to adjust to the difficulty of a private conversation with other werewolves around. The walls of her house were no match for wolf ears.
"I see," Anna said, because she had been ready to tell them they were wrong, and she couldn't think of anything else to say.
"If there is someone in charge, if that is you, we - that is to say, my..." Goldstein faltered.
"Superiors?" suggested Anna.
Owners, growled Brother Wolf, unhappy with Bran for asking his mate to put herself in harm's way like this.
"Colleagues," said Leslie, watching Goldstein. "Equals."
Goldstein had been with the bureau for more than twenty years, Anna recalled. He wasn’t subject to political whim because he wasn’t quite that far up in the bureaucracy, but Charles had told her Goldstein was right on the edge. He could have toppled into high office had he wished it. Leslie Fisher was on her way to doing exactly that.
“Our job,” Leslie said intensely, “the job of the FBI, is to protect the citizens of the United States. We can do that better through an alliance with the werewolves.”
"Who are citizens of the United States," said Anna.
"Yes," agreed Goldstein after a damning hesitation. "An alliance between the FBI and the werewolves will make everyone safer."
Anna wondered if that was true.
"We know an alliance will take time," Leslie said. "But today is a start."
Goldstein pulled out another folder and set it beside the other two. "To that end, as a demonstration that you might find us useful to you as you are to us, we have a mystery for you."
“There’s a town missing,” said Leslie, pulling a folded-up USGS map out of the folder and laying it on the table. Someone had used a black marker to circle an area, then taped a slip of white paper next to the circle. Written in a neat hand in blue ink were the words Wild Sign.
Leslie tapped the marked space. “A group of people, as few as thirty or as many as forty as best we can tell, went up into the Marble Mountains in Northern California to live off-grid. The first of them set up about two or three years ago. Their settlement was illegal—the mountains are a mix of designated wilderness, federal lands, and tribal lands. Probably they thought they were on federal lands.”
Lots of snow in the Marbles, Brother Wolf told her. And Ann got something that was very nearly a visual from him.
“We have confirmation it was an active site this spring, when one of the Forest Service rangers stopped in to check on them. One of the community wrote to his daughter and gave her this map. It was his habit to write to her regularly, but his last letter was this April—a few days after the ranger stopped by, in fact. When the daughter received no further correspondence, she hiked in and found it abandoned. They were just gone.”
"Like Roanoke," said Goldstein, "they just all disappeared. Of the names we've found, none of them have relocated and none of their relatives know where they are."
"And this concerns us how?" Anna asked.
"Because it was finally determined that the settlement is not on either federal or tribal lands. It's on a private parcel owned by Aspen Creek, Inc.," said Goldstein. "Which is why no one tried to move them along."
He and Leslie were looking at Anna, and she had no trouble looking blank.
“Aspen Creek, Inc., was the owner of the condo you stayed in while you were in Boston,” Leslie said. “And Aspen Creek is where you live. Where your pack lives.” She hesitated. “Where the Marrok’s pack lives.”
The title “Marrok” was not a secret word, but it was one Anna had never heard from a government official before. Leslie’s tone of voice and her pause meant she knew how important that term was. Anna didn’t know what Bran wanted to do about his title being bandied about in the human halls of power, so she chose to do nothing.
After it became obvious Anna wasn’t going to admit to anything, Goldstein’s voice was dry when he continued, “And there is this: the original owner of the property was one Leah Fenwood Cornick.”
A light knock sounded and the front door opened. Bran came in with a sheepish smile on his face. Anna had heard Charles’s foster sister, Mercy, say Bran looked more like a pizza delivery boy than the Wolf Who Rules. She hadn’t quite understood it until just that minute.
He wore a long-sleeved shirt that managed to conceal the hardness of his body, his shoulders hunched vaguely apologetically to match his smile. With a height that was just barely average and sandy blond hair worn a little untidily, Bran looked like a college student—or a pizza delivery boy.
"Hi", he said pleasantly to the FBI agents withou quite meeting their eyes. He patted Charles on the head as he padded around to slip between his son and Anna.
"May I?" he inquired of Anna as he pulled the map over toward their side of the table."Be my guest," she said, unable to quite conceal her amusement.
He bent over the map. After a brief but thorough examination during which Anna returned Leslie’s inquiring look with a shrug, Bran gave an abrupt nod of his head. He looked his son in the eye for a moment, tapped the table with one brisk finger, then exited the house with a wave over his shoulder that might have been directed at the FBI agents—or just the room in general.
They feel earnest, Bran told her after he’d shut the door behind him. They at least believe everything they are saying. Tell them who I am. Tell them we will go looking. Tell them the rest of their visit might or might not be fruitful. The lessons Beauclaire learned are lessons we also take to heart. It might have been one of ours in the courtroom instead of Lizzie Beauclaire. I do not trust the humans.
Anna drew in a deep breath. “Despite your flattering suspicions, I am not the Wolf Who Rules.” She liked Mercy’s phrase for Bran’s title. “Marrok” didn’t mean much to humans until she explained it. “Wolf Who Rules” was self-explanatory. “The actual Wolf Who Rules just left through the front door. He believes you are sincere, but the lesson Beauclaire received—the lesson we all received—about how humans really think of us is concerning. You might not think we are monsters—or at least that we can be your monsters—but we don’t believe the rest of the citizens of this country agree. That doesn’t mean cooperation is out of the question, or that we won’t be available to give a certain amount of aid—but don’t consider us allies yet.”
"You can't mean to tell us he is the wolf in charge." Goldstein's voice conveyed absolute disbelief. "I have met Hauptman. Hauptman would never take orders from someone like him."
"But they would take orders from someone like me?" asked Anna, amused.
"They do take orders from you. I've seen it," he said, as emotional as Anna had ever heard him.
Anna smiled. "I was Anna Latham the music student at Northwestern. I am twenty-six years old. I am married to the son of the Marrok - the Marrok who just left."
She let the smile fall from her face, because this was important. She liked both FBI agents and didn’t want either of them to do something dangerously stupid—like underestimating Bran. “He is very good at blending in, my father-in-law. But don’t mistake him for anything but a ruthless bastard.”
Charles smiled, showing all of his teeth.
Charles showered first, then dressed while Anna showered.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to go running in the mountains of California on a wild-goose chase. Brother Wolf, however, was eager—it had been a long time since they had hunted in those mountains. Werewolves tended to be territorial, and Brother Wolf was no exception, but he loved to go exploring, too. And he wanted to share all of the extraordinary places they had been with Anna.
There was a cave, he told Charles. Do you remember the cave?"
Charles did. “The Marbles encompass a lot of ground,” he told Brother Wolf. He wasn’t sure the wolf could read maps. “That cave is maybe twenty miles from where we’re headed.” He considered. “We might manage the lake with the big trout, though—if it’s still there.”
The Klamath River, like most big rivers, had been dammed and its path forever changed. New lakes formed and others gone forever.
Anna came into the bedroom with a big red towel wrapped around herself and nothing else. Her reddish-brown hair was tied up on top of her head, and there was a drop of water on his favorite freckle.
They were all his favorite freckles.
“Stop that, you,” she said, but he could tell she didn’t really mean it by the heat in her eyes. “We have bigger problems. What was your da thinking, strolling in there like some meek little lamb? I don’t know if I managed to convince the FBI that he’s the Marrok.”
“That isn’t urgent,” Charles said. “He can convince them himself whenever he wants to. He came in to see the map—I think he knows something about what’s happened. And he came in to see if he needed to kill someone. It is a good thing the FBI sent Fisher and Goldstein. If they had sent someone more twisty, Da might have decided to kill them to send a message to their owners.” He used the term Brother Wolf had thrown out.
Anna grimaced. "I thought that might be it." She looked at Charles. "I would have defended them."
He knew that—and it would have been obvious to his da as well. That knowledge might have been the thing keeping both agents alive. He didn’t think it was because Bran was seriously considering an alliance.
"Unofficial offers from government officials are notoriously dangerous," he observed. "Secret alliances were the powder keg that blew up into World War I."
"That doesn't mean friendly relations wouldn't be useful," Anna countered.
He nodded agreement. “Friendly, yes. But wherever such a relationship ends up, it will be far short of an us-against-them alliance of humans and werewolves against all comers.”
"Especially since Bran doesn't really like mundane humans," added Anna, wiping her cheek on the end of her towel.
Charles closed the distance between them. He put a finger over the towel where her breasts came together and formed a valley, but he left the towel where it was. He never touched her without her consent, and never would.
She smiled, and it was a wicked, hungry thing. "Yes," she said.