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Burn Bright

Dedication

For Michael, my heart, who taught me to follow my dreams.


Prologue

A Tale Without An Ending

Once upon a time, there was a small spring that, touched by the earth’s spirit, bore a sparkle of magic scattered in its cold, pure water. It was only a little magic, but it brought good things into the world—tiny bits of goodness born of the tiny bits of magic.


His boots were soft and he made no sound as he paced. Sounddistracted him unduly from his purpose—which was to bore himselfto the point where he no longer thought about anything.


There is a certain sort of evil that cannot abide happiness, even such humble joys as lived in that spring.


Such an evil came to dwell at the spring, culling victims from those who came to seek the little surcease it offered. Eventually, even the earth’s magic could not cleanse the evil from the water, and the spring’s small magic was turned to darker uses.


Thus died a little joy in the world, and evil was satisfied for a time.


This evil held the now-polluted spring, one way or another, for a very long while. Time changed, and the evil changed with it, grew more clever about drawing prey to it. Sometimes it fed upon innocence, sometimes magic, sometimes beauty—but the evil always took satisfaction in robbing the world of any good it could find.


It became aware of one who sought, like the spring once had, to do a little good in a world now bleak and dark. On the evil one’s webs came whispers of a monster who fought other monsters. The evil deemed it no more of a meal than a thousand others like it. Still, it could not, by virtue of what it was, allow such a oneto live. It set a snare to catch one who was a hero—for heroes are delicious when they fall. It set a snare to trap a monster because even evil fears monsters, a little.


The one who sprang the trap was truly a monster. The one who triggered the snare was also a hero.


But this one was an artist, too, and not just any artist. Such an artist, he was, as found beauty and joy in the world and shared it for all to see. An artist who, like the spring had, spread little magics around and left happiness where there was none before.


An artist such as that was a bigger mouthful than evil, even such an old and wicked evil as this, could swallow easily.


Much was lost in the battle, and it cost both sides dearly. As far as anyone knows, the fire of the battle burns still.




Chapter One

This was bad. This was so very bad.


He ran full tilt, ghosting through the trees. The branches and brambles reached out and extracted their price in blood and flesh for running at such speed through their territory. He could feel the ground absorb his blood and his sweat—feel it stir at the taste. Dangerous. Feeding the earth with his blood when he was so upset was not wise.


He almost slowed his feet.


No one was chasing him.


No one had even known he was there. They’d seen the trees who’d obeyed his will, but they had not seen him. The trees . . . he might have to answer to her for the trees.


She’d told him to run, and he had paused to call the trees. That was not how their bargain was supposed to work. But he couldn’t just let them take her, not when it was within his power to stop it.


Think. Think. Think. The words were his, but he heard them in her voice. She’d worked so hard to give him rules. The first rule was think.


It was funny that everyone believed that she was the danger, that she was the crazy one. Very funny—and his lips stretched in a grin only the forest could see. It wasn’t amusement that caused his feral smile. He wasn’t sure exactly what the emotion was, though it was fueled by an anger, a rage so deep that the earth, aroused by his blood, rose eagerly to do his bidding.The earth, out of all the elements, was the hardest to wake but the most eager for violence.


He could just go back. Go back and teach them what they got for touching someone he loved . . .


No.


Her voice again, ringing in his ears with power. She was his dominant, though he was so much older, so much stronger. As such, she wielded power over him—a power that he’d given her out of love, out of despair, out of desolation. And their bargain, their mating bond (her word, then his) had worked for a very long time.


No. But she wasn't going to let him distract her.


Anyone who cared to look around would know how well her hold on him had worked—there were still trees on this mountain, and he could hear the birds’ startled flight as he ran past them. If that bargain had failed, there would be no birds, no trees. Nothing. His was an old power and hungry.


But their mating had given him balance, given him safety. His beautiful werewolf mate had broughtlove to his sterile existence. When that hadn’t been enough, she had brought order to his chaos as well.


Order . . . that word . . . No, orders was the word that sifted through his roiling thoughts. She had given him orders for this situation.


He vaulted over a deadfall with the grace of a stag.


Call the Marrok, she had told him. And also, Right the hell now. That was the correct task. Call the Marrok for help. But the reason for his speed—his right the hell now—was because if he allowed himself to slow, he would turn around and . . .


The mountainside groaned beneath his feet. A soft shift that only someone like him—or like his true love—would feel.


His fleet footsteps . . . which had slowed . . . resumed their former speed. She was alive, his love, his mate, his keeper. She was alive, and so he had to call the Marrok and not raise the mountains or call the waters.


Not today.


Today, he had to call the Marrok and tell him . . . and his mate’s voice rang in his head as if she were running by his side.


I know who the traitor is...



Charles tipped his father’s computer monitor so that it was at a better angle and wiggled the keyboard until it felt right.


He’d told Bran that he could run the pack just fine from his own home while Bran was gone, just as he had the last dozen times that the Marrok had to be away. But this time had looked as though it might last awhile, and his da had been adamant that it was important to keep the rhythms of the pack the same.


It wasn’t that he didn’t understand his da’s reasoning—some of the hoarier wolves under his da’s control weren’t exactly flexible when it came to change—but understanding didn’t make it any easierfor Charles to function in his da’s office, his da’s personal territory.


Charles couldn’t work in the office without making it his own—and wasn’t that just going to set the fox among the hens when his da got back and had to reverse the process. But Bran would understand, as one dominant male understands another.


Charles had to admit, if only to himself, that he’d moved the mahogany bookcases to the other side of the room and reorganized the titles alphabetically by author, instead of by subject matter, just to mess with Bran. Anna, he thought, was still the only person on the planet who honestly believed he had a sense of humor, so he was pretty sure he could make his da believe the rearrangement was a necessity.


Charles hadn’t moved the bookcase until Bran called him this morning, not quite a month after he’d left the pack in Charles’s keeping, to let him know that his initial business was concluded—and Bran had decided he would take another week to travel.


Charles couldn’t remember the last time Bran had taken a vacation from his duties. Charles hadn’t realized that his da was capable of taking a vacation from his duties. But if the rearrangement of Charles’s life was no longer essential, just required, then he felt free to make some changes to make his life easier. And so he’d rearranged his da’s office to suit himself.


Even in the redecorated room, it took Charles longer than normal to lose himself in his work, his wolf restless in his father’s place of power. Eventually, the hunting game that was international finance grew interesting enough that Brother Wolf let himself be distracted.


It was a complicated dance, to play with money at this level. The battle pleased Brother Wolf, the more so because they were good at it. Brother Wolf had a tendency toward vanity.


Eventually, drawn in by the subtle hunt for clues in the electronic data on his screen, he sank into what his mate called “finance space,” chasing an elusivebit of rumor, stocks rising for no apparent reason, a new company seeking financing but there was something they weren’t saying. He couldn’t tell if what this company was hiding was good news or bad. He was running down the background of an engineer who’d been hired at what looked to be an abnormally high salary for his title when he was pulled out by the sound of the door hitting the wall.


He looked up, Brother Wolf foremost at this interruption to his hunt. It didn’t help his temper that it was his da’s mate who’d barged into (what was now) his territory without permission.


“You have to do something about your wife,” Leah announced. She didn’t react to his involuntary growl at her tone. When she spoke of Anna, she would do better to talk softly.


He didn’t like Leah. There were a lot of people in the world he didn’t like—most of them, even. But Leah had made it very easy not to like her.


When his da had brought her back with him, Charles had been a wild thing, lonely and lost. His da had taken his much-older brother, Samuel, and been gone for months off and on. Half-mad with grief at the death of Charles’s mother, Bran probably hadn’t been the best person to raise a child when he was home.


Charles’s uncles and his grandfather had done their best, but Brother Wolf had not always been as willing to ape being human as he was now. A werewolf child born instead of made, Charles had been (as far as he knew) unique; no one, certainly not his mother’s people, had any experience dealing with what he was.


A good part of the time Bran had been gone, Charles had roamed the forest on four feet, easily eluding the human adults tasked with raising him. Wild and undisciplined as he’d been, Charles had no trouble admitting that his ten-year-old self hadnot been a stepson that most women would have welcomed.


Still, he had been very hungry for attention, and Leah’s presence meant his da was around a lot more. If Leah had made even a little effort, his younger self would have been devoted to her. But Leah, for all her other personality flaws, was deeply honest. Most werewolves were honest by habit—what good is a lie if people could tell that you are lying? But Leah was honest to the core.


It was probably one of the things that allowed Bran’s wolf to mate with her. Charles could see how it would be an attractive feature—but when someone was mean and small inside, it might be better to keep quiet and hide it, honest or not, rather than display it for the world to see. The result was a mutual animosity kept within (mostly) the bounds of politeness.


Charles honored her as his da’s wife and his Alpha’s mate. Her usual politeness to him was brittle and rooted in her fear of Brother Wolf. But, since she wasa dominant wolf, the fear she felt sometimes made her snappish and stupid.


Brother Wolf recovered his temper faster than Charles. He told Charles that Leah was agitated and a little intimidated, and that had made her rude. Brother Wolf didn’t like Leah, either, but he respected her more than Charles did.


Other than the growl, he did not respond immediately to her request (he refused to think of them as orders, or he might have to take an action about them that did not involve anything she would appreciate). Instead, he raised a hand to ask her for silence.


When she gave it to him, he spent a moment leaving himself clear notes about the suspicious engineer that he could follow up on later, as well as highlighting a few other trails he’d been investigating. He concluded the other changes he wanted to make, then backed out of his dealings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Leah waited in growing, but silent, indignation.


Finished packing up his business, he looked up from the screen, crossed his arms over his chest, and asked, in what he felt was a reasonable tone, “What is it that you wish me to do with my wife?”


Apparently, his response wasn’t what Leah had been looking for because her mouth got even tighter, and she growled, “She seems to think that she’s in charge around here. Just because you have been placed in charge temporarily doesn’t allow her the right to give orders to me.”


Which seemed out of character for his wife.


Oh, the disregard for pack hierarchy, traditional or otherwise, was typical of his mate. Anna would not, Charles thought with affection, know tradition if it bit her on the ear. His Anna had carved out her own, fluid place in the pack hierarchy—mostly by ignoring all the traditions completely. It did not, however, make her rude.


Nothing good had ever come from sticking his nose in business that had nothing to do with him.


“Anna is Omega. She doesn’t have to obey the Marrok,” he told her. “I don’t know why you think she would obey me.”


Leah opened her mouth. Closed it. She gave him an exasperated growl, then stalked off.


For a conversation with his stepmother, he thought on the whole it had gone rather well. That it had been short was the best part of it.


One of the reasons he had resisted moving into Bran’s home while the Marrok was gone was because he knew Leah would be in, harassing him all the time. He paused to consider that because, until this very moment, she hadn’t done that. This was the first time she’d interrupted him at work. He wondered, as he began playing with the numbers on the screen in front of him, what it was that his da had said to Leah that had kept her out of his hair this effectively.


Before he was seriously buried in business again, Bran’s phone rang.


“This is Charles,” he said absently—as long as it wasn’t Leah, he could work while he talked.


There was a long pause, though he could hear someone breathing raggedly. It was unusual enough that Charles stopped reading the article on the up-and-coming tech company and devoted all his attention to the phone.


“This is Charles,” he said again. “Can I help you?”


“Okay,” a man’s voice said finally. “Okay. Bran’s son. I remember. Is Bran there? I need to talk to the Marrok.”


“Bran is gone,” Charles told him. “I’m in charge while he is out of town. How can I help you?”


“Bran is gone,” repeated the man’s voice. It was unfamiliar, but the accent was Celtic. “Charles.” He paused. “I need . . . we need you to come up here. There’s been an incident.” And then he hung up without leaving his name or where exactly “up here” was. When Charles tried calling him back, no one picked up the phone. Charles wrote down the number and strode out, looking for his stepmother.


He hadn’t recognized the voice, and if one of the pack members had been in trouble, he’d have felt it. There was another group of wolves who lived in Aspen Creek, Montana, though they were not part of the Marrok’s pack: the wolves Bran deemed too damaged or too dangerous to function as part of a pack—even the Aspen Creek Pack, which was full of damaged and dangerous wolves.


Those wolves, mostly, belonged to the Marrok alone. Not a separate pack, really, but bound to the Marrok’s will and magic by blood and flesh. “Wildlings,” Bran called them. Some of the pack called them things less flattering, and possibly more accurate, though no one called them the Walking Dead in front of Charles’s father.


The wildlings lived in the mountains, separate from everyone, their homes and territory protected by the pack because it was in everyone’s best interest for no one to intrude in what peace they could find.


Bran had given him the usual list of names and a map with locations marked. Most of them Charles had met, though there were two wolves he knew only by reputation. The wildlings were, as a whole, both dangerous and fragile. Bran did not lightly allow anyone else to interact with them.


The list had not included phone numbers.


He found Leah with Anna in the stainless-steel-and-cherry kitchen. Anna had her back to Leah, whose face was flushed. His Anna was mixing something—he could smell chocolate and orange—and paying the Marrok’s mate no attention at all. He recognized Anna’s tactic for dealing with people she felt were too irrational to discuss anything with. She’d used it on him often enough.


Leah was tall, even for the current era, when women of five-eight or -nine were more common. She was several decades older than Charles, and in the eighteenth century, when she’d been born, she would have looked like a Nordic giant goddess. Her natural build was athletic, an effect enhanced by a life spent running in the woods. Her features were even and topped by large blue eyes the color of a summer lake at noon.


His Anna was, as she liked to say, average-average. Average height, average build, average looks. Her curly hair was a few shades darker and a hint redder than Leah’s dark blond. Anna considered her hair to be her best feature. Charles loved her freckles and her warm brown eyes that lightened to blue when her wolf was close.


Objectively, Leah was far more beautiful. But his Anna was real in a way few people were. He’d tried explaining that realness to his da once, and his da had finally shook his head, and said, “Son, I think that’s one of those things that your mother would have understood without trouble, and I never will.”


Anna connected to the world around her as if she instinctively understood his maternal grandfather’s view of the world: that all things in the world are a part of a greater whole, that harm to one thing was harm to all. She had coherence with the world around her, while most people were fighting to be connected to as little as possible because that was safer. He thought Anna was the bravest person he knew.


He understood that other people would consider Leah the more beautiful of the two. He even understood why. But to him, Anna was—


Ours, said Brother Wolf. She is perfect, our soul mate, our anchor, the reason we were created. So that we could be hers. But we have other business to attend to.


He didn’t know how long the silence between the two women had held—it hadn’t been that long since Leah had stormed out of his office. His father’s office.


“Leah,” he said, because there was no time to wade into the deep waters between the two women even if he’d been stupid enough to want to do so. “I just received a distress call from one of the wildlings, I think. Do you know this phone number?”


He held the paper out to her.


Leah demonstrated one of her shining qualities. She dropped whatever fight she was trying to pick with Anna and took the paper he handed her, setting aside her personal business without hesitation when duty called.


“Hester and Jonesy,” she said immediately. “They live up Arsonist Creek about twenty miles. What did she say?”


And that was why he hadn’t recognized the voice. Jonesy very seldom spoke when his mate was available to do it. Hester . . . Hester was old. In that category of old that meant neither she nor anyone else was entirely sure how old she was.


“Jonesy called me,” Charles said. “He said there’s been an incident, and he wanted me to come to them.”


“Has been an incident?” Leah frowned, glanced over her shoulder at Charles’s mate, and frowned harder. “Hester isn’t easy even for Bran. The last time he went up—last fall—she was lucid and seemed to enjoy singing with him. But then she tracked him halfway back to the road, and he had to call Jonesy to lure her back to her home. If there has been an incident, having an Omega wolf there might be a good move for everyone.”


Charles frowned. “An Omega wolf isn’t always a good thing when dealing with the wildlings.”


Initially, Bran had been very excited about what Anna might do for his wildlings. And she’d helped a couple of them. But one spectacular disaster that ended with the wildling dead and three of the pack damaged had taught them to be cautious. That the wildling had been under a death sentence before Anna tried to help him hadn’t kept her from feeling terrible.


Charles was unwilling to expose Anna to such trauma again. He and his da had had several heated arguments about that recently— arguments that both of them were careful to keep from Anna.


“Tracked?” Anna asked, taking a spoon and sinking it into her bowl.


Leah nodded. As long as the topic was important, her voice stayed professionally brisk. “She took wolf form and tracked Bran as if he were prey. He said he wasn’t sure he shouldn’t have let her catch up with him.” Leah’s brisk voice traveled right over what that would have meant: Hester’s death. “But she’d been lucid for the better part of two days—and Jonesy seemed well enough. Bran thought it could have been just having a dominant wolf in her territory that had set her off, so he let it lie.”


She pursed her lips, and said, “You aren’t your father. Hester might not be willing to let you approach her at all by yourself. Unless you want to have to put Hester down, you should take Anna.” She saw Charles’s hesitation. “Unlike the wildling who had such a bad reaction to Anna, Hester’s personality is a strong one. It is her wolf that is her problem—not the human half.” She gave a little biting laugh at his expression. “You can ask your da, that was his assessment.”


“I can put this in the fridge,” Anna said briskly, breaking into the conflict Leah was about to start. “Or someone else can. How much of a hurry are we in?”


The problem with the wildling Anna had tried to help so disastrously had been that the wildling’s wolf half had been the sane part of that pairing. When Anna sent it to sleep, all that was left was the crazy human—who still had had a werewolf’s fangs and strength.


“I don’t intend to dawdle,” said Charles, giving in. “But any emergency is going to be over before we can make it there. As Leah said, Hester’s place is twenty-odd miles away—and most of that is rough country.”


“Okay,” Anna said. She took the spoon she was stirring her dough with and filled it, handing it to Charles to taste as she reached for the plastic wrap with her other hand.


“It’s Mercy’s recipe.” Anna wrapped the bowl with an efficiency that belied the relaxed-chat tone of her words. “I put some orange peel in, too. What do you think?”


The chocolate was rich and bitter in the sugar-butter-and-orange matrix—a brownie batter, he thought, though it might be some sort of soft cookie dough. His foster sister, Mercy, had always had a genius for baking things with chocolate. She’d also had an uncanny knack for driving Leah to unpredictable heights of craziness.


His Anna was really annoyed with Leah if she would go so far out of her way to bring up Mercy. He grunted and dropped the spoon-sans-dough in the dishwasher.


Anna could read his grunts. “Good.” She put the bowl in the fridge and turned off the oven. “Ready when you are.”


Leah had been watching Anna’s performance with narrow eyes, but when she spoke, it was only to say, “Hester’s old enough that a gift is a pretty good guarantee she’ll treat you like a guest instead of an interloper. Bran usually brings fruit because that’s one thing they can’t grow or kill. Give me a minute, and I’ll put a basket together for them.”


She left the room at a brisk trot, presumably to find a basket, because there was plenty of fruit on the counter.


Charles knew Leah well enough to know that whatever Anna had done to raise her ire wasn’t over. Leah didn’t let go of a battle—but she wouldn’t bring it up again until the situation with Hester was resolved.


He eyed his mate. To the untrained eye, she looked relaxed and calm.


Charles’s eye was not untrained. He murmured, “Trouble?”


His mate leaned against the granite counter and heaved a put-upon sigh that was only half-feigned. Then she straightened and shook her head. “It’s hard for her to have us here. She has no idea how to handle me in her personal space. She is finding it incredibly frustrating. And you don’t help.”


He raised and eyebrow.


She laughed despite her tension. “It’s not your fault. You don’t do anything wrong except exude Charlesness, but that’s enough to set her off.”


He didn’t know what Anna meant by “Charlesness”—he was who he was. He couldn’t help that. But there was no question that his presence had an effect on Leah.


"This seemed to be a more specific problem," he said.


“Yes,” Anna agreed. “Tag stopped in while you were wrestling rhinos in Bran’s office.”


“I was moving bookcases,” he told her. “No African animals involved.”


She grinned at him briefly. “Sounded like rhino wrestling to me—complete with animal grunts and bellows. Anyway, he stopped in—apparently to tell us he was bored.” She hesitated. “He came in the middle of a discussion Leah and I were having. I think he had other business, but we distracted him.”


Anna was an Omega wolf. That meant that any dominant wolf felt the need to make her safe—which was the reason Leah thought she might help with Hester. If Tag had come into the room while Leah and Anna were having some sort of heated discussion . . . yes, the big Celtic werewolf would have done what he could to interrupt it.


“Tag suggested we reinstate the Marrok’s musical evenings,” Anna told him. “Apparently, they were a community staple before the Marrok allowed them to lapse a few years ago.”


“Almost twenty years ago,” Charles said, more than a little taken aback. What had brought that into Tag’s head? Surely there were things more likely to come to mind than events coated in decades of dust when someone walked into the middle of a fight between two women. “More than a few years.”


“Twenty?” Anna frowned. “That’s not what Tag said when he suggested it.”


“Tag’s sense of time isn’t anything I would rely on too much,” Charles told her dryly. “Ask him about Waterloo. He talks about it like it happened a week ago.”


She grinned. “Only if you are the one to tell him that the French lost the battle this time. I’ll sit on the sidelines and eat popcorn.”


Tag’s real name was Colin Taggart. He identified as Irish, Welsh, or Scot depending upon the day and the accent he was using. He’d fought for the Little Corporal during the Napoleonic War. Tag was still particularly bitter about “the English.”


“Anyway,” Anna said with a glance toward the doorway Leah had used to exit the room, “I thought that it would not be a good thing to institute sweeping changes while Bran is away. Leah disagrees.”


Charles blinked at her. It was not like his Anna to come down on the side of caution. Nor was Leah in the least musical. Not being interested in anything that wasn’t centered upon her, she’d been more relieved than almost anyone when they’d stopped.


Leah thinks that the pack would benefit from some kind of social gathering beyond the moon hunts,” said Leah, emerging from the depths of the house with a basket in her hand and a bite to her voice.


Anna thinks that the pack won’t fall into despair and boredom if we wait until Bran comes back,” said his Anna mildly, in a tone he had heard his da use on his recalcitrant sons. “She also believes that referring to oneself in the third person is absurd.”


Charles bit back a smile. Somehow, he didn’t think a smile would help the situation, particularly because he could tell by Leah’s pinched expression that she recognized the origins of that tone, too.


Leah restrained herself to a wordless grimace. Then she loaded the basket with apples, peaches, and bananas, which somehow, in her skilled hands, took on an artistic shape.


“Here,” she said to him, handing him the basket. “I hope this helps.” Despite the edge in her tone, she wasn’t lying.


Charles nodded gravely. "Thank you."


“I DON’T UNDERSTAND that woman,” said Anna, getting into the driver’s seat of his old truck. She had finally given up offering to let him drive unless there was some real reason that she didn’t want to or he needed to. “Why is everything a battle with her?”


Charles made a hmm noise. Evidently, she was going to blow off all the steam she’d been building up with Leah onto him. That was okay. He had broad shoulders. He liked that she gave him her secrets—even if those secrets were only about how frustrating she found Leah. Not much of a secret, really, but it was his.


Anna turned her irritated frown on him before backing the truck carefully out of the driveway.


Anna drove like an old grandmother. He thought it was delightful. So was the frown.


“Aren’t we in a hurry?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be driving?”


“Whatever happened has already happened,” Charles said. “We shouldn’t waste time, but I don’t think ten minutes one way or the other will make much difference.”


“All right, then,” she said. “Am I going the right direction? I was so upset with Leah that I didn’t ask. I don’t know where Arsonist Creek is. Why don’t I know where Arsonist Creek is?”


“This is the way,” he said. “And the pack lands are riddled with creeks and brooks and puddles. No reason you should know them all—especially when Arsonist Creek is in a part of our territory we leave to the wildlings.”


“Okay,” she said, then she was quiet. Trying, he thought, to contain her irritation with Leah. She stewed a little more before her frustration bubbled enough to be given voice.


“It is a good idea,” she told him. “Tag should be able to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this thing.’ And she should say, ‘Hey, that is an amazingly good idea, let’s do that thing you suggested.’ And it could be just ducky for everyone. Instead, after I made the mistake of saying it sounded like fun, she was all ‘we should wait until Bran gets home.’”


So she’d switched sides, he thought, his clever wolf. He’d seen her do that before. Sometimes to him. Anna would have brought up all of Leah’s objections until there was nowhere for his stepmother to leap except exactly where Anna wanted her to go. If Leah had been smarter . . . but she wasn’t. As his da had once told him, it was not fair to blame her for being exactly what Bran needed in a mate. Someone his wolf would accept—and the man would not love.


“I can’t see a world in which Leah would use the word ‘hey,’” he said. “Except, perhaps, if it was the homophone ‘hay,’ instead. And only then if she had a horse she needed to feed.”


Anna let go of the steering wheel and waved her hands. “It’s a barbecue, not a rite of passage or a county fair or anything requiring much organization. Just a ‘bring food, bring instruments if you want to; we’re going to have fun tonight’ kind of thing. We’re a musical bunch here. Enjoying that shouldn’t take an act of Congress.” Anna put her hands back on the wheel about a hundredth of a second before he’d have felt compelled to do the same.


“Turn here,” he told her. “Then take the turnoff as though you’re headed up to Wilson Gap.”


Jinx was a mutt that was, Charles had told her, probably mostlyquarter horse. He'd acquired the aging gelding at an open auction,outbidding the meat buyer.


Anna had learned to ride on him.


He let silence flow between them for a moment. Brother Wolf thought that Anna was fully capable of getting along with Leah if she wanted to. She usually did, in fact. Leah was no exception to the effect that an Omega wolf had or to Anna’s sincere friendliness. If Tag had interrupted a fight, it was one that Anna had allowed to happen.


Brother Wolf didn’t know why she’d do that, but Charles put two and two together for them both. Maybe, he thought, it hadn’t been anything his da had said that had kept Leah out of his hair since Bran had left.


“Have you been picking fights with Leah so that she forgets to pick fights with me?” he asked.


Anna raised her chin.


"Thank you," he said.


“My job,” she said—and there was a little grimness in her voice—“is to make your job easier.”


He thought about the grimness and the subtle emphasis when she’d said “my job.” Brother Wolf stirred uneasily. In matters pertaining to their mate’s happiness, Brother Wolf sometimes had insights that Charles, distracted with human things, could overlook.


His Anna, whose talent for music had burned so brightly that she’d had a full-ride scholarship to Northwestern University, should have been playing her cello on a stage under spotlights. Instead, she was trapped in Aspen Creek, Montana—where the closest thing to spotlights within a hundred miles were probably the ones on the top of his truck.


“You were going to look into finishing your degree,” he said. He’d been meaning to ask her about it for a while. But Anna could be a private person, and he tried to give her room to breathe. It was a difficult balance between Brother Wolf’s sometimes overwhelming desire to protect/love/defend and Anna’s need to be herself and not be overwhelmed.


She didn't say anything for a while.


“I can get an online bachelor’s in music theory,” she said finally. “But I’m starting to think maybe I should go into therapy or counseling.”


"Is that what you want?"


She sighed a little and shook her head.


"Then why are we talking about that?"


She was looking for a purpose in her life.


Us, said Brother Wolf. We should be her purpose as she is ours. Then, when Charles disapproved of the wolf’s narrow-mindedness, Brother Wolf offered, But if she wants something more, we need to provide it for her.



He had been working with his da to see how he and Anna might go about adopting a child. It was complicated by the low profile Bran was trying to keep for Aspen Creek and the pack.


But Anna’s dissatisfaction wasn’t something a child would fix. She wasn’t a person who lived through other people.


“What do you think about Tag’s suggestion?” Anna asked, changing the topic. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea to have some sort of get-together that isn’t just pack but the whole community?”


“Not to take Leah’s side—” he began, but had to laugh at the look she gave him. “Just listen up, Anna-my-love. The musical evenings were the center of a battle between my da and Mercy—and you know how Leah feels about anything that had to do with Mercy.”


“I do,” she said. “I even understand it, much as it pains me to say so. Bran is funny about Mercy. If you were that funny about Mercy, I would feel the same way Leah does—no matter how likable I might find her.”


“Bran’s not funny about her,” he told Anna, feeling uncomfortable. “He thinks of her as his daughter, and he doesn’t have any other daughters still alive. There’s nothing strange about it.”


“Or so everyone is much happier believing,” agreed Anna blandly. “Including Bran. We’ll leave it at that. So the musical evenings were a thing between Bran and Mercy?”


“Not like that,” Charles said, feeling defensive because Anna put her finger right on something that he’d been ignoring for a long time. He took a deep breath. “All right. All right. You might have a point about Da and Mercy.”


She smiled just a little.


He threw up his hands. “Okay. Yes. I saw it, of course I did. As did Leah. But my da would never have moved on Mercy. Say what you will about him—but his wolf has accepted Leah as his mate, and he will not cheat on her. And Mercy has never seen him as anything except a father figure and her Alpha. That’s what she needed, and that’s what he gave her. I don’t think Mercy has ever recognized that it could be more than that.”


"Yes," Anna agreed, to his relief. "That's how I read their relationship, too." She paused, then said in a low voice with her eyes firmly on the road in front of them. "Do you think she's okay?"


“Mercy?” Mercy had been taken. For that reason, Bran had left the pack in Charles’s hands. Luckily, that situation had been quickly resolved—at least Mercy’s part in it had. He had the feeling that the shake-up from it would be playing out for a long time.


"Yes, Mercy."


He pressed a fist to his heart. “If she were not, my da would have brought down the fiends of the ages to wreak vengeance. Since he decided to go visit my brother in Africa, of all places, and ‘take a vacation,’ I expect that she is fine. You could call her.”


Anna blew out a breath. “Okay. I tried calling her today, but her cell number isn’t working, and the house phone was answered by some boy who said that she was outside trying to figure out how to get Christy’s car functioning, quote, ‘well enough to make Christy go away again,’ unquote. He advised me to let her cool off for a day or two before trying again.”


He smiled wryly. "Have you met Christy?"


Anna shook her head. "Who is she?"


“Adam’s ex-wife. Beautiful, fragile, a little helpless—just the kind of woman most Alpha wolves gravitate toward.” He smiled a little wider as Anna let out an impassioned huff of air.


"I am not helpless," she said. "Nor fragile."


“No,” he agreed. “And neither is Christy, really. I give thanks every day that my da found Leah as a mate and not someone like Christy. Leah is a lot more straightforward.”


"Nor am I beautiful," Anna continued, undeterred.


"On that," he said peaceably, "I think we'll have to agree to disagree."


“Tell me about the music nights?” Anna asked after a moment, though he noted with pleasure that her face had flushed a little because she would have heard the truth of his words.


“Mercy and Bran engaged in a feud over those musical nights,” Charles said. “You’ve met her. ‘Stubborn’ doesn’t quite cut it.”


Anna frowned. "Somethiing has to set her off, though."


He nodded. “Mercy doesn’t like being front and center. She is a fair musician. She sings on key, but she doesn’t have a real voice, and she knew that. But she was pretty decent on the piano.”


"She told me she hates piano," Anna said.


“I think it all got caught up in the mess of Leah’s feud with Mercy,” he told her. “Leah was merciless in her torment of Mercy, restrained by two things.”


He held up a finger.


“My da made it clear that anyone who actually physically harmed her was answerable to him. And Mercy’s foster father, Bryan, was a scary bastard when he was angry. It took a lot to get him there, though, and Leah was very careful to skirt just on the edge of that. Mercy made it easier for Leah because Mercy always retaliated—and that muddied waters that would otherwise have shown Leah clearly at fault.”


Anna grimaced in sympathy, so he added, “And there is this, too—usually everyone ended up feeling sorrier for whoever had pulled Mercy’s wrath down upon their heads than they did for Mercy herself.”


She laughed. “The shoe thief.” And she lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The chocolate Easter bunny incident.”


“Exactly,” Charles said. “To be fair, my da, he believes in trial by fire. No one will ever again be able to maneuver Mercy into being blamed for something that wasn’t her fault. Leah taught Mercy that revenge has to wait until the right moment but that justice can be satisfied without dying for it.”


"That's fair?" Anna asked.


Charles nodded. “Mercy wanted to believe that the world was a just place—and she can turn into a coyote in a world filled with werewolves and vampires. She has no quit in her. She had to learn how to survive—and Da let Leah teach her how to do it. Not that Leah knew she was helping Mercy.” He wasn’t completely sure that his da had known that he was helping Mercy.


"What did you do?" she asked.


Brother Wolf wanted to roll in her confidence that they had not left their little coyote sister alone to face off with Leah.


“I could not override my father’s decision,” he said. “Which was that we not interfere between Mercy and Leah. Leah, he told me, was his mate—and thus dominant to me.”


"So what did you do?" she asked again.


“Whenever there was a chance that Leah would find Mercy alone, without a witness between them, I was there.” It had taken work—and if his da ever found out just how many of the pack had made it their business to help him in his self-appointed task, there would be a reckoning. What he had done undermined Leah’s authority in the pack, something his father would not have stood for had he known about it. But Charles had learned something from Mercy, too—it’s all good as long as you don’t get caught.


"So how does that tie in to the musical nights?" Anna asked.


“Mercy finally figured out that Bran knew about Leah and had no intention of interfering. Bryan—”


"Her foster father."


“That’s the one,” he agreed. “He told me about it because he was worried about what Mercy would do. We both knew she wouldn’t just let it alone.”


"Of course not," Anna agreed.


Charles smiled. “The evenings started sometime in the 1960s. My father was a victim of a self-help book some idiot gave him for Christmas one year. He decided the pack . . . the town needed some kind of bonding experience. He’s a musician—so he turned to music. All of the kids over the age of five would perform on a rotating schedule—pack-related or not.” Aspen Creek was tiny, but there had still been five or six children at every performance. “They would be followed by a couple of volunteers, willing or not, from the pack. And finally, he would cap off the night with a performance of his own: music usually, but sometimes storytelling. It made the rest worth sitting through for the adults not related to the kids. By the time Mercy came to the pack as a pup, the evenings were an established tradition.” He slanted a look at his mate. “Some of us might have felt that they were a tedious tradition.”


Anna considered that solemnly. “There’s a lot of talent here, no question. But I’ve been a part of performances with kids. Heck, I’ve been a kid in performances. I bet some of those nights were longer than others, especially if none of those kids were yours.”


Charles grinned. “Mercy thought so, too. As soon as she hit eight or nine, she rounded up the littles—the youngest, the ones who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and the kids who made the mistake of looking at her too long—and made them do a ‘special performance.’”


He shook his head. “Some of them were really memorable. Not always musical, but memorable. The first benefit was that those evenings got a lot shorter because we got through most of the kids—and all of the ones who were really bad—at once. But after a while, she got the hang of it. I think Samuel helped her in secret, because I recognized a few of the songs as his. But she started competing with Bran for best performance—invited the audience in to judge for themselves. He loved it.”


"Bran?"


“My da, for all of his faults, has very little ego. He is dominant, not competitive.” Anna made a noise, so he had to correct himself. “All right. I give that to you. He’s competitive enough. Let me say, then, that he doesn’t feel that he has to wipe the floor with a group of children in order to feel like an Alpha. He took pride in her efforts and encouraged her—the way he does. Blink and you miss it—just like this road to our left. Turn here.”


She did, and the truck slowed because although the road was paved, it was only just.


"Then she found out that Bran knew about Leah's attacks," Anna said thoughtfully.


“Right. Let me just say that Mercy is fiendish with her punishments. Never get on her bad side. She’ll figure out the thing that will irk you the most.”


"What did she do?"


“She played the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata.”


"Number Eight," said Anna. "Opus 13?"


He nodded. "For almost two years, she played it every music night."


"What's wrong with that?" Anna asked."It's a beautiful piece."


Charles grinned. “You’d think that. And it is. But I hear it in my nightmares, and I imagine Da does, too. You can’t play a tuned piano out of tune, but that’s the only thing she didn’t do to that poor piece of music.


“Every performance was something new. Once she performed with a blindfold. Once she set a metronome up and never once played at the speed of the metronome. Once she played it at a quarter speed and added the other two movements.” He laughed at the memory. “People would think she was done, start to clap, and she’d play another note. A very slow note. It felt like it went on forever. But she never quite tipped my da into anything but white-lipped anger.” He closed his eyes, remembering, the smile dying down. “It’s not often when Da does the wrong thing—and most of those moments in the last thirty years have revolved around Mercy.”


"He's funny around her," Anna said, deadpan.


He opened his eyes to give her a mock glare, but she was paying too much attention to the road.


“Yes,” he said. “Funny. Anyway, these were real performances. Boys wore ties and white shirts, girls wore dresses. For what was to be her final performance, Mercy came dressed in cutoffs and a T-shirt with paint on it. The T-shirt was emblazoned with Mickey Mouse giving the world the middle finger.” He sighed.


"What did he do?"


“My da knows how to fight dirty, Anna, he just usually chooses not to. He turned to Mercy’s foster mother—a shy, sweet mouse of a woman who had just been diagnosed with some horrific human disease—and ripped into her in front of everyone for not seeing to it that Mercy had clothing fit to wear. She cried. Bryan wasn’t there—I like to think that my da forgot that he had sent Bryan off on some task that night, but he might have planned his actions that far in advance. Mercy didn’t say anything. She got up off the piano bench, took Evelyn by the hand, and led her out of the room.”


Anna considered it a moment. "Bran attacked a sick woman who couldn't defend herself in front of the whole pack? Wow."


"Don't let my da fool you, Anna," he said. "Push comes to shove, he is a mean bastar."


"What did Mercy do?" Anna asked. "The Mercy I know wouldn't have just let that stand."


“No,” he said. “Of course not. She peanut-buttered the seat of my father’s new Mercedes and tricked him into sitting in it.”\


"Hah!" Anna's voice was satisfied. "Good for her. I'd have paid to see it."


Charles wondered why the memory made him feel melancholy. Probably because he’d liked Evelyn—and watching his father brutalize her, even with words, had been gut-wrenching. And he, like the rest of the pack, had just stood there and watched. Only Mercy had defied the Marrok.


He and Brother Wolf had long ago conceded that they had been wrong not to do something, too.


"The peanut butter," Charles said, "reminded my father that he's been doing battle with a child. Someone he'd sworn to protect. And because he had felt he was losing that war, he'd hit someone who couldn'tdefend herself. My da is not humbled very often, but Mercy managed it that time. He brought flowers for Evelyn and apologized in person, then in public. To her, to Bryan- to Mercy, too. After that, Mercy would come to the evenings in that same outfit every time. She would sit at the piano for five minutes with her hands folded in her lap. My father would thank her gravely for her performance, she would bow her head like a samurai warrior, and they were done. It lasted until Evelyn died - about two years, I think - then Mercy sat in the audience, and my da quit asking her to play."


"Is that why he ended the evenings?" Anna asked.


He shook his head. "It was when he sent her away."


Anna knew the story, so he didn't repeat it. His brother had decided that a sixteen-year-old coyote-shifter Mercy might be a way for him to have children who survived and set about courting her. Bran had intervened before Samuel had done irreparable damage to her - or to himself. But it had cost them all anyway.


"We had a couple more musical nights after she went to live with her biological mother. At the second one, Bran concluded by saying that they had served their purpose, and it was time to move on."


"Without Mercy to battle, it wasn't fun anymore," said Anna.


"That's what I think," Charles said. "No one ever had the nerve to ask my da."


"No wonder Leah thinks reestablishing that tradition would be bad news," Anna said thoughtfully.


"Maybe we should make this barbecue a onetime event."


"This event Leah thinks you don't want," Charles said, unable to his amusement. "She's probably ready to make it a daily thing at this point."


"I can't cancel it altogether," Anna told him after a moment. "If I switch sides again, even Leah will know that I'm playing her. But I think I can get her to make me do all the work for it. I can make is as different from those nights as possible. Maybe no children." She paused. "Or if we never want to repeat it - only children."


Anna was pretty good at getting people to do what she wanted. Once in a while, she stepped on toes when she did so because the instinctive deference most wolves felt for the more dominant was just missing in her. She was getting much better at dancing around the dominance thing, though.


Leah wasn't smart, but she'd been around a long time. And if she'd trained Mercy - well, Mercy had trained her back. She might see though what Anna was doing because of that. But if Leah made a fuss, he'd take care of it. Brother Wolf liked that idea.


"Stop it," Anna said firmly. "I can take care of myself."


"Of course you can," he said, suprised. "That doesn't mean I can't do it, too."


She shook her head at him, but he knew she was laughing inwardly because Brother Wolf told him so.


"And you tell everyone you don't understand people," she said.


"I don't," he told her contentedly. "I just understand you."