DedicationTo Long-Suffering Editors who never lose their cool, Husbands who feed horses, Children who drive themselves and fix their own meals, to Vets who take panicked phone calls at all hours, and to all of you who give your time, talents, and energy to help others and to be there when you are needed. My thanks.
The starter complained as it turned over the old Buick's heavy engine. I felt a lot of sympathy for it since fighting outside my weight class was something I was intimately familiar with. I'm a coyote shapeshifter playing in a world of werewolves and vampires — outmatched is an understatement.
“One more time,” I told Gabriel, my seventeen-year-old office manager, who was sitting in the driver's seat of his mother's Buick. I sniffed and dried my nose on the shoulder of my work overalls. Runny noses are part and parcel of working in the winter.
I love being a mechanic, runny nose, greasy hands, and all.
It's a life full of frustration and barked knuckles, followed by brief moments of triumph that make all the rest worthwhile. I find it a refuge from the chaos my life has been lately: no one is likely to die if I can't fix his car.
Not even if it is his mother's car. It had been a short day at school, and Gabriel had used his free time to try to fix his mother's car. He'd taken it from running badly to not at all, then had a friend tow it to the shop to see if I could fix it.
The Buick made a few more unhealthy noises. I stepped back from the open engine compartment. Fuel, fire, and air make the engine run — providing that the engine in questions isn't toast.
“It's not catching, Mercy,” said Gabriel, as if I hadn't noticed.
He gripped the steering wheel with elegant but work-roughened hands. There was a smear of grease on his cheekbone, and one eye was red because he hadn't put on safety glasses when he'd crawled under the car. He'd been rewarded with a big chunk of crud — rusty metal and grease— in his eye.
Even though my big heaters were keeping the edge off the cold, we both wore jackets. There is no way to keep a shop truly warm when you are running garage doors up and down all day.
“Mercy, my mamá has to be at work in an hour.”
“The good news is that I don't think it's anything you did.” I stepped away from the engine compartment and met his frantic eyes. “The bad news is that it's not going to be running in an hour. Jury's out on whether it will be back on the road at all.”
He slid out of the car and leaned under the hood to stare at the Little Engine That Couldn't as if he might find some wire I hadn't noticed that would miraculously make it run. I left him to his brooding and went through the hall to my office.
Behind the counter was a grubby, used-to-be-white board with hooks where I put the keys of cars I was working on — and a half dozen mystery keys that predated my tenure. I pulled a set of keys attached to a rainbow peace sign keychain, then trotted back to the garage. Gabriel was back to sitting behind the wheel of his mother's Buick and looking sick. I handed him the keys through the open window.
“Take the Bug,” I told him. “Tell your mom that the turn signals don't blink, so she'll have to use hand signals. And tell her not to pull back on the steering wheel too hard or it will come off.”
His face got stubborn.
“Look,” I said before he could refuse, “it's not going to cost me anything. It won't hold all the kids” — not that the Buick did, there were a lot of kids — “and it doesn't have much of a heater. But it runs, and I'm not using it. We'll work on the Buick after hours until it's done, and you can owe me that many hours.”
I was pretty sure the engine had gone to the great junkyard in the sky — and I knew that Sylvia, Gabriel's mother, couldn't afford to buy a new engine, any more than she could buy a newer car. So I'd call upon Zee, my old mentor, to work his magic on it. Literal magic — there was not much figurative about Zee. He was a fae, a gremlin whose natural element was metal.
“The Bug's your project car, Mercy.” Gabriel's protest was weak.
My last project car, a Kharmann Ghia, had sold. My take of the profits, shared with a terrific bodyman and an upholsterer, had purchased a '71 Beetle and a '65 VW Bus with a little left over. The Bus was beautiful and didn't run, the Bug had the opposite problem.
“I'll work on the Bus first. Take the keys.”
The expression on his face was older than it should have been. “Only if you'll let the girls come over and clean on Saturdays until we get the Bug back to you.”
I'm not dumb. His little sisters knew how to work — I was getting the better of the bargain.
“Deal,” I said before he could take it back. I shoved the keys into his hand. “Go take the car to Sylvia before she's late.”
“I'll come back afterward.”
“It's late, I'm going home. Just come at the usual time tomorrow.”
Tomorrow was Saturday. Officially, I was closed on the weekends, but recent excursions to fight vampires had cut into my bottom line. So I'd been staying open later and working on the weekend to make a little extra money.
There is no cash in battling evil: just the opposite in my experience. Hopefully, I was done with vampires — the last incident had nearly gotten me killed, and my luck was due to run out; a woman whose best talent was changing into a coyote had no business in the big leagues.
I sent Gabriel on his way and started the process of closing up. Garage doors down, heat turned to sixty, lights off. Till drawer in the safe, my purse out. Just as I reached for the final light switch, my cell phone rang.
“Mercy?” It was Zee's son, Tad, who was going to an Ivy League college back East on full scholarship. The fae were considered a minority, so his official status as half-fae and his grades had gotten him in — hard work was keeping him there.
“Hey, Tad, what's up?”
“I got an odd message on my cell phone last night. Did Phin give you something?”
“Phineas Brewster, the guy I sent you to when the police had Dad up on murder charges and you needed some information about the fae to find out who really killed that man. .”
It took me a second. “The bookstore guy? He loaned me a book.” I'd been meaning to return it for a while. Just'.'.'. how often do you get a chance to read a book about the mysterious fae, written by the fae? It was handwritten and tough to decipher, slow going — and Phin hadn't seemed anxious to get it back when he'd loaned it to me. “Tell him I'm sorry, and I'll return it to him tonight. I have a date later on, but I can get it to him before that .”
There was a little pause. “Actually, he was a little unclear as to whether he wanted it back or not. He just said, 'Tell Mercy to take care of that thing I gave her.' Now I can't get through to him, his phone is shut off. That's why I called you instead.” He made a frustrated noise. “Thing is, Mercy, he never turns that damn phone off. He likes to make sure his grandmother can get in touch with him.”
Grandmother? Maybe Phin was younger than I'd thought.
“You are worried,” I said.
He made a self-deprecating noise. “I know, I know. I'm paranoid.”
“No trouble,” I said. “I ought to get it back to him anyway. Unless he keeps long hours, he won't be at the store by the time I can get there. Do you have a home address for him?”
He did. I wrote it down and let him go with reassurances. As I locked the door and set the security alarm, I glanced up at the hidden camera. Adam would probably not be watching — unless someone triggered an alarm, mostly the cameras ran all by themselves and simply sent pictures to be recorded. Still'.'.'. as I started for my car, I kissed my hand and blew it to the tiny lens that watched my every move, then mouthed, “See you tonight.”
My lover was worried about how well a coyote could play with the wolves, too. Being an Alpha werewolf made him a little overbearing about his concern ' and being the CEO of a security contracting firm for various government agencies gave him access to lots of tools to indulge his protective instincts. I'd been mad about the cameras when he'd first had them installed, but I found them reassuring now. A coyote adapts, that's how she survives.
Phineas Brewster lived on the third floor of one of the new condo complexes in West Pasco. It didn't seem like the sort of place where a collector of old books would live — but maybe he got his fill of dust, mold, and mildew at work and didn't need it in his home.
I was halfway between my car and the building when I realized that I hadn't brought the book when I got out of the car. I hesitated, but decided to leave it where it was, wrapped in a towel on the backseat of the Rabbit. The towel was to protect the book — in case I hadn't gotten all the grease off my hands — but it worked okay to disguise it from would-be thieves, which seemed unlikely here anyway.
I climbed up two sets of stairs and knocked on the door marked 3B. After a count of ten, I rang the doorbell. Nothing. I rang the doorbell one more time, and the door at 3A opened up.
“He's not there,” said a gruff voice.
I turned to see a skinny old man, neatly dressed in old boots, new jeans, button-down Western shirt, and bolo tie. All he was missing was a cowboy hat. Something — I think it was the boots — smelled faintly of horse. And fae.
Officially all the fae are out to the public and have been for a long time. But the truth is that the Gray Lords who rule the fae have been very selective about which of them the public gets to know about, and which ones might upset the public ' or are more useful posing as human. There are, for instance, a few Senators who are fae posing as humans. There is nothing in the Constitution that makes it illegal for a fae to be a Senator and the Gray Lords want to keep it that way.
This fae was working pretty hard at passing for human, he wouldn't appreciate me pointing out that he wasn't. So I kept my discovery to myself.
There was a twinkle in the faded eyes as he shook his head. “Nope, he hasn't been home all day .”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Phin?” The old man laughed, displaying teeth so even and white they looked false. Maybe they were. “Well, now. He spends most of his time at his store. Nights, too, sometimes.”
“Was he here last night?” I asked.
He looked at me and grinned. “Nope. Not him. Maybe he bought up some estate's library and is staying at the store while he catalogs it. He does that sometimes.” Phin's neighbor glanced up at the sky, judging the time. “He won't answer the door after hours. Closes himself in the back room and can't hear anyone. Best wait and go check at the shop in the morning.”
I looked at my watch. I needed to get home and get ready for my date with Adam.
“If you have something for him,” the old man said, his eyes clear as the sky, “you can leave it with me.”
Fae don't lie. I used to think it was can't lie, but the book I'd borrowed made it pretty clear that there were other factors involved. Phin's neighbor hadn't said he was working at the store. He said maybe. He didn't say he didn't know where Phin was, either. My instincts were chiming pretty hard, and I had to work to appear casual.
“I'm here to check up on him,” I told him, which was the truth. “His phone is off, and I was worried about him.” And then I took a chance. “He hasn't mentioned any of his neighbors — are you new?”
He said, “Moved in not long ago.” Then changed the subject. “Maybe he left the charger at home. Did you try the store phone?”
“I only have one number for him,” I told him. “I think that was his cell.”
“If you leave your name, I'll tell him you stopped in.”
I let my friendly smile widen. “No worries. I'll run him down myself. Good to know he has neighbors who are watching over him.” I didn't thank him — thanking a fae implies that you feel indebte, and being indebted to a fae is a very bad thing. I just gave him a cheerful wave from the bottom of the stairs.
He didn't try to stop me, but he watched me all the way out to my car. I drove out of sight before pulling over and calling Tad.
“Hello,” his voice said. “This is my answering machine. Maybe I'm studying, maybe I'm out having a good time. Leave your name and number, and maybe I'll call you back.”
“Hey,” I told Tad's answering machine. “This is Mercy. Phin wasn't home.” I hesitated. Safely back in my car, I thought that I might have overreacted about his neighbor. The better I know the fae, the scarier they seem. But it was probable that he was harmless. Or that he was indeed really scary — but it had nothing to do with Phin.
So I said, “Met Phin's neighbor — who is fae. He suggested calling the store. Do you have the store's number? Have you tried calling him there? I'll keep looking for him.”
I hung up and put the Rabbit in gear with every intention of going home. But somehow I ended up on the interstate headed for Richland instead of Finley.
Phin's mysterious call to Tad and the suspicion I felt toward Phin's neighbor made me nervous. It was a short trip to Phin's bookstore, I told myself. It wouldn't hurt to just stop by. Tad was stuck on the other side of the country, and he was worried.
The Uptown is a strip mall, Richland's oldest shopping center. Unlike its newer, upscale counterparts, the Uptown looks as though someone took a couple of dozen stores of various styles and sizes, stuck them all together, and surrounded them with a parking lot.
It houses the sorts of businesses that wouldn't thrive in the bigger mall in Kennewick: nonchain restaurants, several antique (junk) stores, a couple of resale clothing boutiques, a music store, a doughnut shop, a bar or two, and several shops best described as eclectic.
Phin's bookstore was near the south end of the mall, its large picture windows tinted dark to protect the books from sun-damage. Gilt lettering on the biggest window labeled it: BREWSTER'S LIBRARY, USED AND COLLECTIBLE BOOKS.
There were no lights behind the shades in the windows, and the door was locked. I put my ear against the glass and listened.
In my human shape, I still have great hearing, not quite as sharp as the coyote's, but good enough to tell that there was no one moving around in the store. I knocked, but there was no response.
On the window to the right of the door was a sign with the hours the shop was open: ten to six Tuesday through Saturday. Sunday and Monday hours by appointment. The number listed was the one I already had. Six had come and gone.
I knocked on the door one last time, then glanced at my watch again. If I skirted the speed limit, I'd have ten minutes before the wolf was at my door.
My roommate's car was in the driveway, looking right at home next to the '78 single-wide trailer where I lived. Very expensive cars, like true works of art, shape the environment to suit themselves. Just by virtue of being there, his car made my home upper-class — no matter what the house itself looked like.
Samuel had the same gift of never being out of place, always fitting in, while at the same time he conveyed the sense that here was someone special, someone important. People liked him instinctively, and trusted him. It served him well as a doctor, but I was inclined to think it served him a little too well as a man. He was too used to getting his way. When charm didn't cut it, he used a tactical brain that would have done credit to Rommel.
Thus, his presence as my roommate.
It had taken me a while to figure out the real reason he'd moved in with me: Samuel needed a pack. Werewolves don't do well on their own, especially not old wolves, and Samuel was a very old wolf. Old and dominant. In any pack except his father's, he would be Alpha. His father was Bran, the Marrok, the most 'berwerewolf of them all.
Samuel was a doctor, and that was more than enough responsibility for him. He didn't want to be Alpha, he didn't want to stay in his father's pack.
He was lone wolfing it, living with me in the territory of the Columbia Basin Pack, but not part of it. I wasn't a werewolf, but I wasn't a helpless human, either. I'd been raised in his father's pack, and that was close to being family. So far he and Adam, the local pack's Alpha — and my lover — hadn't killed each other. I was moderately hopeful that would continue to be the case.
“Samuel?” I called as I rushed into the house. “Samuel?”
He didn't answer, but I could smell him. The distinctive odor of werewolf was too strong to be just a leftover trace. I jogged down the narrow hall to his room and knocked softly at the closed door.
It was unlike him not to acknowledge me when I got home.
I worried about Samuel enough to make myself paranoid. He wasn't quite right. Broken, but functional, I thought, with an underlying depression that seemed to be getting neither better nor worse as the months passed. His father suspected something was wrong, and I was pretty sure the reason Samuel was living with me and not in his own house in Montana was because he didn't want his father to know for certain how badly broken Samuel really was.
Samuel opened his door, looking his usual self, tall and rangy: Attractive as most werewolves are regardless of bone structure. Perfect health, permanent youth and lots of muscle are a pretty surefire formula for good looks.
“You rang?” he said in an expressionless imitation of Lurch, dropping his voice farther into the bass register than I'd ever heard him manage. We'd been watching a marathon of Addams Family on TV last night. If he was being funny, he was all right. Even if he wasn't quite meeting my eyes, as if he might be worried about what I'd see.
A purring Medea was stretched across one shoulder. My little Manx cat gave me a pleased look out of half-slitted eyes as he stroked her. As his hand moved from along her back, she dug in her hind claws and arched her tailless butt into the air.
“Ouch,” he said, trying to pull her off, but she'd gotten her claws through his worn flannel shirt and was hooked onto him tighter than Velcro — and more painfully, too.
“Uhm,” I told him, trying not to laugh. “Adam and I are going out tonight. You're on your own for dinner. I didn't make it to the grocery store, so the pickings are meager.”
His back was to me as he leaned over his bed so if he managed to unstick the cat, she wouldn't fall all the way to the floor.
“Fine,” he said. “Ouch, cat. Don't you know I could eat you in a single bite? You wouldn't even —ouch — even leave a tail sticking out.”
I left him to it and hurried over to my own room. My cell rang before I made it to the doorway.
“Mercy, he's headed over, and I've got some news for you,” said Adam's teenage daughter's voice in my ear.
“Hey, Jesse. Where are we going tonight?”
Thinking of him, I could feel his anticipation and the smooth leather of the steering wheel under his hands — because Adam wasn't just my lover, he was my mate.
In werewolf terms, that meant something slightly different for every mated pair. We were bound not just by love, but by magic. I've learned that some mated pairs can barely perceive the difference'.'.'. and some virtually become the same person. Ugh. Thankfully, Adam and I fell somewhere in the middle. Mostly.
We'd overloaded the magic circuit between us when we'd first sealed our bond. Since then it had proved to be erratic and invasive, flickering in and out for a few hours, then gone again for days. Disconcerting. I expect I'd have gotten used to having the connection to Adam already if it were consistent, as Adam assured me it should have been. As it was, it tended to take me by surprise.
I felt the wheel vibrate under Adam's hand as he started the car, then he was gone, and I was standing in my grubbies talking to his daughter on the phone.
“Bowling,” she said.
“Thanks, kid,” I told her. “I'll bring back an ice-cream cone for you. Gotta shower.”
“You owe me five bucks though ice cream wouldn't hurt,” she told me with a mercenary firmness I could respect. “You'd better shower fast.”
Adam and I had a game, a just-for-fun thing. His wolf playing with me, I thought, because it had that feel: a simple game with no losers was wolf play, something they did with the ones they loved. It didn't happen often in the pack as a whole, but among smaller groups, yes.
My mate wouldn't tell me where he was taking us — leaving it for me to discover his plans by whatever means necessary. It was a sign of his respect that he expected me to be successful.
Tonight, I'd bribed his daughter to call me with whatever she knew, even if it was just what he was wearing when he walked out the door. Then I'd be appropriately dressed — though I'd act astonished that we matched so well when I hadn't a clue where he was taking me.
Play for flirting, but also play designed to distract both of us from the reason we were dating instead of living together as mates. His pack didn't like it that his mate was a coyote shifter. Even more than their natural brethren, wolves don't share territory well with other predators. But they'd had a long time to get used to it, and were mostly resigned — until Adam brought me into the pack. It shouldn't have been possible. I've never heard of a non-werewolf mate becoming pack.
I set out clothes to wear and hopped into the shower. The showerhead was set low, so it wasn't hard to keep my braids out of the full force of the water as I scrubbed my hands with pumice soap and a nailbrush. I'd already cleaned up, but every little bit helped. A lot of the dirt was ingrained, and my hands would never look fashion-model-tended.
When I emerged from the bathroom in a towel, I could hear voices in the living room. Samuel and Adam were deliberately keeping it soft enough that I couldn't hear the words, but it didn't sound like there was any tension. They liked each other just fine, but Adam was Alpha and Samuel a lone wolf who outpowered him. Sometimes they had trouble being in the same room together, but evidently not tonight.
I started to reach for the jeans I'd laid out on my bed.
I hesitated. I just couldn't see it in my head. Not the bowling part — I'm sure that Adam enjoyed bowling. Throwing a weighty ball at a bunch of helpless pins and watching the resultant mayhem is just the kind of thing that werewolves love.
What I couldn't see was Adam telling Jesse he was taking me bowling. Not when he was trying to keep it from me. The last time all she'd been able to do was tell me what he was wearing when he left the house.
Maybe I was just being paranoid. I opened my closet and looked at the meager pickings hanging there. I had more dresses than I'd had a year ago. Three more.
Jesse would have noticed if he'd dressed up.
I glanced at the bed where my new jeans and a dark blue T-shirt summoned me with their comfort. Bribes can go both ways — and Jesse would find it amusing to play double agent.
So I pulled out a pale gray dress, classy enough that I could wear it to all but the most formal of occasions and not so dressy that it would look out of place at a restaurant or theater. If we really went bowling, I could bowl in the dress. I slipped into the dress and quickly unbraided my hair and brushed it out.
“Mercy, aren't you ready, yet?” asked Samuel, a touch of amusement in his voice. “Didn't you say you had a hot date?”
I opened the door and saw I hadn't gotten it quite right. Adam was wearing a tux.
Adam is shorter than Samuel, with the build of a wrestler and the face of'.'.'. I don't know. It is Adam's face, and it is beautiful enough to distract people from the air of power that he conveys. His hair is dark, and he keeps it short. He told me once that it is so the military personnel that he has to deal with in the course of his security business feel comfortable with him. But these last few months, as I've gotten to know him better, I think it is because his face embarrasses him. The short hair removes any hint of vanity, and says, “Here I am, let's get down to business.”
I would love him if he had three eyes and two teeth, but sometimes his beauty just hits me. I blinked once, took a deep breath, and brushed off the need to proclaim him mine so I could pull my mind back to interactive mode.
“Ah,” I said, snapping my fingers, “I knew I'd forgotten something.” I ran back to my closet and snagged a sparkly silver wrap that dressed the gray up appropriately.
I came back out to see Samuel giving Adam a five-dollar bill.
“I told you she'd figure it out,” Adam said smugly.
“Good,” I told him. “You can pay Jesse with that. She told me we were going bowling. I need to find a better spy.”
He grinned, and I had to work to keep my face annoyed. Oddly enough, given his face, it wasn't the beauty of Adam-with-a-smile that delighted me when he grinned — though he really was spectacular. It was the knowledge that I'd made him smile. Adam was not given to'.'.'. happiness or playfulness, except with me.
“Hey, Mercy,” Samuel said, as Adam opened the front door.
I turned to him, and he gave me a kiss on the forehead.
“You be happy.” The odd phrase caught my attention, but there was nothing odd in the rest of what he said. “I've got the red-eye shift. Most likely I won't see you when you get back.” He looked up at Adam, meeting his eyes in a male-to-male challenge that had Adam's eyes narrowing. “Take care of her.” Then he pushed us out and closed the door before Adam could take offense at the order.
After a long moment, Adam laughed and shook his head. “Don't worry,” he said, knowing the other wolf would hear him through the door. “Mercy takes care of herself; I just get to clean up the mess afterward.” If I hadn't been watching his face, I wouldn't have seen the twist on his lips as he spoke. As if he didn't like what he was saying very much.
I felt suddenly self-conscious. I like who I am — but there are plenty of men who wouldn't. I am a mechanic. Adam's first wife had been all soft curves, and I was mostly muscle. Not very feminine, my mother liked to complain. And then there were those idiosyncrasies that were the aftermath of rape.
Adam held out his hand to me, and I put mine in his. He had gotten very good at inviting my touch. At not touching me first.
I looked at our clasped hands as we went down the porch stairs. I'd thought that I was getting better, that the involuntary flinching, the fear was leaving. It occurred to me that maybe he was just getting better at working around my fears.
“What's wrong?” he asked, as we stopped beside his truck.
It was so new there was still a sticker on the rear-seat window. He'd replaced his SUV after one of his wolves had dented in the fender defending me — followed by a separate incident when an ice elf (honking huge fae) who was chasing me, dropped the front half of a building on it.
“Mercy — ” He frowned at me. “You don't owe me for the damned truck.”
His hand was still holding mine, and I had a moment to realize that our fickle mate bond had given him an insight into what I was thinking, before a vision dropped me to my knees.
It was dark, and Adam was at his computer in his home office. His eyes burned, his hands ached, and his back was stiff from so many hours of work.
The house was quiet. Too quiet. No wife to protect from the world. It had been a long time since he'd loved her — it is dangerous to love someone who doesn't love you in return. He'd been a soldier too long to put himself deliberately in danger without a good reason. She loved his status, his money, and his power. She'd have loved it better if it had belonged to someone who did as she told him.
He didn't love her, but he'd loved taking care of her. Loved buying her little presents, loved the idea of her.
Losing her had been bad, losing his daughter was much, much worse. Jesse trailed noise and cheer everywhere she went — and her absence was'.'.'. difficult. His wolf was restless. A creature of the moment, his wolf. There was no way to comfort it with the knowledge that he'd have Jesse back for the summer. Not that he derived much comfort from that either. So he tried to lose himself in work.
Someone knocked on the back door.
He pushed back the chair and had to pause. The wolf was angry that someone had breached his sanctuary. Not even his wolves had been brave enough these past few days to approach him in his home.
By the time he stalked into the kitchen, he had it mostly under control. He jerked open the back door and expected to see one of his wolves. But it was Mercy.
She didn't look cheerful — but then she seldom did when she had to come over and talk to him. She was tough and independent and not at all happy to have him interfere in any way with that independence. It had been a long time since someone had bossed him around the way she did — and he liked it. More than a wolf who'd been Alpha for twenty years ought to like it.
She smelled of burnt car oil, jasmine from the shampoo she'd been using that month, and chocolate. Or maybe that last was the cookies on the plate she handed him.
“Here,” she said stiffly. And he realized it was shyness that pinched in the corner of her mouth. “Chocolate usually helps me regain my balance when life kicks me in the teeth.”
She didn't wait for him to say anything, just turned around and walked back to her house.
He took the cookies back to the office with him. After a few minutes, he ate one. Chocolate, thick and dark, spread across his tongue, its bitterness alleviated by a sinful amount of brown sugar and vanilla. He'd forgotten to eat and hadn't realized it.
But it wasn't the chocolate or the food that made him feel better. It was Mercy's kindness to someone she viewed as her enemy. And right at that moment, he realized something. She would never love him for what he could do for her.
He ate another cookie before getting up to make himself dinner.
Adam shut down the bond between us until it was nothing more than a gossamer thread.
“I'm sorry,” he murmured against my ear. “So sorry. F — ” He swallowed the obscenity before it left his lips. He pulled me closer, and I realized we were both sitting in the gravel driveway, huddled next to the truck. And the gravel was really cold on my bare skin.
“Are you all right?” he said.
“Do you know what you showed me?” I asked. My voice was hoarse.
“I thought it was a flashback,” he answered. He'd seen me have them before.
“Not one of mine,” I told him. “One of yours.”
He stilled. “Was it bad?”
He'd been in Vietnam; he'd been a werewolf since before I was born — he'd probably seen a lot of bad stuff.
“It seemed like a private moment that I had no business seeing,” I told him truthfully. “But it wasn't bad.”
I'd seen him the moment that I'd become something more than an assignment from the Marrok.
I remembered feeling stupid standing on his back porch with a plate of cookies for a man whose life had just gone down in the flames of a nasty divorce. He hadn't said anything when he answered the door — so I'd assumed that he'd thought it stupid, too. I'd gone back home as fast as I could without running.
I had had no idea that it had helped. Nor that he saw me as tough and capable. Funny, I'd always thought I looked weak to the werewolves.
So what if I still flinched if he forgot and put a hand on my shoulder? Time would fix that, I was already a lot better: daily flashbacks to the rape were a thing of the past. We'd work through it. Adam was willing to make allowances for me.
And our bond did its rubber-band thing, which it did sometimes, and snapped back into place, giving him access to my thoughts as if my head were clear as glass.
“Whatever you need,” he said, his body suddenly still as the evening air. “Whatever I can do.”
I relaxed my shoulders, burying my nose against his collarbone, and after a second, the relaxation was genuine. “I love you,” I told him. “And we need to talk about me paying you for that truck.”
“I'm not — ”
I cut off his words. I meant to put a finger against his lips or something tender like that. But I'd jerked my head up in reaction to his apology and slammed my forehead into his chin. Shutting him up much more effectively than I'd meant to as he bit his tongue.
He laughed as he bled down his shirt, and I babbled apologies. He let his head fall back against the truck door with a thump.
“Leave off, Mercy. It'll close up quick enough on its own.”
I backed up until I was sitting beside him — half-laughing myself, because although it probably hurt quite a bit, he was right that his injury would heal in a few minutes. It was minor, and he was a werewolf.
“You'll quit trying to pay for the SUV,” he told me.
“The SUV was my fault,” I informed him.
“You didn't throw a wall on it,” he said. “I might have let you pay for the dent — ”
“Don't even try to lie to me,” I huffed indignantly, and he laughed again.
“Fine. I wouldn't have. But it's a moot point anyway, because after the wall fell on it, fixing the dent was out of the question. And the ice elf's lack of control was completely the vampire's fault — ”
I could have kept arguing with him — I usually like arguing with Adam. But there were things I liked better.
I leaned forward and kissed him.
He tasted of blood and Adam — and he didn't seem to have any trouble following the switch from mild bickering to passion. After a while, I don't know how long, Adam looked down at his bloodstained shirt and started laughing again. “I suppose we might as well go bowling after all,” he said, pulling me to my feet.