Copyright © 2012 Moira Rogers
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Practically the whole damn town was asleep already.
Here and there, tiny pockets of activity caught Jay Ancheta’s eye as he maneuvered his SUV through the darkened streets. A handful of high school kids drifted out of the athletics building behind the football field, undoubtedly players leaving a late practice. A few storefronts still glowed with faint light, owners sticking around to handle inventory or bookkeeping, and he made a mental note to check again on his way back into town.
For now, he had a destination in mind, and he could only wish the adrenaline pumping through his veins had more to do with the job at hand…and less to do with seeing Eden Green.
He pulled into the parking lot on the east side of the library. The windows upstairs were dark, but before he could wonder where Eden might be, he spotted her coming out the back exit. She wore no sweater or jacket, only slacks and a lightweight white shirt, though the breeze tossed her blonde hair as she paused to lock the door.
As soon as Jay stepped out of his vehicle, he caught the sweet citrus scent of her shampoo. “Eden.”
She whirled with a sharp, in-drawn breath, but the tension in her face vanished when she squinted through the darkness and caught sight of him. “Jay, thank God. You startled me.”
“Sorry about that.” He leaned against the front fender of his SUV, adopting the least threatening pose he could manage. “I was hoping to catch you before you locked up for the night.”
Blushing, she turned back to the door and turned the key with a click. “If no one’s here, sometimes I lock up a little early. There’s a television show I like to watch…” Her voice trailed off as she reached the parking lot, her gaze taking in his uniform. “Is this official business? Nothing’s happened, has it? My father—”
“Hale and hardy when I saw him this afternoon,” Jay cut in. “It’s nothing like that. I had a question, that’s all, about Green Pines.”
“About the farm?” She stopped a few paces shy of him and tilted her head. “What do you need to know?”
Her heart was beating fast, and Jay drew in another breath, grateful for the shift in the wind that carried her scent away this time. “I’d have asked your dad when I was at the diner today, but you’re listed as the property owner of record. The Wilsons called me, said they heard car engines and commotion out there a couple nights ago. Do you know anything about that?”
“A commotion?” She frowned. “No, there shouldn’t be anyone out there. Unless the teenagers you ran off last summer decided it was safe again…”
“No, I doubt that.” Damn it. “Just to be safe, I’ll ride out tonight and take a look around.”
She lifted her keys. “I’ll follow you.”
Eden Green might look every inch the bashful small-town librarian, but she’d reportedly inherited her mother’s legendary stubborn streak, and forbidding her from joining him would only get her back up. “I’d rather you didn’t. An abandoned farm’s mighty attractive to someone looking for a place to conduct all kinds of illegal business. It could be dangerous.”
For a moment she considered him, her teeth working at her lower lip. “I’d like to come,” she said finally. “I can ride with you, if you prefer, and stay in the SUV until you’re sure there aren’t any criminals.”
Her blue eyes were clouded, but with something more complex than mere curiosity or even outrage that someone might be trespassing on her property. She had reasons for asking, reasons that left anxiety and a strange sort of expectation hanging in the air, and Jay found himself nodding. “It’s your place. Ride with me and I’ll make sure you stay safe.”
“I know you will.” She smiled and tucked her keys into her purse. “Thank you, Jay. It means a lot to know you’re keeping an eye on things. I keep hoping my father will let me at least try to sell the farm, but…well. Family is complicated.”
“So I hear.” Family, he knew little about. Pack, on the other hand, could be both simple and tragically convoluted. “And looking out for you is my job. Now hop in.”
Eden circled the car and slid onto the passenger seat, fiddling with the belt long after she’d buckled it. Her fingers slid up and down the nylon in near-silent strokes he could hear as clearly as her still-racing heart.
She was hiding something.
Jay cranked the engine and pulled onto the main road before speaking. “Anything you want to tell me, Eden?”
She started and shook her head with a shaky laugh. “I’m nervous, that’s all. When I was a kid, I thought the farm was haunted, you know.”
“Uh-huh.” The place looked it, spooky and practically abandoned, but it also wasn’t the true motivation for her galloping pulse. “Try again?”
She sighed softly. “Do you listen to town gossip? The older stories?”
“Green Pines Farm has provided its share over the years.”
They could talk in circles all the way out of town, but it would get them nowhere. “Sweetheart, why don’t you just tell me who you expect us to find out there?”
“I don’t expect anyone,” she protested. “But my father always hopes that my cousin will come back. That’s why he doesn’t want me to sell the farm. He wants Zack’s inheritance intact.”
Zack Green, not quite the prodigal son. Town gossip held that his father, Eden’s uncle, had run him out of town at eighteen—all because he suspected another man had really fathered the boy. “How much of it is true? The talk about Zack’s mother?”
“All of it, and then some.” Eden’s voice held a sharp edge, but as she continued, it mellowed into sadness. “My uncle wasn’t Zack’s father, and everyone in the family knew it. But he took it out on Zack more often than not, and my father didn’t care for that.”
Jay slowed for a red light and turned his upper body to face Eden’s. “Good. Circumstances of birth aren’t exactly within a kid’s control.”
Eden glanced at him, her features only clear in the darkness because of his sharpened vision. She probably thought he couldn’t see the way she opened her mouth and closed it several times before wetting her lips nervously. “Uncle Albus—” Her fingers tightened into fists. “He was an angry man. Once his wife ran off, the only kindness Zack ever saw was from my parents.”
And she felt guilty about that, though she’d been no more to blame for Zack’s situation than he himself had. “Eden, if your cousin is out at the farm, we’ll help him. Whatever he needs.”
“It’s probably not him. I don’t think he’d come back here unless he had no other choice. But thank you.”
They’d reached the edge of town already, and Jay took the right-hand turn that led toward the farm. “Don’t mention it.”
She hadn’t told him everything. He could hear it in the slightly high-pitched tone of her voice, see it in her unwillingness to meet his eyes. Little Eden Green was still hiding something, but Jay had no high ground there.
After all, he’d never told her he was a werewolf.
Next to him, Eden fidgeted. “If it is him…”
“What is it? Drugs?”
“No! No, not drugs. Not Zack.” She hesitated, and he knew from her pounding heart and shallow breath that she was getting ready to lie to him again. “I think he’s involved with people who are into them, though. Dangerous people.”
Soft moonlight drifted through the canopy of trees bending over the disused drive. “People you think might have come here with him?”
God damn it. “Then I shouldn’t have brought you along.”
“I’m probably overreacting,” she said quickly, as if concerned he’d turn the car around. “It’s probably those teenagers, breaking into the old barn to party again.”
She might be jumping to conclusions, but her fear was real. It prickled over his skin and raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and his unease deepened as he pulled up the long, gravel drive.
Everything looked dark from a distance, but not completely. At second glance, Jay could see the farmhouse’s windows glowing with faint flickers of light, as if candles or kerosene lamps were burning beyond the tattered curtains.
It wasn’t until they were a third of the way up the driveway that the moon illuminated the vehicles parked at haphazard angles across the front lawn of the main house—two trucks and a shiny silver sedan. Jay stared at the trucks as he parked his own SUV and cut the engine. “Shelby County plates,” he murmured. “Has your cousin been in Memphis?”
“I don’t know.” That, at least, sounded like the truth. “I think he called my father from there once.”
“Do you think his friends are—” A slice of sound caught his attention, and he jerked at his seatbelt as he tried to pinpoint its source.
Snarls. Whines. The snap of jaws and teeth.
“Stay here,” he told Eden. Too clipped, brusque, but he needed for her to understand. “Get down and stay here, no matter what happens. Say it.”
Her eyes blazed with irritation, as if she wasn’t used to orders, but she wasn’t stupid, either. She unfastened her belt and hunched low in the seat. “I’ll stay here.”
Did she know? Her warnings had been vague but desperate, as if she suspected the truth and wanted to tell him but didn’t know how. “If things go south, get your ass over here behind the wheel and get back to town.” But Jay trembled, his hand on the door. He couldn’t leave her alone and unarmed, so he unsnapped his holster and held out his pistol. “If you have to, if anything comes after you—”
Her fingers brushed his, but she didn’t take the gun. “You hear something.”
She knew, all right. “Anything, Eden. Point and shoot, then get the hell out of here.”
His need to protect her still at odds with his duty, Jay took off around the side of the house. The sounds of fighting grew louder as he approached the woods behind the barn, and he stopped and stripped off his clothes as quickly as possible.
As soon as he knelt and coaxed the slow burn of magic inside him into the conflagration that would bring his change, Jay caught sight of a man dragging a woman out of the trees. Her pink hair stood out in the moonlight, a bright spot of color against the dark forest.
Her attacker jerked to a halt, his head whipping toward Jay. His mouth curved into a feral smile, undoubtedly at catching Jay in the vulnerable moments just before a shift. But as the stranger took a step forward, the girl twisted, raking her nails across his cheek in a desperate attempt to escape.
He slapped her hard enough to drive her to her knees, and Jay took advantage of the man’s distraction to finish his transformation. Wild, instinctive satisfaction filled him. If the stranger thought him weak, that it would take him long minutes to struggle through the change from man to wolf, he’d be fatally disappointed.
Jay sprang forward with a growl.
The man spun, wrenching his body out of the path of Jay’s charge with an angry roar. The girl scrambled to her feet with the speed of a werewolf and bolted.
“Mae!” The shouted name rode an angry command, sizzling dominant power that ghosted past Jay and slammed into the girl’s back like a physical blow. She hit the ground on her knees, shaking. “Don’t run, darling. You and I are going to have a talk about all this disobedience.” The man whipped a knife out of his boot as he turned on Jay. “Just as soon as I teach this packless mutt a lesson.”
The knife looked normal, but it felt like magic. Jay circled, his teeth bared in a snarl as the man watched him, no hint of fear in his cruel eyes. When he moved, it was blindingly fast, the blade slashing toward Jay’s side.
The wicked edge found its mark, slicing a burning but shallow line across Jay’s ribs. Definitely magic, because a heaviness accompanied the pain, a stagnant weight instead of the delicate tickle of near-instantaneous healing. Jay twisted and snapped at the man’s arm, grazing skin with teeth just as sharp as the knife.
His opponent jerked back with a laugh. “Yeah, you feel it, don’t you? You can bite me and I’ll heal. You’ll just keep bleed—” Twigs snapped to their left, and the man lunged fast enough to get a handful of the girl’s pink hair and jerk her off her feet as she tried to run. “You treacherous bitch!”
The lunge stretched out the line of his body, leaving him low and open to attack. Jay dug his back legs into the soft earth and launched himself at the man’s throat. He closed his teeth on the vulnerable spot and felt flesh give and blood run hot as his momentum carried them both to the ground.
Another wolf snarled at the edge of the trees. Beneath Jay, his enemy struggled weakly. The girl kicked the knife away from his outstretched hand and grabbed it as she rolled to her feet. She held the blade awkwardly, as if she didn’t know how to use it, and backed away, brandishing the weapon at the new wolf.
The wolf ignored her and charged at Jay. The girl shouted one word, her voice high and panicked. “Zack!”
Jay took the full weight of the charging wolf in the shoulder and rolled. He snapped viciously at the wolf’s back legs and pushed up on his paws just in time to see three more wolves break out of the woods, a tall, bloodied man at their heels.
One of the new wolves dove toward Jay. A second lunged at the disheveled man, who caught the animal by the scruff of its neck and threw it toward the tree line with a roar of fury.
The creature hit a tree with a crack and fell to the ground, limp and twitching, but the man didn’t stop or even slow down. He reached for another, and the fight turned quick and ugly as the remaining wolves attacked low, over and over, desperate to gain an advantage.
Teeth tore at flesh. Claws raked through clothes and skin alike. The man seemed as oblivious to the pain as he was to the pink-haired girl’s broken noises of protest. He snapped necks and tore wolves apart, and when no more surged to take the place of the fallen, he whirled on Jay.
“Zack, no—” The girl stumbled forward. “He saved me. He killed Scott.”
The change was hard, sometimes impossible, when a fight had Jay riding high on adrenaline. He called it anyway, and the effort hit him like a sprint, left him clutching a stitch in one side and the fiery cut on the other. “Zack?” he panted in disbelief. “Zack Green?”
The man’s chest heaved. He wiped blood from his mouth before spitting on the ground. “Did you take care of the rest of them?”
Jay grabbed his pants and glanced around at the bodies scattered on the grass. “There are more?” As soon as his brain processed the thought, a cold chill gripped him. “F*ck.”