Copyright © 2009 Moira Rogers
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Dead leaves crunched under Brynn’s feet, slippery enough that she slid several steps with a muffled curse before catching her balance. Branches snatched at her clothing and tangled in her hair, but she didn’t stop running. She deserved every stinging scratch, every bump and bruise, even the trembling pain in her legs and the burning of her lungs. She deserved them all, for running.
It was too dark to see—for a human, anyway—and she stumbled twice more before she caught sight of the faint fluttering light from Joe’s cabin. She screamed his name, knowing he’d hear, knowing he’d know. It wasn’t the first attack in the last three weeks, but it was the first one that had come in the dead of night. The first one where the attacker had found their house, had found Abby—
And I left her. Shame burned inside Brynn, not just shame at running, but a deeper, aching misery at the knowledge she’d had no other option. Her sister could survive a bullet wound to the chest. Brynn might not survive falling down the stairs. Running had been smart. Getting help had been necessary.
It didn’t stop her from hating her own helplessness. She crashed past a tree, and the bark caught on her torn shirt and scraped the skin from her arm. She hissed in a sharp breath and let it out on another scream. “Joe!”
The back door slammed open, and Joe rushed out, hopping on one foot as he pulled on his second boot. “Brynn? What is it?” He jumped the steps and caught her with one arm as she stumbled forward. “Is it Abby?”
She fought her way free of his arms and spun back the way she’d come. “Someone’s there, she made me run but we have to go back—”
An iron hand wrapped around her arm, and Joe whipped her around to face him. “I’ve got my orders, sweetheart. Get inside, in the bedroom. If Abby and I aren’t back in fifteen minutes, there’s a revolver in the nightstand. Take it and haul ass to Gavin’s.”
If she fought him, it would take longer for him to get to Abby’s side. Brynn swore harshly, but didn’t struggle. “Fine. Go. Now.” And I’ll be right behind you.
He hesitated and groaned. “You’re going to get us both killed.” But he let go of her and took off down the hill, back toward the house.
Brynn only waited long enough to catch her breath before following him.
It was harder this time. Her legs wouldn’t work right and she seemed to catch every branch on her body. Joe disappeared into the night, so fast and silent she couldn’t hear him over the harsh sound of her own breathing.
If I were one of them…
It wasn’t a new thought. Three attacks in as many weeks, and each left her feeling angrier, helpless. Abby, with her superstrength and near invulnerability, could defend herself. Brynn was a target. A hostage.
She broke free of the woods behind Keith’s house and hit her knees in relief when Abby shoved open the back door of the house. Brynn thought she saw blood on her sister’s clothes, but Abby moved out of the light too quickly to be sure.
Adrenaline faded. Brynn braced her hands on the ground as she gasped for breath and wished, once again, for the speed and stamina werewolves took for granted.
Abby knelt beside her and stroked one shaking hand over her hair. “Are you all right?”
It took her a few seconds to get enough breath to talk. “Of course I’m all right.” I ran. “Are you?”
Her sister nodded. “Joe’s bringing some of our things out, and we’re going to his place, okay? Just for tonight.”
“Okay.” Brynn pushed herself up with a wince and focused on Abby’s stained shirt. “That blood… It’s not yours, right?”
Abby’s eyes hardened as she helped Brynn to her feet. “No. No, it’s not mine.”
“Good.” Brynn tried to brush bark away from the raw, open scratch on her forearm and hissed at the sudden sting. The bruises from her ordeal at the beginning of the month had faded, but she’d earned plenty more to take their place tonight. Her muddy T-shirt hung from one shoulder, and she used an annoyed sigh to cover her fear. “Is he getting me a change of clothes? This is ruined.”
“I packed a bag in case we needed to leave quickly.” As Abby spoke, Joe came through the door and clomped down the back steps. “Did you get it?”
He hefted a backpack. “This one?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Joe.”
“No problem.” He hesitated, casting a glance at Brynn. “I called Gavin. He’s sending someone.”
“Maybe they can learn something useful once he—” Abby cleared her throat. “Once the guy wakes up.”
Joe snorted quietly. “They’d better do it before Keith gets back.”
Imagining what her sister’s new lover would do to the man who’d broken into his home made Brynn queasy. She swallowed and turned resolutely toward Joe’s cabin. “Can we go yet? I need to clean up.”
A warm hand landed on her shoulder, and she felt Joe’s comforting presence beside her. “Do you need to see Cindy about that scratch?”
“I don’t need a doctor.” The last thing Brynn wanted was more werewolves smothering her with overprotective concern. She summoned a smile for him. “Have you got a first aid kit at your place?”
“Sure.” He cocked his head and got that look the werewolves always got when they were listening to things she couldn’t hear. “Backup’s here. Want a ride, Abby?”
Abby touched Brynn’s other arm. “Can you walk?”
“Stop it.” Brynn ground the words out between clenched teeth. “I ran through the woods. That’s it. I’m fine. You’re the one who was attacked, Abby. Stop worrying about me so damn much.”
“Okay.” But Brynn caught the pointed look her sister gave Joe, and knew he’d be watching her for any sign she was about to collapse, or faint, or trip… Or stub my toe or break a fingernail. But there was nothing she could do but set her jaw and walk—unassisted—back to Joe’s cabin.
They were almost through the woods when Joe glanced over at Brynn and finally broke the tense silence. “After we get your arm cleaned up, can you help me with something?”
It would give him an excuse to watch over her in an overprotective fashion, which was probably the point, but at least he tried to be subtle about it. “Sure, Joe.”
“Gavin and Sam are coming over to talk. I need to make some sandwiches or something, and I could use a hand. Can’t let the pack alphas go hungry.”
“Okay. I can handle sandwiches.” And maybe with Abby out of the way, she could find a way to ask Joe the one question that had been burning in the back of her mind since the last attack.
How do I become one of you?
The angry red scratches on Brynn’s face and neck looked worse now that she’d cleaned up, and it didn’t help his foul mood. Joe tried not to grind his teeth as he smoothed the last bit of tape over the bandage on her arm. “If it gets swollen or hot, see Cindy about it anyway, okay?”
Brynn seemed unconcerned. She tossed her damp hair over her shoulder and glanced at the bandage. “Thanks. I probably didn’t need that, though. It’s not that bad.”
“I wanted to get it covered before your sister got out of the shower.” He gathered the rarely used first aid supplies and replaced them in the cupboard. “She worries. Maybe too much.”
Brynn made a rude noise as she began to twist her hair into a tight braid with deft movements of her fingers. “I might have noticed that.”
“She can’t help it, you know. Really.” No more than he could. “It’s an instinctive thing.” You need protection.
“I know, I know.” She tied off her hair with a band she’d pulled out of the backpack and turned to study him. “Can I ask you a question? A serious one.”
He attempted a smile. “On a night like tonight, I don’t think there’s any other kind.”
He could tell she was nervous when she took a deep breath and braced herself before speaking again. “I always hear Keith talking about the way things go when you choose to become a werewolf. How does it work, if you choose?”
As if anyone could make an informed decision about it. You can’t know, he thought bitterly. It’s not possible. “You find out everything you can, you think real damn hard about your reasons, and you take your case to the alpha. Then you wait.”
“Six months is Gavin’s minimum.” Surely she couldn’t be thinking… “Tell me this is just casual curiosity, Brynn.”
The stubborn set of her jaw told a different story. “Are there ever exceptions? For dangerous circumstances?”
He braced his hands against the edge of the counter. “Your sister’s going to have a fit if you so much as bring it up, you know.”
“My sister is not in charge of me.” Brynn shifted with a wince that made the hair on the back of his neck rise. “And if I’m going to have werewolves trying to kill me for the rest of my life, maybe it would be nice if I were a little harder to kill.”
“You’re not going to have people after you.” His hands tightened into fists, and he took a deep breath to quell the fierce protectiveness that crashed through him. “When we figure this out, find a plan of attack—”
“You can’t promise I’ll be safe. You can’t. I listen when Keith tells Abby about the politics, about what’s going on out there. I don’t want to be their weak spot. I don’t want to be a hostage.”
The water in the bathroom stopped running, and Joe arched an eyebrow at Brynn. “If you’re serious, you can talk to Gavin about it when he gets here. But Abby is going to shit a brick.”
She hesitated before shaking her head. “She’s too upset tonight. I’ll ask Gavin tomorrow. Just…don’t tell her. Please?”
“I’m not saying a word,” he swore. “Promise me you’ll think about it. There are other ways to be safe. Your brother, maybe.”
“Until someone comes after him, too.” She didn’t sound scared, just resigned and tired.
“What’s going on?” Abby stood in the doorway, her hair hanging in wet tendrils around her head and shoulders. “Brynn?”
Brynn smiled at her sister and, if he hadn’t seen exhausted misery in her eyes a moment before, he might have believed the expression was real. “I’m fine. Joe played doctor.”
Joe choked on his beer. “Not like that.”
“Oh, for crying out loud.” Brynn closed her eyes and groaned. “Yes, Abby. Joe and I were out here doing dirty, dirty things.”
He opened his mouth to deny it but remained quiet. Abby thinking he was perving on her kid sister was better than Abby knowing said kid sister wanted to become a werewolf. “Want something to eat or drink, Ab?”
“No, thanks.” Abby wrapped her arms around her body. “Gavin and Sam?”
“On their way. They’re going to keep the guy under guard until…”
“Yeah.” She avoided his gaze. “Until.”
Until Keith gets back. The guy was going to wish he’d died. “You want a beer or something, Brynn?”
Brynn acted as though she hadn’t heard him. Her gaze was focused on her sister, and he could see the guilt in her eyes. “I’m okay, Abby. We’re both okay.”
A knock interrupted Abby’s answer, and she hurried toward the door, yanked it open and greeted the alpha pair.
Gavin rested his hands on Abby’s shoulders. “You’re all right? You and Brynn?”
Joe cleared his throat. “They’re both fine. Brynn came to me, and Abby took care of it.”
As Gavin comforted Abby, his wife slipped past them and fixed her gaze on Brynn. After a few assessing seconds, Sam looked to Joe. “She doesn’t need to see Cindy?”
“A scratch, that’s all. She’s okay.” Her mental state was another matter entirely, but he doubted anything short of an audience with Gavin would make her feel better.
Sam nodded. “We can’t get ahold of Keith. Have you got space for them here, or should they come home with us?”
He tensed. “They can stay here. That was the plan, if anything happened.” Abby he could let go, but she wouldn’t leave without Brynn, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if she walked out. The protectiveness he’d felt from the moment he’d hauled her out of Matthews’ compound hadn’t faded. If anything, it was stronger than ever.
Gavin steered Abby toward the couch and solved the problem with a short command. “Here will be fine. The ladies can have Joe’s bed, and Joe can take the sofa or the floor.”
Brynn’s gaze found Joe’s, and she smiled at him before rising to follow Abby to the couch. Her earlier annoyance at her sister’s overprotectiveness seemed to be gone—or well hidden. “Thank you, Joe.”
“You’re welcome.” He sat on the edge of the couch as Abby began to talk, relating to the alphas what had happened. He watched Brynn, and only sheer force of will kept him from sliding a comforting hand over hers as she closed her eyes and listened.