Jul 12 2013 12:00pm
In the never-ending saga that is my love-hate relationship with Robson Trowbridge, I, half-Were Hedi Peacock, have had a change of heart. Ever since I shoved Trowbridge through the Gates of Merenwyn, I’ve been the leader of the pack—hard to believe, right? The thing is: I’m half-Fae. So even though my Were side is ready to heed the call of the wild, the other part of me is desperate to take flight. And much as it pains me to admit it, life without Trowbridge is really starting to were me down…
To make matters worse, the wolves of Creemore want my blood—and the North American Council of Weres wants me dead. So I’m just counting the days until Trowbridge returns from the other realm…and comes to my brave rescue…and becomes my alpha mate. Wishful thinking? Of course it is. But given all the mess I’ve been through already, what’s the harm in doing a little bit of daisy-plucking? Besides, Trowbridge owes me bigtime. A girl can dream.
Get a sneak peek of Leigh Evans's The Thing About Weres (available July 30, 2013) with an exclusive excerpt of the Prologue and Chapters 1 & 2.
On the Tricky Subject of Wishes
I don’t know why Weres think the moon’s so beautiful. Look at it. The thing’s rutted with craters. Not once have I gazed at it and wanted to let loose a wolf howl or break into a melancholy chorus of “Moon River.”
Most nights, I refuse to give it more than a brooding glance. Matter of fact, most of the time, I make a point of not looking upward. I keep my eyes trained on the life around the pond and the dead air above it.
But sometimes, when my thoughts are muddy and circular—like they are tonight—my gaze will slowly swing upward to a certain star.
Star light, star bright.
If you want to see what I’m waxing poetic about, tilt your chin up and slant your gaze to a few degrees left of the Milky Way. There it is: one twinkle-perfect light. To my eyes, it’s not silver or white but a definite blue—a faint copy of the azure that glimmers from Trowbridge’s eyes. And even though it sparkles from a blanket of similar lights, to me its glow is far brighter than any other star’s.
It stands alone.
Brave. Insolent. Bright.
That makes it unique, and so I claim it as mine. Screw the dudes with the pocket protectors and penchant for Latin. They may have already given that radiant beauty a double-consonant moniker but I’ve redubbed that bit of pretty “Hedi’s Star.”
The first star I see tonight.
I’ve never pinned a wish upon my star. Mostly because I have the sneaking suspicion that Karma’s not done with me yet. And I can’t help but worry that no matter how cagily I frame my request, that greedy witch would hear the naked plea in it, and would immediately begin plotting something nasty.
And she’d already done a whole bunch of the nasty.
Why? Because Karma’s an insatiable bitch.
Which is exactly the type of talk Cordelia loathes hearing. Trowbridge’s best friend has several pithy life prompts she repeats whenever she’s convinced I’m in need of some attitude coaching. “You are the architect of your own life.” (Pinched from Alfred A. Montaper.) “Find your passion and embrace it!” (Lifted from Oprah.) And her own wry creation, “Stop brooding, darling, or you’ll get lines around your mouth.”
They’re relatively new, these buck-up phrases.
At first, back in the day when we were getting accustomed to each other foibles—basically those early weeks just after we’d shoved Trowbridge through the Gates of Merenwyn—my six-foot roommate had been confident that I’d figure out how to summon the portal.
Uh-huh. That and a dollar bill will get you four bits.
Then one day, she came to the quiet realization that I wasn’t going to summon up the smoke, and the myst, and round window to the Fae realm—or maybe better said, she finally understood that I really couldn’t—and she abruptly dropped the subject of bringing the true Alpha of Creemore home.
That’s when Cordelia started focusing on the here and now, which meant alternately scowling at me with something akin to reluctant affection or holding up her bejeweled finger to utter one of those little bon-mots.
And that’s when I knew.
My new best friend had resigned herself to what she considered the truth: that Trowbridge wasn’t ever going to return home; that Merenwyn had swallowed him just like it had swallowed my twin brother Lexi; and now it was up to the three of them—Cordelia, the ex–drag queen; Harry, a Were who’s seen three score and more years; and Biggs, the wolf voted least likely to succeed—to form a protective barrier between me and the Trowbridge’s pack.
“Look on the bright side, darling, where there’s life, there’s hope,” she says now when she’s feeling generous.
But she doesn’t look at me when she says it.
Days have run together. Fast forward and we’re here—the first night of the Hunter moon, six months and twelve days after I slid my mate through the Gates of Merenwyn. Which was one of the reasons my favourite star and I were having an epic stare-down before I threw in the towel and tried to get some sleep.
Last night, as I lay alone in my twin bed, listening to the dead branches of the old maple chafe in the wind, I had a mind-blowing epiphany.
Ready? See if you can follow my logic: if there really was such a thing as Karma, then how much of a stretch was it to believe that there’s such thing as a benevolent Goddess in the sky? And even more wondrous—what if my Sky Goddess was more powerful than Karma?
Could there really be such a loving deity? One that waits, invisible and Godly, dying to hear your problems? And better yet—what if she could protect me from Karma’s whims? What if my Goddess was just waiting to hear me wish upon a star?
On that hazy thought, I drifted off into a dreamless sleep, from which I woke with the sudden, irritating awareness of one additional and painful twist to the previous night’s revelation.
Hells-bells, if my logic was sound, then my silence over these last six months wasn’t an act of stoic restraint; it was a piece of lame stupidity.
So here I am. Sitting cross-legged on Lexi’s pirate stone, slapping at late-season mosquitoes, setting myself up for a fall. On the plus side, I’m solo tonight—nobody’s breathing over my shoulder because my would-be protectors believe I’m safe by the fairy pond. The wolves are spooked by it, and the humans don’t know about it. Up in the trailer, Cordelia’s fussing with her wig. Back at his apartment, Biggs is probably reading some wolf-girl’s Facebook timeline. And Harry? Goddess knows what my favourite Geezer’s doing. Maybe he’s oiling his gun.
I’m finally alone. About to pin a wish on star.
I wish I may, I wish I might.
I clear my throat. “Hey, Star. I’m not sure how this wish-fulfillment thing goes, so I’m going to just work my way toward my request, okay?” Cover all the bases first. You’re not above doing a little groveling to smooth the way. “I know that it’s totally my problem that I can’t summon the portal. I accept responsibility all way round on that. And I know if you really want to be pissy, then it’s my own fault that I’m in this position. After all, I was the person who pushed Trowbridge through the Gates of Merenwyn—”
Gad, am I turning into one of those wimpy women who tune into Dr. Phil?
“I had no choice,” I say, in a harder tone. “It was either that or watch him die.”
And I’ll never sit helpless again, watching someone die.
“Look, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Karma’s already taken a big bite out of me. A Were killed my dad, and the Fae executed my mom. The Fae stole my brother too—by force—and dragged him across the portal into Merenwyn, and then…” Even now, it’s hard to think of it. “They slammed the gates shut. I haven’t seen Lexi since.”
Lexi’s got to be alive. Trowbridge, too.
“Maybe it’s time for the tide to turn. Maybe you can tell Karma to back off and throw me a bone.” I blink hard at the tears gathering, and my star—that round blue diamond—blurs into something you’d expect to see hovering over a stable, a donkey, and a pregnant virgin.
“I’m not asking for the moon…” I feel my lips curve into a weak smile. “So I won’t ask you to return Merry, too.”
No, I can’t do that. She made it home. She’s safe now.
My damned throat is so damn raw it hurts to form the words. “So all I’m asking for is…”
Oh, Goddess. What if Trowbridge is happier there? What if life is better in Merenwyn? Is that why neither of them have returned home?
I can’t shape the words.
I can only silently pray.
Give me the wish I wish tonight.
Wishing upon a star is a foolish exercise. I’d gone to bed late, after a quiet dinner of two maple-glazed doughnuts and a Kit Kat, followed by a chaser of grape juice.
“I’m dreaming again,” I said, feeling miserable and happy all at once.
Because I was, and because it was as good a way as any of saying hello. The alternative was saying “Hello, beautiful,” and that was both obvious and repetitive.
On his worst day, my guy is a freakin’ work of art.
I’ve seen him on his worst day.
Robson Trowbridge stood hip-deep in the Pool of Life, caught in the act of raking his long, curling hair off his forehead. I could waste time wondering why each visit begins the same way—his hand lifted to his brow, his bicep flexed, his abdomen muscles ridged like some lucky girl’s washboard—but I won’t. It’s my dream or his dream or our dream, and it never ends well, so it seems fitting that it begins with him hale and hearty, and so insanely sexy that a girl’s heart picked up at the sight of him.
As mine had.
Evidently, art appreciation does that to me.
Blame it on his hair. Except for a few faint silver threads, Trowbridge’s mane is as dark as a lump of coal and enviably thick. Though, at present, it was wet, and mostly, so was he. Beads of the Pool of Life’s water stood out on the slope of my mate’s shoulder—little translucent blips of healing Fae power that paid no heed to gravity—seemingly content to stay there, clinging to his collarbone and the rounded swell of his upper deltoids.
Therein lies one of the inherent problems about being around Trowbridge.
He’s so damn beautiful that it’s really hard to think in a straight line around him. For instance, when I saw those little beads of water on his hard shoulder, I didn’t think “baby needs a towel.” Nope. Instead, I imagined myself licking the moisture off his shoulder.
Sad, the direction my brain slithers when I’m around my mate.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with the full body flush of sexual desire that nearly levels me when I see him standing there, utterly desirable and absolutely unreachable. I don’t trust it. There was no reason to it, no natural progression from first stirrings of attraction to my current level of “wave my panties over my head” lust.
I grew up in the same small Ontario town as he. His house was just on the other side of the pond. As a kid, I’d been the uninspired witness to many Trowbridge sightings. But one day, a few months before puberty, I looked at him, and it was like someone had pressed my sexual identity’s switch to on. Bam! Bye-bye, Barbie. Hello, Trowbridge.
Like my body was preset for him, and him alone.
Behind my lover, Merenwyn’s forest climbed a series of hills in rolling swells of golden yellow and deep green, providing a scenic foil to Trowbridge’s own particular dark beauty. I studied the tree line until my heart settled down, then said with faux calm, “It’s cold tonight.”
Gorgeous grimaced and pulled his fingers free from his damp locks. “Why does it always have to be water? I hate water.”
“You know, you look so real in my dreams. Sometimes I think—”
“That you’re not dreaming. Well, check the list, Hedi Peacock. Am I wearing any clothing?” Trowbridge ran his hand down his gleaming chest, sliding it along the landscape of all that lovely taut flesh, to disappear under the water. “That’s a definite no. Do you know what happens to skin when it stays in water for a long time? Things get shriveled. Important things, like—” He frowned, his hand busy under the water. “God, they feel like stewed prunes.”
My mate pulled out his dripping paw, inspected it with a fierce scowl, and gave his hand a savage flick. Droplets of water sprayed—a bullwhip of diamond beads. “Why here? We could have this conversation anywhere else. You know—”
“I know. Weres can’t swim. You hate water.”
He wasn’t listening. Instead he was concentrating on dragging his wet mitt across the single dry patch on his pecs—once, twice, and—ah, there we go—three times—before he was satisfied that his hand was dry enough to plant on his narrow hip.
Now his chest gleamed in the most distracting way.
“You making any progress on getting these nightmares under control?” he asked.
“This isn’t my nightmare.”
“Tinker Bell, if this was one of my dreams, you’d be naked and we’d be in bed. This is one of your nightmares. I’m standing in the middle of some damn millpond that the Fae consider healing and sacred, without a gun, a knife, or an Uzi. You’re under the cherry tree, looking like…”
He let his gaze casually roam. First to my mouth, where it lingered on my upper full lip, then slowly down the line of my white throat, from there to the hollow that he’d kissed, and finally to my breast, where it rested for a heated moment or two.
There went his nostrils. Flared as if he could scent me.
“Don’t stare at me like that,” I whispered, flattening a hand over my stomach.
“Like what?” His hooded eyes glittered.
As if your gaze were leaving a trail of heat on my skin. As if I were the sexiest thing you’d ever seen. As if you—
“You are. You are my fuckin’ catnip,” he said simply. “And I’m getting beyond tired of the whole ‘look but don’t touch’ torture. Come to me, right now. Walk down that hill and meet me in this goddamn pond.”
Eyes the color of the Mediterranean challenged me. Not the soft warm hue of shoreline shallows—with its mellow hints of turquoise and green—no, more like the saltwater just past that, where the sea is deep and filled with unexpected currents.
Now, they demanded.
I took an unsteady step toward him and then … found myself wobbling, my balance destroyed. I could not move forward one more inch. My muscles seemed frozen, incapable of the slightest task. No matter how I willed myself, no matter how I struggled.
With a ragged breath, I retreated. “I can’t, Trowbridge. She won’t let me join you.”
“I’ve told you. There is no such thing as Karma. All you need to—”
“I can’t! I cheated her when I pushed you through the Gates of Merenwyn. This is Karma’s revenge. She brings us together every night, and she won’t let me move.”
He shook his head once, sharply, in denial. “She doesn’t exist.”
Anger momentarily tightened his features. Then he assumed control, taking in a long, slow breath. “Okay. We’ll just talk about the weather for a bit. So, is it fall in Creemore yet? All the trees are yellow here.” His gaze traveled as he spoke. A soft hiss of air escaped his lips. “God, I wish you could see what’s behind you.”
I can’t. I’m stuck in my head. Just a dreamwalker without a true body, my gaze somehow fastened on you, as if you were the quavering needle on my compass, watching you and knowing that I won’t be able to—
“Mannus was right about one thing: this slice of heaven has never met a douchebag with a chain saw. Most of it’s virgin forest.” His head swiveled left, then right, his brow furrowed. “That’s the thing about Merenwyn. The land’s whole in this realm. You can taste it—pure and clean—on your tongue. The wind smells—”
“Sweet,” I whispered. “It’s the magic in the air.”
“Maybe. Mostly it smells clean without the humans polluting the place. They smell, and they don’t even know it. Their accessories are worse. Their cars, their barbecues, their—”
“You liked driving.”
He frowned, as if surprised he’d forgotten that. “Yeah, I did.” Then with a light shrug, he pointed to a hill at least a mile in the distance to his left. “There’s some whitetails up there. Smell them?” I shook my head to remind him—I’m only half Were, my little Fae nose isn’t as keen as yours, Trowbridge—but his eyes had become slits, predator sharp; his concentration turned to fix on the quarry in the forest. “One of the bucks is rubbing his antlers against the bark of a tree. Hear it? He’s telling all the other bastards to keep out of his way. He’s chosen his doe.” He listened for a bit, his face rapt. “There’s so much game up in those hills.”
His nose is perfect. Long and straight. Not misshapen and bleeding.
Trowbridge rubbed his shoulder and stared thoughtfully at the narrow lane that had been cut into the old woods. “How long do we have before the Fae come?”
“They won’t come tonight.”
He blew some air through his teeth. “They always come. How about giving me a crossbow to fire back at them?”
“I…” My voice trailed off.
“Can’t or won’t,” he finished quietly. “That’s our basic problem. You keep making decisions without consulting me first.”
Not fair, Trowbridge.
The trees behind him swayed, their leaves rustling and parting to reveal the glint of the sinking sun: a yellow-orange ball of fire, as luminous as one of Threall’s brightest soul lights.
He lifted his nose to the wind. “Wait … something’s on the wind.”
Not yet, don’t let the guards come yet. Just a little longer.
Another inhale, deep enough to flare his nostrils and lift his pecs. “Someone’s burning something in the hearth … peat? Yeah, I’d say it’s peat. Wouldn’t it be better to have this conversation beside a cozy, warm fire?”
“You know what burning peat smells like, huh?”
“I’m a figment of your imagination, kid. So, basically, I know everything you know. Hear your thoughts, too.” He began a slogging march through the hip-deep water. Six paces to the left, a sharp turn, and eight paces to the right. With each lurching step, the pool’s water level rose and fell on the high-water line on his tawny skin. One step and the water was up to his waist, drowning his hands, with the next, it had lapped away, providing a coy glimpse of the soft swell of his ass.
The yearning to touch him began to grow again. Long roots had my desire—like weeds growing between cobblestones.
Trowbridge shook his head. “You know, the only bearable bit in the first twenty pages of The Highland Warrior’s Mistress was the news that burning peat smells like scorched dirt. One day, I’m going to toss a handful of peat moss on a campfire, just to see if it does. Probably doesn’t.”
“Why are we talking about this?”
“I’m telling you, I’m well past done with that romance shit. Seriously, who calls his woman ‘my sweet wee lassie’?” Water churned behind him in swirling eddies. “The next time you send Biggs to Barrie to satisfy your book binge, let the poor bastard come home with a few thrillers. Lee Child, Robert Crais, maybe an Ian Rankin or two. I don’t know how he stands going through the checkout line at Walmart. Why don’t you go buy your own books?”
Because you might come back while I’m gone.
“Not going to happen unless you’ve suddenly remembered the words to summon the portal. How’s that going?” He paused in his pacing, his head shifted to one side, his eyes cast down, seemingly intent on something beneath the surface of the water.
Over and over, I’ve tried. The Gates of Merenwyn are summoned by song. One with very specific lyrics. Which I couldn’t remember for the life of me.
When I didn’t speak, he sighed, the way men do when they’re trying to be patient—through the nose, teeth lightly clenched, jaw hard, impatience a stretched, jagged shadow behind his façade of tolerance. Very softly, too softly, he said, “If I can’t find a way home, you’re going to have to take your role as Alpha a whole lot more seriously.”
“I am taking it seriously. I sign stuff. I—”
“For starters, calling yourself their Alpha-by-proxy is just asking for it. The pack has zero sense of humor about shit like that. Can’t you see it’s messed up, the way you approach the pack? For us, it’s always about status. Who’s higher than me, who’s lower than me.” Water sprayed as my mate swept his arm to demonstrate his point. “You can never let your guard down. You must act, think, and smell like top dog … not…” He scratched his ear.
A Fae? “I’m doing my best to hold on to your pack but being a leader doesn’t come naturally. Until you come home, they’ll just have to make do with me. It won’t be for much longer anyhow. Sooner or later, I’ll find a way to get you home.”
“Sooner or later one of them is going to challenge you for leadership,” he said.
For a bit, neither of us said anything. Trowbridge swished water through his fingers. I watched a dark smudge in the far distance, winging its way toward us. A bird. Long wings, torpedo-shaped body. Perhaps a duck, but they never flew alone.
“I have my flare,” I said.
The bird dipped low, skimming the tree line. An emerald-green cap, a flash of gray and white.
“You have to turn into your wolf, Tink. They have to believe that you are one of them.”
“It’s a really good flare.”
Wings beating furiously, the mallard came in for a landing. It reared back, wings arched, feet thrust forward. A splash and then a long glide. The duck preened its feathers, then paddled sideways to give us a bird glare from its beady eye, before it swam to the end of the pool where the water was murky and the trees hung low.
“Friend of yours?” Trowbridge asked.
I scanned the sky but it was night-gray and heavy, and as far as my gaze could sweep, I could not spot another dark smudge. “Shoo,” I said to the mallard. “Go find your mate before winter sets in.”
Trowbridge watched the bird, his lips twisted. “Let it go, Hedi.”
“Tell me about your life there,” I asked softly. “Have you found Lexi yet?”
He shook his head, ever stubborn. “It’s moontime there, isn’t it?”
“Tomorrow.” Three nights of hell. “How’d you know?”
“You’re more anxious around the full moon. That’s when the worst dreams come.” Trowbridge’s shoulders flexed as he spread his arms wide. He bent his head, his fingers skimming the surface—seemingly poised for a dive.
Don’t. Not yet.
Water curled up to his navel and then dipped back. “Have you heard from the NAW yet?”
The letter came this morning. I didn’t explain how the air in the trailer had thickened with the sharp spice of Were anxiety after Harry, Cordelia, and Biggs had taken their turns reading it. But then again, in my dreams, I didn’t need to.
His wince was the type that happens before a trigger is reluctantly squeezed. And for a second, it was all there. Despair worn down to weary acceptance, fatigue etched into bone weariness—the visual equivalent of a heavy sigh if my Trowbridge was a man given to such things. But he was not. He wiped out the bad and replaced it with a smile that promised hell and havoc. “I have to get out of this pool.” My mate started walking toward me, the sound of the churning water loud to my ears. “I’m coming out now. We need to—”
“No!” I closed my eyes. “One thousand, two—”
“Shit! Stop with the counting!”
“Three thousand, four—”
“It’s freaking annoying. Hedi,” he called, his tone sharp and demanding. “Open your eyes and look at me. I’m good now. There’s no scars on my chest or wrists. No silver in my gut. I’m healed.”
“Five thousand, six—”
“That’s it, I’m coming out of this water right now,” he promised, the sound of his splashing progress getting louder, closer.
My eyes popped open. “No! You have to stay in the Pool of Life.”
If anything he moved faster. “Dammit, I’m healed!”
“No! Every time you walk out of it, you die!” Acid began rising in my throat.
“I’d rather die on dry land!” he shouted back.
The wind came from nowhere. It whistled through the trees—frost tipped and javelin sharp—and whipped the water into a vengeful chop. It thrashed the trees and shredded their leaves. The remnants came in a whirl, a veritable barrage of dead and broken things; dry whispers of brown, bright flickers of yellow and red. They swirled and danced over my lover’s head.
He hunched his shoulders as he batted them away. “Hedi, you’re going to blind me with these damn things! I need to see! Chill. I mean it! Close your eyes and think of something else.”
I did. I covered my eyes and thought of something easy, but in the landscape of my dreaming mind, the wind still moaned.
“Okay, okay. Shh, sweetheart, I’ve got you,” he whispered in my ear. “Breathe deep. Steady now. It’s a dream. That’s all it is.” A sigh—I swear I felt his warm breath on my face and the soft press of his lips to the peak of my ear.
“Please, Tink, go back to sleep. Dream of Krispy Kremes and napoleons, not of me.”
Strangely obedient, my fist tightened on something soft and giving, perfumed very faintly of Trowbridge. I rubbed my cheek on its cotton softness, but as I wrapped my arms around it, a keening part of me registered the lumpy contours of my pillow.
“Sweet dreams, little one.”
Arm shielding my eyes, I rolled over, feeling the sheets catch on my hip.
Gray light in my bedroom. The floor-to-ceiling cabinet holding my clothes and his, reassuringly within arm’s reach. Good. Now wake yourself up, fully. Get out of bed for some water. Go for a pee. Move. But I didn’t. I lay there, drowsy and bereft, hovering on the brink of dread.
You see? I couldn’t leave him. I never could.
My eyes closed again all on their own.
In those brief seconds of semiwakefulness, time had passed. Merenwyn’s sun had fallen; its golden light given way to the silver shimmer of the stars. Fall had yawned, and trundled off for bed. Gone were the bands of vivid gold, the touch of crimson in the hills. Winter chill was in the air and, save for the firs, the trees in the vista were bare. Viewed from a distance, the horizontal swaths of their gray-taupe trunks and naked branches seemed to be a gray fog wreathing through the vertical spikes of the sharp-tipped evergreens.
Almost like Threall seen from a bird’s-eye view, I thought.
The pond was empty, save for the man I could not rescue.
Trowbridge’s back was goosefleshed and bluish in the cold. “Back so soon?” he asked, without turning. The muscles on his back pulled and stretched as he folded his arms.
“Karh! Karh!” warned a distant raven.
My mate cocked his ear, and took a step toward the deep part of the pool. “You should be dreaming of better things than this, Tink.” Water crept to his waist as he took another resolute step toward the drop-off. “Why do you do this to yourself? Always come back for the end? Why?”
“I don’t want you to die alone.”
“You should have checked the fine print of the mating bond. Our destinies will always be connected.” His gaze was fixed on the road leading out of the forest. “I told you a Were should never cross the portal. Nothing good’s going to come of it.”
“I had no choice.”
“You did. You could have had the courage to let me go. Instead, you broke the treaty. The Fae will come,” he said with a cold certainty that made me feel all kinds of awful.
The Fae have come. It used to be that I’d meet you every night and now I’m never sure who I’m going to meet in my slumber. Mad-one and some old Fae keep slipping into my dreams. Am I starting to go mad, too? Because that’s what mystwalkers do. We lose our marbles.
Numbly, I watched my lover draw a shape in the water with his hand. A backward S curve slid into an upside-down one, as Trowbridge carved a figure eight reclining on its side, infinitely graceful. “I’m tired of this,” he murmured softly. “Why does it always have to come down to a fight?”
As I’m tired of it. The welling guilt, the sharp bite of desire, the low swell of longing, the growing acid of fear.
“I’ll change into my wolf tomorrow night, Trowbridge. I promise.”
But he’d lifted his ear sharply to something only he could hear, and then he quietly asked, his breath misting in the cold air, “What could I say to make you leave now?”
That you’re coming home. That you forgive me.
“You ask for the moon, Hedi Peacock.” A snowflake fluttered from the sky to land on his shoulder with a frozen kiss. It lay there, a perfect crystal that did not melt. The raven issued another volley of urgent krahs, and then, over its sharp cry, came the sound of horses being ridden in haste. I heard the hollow drumming of hoofs on hard earth and the long metallic slither of silver swords being drawn.
Trowbridge swiveled his head to look at me. Blue eyes piercing. “These visits have to stop. It just makes things harder. You need to face the fact that I’m never going to find my way back.” Then, his jaw hardened. “Now go home, Hedi. Don’t watch this.”
The sound was getting louder.
All I could hear, those drumming hooves.
The muscles of his neck moved as he swallowed. “It’s time for my swim.”
My Trowbridge dived into the depths of the Pool of Life, hands pressed like in a prayer, just as the first arrow soared through the air.
Why do I keep making promises?
“It’s easier if you’re nude when you do it,” Cordelia said.
“What is it with you Werewolves?” I flapped away a mosquito. October in Creemore and the bugs were still hungry. “You’re always looking for any excuse to walk around naked.”
It was getting dark, but I could still witness her left eyebrow rise into a truly impressive arch. “Do I walk around nude? Have you ever seen me without clothes?”
“If anyone had, I’d be three hundred and seventy-five bucks richer,” said Biggs from the other side of the cedars.
“Haven’t you and your ‘bros’”—her throaty voice stretched the word out in one long vowel of dismissal—“anything better to do with your pennies?”
“Hey, Cordelia, inquiring minds want to know.”
I knew where this was going. They couldn’t say “pass the salt” without sarcasm and disdain hitching a ride on the saltshaker.
All our nerves were shot tonight. Yesterday morning a letter had arrived from Reeve Whitlock, head of the Council of the North American Weres. It had looked innocuous enough. Plain envelope, a Canadian stamp affixed crookedly in the corner. Inside was this piece of news: a formal request from the NAW for our accounts books and notification of a meeting, set for the middle of next week. The prospect of an audit should have produced an eye roll from Cordelia and a heavy sigh from Harry.
But Harry had said, “It’s a smokescreen. They’re laying a paper trail down so that they can sew it up neatly later for the Great Council. Whitlock’s ironed out whatever problem kept him from sticking his nose into our business and now he’s coming for us.”
Cordelia had refolded the letter and slid it back into its plain white envelope. Then she’d turned and stared out the dinette window, her carefully painted mouth a long grim slash. “It couldn’t have gone on much longer,” she said. “We all knew that.”
Six months ago, my aunt Lou had killed Mannus, the former Alpha of Creemore. As crowns for the furry are a matter of lineage and ability, my mate, Robson Trowbridge, had stepped into the position. Well, technically, he’d been shoved into it as he’d been borderline comatose in those desperate moments following his sudden ascension.
I had a choice: save his life or watch his death.
I’m always going to put my money on life.
Anyhow, for the last six months, I’d assumed the role of Alpha-by-proxy, which meant I was “leading” the Weres of Ontario in his absence. Basically the job boiled down to signing stuff. And smiling a lot. And pretending to look like I understood what was going on, when usually I felt about fifteen minutes behind the conversation.
It was hard to keep focused. My brain kept drifting from topic to topic because I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in … Fae Stars. Eight months? It was bad enough watching Trowbridge die night after night. But now my nightmares pulled me into Threall. And to that room with the old wizard and Mad-one.
Cordelia snapped, “Tell Biggs to keep his eyes straight ahead.”
Tetchy, wouldn’t you say?
Maybe I should have chosen a place up in the hills to do this, instead of the forgotten part of the cemetery. But only the most intrepid Creemore wolf would willingly put a paw in this portion of the graveyard, because wolves are, on the whole, superstitious, and—get this—scared of anything supernatural. Ghost stories? They wouldn’t read them. Hell, R. L. Stine novels are banned in the halls of St. Hubert of Liege’s School of Learning.
Yup, the pack wasn’t much keen on the woo-woo. Even though I’ve never met a Were who’s seen a spook, the entire pack had formed the opinion that their final hunting ground was infested with spirits and avoided it like the plague. They wouldn’t even take a leak on the cedar shrubs that lined the cemetery and that’s when they were dog stupid and wolf keen to mark territory.
Yeah, I know. It makes me smile, too.
Truth was, there were only three ghosts as far as I could see. The fussy duet who lived at the newer end of Creemore’s St. Luke cemetery kept to themselves, hovering close to the marker of CAROL’S DEARLY BELOVED HUSBAND DWAYNE (1899–1993), while the single spirit who lived in the oldest part—a female ghost who seemed to have a strange fixation on me—always stayed behind the low crumbling stone wall that surrounded her tiny pocket of the cemetery. I’m thinking stalker-ghost was once an outsider, too, because her final resting spot was on the wrong side of the rotting picket fence that once had delineated what was sacred land from that which was not.
What had she been? A suicide?
Whatever she’d been, they’d hated her enough to put two barriers—a fence and a stone wall—around her earthly remains. Seemed unfair. As spirits go, yes, she was a bit of a stalker—snoopy as hell in a very unnerving, focused sort of way—but on the whole, she was quiet, verging on shy. The one time I’d snuck up to say hey, she’d taken off, her shroud wreathing around her in a very cool way. Mostly, she flitted from one end of her corral to the other. She never left it.
That’s why we were doing this whole cloak-and-dagger business on this side of the old barrier—the safe side—where there were only five little headstones for five dead babies, and three tall pines, and yeah—one blurry-edged ghost. I considered explaining all this to Cordelia but her teeth were set on presnarl and conversations in the face of that scowl inevitably unraveled. Besides, she’d screwed up her courage to do this here, the one place we could count on not being bothered. Kind of took away from her bragging rights if I told her that the only person watching this besides Biggs was a skittish spook.
“How can I guard you guys if my eyes are straight ahead?” Biggs made a hole in the greenery and grinned through it. He could well be cocky; he was on the other side of the hedge that separated the cemetery from the pack’s gathering field. “Someone could sneak up along the cliff path and ambush you.”
Cordelia reached for her hoop earring. She could have been getting undressed for the moon-call, but it was equally possible she was getting ready to inflict a course correction on my pack’s third.
“No one is going to ambush us,” I said, with more optimism than I felt. “Biggs, keep your eyes peeled for any Were who somehow managed to misinterpret my warning not to show up until the moon has completely risen.”
“Not if you keep spying on what’s happening on this side of the hedge.”
“A good Were should have eyes and ears on the back of his head,” he intoned. “He should sense when a—”
“That wasn’t a suggestion, Biggs. That was an order.”
There, the Alpha-by-proxy had spoken. All hail Hedi.
Biggs subsided behind the screen of cedars. He was the only Were I felt comfortable ordering about. If they were all as simple to control as my friend on the other side of the bush, I’d be—
“Clothing,” repeated Cordelia.
It was nippy. Not quite cold enough to frost my breath—mouth breathing being required because Biggs was smelling kind of funky. Blame it on the moon. On a regular day, Weres have a distinctive aroma to them—fresh air, woods, earth, maybe with a touch of fox—but during the three nights of the full moon their scent turned nose-twitching raunchy.
Faes don’t have a scent.
This is just one of the many distinctions between Faes and Werewolves. Those born two-natured change at the moon’s call. Fae do not. We make ourselves a cup of cocoa and go to bed early. We may even clamp a pillow over our head so that we don’t hear all those dog whines and choked barks escaping from the morphing snouts of the young cubs who don’t know any better. I guess because I’m half Were I should admit that once in his wolf state, a Werewolf is not the fiend over which picture books dwell and little children quail. No one in my pack is the type of slathering beast dreamed up by the special-effects department on a Hollywood lot. Once turned, my Weres actually look like large wolves. Some of them are pretty, some of them are sort of ratty looking, but all of them are furry.
Fae are never furry.
And here’s a final fact: we don’t walk around nude in public. Did I say that already? Well, let me say it again. We do not prance around buck naked no matter what stage the moon is in.
I’ve got to stop thinking of myself as a Fae.
Cordelia stood tall, her head tipped back, allowing the moon’s light to touch her face with silver fingers that must have felt damn good, judging by the discreet shudder that went through her bony frame.
A cool wind whistled through the trees.
My roommate flicked a glance toward the three pines that anchored the edge of the ridge, and then visibly recentered herself.
“Go away,” I mouthed to the glowing shadow flitting from pine tree to pine tree.
Stalker-ghost melted behind the nearest pine. But half a second later, her head—nothing more than an indistinct, wavering bluish blur capped by floating serpent trails of long hair—popped out from around the trunk.
“Are you paying attention?” said Cordelia, a tetch acidly.
“A hundred percent,” I said.
“The more light you let on your skin, the faster you will change.” Cordelia began to unbutton her shirt. For the last few months, I’d shared a twenty-seven-foot trailer with her, but this was the first time I’d seen her disrobe. I didn’t want to be able to report on whether or not she had a full package, even if there was three hundred and seventy-five bucks riding on it. But she’d offered to show me the ropes. Or maybe it had been another group decision. I tried to remember. She cleared her throat and narrowed her eyes at me, bringing me back from yet another mental detour.
I didn’t have any buttons. I hauled my cotton sweater up and over my head, and then looked for a dry place to place it. Suppressing a shiver, I bent to drape it over poor little Samuel’s thin, worn marker (1744—1745, BELOVED SON).
“Are you hurrying?” Biggs’s voice was strained. “I don’t know how much longer I can hold on.”
“He’d bloody well better hold,” Cordelia muttered as she unzipped her skirt. “One of us needs to be in two-legged form to escort you back to the trailer if this doesn’t work.”
Did they really think it had come to that? Unseen danger all around me? Ever since that damn letter arrived, I couldn’t even walk to the compost pile without an escort.
Cordelia was down to her underwear. She had no waist. None. I could count her ribs under her dead-white skin. She looked at me steadily, and then her lip twisted into a lopsided sneer as she reached behind her back for her bra fastenings.
I partially turned away from her and stared at a tree as I fumbled with the rest of my clothing. I owed her more than I could ever repay. The least I could do was grant her privacy as she shed her adopted sexual identity. As I slid my jeans down to my ankles, I heard the soft friction of fabric on skin and out of the corner of my eye I saw something light and lacy land by Cordelia’s feet.
A few feet over to my left, beyond the cedar hedge, I could Biggs bouncing on the balls of his feet in jittery anticipation. “You’ll have to hurry, the Chihuahua is getting anxious,” Cordelia said. I shed the rest of my clothing, with the last item—one medium pair of Hanes pink cotton panties—landing on Absolom (1746—1747, LAMB OF GOD). Folding my arms over my chest, I turned back to Cordelia.
She was facing the moon. Her raised arms were outstretched, as if she were trying to embrace it. “You can feel its call inside you,” she said in a husky murmur. “The moon will summon your inner wolf. Let its warmth run over your skin. Trust your body. Trust your instincts. Trust the moon.” My roommate snapped me a look over her shoulder. “You have to surrender to it, Hedi. You can’t go through another moon without showing your other nature. You have to give it to us. Or there—”
“Won’t be any ‘us,’” I filled in.
“Come hold my hand. Feel it through me.”
Sometimes I wondered just who was the minion and who was the Alpha-by-proxy. I tiptoed over, readjusted one arm to cover my boobs, and reluctantly bared my nether regions to reach for the large, well-manicured hand extended my way.
Cordelia lifted our clenched hands to the moon. “Can you feel it?”
I could feel the cold. I could feel the dampness of the ground under my bare feet. I could feel embarrassed and incompetent and all sorts of esteem-lowering thoughts, but I couldn’t feel the moon.
“Good.” She tipped her head really far back, so far I could see her Adam’s apple. “Now, let it happen.”
She held my hand tight, even as she started to change, as if, what? As if she could pour a little of her Werewolf essence into me? I felt her skin start to move, courtesy of the bones beginning their stomach-churning, morph-into-a-canine thing. Kind of gross. She pulled me down with her as she fell on her knees.
I slid my hand out of hers, my skin crawling in an all too mortal way at the feel of hers moving under my grip.
A light low moan slipped from her lips, just before she thudded onto her side in her chosen bed of fragrant maple leaves. The tight, well-moisturized skin stretched across her cheekbones began to look like a pot of bubbling cream of chicken soup. Blip, blip. Blip, blip. Things were twitching underneath. I’d seen that before, when Trowbridge had started his change. Cordelia’s bones started to chitter as they broke and shortened and lengthened and narrowed and did all that horrendous skeleton-shifting stuff they needed to do to accommodate a two-footed being turning into a four-legged creature.
I turned my head away. She’d only just begun if her bones sounded like castanets.
Join them, I told myself. Be one of them.
My inner-bitch was restless. She kept pacing inside me and leaking distress into my bloodstream. I heard a whimper. A small whine. I looked around for its source, and then—oh Goddess—realized it was me. That was good, wasn’t it? I’d whined. Was the change going to start with my jaw? Was it elongating? I opened my mouth wide—another deep-throated whine slipped out—and tested it, contorting my jaw from its habitual position of just hanging there below my lip waiting for the next cookie to come its way into something more resembling a hungry alligator. I held it like that until my saliva dried on my teeth.
Sea-slurping noises came from Cordelia’s bed of leaves.
I am Were.
There, thinking that wasn’t half as bad as I thought it would be.
I am Were.
Inside, my inner-bitch grew frantic. She kept bouncing off the ball of Fae magic that sat in my gut beside her, and each time she did, my magic sparked, adding sharp exclamation points of Fae annoyance to the internal writhing that was going on. I pressed both hands flat across the swell of my stomach. Goddess, now that I’d given her full leave to explode, my inner-Were was past mortal logic, past even rudimentary communication with me, her half-bred host. She was all panting “go, go, go” like a pooch who’d spied a squirrel.
“Let’s do this without smacking my Fae, okay?” I whispered, darting an anxious glance at Cordelia. “Leave her alone.”
“Hedi?” asked Biggs in a strained voice from the other side of the hedge. “Is there trouble?” Two shaking hands parted the shrubbery. The moon was working its mojo on him. His jaw was longer and his mouth a misshapen, stretched thing.
I slapped my hand on his forehead and shoved his heated face back through the cedars. “Stay there!”
“Okay,” he mumbled.
My Were did another lunge inside me. This time she hit my ball of Fae head-on, and I experienced the sudden exhilarating leak of its magic into my blood. My mother’s gift raced up through my heart, built into a pressure at my throat, divided at my collarbones, and then ran hot, a stream of sizzling glee surging through my veins until it came to my hand where it split into fragments that fattened the ends of my fingertips.
“Crap,” I said, flexing my swollen digits. I hadn’t accessed my Fae magic once over the summer. No, not because of the threat of payback pain, or even my halfhearted promise to Cordelia to “keep it canned, darling.” It was the fear that I would hear my Fae in my head again. Feel her inside me, functioning like a separate entity.
She’d been curiously quiet, too. Not like gone-fishing quiet. More like she’d been drowsing, with one eye open; a dragon trying to figure out if it was worth rousing itself from its warm hearth. I’d felt her faint interest, but she’d been acquiescent.
Now, she was alive in me.
Was she jealous because I’d given my Were full leave?
Wait a minute—was I seeing things differently? I blinked. Yes, things were sharper; no longer being admired for their relative shiny qualities. They were being judged, rapid fire, with pitiless eyes—useful or not?
Cordelia’s wolf yawned.
Thin threads of speculation swirled in my consciousness as my cool gaze lingered over the Were finishing his transformation on his bed of leaves. I found myself looking at him with—what’s the word? Objectivity? Acuity? Like a smart person intent on untangling a knot. A conscious being tryingto—
Oh Goddess, trying to figure out how to become top dog in Hedi Incorporated.
Magic, magic, mine, crooned a voice inside me.
Aw shit, Fae-me was articulating now.
“Shut up!” I muttered as I probed inward, searching for my Were-bitch, hoping—okay, beyond hoping—that she might give her gut-living roomie a good bite on the butt. But no, she didn’t come loping to my rescue. Hear-me-howl slunk off and curled herself into a shivering ball low in my belly. “Hey!” I hissed. “You woke her up, you help me deal with this.”
“Heeddii,” moaned Biggs. “You neeeeed me?”
“No!” My dominant Fae magic sang in my blood, impatient for release. Gone—if there had ever been enough—was the shape-shifting magic I needed to release my inner-Were. I pressed my hands to my belly and felt my muscles tense under their soft layer of padding.
“Come back,” I whispered to my wolf. “We’ll fight her together. We need to push past this.” I ran my hands upward, past the dip of my belly button. Birthed by a Fae, sired by a Were. You’d think I could do both. Shift when the moon called, even as my Fae magic leaked into my bones. Yet it always seemed to go the other way. Fae trying to overwhelm the Were. And now the Merenwynian entity was trying to strong-arm a Stronghold.
Tune the Fae out. Focus on the change.
But there were so many distractions—the aftersmell of Cordelia’s change, and now all around me in a Were cloud, the new scent of her wolf. More like a he, now that she’d shed her perfume-drenched clothing and changed into her wolf form. And Biggs. The shrubbery was no screen against his sharp anxious stink.
But worse was the fear. My damn fear.
It whispered to me. What if my Fae took control of all my functions? Gained the ability to walk? To talk? To kill?
I didn’t waste time pushing my Fae back into my bowels, I brought the shields down on her with all the fear and desperation I had, and encased her with a layer of my will.
Hold, Hedi. Don’t let go.
Then I started counting. Because that’s what I do.
By the time I hit forty-two, I was mortal-me again. Just plain, somewhat detached, Hedi Peacock-Stronghold. Looking around me, noting that the scent of flowers had faded to a thin melancholy note, listening to that not-so-helpful internal voice yapping away. I almost let her out again. What havoc would my Fae have done around all these unsuspecting animals?
It wouldn’t have been pretty.
I stared down into the honey-brown eyes of Cordelia’s wolf. Her fur looked damp. I shrugged, and tried to tack a smile on my face. Her head canted to the side. She was very steady on four feet. Her massive sleek white head was just a few inches below mine.
“Still me,” I said.
The silver-white wolf woofed in reply. I don’t speak wolfish, but still, I got it. A definite “no shit.”
“Biggs, shift,” I said, getting to my feet. I heard him whine, and then a series of rips, indicating he’d forgone stripping down before his change. It didn’t take long. When he’d finished and come to nudge my fingers with his wet snout through the cedars, I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s not going to happen. Not ever.”
Cordelia barked at me. Sharp. One bark. Just a warning salvo; a reminder that later, if we survived this night, I’d hear a longer string of human words, which would accumulate into one long-assed speech about perceived threats and my slacking off in pack responsibilities.
“Once I’m dressed, I’ll send the pack off for their moon-run. Then I’ll go straight back to the trailer.”
The white wolf stared at me.
“Come on, Cordelia. The pack’s not going to hurt me. It’s the guys outside Creemore we have to worry about and we’ve got a few days before they come and mess with us.”
For the space of another dog pant from Biggs, she considered me—and part of me wondered if she could see the shadow of my Fae. Then she turned, and streaked through the Hedi-sized hole in the hedge. A second later, a short dark wolf erupted out of the dark and gave chase. Biggs got in one nip to her tail before he shot past her and disappeared over the ridge.
They knew what I had to do next.
I was grateful that I’d been given privacy to do it.
Copyright © 2013 by Leigh Evans.
Learn more about or pre-order a copy of The Thing About Weres by Leigh Evans before its July 30 release:
Leigh Evans was born in Montreal, Quebec but now lives in Southern Ontario with her husband. She’s raised two kids, mothered three dogs, and herded a few cats. Other than that, her life was fairly routine until she hit the age of 50. Some women get tattoos. Leigh decided to write a book. A little tardy, but then again, her mum always said she was a late bloomer.