The main difference between waking up after your brain taps out from one bottle of Jack Daniels too many and being struck by a smooth werewolf into unconsciousness is the brutal lucidity that follows. Upon breaching consciousness, my first natural instinct was to blindly search for the nearest open container of alcohol before reality could start kicking in and kill my buzz.
When neither bottle nor can made contact with my face, it was only then that I realized that my hands were ziptied behind my back. And that was promptly followed by me remembering with startling clarity that I had been taken hostage by werewolves and, even worse, I was drop dead sober.
For whatever reason, the instant I acknowledged my soberness was the moment my body chose to remind me that Dom had basically stone skipped my ass across the parking lot. If I didn’t currently look like a twitching lump of roadkill I sure as hell felt like it. At least there was something of a silver lining in that since, albeit painful and disconcerting, the twitching was a good sign.
Either I was one lucky son of a gun or Dominic was secretly a big ol’ softie underneath the rage and the track suit. Not wanting to think too much about exactly how I had reached this wonderful chapter in my life where I was genuinely thankful for involuntary muscle spasms, I slowly peeled my eyes half-open and tried to get my bearings.
The werewolves’ den happened to be a gym. I was in an open, spacious room and there were blue, foam mats bordered by a perimeter of interlocking red mats covering the concrete floor. Several free standing punching bags were lined up against a mirrored wall and an assortment of sparring gear and pads had been placed in a neat pile at one corner of the room.
I was lying on a stack of folded tumbling mats pushed up against a wall diagonal to the front door. It was no secret that the Southeastern Coast Alpha owned several gyms. He was actually quite the celebrity, especially since his gyms offered self-defense classes to humans, defensive technique classes to police officers, and mediation classes for werewolves and humans, all taught by wolves in Dominic’s pack.
Being a celebrity apparently didn’t keep Dominic from dabbling in other, shadier pursuits like abducting innocent used car salesmen when it suited him. A gym wasn’t exactly the first place I’d think to stash someone I’d just assaulted and kidnapped, but then again what did I know?
From my makeshift futon, I could see that there were at least fifteen men loitering around the gym and it didn’t look like they were there to work up a good sweat. Despite nursing a possibly dislocated brain, I was picking up ripples of emotion from what could only be a portion of Dominic’s pack.
Although I didn’t focus on any one wolf, it wasn’t necessary; the room was practically electric with energy, creating a galvanizing current of excitement that was thrumming with the anticipation of violence. I spotted Dominic without even trying, my empathic senses snagged and pulled into the oppressive gravity of his Alpha magnetism.
His expression was deceivingly neutral and although his fury was no longer on the brink of violent eruption, it was still there, bubbling like magma beneath his composed exterior. With the predatory eagerness to spill blood buzzing in the air, I was one hundred percent certain that it was only due to Dominic’s overbearingly dominant presence that the antsy wolves hadn’t gone full beast mode and ripped me to shreds.
With that not-so-comforting thought in mind, I braced myself and tried to sit up using the least amount of skin, bones, and muscles (and vulgar expletives) possible. I barely managed but my movement caught Dominic’s attention and he turned away sharply from his conversion to look directly at me.
He placed a hand on the shoulder of the man he had been chatting with, excusing himself from the conversation and started to make his way across the gym. All talking stopped instantly as a roomful of glowing eyes followed the Alpha with unblinking intensity and if my skin didn’t look and feel like I had exfoliated with a cheese grater, I probably would have had goosebumps from the disturbing scene.
A man with a military buzz cut and a tightly clenched square jaw broke away from the group and fell in step behind Dominic, his luminescent blue gaze piercing into me with all the subtlety of a blowtorch. Resisting the urge to curl up in a fetal position and pretend that I was anybody but me, I hauled myself completely upright and found a stable position propped against the wall just as the two werewolves approached me. Determined to at least attempt to muster up some semblance of dignity, I spoke first.
“This may be my hemorrhaging brain talking but I can’t decide if this is a kidnapping or the most effective sales tactic to pressure someone into a gym membership I’ve ever seen.”
My voice came out shaky and rough as I was clearly rusty at this whole dignity thing. I cleared my throat obnoxiously loud and tried again. “Do I at least get a free t-shirt? I could really use something to soak up some of this blood leaking from my ears. It tickles but I smell burnt toast and I don’t think that’s a good sign.”
Dominic had been watching me with his convincing attempt at an emotionless mask until the moment I had started to speak. His blank expression twitched ever so slightly and I caught the wince before the Alpha could fix his poker face. I had to look pretty banged up to make a werewolf cringe. I’d definitely have to gloat about that feat later on, perhaps when the thought didn’t make my stomach clench and compress with enough pressure to make my next bowel movement diamond encrusted.
“I was thinking that I had hit you harder than I probably should have,” Dominic mused aloud, eyes fixed steadily on my face. “But if your mouth is still running then I didn’t do as much damage as I thought.”
He studied me a moment longer then shook his head, either in begrudging acceptance of my inability to shut up like any other halfway sane individual or, most likely, finally acknowledging the severity of my mental handicap.
“Here’s some free advice: don’t do your little mind tricks on an Alpha’s pack with the Alpha standing within striking distance. Had I not pulled back at the last minute, you’d have learned that lesson on your way into the grave.”
Frankly, I had nothing against taking free advice. I probably would have accepted it with a bit more gratitude though had it not sounded suspiciously like a threat. Trying to shuffle my scraped and swollen facial features into as close to a grateful expression as I could get but failing miserably, I nodded instead and instantly regretted it.
Gritting my teeth against the sudden surge of nausea and lightheadedness, I replied, “Got it. Thanks for the tip. The next time I get kidnapped by werewolves I’ll simply accept my fate like a good little hostage. Speaking of which, how long do you think this kidnapping is going to last? I left work without letting my boss know and he gets pissed when I try to use my paid time off for trivial things, like abduction.”
I had been doing a pretty good job of ignoring the taller man standing at Dominic’s right once I had caught on that my lack of acknowledgement seemed to be irritating the wolf, whom I could only assume was the Pack’s second in command. Perhaps there was some weird werewolf custom for the Alpha’s half-dead assault victim to introduce himself to the pack’s Beta.
I was willing to bet that Buzz Cut and I wouldn’t have had a whirlwind bromance even if I had bowed down before him and kissed his feet. Just call it a hunch. And although I was quite content to just pretend he wasn’t there, he was quick to snatch the opportunity to answer my question.
“That depends,” he said gruffly, scowling down at me with icy disdain. “I used your cell phone to call the witch-spawn and tell her that we’d babysit you until she came to pick you up. She hung up before I could tell her where we were and when I called back, it went straight to voicemail.”
The bitterness lingering in his tone –and the fact that he kept clenching and unclenching his right hand, as if pretending to crush my unprotected throat was some kind of mental stress ball to him– told me that for whatever reason, Buzz Cut blamed me for Desiree’s rude yet completely warranted behavior. I was catching so much of Dez’s flack today, I was beginning to wonder if I should just legally change my name.
“You better hope that she figures out where we are pretty soon.” Buzz Cut’s nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath. Something wicked flickered fleetingly in his eyes and he smiled like a smug shark, his mouth crammed full of teeth and malice. “Boss didn’t mean to but he got in one good hit. I already claimed the right to dish out the next one.”
There was something deeply disturbing about the sight of the grinning wolf filling his nose with the scent of my blood. I was so perturbed that he had violated me so intimately with a simple sniff and all without even offering to buy me dinner first that I almost missed the casually chiding response that came from somewhere beside me.
“Take it easy, Cassidy. Don’t forget, he’s not like us.”
The man who had been lounging next to the stack of mats I was sitting on– practically close enough to be my conjoined twin –without me having the faintest idea that he was there, stood up and stretched. I tried not to stare but the man not only materialized out of thin air but he was so out of place, which was saying a lot since we were in a room full of human faced wolves, that I couldn’t help it. On the surface, there wasn’t anything particularly special about him. He was an Indian man maybe in his early thirties with a full beard and long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail.
But in a room where aggression had seeped into the atmosphere like gasoline waiting for a spark, this man was a wellspring of serenity. If I hadn’t heard him speak to Buzz Cut, who he had addressed as Cassidy, I would have thought he was a ghost and not just because my current grasp on reality was questionable.
As a result of this empathic ability of mine that wasn’t really an ability so much as the remaining smear of crap left after scraping the bottom of the supernatural abilities barrel, I saw the world differently than other beings. Most people could experience the world in a vivid spectrum of colors and crystal clear clarity.
Yet for me, on the other hand, the world was completely muted and washed-out, like a photograph where most of the color had faded with age and time. I could see people as well as their emotions in full color; each emotional state corresponding with a distinct color although, depending on the person and the intensity, I could also experience emotions beyond simply seeing them.
So against the ubiquitous, depressingly gray backdrop of everyday life there is this constant pollution of intense colors from the people around me and the effect is visually overstimulating, like a nightmare in neon. To save myself the constant headaches and eye strain, I’ve learned how to tune out the distracting strobe lights of color if I focus hard enough, but I’ve found that irresponsible amounts alcohol is far more effective at dulling my empathic senses and unquestionably the more satisfying option.
I hadn’t noticed the Indian man simply because he had blended in so effortlessly with the room that had been bled of every hint of color. It was difficult but I forced myself to stop rudely staring at him and actually tried to see him instead.
As soon as I thought I caught a glimpse of something, a blinding light exploded into existence where the man should have been and, since I had skipped applying sunscreen directly to my eyes that morning, I had to quickly look away to avoid a nasty sunburn on my unprotected eyeballs. It was as if I was intently gazing at an endless wall of stadium lights and yet the only emotion I could accurately identity from him was a peace so profoundly subtle that I instinctively knew that I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of his state of mind.
“He wouldn’t survive being struck a second time and killing him wouldn’t help our current situation, only complicate it,” the man continued, slamming me full force back to the reality where he was just a wolf in human skin with an uncanny ability to make people completely unaware of his existence. He smiled knowingly at me, moving to where I wouldn’t have to bend my neck at a crooked angle to keep one eye on him lest he try to vanish without so much as a puff of smoke. “Have patience; she’ll be here.”
“Roshan is right,” said Dominic, cutting in with an impatient wave of his hand. “We don’t need any more complications.” He shot a look in Cassidy’s direction. “Stay focused.”
When Dom turned away, Cassidy tilted his head and glared daggers at Roshan before folding his arms across his chest, which did little to hide his tightly clenched fists. And just to show that he hadn’t forgotten who he was originally annoyed with, Cassidy speared me with a look that let me know, with absolute certainty, that he was mentally disemboweling me and reveling in the carnage.
“When Desiree gets here, I would keep that ‘witch-spawn’ comment that slipped out earlier to yourself,” I warned Cassidy, if only to distract myself from the feeling of phantom claws raking across my skin.
I wasn’t sure what possessed me to further goad the uptight werewolf but I had a hunch that blood loss and a minor case of brain damage was at least partly responsible. “I’m not saying that she’ll tear out your intestines like a magician pulling scarves out of his sleeve but I’m also not saying that I haven’t seen her do it to someone for saying something far less offensive.”
I suspected that my suddenly red faced friend would have had a few choice things to shout uncomfortably close to my face about that but I was saved from the impending verbal barrage by the sound of a car turning in to the gym’s parking lot. As if pulled with invisible strings by some unseen puppet master, every single wolf in the room jerked their head towards the door. I didn’t have to look to confirm that there was a familiar red jeep outside and not some gym member with extremely poor timing but I did it anyway.
The jeep parked directly in front of the door –rather than in an actual parking spot– and sat idling for an uncomfortable length of time. Music that was turned up loud enough to temporarily deafen even someone without superhuman hearing could be heard all the way into the gym before the engine finally turned off and the doors unlocked.
Desiree was humming the last few bars to the song that had been playing a moment ago as she exited her car with absolutely no sense of urgency, despite the fact that she had a roomful of her worst enemies trained on her every move thanks to the large, blind-less windows that had a clear view outside. She opened the front door and stepped into the room more like she was meeting with good friends for brunch at her favorite restaurant and less like she was walking into a hostage situation.
She was an African American woman of average height and build, and on first glance there was nothing that stood out about her that would peg her as anything other than what she appeared to be. That, however, was a well-crafted façade, one that I knew all too well how much effort she put into it. Sometimes a glimpse of that chilling otherness that she tried so hard to hide would manage to crest the surface in the form of a fleeting expression or how she struggled to fit into the world around her and those little slip ups generally didn’t bode well for anything that broke easily… like bones, for example.
Desiree strolled into Dominic’s gym like she owned the world, the universe, and was currently leasing time and space. The extreme display of arrogance raised the hackles of almost every male in the room and it wouldn’t have mattered to them that it was a subconscious byproduct of her dominant nature. Of course, she could have toned it down if she really wanted to but I reasoned that since she happened to be walking into an obvious trap orchestrated by werewolves who’d rather rip her throat out than have a civilized conversation with her, she should probably use any leverage available in her arsenal.
She stopped in the dead center of the room and slowly scanned from one side of the room to the other, expertly avoiding direct eye contact with everyone, including Dominic, until her gaze finally fell upon me. One of her eyebrows took a daring leap to her forehead and the carefree expression she chose to don for her entrance broke into a lazy, half-finished smirk.
“You look like hell,” she announced, smuggling hints of laughter into her words. “Forget to pay your gym membership fee?”
She was Creole and since English was not her first language, her accent was thick and pronounced. I’m sure someone with a better ear for language than me would be able to tell that she was from Louisiana just by hearing her speak but her accent just sounded like French to my untrained ears. I couldn’t even be too upset about Dez’s comment when her accent made telling me that I looked like crap sound like a compliment.
My shoulders sagged and relaxed as a tremendous weight lifted off of me, Dez’s presence allowing me a desperately needed moment of relief. I started to blurt out something that was embarrassingly comparable to tattling on Dominic and his pack of bullies but as I watched her amber eyes ignite to blazing gold, I clamped my mouth shut before I unintentionally started a bloodbath. Dez was a model of composure and had even lightheartedly teased me despite the precarious situation she had just waltzed into. However, the swagger and bluster were only a front for the sake of her hostile audience who would be looking for a weakness.
Her golden eyes told a different story though, and they were asking me something entirely different than the playful question she had verbalized. She wanted to know how badly I had been hurt. And, in turn, how many people needed to die until she was satisfied that the score was settled. The relief I had only got a small taste of was ripped from me all in an instant and my pounding headache came back with a vengeance. With their frustrating tendency to be unnecessarily melodramatic, werewolves were the undisputed William Shatners of the supernatural world and Dez was no exception.
She’d declare all-out war on Dominic and his pack just because I got a little scraped up. And while the violence and death would be an endearingly sweet gesture, it was also a really dumb idea that would most likely get us both killed. I could do just fine getting myself killed without her help, thank you very much. So even though I was the one whose skull had bounced across a parking lot, it seemed that I would have to be the levelheaded mediator in this daytime soap opera. Which meant that we had absolutely nothing to worry about… except for every possible way that this situation could go very, very wrong.
“No, of course not,” I finally replied to Dez, hoping that my facial features were properly arranged into a reassuring expression since my face was too numb for me to tell. “I keep telling them that my ass looks amazing in yoga pants but they still won’t let me wear them here. Their loss, really.”
Dez gave my face an assessing look, as if she didn’t believe my painfully pathetic effort to convince her that I wasn’t going to bleed out and die anytime soon. I attempted a small smile but even that trivial twitch of my mouth caused a cut on my lip to split wider and the smile ended up as a toothy grimace instead.
It was all I could do to let her know that the only immediate threat to my health was everyone in the room aside from herself, not my injuries. Her blazing gaze roamed over me for a moment longer, then she exhaled deeply and looked away. She wasn’t happy but she wasn’t going to disembowel anybody either. At least not yet.
Dez turned her attention to Dominic, keeping her eyes at his chin. Some of that earlier relief trickled back to me when Dez made it clear that she wasn’t going to meet the Alpha’s eyes in direct challenge. The fact that the two of them weren’t already burying their claws into each other was a testament to their self-control, considering how Dez had just strolled into the gym like the big wolf on campus.
With all the subtleness of a napalm strike, my dear friend had robbed me of the first place prize for pissing off the most werewolves just by waking up that morning with pee in her bladder and blood pumping through her heart. Every single wolf was on edge, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the edge in this instance wasn’t the brink of their humanity.
Sweat was pumping out of every pore on Cassidy’s face and his skin was flushed a remarkable shade of rage. I stole a glance at Roshan and, not surprisingly, I wasn’t sure what to make of his expression. Like everyone else in the room, his focus was on Desiree yet the look on his face seemed more inquisitive than angry, pensive even.
“I can understand why you’d hit Max,” Dez admitted, losing her smile as she spoke. “But I do not like it.”
Dominic’s blank expression remained unchanged but the red glow of his eyes seemed to intensify. That probably wasn’t a good sign. I had already seen the wrong end of Dominic’s temper today and I wasn’t too keen on being anywhere near him if he got to that point again in the near future. I had a feeling that Dez was trying to give being tactful and diplomatic a shot but she was a “maim first, ask questions later” kind of person which meant that this approach was doomed to fail and in spectacular fashion.
“We had an agreement and it didn’t include beating the daylights out of my friend or summoning me like I’m one of your leashed wolves. So I assume you have a good reason for pissing all over our truce and calling me out like this.”
Dominic’s tongue skimmed over his teeth before he chose to respond.
“You call it a truce but the way I see it, it was the Conclave butting into something that they had no business being involved with in the first place,” he snapped back in reply, projecting loud enough for everyone in the room to hear. “We had an agreement only because someone with a lot of power and not a lot of brains has a thing for psychotic pets and thought you’d be cute to keep around for entertainment.”
His lips curled into a sneer as he looked down his nose at her, an admittedly impressive feat considering that he was shorter than her.
“Had you been any other pack-less dominant wolf struttin’ around in my territory without my permission, I’d have killed you first chance I got and the Conclave wouldn’t have even wasted time batting an eye in my direction.”
Sometime during Dominic’s ranting, Desiree had started smiling again. A smile was never far from her face, but it wasn’t because she was a tremendously happy person. There was something extremely primal about baring one’s teeth at another person and Dez had a habit of doing it without realizing. On the other hand, the smug smirk that seemed to have been thoughtfully crafted just for Dominic made me think that she knew exactly how inappropriate her grinning was and how much it would rub Dominic the wrong way.
“You may have some clout with the Conclave just because you’ve kept your nose clean for a while but I don’t forget the past so easily,” Dom continued, all of his focus involuntarily narrowing in on Dez’s impudent grin. “A werewolf has decided to consume human flesh and those fools think that it’s one of my wolves. Rest assured, none of mine have eaten anything they shouldn’t have.”
Dez’s shoulders stiffened as Dominic’s heavy implications hit their intended mark.
“I know your history and I’ve heard all the stories. Human flesh isn’t just something you can up and quit without a craving here and there.” Dominic’s words had been whetted by contempt to optimum sharpness, and I could feel it almost as keenly as they sliced into Desiree with a sadistic precision that cut deep and true.
“So my question for you is,” he seethed past the cruel twist of his lips. “Was the taste of innocent flesh just as sweet as you remember, eh, loup garou?”
The Alpha was deliberately provoking Dez, trying to get a rise out of her that much was clear, and the moment he called Dez the thing she hates to be called even more than ‘witch-spawn’ was the moment I thought we were all about to suffer the consequences of his hubris. The delicate strings that held Desiree’s humanity in place came undone and her mask slipped down for just an instant.
I couldn’t brace myself fast enough and my vision blurred as the thick, corded cable of the invisible bond between us seized my mind and started to plunge down towards a hellish oblivion. The descent stopped almost as soon as it began and our bond snapped back into its proper place with whip-like quickness but the trauma was enough to have me gasping for air and beaded with cold sweat.
Blinking the last bit of blurriness away, I forced myself to check on how everyone else was handling the shock of catching a small glimpse of Desiree’s true nature. Only Dominic, Roshan, and Cassidy were on their feet. All of the other werewolves were on hands and knees in crouched positions, instinctively recoiling away from the bigger predator in the room.
Cassidy had the most inhuman expression flash frozen on his face and although every muscle in his body was tensed to maximum tautness, he somehow succeeded in vocalizing the seething animosity grinding against the walls of his throat as it reverberated past his bared teeth.
I had a mental list of noises that I’d prefer not to hear a werewolf make and the one Cassidy was currently making was now the entire list. After witnessing Cassidy’s reaction, I was justifiably shocked to see that Roshan and Dominic seemed to be rather calm in comparison, but that was before I noticed just how wide Roshan’s eyes were and how taunt the skin straining across Dom’s white knuckled fists was.
“Careful, Santora,” Desiree whispered breathily, perhaps so as not to rile anyone up any further, even though I don’t think that was something feasible at this point. “Our agreement may not mean much to you but it should.”
She paused, and although I was so proud of her for using her words instead of her claws, there was no telling what was going to come out of her mouth next, which worried me.
“Like you said, if I was anyone else, the Conclave wouldn’t have meddled,” she agreed in a quiet, deliberate tone. “I’m the reason we needed a truce. But it’s not to keep all of you from killing me. You know that I have the protection of the Conclave and they knew that it alone would be enough to keep you from trying to kill me.”
Dez’s tongue flicked across her lips and something in her jaw popped noticeably. “Which means, wolf, that the truce exists only to protect you all from me.”
The silence that followed her bold revelation was like a splash of cold water in my ears, startling and uncomfortable. Dominic’s expression finally cracked and anger flashed across his features as he visibly struggled to keep his eyes from meeting Desiree’s. If she noticed the Alpha’s difficulties, Dez didn’t acknowledge it, choosing to move forward with the conversation as if she hadn’t just verbally gut punched him.
“To answer your question,” she said, flatly, “hear my truth with your own ears: I didn’t do this thing that you are accusing me of. I didn’t kill or eat anyone.”
I got that oddly satisfying sensation of menthol and peppermint tingling in my pores that I get when someone is telling the truth and, seeing noses around the room lift into the air and inhale deeply, I really hoped that they were smelling what I was sensing.
“Who witnesses her Truth?” Dominic asked suddenly with perplexing urgency.
It took longer than I care to admit for me to realize that all eyes were on me and apparently that was my cue to say words next.
“I w-witness her Truth,” I stammered, unsure if that was the correct response and wondering why the words left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.
Apparently satisfied with my answer, Dominic nodded in my direction and addressed his Pack. “Desiree’s Truth has been witnessed. The Pack acknowledges her Truth. I acknowledge her Truth.”
While I shouldn’t have been surprised when one of Dom’s pack spoke up out of the blue, I think I just really wanted to believe that there was hope of escape from this never ending train wreck. A man with perfectly pomaded dark brown hair and wearing a light blue button down tucked into gray slacks quickly stepped forward the second Dominic finished speaking, as if he had been waiting for that very moment.
“I challenge her Truth,” he stated in a way that the words practically oozed out of his mouth. Something about the smooth confidence of his voice and his pompous looking designer bowtie made me wonder if he accepted the title of Duke of Douchebags before or after he became the poster boy for GQ: The Werewolf Edition.
There was a ghost of a smile lurking on Dominic’s face and that told me two things: this had all been planned out beforehand and Dez and I had unwittingly performed every scene in their underhanded farce exactly as they had written it. Desiree had also figured out that something wasn’t quite right, glancing between the Alpha and the brown-nosing jerk who had spoken up to challenge her.
“James challenges Desiree’s Truth,” Dominic announced, gesturing to the wolf standing before him. “Who witnesses his challenge?”
Roshan and Cassidy were suspiciously quiet but the other members of the Pack shouted back an obnoxiously rowdy response. Dom nodded with a finality that was triggering all kinds of red flags and alarms in my head.
“James’ challenge has been witnessed. He has challenged Desiree’s Truth and they will fight until one of them submits to the other or until their opponent’s death.”
He gave Dez a sidelong glance, eyes narrowing in like a cunning fox that had cornered something small and defenseless.
“Desiree may choose not to accept the challenge but that means she admits that her Truth is actually deceit and she lied about her involvement in the human’s deaths.”
I hated to concede that Dominic was smarter than I had originally given him credit for, I really did. If Desiree refused to fight, Dom and his pack would take that as a legitimate admission of guilt and would not hesitate to try to overwhelm her with their numbers. If she fought and won, Dominic would be within his right to kill her for taking the life of one of his wolves. And she damn well wouldn’t submit or allow herself to be at the nonexistent mercy of her opponent. Which meant that she was screwed in every way imaginable.
I wanted Dez to refuse to play their twisted game. I wanted her to yell, shout, and fume at the top of her lungs, to toss me over her shoulder with a big harrumph, and walk right out the door without looking back. But that just wasn’t Dez. Instead, she grinned with a terrible recklessness, eyes gleaming wildly as she answered with every drop of confidence in existence.