Home » , , , , , , , » First Bite, A Sweet & Sour Mystery (Alpha Werewolf Shifter Romance) by Mac Flynn

First Bite, A Sweet & Sour Mystery (Alpha Werewolf Shifter Romance) by Mac Flynn

I never wanted, or expected, to be a part of the news, especially in a story I couldn’t publish. But such was my life as a small-town newspaper reporter with seriously bad luck.

But first, I had to do a little bitching about my old job as I stumbled upon my new job, and new life.
First Bite, A Sweet & Sour Mystery (Alpha Werewolf Shifter Romance)
First Bite, A Sweet & Sour Mystery (Alpha Werewolf Shifter Romance) by Mac Flynn
“I hate snow. I hate snow. I hate snow.” That was my mantra as I eased down the wintry county road. I was alone in my small, beat-up old sedan. It was fifty-thousand miles overdue for a checkup, but the wealth of a newspaper reporter wasn’t exactly counted in dollar amounts. It was more like a calling. An urge to know the truth. A longing to shed light on the facts. Or that’s the bullshit I kept telling myself as I inched past the two-foot high snowdrifts that stood as sentinels along either side of the road. “Why couldn’t they have waited to lay me off some other time? Like July?” I muttered to myself. It was true. I was unemployed, or rather, in-between jobs. The old job was two-hundred miles behind me, and the new one was a hundred miles and a mountain pass in front of me. I glanced out the windshield and sighed. The freak weather storm had been predicted, but I never thought I’d see such weather for early October. The only excuse was the road I found myself on sat somewhere around oxygen-tank elevation. A flurry of thick, white snowflakes fell from the dark gray sky above me. The whiteness stretched forever, as did the rest of the scenery. I was in a stretch of the country that had few houses and even fewer cities. The hamlets and valleys I’d passed through could have been missed if I blinked. Clumps of small forests and rolling hills pocketed the land to my left. On my right was the constant companion of an ice-filled river with its banks peppered with tall, bare-bone trees occupied by the occasional unfriendly predator bird. Above me the sky showed that there was only an hour left until dark. “Why couldn’t you have asked them for a little more time?” I scolded myself as I rounded another corner in the country road. ‘Them’ was my soon-to-be employer, a newspaper in a far-off city. I would be at the bottom of the totem-pole, a novice reporter in an unfamiliar metropolis. The city I left behind was my hometown, but it had done me wrong by not offering me any job opportunities. My flight from the unemployment line hadn’t been well-received by my mother. “What do you mean you’re moving?” she’d shrieked after I told her the good news that I’d found a job. “They’re the only ones who offered me a job,” I’d pointed out. “Well, maybe you didn’t look hard enough.” “Mom, I contacted two dozen. Only three even got back to me.” “But why that far?” my mom persisted. “I don’t have much of a choice.” “Wish I-ah!” A hulking shadow jumped into the road ten yards in front of me. I slammed on the brake and the car decided to do a dance across the slick surface of the road. Its rear slid left and right as IT skidded to a stop a few feet from the shadow. My headlights glistened off a bunch of brown, wet fur that covered something that stood on two legs. Yellow eyes glared at me from an elongated face before it turned away and loped across the road to my left. The thing jumped the growing snowdrift and disappeared into the white wilderness. I leaned back in my seat and clutched at my heart. “Easy there, girl, easy. It’s gone. You’re safe.” My heart was somewhat soothed. I turned the steering wheel so the car faced forward and inched my way into a straight path. The snowflakes fell faster and the day grew darker as night threatened to scare me silly. It’d have to really try after that terrifying creature scare. “Stop letting your imagination get the best of you. There’s nothing out here but snow and crazy old miners. . .” I mumbled to myself. My eyes flickered to the side of the road where the creature had disappeared. “Wish I’d find one of those crazy old miners so they could tell me where the heck I am.” My prayers were answered by the sight of a road block on my side of the road. Two vehicles with state trooper markings were parked in front and behind the road block, and the drivers stood together on my end of the block. They both wore the large-brimmed hats and uniforms of old. One of them held up his hand and walked towards me. I slowed to a stop, this time without the dance moves, and stuck my head out my open window. “Something wrong, officer?” I asked him. He walked up to me and smiled. “Sorry to tell you this, miss, but the road’s closed ahead.” “Closed? Why?” I asked him. “This storm might not look like much here, but there’s winds on the top and the snow’s coming down too fast to see,” he explained. I leaned back and threw up my hands. “Perfect. Just perfect.” A fitting end to a two-thirds completed hellish white road trip. “If you need some place to stay there’s the last town you passed. Apple Hollow,” he suggested. “They’ve got a good motel with clean rooms and you won’t meet a friendlier bunch of people. Tomorrow you might be able to get through. The weather’s a little funny up here. One day we’ll have a blizzard and the next it’ll be all melted.” I furrowed my brow. “I didn’t see any town.” “That’s because it’s set a ways back from the state highway and they don’t really advertise themselves,” he explained. He pointed at the road behind me. “You go back about a mile and take the first plowed road on the right. Go for about ten miles around two corners and you should find the hollow it’s in.” I sighed and shrugged. “Why not? I’ve got time.” I raised an eyebrow and my eyes flickered to the trooper. “How much time do I have?” He shook his head. “I couldn’t say, but it won’t be today. This is one of the last roads the state plows,” he warned me. “Well, thanks for the tip,” I told him. I went to roll up my window, but he put his hand on the sill. “Just a friendly warning, though, miss. The people in the town are suspicious of gossip hounds, so you might not want to tell them you’re a reporter,” he advised me. I frowned and my eyes narrowed. “How’d you know I was a reporter?” He grinned and pointed at my rear view mirror. A press pass hung from the neck. “It doesn’t take a reporter to see that,” he teased. I sheepishly smiled and pulled down the pass. “Thanks.” “Anyway, good luck,” he called to me as he stepped back. “Thanks.” I had no idea how badly I’d need it. 2 I turned my car around and crept back the mile he advised. My short, light-weight car slipped and slid in the increasingly tall snow drifts that littered the road. The wind picked up and threw the white fluffy stuff across the narrow highway so that I couldn’t see the yellow center-line. The lines on the sides were covered by the drifts from plowings past. I crept along the road and was relieved to see the turnoff. The country road was well-plowed compared to the highway, and I steered onto the road with a sigh. The road was barely wide enough for two cars of my size to pass, but I didn’t have any opposing traffic. The road wound as the trooper said. Civilization was left behind and replaced by scattered farmhouses and open fields dotted with the occasional bunch of trees. To my left and some five miles off was a large forest that stretched into a group of peeked mountains. To my far right was another group of craggy mountains. Those were part of the mountain range over which I was unable to pass. That meant the town I headed was cradled between a rock and a hard place. I weaved around a few corners and watched with increasing concern as the snow drifts piled higher around me. There was a slight tunnel effect, and what with the road being so narrow I felt that any chance at turning around was cut off. “Just don’t stop if you hear banjos. . .” I muttered to myself, referencing a theme from an old movie about hillbilly cannibals. The worst part was that I’d make a great meal. I wasn’t exactly skinny. Some people, trying to be polite, would call me big-boned, but I knew I wasn’t the slimmest Barbie on the block. I was definitely plump, but at least I had the boobs to go with my figure. Everything else was in proportion, too, just a larger proportion than I would have liked. “Come on, girl, get yourself together. . .” I murmured as I rounded the last bend. I slowed the car to a stop and beheld the hollow below me. From the trooper’s description I expected a cluster of houses with a ratty motel. Instead I was greeted by a bowl-shaped depression in which sat two dozen rows of fine houses, most of a great age, and all in perfect square blocks that were evenly spaced. The sidewalks were lined with ancient oaks and maples, and the center street that connected with the road on which I sat was clearly designated as the commercial district. Small shops with clean windows looked out on the main road, and their bright, warm lights invited people inside for the coming holiday season. A large hospital stood in the south, and at the east in the distance was a two-floor brick schoolhouse. The countryside around the town seemed to blend into the outlying neighborhoods. Yards melded into fields that stretched to the farmhouses, and beyond those was the dark forest. The whole area was covered in a thick layer of white fluff. It was as perfect as a postcard. “Wow. . .” I whispered. A harsh wind against the side of the car reminded me I wasn’t in the perfect-picture town, yet. I drove down the gentle hill and into the town. I left behind more than just tire tracks. The harsh wind and flurries were left at the peak of the hill. There must have been some sort of micro-climate caused by the depression. I looked around. There was hardly a soul in view. The wintry weather kept most people indoors, but a few school-aged kids wandered down the sidewalks in groups, and here and there were some shoppers. I passed an intersection and got a view of the side streets. To my left and one street down sat a tall brick building with a bell tower. On its right and situated on the corner of the block sat a combination of the police and fire stations. I found my motel at the end of the main street. It was a group of small buildings shaped into a three-sided square with the office in the left front corner. The sign over the front read Moonlight Motel. There were a few other cars in the plowed parking lot, but I got prime real estate in front of the office. I stepped out and looked around. The first thing I noticed was how quiet the town was. There wasn’t a single blaring horn, yelling pedestrian, or even a mother shouting for her kids to get the hell inside. The silence wasn’t unnerving, though. It actually felt peaceful. I took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of pine trees from the nearby forest, and a hint of diesel from the recently departed plow truck. The smells actually complimented each other. “Not bad, but I bet not much goes on. . .” I murmured to myself as I shut my door and walked to the office door. The lights were on, and as I stepped inside I noticed an older gentleman behind the desk. He looked up from his paper, a rag with the title of The Daily Brew, and smiled at me. The man folded the paper and met me at the desk. “What can I do for you?” he asked me. “I need a room for the night, or at least until the pass opens,” I told him. “I’d be glad to put up such a lovely young lady,” the man replied as he took a key from a board full of the things and held it out to me. “I think Number Thirteen should do just fine for you.” I took the key, but frowned. “Isn’t that a little bit unlucky?” I pointed out. He chuckled and his eyes crinkled around the corners. “Around here we consider it an especially lucky number.” “Oh-um, thanks, I guess,” I replied. He waved away my compliment with his hand. “None of that now. You’ll make an old man blush.” “Do these rooms have any microwaves or stoves?” I asked him. The man shook his head. “Nope, but there’s a good diner just down the way. You won’t find a better home-cooked meal.” “I think I’ll try it. What’s its name?” I wondered. “Spellbinding Food,” he told me. I nodded. I remembered seeing that name on one of the long shop windows. “Thanks for the info.” He winked at me. “Don’t mention it.” I looked down at the key in my hand. “Do I pay now or later?” “Oh, no need to worry about payment just yet,” he assured me. My eyes flickered up to his smiling face and I frowned. “Why not?” There was a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t read. “Just call it a hunch. Oh, and tell Mab, Troy sent you. She’ll give you a piece of apple pie, or a piece of her mind.” He chuckled at his own joke. I managed a strained smile. “Thanks, I’ll do that.” He smiled and nodded. “See that you do.” He turned away, paused, and glanced over his shoulder with a wide smile on his face. “Oh, and good luck tonight. I’m sure you’ll need it.” I backed up and nodded. “Um, yeah, I’m sure I will.” This guy was nuts, but I didn’t have much choice but to follow his advice if I wanted a hot meal. The weather outside was calm, but the snow still fell in sheets of white. The job of the snow plow was fast disappearing, and so was the light. The time was three, and in an hour it would be dark. “I hope I can find my car tomorrow. . .” I muttered to myself as I pulled my overnight bag out of my car. I made myself comfortable in the uncomfortably numbered room, and walked down the street to the diner. Something made me pause halfway down the road. I rounded a corner on one of the streets that intersected with the main road and glanced down at the residential area. The depression around the town forced the houses to be built on higher and higher ground. Down the street I could see a good-sized hill. A group of kids sledded down the slope and climbed back up for another run. I watched mesmerized as the monkeys raced up the hill like they were high on pixie sticks. Their speed was incredible. They were just as fast going up and coming down. I don’t know how, but I must have caught their attention. One of the sledders reached the bottom and froze. They pointed at me and yelled something to their friends. The group scattered like criminals alerted to a cop car, leaving behind their sleds and the echo of their laughter. I shrugged and walked on. Weird kids. The diner was one of those old-fashioned ice cream parlor-type diners with a counter on the right and tables on the left. The floor was decked in large red and white tiles, and the stools were a bright, shiny red. I decided to forgo the stools and stand-alone tables, and went for one of the cushioned booths. My rear was tired from the long drive. It needed a break and some pampering. I sat down and leaned back. My eyes caught movement at the counter, and my gaze fell on a fiendish-looking feline. I furrowed my brow. I’m sure I hadn’t noticed it earlier. The creature was hard to miss, what with its jet-black fur and piercing yellow eyes. It stared back at me without blinking. Not even its tail or whiskers twitched. I was never any good at staring contests and decided this one wasn’t worth winning, so I looked away. Movement grabbed my curiosity again and I glanced back at the counter. The cat was gone, but a human woman veered around the counter and walked over to me. She was middle-aged woman with purple streaks in her long black hair and a wide smile on her face. She wore a white apron over her ample bosom and a long purple dress that draped like a robe down to her ankles. Her wrists were covered in shimmering bracelets that looked awfully real, and an ornate necklace was wrapped around her pale neck. In one hand was a pad, and in the other hand held the pencil. She looked down and studied me with a sly smile. “What a treasure the storm has brought us,” she commented. I managed another of my tense smiles. By the time I got out of this weird town my face was going to be stuck like that. “Yeah. Just a lonely traveler trying to get over the pass.” Her eyes flashed a strange color, I would have almost called it purple, and her sly smile widened. “But I sense your journey is almost over.” I shrugged. “Yeah, or mostly. Anyway, what’s on the menu?” “I think a spaghetti for you, and some garlic bread,” she commented. I blinked at her and my eyes swept over the diner. “Is this an Italian place?” I wondered. “For you, yes. Would you like our special sauce on the noodles?” she asked me. “Um, yeah, I guess.” I did hanker for some pasta. “And with-” “Large meatballs,” she finished for me. I shrank into my cushioned seat and regarded her with suspicious eyes. “Yeah. How’d you know?” She chuckled. The sound sent a shiver down my spine. “You have the eyes of a predator. Would you like anything to drink with that?” “Not blood,” I quipped before I could stop myself. The woman didn’t lose her smile as she wrote a few notes on her pad. “A coke will do, then. Your food will be ready in a few minutes.” She half-turned away from me, paused, and glanced over her shoulder. Her gleaming eyes looked down at me with a teasing look. “And you needn’t worry about the pass. The snow will stop soon enough.” “The weather report says that?” I asked her. She chuckled, and again I was left with a tingle down my back. “No, young one. Those weathermen are all fools to believe in their machines and graphs. I can’t smell it as well as others, but I can feel it.” And with that she walked away with my order. That I kind of didn’t quite order myself. “Smell it. . .?” I murmured. And that’s when he came into the diner, and my life. 3 The man slid into the booth seat opposite me and smiled. He was young and handsome with short, jet-black hair and sparkling blue eyes. His complexion was a little on the pale side, but his body was muscular and in shape. Not rock-solid, but something a girl could snuggle up to without getting poked and prodded by abs. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you around here. A new arrival?” he asked me. I snorted. “More like a castaway. The storm on the pass drove me here.” “I see. I hope everyone’s made your stay comfortable,” he commented. I raised an eyebrow. “Are you the mayor?” He laughed and shook his head. “No, and I wouldn’t want the job. I’m just a simple hunter, a scouter, if you would.” I blinked at him. “A what?” “I help find lost things in the woods,” he explained. I glanced out the window at the trees beyond the town. “That must be a pretty lucrative business around here.” “It has its rewards, but you haven’t answered my question,” he commented. I turned back to him and raised an eyebrow. “I thought I did.” He smiled. “Well, maybe it’s an unanswered one. You see, you haven’t told me your name.” “Isn’t it the man who’s supposed to introduce himself first?” I pointed out. His smile broadened and he held out his hand for a shake. “The name’s John Huntley, but most people just call me Orion.” I grasped his hand and gave it a shake. “Trixie Lyal.” He raised an eyebrow. “Lyal? That’s an unusual name.” “Well, it’s the only one I’ve got, so I guess I’ll keep it,” I quipped. Orion retracted his hand and looked me over. “You ever thought about trading that name in for a newer model?” I feigned shock. “Mr. Huntley-” “Orion,” he corrected me. “-I do believe you are trying to ask me to marry you,” I finished. “Maybe I am,” he teased. He scooted his gut against the table and lowered his voice. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” I leaned back against the seat and smiled. “Another one?” He grinned. “I could go at this all night if you want.” I shuddered. Now I knew how one of my victims in the newspaper industry felt. “Please don’t.” “Then this’ll be the last one. How’d a beautiful woman like you get to be lost in a place like this?” he wondered. “Most people wait until after the snow storm to get here.” “I wish I would’ve been a little more ahead of the snow,” I commented. “But if you must know-” “I must,” he teased. “-I was on my way to a job on the other side of the mountain. I’m a reporter,” I told him. Some of the humor vanished from his face and he raised an eyebrow. “What kind of reporter?” I wagged a finger at him. “You said that’d be the last question.” “Can’t a guy get a free lie every full moon?” he wondered. “I’m sure you met your quota the day after the last full moon,” I teased. My eyes noticed movement out of the corner on my right, and I looked at the diner counter. The black cat was back. I jerked my thumb towards the counter and its feline inhabitant. “What’s with the cat, anyway?” Orion followed my gaze and smiled. “Mab? She’s an old fixture around here,” he explained to me. I furrowed my brow. “Isn’t that the name of the owner of the diner?” His eyes studied my face. “Who told you that?” “There you go with those questions again,” I scolded him. “Let’s just say your question refilled my count by one,” he suggested. I snorted. “I’ve dealt with politicians who were less slick than you.” “I grease myself every morning, but you still didn’t answer my question,” he reminded me. I jerked my head in the direction of the motel. “The owner of the motel told me.” Orion raised an eyebrow. I was starting to notice a pattern. “Troy?” “That’s the name he gave me to get me a free slice of apple pie,” I told him. Orion leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. He studied me with an unblinking, and unnerving, stare. “What? Do I have something on my face?” He smiled and shook his head. “Only a beauty unsurpassed in these parts of the woods, but I think I’m keeping you from your food.” At that moment the door behind the counter opened and Mab stepped into the seating area. In her hands was a tray with a large plate of spaghetti with bread and a coke. She passed by the counter and I noticed the cat had again vanished. Mab set the tray in front of me and glanced at Orion with mischievous eyes. “Have you found something to your liking, Sour?” she asked him. I blinked at him. “‘Sour?’” He shrugged as he stood. “It’s another of my nicknames. Anyway, I’d better be going.” He smiled and nodded his head at me. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Lyal.” “Trixie,” I corrected him. He chuckled. “Trixie, then. Goodnight.” “‘Night,” I replied. Orion turned his back on me and left. Mab returned to the depths of the diner kitchen, and I dug into my meal. It was pretty good, maybe even top notch. I just hoped the bill wouldn’t be the top of my traveling budget. My new company hadn’t given me any money to move so the motel and food bills came out of my own pocket. Something on my right caught my attention. I glanced at the counter and found that the black cat had returned. It watched me with those bright yellow eyes, and occasionally its tail twitched. “What?” I asked it. The cat replied by blinking nice and slow. I picked out a large meatball, sucked off the delicious sauce and held out the ball of meat to the ball of fur. “You want some?” Mab jumped down and strutted over to me. This cat would’ve made a great runway model for a line of furs. It stopped a foot short of the table and sat down. I tossed the ball. The cat neatly leaned forward and snatched the meat in midair. I smiled. “You’re pretty good, but that act would’ve gotten you into a lot of trouble in your namesake a couple hundred years ago.” The cat’s eyes narrowed and it let out an audible growl. I held up my palms. “Hey, don’t blame me. I wasn’t there.” The cat stood, spun around so I got a good look at its ‘cute’ end, and stalked off. It resumed its position on the counter, but kept its back to me. I shrugged and resumed my eating. I put down my fork a few minutes later and patted my stomach. The plate was licked clean, or nearly so. Right on cue Mab came through the rear door, and again the cat was gone. It was almost like her own cat didn’t like her company. Mab picked up the tray and plopped down the bill. I picked up the slip of paper and raised an eyebrow. “Only five bucks?” I asked her. “And if you would, cash is preferable,” she told me. I shrugged and reached into my back pocket for my wallet. “All right, but-” The careening of a truck into the front wall interrupted my looking-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth attitude. The front wall exploded in a mess of glass and splintered wood. We both ducked under the table and bonked heads as the remains of the wall fell down on our heads like splintered hail. The chaos lasted for about three seconds before everything quieted down and the dust stopped falling. Mab reversed her course from beneath the table and rose to her feet. I crawled out after her and looked around at the destruction. The front booths were a mangled mess, the wall had a gaping hole where the door formerly stood, and the bottom of the door itself peeked over the top of the counter. Snow from the sidewalk flowed a few feet onto the linoleum floor. The cause of the destruction, an old white pickup, sat at an angle with the driver’s door facing us. The window of the door was mostly shattered with only a few jagged bits on the bottom. “That’s the last time I look a gift horse in the mouth. . .” I muttered. Mab strode past me and to the truck. I followed close behind. The male driver was slumped over the wheel. The man wore some sort of brown fur coat and had long, shaggy hair. His hands that lay on the wheel were also incredibly hairy and ended in long, sharp nails. Mab froze two feet short of the door. Her arm flew out and stopped my progress. “Wait,” she ordered me. I nodded at the driver. “He might need-” A groan interrupted me. I was starting to see a pattern of shut-up. The driver shifted and lifted his head. I gasped. His face was a grotesque mix of hair, blood and dust. His brown eyes drooped and he swayed from side to side. He turned to us and narrowed his eyes. His lips curled back in an ugly snarl that revealed some really sharp teeth. “Barrett,” Mab called out. The man didn’t reply. He ignored the door and tried to climb out the window. His seat belt kept him in his seat. He looked down and snarled at the strap. The man’s hairy paws fumbled and pawed at the belt, but never went for the clasp. Mab turned to me and grabbed my shoulders. “Do not attempt to approach him again,” she ordered me as she pushed me back to the end of the counter near the kitchen door. “What the hell is wrong with him?” I questioned her. She ignored me and used an old land line phone stuck in the wall. The phone rang for a few seconds before someone picked up. “This is Mab. Please send two cars to my diner. Barrett crashed his truck into the front wall and may be under the influence.” She paused and shook her head. “No, not of alcohol. The Sickening.” Another pause, and she nodded. “I will try my best, but I have no antidote here. Goodbye.” She hung up and glanced at me. “If you prefer you may-” She was interrupted by our furry friend in the pickup. The man managed to get out of his seat belt. He crawled through the broken window. His blood dripped onto the floor as he stood on all fours. His body stretched and tore his pants and shirt. Fur poked out from the torn clothing. The man-thing glanced from Mab to me, and back to me. Mab rushed forward and wrapped her arms around me. She pulled me behind her and scowled at the man-thing. “Barrett, you must remain calm,” she ordered him. The man snarled and stalked towards us. Saliva dripped from his sharp teeth. His long nails clacked on the linoleum. Mab backed us up towards the kitchen door. The man tensed and leapt at us. His outstretched, clawed hands aimed for our necks. “Barrett!” 4 The yell came from behind me. The door swung open and someone rushed out. The person shoved Mab and me to the side and swung a punch at Barrett. The fist landed on the side of the wild man’s face. Barrett yelped and flew to our right. He crashed into the wall and dropped onto one of the tables. The man twitched a few times before he stilled. I glanced at our savior. It was Orion. He scowled at the limp body of Barrett. I raised my shaking hand. “Could somebody please tell me what’s going on?” I heard a call of police sirens, and two patrol cars skidded to a stop in front of the diner. Four offices with long rifles jumped out of the cars. They climbed through the debris and into the diner. The officer in the lead looked over the situation and turned to the men behind him. “Put a shot in him and get him out of here, and be careful not to get bit,” he ordered the other three. They nodded and hurried over to the fallen man. The officer who gave the orders shouldered his rifle and strode over to us. He was a man of forty with a hefty, tall build and a tense, bearded face. His short brown hair was slicked back and his brown eyes stopped on Mab. “You made the call, Mab. Mind telling me what happened?” he asked us. “His truck crashed into the front of my diner,” Mab spoke up. “He was partially transformed before he awoke and tried to attack us. Orion stopped him.” “I heard the crash from the motel and got here as quick as I could. When I saw the truck sticking out the front I made my way through the back door and got here just as Barrett attacked them,” Orion explained. The officer turned to me. “I don’t recognize your smell. How long have you-” “She’s just a visitor,” Orion interrupted. The officer pursed his lips and his eyes flickered to Mab. “And she saw everything?” “Yes, but there is no cause for concern,” Mab assured him. The man shook his head. “That’s not for you to decide. I need to-” A yelp from behind him caught our attention. We looked to the table and the three officers. Two of them had Barrett pinned to the table and the third had a needle stuck into the man. The needle was long and had a large container on top. Barrett writhed and squirmed in their grasp as the greenish contents in the needle was injected into him. The last drop of the liquid disappeared into the man and he slumped over. My eyes widened as I watched the hair all over his body disappear into his clothes and skin. The lead officer stepped into my line of sight and blocked my view of the table. His eyes flickered to Mab and Orion. “Like I said, I need to contact the mayor and get this thing sorted out.” He returned his attention to me. “Do you mind staying in the area for a few more days? I might need to ask some more questions later.” I had a hell of a time keeping my attention on the officer, but I managed to look him in the face and shrug. “I guess I could.” I had to be a good little girl and not ask questions, at least for a little while. The officer nodded. “Good. I’ll need a statement from all of you by tomorrow afternoon.” The other men picked up Barrett and carried him out the front mess to one of their cars. The lead officer turned away from us, but paused and glanced at Orion and Mab. “Could one of you escort Miss-” “Trixie Lyal,” I told him. He raised an eyebrow. “Is that your real name?” “That’s what’s on my Social Security card,” I quipped. He sighed. “Well, could one of you escort Miss Lyal back to her room?” “I will,” Orion offered. The officer nodded. “Good. If I don’t see anyone of you tonight-” I noticed his eyes flickered to me, “-then have a good night.” We exchanged the same sentiments and he left in one of the two cars. The other car followed close behind him. Orion turned to me and swept his hand towards the ruined front wall. “Ladies first,” he offered. I coyly smiled. “Then shouldn’t you go first?” He returned my smile. “Beauty before age, then,” he corrected himself. “Good catch,” I complimented him as I accepted his offer and strode forward. Orion turned to Mab. “Good luck with the cleanup.” A strange smile graced her lips. “Luck is not what I use.” He shrugged. “Well, don’t strain your fingers too much.” He joined me closer to the wrecked front wall, and together we waded through the mess and out onto the quiet street. The hour was apparently late for the sleepy small town and all the residents were tucked safely into their houses. I waited until we were on the next block before I began my work. “So are you going to tell me what happened there or do I have to play mean?” I asked him. He shrugged. “A little drug problem. It happens in every little town where there’s nothing going on.” I stopped and crossed my arms over my chest. “Drugs can turn people into monsters, but not literally. What’s really going on?” He stopped a few feet in front of me and faced me. A smile was on his lips, but the corners were strained. He shrugged, but didn’t look me in the eyes. “Not much goes on in a sleepy town like this.” “So what was that back there? The exception to the rule?” I questioned him. “Just some trouble that’s been resolved,” he assured me as he half-turned from me. He nodded down the block. “But I need to take you back.” “So I won’t see any more?” I guessed. “No, so the rapists and murderers don’t get you,” he teased. I sighed and walked up to him. “Fine, but you’d better tell me everything tomorrow.” “I’ll give you the exclusive if I can,” he promised as we continued on our way. He cast side-glances at me and a more relaxed smile graced his lips. “Do you like dogs?” he wondered. I raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. Why?” He shook his head and stared ahead of us. “No reason.” I narrowed my eyes. “Uh-huh. By the way, you find out what you wanted from Troy?” He started and swung around to face me. “How’d you know I went there?” I jerked my head in the direction over my shoulder. “You told that cop you heard the noise from the motel. After what you asked me at the diner I figured it wasn’t a coincidence you were there.” Orion chuckled. “You’re not too bad of a reporter. It’s a pity you can’t stay here. You’d be pretty useful.” “For the Daily Brew?” I wondered. “For me. I could always use a beautiful assistant to manage my research,” he admitted. I continued our stroll down the sidewalk. “Maybe you couldn’t afford me,” I teased. “Maybe the bonuses I could give you would be worth the lower pay,” he countered. I raised an eyebrow. “Such as?” “I could offer you board, and there’s always room for a beautiful young woman in my house,” he told me. I snorted. “There’s probably so many in there already I doubt there’s room for me.” He smiled. “Would you believe there’s only me?” “And your dog?” I guessed. He blinked at me. “My dog?” “You asked me if I liked dogs,” I reminded him. Orion chuckled. “I’ve got to watch what I ask you, but no, I don’t have a dog.” “Pity. I really do like myself a good German Shepherd,” I commented. He grinned. “So you like big dogs?” “The bigger the better,” I admitted. “What about wolves?” I couldn’t help but flashback to the incident on the highway. That thing had kind of looked like a wolf. I shrugged. “Sure, why not?” By this time we’d reached the motel. Troy stepped out of the office and squinted at us. “What was all the noise?” Orion laughed. “Don’t you know?” he teased. Troy lifted his eyes to the dark winter sky. His lips were pursed tightly together as he shook his head. “I can’t see this.” “Well, I guess I’ll hit the hay,” I spoke up. I stepped away from Orion and turned to face both men. “Goodnight.” Troy bowed his head. “Goodnight.” “Have sweet dreams of me,” Orion teased. “I’m not sure I’d call that a dream,” I returned. I waved to them and slipped into my motel room. For my first order of business I made sure all the curtains were shut and the bedroom and bathroom lights were on. Then I grabbed a flashlight from my bag, plopped myself on the bed, and waited a few minutes. After the appropriate time had passed to make them think I had prepared for bed, I shut off first the bathroom light and then the bedroom light. There was a window at the rear of the bedroom. I pried open the heavy window and peeked my head out. The wall behind the room led to a narrow alley. I eased myself out and clicked on my flashlight. The beam illuminated the snowy ground. I turned to my left and started down the alley. I didn’t think this sleepy little town was quite what it appeared, and I was going to find out why. 5 The short distance to a real road was soon covered. I stopped and looked up and down the street. The streetlights shone brightly on the newly fallen snow that lay at the bases of their posts. The area was quiet. I glanced up the street at the hill. The discarded sleds sat as silent testament to past fun. I knew I needed to investigate the diner, but a little voice inside me told me to go up there. Try as I might, my sensible, reporter mind couldn’t argue against the voice. I walked up the street to the pile of sleds and shone my flashlight on them. Most of them were the old-fashioned runners, the ones with lots of speed but no brakes. A noise behind me caught my attention. I spun around. My flashlight beam fell on nothing but empty street. I breathed out. “Easy there, Trixie. Just your imagination. . .” I murmured. My imagination made another noise. Again it was behind me. I spun on my heels and slipped on the icy road. My feet flew out from under me and I landed with a hard plop onto the ground. The landing jarred my flashlight from my hand. Pain reverberated from my tail bone and up my spine. I winced and carefully stood so I could rub my bruised bottom. “Great job. . .” I muttered. I looked around for my flashlight. That’s when things got weird. I found where it landed. There was a neat little indent in the snow in the shape of its smooth, cylindrical body. The only problem was there was no flashlight. I turned left and right, though careful this time not to slip. I only saw the footprints left by the dozens of kids and a few cat tracks. “Damn it. . .” I hissed. I got on my hands and knees, and scoured the area. The last thing I needed was for some kid to find it, tell their parents, who would tell the cops and then they’d trace the flashlight to an outsider, namely me. Then my whole cover about going to bed would be blown, and I’d lose the story. Maybe even my life. A light caught my attention. It was a small beam that was three feet wide and had the intensity of a full moon. I looked up the hill in the direction of the soft glow. The light crested the top and flowed over me like a warm, intangible spring. I sat up straight and stretched my neck upward. This is going to sound unbelievable, but I swore the light moved with me. It rose higher and retreated up the hill. I stood, and the light disappeared over the top. My curiosity was piqued. I stumbled up the hill to the top. Before me was a less severe incline. The road passed through the half of the residential blocks that occupied the north side of the main street and stretched into the country. The light was a thin band that followed the road until the way bent to my right. The paved road went east, but the light created a trail that led along a snow-covered dirt road, and that went into the trees that stretched into the hills and mountains beyond the town. I should’ve gone back to my room, or at least gone for my car, but my common sense flew out the window before the bright, mysterious light. All I could focus on was following it to its conclusion. Heck, maybe this was the big break I was looking for, anyway. I trudged up the road. The light stayed ever at a ten-foot distance in front of me. The houses on either side of me were lit, but their lights held no allure for me. There was only me and the white beam that led me onward. I don’t know how long I walked. Maybe it was a couple of minutes, or maybe a couple of hours. Nobody disturbed my solitary march, and I reached the end of the paved road. Here I hesitated. The dirt road was plowed and led into the tall, dark forest. The road, and the light, entered the forest disappeared around a bend a few miles into the trees. I glanced over my shoulder. The lights from the town twinkled back. I could just make out the west wall of the motel. I’d probably gone five miles without noticing. It was a long trudge, but a shorter way back downhill. All I had to do was turn around and change my fate. Fate, however, had other plans. The light from the beam strengthened. I looked back at it and blinked against the dazzling light. The brilliance lasted only for a moment and then died down, but I was hooked. I stepped onto the dirt road and hurried up the slope. It was the same tune. The light retreated, and I advanced. I entered the thick trees. The shadows of their long, skeletal arms stretched out as though to grab me, but the light held the darkness at bay. I wrapped my coat closer to me as the chill of the winter night began to sink into my bones. My feet were cold and wet, but still I continued onward like a woman possessed. I wasn’t far off on that guess. The walk through the woods last for two miles before I rounded the bend. The trees broke open to create a large, sloped meadow some fifty yards square. The trees formed pockets that were scattered here and there, and the road wound between them until it ended in a loop at the bottom of a small hill of earth at the rear of the meadow. A path of stones climbed the small, round hill and stopped at the flat top. There also wasn’t a speck of snow on the hill. On the top stood a large, magnificent apple tree. Normally in the winter I wouldn’t know an apple from a peach tree, but this one was evidently special. The leaves were not only all there and green as gourds, but the limbs were loaded with red, shiny apples. Their round, full bodies invited man and beast to taste their sweet juice. The size of the apple tree was also extraordinary. The ancient plant rose up some fifty feet into the sky and its branches on either side shaped itself into a giant mushroom. The light I followed stretched back into the tree and disappeared into the leaves. All except one spot. A soft glow emanated from one of the apples on a lower branch. The light pulsed with life and surrounded the tempting red fruit. Its smooth, clean skin shimmered in the unnatural glow. My eyes were stuck on the apple. I stumbled up the slope and stone steps to the top. The apple hung five yards to my left. I stepped over the many thick roots of the tree and stopped below the apple. The fruit hung low on its branch, but when I stood on my tiptoes I couldn’t quite brush the tips of my fingers against its pristine bottom. I tried a small hop. The high jump wasn’t my specialty, but my fingers touched one corner of the bottom. The stem of the apple broke from its branch. I caught the apple in my cupped hands and looked down at my prize. Its shiny surface begged me to take a bite, but the skin was blemished. A tiny drop of water fell onto its smooth surface and slipped over the side onto my hands. The water was warm. I looked up. A tiny drop of water glistened where the apple stem had connected to the apple. The droplet quivered and stretched downward. A sensation of sadness swept over me. The second drop fell into my hand and forced me to look down again. The apple tempted me. This time no amount of water would lead me away from my purpose in coming to this strange place. I raised it to my lips and opened my mouth. “Stop!” a voice shouted. I whipped my head up and saw Orion rush towards me from a clump of trees on my right. He covered the ground like a rabbit and raced up the hill to where I stood. Orion snatched the apple from me and grabbed my wrist. He pulled me towards the path. “We have to get you out of here,” he insisted. His strength was great enough that I couldn’t stop him from pulling me down the path, but my mouth still worked. “What the hell are you doing? Left go of me!” I demanded. “No time! Just run!” he persisted. We made it five yards down the dirt road when a shadow stepped from a clump of bushes and stepped into our path. The darkness didn’t let me get a clear view of him, but it was a large man with glowing dark eyes. He wore a heavy brown fur coat that covered him from his neck to the tops of his thick black shoes. The man held up his palm towards us. Orion skidded to a stop. The man took a step towards us. “What do you think you’re doing, Orion?” the stranger asked my companion. Orion pulled us back a step and pressed his lips together. “Damn it. . .” I heard him mutter under his breath. The man stretched out his hand towards me. “You know the rules. Anyone who has tasted an apple must come with me,” the man reminded him. Orion held up the apple. “She hasn’t tasted the apple, and she’s not from here. That means she can go free.” The man’s glowing eyes flickered to me for a moment before they returned to Orion. “No, that means the mayor and Librarian need to be consulted. They’re at city hall right now for the meeting.” “Come on, Armel. Just this once let one through,” Orion pleaded. The man dropped his arm and took another step towards us. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t make me use force. You know you won’t win, and the woman might get hurt.” Orion turned to me and pursed his lips. He let out a great sigh and his shoulders sagged. “We need to go with him,” he told me. I wrenched myself from his distracted grasp and glared at both men. “I’m not going anywhere until somebody tells me what’s going on.” I half-turned towards the hill and waved my hand at the tree. “What the hell is that thing? How come there’s no snow on it? How’s its leaves still on in the middle of winter?” Armel stalked towards me, but Orion stepped in front of him. He looked at the great sentinel and shook his head. “Let me handle this.” Armel pursed his lips, but nodded. “Sure, but hurry. I don’t know when the meeting’s breaking up.” Orion returned his attention to me. He stretched out his hands and took a step towards me. “I’ll explain everything later, but right now you need to trust me.” I snorted. “I don’t even know you.” He stopped and smiled. “You know I love dogs and am looking for an assistant.” My eyes narrowed and I took a step away from him. “I don’t think I’d be right for the job. Too many trust issues.” Orion sighed and pulled out a vial from inside his coat. The white, mist-like contents were sealed by a cork. “Sorry about this, but I did try to get you to come.” He popped the cork and jumped at me. I twisted around to run away, but his arm wrapped around my waist. He pinned me against his chest and stuffed the mouth of the vial into my nostrils. I squirmed in his arms, but accidentally took a deep breath of the pungent-odored mist. I was out in a flash. 6 I don’t know how long I was out, but the awakening wasn’t much fun. My body ached like I’d been through a no-rules schoolyard brawl and I had a headache that threatened to split my skull. I creaked open my eyes and found I lay on my right side on a blue leather couch. Spread out in front of me was a large square room. The lights were out, but some windows beyond my sight to my right allowed some natural light into the room. A desk sat to my right and a door was set into the wall at my left. A couple of bookshelves sat against the wall opposite me. Seated in a wooden chair close beside me was Orion. His legs were crossed and his eyes were on me. I started back and my eyes widened when I noticed his eyes were a bright yellow. Orion closed his eyes, and when he opened them they no longer glowed. “Good evening, Sleeping Beauty,” he teased. I sat up, but a little too quickly. My aching head swam and I swayed from side-to-side. I clutched onto the side of my head and winced. “What truck hit me?” I mumbled. “A small dose of wolf’s bane,” he told me. I looked up and furrowed my brow. “Wolf’s bane? As in the werewolf stuff?” “The one and the same,” he replied. That’s all I needed to hear. “I gotta get out of here,” I insisted as I swung my legs over the side of the couch. I clutched my head with both hands as the room spun in circles. Orion leaned towards me and grasped my shoulders. “Don’t move too quickly.” “So I noticed,” I quipped. I looked into his concerned face and searched it for signs of insanity. There were no evident signs, but maybe I was the one going insane. “What the hell’s going on here? Where is here?” Orion released me and leaned back against his chair. His eyes brushed over the room. “Here is the mayor’s office in the city hall. To get to the next question you want to know, it’s all because of that.” He nodded at something to my right. I followed his gaze to the thick wooden desk. Atop the desk on the corner closest to us was the apple I picked. I don’t know how I was sure it was mine, but something inside me told me it definitely belonged to me. I pursed my lips and my eyes flickered back to Orion. “That doesn’t make any sense to-” A noise from the door interrupted me. It sounded like someone opened another door and let out a thousand angry voices. Orion turned his head towards the entrance and frowned. “They’re coming.” I raised an eyebrow. “Who’s coming?” Orion stood a split second before the door opened. Three people walked into the room. The first was a woman of fifty. She was tall and wore a professional blue skirt and white blouse. Her heels clacked against the wood floor and her alert eyes took in the room in a second. Behind her came two men. The one immediately behind her was of an age so ancient he could only be described as geriatric. The announcement of his birth must’ve been written using cuneiform. Spectacles graced the lower part of his nose and his wispy white hair was combed back over his skeletal skull. He wore a brown tweed suit as aged as himself with dark patches on the elbows and knees. The last in the parade was Armel. He shut the door behind their little group. The men lined up shoulder to shoulder and the woman stepped in front of them. She crossed her arms over her chest and her hard eyes flickered between me and Orion. “We have to make this quick. The meeting isn’t going so well,” she commented. She gestured to me. “I presume she’s the one.” “Yes, but she doesn’t know anything,” Orion insisted. “That’s for the Librarian and me to decide,” she argued. She half-turned to the old man. “What do the Books say on this one? Should she remain?” The old man shuffled past her and stopped a foot in front of me. His weary old eyes studied my face until I leaned back and glared at him. I raised my palm towards him to put a barrier between us. “Stop treating me like I’m some sort of specimen,” I snapped. The man had bushy eyebrows above his eyes that slowly raised. A smile curled onto his wrinkled lips, and he chuckled. “She would make a very wise addition to the community.” “Are you sure?” the woman asked him. I jumped to my feet and balled my hands into my fists at my sides. “I’m not joining any community until you tell me what’s going on.” The old man took a step back and chuckled. “A very wise addition.” “Then she stays. We’ll do her initiation at the end of the meeting,” the woman commanded as the old man shuffled away from me. She turned to Orion while the men made for the door. “In the meantime, keep her here. I’ll have Armel come back for you.” “I’ll try,” Orion promised. The woman and her strange entourage turned to leave. I stepped forward and grabbed her sleeve. “Wait a sec! You can’t keep me-” The woman spun around and grabbed my wrist. Her strong hold tightened around muscles and veins until I felt the blood cut off. I cried out and clawed at her hand, but my efforts didn’t even leave a fingernail scratch on her skin. Her cold dark eyes looked into mine and I saw a gleam of orange in their depths. “Never touch me again.” The woman shoved me backwards and I stumbled until Orion caught me. I cradled my limp wrist in my other hand as the three people left. Orion stood me on my feet and slipped in front of me. “Let me look at it,” he pleaded. He took my wrist in his gentle hold and pressed a thumb against the muscles, bones, and veins. He sighed. “Nothing’s broken.” I wrenched my hand from his hold and glared at him. “What the hell is going on?” Orion’s eyes studied my face for a moment before he averted his gaze and he sighed. “Would you believe me if I told you I’m a werewolf?” My mouth dropped open and I blinked at him. “You’re a. . .a what?” A small smile slipped onto his lips. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t think this was going to be easy.” I took a step towards him. “Listen, whatever you think you are, you have to help get out of here. I don’t know who those people were-” “The woman is the mayor of the town, the man was the Librarian, and Armel is the Sentinel charged to protect the Tree,” he told me. “And they’ll all look great behind bars when the cops find out they’re holding me captive,” I quipped. He shook his head. “The cops aren’t going to do anything.” I frowned. “So they’re in on it, too?” Orion’s tired face cracked a smile and he chuckled. “I’m afraid the whole town is in on the conspiracy.” I narrowed my eyes and studied him. “And you’re with them?” He leaned his shoulder against the wall between me and the door and folded his arms over his chest. “Let’s just say I don’t like the way things are going, but trying to stop things would be like trying to swim upstream in a flood.” “But you can help me?” I questioned him. “That would depend on what you’re asking,” he returned. I gestured to the windows behind the desk and the door behind him. “Any way you can get me to my car so I can get out of here?” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You wouldn’t make it very far, not when the whole town is here and would learn about you missing. You’d be hunted down and brought back within a half hour.” I glared at him. “I’m not staying in this loony-bin any longer than I have to, and if you’re not going to help then stay out of my way.” I tried to rush past him to the door, but he wrapped his arms around my waist and picked me off the floor like I was a child. “Let go! Let me down!” I yelled as I pounded on his back. “You’ll thank me later,” he replied as he plopped me back down on the couch and stepped back. “I’ll sue you later for kidnapping!” I snapped. A sly smile slipped onto his lips. “Then how about we add harassment onto the list?” He leaned down and pressed a firm kiss on my lips. It was as though time stopped. A wave of heat swept through me and filled me with a sensual lust that pooled between my legs. A madness invaded my mind that forced me to lean into the kiss, to press harder for more of his body. He pulled away and we both panted for breath. His eyes sparkled and held a yellowish tint to their depths that only heightened my desire for him. Then he went and ruined it by talking. “You know, that assistant job is still available if you want to apply,” he teased. I frowned and pushed him away. He stumbled back and fell onto his rear. I wiped my arm over my lips and snarled at him. “Disgusting!” I growled. He laughed. “I’m glad you liked it.” The door opened and Armel stepped inside. “It’s time.” Orion’s smile slipped from his lips. My pulse picked up speed. I felt like I was a death-row inmate and my sentence was about to be carried out. Orion turned to me and held out his hand. “Come on.” I whacked his hand away and stood. “Don’t expect for me to thank you later,” I growled. “That makes two of us,” he replied. I stalked past him to the door. Orion snatched the apple from the desk and followed. 7 The doorway led into a long, wide hallway. The floor was covered in speckled linoleum and the walls were a bland white. On either side of me were doors and transparent glass that looked into bureaucratic offices. I could still hear the angry voices, but there were fewer of them and they were quieter. The hallway traveled for fifty feet before it intersected with another that ran perpendicular. To our left was a new hallway that ran down to a lobby. I noticed a pair metal doors, and beyond them was the wintry world. I broke from the men and made a dash for the exit. I covered a whole four feet before my arm was grabbed. My captor spun me around and I glared into Orion’s strained face. “You’re only making this worse,” he hissed. “You’re the one who keeps stopping me!” I snapped back. “Hurry up. Everyone’s waiting,” Armel spoke up. Orion pulled me down the opposite end of the hall. There was the same doors on either side, but at the end the hall widened twenty feet in front of a pair of open doors. The voices came from there, and I could see why they were so loud. There must’ve been two hundred people packed into the room and just outside. The interior of the room was a large council hall. Folding chairs sat on either side of a narrow aisle, and they were all full. The white walls and aisle were also covered by residents. At the front of the room was a curved table some twenty feet long. There were seven chairs, and each was occupied. The only person I recognized was the mayor. She sat in the center chair. The name plate in front of her read ‘Mayor Darnell.’ Off to one side in a small chair sat the tiny Librarian. His name plate simply read ‘Librarian.’ Armel stopped our line of people five feet short of the doorway. The mayor held a gavel in her hand and made ample use of it. “Order! Order!” “You can’t close the meeting! There’s still people wanting to talk!” a middle-aged man protested. He stood in the middle of the sea of chairs and glared at the council members. A mumble arose from the crowd, and many were in agreement. The mayor pounded her gavel and swept her eyes over the room. The noise quieted down. “There is nothing more to discuss. We have informed you of the latest developments and further discussion will lead us nowhere. There is also more pressing matters with which to deal.” “What could be more pressing than a bunch of us going berserk?” one of the women piped up. “That’s what I’m saying,” argued the man who stood. “A stranger has picked an apple from the Tree,” the mayor announced. A flurry of noise arose from the crowd. Everyone looked at their neighbor and fretted. “But how did she find the Tree?” “Has she escaped?” “Should we evacuate the town?” The mayor pounded the gavel on its small round platform. “There is nothing to fear. The Sentinel has brought her here.” She beckoned to us. Armel and Orion strode forward, and I was forced to follow in their footsteps. People of all ages, young and old, man and woman, turned and stared at us. Their eyes stopped on me and I got a mix of reactions. Most were curious, but some weren’t too pleased to see me. We reached the blocked room and I saw it was a meeting room. “Let us through,” Armel commanded them. Most of them stepped aside and I got , but a large man with arms the size of trunks blocked our way. I thought Armel was large, but this guy took the cake and ate it. He glared past Armel and at me. “She’s not welcome here. I don’t recognize her scent,” he growled. Armel scowled at him. “We’re here to fix that, now step aside-” “Let’s just squish her apple and get her out of here,” he insisted. He looked over his shoulder at the audience. “Whadda ya say? She doesn’t belong her, right?” Some in the crowd cheered, but most watched the proceedings with silent disapproval. The burly man grinned and pushed past Armel. He reached out with his thick hands to grab at my neck, but Orion rushed past me and pulled me behind him. The burly man stopped dead in his tracks and a little bit of fear slipped into his eyes. “I don’t think you want to be doing that, Tom,” Orion warned him. Tom’s eyes narrowed and he jerked his head at me. “So you’re backing her, huh, Orion?” “I’m not taking anyone’s side. The Council will decide what to do with her,” Orion replied. The room buzzed with voices as people agreed or, like Tom, disagreed. I pushed past Orion and swept my eyes over the room. “Decide what to do with me? What did I do, break a traffic law in the woods?” I spoke up. The room fell into silence as people glanced at each other. “Well?” Mayor stood and cleared her throat. “While you are not a law, you have altered one of our oldest traditions, Miss Lyal. It is a very important tradition for us, and that is why we insist on your appearing before us tonight.” I marched forward and the crowd cleared a path. Orion and Armel followed after me and were in back of me when I reached the front of the table. I slammed my palms on the table and leaned forward. The mayor raised an eyebrow. “You think this tradition of yours gives you the right to kidnap someone?” I snapped at her. She narrowed her eyes. “Yes.” I frowned and spun around to face the townspeople. “Is this some sort of conspiracy? I haven’t done anything wrong.” “You found the Blessing Tree and plucked an apple. This apple.” Orion handed her the apple and the mayor held it up for all to see. “By our laws you must take a bite and remain in this town unless given permission to leave.” I turned and glared at her. “I don’t want your tree or your apple. I just want to leave.” “Let her get out of here! We don’t need her!” someone shouted. “We’ve got enough problems without an outsider!” cried another. “Here, here!” another yelled. The mayor narrowed her eyes and looked past me at the crowd. Any further suggestions died on their lips. “The Blessing Tree has never been refused, and I would not have us start disobeying it now,” she told them. “We could try it,” Tom spoke up. He lumbered up behind the two men who flanked me. “We don’t know if it’ll die or not. Maybe nothing will happen.” The mayor zeroed her eyes on him. “Would you take responsibility for the consequences?” Tom frowned. The mayor stood and swept her gaze over the room. In her hand she clasped the apple. “Would anyone care to risk the life of the Blessing Tree merely to remove this woman from our town?” “But she’s not from here. . .” came a whimpered response. “Nor are many others,” the mayor argued. “But they came changed!” someone countered. “And we will change her,” the mayor returned. Her eyes fell on me and she held out the apple. “Take a bite.” The gleam of the apple caught my eye. Its smooth red surface invited me to taste its delicious flesh. Unbidden, my hand reached out. “No!” The shout came from my own lips. I drew my hand back and clasped both of them against my chest. My narrow eyes glared at the mayor as I took a step back and shook my head. “I won’t do it.” The room erupted in shouts and calls. “Kill her!” “Force her!” The mayor pursed her lips and glanced over my shoulder. “Then you must be forced.” Armel came up behind me and wrapped me in a bone-crushing bear hug. He lifted my feet off the floor. I kicked and flailed, but to no avail. The mayor dug her long fingernails into the apple and pulled off a small piece. She set the rest of the apple on the table and walked around to me. “Wait!” Orion spoke up. The noise in the room died down. You could’ve heard a pin drop. He moved to stand to the side of the mayor and me, and looked to the elected official. “I can get her to eat. Just give me some time to convince her at my house-” The mayor shook his head. “Unacceptable.” “Then what about the motel? Troy can help me watch her and-” “It will be done now,” the mayor insisted. She stepped up to me and raised the slice to my lips. I pressed them together and glared at her. She pinched my nose between two of her fingers. My lungs were deprived of air. I held on for a minute before I opened my mouth to gasp. The mayor tossed the slice into my mouth. The piece of apple flew down my throat. I choked and helped it along with an involuntary swallow. The flavor was cool and delicious. Under any other circumstances I would’ve asked for the rest of the apple. That is, until I felt a strange unease slip over my body. It felt like a muscle ache that I couldn’t quite place, or the beginnings of a cold that threatened to throw me for a loop. The mayor stepped back and nodded at Armel. He set me down and opened his arms. I stumbled forward and Orion caught me. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. I should’ve shoved him away, but I was too grateful for his gentle hands. The strange sensation inside of me pulsed with a stronger beat. I winced and clutched my stomach, the source of my discomfort. “Do you offer to be her caretaker tonight?” the mayor asked Orion. He nodded. “I do.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you won’t encourage her to leave?’ He shook his head. “That’s not an option anymore.” “Very well.” She turned to the quiet room. “The meeting is adjourned!” 8 The hall erupted in violent shouts. The people jumped to their feet and shook their fists, their faces contorted with anger. They crowded the aisle and pushed into us in their struggle to reach the mayor. She backed up behind the table and beat her gavel, but nobody heeded her yells. The weight of so many people suffocated me. Orion swept me into his arms and put his shoulder in front of him. He shoved his way through the crowd and we emerged at the doors. Behind us continued the chaos of people pushing and shoving, each trying to get out or in. Orion set me down. I tried to stand, but my legs felt like jello. The mix of confusion, fear, and the strange ache inside me disturbed my body and mind. “Can you walk?” Orion asked me. I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Then let me carry you.” I was hardly in a condition to object. He lifted me into his arms and carried me down the sparsely populated hall. The others there headed for the door, and soon we emerged from the pair of front doors. Outside the sky was a silvery gray. A soft snow fell over the world and blanketed the citizens in a peaceful calm. “I’ll take you home with me. The motel isn’t exactly cozy,” he suggested. I shivered and pressed close against his warm chest. My voice was low and hoarse. “My things.” “You can get those tomorrow. Right now I bet you don’t feel too well,” he commented. The city hall was the large building with the belfry. Orion walked down the steps to the sidewalk. Cars pulled away from the curb and scattered to the four corners of the small town. Orion took a left and carried me down the sidewalk. “I hope you don’t mind a little trudge. I don’t exactly live close to city hall,” he warned me. “Do I. . .have a choice?” I pointed out. He chuckled. “Not much, but it’s always nice to have an option.” I thought about that for a moment and scowled. “Put me down.” Orion stopped us around the left-hand corner and half a block down from the fire station. The only company for us was the light from the lamp posts. To our left was an alley that led behind the municipal buildings. He frowned. “But I thought you said-” “Just put me down.” Orion set me on my feet. I steadied myself by facing him and placing a hand on his chest. He held my shoulders to steady me and frowned down at me. “I don’t think-” Smack. The sound was my hand meeting his cheek. His head whipped to one side and a red welt appeared on his flesh. He rubbed the injury and winced. “What was that for?” he asked me. “For not getting me out of there,” I snapped. He frowned. “I didn’t want this for you. I tried to get you out of there before the apple, but the mayor wouldn’t agree to it.” “A fat lot of good that did,” I growled. Orion pursed his lips and shook his head. “Listen, we can talk about this-” “No, we talk about this now,” I demanded. “What the hell happened back there? What was so important about that apple?” He sighed and shrugged. “If you didn’t believe me about the werewolf thing then you’re not going to believe this.” My eyes narrowed. “What is it?” “You’re not going to-” “Tell me.” His shoulders sagged and he studied my face for a long moment. “Biting into an apple from the Blessing Tree, the one you saw in the woods, changes a person into a were creature.” I rolled my eyes. “Enough with this werewolf bullshit! I want the truth.” “There is no other truth.” Something in his voice made me pause. His words were calm and even, but there was a depth to them that cut me to my core. I leaned back and looked over his face. “You’re. . .you’re serious, aren’t you?” I asked him. He gave a nod. “I’m. . .I”m really a werewolf?” “Yes,” he replied. I frowned and gestured down at myself. “But I don’t feel-ouch.” The pain in my stomach returned, and with full force. I clutched my stomach and doubled over. “What the hell is this?” “It’s the changes in your body. They start slow at first, but in an hour things are going to get really interesting,” he warned me. My eyes widened and my hands trembled. “Interesting how?” He sighed and averted his gaze from mine. “You’ll change into a werewolf. “ A sly smile slipped onto his lips. “A female one, that is.” I had to suppress a snort. “At least I have that going for me, but I think you need to have your hmphph-” The end of my sentence was muffled when Orion put his hand over my mouth. He swiveled his head from left to right. “Quiet,” he hissed. I yanked his hand off my mouth and glared at him. “Are you trying to hmphph-” the hand was repeated. “Shut up!” he hissed. His eyes fell on a nearby mouth of an alley. “We’re not alone.” I followed his gaze and froze. A pair of glistening eyes stared back at us from the deep shadows of the alley. The headlights of a large truck were switched on and blinded us. The silhouette of a man stepped out of the truck and in front of the lights. Orion pulled me behind him and blinked against the harsh light. “Who’s there?” The person stalked towards us and moved out of the light. I cringed when he was revealed to be Tom, the burly, unfriendly fellow from the town meeting. His hands were balled into fists at his sides and his lips were curled back in a snarl. “You made a fool of me back there, Huntley,” Tom growled. Orion glared at our unwelcome companion. “I thought you did pretty well all by yourself.” A deep growl rumbled from his throat. I noticed the man’s clothes tightened on his body and tufts of fur poked out from his sleeves and collar. Small stubs of hair sprang from his chin and his combed hair flowed down his back. “You think you can just get away with doing that to me, and then getting her for yourself?” Tom roared. Orion stepped back and I scooted back with him. His body tensed, but his voice was firm. “She’s not your kind, Tom, now get back-” Tom lunged at us. Orion pushed me aside and I landed hard on a nearby snowbank. Tom collided with Orion, and the two men tumbled onto the road. They rolled back-over-back with neither gaining the upper hand until they came to the middle of the street. Tom managed to get on top. He grabbed Orion’s wrists and pinned his arms on either side of his head. Tom sat on his waist and stuck his face in Orion’s face. To say the battle between men was over wasn’t quite true. Tom was now more animal than man. His clothes were ripped and torn, and fur and muscles poked out. The hands that held Orion down were more like thick claws, and his face was elongated by a blackish-brown snout. Orion struggled to get up, but he was trapped. The sheer weight of the monstrous giant kept him pinned to the road. I scrambled to my feet, my discomfort for the moment forgotten, and looked around for something to distract the monster formerly known as Tom. I spotted a useful tool in all the white stuff around me. In a thrice I scooped up a bunch of hard snow, with a little added rock from the road, and formed the stuff into a tight ball. I pulled back my arm and aimed. “Hey, Ugly!” I yelled. Tom froze and whipped his head to me. He received a face full of hard-packed ice ball. The thing reared back its head and roared in pain and anger. I scooped up another bunch of snow as he abandoned his prey and rushed at me on all fours. I threw the next snowball, but it merely bounced off his shoulder. A quick escape down the street was foiled when my feet slipped on the snow. I crashed onto my side and flipped over in time to watch as Tom barreled down on me. A shadow flew into the air behind Tom and landed neatly on the overgrown man’s back. The shadow was smaller and less hairy. It wore the tattered remains of jeans and a plain shirt, and its yellow eyes glistened in the dark night. The new attacker wrapped its arms around Tom’s throat and pulled back. Tom roared and reared up on his hind legs. He flailed and pawed at the shadow, but the shadow dodged and ducked the long, muscular, hairy arms. Tom’s struggles grew weaker. He tottered from side-to-side before he crashed onto his side on the ground. The behemoth lay still. The shadow stepped off him and turned to me. I got a good look at its long, pointed wolf snout and those jaws full of sharp teeth. Its clawed hands hung at its sides and flexed the strong muscles in those fingers. I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at the werewolf. “Fine. I believe you.” 9 A grin slid onto the long snout and stayed there even as the thing shed its fur and fangs for the smooth pink skin of a human. A human named Orion. A mostly naked human named Orion. He walked over to the truck and shut off the engine, then returned to stand before me. “I tried to tell you the truth,” he scolded me. “Don’t you think showing me would’ve been a little more effective?” I scolded him. He tilted his head to one side and studied me with that crooked grin of his. “You’re taking this pretty well for someone who just helped a werewolf drop a were-bear.” I nodded at the prone figure of Tom. He was unconscious, but still transformed. “That’s a were-bear?” “More or less, but don’t let his ugly side make you think they’re all like that,” Orion commented. He stooped and rolled Tom onto his back. A frown slid onto Orion’s lips as he studied the were-thing. “Looks like he’s sick, too. I guess that explains why he attacked us.” “Mind explaining your ramblings?” I spoke up. He stood and shook his head. “Actually, I would. At least right now.” I opened his mouth, but he held up his hand and jerked his head towards Tom. “You really want me to explain right now and risk this guy waking up while we’re standing here?” I shut my jaws and frowned. “No, but there’d better be an explanation later.” “Cross my heart and hope to drink silver,” he promised. I nodded my head at the still body. “So what do we do with him?” Orion pulled out a cell phone. “We don’t do anything. The cops can deal with him. They’re the only ones with the serum.” He dialed a number and someone picked up the other line. “Hey, it’s Orion. We need someone out here with some serum. Yeah, I know, another one. This one’s Tom. He’s had a good beating so I don’t think you’ll have trouble with him. We’re just a block down from city hall towards my house. Yeah, we’ll wait, just hurry.” He hung up the phone and glanced down at our foe. “Damn it. . .” I heard him mutter. “So if we’re going to be staying here a while freezing our assets off, mind explaining what happened here?” I spoke up. I swept my eyes over the town around us. “Or even what’s going on everywhere?” A chill breeze blew past us. Orion wrapped his arms around himself and shivered. “Mind if I borrow your coat during this talk? I left mine in my other wolf suit.” I took off my coat and held it out to him. Orion reached for the coat, but I drew it back and studied him. “First, tell me what I want to know.” His shoulders drooped along with his face. “That’s a cruel thing to do to the guy who just saved your life.” I waved the coat just out of his reach. “Tell me, and it’s yours.” He sighed and wrapped his arms tighter around himself. “This isn’t exactly your normal small town.” I rolled my eyes. “That’s not the scoop I’m looking for.” Orion looked out over the snowy white deserted streets and pursed his lips. “This place was settled a couple hundred years ago. The settlers were drawn to the tree, and it didn’t take long for them to find out what happens when you take a bite of an apple.” “Werewolves?” I guessed. He nodded. “And anything else were. Bears, tigers. You name it, someone can be it.” “Even beavers?” “Yep.” “A kangaroo?” I managed to get a small laugh out of him. “That hasn’t happened yet, but we don’t get too many visitors from Australia. Anyway, those settlers benefited from the tree. It’s a lot easier to hunt a deer as a werewolf than with a flintlock gun. They agreed to keep quiet about the tree and make sure nothing happened to it. That’s where Armel comes in. He’s the Sentinel, the protector.” I furrowed my brow. “I heard somebody at the meeting mention some of the people weren’t from here, but they were already changed. How’d they do that?” He chuckled. “Nothing gets past you ever, does it? Those people were transformed through other means. A curse passed down through the family mostly. The tree called them here.” I arched an eyebrow. “Why?” He scratched the back of his head and sheepishly grinned. “To tell you the truth, nobody has any idea. I mean, some people have guessed, but-” At that moment the sounds of sirens reached our ears. We glanced down the street and watched a pair of police cars speed our way. Orion sighed. “I’m saved.” I half-turned to him and tossed him my coat. “I’m still not done with my questions.” He wrapped the coat around his shoulders and smiled. “I meant from my death of cold.” The police cars stopped on the curb beside us and the familiar four men stepped out. The chief walked over to us while his men took care of Tom. He looked from Orion to me. “Well?” Orion shrugged. “The usual. Viciously attacked for little-to-no reason and stuck in the transformation after he’s knocked out.” The chief pursed his lips. He glanced over his shoulder and watched his men heft the antidote-injected Tom into one of the cars. “This is getting worse.” “Any leads on the origin?” Orion asked him. The chief returned his attention to us and shook his head. “Not a one. It’s like it came from nowhere. We can’t even figure out how it’s spread.” The chief paused and looked Orion up and down. “Maybe you should get some clothes on, son.” Orion grinned. “I’m well aware of that. Does that mean I can file the report tomorrow?” The chief nodded. “Yeah.” He turned to me and held out his hand. “I saw what happened at the meeting. I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced. My name’s William Orso, chief of police for the Blessing area.” I took his hand, but arched an eyebrow. “The Blessing area?” He nodded. “Yep. That’s what the folks here call the area on account of the tree.” His men slammed the door shut and he half-turned to them. “I’d better be going. Goodnight.” He nodded his head and left with his men. I turned to Orion. His pink skin was a little pinker than I remembered. I sighed. “We’d better get you-” I winced and clutched my stomach. The pain was back. Orion was at my side in an instant. He wrapped his arms around me. I tilted my head back and he smiled down at me. “We’d better get you home.” I snorted. “My home’s on the other side of a mountain.” He guided me down the street. “Then think of it as a home-away-from-home.” Orion’s house was a few more blocks down and farther up the hill. His backyard abutted the wilderness of the forest. It was one of the two-floor old-style box homes with a wrap-around porch. He helped me inside and I was glad for the warmth, and the comfy couch in his living room. The long living room stretched into the kitchen at the back. On the opposite side of those rooms was a closed-off door and the kitchen. The stairs divided the house in nearly two with a hallway down the side with the kitchen and shut room. I glanced around at the walls. They were filled with framed maps and wanted posters. The largest map hung over the fireplace that stood in the wall opposite me. Orion knelt in front of the hearth and kindled a fire. He stood and shrugged off my coat to hang it on a hook in front of the crackling flames. He turned to me and his eyes settled on my tense form. “How’s your stomach?” I rubbed my stomach and winced. “Could be better.” He walked over to stand by my side. “You should get out of those cold clothes.” I rubbed my hands up and down my arms, and shook my head. “Not until you tell me what’s going on with these guys trying to kill me.” Orion sighed and took a seat beside me. Heat radiated off his warm body and drifted over to me. I took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of him and his house. It smelled like lemons. I shook myself and found him staring at me with a strange look in his eyes. I frowned. “What?” He grinned. “Has anyone ever told you you smell sweet?” I leaned away from him. “No. Now what about this Sickness? Is it what I have or was that apple poisoned by a witch?” He leaned back and sighed. His eyes watched the fire consume its food. “You don’t have the Sickness, at least I hope not.” I arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t there a way to tell besides the person acting like a crazed murderer?” He shook his head. “No. Well, other than the sick person not changing back to their human form when they’re knocked out.” “And that stuff the police keep putting into them? What’s that made out of?” “Wolf’s Bane mostly, along with a few other herbs, like garlic.” I stuck out my tongue. “Sounds like something that would scare away any legend.” I winced and grasped my stomach tighter. “Okay, this is getting annoying.” He pursed his lips. “Mind if I ask you something?” I frowned. “That depends on what it is.” He scooted closer to me. I scooted farther from him. “What did your apple taste like?” I raised an eyebrow. “Like an apple. Why?” He shrugged. “Everyone’s apple tastes different. I was just curious what yours tasted like.” “‘Everyone’s apple?’” I repeated. He smiled and moved closer. The arm of the couch stopped any further escape on my part. “You don’t think you’re the first one to try one of those, do you?” It was my turn to shrug. “I guess not, but how special is this tree, anyway?” Orion smiled and shook his head. “There’s no other tree like it in the world.” “Good.” I stood and shuffled around the arm of the couch. “Otherwise, the world would be crippled with bad stomach aches.” He followed me and grasped my shoulders. “Let’s get you to bed.” I shook my head. “I think I need to worship the porcelain goddess for a while.: He guided me up the stairs. “Believe me, you’ll want the bedroom.” 10 Orion led me upstairs and to a bedroom. One whiff of the place told me it wasn’t the guest bedroom. There was way too much musk in the air. “I think you took a wrong turn.” Orion released my shoulders and stepped back into the hall. He grasped the knob and smiled at me as I half-turned to him. “Just try not to wreck too much.” My eyes widened as he slammed the door shut between us. “Hey!” I rushed forward and grabbed the knob. Locked. I slammed my shoulder against the door, but it didn’t budge. There wasn’t even a tremor. “Let me out!” “It’s better for both of us if I don’t,” he argued. “It won’t be better for you when I get out of here!” I warned him. The voice that replied to me sounded deeper and more gravelly. “I can’t. You’ll understand in a few minutes.” I pounded my fist on the door. “How about you open the door and explain it to me now?” This time there was no reply. I growled and turned around to press my back against the entrance. The room was well-lit by the windows. I rushed to them and looked out. They showed the backyard where I saw a snow-covered garden with a small orchard of skeletal trees. The sky above me was clearing and shimmered like crystal. The partially-full moon shone in all its glory. My gaze stuck on that shining orb. All the frantic thoughts of escape and fear were swept aside as I focused only on that beautiful ball in the sky. My pulse quickened, and there was a stirring in my body that I’d never felt. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation. On the contrary, it was actually pretty damn good. I felt like a warm blanket was wrapped around me. The longer I stared at the moon the greater became the sensual emotion. I pressed my palms against the glass and groaned. The heat inside me increased ten-fold. The chill from the window did nothing to stop the warmth, and I was glad for that. I reveled in the delicious heat that consumed me in its strong arms. My body tensed and tightened as a hot pleasure ran through my very being. I stumbled back and grasped the tall foot of the bed. My chest heaved up and down as my eyes remained riveted to the shimmering moon. The heat inside me caressed my body and pooled between my legs. I was on fire with a lust for I knew not what. All I knew was that I didn’t want it to end. I wanted it to keep going, to fulfill a promise I didn’t quite know or understand. I wanted the moon to take me and make me its own. That thought caused a fire to penetrate the deepest depths of my body. I leaned back and groaned as the cascading light from the moon touched and caressed me. My body shifted and expanded. My pants tore open at the seams to make room for larger thighs and thicker muscles. I panted for breath as my breast swelled and pushed against my shirt. The more of my skin that was revealed the more the moon stroked me with its pale heat. I grabbed my shirt and tore it open. It ripped down the middle and revealed my swollen, heaving breasts. They filled my bra and the tops spilled over. I growled and tore at more of my shirt until I was half naked. My pale, naked skin relished the touch of the moonlight, and the moon rewarded me with more wonderful, sinful bliss. I crawled backwards over the foot and onto the bed. The moon shone completely on my body as I writhed atop the covers. I tore the remains of my pants off me and lay naked beneath its unblinking gaze. My muscles stretched and firmed. My fingers lengthened into claws that cut into the sheets beneath me. “Oh god,” I groaned. The desire inside me grew more demanding. I rubbed my legs together, but the friction between my thighs only worsened the ache deep inside me. My body craved more of this delicious torture, and yet it begged for completion. The moon promised me something wonderful, a change, and I hungered for that change. Every part of me strained for more heat, more lust, more light. I squirmed atop the covers and clutched them in my claws as more changes came over me. Soft fur sprouted from my sweat-covered body, but didn’t engulf me. The fur covered only the lower half of my breasts and slipped over my trembling hips in a pattern that resembled shorts. My new covering trailed down to my ankles and connected above with the hairs that covered the lower half of my breasts. It was a suits of sort, a soft, slick suit of warm fur that deepened the wonderful ache inside me. “Yes. Oh god, yes,” I moaned. My ears stretched into pointed tips and I felt my mouth fill with short, sharp teeth. The moonlight filled my muscles with such power that it strained to be released. My soft moans grew louder as these changes swept me into a frenzy of feral lust. The room filled with my loud sounds of pleasure. My sentient thoughts abandoned me and were replaced by one desire: to be taken by one with greater power than I and made to bend to their will. I sat up and my eyes fell on the closed door. My nostrils flared as I smelled a husky scent from the other side. I slunk off the bed on all fours until I reached the entrance where I stood and pressed the front of my naked body against the wood. “I know you’re there,” I cooed. I hardly recognized my own husky voice. My pert breasts brushed against the wood and sent ripples of pleasure through me. I leaned my cheek against the door and groaned. “Come claim me if you dare.” My senses picked up on danger. I stumbled back before the door burst open. In the doorway stood a beast like myself, but his fur covered all of his body. A snout elongated his face, and the tattered remains of blue jeans graced his waist. He filled the room with his scent, and the strong smell was nearly overpowering. Here was a mate worthy of me. One who could satiate the lust that dominated my thoughts and desires. Whatever his thoughts on the matter, they were pushed aside for more carnal demands. He scooped me into his arms and set me on the bed so fast I had no time to struggle. The beast tore apart the remains of his jeans and covered me with his naked body. His hands were all over me, groping and massaging me. I moaned and thrashed beneath his teasing attentions. He growled and pinned me to the bed with his body. The beast penetrated me with his thick, pulsing member. I groaned as he filled me from wall-to-slick wall. Every one of his powerful thrusts stroked my sensitive body. Each push of him against me and inside me heightened the deliciously unbearable lust within me. His grunts and groans mingled with my own as our bodies slid against each other in a wild display of carnal lust. I grasped his arms and squirmed beneath his powerful body. He was everything I imagined, everything I desired, and more. I whimpered and moaned. All inhibitions, all my pride were gone. There was only the ache inside me and his thick cock appeasing it. “Yes. Oh god, yes. Take me. Make me yours,” I pleaded. He growled and penetrated me faster. The friction between us was maddening. My body desired, nay, demanded completion. He ravished me and took me with a strength of will against which I couldn’t fight, nor did I want to. Every sensual sensation of my body against his brought me closer to my climax, closer to the fulfillment first offered by the sensual moon. Our feral grunts and growls echoed off the walls. Our sweat-slicked bodies slid faster against one another. I leaned back my head and chanted my wants, my desires. “Yes! Oh god, yes!” The pleasure inside me reached a higher pitch. I clutched onto him as my body tensed. Wave after wave of orgasm swept over me. My body convulsed with the sheer pleasure of his penetrations. He thrust into me a few more moments, heightening my pleasure, before he collapsed by my side atop the sheets. The room was filled with the sound of our tired pants. My furry lover wrapped his arms around me and pulled me against his warm chest. He buried his face into my neck and nuzzled me. I closed my eyes and purred. We fell asleep that way. 11 I woke up with a hell of a hangover. My body was stiff and uncooperative. I felt like I’d gone through a growth spurt, complete with all the raging hormones. I creaked open my eyes and found myself staring at an unfamiliar bedroom. The sheets covered my naked body up to my breasts. Light poured into the room through the large window. I sat up. The sheets pooled at my waist. I clutched my aching head and tried to make sense of this whole situation. There was last night with the werewolves and the apple tree, and the. . .the. . .the raging animal sex. I straightened and blinked. Had I really done that? Had I really turned into some sort of animal and gone all the way with a complete stranger? A strange one, at that? One quick look down at my naked self was all the answer I needed. The door swung open and Orion stepped inside. “Good morning!” I yelped and flung the sheet over me. “Knock first!” He jerked to a stop and grinned at me. “Sorry.” He reversed course and shut the door. A moment later came a polite knock. He opened the door and strolled inside. “I didn’t tell you you could come inside!” I snapped. “Hey, I knocked,” he pointed out as he moved to stand beside the bed. His eyes swept over me. I tightened my death-grip on the sheets and glared back at him. “Sooo, how are you feeling?” “Ill,” I growled. His smile widened and he dropped himself onto the bed. I scooted away. A pained expression slipped onto his face. “Come on, don’t be like that.” My eyes narrowed. “Be like what? Like you made me bite into an apple that’s made me into some sort of a sex monster?” He nodded. “Yeah, like that.” I grabbed a pillow and threw it into his face. He took the hit like a statue, and the pillow dropped onto the bed between us. “What the hell am I supposed to be like?” He shrugged. “Maybe a little moody, but not so murderous.” My body shook. I clenched my teeth. He jumped to his feet and smiled down at me. “You know, I bet you’re really hungry. How about we go out for a bite?” I blinked at him. “Are you insane? The only place I’m going is out of this town!” Orion jerked his head towards the door. “You might not be hungry, but I am. How about we talk about this over a good breakfast?” I armed myself with more pillows-of-death. “Did you hear me? I’m getting out of here!” He pointed at something beside the bed. “That’s going to be a little difficult.” I leaned over the bed. My face fell. My clothes lay in a pile on the floor. They were in tatters. “However, if you agree to come to breakfast with me, I’ll loan you some of mine,” he offered. I whipped my head left and right. There was a long closet in the wall to my left. I wrapped the sheets tightly around myself and slipped off the bed. Something tugged on my ‘clothes.’ I glanced back and glared at Orion who knelt on the bed. The sheets were trapped beneath his knees, and he had a triumphant grin on his face. “Something the matter?” he asked me. I grabbed the sheets and tugged. His heavy body kept them pinned to the bed. I looked at the short distance to the closet. My desperation overrode my embarrassment. I abandoned my sheets and raced naked for the closet. “Hey!” Orion called out. He clamored off the bed. I reached the closet and grabbed the sliding door. Orion grabbed me from behind and lifted me off the floor. He pulled me away from the closet and spun me around. I kicked and squirmed in his grasp. “Let go! Let me go!” “Sorry, my lovely. Can’t do that,” he replied as he dropped me back onto the bed. I spun around and glared at him. I froze when I beheld a devious look in his eyes. Those same eyes were taking in every naked part of me. I sat up and smacked him across the cheek. He stumbled back. The carnal look in his eyes disappeared. He rubbed his cheek, but there was a smile on his lips. He avoided looking at me. “Thanks. I needed that.” “Come closer and I’ll give you another dose of medicine,” I promised. He shook his head. “Thanks, but I think I’ve learned my lesson about touching. At least for now.” He dropped his hand and folded his arms. “I get the feeling we started off this morning on the wrong foot. Maybe we can start it fresh.” I opened my arms and showed off my naked assets. “Fresh? Fresh? I’m a monster now, and all you can say is you’re hungry?” His smile fell off his face. “You’re not a monster.” I threw up my arms. “I’m not the Easter Bunny!” He nodded. “You’re right, you’re not a were-rabbit. You’re a wolf, and a wolf needs her hearty breakfast.” My mouth dropped open. “Are you listening to me at all?” Orion strode over and set his hands on the bed. He leaned over so our faces nearly touched. I leaned back, but his eyes caught mine in their steady gaze. “Believe me, I know how hard this can be.” I glared at him. “How can you-” He pressed his finger against my lips. “My apple was sour.” I blinked at him. “Your-” My eyes widened. “Then you-?” He dropped his hand and nodded. “Yeah. I was born here, I ate an apple, and I’ll die here. I’ll never get to experience anything outside this valley.” He paused. His eyes swept over me. “Except you. You’re the first bright spot in a long, long time, so when you tell me you’re a monster, I know what I’m talking about when I say you’re no monster.” I parted my lips, but no sound came out. He straightened and smiled as he ran a hand through his hair. “Listen to me. I sound pathetic.” I pursed my lips and hung my head. “I’m. . .I’m sorry.” Orion grabbed my hand and pulled me from the bed. He clasped me against him and I looked into his dazzling bright, mirthful eyes. “Don’t ever apologize. It doesn’t suit you.” And it was at that moment my stomach growled. I sheepishly grinned. “Looks like I could use some of that breakfast, after all.” He smiled down at me. “First let’s see which of my clothes will be honored to suit you.” I couldn’t argue. Besides, maybe clothed I’d have a chance at getting my car and escaping the town in a blaze of bullets and slushy roads. 12 A pair of his smallest jeans and a shrunken t-shirt were my attire. My bra had survived the previous night’s frenzy, and with a pair of socks and my shoes I was ready to go. Orion led me outside and I saw that a light skiff of snow covered the ground. I kicked at the white stuff as we walked down the path to the road. The slush got its revenge as it soaked into my borrowed socks. “You guys should export this stuff.” Orion smiled. “It exports itself when it melts in the spring. The lower towns always forget to pay the bill, though.” I arched an eyebrow. “Do the lower towns even know you exist?” He nodded. “Yeah, but they know we keep to ourselves. People ask fewer questions if they don’t get a chance to talk to us.” I swept my eyes over the tall houses as we walked down the blocks towards the main street. “That doesn’t seem to be making it easier to find out about this Sickness.” I turned to him. “You guys consult any doctors about this disease? Or maybe a veterinarian?” He pursed his lips. “That’s just it. The Sickness has been around since ancient times. That’s how we know a cure. What’s got everybody bothered is we don’t know how everybody’s catching it. It’s usually passed on through an infected person, but nobody new has come in for over a year.” “Until me,” I added. He nodded. “Until you.” I nodded at his nose. “Can’t you use that sniffer of yours to find the source? You did tell me you were a hunter by profession.” He smiled. “Even I need a place to start the hunt.” “What about the first person to catch it?” I suggested. He shook his head. “I tried that. The mayor couldn’t tell us where she caught it.” I arched an eyebrow. “The mayor was the first one to catch it?” “Yep, but here we are.” Our quick footsteps brought us to the main street, and Orion took me to the storefront of Mab’s diner. I expected a hole covered by some tarp. What I saw was the front just as I remembered it before the truck crashed into it. I stood with my mouth agape as Orion grabbed the handle of the door. “Coming?” he asked me. I pointed at the storefront. “How?” He smiled. “You should be prepared for the unexpected around these parts. Now let’s get some food.” I followed him inside and gawked at the perfectly-intact interior. All the tables and chairs were whole and back in their places. Orion took a stool, and I slid onto another beside him. Mab came out of the kitchen and walked over to us. She pulled out her pad and pencil, and smiled at me. “You look rather astonished this morning.” “Just a-” I cleared my throat to get the squeak out of it. “Just a little.” She chuckled. “The world is a strange place. We shall say my diner is no less strange than any other, and leave the discussion there.” She half-turned to Orion, but paused. Her eyes flickered to me. “Oh, and you needn’t be in such a hurry to leave.” I started back and my eyes widened. She chuckled and wrote a few notes on the pad. “One waffle, extra sweet, and-” she turned to Orion, “-a stack of pancakes with something special.” With that Mab turned around and retreated back into the kitchen. Orion stood on the lower rung of his stool and cupped a hand over his mouth. “Not that!” There was no reply from the kitchen. He dropped back into his seat and sighed. “She never listens.” I blinked at him. “Mind explaining to me what the heck is going on?” He shrugged. “The usual. Mab’s exploiting our hunger with her most expensive menu items.” I rolled my eyes. “Not that, this.” I swept my hand over the diner. I nodded at where Mab had gone. “And her. What kind of ‘were’ is she? The kind that can read the minds of hungry people and fix hurricane-force damage overnight?” He smiled. “Not everyone in this town owns a built-in fur coat. Mab happens to be a-” Mab swept from the kitchen with a plate balanced in either hand. She dropped them in front of us and slid the syrup between us. I glanced down at my plate and felt drool well up in my mouth. My waffle was topped with a couple of cups of strawberries. My stomach grumbled. Mab stepped back and smiled. “I am glad to hear you brought the best spice.” I picked up my fork and arched an eyebrow. “What’s that?” Her smile widened. “Hunger.” She turned and walked back into the kitchen. “And a whole bunch of syrup,” Orion spoke up as he rolled something off the top of his stack of pancakes. I glanced at the object and noticed it was a lemon slice. The entire top of his pancake stack was covered in the strips of sour fruit. My eyes flickered up to his frowning face. “A fetish?” His sly grin returned. “If it was, you’d know about it by now.” I glared at him and stabbed my stack of pancakes. He held up his hands. “I was just joking.” I nodded at the lemons. “And is that a joke?” Orion sighed and looked to Mab had vanished. “She knows she’s the only one who can get away with this, so she milks it for all it’s worth.” I arched an eyebrow. “What exactly is ‘this?’” He stabbed one of the lemons and lifted it to eye level to examine the pierced fruit. “This is what my apple tasted like.” I frowned. “Like a lemon?” He nodded and dropped the lemon onto the plate. “Yeah. Like I said, the Blessing Tree is like life. It’s sweet and sour.” “So why is Mab the only one allowed to torture you with the dreaded lemon?” I wondered. He tipped another lemon off the stack and smiled. “Because she let’s me eat here for free.” My face fell and I narrowed my eyes. “So this is why you took me here? To get a free meal?” He shrugged. “And exercise. That’s important.” I rolled my eyes. “As much as I’m sure you’d like to hear more about yourself-” He grinned. “I wouldn’t mind it.” “-I’d rather hear about this town,” I finished. He sighed and stabbed a piece of pancake with his fork. “Ah, that.” He paused and furrowed his brow. “What have I told you so far?” “That it has a tree a gardener would kill to own and it’s full of people who need to shave after every full moon,” I told him. He stuffed his mouth with pancake, and when he spoke the counter was sprayed with spittle. “So what else do you need to know?” “For one, how has this town managed to keep its secret for so long?” I wondered. I leaned on one elbow and tapped my fork against the plate. “Nobody’s tried to leak this to the press?” He swallowed and shrugged. “This is kind of a self-policing area. Everybody knows the rule is to stick to the area south of the highway so we don’t can’t anyone’s attention.” I snorted. “Then you might want to remind the guy I saw last night on the road.” He whipped his head to me. “What was that?” “I said I saw one of you guys out on the highway last night,” I repeated. Orion set his fork down and leaned towards me. “What did you see, and where exactly did you see it?” I frowned. “I saw a werewolf between the road turnoff and where the highway was blocked off. Is there a problem with that?” He nodded. “Yeah, a big problem. Nobody’s allowed to go that far, especially if they’re transformed. Could you show me where you saw the werewolf?” I shrugged. “Sure, but after-” Mab came out of the kitchen with two large to-go boxes and a pair of plastic forks and knives. “These will keep your pancakes fresh even in the car,” she told us. Orion grinned and took the boxes. “Thanks, Mab, you’re a life-saver.” She chuckled. “I aim to please.” 13 Orion led me outside with our boxes in our hands. The gray sky hinted at snowfall and a blustery wind blew past us. I cringed and wrapped my free arm around me. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything at the highway. Not after this long.” He turned to me and tapped the side of his nose. “Don’t underestimate the power of the nose. I’m not the local hunter for nothing.” “You told me you helped people find things,” I commented as we walked down the street in the direction of the motel. “Is it people?” “Among other things,” he told me. “What about paths leading out of the area?” I wondered. He paused and turned to me with a frown. “Mab told you to stop having those thoughts.” I shrugged. “A girl’s gotta have a goal in life.” “And that goal is to leave here?” he guessed. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Listen, I didn’t ask for this trouble.” He slipped his hand into his box and pulled out a bit of lemon. “Nobody asks for lemons in life, but what they can do is make the most of it.” My eyes fell on the lemon and flickered up to Orion’s face. “You’re not seriously making lemonade out of that stuff, are you?” He shrugged and slipped the lemon back into his box. “Maybe I’ll make some martinis. That is-” his eyes flickered to me, “-if someone’s still around to enjoy them with me.” I pursed my lips and turned away. My eyes swept over the small, snow white town. A few people walked along the sidewalk, and the kids were back at the sledding hill. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. “Those martinis better have the little umbrellas.” He grinned and offered me his arm. “Do you prefer blue or pink?” I smiled and accepted his arm. “Definitely blue.” We walked arm-in-arm to the motel. My car was parked in the same spot. Orion searched his pocket and pulled out my keys. He held them out to me and jingled them. “Care to do the honors?” I swiped the keys from him and nodded. “Of course. No self-respecting reporter would let her side-kick do the driving.” He chuckled as I unlocked the doors. “So I’m a side-kick now?” I looked over the top of the car as he stood by the passenger door. “Would you rather be the comedy relief?” He shrugged. “I thought I could at least be the dashing hero.” I shook my head. “Nope. You’re all wrong for the part.” I ducked down to hide my snort as his face contorted with disbelief. “Hey! Wait a sec!” He slipped into the passenger seat as I started the car. “What do you mean I’m all wrong for the part?” I had a hard time suppressing my grin. “A hero can’t have a nickname like ‘Sour,’ can he?” His face fell. “You too now?” I shrugged as I pulled out of the parking lot. “I’m just saying it’d be pretty hard to take a guy seriously with that kind of nickname.” “What if we say my real nickname is ‘Orion,’ and go with that?” he suggested. I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. “Nah. Nobody would ever believe it.” Orion threw up his arms and nearly tossed his box of pancakes. He juggled the box and slapped it back into his lap. The mighty hunter sheepishly grinned at me. I rolled my eyes and shook my head, but I couldn’t hide my smile. We drove through the town and out to the highway. The deserted road was plowed, and I wondered if the pass was open. Unfortunately, our destination didn’t take us as far as the road block. I stopped the car a quarter of a mile past the town turnoff and gestured at the road. “That’s about where I saw whoever it was.” “And you’re sure it was a werewolf?” he asked me. I tilted my face towards him. “It wasn’t the Easter Bunny.” “Was it male or female?” I swept my eyes over him. “It looked like you did last night.” He pursed his lips and looked out over the road. “Male, then.” Orion stepped outside and walked down the road. I followed behind him and watched as he knelt on the ground and brushed his hand over the paved road. “Damn. . .” “Your spider senses aren’t tingling?” I asked him. He stood and shook his head. “Not when a snowplow’s been by here. But fortunately the scent isn’t entirely gone.” Orion walked over to the steep snowbank and plunged into its deep depths. He was buried up to his waist in the white fluffy stuff, but he pushed his way through the pile to the untouched wilderness beyond the ditch. He paused beside a half-covered bush and plucked something off the bare leaves. “I don’t think now is a time to harass the local plant life,” I teased him. Orion turned around and studied something pinched between his fingers. He trudged back to me and held out the item. “If this is plant life then we have bigger problems than the Sickness.” I leaned forward and squinted. Between his fingers was a small tuft of hair. I reached up and rubbed the fur between my fingers. “What’s it belong to?” “Wolf, and there aren’t any natural wolves around here,” he told me. Orion looked past me in the direction of the car and frowned. “And the plot thins.” The crunch of wheels on the snow caught my attention. I turned around and watched one of the local police vehicles drive toward us. I glanced at Orion and jerked my head towards the cop car. “Did we break a rule or two by coming out here?” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Only if it’s unwritten and was passed unanimously last night.” The cop car pulled up to us and Chief Orso stepped out. He slammed the door shut and strode over to us. “I was informed you two went in this direction. Mind telling me what brought you out here?” Orion held up the tuft of fur that was pinched between his fingers. “This.” Chief Orso took the fur and turned it over. “Wolf fur. You can get it off half the town.” Orion shook his head. “Not that fur. I don’t recognize that scent.” The chief lifted his head and arched an eyebrow. “So you’re saying this is from a stray?” Orion nodded. “Yes. I’d stake my hunter reputation on it.” Orso pursed his lips. “All right. I’m going to need you two to come down to the station and make a statement.” He pulled out a plastic bag and dropped the fur into the bag. “There’s also last night’s trouble you haven’t already put in a report for that.” Orion set his hand on the small of my back and smiled at the officer. A strange smell came to my nostrils, but I blew it away. “No, but we’ll do that right now.” Orso kept his attention on Orion but nodded at me. “And I’d be glad if you kept her in town, at least for the present. She wasn’t none too pleased with the mayor’s decision last night, and the last thing we need around here is more trouble.” Orion nodded. “I’ll be sure to do that.” I glared at both of them. “‘She’ doesn’t need watched by hmphph-” Orion had placed his hand over my mouth. My sidekick nodded at the road. “Won’t you lead the way, Chief?” Chief Orso turned and walked back to his patrol car. I pulled Orion’s hand off my mouth and gasped for air before I snapped my head in his direction. “What the hell was that for?” I growled. He held up his hands in front of him and gave me a teasing smile. “Just trying to help. We don’t need to get on the bad side of the chief and his men, at least not this early in the morning.” I narrowed my eyes. “You’re going to regret saying that.” He walked around me and toward the car. “Maybe, but let’s go before the chief cites us for loitering.” 14 We followed the police chief back to town and to the police station. The exterior of the imposing building was made of granite and the interior was accessed via a flight of long, wide steps up to the two front doors. We parked out front and the chief led us up the stairs and into the lobby. There was a front counter with an officer on duty, and behind him was an open room with a few desk. The left wall had a few doors, one of which was marked ‘Chief.’ It was to that office we were led. There was enough room for a desk, tall filing cabinet, and three chairs, one of which was behind the desk. The front wall that looked out on the open area had a large window. The chief lowered the blinds as we entered, then took a seat behind the desk. Orion and I took a chair in front of the desk. I swept my eyes over the room. A picture on the desk caught my eye. It was of two boys with their arms across one another’s shoulders. Both wore street clothes and were soaking wet. I nodded at the picture. “Did you try to fish with your hands?” Orso’s eyes flickered to Orion. “No, it was just some punk who nearly drowned me one summer, but we’re not here to reminisce.” The chief pulled out the plastic bag and tossed it on the desk. “Tell me everything you can about this fur. How’d you find it? Where exactly did you find it?” Orion told him everything up to the point where the chief found us. Orso leaned back in his creaky chair and pursed his lips. “That’s a mighty interesting story.” “It’s more than just a story. It might be the reason for the Sickness,” Orion pointed out. He scooted closer to the front of the desk. “What I figure is-” The chief held up his hand and nodded. “I know, I know. The Sickness is coming from this unknown werewolf, right?” Orion nodded. “Exactly.” The chief leaned forward and pulled out a drawer. He pulled out four slips of paper. “These are the statement forms I need you two to fill out, both for today and last night. Sign on the dotted lines when you’re done and I’ll get my men on this.” He stood and left the room. I glanced from the closed door to Orion, and jerked my head at where Orso had gone. “Is he always this calm when he learns about trouble?” Orion furrowed his brow. “Often, but this is a little much.” He sighed and slid two of the papers in front of me. “But I guess we’ll fill these things out and get going. We still have your stuff to pick up at the motel, remember?” I grudgingly filled out my statement forms, but this left a bad taste in my reporter mouth. We finished our paperwork and stepped out into the open area. The chief met us at his door. “All done?” Orion nodded. “Yep.” “Good. I’ll be in touch with you if anything comes up,” Orso promised. He shook hands with Orion and we passed him to leave, but his voice called us back. “Orion.” Orion and I paused and half-turned to him. He opened his mouth, but snapped his jaws shut and turned away from us. His shoulders slumped as he ran a hand through his disheveled hair and shook his head. “It’s nothing.” Orion nodded and led me outside. My eyes flickered up to his tense face. “Please tell me you’re not falling for any of this.” He arched an eyebrow. “Falling for what?” I snorted and stopped beside my car to face him. “Don’t you think it’s a little suspicious that they haven’t found evidence of this unknown werewolf before?” He shrugged. “The valley’s a big place, and the Sickness didn’t really start until after the snow came.” I crossed my arms and frowned. “But you were able to sniff it out in a day just with my general directions, and they’ve got a whole building of sniffers.” I gestured to the doors at the top of the stairs. “And what was that back there? The chief acted like he wanted to tell us something, but couldn’t.” Orion sighed and set a hand on my shoulder. “You’ve lived in a lot of big cities. That makes you suspicious-” I frowned and shrugged off his arm. “I know what I’m talking about when I say something’s going on here,” I argued. He smiled and held up my keys. “Like a theft?” My eyebrows crashed down. “Give those back!” I grabbed for them, but he held them up out of my reach. “I’m supposed to be your babysitter, remember?” he teased. I frowned. “I remember that was a self-appointed position, and I protest the filled vacancy.” He chuckled and opened the driver’s door. “We’ll bring it up at the next meeting. Right now let’s go get your stuff.” Orion drove my car back to the Moonlight Motel. We parked in front of the office and stepped out of the car. Orion paused and grabbed the top of the car. He shook his head and blinked. I raised an eyebrow. “You okay?” He straightened and smiled at me. “Yeah, just a little tired. Must have been last night.” I frowned and met him at the front of the car. “Is that going to happen every night?” He grinned as he grabbed the door handle and opened it for me. “You’ll just have to see.” I rolled my eyes as we walked inside. Troy sat behind the counter as I found him the first night I came. I wondered he didn’t produce cobwebs. He looked up from his copy of The Daily Brew and smiled at us. “Good morning.” Orion leaned his elbows on the counter and nodded at the row of keys behind Troy. “Good morning, Troy. We were wondering if we could-” “Have the key to Miss Lyal’s room?” Troy finished for him. Orion grinned. “Yeah.” Troy turned around in his seat and nodded at the corner to his left. “There’s no need. All her things are right there.” A box sat in the corner, and my overnight bag stuck out the top. Orion smiled and shook his head as he pushed off from the counter. “Why did I even bother asking?” Troy chuckled. “Habit is hard to break.” Orion walked over to the box and hefted it into his arms. He winced and shifted its weight. “Did you forget to pack the kitchen sink? Because I feel only the bathroom tub.” “It must be the fridge. That food always shifts around,” I quipped. Orion walked past the counter and we reached the door when Troy called to us. “Mind you two be careful.” Orion paused and half-turned back to him with a frown. “Be careful? Why?” Troy chuckled. “Just a hunch.” I cringed. The last time he had a hunch I had a date with apple destiny. Orion pursed his lips, but nodded. “We’ll be careful.” “See that you are,” Troy replied as he went back to his paper. Orion led me outside and plopped the box into my trunk. He shut the back and looked at the front of the office. I sidled up to him and glanced from his tense face to the office and back. “Do I want to know?” He shook his head. “I doubt either of us want to know, but we’ll find out soon enough.” “So what now?” I asked him as we slid into our seats. He started the car and rubbed his red hands together. “Now we go home and warm up. Even a werewolf needs a warm fire every now and again.” “We should be investigating what’s going on,” I persisted. Orion backed out and drove onto the main street. “What we should be doing is keeping each other warm in bed.” I rolled my eyes. “Come on, Sidekick, where’s your sense of adventure?” He flashed me a grin. “It can get pretty adventurous in bed.” I growled and slumped down in my seat. “Werewolves. . .” I paused and looked down at myself. “Speaking of that, I don’t really feel any different. Aren’t I supposed to have super strength and stuff now?” He chuckled. “Right now you’re just a pup. It’ll take a lot of training to get you to top werewolf shape.” I sighed and cradled my temple in my fingers. “Great. And I thought I was done with school.” Orion drove us back to his home. He took my box from the trunk. I passed the rear seat window and noticed the take-out boxes from Mab. I grabbed those and we both walked up the path to the porch. The snow slid off the roof in streams of water, and the path was mostly clear. I paused on the steps and frowned. A sudden tugging in my mind told me to turn around. I half-turned to face the street. Nobody was there, not even a passing car. I shook myself and followed Orion inside. He set the box on the counter in the kitchen to the right and rear of the house. I paused in the doorway and glanced around. It was my first time this far back in the house. “Your hunter job must pay pretty well,” I commented. He walked over to the stove and started the burner for some warm water. “Decently. You like cocoa?” “Decently,” I quipped. He pulled out two mugs from a cupboard as I plopped our boxes onto the counter. “I still think we shouldn’t leave that fur to the police.” Orion paused mid-scooping with the cocoa powder and sighed. “Then what do you think we should do?” I shrugged. “Investigate that scent ourselves. Or at least try to figure out what the police know before we become victims of this douche-bag disease.” He chuckled. “So play sleuth?” “You can play reporter, and I’ll be a real one,” I retorted. Orion poured the steaming water into the mugs. “How about this: if you think up a genius idea to help them, we’ll do it.” He turned to me with the mugs in hand. “Deal?” I took my mug and nodded. “Deal.” I glanced at the to-go boxes on the counter beside me. “What do you want to do with our leftover breakfast from Mab’s place? Eat it or save the indigestion for later?” His eyes widened. He set his mug on the counter and snapped his fingers. “That’s it!” I blinked at him. “What’s-hey!” He grabbed me about the waist and spun me around. Cocoa splattered around the room. He pecked me on the cheek and laughed. “Trixie, you’re a genius!” I clutched his arms and grimaced. “And this genius is really aware of gravity, so could you put me down?” “What? Oh, sure.” Orion set me down, but grasped my shoulders and leaned down to press a hot, sensual kiss on my lips. We parted with panting breaths, and I had a cursed blush on my cheeks. He chuckled. “You look good in red.” I wiped the blush from my cheeks and glared at him. “Har-har. Now could you tell me why I’m a genius, besides for the obvious reasons?” “The police can use Mab’s help to find where that werewolf is located,” he told me. “Is she a hunter, too?” I asked him. He grinned and grabbed my hand to tug me towards the door. “Not exactly, but she’s the next best thing. That is, if we can get a hold of that fur. Come on.” 15 We were soon back at the police station in front of the counter. The officer looked up as we entered and smiled at us. “What can I do for you?” Orion and I leaned our elbows on the counter. “We’d like to see the evidence we brought in this morning,” Orion told him. The officer blinked at us. “Evidence? For what crime?” Orion frowned. “The piece of fur the chief brought in. He said he’d put it in the evidence locker.” The officer looked at his computer screen and typed a few buttons. He leaned back and shook his head. “I’m sorry, but there isn’t any record of anything being put into the evidence locker today.” Orion straightened and looked past the man at the door marked ‘Chief.’ “Well, maybe the chief hasn’t put it in yet. Where is he?” “He’s meeting with the mayor, and I’m not sure when he’ll be back,” the officer replied. Orion slammed his palm on the counter. “Damn it. . .” The officer frowned. “If that’s all you wanted I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” I grabbed Orion’s arm and scooted him to the side. “Actually, I was wanting to take a look at one of the reports I filed this morning. I think I forgot to sign it.” The officer clacked his fingers across the keyboard and shook his head. “I only see one report from this morning.” Orion started forward. I pressed my hand against his chest and smiled at the officer. His eyes were on Orion and his hand had edged toward his gun. “Is that the one about the attack last night?” He nodded without moving his eyes off Orion. “It is.” “Thanks. That’s all we wanted to know.” I turned Orion to face the doors and pushed him toward them. “Now be a good boy, Orion. We don’t want to be on the bad side of the chief and his men.” I pushed him outside, but Orion dug his heels in right before the first step and spun around. “Do you ever forget anything anybody says?” I folded my arms and shook my head. “Nope.” He gestured to the doors behind me. “Then mind telling me why you made us leave before we learned anything in there?” I held up a finger. “On the contrary. We learned that the chief is either not very good with his paperwork, or he’s intentionally hiding that we found out that the population signpost needs to tick up by one.” Orion pursed his lips and looked past me at the doors. “I’m starting to think you have something there.” “Great. So are you ready to go?” I asked him. He turned to me and blinked. “Go where?” I grabbed his hand and dragged him down the stairs. “Back to the highway so we can find that scent again. Maybe we’ll even find another piece of fur. Well, unless your nose remembers scents.” He shook his head. “I didn’t think to memorize this smell, but we’ll go see if we can’t find a sample for me to follow.” We got into the car and drove out to the highway. At least, we tried to drive to the highway, but there was a slight problem at the signpost. A patrol car sat on the side of the road. The officer stepped out and held up his hand. Orion coasted to a stop and the officer leaned down to window-height to look at us. “Sorry, Orion, you can’t go past here.” Orion frowned. “Why not?” The officer jerked his head in the direction of the highway. “Road’s a little muddy, so the chief thought it’d be a good idea to close the road until we get a gravel truck out here.” “It was fine this morning,” Orion pointed out. The officer shrugged. “I don’t know about that, but orders are orders. I’m going to have to ask you two to turn around and head back.” “When will the truck be by?” Orion asked him. The officer shook his head. “Don’t know. Jerry’s got his work cut out for him after that snow last night, and this is always the last road he does. He might be here today, or he might get around to it tomorrow. Either way, you two need to turn around.” Orion saluted the officer. “All right. Thanks for the info.” Orion turned the car around and we headed back to town. I leaned forward to catch his attention. “Now do you believe me?” He pursed his lips, but nodded. “Yeah, I believe you, but what do we do now, Miss Reporter?” I folded my arms and slid down my seat. “I wish I knew. If we had some scent from that fur I’d say we could use that nose of yours, but without it-” I ran my hand through my hair and shook my head. “I don’t know what to-” I paused. A foul odor hit my nostrils. It smelled like a dead wet chicken. I sat up and wrinkled my nose. “What the hell is that smell?” Orion arched his eyebrow. “I don’t smell anything.” I sniffed the air and followed the scent down to my hand. I lifted my hand and took a whiff. The smell hit me with more force. I stretched my arm out in front of me and coughed. “It smells like I rubbed my fingers in rotten bird.” Orion pulled over to the side of the road and held out his hand. “Let me smell.” I gave him my hand and he took a whiff. His eyes lit up and a smile slid onto his lips. “You rubbed your fingers on the tuft of fur and your sensitive nose picked up on the scent.” I stuck my tongue out. “If this is the only perk to being a werewolf than I want a refund.” Orion sniffed his own fingers and furrowed his brow. “The scent isn’t on my fingers.” I arched an eyebrow. “Then what is?” He took another sniff and recoiled. His lips curled back in disgust. “Wolf’s bane.” “Like the stuff you gave me last night?” I guessed. Orion clutched his head and grimaced. “Unfortunately, yes. I-” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I think-” He slumped over the wheel of the car. “Orion!” I yelped. I clutched his shoulders and shook him. He didn’t open his eyes. “Huntley? Sour? Come on!” I gave him another shake, but he was out. I sat back in my seat and threw up my hands. “Well, shit.” I stepped out and around the car to the driver’s side. It wasn’t easy dragging his limp body out of the driver’s seat and around the car to my former place. “You need to. . .lose some weight,” I gasped as I shoved my shoulder against him and pushed him back into the car. I hopped into the driver’s seat. A bitter scent floated across my nose. My head swam. I shook my head and pulled the car back onto the road. “Come on, Trixie, you gotta snap out of it. . .” I whispered to myself as I drove down the main street. My pep-talk didn’t disperse the lingering odor of the wolf’s bane. I reached the motel parking lot and coasted into the space in front of the office. My mind was hazy as I slipped out and stumbled toward the door. The door opened and Troy hurried toward me. I tripped over the pavement and he caught me in his arms. “Come on. Let’s get you inside,” he told me as he half-dragged me towards the door. He hefted me inside and lay me against the front wall. I pushed away his arms and pointed a shaking finger at the door. “Orion. He’s-” Troy nodded. “I know. I’ll get to him in a moment. Just let me make you comfortable.” There were two mugs on the counter. He took one and knelt beside me. He tilted my head back and tipped some of the concoction into my mouth. I choked and sputtered on the bitter flavor. He set the mug down and stood. “I’ll be right back.” He slipped out the door. I coughed a few more times, but I felt better. The haze cleared a little and I felt my strength returning. The bell above the door rang and Troy came in dragging Orion behind him. The motel manager seated Orion beside me, and the contents of the second mug was given to my compatriot. Orion coughed and turned his face away. His eyes fluttered open and fell on our friend. He weakly grinned up at Troy. “A sore sight for eyes. . .” Troy smiled and set the mug down beside Orion. “And a close call for you both.” “What-” Orion tried to sit up, but he swayed and clutched his head. Troy put his hands on Orion’s shoulders. “Your lovely companion drove you here after you lost consciousness.” He lifted Orion’s right hand in both of his and studied the fingers. “It smells like a mild dose of wolf’s bane was rubbed into your palm. Not a deadly amount, to be sure, but enough that even with your immunity you would have been out for quite a while if you hadn’t gotten to me.” He pulled out a rag from his back pocket, dipped one corner in Orion’s mug, and rubbed the liquid over his palm. “There. That should take away the scent.” I arched an eyebrow. “His immunity?” Troy smiled and nodded. “Orion carries with him a dose of wolf’s bane in his back pocket. The constant dose of lingering bane scent has made Orion more immune than most werewolves.” I wrinkled my nose. “Then how come I didn’t drop like him?” “Your body is still changing, and only at the last stage do you develop the weaknesses of a werewolf,” he explained. Orion set his hand against his chest and furrowed his brow. “I don’t understand how that got on there.” Troy’s eyes flickered up to his face. “Don’t you?” My eyes widened and I whipped my head to the men. “The chief! He shook your hand!” Orion frowned. “But why would he do that?” Troy smiled and stood. “I believe that is what you must find out.” He grabbed Orion’s hands and pulled him to his feet. “Now up and out. A short nap and you should be fine.” Orion swayed from side-to-side and shook his head. “Y-yeah, thanks, Troy.” Troy shook his head. “Don’t mention it. I wouldn’t want all the town drunks coming here when they want a wall to lean on.” He helped me to my feet and winked at me. “For you, however, I wouldn’t mind a bit of thanks.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks.” He sighed and shrugged. “An old man can dream.” I grasped Orion’s left arm and helped him outside. The midday sun peaked out from behind the gray clouds and warmed us as we made our way to the car. I put Orion in the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel. I glanced at Orion. “You sure you’re feeling okay?” He sunk down in his seat and nodded. “Yeah, I just need that nap Troy talked about.” “Not just yet.” I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. “We’ve got some talking to do.” I drove us back to his house and helped him inside to the couch. He settled on the cushion with a groan and leaned back. I plopped down beside him and looked him over. “You need anything before the interrogation begins?” He wearily smiled and shook his head. “I prefer to take my shots without chasers.” I crossed my legs and turned to face him. “How often has the police chief tried to knock you out?” He sighed. “This is the first attempt. I did have someone swing a crowbar at me once, though.” He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. “Or was it a dead chicken? My mind still isn’t working.” I cringed. “Let’s go with the crowbar. So I’m guessing this hunting stuff you do isn’t generally this dangerous?” He shrugged. “Depends on the job. Sometimes I had to hunt rogue were-bears or were-rabbits, but I was usually prepared for them. This, though-” he raised his right hand and pursed his lips, “-I wasn’t prepared for this.” I blinked at him. “Were-rabbits?” “Another of the were type in the town.” “Ah. So how long have you known the chief? Is he a new addition like me?” He shook his head. “No, not a new addition.” He smiled and cradled his head in his hand. “He and I were in the same classes in school and used to play tricks on the teachers. They called us the Terrorizing Two.” I folded my arms and pursed my lips. “So you don’t know why he’d have it out for you?” Orion turned to me with a frown. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I sighed. “Only that if you’d been driving at any fast speed, or just happen to be walking across the street, you might have been stretched out on a stretcher right now. After all, that scent didn’t have a timer set for when it would go off.” Orion winced. “I suppose you’re right.” “Of course I’m right. I’m the hero, remember?” I teased him. My smile slipped off my face when I saw his downcast expression. “Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks?” He stared at the floor and shook his head. “I don’t know.” I leaned over and took one of his hands in mine. He looked up and blinked at me. I smiled at him. “Whatever’s happening around here, we’ll find out, right, Sidekick?” He grinned. “Yeah, but-” A yawn interrupted him, and when he finished his eyes were half-closed. He leaned back and closed his eyes. “But after that nap.” I sighed and leaned my head against the back of the couch. If you couldn’t question them, join them. 16 A knock on the door brought me out of a peaceful, dream-less sleep. Voices floated through the house. My eyes flickered open, and I sat up and looked around. The couch cushion beside me was empty. The faint sound of voices drifted from the front door. I leaned forward and caught sight of Orion’s back at the door. In front of him stood a young woman I’d never met. She was about sixteen with long reddish hair and a stripe of orange down both her cheeks. Her eyes sported the strange feline contacts that were perennially popular with kids her age. Her dark complexion bespoke a mixed heritage of Western and Indian origins. A sweet scent of spice flowed from her clothes and hair. “She just thought you would want to know.” She looked past Orion at me and cringed. Orion half-turned and smiled at me. “Sleeping Beauty has finally awakened. Trixie, there’s somebody I’d like you to meet.” I walked over to the pair and Orion gestured to the young girl. “Trixie Lyal, this is Jasmine Tipu.” Jasmine smiled and bowed her head to me. “Please call me Jazz. Everyone else does.” I smiled and held out my hand. “Then call me Trixie.” We shook hands and Jazz turned to Orion. “I really have to be going.” He nodded. “Send my thanks along when you see her again.” Jazz bowed her head and hurried down the path. The late-afternoon sun reflected off her red hair and showed off a few orange strands. Orion shut the door and turned to me. I nodded at the closed door. “So who’s the ‘she’ she was talking about?” He grinned at me. “Jealous?” I folded my arms and smiled sweetly at him. “That depends.” He arched an eyebrow. “On what?” “On whether we’re in an alternate reality.” He swept me into his arms and pressed a long, passionate kiss against my lips. We came away gasping for air and a blush accentuated my cheeks. He looked down at me with that mischievous grin of his. “Did that teleport us to that alternate reality?” I snorted. “That depends. Does it rain donuts here or just water?” He righted me and shrugged. “Does it matter?” I nodded. “A lot. I might not like this reality if all we get is rain.” He pursed his lips and glanced at the door. “Speaking of rain, Jazz brought us some wet news from Mab. Chief Orso was attacked an hour ago by an unknown assailant. He’s at the hospital, and the whole town is locked up in their houses. If Orso wanted to keep everyone from knowing there was someone loose out there he made a big mistake.” I winced and set a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I mean, I know he’s your friend.” Orion shrugged. “It’s fine. At least he’s not hurt too badly.” “Any way we can talk to him?” He shook his head. “No. He’s on Sickness watch, so nobody but the doctor’s can get in to see him.” I pursed my lips. “So what now?” Orion nodded at the door. “Jazz told me he was attacked responding to a call in the woods.” He grasped my hand and grinned. “As long as you haven’t washed your hand we should be able to follow any scent that might match the fur we found.” I arched an eyebrow. “Jazz told you a lot in a short time.” He smiled. “She has a way with words.” “And a strange fashion sense.” He pursed his lips. “That isn’t exactly her choice. When she experienced her first transformation parts of her body never reverted back.” I furrowed my brow. “Does that happen often?” Orion shook his head. “Very rarely until the last five years or so.” I glanced out the tall window beside the front door. “This sleepy little town has a lot of problems.” He grabbed our coats, tossed them over his arm and took hold of my hand. “Let’s go see if we can dig some more up.” We climbed into my car with Orion at the helm and drove down the road. The slushy streets were deserted. The sleds lay abandoned on the hill. I turned away from the lonely sight and to Orion. “So how long does it take the Sickness to take effect?” He shook his head. “It’s different for everybody. Sometimes it’s a few minutes, sometimes a few days. That’s why Orso’s being watched.” “Can the Sickness actually kill someone? I mean, not with the sick person doing the killing,” I asked him. He nodded. “If the illness progresses far enough, it could kill the person who’s infected.” I ran a hand through my hair and sighed. “You know, this place is starting to make a live broadcast from Detroit look safe.” I glanced out the window and watched as we left town and headed up the hill toward the Blessing Tree. “Where exactly are we going, anyway? Not to an on-site interview, I hope.” Orion shook his head as we rounded the corner and passed the road to the tree. “Nope, just to the scene of the crime. We’ll soon find out if it was our mysterious friend who attacked Orso, or if we have a new problem.” Orion drove for two miles before he pulled off the side of the road onto a squishy dirt spot. We stepped out and he nodded at a pair of ruts like those that led to the tree. “That’s where we need to go.” I squinted at the faint road. All the snow was melted, but the water hadn’t soaked into the ground, leaving a mess of marshland and puddles. The trees of the forest stood thick on either side, and the brush was even thicker. The darkening of day stretched their shadows over the road and created a cavernous effect that made chills run down my spine. A snort escaped my lips. “Of course it is.” Orion led the way down the road. We walked for a mile before we reached a small, circular meadow. The trees parted and on either side were small fire pits made from large stones. I gestured at the pits. “Don’t tell me. This is where everyone convenes with nature.” Orion smiled and shook his head. “Not quite.” He knelt on the ground and brushed his hand over the road. “More than the chief has been here. There are four recent sets of tire prints on the road.” I knelt beside him and looked over the imprints. “Damn. And me without my camera.” He lifted his smiling eyes to me and tapped the side of his nose. “No need for that. Just use your nose.” I sniffed the air and wrinkled my nose. “Smells like pine needles.” I raised my hand and stuck out my tongue. “And dead wet chicken.” “Here, let me smell that.” He grabbed my wrist and pulled my hand under his nose. I blushed as his skin brushed against mine. He closed his eyes and released me. A grin curled onto his lips as he stood. “Sometimes I don’t know if you want to kiss me or kick me in the balls.” I stood and glared at him. “Maybe a little of both.” He grabbed my wrist and pulled me against his chest. “Let’s try the first one.” Orion leaned down and captured my lips in a searing kiss. Lustful heat traveled up and down my body. I pressed my hands against his chest and pushed us to arm’s length. “I-I think we need to focus on the tire tracks,” I told him. Orion looked down at me with eyes tinged with more yellow than was normal. I furrowed my brow and stepped away from him. “Are you okay?” His chest moved up and down in faster and faster heartbeats. Fur sprouted over his face and his clothes stretched to make room for his bulging muscles. His face elongated into a thick snout and his hands at his sides flexed into long claws. “What’s going on? Why are you changing?” I asked him. A lecherous grin slid onto his lips. My pulse quickened as I recognized the same lunatic look in his eyes as in the others afflicted with the Sickness. I backed up and held up my hands. “Orion, listen to me. We can work things out. We can get you some help.” He snarled at me. “Okay, so we’ll skip the help, but you still don’t have to eat me.” He trudged onward and I trudged backward until my back hit the trunk of a thick tree. Orion leapt at me. I swung around the tree and stumbled through the wet, slick brush. Orion got down on all four paws and raced after me. He caught me five yards into the woods. We crashed onto the wet ground. I rolled over onto my back and looked up into his wild face. He slammed his hands down on either side of my head and leaned towards me. I shut my eyes and turned my face away. He leaned forward and brushed his muzzle against my neck. His warm breath wafted over my trembling flesh. I felt a prick of carnal desire slip into my mind. My body broke out in a sweat as one of his clawed hands glided down my side. My pulse and breath quickened. I bit my lips to keep back a groan as his hand slid beneath my coat and shirt. His warm fingers caressed my skin and ignited within me a fire that hungered for his touch. But now was not the time for eating. I shook my head to clear the lust-fog and looked around for something to get me out of this mess. I gasped when Orion brushed his hips against mine. His bulging need pressed against my left leg. Something he said came back to me. He pulled his face away from my neck and looked down at me with those feral eyes. I smiled and shrugged. “Sorry.” I jerked up my knee. My kneecap connected with his swollen, sensitive balls. His eyes bulged and a high-pitched whimper escaped his lips. I grabbed his shoulders and slid him off me. He dropped to his side and curled into a tight ball. I rolled around him so I faced his admirable butt. His fur covered most of the jeans, but I was able to see the back pockets. A bulge like a wallet pushed out the one on the right. I tried to slip my hand in, but his tight ass made that impossible. A low, dangerous growl told me he was recovering from my low-blow attack. I grabbed the top of the pocket and pulled. The cloth tore downward, and out dropped a small leather wallet. A whiff of wolf’s bane hit my nose. I snatched up the wallet and stumbled back as Orion spun around. He crouched on his feet with his hands on the ground in front of him and curled his lips back in a nasty snarl. My fingers fumbled in the wallet as I weakly smiled at him. “No hard feelings, right?” His eyes narrowed and he stalked toward me on all fours. I wrapped my fingers around a dry weed-like substance and tossed it into his face. He yelped and stumbled back. His hands furiously pawed at his face. The scent of wolf’s bane invaded my nostrils. The world around me spun around. I fell back just as Orion, too, collapsed. Then the world went black. 17 A faint beeping noise came to my ears. Bright lights pierced my eyelids. It was an effort to open them, and when I succeeded my vision was blurry. A white ceiling lay above me, and there was a tall blur on my right where I lay. I squinted and the world came into focus. Orion sat beside me with a large window at his back that was covered by a thick curtain. On his left was a hospital machine with the red line bouncing up and down across the dark screen. Behind my head was a fluffy pillow, and draped over me was a clean sheet. The white walls finished off the depressingly sterile environment. His eyes widened and he scooted his chair closer to my bed. I managed to give him a smile. “Hey,” I croaked. He returned my smile with one of his own. “Hey. How are you feeling?” I shifted atop the thin mattress sheet. “Weak.” He nodded. “I’m not surprised. You took a pretty heavy dose of dried wolf’s bane.” I tried to sit up, but my arms wobbled beneath me. Orion jumped from his chair and wrapped his arms around me before I fell back. “Easy there. You were out for over half the day.” I looked past him at the closed window. It was then I saw there was no light behind them. “What time. . .is it?” I choked out. He propped me up on the pillow and sat back down. “About nine at night.” A mischievous smile slipped onto his lips. “The doctors didn’t think you’d wake up today, but I knew a good mystery couldn’t keep a good reporter down long.” I snorted and shook my head. “A good reporter. . .wouldn’t have gotten herself into that kind of mess.” He leaned forward and set his hand over mine. His eyes looked into mine and he winked. “For what it’s worth, I think you did a pretty good job of getting out of that mess. It’s not everybody who can face a crazed werewolf and get out unscathed.” I frowned. “So it was the Sickness?” He sighed and nodded. “Yeah. I probably got it from fighting too many infected people, and it took a few days to show up. I came to a few hours after you tossed the bane into my face and managed to get us both to the hospital.” I furrowed my brow. “What kept you from changing sooner?” Orion pulled the covers up to my waist and smiled at me. “Wolf’s bane is the main ingredient in the Sickness antidote. The doctor’s are guessing my natural immunity also warded off the Sickness, at least for a little while.” I rolled my eyes. “Is there a werewolf survival guide I can get a hold of so I can know this stuff before I end up in the hospital?” He chuckled and shook his head. “Nope. Besides-” he leaned forward and wagged his eyebrows, “-I happen to admire your posterior in that gown.” A hard blush came to my cheeks and I glared at him. “You perverted-” My tirade against his lecherous ways was interrupted by a knock on the door. We both turned our eyes on the door. Orion frowned. “Come on.” The door opened. The first to enter was a bouquet of roses followed by the person who held them. It was Mayor Darnell. She slipped inside and closed the door behind her. A smile lay on her lips as she strode over to the bed. “I’m glad to see you’re well, Miss Lyal,” she commented. Her eyes fell on Orion. “And you, as well, Orion.” Orion pursed his lips and stiffly returned the compliment. “Good evening, Mayor Darnell. What brings you here?” She held up the bouquet. “I thought I would bring these for the newest member of our community.” Her eyes flashed and her voice tensed. “And a warning.” Orion stood and stiffened. I noticed his hands flexed at his sides. “What kind of warning?” She strode over to the table beside the bed and placed the bouquet in an empty vase. Her hands deftly arranged the flowers as a small smile curled onto her lips. “Your mate’s life was threatened because you chose to ignore our gentle hints.” She turned to us and her smile fell from her face. Her eyes narrowed and she pursed her lips. “Please do not interfere with this investigation.” Orion’s eyebrows crashed down. He balled his hands into fists and a growl rumbled from this throat. “So there is a cover-up.” Darnell frowned. “It is merely a precautionary action. If the town was to know there was a stranger among us they would understandably be concerned.” She nodded to me. “For proof you need only recall the last city council where your mate was introduced to them.” Orion narrowed his eyes. “So this is for the greater good, is that it? You let some infected maniac run loose because you don’t want to deal with your own failure at catching them?” “We have the situation under control,” she insisted. He scoffed at her. “Like a chicken in a fox’s mouth. Whatever this thing is, it’s in an entirely different league from the police squad.” Mayor Darnell sighed and shook her head. “I had hoped reason would persuade you, but I see I was mistaken.” She strode over to the door and grabbed the handle, but paused and looked over her shoulder at us. “I have given you several warnings. This is my last. Do not interfere, or I cannot be held responsible for the consequences.” She slipped out and shut the door behind her. Orion curled his lips back and let loose a deep, reverberating growl. “That bitch. She’s willing to get everybody infected just so she can claim the credit of capturing that thing.” I leaned forward and wrapped my hand around his arm. He looked to me and I gave him a smile. “Easy there. Mab’s nickname for you is starting to show.” Orion’s shoulders slumped. He sighed and set his hand over mine. “Yeah, but I won’t let her win this fight. You and I are going to bring down both this monster and the mayor.” I arched an eyebrow. “Brave words, but where do we even start?” He smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “With this, and our eyes.” I frowned. “We already tried those. That’s why I’m laying in this bed.” He chuckled. “Now this is serious. Now the hunt is on.” He held his hand out to me and our gazes met. “I won’t let them beat us. Will you?” I snorted and clapped my palm into his. “Hell no. But first-” I glanced down at myself, “-where the hell are my clothes?” Orion pulled a paper bag from beneath his chair and presented it to me. “At your service, madam.” I took the bag and pointed at the door. “Out.” His face fell. “Is that any way to reward me for holding your clothes.” I pushed him toward the door. “If you stay in here I’ll never get these clothes on, now out.” He sighed and shuffled outside. A quick change and I felt like a new, and healthier gal. I opened the door and found Orion leaned against the wall on the right of the entrance to my room. The hall stretched to the left and right, and was filled with plain white doors. A small wide spot with a pair of elevators was situated a few yards to the right of my room. I stepped in front of him and smiled. “All right, junior reporter, where do we start using our sniffers?” He pushed off the wall and smiled. “So now I’m a junior reporter?” I shrugged. “I thought I’d promote you. You’ve been mildly useful so far.” He took my arm and looped it through his own as he led me down the hall. “I thought we’d start where the police left off at the meadow.” I arched an eyebrow. “Why there? Wouldn’t the cops have gone over that place?” He nodded. “Yes, and that’s exactly why we need to go back.” I frowned. “Explain it to me, or I’m demoting you.” Orion chuckled. “It’s elementary, my dear reporter. Their prey is smarter than them, otherwise they would have captured him a long time ago. That means that they’re the ones being hunted, and not the other way around.” I furrowed my brow. “So that means that wherever they went, the werewolf followed behind them?” He grinned and nodded. “Now you’re starting to think like a Hunter.” We reached the elevators and took one from my third floor suite to the ground floor. To our right ran the long hall to the corner of the building, and to our left lay the front lobby with its sitting room and doors to freedom. On the left stood the front desk, and on the right were the fabled doors. Orion and I strolled down the hallway and into the lobby. Behind the long, tall desk was a white-coated doctor and the front desk secretary. They both examined a clipboard. The doctor looked up at our coming. “Orion! Miss Lyal!” He gave the clipboard to the secretary and hurried around the desk to cut off our hasty retreat. “Where are you going?” Orion nodded at the front doors. “Out. We need some fresh air.” The doctor shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t let either of you through. You need a few more days of observation to make sure neither of you are infected.” Orion frowned. “Both of us? Even after I’ve been cured?” The man nodded. “Yes. It’s a new precaution set up by emergency decry of the mayor.” My eyes flickered to Orion. “That lady is thorough.” Orion pursed his lips and nodded. “Very.” The doctor gestured down the hall from where we came. “If you would both follow me I can take you to the isolation area.” Orion shook his head. “I’m afraid not, doc. We really have to be going.” Orion grabbed my hand and pulled me in the opposite direction of the doors. “Wait! Come back!” the doctor yelled. “Is this a good idea?” I yelped as he dragged me at high-speed down the white corridor. In front of us was the end of the building and the right-turn around the corner. “Do you have a better idea?” he countered. He skidded to a stop as a pair of blue-uniformed officers rounded the corner. I bumped into him and frowned. “Yeah, like not getting caught.” “Then do I have a plan for you,” he quipped as he dragged me into the room to our left. The sole bed was occupied by a white-haired gentleman. He sat up at our coming and winced when the door slammed against the wall. “Orion, what are you two-” “I’ll talk later, Mr. Aude!” Orion interrupted him as we raced past the foot of the bed. On the wall opposite the doorway was a large window that looked out on the brown lawn that surrounded the hospital. My eyes widened as Orion tightened his grip on my hand and positioned himself in front of me. He leapt into the air, taking me with him. His shoulder crashed into the glass, shattering the window into a million twinkling pieces. We were showered with shards of glass and our feet crunched down on the broken pieces strewn over the lawn. That was one obstacle down, a few more to go to freedom. 18 We hit the ground running and took off across the lawn toward the parking lot that surrounded the grass. I glanced over my shoulder. The officers leapt through the hole in the window and raced after us. They were just a little faster. “We have. . .a problem!” I gasped. Orion looked over his shoulder and frowned. “I see what you mean.” He pulled me into his arms and picked up speed. The officers didn’t gain any more ground between us, but we weren’t losing them. We sped across the black pavement and yellow lines, and into the depths of the town. Orion slid into the nearest alley and ran down the dirt path. He pulled something out of his pocket and dropped a leather bag into my lap. The top was closed with a thick mess of string. “Open the string and toss the bag over my shoulder!” he ordered me. I picked up the bag and fumbled with the drawstring. “Why do guys always have to make these things so tight!” I growled. I finally got the string untied. The top opened and I was hit with a powerful blast of fishy smell. I clapped my hand over my nose and coughed. Never was I so happy to get rid of something as I was to throw that bag behind us. My aim wasn’t great and the leather bag hit the exterior of a nearby garage door. The impact occurred even with the lead officer. The policeman skidded to a stop and raised his nose to the air. I could see his nostrils flare as he turned his head left and right. The others behind him stopped and did likewise. One of them whipped his head to the left where lay the bag. He lunged at the container just as his fellow officers figured out what they knew. They tackled him, and what ensued was a massive brawl for the bag. We reached the end of the alley and turned a sharp right down the street. Orion didn’t stop until we were halfway up the hill toward the tree road. He slipped into the mouth of an alley and set me down. I sniffed my hands and wrinkled my nose. The scent lingered on my fingers. “What was that stuff?” He grasped the corner of a fenced yard and peeked around the other side. “Salmon-scented fish bait. Most of the police force is full of were-bears, so I always keep some handy whenever I have trouble with them.” He turned to me and smiled. “Besides, the fish love it.” I arched an eyebrow. “So you’re telling me even a scent can throw a were-person into a feeding frenzy?” He shrugged. “It has to be the right scent, and it has to be strong.” I stuck my hands into my pockets. “You’re telling me.” He turned away and glanced around the corner again. “But it looks like the coast is clear. We should head out before they get a hold of themselves.” “Where exactly are we heading out to?” I asked him as he led me out of the alley and up the street. “A friend of mine has a place outside of town. We can stay there until the patrol passes and then start our reporting,” he explained. We hurried up the hill and in a few minutes we reached the turn in the road. To our left lay the dirt road to the strange tree. I paused and glanced down its dark depths. My mind recalled that strange pull that led me down the lane to that mysterious grove. I felt a small bit of that, enough that I took a step toward the path. I jumped when Orion’s hand slipped into mine. He tugged me away from the lane and back to the road. “Come on. We don’t have time for a detour.” I glanced one last time at the tree lane before he pulled me across the road to the forest of trees. We dove into a narrow, little-used path that wound its way through the thick trunks and brambles. Our steps had taken us twenty feet when we heard the wail of sirens behind us. Orion ducked us behind a large tree and pulled my head down. The sirens stopped on the road, and I heard car doors open and shut. He peeked around the trunk. “Looks like they’re checking out the tree first before they get to this side,” he whispered to me. He took my hand and led me down the path. “That gives us some time to reach the junkyard.” I arched an eyebrow. “The junkyard? That’s your hideout?” He looked over his shoulder and smiled at me. “What better place for a couple of discarded werewolves? Besides, my friend runs the place. He’ll shack us up for at least a night.” We zigged and zagged our way through the forest for a couple of miles before the path opened in front of us. The tree line stopped on either side of us and we stepped into a clearing some two hundred yards wide and long. In the center five yards from us and surrounded by an eight-foot tall metal-sheet fence stood the town junkyard. Stacked cars, fridges, and twisted hunks of metal towered above the fence. Orion guided me over to the fence. He knelt beside a sheet of metal and peeled back one of the bottom corners. He turned to me and swept his hand toward the opening. “After you.” I squeezed through the hole and held the sheet open for Orion to wiggled through. He stood and brushed himself off as his eyes inspected the area. “Not a bad place, is it?” I followed his gaze and cringed. Piles of diapers, rotten food, and broken appliances stood nearby. The stench of garbage invaded my nose. I clapped my hand over my nose and shuddered. “Just wonderful.” He grasped my hand and lowered it. “Don’t do that in front of our host.” I arched an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He nodded at a nearby pile of composting junk. “See anything strange about that pile?” I leaned forward and squinted. “Other than its resemblance to an ink blot, no.” He chuckled. “Your stripes are showing, Jerry.” My eyes widened as a group of orange and banana peels slunk off the pile on all four limbs. Orange paws crushed the cans beneath its toes and a long, ringed tail swung from side to side behind it. The creature lifted its head and revealed itself to be a large tiger. Its long black whiskers twitched as it stalked toward us. I yelped and leapt behind Orion. He laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s just Jerry.” The tiger stopped five feet from us and raised itself onto two feet. The creature’s form shifted into a half-man, half-tiger where the face wasn’t quite as elongated and its back legs were longer than the front ones. I could discern the faint facial features of a man of Near-Eastern descent. “I thought I had you fooled.” Orion smiled and shook his head. “Almost, but your whiskers always twitch when you get excited.” The man brushed his fingers over his whiskers. “I will improve on that, but what has brought you here? Do you wish to buy some of my precious things?” Orion pursed his lips. “This is more of a personal call, Jerry. We need you to hide us for the night.” Jerry raised one of his fur-covered eyebrows. “Hide? From whom are you hiding?” The call of the police sirens came to our ears. Orion jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “From those.” Jerry frowned. “From the police? But why?” Orion shook his head. “There’s no time to explain. Just think of it as I owe you big time.” Jerry sighed and nodded. “Very well. Follow me.” He shifted into full tiger mode and loped into the jungle of junk. Orion swept me into his arms and we flew after our furry guide. The yard was a maze of piles and stacks. Everything from trucks to tea sets lay among the rotting debris. We reached the opposite end of the junk yard and found an oasis of clean among the desert of debris. A two-floor house stood in the far left corner of the junkyard. Its exterior walls were painted a bright white, and around its perimeter was a lush green yard. To the left of the house lay the large front gates that stood on rollers. They were open, and a dirt road led around a bend in the trees and to the fence. A plow truck stood just inside the open gates. The noise of the sirens echoed down the road. The front door to the house opened, and a familiar, and striped, face rushed out. It was Jasmine. Her eyes fell on us and she rushed over. “What’s happened?” Jerry nodded at us. “Take them to the basement room. I will speak with the police.” “But-” “Please do as I ask,” he insisted as he turned her back toward the house. He glanced at us. “Please follow my daughter. She will help you.” Orion smiled and nodded. “With pleasure.” I glared up at him. “Not with too much pleasure.” “Come with me,” Jasmine spoke up. She rushed back to the house, and we followed with the call of the sirens close at our heels. 19 We rushed inside to find the house as clean as its exterior. The smell of spices permeated the halls. In front of the entrance was a staircase to the upper floor, and below that was an open staircase to the bottom. We swung around the railing of the lower staircase and down to a landing. At the end of the short landing was a doorway. Jasmine led us through the door and into the dark, cool dry basement. My inexperienced eyes made out shapes that hung from the ceiling, and my experienced nose was bombarded with the scents of strong spices. We followed the wall to the right until the corner. Jasmine pressed her palm against an indent in the wall, and part of the wall to her left opened to reveal a hidden room. She turned to us. “You can hide in here, but whatever you do, don’t make a noise. They might hear you.” Orion nodded. “Understood, and thank you.” He carried me inside and Jasmine closed the wall behind us. We were left in pitch-black darkness. A sudden thought came to my mind. “You think there’s any way we can let ourselves out?” Orion set me down. “They’ll let us out when the police leave.” “And what if the police take them away?” I countered. “Then we have a problem.” My shoulders slumped and I pinched the bridge of my nose. The scent of the spices bit at my sensitive nostrils. My eyes watered. “Maybe we should-” He clapped his hand over my mouth. A moment later I heard the thud of heavy boots above us. Murmured voices floated to our ears. One was high-pitched and young. Jasmine. Another was soft. I could barely hear him. A third joined theirs. Their voice was deep and firm. The many pairs of boots trudged across the first floor and faded upstairs. Orion dropped his hand from my mouth. I glared at him, or at least the spot where I thought he stood. I didn’t have time to scold him before a pair of boots came back down the stairs. They walked the boards to the basement steps and proceeded down into the spicy domain. I held my breath as I heard the door creak open. “What the hell-?” a man yelped. The other boots pounded down the upper stairs and rushed to the aid of their basement fellow. “What’s wrong?” “What the hell is down here?” the first voice asked. “It is our spice cellar,” I heard Jerry explain. “The spices dry best beneath the ground, and store very well here. Would you like to try some?” “What we’d like you to do is tell us where Orion and the girl went,” the deep voice spoke up. “I did not see where they had gone,” Jerry replied. I suppressed a snort. It was the truth. Sort of. “Everybody, spread out,” Deep Voice demanded. “But sir, there’s no way we can smell them down here,” the man who had yelped pointed out. The guy with the deep voice growled. “Fine. Everybody back to the cars.” The boots began their ascent. A sudden tickle hit my nose. I threw my hand over my mouth. Too late. A small, squeaky sneeze escaped me. The boots paused. I froze. Orion stiffened at my side. “Did you hear that?” Yelp Man asked the group. “The walls are old and make noises,” Jerry spoke up. “I don’t think walls sneeze,” Yelp Man argued. The heavy boots walked deeper into the basement and stopped a few feet from our hiding spot. There was a long pause. The boots turned. “All right, men, let’s go.” I heard Yelp Man take in some air. “But sir-” “I said we’re going,” the gruff man repeated. “Thank you for your time, Jerry.” “It was my pleasure, and please come again when you are in need of supplies,” Jerry replied. “We will. Come on.” The boots and two pairs of other shoes clomped upstairs and out of the house. The sirens sounded, and faded into the distance. I leaned against the wall and sighed. “Are we having fun yet?” I quipped. Orion chuckled. “I admit it’s been a little too long since I had you in a dark room all to myself.” I rolled my eyes. “Maybe it’s about time I taught you how to heel.” Soft footsteps walked down the stairs and over to the hidden door. The entrance swung open. I blinked against the basement light. Jerry and Jasmine stood before us, and both sported pursed lips. “I would like an explanation please,” Jerry requested. Orion smiled and bowed his head. “And you’ll have one, but in your living room.” Our little party trudged upstairs and to the living room at the front of the house. Orion and I took a seat on the couch, and Jerry seated himself in a chair opposite us. Jasmine stood behind him with one hand on the tall back. We recounted our story, and when we were finished Jerry leaned back and frowned. “This is very bad,” he commented. Orion smiled. “Only bad in that we have to wait for the entire police force to leave before we can hunt for that loose werewolf.” “Did you want me to tell Mab about this?” Jasmine offered. Jerry grasped her hand and shook his head. “I do not want you leaving. Not when it is dark and that werewolf might return.” Orion arched an eyebrow. “Return where?” Jerry furrowed his brow and tapped his chin. “I cannot be sure, but I think I have seen this big werewolf of yours.” Orion and I leapt to our feet. “Where?” we shouted. Jerry shrank beneath our question, but pointed a finger out the window. “Around the junkyard. The wolf tried to get in many times, but I scared him away with my growling.” He smiled and nodded his head. “He is very afraid of me.” I rubbed my nose as another blast of spice rolled off our host. Maybe it wasn’t so much the noise as the strong smell. “Can you show us where you last saw it?” Orion requested. Jerry stood and nodded. “Yes. Come with me.” Jasmine stayed behind while Jerry took us through the maze of junk to the back fence. He pointed at a newly repaired portion with two fresh metal sheets. Beside the fixed wall was the destroyed parts. Their lower joined corners had been peeled back to make room for a large body. Orion knelt in front of the destroyed parts and ran his hand over the curved metal. “How long ago was this done?” “Last night. Very late,” Jerry told us. Orion looked over his shoulder at the stacks of junk. I saw microwaves, water coolers, small fridges, and the legs of countless office desks. “Any idea what he might have been after in this part of the yard?” Jerry followed his gaze and shook his head. “No. This area is for office machines only. No garbage to eat.” Orion stood and turned to our host. “Were there any recent dumps?” Our friend nodded. “Yes. Yesterday. It came from city hall. Let me show you.” He led us over to a slope of one of the piles and pointed at a broken computer monitor. The screen had a large hole in the middle. “They bring that one. I asked what happened, and they said it was an accident.” He smiled and shook his head. “No accident. That is a fist.” Orion leaned down and brushed his hand over the screen. “You’re right.” He straightened and sniffed his hand. “And it smells like our old friend the mayor was involved.” I arched an eyebrow and nodded at the screen. “So that was her screen?” He nodded. “Yes. She must have seen something she didn’t like.” I snorted. “Probably spam.” Orion half-turned back to the fence and furrowed his brow. “The police investigation notes disappear, the mayor warns us not to interfere, and now we find our prey is stalking her.” I folded my arms and frowned. “If this were a mystery movie I’d say we had a motive for a multi-department cover-up.” He nodded. “Yes, but no solid proof. That’s why we need to capture the werewolf before they do.” I grinned. “Looking to shake up city hall with some furry proof?” Orion turned back to Jerry. “What time did the werewolf come here?” “About one in the morning,” he replied. Orion looked to me and smiled. “Ready for a late night?” I snorted. “For news, any night.” 20 The moon shone brightly over the area and cast shadows across the littered ground of the junkyard. The wait was a welcome reprieve. Sort of. “Too hot! Too hot!” Orion yelped as he lunged for the glass of milk in front of him. We sat at the dining table, Jasmine beside me and the men opposite us. Between us was a small bowl of innocent-looking red peppers. Orion had just consumed two at once and his mouth was in the final stage of grief, acceptance. It had accepted that the pepper was one of the hottest in the world, and he had been stupid enough to eat two of them. Orion tipped his head and the glass back, and downed all the contents. He slammed the glass back on the table and hunched over the table. His face was flushed and tears poured down his cheeks. He breathed in and out like he was the last dying dinosaur. “Wow,” he croaked. Jerry chuckled and popped one of the peppers into his mouth. “It takes practice, my friend.” “Lots of practice,” Jasmine added as she, too, partook of the peppers like they were candy. “Or you could stop now and live to a ripe old age,” I quipped. Orion coughed and nodded at the untouched glass of milk in front of me. “Your turn.” I cringed and glanced at my watch. “Well, would you look at the time. It’s almost midnight.” I stood and pushed in my chair. “We’d better get going. We wouldn’t want to miss the guy.” “Then next time I will insist,” Jerry warned me as Orion stumbled to his feet. “And it’ll be double like mine,” Orion added. I made a mental check in my mind to avoid the junkyard in the future. Jerry and Jasmine led Orion out of the room to the front door. I tucked a few of the peppers into my pocket and hurried after them. I met them at the open door where Jerry grabbed his coat. Orion grasped his arm and shook his head. “I’d rather you and Jazz stayed here.” Jerry frowned. “But this is my duty. I must protect the yard.” Orion nodded. “I know, but this guy’s infected with the Sickness, and it wouldn’t be a very polite thank-you if we got you involved and you caught the Sickness.” Jerry pursed his lips. “I still do not like this.” Jasmine grasped his arms and tugged. “Please, Dad. Orion knows what he’s doing, otherwise Mab wouldn’t trust him.” Our host sighed, but nodded his head and replaced his coat on its hook. “Very well, but call if you need help. We will come.” Orion smiled and gave a nod. “And we’ll be glad to have it.” The autumn night was cold and dark as the two of us stepped out onto the lawn. The beam of light from the open front door disappeared at its closing, and we were left with the faint glow from the curtained windows. Before us towered the heaping shadows of the junkyard junk. Twisted shapes stabbed the sky and flickering shadows of rats skittered across the ground. I pressed close to Orion and watched the critters of the night go about their scavenging. “Are we sure Jerry didn’t see a giant rat?” He shook his head. “Jerry’s nose is never wrong.” “Even after all that spice intake?” Orion cracked a smile. “The spice clears the nose, or so he says.” He sniffed the air and looked down at my pocket. “Speaking of spice, what’s with the load?” I grinned. “Just a midnight snack.” We reached the spot in the fence where the werewolf had attempted its entrance. The night was still and quiet. A dog howled in the distance. I wondered if it was a neighbor. Orion stiffened. In the dim night of the clear sky I could see his nostrils flare in and out. “Smell something?” I whispered. Orion pressed his finger to his lips, but nodded. He grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the fence to one of the piles close beside the office supply stack. A few minutes ticked by. My nose tingled with the stench of a thousand garbage cans. I reached out for Orion’s sleeve to beg mercy. A twig snapped. I stiffened. The noise came from the other side of the fence. I focused my eyes on the newly-repaired area of the fence. Something scratched against the metal. I jumped when two hands slammed into the two metal sheets. The fencing groaned as it was pulled apart. A pair of yellow eyes stared through the opening, and sharp teeth glistened in the moonlight. A scream erupted behind us. I whipped my head in the direction of the house, but I didn’t have a direct sight. Feet splashed through the puddles toward us. “Orion!” Jasmine’s voice screamed. The young girl rounded the corner of one of the piles and raced into Orion’s arms. She clutched onto his coat and pointed at the house. “My dad! I think he’s-!” The sudden wrench of metal brought us back to our first problem. The werewolf shoved its broad shoulders through the hole it created and stepped on all fours into the junkyard. It raised itself onto its two rear legs and pierced the sky with its extreme height. The werewolf took a step toward the office supply pile. A howl broke the already-panicked air. Large, furry brown forms lunged from beneath the trash piles and loped at the werewolf. They tackled him to the ground with their hulking bodies. The werewolf thrashed and kicked. It managed to free one hand and gash the face of one of its attackers. The creature reared back its head and revealed itself to be a gigantic bear. It roared in pain while its fellow bear comrades pinned the werewolf to the ground. Their weight and numbers subdued the werewolf long enough for a familiar shadow to step from behind the office supply pile. The moonlight glistened off the needle in their hand. They strode over to the struggle and knelt beside the werewolf. The creature paused and growled at the person. “This is long overdue,” Mayor Darnell commented just before she stabbed the needle into the werewolf’s arm. The creature howled and thrashed, but the effects were almost immediate. Its eyes rolled back in its head and its head dropped onto the ground. The fur and thick muscles on its body shrank into his human form. In a few seconds a naked man of forty lay beneath the bear squad. Darnell stood and pocketed the needle. She turned to us and narrowed her eyes. “I had hoped not to have such a large audience.” Orion drew his arm in front of us and snarled at her. “So it was a trap. The officers knew we were in the basement.” A ghost of a smile flickered across her lips. “I would prefer to think of it as a joint operation. I am grateful for your assistance, but-” the bears came up behind Darnell, “-now something must be done about you.” She nodded at us. “Capture them.” Orion grabbed Jasmine and my shoulders and shoved us toward the house. “Run!” We made it a few steps before I sensed something was wrong. Orion wasn’t following us. I paused and glanced over my shoulder in time to see his clothes burst open as he assumed the wolfy position. The bears barreled down on him, but the first one took a hard punch to the face and was knocked down. He sidestepped the clumsy swings from the others, and looked to us. “Damn it, run!” he shouted. Jasmine shook her head. “We can’t leave you!” I grabbed Jasmine’s hand and pulled her along with me. “Don’t argue with the man when he’s working!” We raced to the house and reached the lawn. Jasmine dug her heels into the grass and pulled on my hand. “We can’t go in!” I half-turned to her and frowned. “Why not?” Me and my big mouth as my question was answered by the sudden annihilation of the front door from the inside. The shattered pieces of wood flew into the lawn. I pressed Jasmine against me and faced my back toward the house so the pieces hit me. A terrible growl filled the night. Jasmine and I looked to the front door in time to watch the large tiger that was Jerry stride onto the lawn. Its wide, black eyes glistened with the insanity of a wild house cat about to kill its store-purchased prey. I pulled Jasmine behind me and stepped back away from the approaching kitty. “Come on, Jerry! You don’t want to hurt your own daughter!” Apparently I was wrong as the tiger stalked us in a circle and pulled its lips back in a growl. I kept Jazz in back of me as it came closer, but she slipped around to my front. “Dad! It’s me!” The tiger lunged. I pushed Jasmine out of the way and raised my arms to block the blow. The shadow of another large, black cat leapt from the darkness and collided with the tiger. They rolled over the lawn with their claws swiping and their teeth gnashing at each other. They stopped their rolling with one beast atop the other. The victor was the black cat, some species of panther. The tiger’s eyes were closed. He didn’t move. Jasmine tried to run to them, but I grabbed her shoulders. She stretched her hand out to her tiger father. “Dad!” The black cat partially transformed into a woman with torn pants and a blouse. She pulled out a familiar needle from her pocket and stabbed the point into the tiger. The tiger growled, and in a few moments Jerry reverted back to his tattered-clothes self. The panther stood on its back legs and completely transformed into her human self. She turned to us, and my eyes widened as I beheld the tired face of Darnell. Jasmine glared at her. “What did you do to my dad?” Darnell held up the needle. “Nothing more than give him the antidote.” She looked past us. “It is an easier remedy than one I have planned for you three.” I turned and followed her gaze. The four bears walked toward us. Draped over one of their backs was the stranger. On another back lay Orion. “Don’t think of trying to escape without Orion’s help,” Darnell advised us. We were led from the junkyard to two patrol cars and a black sedan. Jazz and I were placed in the back of one patrol car and the men were tossed into the other. Darnell took the sedan for herself, and we were driven to our fate. 21 The cars turned a right at the main road and drove away from town. The wide pastures slowly changed to the woods as we approached the foothills of the mountains. I pressed my hand against the cage divider and looked at the pair of bear-men. They were transformed enough to fit into the car and drive. “Mind telling me where we’re going?” They stared straight ahead. “Will it be execution style behind a barn or do we get a forest view?” Stony silence. I frowned and dropped back onto the seat. I crossed my arms and slumped down. “Typical. Police never want to answer questions.” I heard a sniffle beside me and looked to Jasmine. She hung her head and clasped her hands in her laps. A few tears glistened atop her fingers. I straightened and set my hand atop hers. She looked up and showed off her wet cheeks. “Do you think my dad’s okay?” I gave her a small smile and nodded. “Definitely. He probably won’t even remember anything.” I looked ahead and sighed. “Which wouldn’t be such a bad idea right now.” One of the officers chuckled. I glared at him. “What’s so funny?” His partner shot him a warning glance. He resumed his stony face and pursed his lips. I was left with no answers and a worse feeling than before. The drive lasted about fifteen minutes, including a detour to the left onto a winding dirt road. The branches of the trees scraped against the sides of the car as we bounced up a gentle slope. The road ended at a small clearing, and in the center of that clearing stood a decrepit log cabin. The pane-glass windows were filmy with time and neglect. The huge logs were split and the gaps between them were chinked. A couple of rotten steps led up to a rotten porch. The faint glow of lights floated through flimsy, ragged curtains. Surrounding the cabin was a mud pit that forced the cars to stop near the opening to the clearing. Our captors stepped out and stood beside our doors. Darnell stepped out and walked onto the porch to the door. She gingerly knocked and stepped back. The door swung open and a haggish head stuck of the cabin. The long, matted hair framed a wizened old face of a woman. Her clothes were tattered robes in worse condition than the clothes Darnell wore. The old woman curled her lips back to sneer at the mayor and revealed her rotten teeth. “Whatta ya doing waking the dead with a knock like that?” Darnell pursed her lips. I could barely hear her voice as she spoke. “You didn’t hear the first, so I-” The old woman waved her hand. “Never mind the excuses. Whadda ya want from ol’ Black?” Darnell spoke a few words I couldn’t catch, but I heard Jasmine suck in her breath. “What’d she say?” I whispered. Jasmine whipped her head to me and showed off a pair of wide eyes. “They’re going to erase our memories!” I blinked at her. “They’re going to do what?” Jasmine nodded at the old woman. “She’s going to-” “Get them out of the cars!” Darnell called to her men. Our doors opened and Jasmine and I were dragged out of the vehicle through separate sides. Only Orion was taken from the other car. I squirmed and thrashed in the hold of my captor. “Smoky would be very ashamed of you!” I quipped. The old woman slipped out of her home and shuffled down the steps with Darnell behind her. She jerked her head toward the left-hand corner of the cabin. “Follow me.” Jasmine and I were dragged to the rear, and Orion was hefted over one shoulder. In the back was the usual assortment of woods-living items: a block of wood and chopped kindling, a bucket of water beside a hand pump, four stockades in front of a board with a pentagram drawn on the surface, and a small tool shed that leaned to one side. While the tool shed was interesting, my attention was invariably drawn to the stockades. The old woman stopped ten feet from the stockades and nodded at the wooden contraptions. “Put ‘em in there, and mind the latches. It won’t be my fault if they move and ruin the spell.” Jasmine and I were dragged over to the right ones, and Orion was carried to the far left one. The top of the stocks were lifted, but Orion’s handler needed to set down his load to lift the last stock. The moment Orion touched the ground he spun in a circle like a break-dancer. His feet kicked the legs out from beneath the were-bear and the man crashed to the ground. The momentary excitement allowed me to reach into my pocket and pulled out the hot peppers. I flung them into the faces of Jasmine and my captor. The stinging spiciness soiled their eyes with pain. They screamed and clawed at their faces as the hot poison sank into their skin. I grabbed Jasmine’s hand and yanked her toward the front of the house. The old woman yelped and skittered back to her hovel. Darnell stepped in our path and narrowed her eyes. “I can’t let you leave,” she told us. I pushed Jasmine behind me. A bulge in my pocket told me I had one last spicy trick up my leave. “Sorry, but we’re returning your invitation. This party’s no fun.” I grabbed the pepper and lodged my last hot grenade at her. She stepped aside. The pepper flopped harmlessly to the ground behind her. Her eyes shone with a preternatural glow. I sheepishly grinned and stepped back as she stepped toward us. “No hard feelings.” She curled her lips back in a snarl before she leapt at us. I shoved Jasmine away and caught the wrists of her clawed hands. The force of her leap pushed me onto the ground. Darnell stuck her transforming face into mine and snapped her long teeth at me. I flipped my head left and right as we struggled to gain the upper hand. In my life-and-death struggle I hardly noticed as my own hands took on a more primal look. My clothes stretched and tore open as my instinct to survive called forth the beast inside me. The world, once darkened with night shades, was illuminated by my fresh wolf vision. Darnell snarled at me. I growled back. I tucked my legs against my chest and pressed my feet against her chest. A good kick and she flew across the barren property. She tumbled a couple of times before she slammed her clawed hands into the ground and stopped herself. Darnell whipped her head up. Her yellow eyes glared daggers at me and her elongated face was full of sharp teeth that dripped with drool. I climbed onto my thickened legs and beckoned her with my finger. She howled and lunged at me. I pushed off the ground in a forward direction. We slammed into each other. Claws and fangs bit and slashed. Hair was pulled. Lots of it. What finished her was a head butt into the gut. It knocked the air out of her. Her eyes widened before they rolled back. She dropped to her knees before she face-planted into the mud at my feet. A clapping noise caught my attention, as did the noticeable silence in the clearing. I glanced around and saw that all four were-bears were unconscious. Three of them hung in the stocks. Orion and Jasmine stood ten feet from me beside the wooden contraptions. Orion was the one clapping his clawed hands. “Not a bad fighting style for a reporter,” he commented. My eyes narrowed. “How long were you standing there?” He grinned and shrugged. “Long enough to see I need to stay on your good side.” I growled. He held up his hands. “Easy there. The fight’s over.” My shoulders slumped and my adrenaline slipped away. I felt my body shrink back to its regularly scheduled human form. My clothes hung off me like rags. The jeans were ruined. I looked down at myself. “Has anyone invented an outfit werewolves can wear that won’t fall apart like a dry cookie?” Orion chuckled and shook his head. “Not yet, but come on.” He held his hand out to me. “Let’s go call for some backup before these guys wake up and start Round Two.” 22 The police cars with their police radios were a handy way to get a hold of backup. Orion seated himself in the open door to one of the vehicles, and clutched the speaker for the radio in one hand. He flipped a switch on the box and cleared his throat. “Attention all cars, be on the lookout for a suspect driving a fast fridge.” He paused and grinned at us. “I’ve always wanted to say that.” I slapped my hand over my face and dragged it down. “Seriously?” A crackling noise warned us of an impending reply. “Who the hell is this?” Orion’s humor slipped from his face. “This is Orion. I need you guys to get up here and arrest the mayor and a couple of your buddies.” “Orion? What the hell are you doing with one of our radios?” the operator questioned him. Orion glanced over the car and brushed his hand over the dashboard. “I’ve got the rest of the car here, too, but you guys have to get up here and take it.” The operator growled. “You’ve gone too far this time, Orion. Get one of our men on the radio ASAP.” Orion smiled and shook his head. “No-can-do. Just get up here before your buddies decide to wake up.” “Orion, what the-” Orion flipped the switch and replaced the speaker in its rightful place. Orion stood and shut the door. “Now we wait.” A few minutes later the sounds of sirens filled the air. Four police cars, the entire rest of the squad, arrived on the scene. The passenger side of the front car opened, and out stepped Chief Orso. He held a cane in one hand and limped over to us. His stern eyes swept over each of us and stopped on Orion. “So you know?” Orion pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah.” “How much?” Orion studied his old friend. “Everything except how much you knew.” The chief’s face fell. “More than I should have for as little as I did, but first, where are they?” Orion jerked his head toward the corner of the house. “Back there.” Orso glanced over his shoulder at his men. “Go to the back and put everyone you find in the cars. All of them.” They nodded and hurried around back. He returned his attention to us and pursed his lips. “The mayor told me she wanted to keep this hushed up to prevent a panic, but I suspected there was something deeper than that, so I dug deeper.” He grasped the cane in both hands and sighed. “Turns out the guy that was infected was her brother.” Our little group started back. “Her brother?” I repeated. Orso nodded. “Yeah, her big brother. He caught the Sickness in some city in the east and instinct brought him this way to find his sister. That’s why the mayor was the first one to catch it.” “And the mayor found out you knew,” Orion guessed. Orso pursed his lips. “Yeah. I met her in the woods near where Barrett likes to go hunting. I told her what I knew. The conversation got pretty heated. Then her brother came out of the woods and attacked me.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Probably thought I was attacking her or something.” “What about the wolf’s bane on your hand when you shook hands with Orion?” I spoke up. The chief dropped his hand and shook his head. “That wasn’t there for Orion. I put it on my hands to ward off the Sickness. I’ve been fooling with the stuff for so long I guess I worked up an immunity stronger than Orion’s.” Orion smiled. “I guess I’ll have to work on getting better at that stuff.” The chief sighed and hung his head. “Anyway, that probably makes you caught up with everything I know.” Orion nodded. “Yeah, and it puts you in the middle of a big mess.” A small smile slid onto the chief’s lips. “It’s something I deserve, and I’ll let the Council decide what to do with me.” At that moment the officers came around the corner. Between them were their mostly-naked human coworkers and the mayor. They pulled them into the cars and shut the door. One of the deputies came up to the chief. “What do we charge them with?” The chief’s eyes flickered to Orion. “The same thing you have to charge me with. Public endangerment, tampering with evidence, and conspiracy.” The deputy tilted his head to one side and furrowed his brow. “Chief?” Orso held out his hands with his wrists pressed close together. “You heard me, deputy. Cuff me and I’ll give you my testimony at the station.” His deputy frowned, but placed handcuffs on the chief. He led Orso toward the car. Orion stepped forward. “Orso.” Orso paused in front of one of the doors to a police car and glanced over his shoulder. Orion smiled. “Remember all those times I got you into trouble?” A crooked smile slipped onto Orso’s lips and he nodded. “Yeah, and I got you out.” “We’ll switch places this time,” Orion told him. “So that means don’t get comfortable in that cell.” Orso chuckled. “Damn. I hear those beds are pretty nice, too.” He turned away and slipped into the car. The officer closed the door and turned to us. “Looks like you’ll need a lift. Where to?” Jasmine looked from Orion to me. “My dad-” Orion smiled and patted her shoulder. “We’ll go take him to the hospital now,” he assured her. We borrowed one of the unused police vehicles and drove back to the junkyard. Jerry still lay where Darnell had dropped him. “Dad!” Jasmine yelled as she leapt out of the car and rushed over to him. She knelt by his side and shook him. “Dad, wake up!” A soft groan escaped his lips and his eyes flickered open. “Jasmine, please do not be so loud. You will never find a husband if you are so noisy.” She laughed and hugged him. Orion and I walked up behind them. My mate knelt beside her. “He’s got some bad bruises. Let’s get him up and to the hospital.” Orion helped Jerry to the car and we drove to the hospital. We were met by the same doctor who tried to keep us quarantined. I glared at him. “Don’t try it again. I know were-fu now.” He shook his head.. “I’ve just been informed that the mayor’s orders have been revoked.” “Could you help my dad?” Jasmine spoke up. “He caught the Sickness.” The doctor smiled at her and nodded. “It looks like someone administered the antidote to him, but I’d be glad to help.” The doctor led father and daughter away. I glanced at Orion as we left the hospital. “So are you going to tell me?” He arched an eyebrow. “About what?” “About that crazy old woman at the cabin,” I reminded him. “She said something about casting a spell, and Jazz made it sound like serious stuff.” We paused on either side of the car. Orion set his arms on the top and grinned at me. “Do you really want to know?” I mimicked his movements. “Am I a reporter?” He chuckled. “You must be. I don’t know of anyone else who can get into this much trouble this fast.” He ducked into the car and I followed. We shut the doors and he turned to me. “Did you ever believe in any paranormal stuff before you came here?” I snorted. “Not anything I wasn’t willing to attach my byline to.” Orion stared ahead at the hospital and furrowed his brow. I leaned forward to catch his attention. “There’s not just were-people here, is there?” He shook his head. “No. We’ve got quite a few different-um, people here.” “Namely witches?” I guessed. He nodded. “Yeah, and a lot of them.” I arched an eyebrow. “So why are they here?” He smiled and glanced at me. “The same reason you are. The tree.” I leaned back into my seat and folded my arms. “That’s one strange tree.” He chuckled and started the car. “You have no idea.” I sighed and slid down my seat. “Witches. Were-people. Politics. What next? A mole-man running for mayor?” Orion smiled as he pulled out of the parking lot. “Don’t tempt them.” I shook my head. “For once I don’t want to know.” I glanced out the window at the dark world of god-awful-early morning. “So now what?” He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. “I don’t know, but I could really go for a midnight snack.” I glanced at my watch. “I don’t think anybody’s going to be open at one in the morning.” He grinned. “You’d be surprised.” 23 I wasn’t too surprised when he drove me to Mab’s place. I stepped out of the car and looked down at my tattered clothes. “Should we go in looking like this?” Orion looped his arm threw mine and led me to the door. “There might not be much left of them, but we’ve still got shirts and jeans on.” The lights were on and somebody was home, namely the black cat. It sat on the counter as we walked through the front door. Orion walked up and patted its head. “Why don’t you go fetch us a couple of glasses of water?” The black creature hissed and leapt down. It scurried its dark rear into the kitchen as we slipped onto a couple of stools at the counter. I wagged my finger at Orion. “You shouldn’t piss off the business mascot. It might come back to bite you in the ass.” He leaned his elbows on the counter and chuckled. “It has before, but here comes our water.” Mab walked through the doorway from the kitchen. In each hand was a tall glass of chocolate milkshake, and on her face was a sly smile. Two straws stuck out of the brown mixture. She set them down in front of us. Orion straightened and leaned back. He arched an eyebrow and glanced from glass to waitress. “What are these for?” She chuckled. “A celebration for the victors.” I blinked at her. “Victors? Orion frowned. “You know I don’t like sweet things.” Her eyes flickered to me. “I thought perhaps you had changed your mind.” She returned her attention to Orion and pushed the glass closer to him. “But why not give it a try? It’s been a few years since you had one.” He pushed it away. “Maybe another time.” She shrugged and pulled out her pad and pencil. “Suit yourself. What kind of fries would you like with your hamburgers?” “Plain,” Orion replied. I raised my hand. “I’d like an explanation.” Mab scribbled her pencil across the pad. “One plain, and one curly. Your orders will be ready in a few minutes.” She turned away from us and strode into the kitchen. I stretched out my hand to her. “Hey, wait-” She disappeared. I turned to my companion. He hunched down and studied the contents of the milkshake. “I wouldn’t put it past her to put a sour gumball in one of these. . .” I leaned forward and caught Orion’s attention. I pointed a finger at where Mab had gone. “Mind telling me what that was about?” A smile teased the corners of his lips and he shrugged. “It’s a small town. News travels fast.” He leaned forward and took a dainty sip of the drink. His nose wrinkled and he pushed the milkshake away. “Nope, still bad.” I took a sip of mine and frowned at him. “It tastes fine.” He shook his head. “Nope, bad.” “Fine.” “Bad.” “Fine.” Orion leaned toward me and caught my lips in a searing kiss. He pulled away, leaving me breathless and flushed. My mischievous mate grinned. “Bad.” I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth, but Mab came from the kitchen. In her hands was a tray with burgers and fries. She set down the food between us and smiled. “Enjoy your supper before your fight gets cold.” “It was a friendly disagreement,” Orion argued as he picked up a fry and chewed on it. Mab smiled and turned away. “No doubt.” She left us to our food which was scarfed down at a new land-speed record. A few minutes later I leaned back and patted my stomach. Our tray was devoid of all but the paper wrappings and some grease. Orion tipped his head back and downed the rest of his water. He smacked his lips and sighed. “Mab sure does know how to serve a good meal.” “We should compliment the cook,” I pointed out. He grinned. “Maybe another time. For now, what do you say about a walk beneath the moonlight? Just to get our minds cleared.” I snorted. “I don’t think that’d be a good idea.” He arched his eyebrow as Mab came from the kitchen. “Why not?” I tapped my finger close to my eye. “I’m still in training wheels with this night vision stuff, so that’s a definite ‘no’ unless you can pull a flashlight out of your torn jeans.” “I have one,” Mab spoke up. She pulled a long cylinder from beneath the counter and placed it in front of me with a wink. “I think you’ll find it helpful.” My mouth dropped open as I picked up the object. It was my flashlight, the one I’d dropped in the snow my first night in town. I jerked my head up. “Where’d you-” Her back disappeared around the corner and into the kitchen. I slid off my stool. “Hey, wait a-” A hand caught my shoulder. I looked behind me at Orion. He smiled and shook his head. “Don’t bother. If she doesn’t want to answer any questions then you won’t find her.” I shrugged out of his hold and glared down at the flashlight. “But how’d she get this? I dropped it in the middle of the street.” Orion plucked the flashlight from my hands and held it above my head. “I don’t know what Mab’s up to, but I know we can talk about it on that walk home.” I pursed my lips. “A good reporter doesn’t leave a story unfinished.” He swept me into his arms and carried me to the door. “A good reporter also needs her beauty sleep.” “A good reporter knows how to walk a beat!” I snapped. He chuckled. “We’ll just assume your rhythm is off right now.” “You say that, I say nay!” I quipped. We strode out the door and down the street. The late hour meant the town was deserted. A chill breeze swept over us. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself. “Cold?” Orion asked me. I snorted. “I’m half naked in the middle of autumn in the middle of the night. Yeah, I’m cold.” He grinned. “And a little angry.” I glared at him. “You’d be angry, too, if you were chased by half the county of a place you couldn’t escape.” He sighed and nodded. “Yeah, I think I’d be pretty mad, too. Still, there are perks.” I arched an eyebrow. “Name one.” He chuckled. “I’ll show you when we get home. It’ll solve your cold problem, too.” I rolled my eyes. “Werewolf. Were-bear. They’re all still men.” He leaned down and pressed a teasing kiss against my lips. A warm rush of heat swept over me as his whispered words came to my ears. “You know you like it.” I couldn’t deny it. My red cheeks were proof enough. I wrapped my arms around him and pressed our lips together. The searing heat of lust sank deep into my body. The long walk felt like a few moments. Maybe they were. One moment we were downtown, and the next thing I remember I was being carried into his bedroom. Our steamy kisses quickly progressed to blind groping. Our throbbing bodies pulsed with our deep, sensual need Our torn clothes were cast aside and our sweat-soaked bodies were allowed to rub against each other. My moans filled the air. His grunts echoed my calls. His hands were all over me, exploring me as no other man had done. His lips massaged the tips of my breasts. I groaned and arched into his firm, clinging touch. My body was aflame with lust, and every touch of him against my flesh stoked the fire hotter and deeper. “Oh god,” I groaned. He lifted his head. His yellow eyes stared at me with the hungry look of a carnal predator. I felt my muscles tighten and stretch as the beast inside me threatened to break loose. My breath came out in quick, shallow pants that made my breasts rise and fall. “Mine,” he growled. I grasped the sheets and licked my dry lips. My body ached for him. It demanded sweet, sensual satisfaction that only this feral beast could provide. “Yours. All of me.” He spread my legs apart and pushed his thick manhood deep into my hot, wet core. I groaned as he stretched my walls and slid against my trembling womanhood. His thrusts were long and hard. I grabbed his shoulders and rocked my hips in time with his rhythm. I sank into the bliss he created inside of me. Every thrust, every push was a heaven of shivering pleasure. I gasped and panted. He continued on, stroking me with his thick, throbbing member as I sank deeper into wonderful, sensual delights. My body twitched and strained. My fingers lengthened into claws and dug into his flesh. Every part of me begged to be released, to be granted the pleasure every touch of him promised. My groans deepened in tone as I felt his muscles beneath my fingers change. They stretched and shifted. His thrusts grew faster. His member throbbed and thickened. I gasped and whimpered. He grunted. It was a deep, guttural grunt. The beast inside me answered the call. Carnal desire overtook conscious thought. I felt myself slipping away as fur sprouted from my body. My sweat-soaked muscles tensed and expanded. My hips rocked faster. I barely recognized my own deep voice. “Faster. Fuck me faster,” I growled. He snarled and wrapped his arms tightly around me. I was pinned between his thick, muscular body and the bed. The bed rocked back and forth as he pushed harder and faster. Every thrust stroked my trembling nerves. My body was swept into a sea of hot pleasure. I arched my back and groaned. “Yes. Oh god, yes. Take me. Take me faster.” He abandoned rhythm for pure fornication. His thrusts were fast and quick. I couldn’t keep up, but I could feel. What I felt was a deep, insatiable hunger for my mate. My body was consumed by my need for his warmth, for his touch, for him. His thick, sweat-soaked body was a drug that brought me pleasure beyond anything I could imagine. My body trembled beneath such an onslaught of delicious lust. My cries of pleasure filled the air as I clung onto him. I nipped at his ears and whispered sweet words to him. “Yes. That’s it. More. Oh god, so much more.” His thrusts were hard and shallow now. My body tensed as orgasm teased my senses. I leaned my head back and let loose a long, deep howl as pleasure after blissful pleasure washed over me. My mate joined me in the howl, and in a few moments we both collapsed onto the sheets. Orion shifted onto his side and pulled me against him. He threw the covers over both of us and wrapped his arms around me. I buried my face into his warm chest and tried to catch my breath. “Is there. . .every a. . .dull moment around here?” I choked out. He chuckled. It was a deep, guttural sound. “I hope not.” 24 A hard stomping noise awoke me. My eyes creaked open at the same time the door to the room swung open. I sat up and glared at Orion who stood in the doorway. The light from behind the curtains told me it was past noon. Orion raised his hands above his head. “I bring news, oh studious reporter!” I winced and clapped my hands over my ears. “I should shoot the messenger.” He grinned and stepped over to the bed. “You won’t after I tell you the verdict of the Council.” I paused in rubbing my eyeball and arched an eyebrow. “Come again?” He plopped down beside me. “Things work fast around here. Everyone’s trial happened in front of the Council.” I frowned. “And? What happened?” He shrugged. “The chief is on unpaid leave and is up for reelection soon, so the voters will decide his fate. As for the deputies who helped Darnell, they’re out of jobs.” “And Darnell?” I asked him. “She’ll get time off for rescuing Jazz and you from Jerry, but we won’t have to worry about her for a while,” he assured me. “Her brother decided he wanted to increase the population count.” I slammed my fists on the bed and snarled. “Damn it. I really would have liked to have seen her in an orange jumpsuit.” My narrowed eyes flickered to him. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me it was happening?” He held up his hands. “You needed your beauty sleep, and besides, it was closed for you. Citizens only.” I snorted. “I thought I was made an honorary citizen when the mayor made me bite into that apple.” Orion dropped his hands and pursed his lips. His eyes studied me. “Not exactly. I put in a good word for you with the Council, and for all your help they’ve decided to give you a choice.” I arched an eyebrow. “What choice?” He sighed. “You can either remain here, or you can leave.” I straightened and blinked at him. “Leave? As in get into my car and race out of here?” He gazed into my eyes as he nodded. “Yes.” My smile nearly cracked my face in two. I pumped a fist into the air. “Yes! Freedom of the press is alive and-” I stopped when I noticed Orion’s downcast face. He noticed my noticing and slapped a smile on his face. “You’d have to be careful, of course. No Hulking out when you got angry or anything like that, or its back to Apple Hollow detention for you.” I tucked my arms behind my head and fell back so I bounced atop the mattress. The white ceiling stared back at me as I recalled the last couple of harrowing days. A sigh escaped my lips. “I think I’ll stay.” Orion sat up and blinked at me. “Come again?” I snorted. “Isn’t that my line?” He shook his head. “Not when you say something stupid like I do.” I returned my attention to the plain ceiling and shrugged. “Maybe I kind of like it here. It’s like a reporter’s paradise. Lots of trouble and little competition.” Orion set his arms on either side of me and leaned over so our faces nearly touched. His eyes searched my face. “You’re serious? You’ll stay?” I leaned up and pecked a kiss on his lips. “What do you think?” A grin slid onto his lips. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.” I tilted my head to one side and smiled. “You think so?” He winked at me. “We make a pretty good team. Like a sweet-and-sour dish.” I snorted. “Does that mean I can start calling you Sour?” He grinned and shook his head. “Nope.” I shrugged. “Had to give it a chance.” He leaned down and pressed a soft kiss on my lips. His whispered words floated over me. “Stick around a while. You’ll have plenty more chances.” And oh boy, was he right. On both counts. A note from Mac Thanks for downloading my book! Your support means a lot to me, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to entertain you with my stories. If you’d like to continue reading the series, or wonder what else I might have up my writer’s sleeve, feel free to check out my website, or contact me at mac@macflynn.com. Want to get an email when the next book is released? Sign up here for the Wolf Den, the online newsletter with a bite! Continue the adventure Now that you’ve finished the book, feel free to check out my website for the rest of the exciting series. Here’s also a little sneak-peek at the next book: * * * Second Sight: I was surrounded by ghosts and black cats. Cobwebs hung from the lampposts and tombstones stood around every corner. The sounds of cackling and screams echoed over the long street. Skeletons and scarecrows sat in lawn chairs beside doorways and glared at cars and people alike. Everyone on the street seemed oblivious to these terrors as they strolled down the sidewalks, some with children and some without. I had my own kid to deal with. And speaking of that, something even more terrifying wrapped their arms around me and pressed me against their chest. “If you don’t finish your shopping soon I’m going to have to kidnap you back to my place,” Orion warned me. I wiggled in his grip. “Will you let go? I just need one more thing for my costume, okay?” We stood outside one of the shops on the main street of Apple Hollow. The businesses were decked out in decor that honored the yearly festival of harvest and spooks, Halloween. In my hand was a plastic bag. In Orion’s hands were a half dozen other bags, and me. He opened his arms and dropped me back onto the sidewalk. “This better not take as long as the other clothes.” I turned to face him and grinned. “You know you liked watching me show off those skimpy black skirts.” An amused smile slipped onto his handsome face. “Yeah, but it’s made things really hard for me ever since.” I stepped backward away from him. “Then just be a good were-boy and wait here while I go get the last thing I need.” I spun around and hurried down the sidewalk. There was just the finishing touch left to get, and my costume would be complete. I walked up to a corner store devoid of Halloween decorations. The name Leto Drug hung above the door. I walked up to the counter that stood at the back of the store. Behind the wide window was a mess of shelves with a wide assortment of prescriptions pill bottles. A man over eighty in a long white coat greeted me. His thinning hair was parted down the middle and there was a bright smile on my face. “Good morning, Miss Lyal. What can I do for you?” I froze my smile on my face. It was still unnerving having people know me and I having no idea who they are. Fortunately, his name-tag read ‘Mike Leto.’ “I was wondering if you had eye patches for sale,” I told him. He smiled and nodded. “Yes, we do. They’re over there.” He leaned over the counter and pointed at a wall to my left. “Just over there. The kids already bought the smaller ones, though.” “Good thing I’m bigger,” I commented as I walked up to the wall. The bell over the door rang. I looked at the entrance and saw a short old woman shuffle into the store. She wore a flowered white dress with a white sash around her waist. In her firm hands was a purse. She shuffled over to the counter and smiled at Leto. “Good morning, Mike.” He returned the smile and nodded. “Good morning, Bertha. What can I do for you?” “Just the usual, and a small pumpkin candle,” she replied. Leto frowned, but grabbed a small yellow candle from a nearby shelf. “You sure you want to do that?” Bertha’s face and she pursed her lips. “Very much so.” She glanced my way. Her eyes looked tired. She bowed her head. I waved and returned to my patch perusing, but not without keeping one eye on the woman. “So how’s the good reverend dealing with this All Hallow’s Eve?” Leto asked her as he packed her candle and prescription into a small white bag. She sighed. “The usual fashion, but I won’t give away the surprise.” Leto laughed as he slid the bag over the counter to her. “Dang. I was hoping to warn my great-nieces.” The old woman took her bag and handed the pharmacist some cash. “Not this year.” She turned and shuffled to the door. “See you later,” he called. She didn’t turn back as she left the store. I continued my perusing. To the right of the medicinal shelving was one of miscellaneous toys, including a blowgun and popgun. Most of the inventory was out-of-stock for the coming ‘trick’ part of Halloween. I found two eye patches and walked up to the counter. Leto rang up the bill. “So going as a pirate for the big town bash, eh?” I grinned as I handed him some cash. “Not exactly.” He smiled as he gave me my change. “I see. Wanting to keep it a secret, eh? Well, how about a trade?” He leaned his elbows on the counter and nodded at the shelving where I just stood. “I noticed you were admiring the blowguns. I don’t look like much now, but I used to be quite the marksman in my youth. I could hit a target that was barely in my sight.” He tapped his temple. “And you know how good a sight a werewolf has, I bet.” “I’m starting to,” I admitted. He nodded at my bag. “So now that I’ve told you my secret, what’s your costume?” I smiled and shook my head. “Thanks for the secret, but I’m keeping mine.” He frowned as I slipped outside. The darkening sky warned me night was only an hour away. That would make it the eve of Halloween, or one day until the rave Orion told me the town threw every October 31st. I met my mate almost where I’d left him. He sat on a nearby bench with the bags around him. His head was lolled back and his tongue hung out. A folded piece of paper sat on his chest. I grabbed the paper and unfolded the parts to read the contents aloud. “I’ve lost the will to live. Please have me cremated.” I rolled my eyes and folded the paper. “Seriously?” Orion raised his head and grinned. “A few more minutes and I might have seriously considered suicide.” I tossed the paper onto him and picked up a few of the bags. “Then let’s go home before you make a spectacle of yourself.” We left the shopping district and strolled up the residential streets. The lawns and porches were covered in wooden tombstones and floating sheets of ghosts. Jack-o-lanterns sat on the porch railings and the slight autumn breeze rocked the porch swings in which sat scarecrows and zombie mannequins. Cobwebs hung in the trees and bushes, and orange solar lights lit up the walking paths. “Everyone sure does go all out for this, don’t they?” I commented. Orion smiled and nodded. “Yeah, even more than Christmas, but you can’t really blame us.” I snorted. “Yeah, it’s like Halloween every day of the year for everyone here.” We reached Orion’s house. A veritable cemetery covered his lawn and a large spider hung from its thread off the porch. We paused at the mailbox and Orion pulled out the small stack. He flipped through the envelopes. “Junk. Junk. Junk.” I looked up at the clear evening sky. “Even out here there’s no escaping the junk mail.” He nodded as he continued his chanting. “Junk. Junk. J-” He paused and held up a vanilla-colored envelope. A frown slipped onto his lips. “Are you expecting any letters?” I shook my head. “No. The only one who knows I’m here is my mom, and she prefers email. Why?” He held the envelope out to me. “Because this is for you.” I frowned and took the envelope. There was my name scrawled on the back in black ink. The handwriting was a cursive style with wide, looping strokes. There was no return address, or even a stamp. I opened the top and pulled out two small, black rectangular slips of thick paper. The color of the paper was faded and some of the corners were bent. Orion arched an eyebrow. “Tickets to Madam Bentley’s seance?” I looked over the white lettering on the front. The words confirmed Orion’s comment. I raised my eyes to look at him. “How’d you know?” He nodded at the tickets. “People around here tend to avoid using black in their correspondences, but not Madam Bentley. It’s her calling card.” My eyes flickered up to Orion. “Let me guess. This woman isn’t a fake.” He shrugged. “I couldn’t say. I’ve never been invited to one of her parties. Some people say she is, and some say she isn’t.” I studied the tickets again. They read as follows: * * * You are cordially invited to Madam Bentley’s seance on the evening of October 29th. Please arrive on or before six o’clock sharp. Do not wear gloves. * * * I furrowed my brow. “So if you’ve never been to one how did I get invited?” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Those in attendance are usually part of an exclusive and random list of the most influential people in town.” A sly smile slipped onto my lips as my eyes flickered to him. “And you’ve never been a part of one?” He grinned. “I guess I’m not random enough.” He pinched one corner of a ticket between his fingers and turned it over. “These look like pretty old tickets.” I nodded. “Yeah. Somebody got invited and decided they weren’t random enough.” I looked over the envelope. Something caught my eyes. I held the envelope close to my face and squinted. “Does this look like a smudge to you?” Orion took the envelope and studied the light black marking on the front. He sniffed the spot and nodded. “It’s a smudge. I’d say some sort of paint.” I looked down at the tickets in my hand and shrugged. “Why not?” He arched an eyebrow. “You want to go?” I turned to face him and held up the envelope. “I receive an unmarked, hand-delivered envelope with two tickets to an exclusive seance. Somebody wants me to go there, and I’d like to find out who and why.” Orion smiled and plucked a ticket from my hand. “That makes two of us.” I glanced at my watch. “We’ve got enough time for food. What kind of clothes do people where to these things?” Orion cringed. “Let’s just say it’s anything we can find in our closets and skip the shopping.” I grinned. “But we had such fun.” He grasped my arm and turned me toward the house. “If you’re hoping for a case of Stockholm Syndrome then I’m going to have to disappoint you. Anyway, let’s get cooking and see if we can’t find a skimpy outfit for you to wear.” I rolled my eyes. “Always with the sexy outfits.” He stopped and leaned down. His lips captured mine in a sweet, intense kiss that left me breathless. A thrill of heat tingled my body. I wanted him to keep going all the way to the bedroom. Orion parted us and grinned. “I expect to see that pirate costume of yours soon, but right now we have a news story to discover.” I sighed and stepped backward toward the house. “I think I’ve created a monster.” His eyes flashed a deep yellow and his crooked smile showed off his sharp teeth. “Too late, but let’s get cooking before we’re late to the seance.” I laughed as he sidled up beside me. “Yeah, we wouldn’t want them to dial the ghosts before we get there.” If only we’d been late.


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