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Smoke Bitten

Chapter 1


"Are you okay, Mercy?" Tad asked me as he disconnected the wiring harness from the headlight of the 2000 Jetta we were working on.

We were replacing a radiator. To do that, we had to take the whole front clip off. It was a rush case on a couple of fronts. The owner had been driving from Portland to Missoula, Montana, when her car blew the radiator. We needed to get her back on the road so she could make her job interview tomorrow at eight a.m.

The task was made more urgent by the fact that the owner and her three children under five were occupying the office. She had, she told me, family in Missoula who could watch her children, but nobody but her alcoholic ex-husband to watch them in Portland, so she'd brought them with her. I wished she had family here to watch them. I liked kids, but tired kids cooped up in my office space were another matter.

To speed up the repair, Tad was taking the left side and I was working on the right.

Like me, he wore grease-stained overalls. Summer still held sway-if only just-so those overalls were stained with sweat, too.

Even his hair showed the effects of working in the heat, sticking out at odd angles. It was also tipped here and there with the same grease that marked the overalls. A smudge of black swooped across his right cheekbone and onto his ear like badly applied war paint. I was pretty sure that if anything, I looked worse than he did.

I'd worked on cars with Tad for more than a decade, nearly half his life. He'd left for an Ivy League education but returned without his degree, and without the cheery optimism that had once been his default. What he had retained was that scary competence that he'd had when I first walked into his father's garage looking for a part to fix my Rabbit and found the elementary-aged Tad ably running the shop.

He was one of the people I most trusted in the world. And I still lied to him.

"Everything's fine," I said.

"Liar," growled Zee's voice from under a '68 Beetle.

The little car bounced a bit, like a dog responding to its master. Cars do that sometimes around the old iron-kissed fae. Zee said something soft-voiced and calming in German, though I couldn't catch exactly what the words were.

When he started talking to me again, he said, "You should not lie to the fae, Mercy. Say instead, 'You are not my friends, I do not trust you with my secrets, so I will not tell you what is wrong.'"

Tad grinned at his father's grumble.

"You are not my friends, I do not trust you with my secrets, so I will not tell you what is wrong," I said, deadpan.

"And that, father of mine," said Tad, grandly setting aside the headlight and starting on one of the bolts that held in the front clip, "is another lie."

"I love you both," I told them.

"You love me better," said Tad..

"Most of the time I love you both," I told him before getting serious. "Something is wrong, but it concerns another person's private issues. If that changes, you'll be the first on my list to talk to."

I would not talk about problems with my mate to someone else-it would be a betrayal.

Tad leaned over, put an arm around me, and kissed the top of my head, which would have been sweet if it weren't a hundred and six degrees outside. Though the new bays in the garage were cooler than the old ones had been, we were all drenched in sweat and the various fluids that were a part of the life of a VW mechanic.

"Yuck," I squawked, batting him away from me. "You are wet and smelly. No kisses. No touches. Ick. Ick."

He laughed and went back to work-and so did I. The laugh felt good. I hadn't been doing a lot of laughing lately.

"There it is again," said Tad, pointing at me with his ratchet. "That sad face. If you change your mind about talking to someone, I'm here. And if necessary, I can kill someone and put the body where no one will find it."

"Drama, drama," grumbled the old fae under the bug. "Always with you children there is drama."

"Hey," I said. "Keep that up, and next time I have a horde of zombies to destroy, I won't pick you."

He grunted-either at me or at the bug. It was hard to tell with Zee.

"No one else could have done what I did," he said after a moment. It sounded arrogant, but the fae can't lie, so Zee thought it was true. I did, too. "It is good that you have me for a friend to call upon when your drama overwhelms your life, Liebling. And if you have a body, I can dispose of it in such a way that there would be nothing left to find."

Zee was my very good friend, and useful in all sorts of ways besides hiding dead bodies-which he had done. Unlike Tad, Zee wasn't an official employee of the garage he'd sold to me after teaching me how to work on cars and run the business. That didn't mean he was unpaid, just that he came and went on his own terms. Or when I needed him. Zee was dependable like that.

"Hey," said Tad. "Quit chatting, Mercy, and start working. I'm two bolts up on you-and one of those kids just knocked over the garbage can in the office."

I'd heard it, too, despite the closed door between the office and us. Additionally, just before the garbage can had fallen, I'd heard the tired and overworked mom try to keep her oldest from reorganizing all of the parts stored (for sale) on the shelving units that lined the walls. Tad might be half fae, but I was a coyote in my other form-my hearing was better than his.

Despite the possible destruction going on in the office, it felt good to fix the old car. I didn't know how to fix my marriage. I didn't even know what had gone wrong.

"Ready?" asked Tad.

I caught the cross member as he pulled the last bolt. A leaking radiator was something I knew how to make right.


Before I'd left work, I had showered and changed to clean clothes and shoes. Even so, when I got home, I'd gone across the back deck to go in the kitchen door because I didn't want to risk getting anything from the shop on the new carpet.

I'd disemboweled a zombie werewolf on the old carpet, and one of the results of that was that I'd finally discovered a mess that Adam's expert cleaning guru couldn't get out of the white carpet. All of it had been torn up and replaced.

Adam had picked it out because I didn't care beyond "anything but white." His choice, a sandy color, was practical and warm. I liked it.

We'd had to replace the tile in the kitchen a few months earlier. Slowly but surely the house had been changing from the house that Adam's ex-wife, Christy, had decorated into Adam's and my home. If I'd known how much better I'd feel with new carpet, I'd have hunted down a zombie werewolf to disembowel a long time ago.

I toed off my shoes by the door, glanced farther into the kitchen, and paused. It was like walking into the middle of the last scene in a play. I had no idea what was causing all the tension, but I knew I'd interrupted something big.

Darryl drew my eye first-the more dominant wolves tend to do that. He leaned against the counter, his big arms crossed over his chest. He kept his eyes on the ground, his mouth a flat line. Our pack's second carried the blood of warriors of two continents. He had to work to look friendly, and he wasn't expending any effort on that right now. Even though he knew I'd come into the house, he didn't look at me. His body held a coiled energy that told me he was ready for a fight.

Auriele, his mate, wore an aura of grim triumph-though she was seated at the table on the opposite side of the kitchen from Darryl. Not that she was afraid of him. If Darryl was descended from Chinese and African warlords (and he was-his sister, he'd told me once, had done the family history), Auriele could have been a Mayan warrior goddess. I had once seen the two of them fight as a no-holds-barred team against a volcano god, and it had been breathtaking. I liked and respected Auriele.

Auriele's location, which was as far as she could get from Darryl and remain in the kitchen, probably indicated that they were having a disagreement. Interestingly, like Darryl, she didn't look at me, either-though I could feel her attention straining in my direction.

The last person in the kitchen was Joel, who was the only pack member besides me who wasn't a werewolf. In his presa Canario form, he sprawled out, as was his habit, and took up most of the free floor space. The strong sunlight streaming through the window brought out the brindle pattern that was usually hidden in the stygian darkness of his coat. His big muzzle rested on his outstretched paws. He glanced at me and then away, without otherwise moving.

No. Not away. I followed his gaze and saw that the door to Adam's soundproofed (even to werewolf ears) office was shut. As I turned my attention back to the occupants of the kitchen, my gaze fell on my stepdaughter's purse, which had been abandoned on the counter..

"What's up?" I asked, looking at Auriele.

Maybe my voice was a little unfriendly, but Jesse's purse, the shut door of Adam's office, Darryl's unhappiness, and Auriele's expression combined to tell me that something had happened. Probably, given the people involved and my insight into a few things going on in Jesse's life, that something had to do with my nemesis, Adam's ex-wife and Jesse's mother, Christy..

The bane of my existence had finally returned to Eugene, Oregon, where I'd optimistically thought she might be less of a problem. But Christy had a claim on my husband's protection and a stronger claim on my stepdaughter's affection. She was going to be in my life as long as they were in my life.

Christy's strikes on me seldom rated a level above annoyance. She was good at subtle attacks, but I'd grown up with Leah, the Marrok's mate, who had been, if not as intelligent, infinitely more dangerous.

I would pay a much higher price than dealing with Christy to keep Adam and Jesse. That didn't mean I was going to be happy about her anytime soon. I might be able to take her on just fine, but she hurt Adam and Jesse on a regular basis.

Auriele's chin rose, but it was Darryl who spoke. "My wife opened a letter meant for someone else," he said heavily.

"This is your fault," she snapped-and not at Darryl. "Your fault. You have Adam, her place in the pack, the home that she built, and you still won't let Christy have anything."

I might like Auriele, but the reverse was not true because Christy had a way of making everyone around her hyperprotective of her. Auriele was a dominant wolf, which meant she started out protective anyway. Christy just put all of Auriele's instincts into overdrive.

Still, I couldn't see her opening anyone else's mail because I was Adam's wife instead of Christy. I decided I didn't have enough information to process her accusations..

So I asked for clarification. "You opened a letter from Christy? Or for Christy?"

"No," said Darryl, staring at his mate. "She opened a letter for Jesse."

Auriele glanced at the table, and I noticed, for the first time, that on the table in front of Auriele was a stack of mail. On the top of the stack was a white envelope with Washington State University's distinctive cougar logo-and all the pieces clicked.

I pinched my nose. It was a gesture that Bran, the Marrok who ruled all the packs in North America except ours, did so often that it had spread to anyone who associated with him for very long. Since I'd been raised in his pack, it was bound to get to me sooner or later. It didn't help with the frustration, though I felt like it helped me focus. Maybe that was why Bran used it.

"Oh, for the love of Pete," I said. "Jesse told me she was going to call her mom a week ago. Let me guess-she put it off until yesterday or this morning. And Christy called you. You came over, found the letter from WSU on the table-"

"In the mailbox," said Darryl.

I raised my eyebrows, and Auriele's chin elevated a bit more and her shoulders stiffened. Yep, even in her current state of Christy-born madness, she was a little embarrassed about that one.

"We got here just as the mail carrier left," she said stiffly. "I thought we could take the mail in."

"You found the letter in the mailbox," I corrected myself. "And, given the urgency and trauma that Christy expressed to you about her daughter's change of plans, you had to open it to find proof that dire shenanigans were afoot."

Jesse had been accepted to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where her mom lived. She had also been accepted to the University of Washington in Seattle, where Jesse's boyfriend, Gabriel, was attending school.

Both were good schools, and she'd let her mother think that she'd been debating about which way to go. Adam and I had both been sure she intended to follow Gabriel-boyfriends outranked parents. I understood why Jesse hadn't wanted to tell her mother-witness the current scene with Auriele. Though putting it off had just been postponing the explosion.

But all of Jesse's schooling plans had changed thanks to recent events. Our pack had acquired some new and very dangerous enemies.

A week ago Jesse told me she'd decided to stay here and go to Washington State University's Tri-Cities campus. I'd agreed with her reasons. Jesse was a practical person who made generally good choices when her mother wasn't involved. The only advice I'd given Jesse was that she needed to tell Adam and Christy sooner rather than later.

"Hah," Auriele said with bitter triumph, pointing at me. "I told you it was Mercy's idea."

I opened my mouth to retort, but the door to Adam's office jerked open and Jesse stalked out, her cheeks flushed and her fists clenched. She glanced past me at Auriele and gave her a betrayed look that lasted for a long moment until she rounded the corner and took the stairs at a pace that was not quite a run.

I started to go after her, made it to the foot of the stairs when Adam barreled out of the door of his office. The pause between Jesse’s escape and Adam’s pursuit told me that he’d tried to let her go, but the wolf drove him to pursue her.

I turned so I was blocking the way up the stairs.

“Move,” said Adam, his eyes bright yellow. “I will talk to you about this later.”

I could feel the push of his dominance, let it wash on by me without effect. I am a coyote-shifter, not a werewolf. Adam’s Alpha dominance didn’t make me want to drop to my belly in instant obedience–it made me want to stick out my tongue or smack him on the nose. A month ago, I might have done that.

Today, I restrained myself to a simple, “No.”

Adam took in a deep breath and made an effort to control his wolf, which made him seem to gain another inch or so in height and breadth. Under other circumstances I might have enjoyed a little battle with Adam. I don’t mind a fight as long as no one gets hurt.

But Jesse had already been unnecessarily hurt. That made me mad, so I didn’t trust myself to poke at Adam. It wasn’t, I told myself firmly, that I didn’t trust Adam.

“What result do you want?” I asked him in a calm voice. “You might be able to bully her into saying she will do what you want her to do–whatever that is. Is that really the shape you want your relationship with your daughter, who is an adult now, to take?”

“You might consider that I am madder at you than at Jesse,” he bit out.

That surprised me for a moment–then I realized that he thought Auriele was right, that I’d done something to influence Jesse’s decision without talking to him. Hurt flooded me–he should know me better than that. But I stuffed that hurt down to look at later. Jesse was the important one at the moment.

“You calm down enough that your eyes aren’t gold, and I will step out of the way,” I told him.

“Fuck me,” he growled, turned and stalked back to his office. He shut the door with a softness that fooled no one about his state of mind.

Adam never swore around me. Not unless all hell was breaking loose. I stared at the door--thoughtfully, I told myself. I wasn’t angry because we already had too many angry people here. I wasn’t hurt because that I took care of in private and not in front of enemies. And Auriele apparently saw me as an enemy--I wasn’t hurt about that, not at all. Not here where she could see me, anyway.

“You might want to consider,” Darryl told his wife in a soft voice. “That Adam told us all that anyone who said a word against his wife, his mate, he would kill.”.

My stomach dropped to my toes–all the hurt that I was pretending not to feel was suddenly secondary. Yes, he had, hadn’t he? Oddly, because that declaration sometimes chafed me like wet wool underwear, I hadn’t brought that to bear on the current situation. And just because he was mad at me, he wouldn’t go back on his word.

Killing Auriele wouldn’t just be stupid, it would break him.

And that, children, is why ultimatums are a bad idea, said a memory in my head in the Marrok’s voice. I think he’d been talking to one of his sons, but it had stuck in my head.

Urgently, I asked Auriele, “Did you say something against me? Or did you just repeat what Christy said?”

She didn’t answer but Darryl did, “I think,” he told me, “that he will let us leave rather than fight me. And I won’t let him kill my mate without a fight.”

Auriele frowned at him. “What? Why? Someone had to tell him what was going on beneath his own nose.” From the tone of her voice, she didn’t think it would be a problem. Darryl glanced at me and then away. He was worried.

“Jesse,” I said, then stopped because my voice was a little shaky. Control was one of the things that werewolves respected. When I spoke again, my voice was quieter, a trick I’d learned from Adam because it made people listen.

“Jesse told me,” I said, “the day before yesterday, that she’d decided, on her own, to apply to Washington State here in the Tri-Cities. The events of the past few months demonstrated to her that if she goes elsewhere she will be a weakness for her father’s enemies to exploit.”

I let that hang in the air a minute. Saw them think about it.

“Eugene doesn’t have a werewolf pack,” I said, telling them what they already knew. “Vampires a plenty–but no werewolf pack we could call upon to watch over her. Worse, the vampires are a loosey-goosey bunch of misfits.” The vampire Frost had hit Eugene a few years ago and left not much organization behind. Bran had briefly moved the Portland werewolf pack to Eugene, away from Frost's direct assault. After Frost had been disposed of, Bran had allowed the pack to return to Portland, leaving Eugene in the hands of the vampires Frost had left standing. "Those vampires have no central power, not that I've heard of, who could be negotiated with for Jesse's protection."

“That means that Christy is in danger,” said Auriele, her eyes widening. “Why did you make her leave here if you knew Christy would be in danger?”

“Christy is an unlikely target,” said Darryl before I could. Which was good, because Auriele was more likely to believe him than she would me. “We’ve discussed this, ‘Riele. Adam’s ex-wife will not be seen by most powers as a good hostage. Their relationship never included a mating bond.”

Auriele sucked in a breath at this—but she didn’t say anything. I knew that the lack of a mating bond had been something that Christy had been bitter about throughout her marriage with Adam.

Darryl gave her a moment, then said, “Most Alphas would not protect a woman with whom they shared a temporary legal arrangement. If Christy had been his mate-” Darryl glanced at me “-it would be a different matter. But if she had been his mate, he would never have let her go in the first place. She is in a very safe position. Attacking her or taking her hostage would net no gains. They don’t need to know that hurting Christy or scaring her would mean that Adam and the pack go there to teach stray vampires a lesson they would never forget.”

From her face, Auriele didn’t want to agree that Christy was safe. But they had already, apparently, discussed the subject. Auriele knew as well as everyone else in the room did, that Christy was probably safer away from the pack than she would be living here–unless she physically lived with the pack. But with her in Eugene, Adam’s enemies would look closer to home for Adam’s weaknesses.

When Adam’s door opened and my mate stepped out, I ignored him even though his movement didn’t sound angry anymore. One mostly unsolvable problem at a time.

“Christy is safe in Eugene,” said Darryl heavily, repeating himself for Adam’s sake, though he didn’t look away from his wife. “Jesse, who is Adam’s only child, and publically known as such, would be another matter entirely.”

“She worked out her college plans last spring and applied then,” I said. “But that was last year, when our pack was allied with the Marrok, and we–Adam, Jesse and I, determined that it wouldn’t have been too dangerous.”

The Marrok, Bran Cornick, was a Power in the world. It would take creatures stronger and more rash than the vampires in Eugene to try and defy him–even given that he mostly stayed in the backwoods of Montana. He had people he could send out to mete justice or vengeance. It wasn’t just the werewolves who were afraid of his son Charles–or the Moor–or a number of other dangerous old werewolves in Bran’s pack.

Last summer, Adam and I had discussed sending a pack member or two as a bodyguard for Jesse, rotating them out. But our pack had to be more defensive now that I’d painted a target on us by making it clear that we looked upon the Tri-Cities as our territory–and all of those living here, human and not, as our charges. It had seemed, had been, the right thing to do. But it had changed things for us. Jesse’s ability to go to school wherever she wanted to—within reason—had been one of those things.

Sending a couple of pack members out to protect Jesse might mean that the pack would be two warriors short if we needed them—and without the umbrella of the Marrok’s protection, it would take more than two werewolves to ensure her safety. There was no sense discussing it now because Jesse wasn’t going to Seattle or Eugene.

“We don’t have the Marrok at our back anymore,” I said. “But it might not matter if we had. The Hardesty witches have shown themselves to be willing to take on the Marrok in his own territory–and we can argue how much good it did them. The point is that we, our pack, are a target for those witches. Given time, we might be able to teach them to respect us and our people. But after this last encounter, how safe do you think Jesse would be from them?”

Auriele paled and bit her lip. “I hadn’t thought about the witches.” For the first time she sounded uncertain.

Christy had this uncanny ability to blind people to common sense and make everything about her. Not that I was bitter or anything.

“Jesse thought about them,” I said. “And she didn’t want to hurt her father by making him tell her she couldn’t follow her dreams, or that she’d have to find different dreams. So she took matters into her own hands. She met with a counselor at WSU and, though freshman admissions were officially closed, he managed to get her admitted. She told me she was worried that he pulled strings for her because of who her father is.”

The Tri-Cities had been treating Adam like he was their own, personal, super hero. He accepted accolades with dignity in public and with frustration, laughter, and (on a few memorable occasions) rage in private.

“I told her she should accept what help having us behind her could give,” I told them. “We certainly have cost her enough.”

She’d broken up with Gabriel, her boyfriend. She’d told me that it had been one thing to ask him to wait a year for her, and an entirely different thing to try to limp the relationship along long-distance. He had, she told me tearfully, found a new girlfriend not a week later. He thought that Jesse would like her.

Sometimes even smart men could be stupid.

But that was Jesse’s story to tell–and I wasn’t sure that Auriele, who had babysat Jesse in diapers and served as surrogate aunt, still had the privilege of knowing Jesse’s private pain. Not after she opened that letter and took sides with Christy against Jesse. If I were feeling more charitable, I would admit that Auriele likely didn’t look at it that way. She would have put Jesse on Christy’s side with me as the evil stepmother.

“She chose,” said Adam slowly. “Jesse chose. Because of--” he glanced at Darryl, at Auriele, and lastly at Joel who returned his gaze with eyes that held a little more fire than they had when I first came into the kitchen. “Because of the pack.”

That hadn’t been his first thought, though.

Did he blame himself? Or me?

He hadn’t looked at me. I’d pushed the pack into a different role that had attracted the attention of some higher level bad guys. So it was, in that sense, my fault that Jesse had to change her plans.

His tone had been deliberately bland and our mating bond had been shut down tight for weeks. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. I wasn’t sure, just now, if I cared what he was thinking.

My first impulse was to say something biting in reply, something that would betray how hurt I was at how easily he’d fallen into Christy’s storyline. But, I didn’t want to trust him with my feelings just then. I curbed my tongue and, as I turned my head to look at him, tried to think of something more neutral to say. I came up blank.

In the middle of that tense silence, full of unspoken words, Aiden opened the back door.

Aiden was...a member of the family, though if pressed, I wasn’t really sure I could have pinpointed the moment that had happened.

He’d arrived in my life dirty, defensive and owed a favor for helping to rescue Zee and Tad.

Zee, when he wasn’t twisting wrenches at the garage, was an old and powerful fae that even the Gray Lords treated with wariness, if not actual fear. Tad, his half-human son, was a power in his own right. And Aiden, who would have blended into a third grade classroom so long as he kept his mouth shut, had rescued them.

He had looked, then, like the boy he’d been when some fae lord had stolen him to bring to Underhill, the magical land where the fae ruled--or thought they did. I don’t know if humans just don’t age in Underhill, if that long-gone fae lord did something, or if Underhill herself preserved the human visitors for company when she exiled the fae, but, like Peter Pan, Aiden had never grown up. In all the centuries–he had no idea how many-he’d lived in Underhill, mostly on his own, in a land full of the monsters the fae had imprisoned and Underhill had freed, he had never grown an inch. Last week we’d had to go out and buy him new clothes. He could still blend in with a class of third-graders, but it looked like now he was going to grow up some day. A fact he was pretty cheerful about.

He was incredibly dangerous. Possibly to keep him alive–more probably for reasons of her own--Underhill had gifted him with fire. But we were dangerous, too, so we’d taken him into our family, and largely treated him like the child he appeared to be. He seemed to take comfort in that, maybe even enjoy it.

Entering the house, he could have been any abnormally dirty human child. He appeared to have gotten wet, at some point, then rolled in the dust that was our dirt in late summer. One of his grubby hands was firmly gripping the equally ragged and dirty girl who was about an inch shorter than he was.

He paused, having yanked the girl halfway into the kitchen with irritation bordering on anger. He appeared to set all that aside as he observed the room and read the emotions with a brain that was not remotely child-like. .

“I’m sorry,” he said. “This is a bad time.”

But the child he’d dragged in suddenly became cooperative and took another step into the room.

“No,” she told him. “It’s a wonderful time. I love battles. Blood and death followed by tears and mourning.” She scratched at her matted hair, gave me a sly look, then smiled delightedly at everyone else.

“Underhill,” Adam said dangerously, “What are you doing here in my home?”

Underhill was an ancient magical land. She was powerful enough to chew the fae up and spit them out again—even the fae who had the power to raise the seas or split the earth were cautious when dealing with her. She was capricious to the point of maliciousness, and when she chose, she manifested as a girl Aiden’s age. While Aiden had been a child, trying to survive in Underhill’s realm, she had joined his small group of friends as a fellow survivor. Eventually he’d figured out who and what she was, but she continued to treat him as a friend. I still didn’t know exactly how Aiden felt about her—it was possible that he didn’t know what he thought about her either.

She was, understandably, not worried about facing down an irate Alpha werewolf.

“I heard you were inviting everyone in,” she said disingenuously. “The Dark Smith and his misbred but powerful son. The coyote and the tibicena-possessed man.” She smiled, displaying dimples. “The vampire–-you know, the crazy one?”

She meant Wulfe.

The night the witches had died, Wulfe had been injured. Not physically, but mentally or spiritually or something—and it had been my fault.. We brought Wulfe back with us, unconscious and babbling by turns, and Ogden, the pack member who was carrying him, had brought Wulfe into the house.

I found out later that he’d had no idea he was carrying a vampire. He didn’t know Wulfe personally, and something–probably my whammy–had affected his scent. But Ogden shouldn’t have been able to just bring Wulfe into the house. A vampire must be verbally invited into a home by someone who lives in that space. I expect that anyone in our pack could invite a vampire into our home–but Ogden swore he hadn’t said a word to anyone.

So Wulfe could come and go in our home anytime he wished. Maybe he always could.

“That’s your fault, too,” said Auriele, looking at me.

I don’t know how she figured that, other than that I was the one who had knocked Wulfe silly so he could be carried into the house. True enough, I supposed, if you were looking for reasons to blame me for the sun rising in the east.

I looked at Auriele, then Darryl. I looked at Aiden and Underhill, a primordial being who was relatively powerless here in our world. Relatively being the correct word, as I had no doubt she could destroy our home and everyone in it with very little effort on her part. I looked at Adam, who was not looking at me–my mate, who had said nothing to contradict Auriele.

And I was done.

Without a word, I slipped around Underhill and Aiden and out the open back door, grabbing my shoes on the way out. No one tried to stop me, which was good. I’m not sure that I would have responded like a mature adult.

Our back yard was set up for pack gatherings, with scattered picnic areas and benches landscaped into the yard. There was a new huge wooden playset with a pirate ship’s lookout on top, complete with Jolly Roger.

We’d had all the pack and their families incarcerated here for a few days and decided that something for kids to play on would be a good idea. I hadn’t expected the whole pack to play on it, but they loved it.

The logs bore scars from werewolf claws and the Jolly Roger had a tear on one corner from when a couple of the wolves had fought over it.

I paused to look at the other new thing in the yard.

Part of a wall, six feet or so high, had been constructed in the corner of the property. The stones were river rock, mostly gray and all uncut. They were set without mortar, the shape of the stones matched to hold the wall together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The wall ran for about twenty feet on either side of the corner of the lawn.

About three feet from the corner, on the side that ran the border between what had once been only my property and Adam’s, was a battered oak door–even though with very little effort anyone could have walked around the wall.

“The wall and its door hadn’t been there when I came home from work, not an hour ago.

And I knew why Aiden had been so hot when he’d come into the kitchen. Underhill had made the wall, so she could have a door.

When Aiden had left Underhill, she’d missed him. After a misadventure in Underhill’s realm, we had made a bargain. A couple of times a month we escorted Aiden to the Walla Walla fae reservation, where there were many doors to the magical land.

Now there was a door to Underhill in our back yard.

At another time, I would have run back into the house. But the thought of all those hostile faces... of Adam’s hostile face was too much for me. My stomach churned and my heart hurt. Let Adam, Darryl and Auriele deal with Underhill.

I hopped over the old barbed wire fence, which continued where the stone wall left off, and strode through the field of sagebrush and dead cheat grass toward my old house–or at least the house that stood where my old place had been.

A jackrabbit jumped out from somewhere, and my inner coyote took notice. There must have been something off about the rabbit for the coyote to be so excited by it when I wasn’t hungry at all.

I glanced at it again as it ran away. There was something ragged about the way it moved. But jacks are pretty fast, even sick ones, so it was out of sight before I could pin down what was wrong.

I stopped by the old VW Rabbit I’d originally placed just so to get back at Adam when he overstepped his bounds, back when we were nothing more to each other than neighbors. Adam was one of those people who walk around straightening paintings in museums. The old parts car with its various missing pieces had been nicely calculated to drive him crazy.

I thought about doing something else to it–but the Rabbit was part of the play-fighting that Adam and I did now. I wasn’t mad at Adam, wasn’t fighting with him–I would be mad tomorrow, maybe, when my heart didn’t ache. Today, I was just bewildered and sad. The old car couldn’t help me there, so I walked on.

I was pretty sure that Adam’s withdrawal from me had something to do with the witches, I reminded myself.

He’d seemed all right for the first few weeks after we killed all the witches. He’d had nightmares, but so had I.

I didn’t know when he’d decided to keep our mating bond closed because, to my shame, I didn’t notice at first.

I was bound to my mate, to my pack, and to a vampire. And if I thought about any of them too hard I understood why animals caught in the jaws of iron traps sometimes gnawed their own limbs off to get free. Of the three bonds, the one with Adam bothered me the least. And when, a short time ago, it had been obstructed–I found out that I had become...completed by that bond.

Still, I had made very little effort to learn how it worked, leaving that to Adam. It was usually open only a little, just enough to let me know that Adam was okay and tell him the same about me. Sometimes he left it open wide–usually when we were making love, which was both amazing and overwhelming.

We weren’t living in each other’s heads, but I generally knew when he was having a good day–or a bad one, though only strong emotions made it through. I could tell where he was and if he was in pain or not. And he could tell the same about me. But his keeping it tightened down left us both some privacy. That way, he told me, I wouldn’t try to chew off my foot to get free.

Sometime after the witches, he had closed it tight and I hadn’t noticed until a few days ago. Once I noticed, then I could look back and realize it had been weeks since I’d felt much from our bond. The way it was now, I could not tell anything except that he was alive.

He had been working long hours–and so had I, my business freshly reopened and requiring more time than usual because of it. How little time we were spending together hadn’t seemed abnormal until I stopped to think about it. He had been spending a lot of time at work, but he’d still had time to take care of pack business, and the problems of various pack members. But our time, the time he and I carved from our days and weeks, had disappeared.

I didn’t know when, exactly, it had happened or why, but I had been sure it was some kind of aftermath from the witches, from Elizaveta’s death. But tonight, his reaction, his willingness to believe I’d urge Jesse to change her plans without telling him, left me thinking that maybe the problem was me.

Was he finally tired of the trouble I caused? Or at least seemed to be surrounded by?

We hadn’t made love in weeks. My husband was a twice a night man unless one or the other of us was too beaten up. I found that with him, I was a twice a night woman, so it worked out well.

I leaned down to pat the old VW and then continued my walk. I didn’t want to think anymore, and movement seemed the right thing to do. I had no particular destination in mind other than away.

I stopped by the pole barn I used as a secondary base of operations the whole time my garage had been being rebuilt and glanced inside. It looked oddly empty, most of the tools moved back to the garage in town. The main occupant of the building was my old Vanagon.

I’d put a white tarp down and driven the van on top to see if I could find the leak in the coolant lines that ran from the radiator in the front of the van to the engine fourteen feet away. It was a last ditch effort to find the leak before pulling all the lines and replacing them with new ones. I wasn’t hopeful, but I really wasn’t looking forward to taking the whole van apart.

I closed the door without checking the tarp and walked to the little manufactured home that had replaced my old trailer. The yard was in better condition than it had been when I’d lived there, Adam having installed an automatic watering system and adding my house to his yard man’s routine.

The oak tree, a gift of an oakman, had escaped the fire that destroyed my old home. It had grown since I last paid attention to it, a lot more than it should have, I thought–though I was no gardener or botanist. Its trunk was wider around than both of my hands could span.

Impulsively, I put my tear-damp cheek against the cool bark and closed my eyes. I couldn’t sense it, but my head had to be quieter than that for me to listen to the subtle magic the tree held.

“Hey,” I told it. “I’m sorry I haven’t visited for a while.”

It didn’t respond, so after a moment I turned to the little manufactured house that I had never lived in. My old trailer had burned down and I’d moved in with Adam. Gabriel, Jesse’s boyfriend who had been working for me when they met, had lived in it until he’d gone off to college. He’d planned to stay all summer, but a few weeks ago he’d moved his stuff out. At the time he’d told me that it didn’t make sense for him to take up space here when he was living in Seattle.

I’d known that there was something more, something that put sadness in his eyes, and I’d been pretty sure it had to do with Jesse by the way she didn’t come over to help him move. But I’d figured it was something that they would tell me when the time was right. When Jesse told me she was staying here for college, she’d also told me she and Gabriel had broken up.

I had Gabriel’s keys hanging on our key holder in the kitchen, and I wasn’t going back for them. The fake rock was still sitting next to the stairs–one side was blackened and melted a little and I could still smell the faint scent of the fire.

Adam had nearly killed himself trying to rescue me. I had not been in the house, but he’d thought I was. Even a werewolf can burn to death. Crouching beside the wooden steps I remembered the burns that covered him.

But I also remembered the look in his eye today when he told me, if not in so many words, that he believed I would go behind his back on something that I knew was important to him. That I would talk his daughter into an important life-changing decision without discussing it with him, first.

I closed my hand on the plastic rock and found a shiny new key. Gabriel had put his spare key the same place I had. Adam, who ran a security company, would have chided us both had he known.

I opened the door.

Gabriel had cleaned the house before he left–and then his mother and sisters came and cleaned it again. She explained to me, “Gabriel is a good boy. But no male ever cleaned a house like a woman.”

And with that sexist statement, she proceeded to prove her point. The house smelled clean, not musty as do most places that are left empty for very long. The carpet looked new, the vinyl in the kitchen and bathrooms were pristine.

There was a white envelope on the counter of the kitchen marked “Jesse” in Gabriel’s handwriting. I left it alone. Someone had already opened Jesse’s mail today–I wasn’t going to do that again.

The manufactured house was larger than my old trailer had been, and better insulated, too. Even though the day had been hot and the electricity was off, the house was a bearable temperature.

Walking through the empty, clean, house wasn’t making me feel any better. I was starting to feel like I’d abandoned the fight in the middle–which wasn’t like me at all. I stared out the window of the master bedroom over at my home. My real home.

Time to go back and fight for it, I decided.

I strode out of the bedroom–and there was a woman standing in the living room with her back to me. Her hair was long and blond and straight. She wore a navy A-line skirt and a white blouse.

“Excuse me?” I said, even as I was wondering how she’d gotten into the house without me noticing her at all. I could smell her now, a light fragrance that was oddly familiar.

She turned to look at me. Her face was oddly familiar too. Her features were strong–handsome rather than lovely. A face made for a character actor. I’d have said memorable, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen her before. Her eyes were blue-gray.

“I don’t understand,” she said in a familiar voice. “He loves me. Why would he do such a thing?”

And upon her words, blood began to flow from wounds that opened on her body–shoulder, breast, belly, one arm and then the other, and the smell of fresh blood permeated the house.