Sit. Stay. Kill.
Prudence doesn’t believe in magic. But when she rescues an abused dog, she discovers that he’s actually a werewolf—and a charming, sexy hunk in his human form. She also discovers that she is a Circe, a natural sorceress. As long as Brandon wears her leash, she can command him to sit, stay … or kill.
Prudence is a logical woman. She believes in the law and doesn’t believe in magic. But when she rescues an abused dog, she discovers that he’s actually a werewolf—and a charming, sexy hunk in his human form.
For his part, Brandon is having a bad week. First he is chained and tortured by his brother, who is intent on becoming Lupus Ultimus, leader of all werewolves. He wants information about a magical talisman that he thinks will give him that power. Then a kind and sexy woman frees him, but not before she puts her leash on him. Brandon discovers he’s been enchanted. Prudence is a Circe, a natural sorceress—who doesn’t know it herself. As long as Brandon wears her leash, she can command him to sit, stay … or kill.
Prudence refuses to free Brandon. The danger he faces as a lone wolf is too great. She knows he’s not really attracted to her, no matter what he says. That’s just the enchantment at work.
The Lupus Ultimus tournament looms. Brandon will fight rival after rival to protect his people. Together he and Prudence will find the talisman and defang his brother. Then they can let each other go. Sticking together is a temporary measure for survival.
It’s certainly not love. No werewolf could ever love a Circe.
Prudence hated being responsible. With less of a conscience, she wouldn’t be studying the house across the street from her second-floor bedroom window.
The neighbor asked her to keep his spare key in case he got locked out. No biggie. But then he’d moved in a rush. The property stood empty for a week.
And that key hung like a grand piano around Prudence’s neck. She was stuck with being the house’s stand-in guardian. With luck, a new owner would move in soon.
This afternoon, as usual, she inspected the property. Still there, windows unbroken. Grass getting long. No trash in the yard.
But something had changed in the house’s second-floor bedroom. With no blinds or curtains, the bedframe in the room was visible. New. And a lump under a net lying on the bed shocked her. As if someone had dragged a walrus from the sea into a St. Paul, Minnesota suburb and left it lying captive.
A new neighbor had moved in, and it looked like he was going to be a problem.
The lump moved. That was a head and a muzzle. Not a walrus, despite the size. A dog.
Prudence had to be wrong. Nobody would truss up a pet that way. This was like some magic act where Houdini made the impossible escape. Maybe the guy who bought the house was a magician and this was a mechanical animal he used in his illusions. That would be the logical answer.
The guy who sold the house was an artist. He’d faked scenes of guillotines and swordfights. This was another fake, like one her brothers might do. Performance art. Definitely.
But that furry thing seemed to be staring at her.
A shiver ran through her, from head all the way down to her toes.
If it was a live dog, she couldn’t leave him. If this was a stage set and not a real animal and she called the cops, she’d get written up in the local shopping news as a kook. Clients wouldn’t hire her. The law firm would fire her. Or demote her back to document review and never let her speak in court.
She had to find out for sure.
Prudence dashed off to find the binoculars her sister left after her last brief visit, before she headed off to some festival displaying art she said she knew Prudence wouldn’t like. A kind way of saying Prudence had nothing in common with her own family.
Binoculars found and in hand, Prudence returned to her window. Focusing in, she scanned the room. Blood. Fur. Live animal. She choked and gasped but couldn’t take in any air. This couldn’t be real.
Logic. She needed logic. Closing her eyes, she counted up her facts.
One, the animal was a dog. Two, she’d seen him breathing. Three, his fur was burned and missing in patches. And there was blood. Four, handcuffs fastened to the bedframe cinched the shiny silver net down tight against the captive so he couldn’t wriggle free. Five, his eyes shone golden. Like actual gold buttons.
The door to the room across the street moved. Somebody was coming in. They’d see her and her binoculars. She couldn’t let them.
Prudence dove for the floor, the binoculars slamming to the carpet, and tried to catch her breath. Stay still. He can’t see through walls. Nobody will know you’re here if you don’t move and make shadows like that moving door in the dog’s room.
Her new neighbor hadn’t seen her. Probably. She didn’t dare peek.
Half an hour later, she crawled out of her bedroom. Once she moved down to the first floor and clearly couldn’t see into the second-story window, she’d be safe. Prudence headed for the stairs.
What should she do?
Call the cops. Or the humane society. Except—was she sure the dog was alive? Those gold-button eyes didn’t look real. There were stuffed cats made to look asleep, with chests that moved as though they were breathing. This could be an artist-quality imitation of life.
No barks, no howling, when he should be in horrible pain.
She had to get another, closer look. Running down the stairs, she headed for her living room and the large window with a great view of the street and the house across the way. When she opened the drapes, she tried for casual. But her gaze darted up.
Now the second-floor window had blinds. They covered the entire opening, with no slits at top or bottom or sides. One slat overlapped another. There was absolutely no way to see into the room.
The other rooms had no window coverings and no furniture at all. Empty, the way the house had been for a week.
Prudence blinked, fast and hard.
A truck stood in the driveway but she didn’t see anyone around. No one moving through the house. Whoever had come into the room might still be there.
She could go over, knock, and pretend to welcome him to the neighborhood. And what? Ask whether he was torturing a dog in the room upstairs that she shouldn’t have seen into, the one he’d blocked from sight. That only worked if he wasn’t a psycho.
If he was … she might get tied up and handcuffed, too. She shuddered. Scrap that plan.
Plan two. Call someone official—the cops, the humane society or the F.B.I. Feds dealt with lawbreakers, but only when federal crimes were involved. Officials wouldn’t break in without warning unless they had a warrant. Usually, they’d ask the homeowner first. Her neighbor could dispose of the dog and come hunting the witness who’d ratted him out. She was the obvious suspect. The person who could have seen into the room now hidden from sight.
If he didn’t come after her, he might decide some other unlucky random person had squealed. Notifying the authorities could get someone killed.
There was only one solution, however insane it sounded. If you planned well and kept an eye on your surroundings, you could do anything.
Six hours later, after a quick trip to purchase keys that should unlock any standard handcuff, it was finally night. The truck was gone, the house dark, quiet, and apparently empty. Light glinted against the blinds from a streetlight outside.
Now was the time. Move. Before anyone came back.
Prudence slipped from her house, down the street, and onto the neighbor’s property through bushes that crowded the front walk. No, she couldn’t pick a lock. But the spare key that pulled her into this mess would finally get used.
The door opened easily and silently.
Yes, this was breaking and entering, since she didn’t have the current owner’s permission. She could be disbarred. But those impossibly golden eyes haunted her. Nightmares would curse her if she didn’t check the room and its captive.
Prudence closed the door behind her, flipped her flashlight on, and rushed to the stairs, then staying close to the wall, went up. Did she hear a footstep?
No. Dead silence, except for her loud breath. She swung the flashlight around. Nobody but her. She inhaled through her nose.
There! A clink. Someone or something, moved. Bedsprings?
Reaching the top of the stairs, she moved forward, setting each foot down with toe first. Her long-sleeved black hoodie hid her skin, even though she sweated in the July heat. All-black leggings turned her into a shadow.
The sound of springs shifting definitely came from the front bedroom to. No voices, no footsteps.
She twisted the doorknob and it clicked. Loud in the night.
The noise in the room stopped, and her grip slipped. Someone heard her.
A low whine begged her to come in.
She couldn’t leave now, so she pushed open the door, an inch at a time, and peered around the edge. No one moved. The flashlight showed no humans.
Nothing and no one except Prudence and the dog. The really, really, big dog. Yes, he was alive. Her heart thudded in her chest. Sherlock Holmes got it wrong. When you eliminated the improbable magic act, impossible cruelty turned out to be true.
She slipped into the room and shut the door, tight.
The dog’s ribs stood out when he exhaled. Blackened fur and patches of flesh showed through the net. So much worse than he’d looked through the binoculars. He must be in horrible pain, yet he flashed her a doggy smile, and his eyes glowed eighteen-karat gold.
Prudence stretched out one hand, slowly, to touch his shoulder and shone the light on his back, raw where the wire bound him.
He didn’t growl or jerk away, but hard muscles twitched and fur rippled against her fingers.
“We’re getting you out of here, and you’re not going to bite. Are you?” Her voice trembled. Dangerous dogs got chained. Or chaining turned them dangerous. He’d been more than abused. She pulled her hand back, fighting the need, the urge, to cuddle him, and brushed one furry ear. Hard and round, metal met her fingers. A stud. Who put jewelry in a dog’s ear?
A spasm shook his body as if she’d shot him with a stun gun. But he made no sound.
“What did he do to you?” She should have confronted the owner and called the cops. And taken photos to be printed in the paper. He deserved to be chained up himself. The guy had to be psycho. He must have netted the dog so he could torture it. That way, the dog had less freedom of movement, couldn’t escape.
Tears filled her eyes. The world went watery and wavy. Crying wasn’t her style. She planned and acted.
Again, she patted him.
His gaze pinned her the way a cat hypnotized a mouse. He demanded her help with no whine, growl, or bark.
Act before someone catches you. “Okay,” she muttered. “But you have to keep quiet.”
A nod suggested he understood.
She had to stop pretending to reason with him and take the risk of being bitten.
When she set the flashlight on the floor, the light shone under the bed, not on the prisoner or the cuffs. Great plan. She should have brought a lantern.
Her heart beat so hard, she wouldn’t hear a motor, a door, or footsteps signaling a returning captor. She braced the flashlight against a corner of the wall to angle it up. Now she could see the cuffs holding the net tight. Part two of her plan involved using her new, standard handcuff key. With luck, it should work. She hoped.
Time flew, the seconds ticking away in her head like a bomb counting down.
She inserted the key into a lock near the dog’s rear foot, careful not to bump him and cause him more pain.
With a click, the cuff clicked open, and the net shifted. He sighed, that whisper of air carrying an agony of pain, but he didn’t snap or move.
Not bothering to adjust the light, she scrambled around the bed to trace the chains from bedposts and fumbled to find a keyhole in another lock. At least handcuffs weren’t tricky to open. The second clicked, and she pulled the net up and off his body.
He raised his head and rolled upright.
I did it. He’s free.
An engine roared nearby, moving closer. Into the driveway?
No, she hadn’t saved the dog who still lay on the bed. She’d landed beside him in a truckload of trouble. With the open first-floor plan and empty rooms, her new neighbor would spot her and the dog if they headed for the back door.
Cross burglary off my list of career choices. Along with professional spy.
How fast could this starving, injured dog move, anyway? If he’d follow her. It wasn’t like she’d brought a big, juicy bone to wave under his nose.
She raced to the window, burrowed under the blinds, and yanked on the window handle. Stuck. It didn’t move. Nailed shut?
Think. She fumbled for the latch and spun it sideways.
Another frantic tug at the wood frame. This time the window shifted easily and quietly.
“Come, boy.” She peered back at him, through slats in the blind
He crawled off the bed, each move a struggle, so hurt and so brave.
She had to find a way out for both of them. Panting didn’t help her breathing. Panic. Too noisy. She had to be quiet. Could she shove him out a window at the back and follow? Dogs didn’t land on their feet like cats. Not from a second floor.
Neither would she. Climbing down would be a major problem for someone who’d never climbed a tree, much less the side of a house.
They were so screwed if the psycho owner had come home. Next time, she’d only rescue ground-floor prisoners. Or she’d march out with the dog and threaten to call the animal humane society. But nobody wanted to go viral as the guy who tortured a dog. He could kill the dog. Or her. She ducked out from under the blinds and straightened them.
Voices, an engine, a horn. It sounded like a quarrel. Thankfully outside, not on the first floor.
Lights flashed against the window, red and white, strobing. Emergency lights, but no siren.
The dog reached her and rubbed his head against her hand.
“I’m not scratching ears now.”
He growled and pawed at his ear.
The metal stud. It had to be hurt.
He growled, louder, and his teeth gripped her hand. The almost-bite didn’t break her skin.
A car door slammed below.
Prudence froze, her hand still trapped in the dog’s mouth.
Outside a man asked for identification and said something about lights inside the house.
A chill rippled through her. The police had arrived to take her away.
A voice rose loud. “I know I saw a flashlight beam.” Nosy Mary. The woman watched over the whole neighborhood by making rounds on her motorized scooter and perfuming the community with potpourri. She must have called in reinforcements.
“There’s nothing to steal. My house is empty.” The stranger, her new neighbor, sounded aggravated. Of course, he wouldn’t want anyone to come in. “You must have seen a reflection from car headlights. Or the moon. You can see there are no lights inside.”
The weary, rumbling voice had to belong to the officer. Prudence couldn’t make out his words.
“That light is still up on the second floor, behind the blinds.” Mary wasn’t soft or easily moved.
Prudence should have shut off the flashlight. Cutting off its beam now would be worse.
“You’re not coming in.” The man sounded ticked. “I don’t want my property smelling like rotten peaches.”
Mary yelled about community safety and police authority to check houses. The house would be under Mary’s watchful eye like a bug under a microscope from now on. Dissected and reported for every infraction of city rules. The new neighbor didn’t know what he’d taken on when he’d insulted Mary’s home-made potpourri.
While the three argued, Prudence and the dog had time.
She eased her hand out of his mouth.
They couldn’t use the front door and sneak across the street to her house as she’d planned.
But the stairway down and the rear door might be free for a few moments while Mary harangued the owner.
“We head out the back. If we get away, you’re my dog. We’re jogging.” She didn’t need to fill the dog in on the plan but talking through action steps made them clear in her mind. This wasn’t a great idea, but they were out of time.
She ran for the bedroom door. The big dog trotted along, his head higher than her waist. Big dog.
Down the steps, trying to keep her footfalls quiet. The dog moved as silently as a ghost. Every time his body brushed her legs, a tingle ran through her. Adrenaline high or electricity from his fur. Mission Impossible theme music rang through her head and almost drowned the pounding of her heart in her ears.
After way too long a time speed-sneaking, they reached the back door. She scrabbled with the deadbolt but couldn’t get it to turn.
The dog stood up on his hind paws and whuffed in her ear.
Encouraged by a dog. She was losing it. But warmth ran from her cheek down to her cold, fumbling fingers. She jerked at the stubborn bolt, and it clacked open.
The dog dropped down.
Prudence opened the door, pressed the button to set the spring lock, and slipped out. The dog followed and she pulled the door shut behind her.
A raised voice called from the front. “Who’s there?”
He couldn’t have heard that soft click, but they had to scram before someone came looking.
She fled down the alley, the dog at her side. They’d circle a few blocks away and come back to her house to avoid police, Nosy Mary, and psycho owner.
Unzipping her fanny pack, she pulled out the collar and leash she’d purchased that afternoon. A block away, she stumbled to a halt.
When she moved the collar toward the dog’s head, he snarled, teeth bared.
“You have to look like my dog. Otherwise, he can take you back.” Why am I reasoning with an animal? It’s like explaining the law to Mary. She just shakes her finger at me and says laws are words on paper. People know what’s right and wrong.
What am I doing? The law is my life—and I’ve stolen a dog. Lawyers get disbarred for dishonesty.
But from the moment they’d met, the dog seemed to understand. People claimed animals had a sixth sense for whether you were trying to help them, especially when they were in pain.
He sank back on his haunches.
She held the collar out like a gift.
The dog pushed his head forward and let her wrap the collar around his neck.
She clipped the leash on. Her whole body vibrated, as if a hive of bees buzzed from the inside out, their wings caressing her insides with each beat. Her legs shook and her fingers tightened on the leash.
The dog shook. His fur stood straight out. He felt the connection, too.
Static electricity? Hardly. That wouldn’t explain her insides melting. Prudence shook her head. Not the time to analyze.
They hadn’t been hit by lightning. Her fingers pulsed and swelled as if they’d absorbed a mutant’s power.
Be rational. This had to be an adrenaline crash because they were safe.
Safe if she moved.
Prudence forced her feet to jog forward. Walking at breakneck speed while she dictated was more her style. Dog owners jogged. Fitting in meant safety. Move faster, feet.
The dog glided two steps behind her despite his injuries. He acted as if he was guarding her back. A deep rumble in his throat matched the thrumming in her bones and the humming she couldn’t stop.
Oh, no. She’d left her flashlight behind. Proof she was a thief. Not good.
But not a catastrophe, either. Her name wasn’t on the light.
Prudence picked up her pace to circle toward the back door of her own house.
All she needed was to be caught by Mary, jogging with a strange, tortured dog.
Leaves crackled above. Squirrels? The moon gleamed. The scents of mowed grass and blooming roses swamped her as she sank into the night. The dog’s nails clicked on the walk and crickets chirped and birds called. Not her usual experience. Before she’d been distracted, not a creature of the night. She should wear black more often and listen to the world.
Prudence unlocked her door and walked from darkness into light.
The dog hung back until she jerked the leash. Then he moved, more easily than she would have thought given his size.
The second his tail cleared the door, she closed it, snapped the deadbolt, and sank to the floor. Her face met the dog’s muzzle. He looked like a wolf now that she could see all of him clearly. Shades of gray would melt into shadows and let him pounce. Big jaws but closed to hide what must be teeth giant enough to terrify any child or adult.
Her family would never believe she, the sane one, had snapped and stolen a starving dog. Today she’d made more of a difference with one act than all their art, inspiring people with scenes of beauty. She’d saved a life instead of writing a sad chorus about a dog imprisoned on a bed until he died.
“We did it,” she said. “I know I had to yank you inside, but we had to get off the street fast. I’ll feed you. Promise.”
The dog nodded vigorously.
A pang hit her chest. Heartburn or the effects of running, when she never did. Not sorrow some nameless and abused mutt wouldn’t trust her without the bribe of a meal.
After they’d risked jail together, could she really take him to a shelter and not know for sure he was safe and happy? He couldn’t live with her when she worked sixty hours a week for the firm and would keep doing so, to make partner. And after. Her life was work, and a dog didn’t fit in.
Her hand found his head. Warmth raced up her arm toward her heart.
The dog butted her, hard enough she flopped backward, and shoved his ear against her chest. He dragged his head downward until the embedded stud hit her hand.
The metal stung as if alcohol hit an open cut.
“Ouch.” Prudence sat up. “I promised to take care of that later. This qualifies as later.”
She examined the ear and winced. The metal stud was a bolt with a nut fastened so tight it must cut into the dog’s flesh. She should get him food and smear his burns with antibacterial ointment. That seemed more important than tackling the bolt, but he wanted it removed. The metal must hurt like blazes.
She tested the stud with her fingers. It didn’t move at all. His flesh must have swollen around it. This was going to hurt.
She retrieved her toolbox and pulled out a pair of pliers.
The dog followed, tight on her heels, the leash trailing behind him. He watched every move with eyes that gleamed, not gold in the house light, but more of a mystic topaz, mixing a half-dozen colors.
Thumping onto her sofa, she nudged him close between her legs and set to work.
The dog didn’t flinch or growl when the pliers slipped.
Twinges of sympathetic pain jabbed Prudence. Tugging at the bolt had to hurt a lot. “Lawyers can’t be soft-hearted. Especially not divorce lawyers. I’ve gotta get tougher.”
Finally, the nut shifted a fraction. After several turns, it grew loose, enough she could move it with her fingers. Once the nut came off, she pulled the bolt out, slowly.
Burned hair smell puffed outward. Her nose and ears itched, and she coughed. The dog’s outline blurred.
She blinked, hard. The blurring got worse, not better. Maybe she was fainting. The world fuzzed. A glance away told her the furnishings looked normal. Only the dog dissolved, like a magic trick.
Actual magic didn’t exist. No magic, no how. That mantra rattled around her brain while molecules swam as if gravity had vanished. Her stomach agreed she’d wound up in freefall, while she slumped back against the couch.
Her gaze stuck to the formless shape, melted into a paler form and settled into a naked man curled on his side.
Her heart hammered. Her whole body shook.
Prudence dug the heels of her hands into both eyes and pressed, then lowered her arms.
The upside was, no way could she be locked up for dognapping if the police tracked her down. She had no dog. The downside was, she wouldn’t be able to produce the dog unharmed. Upside, he wouldn’t go back into animal slavery. Hysteria was masquerading as legal analysis.
You saw a dog turn into a man, and you’re worried about dognapping. Get a grip.
She had to quit focusing on upsides and downsides of situations that didn’t exist and deal with what did. The too-real present.
On top of her Oriental rug, blending with its muted colors, lay a naked, brown-haired man. Blood drooled from a jagged hole in his ear. Scorch marks crisscrossed his body where the net had lain. His ear looked angrier and redder, as if infected. That wound wouldn’t kill him, not immediately. His ribs showed—not just because he was ripped, but because he was gaunt with hunger that hollowed his stomach. Old burns and scabbed flesh circled his wrists and ankles.
Not totally naked. Her dog collar hugged his neck. Her leash lay across his body.
This human man had to be her dog.
Her ears rang, not just a few notes, but an entire symphony. The temperature dropped from steamy summer heat to arctic cold. Definitely shock. Her pulse skipped hummingbird fast and the entire room blurred.
If ever a man
Fur should wear
And fix you with
His golden stare.
The nonsense verse hummed through her head.
Not a dog with golden eyes. A furry man. A were-man. A werewolf.
I saved a werewolf, a creature that doesn’t exist.
But he does, here in my house. What big teeth he has, Prudence.
And even unconscious, the starving man was oversized, from shoulders to feet and everywhere in between, especially mid-man.
Man, pulsed her body. Man and mine.
Who patched up unconscious werewolves? In books and movies, werewolves healed when they shifted. This werewolf-turned-human stayed hurt. He might die here on her rug before Prudence learned his name. She needed help.
Tears choked her until she swallowed. The werewolf had understood her words. He’d whuffled in her ear to steady her.
She dropped to the floor and studied his chest. Yes, it did move with slow inhales and exhales. He wasn’t dead. Yet.
Tousling his hair, she shifted the rich brownness to one side and then to the other. The strands clung to her hand while she fingered his cheekbone and the hollow surrounding his eye before sliding down to caress his upper lip. Warm.
His breath heated her palm, and the fire between her legs flared. She squirmed. That didn’t stop the heat rising in her and tugging her closer.
Her nipples peaked. Every cell of her body burst into flame, the fire strongest at her center. She didn’t lust after random men. Not even the sexiest actor showing up at her family’s gallery openings. But this wolfman had more strength than Hercules, to keep going after being tortured.
She straightened her back and jerked away. “I’m a thinker, not an animal.”
He’d changed when she pulled the bolt out. His ear looked torn, bloody, and scalded all at the same time. Burns from the net covered his body. They should go to a hospital emergency room, now that he looked human. An ER would call the cops, though. And her wolf had a problem with metal. Medical instruments were made of metal.
Besides, his lab tests could be abnormal. What if he shifted to wolf form at the hospital? He could be locked up or shot.
Her family would use him as a model, a muse, or an ambassador for the animal kingdom. No help there.
What she needed was a werewolf expert. Mythical creatures had to have their own doctors. Or a rescue society that took care of wounds, so their kind didn’t wind up in human tabloid photos.
You couldn’t Google “expert-for-men-who-turned-into-wolves” unless you wanted gamers, fantasy aficionados, or role players. Hey, that was a lot of lore. If she had time, she could ask hypothetical questions and try out answers.
Not now. This man lying on her floor was real and really hurt.
Nobody she knew had a werewolf or a paranormal specialist in their families. Or they had one and didn’t bring up the topic.
Except … That verse that bounced around in her head. Aunt Christine had sent the poem for Prudence’s thirteenth birthday. The one that her siblings taunted her with until she knew it better than any Dr. Seuss rhyme. Even now, her sister would recite it with great drama at family gatherings and they’d all howl. What was the whole thing?
If ever a man
Fur should wear
And fix you with
His golden stare.
Check and double-check. Her werewolf wore fur or fur wore him. His golden stare had pierced her soul.
What was she supposed to do according to Aunt Christine?
Twist silver in your hair.
Maybe he was allergic to silver, not all metal. Prudence glanced toward her bedroom. She had silver chains and necklaces. They might protect her, but his wounds left him unconscious. Not a danger to her currently. He might be in any mood when he woke up. Or in animal form—maybe wolf to the bone and teeth. She shivered. Definitely silver in her hair. The next line hadn’t rhymed as well and seemed even stranger.
And call me fast, dear.
For days, her siblings had pointed out every man with fur. Fur hats, furry sweaters, furry chins. For a decade, Prudence had thought Aunt Christine, who didn’t look odd, was the strangest of her entire hyper-creative family. She disguised herself as normal, but she was the kookiest of her relatives. The artists knew when their work was fantasy.
Now Prudence had proof her aunt wasn’t crackers. Aunt Christine knew werewolves existed. The rhyme offered a warning to protect Prudence and a promise of help. Her aunt could handle the situation. She might be part of a paranormal rescue group—someone who could handle a wounded wolf without danger.
Prudence would follow the advice and call fast. Before she took time to patch him up or feed him or do whatever might heal him. He wasn’t bleeding badly. Expert help mattered more than gauze.
She couldn’t be sad, mad, or unhappy about sharing her secret or losing him. Not when she’d solved the unsolvable problem. Nobody kept a wolf as a pet in a suburb. She was confused. And stressed. Later she’d celebrate.
If he didn’t wake up wolfish and hungry and eat her first. Before help for both of them arrived.
Brandon’s ear burned worse than when his brother had set fire to it. Accidentally, he claimed. Not so much, unless jealousy could be called accidental. Brandon pawed at his head and touched flesh, not fur.
Lightning burned through his nerves, jagged and electrifying. Worse, much worse, than the pain of a shift. Only silver left that kind of aftereffect. He’d shifted to human. His ear bulged, swollen, and wet his fingers. He must be bleeding.
Someone had removed the silver bolt that pinned him into wolf form.
He’d lie still to sort things out, while nobody shot questions at him, and a cobweb of silver didn’t strangle breath and dull his mind. Keeping his eyes closed, he focused.
Wolf memories didn’t match human memories. A sneak attack, pain, his brother demanding to know where some pendant was, and threats. Torture only worked when the prisoner had answers. Brandon didn’t know about any pendant.
Images of a woman’s breasts haunted him. Breasts covered in black, but still seducing him. She claimed she wanted to help. Kind voice, enticing smells, and a leash. She removed the bolt from his ear. But she’d talked him into a collar. Why did he accept, instead of tearing out her throat? Or taking off into the darkness. He could have hidden from her and healed.
Or died in wolf form. Or been captured and returned to his brother. He could have risked that gamble.
But not the danger to a woman who saved him, for no reason other than pity. That scalded. She thought he was weak. He wasn’t, but now he owed her.
He had put her in jeopardy. If his brother couldn’t find him, he would sniff out the woman who rescued him and torture her for information.
Letting a human woman leash him, to keep up the pretense he was a dog, shouldn’t have mattered. Even as weak as he was, he could snap the nylon in a heartbeat.
But when she had fastened the collar around his neck, moonlight burned through his veins, nose to tail. Every bit of fur electrified. The world fizzed, bubbled, and molded him into a new shape, compressing him like a vise.
The collar had locked onto his soul, the way his brother’s net had locked his wolf body in place so he could barely move. Her essence wove itself through every fiber of him, until they were one creature, with her the brain, him, the paws. He couldn’t escape her scent or her presence, not in any cell or thought. Like she’d joined with him, from the inside out.
A pure human couldn’t do that with just a leash.
So, she had to be a Circe, a woman who could control wolves. Not like his ex, Gareth’s current lover, who seduced and teased wolves, until they did what she wanted. A sorceress who might cast spells of persuasion, but weak. Circes collared and then commanded. Wolves couldn’t help but obey.
Maybe his rescuer didn’t know she was more than human. She might not have a clue about werewolves. When she removed the bolt, she might have left the room before he shapeshifted. If so, he should get out, fast, before she discovered a man with wounds suspiciously like the dog’s injuries. He could only hope she’d fled, before he shifted.
Maybe he could leave a trail and tempt Gareth to chase him. Running would be Brandon’s best answer now. Staying here, trapped under her control, would hamstring him in any fight and doom the woman.
He rolled sideways and pain shot through him. Not moving fast at the moment. He’d think instead.
What facts did he have?
No cage. His brother, and the hench-wolves who tormented him, had vanished. He had to find a weapon. Human teeth and fingernails didn’t offer much defense. Brandon lacked the strength to shift reliably. He might lose himself midway and get stuck mid-shift or dissolve. Or he might lose his human mind and turn full-on wolf.
Brandon opened his eyes.
Meat. His poor, human nose smelled meat cooking. The room was big and cozy with wood and leather furniture and wool carpets and colors that ranged from peach to rose with blue and silver accents. Silver.
The rug under him lay soft, unlike those bedsprings that had dug into his body. His stomach rumbled a hungry, angry growl. The collar choked him. Because his knee pinned the leash, not because a person grabbed the other end. Paper rustled under his foot.
He spun toward that sound, rising to a crouch. Christmas paper. In July?
He pawed at the paper until his brain connected with thumbs again. Reflexes worked, but intelligent human actions took longer to recover after trauma.
A throat cleared nearby.
In human shape, people could sneak up on him. He hadn’t heard her approach. Duller hearing and scent, but more brains, and the ability to talk in full sentences. Slowly, focused, he turned and rose to his full height. Not swaying took determination. Raising his low-hanging head would take more effort, a lot more.
Those must be the breasts he remembered.
“My face is up here.”
He pulled up and back, his spine remembering how to hold a head upright on a man’s body. Not the same as a wolf’s neck or balance.
Severe beauty. Her hair was yanked back so he could see her face. Deep-set, thoughtful eyes. A chin that squared and lifted to challenge, despite his height. Pale as if she never went outside. Lips, tight now, but still generously wide.
His stomach growled, and his lower anatomy sprang to attention. If she attacked, he could take her, with no weapon. He shouldn’t need to. She’d helped him, but maybe she didn’t know it. Remember, humans don’t believe. Werewolves are Halloween costumes and horror movies. He’d admit nothing, claim the collar and leash was some kind of game. Still, her scent seduced with the power of a werewolf in heat. Lavender and cinnamon, sweetness with spice.
“Hello, face.” His voice came out hoarse.
The woman flinched but didn’t back away. Her gaze stayed fixed on his face. Turquoise eyes, clear as some exotic sea, framed by brown brows and lashes that could be spikes of fur. Would they be as soft against his flesh? That collar and leash were getting into his head and forcing them together. He didn’t chase women who weren’t wolves.
Liquid dripped from his ear to splat on his shoulder. Blood, said his human nose, adequate at the range of inches.
“Do you need help getting dressed?” Her voice held the sweetness of a mother cooing to a toddler or a pet.
“No, but I could use an explanation for waking up naked. Did you roofie me for sex? Or did one of my less funny friends drop me off here?”
“Let’s quit dancing around the truth. You might be expert at that tango, but I stumble over lies.” Her flat statement cut into him, the more because of her courage in making it instead of calling the police, a priest, or animal control. Or tying him up, down, and sideways. “You’re a werewolf. I saw your fur dissolve and re-form as flesh.”
When cornered, admit the truth, and prepare to fight. Arguing she must have been drugged, wouldn’t dent her certainty. Too bad she hadn’t been the kind to run screaming from blood. Except then, he’d still be in his brother’s clawed paws. Brandon plastered a hand to his chest. “That sounds like a mad scientist project gone wrong.”
“Tell me the truth about werewolves.”
“We’re not bad people. Most of us aren’t. But we do better in Minnesota where it’s cold, than in Florida. We don’t have a lot of time. My bro—the guy who captured me can track by scent. If we’re close to his house, we’re in danger.”
“Across the street, but don’t worry about it.”
“You don’t get it. Gareth is dangerous. He’ll kill you. You’ve got to get out. Now. Leave.” The woman wasn’t moving. So, take advantage of human fear. He let his mouth curl up, exposing his teeth, snarled, and shoved her toward the front door. “Run, before I eat you.”
She bounced back toward him. One hand went to her hair and clung there, curling into the strands as if to gain strength. Weird. She marched forward until she stood inches from him and jabbed his chest. “You don’t own me, and you don’t shove me around. You owe me. If anything, I own you.”
The jab from a Circe hit harder than a spear and jarred his head.
No other woman’s finger would have such impact. Not a human. Not a sorceress. But she didn’t know of her power. Or she’d throw out a command, not a taunt.
“You don’t own me.” He was no woman’s pet. The collar pulsed around his neck, and his hand went to the bondage symbol. All he had to do was get her to unbuckle it. The Circe bond would vanish. He’d be free.
Before he left, he’d have to find out what she knew and eliminate her if she threatened his kind. Even his brother Gareth didn’t deserve to be used as a tool. Torture fell within pack rules because torture let you resist. Circe control didn’t. He growled.
“Don’t growl at me.” She shook a finger in his face, but after she quit shaking it, the finger trembled in the air before his teeth. “I know we’re not in immediate danger because your friend threw a temper tantrum and shoved Mary’s scooter over.”
“She can’t stop him from coming after us.”
“No, but the cops will. One of my old neighbors left me a message about the excitement. My new neighbor is under arrest for assaulting Mary. He won’t be back until the reports are finished. Later, if he keeps throwing hissy fits and they lock him up. I say we stay, and you talk to me.”
She said stay and he had to stay, wearing her collar. And talk.
He needed her to free him, so he forced his voice to soften. “He’s not my friend. Would you take the collar off? It chafes.”
“Take it off yourself. You’ve got fully functional fingers in this shape. And put clothes on. You can pretend to be decent.” She pointed at the wrapped presents.
His attention surged, but he crouched by the parcels. “By decent, do you mean human?”
“I’ve met plenty of indecent human men.” Tension eased from her shoulders. She must be a half-foot shorter than him. “Character trumps species.”
He’d towered over her like an adult version of Tarzan-the-Beast and Jane-the-Beauty. She refused to back down. Female wolves showed defiance when they were alphas.
“You’re bothered by me being nude.”
“Anybody who doesn’t wear fur, wouldn’t appreciate a clothes-free stranger.”
“Then quit sneaking peeks.”
She flushed a rosy red like sunset against her bark-brown hair. “Only at what’s out in the open.”
He tore open the parcel and held up its contents. An oversized robe, furry and cedar scented. She’d bought this for another man. A growl rolled from his throat.
This time she did back away.
He shouldn’t care who she did or didn’t have sex with.
“Whose?” He shook the robe at her as if challenging a bull. “Who are you buying clothes for?”
“That’s my business, not yours. Take them or don’t.”
“I don’t like to wear other men’s clothes or think of another man with you.” The words rushed out of his mouth, almost a plea.
“You’re stealing my brother’s Christmas present.” Her voice was husky.
The content didn’t matter, only the tone that belonged in bed and demanded sex. Blood pulsed in his body, low and urgent. He could bury his nose in her neck and nip. Not hard enough to break the skin and turn a genetic carrier into an active werewolf. Just hard enough for fun. In wolf form, he’d have drooled. “You have Christmas presents wrapped in July?”
“I plan ahead.” The rose had taken on a crimson glow. “You’re lucky I did.”
“Well, Ms. Plan-Ahead, I’m Brandon.” He held out the hand not holding the robe. A Circe would have to respond. “Putting a collar and leash on someone, doesn’t eliminate the need for introductions in my circles. What about yours?”
“Only animals get collared. They don’t deserve introductions.”
“Woof, woof, woof. Which translates as please tell me your name, pretty lady.”
His laugh cracked through the air and shook his whole body while he pulled the tan robe on. Cashmere cuddled his aches, and the scent of cedar settled into his bones, as if he’d curled up under a tree. “You are the least prudent woman I’ve ever met.”
A crooked smile flickered across her face. “Because I’m prudent, I ordered groceries delivered.”
“Ordered what? Didn’t you cook?” He belted the robe and moved closer. Her scent mingled with the cedar and the smell of meat. Circes treated werewolves like dogs and stuck them in kennels or locked rooms.
Questions from leashed wolves didn’t get answered with a rueful smile that dimpled a cheek and tempted a man to lick and nibble. “I bought beef, chicken, and fish. Raw. I’m broiling steak. I wasn’t sure….”
“I’m surprised you didn’t order live chickens in case I wanted to catch my own.”
“I could order hamsters from the pet store. Live chickens would be harder to come by.”
“You checked on buying me hamsters?” A bubble swelled in his chest, half laugh, half sob.
“Some snakes only eat prey if it’s moving, and they catch it. They die otherwise. I checked out the delivery options. What do you eat?”
“In wolf form, I might go for the hamsters. But in man shape, I love pizza and pasta.”
“For the calories?”
“Yep. Especially when I’m healing.” He brushed his ear. “Or shifting to heal.”
“Shifts use energy?”
He swayed. “Yep.”
She rushed forward and pulled his arm over her shoulder to prop him up.
The heat of her body sent a jolt through him harder than a silver lash. No, she was wearing the cursed metal. Chains branded his neck with a pattern of burning links. He flinched. “Your hair doodad.”
She ducked and stumbled away. “Sorry.” Her hand went to her hair. Before she’d tangled her fingers in those strands. That weird grip on her hair was no accident. She’d grabbed for silver protection. Yet she winced when she hurt him. Now she fled the room as if she couldn’t face him.
Way too soft to be a Circe. Even his ex had been harder. She’d tried to twist his mind and then control the pack. Until he’d loped away, and his father had disowned him. Gareth shouldn’t dare hunt Brandon. Their dad would have disapproved. Now he was dead and his brother could do whatever he wanted with no pack leader to control him.
Staggering to Prudence’s sofa, he sank down. With her out of the room, he didn’t need to pretend.
Cushy cushions and short for him, but the right size to slouch. Slumping let her scent surround him. The impossible future of making love to her burned into his head, throwing images in flashes. This time he risked no pack, only himself. He could take her with him. Nose the inside of her arm by the elbow where veins ran. Lick the bridge of her nose and the paleness of skin. She didn’t see the outdoors often but would when she romped with him.
Werewolves didn’t mate with humans. Passion could kill. Legend claimed love changed that. A poor gamble for the human.
He should leave, now he knew she wasn’t a werewolf hunter. When the silver in her hair stung him, she’d fled. She’d feed him, but he could find food elsewhere or hunt. A shift or two would bring him back to health, once he wasn’t on guard against magic twisting his mind. That drained energy. He pushed himself to his feet.
The collar tugged at his neck, tying him down. Was her leash the reason he’d settled on this sofa and not already dashed into the night? He should be thinking of ways to get her to take the leash off, but all he could think about was the curve of her backside and the way her hips swayed when she scurried off.
Hamsters. She’d wanted to buy him his own hamsters to hunt. She hadn’t considered human prey would be equally catchable and provide a lot more calories. A brainy woman without fear. Too bad she wasn’t a wolf.
Lone wolf had perks. Going his own way, making his own choices, no pack members coming to him with problems. No pack obligations shackling him. Freedom was what he wanted, not a family, and not some lavender-cinnamon woman.
Prudence returned with a giant broiled steak. The source of the meat smell. “I’m making pasta, but I thought you might want a snack meanwhile.”
“Thanks.” He took the tray with silverware. The steak was rare. He wanted to gobble it but forced himself to cut each piece and use his fork. Every few bites, he used the napkin, to show he had good manners.
She let him eat in peace, but her eyes fixed on his mouth. “Why can you use forks and knives?”
“You picked stainless steel, not sterling silver flatware.” Zoo visitors stared at animals this way, but the critters didn’t realize they were entertainment. Or maybe they did. When monkeys peed in front of crowds, they might be showing their disdain. He let his teeth flash, the way they would if a wolf’s muzzle lifted in a snarl.
She didn’t shrink away and stared in fascination. “I want to hear about werewolves and magic. Go ahead and eat first.”
He was her version of the wolf in my living room. That sounded like a children’s book. Getting out without telling her more should be a priority. Once he got himself freed.
When she stood and headed for the kitchen, his gaze glued itself to her butt. With every step, her hips swung, more than most women, as if she strode, instead of politely stepping. “Do you jog?”
She looked back over her shoulder in a way that would signal come, chase me! to any wolf. “I don’t run away from people.”
His blood roared to catch her, but his mind jerked him back. Was he people to her or something less?
He waited for her to return, the cashmere soft on his skin. She cared for him enough to hand over her brother’s expensive robe. Maybe they could be more than mistress and beast.
No. A Circe had the ability to make him sit, stay, and kill at her command. She’d said the leash would disguise them as jogger and dog but when they got home, the leash stayed on.
Tugging at the collar got him spikes of pain as if the nylon tightened. His own version of an invisible fence he couldn’t escape.
Prudence returned with another steak, this one more well-done.
He’d passed the civilized-man test.
“The pasta’s in now,” she said. Her expectant eyes could have charmed cobras. “Tell me. Who chained you? What happened?”
He took two more bites. “Better you don’t know.”
“You’re in danger. I can help. I’m a lawyer.”
He choked on the next bite of charred steak. “You’re going to get a restraining order against a werewolf?”
“Restraining orders are against specific people. You’d have to give me a name.”
“The proof my attackers are dangerous is they chained me up in wolf form. You can’t get a restraining order against someone for shackling a wolf. You have no case for human courts.”
“I’ve got pictures of you as a man. You’re bruised and bloody. The fact you were in some shape other than human when you were injured isn’t relevant. We don’t need to mention that. Were the people who attacked you werewolves?”
“Yes.” He stared into her eyes. “My brother and his hench-wolves—”
“Your brother beat you and tortured you? Why?”
“Sibling rivalry gone bad.” He said those words deadpan, but the sneer ate into his soul like acid. Gareth and he had always been friends. Competitors and rivals, but neither ever set out to harm the other. Not until now. What set his brother at his throat? The mysterious pendant. Brandon didn’t have time to think that through now. “He could be dangerous to you, too. Pull off the collar and send me on my way.”
“Take it off yourself. I wouldn’t want to hurt my fragile human fingers on the buckle. I won’t even ask you to leave the robe. Admittedly, you’re commando. I don’t buy underwear for my brothers. Letting everything hang out didn’t seem to be a problem for you.” She sounded as wounded as if he’d clawed her.
“I can’t do that.”
Admit he couldn’t take off the collar and tell her she could control him because she had sorceress blood? Not a chance. He needed to make her mad enough to yank the noose off and throw it in his face. “Because I don’t want to put you at risk.”
“At risk how?” She sounded curious, not offended.
“By giving you information worth killing to hide.”
“You don’t scare me. I’ve faced attorneys who were literally spitting mad. Forced sales of start-up businesses to split up assets. An angry tech guy can do a lot of damage to your life with online skills.”
“Lawyers fight for clients.” He leaned over the table and trailed his fingers up the side of her neck toward her chin. Soft as spider silk. “I have no money to pay you. You keep checking my package out. We could work something out in trade.”
“Are you offering to pay me with sex?” She tilted her head toward him, her lashes shading her eyes.
He lowered one hand to his lap. “Tell me how much time we need to spend not sleeping before my debt is paid and I’ll do the work to be sure I measure up.”
Her face drew tight as a skull.
He’d succeeded in offending her, but he wanted to grovel and say he didn’t mean it. Not one syllable. Not one word. She was sexy and desirable, and he wanted her. Not that she’d believe him now.
Her head angled. “Does owing a human affect your alpha pride so you’ve got to insult me? Although I was tempted to take you up on your offer.”
“What?” She’d thought about sleeping with him. Or not sleeping. His package swelled.
“To call your bluff. Not to bed you.”
Damn. He wouldn’t let her win. “I would have slept with you.”
She shook her head. “I’ve seen attorneys go after opposing counsel this way when they know they’re losing. Or when they want to make the other side mad enough to make a mistake.”
“Don’t try and shrink me into a human mold.”
“Well, if it’s psychoanalysis you want, why don’t we start with the story of Cain and Abel? Someone chose you over your brother, so he decided to kill you. Not a woman, I’m guessing. Your past sexual relationships must have involved a checkbook.”
He couldn’t answer. The more she learned, the more involved she’d get. Cops and court orders would mean nothing to his brother. Gareth would tear through them like tissue paper. Brandon wanted to spill his story and see her lips curve and quiver. She’d listen and sympathize while she fed him.
He shook his head as if to shake away flies, hard and fast. The leash clipped to his collar swung through the air and caught Prudence’s chest.
She yipped and slapped a hand on her breast.
“I’m sorry.” Hurting her wasn’t his plan. “You can see the leash is a hazard. Take it off me.”
“What is it with you and that tether? You’re fixated on it, but phobic. Prove you’re sorry by telling me the truth. Including what about those nylon strands is so toxic you can’t simply get yourself out of the collar and leash with hands, teeth, or even your steak knife.”
Okay, he was busted. Only him, not the whole werewolf community. He wouldn’t out anyone else. “My life is dangerous. I can’t let you be part of it.”
“That’s not answering the question. I make my own choices. I don’t need a man telling me what I can’t handle and making choices to protect a woman. I’m not weak.”
“Not weak when human laws protect you. In my world, being human is too much of a handicap to survive.”
“Then why aren’t you back on all fours? Because not having hands and opposable thumbs sucks, right? No way to shoot a gun or open handcuffs or unclip a leash—which is going to trail behind you and get you hung up. If you’re such a danger to me, run out the door on four feet or two. I’m not chasing you with leash or silver arrow. Or in a car, which can only be driven by a person.”
“You get me hung up.” He touched her shoulder with fingers that trembled. A Circe could force him to all fours. She didn’t seem to know she had power and seemed too kind to use it against him. He wanted her more with each refusal. He owed her the truth since he’d attacked her as a tactic. And failed. “The leash and collar don’t keep me here. You do.”
“Explain. I’m not good at guessing games.”
He gripped her shoulder and pulled her closer. “You do a great job of calling me on less-than-truths. If that’s guessing, I’d hate to see certainty.”
Her warmth wrapped around him as if she twined her body around his.
Their eyes met and sent shock waves to his middle. Mine.
Her powers might spellbind him, but she seemed equally entranced. The wolf-Circe bond had to be what pulled them together. He knew better than to confuse magic with love. She didn’t.
Her hand reached up to his forehead, the hair that insisted on flopping down.
She pulled a lock down and twisted it around her fingers as if she’d lash herself to him and his fate. “Please tell me the truth.”
Their connection thrummed with power, as if moonlight poured into him. Wildness rose in him, pushing him toward her. Maybe he didn’t care if this was sparked by magic. She saw him as a man. The collar warmed around his neck.
He lowered his head, slowly, an inch at a time, found the leash with one hand and encircled her with it, using that tie to tug her closer to his body. Knowing better, he still couldn’t resist.
Her breasts pressed against the cashmere and sent his heart into overdrive. She let go of his hair and clasped her hands around the back of his neck. Her eyes darkened into shadowed pools tempting him closer.
Prey. Mine mine mine.
His blood rushed downward.
“My big boy’s recovered.” Her voice came low and husky and tempting as she molded her body to him.
Tempting, Circe, bound. The words flitted through his head the way sparks flickered and faded into nothingness.
He pressed his lips against hers and set himself to seduce. After licking his way across her upper lip, he circled to her lower lip.
Tasting her flesh. Sweat and salt. Her scent wove itself into his pores, and he moved against her.
His tongue dove inward to trace her teeth, a rough edge here, a dimple there, until her tongue flashed up to duel with his.
Her hands left his neck, one wandering to his cheek, and another landing on a chest that banged as if he’d run a marathon. “Mine,” she whispered.
“Mine,” he murmured.
The doorbell rang, fast and urgent, as if a dead body landed on the bell.
He tore his head away and shoved her behind him. Battered and less than full strength, he’d still put up a better fight than the human. Or the non-human. Either way, Prudence was his, to protect.
“Open the door, Prudence.” Aunt Christine’s command rang through the house.
Drat her aunt and her timing. No, drat Prudence’s unnecessarily panicked call for help. The werewolf had recovered. Now she had to deal with her aunt, an extra problem. “She was supposed to call, not show up.”
Her werewolf stepped back, looking large as a mountain lion and wilder. He gripped the leash in his hands as if he’d strangle her. “You called someone. What did you tell her about me?”
“Only my aunt. I didn’t know what to do. She wrote me a poem about golden eyes and calling her.” If Christine hadn’t arrived, Brandon might have confessed the truth about what the leash meant. Now he’d shut down. “She was the only one I could think of, since you don’t wear an alert bracelet with a number to phone for help.”
His anger should have terrified her while he loomed over her, more beast than man, when she knew exactly how beastly he could be, but he didn’t scare her. Not with his touch still hot on skin losing his heat and chilling her.
“Did you tell her a naked werewolf slept in your living room?”
“No. I just reminded her of the verse. About furry men. You were unconscious. You might have died because I didn’t know where to find a werewolf doctor. You’re still in bad shape after eating two pounds of steak.” Easy for him to crab, now he was alive and not dead.
“Your aunt knows about werewolves? How?”
“I don’t know. But she does. She warned me to wear silver.” Prudence’s face went hot. Claiming she’d wanted protection against him was hard to sell when their bodies had tried to meld.
The doorbell pealed again. “I know you’re in there,” her aunt called.
“We have to get out of here,” Brandon said. “Now. I’ll tell you everything. Just come with me. Run out the back. Please.”
Her alpha wolf begging. He didn’t understand Aunt Christine would help. “Some of us have relatives who have faith in us, not relatives who want to murder us.”
She opened the door.
Aunt Christine sailed in, aglitter. Rings, chains, pendants, and a bodice. All silver, no gold, and a silver Coach tote. An ice queen brought to life. Only ten years older, but she seemed eternal. Even her hair was silver frosted. Real silver leaf to burn the silver-sensitive?
Maybe her aunt wasn’t someone who healed paranormals.
Brandon growled, a rumble that shook Prudence’s bones.
One guest shouldn’t be allowed to slay another. Prudence’s knees wobbled when she stepped between the two. “My friend is fine now. I don’t need help.”
Aunt Christine grinned a whole-face grin that told Prudence the world was a fun and fantastic place. “You have your wolf leashed. Natural talent, my girl. I like your silver snood, though you need to protect your neck and heart as well.”
Prudence fingered the silver chains she’d strung through her hair. Once she’d realized Brandon wouldn’t shift again and turn into a crazed wolf, she should have peeled them off. “The collar’s a disguise, so he looks more like a dog.”
“Not if you offered the collar and he accepted it from your hands.”
Prudence twisted around to face her wolf. “You wanted me to unbuckle the collar. Why?”
He stilled, cold and friendly as a glacier. “Ask your aunt. She’s burning to tell you.”
The two seemed to have called a truce. Prudence backed away from her middle position so she could watch them both. Reactions mattered in litigation and in werewolf fights.
“Simple,” said her aunt. “If you remove the collar, he’s free, until another Circe captures him.”
Static rang in Prudence’s ears. He’d tried to provoke her into freeing him. Nausea rolled up into her throat and she swallowed, hard. “Circe? That’s a Greek legend about an enchantress who turned men into pigs and controlled them. He’s no pig.”
“No, he’s far more dangerous. Werewolves lack self-control. Since you leashed him, he belongs to you. A lethal fashion accessory at your command, until you make a mistake.” Aunt Christine pulled a silver collar out of her tote. A leash trailed like a poisonous snake. “Leave him to experienced hands. Mine.”
Another day she’d have believed her aunt had flipped far enough out to land on the moon. Not tonight, after Brandon’s fixation on that leash, and being ready to jump his bones. The whole thing said magic, not reality. But she wasn’t any human who’d stumbled into the supernatural and turned into easy meat. She had power. “I’m a Circe? Is that a blood thing? Are you a Circe?”
“Best wolf-tamer you’ll ever meet.”
“Not tamer.” Brandon’s voice came out colder than frostbite. “Manipulator. Coward who uses werewolves as tools for some status game.”
“Status game?” Christine spun the collar around her hand the way a sheriff might spin a six-shooter. The silver glinted in mesmerizing flashes. “Werewolves are no game, or if they are, it’s a deadly one.”
Family faces raced through Prudence’s mind. “Is the whole family Circes? Mom, too, and she never told me? What about my sisters and brothers? Dad?”
“No, no.” Christine patted Prudence’s hand. “Only one Circe pops up in most families. The magical abilities are rare. Your aura suggested you might be a Circe or a carrier whose children might have abilities. There’s no test, other than to throw a child to the wolves.”
“My cousin, Grace,” Prudence shivered. “She died.”
Christine’s lips trembled and she nodded jerkily. “At the hands of a wolf! That’s why Circes matter. We must control those serial killers, before werewolves run through cities, slaughtering humans they consider sheep.”
“We control ourselves,” Brandon said. “The Lupus Ultimus runs the werewolf world. Nobody reaches that position without being tested, body and soul. Enforcers take out rogue wolves. You want the power of werewolves at your command. More werewolves, more status in your twisted games.”
“Games?” Christine’s voice cracked. “A werewolf killed my child.”
“In self-defense, if she was trying to leash a wolf. War has casualties.” Brandon moved closer. “We wind up walking dead, instead of corpses. Do you think it’s a better option than death? Would you have wanted your child dragged off to a werewolf pack and raised as a wolf?”
“I’d rather she be dead.” Christine twisted toward Prudence. “I treat my wolves well. They don’t suffer, despite what they did to Grace. I know they can’t help themselves.”
“Did they eat her?” Prudence slammed her hands over her mouth and stepped away from Brandon. Might he have killed her cousin? Not him. But the brother who tortured him. Humans didn’t torture siblings. Brandon made a joke of it, but proved werewolves weren’t human even if they looked like it, after changing. Their minds were different, twisted. Like her aunt said.
“No,” said Christine. “They didn’t eat Grace. They left her for me to find. In the snow. Only one fatal bite across her throat. Blood-red against white.”
“Kindness,” Brandon said. “A quick death. I bet you used her as bait or tested her abilities by throwing her to the wolves. Her death is on your head.”
“I risk myself. I didn’t send her after a wolf. My daughter died because she sneaked off to find a wolf of her own, to make me proud.” Tears ran down Christine’s face and she pointed at Prudence. “She wasn’t like you. You’re like nobody else in our family but me. Special.”
“I’m special.” Prudence’s voice shook. Her, the child who lacked creative talent. She’d run away from irrational artists to find a world controlled by logic. She built her life around the law. Now she was supposed to believe in magic and be magical? Fantasy turned nightmare. “I’m an enchantress who can order werewolves around?”
“When you leash that wolf.” Brandon’s voice came out cool as James Bond. The black nylon collar and leash looked like a high-fashion accessory. Pulling on personas was a defense, like shifting forms. He joked because he feared for his soul. Not an animal, but a man hiding his vulnerability. “Leashing a wolf is a fight, unless you trap the wolf unfairly. Virgins are used by hunters to capture unicorns. Trained Circes fear us and hide behind innocents. Like you.”
“What makes you think I’m a virgin?” Being choosy shouldn’t make Prudence feel freakish or defensive. One-quarter of female college students were virgins, according to surveys. She’d checked. Not having sex was not something to feel guilty about. Being a goat, used by her aunt to hunt werewolves, might be. Her aunt only came when Prudence left the message. She was no goat, but she was responsible for Brandon being in this trap.
“I meant innocent, as in, someone who doesn’t know about werewolves. Is there something else you want to confess?” Brandon’s amusement tickled deep inside her. It shouldn’t be happening, but a link had snapped into place with that cheap leash, a bond connecting their souls.
“I’m confessing nothing. Besides, you’re hardly a saint.” Prudence turned her back to him and hoped her neck didn’t blush. “My sex life or lack thereof is none of your business.”
“Don’t crush my spirit.” Behind her back, his fingers walked up her spine and sparks cascaded down. Each spark shimmied, firing up one body part after another. He wasn’t snapping her neck or biting her. He was melting her. Her aunt couldn’t see, she hoped.
“You asked for help.” Aunt Christine moved closer and waggled the leash. “I put my collar on, you remove yours. I take your problem wolf off your hands. I’ll treat him well.”
“He’s a person, not a problem or a present to be re-gifted. I worried about him and counted on you to patch him up.” Prudence leaned back against Brandon. His warmth toasted her backside. “Why can’t we let him go?”
Her aunt’s laugh clinked like crystal. “Don’t be silly. Do you think a man who turns wolf, on a whim, is less dangerous than a rabid dog? No. Werewolves are thinking creatures, deadlier than lions, bears, or rattlesnakes. Once they shift, they’ll rip out a child’s throat. Like one slashed your cousin’s throat.”
“A child who threatened a wolf.” Brandon’s head leaned over Prudence’s shoulder.
A shudder rolled through her. He must have killed to survive, maybe people.
“She couldn’t collar anyone!” Christine yelled. “She had no power. She was no threat.”
“You don’t know for sure,” Brandon said. “Maybe her abilities did manifest, and the wolf had to strike or be trapped. Her attacker might have been a wolf-pup. Maybe a feral dog killed her, not a werewolf, and you blamed us. Or a mother with children of her own to protect.”
“A wolf with a litter of pups is not a mother.” Christine rippled the leash like a whip. “Yes, Circes put down dangerous animals if we have to. Your wolf killed a human.”
“That’s the problem.” Brandon’s breath came fast and loud, but his words were even. “You define Circes as human and werewolves as animals. You treat us like creatures and wonder why we fight back. We’re protecting ourselves. You hunt us and we die or live on, worse off than dead.”
“Soldiers learn to kill and come home,” Prudence broke in. “We don’t treat them as potential murderers.” He was right. Circes and wolves fought an undeclared war. No rules, no investigations to protect werewolves. Brandon wouldn’t have killed a human child.
He squeezed her hand.
“He’s flirting with you, to avoid me.” Her aunt’s eyes narrowed. “This wolf is using you.”
“You are, too.” Prudence pulled away from him. “If you’re so concerned about me, why not call the cops to arrest this criminal?”
She shouldn’t have bet her wolf wouldn’t tear out her throat for turning on him, but she believed in Brandon. He’d moved to defend her. He’d tried to flee, not attack. Besides, logic said Aunt Christine had reasons for hiding her abilities and leaving a message that made no sense until Prudence accidentally trapped a werewolf. Christine hated wolves and used Prudence as bait.
“Werewolves are good at escaping, skulking, and hiding their kills,” Christine said. “Whatever crimes against humanity he’s committed, he won’t have outstanding warrants.”
“Nope.” Brandon didn’t deny he’d hurt people. His teeth could have chomped a tree, much less a human body part, but he said only one flat word. “She can’t take me herself, not as long as your leash is around my neck. No Circe can.”
“Is it true? Unless I surrender him to you?” If Prudence’s leash kept him safe, better collared by her. Prudence’s call endangered Brandon. She couldn’t abandon him now.
Christine’s nose wrinkled. “He has no place in the city, in your house, escorting you to your law firm. Leave him to me.”
She was right. Prudence’s life didn’t have room for a dog. A werewolf would be a lot more trouble. Except, he was a man, as well as a wolf. Okay, double the trouble and then some. “Can you do anything with him?”
Her aunt smiled, the smile that convinced cops not to give her tickets, kept Prudence from wailing the artists had wrecked her birthday, and brought her dad down from artistic hysterics to calm, in the middle of a water park. A magical smile that cast a spell.
A real magical smile.
The truth hummed through Prudence. What Brandon claimed was true.
Aunt Christine was a sorceress. She wasn’t grabbing for the leash. That left Brandon in Prudence’s hands. Her hands might not be trained, but Christine’s smile no longer seemed warm and friendly. It seemed practiced.
And Prudence was a sorceress, too. With magical powers. She couldn’t focus on that now. Not with anti-wolf Christine in the room. Prudence had to keep being sensible.
“I think—” Electricity hit Prudence’s back as if Brandon’s aura clung to her. “I’ll keep him.”
“He isn’t a stray.” Christine’s eyes rippled lethal silver. “You’re making a deadly mistake.”
“If I wind up dead, you have my permission to hunt him down.” Prudence forced a grin. “That should keep him on my side and me safe.”
A howl cut through the air and a shock hit Prudence’s mind. Jagged bits of electricity zapped her with mini-shocks as if her finger kept hitting a metal surface and sending the flash straight to her brain. Zap-stutter, in an ongoing drumroll.
“That’s my brother.” Brandon stepped away, and the shocks eased. “He’s in wolf form to use his nose. He’ll pick up your scent from his house and follow us here. I don’t know why he’s not already here. Oh yes, I do. He’s howling to recruit others. Coward.”
“He must have gotten away from the cops. Nosy Mary kept him busy quite a while.” Prudence would get a gallon of peach syrup as a present so Mary could make more of the potpourri Brandon’s brother hated. Maybe five gallons.
“Nosy Mary? I don’t want to know.” Brandon shook his head. “Is this whole neighborhood full of sorceresses? Since he was delayed, we’ve got time to run. He’ll have trouble following us now.”
“Now?” Prudence raked a hand through her hair. Flat, not fluffed out from the shocks.
“Now we’re bonded. Our scents shift.”
“Interesting.” Christine’s eyes narrowed and she sniffed.
Brandon laughed. “A human nose, or a Circe nose, wouldn’t smell any difference. You might want to vacate the premises, unless you brought bodyguards. Did you leave anything at his house, Prudence?”
“If you’d told me I would be tracked by a canine, I might have stopped to grab my flashlight on the way out.”
“You left a scent trail for a werewolf to follow?” Christine sounded intrigued. “How many wolves in tow?”
“Likely three or four,” he said. “Since Gareth is howling.”
Her eyes glowed silver as moonlight. Christine set her tote down and took collar and leash in her hands.
Brandon took Prudence’s elbow and gestured her to the back. Leave her, he mouthed.
“I can’t run away while my aunt faces werewolves alone.”
Christine looked over her shoulder from near the front door. “Please do, dear girl. You’ll only be in the way. I’d rather own the trapper than this loser, who needed you to save him. I can handle wolves.”
Sending her off, same as her parents had done when an art project was involved. Go make coffee, grocery shop or clean up. Of course, Prudence couldn’t help with the creative end, not like her siblings. Magic wouldn’t change that. She was still the one who didn’t fit in.
Aunt Christine wanted to face the creature who’d tortured Brandon, and do it alone. Prudence’s wolf would try to defend her, but he was still weak. Let her aunt think she’d won and let him think he was towing Prudence to safety. “All right. We’ll leave you to it.”
“Take this.” Her aunt pivoted to pull a book out of her bag and toss it to Prudence. “Learn your lessons.”
She fumbled but clutched the book.
“Let’s go.” Brandon’s grip tightened on her elbow as he steered her toward the back door. “Have you got perfume and a car? We’ll be harder to track.”
The connection vibrated through her bones and set her humming, through her throat and downward. Her fingers trembled. Prudence glanced at them and the book they held. The cover had a photo of a wolf howling at the moon and a silver-embossed title. Own Your Werewolf.
No. She wouldn’t keep an intelligent man a slave. She almost tossed it back. The book might give her ideas on how to protect him, or tell her things he wouldn’t. Pulling away from him, she scrambled for her bedroom, Brandon at her heels. “Stay.”
He stopped dead.
She peered back. His face was immobile as were his feet. Apparently, he couldn’t break a command, otherwise he’d be nipping to urge her on. What else might she be able to control?
Warm fuzziness fizzed in her stomach and even lower while she dug through her dresser for perfume, holiday gifts she’d never used. Be prepared was a lawyer’s motto. She’d need that foresight more once she fled into the night with one werewolf, another on their tails, if Christine couldn’t catch him.
When she returned, Brandon didn’t follow until she snapped “Come. Grab the presents.”
They headed to the garage and her car.
He nudged her toward the passenger seat, and she scrambled in, her head swimming.
The parcels hit the back seat hard enough to thump. He was beyond ticked. Furious. She should be afraid. Instead, she felt alive the way she did at the top of a roller coaster, before it dove down and took curves. Ready to run.
She’d broken into a house, kidnapped a werewolf, and discovered she was a sorceress, all in one magical night. Every fairy tale she thought never could happen to her, had come true, including a romantic hero. She starred as the heroine, protecting her wolf.
You’re not doing such a good job, logic insisted.
Would Brandon have been stuck there, defenseless, because she’d told him to stay? That couldn’t be. Self-defense must let him fight. He might be stuck to one spot, though, get him killed. She would get him killed.
She had to read the book. Good girls didn’t work with werewolves, so she’d better turn bad fast if she was going to keep them both alive and in one piece. Until he recovered and could lope away into a sunset anyway.
He’d already healed into Adonis shape.
Her arm brushed his while she struggled to buckle the seatbelt. Heat poured up her arm and down, slow, sweet as molten honey licking through her, pooling between her legs.
Good girls shouldn’t turn into puddles while fleeing with a strange man. A very, very strange man.
But she did.
He set his hand on her shoulder. Even through her top, his touch radiated heat and power. His eyes transfixed her, glowing through the dark, intent on her alone.
That roller coaster she was on took a steep, sharp drop and she fell into freefall. Only he was real in this half-world.
She lifted her head toward his, her lips aching for his touch.
Heat swirled across her breasts and down, every bit of her being touched with dancing warmth. She couldn’t look away.
She wanted to eat him. Right there, with the same hunger he’d eaten those steaks.
His head lowered, moving not to her lips, but toward her ear.
His breath tickled and set every nerve afire. She slid closer.
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