Hunting Ground Chapter SEVEN

THEY were late. Sunny quit trying to contain her husband and sat down on one of the matching pair of Queen Anne couches and watched him instead.

He was magnificent. He'd scorn the comparison, but she always thought of him more like a lion than a wolf when he was in his human form. Even when he was in his four-footed form, he was tawny and gold.

He stood now, gazing out the window with his arms clasped behind his back, giving her a lovely view of his backside. She'd never told him, of course-he wouldn't appreciate it-but she'd always loved his derriere.

She still couldn't believe she'd managed to catch him, not even after all these years. He was everything she'd ever wanted: wealthy, powerful, honorable, and well-bred. He could not claim it, not now, so long after he should have been dead, but he was the younger son of a baron. He was smart and sweet-he still brought her flowers for absolutely no more reason than because he wanted her to have them. She loved to travel, and he could not-not being who and what he was. But he allowed her the freedom to do it on her own.

She still loved his backside.

She hid her smile and tried to look serious when he turned to her. He frowned, and she blinked innocently at him. She'd long ago learned that there were some jokes he could not share, and it didn't do any good to try.

Finally, in a grumpy voice, he said, "I'm going upstairs to get some work done. If they get here, tell them I'm busy." And he stalked up the stairs.

Sunny glanced at the delicate gold Rolex on her wrist and shook her head. They were five minutes late; patience had never been Arthur's gift. She picked up the book she'd brought down-a mystery set in Barbados, her favorite place to be-and started to read.

The knock on the door was quiet, but not so quiet Arthur wouldn't hear it. When he didn't come down the stairs, Sunny set her book down and got to her feet. He'd come out of his snit soon enough. She knew her man: he couldn't stand to ignore an audience for long. Until then it was up to her to make her guests feel welcome.

Nervously, she smoothed out her shirt. She'd heard stories of Charles Cornick, the Marrok's hatchet man, but she'd never met him. She hoped his mate was friendly.

When the knock came a second time, she opened the door-and swallowed her smile.

The man who stood in front of the door was big. Not just tall, but wide. Obviously Native American, with his dark skin and black eyes. His face was still, she couldn't read him at all, but he brought with him an air of grimness, like a dark cloak around him.

Nothing that she hadn't expected from Arthur's descriptions-and his nervousness-nothing unexpected, except that Charles Cornick was beautiful. Not by Western standards maybe, not with his broad and flat features and the amber earrings he wore-and how did a werewolf manage pierced ears?

A man might not even notice the attraction of all that muscle and warm brown skin, but she would bet that he never walked through a room without attracting the gaze of every female there.

Flustered, she jerked her eyes off him and met the eyes of the woman who stood beside him.

Anna Cornick was an inch or so taller than Sunny, which still made her a little shorter than average. She was thin, underweight even, though what flesh was there was hard muscle. Her hair was whisky brown and hung in gentle curls to her shoulders. Freckles dusted her cheekbones, and her eyes were a clear golden brown. She wore a white shirt with a silk skirt that hit her just above the ankles. She wasn't traditionally pretty, but not unattractive, either.

Anna looked tired and outclassed by her more exotic mate, but then she grinned ruefully, an expression that took in Sunny's uncomfortably strong, reluctant admiration of Charles and expressed sympathy for another woman caught in his spell.

It was a warm expression-and Sunny felt all the nerves Charles Cornick had called into being settle back down so she could pick up the familiar role of hostess.

"Hello," she said with a big smile that wasn't as difficult to summon as it had been a moment before. "Welcome." She stood back and invited them in. "I'm Eleanor, Arthur's mate-you can call me Sunny, everyone does. You must be Charles and Anna."

"It's good to meet you, Sunny," said Anna, taking her hand in a strong grip. When her mate didn't say anything right away, Anna bumped him with her shoulder.

He looked at her and she raised her eyebrows-and Sunny recognized the look from her own repertoire built to deal with a dominant male who didn't always follow the rules of civilization.

"That's a good expression," she told Anna. "Though I've found elevating just one eyebrow is more effective. If that one doesn't work, I've found it's just best to ignore them until they decide to settle down. Why don't you both come in, and I'll get you something to drink. Arthur will be down in a minute. Can I get you some scotch or brandy? Or we have a really nice white wine."

Anna gave her a grin and followed her in while her mate closed the door, gently, behind them. "Ignoring works for you? I just prod until he snaps. Do you have water? No alcohol for me tonight-I'm driving. It might not affect me anymore, but if I get pulled over, I don't want to smell like alcohol."

"He lets you drive?" Sunny asked, taken aback and more than a little jealous. "The last time I drove when Arthur was in the car was the day I met him. I was driving my father's car to Devon, and his car was off beside the road with two flat tires."

"I don't like driving," said Charles. "Brandy would be good, thank you."

His voice was as delicious as the rest of him. Deep and slow with a hint of Welsh and something else altering the usual American accent.

Disturbed because she'd never felt like this around any of the werewolves Arthur had brought to her home before, Sunny took the excuse of his words and went to the bar in the corner of the living room and began getting drinks for her guests.

It wasn't that she'd never looked at another man-but she'd never felt this... safe. It was an unexpected reaction to a man she knew was dangerous, and it threw her off her game.

She took down the cut-glass flask she'd purchased a few years ago in Venice -and Anna was there to take it from her and set it on the bar.

"I know," the other woman said softly. "It's all right. You should feel it when the Marrok comes into a room of strange wolves. He'll settle down in a moment, and it won't hit you like that." She looked at her mate, then pulled the stopper from the flask, and the smell of good brandy rose from it. "He's had a bad day, and that makes it worse."

Sunny got a brandy snifter from the cupboard beneath the bar and gave it to Anna. "What happened?"

Anna smiled and shrugged as she poured the brandy. "Same stuff, different day." It felt like an evasion. "He doesn't like cities any more than he likes driving or cell phones or airplanes or-"

"-People talking about him like he isn't here," growled the werewolf as if driven to speak.

When Arthur sounded like that, she knew to leave him alone. His mate just grinned at him. "Come over here and get your brandy-how can you stand that stuff, anyway? I never could drink it, even when the alcohol was the point of it. Quit scaring our hostess."

He took a deep breath and... he was just an exasperated man standing in the middle of her living room. He strode over and took the glass his wife handed to him, then turned his attention to Sunny.

"My apologies," he said, and his voice didn't make her heart rate pick up in response. "As Anna told you, I am out of sorts tonight. But there's no reason to take it out on you."

Dismissing his apology as unnecessary seemed wrong, so she tried for the next best thing. "Accepted."

Anna was looking around the room. "This feels more like a home than a place you're renting for a few weeks-you have a nice touch."

Sunny handed her a cold bottle of water from the supply in the fridge. "Oh, Arthur has a few places scattered around. He doesn't come to this one much, but he got it for me for our thirtieth anniversary. I usually come here for a month in the summer. He doesn't like to travel, but he knows that I do."

She stopped herself from saying more with difficulty. Hiding a frown behind a friendly smile, she got out the chilled bottle of her favorite white wine. She never blathered on like that. She was used to keeping secrets. Not that her travels or this condo were secrets, exactly. Still, she hadn't meant to talk about them.

She was saved by the squeak of the stairs as Arthur came down them in an easy rush.

ANNA watched the British wolf-king descend.

"You were late," he said by way of greeting. "I was worried something might have happened."

"No," said Anna cheerfully. They'd talked about what to say about the attack, and finally came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to warn the other Omega's Alpha and otherwise keep quiet. The attack had nothing to do with anyone else-and Charles said he was not going to encourage copycats. So she took the blame for their arrival time. No one would ever believe Charles would be late for anything, anyway. "It took me a little too long to get dressed. I'm sorry."

Sunny poured a second snifter of brandy for Arthur-yet another werewolf who drank it, despite not being able to benefit from the effects of the alcohol. Arthur's mate poured a glass of wine for herself.

"Dinner will be ready in about a half hour, I believe," Arthur said. "In the meantime, I thought you might be interested in looking at my collection."

"Collection?" Anna asked.

"What I have here isn't very valuable," he explained. "Nor historically significant. We don't spend much time here, and even with a security service..." He shrugged. "Still, I have some interesting things."

"Did you bring Excalibur?" asked Charles.

Arthur's eyebrow climbed elegantly up his forehead as he smiled a little. "Never go anywhere without her."

"Isn't that a little problematic?" Anna asked. "Flying internationally with a sword?"

"I fly privately," he said.

"Of course," murmured Anna with self-directed mockery at her sudden elevation to the rich and important. "Doesn't everybody?"

"Poor plebeian," murmured Charles, and she was pretty sure she was the only one who caught the humor in his voice, because both Arthur and Sunny looked taken aback.

"Arthur has trouble with commercial jet travel," Sunny hurried to explain.

"I'm sorry." Anna gave Charles a "help me" look. She couldn't think of another thing to say that wouldn't make the situation even worse.

Charles came to the rescue. "Anna's first pack was... troubled and very poor. We've been married less than a month, and she's had a lot to adjust to."

"Living a long time doesn't mean that you'll be rich," said Arthur with an understanding look. "But it doesn't hurt."

"Long-term investments give a whole new meaning to the term 'compound interest,' " added Sunny.

"Tell me about your collection," said Anna a little desperately. And then, because she couldn't help her interest, "About Excalibur."

"I used to be an archaeologist," explained Arthur. "Strictly amateur-which was acceptable to my father in a way that a profession wouldn't have been. Digs weren't as well regulated then, and I was excavating the grounds of an old Cornish settlement conveniently situated on a school-mate's parents' estate when I found her, just dug her up."

He didn't seem crazy-nor did he seem to mind the questions. If they weren't talking about... about Excalibur, for Heaven's sake, she would be fascinated by the story.

"How do you know it was Excalibur you found?"

He smiled at her. "Tell me, my dear, do you believe in reincarnation?"

No. But that wasn't the polite answer. "I've never heard a convincing argument for it."

His smile widened. "I suppose it suffices to say that I do, and that I believe I am the Once and Future King, who will return in the time of greatest need." Then he winked at her. "I don't insist that others buy into my eccentricities."

If people remembered once being kitchen maids, or farmers who died of nothing more interesting than old age, I might reconsider my stance on reincarnation, Anna thought as she returned the British wolf's smile. She remembered her father once observing dryly, If fourteen people believe they were Cleopatra in a former life, does that mean that Cleopatra had split personality disorder?

Then Arthur led them into his treasure hall-probably it had been intended to be an office, or a small bedroom. Three tapestries, flattened between clear sheets of something that might have been glass or Plexiglas, were hung on the wall. There were a couple of display cabinets along the wall itself.

"This is not a proper display," he said. "These stay here all year long, so I can't risk anything of real value. My more valuable artifacts don't leave my home in Cornwall. I acquired all of these in the U.S. This tapestry is fifteenth century, and like many, it has a religious theme. You can see St. Stephen being crucified-upside down, as tradition holds."

Anne looked at the stilted figure, a halo on his upside-down head and blood pouring from his hands.

"Cheery," she observed.

He smiled. "It isn't my favorite, either."

The second one showed a woman sitting on a bench under a tree, sewing, with a large bird perched just over her head. The colors were faded, but brightened as the threads dipped below the surface. Once, thought Anna, this one was a lot more colorful than it is now.

"This one is Scots." Arthur sounded disapproving. "Thirteenth century or thereabouts."

"Barbarians, those Scots," said Charles with amusement. "My father the Welshman says it exactly the same way."

Arthur laughed. "All right, you caught me. I suppose that no matter how long I live, I'll still, in some aspects, be a man of my time, eh? Just as you are, old friend. It is in unusually good shape, as it has been in and out of museums and collections for about two hundred years, and was well taken care of even before that."

He walked on and made a flamboyant gesture at the final, and smallest tapestry.

"The third is my favorite of the three. It is also probably fifteenth century-I bought it in California from a private collection. It is in rough shape, and has been sewn onto an acid-free muslin to stabilize it. They are all hermetically sealed to protect them from the climate."

Arthur was right, it wasn't in very good shape. Only a section about two feet square had survived. A knight riding a horse who was galloping with all four feet off the ground, its mouth opened around the bit. He had a sword in one hand and it was raised at a slightly more than forty-five-degree angle.

Arthur touched the clear covering over the figure with gentle fingers. "As you can see, it depicts Arthur fighting with Excalibur."

Anna couldn't see why he was so sure it was Arthur until she took a good look at the sword. Of the word that had once been stitched on the blade there were only three letters left. An "x," a "k," and a "u." She had to admit that she couldn't think of many words that someone would stitch on a sword with those particular letters.

"He looks pretty unhappy," Anna commented. "I wonder what he was chasing."

"It might be anything," said Arthur. "He was the Champion of England and fought dragons and other beasts as well as defending his homeland from the Saxons."

The first display case was filled with a double handful of Roman artifacts. Anna suspected some of what he had was illegal. Though maybe a stone from Hadrian's Wall had been okay to take back in the days when Arthur had originally collected it.

The second case held a chain-mail shirt covered with a bright blue tunic emblazoned with three silver crowns.

"That's a replica," Sunny said. "Though it is still worth several thousand dollars. The cloth was woven according to traditional methods and dyed with natural vegetable dyes, the silver thread is real silver, and the mail shirt is handmade." She touched the case. "It's King Arthur's coat of arms-or at least what he should have worn on his shield, anyway."

"Arthur's coat of arms," Anna said dubiously. She doubted the real Arthur had ever worn chain mail; maybe the British Master had read Le Morte d'Arthur a few times too many.

Sunny nodded. "King Arthur, not my Arthur. But my Arthur didn't want to use his own family's coat of arms-"

"A pig," said Arthur over Sunny's shoulder.

"A boar," said Sunny, unperturbed. "There are still some members of his family about who might recognize him... a younger cousin and his littlest sister."

"Who is eighty-four, this coming May," Arthur spoke with obvious affection. "I'd visit her, but she's still sharp as a tack and can shoot skeet without wearing glasses. So I chose The King's coat of arms."

He said it with implied capital letters, as if there had never been another king.

"There were no coats of arms back in the era of Arthur," said Charles. "Wasn't he supposed to be sixth century?"

"Or late fifth," agreed Arthur. "The hero of the battle of Mount Badon, and that was in 518 or so. Heraldry and all its trappings were much later. Still, there is a tradition... and I had the whole thing made for fun, anyway." His eyes were dreamy. Anna wondered if he wore it and played with the sword he'd dug up when no one was around to see him.

Her older brother used to sneak downstairs at night and take the old Civil War cavalry sword her father had hung up on the wall over the fireplace and fight invisible foes. And once, memorably, his little sister, whom he'd armed with a broom. She'd gotten sixteen stitches-and he a broken nose. Men, she thought, had a strange yen for long, pointy, sharp things. She kept her smile to herself.

"Now for the piece de resistance." Arthur paused. "I often find that people are disappointed with Excalibur. I think it is because of all the movies. This is not a prop, it is a weapon made for killing."

He went down to one knee and moved the carpet and pulled up a section of hardwood flooring. Underneath was a floor safe. He put his hand flat on the safe, and after a moment it beeped and opened in a slow, steady motion. Inside was a narrow wooden case a little more than three feet long.

He picked it up and set it on top of the display table. The case itself was beautiful, a handcrafted blend of light and dark woods.

He opened the latches that kept the case closed and took the top completely off.

And she understood why a man might think that this... this was Excalibur. It bore as much resemblance to her father's cavalry sword as a jaguar to a lion-both very effective predators.

Arthur's Excalibur was shorter and wider than her father's blade-and it was sharp on both sides. The blade was dark down the center, where it was indented, and she could see the patterns in the steel as if it were Damascus -and perhaps it was. The edges were smooth and bright, though, running parallel to each other for most of the length of the blade. The grip was made of steel and, in comparison to all those Excaliburs of film and TV Arthur had mentioned, was very utilitarian-and short. It was a sword meant to be swung with one hand, a sword meant to kill.

"Did they have steel in the sixth century?" she asked.

"They had steel swords, in some places, at least a thousand years before that," answered Arthur. " Toledo steel swords were mentioned by the Romans back in the first century B.C."

"It is-" She was going to say beautiful, but that wasn't right. Her father's sword had been long and graceful-a weapon designed for beauty as well as function. This was different. "Powerful."

"No gems, no gold or glittery parts." Arthur sounded pleased.

"It doesn't need them." The impulse to touch it was strong, but she kept her hands behind her back.

"The sword wasn't the only weapon that Arthur carried," Arthur said, his voice fervid with passion. "Just the most famous. There was the Sword in the Stone, which recognized Arthur as rightful king. That is probably also the sword known as Clarent, which was used to bestow authority-such as kingship or rank. Some of the early Welsh tales mention the dagger, Carnwennen, with which he slew the Very Black Witch."

A buzzer sounded. Sunny let out a squeak, checked her watch, and ran out of the room ranting about timers and burnt offerings.

"Your mate is lovely," said Charles.

"She is," Arthur said. "She brings me joy." He touched the handle of his sword. "Excalibur is over fifteen hundred years old, and she will be with me another fifteen hundred years. My Sunny..." He swallowed. "My Sunny is dying slowly every day."

It was late when they left. To Anna's relief, the evening had passed mostly without incident. She'd been worried that Charles's earlier mood would continue, but he'd been perfectly civil over dinner.

He hadn't said much, but when Arthur ran out of King Arthur stories, he managed to get the British wolf talking about the difficulties the CCTVs-the cameras that Great Britain was installing all over the place to keep an eye on her citizens-were causing the werewolves.

"Well," she said, as they approached the battered Toyota, "that was almost civil-"

The man who'd been sitting behind the shrubbery rose a little stiffly. She recognized his scent a moment later and swallowed the sound she'd been about to make.

"Michel," said Charles.

She'd met him in the restaurant last night, but without the others around, she read him better. Alpha, but not very dominant. In her old pack, the Chicago Pack, he might have ranked halfway up, but no more than that. His face was battered and his blackened eyes said that someone had broken his nose. He was healing, but for some that happened more slowly than others. He hadn't straightened all the way up and had an arm over his stomach.

"Charles," he said in a low voice. "The Beast took my cell phone, and I wasn't sure how else to contact you."

"What do you need?"

The Frenchman shook his head. "Came to deliver a warning to you. Your mate, he wants her. You understand? He kills women and the innocent-and he has fastened on her as a victim. He thirsts for her. You must keep her out of his way if you can."

"Thank you for your warning," said Charles. "Come, we'll give you a ride wherever you need to go."

But the French wolf took a step back. "No. If I return smelling like you, he will kill me."

"But not if you smell like me," said Arthur.

Anna hadn't heard him, but neither of the other wolves were surprised.

"I found you hurt by the side of the road," continued Arthur, glancing at the street that ran past the end of the driveway. He made a soft sound between his teeth. "For shame, Jean, not taking better care of your wolves." He looked at Charles. "By the time I finish with him, Jean will be so enraged with me he will forget about hurting Michel."

"He hates you, too," Michel warned him, even though his acceptance of the plan was evident in his face.

"He always has. I am not afraid of him," said Arthur. And no one told him that they knew it was a lie. Even Anna could tell he was afraid.

He looked at Charles. "You go to your hotel. I'll feed him something that bleeds to help him heal. Then I'll get him back to his den unharmed."

With a sharp nod, Charles rounded the car to get in the passenger side. Anna opened her door, then said, "King Arthur was said to be a brave man, too."

He feared, but took care of the weaker, less dominant wolf-even though Michel was an Alpha in his own right.

"A good man, our Arthur," said Charles softly, as she backed onto the street. "Even if he's quite mad north-northwest. At least the wind is usually southerly."

Shakespeare. "He usually knows a hawk from a hand-saw?" she threw in, so he'd know she recognized his allusion. "You don't believe he is Arthur?"

He smiled a little. "Most of the old wolves are mad about something. For our British monarch-it is King Arthur. A relatively benign madness. I much prefer it to Chastel's."

"Arthur's not as old as you," she was certain of it.

"No. But he is old enough."

SHE wasn't pouting. Anna sucked in her bottom lip, crossed her legs, and wiggled her toes. She'd agreed to wait someplace safe during the next round of meetings. Charles didn't want to risk sending her out on her own again-and she didn't want to risk anyone else's life. Tom would be fine, but he was still stiff and sore this morning-and Moira had still been sleeping, utterly exhausted, when Anna checked on them.

She'd tried again to sit beside Charles and relax, but there were so many strangers who were staring at her...

She'd flagged down Angus, who took her upstairs to his own offices, a floor up from the auditorium. He'd ushered her into his private sanctuary, then shut the door, having instructed her to lock it. Dead-bolted, the steel door probably wouldn't keep out a determined werewolf, but it would give her time to use her cell phone and call for help.

Angus's office was far from Purgatory. There was a TV and a couch in addition to his desk and his ridiculously luxurious office chair. There were magazines, and she had brought a book to read.

So why was she sitting in Angus's very comfortable leather chair not pouting?

No reason at all.

Someone knocked at the door.

"Who is it?" she called.

"Angus. I have a guest for you. Ric, the Italian's Omega."

She unbolted the door and it popped open about six inches. A blond head with a short red beard stuck itself in the narrow opening. "Presto. Your entertainment is here." He slipped all the way into the room and shut the door behind him. "Tame and safe." His voice owed as much to Britain as it did to Germany.

"Frankly," she told him, "I'd have welcomed a pack of villains to rip to bits-it is boring in here."

"Alas, I am not a villain," he said grandly, snitching a handful of nuts from the bowl on Angus's desk. "Although I could be if you wished." He wiggled his eyebrows at her. "Your mate decided my Italian buddies and the Germans would settle a bit better without my presence. Though he didn't say precisely that." He grinned at her. "I believe the total of his words were 'Omega. Go.' Angus decided he meant here." He canted his head to the side as if that would give him a different view of her. "You're the first Omega I've ever met."

"Likewise," Anna agreed. "I thought you were German?"

He shook his head and sauntered over to the window. "Austrian."

His choice to join the Italians suddenly made a lot more sense. He must have read it in her face because he laughed.

"Yes, Italians are a lot more effervescent and cheery than the Germans. Even werewolves." He thought about that a second, then added, "Maybe especially the werewolves."

"Why didn't the Austrians want you?" she asked.

His face sobered. "There aren't any Austrian packs anymore. There were only two, and four years ago Chastel got bored and hunted down both Alphas. He-" The other wolf drew in a sharp breath. "But that is no conversation for today. So I must be Italian or German. And I choose Italian. My Alpha says that if they knew how much I talked, the Germans would be happy for it."

"Your English is very good." Anna sat back down in Angus's chair. It swiveled so she could keep track of Ric's exploration of the room without pacing beside him.

He turned his back to the window so he could look at her-or so she could look at him. He put both hands to his chest in a flamboyant gesture that looked very Italian to her, not that she'd met that many Italians. "Scholar," he said. "That's me. I had most of a doctorate in psychology before my Change. I can speak English, getting much better at Italian. My French friend tells me that someday, if I work at it, I may no longer be flattering myself when I say I can speak a very little French." He sat on the sill of the window, which was wide enough to make a pretty good seat. "My Alpha says that you haven't been a wolf long."

"Three years."

"That is two years and six months longer than I. So you can tell me exactly what an Omega is-something that my lads haven't quite managed to explain satisfactorily yet. I would like something more than 'you make us happy,' which is the best they have managed so far. My lovers tell me that, and it is good, no? My wolf pack-who are mostly men, and I do not swing that way-tell me such things, and it doesn't sound too good to me. 'You bring us joy' is even worse, so I stopped asking. I need to know more, yes?"

His pained look was so exaggerated she couldn't help laughing. "Disconcerting." She tried to imagine what Charles would do if another man came up to him and said, "You bring me joy."

"I don't know all that much," she confessed. "My teacher is a man who was married to an Omega for a couple of centuries before she died. The problem is, there aren't many of us. We're not as rare in the human population, but seldom Changed." Sunny, she thought, might be a human Omega-or perhaps just very submissive. "Even enraged werewolves seldom attack Omega humans, and I understand that even if the Omega desires to be Changed, it is difficult to find a wolf willing to do it."

"So I understand," he said. "I had a skiing accident and was lucky the man who found me, a friend and a member of the ski patrol, was a werewolf-a secret he had kept for all the time of our friendship. I was dying, and he Changed me to try to save me." He gave her a tight smile. "Me, I thought it was because we were friends-but he told his Alpha it was because he knew I was Omega and would be a treasure to his pack, and this the Alpha accepted as truth and did not discipline him for Changing me without permission."

"Is he still your friend?"

He sighed and rocked back, the motion making his head hit the window with a soft thump. "Yes."

"Then maybe he only gave the Alpha the truth he needed. A person quite often has more than one reason for doing something-particularly something so... big as Changing a mortal human into an immortal wolf."

Something in his face loosened, and he nodded once. "Just so. I had not thought of it in that way." He gave her a quick glance from under his lashes. "Truthfully, I had not noticed it bothered me so much until I spoke here with you. How were you Changed?"

She looked away.

"I am sorry," he said, and he was suddenly a lot closer than he had been.

He'd abandoned his seat on the window and crouched on the top of the desk. From the speed of his change of position, he must have jumped there.

"It was a bad thing?" he said gently. "You do not have to tell me of it." He settled, sliding one leg under the other so he rested on a hip. "For many it is not something they care to discuss."

"A mad wolf will attack anything," she told him hoarsely. If she closed her eyes, she knew she would see Justin's face, so she left them open. "An Alpha's mate was going mad, and he thought an Omega would help her maintain control. So he found me. He couldn't force himself to hurt me, though, so he took a wolf who was blood-mad, moon-mad, and sent him after me." And he'd hunted her and taken his time over the brutality that was a necessary part of the Change. "I don't think I was the first he'd tried it on. But the others he failed with, they died."

He held her eyes, his own intent. "Rough."

She shrugged with a nonchalance she didn't expect him to believe. But she didn't want to cry on his shoulder. Though she suspected he wouldn't have minded, Charles would.

She smiled, and it was genuine. "Things are a lot better now. Charles rode in like a white knight and rescued me."

He returned her smile. "I met Charles. A very scary white knight."

She nodded. "Yes. But that was exactly what I needed. So you want to know more about being an Omega?"

"Yes, bitte. I get that I am the bottom of the pack-but how am I different from the submissive wolves?"

"Did they tell you that you were on the bottom?"

He leaned a chin on his upright leg. "Not exactly."

"Good," she said. "Because you aren't. You are outside of the pack structure. You're the only one who can defy the Alpha." She hesitated. "That doesn't mean he'll let you get away with it... but a submissive wolf, even a wolf who is a lot less dominant than the Alpha, would have trouble standing up to him at all. Most werewolves have a..." She fought with an exact explanation, then decided not to worry about it. He was a werewolf, he'd understand. "A built-in meter that tells them whether a wolf is dominant to them or not. If the meter doesn't tell them right away... well, they usually fight it out."

"This I have seen," he said.

"Right, then. That's something you and I are missing. I mean, I can still tell-even with humans-who is in charge and who isn't. But it doesn't have anything to do with their relationship with me."

"Ja," he said jerking his head up and slapping the desk. "I thought there was something wrong with me, that I did not feel this. That I did not feel the need to drop my eyes or bow my head."

"They probably didn't even think to tell you," Anna told him. "And... it is still safer to drop your eyes around the more dominant wolves."

He took a deep breath and leaned forward. "I thought they had trouble hurting ones such as you and I."

Anna pulled back. "Yeah, well, there's always the crazy ones."

"Isaac, my Alpha, he told me that there was a problem, yesterday. I saw it, but I couldn't decipher it myself. He says something scared you, and every wolf in the room was ready to defend you-and they were all looking at the wolves next to them to see who the problem was. That is to do with being Omega, too?"

Anna sighed. "I told you something about my first pack-they left me with a few issues. Too many dominant wolves, and I turn into a chicken. What do you know about the difference between the dominant wolves and the submissive ones?"

He shrugged. "They tell me nothing. These wolves, they don't talk much. Me, they will tell you, I talk all the time. Or maybe you have noticed. How can we solve things if we do not talk? Talking is useful. But I watch, too. The dominant wolves fight with each other and take care of the submissive wolves. The submissive ones, they are no threat. They need to be taken care of, though-a pat on the head. A reassuring touch is necessary for them."

"I had it explained in very simple words," said Anna. "Dominant wolves"-she deepened her voice to a passable baritone, but she couldn't quite get Asil's accent-"their instincts tell them to protect with violence and control their environment. They are ready to kill. The more dominant the wolf, the quicker he is to kill. Less dominant wolves cede the authority to protect to the more dominant wolf. An Alpha is the ultimate control freak, ready to kill anyone who threatens his pack. He protects the weaker from the strong and suffers no defiance of his will. There's other stuff, magic stuff, but that's the gist of it."

"Yes," he said. "I have seen this."

"Submissive wolves are the kinder, gentler wolves. They are missing the killing instinct. That doesn't mean they won't kill under the right circumstances, just that it is not their first answer to every problem. They don't need to control everyone around them. With a submissive wolf, a dominant wolf will relax because the lesser wolf is no threat."

"All right. Yes."

"An Omega wolf is an Alpha wolf who is extremely zen."

There was a little pause as he absorbed that. She grabbed a handful of nuts and came up with a bunch of Brazil nuts and a peanut. Angus, evidently, didn't like Brazil nuts.

Finally, Ric said slowly, "An Alpha is the most dominant wolf in the pack, the most prone to violence."

Anna nodded. "No one gives him crap, and his job is to protect his pack. No one gives Omegas crap either, and our job is to protect our packs, even from themselves. The zen part comes because we don't have to kill anyone to get our way."

"Alpha," he said it again, to get the feel of it. And there was a little punch behind it. Anger, even.

"Alpha," said Anna, eating a nut. She didn't mind Brazil nuts, though she preferred almonds. "Minus most of the tough stuff, and our magic stuff is different. With our magic, we make our pack happy."

Ric grinned at her.

"While the Alpha can pull strength, even magic, from all the pack, the Marrok-and this is only the smallest part of what makes him scary-can pull from all of his Alphas. I don't think we have anything like that. But yeah, you don't have to listen when the big bad wolves want to boss you around. Omega doesn't mean weak."

Evidently he could be quiet, too, because he tilted his head toward the ceiling and thought for about ten minutes-long enough that Anna had time to think over what she had told him. She hadn't been acting like an Alpha with zen; she'd been acting like a submissive wolf... No, because even a submissive wolf didn't usually put her tail between her legs at the first sign of a dominant wolf, as she had been doing. She had killed a vampire. She had killed a witch so scary that she'd chased Asil out of his home and kept him on the run for two hundred years. Asil, the Moor, whose name was whispered with awe (or, sometimes snarled) wherever he went.

Grumpily, she picked up her book and stared at the page.

"Anna," he said, at last.


"I would like to teach my pack this truth of yours. That I am not a child, a plaything they may find convenient. An uber-submissive wolf, yes? They must see me for the zen wolf that I am."

Zen wolf. That had a bigger punch than Omega.

"And how have you decided to do it?"

He smiled at her, his face lit with mischief. "I have an intention. Tonight there is to be a feast, yes? And after that, a hunt. Anyone not a submissive wolf may join in the hunt. That exclusion is for their protection, with so many dominants about. Anyone. I think that I should hunt."

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies