Oops! I got so totally caught up in writing Sacrificed over the weekend (which is actually a good thing, right?), I forgot to post the next chapter for yesterday.
So to my wonderful readers, sorry about that!
* * *
Logan blinked in surprise as he pulled into the drive of Cole’s rental at ten-fifty-eight a.m. The pack princess promptly walked out of her cabin with a couple of bags full of equipment slung over her shoulders.
Or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. She didn’t want to give him an excuse to see where she slept, which fit more with her prickly disposition.
Not that he wanted to see it.
Liar, said the wolf inside him.
“You want this in the back?” she called the second he braked.
“Yeah.” By the time he turned off the ignition and jumped out of his Jeep, she had the rear door open and had wrestled the larger canvas bag inside.
“I could have helped,” he grumbled. So much for his effort to mend fences between their packs. A surly cub caught in the throes of puberty had a better disposition.
“I’m used to it.” A tentative smile crossed her face. “I can’t afford an assistant yet.”
He slammed the back door shut. “Not even a college intern desperate to work for free in the movie business?”
“I’m on the road a lot. There’s still travel expenses, room and board to deal with. It’s not fair to drag some kid around the country and make her pay her own way.” She turned and headed for the passenger door.
Something didn’t make sense. He climbed into the Jeep. “Not that it’s my business, but didn’t your parents set up a trust fund for you?”
One slim dark eyebrow rose. “You’re right. It is none of your business.” She turned and faced the windshield and sighed. “So many people lost everything in Katrina, not just the pack. I asked Papa to dissolve the trust and use the funds.”
“You couldn’t have been more than knee-high.” He flipped on the ignition.
“Old enough to understand what happens when the levees fail, Mr. Polk.”
He almost leaned over to brush his shoulder against hers in comfort. Probably not the best idea considering their conversation yesterday. Instead, he reached for the gearshift. “Were you able to get out?”
“Yes.” Her voice carried so much sorrow. “My Aunt Francine led a caravan of the pregnant women and pups to Houston. Papa and the rest of the pack tried to secure our boats and equipment. We still lost three quarters of what the pack owned.”
He did a J-turn and headed back down the drive. “I can’t imagine rebuilding from that.” Sweat trickled down his spine. He hadn’t lost anything in his life except his self-respect, and he couldn’t even get that back.
“Papa is the heart and soul of the pack. If he believed, then everyone believed.”
What he wouldn’t give to have someone believe in him like that. He blinked stinging drops out of his eyes.
“You okay?” she asked.
He glanced at her before he turned and checked for oncoming traffic on the main road. “I’m fine,” he lied. “Why?”
She pointedly looked at his hands on the steering wheel. His knuckles were white.
Great. Nothing like an anxiety attack in front of her.
Logan forced a smile. “Sorry. Thinking of how our dads would react if they knew we were in the same vehicle.” Yeah, that was an excellent excuse. Not that he really believed there would be trouble at the Sunshine Believers compound.
She laughed, but it sounded just as forced as his smile. “Yeah, I heard about what happened between them. How about we vow never to tell them we met?”
He pressed the accelerator and turned left. “Sounds like a smart plan. Even Dad’s version about what happened makes them both sound like douchebags.”
“You don’t think it’s romantic fighting for your true love?”
“Romantic? Are you shitting me? It’s one thing to fight to protect your lady. It’s another to fight over a woman like she’s a damn prize.”
Alyson said nothing for the longest time. Had he royally pissed her off with his statement?
He glanced at her, but she didn’t look angry. “Really? Is that how you want to be treated? Like an object to be fucked and brought out to impress other wolves when you’re not popping out pups?”
Still nothing. Her silence wasn’t helping to nerves prickling his skin.
The need to fill the void in the Jeep overwhelmed him. “Bet you haven’t heard my mom’s version of the story.”
“And what’s that? She resents being an object to fuck.” Sharpness tainted her voice. So she was angry after all.
He grinned. “You obviously have not met my mother. She’s nobody’s object. You do know she’s really the San Antonio pack alpha, don’t you?”
Another glance. Alyson stared at him with rapt attention.
“Hell, no. She left the Dallas pack for the same reason I left San Antonio. Didn’t like the idea of battling the parent to be top wolf.”
She laughed. “In other words, you were afraid your mama would whip your ass.”
“Damn straight, I am. She bluntly told both Dad and René they had a choice. They could each fight her to retain alpha position of their packs. Or they could fight each other for her hand and retain some semblance of dignity. Personally, I think your dad lost on purpose.”
Now, Alyson was laughing so hard tears ran down her cheeks. “Kn-knowing Papa, you’re probably right.” That sent her into another spasm of hilarity.
They rode in companionable quiet for a few minutes before he asked, “So why does a nice wolf like you buy into the Normal myth of Prince Charming?”
And the tension between them slammed back into place.
“Why does a wolf like you resort to pathetic Normal behavior such as stalking?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I not only saw you, I smelled you. First you ran in front of my Jeep the night I arrived. I nearly hit you on the drive up to the cabin. Then you were standing out by the cabin windbreak this morning around three a.m.”
He frowned. “I admit I watched you when you picked up groceries at Carol’s two days ago. It’s a little surprising to scent another were this late in the season, but I wasn’t anywhere near your cabin until I picked you up—” He looked at his watch. “Fifteen minutes ago.”
“Are there any other weres in the area besides you?”
“No,” he ground out.
“So you want me to believe you weren’t spying on me?”
Her incredulous tone and her accusations irritated him. “Why would I bother? You were the one yesterday who said I had plenty of women after me.”
“I was only repeating what Roy had told me.” She crossed her arms.
“So you’re a gossip, too?” he shot back.
“Shut up. Just shut up,” she snapped.
“Happy to oblige,” he growled.
Only a tomb would have been quieter than the rest of their forty-minute drive.
* * *
Alyson was never more glad to arrive at her destination in her life. The nerve of that man! Maybe she was too human, but her nose worked just fine. She could tell the difference between a were and a regular wolf. And she damn well knew a were smelled the same regardless of which form he wore.
She rolled down the window of Logan’s Jeep, letting in the damp, moldy odor of decaying leaves. The gate to the ranch stood open. Brown remnants of high meadow grass rustled between tiny mounds of snow, but no guards could be heard, much less seen or smelled. Wire fencing was strung between chest-high wooden posts along the drive with occasional bright orange ten-foot poles.
Breaking her oath to never talk to Logan Polk again, she asked, “What are the orange poles for?”
“They’re guides for the plow so the driver doesn’t accidently run into the fence posts,” he said, guiding his Jeep through the open gate. “Last thing you want is cattle and horses escaping in the middle of a blizzard.”
She looked at the orange poles again as the Jeep drove past them. She couldn’t imagine drifts that deep. Snow in New Orleans was a truly rare event. Something to be celebrated as the city shuts down to enjoy the moment. Another pang of homesickness went through her.
They rolled up to a massive one-story log cabin at the end of the driveway. Similar, slightly smaller buildings spread out from the main one. It resembled a rustic ski lodge.
Or a dude ranch. She wasn’t quite sure which effect the Sunshine Believers were going for. According to the information she’s dug up, only the main building had been on the property when Haight’s organization bought the ranch.
“Do we just go inside?” Logan said as he cut the engine.
“It’s polite to knock,” she said.
He gave her an odd look as he cut the ignition, and she realized her words had come out sharper than she intended. Except she’d meant them to be cutting, hadn’t she? The bastard had lied about spying on her, hadn’t he?
An attractive brunette burst out of the front door of the lodge, waving. “Ms. Tribideaux?”
Alyson leaned out the window. “Yes?” She took a surreptitious sniff of the woman. Golden delicious. Normal. But something seemed off and she couldn’t figure out what.
The woman smiled. “I’m Sharon Tyson, Reverend Haight’s assistant. You’re a bit early. I can show you around while he finishes his current meeting.” She shifted to peer at Logan. “Will you be back in two hours, or would you prefer I call you when Ms. Tribideaux is ready to leave?”
Before Alyson could stop him, he’d jumped out of the Jeep. He rounded the vehicle and, well, he didn’t push Reverend Haight’s assistant out of the way, but she scurried back at the scowl on his face when he opened the passenger door.
“Where would like your camera equipment set up, Ms. Tribideaux?” he said.
She slid out as well. Logan seemed determined to repay this favor by proxy that he owed her. The silence of the ranch bothered her. There wouldn’t be many insects above ground with the current temperature, but there should have been birdsong. For the first time, she was glad of his company.
She waved at the grouchy were. “Sharon, this is my college intern, Logan Polk.” Alyson smiled sweetly at his frowning visage. No question about it. He didn’t like being treated as unpaid help he’d suggested she get. “Just take the equipment bags in with us. I still have to get Reverend Haight’s signature before we start filming.”
She slug her backpack over her shoulder before she turned back to Sharon. “I hope you don’t mind. If our meeting goes as well as I expect, I want to get a jumpstart on my work today.”
“Oh, um…” Sharon’s flummoxed expression would be funny under normal circumstances.
Alyson struggled to keep her own expression nonchalant. It wouldn’t do to piss off the woman. She knew how much power the so-called secretaries and personal assistants really wielded in most organizations.
“I think just carrying it in will be fine.” Sharon shot Logan a worried look. “I’m not sure how the reverend will feel about having an extra guest.”
“As I told him in our letter exchange, I have no intention of painting the Sunshine Believers in a bad light.” Alyson swept her hand in the air to indicate the ranch. “I find what he’s done here quite admirable. I think people need to see what good leadership can do for any organization, not just a religious sect.”
Sharon brightened at the compliment. “That would be so great. I wasn’t a member when things went bad all those years ago.” She lowered her voice. “I heard the stories though. The members of the church at the time were so relieved when those men were caught before they hurt the woman they’d kidnapped in L.A. Human sacrifice is not what we’re about.” A shudder ran through her.
Alyson went for the gracious, socialite smile she’d practiced for years. “Why don’t you show us where we can stow our gear? I’d love to see what all you’ve built here.”
It must have worked. Sharon beamed and said, “Right this way.”
Alyson swallowed her irritation when Logan made a point of carrying the equipment bags. She couldn’t afford to replace anything if he broke something. But it wasn’t worth the pissing contest in front of Sharon after the rocky beginning with Reverend Haight’s assistant.
The interior of the main cabin wasn’t anything like Alyson expected. Humidity weighed down the air. Instead of the blue-collar American, wild west, or native tribal designs she’d seen all over town, the lodge’s great room resembled a Paleozoic museum.
Petrified wood had been carved into various pieces of furniture. Huge potted palms hugged alcoves and corners. Rather than the head of a large hooved, local herbivore hanging over the fireplace, the outline of an eight-point sun had been carved into the stones. Hammered gold filled in the grooves.
Underneath the sun, what appeared to be a skeleton of a tiny dinosaur perched on the mantel, some carnivorous variety from its jagged teeth and the prominent ripping talons on each of its limbs. The relic was posed in such a way it almost appeared alive and ready to pounce on its next victim.
Alyson took a closer look. Instead of the requisite four limbs, the skeleton had eight. She waved to indicate the figure. “Is this a particular species native to Montana?”
Nervous laughter burbled from Sharon. “No. Our symbol used to be an eight-legged lizard over a star. After the problems in L.A. and the negative connotation reptilian species have in America, Reverend Haight decided to simplify the emblem.” She pointed at the gold design. “Now, it’s just the eight-point star.”
“But the skeleton?” Alyson raised an eyebrow.
More nervous laughter. “One of the teens was fooling around with fossils and animal bones. Reverend Haight thought it was cute, so he put it up on the mantel.”
The ashy smell of fear wafted from Sharon. But fear of what? Being judged for having bones in a worship space? Many shamanistic religions as well as the Catholic Church held bones as religious objects.
Or was it fear of bringing Child Protection Services down on the compound? Anything in U.S. society that wasn’t WASP-ish was immediately suspect in a large swath of the country.
Or was it as simple as fearing her boss’s temper? What if Fred Haight’s views weren’t as far removed from his jailed compatriots’ opinions as he wanted the outside world to believe?
Whatever it was, Alyson knew if she pushed, the assistant would clam up. Best to give it time, wait until the members of Sunshine Believers trusted her.
Sharon led them to what she called a coat closet. The space was the size of the cabin Alyson rented from Roy.
Once their gear was stowed and coats hung, Sharon led them around the main building. The place was more like a spa than a religious center. Massage rooms, a sauna, and meditation spaces were interconnected by a brook diverted through the building. The water feature even had tadpoles and tiny fish swimming in it.
While Sharon kept her manner upbeat and cheerful, she kept shooting nervous glances in Logan’s direction. Maybe the woman subconsciously picked up on his alpha dominance though he took pains to remain in the background as they toured the facility.
Sharon swept into a large room with a series of tables with white cotton cloths covering them. “This is our communal dining area. We serve a completely vegan diet, and we grow a majority of our food.”
“Vegan?” Disbelief twisted Logan’s brow.
Sharon tilted her chin in a defiant manner at his question. “It’s a healthier lifestyle and much better for the environment.”
Alyson took a deep breath, as much to test Logan’s doubt as to prepare to smooth over Sharon’s ruffled feathers. She caught the faintest odor of Normal blood. Underneath it was a whiff of something else familiar that she often detected in conjunction with the coppery scent. A combination she only smelled when Papa returned from a meeting with the vampire representative of New Orleans. “Is that sandalwood I’m smelling?”
“I’m afraid so. We burn incense during services.” Sharon’s expression became alarmed. “You’re not allergic, are you?”
“Oh, no. It just reminds me of—” Alyson caught herself. “Someone I know back in Louisiana who wears a lot sandalwood cologne.” She forced a chuckle.
A soft chime rang, and Sharon jumped. “That’s Reverend Haight. Wait here please, and I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.” She dart out the door.
“We need to get you out of here,” Logan murmured.
“Why?” Alyson crossed her arms.
“Can’t you smell it?” He looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Neither scent is from a tree.”
She rolled her eyes. “Has it occurred to you there’s a simpler explanation? As in one of the women here is having her period? And you can’t be sure it isn’t incense and not—” She glanced around herself. “The other thing.” If he didn’t say “vampire”, she wasn’t about to either.
His jaw muscles clenched so hard they stood out in sharp relief under his skin. “You can’t tell me you think she’s acting in an ordinary manner.”
Sharon’s behavior bothered her more than she wanted admit to Logan, but she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being right either. “Maybe if you’d stop glowering at her like the big, bad wolf, she wouldn’t be so nervous around us.”
“I don’t think I’m the one she’s afraid of.” He glowered more.
“Has it occurred to you that if something is going on here, she’s more likely to open up to me?” Alyson said softly. “Without you being so…intense?”
Slowly, his shoulders relaxed before he inclined his head. “You’re right. I get a little…” Rotten citrus tainted the air. His anxiety had to be incredible.
His admission made her feel a little sympathetic. If even half of what Aunt Francine had insinuated last night were true, Alyson understood Logan’s jumpiness at the sandalwood odor. “Weird about them?” She gave him the slightest of smiles. “I totally understand.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he growled.
Mother Wolf, she’d really stepped into it, hadn’t she? But there really wasn’t a point in lying. He knew who she was, and that she knew who he was.
Alyson let her arms drop to her sides, and lowered her voice even more. “All I mean is I’d be nervous too if I were the only one of our people who survived Selene Antonius’s little shop of horrors.”
His nostrils flared, and his fists clenched. For a moment, she feared she’d made the wrong choice. If he lost control here in a compound of Normals, they were both in deep shit.
Instead of sprouting fur, he closed his eyes and quietly counted, “Ich, nie, san, shi…” When he reached what she assumed was ten, his shoulders had relaxed and his skin had smoothed.
His eyes slowly opened. “You know.”
“Yeah,” she admitted. “I’m sorry for questioning you. You’d know before now if there are any of them living in Tuttle Creek, which is why I didn’t want to jump to conclusions when I smelled the sandalwood and blood.”
He shook his head. “You’re right. There isn’t any of them nearby.” He leaned closer to her ear and murmured, “Closest vamps I know of are a couple living in Billings.”
She cocked her head. “Literally two?”
He grinned. “No, literally a couple. Ever hear of Toni Wells?”
“The romance writer?” Alyson stopped short of gushing over her favorite author. “I’ve heard of her,” she said coolly.
“Joni and Thomas Wellington.”
She snapped her fingers. “So that’s why their Ancient Nights Convention is held up here in the middle of winter.”
“No, you’re not a fan at all,” he drawled.
For once, she didn’t get angry at his teasing. In fact, she kind of liked it.
* * *
Fury ripped through Marcus Giovanni as he watched the video feed from the Sunshine Believers dining room. If it weren’t the middle of the day, he’d charge up there, rip off the wolf’s head himself, and ship it to Alex Stanton.
Or maybe he should ship Polk’s left hand to Stanton.
He held up his arm and stared at the stump. Not even the V-virus’s vaunted healing power could replace a missing limb when it had been cut off by the weapon of a god. Not when he’d left his hand behind, his blood coating the pebbles and soaking into the desert sand. Not when the choice had been his hand or his life.
Maybe daylight was a good thing. It kept him from doing anything stupid like revealing his continued existence. Augustine and the rest of his minions must have assumed he died in the Nazca desert. Let them continue to believe so until it was too late.
No, he needed to lay aside his personal desires and stick to the plan. He wasn’t going to make the same impatient mistakes his grandmother and the lizard demons had made.
His phone buzzed. He thumbed the “Answer” icon. “Yes.”
“Why is the male werewolf with the filmmaker?” Haight sounded curious.
Not who was he, but why. “Maybe word got out about your little stunt in Seattle.” As much as it burned Marcus to say it, he added, “Leave this one alone.”
Marcus wanted to yell in exasperation, but Haight didn’t think like he did. The idiot was too worried about short-term results. “He’s here to protect the female. She’s a pack princess from Rousseau’s territory, but she’s in Augustine’s now. Something happens to her, and you’re going to have more trouble on top of you than you know what to do with.”
“And why would I be afraid of some vampires?”
“You know what happened in Peru.”
Faint static was the only sound for almost a minute. “You and your people need to stay where you are until she leaves.”
“I wasn’t planning on coming out until after sunset,” Marcus muttered sourly.
“No, stay there until she’s finished filming.”
Haight’s statement confounded him. “You’re really going to allow her access to the entire compound?”
“No, just most of it. When she presents a lovely view of our church, it will attract more lost souls. Fresh human blood will quench your thirst far better than the occasional elk, wouldn’t it?”
Despite himself, his mouth began to water. “Yes, it would.”
“Stay where you are. I will notify you when she leaves.” The signal abruptly cut out.
Marcus leaned back in his chair. Now, why was Haight so damn interested in the Tribideaux bitch?