“I’m so sorry for making you wait, Miss Tribideaux.”
Alyson turned at the friendly greeting. Looking at Frederick Rogers Haight, several things struck her. Medium height, average build, common brown hair with a smattering of grey threaded through, and mediocre brown eyes framed by non-descript steel wire-rims. They all added up to someone who would normally blend in with the crowd if it weren’t for his bright smile and jovial attitude.
“That’s quite all right, Reverend Haight. Sharon has been taking good care of us.” She took a deep breath as she shook his proffered hand. The crisp scent of a red delicious. Well, that killed any theory about him being a super.
The assistant froze for a moment, but Haight’s chuckle seemed to relax her. “I’m not sure what I’d do without her. Honestly, she’s the one who keeps this place running.”
Sharon blushed, and the lightest hint of roses came from her direction. Alyson had to clamp down on her own emotions to keep from revealing the assistant’s secret. Sharon had a crush on her boss. No wonder she worried excessively over the reverend’s possible displeasure.
Haight scratched the back of his head. “This place will be filling up pretty soon, and I believe we need to hammer out the final details. If you don’t mind retiring to my office for lunch, Sharon will make sure your intern is fed.”
Alyson relaxed slightly. Maybe this would be easier than she thought.
Until Logan inserted himself between her and the sect leader. “Where Miss Tribideaux goes, I go.”
Haight frowned. “Just what are you insinuating, young man?”
“Logan! I’m so sorry, Reverend—”
“I think you know exactly what I’m stating,” Logan growled. “Starting with Hollywood and leading to Peru.”
Sharon clapped her hand over her mouth.
Instead of the fury Alyson half-expected, Haight shook his head sadly. “Our mission is to find lost souls and show them the light. Those men you refer to in California weren’t doing our Lord’s work, son. They did terrible things. They were caught. They were punished.”
“What about the ones who escaped to Peru?”
Alyson blinked. She’d only discovered the incident with the actress. There were others?
“We certainly don’t condone the brutal murders of those other two women in Los Angeles. It is my understanding the United States government asked to extradite our former members who allegedly committed the crimes. However, Peruvian law enforcement has yet to apprehend them.” Haight exhaled noisily. “And before you ask your next question, I’ll give you the same answer I gave the FBI. No, I have not been in contact with them. I would most definitely turn them into the proper authorities. However, I sincerely doubt they would dare show their faces here.”
“Because you’d punish them?”
Haight’s heated gaze could have melted steel. “Because one of the women they are accused of murdering was our order’s prophet.”
* * *
Alyson retrieved the bags for her laptop and printer out of the coat closet before Haight led her to his private office. Logan obviously wasn’t happy about the arrangement, but he kept his mouth shut as she walked away. Once Haight closed the office door, she held up her hand.
“Before we go any further, I want to apologize for Logan’s behavior.”
“My dear, if I got upset at every accusation thrown our way, I would have given myself a brain aneurysm years ago.” He held out a chair for her at a tiny table on the other side of the room from his desk. The wide window showed a panoramic view of the valley with the town of Tuttle Creek nestled by its namesake. She took the proffered seat and studied his private space.
The museum metaphor carried over into his office. Another prehistoric fossil embedded in basalt adorned the wall behind his desk chair. It was a smaller version of the dinosaur on the mantel in the receiving area, but with the appropriate four limbs. A bookcase overflowed with tomes on Paleozoic archeology. Framed fossilized footprints from millions of years ago hung on the opposite wall.
When he took the seat across from her, she continued, “I want you to know I have no intentions of dredging up dirt. You’re one of several groups I’m filming—”
Haight held up his hands. “Stop right there.” He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “A documentary should give an unflinching portrayal, shouldn’t it?”
His candor threw her off the speech she’d mentally rehearsed. “Yes, it should.”
“Then you need to include our problems as well.” His expression turned grim. “I’m not happy about the terrible acts performed by some of our former members, but they happened. If you ignore it, you’re integrity will be called into question, Miss Tribideaux. If I ignore it, the odds are something similar could occur again.”
He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes before he laid his spectacles on the table and returned his attention to her. “All I ask is that you don’t sensationalize those terrible things the way the tabloids have. Please stick to the facts.” His earnest look was so endearing. He reminded her of the parish priest back home.
“You mentioned one of your own was a victim,” she said softly.
He nodded. “Jane Chevrette. Before we go forward with this project…” He stared out the window for a moment. “She was…very important to me. I won’t ask you to remove any mention of her, but please don’t mention her gift. People already don’t think much of us. I don’t want her name disparaged.”
She hesitated. “May I ask a few questions off the record?”
“Testing me?” One graying eyebrow rose above the rim of his glasses.
Alyson inhaled. Grief spiced his scent, but there was no hint of deception. “No. I want us both to be comfortable about this project, but it sounds like Ms. Chevrette was more than a colleague.”
He slowly removed his frames before he stared out the window overlooking the valley. “Yes, she was much more to me than just a fellow in faith.” When he turned back to Alyson, she could describe the glint in his eyes as murderous. “If I could wreak vengeance on the people who killed her, I would,” he said.
Logan’s earlier words chilled her. “Did you go to Peru?”
He blinked and sighed before he replaced his glasses. “No, but I did make some enquiries through non-government channels. The people responsible for my Jane’s death are no longer in that country, and I cannot…reach them at the moment.”
“If you know where they are, why don’t you call the FBI?”
The slightest smiles curved his lips. “May I ask you a question in turn, Ms. Tribideaux?”
“When a werewolf is killed in a dominance fight, do you report the death to the Normal authorities?”
Her lungs refused to work. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He waved a hand. “This is off the record, isn’t it?”
She nodded slowly. The old fear of discovery continued to punch her in the gut, making it difficult to breathe.
“Did you really think I’d let a stranger onto this property without learning everything about her?”
What should she do? Laugh it off? Run? And how the hell had he discovered her secret?
What Haight had said about his lover, girlfriend or whatever she was to him being the group’s prophet finally registered in Alyson’s brain. “Ms. Chevrette wasn’t Normal.”
The reverend’s smile was sad. He leaned his elbows on the table as he regarded Alyson. “No. She wasn’t. And yes, I do know about your world. You have nothing to fear from me. Part of conventional seminary training is learning to keep your parishioners secrets as long as they are not a danger to themselves or to someone else. I have no problem extending the same courtesy to a business partner.”
“Let get this straight. You’re asking me to not out Jane as a supernatural and in return, you won’t out me as one?”
Haight chuckled. “When you put it that way, it sounds more like blackmail than a negotiation.”
If her father were here, he’d kill Haight outright because he knew the truth about. While the reverend’s offer did sound like blackmail, she could understand him wanting to protect someone he cared about. Alyson nodded. “Your terms are acceptable, Reverend.”
“As long as that particular term isn’t in the contract.”
Alyson rested her own elbows on the table. “And how do you propose to enforce that particular clause if it’s not in the contract?”
“I guess we’ll just have to trust one another,” he said.
She considered his statement for a moment. The clause really couldn’t be in a contract that another Normal might see. But the thought of following pack protocol made her stomach rebel. And if she did follow protocol, exactly how would she get out of the ranch alive? Not to mention, who had Haight already told her secret to?
“I guess so, too.” She reached down and pulled her laptop out of its bag. “I have my standard contract. If you want any additional changes—”
“Let’s get some food before we start. No sense continuing our negotiations on an empty stomach.”
As if she were waiting for a cue, Sharon entered with a tray. She set the two salads and bowls of strawberries before them, along with glasses and a pitcher of ice tea.
“Ring me if you need anything else.” She bounced out the door, obviously in a much better mood. Alyson wondered how much her improved demeanor was due to Logan.
And immediately squished the thought faster than a summer mosquito.
“I’ll need releases from the Sunshine Believers members I film.”
“That won’t be a problem. Most of our folks have agreed, but there’s a few that have said they don’t want to be a part of your project. I know you’ll respect their wishes.” Haight reached over and patted her hand, a fatherly gesture. “I trust you to do the right thing.”
She relaxed a bit and brought up the contract form on her laptop screen. Maybe her anxiety had nothing to do with this project and everything to do with the werewolf on the other side of the door.
* * *
Logan watched the rest of the diners as he poked at the rabbit food before him. Occasionally, one of the group would look his way before muttering to the person next to him or her.
“Lunch isn’t to your liking?” Sharon’s expression no longer had the fretfulness it had when he and Alyson first arrived.
He smiled. Or tried to. The motion felt unnatural and stiff after the last four years.
It didn’t earlier when you were talking to the pretty were, the voice in the back of his mind reminded. The voice that was beginning to sound more and more like his therapist.
“I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy,” he murmured politely.
Sharon frowned. “I can have the kitchen fry a soy burger for you.”
“No, thanks. I appreciate the thought though.” He laid his fork aside. “You said you recently joined the Sunshine Believers. When was that?”
“It will be two years next month.” She took a sip of her tea. “I can honestly say Fred Haight saved my life.”
“How so?” He didn’t have to feign curiosity. The attitudes here reminded him of pack mentality. A tight-knit group with a healthy suspicion of an outsider.
She blushed, a hard one compared to earlier. The woman obviously adored her boss. Even a Normal could get that without detecting the rose undertone to her scent. “I became addicted to painkillers after a car accident. My sister dragged me to rehab twice. It didn’t help.”
Sharon stared at the dead garden outside of their window. “He found me in Cheyenne, homeless, trading sex for oxycontin. I’m not proud of myself. If it weren’t for Reverend Haight, I’d be dead or worse. I can’t really explain how he did it. He used mainly talk therapy, which never worked before when I was in rehab, but he cured me.”
She face Logan again. “I’m clean. He gave me a decent job. A purpose.”
He inclined his head toward the rest of the dining room. “What about everyone else?”
She smiled. “Everybody has their own story. None are the same. Some were adrift spiritually. Some lost their homes in the last economic downturn and had nowhere else they could go. Some were addicts like me or had other problems with the law.”
“He sounds like saint.”
Sharon’s expression sharpened. “He’s a good man, but he’s just a man. I know what the people in Tuttle Creek say about him, but they don’t bother to get to know any of us either.”
“Actually, all I’ve heard and seen are good things.”
Her eyes widened and she blinked. “Oh. Like what?”
Suspicion ran deep in this woman. But then, it had taken the folks in Tuttle Creek a little time to accept the Goldsteins and him as well.
“I work with Avery at the feed mill. He’s the hardest worker there. Always on time for his shift. Always polite. You don’t see that much in kids these days.” Logan reached for a roll from the nearby bread basket. “Carol at the general store says the same thing about Maddy. And she’s quite pleased that Haight insists Maddy, Avery, and the other kids get their high school diplomas.”
Pink spread across Sharon’s cheeks again. This time, the scent of yeast and flour spilled from her, as if she were as fresh-baked as the roll in his hand. “I didn’t realize you—”
“Knew a couple of y’all?” He grinned. “Now who’s makin’ assumptions?”
Her laugh was self-deprecating. “I apologize for my attitude. I guess I’m so used to being looked down on or my decisions questioned. It didn’t occur to me I was doing the same thing.”
He shrugged. “It happens to all of us at times.”
Sharon leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “You’re not really her intern, are you?”
* * *
“The man who came with you isn’t really your intern, is he?” Haight stared at Alyson with an unblinking gaze.
She hesitated for a moment. She didn’t want to damage her relationship with the reverend. Not after they’d hammered out the contract and he’d signed it. “I’m afraid half the town insisted someone escort me to your compound.”
He shook his head. “After this time, they’re still afraid.”
“I don’t think it’s you so much as me, sir.” She took a nervous sip of her tea. “I’m the stranger. Worse, I’m a tenderfoot. They’re afraid I’ll get myself eaten.”
“Eaten?” His eyes widened.
“Mayor Newlin and the sheriff think there’s a large wild predator a little too close to town.”
“A wild predator?” Concern flashed across Haight’s mien. “This is the first I heard of any incident.”
She shrugged and waved an airy hand. “Some hunters found a dead elk torn up in a mountain meadow. If Logan hadn’t driven me here, the mayor or Doctor Goldstein were going to.” She smiled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say my father hired them all to keep an eye on me. Honestly, I think the town officials were trying to scare me.”
Her statement only increased the furrows of worry on the reverend’s forehead. “Because you were meeting with me?”
“More like trying to scare the big city girl.” Alyson laughed. “Which is ridiculous considering New Orleans is surrounded by gators.”
Haight chuckled as well. “So your father protects you from these gators?”
“No, he tries to keep away far more dangerous predators.” She leaned closer and mock whispered, “Men.”
* * *
Logan smiled at Sharon. “You found me out.”
“A lie’s not a way to make a good impression.” Despite her admonition, she returned his smile.
“You know what it’s like with the tourists. They come up here, unprepared, and they think it’s a zoo or amusement park.” He rolled his eyes and leaned back. “Remember those hikers that got caught in the snowstorm last spring and died of hypothermia?”
He jabbed a thumb in the direction Haight had escorted Alyson. “It’s the beginning of winter, and she’s up here with a designer coat, six hundred-dollar boots, and no chains for her tires.” He shrugged. “She’s staying in Old Roy Cole’s rental cabin, so he asked me to keep an eye on her. Last thing we need is for some rich bitch to drive her pansy-assed rental off the side of the mountain.”
“So why the lie?”
“Probably to preserve her dignity by pretending she’s in charge.” He shrugged again. “I don’t really give a shit what she says.” He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “I prefer a real woman to some city slicker any day.”
Red flooded Sharon’s face. “I-I’m flattered, but…” She took a large drink of her water.
“That’s okay.” He smiled. “I didn’t realize you and the reverend—”
“No!” Her outburst drew the attention of the remaining diners. “I mean, um, there isn’t anything between him and me.”
Logan straightened. “I didn’t mean to upset you. You’re a very attractive woman. I had to ask.”
Her blush deepened. “Well, that’s, um, very flattering, Mr. Polk—”
“It’s Logan,” he corrected gently.
“Logan.” She cleared her throat, but wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Like I said it’s flattering, but I’m still working on my sobriety. It’s best if I don’t get involved with any one.” Her gaze flicked to him and back down to her hands. “I hope you understand.”
“I do.” The problem was he really did. In his case, it wasn’t drugs, but his damn anxiety attacks. “Again, I apologize fore making you uncomfortable. That’s the last thing I wanted to do.”
She scooted back her chair and stood. “If you’re finished eating, why don’t we go find the reverend and Ms. Tribideaux?”
Logan rose as well and laid his napkin on his chair. “That’s a good idea.”
* * *
Amusement filled Reverend Haight’s face. “If I had a daughter as beautiful as you, protecting her would be a full time job.”
Alyson laughed to cover her discomfort. Why the hell was she bringing up such a personal subject with this man? But talking to him felt so comfortable, like she had known him all her life.
“Well, the other side is he wants to see me married, so he’s been parading a ton of associates’ sons through our h
ouse. But I’m not ready to settle down. My career is just starting to take off.”
Haight poured more ice tea into her glass. “And you want to establish your reputation before having a family.”
“Yes.” She took another drink. “It’s not that I don’t want family…”
“I agree with you.” He lifted his own glass. “Sow your wild oats before you have children to worry about. Here’s to finding yourself before finding a mate.”
She raised her own glass and clinked it against his. “To finding ourselves.” She took a sip before she waved her hand to indicate the compound. “Is this sanctuary about finding yourself?”
He chuckled. “No, I’m well past my…oats stage.” His expression turned somber. “This about protecting my family, and the Sunshine Believers are my family.” He took another sip of his tea. “There’s a dynamic that some family units have and others don’t. It makes the difference of whether the unit can remain together after a family tragedy.
“I know most of the public doesn’t believe this, but the things that happened, the terrible crimes some of our membership committed, had the same effect on our organization as it does when a member of a nuclear family unit does those same types of acts. And the same questions go through our heads. Why didn’t we see it? What could we have done differently?”
He took a deep breath and blew it out. “The best I can do is give my people some space to deal with those questions, even as I still struggle with them.”
“Would you mind if I ask about Jane and what kind of role she played?”
A sad smile appeared on Haight’s face. “Jane had the gift of foresight. I know most people would think she was a scam artist, but…too many things she saw came true for me not to believe her.”
Alyson pushed condensation down the side of her glass as she considered her next question. “If Jane was precognitive—”
“Why didn’t she foresee the problems?” His smile turned wry. “In the case of the actress, she did. She warned the men not to do something stupid, and they assured her they wouldn’t. Unfortunately, she believed she carried more influence over them than she did. By the time, we learned they had gone through with their plans, well…”
He shrugged. “The authorities arrived at our property before Jane and I did. They rescued the woman, and I was questioned about the matter.”
Alyson frowned. “Why wasn’t Jane questioned?”
“I told her to take our car and leave. There was no sense both of us ending up in jail.” Haight shrugged again. “She was the real leader of the Sunshine Believers after the disaster of that actress’s kidnapping. Or she was until she was murdered.”
“Was her gift the reason for her murder?”
“I believe it was. The extremists knew Jane would go to the police if she learned they planned additional crimes.” A tentative smile crossed his lips. “I’m sure you find the whole story ridiculous.”
“Reverend,” she said as she reached over and covered his hand with hers. “Like I said, I’m from New Orleans, the American voodoo capital. I’ve enough strange things in life to know there’s more to the universe than we poor mortals understand.”
He smiled widened. “I know that as well, Alyson.”
A shiver ran up her spine, and she tried to release as quickly as she could with obviously jerking it away. The echo of Roy’s warning yesterday morning ran through her mind. Her inner wolf said there was something off about Fred Haight. Something neither her human side nor her canine side could lay a paw on.