Secret of the Wolf

By: Cynthia Garner

Chapter One

Hard muscles rippled beneath skin and fur. Sharp teeth reformed themselves. Bones crunched, shifted, and realigned. Glossy brown fur receded, leaving behind only silken, tanned skin as wolf became human.

Became woman.

Hugging her knees to her chest, Victoria Joseph took several shuddering breaths and fought her way back from the mind of the wolf. Perspiration dotted her skin. Her body ached, muscles flexed and quivered, recovering from the shock and pain of transformation. As the last of the wolf retreated inside, giving her one final slash of pain through her midsection, a soft moan escaped her. She took another deep breath, the humidity of the August morning traveling deep into her lungs. The rain overnight had cleared out, but not before it had tamped down the pollen and dust that ordinarily floated in the air. It was monsoon season in the Sonoran Desert. Even with the rise in humidity, unbearable with the hundred degree temperatures, she loved this time of year. Monsoon storms were wild, swift, and deadly yet they spoke to her soul.

She skirted a large saguaro and, ty,with arms that still trembled, shoved aside a large rock to retrieve the plastic bag she’d stashed there earlier. She pulled out a bottle of water and took a long drink, then another and another until she’d downed it all. She’d learned a long time ago to rehydrate as soon as possible after a shift. Otherwise she’d be in real danger of passing out from the strain of the metamorphosis.

Dropping the bottle back into the bag, Tori drew out clean clothing and shoes. Once dressed, she tucked her cell phone into the front pocket of her jeans and plaited her long hair in a French braid. She hiked the mile back through the desert to the trailhead where she’d left her car. Whenever she went wolf, she wanted to get out where she’d have some degree of solitude, and the McDowell Sonoran Preserve afforded that, especially at night.

As she steered the Mini Cooper into her driveway, the sun began to rise over the eastern mountains, sending alternating shafts of light and shadow across the valley floor. She shut off the engine and sat there a moment, enjoying the stillness of the dawn, and wondered if her brother was awake yet. Randall had shown up four days prior without warning. The last time she’d seen him had been just before they were stripped of their bodies and put in a holding cell for decades. Their souls had then been sent through a rift between dimensions as punishment for a horrific crime committed by their cousin. As incorporeal entities they’d been drawn to Earth, to the bounty of human bodies available for the taking, for instinctively they’d known if they didn’t take a host they’d die. She’d ended up in London in the body of a woman making her living on the streets of the East End. Through the years, she’d managed to get away from that kind of lifestyle, and the new Victoria Joseph had made her way to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.

Rand, she’d found out just recently, had gone into a man in a small village outside of Manchester. It might as well have been the other side of the world. In 1866, it had been impossible to even begin to try to find him. She’d been alone, a stranger in a borrowed body, overcoming the guilt at displacing the rightful owner while trying to find her way in a primitive world. Staying alive was about all she could do for a long time.

She and her brother hadn’t seen each other in nearly a hundred and fifty years until he’d shown up on her doorstep, a familiar spirit in a stranger’s body. She’d known him instantly. He was the same sweet brother she remembered, yet he was different in some ways. More withdrawn and evasive with a chaser of surly. But even with the newfound secrecy, she would take what she could get. He was family. She was willing to overlook a few eccentricities and irritating behaviors to have him with her again.

Tori just wished she knew what to do to make him more at ease. He’d had some predisposition toward obsessive-compulsive behavior before the Influx of 1866, but those tendencies seemed to be exacerbated here. Perhaps the human he’d ended up inhabiting, Randall Langston, had also had such predilections.

With a sigh she got out of the car and let herself into her small two-bedroom rental. Smells of lavender and vanilla assailed her from the various bowls of potpourri she had scattered around the house. Her job as werewolf liaison to the Council of Preternaturals was more often than not dark and full of violence, and as a werewolf she was predisposed to be more aggressive in nature than an ordinary human woman. So when she came home she wanted calm and tranquility. She needed it in order to slough off the stress of the day.

Tori drew in a breath and held it a moment, letting the tranquil setting of her home seep into her spirit. Neutral beige and cream furniture was piled with blue and green pillows, and the same color scheme played out on the walls. The wooden wind chimes on t Ra chimeshe back patio clinked, the sound coming to her as clearly as if she were standing beside them.

She didn’t need to use her keen werewolf hearing to pick up the snores coming from Rand’s bedroom. He rarely arose much before noon, preferring to stay up until the wee hours of morning and run as a wolf as much as possible.

She tried to get over his choosing to run alone instead of with her. After all, he’d been on his own just like she had, and he was much more of a loner than she’d ever been. But it bothered her. Why had he gone to the trouble of locating her if he didn’t want to spend any time with her? It was as natural for werewolves to run as a pack, even a small pack of two, as it was to breathe.

Tori moved quietly through the house, not wanting to wake him. She undressed in her bedroom, putting her cell phone on the nightstand. After she took a quick shower, she slipped into a robe and padded barefoot into the kitchen. She was starving, which wasn’t unusual after a shift. She pulled some raw hamburger meat out of the fridge and gulped down a couple of handfuls—just enough to satisfy her inner wolf. She’d long ago gotten over the gross factor of eating raw meat.

That first time, she’d been half asleep and had come wide awake when she realized she was chowing down on raw liver. She’d soon discovered that the longer she denied the wolf its meal, the more violent it became when it finally got out. As long as she fed it regularly, she could shift without worrying that she’d kill someone.

She dumped some granola into a bowl and added a few diced strawberries. She poured herself a cup of coffee and went into her bedroom, closing the door with a soft snick behind her. She placed the cup and bowl on the end table and went over to her bookshelf. Reaching for a well-worn paperback, she pulled it off the shelf and went back to her queen-sized bed. She perched on the edge and opened the book in the middle, staring down at the pages before her.

She spooned cereal into her mouth and slipped a finger into the book to retrieve the small black device nestled into the area she’d cut out. The size of a cell phone, it was about half an inch thick with a couple of small knobs and two retractable antennae at one end. Tobias Caine, former vampire liaison to the preternatural council and now a member of the same, had given it to her two weeks ago. Apparently, he and his wife, Nix, had acquired it months ago but held onto it in secret, waiting for a safe moment to hand it off to her.

As Tobias had put it, he’d chosen Tori because she had two things he needed: a background in radio communications and the ability to keep her mouth shut. Discretion was most important until they figured out the gadget’s purpose. She’d been honored that he trusted her with such a task.

He’d also given her the schematics, though they weren’t very useful in getting the thing to work. Oh, she’d managed to turn it on, but within minutes a voice had spoken in the standard language of the other dimension, asking for a password. She’d quickly turned the device off. Now, as she studied the thing, turning it over and over in her hands, she tried to figure out how to activate it without having someone on the other side know. The schematics didn’t seem to indicate that, at least not that she could tell. Perhaps it wasn’t possible.

She wouldn’t know until she tried. As far as she knew, only three other people knew she was in possession of this little doohickey—Tobias, his wife, Nix, and Dante MacMillan, a human detective who’d been right in the middle of the action when the device had come to light. Her resources were limited.

Tori finished her cereal and set the bowl back down on the nightstand. Grabbing her coffee, she took a sip and carried the cup as she went to her dresser. She opened her lingerie drawer and lifted her pang ffted heties out of the way so she could pick up the folded schematics. She shoved the drawer closed with her hip. Going back to the bed, she spread out the plans and stared down at them while she sipped her coffee.

There were drawings of gears and lines and sections for a first amplifier and a second amplifier, R-F output, a resonator, and at least two doublers. Mostly though, it was a lot of letters and numbers that must have meant something to the person who’d drawn them up, but she couldn’t decipher it. Not yet, anyway.

She placed her empty cup on the table and folded the paper up again. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she slid the schematics under her pillow for the time being and stared down at the device. The idea that this little thing could open up a mini rift amazed and frightened her. What was the purpose? Oh, she knew enough to figure that right now it was used to communicate from one dimension to the other. But there had to be more to it than that. What nefarious plans were being hatched, and by whom? Tobias hadn’t told her from whom he’d gotten the device, just that the person had been mad with ambition.

Tori picked up the black apparatus and brought it closer to peer at the small knobs. She couldn’t discern any labels or hash marks on the casing, nothing to indicate what function each knob had. She needed to get a magnifying glass to tell for sure.

The more she studied this thing, the more intrigued she became. It really was an ingenious contraption created by an imaginative and clever inventor. What had been his intention behind building it? Had he meant to make mischief? Or had his plans been more altruistic than that?

A quick rap on her bedroom door was followed by the door swinging open. Rand poked his head around the edge. “Good morning. You went out early. Or is it that you came in late?” His head tipped to one side as if he were considering a complicated brain teaser. “Oh well, no matter. What’s that?” he asked, his gaze on the device in her hand. He came into the room wearing jeans, his chest and feet bare.

“Rand!” Tori closed her fist around the object in question and fought the urge to hide it behind her back. She wanted to deflect him from the device, not call attention to it, and putting her hand behind her back would make him all the more curious.

Lifting a hand, he lazily scratched his chest. His mouth opened wide in a huge yawn.

“You can’t just barge in here. You need to wait for me to tell you to come in.” She scowled at him. “What if I’d been getting dressed?”

“Then I’d have seen bits of you I don’t necessarily want to see,” he said. Tori had lost her East End accent long ago, but even after all these decades, Rand’s tones still held the flavor of his British human host. He stuck his fingers into the front pockets of his jeans and hunched his shoulders. “I dare say I’d have recovered from the shock eventually.” He glanced at her hand. “So, what is that?”

Though she was certain she could trust her brother, she was duty-bound not to divulge the secret. She liked Tobias. More than that, she admired him. She wouldn’t betray his trust in her. As nonchalantly as she could, she replied, “It’s just an MP3 player a friend asked me to try to fix for him.”

Rand raised his brows, skepticism shadowing his eyes. “And why would he think you could fix it?”

“I was a radio communications technician back in the day. I’ve kept up with all the new gadgets as a hobby,” was all she offered. She didn’t want to talk to him about serving as a communications officer in the American Army during World War II. If he was as pacifistic as he’d been before their Influx, he wouldn’t approve. She was sure he’d felt right at home during the sixties. Hell, he probably started the whole “Make Love Not War” msheNot Warovement. He would overlook the nobility of the cause, and right now she didn’t want to get into an argument with him. Not when they’d just found each other again.

It was time for a change of subject. “So, what do you think of Arizona?” She kept her eyes on him and her hand wrapped around the device. It wouldn’t do for him to get too close a look or he’d see it wasn’t an MP3 player. She kept her voice cheery, hoping to distract him. “I mean, I know you’ve been here only a few days, but how do you like it so far?”

Her brother looked like he wanted to pursue the other topic, but for now he let it drop, for which she was grateful. While ordinarily she had no problems discussing her job or, in this case, a special assignment, this situation was different. He was her brother, and she didn’t like being deceitful with him. She wanted him to feel like he could trust her because maybe, just maybe, he’d be more inclined to stay. But if he thought she was being disingenuous with him, it could be all the encouragement he needed to leave.

“I don’t know,” Rand said. His shoulders hunched further. “I like it well enough, I suppose. I don’t believe I’ll be staying here for the long term, though.” He grimaced. “It’s hotter than hell, for one thing. I mean, who the hell lives where it’s a hundred and ten degrees, for crying out loud?”

“Right now it’s hot, yeah. But it’s perfect in the winter months.” Tori bit back her disappointment. Rand didn’t have to stay in Scottsdale with her, but she’d like him to be close. “And of course I want you to stay here, but wherever you end up, we have to stay in touch.”

“Absolutely.” He walked over to her dresser, making her stiffen for a moment. Not that there was anything he could get into—the schematics to the device were under her pillow. When all he did was stick a finger into the glass bowl of potpourri, she relaxed. He stirred the fragrant mixture around, making the scent of lavender and vanilla permeate the room. “It’s been great to finally find you,” he said without glancing her way, his tone one of a stranger making small talk. They might as well go back to discussing the weather.

He sounded less enthused about being with her than she’d like. It befuddled her. What was going on beneath that brush cut? She’d thought they had been on their way toward rebuilding the relationship that had been put on hold by their trip through the rift all those years ago, yet he seemed remarkably disinterested.

Before she could delve into it further, her cell phone rang. With a murmured apology, she slipped the rift device under her pillow and then grabbed her phone from the nightstand. She noticed her brother’s sharp eyes hadn’t missed the fact that she’d hidden the alleged MP3 player. She’d have to make sure to find a better hiding place than a book and her underwear drawer. She answered the phone on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Got a brouhaha over on Chaparral, just east of Hayden,” the council dispatcher said without any formal greeting. He was an irascible werebear who didn’t put up with a lot of crap, though he sure could dish it out. “Local LEOs have things in hand at the moment, but you need to get your furry self over there.”

“What happened?” All business, she rose from the bed and headed toward her closet. For now, at least, the Scottsdale police had things under control. She paused as she reached for a blouse and wondered if Dante MacMillan was already at the scene. A sensual shiver worked its way through her. There was something about that man, something that, even though he was human, called to everything feminine and primal within her.

“Some kind of skirmish between a werewolf and a vamp,” the dispatcher answered, drawing her back to the conversation, “with a human bystander caught between ’em. Thir sn ’emnk the human’s okay, though. Well, mostly okay.” The werebear gave a little growl. “As okay as one of ’em can be in the middle of a fight between two prets, I suppose. But you need to get over there pronto.”

“Ten-four.” She grinned at the dispatcher’s disgruntled snarl. He really hated it when she used police codes. Tori rang off and looked at her brother. She shoved the phone into the pocket of her robe. As she pulled the blouse from its hanger, she started, “Rand, I—”

“Let me guess,” her brother said. His voice held a hint of sarcasm that dismayed her. “You have to go.”

She nodded and went to her dresser to pull out a clean pair of jeans. “Rand, we really—”

He slashed a hand through the air. His face darkened, glittering gaze meeting hers. “Just forget it, Tori. It’s always been this way with you. Job first, family second.” He sounded like a sulky child.

She tamped down a surge of irritation even as she felt the need to defend herself and her choices. “That’s not true!” She dropped her clothing on the bed and went over to him. She put her hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I love you, you know that. And I love having you here. It’s just like old times. With you around, it makes this place, this planet, feel like home.” For the first time since she’d arrived in this strange, new world it felt…comfortable. Family made all the difference.

She was surprised to see a film of tears make his blue eyes shine. “It’s not that I don’t like being here with you,” he said, his voice low, a little hoarse. “It’s just…” He shook his head with a sigh. “I’ve always felt like I existed in your shadow. ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?’” he mimicked in an excellent approximation of their father’s bellicose tones. “‘Your sister never disappoints us.’” He went back to his normal voice. “I knew he was disappointed in me. Always disappointed. And I’m just not sure that, if I stay, things will be any different. I’ll be known as Tori’s little brother, the inept one. The loser.”

“Rand, no you won’t.” Tori felt much more compelled to build up Rand’s self-esteem than to defend her father. He had been strict, demanding perfection from a son who was too emotionally fragile to withstand the pressure. She gave her brother’s shoulder another squeeze. “You’re not inept. And Father loved you. You know he did.”

“Did he?” Rand shrugged. His fingers started tapping against his thigh. “Whatever.” He wore the same churlish expression he had when he’d been a teen. She felt momentary dismay that he could still be so immature. Hadn’t he learned anything from his trip through the rift? Had he not grown at all in the century and a half they’d been on Earth? He seemed to shake his mood, because a slight smile tilted his lips. He lifted his hands, spreading them in a sheepish gesture. “Listen, I’m just being…” He shook his head. “Don’t pay any attention to me. Go. Get to work. Save the day,” he said in an approximation of a superhero’s voice.

She returned his smile, though she couldn’t get rid of the worry niggling at the back of her mind. He was lost and alone and resisting her attempts to make him part of her life again. If she pushed too hard she might lose him again. On impulse, she hugged him and quickly released his thin but firm body. Anyone who made the mistake of thinking he’d be physically weak might make the last mistake of their lives. She pressed a kiss to his cheek and tried to ignore the sour-milk scent of his sullen discontent. “I’ll see you later, all right? We’ll have dinner together. Think about what you’d like, and I’ll stop by the grocery store on my way home.” She searched his eyes, looking for a sign, any sign, of what he might be thinking, what he was feeling. “We’ll talk. Catch updaylk. Cat some more.”

“Yeah. Sure.” He gave another smile, though this one was definitely forced. With a nod he left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.

Tori grabbed the device and schematics from beneath her pillow. She slipped the folded paper into the pocket of a fleece jacket she hardly ever wore and tucked the device into the toe of one of her boots. The jeans she shimmied into were formfitting, and the blouse was frothy in various shades of turquoise. Her women’s athletic shoes were serviceable with bright purple along the edge of the sole. Being a werewolf was so much a part of what she was, she needed to find ways to feel like a woman. To be feminine. To be more than the beast. Purple shoes and filmy blouses helped.

She brushed her still-damp hair and braided it, then slipped her brush into the fanny pack she usually wore instead of carrying a purse. After shrugging into her shoulder holster, she retrieved her Magnum from the gun safe. It was a requirement of the council that all liaisons, in essence law enforcement officers for preternaturals, had to carry guns. Tori didn’t usually mind, but sometimes the gun was the least favorite part of her job. While it often made her feel sexy, it rarely made her feel feminine.

Besides, when it came to defending herself or running down a suspect, all she really needed were her claws and fangs.

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