Just thinking about the challenge he was planning made restlessness twist under Andrew Dare's skin as he drove through Snoqualmie Pass toward Seattle. In the afternoon sunlight, scrubby brown foothills gradually greened and sharpened into evergreen-covered slopes, then grew increasingly dusted with snow. He wanted to shift and run something down on four feet, breathe the rich variety of smells with a lupine nose. But he saw nowhere to pull off where he wouldn't be visible from the road. Andrew passed the ski resort with annoyance, holding down the need to run and chase until the highway signs turned brown to indicate exits into the national forest.
Beside him, Silver dozed, strands of her pure white hair wisping out of her messy braid to form a soft cloud around her face. She looked much healthier now than when he'd first met her. Her body had smooth curves rather than sharp angles, but her left arm, scarred from when she had been injected with silver nitrate, remained thin from lack of use. She had it tucked away under her now. He took a brown-signed exit at random and the change of speed made her open her eyes and look up, but she kept her arm hidden.
Perhaps it wasn't right to say she hid her bad arm, but she certainly did whatever she could to minimize its impression on people. Andrew supposed he couldn't blame her. His silver injuries were now fully healed, the reason he was heading back to Seattle to set the challenge in motion, but he'd done everything he could to hide his limp during the long, frustrating healing process.
A stretch of wide, graveled shoulder suggested a trailhead and Andrew pulled his battered compact off the road. He tucked it against a tall patch of sword ferns, tire on a line of stubborn snow. That the line survived after probably a week or more above freezing was a testament to how high the plowed mound must have been to start with.
The lack of other cars suggested they'd have the trail to themselves, not surprising with the bite to the wind even now in April. He shucked his jacket and shirt onto the driver's seat and came around to open Silver's door. She managed her seat belt for herself. Something must be on her mind to distract her. When she focused on a task in the modern world, she tended to lose her unconscious skills.
"Seemed like a nice place for us to run," Andrew said. He dumped his wallet and phone on the seat, locked the car, and handed the keys to her for safekeeping. He hated that the silver nitrate lingering in her veins prevented her from shifting along with him as much as she did — or maybe more, sometimes. But they were used to it by now. It did make keeping track of their possessions more convenient.
Silver slipped the keys into the back pocket of her jeans without looking. She cupped his cheek with her good hand and gave him a dry smile. "Don't go pulling a muscle because you're so happy to be healed." She pressed a quick kiss to his lips and stepped back with a snort of amusement. "Go ahead and circle back. I'm not going to bother trying to keep up with you when you're in this mood."
Andrew hesitated, trying to read her. She'd stepped downwind, so he had only her expression to help him. So far as he could tell, her offer was sincere. She had to know by now that he'd always wait for her. "Call me back sooner if you get bored." He stepped deeper into the comparatively clear space beneath the old trees. Young vine maples tangled with blackberry in the greater light at the road's edge made a good shield in case a car should pass. He pulled off his shoes, jeans, and underwear and shifted.
The Lady was just past full, meaning the tipping point into wolf came quickly, but he could feel the effort increasing again. His body sense stretched and twisted and reshaped. He shook himself to settle his fur and steady his perceptions. He lifted his nose to the wind. Now to find something warm-blooded to chase, and imagine it was his former alpha, Rory, running from him.
Rory wasn't going to give up power without a fight, of course. Andrew's allies said Rory's campaigning against him had grown more polished lately. It would be much easier to leave the man be. Being alpha could be a thankless job. But Rory had put their pack in danger with his incompetence, and Andrew couldn't stand by and let that happen again. He needed to take the responsibility away from Rory, to keep everyone safe. Having made that decision, Andrew couldn't shake the restlessness.
After living out among sagebrush and poplars east of the pass, Andrew found the mingled scents of damp growing things distracting, and the spring wind carried the promise of more drizzle. Rather than search for a trail he settled into an easy lope, running until his nose acclimated.
Nothing could camouflage the scent of another werewolf when he encountered it about half an hour later, though. Andrew skidded to a stop with his nose lifted high to pinpoint the source. Not too close yet, but even in wolf form, geography would tend to funnel other Were into the pass rather than the sides of the Cascade mountains surrounding it. Was it one of Seattle's people? At this distance, Andrew could only tell it was a man and not someone he knew well, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Seattle oversaw too much territory to guard it all constantly, but he'd have people out walking the periphery periodically. Still, the scent's unfamiliarity was worrisome enough to investigate.
Silver met him about halfway back, his underwear, jeans, and shoes tucked up under her good arm. Andrew looked up at her, panting. A shift back so soon would be a pain, so he hoped she might be able to answer his question without him voicing it.
"Not one of Seattle's," Silver said, interpreting his look. "And he mentioned no one new when last we talked. I thought you might want these." She set down his clothes and buried her fingers in his ruff as his hackles rose. As a guest on Seattle's territory with no status of his own, an intruder was none of his business, but instinct still made him bristle.
He could hardly call Seattle in wolf form, though. Andrew stepped back from Silver's hand and shoved his muscles back through the twisting process, ignoring the tiredness that lingered from the first time. He had to pant for several breaths before standing and taking his underwear and jeans to pull them on.
"Smells like he's closing quickly," Silver said with a tinge of warning in her voice. Andrew jammed on his shoes and straightened to get his nose back into the wind. She was right.
Andrew glanced back toward the car. "Well, I suppose this is the point when we call Seattle and then drive off like good little guests." He flexed his hands with frustration. Back in his days as enforcer for the Roanoke pack, he'd escorted plenty of lones and Were from neighboring packs out of Roanoke territory. The impulse was ingrained now and it was hard to leave. But he needed Seattle on his side. Once he challenged to be Roanoke himself, he'd be back on the East Coast and out of Seattle's territory, but until then he needed somewhere to stay. With a sigh and clenched fists, Andrew headed for the car and let the scent fall away downwind. Silver gave him a twisted smile of sympathy and followed.
The scent returned with a rush as they approached the car about fifteen minutes later. Andrew stopped briefly in surprise. The Were must have cut across to the road to find their exit point rather than tracking them directly. So much for Andrew leaving this to Seattle.
They cleared the last of the trees to see the stranger leaning against the car. His disarranged clothes and a bag with a wolf-slobbered handle at his feet suggested he'd recently shifted back himself. He was young, probably younger than he wanted anyone to realize, but solidly muscled. His bleached hair had brown roots, and he had several gold rings in the top of each ear. Andrew gave a mental snort at the vanity that must have prompted the man to carry the jewelry with him and put it in quickly. Too dangerous to leave them on in wolf. People noticed wild animals with piercings.
"Andrew Dare," the man said, not quite a question, but Andrew nodded anyway. "My alpha wants to talk to you."
Andrew sized the Were up. Like many werewolves, the stranger had a slight advantage on him in sheer size. Young meant inexperienced, but also faster reflexes, and Andrew was already operating at some unknown disadvantage because of his past injuries. They'd healed, but he'd had no chance to test himself in a real fight since then.
"Well, you're not part of the Seattle pack, and you're not part of the Roanoke pack, so I don't particularly see why I should want to talk to him," Andrew said. The second conclusion was more of a stretch: the Roanoke pack was formed of sub-packs and encompassed the entire eastern half of the continent out to the Mississippi River. On the other hand, in his time as enforcer, Andrew had known every single Were in his territory by smell, if not name. If this man had joined in the months Andrew had been gone, he wouldn't have earned the status to be sent on this kind of mission yet.
"Sacramento said you'd be cowardly enough I'd have to encourage you a little." The young man pushed away from the car and sauntered close.
Andrew stood his ground as he thought furiously. He'd stayed well out of Sacramento's reach since he'd had to execute the man's son for his crimes. There was being a coward and then there was avoiding fights with vengeful, grieving parents. "I especially have nothing I wish to talk with Sacramento about. He aired his grievance in front of the Convocation and they ruled in my favor." Not that he expected Sacramento's thug to care about that, but one had to follow the formalities.
In answer, the young man smirked and cracked his knuckles. Andrew resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Why settle for the language of intimidation of humans in movies when Were methods worked so much better? Andrew caught his gaze, pushing the shared look past the sort of dominance assessment everyone did when they met a stranger, and into a full struggle. As he'd suspected, the young man chickened out and broke the gaze to throw a punch before he could lose.
He hauled back so far Andrew saw it coming a mile away and stepped out of reach. He did the same with the next punch. "How'd you find me?"
The blond man ignored the question and seemed to figure out what Andrew was doing. This time he charged before he drew back, bringing him into range fast enough that Andrew had to back up to avoid it. Time to take him out quickly, before his greater strength allowed him to catch Andrew in a hold he couldn't break.
Andrew used the warning the man's next draw back gave him to step forward, blocking the blow with one arm as he drove the other elbow into the man's throat. While the man was still stunned, gasping, he followed up with a knee to the groin that doubled the man over in agony.
Andrew stepped back again, crossing his arms to add a little intimidation for good measure. "How'd you find me?"
"We knew you couldn't hide at the edge of Seattle territory forever. Set up a net around the city for when you finally came back in," the man wheezed out. "My alpha is going to talk to you, one way or another." Despite his pain, he managed a certain sort of glee, like Andrew should be cowering in his den now he knew Sacramento was coming for him.
Andrew bared his teeth in a snarl. That was what he was afraid of. He didn't have time for the distraction of dealing with Sacramento's hissy fits. "I don't know what Nate's told you, but his son was in Roanoke territory when he decided to continue his little game of raping human women. I executed him lawfully." Once, he'd have pretended it was his alpha's decision, but no more.
The blond man growled with discomfort when Andrew used Sacramento's name rather than his title, as Andrew had intended, but shook it off after a second. "Humans." He sneered and pulled himself up straight using the car. Andrew braced himself for another attack, but the man just snarled at him. The bruise on his throat modulated from blue to yellow as it healed with a werewolf's speed.
"Oh, and you have no human blood anywhere among your ancestors?" Silver made a show of draping herself over Andrew's shoulder, but he felt her hand spread over his back, probably checking his muscles for the telltale shake of exhaustion. Dammit, he was healed. She worried too much. "You'd allow someone like your grandmother to be raped, someone like your great-aunt to be violated?"
Andrew shook his head at Silver, meaning both that he was fine, and that she shouldn't waste her time trying to reason with the man. She made a noise of acknowledgment and stepped back out of the way as the man launched himself at Andrew one more time. She snorted with dark amusement.
Andrew's heart sped with a moment of worry that the man might have learned his lesson, but he still telegraphed his punches. Like many Were, the blond man had never bothered to learn any of the nuances of fighting in human and treated it like a fight in wolf: a lot of lunges with as much power as possible behind them.
Andrew ducked the punch and kicked out the man's knee. He heard the squishy pop sound he'd been hoping for and the man went down clutching the joint. That was something else unique to werewolf fighting. If the man didn't stop immediately to pop the joint into its proper place, it would heal dislocated and have to be reset with even more pain later. The man gritted his teeth, yanked, and gasped.
"If Sacramento wants to talk to me, he can call and get permission to enter Seattle's territory like a civilized Were," Andrew told him, looming ready to kick again and start the process over. "Understand?" He didn't step back until the man nodded.
The man growled something incomprehensible as he got to his feet. He snatched up his bag and stomped off into the trees.
Andrew waited a few minutes to see if the man would return, though he doubted it. He got the keys from Silver, unlocked the car, and took his time about pulling on the rest of his clothes. Silver hitched her ass on the trunk, giving a distracting angle and length to her legs, and watched him. "Word gets around, it seems."
"I've been out here for —" Andrew frowned, counting. "Lady, seven months, I think it comes to. I'm sure every one of the Western packs knows that the infamous Butcher of Barcelona is off his leash and prowling the West by now. I just didn't realize that good old Nate's grudge was so strong he'd trespass to get to me."
Silver cocked her head, listening in the direction of an empty patch of ground. Andrew was so used to it by this point he didn't even bother reacting. If Silver's hallucination of Death conveyed something important, she'd mention it. If she didn't, Andrew didn't care what Death thought. He did avoid looking too closely at the spot, though. Ever since Andrew had hallucinated Death himself in the midst of excruciating pain, he caught imagined glimpses of the wolf-shaped patch of darkness at the edge of his vision every so often.
"You're not going to get off this easy, though," Silver said. She came to stand in front of him, meeting his eyes. With her, the match of dominance was almost a caress, rather than a struggle.
"I know." Andrew frowned off into the trees. "But the Convocation's in two weeks, and once I've challenged Rory we'll either be out of reach beyond the Mississippi, or we'll have to join the Alaska pack or something. Run around in the ice and the snow with those nutjobs."
Silver's muscles tensed and her expression chilled. "They spend nearly all of their time in wolf. I can't."
Andrew winced. He hadn't even thought about that before he made the stupid joke. Dammit. "I'll just have to win then, won't I?" He tried for a weak laugh. That was what he was trying not to think about: he had no wish to join the Alaska pack either, but if Rory beat him, he'd have few choices.Silver laughed suddenly too, her timing suggesting Death had said something. "Oh, enough gloom," she said, and yanked Andrew's head down for a deep kiss. He grabbed her ass to pull her closer to him and she wiggled away, laughing brightly. She ran a few steps into the trees and turned back to grin at him.
Excerpted from Tarnished by Rhiannon Held. Copyright © 2013 Rhiannon Held. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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