Bone Crossed

Chapter 1

I stared at my reflection in the mirror. I wasnít pretty, but my hair was thick and brushed my shoulders. My skin was darker on my arms and face than it was on the rest of my body, but at least, thanks to my Blackfoot father, Iíd never be pasty pale.

There were two stitches Samuel had put in the cut on my chin and the bruise on my shoulder (not extensive damage considering Iíd been fighting something that liked to eat children and had knocked out a werewolf). The dark thread looked from some angles like the legs of a shiny, black spider. Aside from that slight damage, there was nothing wrong with my body. Karate and mechanicking kept me in good shape.

My soul was a lot more battered than my body, but I couldnít see it in the mirror. Hopefully no one else could either. Itís invisible damage left me afraid to leave the bathroom and face Adam, who waited in my bedroom. Though I knew with absolute certainty that Adam wouldnít do anything I didnít want him to do -- and had wanted him to do for a long time.

I could ask him to leave. To give me more time. I stared at the woman in the mirror, but all she did was stare back.

Iíd killed the man whoíd raped me. Was I going to let him have this last victory? Let him destroy me as heíd intended?

“Mercy?” Adam didnít have to raise his voice. He knew I could hear him.

“Careful,” I told him as I left off mirror-gazing and began pulling on clean underwear and an old T-shirt. “I have an ancient walking stick and I know how to use it.”

“The walking stick is lying across your bed,” he said.

When I came out of the bathroom, Adam was lying across my bed, too.

He wasnít tall, but he didnít need height to add to the impression he made. Wide cheek bones, a full, soft mouth topping a stubborn jaw all combined to a move-star beauty. When his eyes were open, they were a dark chocolate only a shade lighter than mine. His body was almost as pretty as his face -- though I knew he didnít think of himself that way. He kept himself in shape because he wa Alpha, and his body was a tool he used to keep his pack safe. Heíd been a soldier before he was Changed and it was still there to see in the way he moved and the way he took charge.

“When Samuel gets back from the hospital, heís going to spend the rest of the night at my house,” Adam said without opening his eyes. Samuel was my roommate, a doctor, and a lone wolf. Adamís house was behind mine with about ten acres between them -- three were mine and the rest were Adamís. “We have time to talk.”

“You look horrible,” I said, not quite truthfully. He did look tired, with dark circles under his eyes, but nothing short of mutilation could make him look terrible. “Donít they have beds in D.C.?”

Heíd had to go to Washington (the Capitol, we were in the state) this weekend to clean up a little mess that was sort of my fault. Of course if he hadnít ripped Timís corpse into bits on camera, and if the resultant DVD hadnít landed on a Senatorís desk there wouldnít have been a problem. So it was partially his fault, too.

Mostly it was Timís fault and whoever had made a copy of the DVD and mailed it off. Iíd taken care of Tim. Bran, the head-honcho werewolf above all of the other head-honcho werewolves, was apparently taking care of the other person. Last year, Iíd expect to hear about a funeral. This year, with the werewolves barely having admitted their existence to the world, Bran would probably be more circumspect. Whatever that would mean.

Adam opened his eyes and looked at me. In the dimness of the room (heíd only turned on the small light on the little table by my bed), his eyes looked black. There was a bleakness in his face that hadnít been there before, and I knew it was because of me. Because he hadnít been able to keep me safe -- and people like Adam take that pretty seriously.

Personally, I figured it was up to me to keep me safe. Sometimes it might mean calling in friends, but it was my responsibility. Still, he saw it as a failure.

“So have you made up your mind?” he asked.

Would I accept him as my mate, he meant. The question had been up in the air too long, and it was affecting his ability to keep his pack under control. Ironically, Tim had solved the thing that had kept me from accepting him for months was no longer an issue. I figured if I could fight back against the faery magic potion Tim had fed me, a little Alpha mojo wasnít going to turn me into a docile slave either.

Maybe I should have thanked him before I hit him with the tire iron.

Adam isnít Tim, I told myself. I thought of Adamís rage when heíd broken down the door to my garage, of his despair when he persuaded me to drink out of that damned fae goblet again. In addition to robbing me of my will, it also had the power to heal -- and Iíd needed a lot of healing by that point. It had worked, but heíd felt like he was betraying me, believed Iíd hate him for it. But heíd done it anyway. I figured it was because he wasnít lying when he said he loved me. When Iíd hidden in shame -- I put that down to the fairy brew because I knew . . . I knew I had nothing to be ashamed about -- heíd pulled my coyote self out from under his bed, bit my nose for being foolish, and then held me all night long. Then heíd surrounded me with his pack and safety whether I needed it or not.

Tim was dead. And heíd always been a loser. Iíd be damned if I was going to be the victim of a loser -- or anyone else.

“Mercy?” Adam stayed on his back on my bed, taking the position of vulnerability.

In answer, I pulled the T-shirt over my head and dropped it on the floor.

Adam was off the bed faster than Iíd ever seen him move, bringing the comforter with him. He had it wrapped around me before I could blink . . . and then I was pressed tightly against him my bare breasts resting against his chest. Heíd tipped his head to the side so my face was pressed against his jaw and cheek.

“I meant to get the blanket between us,” he said tightly. His heart pounded against mine and his arms were shaking and rock hard. “I didnít mean you had to sleep with me right now -- a simple ‘yes’ would have done.”

I knew he was aroused -- even a regular person without a coyote nose would have known it. I slid my hands up from his hips to his hard belly and up his ribs and listened to his heart-rate pick up even further and a light sweat broke out on his jaw under my slow caress. I could feel the muscles in his cheek move as he clenched his teeth, felt the heat that flushed his skin. I blew in his ear and he jumped away from me as though Iíd stuck him with a cattle prod.

Streaks of amber lit his eyes and his lips were fuller, redder. I dropped the comforter on top of my shirt.

“Damn it, Mercy.” He didnít like to swear in front of women. I always counted it a personal triumph when I could make him do it. “It hasnít even been a week since you were raped. Iím not sleeping with you until youíve talked to someone, a counselor, a psychologist.”

“Iím fine,” I said, though in fact, once distance had released me from the safety he brought with him, I was aware of a sick churning in my stomach.

Adam turned so he was facing the window, his back to me. “No, youíre not. Remember you canít lie to a wolf, love.” He let out a breath of air too forcefully to be a sigh. He rubbed his hair briskly, trying to get rid of energy. Obligingly it stuck up in wild curls that he usually kept too short to look anything but neat and well groomed. “Who am I talking about?” He asked, though I donít think the question was directed at me. “This is Mercy. Getting you to talk about anything personal is like pulling teeth at the best of times. Getting you to talk to a stranger . . .”

I hadnít thought myself particularly closed-mouthed. Actually, Iíd been accused of having a smart mouth. Samuel had told me more than once that Iíd probably live longer if I learned to bite my tongue occasionally.

So I waited, without saying a word, for Adam to decide what he wanted to do.

The room wasnít cold but I was shivering a little anyway -- it must be nerves. If Adam didnít hurry up and do something, though, I was going to be throwing-up in the bathroom. Iíd spent too much time worshiping the porcelain goddess since Tim had made me overdose on fairy juice to view the thought with any equanimity.

He wasnít watching me, but he didnít need to be. Emotions have scents. He swung back to look at me with a frown. He took in my state with one comprehensive look.

He swore and strode back to me, wrapping me in his arms. He pulled me tight against him, making low soothing sounds in the back of his throat. He rocked me gently.

I took a deep breath of Adam-scented air and tried to think. Normally this wouldnít be difficult for me. But normally I wasnít all but naked in the arms of the hottest man I knew.

Iíd misunderstood what heíd wanted.

To double check, I cleared my throat. “When you said you needed my answer to you claim today -- you werenít actually asking for sex.”

His body jerked involuntarily as he laughed, rubbing his jaw against my face. “So, you think Iím the kind of person whoíd do something like that? After what happened just last week?”

“I thought thatís what it took,” I mumbled, feeling my cheeks heat up.

How1 long did you spend in the Marrokís pack?”

He knew how long. He was just making me feel stupid. “Mating wasnít something everyone talked to me about,” I told him defensively. “Just Samuel . . .”

Adam laughed again, one of his hands was on my shoulder, the other was on my butt his fingers moving in a light caress that should have tickled but didnít. “I just bet he was telling you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth right then.”

I tightened my grip on him -- somehow my hands had landed on his lower back. “Probably not. So all you needed was my agreement?”

He grunted. “It wonít help with the pack, not until itís for real. But with Samuel out of the way, I thought youíd be able to decide if you were interested or not. If you werenít interested I could regroup. If you agreed to be mine, I can wait until Hell freezes over for you.”

His words sounded reasonable but his scent told me something else. It told me that my reasonable tones had soothed his worries and his mind was now on something other than our discussion.

Fair enough. Being this close to him, feeling his heat against me, feeling his heart beat race because he wanted me . . . someone told me that knowing someone desires you is the greatest aphrodisiac. It was certainly true for me.

“Of course,” he said, still in that curiously calm voice, “waiting is much easier in abstract than reality. I need you to tell me to back off, all right?”

“Mmm,” I said. He brought a cleanness with him that washed the feel of Tim off my skin far better than the shower did -- but only when he touched me.

“Mercy.”

I lowered my hands, sliding them beneath the waistline of his jeans and digging my nails lightly into his skin.

He growled something more, but neither of us was listening. He turned his head and tilted it. I expect serious and got playful as he nipped at my lower lip. The roughness of his teeth sent nifty zings to all the right places.

I brought my suddenly shaking hands around to worry at the button on jeans, and he jerked his head up and put a staying hand on mine.

Then I heard it too.

“German car,” he said.

I sighed, slumping against him. “Swedish,” I corrected him. “Four year old Volvo station wagon. Gray.”

He looked at me in surprise that turned to comprehension. “You know the car.”

I moaned and tried to hide in his shoulder. “Damn, damn. It was the newspapers.”

“Who is it Mercy?”

Gravel shooshed and headlights flashed on my window as the car turned into the driveway. “My mom.” I told. “Her sense of timing is unreal. I should have realized she read about . . . about it.” I didnít want to name what had happened to me, what Iíd done to Tim out loud. Not while I was mostly naked with Adam anyway.

“You didnít call her.”

I shook my head. I should have, I knew it. But it had been one of those things I just couldnít face.

He was smiling by now. “You get dressed. Iíll go stall her until youíre ready to come out.”

“There is no way Iíll ever be ready for this.” I told him.

He sobered, put his face next to mine, and rested his forehead against me. “Mercy. It will be all right.”

Then he left, shutting the door to my bedroom as my doorbell rang the first time. It rang twice more before he opened the outside door and he wasnít being slow.

I grabbed clothes and frantically tried to remember if weíd done the dishes from dinner. It was my turn. If it had been Samuelís turn I wouldnít have had to worry. It was stupid. I knew that she could care less about the dishes -- but it gave me something to do other than panic.

Iíd never even considered calling her. Maybe in ten years I might feel ready.

I pulled on my pants and left my feet bare while I searched frantically for a bra.

“She knows youíre here,” Adam said on the other side of the door -- as if he were leaning against it. “Sheíll be out in a minute.”

“I donít know who you think you are” -- my motherís voice was low and dangerous -- “but if you donít get out of my way right this instant it wonít matter.”

Adam was the Alpha werewolf in charge of the local pack. He was tough. He could be mean when he had to -- and he wouldnít stand a chance against my mom.

“Bra, bra, bra,” I chanted as I pulled one out of the dirty clothes basket and hooked it. I pulled thing around so fast I wouldnít be surprised to discover Iíd given myself a rug burn. “Shirt. Shirt.” I tossed my drawers and found and discarded two shirts. “Clean shirt, clean shirt.”

“Mercy?” called Adam, sounded a little desperate -- how well I knew that feeling.

“Mom, leave him alone!” I said. “Iíll be right out.”

Frustrated I stared at the my room. I had to have a clean shirt somewhere. I had just been wearing one -- but it had disappeared in my search for a bra. Finally I pulled on a shirt that said “1984. Government for Dummies” on the back. It was clean, or at least it didnít stink too badly. The oil smudge on the shoulder looked to be permanent.

I took a deep breath and opened the door. I had to duck around Adam, who was leaning against the door frame.

“Hey, Mom,” I said breezily. “I see youíve met my --” what? Mate? I donít think that was something my mother needed to hear. “I see youíve met Adam.”

“Mercedes Athena Thompson,” snapped my mother. “Explain to me why I had to learn about what happened to you from a newspaper?”

Iíd been avoiding meeting her gaze, but once she three-named me I had no choice.

My mother is five foot nothing. Sheís only seventeen years older than me which means sheís not yet fifty and looks thirty. She still can wear the belt buckles she won barrel racing on their original belts. Sheís usually blond -- Iím pretty sure itís her natural color -- but the shade changes from year to year. This year it was strawberry gold. Her eyes are big and blue and innocent-looking, her nose slightly tip-tilted and her mouth full and round.

With strangers she sometimes plays a dumb blond, batting her eyelashes and speaking in a breathy voice that anyone who watched old movies would recognize from Some Like it Hot or Bus Stop. My mother has never, to my knowledge, changed her own flat tire.

If the sharp anger in her voice hadnít been a cover for the bruised look in her eyes, I could have responded in kind. Instead, I shrugged.

“I donít know, Mom. After it happened . . . I stayed coyote for a couple of days.” I had a half-hysterical vision of me calling her and saying, “By the way, Mom. Guess what happened to me today . . .

She looked me in the eyes and I think she saw more than I wanted her to. “Are you all right?”

I started to say, “yes”, but a lifetime of living with creatures who could smell a lie had left me with a habit of honesty. “Mostly,” I said compromising. “It helps that heís dead.” It was humiliating that my chest was getting tight. Iíd given myself all the self-pity time I would allow.

Mom could cuddle her children like any of the best of parents, but I should have trusted her more. She knew all about the importance of standing on your own two feet. Her right hand was balled into a white-knuckled fist, but when she spoke, her voice was brisk.

“All right,” she said as if weíd covered everything she was going to ask. I knew better, but I also knew it would be later and private.

She turned her angelic blue eyes on Adam. “Who are you and what are you doing in my daughterís house at eleven at night?”

“Iím not sixteen,” I said in a voice even I could tell was sulky. “I can even have a man stay all night if I want to.”

Mom and Adam both ignored me.

Adam had remained in his position against my bedroom doorframe, his body held a little more casually than usual. I think he had been trying to give my mother the impression that he was at home here: someone who had authority to keep her out of my room. He lifted an eyebrow and showed not even a touch of the panic Iíd heard in his voice earlier. “Iím Adam Hauptman, I live on the other side of her fence.”

She scowled at him. “The Alpha? The divorced man with the teenage daughter?”

He gave her one of his sudden smiles and I knew my mom had made yet another conquest: sheís pretty cute when she scowls, and Adam didnít have many people gutsy enough to scowl at him. I had a sudden revelation. Iíd been making a tactical error for the past few years if Iíd really wanted him to quit flirting with me. I should have smiled and smirked and batted my eyelashes at him. Obviously a woman snarling at him was something he enjoyed. He was too busy looking at my momís scowl to see mine.

“Thatís right, Maíam.” Adam quit leaning against the door and took a couple of steps into the room. “Good to meet you at last, Margi. Mercy speaks of you often.”

I donít know what my mother would have said to that, doubtless something polite. But with a popping sound like eggs landing on a cement floor, something appeared between Mom and Adam, a foot or so above the carpet. It was a human-sized something, black and crunchy. It dropped to the floor, reeking of char, old blood and rotten corpses.

I stared at it for too long, my eyes failing to find a pattern that agreed with what my nose told me. Even knowing that only a few things could just appear in my living room without using the dooe couldn't make me acknowledge what it was. It was the green shirt, torn and stained, with the hind quarters of a familiar Great Dane still visible that forced me to admit that this black and shrunken thing was Stefan.

I dropped to my knees beside him and reached out before snatching my hand back, afraid to damage him further. He was obviously dead, but since he was a vampire, that wasnít as hopeless a thing as it might have been.

“Stefan?” I said.

I wasnít the only one who jumped when he grabbed my wrist. The skin on his hand was dry and crackled disconcertingly against my skin.

Stefan has been my friend since the first day I moved here to the Tri-Cities. He is charming, funny and generous -- if given to miscalculations on how forgiving I might be about innocent people he killed trying to protect me.

It was still all I could do not to jerk away and rub away the feel of his brittle skin on my arm. Ick. Ick. Ick. And I had the horrible feeling that it was hurting him to hold onto me, that any moment his skin would crack and fall off.

His eyes opened to slits, his irises crimson instead of brown. His mouth opened and shut twice without making any sound. Then his hand tightened on mine until I couldnít have pulled free if I wanted to. He sucked in a breath of air so he could talk, he didnít do it quite right and I heard air hissing out of the side of his ribe where it had no business escaping from.

“She knows.” His voice didnít sound like his at all. It was rough and dry. As he pulled my hand slowly toward his face, with the last of the air from that breath, he said intently, “Run.” And with those words, the person who was my friend disappeared under the fierce hunger in his face.

Looking into his mad eyes, I thought his advice was worth taking -- too bad I wasnít going to be able to break free to follow it. He was slow, but he had me and I wasnít a werewolf or vampire with supernatural strength to help myself out.

I heard the distinctive clack of a bullet chambering, and a quick glance showed me my mother with a wicked-looking Glock out and pointed at Stefan. It was pink and black -- trust my mom to have a Barbie gun, cute but deadly.

“Itís all right,” I told her hastily -- my mother wouldnít hesitate to shoot if she thought he was going to hurt me. Normally I wouldnít worry about someone shooting at Stefan, vampires not being that vulnerable to guns -- but he was in bad shape. “Heís on our side.” Hard to sound convincing when he was pulling me toward him, but I did my best.

Adam grabbed Stefanís wrist and held it so instead of Stefan pulling me toward him, the vampire was slowly raising his own head off the floor. As he came closer to my arm, Stefan opened his mouth and scraps of burnt skin fell on my tan carpet. His fangs were white and lethal looking, and also a lot bigger than I remembered them being.

My breathing picked up but I didnít jerk back and whine “Get it off! Get it off!” -- full points to me. Instead I leaned over Stefan and put my head into Adamís shoulder. It put my neck at risk, but the smell of werewolf and Adam helped mask the stench of what had been done to Stefan. If Stefan needed blood to survive, Iíd donate to him.

“Itís all right, Adam,” I said. “Let him go.”

“Donít put down the gun,” Adam told my mother. “Mercy, if this doesnít work, you call my house and tell Darryl to collect whoever is there and bring them here.”

And, in an act of bravery that was completely in character, Adam put his wrist in front of Stefanís face. The vampire didnít appear to notice, still pulling himself up by his grip on my arm. He wasnít breathing so he couldnít scent Adam -- and I donít think he0 was focusing any too well either.

I should have tried to stop Adam -- Iíd fed Stefan before without any ill effects that I knew of, and I was pretty sure that Stefan cared whether I lived or died. I wasnít so sure how he felt about Adam. But I was remembering Stefan telling me that there “shouldnít” be any problems because it had only been the once, and Iíd met a few of Stefanís band of sheep -- the people who served as his breakfast, dinner and lunch. They were all completely devoted to him. Donít get me wrong, heís a great guy for a vampire -- but I somehow doubted that those people, mostly women, could live together devoted to one man without some sort of vampire mesmerism at work. And Iíd sort of had my fill of magical compulsion for the year.

Any protest I made to Adam would be an exercise in futility anyway. He was feeling especially protective of me right now -- and all I could do was stir up tempers, his, mine and my motherís.

Adam pressed his wrist against Stefanís mouth and the vampire paused his incremental closing of the distance between my arm and his fangs. He seemed confused for a moment -- then he drew air in through his nose.

Stefanís teeth sank into Adamís wrist, his free hand shot up to grab Adamís arm, and his eyes closed -- all so fast it looked like the motion of a cheaply drawn cartoon.

Adam sucked in his breath, but I couldnít tell if it was because it hurt him, or because it felt good. When Stefan had fed from me, Iíd been in pretty rough shape. I didnít remember much about it.

It was strangely intimate, Stefan held me as he drank from Adamís wrist and Adam leaned harder into me. Intimate with an audience. I turned my head to see that my mother still held her gun in a steady two handed grip, pointed at Stefanís head. Her face as calm as if she saw burnt bodies appear from nowhere, then rise from the dead to sink fangs on whoever was closest all the time, though I knew that wasnít true. Iím not sure sheíd ever even seen one of the werewolves in wolf form.

“Mom,” I said, “The vampire is Stefan, heís a friend of mine.”

“I should put the gun away? Are you sure? He doesn't look like a friend.”

I looked at Stefan, who was looking better though I still wouldnít have recognized him without my nose. “Truthfully Iím not sure how much good it would do anyway. Bullets, if they are silver, may work on werewolves, but I don't think any bullets do much to vampires.”

She tucked the Glock, hot, into the holster inside the waislin of the back of her jeans. “So what do you do to vampires?”

Someone knocked on the door. I hadnít heard anyone drive up, but Iíd been a little distracted.

“Donít let them in your home in the first place,” suggested Adam.

Mom, whoíd been on the way to the door, stopped. “Is this likely to be a vampire?”

“Better let me get it,” I said. I wiggled my arm and Stefan released me and took a better grip on Adam. “Are you all right, Adam?”

“Heís too weak to feed fast,” Adam commented. “Iím good for a while yet. If youíll get my phone out for me and hit the speed dial Iíll call for some more wolves, though. I doubt one feeding will be enough.”

With Mom watching, I behaved myself while I dug his phone out of the holder on his belt. Instead of taking the time to sort through his contacts, I just punched in his house number and handed him the ringing phone. Whoever was outside was growing impatient.

I straightened my shirt and took a quick look at myself to make sure there wasnít anything that said, “Hey, I have a vampire in my house”.

I was going to have a bruise on my forearm, but for now it wasnít too noticeable. I slipped past Mom and opened the door about six inches.

The woman standing on the porch didnít look familiar. She was about my height and age. Her dark hair had been striped with a lighter color (or her light brown hair had been striped with a darker color). She wore so much foundation that I could smell it over the perfume that a purely human nose find light and attractive. Her grooming was immaculate, like an expensive dog ready to go to the show -- or a very expensive call girl.

Not a person youíd expect to find on the porch of an old mobile home out in the boonies of Eastern Washington at night.

“Mercy?”

If she hadnít said anything, Iíd never have recognized her because my nose was full of perfume and she didnít look anything like the girl Iíd gone to college with. “Amber?”

Amber had been my college roommate Charlaís best friend, theyíd gone to high school together. Sheíd been studying to be a veterinarian, but Iíd heard sheíd dropped out her first year in vet school. I hadnít seen or heard from her since Iíd graduated.

When Iíd last seen her sheíd been wearing a mohawk and had a ring in her nose (which had been bigger) and a small tattooed hummingbird at the corner of her eye. She and I had been acquaintances rather than friends. She and Charla had been best friends in high school and she resented me. Though it had been Charla who had decided they shouldnít room together, Amber had always blamed me for it. We had been aquaintances rather than friends.

Amber laughed, doubtless at the bewildered look on my face. There was something brittle in the sound. Not that I was in any position to be picky. My manner was stiffer than usual, too. I had a vampire feeding from a werewolf behind me; I wondered what she was hiding.

“Itís been a long time,” she said after a short awkward silence.

I joined her out on the porch and shut the door behind me, trying not to look like I was keeping her out. “What brings you here?”

She folded her arms over her chest and turned to gaze at my scraggly-looking field where a rusty VW Rabbit rested on three tires. From where we stood the graffiti, the missing door and the cracked windshield weren't visible, but it looked junky anyway. The old wreck was a joke between Adam and I, and I wasnít going to apologize for it.

“I read about you in the paper,” she said.

“You live in the Tri Cities?”

She shook her head. “Spokane. It made CNN, too, didnít you know? The fae, werewolves, murder . . . how could they resist?” For a moment there was a flash of humor in her voice, though her face stayed disconcertingly blank.

Lovely. The whole world knew Iíd been raped. Yeah, that might strike me as funny, too. Maybe if I were Lucretia Borgia. There were a lot of reasons Iíd never bothered to keep in contact with Amber.

She hadnít driven over from Spokane to hunt me down after ten years and tell me sheíd read about the attack, either. “So you read about me and decided it might be fun to tell me that the story about how I killed my rapist was all over the country? So you drove a hundred and fifty miles for that?”

“Obviously not.” She turned back to face me and the awkward stranger had been replaced by the polished pro who was even more a stranger to me. “Look. Do you remember when we took a day trip to Portland to see that play? We went to the bar afterwards and you told us about the ghost in the ladies room.”

“I was drunk,” I told her -- which was true enough. “I think I told you I was raised by werewolves, too.”

“Yes,” she said with sudden intentness. “I thought you were just telling stories -- but now we all know that werewolves are real, just like the fae. And youíre dating one.”

That would have come out in the rape story, I thought. Double yippee. There was a time when I tried to stay out of the spotlight because it was safer. It was still safer, but I hadnít been doing so good at stealthy living the past year.

Unaffected by my inner dialogue, Amber kept talking. “So I thought if you were dating one now, you had probably been telling the truth then. And if you told the truth about that, then you were probably telling the truth about seeing ghosts, too.”

Anyone else would have forgotten about that, but Amber had a mind like a steel trap. She remembered everything. It was after that trip that I quit drinking alcohol. People who know other peopleís secrets canít afford to things that impair their ability to control their mouths.

“My house is haunted,” she said.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. I took a step toward Amber and turned a little. I still couldnít see anything out there, but with Amber a little downwind so her perfume didnít ruin my nose I could smell it: vampire.

“And you want me to do something about it?” I asked. “You need to call a priest.” Amber was Catholic.

“No one believes me,” she said starkly. “My husband thinks Iím crazy. My doctor thinks Iím crazy. My daughterís scared of me.” The porch light caught her eyes, just for a minute and I could see that her pupils were dilated. I wondered if it was just the night, or if she was on something.

She was making me uneasy, but I was pretty sure it was just the weirdness of seeing Amber, queen of the unconventional, dressed up like a rich manís mistress. There was something soft and helpless that made me think prey -- the Amber Iíd known would have taken a baseball bat to anyone who annoyed her. She wouldnít have been afraid of a ghost.

Of course my unease could have been caused by the vampire lurking in the shadows, or by the one in my home.

“Look,” I said. Stefan, and what had been done to him was more important to me than what had happened to Amber, “I canít get away right now -- I have company. Why donít you give me your phone number and Iíll call you as soon as things calm down.”

She fumbled her purse open and handed me a card. It was printed on expensive high-cotton paper, but all that was on it was her first name and a phone number.

“Thank you.” She sounded relieved, the tension flowing from her shoulders. She gave me a small smile. “Iím sorry that you were attacked -- but Iím not surprised you got your own back. You were always rather good at that.” Without waiting for me to answer, she walked down the steps and got into her car, a newer Miata convertible with the soft top up. She backed out of the driveway without looking at me again and sped off into the night.

I wished she hadnít been wearing perfume. Sheíd been upset about something -- sheíd always been a terrible liar. But the timing was just a little too perfect: Stefan arrives, tells me to run and Amber arrives with a place for me to run to.

I knew what Stefan had been telling me to run from, and it wasnít him. “She knows,” heíd said.

“She” was Marsilia, the Mistress of the Tri-Citiesí vampire seethe. Sheíd sent me out hunting a vampire whoíd been on a killing spree that risked her seethe. Sheíd figured I was her best chance to find him, because I can sense ghosts that other people donít see, and vampireís lairs tend to attract ghosts.

She hadnít thought I really would be able to kill him. When I did, it made her very unhappy -- because the vamp Iíd killed had been special, more powerful than the others because heíd been demon ridden. That the demon had made him crazy and heíd been killing humans left and right hadnít bothered her except that it might have exposed the vampires to the human world. Heíd gone out of control when heíd grown more powerful than his maker but Marsilia believed that she could have fixed that, taken control of him. She used me to find him -- sheíd been sure heíd kill me.

And sheíd have been right if I hadnít had friends.

Since sheíd sent me after him, she couldnít seek retribution without risking losing control of her seethe. Vampires take things like that very seriously.

I'd have been safe it hadn't been for the second vamprire.

Andre had been Marsilia's left hand where Stephan was her right. He'd been responsible for creating the demon-possessing vampire who'd killed more people than I could count on both hands. And Andre and Marsilia had intended to make more. One had been more than enough for me. So I'd killed Andre, knowing that it meant my death.

But Stefan had hidden my crime. Hidden it with the deaths two innocent people whose only crime had been that they were Andre's victims. He'd saved me, but the cost had been too high. Their deaths had bought me two months.

Marsilia knew. She'd never have hurt Stefan so badly for anything else.

She'd tortured and starved him, and let him free to come to me. I looked down at the red marks Stefan had put on my arm -- if heíd killed me, no blame would have fallen on her.

The was a noise and I looked up. Darryl and Peter were walking past the battered hulk of the Rabbit.

Darryl was tall, athletic and Adamís second. He got his dark skin from his African father and his eyes from his Chinese mother. The perfect features came from the happy combination of very different genes but the grace of his stride came from the accident that had turned him into a werewolf. He liked nice clothes, and the crisp cotton shirt he wore probably cost more than I made in a week.

I donít know how old he is, but I am pretty sure it isnít much older than he looks. Thereís something about the older wolves, an air they carry of being not quite of this age of cars, cell phones, and TVs, that Darryl didnít have.

Peter is old enough to have been in the cavalry but here and now he works as a plumber. He is good enough at his job to be in demand and he has a half dozen people (human) on his payrolls. But he walked to the right and behind Darryl because Darryl is very dominant and Peter is one of the few submissives in Adamís pack.

Darryl stopped at the foot of the porch. He didnít like me much most of the time. Iíd finally decided it was snobbery -- he was a wolf and I a coyote. He was a Phd working in a high-priced think tank and I was a mechanic with dirt under my fingernails.

And worst of all, if Adam is my mate, he has to follow my orders. Sometimes the chauvinism that permeates the rules by which the werewolves rule works backwards. No matter how submissive the mate of the Alpha is, her commands are second only to his.

When he didnít say anything, I just opened the door and led Adamís two wolves into my home.