The freeway narrowed from the multi-laned fast moving collision course down to two lanes once we headed away from the city. The folks on the road were pushing ninety years not ninety miles an hour and there were more trucks and trailers than BMWs and Porsches. I was seeing less SUVs and more RVs. With it came a slow stream of directions from Marcus. I was instructed to exit, and from there I was surprised at how the scenery was changing. There were trees and we were heading into the mountains. The moon danced between the large oaks and brush. I wondered if the werewolves felt the pull. I couldn't think of a way to ask without sounding stupid.
I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw Lee was half drowsing. Marcus caught my eye and said, "So, Natasha, why were you at Kenyon's? He isn't even part of your vampire clan."
Marcus must have thought this was his fishing expedition. Insomuch as I wanted to cut bait and do my own little trolling for information, I resisted and concentrated on my driving. The road was winding and there were some nasty little bends in the road.
"Nope, he's not. So whose house is it that we're going to?" I redirected the conversation while tapping on the steering wheel. There was a large truck in front of us weaving slightly. I didn't know if it was an old man driving or a drunk one. If he kept hitting his brakes every time we hit a turn I'd hit him and find out over his corpse. Some of my impatience leaked out and Marcus decided to humor me and distract me by answering my question. I could tell by the slight twist of his lips and the air he pushed out with resignation that he was amused by my driving. Like he could do any better?
"Carlos' cousin. Archer. He owns the ranch. Buddy worked for him and watched his child." That was big news. Werewolves didn't have many children from everything I'd been told. My mind flipped around the different possibilities and I pulled my car out over the centerline to see if I could floor it past the idiot driver safely. A large gray sedan was heading right for me so I reluctantly drifted back behind the truck. It passed us and the music blaring afterwards let me know the love of bad 70s music was still alive and well out in the East County.
I growled in frustration. Marcus arched an eyebrow towards me and said, "Not much into passing?"
The challenge was flung. I laughed and said, "With or without looking?"
Lee shook himself upright and said, "What? What do you mean?"
Marcus said, "Ladies choice."
"Without." I cleared the next curve slowly behind the meandering truck and then punched it blindly.
Lee made a very non-masculine sound that I think may have been a shriek.
I was busy concentrating on blowing past the truck while hoping to not tag the new vehicle that came into view and was heading right for us. The grill was impressive and flashy enough to actually do some damage. Damned if the truck driver we were passing didn't grow a spine and decide to race us. Lee's whimper was audible and my laughter probably a tad manic. Marcus was ice in the passenger seat. I chanced a look over at the driver and saw the idiot hoisting an open bottle of beer toasting me. That answered the question about the state of things. He was drunk and stupid. And his engine was rising to the occasion. He yelled out something but I'd already returned my eyes to the road to see the driver heading for us was screaming and waving at us. Like I didn't see him?
"You going to brake?" Marcus asked. I caught his pulse in his throat with my peripheral vision and it was solid. He wasn't worried about my hitting the oncoming truck.
"Nah, I'm going to do this." With that I stomped on the gas and swerved at the drunk driver. He let loose his own yell and swerved off the road. The rocks and brush slowed him down enough for me to slide in front of him before I met the grill of the other approaching truck. The screams weren't just in the two other vehicles but I think Lee joined in on the fun while I could hear his heart racing. He was afraid and reeked of fear. I drank it all in and smiled.
Dryly Marcus said, "Glad I didn't bet you."
"Didn't you?" I laughed and felt Lee shudder behind me. He really didn't handle stress well I thought. I wondered if that was a death sentence in werewolf pack politics like it'd be in a vampire clan. Most of the clans I knew ruled with fear and control and heavy doses of blood. It wasn't for the weak.
A few more winding turns back and forth heading further up into the hills and then Marcus had me turn onto a small dirt road. The brush was nearly hitting the side of the car when we finally arrived at a large field. It was a good acre from the road. Anywhere else the ground would have been trimmed and carefully mowed into a semblance of a lawn but out in the middle of nowhere it stayed a field. Wildflowers were strewn throughout the longer blades of grasses. If the scenery had been more lush it would have qualified as a meadow but up in the mountains in the East County it remained a fire hazard and a just another field. From the drive up I'd seen many such clearings scattering the sparsely occupied land. Rocks and boulders tended to be the primary occupants of the area.
The house was a large spread out ranch style home framed by large trees on the north and eastern sides. The garage took up the west side and seemed to be nearly as large as the house. There were at least four parking bays and what appeared to be a complete workshop. Someone from Archer's pack was working on a beat up white one-ton truck in front of the garages. The large commercial quality lights being used coupled with the fierce moonlight lit the engine up. At first glance he didn't look like anything but a man but as I exited the car I could smell his animalistic side. He was definitely a werewolf and covered in grease. The grease didn't disguise his scent but rather it enhanced it.
"Hey, Marcus. The others who came with Carlos pulled into the second garage," he indicated Harry's car with a crescent wrench, "you can pull in the other car over there," his wrench point out the vacant spot closest to the house. I got back into the car and backed it into the spot with a minimum of fuss.
The men had obviously shared some hidden werewolf secrets while I parked the car because they all shifted and avoided my eyes when I returned. Lovely, like we didn't have enough problems? I shrugged it off as pack business or figured they'd been talking about my ass or something. Men, furred or not, tended to have some similar thoughts and I didn't feel like popping into their brains to find out what had been said.
Carlos came out the front door closely followed by Harry. I tried to see if Renee was being blocked by their bodies but noticed instead a large werewolf filling the doorway. There was no question in my mind it was the pack leader of the house. He reeked of magic and raw power.
I went still as a wave of energy swept over me. Harry met my eyes and gave me no indication of what was expected. If these creatures thought I was going to flip over and offer my belly, much less my throat, in submission they were going to be sorely disappointed.
Meeting Harry's eyes steadily I asked, "They don't know much about vampires out here in the boonies do they?"
"Nope," Harry said with a slight grin.
"Do I get to teach them?" My fangs were wisps of promises of pain and death peeking out behind my lips.
"Maybe later. It'd be bad manners right now," I contented myself with the fact that Harry wasn't saying no.
Marcus chuckled and said, "Good to know vampires still have manners."
He was feeling cocky being so close to his pack and they did have the numbers. I felt at least a dozen scattered heartbeats inside the house other than our little group of vampires and werewolves who'd just arrived still stranded outside. Not that Harry and I wouldn't be capable of slaughtering them all it just would take some serious work. I wasn't much into causing an incident of epic portions just yet. Harry laughed and said, "Oh, Marcus, we have excellent manners and are quite capable of being out in public without leashes."
Marcus' pupils expanded and contracted as he took the direct hit. Guess doggy jokes weren't high on the werewolf repertoire of smart-ass comments. Point to the vampire.
The large werewolf behind Carlos laughed and strode out from the doorway with his fist thrust out. It took me a second to figure out that he wanted me to shake his hand. Covering my surprise I slid my fingers into his and waited to see what sort of handshake he would have. It was strong but not knuckle-breaking. His hot paw instantly warmed my colder fingers and another unwanted wave of magic washed over me. I returned his greeting with a flash of fang and a powerful grip. I didn't use all my strength but enough to let him know I wasn't some soft crunchy meal. His eyes widened and he nodded slightly. The magic swept back and I let go of his hand. A wild blew through the mountains filtering scents to us. Dry brush and pine was the heaviest scent but there was also the smell of wet dog and blood. That wasn't unexpected but a bit unsettling. I was out of my territory for sure.
Harry said, "Archer, this is Natasha. She's from Simon's clan."
I watched something flash rapidly in his eyes and knew that he had heard about me. And it wasn't the smoke and sunshine Kenyon was touting how he'd scored by having one of Simon's clan at his beck and call. No, he definitely hadn't heard from Kenyon but rather from someone in Simon's world or associated with us. It wasn't respect or fear but more like understanding. He knew I wasn't just down in Southern California to see that a classy wedding between the vampires and werewolves went off without a hitch. He knew I killed for Simon and was more than arm fluff. I answered some unasked question Carlos' werewolves had about Kenyon and his vampires. It was nice to be noticed. I smirked slightly.
Harry's tone was dry as he said, "Natasha, play nice."
I bit back a sigh. Harry knew me too well. It briefly crossed my mind that Harry could have filled in Archer but I didn't get that sense. It was someone remote. If DB, my pet sociopath fledgling, had been any smarter I'd figured he spilled the beans but that wasn't the case. Damson was busy trying to figure out how to kill me and escape Simon's command and he didn't care about my reputation.
"Sure not a problem, just tell Archer here if he doesn't stop trying to read me I will be forced to show him how I really play." I wasn't kidding. The magic was crackling in my brain and dancing along my skin. I wanted to tear off pieces off Archer and swallow him whole. I hadn't felt that dangerous in a long time. It was crazy and not conductive to good relationships between the vamps and weres.
Archer backed off on whatever supernatural game he'd been spinning and nodded to Marcus. Marcus nodded back. There was something more there and it sparked my curiosity. They weren't buddies. Lee was behind us cowering. This group was far over his head and he knew it. Marcus pulled him forward like any good pawn and introduced them saying, "Archer Abbott meet Lee McCormick."
Archer went up to Lee and sniffed deeply. "Boy, you need a shower. Why don't you run inside? Go with Costa, he's the tall skinny man standing back in the corner over there, he'll get you fed and fixed up." Archer raised his meaty hand indicating a rather slight man back in the shadows of the foyer. The blond hair and fair skin blended with the white walls well and Costa had been standing still. Unremarkable in human form he probably changed into a white or beige werewolf. I wasn't up on the transformations yet and was just taking an educated guess. No matter I definitely was seeing similar power plays in pack dynamics that were found in vampire clans.
Lee loped off and ducked past Carlos meekly entering the home. I arched an eyebrow at Marcus and resisted commenting. They definitely had different dynamics.
"So you had a spot of trouble did you?" Archer asked gruffly.
"Just a bit." I smiled and relaxed slightly. Harry had my back and I didn't need to jockey for top dog position. That was another thought best kept to myself. I didn't think Marcus had that good of a sense of humor.
To be continued...