“I'll tell you if it's nothing. I don't want you to puncture a lung when you roll over in your sleep because we didn't check for broken ribs.”
Zoey blinked and wondered if she had passed out for a moment. She was sitting on the edge of the couch with her shirt open and large, warm hands were gently skimming her battered rib cage. A
hands, she reminded herself but her instincts refused to agree. Instead she felt curiously safe. She frowned and grasped the edges of her shirt to yank them together. Considered decking the guy, just on principle. Instead, she did absolutely nothing. The man's touch was feather light. Soothing. Wherever his fingers trailed, the pain seemed to ease. She could breathe easier, and was surprised to realize how difficult breathing had been up to now.
“You've got some bruising, but no breaks.” Deftly he buttoned her shirt and eased her back onto the couch so he could turn his attention to her leg. “Take it easy tomorrow, okay? You're hurting now, but the second day is usually a lot worse. Do you have some ibuprofen around, something for pain?”
She nodded. “Hell, yeah. I get migraines so I've practically got my own pharmacy on hand.”
“You're shivering again.” He searched the bedroom, came back with an armful of quilts, and tucked them carefully around her. Zoey protested a little at having to lie down but she was far too tired and in too much pain to resist. The last thing she saw was the tall man pulling a roll of gauze from his pocket.
The pickup bounced over unseen potholes as Connor drove into the abandoned farmyard. Rows of broken-down granaries and sheds floated in a sea of yellowed grass made golden in the early morning light. The two barns were leaning, their roofs losing shingles like dying dragons shedding scales. The house alone was still square, its cracked windows curtained with patched and dirty blankets. All the buildings were a uniform weathered gray with not a speck of paint among them. Not a sign of ice or even rain. Last night's freakish weather hadn't reached this far. Or perhaps even nature avoided this place.
The tall vet walked to the door and rapped it sharply, his senses alert, his gaze flicking over the windswept grass as if he expected something to leap from it.
“Go to hell, Macleod.” The voice from within the house was low and gravelly. Human hearing would have missed it but Connor could pick it up easily.
“We need to talk, Bernie. I'm betting you need some patching up, too.”
“I don't need nuttin' from you. Get off my property.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. After we've talkedâ” Connor rattled the doorknob. “You know damn well I'm not leaving, so open up.”
There was a long, long silence. Connor was patient by nature but the attack on Zoey had brought out something else. He had been every bit a healer as he cared for her, held her, warmed her, tended her wounds. But once he'd left her apartment, a cold, hard anger had taken hold. His mind was made up, his resolve certain.
He was about to kick in the door when suddenly it flew open. Frowning, he stooped to fit under the low doorframe and disappeared into the dark interior.
he snapping jaws were so close that droplets of spittle struck her face . . .
Zoey flailed awake and tumbled from the couch, yelping as her battered ribs made contact with the floor. Disjointed memories of the past night crowded into her awareness as she fought clear of the pile of quilts and struggled to sit up.
“A wolf! Holy crap, a
, a goddamn wolf right in the middle of town!” Her system was hollering for coffee, aspirin, and food, but she had other priorities. The first was to phone the RCMP, the local Fish and Wildlife office, Dunvegan's mayor and whoever was in charge of animal control in this area. The creature was still out there somewhere and Zoey wasn't going to let anyone else be attacked if she could help it. People needed to be warned, and once she'd talked to the authorities, she'd write up one helluva front-page story.
“The paper comes out on Monday, but is that soon enough? Maybe I should put up posters or . . . ow!” She paused in the middle of getting to her feet, eased herself to the couch instead, and inspected her right leg. It was wrapped neatly from ankle to knee in white gauze, but there was a sharp-edged ache in many places beneath the smooth, even bandage. The veterinarian had probably done a good job but she should have her leg checked out by one of the clinic doctors orâ
Her face heated as she remembered all too clearly being carried up the stairs to her apartment like Scarlett fricking O'Hara. Although Scarlett hadn't complained so much about it.
Please, please, please don't let any of the neighbors have seen us.
But the stranger had done more than carry her and treat the bite. He had saved her life. Embarrassing or not, she knew she'd needed the rescue. She could have been killed. She could have
last night if it wasn't for that man showing up when he did.
She sat down on the couch and hugged herself until the shaking subsided. Suddenly making all those phone calls could wait. She was alive, and she just wanted to savor that for a while.
Connor was almost sorry for the exquisite night vision he possessed. Had he been human, the darkened house would have softened the effect of what he was seeing. The old man's face was bruised and swollen, flayed open diagonally in several places. One eye was puffed shut, a jagged cut across the purple lid still leaking blood, staining the white beard stubble on his cheek.
The damage was daunting from a medical point of view. The healer in him winced inwardly at the sight, yet his usual sympathy was far outweighed by his growing respect for Zoeyâand his determination to keep her safe.
You did a good job of defending yourself, little falcon. The vicious old bastard deserved everything he got and more.
“I see you went out on the town last night, Bernie,” Connor said calmly as he opened his kit. His working hands were steady and sure, like his voice, never betraying the waves of rage that flooded his gut. “I thought we had agreed that you were going to stay here, lock yourself in the cellar or at least come to me when the urge became too strong.” The man hissed as antiseptic bubbled over the fearful cuts. “You've been losing control for a while now, Bernie. You've always been a selfish bastard, a nasty drunk, even a thief. The Pack has looked the other way, let you live however you chose. But now you're a killer.”
“Piss off. I don't need a lecture from a goddamn dog doctor.” The man tried to shove Connor away and get up, but Connor only moved in closer. One large hand pressed down hard on Bernie's plaid-shirted shoulder.
“This is no lecture, Bernie. This can't go on. You killed a dozen animals in Ralph Wharton's herd last month. You didn't need to eat; you just killed for the pure pleasure of it. Last night you tried to kill a human being, a woman.”
Bernie went still. “I don't remember that,” he rasped slowly, a look like fear creeping into his good eye. “I wouldn't do that. I've never done that! That's not true, you son-of-a-bitch, Macleod. You're trying to trick me.”
Connor shook his head, his hand unmoving, the pressure unwavering. “No tricks, Bernie. You're too dangerous to be allowed to Change anymore and you know it. I let you talk me out of it last time, but not today. I saw you in the road. I knew it was you. And the woman you attacked defended herself, cut your face. Marked you.”
He held a tight rein on his emotions, kept his voice calm but he knew Bernie would see the rage plainly in his eyes if he looked. Something primal was frighteningly close to the surface, and Connor was sweating with the effort of holding it back.
Please, dear God, let him accept this. If I have to fight with him, I just may kill him. And I'll want to.
“You know what has to happen, Bernie. Jessie leads the Pack and she's ordered it.” And even if she hadn't ordered it, Connor knew he would still be here, still be doing this. Because of Zoey.
The older man opened his mouth as if to protest, but no sound came out. Moments passed. Suddenly Bernie turned his ruined face to the wall and remained motionless as Connor rolled the frayed shirtsleeve up, swabbing the inside of the arm over a vein. The vet drew a large syringe from the kit, then reached in his pocket for the same bottle of silver nitrate he'd used on Zoey's wounded leg.
The young RCMP officer flipped his notepad closed, put his hat back on, and left. Zoey knew he hadn't believed her about the wolf even though she'd unwrapped her bitten calf for the sake of evidence. He'd been sympathetic and hadn't treated her like an idiotâthe deputy mayor had already done that over the phoneâbut it was still very clear that the cop thought it was a dog attack.
She threw her slipper across the room, which only irritated her aching ribs. “I may be from the city but I know damn well that was no dog!” In February she had photographed a major dogsled race on the frozen river. Every breed of sled dog was present, and even some dogs that were genuinely half wolf. She'd watched in horror as two teams suddenly sprang on each other between races, and vividly remembered the blood-chilling sound of twenty large dogs roaring and snapping at each other while their owners waded into the melee to haul them apart. Still, nothing looked remotely like the beast that had attacked her, nothing was that big, that bent on killing.
Zoey sat back and surveyed the large teeth marks on her calf, thankful that she wasn't squeamish. It was a bad bite, but it looked clean and there wasn't a lot of swelling. There were butterfly closures on several of the punctures and they seemed to be doing their jobâthere was only a little blood on the gauze she'd removed. Still, she didn't kid herself. There was no denying that if the wolf had been able to get any traction on the slippery ice, if she hadn't hit the beast just right on its sensitive nose and muzzle, she might well have lost a sizeable chunk of her leg.
At the very least.
She'd seen the horrible results of two separate dog attacks in Vancouver. One of the victims, an elderly woman, had died. The other, a strong young man, had been maimed for life.
She shivered and turned her attention to the dilemma at hand. How could she warn people if she couldn't get the authorities to believe there was a wolf? The village officials thought she'd been bitten by a large dog, which was an unpleasant but relatively more acceptable problem. Maybe she should work with that.
“Okay, okay, the point is that people need to be on the lookout for
,” she said aloud, testing the idea. “So what if they're looking for a big ferocious dog instead of a wolf? Does it really matter?” It was a tough call.
Tell the truth and be labeled a loony
. Then the story would be dismissed. No one would bother looking for a creature of any kind, no one would be on alert.
Tell a half-truth and maybe people would at least be careful.
Maybe no one else would get hurt.
Zoey sighed and tried to rewrap the gauze on her leg, feeling clumsy as she did so. She felt clumsy about the story too. She could just see the headline now:
Giant dog bites editor. Details on page 11
Of course she wouldn't title it like that, but frankly, she didn't know if she could make it sound much better. She might not mention who the victim was either, although she knew darn well it wouldn't stay a secret in such a small town. But she
place the article somewhere on the front page where it would be seen and people might be on their guard for a while. Might be a little more alert, might watch their children a little more closely.
But damn it all, it had been a
, a genuine call-of-the-wild wolf that had attacked her, and not being able to say so was frustrating beyond all words.
Thankfully, it had been a quiet day at the clinic. No calvings, no emergencies, no urgent calls. Connor had left Bernie, dragged himself through the morning's scheduled surgeries, then gone home at noon. To bed. The strain of many days without adequate rest and the intense emotions of the past twenty-four hours combined to send him into a dreamless sleep almost before his head hit the pillow.
It was well past midnight when he finally awakened. He lay on his back looking up at the bright moon through the tall windows that stretched almost floor to ceiling on the west wall of the master bedroom. His headache was gone but his heart hurt. There was little anger left in him now, only a deep aching sadness and questions that had no answers. Why hadn't Bernie asked for help? The old Changeling had no love for the Pack, but the Pack was bound by its own laws to assist him, work with him. Younger, stronger Changelings could have been assigned to watch over him when he was in wolfen form and keep him out of trouble. Keep him from hurting anyone. If all else failed, every Pack maintained a
, an iron-barred place of safety in which an out-of-control wolf could be confined until his senses returned.
At least Bernie would have still been able to Change.
Applied to the wound within twelve hours of being bitten, silver nitrate would prevent a human from becoming a Changeling. Applied at least once more, the colorless liquid not only stopped the genetic shift in its tracks, it reversed it. Silver nitrate had just as dramatic of an effect on someone who had been born a Changeling, and only a single ample dose was required. Once injected into Bernie's veins, it would have quickly spread to every cell. By now, his inner wolf would be permanently suppressed, forever a prisoner in its human form.
What would it do to the old Changeling to look up at the moon, knowing he could never answer its call again? How would he stand it?
Connor got up and went to the balcony door, clad in only plaid pajama bottoms. The air was cold on his exposed skin as he stepped outside, but it blunted the painful emotions a bit. He stood for a long time, scenting the air, then walked to the cedar steps that led from the balcony to the ground.
He called out the wolf within and trotted briskly downward, first on two feet, then on four. Paused in the yard and shook himself all over. His silvery pelt was marked with a blanket of black over his shouldersâa rare saddleback wolf. Soundless, he bounded away into the night.
Behind him, the only evidence of the Change was a faint whiff of ozone in the air, a crackle of static electricity, and a handful of tiny blue sparks that fell to the ground and winked out at the foot of the stairs.
The wolf was nature's perfect running machine. With long loping strides that ate up the miles, Connor raced for hours until flecks of foam began to fly from his lolling tongue. He finally slowed near the top of a hill, his flanks heaving, mouth wide and lungs burning for air. He slaked his thirst at a tiny spring, then padded to the crest. The moon was high now and brilliant in the clear starry sky, almost blinding to look at directly. Instead he looked out across the river valley and lay down with his head on his paws.
In the small hours of the morning, Bernie was awakened by the howling of a wolf. He lifted his ravaged face, his swollen eye crusted with a mixture of dried blood and tears. Humans usually couldn't tell the direction such a sound was coming from, but the old man knew at once that the wolf must be up on Elk Point, said to be a sacred place. The animal sang as if its heart was broken, the mournful refrain taken up by the wolves in the surrounding hills.
Bernie swore softly. He knew the sorrow-filled song was for him, knew it was Connor who sang it. The tears began again.