"Doesn't look much like a vampire's lair." Victor's voice held a steely thread of tension.
And it was no wonder--the man loathed vampires as much as most wolves despised wizards. "This must be the place," Seamus told him. "Not another house for miles."
"How desperate would you have to be to leave a pack for this?"
"Fairly damn desperate." That easily described most people these days. Relief rolls were jam-packed and hundreds of thousands had taken to the roads, traveling in search of work. "Gavin didn't say what the circumstances were, but he did say he trusted the vampire. That's odd for him."
"Gavin Hamilton's always made odd friends." Victor's eyes narrowed as they neared the house. "The place is damn big. You sure we brought enough cars?"
Gavin's words came back to him. You'll need three cars, maybe four. It's a fucking mess, Seamus. I--I can't explain right now. "We'll muddle through."
"We always do."
"We're driving a handful of people, that's all. No cargo, no risk." A lie, and they both knew it.
The drive consisted of two dirt ruts worn through the grass, and Seamus navigated it slowly. "Maybe you should all wait for me out here. Less chance of trouble."
"Don't like the idea of you facing off with a vampire with no one at your back."
"Gavin didn't mention Adam Dubois being the problem here."
"Vampires are always the problem, when you get down to it." Victor turned, presenting a hard profile as he stared out the window at the untamed mess of a front yard. "But it ain't these girls' fault that no wolves stepped up to do their duty and protect them. I don't care how hard times are, every wolf in Boston deserves a thrashing."
"You'll get no argument from me." Seamus parked the car. "We'll soon see what's going on, though."
The porch steps creaked as he climbed them, and he bypassed the plain brass knocker in favor of pounding his fist on the door. Paint flaked off, and he watched it drift to the boards underfoot.
A woman opened the door, her skirt hiked halfway to her hips and blood drying into a sticky mess in her dark hair. She also had a rifle pointed at his chest.
Pulling his own piece seemed like a bad idea, so he murmured an apology, raised both hands and stepped back. "Hope I've got the right place. Gavin's expecting me."
Her gaze raked over him. She might be disheveled, but there was no mistaking the prissy superiority in her eyes as she tightened her grip on the weapon. "He said he was expecting a friend."
"Aye, that'd be me." He arched an eyebrow. "Is he around?"
"He's out back." The barrel of the rifle wavered and dipped toward the ground. "Are you Mr. Hamilton's business associate?"
The truth would horrify someone like her. For that reason alone, he took great pleasure in giving it to her. "We used to run the streets together, back in the day."
Her lips pressed into a severe line, disapproval etched in every line of her stiff body. "Of course you did."
"Joan, if that's Whelan, let him in." The masculine voice drifted in from the other room, not Gavin's familiar brogue but a thick New England accent edged with dark power. The vampire. Joan's expression tightened, but she pivoted abruptly and stalked deeper into the farmhouse, clearly expecting him to follow.
"You boys stay on the porch," Seamus called back. His companions didn't need to be told again, but it might put the skittish woman more at ease. "I'll talk to Gavin, see what's what."
The house was dark, even in the afternoon sunlight, but it wasn't quiet. Soft moans of distress drifted down the halls and through the walls. Joan's footsteps thumped unevenly, and the scent of fresh, hot blood trailed after her. "You're hurt. Who else is?"
"I'm fine," she said, the words brittle enough to break. "There are twelve others. Seven are hurt, two badly."
"All of us. Except for Adam, obviously."
The answer was too long coming, which meant she knew just how bad it sounded. "A few hours before dawn."
Unless she'd had her leg damn near ripped off, she should have been well on her way to fine already. "What in hell did you people tangle with?"
She turned again, holding her ground in spite of injury and obvious exhaustion. "What did Mr. Hamilton tell you?"
Not enough, not yet. "Where is he?"
Joan took a step back and nodded toward the door. "Out back. One of the new wolves panicked and can't shift back. I'm too drained to help her."
The back door hung slightly ajar, and Seamus pushed through it. He spotted Gavin immediately, a large gray wolf standing, alert, while a smaller wolf paced anxiously around him. He didn't yield, but he didn't push, either. As soon as Seamus stepped into the yard the female yipped and sidled away, darting to put the bulk of Gavin's body in front of her.
Fear hung in the air, thick enough to choke a human, and underneath it the smells of blood and lead and powder, evidence of a vicious battle. The wind shifted, bringing with it the whisper of shoes on the grass behind him--and the scent of the vampire.
He stepped up next to Seamus and watched Gavin begin the careful process of soothing the agitated wolf. "That's Ingrid. She's sixteen and three months changed."
Too young. Seamus could still remember the first few bewildering months after his own transformation. "And not by choice?"
"Choice." Adam made the word sound bitter. "She was a poor girl seduced into a life she couldn't understand. And after he'd had her enough times for the shine to wear off..."
No one who hadn't experienced the change could understand, and hearing the vampire speak as though he had the authority to do so raised Seamus's hackles. "Who are you to decide what people understand and what they don't?"
The vampire had a laugh like sandpaper against stone. "Didn't Hamilton tell you? I'm their alpha."
Seamus snorted and lit a cigarette. "He said something to that effect, but you don't smell like a wolf to me."
"Doesn't matter. What matters now is that these people need to get to safety, and Gavin says you and your boys can make it happen."
He sounded defensive but worried. As quickly as that, Seamus's ire died. "We can. It depends, some."
"On who you've got after you and your pack."
The vampire sighed, and Seamus knew he wouldn't like the answer. "Edwin Lancaster."
Even living under a rock wouldn't save a man from knowing the name. Wealthy and influential, both in human and wolf society, Edwin Lancaster was heir to a textile fortune...and a spoiled ass who got everything he wanted.
"What'd you--" He bit off the words with a curse, suddenly sure what Adam Dubois had done to anger Lancaster. "Who is it? The girl inside, the one with the limp?"
Adam didn't answer at first. He watched Gavin, who had gotten the anxious, confused wolf calmed enough to drop to the ground. Her small body trembled as a soft, tentative tendril of power uncurled, gentle enough to mark her as a weaker wolf.
At that first tug of magic, Adam and Seamus both turned their backs. "A lot of the women here are Lancaster's discarded playmates. He likes them young, impressionable and submissive."
It was the last way Seamus would have described the woman who'd stuck the business end of a rifle in his face. "If he tossed them, what does he care? You gather them up and...what? It makes him jealous?"
"I'm a vampire," Adam replied, his voice weary. "I'm told it's instinct. I suppose that's one of those things I won't ever understand."
"Also wrapped up in the fact that he's a self-centered asshole, I'm guessing." Seamus tossed his cigarette to the ground and stomped it out. "You don't throw away things you care about. And if you don't care about them, you don't deserve to have them."
He could feel the heavy weight of the man's blatant appraisal, but before he could respond a shaky female voice rose behind them. "A-Adam?"
Adam pulled his shirt over his head without hesitation. "It's okay, Ingrid. You're safe now."
Silence, except for the soft slide of fabric against skin and the girl's nervous, too-quick breaths. Then, "Are the others back?"
"Soon," Adam murmured. The girl seemed reassured, but Seamus could hear the lie.
Gavin stepped close and laid a hand on Seamus's shoulder. "Can we speak?"
They walked away from Dubois and the girl, and Seamus took a deep breath. "What was she talking about, Gavin? The others? Are there more wounded?"
He hesitated. "Captured."
"Shit." Seamus shoved both hands through his hair. "You're going after them."
"Yes, me and Adam."
"Don't you need me and the boys? We can find someone else to--"
"No." Gavin spoke sharply. "You take Joan and the others, and you get them to safety. They need a chance to heal."
"Why aren't they now?" Frustration colored his voice, but he couldn't help it. "What the fuck is going on?"
"Blood bonds," his oldest friend whispered hoarsely. "Adam has them, after a fashion, with all his followers. Some of them are in trouble, others need to get to safety, and you need to not ask so damn many questions."
He'd known Gavin Hamilton for years, had run with him in the streets of New York. Somehow, they'd avoided the gangs and the trouble that came with them, and always managed to stay a step ahead of whatever law they were breaking.
He trusted Gavin.
Seamus clapped a hand to his friend's back. "Tell me what I need to do."
There was no time for a proper bath, though the polished tub stood empty with its shiny new pipes gleaming and a freshly washed stack of towels beside it. For some of the girls, the ability to twist a knob and fill the tub with hot water had been a luxury more magical than the fact that they changed to wolves with every full moon.
Those were mostly Edwin's girls. Girls so poor they'd never known anything but heating pot after pot of water to fill a tub a bit at a time, if they were even that lucky. She had to credit the man with some cunning--he'd been very sure to pick girls unlikely to be missed. Orphans and farmers' daughters and maids who would be assumed to have abandoned their drudgery in favor of running off with a man. Oh yes, Edwin chose well.
Most of the time.
Joan sighed and did her best to ignore the tub as she stripped the torn, bloodstained dress from her body quickly but carefully. Even if there had been time to immerse herself in hot, clean water, she couldn't have. Simone had just changed the bandage wrapped around the wound on her calf, and it still hadn't healed. Instead Joan had stitches holding her skin together while sluggish power stirred inside her.
Not enough. Not nearly enough, and fear clawed inside her as she tried not to imagine what it could mean. The bond with Adam would take what it needed to keep their people strong, but it had never drawn so much from her before, never felt like a noose around her neck. She was the most powerful wolf. Her magic fed the pack, fed everyone.
Including the wolves left to Edwin's surely untender mercies.
Every heartbeat increased her weariness, until exhaustion weighed so heavy that even simple chores seemed insurmountable obstacles. She fumbled with the knob for the hot water, then hesitated. Their supply wasn't endless, and it might be needed for more important things before the day was done. Gritting her teeth, she twisted on the cold water instead.
Autumn had come early to Massachusetts, and washing the blood from her hair wasn't as easy as she'd hoped. It had dried into a tacky, sticky mess, tangling around her fingers until she wanted to scream with frustration.
By the time the water ran clear, she was shivering in just her undergarments. She tucked one of the thick towels around her body and used another to rub at her hair, bracing herself for the fact she still had to wash her face, arms and neck in the icy water.
"You need some help."
Joan barely bit down in time to hold back a startled noise as she spun and found herself looking into gentle blue eyes. It was the new man, the one who'd come to speak to Adam's friend. Nothing should have made her so oblivious that she disregarded the sound of footsteps in the hallway, which meant she had left weary behind and careened into recklessly exhausted.
But not so exhausted as to tolerate a man staring at her with such blatant appraisal. She gripped the towel and tried to summon her fiercest glare as she pretended his words had been a question instead of an arrogant, presumptuous statement. "I'm fine. Please close the door behind you."
"We're going to be working together." He stepped into the bathroom and, indeed, shut the door behind him. "That means we need to talk."
She'd seen women sporting dresses that bared more skin than her towel, but it didn't make her feel less naked. The press of his power didn't help--he was clearly a strong wolf, one full of rough, edgy dominance that stirred the wolf inside her with unrestrained curiosity.
She had to get rid of him. "I'll be out in a few minutes. If you or the men you brought need anything, you can ask Simone. She's in the kitchen."
"We had a lovely conversation." He smiled suddenly, not a grin or a smirk, and it transformed his face from hard to boyishly handsome. "She told me to come talk to you."
Of course she had. Humans might judge authority by gender or age or social standing or money, but wolves only cared for power. It didn't matter that she was twenty-four and female, that she'd lost her inheritance and any hope of being accepted or respected by polite society. She had raw power, so she was in charge.
The heaviness of her responsibility settled over her. Soon she'd slide to the floor under the weight of it, crushed beyond repair.
His smile slipped away. "Are you ill?"
"No." She didn't have the luxury of giving up, not until they were safe. And if the man refused to leave, she'd just wash in front of him. Modesty seemed foolish when they could all be dead before seeing another dawn.
So she turned on the water again, just enough to wet a washcloth, then set to work on the blood smeared on her forearm. "I don't believe Mr. Hamilton told me your name."
"Seamus." She could see him in the mirror, his brown hair falling over his forehead as he leaned against the wall. "Gavin told me there's some sort of spell draining magic and keeping the wolves here from healing. You said earlier some are hurt worse than you?"
"A few. Mostly the men." And though both of the survivors had fought hard, they'd been weaker wolves. Wolves who had come to Adam afraid they wouldn't be able to protect their mates from the roving eyes and covetous urges of the Boston alpha and his inner circle. Adam had given them safety...for a time. "The attackers weren't trying to kill the women, just capture them."
If it shocked him, he didn't show it. "Everyone has to be moved. We're loading up in cars and heading closer to the coast."
"To hide." She rinsed the washcloth and stepped closer to the mirror to wipe away the blood streaking her face. There were scratches too, and at least one shallow cut on her shoulder that had healed to a thin pink line. "Adam's trying to break the bonds we have with him. As soon as he figures out how, the others should begin healing again."
"Not a moment too soon."
No. Probably too late, but Astrid had cast the spells, and without her, Adam struggled against a lack of knowledge and a deficit of power. "He's doing his best. We all are."
"I don't doubt that." Seamus stepped toward her. "Now it's partly my responsibility too."
The bathroom was too small to make the press of his power anything but too intimate, especially in her current state of undress. She met his gaze in the mirror and put the punch of her remaining energy into it. "How much have Adam and Mr. Hamilton explained to you?"
"Enough." He reached over her shoulder. "Let me."
"No!" The word escaped on a surge of panic, and exhaustion had clearly made a fool of her because she didn't realize he wasn't reaching for the towel or her body until his fingers closed around the washcloth.
She closed her eyes so she wouldn't have to see his face in the mirror as she let him take the cloth. "As you might imagine, we're all unusually high strung."
"I'm sorry. I thought I was being careful." The water ran, and he sighed. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right." Joan drew in a steadying breath and wished she hadn't. With him so close, his scent overwhelmed everything. It was masculine, uncompromising, smells she associated with the type of men she'd never had much to do with before Adam. Sweat and dirt and liquor and the lead and gunpowder that meant he had a weapon on him, and underneath all that the indefinable something that said wolf.