Home > Fair Game (Alpha & Omega #3)(2)

Fair Game (Alpha & Omega #3)(2)
Author: Patricia Briggs

Leslie learned two valuable things about the fae that day. They were powerful and charming - and they ate children and puppies.

Chapter 1

ASPEN CREEK, MONTANA

"Go home," Bran Cornick growled at Anna.

No one who saw him like this would ever forget what lurked behind the Marrok's mild-mannered facade. But only people who were stupid - or desperate - would risk raising his ire to reveal the monster behind the nice-guy mask. Anna was desperate.

"When you tell me you will quit calling on my husband to kill people," Anna told him doggedly. She didn't yell, she didn't shout, but she wasn't going to give up easily.

Clearly, she'd finally pushed him out to the very narrow edges of his last shred of civilized behavior. He closed his eyes, turned his head away from her, and said, in a very gentle voice, "Anna. Go home and cool off." Go home until he cooled off was what he meant. Bran was Anna's father-in-law, her Alpha, and also the Marrok who ruled all the werewolf packs in his part of the world by the sheer force of his will.

"Bran - "

His power unleashed with his temper, and the five other wolves, not counting Anna, who were in the living room of his house dropped to the floor, even his mate, Leah. They bowed their heads and tipped them slightly to the side to expose their throats.

Though he made no outward move, the speed of their surrender testified to Bran's anger and his dominance - and only Anna, somewhat to her surprise at her own temerity, stayed on her feet. When Anna had first come to Aspen Creek, beaten and abused as she'd been, if anyone had yelled at her, she'd have hidden in a corner and not come out for a week.

She met Bran's eyes and bared her teeth at him as the wave of his power brushed past her like a spring breeze. Not that she wasn't properly terrified, but not of Bran. Bran, she knew, would not really hurt her if he could help it, no matter what her hindbrain tried to tell her.

She was terrified for her mate. "You are wrong," Anna told him. "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And you are determined not to see it until he is broken beyond repair."

"Grow up, little girl," Bran snarled, and now his eyes - bright gold leaching out his usual hazel - were focused on her instead of the fireplace in the wall. "Life isn't a bed of roses and people have to do hard jobs. You knew what Charles was when you married him and when you took him as your mate."

He was trying to make this about her, because then he wouldn't have to listen to her. He couldn't be that blind, just too stubborn. So his attempt to alter the argument - when there should be no argument at all - enraged her.

"Someone in here is acting like a child, and it isn't me," she growled right back at him.

Bran's return snarl was wordless.

"Anna, shut up," Tag whispered urgently, his big body limp on the floor where his orange dreadlocks clashed with the maroon of the Persian rug. He was her friend and she trusted the berserker's judgment on most things. Under other circumstances she'd have listened to him, but right now she had Bran so angry he couldn't speak - so she could get a few words in past his stubborn, inflexible mind.

"I know my mate," she told her father by marriage. "Better than you do. He will break before he disappoints you or fails to do his duty. You have to stop this because he can't."

When Bran spoke, his voice was a toneless whisper. "My son will not bend or break. He has done his job for a century before you were even born, and he'll be doing it a century from now."

"His job was to dispense justice," she said. "Even if it meant killing people, he could do it. Now he is merely an assassin. His prey cling to his feet repentant and redeemable. They weep and beg for mercy that he can't give. It is destroying him," she said starkly. "And I'm the only one who sees it."

Bran flinched. And for the first time, she realized that Charles wasn't the only one suffering under the new, harsher rules the werewolves had to live by.

"Desperate times," he said grimly, and Anna hoped that she'd broken through. But he shook off the momentary softness and said, "Charles is stronger than you give him credit for. You are a stupid little girl who doesn't know as much as she thinks she does. Go home before I do something I'll regret later. Please."

It was that brief break that told her this was useless. He did know. He did understand, and he was hoping against hope that Charles could hold out. Her anger fled and left...despair.

She met her Alpha's eyes for a long moment before acknowledging her failure.

ANNA KNEW EXACTLY when Charles drove up, newly returned from Minnesota where he'd gone to take care of a problem the Minnesota pack leader would not. If she'd been deaf to the sound of the truck or the front door, she'd have known Charles was home by the magic that tied wolf to mate. That was all the bond told her outright, though - his side of their bond was as opaque as he could manage, and that told her a whole lot more about his state of mind than he probably intended.

From the way he let nothing leak through to her, she knew it had been another bad trip, one that had left too many people dead, probably people he hadn't wanted to kill.

Lately, they had all been bad trips.

At first she'd been able to help, but when the rules changed, when the werewolves had admitted their existence to the rest of the world, the new public scrutiny meant that second chances for the wolves who broke Bran's laws were offered only in extraordinary circumstances. She'd kept going with him on these trips because she refused to let Charles suffer alone. But when Anna started having nightmares about the man who'd fallen to his knees in front of her in mute entreaty before his execution, Charles had quit letting her go.

She was strong-willed and she liked to think of herself as tough. She could have made him change his mind or followed him anyway. But Anna hadn't fought his edict because she realized she was only making his job harder to bear. He saw himself as a monster and couldn't believe she didn't also when she witnessed the death he brought.

So Charles went out hunting alone - as he had for a hundred years or more, just as his father had said. His hunt was always successful - and, at the same time, a failure. He was dominant; he had a compulsory need to protect the weak, including, paradoxically, the wolves he was there to kill. When the wolves he executed died, so did a part of Charles.

Before Bran had brought them out to the public, the new wolves, those who had been Changed for less than ten years, would have been given several chances if their transgression came from loss of control. Conditions could have been taken into account that would lessen the punishment of others. But the public knew about them now, and they couldn't allow everyone to know just how dangerous werewolves really were.

It was up to the pack Alpha to take care of dispensing commonplace justice. Previously, Charles had only had to go out a few times a year to take care of bigger or more unusual problems. But many of the Alphas were unhappy with the new harshness of the laws, and somehow more and more of the enforcement fell to Bran and thus to Charles. He was going out two or three times a month and it was wearing on him.

She could feel him standing just inside the house, so she put a little more passion into her music, calling him to her with the sweet-voiced cello that had been his first Christmas gift to her.

If she went upstairs, he'd greet her gravely, tell her he had to go talk to his father, and leave. He'd come back in a day or so after running as a wolf in the mountains. But Charles never quite came back all the way anymore.

It had been a month since he'd last touched her. Six weeks and four days since he'd made love to her, not since they'd come back from the last trip she'd accompanied him on. She'd have said that to Bran if he hadn't made that "Grow up, little girl" comment. Probably she should have told Bran anyway, but she'd given up making him see reason.

She'd decided to try something else.

She stayed in the music room Charles had built in the basement while he stood upstairs. Instead of using words, she let her cello speak for her. Rich and true, the notes slid from her bow and up the stairway. After a moment she heard the stairs squeak under the weight of his feet and let out a breath of relief. Music was something they shared.

Her fingers sang to him, coaxing him to her, but he stopped in the doorway. She could feel his eyes on her, but he didn't say anything.

Anna knew that when she played on her cello, her face was peaceful and distant - a product of much coaching from an early teacher who told her that biting her lip and grimacing was a dead giveaway to any judge that she was having trouble. Her features weren't regular enough for true beauty, but she wasn't ugly, either, and today she'd used some makeup tricks that softened her freckles and emphasized her eyes.

She glanced at him briefly. His Salish heritage gave him lovely dark skin and exotic (to her) features, his father's Welsh blood apparent only in subtle ways: the shape of his mouth, the angle of his chin. It was his job, not his lineage, that froze his features into an unemotional mask and left his eyes cold and hard. His duties had eaten away at him until he was nothing but muscle, bone, and tension.

Anna's fingers touched the strings and rocked, softening the cello's song with a vibrato on the longer notes. She'd begun with a bit of Pachelbel's Canon in D, which she generally used as a warm-up or when she wasn't sure what she wanted to play. She considered moving to something more challenging, but she was too distracted by Charles. Besides, she wasn't trying to impress him, but to seduce him into letting her help. So, Anna needed a song that she could play while thinking of Charles.

If she couldn't get Bran to quit sending her mate out to kill, maybe she could get Charles to let her help with the aftermath. It might buy him a little time until she could find the right baseball bat - or rolling pin - to beat some clarity into his father's head.

She deserted Pachelbel for an improvised bridge that shifted the key from D to G and then let her music flow into the prelude of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1. Not that that music was easy, but it had been her high school concert piece so she could practically play it in her sleep.

   
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