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"I was just waiting for a break in the Michael and Derik show."
"Oooooh, torched you! That's my cub," Derik said proudly. "Always so-hey! Mock him, not me."
Lara had been studying Jack since he'd come inside. She knew he was a couple of years younger than she, but he had such a serious mien he seemed older. The fabulous gray eyes helped; they seemed to change given his mood: from smoky fog to dirty ice, depending. His hair color came from both parents, dark golden blond with rich red lowlights, thick and lustrous; it fell across his forehead in waves, almost into his eyes. He had his mother's milk-pale complexion; not a freckle in sight. Jack was that ghostly hue all year around, which, when he visited, caused no end of teasing ("Hey, Jack, I can see you, and when I close my eyes, I can still see you.").
Yes, he'd always been a cute kid, but adolescence was giving him something . . . she didn't know . . . presence? She wasn't sure, but assumed she found him so striking because she didn't see him very often. She figured it was because she saw him with fresher eyes as opposed to the other boys, who, if they didn't live in the mansion, lived within five miles of it. They rode buses together and went to the same schools together and got along and fought and argued and pranked together. Jack seemed above it all because he was apart from it all; it was refreshing.
What the . . . Pull it back, Lara! He's only fifteen! He's just a kid, she thought with the worldly wisdom of a nineteen-year-old girl. It's a little creepy to find him sexy.
She should leave. Quickly. Packers lived, fed, fought, fucked, and died on their instincts, all their instincts. Even though the poor guy couldn't Change, he might have some or most or all of the other senses. He might be able to pick up on her (inappropriate) interest.
"I have to leave now," Jack murmured.
"Yeah, me, too, but it was-"
"It was nice to see you again, Lara. I'll wait for you, Dad."
Jack practically ran back to the front door, while Lara lurched through the entry, trying not to slip on the shiny floors. The last thing she heard before she got clear was Derik's, "What the hell?"
She could almost hear her father's shrug in response. "Teenagers."
Michael Wyndham, former Pack leader now embarked on his first full day of retirement, stared down at the shredded bat at the kitchen entrance and thought, This does not bode well.
His mind ticked over the possibilities.
1) Some cat (or dog or possum but likely a cat because cats were weird) got ahold of the bat, somehow, ripped it up a little, then got bored with it and left it on the front porch because it had pressing business to be weird somewhere else.
2) Some cat (or dog or possum but likely a cat because cats were weird) got ahold of the bat, somehow, ripped it up a little, then left it on the front porch as some kind of sick-ass present, the sort of thing weird cats got off on when they weren't shitting in boxes.
3) A Pack member was sending a message.
4) A non-Pack member was sending a message.
5) The bat, fed up with the state of the world, killed itself by flying through a fan or food processor or whatev y'like and then managed to drag all its bits and pieces to the kitchen step, a sort of, "Woe, mankind and Pack, let this be a warning; the bell tolls for thee!"
Michael rubbed his eyes, eyes people alternatively found fascinating or unsettling, and thought, Oh, please let it be number five. But of course it couldn't be. The idea was absurd: if the bat truly wanted to kill itself, it would have folded its wings and dived over the kitchen cliff.
He raised his voice-it was after breakfast, Sean would finally be up but Lara would be out and about, and Jeannie had another meeting of her No, Really, Erosion Is Erasing the Cape! Club. "Son? C'mere and give me a hand."
"Argh," was the reply, muffled because the speaker was no doubt into his second pound of bacon. "It's the crack of eleven thirty, Dad; let a guy get his eyes open, will ya?"
"Nnnnf. Gnnff. Rrowwllff."
"There's no need to-" he began, but his son had appeared in the doorway leading to the steps. "To eat all the bacon at once; it'll still be there after you help me."
"That's a lie and you know it," Sean Wyndham informed him. His mouth was actually shiny with bacon grease. "I take no chances ever since BaconGate. And what's the-oh." Sean looked down at the pile o' bat shreddings. "Jeez, Dad, I feel bad. I didn't get you anything."
"Just hush and help me clean this up."
"Whatever the bat did to piss you off, I'm sure it's very sorry now. It was between you and the bat and it's over. You need to put it behind you. I think it's inappropriate to bring anyone else into your and the bat's private business."
"Shut up, boy." He sighed, alternatively wanting to hug and throttle his only son. "And help me."
"I can manage one of those," he decided. "Shutting up or helping. You pick."
"Sean . . ."
"Plus the new guy-Len? Lenny? He's starting today, right? I almost tripped over him on the way out here. He's looking for something to do."
Sean bitched good-naturedly through the ordeal, as Michael had known he would. But he was a cheerful helper, lightening an unpleasant task with his constant stream of witticisms, as Michael had also known he would.
There were times he caught himself staring at Sean, amazed that someone so unlike himself could come from . . . well . . . himself.
It was repulsive to compare children to one another, mentally toting up their faults and fine points like they were living ledger sheets. But sometimes he couldn't help it: Lara was like him-and his father-in so many ways, and in what few ways she wasn't, she was like his beloved Jeannie. It meant the three of them had frequent arguments and power struggles, which only increased as Lara got older, and occasionally there were threats of death and mutilation (not necessarily in that order) when, say, report cards came out, or Lara decided there was no need to wreck the car and tell her parents. I can manage one of those was practically a Wyndham family slogan.
The retirement announcement, Derik and his family returning to show their support, and the tension were all relentless reminders that his whole experiment would not have been possible without Lara . . . and Derik. And the truth was, he had starting mulling over the possibility two decades ago.
TWENTY YEARS EARLIER
Michael Wyndham stepped out of his bedroom, walked down the hall, and saw his best friend, Derik Gardner, on the main floor headed for the front door. He grabbed the banister and vaulted, dropped fifteen feet, and landed with a solid thud he felt all the way through his knees. "Hey, Derik!" he called cheerfully. "Wait a sec!"
From his bedroom he heard his wife mutter, "I hate when he does that . . . Gives me a flippin' heart attack every time," and couldn't help grinning. Wyndham Manor had been his home all his life, and the only time he walked up or down those stairs was when he was carrying his daughter, Lara. He didn't know how ordinary humans could stand walking around in their fragile little shells. He'd tried to talk to his wife about this on a few occasions, but her eyes always went flinty, and her gun hand flexed, and the phrase hairy fascist bastard came up, and things got awkward. Werewolves were tough, incredibly tough, but compared to Homo sapiens, who wasn't?
It was a ridiculously perfect day outside, and he couldn't blame Derik for wanting to head out as quickly as possible. Still, there was something troubling his old friend, and Michael was determined to get to the bottom of it.
"Hold up," Michael said, reaching for Derik's shoulder. "I want to-"
"I don't care what you want," Derik replied without turning. He grabbed Michael's hand and flung it away, so sharply Michael lost his balance for a second. "I'm going out."
Michael tried to laugh it off, ignoring the way the hairs on the back of his neck tried to stand up. "Touch-ee! Hey, I just want to-"
"I'm going out!" Derik moved, cat-quick, and then Michael was flying through the air with the greatest of ease, only to slam into the door to the coat closet hard enough to splinter it down the middle.
Michael lay on his back a moment like a stunned beetle. Then he flipped to his feet, ignoring the slashing pain down his back. "My friend," he said, "you are so right. Except you're going out on the tip of my boot, pardon me while I kick your ass."
This in a tone of mild banter, but Michael was crossing the room in swift strides, barely noticing that his friend Moira, who had just come in from the kitchen, squeaked and jumped out of the way.
Best friend or no, nobody-nobody-knocked the alpha male around in his own . . . damned . . . house. The other Pack members lived there by his grace and favor, thanks very much, and while the forty-room house had more than enough room for them all, certain things were simply . . . not . . . done.
"Don't start with me," Derik warned. The morning sunlight was slanting through the skylight, shining so brightly it looked like Derik's hair was about to burst into flames. His friend's mouth-usually relaxed in a wiseass grin-was a tight slash. His grass green eyes were narrow. He looked-Michael had trouble believing it-ugly and dangerous. Rogue. "Just stay off."
"You started it, at the risk of sounding junior high, and you're going to show throat and apologize, or you'll be counting your broken ribs all the way to the emergency room."
"Come near me again, and we'll see who's counting ribs."
"Derik. Last chance."
"Cut it out!" It was Moira, shrieking from a safe distance. "Don't do this in his own house, you idiot! He won't stand down, and you two morons-schmucks-losers will hurt each other!"
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