"I always buy my supplies from Adele. When will she be back?" A customer asked Jason. Trace, standing nearby, watched the exchange covertly. Neither he nor Jason liked the way the man smelled. He didn't look anything other than human, but the scent was off, in Trace's estimation. The man looked to be in his early thirties, with fair skin, blond hair worn to his shoulders and pale-green eyes.
"Don't rightly know," Jason drawled. "She's been sick, so I can't really say. Maybe in a week or two."
"I'll check back, then," the customer said, turning to leave.
"Anything we can get for you today?" Jason asked.
"No." The stranger replied curtly and walked out of the store. Jason exchanged a look with Trace, who walked straight to the back and pulled out his cell to call Winkler.
"Ever seen this one before?" Winkler brought the recorded images from the security DVR he'd installed inside Cordell Feed and Seed. Adele, Aedan, Radomir and Marcus watched the recorded image of the blond man who'd walked into Adele's store.
"No." Adele shook her head. "I've never seen him before."
"He knows your name," Winkler said. The machine also recorded sound—Winkler had installed a state-of-the-art system and they could see and hear the man perfectly. Aedan had an arm wrapped around Adele as they watched the images on the television inside the Evans' media room; Adele was shivering as she watched a perfect stranger ask about her by name, inquiring when she'd be back to work.
"Adele, you're not to go back there until we have this sorted out," Aedan insisted, his eyes going red.
"I'm inclined to agree with Aedan," Winkler said. "This is becoming stranger as time goes by."
Ashe hovered over their heads. He was supposed to be in his room—Aedan had asked him to stay there. He hadn't. Ashe might never see freedom again if his father knew how many times he'd disobeyed lately. Ashe couldn't leave it alone, though. He had to know.
"We will not fight vampires." The statement was flat and brooked no argument.
"You've said that before. I grow weary of hearing it." Wolf wasn't about to turn his back on these two—he could die easily at their hands, alone as he was.
"Then we shouldn't have to keep repeating it, don't you think?"
"We may have to find a way around this aversion you have with those creatures," Wolf pointed out.
"Creatures they may be in your opinion, but they are among the few that can kill us. We will not fight them unless our lives are at stake."
"You helped with the old one."
"You made it easy. I don't think we might be so lucky with any of the others. Those most certainly will be more dangerous. We cannot force them to our will as we did the female werewolf. And she was not in our original agreement."
"But necessary, to draw attention away, don't you think?"
"Faugh. You worry too much."
"But you have your own method of escape. I don't have that luxury." Wolf had watched them disappear more than once, and that ability baffled him. He was more than curious over how that might be accomplished.
"How unfortunate for you. Get us what we want and soon, or you will very much regret it."
"Ashe!" Cori shocked him by giving him a hug when he walked toward Transformational Arts on Thursday morning. April the twenty-second had dawned stormy and didn't look to let up. Ashe could hear thunder rumbling while Cori hugged him.
"Good to see you, too," Ashe was blushing when Cori let him go.
"Billings is coming," Wynn whispered as she passed Cori and Ashe in the narrow tiled hallway of Cloud Chief Combined.
"I'll talk to you at lunch," Cori promised, giving Ashe a small smile and walking toward her first class. "Your eye looks awful, by the way." Cori's smile as she looked back at Ashe became a full-blown grin.
Ashe didn't need the reminder that his eye was multicolored and looked much worse than it felt. Sali informed him that Chad Daniels would be out of school for the rest of the month following his mother's death. Ashe was sorry Chad had lost his mother, and not sorry that he wouldn't have to face the young werewolf. Jeremy, however, would still be attending class. Ashe hoped to stay out of his way. That hope was very short-lived.
"Empty, was it your fault that Chad's mom died?" Jeremy stood in front of Ashe, blocking the door into Transformational Arts.
"I don't think so," Ashe stared Jeremy in the eye. Jeremy was only an inch or so taller than Ashe, now.
"That is enough." Mrs. Rocklin's voice sounded behind Ashe. "Jeremy, this is not your class. I suggest you get to English before I call the Principal."
Jeremy walked away, muttering that Principal Billings would get rid of the stupid, worthless empty real soon.
"Sounds like he needs the English class," Ashe muttered and walked into Transformational Arts.
Ashe sat at the usual table with Sali during lunch, and Cori joined them quickly, sitting beside Ashe. What surprised him almost speechless, however, was that Wynn and Dori sat down next to Cori, and then Marco, followed by Ryan Phillips, another senior werewolf, set their trays down and sat on Sali's side of the table. Sali blinked across the table at Ashe a time or two before getting back to his chicken quesadillas.
"The trackers brought Randy Smith in early this morning," Marco said.
"They're holding him in Pat Roberts' old house," Marco said quietly before dipping the point of a quesadilla into a dollop of sour cream and biting into it. Ashe drew in a breath and lost his appetite. Turning to Cori, he found her staring at him. She looked so sad Ashe was afraid she might cry.
Thanks, Marco, Ashe sent. The only indication that Marco heard Ashe's mindspeech was a flaring of nostrils, nothing more. Ashe figured Principal Billings was dancing with glee somewhere, because he would get to kill Randy Smith come the full moon next Wednesday. "Sali, you want this?" Ashe pushed his tray toward Sali, who nodded. Ashe rose from the table and after only a moment, Cori got up too.
"Cori, this is awful," Ashe fretted as they walked toward the front doors of Cloud Chief Combined.
"Ashe, they can't do this. They just can't," Cori brushed away tears as she held onto Ashe. Ashe carefully steered her outside. Morning rains had drenched the prairie surrounding the school and dark clouds still hovered overhead. A few students had ventured outside, either sitting on benches or leaning against the school building to talk while the rain had let up temporarily. Mr. Harris and Mrs. Patterson were providing supervision to the students outside; none were allowed in the schoolyard unguarded. Mr. Thompson, who'd become a regular sentry at the school during lunchtimes and after classes were dismissed each day, stood nearby in buffalo form, his white coat covered in mist from the earlier rain.
"Look, we'll just put our heads together and come up with something. I hope," Ashe sighed softly, pulling Cori away from listening teachers and students. He didn't want anyone to hear them; nearly all outside were werewolves. Ashe suddenly felt surrounded and threatened by all of them. Even Sali had shrugged callously at Randy Smith's fate.
"What can we do?" Cori sobbed, gripping Ashe's hand tightly.
"The full moon isn't until next Wednesday. We have six days. Come on, stop crying and let's think about this," Ashe awkwardly attempted to console her.
"James would be so upset," Cori wiped her cheeks.
"Don't leave school grounds," Mrs. Patterson called after Ashe and Cori, who'd walked past the others to keep their conversation private.
Ashe stopped abruptly at Mrs. Patterson's warning, causing Cori to bump into him. "Come on, Cori. Let's go back inside." Steering Cori around gently, Ashe guided her toward the school doors. Marco waited for them, just inside.
"I'll get her to class, Ashe," Marco took Cori's hand and led her down the hall. Ashe watched as they walked away together, his mind whirling with possibilities and consequences.
Sali was unusually silent during the afternoon classes and on the ride home as well. Adele had picked up both boys in her old truck, saying that she'd called Denise and offered to pick Sali up. Ashe had watched Cori climb into Marco's car after school, accepting a ride home with him instead of Wynn's mother, who'd picked up Wynn and Dori. Shaking his head, Ashe hunched down in the front seat as his mother drove toward Sali's home.
"Dude, I'll talk to you later," Sali slid off the old Ford's front seat and gave a half wave to Ashe before closing the door.
"Yeah," Ashe said, scooting over and leaning back against the worn upholstery.
"You heard, didn't you?" Adele put the truck in gear and crunched over gravel as she drove away from the DeLuca's yard.
"I did." Ashe stared out the passenger-side window on the way home.
"It's Pack business," Adele gave a sigh.
"And nobody messes with that. I know," Ashe muttered angrily.
"I have Dawn Smith to thank for you, Ashe," Adele said after a while. "She was the first one to go to a fertility clinic. She wanted another baby with Terry, but they weren't having any luck. A doctor offered her a donated egg. That's how Randy was born, Ashe. He was a miracle, just like you."
"And we all know how well that's turning out," Ashe snapped sarcastically. "Sorry, Mom. It's not your fault."
"Nor yours," his mother pointed out gently. "Your father has made arrangements with a car dealership in Oklahoma City. The salesman is staying late, so we're driving in tonight to pick up his new SUV. I thought about offering to take Sali, too, but after everything else that's happened today, I decided against it. Radomir will be coming with us instead."
"Does Dawn Smith know they have Randy?"
"I don't know, hon. And she didn't call Mr. Winkler. I'm pretty sure of that."