Authors: Shannon Delany
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic
Dedicated to all my friends and readers who have stuck with me unflinchingly. I love you all!
Long after the fight with the company imprisoning the Rusakovas’ mother is over, the smell of gunpowder and smoke still lingers, hugging the figures gathered in the dining room of the old Queen Anne house in the town of Junction. Like the stain of blood, the sharply sweet scent is hard to be rid of even after thorough scrubbings in showers, and it clings like a ghost to a life recently lost.
“A toast,” the rescued woman, Tatiana, suggests.
Around the dining room table the Rusakovas and a few others they’ve brought into their family willingly—some with far better results than others—raise their glasses in response.
“To brave young men and women who give a bit of themselves so others may profit.” Copper and silver twining in brown curls that tumble around her shoulders, Tatiana looks at the girl her youngest son calls Jess, the girl whose arm still stings from the cut allowing Tatiana the blood needed for her cure.
They all reach forward in unison, glasses touching together, the clink of crystal a merry sound announcing their success. To have taken down their enemies—so many at once—and freed Mother … to now be able to provide her with the cure to her genetically engineered and fiercely abbreviated life …
The group watches, transfixed, as Tatiana drinks, pulling the thick, dark red liquid past her teeth and into her throat. She blinks, wobbling a moment, the remaining cure sloshing in the glass, which her youngest, Pietr, catches and sets carefully down before taking her hand in one of his and cupping her elbow with his other.
The elder of her biological sons, Max, leans toward the redhead seated beside him.
Amy’s become quieter since Marvin, a trait Max is determined to reverse. His willingness to show her his alternate form—that of the wolf—has certainly given her plenty to contemplate, and to potentially talk about. But for now, Amy is lost deep in thought. Having dinner with a family of Russian-American werewolves when one’s Halloween costume was that of Red Riding Hood tends to give anyone momentary pause.
“This may get messy,” Max warns, redirecting Amy’s attention with a point of his chin as he remembers when his sister, Cat, took the cure.
The same sister who suddenly dares not meet his gaze but exchanges a brief and pained look with Jessie before settling her eyes on Mother once more. Only a handful of people know what Jessie and Cat do, and only two of that handful are seated at this particular table on this particular evening. They know that the cure can be broken—pushed past—in moments of extreme stress.
It seems the only thing that never changes is the very existence of change in Jessie Gillmansen’s life.
Tatiana sways in Pietr’s grasp, her eyes losing focus with memory and something more.
“Mother?” Pietr’s voice rises as he steadies her.
,” she says, eyes glinting. “Have I told you the tale of how I first met your father?”
The entire group stiffens at once, knowing the story well. Tatiana has only recently told it, lingering on its details while barely holding back the wolf within during the course of the telling. For her to have forgotten something so freshly related …
“I had only just left Eastern Europe—running through the wild remnants of state forests and national parks, driven west for no better reason than my desire to watch the sun set off the ragged western coastline,” she begins with a tremble.
“Pietr,” Cat murmurs, her voice high in warning.
There is not one among their number who doesn’t realize something is wrong. Somewhere—some
—something has failed them.
“Mother,” Pietr whispers, pressing his strong and slender body to her side to better wrap her in his powerful arms.
The tremble becomes a shiver that shakes her narrow frame. “Where, precisely, I was, and when,” she continues, her voice going soft, her glossy eyes witnessing a scene none of the others can see as it unfurls before her like the petals of a rose opening for the first time, “I do not know—what did I care for political limitations?” She smiles, the flower of memory blooming before her, inviting her to indulge in a time years past. “He was such an amazing man … Just”—she focuses a moment, spears her sons with a suddenly sharp look, fiercely proud—“just like my boys.…”
And with a shudder, she collapses, falling limp into Pietr’s arms. Her chest heaves once before it stops rising and falling, the bright glow of life falling out of her still-open eyes.
Clutching her to him, strangely clumsy beneath the weight of death, Pietr stares at Jess, horror carved into his features beside complete disbelief. “Mother…?” His knees give way beneath him and he tumbles to the floor, dragging her body onto his lap.
From the opposite end of the table, the one grudgingly called “Uncle” Dmitri because of the assistance he and his mafiosos offered rises, solemn and cool. His posture speaks of a dignity of sorts, but one that somehow lacks an understanding of grace. “Her time is over. Now yours begins,” he says to Pietr.
Quivering as rage and terror war within him, Pietr lifts his mother’s body, crying out, “Do you not see
Her head lolls to the side, hair falling across her face.
“She was as much our future as our past!”
Jess’s feet become unstuck and she runs to Pietr, her chair tipping over and clattering in her wake, forgotten as the stunned people at the table spring to action. Cat, Max, and Alexi press in, crouching or kneeling, hands reaching for the woman who loved them, raised them, protected them as long as she could. But the only action that seems logical to Jess is to wrap her arms around her boyfriend—her love—and hold on.
It is Alexi who gently touches Mother’s eyelids to finally close her eyes.
“Oh, God,” Pietr whispers, cradling her in the crook of his arm. He tenderly sweeps the hair back from her face. “You tell them, Dmitri—tell your masters—tell your
—” He breaks free of Jess’s grip and sets his mother reverently down to take her abandoned wineglass from the table. “Tell them there are no more werewolves in Junction—” He downs a dose of the cure in one large swallow, grinning at Dmitri with bloodstained teeth. “That time”—he reaches around and, grabbing Max’s stubbly jaw, forces his mouth open, spilling the cure inside and along his face—“is over!”
Pietr springs to his feet and, pushing past his siblings, grabs the stunned mafioso. Dragging him to the front door, he shoves him into the cold outside. “Our deal has ended. I have nothing left to give you. We are all just men here, Dmitri, damaged, damned, and dangerous men. Leave. Do not come back—there is nothing to come back
. There are no werewolves in Junction,” he repeats before slamming the door.
He leans against the door a moment, chest heaving as he catches his breath and realization spreads across his features. He has broken ties with the Mafia man who trained him, marked him as his second and threatened to ruin his relationship with Jess. He has finally and ironically cut himself free of his mother’s rescuer and the man who would be his master. The leash has come off, but beneath its control there is no longer a wolf—just a young man feeling the cure race through his system eradicating the wildest parts of him.
Sinking to his knees, a smile twists across his lips despite everything and he embraces it: the pain, the strange “noise” Cat spoke of, the panicky death of the wild beast, and the freeing of the mild-mannered man who has struggled to correctly define himself as either man or monster since the noticeable parts of his change began at age thirteen.
Suddenly Jessie is beside him, one arm slipping between his back and the door, the other stretched across his chest to hold him tightly to her as he prepares to make his final change.
From the dining room come the sounds of Catherine, sobbing before she races through the house and out the back door, and Max as he gags and coughs, spitting before he launches away from them all and races up the stairs to lock himself in the bathroom and away from all curious eyes.
I wrapped myself around Pietr, holding him while the cure tore through his body. Together we tumbled the rest of the distance to the floor; my arms never once relinquished their hold on him. Within the human halo of my grasp, his clothing ripped and fell away in shreds and tangles of cloth. Fur sprouted in thick tufts, filling in awkwardly and obscuring the way his muscles slid beneath his sleek human skin as he became the wild-eyed wolf.
One last time
His fingers curled tight into the meat of his palms, bones slipping free to re-form and reshape into broad paws that thrust out claws and scrabbled weakly against the hardwood floor of the foyer, catching in the rug’s long fringe. Frantic at knowing its time was over, the wolf struggled, whining in my grasp, and I adjusted my grip—glad the cure already weakened the beast. I would have never been able to hold back Pietr in his wolf form if he’d been himself.
The thought spun loose in my head, seeking traction like wheels slipping in mud.
If he’d been himself
… I laced my fingers together and buried my face in his thickly furred side, breathing in deep the scent of pine forests and winter’s vast chill—the scents I’d come to recognize as
If he’d been himself
… Closing my eyes tight, I dragged in another breath, my arms burning at the stress of holding on. Wasn’t this Pietr, human and free of the beast always clawing at his heart and shortening his life span—wasn’t
Pietr as himself?
He’d been at my side when things were undeniably dangerous—the least I could do was embrace the danger that plagued him since he became a teen. I loved him. And I had promised him I always would.
was only one small test.
The wolf snapped its wicked teeth threateningly, closing inches from the top of my head—toasting my scalp with its fiery breath. I felt it twist, struggling to escape by dragging us some other direction. The bones in its spine and ribs wiggled against my rib cage, wobbling between wolf and man. I pulled my nose out of his soft fur to glimpse his eyes. They glowed the red of some dangerous sun setting the laws of gravity in a distant galaxy, and I knew we were close … close to a freedom he’d wanted but had never been free to choose.
There was a sound like a clap of thunder as his wolfskin ripped brutally in half. Pietr, completely and undeniably human, slipped free of the animal to rest nude and slick with sweat on the foyer’s Oriental rug. His body heaved with the effort of being nothing but human after four fast and hard years of being so much more.
I released the damp pelt, empty and strangely like the husk of some alien lifeform as it cooled, and I scooted forward on the floor to embrace him—
After everything—all the fighting, the danger, and the drama—finally, we were going to have our chance at being a normal couple. Everything was going to be okay. I was going to get my happily-ever-after after all.