Anastasia danced with joy, tilting her head up toward the night above, the firelight dancing across her features.
Prime finished his beer and rose to join her in the stepless dance of life.
Together, they moved.
The night faded. Her family faded. Together they were only two, under the stars and the rising full moon.
His arms over her shoulders, her green eyes locked onto his.
A voice. Yuri’s.
“You want to chase real tail? You want the real thing?”
Dancing. Intoxicating smell of woman.
Yuri’s voice, still calling, but more . . . howling than calling.
“You want to live life? Howl at the moon, man!”
At least that’s how it seemed, as he spun with Anastasia.
“You want it?” she asked. “You want a natural life? A simple, honest life? A free life?”
He didn’t think too hard about that? Why should he? The answer had been hidden in his heart for years.
“For a real man, this life is the best,” she said, grabbing his head, pulling his hair. “For you, my mate.”
Who was picking up who?
Did it matter?
They danced and Prime opened his senses while turning down his analysis.
At some point the physical urges became too much and he had to have her. Damn the lack of privacy. Damn the family. Damn the world.
They ripped their clothing. Their own. Each others. It was all the same.
Words became sounds.
Feel the air, the moving air, the wind.
Feel the real.
Wait, what was he doing? What was Anastasia becoming? What was the biting doing to—stop!
Stop thinking. Feel. Go with it, truth, life.
Time for Prime to become Primeval.
Hair, sprouting. Fangs, growing. Claws, extending. Nose, blossoming. Eyes, sharpening. Ears, encompassing. Body, transforming. Becoming a better . . . being.
Time for Primeval to take his mate.
On all fours, hunching, biting, howling, coming, with the scent of blood spilled from the sex for the first time. An honest mating. The best.
Running through the night, howling again, with wind, with his true family, his pack.
He belonged. He had his place.
He had his mate.
He had his pack.
It was going to be a long-term relationship.
Primeval howled with satisfaction.
He’d been picked up.
THE GARDEN, THE MOON, THE WALL
The ghosts follow Sephie to work again that day.
They stand outside the windows of the bookstore, staring in with hollow eyes—more of them now than a few days ago. She tries to ignore them. At least they never come inside.
Most of them, anyway.
The light dims as she’s shelving books, and Sephie turns to find her ex-boyfriend grinning down at her, pink filming his long ivory teeth. He tilts his head, shows her the still-wet ruin a bullet made of the left side of his skull.
Her hands tingle with adrenaline shock as the smell of his blood coats her tongue—copper sweetness, and beneath that the familiar salt-musk of his skin.
A wink and he’s gone, and the air smells like books and dust and air freshener again. Sephie wobbles, and the stack of books in her arms teeters and falls, hardbacks and trades thumping and thwapping one by one, echoing in the afternoon quiet. No blood stains the worn green carpet.
The third time this week. Cursing, she crouches to pick up the books, and pauses as she reads the nearest title.
Lycanthropy: An Encyclopedia
Caleb always was a smart-ass—she shouldn’t expect that to change because he’s dead.
“Are you okay?” Anna calls from across the store.
No, she thinks. Not even a little.
The sky darkens as they close, October nearly over and autumn chewing the days shorter and shorter. Purple eases into charcoal, and the grinning jack-o’-lantern moon rises over the jagged Dallas skyline.
The moon doesn’t bother her, never mind Caleb and his lousy jokes.
Sephie lights a cigarette as Anna sets the alarm and locks the back door. Her hands shake, the itch in her veins more than nicotine can ease.
“You want to get some coffee?” Anna asks, pocketing her keys and pulling out her own cigarettes. Her nails are orange and black to match her Halloween hair. Her lighter rasps, and the smell of cloves drifts through the air.
Sephie swallows, her mouth gone dry. The shakes are coming on for real, her stomach cramping. “That’d be nice, but I need to run some errands. Maybe some other time.” She likes the bookstore better than any of the other jobs she’s had, and doesn’t want to get fired because someone thinks she’s a junkie.
It’s not like she can tell them the truth.
“Sure,” Anna says, waving as she turns toward her car. “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah. ’Night.” Sephie ducks down the alley toward the street, trying not to think about Anna’s bemused little smile.
Tonight will be bad—she hears it in the hollow roar of traffic, sees it in the halos bleeding off the street lamps. But cold sweat prickles her scalp, her neck, and chills crawl up and down her back; she can’t wait another day.
Hunching her shoulders, she slides into the ebb and flow of downtown streets.
For a few blocks everything’s okay. The night hums and chatters, traffic and voices, the cacophony of city-noises. The air tastes of exhaust and asphalt, the sewer-stench of the Trinity fading now that summer’s passed. She catches a whiff of decay, of meat, and saliva pools on her tongue. But it’s only a dead dog, not what she needs.
Then it happens, that sideways lurch in the pit of her stomach, and she’s alone on the sidewalk. No more neon and shining glass, no more noise. Dusty brick and stone instead, grime-blind windows and the moon grinning overhead.
And the ghosts.
She’s learned not to stop, not to listen to their whispers. Keep walking, eyes on the sidewalk—don’t look at those pale faces peering out of the shadows, bruised and bloody or just empty, eyes burning with a junkie’s aching need.
She knows the feeling, all too well, but she can’t help them. She can barely help herself.
Her nose wrinkles against the smell of this place. The city stinks, but at least it’s a living stench. This is dry bones and dust, old tombs.
The wind that sighs from black alley-mouths is worse—sulfur and ammonia, sickness and pain. It aches like a bruise when it touches her, makes her eyes water.
Her footfalls echo as she lengthens her stride. It will pass. It always does. She has to keep moving, out of the between-places.
But she’s a between-thing now, and she may never leave this place behind.
A breeze eddies past her, and Sephie stumbles to a halt. Rose gardens and evergreen, the smell of evenings as summer melts into autumn. The smell of her dreams.
The scent leaks from under the door of a narrow shop, its windows curtained and dull. She reaches for the knob with a trembling hand.
But her stomach cramps again, and already the braver ghosts are moving toward her, murmuring, pleading.
She turns and runs, and doesn’t stop until the world slips back to normal.
Bobet & Cask Funeral Services is long closed, but a light burns in the back. Sephie crouches in the shadow of a hedge, holly pricking her back as she finishes her last cigarette and tries to slow her breathing. Her legs cramp from exercise, but that’s nothing to the pain in her gut. She wipes clammy sweat from her face and drags her fingers through the curling cowlicked mess of her hair.
Peter waits by the back door, even though she’s early. Hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, eyes flitting back and forth—he looks like a really bad spy.
“You should start smoking,” she says, moving out of the dark. “It’d look more natural.”
He jerks, presses his back to the door. The smell of his fear cuts through the muggy night and Sephie’s stomach growls.
“I—” He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Come inside.”
He always invites her in; he’s read too many books. She follows him down the corridor, down the stairs to the morgue.
The air smells of chemicals and death, and she rubs her arms against crawling goosebumps. Her sweat gels in the cold, sticking her shirt to her back. A body lies on a metal table, and her stomach clenches again. Peter glances at her, blue eyes narrowing, like he thinks she’ll start gnawing on an arm.
She’s not sure what would happen if he weren’t here.
He opens a refrigerator, takes out a lidded plastic bowl. “It’s heart, and liver, and some other things . . . A car crash, so I could take a little more than usual.”
“This guy?” She nods toward the corpse in his funeral suit, wrinkled face coated in makeup that can’t simulate living color, no matter how skillfully it’s applied.
“No, he had a heart attack. The accident was a few days ago.”
Sephie smiles, close-lipped. “Thank you.” She tugs a roll of bills out of her pocket, trades it for the container. He tried to give the money back, once, but she makes him keep it. She’s afraid he’ll ask for something else if she doesn’t.