What to do?
Jim looked at Curran. "We have bait. He likes her. He might come to visit her."
Bastard. He screwed me over again and again. Why the hell was I always surprised? I looked to Curran. He was considering it; I could almost see the wheels turning under that mane. "Don't do this. I have to find Julie. I can't stay here waiting for that idiot to pop out of thin air."
Jim reached out to me.
"Put your hand down or lose it." I didn't bother looking at him. "You know me. You know I'll do it."
"We don't need anyone's help," Curran said.
Jim withdrew his hand.
I took a deep breath. I saw a way out of this mess, but it was the kind of way that only a desperate fool like me would take. It was either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid.
I held out the monisto. "The bowman wants this. I saw him looking at it. I trust the Pack to safeguard it for me until I need it." I put it into Curran's clawed hand. "I trust you to keep it safe. I don't know why, but it's very important. Both the bowman and the reeves will come looking for it. I can't afford for it to be lost. Do you promise to guard it?"
It was a gesture of utter faith. Everyone knew Bran had breached the Pack's security three times. The fact that I trusted Curran with the monisto would mean more to him than any revenge. I had made it personal. If he accepted it, he would die to protect it.
The golden eyes looked into me. "You have my word," he said.
"That's all I need."
I was free to do as I must. I could keep Bran occupied, assuming I found him, and no reeve would ever best Curran.
"I'm going to the bouda house to check on my friend and then I'm off to look for Julie."
"I'll get you an escort as far as the hyena's territory."
"I can find my own way."
Curran shook his head. "Don't argue with me right now."
Two minutes later I rode a horse to the bouda house, accompanied by four somber-faced werewolves. They left me at the invisible boundary. As one of them kindly explained, each shapeshifter clan within the Pack had an expectation of privacy in their meeting place. The privacy wasn't easily breached by members of a different beast clan.
The same bouda that promised to smile when she crushed Jim's bones waited on the porch. She watched as I dismounted and got Esmeralda's books out of the buggy still abandoned by the house.
"You're back," she said. "I peeked in on your chickie while you were gone. She's hot. Does she like girls?"
"I honestly don't know."
"So what's her kick, candy, music? What does she like?"
The bouda frowned. "I don't know anything about guns. This isn't going to be work, is it? Bummer. Now I don't know if I want to bother."
She made me think of Curran again. "Men are dumb bastards," I said.
She nodded. "Women aren't much better. Whiny bitches, most of them." She thought about it. "Guys can be fun. I recommend Raphael. He's the most patient one we've got, so he gets lucky more than the others. Although I think your chickie has his complete attention at the moment."
I found Andrea and Aunt B in the kitchen at a small round table, drinking tea. The sight of Andrea bringing the teacup to her hyena muzzle struck me as hilarious. I clamped my mouth shut and tried not to laugh. It had to be nerves.
If she asked for biscuits, I'd lose it.
Andrea saw me and visibly stiffened. "How did it go?"
Aunt B sighed. "She wants to know if Curran's coming to kill her."
"Oh. No, he isn't interested in murdering you. Believe me, right now you're the least of his problems."
"Please tell me there is coffee."
Aunt B grimaced. "They're already crazy. If I let them have coffee, they'd be bouncing off the walls. We have herbal tea."
I put my books on the table.
"You look like you need some sleep." Andrea put a steaming cup before me.
I needed to find Julie, find her mom, convince a sociopath to donate some blood for the good of mankind, and deal with a tentacled atrocity swaddled in cloth and his rabid mermaids. I needed coffee.
A male bouda sauntered into the kitchen. He wore black leather pants and a leather vest baring a chiseled chest. He wasn't conventionally handsome, the opposite actually: his nose was too long and his face was too narrow, but he had intense blue eyes and black hair combed to shiny perfection, and he used what he had to his best advantage. You knew by some sort of natural female instinct that he would be good in bed, and when he looked at you, you thought about sex.
He glanced at Andrea with an odd longing on his face, switched his attention to me, and offered me his hand. "Sorry about our...altercation in the buggy. I was only playing. I'm Raphael."
"The one who likes the hurting." I moved to shake his hand and he reversed it and kissed my fingers instead, singeing me with a look that was pure smolder.
I took my hand back. "That woke me up."
He smiled a picture-perfect smile. "Been a while?"
For some reason, I felt like answering. "Two years. And if you could tone down that smile, I'd appreciate it. Getting weak in the knees."
Raphael took a step back. His face took on the same concerned look I saw on Doolittle when I assured him I was fine. "Two years? That's entirely too long. If you want, we can take care of that. After two years, it's pure therapy."
"No thank you. Curran already offered to help me with that problem, and since I turned him down, I wouldn't want to cause any friction between you two." The last thing I needed was to set Curran and the hyenas on a collision course.
Raphael backed away with his hands in the air, strategically positioning himself behind Andrea. "No offense."
"Is Curran serious?" Aunt B asked.
She wanted to know if she now had to walk on eggshells around me. For once, I was happy to disappoint. "No, he's just being an asshole. Apparently every time he calls me 'baby,' I look like a red-hot poker is stuck up my butt. Causes him no end of fun." I drank my tea.
Aunt B gave me an odd look. "You know," she said, stirring her tea, "the fastest way to get him off your back is to sleep with him. And tell him you love him. Preferably while in bed."
I smirked and the tea almost came out of my nose. "He'd run like he was on fire."
Raphael rested his hands on Andrea's shoulders. "Still a bit tense?" His fingers began to gently knead her muscles.