Thursday, September 18, 2008

Call of the Wolf

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Chapter One

“Abby. Abby!”
Abigail Winthrope jerked her gaze from the countryside and stared blankly at the man who’d spoken to her.
His lips tightened. She could see impatience in his hard gray eyes. Dragging in a deep breath, he released it slowly, as if mentally counting to ten. “You’re going to have to get used to responding to that name or you’ll be in serious trouble, Ms. Winthrope.”
Abby felt her face heat and then, as rapidly as her face had flushed with embarrassment, the blood drained away and she went cold all over. “I’m sorry. I had something on my mind,” she muttered.
She could tell from the look he gave her that he didn’t believe it for a minute. Anger replaced the fear after a moment. She’d just had her entire life turned upside down—ceased to exist—as the person she’d been since birth become someone else. She was trying to adjust. She knew just as well as he did that her life depended on it. She was no idiot! “What were you saying?”
“Maybe we should go over your background one more time?”
Abby chewed her bottom lip to keep from screaming at him. They’d done nothing since the trial but go over it—weeks of going over and over it until she felt as if they were trying to brainwash her, shatter her hold on her identity, rather than coach her into remembering the new one. “Sure.”
He began firing questions at her like a machine gun. Where were you born? What’s your mother’s name? Where did you go to school? When were you born? Mother’s maiden name? Ex-husband’s name?
Abby managed to answer each question with barely a blink, and the agent relaxed fractionally. “We’re coming up on Ajax.”
Abby nodded nonchalantly, but her heart leapt at the announcement and began to beat a little faster tattoo against her chest wall.
It was her new home, her new life and, like her name, she’d had nothing to do with the choices made for her. It wasn’t excitement making her heart hammer painfully in her chest. It was dread … every bit as much fear as she’d faced in the courtroom when she’d testified.
Where was the justice, she thought bitterly, for a witness condemned to life on the run, or death? when the criminal they’d helped put behind bars carried on inside jail as if nothing had happened and would probably go home again before she reached middle age? Granted, it hadn’t been that grand a life, but it was hers. She’d put it together. She’d guided her own feet down the path she wanted to take. She’d made her own choices.
She hadn’t even chosen to be a federal witness. They’d bullied and threatened her in to it, making promises they knew damned well they couldn’t keep, and now she was going to be a school teacher in Bum-Fuck Nowhere, U.S.A., surrounded by strangers. And she couldn’t even contact the pathetic number of friends and family she’d had before her life had gone down the toilet.
She’d never felt so completely alone in her life.
It was odd that she could feel that way when she’d actually had so little contact with family members and friends in the past several years, been too caught up in her own life to spare a lot of time or thought for it. And yet, she’d known she could. She’d known they were there in the fringes of her life, going about their own lives, and she could reach out any time she wanted to.
Now she couldn’t.
Agent Milner slowed the car, dragging her from her unpleasant thoughts, and she glanced around in time to catch a glimpse of a tall, white sign with fancy lettering and decorative curlicues proclaiming the town. Beneath the town’s name was the announcement that it was incorporated—whoohoo!—and the population—which she didn’t catch. She didn’t need to. Any town that posted their population didn’t have much of a population to boast about.
Rounding a bend on the narrow highway they’d been following, Abby saw a smattering of houses and businesses and then a wide banner above the highway, which had become the main street.
Oddly enough, it was named Main Street!
The legend on the banner was an announcement of the town’s Harvest Moon Festival.
Now there was something to get worked up about, Abby thought sarcastically.
Milner slowed the car even more. Abby wondered if it was to allow her to get a really good look at her new ‘home’ until she noticed the speed limit sign of twenty-five mph. Good god!
Struggling with her negative thoughts, Abby focused on studying the ‘commercial district’ as they crept along Main Street, following a couple of other cars that seemed to think twenty mph was fast enough. It was Saturday, and cars lined the street on both sides. They had to stop a half a dozen times in the three blocks they traversed for cars backing out of parking spaces—no, they didn’t have parallel parking!
Milner stopped at what appeared to be the only traffic light the town boasted, glancing around with interest. “Looks like a nice little town.”
“You’re only saying that because you won’t be living here,” Abby said dryly.
He sent her a frowning glance. “Attitude can make the difference in whether you enjoy your new life or not,” he said like the prick he was.
“Bite me,” Abby muttered.
His lips tightened. “You’ll want to watch the language. You’re an elementary school teacher now.”
Abby sent him a fulminating glare. “And whose bright fucking idea was that?”
“The position was open.”
“And I’ll bet it was the only position open here.”
“It was. She died.”
Abby sent him a sharp look. “Joy, joy! They have a hell of a retirement plan … or did the little darlings give the poor thing a heart attack?”
“Look, Ben … Ms. Winthrope, you’re alive and you have an entire life all set up for you here … on the government tab. A new job, a house … everything you’ll need to start over.”
Abby narrowed her eyes at him. “I liked the life I had,” she said tightly, “so don’t take this ‘we did you a favor’ attitude with me!”
“Chances are you’d be dead now if we hadn’t. Maybe you should consider being more careful about the boyfriends you pick in the future?”
Abby clenched and unclenched her fists a few times, wrestling with her temper. It was a waste of time to strike out at Milner, even though she suspected he was the bastard behind her being pulled in as a witness to start with. Of course, it might have made her feel better to knock his head off—if she’d been capable of it—but it wouldn’t change anything. “I hadn’t had but three dates with Mikhail,” she pointed out tightly. “If y’all hadn’t bullied me into wearing that damned wire, my life wouldn’t have been in danger to start with!”
The bastard didn’t even have the grace to look guilty about fucking up her entire life. He shrugged, turning the corner as the light finally changed. “If it makes you feel better to blame everybody else ...”
Exactly how the hell he figured it was her fault escaped her. How many women ran criminal background checks on the men they dated, she’d like to know! It wasn’t as if Mikhail either looked like, or behaved like, a thug, damn it! He’d behaved and dressed like a well-to-do gentleman. He’d been young, handsome—sexy with his thick accent. Half the women in the office had been panting after him!
She was supposed to be able to just look at him and tell he was the crime boss of some huge Russian mob that dabbled in everything from gun running, to drugs, to prostitution?
If he’d seemed extremely wealthy, maybe she would’ve been suspicious … and maybe she would’ve just been even more dazzled.
Truthfully, she’d begun to feel just a little uneasy about Mikhail—some things had just seemed a little off—but she’d only been out with him a couple of times and he was a suave son-of-a-bitch. How was she supposed to have guessed he was grooming her to use her connections?
She shook off her unpleasant thoughts as Milner pulled to the curb in front of a tidy little one-story Victorian house with enough faux gingerbread to look like something out of a fairytale. The neat yard was surrounded by a white picket fence in the front and she could see a taller privacy fence surrounding the back yard beyond the private driveway that curved past the right side of the house.
Shutting the car off, Milner unfastened his seatbelt, glanced up and down the street and opened the door. Taking that as her cue, Abby unfastened her own belt and got out, scanning the neighborhood. Everything was neat and tidy from one end of the street to the other, as far as she could see. Not one house looked to be less than a hundred years old and they were probably older than that given the fact that all of them had the deep porches, enormous roofs, and the elevations of houses built more than a century earlier. Several of them looked as if they dated back to the Civil War or earlier.
She caught a glimpse of a few people up and down the street, mowing or working on flowerbeds, and a handful of children. Realizing most of them had stopped what they were doing to stare at the strangers in their midst, she nodded a little uncomfortably and turned as Milner joined her, following the paved walkway up to her front door.
A sign at the edge of the lawn of the house to her right caught her eye as she scanned the yard of her own house. Shady Rest Bed-and-Breakfast.
Glancing at the house, she discovered it was a rambling two-story Victorian. Rockers were placed strategically around the wide porch that seemed to wrap halfway around the house. One was occupied by an elderly woman who had a large bowl in her lap. A man was standing not far from her, one shoulder propped against one of the porch pillars, a second one was seated on the steps, his knees cocked in a negligent sprawl.
Nodding politely, she looked away, trying to ignore the uncomfortable flutter of her heart in her chest.
Neighbors, she wondered? Or guests?
She’d gotten the impression that they were young men—but men, not boys—a little old to still be living at home with ‘ma’ but young to consider visiting such a dirt-water town, or staying at a Bed-and-Breakfast. She sent Milner a questioning glance. Instead of acknowledging it, he moved ahead of her, scaling the steps to the high porch at a jog and pulling the screen door open.
Abby grasped the edge of the screen door and held it wide while Milner unlocked the front door and pushed it open. The interior of the house was cool and dark. Abby paused in the wide hall that bisected the house while Milner looked around and finally found a light switch, flicking it on and staring up at the cheap, single bulb fixture in the ceiling about twelve feet above them. An oversized door led off to the parlor on the right. Opposite that was another door, which opened into a bedroom.
After glancing at both, Abby followed the hallway back and found a second bedroom directly behind the front bedroom, a formal dining room behind the parlor, and a kitchen and bath at the back of the house. The house had been furnished—so thoughtful of the bastards who’d obviously disposed of her furniture!—but boxes were stacked in every room.
“Your personal belongings.”
Abby glanced at Milner, feeling the tension inside of her lessen a fraction. “Y’all packed up my apartment and brought my things?”
He shrugged. “Pretty much everything, I imagine … unless it was considered dangerous.”
Abby blinked at him. “Dangerous?” she echoed.
Again, he shrugged. “Anything that might tie you to your past.” He moved past her and set his briefcase on the small kitchen table. Opening it, he pulled out a folder and flipped it open, removing a driver’s license, a credit card, birth certificate, diploma, teaching certificate ….
Abby moved close enough to stare down at her ‘life,’ the one they’d invented for her. The credit card surprised her.
“The limit’s twenty-five hundred. You also have a bank account in your name at the Citizens Bank on Main Street with another twenty-five hundred. That should be enough to hold you until your paychecks.”
Their generosity was overwhelming! He must have read her opinion in her expression. “Everything’s paid for. Utility deposits—you have a late model car out back, no mortgage, and the kitchen is fully stocked—and a job waiting for you.” He pulled out a card, scribbled something on the back, and dropped in on the table. “I’m your contact. The number on the back is your case number. If you have any reason to suspect that you’re in danger, call me.”
As little as she liked the man—any of the men she’d had to deal with—it was terrifying to realize he was about to walk out of her life and she had nothing to cling to but a damned business card, nothing between her and the Russian mob but a phone number. She swallowed with effort. “I thought the whole idea of placing me in this dirt-water town was to ensure that any strangers would be noticed by everybody. And now I discover I’ve been parked on the doorstep of a Bed-and-Breakfast?”
He frowned, but since he seemed to wear a perpetual frown, it was hard to say whether he found that news as disquieting as she did or not. “We checked it out. The woman that owns it, Mrs. Parker, has lived here her entire life. She has four full time boarders—all of them have been thoroughly checked out—and she hasn’t had more than a dozen guests in the past year and a half.”
He glanced around at the kitchen. “This was used as a safe house several times in the past and there weren’t any problems. Any questions before I leave?”
Abby wrestled with the sudden urge to beg him to take her someplace else, anywhere else … or just to stay. “I start work Monday, right?”
He nodded. “Don’t lose my card.”
Heaving a shaky breath, she nodded a little jerkily in response, and then followed him back through the house and out on to the porch. He startled her by grasping her shoulders and dragging her up against him. Kissing her on the cheek, he set her away. “Take care, sis!” he said as he turned and jogged down the steps. He paused and turned back when he’d reached the walkway. “You’re comin’ to Irene’s for Christmas, right?”
Abby blinked at him but managed a nod.
He turned back to wave when he reached the car. Abby waved back. “Be careful!” she called out for the benefit of their audience although she hoped the bastard croaked.
Without glancing toward the neighboring house, she ducked back inside the moment his car drove off. Leaning weakly on the door she’d closed behind her, she waited until her heart had resumed a more normal rhythm and finally pushed away from the door. After wandering from room to room for a while, listening to the hollow echo of her heels against the hardwood floor, she finally stopped in the rear bedroom. She studied the colorful quilt on the wide bed for a moment, and then crossed the room and crawled into bed fully clothed, pulling the quilt over her head.
When every effort to summon tears and fall apart failed because she was just too numb to feel any emotion deeply, Abby got out of the bed again, moved to the boxes stacked near one window, and set about emptying and sorting. By the time she’d gone through every container in both bedrooms, she’d lost the ability to distance herself from her emotions.
Her personal effects consisted of approximately half of what had been packed. The designer business suits she’d accumulated to ‘dress for success’ by scrimping on everything else had disappeared. The wardrobe furnished by Uncle Sam for her new role as school teacher was the dowdiest bunch of rags she’d ever laid eyes on and she was absolutely furious.
Curbing the urge to shred them, or throw them in the floor and stomp them and pitch a royal tantrum, she dumped them on the bed and stalked out the back door of the house, searching for some means of venting the rage boiling inside of her and threatening to spill out. A cheap grill caught her eye as soon as she’d stepped onto the porch, the sort that was more of an aluminum dish on legs than a real grill and no doubt purchased at some bargain store like every fucking else they’d ‘provided.’ Narrowing her eyes at it speculatively for a moment, she finally stalked over and picked it up, pushed the screen door of the porch open with her hip and stalked down the steps and into the back yard. After planting the grill a goodly distance from anything that looked likely to go up in flames, she strode back up the steps and grabbed the small bag of charcoal bricks.
She removed the grill top when she’d reached the grill again, tossed it aside, and formed a mound of charcoal in the center of the pan. All she needed was something to light it.
Stalking to the trash can near the back steps, she shoved the empty bag into it and went back on the porch to look for something to start a fire. A can of lighter fluid, she discovered, had been left thoughtfully beside the grill and charcoal bricks, but she didn’t see any sign of a match or lighter. A search of the kitchen drawers turned up a box of oversized kitchen matches—no doubt to light the damned antiquated stove!—and she returned triumphantly to the yard armed with matches and lighter fluid.
Tucking the box of matches under one arm, she opened the can of lighter fluid and hosed down the charcoal bricks with the fluid until she’d emptied the can and was satisfied she’d put more than enough fuel on the bricks to produce a minor bonfire. Grasping the box of matches, she backed off a few paces and pulled a match out.
“You plannin’ on roastin’ an ox?”
The deep male voice startled Abby so badly she dropped the match she’d been on the point of striking. Whirling around, she spied a man propped negligently against the side of her porch, his arms folded over his chest.
Her gaze slid down the jacket clad upper torso that seemed impossibly broad—perhaps because of his folded arms and the jacket—following the stripe down the leg of his trousers to his serviceable black shoes.
Not a man, she mentally amended.
A cop!
Abby gaped at him, her mind scrambling madly for information it hadn’t registered—most importantly just how long he might’ve been standing at the end of her porch observing her and why he might have been watching her. She hadn’t noticed him. She sure as hell hadn’t heard him creeping up on her.
It was hard seeing past the brown-and-tan uniform. As he reached up, however, tipping the brimmed hat back on his head that he’d had pulled low across his brow, her gaze followed the movement and landed on his face. His thick, black, almost straight brows were tented upward above the bridge of his long, straight and surprisingly patrician nose. His eyes were narrowed, either against the brightness or in anger, she wasn’t certain which, and, in any case, he was, fortunately, too far away for her to discern the color of his eyes, but not too far to notice the thick fringe of black lashes.
There wasn’t a hint of a smile on his hard mouth.
“I beg your pardon?” Abby managed finally.
He gestured with his squared, cleft chin toward the grill. “That’s an awful lot of charcoal and lighter fluid for a hamburger—or a steak.”
Abby glanced toward the grill, trying to think. When no plausible excuse occurred to her, she returned her attention to the sheriff, who’d stood away from the porch and was sauntering toward her.
Big, she thought.
Brawny? Or fat?
A quick glance down his length didn’t discern a sign of a gut. “Uh … were you looking for somebody?”
He stopped when he was still a good yard away, tilting his head curiously. “You Abigail Winthrope?”
Abby stared at him blankly. “What?” she asked, stalling for time while she struggled to remember her name.
The straight, black brows lifted upward, tilting his hat forward again. “Sheriff Banner. Seth.”
Abby blinked at him. “Who?”
His hard mouth abruptly curled. A faint chuckle escaped him. “Guess I startled you.”
Startled didn’t begin to cover what he’d done to her. Dragging her gaze from him, she stared at the box of matches in her hand, then the grill full of charcoal she’d soaked down to start a bonfire for the clothes the Feds had so thoughtfully picked out for her to replace the designer suits she’d worked her ass off to pay for. She looked at the cop again. It wasn’t easy ignoring the fact that the man was damned easy on the eyes, but the uniform made it far less difficult than it might’ve been otherwise. “I’m sorry … Who did you say you were looking for?”
Something flickered in his eyes. “Abigail Winthrope. You are the new school teacher?”
Abby studied him, feeling decidedly unfriendly. She didn’t care if that smile ordinarily melted the hearts of women six to sixty, the heart palpitations the bastard had given her had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he was a definite twelve on a scale of one to ten. “And why are you in my backyard?”
He looked a little taken aback.
Strike that. He looked a little pissed off. The smile flat-lined. His eyes narrowed again. “Mrs. Parker sent me to welcome you to town and invite you to dinner,” he said coolly.
Abby pasted a tight smile on her lips, searching her mind for the name until it finally surfaced—the neighbor with the Bed-and-Breakfast. “How very … neighborly of her! Do be sure to tell her how much I appreciate the invitation but, as you can see, I was just about to throw something on the grill.”
The sheriff studied her skeptically. “You’ll have the fire department down here inside of five minutes if you light that thing.”
Abby’s smile became more brittle. “Y’all have a fire department?”
His complexion darkened.
On one level, Abby was well aware that she was being a bitch and that it was damned stupid to set up the back of the local law. On another, she’d had about all she could take of the ‘law’ of the land and she was pissed off besides that he’d sneaked up on her. It was her backyard, damn it! If she wanted to build a fucking bonfire in her grill, she ought to be able to!
“We do. We have all sorts of things … just like they do in the big cities,” he responded with determined cordialness.
Abby fought the urge to ask him if that included electricity, running water, and sewage and managed to tamp it. She returned her gaze to the grill. As frustrated and angry as she was, as dead set as she was against even pretending to be friendly to a cop after all she’d been through, she realized she couldn’t really afford to deliberately set everyone against her when she had no where else to go. “Too much charcoal, huh?”
“About three times too much … unless you are plannin’ on grillin’ an entire steer,” he said dryly.
“I guess it wouldn’t be a very good idea to put them back in the bag,” she said a little doubtfully, wondering what to do with the shit now that she couldn’t vent her anger the way she’d planned.
“Not with a can of lighter fluid on them, no.”
Abby ground her teeth together. Obviously, he’d been observing her a lot longer than she’d realized. She tucked the box of matches under her arm again. “In that case, I guess I’ll just forget about grilling and fix a sandwich.”
“Or you could take Mrs. Parker up on her invitation and join us for dinner.”
Abby discovered she couldn’t really maintain her anger in the face of his determined politeness. “That’s sweet of her, but I’m really tired. And I haven’t even started unpacking my things.”
He studied her speculatively. “All the more reason to take her up on her offer. She’s a good cook.”
Abby looked down at the old jeans and t-shirt she’d put on to work in because they were comfortable and familiar—and she needed comfort and familiarity. She didn’t feel up to dealing with meeting strangers and trying to maintain the role the Feds had manufactured for her.
She didn’t think she would ever really be ready for it, though.
And she was hungry.
And she didn’t feel like cooking.
“I should probably change.”
She discovered when she met his gaze that he was surveying her with patent interest.
“Not on my account. You might want to put on a bra, though.”
Abby felt her face heating. She couldn’t resist the impulse to look down at herself, despite the fact that she more than half suspected he was only guessing. The t-shirt was old, but it certainly wasn’t thread bare.
It had a few holes in it, though, very small holes.
And her nipple had found one of them!
She jerked her head up and met his gaze. A faint tremor moved along his well chiseled lips, but he managed to keep from grinning at her.
“I’ll tell Mrs. Parker you’ll be along,” he murmured in a shaky voice, turning and striding away.


Anonymous said...

Hi Madelaine, I'm a big fan. I've read all your books and loved them all but so far this one is my favorite, next to Nocturnal. Keep up the good work!! ;0)


Madelaine Montague said...

Hi Tiah!

Thank you! I'm so glad you enjoyed it ... and Nocturnal. I had a lot of fun writing these books and it's always nice to hear from people who enjoy reading them.

Kim said...

Hi Madelaine:

I'm new to your books and love them. You are now on my #1 author list! I'm looking for Call of the Wolf in paperback. Please tell me it is not just an e-book!

Looking forward to reading "Call of the Wolf."


Madelaine Montague said...

Hi Kim!

Oooh, thanks! That makes me feel on top of the world! Actually, Call of the Wolf will be available in print from in November!
But you can save money by buying the ebook version, you know, and that's available now--same place!