Hunter's Moon (Chapter 5)
I missed cigarettes. More than I could say.
The door slammed behind me, and everyone stared. I stared back, feeling as if I'd stepped into a backwoods edition of Star Wars. I even glanced at the stage to see if the jazz was coming from a bizarre collection of aliens playing instruments I'd never seen before. But the raised, open area was empty, the music wailing out of a jukebox instead.
People of every shape, size, color filled the room. That struck me as odd right away. Folks in the north woods were not known for socializing with the Indians, and this tavern must be way over their quota of African-Americans north of the great Green Bay divide.
There were women – young and old, fat and thin, black, white, and red. Men the same way. Even a midget – make that litde person – was perched on a stool at the bar. I'd stepped into the twilight zone.
Everyone still stared at me as if I'd invaded a sacred place. This was a bar, wasn't it? My money was as good as the next guy's.
"Hi." I waved.
No one answered, but they did go back to their drinks and their smokes. I scanned the room for Damien, but he wasn't there.
I crossed to the bar, took a seat next to the little guy. He blew smoke in my face. So much for being welcome.
I didn't see a bartender. Not at first. Spinning my chair, I scanned the crowd again.
Damien had come in here. I'd seen him. He was not a figment of my imagination. But I was beginning to wonder what he was, since he seemed able to appear and disappear at will. I'd learned, over the past few years, that there were more things to fear in this world than werewolves. A lot more.
I turned back and let out a little shriek. The man I'd been searching for stood directly in front of me on the other side of the bar.
He may have found his shirt, but he seemed to have trouble with buttons. He'd only managed the bottom two, and an enticing V of pale, smooth flesh flashed against the black silk.
"What can I get you?"
I forced my eyes from his chest to his face. He lifted a brow. He knew I'd been looking. I only hoped I hadn't been drooling.
The thought made me straighten, scowl, snap, "Where were you?"
"No." I shook my head for emphasis – though I wasn't sure if the movement was for my benefit or his.
"I was rotating stock." He pointed behind the bar, toward the ground.
Relief rushed through me. I wasn't losing it. Not again. Or at least not yet.
"What can I get you?" he repeated.
"You're the bartender?"
"No, I'm independently wealthy. I come in here on Tuesday nights and wait on people for fun."
Since he said the words without a hint of humor or a trace of a smile, I almost wondered if he was serious. Until the midget snorted.
"Do you have white wine?" I asked.
I wasn't much of a drinker. I needed my wits about me all the time. I never knew when someone might turn into a werewolf and try to kill me.
This happened a lot more than you might think. It was usually the person you least expected it to be, too.
I glanced at the tiny man sitting next to me.
He lifted his upper lip in what was either a bad Elvis imitation or a snarl; I wasn't sure which. Could he…
"The wine is more like vinegar." I returned my attention to Damien as he set a white soda in front of me.
"You're better off with this, Miss… ?"
I never had told him my name. Oops.
I reached for the glass, my hand heading down as his headed up. Our fingers brushed and a jolt of awareness shot across my skin, making the hair on my arms tingle and the back of my throat tighten.
Damien must have felt it, too, because he jerked back as quickly as I did and busied himself wiping a drop of condensation from the bar.
My throat wouldn't ease up. My skin wouldn't stop jumping. I had a feeling this was what it felt like to be hopped up on drugs or maybe coming off them.
I grabbed the glass and took a sip. The mellow, sweet soda soothed both the dryness in my mouth and the tension in my body. I needed to get to work here, but it had been so long since I'd talked to a man, I wasn't sure if I remembered how.
I coughed gently, then rubbed my hands along my tingling arms, wondering if the sensation would ever fade. My gaze drifted over Damien's profile – the smooth wash of his hair across his cheek, the glint of light eyes in a pale face.
I sighed. Most likely I was going to feel like this every time I came near him. Damn.
"So, what's the name of this place?" I asked.
"A bar without a name?"
He shrugged. "Happens. They've tried to call it everything from Skunk Hill to Tavern in the Green.
Nothing really fits. So the place is just…" he spread his hands, "here."
I nodded, took another sip of soda, and set the glass back on the bar trying to figure out how to broach the questions I needed to ask.
"How'd you find me?"
I opened my mouth, shut it again, stumped. He thought I'd tracked him down? Of all the nerve! But I suppose guys who looked like Damien Fitzgerald had women following them all the time.
I glanced at the midget. He slammed back a shot and a beer, then gave me that weird little snarl again.
"Stop that, Cowboy. She's going to think you're not housebroken yet."
Cowboy shrugged and jumped down from the stool. As he walked over to join an ancient Native American woman at a table in the corner I saw how he'd gotten his nickname. Tiny cowboy boots with three-inch heels graced his little feet.
"I didn't know they made them that small," I murmured. "People come in all shapes and sizes." I turned back to Damien. "I meant the boots."
"Oh." He shrugged. "They make those in all shapes and sizes, too."
"So I see."
Damien picked up a dish towel and started drying glasses. He kept gazing at me as if waiting for me to speak. I was happy to oblige.
"Why did you disappear earlier?" He shrugged. "I don't like cops."
"I don't have much use for bartenders, either."
"Ouch." His lips twitched, but still he didn't smile. "Except I didn't mean you; I was talking about the sheriff."
I frowned. He was gone before Jessie had shown up. Or so she'd said.
"How'd you know she was coming?"
"Couldn't you hear her? She wasn't trying to be quiet." I hadn't heard Jessie. Because I was distracted by his great chest or because he had supernatural hearing? "Where'd you find your clothes and your shoes?"
"In my room. Where'd you find yours?"
"You have a room in the middle of the forest?"
He flicked his head toward the back of the building. His hair flew around his face, settling into a slightly more rumpled position than before. "There's a cabin out back. I preferred it to the room upstairs."
Room upstairs? Jessie hadn't been sending me on a wild-goose chase. She'd sent me to my room.
Above a weird bar, in the dense woods. I was still going to hold her head under a faucet.
"What's wrong with the room upstairs?" I asked.
"What do you care?"
I let out a sigh and stifled the urge to curse. "Because it's mine."
"You're the one who rented the room?" He appeared as happy about it as I was.
"I'll be staying awhile. From what I hear, that room is my only option."
"True. There isn't a Hilton for miles."
I could see why.
"So, Damien, what made you run into the big woods half-dressed?"
He cut me a quick glance at the sudden change in subject, then shrugged and picked up another glass to polish. I was reminded of his chest beneath the wavering moonlight, the smooth flow of his skin over rippling muscle. I took a third sip of soda.
"Have you ever seen a forest fire?"
Another lightning quick change in subject. I was getting dizzy.
"Not up close."
"You don't want to. They sweep across acres in minutes, killing everything in their path. Sounds like a train coming at you, and there's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide."
His eyes were hazel – very light – a combination of green, brown, and yellow. They made me wonder what else he'd seen. What else he'd done.
"I was getting ready for work and I smelled the flames, followed the scent until I found you."
"But you managed to put on some pants first?"
"Would you rather I hadn't?"
The word whispered through my head, but thankfully it didn't come out of my mouth. From the expression on his face, he'd heard me anyway.
"You followed the scent of the fire through the forest?" I repeated.
"Got a problem with that?"
A big one. This guy's nose was too damned sharp for a human. Too bad I was going to have to kill him.
But a werewolf was a werewolf, and even gorgeous ones had to die.
"Can you show me my room?" I asked.
Jessie had given me the key and I hadn't needed help finding anything since I was ten, but he didn't need to know that. I wanted to get him outside. Even I balked at mertzing someone in front of a dozen other someones.
"Sure." He tossed the dish towel onto the counter. "Cowboy, I'll be right back."
The little man lifted a little hand and kept talking to the old woman.
As we left, I felt a dozen pairs of eyes on my back. Why were they so interested in me? Or maybe they were just interested in Damien. I know I was.
Hell. I was too interested. Even now, my hands were clammy; my heart beat too fast. I didn't want to kill him, and that was new. Usually I couldn't wait.
Of course I didn't often meet my prey. I never spared the time for a conversation.
We left through the back door. A set of stairs led up the outside of the building. His cabin was tucked into the trees, very small, damn near decrepit. I was glad I had the room instead.
Most people would be worrying about what they were going to do with the body, how they would explain where this man had disappeared to. I didn't have such troubles.
I'd burn the body, and the J-S society would take care of the rest. Edward employed an entire division devoted to such explanations. Having the sheriff of the town on my side didn't hurt, either.
I did pause to consider if I was dancing too close to the line between human and psychopath. Sometimes I wondered. Usually late at night when I was all alone, rarely during hunting time with the silver moon shining bright in the sky and my memories alive in my head.
Damien opened the door. It hadn't been locked. Nothing new in town like this, I was sure. But considering the odd crew downstairs and the even odder ones loping through the woods, I'd be locking that from now on, thanks.
Reaching inside, he flipped the switch. I wished he hadn't. I couldn't bear the sight of blood beneath electric lights. Too many memories, too much pain, so damn red it hurt my eyes. I reached past him, planning to shut it off.
His fingers closed around my wrist and tightened. In an instant, the awareness was back, so powerful I couldn't make myself pull away. He could easily have killed me as I stood there wondering what his mouth would taste like, what his skin would feel like.
"What are you doing?"
His voice had lowered to a growl, rippling along my skin like a tactile sound wave. He was so close I could feel his heat, smell his skin, a tantalizing combination of air and water with a hint of pine. Or was that just the flavor of the wind?
Since he held my right hand in a tight grip, my left crept for the gun at the small of my back, not the most comfortable place to carry one but definitely the most secret.
I'd planned to use the knife, less noise, but I couldn't reach my boot. I was one step up from lame with my left hand. However, at this range I ought to be able to hit something vital without even trying.
I looked into his eyes. Did he know who I was? Why I'd come here? What I planned to do? I couldn't tell. It didn't matter. My fingers closed over the butt of my gun.
"You should let your hair grow."
I froze as an image slid unbidden through my mind. My twenty-two-year-old self, staring impassively into the bathroom mirror as I hacked off my braid with a butcher knife. I shivered despite the waves of heat coming from Damien like an open oven.
He released my wrist. I could have shot him then, even used my good hand. But he brushed his palm across the shorn stubble of my hair, then dragged his knuckles down my cheek.
I couldn't move, could barely think. His thigh brushed my hip, his breath kissed my temple, and I didn't leap back, didn't even think about slugging him.
I hadn't been touched in years, hadn't wanted to be. So why him? Why now?
I craved the brush of his skin against mine at the same time the pulse of adrenaline urged me to kill him. A small sane corner of my brain wondered if he was practicing mind control. Maybe that's what the werewolves were up to in Crow Valley.
His hand turned and I caught a flash of something I hadn't seen before, something that made my fingers fall away from the gun.
He was wearing a ring. A silver ring.
Any idiot knew a werewolf would never wear silver.