And then he’d pulled out the one zinger that never failed to tear straight through her.
"This is what I get for marrying a Cajun against my family’s wishes. I should never have had children. They’re a liability no politician can afford."
She hadn’t even been able to get a word in edgewise during his entire forty-five-minute rant. After a while, she hadn’t even tried. She’d set the phone down on the counter, munched chips, and flipped through a magazine while he railed. Once he’d finished, she’d simply apologized and hung up.
Her father had never been the kind of man to listen to reason. Of course, she could have ended the whole thing by telling him who Wren was and why Blaine hadn’t been able to bribe his way out of trouble, but she took sadistic pleasure out of not telling him. Let her father go on with his delusions.
Knowing her dad, he’d do a full turnaround as soon as he learned about Wren’s wealth.
But she didn’t want her father to like Wren because Wren was wealthy. She wanted him to see the man, not the money.
Shaking her head, she walked down the wooden pathway between the cages in the zoo as she tried to put the whole thing out of her mind. But it was impossible. She didn’t want to fight with her father.
All she wanted was to have her father be proud of her. To accept her. And yet he was so unreasonable. She’d never known anyone who could make up their mind so fast with so little information and then argue into infinity that they were right while everyone else was wrong.
"One day I’m going to stand up to you, Dad," she whispered. At least she hoped she could, but it was hard. No matter what, she loved him. He was her father and he had profound moments of tenderness…
At least sometimes.
He just had higher expectations for her. He wanted her to be like Whitney or Elise, a perfect debutante. A stunning beauty who could be some rich man’s consort. One who threw strategic parties to help her husband climb the ladder of success in whatever venue he chose.
But that wasn’t her. She was plain and far from skinny or petite. As for parties… she’d rather be alone in a corner somewhere reading. She hated being nice to people she didn’t like because her tamer wanted their contributions. She hated being fake. All she wanted was to be herself.
She wanted to make her own mark on the world like her mother had done before her marriage, not be the helpmate for someone else. That kind of life had destroyed her mother, and she knew intrinsically that it would kill her, too.
"I just want to breathe." She didn’t care what she did so long as it was a job or career she chose. She wouldn’t be locked in a cage like the animals here. No matter how much she loved her father, she refused to let him treat her the way he’d done her mother. Sooner or later, she was going to force him to see her for herself.
Marguerite stopped her walk in front of the white tiger exhibit. Since she was a little girl, she’d always loved to come to the zoo. It had been her mother’s favorite place on earth.
Her mother had grown up here. It’d been Marguerite’s maternal grandfather who’d led the crusade to save the zoo in the seventies and early eighties. He had been a visionary who had taken the zoo out of the dark ages and turned it into one of the leading zoos in the country.
Everywhere she looked, she saw her mother’s side of the family here.
For that matter, she saw her mother.
When her mother had been a college student at Tulane, she’d worked here as a docent. She had planned on being a veterinarian or zookeeper after college, but her marriage had stopped all of her dreams.
The only time Marguerite could remember her mother smiling and laughing was when she’d brought her here and told her stories about the different animals and how they lived and hunted. It was here that Marguerite found peace.
Here that she could again feel her mother’s presence.
Marguerite’s father hated this place. To him was gauche, common, and filthy. But to Marguerite it was beautiful.
"I miss you, Mom," she whispered as she watched the two tigers play in a small facsimile of their wilderness home.
She’d only been twelve when her mother, sick of being a politician’s wife, had overdosed on antidepressants. Of course Marguerite’s father had covered it up so that everyone thought it’d been an accident, but she knew the truth. Her father had refused to divorce her mother or even live apart. It would have been bad for his career.
Unable to stand the prospect of being castigated for her friends, her wardrobe, and her taste in everything for the rest of her life, her mother had taken matters into her own hands. She’d left a final note telling Marguerite to be stronger than she had been.
Follow your heart, Marguerite. Don’t let anyone tell you how to live your life. It’s the only one you have, mon ange. Live it for both of us.
Marguerite’s lips quivered as grief swept through her. Her mother had been a truly beautiful and gentle soul.
For the longest time, Marguerite had hated her father after her mother’s death. And in truth, she’d hated God for leaving her alone with him. But as she grew older, she’d begun to understand him a bit.
Like Blaine and Todd, he was at the mercy of his own family’s ambitions for his future. Her grandfather had run her father’s entire life from birth. Her grandfather still did in many ways. Even as a powerful senator, her father always deferred to his father for advice. If Grandpa was upset, Dad was upset and contrite.
The only time her father had ever stood up to her grandfather had been by marrying her mother.
Marguerite wasn’t even sure that her father ever really loved her mother. Her mother had been one of those absolutely stunning women. The kind of beauty who turned everyone’s head. Any man would have wanted her.
No doubt her father had been attracted to her for her exceptional looks. Not to mention, as a former Miss Louisiana and a Cajun whose father had saved their beloved Audubon Zoo, she was a major benefit to a man with political ambitions. With her mother by his side, her father had been able to claim that he understood the needs of all members of Louisiana-both rich and poor.
Well, he might understand their needs, but he’d never understood his daughter’s and he never would.
Marguerite froze as she recognized that deep, hypnotic voice. She looked over her shoulder to see Wren standing back from her. Wearing a loose denim shirt and jeans, he was the best thing she’d seen in days. His blond hair was a bit shaggy, and the blue of his shirt made his eyes practically glow. He completely took her breath away.
Before she could think better of it, she literally threw herself into his arms and held him close, needing to feel warmth from someone.
His timing couldn’t have been better.
Wren was shocked by her reaction. He wrapped his arms around her as she clutched him to her. No one had ever been so happy to see him before. He swallowed as unfamiliar emotions tore through him.
"I’m so glad you’re here," she whispered.
She pulled back with a grimace and he sensed her instant dismay. Wren offered her a smile as his heart pounded with a foreign ache. "It was a joke, Maggie."
Her expression softened back into one of joy. "How did you know I was here?"
He hesitated as he tried to think of a plausible lie. "You weren’t home."
"Yeah, but I could have been anywhere in New Orleans."
Wren rubbed his neck nervously. He had to distract her away from this line of questioning before he let something slip.
"I like coming here." That was a complete lie. He actually hated zoos. He couldn’t stand to see the animals who were caged. As one of them, he could hear their thoughts and sense their discomfort. Not that all of them were unhappy with their situation. There were a number of animals who liked the attention and who were grateful to have a safe environment.
They were like him. Predators. And they despised cages of any sort.
When he was a child, his mother had always threatened to sell him to the zoo.
"It’s a freak. They’d pay good money to have something like it on display. Just imagine how much money we could make." His father had been the only thing that had kept Wren out of such a place as this.
Wren ground his teeth as he looked away from the white tigers. They were the number one attraction at the zoo here. His mother hadn’t been wrong.
He hated her for that.
Pushing those thoughts away, he turned back toward Maggie. "Why are you here?"
She gave him a winsome smile. "I told you I have a thing for tigers." She looked past him, into the pit where the white tigers were playing. "I think Rex and Zulu are the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen and I love to come over and watch them."
Her words amused him. "You like white tigers, huh?"
She nodded. "I would give anything to pet one."
He smiled at the irony of that. Little did she know, she’d already done it. "They’re not so hard to tame."
She laughed. "Yeah, right. They’d probably eat anyone dumb enough to go near them."
Maybe, but not when the hand stroking them was one as gentle and delicate as hers. Any tiger would lie down at her feet…
At least he would.
Wren took those beautiful hands into his. Her skin was like warm velvet against his, and it reminded him of just how soft the rest of her body was. He could sense a deep sadness inside her, and it made his own heart ache for her. "Why aren’t you studying?"
She sighed as if the weight of the entire universe was on her shoulders. "I couldn’t concentrate. I had a crappy call with my father a little while ago and I was trying to zen myself into some semblance of a happy place."
His stomach shrank at her words. He hadn’t meant to disturb her. "You want me to leave you alone?"
She shook her head. "No. I found my happy place the minute I saw you."
His heart stopped beating as he heard words he’d never thought to hear from anyone. This was such an impossible relationship. Were-Hunters didn’t choose their mates; the Fates did that without any input from them.
Whenever a Were-Hunter was to be mated, a mating mark would appear on their hands. It almost always appeared after sex, which was one of the reasons why un-mated Were-Hunters were promiscuous. The more they slept around, the more likely they were to find their mate. But there was no visible mark to show him that Maggie was his.
The only mark was the one in his heart that craved her.
He didn’t speak as she bicycled their hands with her fingers laced with his. The smile on her face warmed every part of him.
Her hair was pulled back, with a single strand of it loose to fall down the side of her face to her neck. He longed to brush his lips against that spot so that he could inhale her precious scent.
Her eyes were full of passion and caring. She was without a doubt the most beautiful creature he had ever seen in his life.
A group of schoolkids ran past them, laughing and shouting as they saw the two male tigers.
Wren barely noticed the kids. "What are your plans today?"
She shrugged. "I’m open. What about you?"
"It’s my day off."
He nodded, then gave her a devilish grin. "Want to go get nak*d?"
Marguerite squeaked at his offer as she felt heat scald her face. But the truth was, she wanted nothing more. "Is that all I am to you?" she asked in a teasing tone.
"No," he said with sincerity burning deep in his eyes. "You’re much more to me than that."
She swallowed at the deepness of his voice. At the needful look on his face. She was completely captivated by him. He let go of her hands to cup her face and tilt it up toward his. Marguerite closed her eyes in expectation of his kiss.
His lips brushed hers.
Until a scream rent the air.
"Help! Oh God, someone call the zookeepers! Hurry!"
Wren pulled away from Marguerite as the children started screaming and people began running all around them,
"What happened?" she asked.
A lady was shrieking a few feet away. "Oh my God, that kid is in the cage with the tigers!"
"They’re going to eat him!"
Marguerite couldn’t breathe as she turned to see a boy around the age of eight in the cage. His face bloody and clothes torn from his fall, he was crying and screaming as he tried to climb back up to the fence, but the concrete wall kept him from it. He splashed around in the water, drawing even more attention from the tigers.
Worse, the tigers were growling and hissing as they stalked down their landing toward the water that separated them from him.
She was sure the kid was dead, as was everyone else in the crowd.
Suddenly, Wren bolted past her, toward the wooden railing that kept the visitors from the fence. She watched in horror as he vaulted over the fence and barbed wire into the cage, to land in a crouch not far from the boy on one of the concrete pads that formed small islands in the water. With his head bent down in that familiar feral pose, Wren rose slowly to his feet and turned toward the child, who was screaming and crying.
She covered her mouth with her hand as she expected the tigers to kill them both.
Wren moved carefully toward the child, who obviously had been hurt from his fall.
"It’s okay, kid," Wren said in a calm, even tone as he waded through the water to reach the boy. "What’s your name?"