Wolf's Clothing (A Legend Tripping Novel)
This title is part of the Legend Tripping universe.
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What do you do when you finally prove the existence of the otherworld, but the ghosts kick your ass?
For Trent Pielmeyer, the answer is run like hell—away from his hostile family, away from the disbelieving cops, and far, far, far away from anything that smacks of the supernatural. After seven years’ captivity in a whacked-out alternate dimension, he is so over legend tripping.
When Christophe Clavret spots Trent in a Portland bar, he detects a kindred spirit—another man attempting to outrun the darkness of his own soul. But despite their sizzling chemistry, Trent’s hatred of the uncanny makes Christophe hesitant to confide the truth: he’s a werewolf, one of a dwindling line, the victim of a genetic curse extending back to feudal Europe.
But dark forces are at work, threatening more than their growing love. If Christophe can’t win Trent’s trust, and if Trent can’t overcome his fear of the paranormal, the cost could be Trent’s freedom and Christophe’s humanity. Or it might be both their lives.
Winner: Best Bisexual Paranormal Romance in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Finalist: Best Bisexual Book in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Sunlight. Damn, it was awesome. After seven years living only the hour between midnight and 1 a.m., Trent Pielmeyer didn’t think he’d ever get enough.
Every night since he’d gotten out of the private-care facility—fuck, just call it what it is: a loony bin—his recurring nightmare had driven him out of the house into the dark. He’d logged countless miles along the shore or through neighborhoods where houses stood shoulder to shoulder, but he always timed it so he’d catch the sunrise over the ocean. Then he’d run home with its warmth on his back and the streets of Newport brightening before him.
He slowed as he approached his family’s estate. Shit. His timing was off this morning. The sun hadn’t yet topped the evergreens that lined the property. The driveway was as murky as if it were still the middle of the night.
He jogged up and down in front of the gate, panting and sweaty.
Do it. Just do it. Sure, the shadows are really fricking dark, but they’re only trees. Half a mile to the house. Piece of cake. Now!
He sprinted for the mouth of the drive, his Nikes crunching in the gravel, but as soon as he got to the shadow of the first tree, he stalled.
Jesus, why couldn’t his inconsiderate ancestors have planted maples instead of evergreens?
He made two more abortive attempts, but it wasn’t until the sun cleared the treetops that he was able to force himself to run down the driveway. How many miles had he clocked this time? Twelve? Thirteen? Hell, he could run a half marathon, but he couldn’t sleep through the night without waking in a cold sweat, his throat raw from useless screams.
Trent slowed to a stop by the giant magnolia tree next to the koi pond. He could handle the magnolia—barely. Not a fir tree. Good job, ancestors. A few brown-edged petals clung to the chest-high canvas-shrouded object at the edge of the pond. He removed the stones weighing down the tarp and flipped it up, revealing the marble plinth underneath.
Trent McFadden Pielmeyer, Beloved Son, May 14, 1990 - October 17, 2009
Or was it technically a memorial, since his parents had had no body to bury?
Some people might wonder why his father hadn’t removed it. After all, Beloved Son was home again. Not dead. Not missing. Still gay, but, hey, can’t have everything.
Trent knew the truth, though. If his father had to spend money on something he considered outrageous—such as paying a crew for a whole day’s work just to remove one piece of marble—he might keel over on the spot. Forrest Pielmeyer might have more money than God—including a lot that should have been Trent’s by now—but he’d always be a frugal New England Yankee at heart. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
How many times had Trent heard that when he was growing up? Every time he’d wanted to do something that didn’t fit the Pielmeyer Way of Life—the perfect preppy image his father clung to like a life preserver from his yacht.
Trent peered at the sun. From the angle, he was late for breakfast. Again. He delayed another minute, closing his eyes and basking. Lizards totally have the right idea. Then he trudged up the vast slope of lawn and into the house.
The housekeeper, carrying the silver coffee service into the breakfast room, gave him her usual disapproving glare. Yeah, yeah. Get in line, sweetheart. Trent put on his best I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude and followed.
He settled at the table across from his mother, the sunlight playing off the crystal and silver and bone china. She glanced at him and then away.
“You’ll need to . . . freshen up soon, Trent. Deborah will arrive for your session at ten thirty.”
Deborah was the last of the lineup of therapists who had tag-teamed him since his return to Newport. All of them agreed he was either repressing memories of a traumatic captivity, or suffering from Stockholm syndrome and trying to protect his alleged kidnapper.
He couldn’t exactly confess what had really happened: See, there was this ghost war, and I got sucked into it. I’ve been appearing—or should I say disappearing—nightly as Danford Balch, frontier murderer and first man hanged in Oregon, for the last seven years.
That’d go over outstandingly well. They’d probably clap him back in the loony bin for life.
Other than the sheer unbelievability of the story, though, if he came clean about it, he’d implicate Logan Conner, his old roommate and best friend, who’d told Trent about the ghost war in the first place. Logan had been there that night, from slightly drunken beginning to horrifying end. But when the police had questioned Trent about his vanishing act, poking and prodding, looking for someone to pin the blame on, they’d never mentioned Logan as a “person of interest” in the case.
Trent hadn’t had a chance to talk to Logan before the Haunted to the Max medic had bundled him off to the ambulance, or afterward, when his family had descended like a plague of perfectly groomed locusts. Somehow, though, Logan must have found a way to keep himself out of the whole shit-storm, and Trent intended to keep it that way. After all, Logan had tried his damnedest to talk Trent out of doing what he did. It wasn’t his fault Trent had behaved like a fucking idiot.
Yeah, they were both better off with Trent insisting he couldn’t remember his supposed ordeal. Too bad it wasn’t true. How could he forget it when he relived it every fricking night in his dreams?
Trent sipped his coffee. Jesus, what he wouldn’t give for a nice heavy ceramic mug instead of the delicate china. He wanted something he could hold on to. Something weighty, that could anchor him to the world. Not something this fragile, something that could break and send him floating, adrift.
“Trent.” His father was apparently intent on smearing exactly one tablespoon of quince preserves on his toast. “It’s a bit morbid, don’t you think, to stare at your own headstone twice a day?”
Hunh. Guess dear ol’ Dad paid more attention to him than he thought. “I couldn’t see it if it wasn’t there.”
“It’s in a private spot, and the tarp is there for a reason. The stone can’t be seen, or wouldn’t be if you didn’t persist in uncovering it.”
“You know, anyone who knows you will figure you’re sparing the expense as usual. I mean, why undo something you’ll just have to do again sometime in the next seventy years or so?”
His father heaved a too-familiar sigh. “How many times have we discussed economies of scale? It’s inefficient to contract a single service of that sort. Better to wait until we have several similar tasks and put them out to bid at the same time.”
“Aren’t you afraid people might get the wrong idea—that you’re keeping it because you wish me under it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody thinks anything of the kind.”
I do. “Even if you can’t bring yourself to remove it, could you maybe zap the date of death?”
“That would mar the marble unnecessarily.”
“So what happens when I actually die? You gonna leave the 2009 date on there and add a fucking footnote?”
“That’s enough, young man,” his father boomed. “I will not have that sort of talk at the breakfast table.”
“Right. We save the really knotty problems for luncheon.”
His mother dropped her fork onto her plate with a clatter. “Excuse me. I have a . . .” She rose and left the room, her back as straight as the creases in her beige slacks.
His father balled up his napkin and threw it on the table. “See what you’ve done?”
“Me? You ever think leaving that memorial in place might bother Mom? It sure bothers the gardener. Every time he sees me, he makes the sign of the horns, like he’s warding off the evil eye.”
“He does no such thing.” His father retrieved his napkin and shook it out, settling it on his lap before reaching for his egg cup.
“He so does.”
Jesus, how much longer could he stand to live here? He’d remained holed up in the ancestral pile after he’d emerged from the loony bin because even though his parents didn’t particularly like him, they were undeniably real. The housekeeper and the gardener might stare at him in contempt or fear, but at least they could see him. That none of them tried to hang him every night? Bonus.
Besides, he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
He took a deep breath. Antagonizing his father, no matter how gratifying, wasn’t a brilliant idea, considering he needed his cooperation. But as Deborah frequently pointed out—although in much more scientific and PC terms—his impulse control was for shit.
“So, Dad. Have the lawyers made any progress getting me declared undead yet?”
“It’s a complicated process. The conditions your grandfather saw fit to impose—”
“What’s the big deal? The trust would have been mine absolutely when I turned twenty-five anyway.”
“Why are you in such a hurry?”
“Hurry?” Trent’s voice slid up half an octave on the word. “It’s been seven months. My birthday is this week, and I’ve got sh—stuff I want to do.” Like maybe move out of my ex-bedroom, aka the Blue Guest Room.
His father squinted at him over a forkful of three-minute egg. “You have no need of your trust fund at the moment. You’re living in this house. Eating our food.” He nodded at Trent’s T-shirt—yellow, with a sad-faced cartoon brontosaurus and the caption All my friends are dead. “The housekeeper bought a number of perfectly presentable outfits for you, so you have no need to continue dressing like a derelict.”
“That’s kind of my point. On this birthday, I’ll officially be twenty-seven. Don’t you think I’m a little old to have someone else dress me?” Trent had ignored the stack of junior executive outfits and chosen his own wardrobe from the thrift stores in North Providence, like any good ex-college student. “Isn’t it time for me to rise above parental handouts?”
“What do you imagine trust fund income is?”
Trent put his toast down and clenched his hands together in his lap. “I think it was Grandfather’s attempt to make sure I got an education that I chose for myself.”
“Well you’re not pursuing that at the moment, are you? As far as I can see, you’re not pursuing anything except the best way to embarrass me and distress your mother.”
“I’m trying to get it together.” He was. He really was. But while he was unable to escape the recurring nightmares, the lack of sleep was a real handicap to rational thought. Maybe if he could tell someone about them, share the experience, he could—
No. Safer to keep the truth under wraps. Safer for Logan. Safer for himself, if he wanted to avoid mental health arrest.
If he had his trust fund, though, he’d leave. Go back to school, get the gen. ed. stuff out of the way while he decided whether he could ever face the stage again.
That was the worst part about the ghost war experience. Clueless asshole that he’d been, he’d leaped into the role of Danford Balch as if he’d been making his Broadway debut, without realizing the contract had no opt out. It had been horrible and dehumanizing and terrifying while it was happening, and continued to rob him of his sleep seven months after his rescue. Worst of all, like seven years of aversion therapy, it had also robbed him of the thing that he’d loved most in the world—acting. Now, the very idea of auditioning for another play was enough to send him scurrying back to the safety of the loony bin.
But he had to start somewhere.
“When I head to school this fall, I’ll—”
“Where exactly were you planning to go?”
Trent blinked. “Uh . . . well I . . .” How stupid was it that he hadn’t thought about it? “I guess I assumed Portland State would let me reenroll. I mean . . . unless their requirements have changed in the last seven years. I should—”
“Do you seriously imagine we’d allow you to return to Oregon after this whole escapade?”
Trent frowned. “‘Escapade’? You make it sound like it’s something I did for fun.”
“Wasn’t it? You refuse to divulge the details, name your accomplices—”
“‘Accomplices’?” Dread pooled in Trent’s belly. Don’t mention Logan, not when they’re still searching for someone to blame. “I told you, it was all me.”
“You were obviously somewhere, Trent. And under the terms of your grandfather’s trust, you’re not owed a penny if you’ve committed any crime greater than a misdemeanor.”
He’d been in Forest Park after hours—a violation of a city ordinance, but surely that wasn’t enough to rob him of his inheritance. “I haven’t—”
“Until the authorities are satisfied that you didn’t engineer your own disappearance in an attempt to extort more money from this family, the trust will remain precisely where it is. Invested under my name.”
Trent jumped to his feet, and his chair toppled over in a crash of oak on marble. “Did you ever get a ransom demand? A single hint that I was trying to scam you? Jesus fuck, Dad.”
“Trent! If you can’t moderate your language, you may leave the room.”
“Excellent idea.” I’ll leave the room. I’ll leave the house. I’ll leave the whole damned state! He stalked out into the foyer and ran up the staircase, his father’s voice echoing behind him.
“You want to know when I’ll take down that memorial? When I’m convinced my son isn’t dead to me!”
Trent stumbled on the last step. Jesus.
His therapist thought he was shielding his kidnapper; the police thought he was covering for an accomplice; and his own father thought he’d kidnapped himself for some never-demanded ransom.
The worst part was, he couldn’t tell any of them the truth. How could he convince them that a cheesy paranormal investigation show had gotten it exactly right? Nobody would buy anything that unbelievable.
Except for one person. Logan.
Trent’s birthday was on Friday—he wasn’t sure if it counted as the twentieth or the twenty-seventh, and no way was he celebrating it alone except for his parents and one of the housekeeper’s heavy cakes.
Damn it, he’d spend the day in Portland with Logan, the only person on the planet who knew he wasn’t insane, hallucinatory, or a goddamn fucking criminal.
Christophe Clavret studied his reflection in the full-length mirror. This new jacket wasn’t quite what he’d imagined when he’d discussed it with his tailor. Was the cut a trifle too snug? The tailor his family had used since before he was born had retired, and the man who’d taken over the business had more modern notions of fashion than the old fellow had.
He rather liked this silhouette, though, and the suit had arrived with flattering speed, considering it’d had to be shipped from Vienna to Portland. One of the only acceptable benefits of being the heir to his family’s import-export business, in his opinion, was the ability to navigate the intricacies of international shipping.
He turned and checked his back. Hmm, he’d have to get his shirts replaced—the old pattern was too bulky under the slim fit of the jacket, but he’d found a local tailor whose work he liked. His father would never approve, neither of the new suit style nor the blasphemy of using an American tailor.
All the more reason to order a half-dozen shirts from the local shop immediately. Perhaps the next suit from there as well. If he—
His doorbell chimed, and he frowned at his reflection. He wasn’t expecting visitors, and he’d left orders with the front desk that he didn’t wish to be disturbed. Acquainting himself with a new suit was not an activity to rush, nor was it one he wished to share with strangers. It was very unlike the security team to ignore his instructions. Since his family owned the condominium building, the staff was usually too deferential for his liking.
He strode down the hall into the entryway and peered through the spyhole. Mother of God. His father and brother. No wonder the guards had waved them through.
Christophe threw open the door. “Papa. Anton. What are you two doing in Portland?”
“Conversing with you in English, it appears.” Anton chuckled as he escorted Henri into the flat with a hand under the old man’s elbow. “If you bothered to read your emails, mon frère, you would know that we’re in town for an international commerce symposium.”
“Then English conversation is good practice for you.” He closed the door and followed them into the living room.
“I see. So your refusal to speak French is entirely for our benefit. Very considerate.” Anton settled Henri into the wingback chair Christophe kept just for him. “Was your absence from the opening day’s events a gift to us as well, to give us practice in the American way of networking? Or could you simply not be bothered to open your messages?”
Christophe grinned at his brother. “Have you considered that perhaps I study my email very closely indeed? Those gatherings are nothing but pointless chatter, over things that matter little. I prefer to avoid them whenever possible. I advise you to do the same.”
“That is no way to talk, mon fils.” Henri rested his hands on the silver wolf’s head handle of his cane. “You missed a very satisfying session. We’ve finessed a most favorable trade agreement with the Portuguese, despite interference from that impudent pup, Etienne Melion.”
“If you had to deal with Etienne, I’m even more pleased I wasn’t there.”
“Bah. You cannot avoid him forever. Now that he’s taken over Melion GmbH from his father, you’d best learn to handle him. Understanding the nuances of such negotiations will be critical when you assume control of our company from me.”
Christophe winced inwardly. His father might not notice the tightening of Anton’s jaw whenever Henri brought up the archaic succession plan for Clavret et Cie, but Christophe caught it. Every time.
Anton lived and breathed the business, but would never inherit it as long as Henri insisted on adhering to the outdated tradition that decreed the CEO must be a true Clavret son.
In other words, only a male who could transform into a wolf was allowed to captain the company.
Christophe carried the damned genetic mutation that meant he qualified. Anton did not. No matter that Anton was twenty times better at the corporate dance than Christophe; no matter that Christophe’s vocation lay in another direction. In their father’s eyes, their fates had been sealed at the moment of their conception.
“Papa, we’ve discussed this. Don’t you think—”
Henri held up his hand, his golden eyes flashing even dimmed with age as they were. “I know you once had other dreams, mon fils, but I also know you will never disappoint me.” He snapped his fingers. “Anton, give the files to Christophe?”
“Of course, Papa.” Anton opened his briefcase and withdrew a tablet. He woke it with a swipe and handed it to Christophe.
Christophe stared at the screen, which displayed the pictures of several young women. “Surely these two are Gemma and Natalie Merrick? When I came to America, they hadn’t left school for university yet. They appear to have done well.” His lips twisted in disgust. “The Melion sisters, however . . .” Amazing how those three poisonous personalities were so accurately conveyed in a single image. The photographer must have cared for them as little as Christophe did.
“Your brother was not entirely accurate as to the reason for our visit. Since we have been unsuccessful in convincing you to quit America and assume your traditional responsibilities, we have brought your responsibilities to you.”
“Papa, you know I prefer coordinating the American side of the business. I like it here.”
Henri waved a hand. “Bêtise. Any underling can manage such things. You are to be CEO, mon fils. You should be back in Vienna, attending meetings with me, learning the details of our company. Or home in Nantes, where your comfort can be seen to much better than in this paltry place. You have spent so many years here that our rivals, our peers, do not know your face. You even begin to sound like an American.”
“America is an important market.”
Henri’s shrewd eyes narrowed. “Yet that is not why you persist in remaining, is it? You think I don’t monitor your expenses? You have been dabbling again. Biology. Genetics. Bah. There is nothing to learn that we haven’t known for centuries.
We don’t know how to fix ourselves. “Let us leave that conversation for another time. Tell me instead why I have a slate full of pictures of all the women from the Old Families save ours.”
Henri chuckled. “Well you could hardly mate with one of your cousins.”
“Mate?” Christophe’s breath faltered. “I have no intention of—”
“Christophe. Enough. I have indulged your fancy since you left university, but the time has come for you to embrace your destiny. You need to return home. Assume your rightful place as my heir. Sire the next true Clavret son.”
Christophe ran a shaking hand through his hair. “Even were I inclined to marry a woman—which I am not—I would never risk a child. And certainly not with any of these women, who have a much greater chance of carrying the defective gene.”
His father bridled, thrusting his jaw out. “The gene is not defective. It is what makes us who we are.”
“You are wrong, Papa. It made us who we were. But in today’s world, the mutation is a disability. How many times has Anton had to step in for you because you were ‘unavailable’—at the chateau, coursing through the woods in pursuit of a hare or a deer?”
“It should not have been Anton. It should have been you.”
“What if the compulsion had taken us both at the same time? Modern business moves rapidly. It doesn’t await the pleasure of the baron as feudal society did. It has already left us behind, and will leave us further if you persist in clinging to the old ways.”
Henri’s knuckles tightened on the head of his cane. “I will not hear this.”
“You must. Anton is far more qualified to take over the company than I. Furthermore, he wishes to do so. I do not.”
“Anton is not a true Clavret,” Henri bellowed.
Christophe glanced at his brother, but Anton had turned his back, apparently busy with something in his briefcase. Christophe knew the tension in those shoulders, though. He’d witnessed it often enough throughout their lives when his father or uncle had given him, the younger son, preference over Anton, simply because Christophe was a damned throwback.
“Papa, we’ve discussed this. I’ve learned this much through my genetics studies. All male descendants carry the gene. The Y chromosome is passed unchanged from father to son. Anton is as likely to sire another mutant boy as I am.” For which reason, I hope he never marries.
“Then why are not all sons true Clavrets? Why is Anton as mundane as any man not of our lineage?”
“I know it can be confusing, but remember the gene is what is called dose-dependent. It can only be expressed if the X chromosome of the mother also contains the gene. But X chromosomes recombine, unlike the Y, which is unchanged. Anton’s mother did not pass it on to him. Mine did.” And she died for it. “Our semen doesn’t produce as many Y sperm, either.” Another present from our distant cursed ancestor. “That is why so few sons are born in each generation. Why,” he tapped the tablet’s screen, “the Merricks have no male in this generation. Why my cousins are all female. Why even the Melions have only a single male.”
“Enough about Xs and Ys. Etienne may be an insolent connard, but he is aware of what is owed to his family. He is in negotiations with the Merrick family and expects to wed by the end of summer.”
Christophe raised his eyebrows. “Gemma or Natalie?” Both women were intelligent, independent—or at least had been when they were younger and he’d seen them on a regular basis. Could one of them have had the ill luck to fall in love with that sadistic bastard?
Henri flicked his fingers. “It hardly matters. Whichever one is dutiful enough to accept her responsibility to our heritage.”
“Mother of God, it’s the twenty-first century. We shouldn’t be bartering brides as if they were no more than brood mares.”
“It is how we have always done it. How we protect our lines. The girls know what is due to their families. As should you.”
“Even if I were attracted to women—”
“You had little trouble while you were at university.”
“Yes, but I prefer men nowadays.”
“Why should that matter? By nature, our kind are bisexuels. It is one of the ways we prove our worth, maintain our power.”
“Once upon a time, perhaps. But we can hardly fuck a business rival into submission, Papa.”
Henri’s grin could only be described as wolfish. “So you say.”
That is not something I want to know about my father. “Be that as it may, I will not marry one of these women.” Or any other. Who knows how far our ancestor’s genetic defect has spread? Or the Merricks’ or the Melions’? “I can’t understand why any of them would agree to such an arrangement in this day and age.”
Anton snorted. “Not all are as fortunate as you, Christophe, with your mother’s money at your back to give you independence. The other families are arranged exactly as ours is. The girls’ inheritance is held in trust, only released to them if they mate with a man from the Old Families.”
“And that compensates them for a one-in-ten risk of death in childbirth?”
“Who are you to judge if they choose those odds rather than a life of certain penury?”
“Hardly penury. They’re as capable of earning their own way as anyone.”
“It may seem a hardship, though, after a life of privilege. Besides, you’ve said it yourself. The world has changed. Science has advanced. The risks—”
“Remain.” Christophe held his brother’s gaze. “Anton, would you agree to such a match?”
Anton glanced down at his hands, bare of any rings—no wedding band, and no heavy gold signet such as Christophe wore, the badge of his role as the heir. “I don’t have your prospects. None would have me, even if I chose. Not while you’re available.”
“But I’m not.” I never will be.
Henri thumped the carpet with his cane. “Mon fils, please. I am old. I cannot continue to lead as I have in the past, and our company, our family will suffer. You must come home.”
Ah God. The I’m old gambit. His father was extraordinarily adept at wielding filial blackmail. If only I weren’t so susceptible. “Papa—”
“Not another word. You will return home. You will choose a bride. You will do your duty as each Clavret man has done since the first baron.”
“But the American offices—”
“Anyone can do that. Anton can stay.”
At Anton’s flinch, Christophe clenched his fists. “Papa, Anton is not anyone. He’s head of logistics.”
“And you are the next CEO. But I—” He stood, hands braced on his cane, but with his spine straight, his shoulders thrown back. He looked Christophe square in the eyes—they were exactly the same height, several inches shorter than Anton. Another gift from our ancestor. The stature of a medieval man. “I am the current CEO, and I am reassigning you to the Vienna office. Permanently.”
“Enough, Christophe. If you do not obey, I will shut down the American operations.”
Anton’s head jerked up. “Papa, the revenues from this market count for over half our profits. You can’t—”
“I can, and I will if I must. What are profits when our heritage is at stake? I’d rather liquidate the entire company than leave it in the hands of any but a true Clavret.” Henri glared at Christophe. “So you see, if you persist in destroying our family, you risk destroying our business too. Is that the legacy you want?”
Christophe bit back a bitter retort. Now is not the time for this fight. “Of course not.”
Henri nodded, a decisive jerk of his chin. “Good. The private jet is at the airport. We leave tomorrow at ten.”
“No. My friend’s wedding is on Saturday, and I intend to be there for him. Afterward—” He shared a glance with Anton. “Afterward, I will come home and do as you say.” At least for as long as you are with us.
But the instant they laid Henri to his final rest, Christophe would turn everything over to his brother. In the meantime, he had less than a week of freedom. He intended to make the most of it.
“Very well. When—” Henri sniffed and Christophe froze. “When did you shift last?”
“A while ago. It is no matter.”
“It is. You are depending too much on the suppressant. It is not good for you. It is not how we were meant to live.”
“No. We were meant to live as wolves three days out of seven. Will you insist on that?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, but one day out of fourteen is not excessive. How long has it been?”
Christophe stared at his hands, their tremor more noticeable now, the light winking off his signet. “Six weeks.”
“Six weeks?” Henri rarely used his alpha voice, but now it rang in Christophe’s brain, activating his submissive response. He ducked his head. “It’s a wonder you can still think, let alone walk and talk. Nobody has ever gone six weeks before.”
Nobody has ever wanted to before. Had I a choice, I would go forever without shifting.
“It is nothing, Papa. The suppressant does its job.”
“Where did you last shift?”
“I took a weekend off and flew up to the cabin in Fairbanks.”
“Who went with you?”
“Christophe. You know how dangerous that is. You must promise me to always take someone as guard. As backup.”
The alpha timbre had returned to Henri’s voice, compelling Christophe’s obedience. “I . . . I promise, Papa.”
“Good.” Henri cast an appraising glance at Christophe’s new jacket. “Is that a new suit?”
“Yes. Do you like it?”
Henri sniffed. “It won’t do. I’ll order another for you from Gottschalk.”
“No, Papa.” Christophe had the same alpha potential as his father, and he injected a bit of it in his response. He could at least be master of his own clothing. “I prefer this one. I shall keep it. In fact, I’ve decided to order several more in a similar style. From an American tailor.”
Christophe held his breath, but Henri’s eyes twinkled appreciatively. “So. You are capable of a challenge after all. Keep your suit, then, but I don’t understand why the classic style won’t do for you.”
“Perhaps it’s time for a new classic.”
“We shall see. I expect you in the Vienna office on Monday.”
Henri raised one silver eyebrow. “Christophe—”
“Riley’s wedding party lasts the weekend. With travel and the time difference, I can’t commit to earlier than that.”
“Very well. Wednesday. Anton, forward Christophe the agenda.” Henri squeezed Christophe’s shoulder. “We have much to discuss.”
Trent stepped onto the escalator that led down to baggage claim at the Portland airport, his hands deep in the front pocket of the same PSU hoodie he’d worn the last time he’d been here—the same PSU hoodie he’d worn for seven years under his phantom pioneer costume. Any sane person would probably have burned the damn thing at the first opportunity, but it was all Trent had left from his old life and he clung to it like a toddler to a security blankie. Because seriously? Sometimes the real world was freakier than his supernatural prison, and by everyone’s account, he and sanity weren’t totally reacquainted.
For instance, now that he was sneakers-on-the-ground in Oregon, it occurred to him that he should have phoned Logan—or at least figured out how to find him—before jumping on the first plane out of Rhode Island.
Trent hoisted his backpack farther up his shoulder as he followed the rest of the crowd from his flight to their designated carousel. The week Trent’d checked into the loony bin, barely coherent and half-convinced he’d hallucinated the whole rescue, Logan had called the house and left a ton of messages, although Trent’s family hadn’t told him about them until months later. He’d wanted to call back. He’d thought about it every fricking day since. But whenever he mustered the courage to approach his father’s assistant and ask for Logan’s number, he’d remember the suspicion in the cops’ eyes as they’d questioned him—none too gently—about where he’d been and who he’d been with. Even though the case was technically closed now that he’d returned, Trent didn’t want to point attention at Logan, the only person who’d tried to contact him.
Nobody else had ever called. No one from high school. None of his old legend-tripping friends. Nobody he’d known in his short time at PSU.
Why should they? Seven years was a freaking long time when you were nineteen, when your life was measured in school-related blocks: four years in high school, four in undergrad, another two or three in graduate school. But once those little time boxes were blown open by graduation, the coincidental ties disintegrated.
Trent had jumped out of the PSU box before it had expired, so it was unlikely anyone would remember him—just another guy who’d bailed freshman year.
But Logan had called. So Trent hadn’t called back. Unfortunately, the calls had been on the landline, so he had no idea what Logan’s phone number was. Or where he lived. Where he worked. In fact, did he even live in Oregon anymore? Maybe Deborah-the-shrink was right. His impulse control was truly shit-tastic.
Trent fingered the new iPhone in his hoodie pocket, which he hadn’t gotten the hang of—although he hadn’t really tried. He’d held on to his old phone, a Nokia flip phone that had been the height of cool the year he became a ghost, because it was something he understood. But it had finally died as he was shoving clothes into his duffel in his desperate rush to escape the old homestead.
He’d had the cab stop at the nearest cell phone store on the way to the airport. The clerk had laughed at his old phone and called the other clerks over to poke at it and laugh some more. They’d insisted the latest model iPhone was what he wanted.
It wasn’t. But if he didn’t want to be a fossil forever, he needed to start somewhere. So he’d bought a new laptop too. Thank God and his father’s image-consciousness for American Express Black, and the card he’d bestowed on Trent “for emergencies”—because if getting away from home wasn’t an emergency, then Mount Hood was an anthill.
The red light over the baggage carousel flashed, accompanied by the harsh blare of an alarm, and the belt jerked into motion. Trent stood near the far end of its serpentine path, because what was the hurry? He had no fucking clue where he was going. Maybe he should go back upstairs and book a return flight to Rhode Island.
Trent whirled, clutching the straps of his backpack. Fuck. Bishop, the detective who’d questioned him in the hospital and later at police headquarters, was sauntering toward Trent, his hands in the pockets of his trench coat.
Trent plastered on a cheeky grin. “Detective Bishop. Fancy meeting you here.”
“I could say the same for you.”
“Is staking out airports new on your dance card? I don’t recall ever seeing you outside of that lovely interrogation room. Oh, and on camera of course, costarring with my parents in all those awesome press conferences.” Trent winked. “Love the new haircut too.”
Bishop’s dark skin didn’t show a flush, but given the way his jaw tightened, Trent’s old powers of irritation hadn’t atrophied. It helped that he’d had so much practice with his father lately.
“On that account, I can’t say the same for you.”
“You don’t like the new do?” Trent flicked his bangs with a finger. Actually, he hadn’t had a haircut since he’d gotten out of the sanitarium. They’d shaved his head there, the bastards, with his father’s permission. “I think I’ll start a trend.”
Come on, baggage handlers. How long can it take to unload the fucking luggage? Half the passengers on his flight had already snagged their bags and split, lucky devils. Where the hell was his duffel?
“What’s lured you away from the comfort of your Newport mansion, Mr. Pielmeyer?” Bishop nodded at Trent’s hoodie. “Your timing’s a bit awkward for a visit to your old stomping grounds. Isn’t the yachting season about to begin?”
Trent licked his lips and edged away. “I wouldn’t know. Never got into that scene. Besides, the old man’s yacht was a casualty of hurricane what’s-her-name.”
“If you say so. I’ll check when I go back to Newport.”
If he ever went back. Though he hadn’t a clue what his next step should be, he’d felt as if a giant boulder had rolled off him as soon as the plane had lifted off the tarmac. He belonged here. Or at least he belonged away from there.
He glanced past Bishop’s massive shoulders at the exit, and a shiver chased up his back. Was he ready to face Portland again? Sure, he’d had a short, happy time here—but then the shit had kicked in. Should he have picked another destination? Hawaii, say, or Fiji, or Tierra del fucking Fuego.
But even as he considered other options, he axed them. None of those places held unfortunate memories, true, but they also didn’t hold Logan.
Bishop took a step into his path, blocking his view. The fluorescent overhead lights gleamed on his shaven head. Looks waaay better on him than it did on me. Kinda hot, actually, and—
Shit. What am I thinking? Trent was here to reconnect with Logan, not perv on the detective who’d never believed a word of his story.
His overstuffed duffel finally emerged from under the rubber flaps onto the carousel, Thank you baby Jesus. “Oh look. There’s my bag. As lovely as it was to see you, Detective, I really must be off.”
“In so much of a hurry you can’t spare me a few minutes?” Bishop’s deep voice turned coaxing, and he neatly blocked Trent’s access to the conveyer belt. “I’d like to chat.”
“What’s the point, Detective? Isn’t the case closed if there’s no victim anymore?”
“There’s a victim, all right. You. And if your kidnapper did it once, he could do it again. Do you want anyone else to go through what you did? Some other college kid? A woman? A child?”
“Trust me. The same thing will never happen to anyone else.”
“Why not? What do you know? Come on, Trent. I’m on your side.”
“Is that so?” His duffel slid by and disappeared. Crap.
“Someone held you against your will. Hurt you.” Bishop pointed to the rope welt scars at the hinge of Trent’s jaw. “In my book, that’s wrong.”
Fucking great. Deliver me from righteous cops on a crusade. Snark-deflection worked much better against anger and suspicion than against concern. Trent hitched his sweatshirt hood higher to shield his scars, and broke out the assitude.
He tilted his chin and fluttered his eyelashes. “All this attention is very flattering, Detective. Are you sure you’re not after my ass?”
Bishop barked a laugh. “Not the way you think. My boyfriend wouldn’t stand for it.” He took a step closer, the laughter disappearing from his eyes. “Not everyone comes back, Trent, but you did. After seven years. How?”
“I . . . Just lucky, I guess.”
“I don’t believe in luck. Something you did, or some quirk in your captors, made it possible for you to survive. To escape. I— We need to know everything. So the next time someone goes missing, we stand a better chance of finding him sooner. You can help us understand.”
Bishop’s voice was a caress now, his dark eyes intent, as if he were trying to hypnotize Trent into blurting his darkest secrets.
Trouble is, it was working.
Resist, damn it. Trent shook the hair out of his eyes. “How’d you know I was here? Last I checked, Rhode Island wasn’t under the jurisdiction of the Portland Police Department.”
“There are other ways to follow up, other connections I can tap. If a case interests me, I pay attention. Your case interests me.”
“Obsesses, more like,” Trent muttered.
Bishop’s gaze shifted to the bags rolling by on the carousel—which included the second coming of Trent’s duffel. “We could learn so much from you, like why they targeted you in the first place. Don’t you want to help?”
Almost within reach. “I’d like to, but I can’t. I really have to go.”
Bishop rocked back on his heels, studying the reader board over the carousel as if Delta Flight 289 was a coded message he had to decipher.
Trent froze, his fists tightening on the straps of his backpack. “I beg your pardon?”
“The commissioner’s kid. He was your roommate at the time, wasn’t he? Other witnesses claimed he might be more. We thought he must at least be an accessory, maybe the perp himself, but his father swore up one side and down the other that the kid was with him the night you went missing.”
So that’s how Logan stayed off the radar. His father’s political agenda was actually useful for once.
“His behavior changed radically after you disappeared. He turned transient, never sticking in one place for long. But he showed a hell of an interest in Forest Park. Visited that derelict building by Balch Creek every night for a year, and every anniversary after that.”
“How do you know?”
“It was my case.”
“It’s closed. I’m back. The end.”
“Is it? Kind of a coincidence Logan would be in the same spot when you showed up again.”
Trent’s palms were damp against the backpack straps. “Coincidences happen.”
“Do they? You wouldn’t be heading to Stumptown Spirits, would you?”
“I— What?” Trent let the duffel slide by. “What’s that and why would I go there?”
Bishop pushed his trench coat aside and shoved his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “Stumptown Spirits, the bar owned by your old pal, Logan. Which he conveniently inherited after you showed up in Forest Park last October.”
“I have no idea what you mean.” Trent tried not to let the huge swell of relief that flooded his chest show on his face, although judging by Bishop’s raised eyebrow, he wasn’t particularly successful. But Jesus fuck. Bishop had just given him Logan’s whereabouts. He didn’t have to flail around trying to find him with an incomprehensible phone.
The duffel made another appearance on the conveyer belt, and this time Trent strolled over to meet it. He grabbed its strap and slung it over his shoulder. God, the thing weighed a ton. Should he have been a little more selective about packing? Nah. Too much work. He’d sort it out at the hotel.
Bishop caught up with him in two giant strides. “Come on, Trent, help me catch the guy who did this. Help me catch the next guy. You haven’t told us the whole story. I can feel it.”
With Bishop looming over him like the hangman who haunted his sleep every night, Trent’s momentary relief faded. Sweat broke out along his hairline.
He couldn’t hate Bishop for wanting to find an alleged kidnapper. If he really had been kidnapped, he’d probably kiss the guy’s feet or fling himself against his massive chest. But Bishop was too smart, too good at his job, and too intent on seeing justice done. And he clearly wasn’t about to give it a fucking rest until Trent gave up something.
Keep this guy far away from Logan. Bishop wanted the truth, but he was the last person in the world who’d believe it.
So maybe he’s the only one I can actually tell it to.
Trent dropped the duffel and stood on top of it, so he was eye to eye with the giant detective. “You want a story? Here’s one. Once upon a time, in a park in a city very like Portland, a whole cast of ghosts acted out the same story night after night. Betrayal. Murder. Capture. Punishment.” He punctuated his words with pokes at Bishop’s massive chest. “Every. Single. Night. Whether anybody could see them or not.” The back of Trent’s throat burned and his voice turned hoarse. Hold it together, damn it. “Then, this dumb-ass college kid got the brilliant idea to join the party—for kicks, for thrills, for adventure. Because he wanted to be the goddamn fucking star. Only problem was, he forgot to read the fine print. You can check in to the ghost war, but you can’t check out. Not until someone takes your place. And who’d want to take the place of the guy who gets hanged? Every. Single. Night.”
Bishop’s frown was a scary thing. “Christ on a crutch, Pielmeyer, make up an original lie at least. You stole this one from that bogus TV show. The one that was filming in Forest Park when you returned.”
Trent shrugged, trying to recapture his don’t-give-a-shit act. “You asked for a story.” He jumped off the duffel and hauled it across his shoulder. “That’s the best I’ve got. See you around.”
He turned away and headed for the exit, keeping his gait even and unhurried, although the panic welling in his chest was urging him to run, the way he ran every time his memories of the ghost war threatened to overwhelm him. But in the glass exit door’s reflection, he could see Bishop watching. He couldn’t afford to appear guilty, and he couldn’t go directly to Logan’s bar.
Hotel first. Shower. Dress like an adult. Then tonight he’d hit Stumptown Spirits. If Bishop’s “connections” could find him in an airport, the bar was probably under surveillance too, so Trent would have to be sneaky. Trent flipped his hood over his head, the better to mask his face. A quick in-and-out—get Logan’s digits and arrange a private meet up later.
Not too much later though, because he’d dreamed of this—of how Logan’s familiar grin would dawn when their gazes met across the room. He’d laugh then. God, Trent had missed Logan’s laugh. Trent would hold his arms open and Logan would rush across the bar and— Whoa. Don’t get ahead of yourself, Pielmeyer. Logan had never gone in for PDAs—he’d always been terrified of pissing off his politico father.
Maybe that’s changed too. Trent could only hope. Because nobody had touched him with real affection for over seven years, and the one thing he wanted more than anything was for someone to give him a fucking hug.