The tall man in front of Tessa looked friendly enough, but she wasn’t going to be fooled again. She had always heard about post traumatic stress, and this was a far cry from what soldiers must experience in the heat of battle, but Tessa couldn’t ignore the obvious fear and hesitance that coursed through her now. The last stranger she tried to trust drugged her and tried to rape her in an alley. Christopher was the only thing keeping her from screaming and running for cover. He would protect her.
“Tessa,” Christopher rumbled, “I told you to stay upstairs.”
Tessa didn’t speak, but kept her stare fixed on the dark eyes of the stranger between them. He offered out his hand and she flinched backwards, her nails digging into the white wood of the doorframe that she clung to. She might as well have been like a skittish colt the way she behaved.
Christopher was instantly between Tessa and the stranger, his broad shoulders tense. She could see the bunching of taunt muscles beneath his shirt and it took quite a bit of self control not to reach out and touch him.
“You’ll have to forgive Tessa,” Christopher said. “Your Lance put her through a great deal of stress.”
Tessa’s frightened eyes widened, darting back and forth between the two men, hoping an explanation would come up before she had to ask.
The stranger’s mouth drew down into a slight frown as he lowered his arm. “That’s not what I heard,” he replied as he crossed his canon-like arms over his chest. “Lance accused you of attacking him without cause.”
“Then he’s a liar. Tessa just woke up from the effects of a drug Lance slipped in her drink at the club.”
The stranger didn’t looked shocked at all to hear the truth. Instead, he sighed. “This wouldn’t be the first time.” He took a few massive steps towards Tessa and this time she skipped behind Christopher and clung to the back of his shirt, her fingers wrinkling the soft material. Like a child, she dug her face into him and took comfort in his earthy smell.
She heard a low, guttural growl rumble rise from Christopher that she could also feel in her own body due to their closeness. She peaked up and saw the stranger and Christopher locked in glares.
“I just want to confirm what you’re saying is true. You know I’m here under a white flag, Christopher.”
The growl subsided and Christopher gently guided Tessa to face the stranger, his hands placed protectively on her shoulders should something go unplanned.
The stranger stepped close and demanded, “Open your mouth, child.”
Feeling the light squeeze from Christopher, telling her to obey, Tessa opened her mouth. The stranger bent down low and sniffed.
“It’s been mingled with alcohol, but the traces are still there,” he said as he straightened and turned his attention back to Christopher. “Lance has a bad habit of lying about these things. This isn’t the first girl who has fallen victim to him. We ask him to be discrete, but he’s still young.”
“That’s no excuse,” Christopher retorted. “If you know he has done this before. someone should have been keeping watch over him.”
“With half a dozen other newly turned wolves to look after, we can’t keep tabs on everyone else in our pack.”
Tessa grew bold and finally spoke. “You’re a werewolf too?” she asked, perhaps a little too loudly.
Christopher shushed her a little too late. But she hadn’t seen a single servant all night, so her outburst might have gone unheard.
“Yes, I am,” the stranger replied, finally looking down to her. “My name is Jareth. Lance is my younger brother and our father is the alpha of our pack.”
“Keep your voices down,” Christopher reprimanded. “I still have my butler on the other side of the house.”
“They don’t know?” Jareth said askance.
“I’ve been very careful to not brag about it,” Christopher replied.
Jareth placed a hand on his chest and gave a short, formal bow of apology. “Far be it from me to spill the beans then.”
Christopher rerouted the subject. “You’re the pack beta,” he whispered. “You’re the security. It’s your job to keep them in line.”
“I keep my pack safe from outside danger. What they do to incriminate themselves is none of my business. Not even if it’s my brother being mischievous.”
“Mischievous?” Christopher hissed. “You call drugging a child to rape her mischievous? What if I weren’t there to stop him? She could have become pregnant.”
Jareth gave a soft chuckle, the sound of rolling thunder coming from his chest. “She wouldn’t have gotten pregnant because Lance would have killed her. He’s done over a dozen times now and I doubt he would have done any different with her.”
The blood drained from Tessa’s face as his words bounced around in her mind. Lance was a murdering rapist and she had been his next target. She was suddenly much more appreciative of Christopher coming to her rescue. She would be dead right now if it weren’t for him.
Tessa could feel the rage boiling up inside Christopher, his hands growing warm and rigid on her shoulders.
“I hadn’t realized,” he mumbled.
Jareth gave a shrug. “We keep it discrete. Mostly picking off criminals or scum bags in the lower parts of the city. But Lance is special. He doesn’t like his meals smelling like cigarette smoke and body odor. He prefers perfumes and soft skin, I suppose. Whatever the reason, he hasn’t been sloppy about it so we haven’t cracked down any harder. Our father has scolded him and taken away privileges, but Lance has found a way around the punishments. For instance, we had no idea he was in this town. He’s never traveled this far looking for a piece of meat.”
Tessa felt faint and her legs buckled as mental images of mangled bodies and gruesome feeding frenzies flashed before her eyes. A whole new reality about werewolves hit her harder than a freight train and she couldn’t handle it.
Christopher braced himself against her to hold her steady. “Are you finished with your investigation?” he asked, a streak of annoyance in his tone.
“Yes, I am. And I’m glad I didn’t have to resort to disciplinary measures.”
“I suggest you use some discipline on your brother instead of me,” Christopher grumbled, the storm of anger still swirling beneath the surface.
Jareth tipped an imaginary hat to both of them and exited the mansion without an escort. Tessa let her nerves fall apart and she crumbled downward. Christopher swept her up into his arms.
It was much of a blur as Tessa floated between reality and the imaginary scenarios that played in her mind. She imagined, to the worst degree, what werewolves might have looked like and what kind of atrocities they had committed.
She was back in the plush bed she had woken up in with Christopher by her side as she sat and tried to regain her equilibrium.
Finally, she asked, “Do you eat people too?” It was a bold question, but Tessa couldn’t continue without knowing the truth.
“No. Never,” he replied.
She nodded and that was good enough before she leaned in and rested her head against his shoulder. She wondered if it would have even matter. Would she still have cared deeply for Christopher if she knew that he ate another human being? Would she still love the embrace of the arms that surrounded her now if she knew that they had also held a half eaten corpse? Or the eyes she adored if she thought they had gazed hungrily upon a defenseless child?
She didn’t know and it was too much to wonder now, not when she was so weary. All she wanted was to be close to him.
“It’s nearly morning now,” he said softly, tenderly. “Do you have any classes today?”
Tessa shook her head.
“You may stay here as long as you need. I have a few classes, but Harvey knows you’re here and will get you anything you like until I return.”
She reached out and grabbed at the front of his shirt, popping one of the buttons off. It clattered to the floor loudly, bouncing on the hardwood and rolling under the bed. “Don’t leave me,” she begged with a whine.
Christopher took her hand and placed it back in her lap. “I won’t be gone long. Try to rest. Can I get you anything to help you sleep better? I have a stash of herbal teas that work wonders for bundled nerves.”
Tessa pulled away and looked into his eyes, a new fear forming a knot in her throat. Through all of her forwardness, she had forgotten that Christopher had no interest in her. She was still a child and although his eyes were still filled with compassion, they lacked the love that she knew she felt now. Perhaps the drugs were not completely out of her system and causing her to be delusional in this way.
She let her arms drop and envelope herself instead of Christopher and looked to the tufted rug on the floor in front of the bed.
“What’s wrong now?” he asked, his hand coming to rest on her back.
She shook her head. “Nothing. I’m just tired,” she replied before edging away and rolling under the covers to wallow in her self-pity. It was partly true. She was tired.
Christopher seemed to buy her lie. And even if he didn’t, he let her alone and left the bedroom. He closed the door, letting darkness take over the room with the exception of the candles burning on the vanity and the tiny fading embers within Tessa’s heart.