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The words should have been a question, but they weren’t. Instead, they were a statement of ownership even as he slipped the silver chain that had recently been around his neck over my head.
The saber-tooth-cat fang tapped against my nose as it lowered from my forehead to my chin then continued its way downward. Calloused skin grazed my cheek as his hand retreated. And I couldn’t seem to stop my fingers from cupping the heavy artifact that seemed to burn through my sweater with borrowed heat.
“No, it’s not mine,” I answered, even though the fang felt right hanging there. Even though the weight around my neck seemed to lift me up rather than bowing me down.
The men on either side of me exchanged loaded glances. “She isn’t…” started Prince Charming.
“Doesn’t matter,” answered Mr. Wolf. Then, spearing me again with his unbreakable attention, he introduced both of them in rapid succession. “Claw.” This was himself. “Harry.” A thumb jab in the direction of the fairy-tale prince.
“Olivia,” I replied, somehow needing him to know my first name even though a second ago I’d been trying to rush him out the door.
“O-liv-ia,” he repeated, the word seductive and warm in his deep rumble. For a moment, we were suspended in the lull that followed. Then: “We need your help.”
Yes, anything. I wasn’t sure if that was me or the monster. But I somehow managed not to speak the words aloud.
As if responding to my caution, Claw raised his eyebrows at Harry. And the latter accepted the conversational ball as easily as he’d dropped it in the first place. “Ma’am, we work for the President.”
“Of the university?”
Adena cackled a throaty laugh at my confusion while Harry corrected me. “No. Of the nation. As you may have noticed, Jim Kelter…hasn’t been feeling quite himself.”
This made no sense. “I’m not a medical doctor,” I pointed out, although my gaze remained focused on Claw. “My PhD is in archaeology. I study cave paintings, ancient artifacts, and old bones.”
“Like this?” Claw’s finger almost grazed my breast as he tapped the fang he’d given me. But his motion was careful, calculated. Only air slid across my sweater to impact the underlying skin.
I shivered, knowing there was no point in explaining that a bone and a tooth were slightly different in molecular structure. No one would care about biochemistry when dealing with an erratic head of state.
“Yes,” I started. “But…”
“Then we need you.” Claw’s voice reverberated through my bones like the beat of a drum.
He smells like home, the monster inside me whispered, forcing my body to lean forward and inhale a deeper whiff of his woodsy scent.
And the monster’s mirroring of my own feelings slapped me back to reality. I couldn’t afford to be sidetracked by a sexual fancy that would send my mental health floundering.
Plus: “You look out for you,” my father was fond of saying. “Everyone else is doing the same.”
Our nation’s President had dozens—hundreds—of people on staff to ensure his well-being. I had myself…plus Adena when she felt like obeying my commands.
Rationally, I was making the right decision. So I wasn’t sure why it hurt so badly to deny Claw’s request.
“I’m afraid I can’t help,” I answered, snapping my fingers at the raven. She landed on my shoulder with the weight of disappointment, head swiveling to peer behind us as I strode out of the room.
There was a student waiting for me in the hallway when I headed back to campus to deal with my inherited mess after a quick stop home to swallow my meds and toss the cat tooth into my kitchen junk drawer. Adena had also demanded a bite to eat, and I’d changed my shoes because my feet were killing me. To cut a long story short, by the time I rounded the corner and found the freckled class perfectionist waiting for me, I was running quite a bit behind.
He was bundled up against the winter chill, head bowed in a manner that promised our interlude wouldn’t be brief. Still, I smiled and welcomed him. “Joe.”
“I know this isn’t your office hours….” The sixteen-year-old freshman started apologizing the moment I came into view.
“Don’t worry about it.” I dug for my keys in my bag then took a look through the narrow office-door window as I fumbled with the lock. Inside, the piles of my predecessor’s jumbled-together stuff looked taller than when I’d left them. Great.
I was a slob at home, but I liked my workspace tidy. So it had been a bit of a shock when I’d arrived at my office a week ago to find the room full of unlabeled artifacts related to Blackburn’s specialty—the first humans to grace the North American continent. There were stacks of scientific journals by the hundred on the same topic. And, off in one corner, an odd mass of wires and chemicals must have had something to do with a hobby; it certainly made no sense to my archaeological eye.
Even Adena’s perch had been shunted out of the main thoroughfare. The raven cawed annoyance at leaving the center of attention, but she still fluttered off my shoulder and onto her wooden foothold as I ushered Joe inside.
“Tell me about your paper,” I nudged him. The freshman was brilliant, but he required a fair amount of hand-holding. I had a feeling by the time he achieved the age of the average freshman, he would have grown into his own skin.
That happy day was two years in the future however. So I ignored my to-do list and prepared to hold some metaphorical hands.
Sure enough, the flood gates opened as soon as I gave him the opportunity. “I was thinking of delving into Native American petroglyphs.” His eyes sparkled as he lost track of his surroundings and traversed more familiar terrain—the inside of his own head. “Subtopic: form constants and the possible use of hallucinogens. I’d like to track down modern shamans to interview, but I doubt I’ll have time to speak with more than one or two.”
He glared at me then, frustrated that I’d given him less than a week to compile his magnum opus. I swallowed my amusement as I replied. “You do realize that when I said you needed secondary sources, I was referring to scientific articles? This isn’t a dissertation, Joe. This is only 25% of your grade in one class.”
“Yes,” he started. “But the material merits—”
We both glanced up as someone tapped on my open door.
Of course. Who else. Dr. Dick Duncan, nemesis and boss, hovered there, smirking.
“Dick,” I greeted him, hating the fact that Joe’s slender shoulders cowered the moment the department chair glanced in his direction. A good professor lifted up her students. Dr. Duncan got a kick out of knocking them down.
“Ah, you’re speaking to the boy genius.” He laughed, displaying teeth that were far more perfect than you’d expect from a man of his generation. Word on the street was that they were all fake…just like his interest in his students. “Don’t let me interrupt.”
“No, I was going.” Joe, who would gladly have talked archaeology for at least another half hour, stuffed his notebook in his bag so rapidly the pages bent over. Then he slid through the gap between Dick and the door jamb, the other professor not doing him the courtesy of coming inside to widen the space.
“Well?” I asked after the thuds of Joe’s footsteps had receded. I’d need to check on the boy later if I didn’t want a repeat of his first reaction paper, a one-paragraph assignment that he’d handed in two weeks late and twenty pages long.
“Just making sure you’re doing your job,” Dick answered, apparently ignorant of the irony of the situation. Then he wandered away without saying anything further, acting for all the world as if he’d had no purpose in entering other than hazing the young.
Frustrated, I stared after my boss for one long moment. Was this really the leadership the university wanted heading up our department? Unfortunately, as the youngest professor on the totem pole, there was nothing I could do about it. So I dismissed the annoyance and instead dove into the office-cleaning project I’d avoided for far too long.
I’m not sure when the hallway grew quiet, the last faculty members and students filtering away to their homes and dormitories. I just knew that when the last of Blackburn’s papers were picked through and separated into piles—photocopies to be discarded, notes to be filed, materials to be returned to the university library—the view outside my window had darkened into night.
I hadn’t meant to be here so late on the final day of the semester, and I could tell Adena was antsy after sitting on her perch for so long. I’d get her an egg out of the department refrigerator to tide her over and do just a little more filing. Then I’d find my way home….
But when I padded down the hall toward the main entrance, the sound of fingers clacking on a keyboard emerged out of the darkness. Past the entrance and down the corridor, now I was following a rectangle of light that spilled out into the hall.
The department office. Who would be inside at this hour? Poking my head around the corner cautiously, I wasn’t sure what I expected to see. But it certainly wasn’t the plump, middle-aged secretary bowed over her laptop with the intensity of a predator on the hunt.
“Hello,” I said, then jumped as Suzy slammed down the lid with all the force of a teenager caught watching pornography.
“Oh! Hello.” Her face was flushed, her eyes glassy. What exactly did she get up to in her office after dark?
“I just came by to grab a snack for Adena,” I said vaguely, motioning at the bird on my shoulder. “But I can take her home to feed her. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“You’re not interrupting anything. I was just leaving. Here, let me get it for you.”
Despite Suzy’s more usual cadence, I hesitated in the doorway, not wanting to deal with further problems. After all, I could feel the monster coiled inside me, napping lightly after her exertions earlier in the day.
But Adena possessed none of my reservations. Flying off my shoulder, the raven landed on Suzy’s arm then began picking at the older woman’s shiny bracelets.
And Suzy reacted the way she always did. “What a charmer,” she cooed, scratching Adena’s neck once before opening the refrigerator door and pulling out one of the raw eggs she kept inside for my raven. But she didn’t offer to chat. Instead, she ejected me, locking up her office and trotting alongside as we headed down the hall.
“You should be careful going home,” she warned. “The students tell me there’s a big, black dog wandering around that scared a freshman out of her panties.”
There were always crazy stories on a college campus, so I shrugged off the unlikelihood of panty-dropping beasts. “You be careful too,” I answered vaguely. Then I froze, Adena’s egg slipping through my fingers, as I took in the jumble of white papers spread across what should have been a pristine, empty floor in front of my office door.
Want to keep reading? Wolf Dreams is available on all retailers. Thanks for joining Olivia on her adventure!