Home > Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega #4)(14)

Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega #4)(14)
Author: Patricia Briggs

The man in the bed moved his head and his eyes opened. For a moment he blinked foggily, as though he’d been lost in dreams, and then his gaze sharpened. “Charles.”

The voice was so quiet Anna didn’t know if a human would have heard it. “I should have told you, I know. But I didn’t want to make you come if you didn’t want to. Or I didn’t want the only reason you came to be because I was dying. Pride, you know.”

He spoke in rapid groups of words with pauses between to breathe. Charles didn’t say anything, but fathomless sorrow gathered in his eyes. Anna knew that Joseph really was his friend because he saw it, too.

The old man smiled. “I intended to be one of those sweet old people, you know the kind, who do exactly what they’re told and eventually they lie down and die when it’s convenient for everyone.”

“I remember,” said Charles, and his face softened into a reluctant smile. “As I recall, it was when you were getting on that rank stallion at the Half Moon on a dare. I told you that I’d feel bad burying you the next morning.”

“I rode that horse,” Joseph said.

“And herded cattle with him the next week,” Charles said. “It was still a stupid thing to do.”

Joseph started to speak, but he had to stop and breathe for a minute. Then he said, “Too much pride and stubbornness, you said.”

“More than once,” agreed Charles.

“You’ll be”—Joseph grinned—“happy. I’m proud and stubborn, as always. Won’t go to the hospital as Maggie wishes—too many evil spirits from all the dead people. I will die here and haunt this house until the old man lets Maggie burn the place down.”

He coughed lightly. “In the old days they’d have kissed my cheek and then left me in the desert to die. Then my family would hire some Hopi or white man too stupid to know the dangers of handling the dead to go deal with the body. Now we’re caught between modern ways and the old. If I die here, only fire will keep my evil ghost from making everyone miserable, and they are too rational to do that.” He laughed, a sound that tried hard to be a cackle, but he didn’t have the air to make that much noise.

Charles rocked back on his heels. “I could take you out to the desert, Joseph, but I don’t know about the kiss.”

Joseph laughed again. Then he started coughing and suddenly all sorts of equipment squealed and beeped. Charles gave the machines an irritated look and they all shut up. Anna, half-horrified, hoped that they had just gone back to their jobs of monitoring Joseph and pumping him full of medications for whatever he needed. But she was afraid not; their silence felt very permanent.

Charles waded through the wires and tubes to put his hands on Joseph’s chest. Joseph stiffened as his eyes met her mate’s, not a gentle stiffening, but like a person who’d stuck a table knife in a wall socket. All that was missing were the sparks and the smoke.

Charles narrowed his gaze and started chanting softly in a language that no one except for him had spoken for nearly two hundred years, a dialect of the Flathead tongue that had died when his mother’s tribe had succumbed to one of the sicknesses that the Europeans had brought with them to the New World, when he was a very young man.

He could have been saying anything, but Anna’s wolf stirred, called to attention by the sharp ozone breath of the sacred that Charles occasionally could tap into when, as Charles put it, the spirits so moved him.

Joseph stopped coughing eventually, leaving Charles’s soothing voice the dominant sound in the room. There were no plants here, but Anna could smell pine. Some impulse urged her to touch Charles, so she did. The back of his neck was the easiest skin to reach, so she put her fingertips there. She closed her eyes and felt his voice sink into her bones. Unable to resist, she lent her song to his.

She didn’t have the language, so she hummed an alto descant to his bass almost-song. The chant was Native American, so it didn’t follow European chords or patterns. But that didn’t bother her. She’d accompanied Charles when he played or sang the songs of his childhood before, though never had it summoned magic. As she found the right notes, it seemed to her that the chant grew stronger.

Charles stopped singing abruptly, and she fell silent at the same time. She may not have understood what he was doing, but the connection between them had told her when the song was finished. On the bed, Joseph’s breathing was no longer labored. He was relaxed and his color was better.

Anna let her arm fall away from her mate and flexed her fingers to rid herself of a last sharp tingle of some sort of magic that had nothing to do with pack and everything to do with her husband’s odd and possibly unique heritage of witch, shaman, and werewolf.

“What did you do to me?” Joseph asked in a hushed voice. His eyes were wide.

“I have no idea,” admitted Charles. “You know how it is when the spirits kick me in the direction they want me to run. Whatever it is, it probably won’t last long.” He paused. “Or do anyone here any good.”

“You have always been such an optimist,” said Joseph, amusement lighting his eyes. “I remember that about you.”

Charles frowned at him. “I didn’t heal you. If you didn’t want to die of lung cancer, you could have quit smoking fifty years ago, when I told you to.”

Joseph laughed, but there was compassion in his expression. “I am eighty-odd years old, my friend. Something is going to kill me soon, it might as well be cancer.” Then the laughter left his face. “Unless you’ve been listening to my father and intend to change that.”

“Being a werewolf is not a panacea to death,” said Charles. “Quite the opposite, in fact. I would never force it upon anyone. Even if I were so lost to right and wrong to try, such an act carries a death penalty. Being my father’s son means I have no defense against charges of Changing someone against his will.”

“My father thinks that you need no such defense, since you are your father’s son.”

Which was almost what Hosteen had said to Charles when he’d driven them in from the landing strip. How terrible, Anna thought, to watch your child die, knowing you had the means to save him and he wouldn’t let you do so.

“Then he does not know my father,” Charles said as he had to Hosteen. “I am the last person he would make allowances for. Because I am his son, the Marrok could not allow me to break his laws.”

“Yes,” said Joseph. “So I told him. But I also know you, and not even a death sentence would stop you from doing what you think is right.”

“You don’t want this,” said Charles, gesturing to himself. “You never did. If you have changed your mind, I’ll be very happy to help.”

Charles had offered to Change Joseph before. Neither man said it, but Anna heard it all the same.

There was a little silence, and then Joseph, who had relaxed against the pillow, gave a small smile. “So you are here to buy a horse for your wife’s birthday.”

“I have come here to see my old friend,” Charles said. “To introduce my wife to him, and to say good-bye.”

Joseph sighed deeply. “First good breath I’ve drawn in months. Thank you.” He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. “My father is a good man. I love him. He tries to do what is best for everyone—and he leads his family and his pack with his heart. But he also thinks that he is right and doesn’t always give weight to the opinions of others. I will die when my time is here, and it is very near. What you have done for me does not change that.”

It wasn’t a question, not quite.

Charles said, “No.”

Joseph said, “I can feel death’s wind in my face, and I heard an owl cry every night this past week. My father’s will cannot change that.” He drew in another breath and smiled directly at Anna. “Enough of my drama, I am tired of it. Charles, you have not introduced me to the pretty lady.”

She hadn’t felt ignored. Both men had been aware of her; Joseph had been studying her. But they had had unfinished business to wade through before bringing her into it.

Charles nodded gravely. “Anna, this is my good friend Joseph, who pulled me into more mischief than he should have been able to. Joseph, this is my mate, Anna, who is a gift an old foolish wolf like me doesn’t deserve.”

“Heaven forbid that we should get what we deserve,” Joseph said, examining Anna. “You have a beautiful song in your heart,” he said at last. “I am grateful that my old friend would find such as you because he is too often alone. Don’t break his heart or my ghost will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

“It isn’t me who is breaking his heart right now,” she told him.

Joseph nodded. “But that is the dual gift of love, isn’t it? The joy of greeting and the sorrow of good-bye.” He narrowed his eyes at Charles. “You came here to buy this woman a pretty horse? Something exotic? A horse that will be living art?” He didn’t sound like he approved.

“Arabians,” said Charles, following Joseph’s conversational trail without protest, “are the cats of the horse world. Anna doesn’t need to dominate. She will enjoy having a partner rather than a servant.”

“An Arabian,” said Joseph to Anna, “can be your best friend. He will not desert you when you need him. He will come to your call and be the wings that take you where you need to go.”

Charles laughed. She’d thought he laughed like that only with her, and she was grateful to be wrong. How terrible to live centuries and never laugh with your whole body.

“Wasn’t Jasper an Arabian?” he asked. “Your ‘best friend’ dumped you by the roadside to walk home plenty of times.”

Joseph grinned, but said, “Hush. I’m making a point. If you spend time with them and treat them with justice, they will reward you.” He cleared his throat. “Jasper excepted.”

“I can do justice,” Anna said.

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