Home > Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega #4)(6)

Dead Heat (Alpha & Omega #4)(6)
Author: Patricia Briggs

“Welcome to our home, Anna Cornick,” she said graciously. Her voice sounded like it should have belonged to a fifteen-year-old—soft and birdlike, without the quiver that age can bring. She pulled herself up straighter, raised her chin, and looked Charles in the eye, searching for something that she evidently found. Her voice grew husky. “Welcome home, Charles.”

Anna couldn’t help but glance at her husband, but if there had been an expression on his face, she was too late to see it.

Briskly the old woman said, “Hosteen, take those filthy boots off before you come into the house. Please.” The “please” was an afterthought.

“Yes, Maggie,” said the Alpha, his voice soft. “And who is it that gave you a broom?”

She raised an eyebrow at him and thumped her broom on the stone of the walk in front of the door. “No one gives me a broom in my own house, Papa. I took it from Ernestine. She is a good girl, but she doesn’t get the edges where the floor meets the wall. Usually it doesn’t matter, but today we have visitors.” She looked at Charles and her face softened.

“It’s good to see you again,” she said, then ducked her eyes away almost shyly. “Joseph apologized for missing your arrival, but he takes an early lunch and then naps in the afternoon on most days. He would love to see you later.”

Charles took the old woman’s hand in his and kissed it with a gallantry Anna had seldom seen him use with anyone but her. “I look forward to speaking with him.”

Joseph, Anna thought, was not the only one Charles felt affection for in this household. She was a little wary of this turn of events. Clearly she should have pinned her husband down and forced him to disgorge more information.

Warned by Maggie’s scolding of Hosteen, Anna pulled off her shoes and put them on a mat near the door while Charles pulled off his boots.

“You two haven’t been playing in the horse manure all morning,” said Maggie. “You can leave your shoes on.”

“It is no matter,” Charles disagreed. “Shoes come off and on without trouble.”

The interior of the house was full of white plaster walls and high, dark-beamed ceilings with big fans designed to help keep the air moving. Though it was February, outside it had been pleasantly warm—especially compared to Montana, which was still in the middle of a deep freeze. Being a werewolf, Anna didn’t mind the cold, but she didn’t mind being out of it, either.

The floors were hardwood. Anna knew oak floors, and these had a different grain, with the worn patina that comes with decades of foot traffic and the gleam that comes with cleaning. She couldn’t help but check, but she didn’t see any hint of dirt against the wall.

“Maggie and Joseph and I are the only ones living here right now,” Hosteen said. “Ernestine, Maggie’s great-niece, comes in on the weekdays to clean and cook for us. Ernestine’s sister Libby does the same on the weekends.”

“Which is a waste of money,” muttered Maggie. “I am perfectly capable of caring for two old men for two days a week.” It had the sound of an old argument—all the heat gone.

“Kage knows you’re here,” Maggie told Charles. “He called from the barn to say he’d be up in an hour or so. They are shorthanded because one of the stable girls quit last week and my son is picky about the people who touch his horses. We’ll feed you a late lunch and then he’ll take you out to look at horses.” To Hosteen she said, “Why don’t you wash up, Papa, and I will show Charles and his wife to their room?”

She didn’t wait for Hosteen to say anything but turned and, summoning her guests with a gesture, led them through a large living room designed for entertaining. Anna recognized a pack house when she saw one. This room, with its multiple levels and conversational groupings, could hold twenty or thirty people, a whole pack, and still feel comfortable rather than crowded.

“That old wolf,” said Maggie as soon as they were alone, “is pleased as punch and flattered that you are shopping among our horses. Don’t let him make you think otherwise.”

Anna heard a huff of laughter coming from behind them somewhere. Maggie might think that they were out of earshot, but Hosteen’s ears were a lot better than an old human woman’s.

As she led them to a set of mission-style stairs, Maggie stopped and gave Anna a good once-over. Then she said something in a foreign tongue, almost staccato in its rapid use of short syllables, but the consonants were too soft. Pizzicato.

Charles narrowed his eyes. Whatever Maggie said, he didn’t like it. “Yes, she is.” His voice was soft. “It is impolite to talk in a language that your guest doesn’t understand. And even more impolite when you are talking about her.”

Maggie looked at Anna. “I told him you are beautiful and young.” She made it sound like a bad thing. “He will run over the top of you and never notice.”

“He is beautiful, too, don’t you think?” said Anna, big-eyed. She was unable to resist the urge to respond to the disapproval in Maggie’s face. She was tired of being misjudged, and more tired of people who thought that Charles would marry a doormat. She put all the earnest sweetness in her voice that she could manage. “And he makes me so happy. I would never dream of disagreeing with him. Why would I? He is strong and so much wiser than I am.” She reached out and ran her hand down his arm.

She was afraid she’d overdone the last sentence, but evidently not. Maggie frowned at her, missing the fleeting grin Charles gave Anna’s meek little speech of adoration. The old woman turned to Charles and let loose a flood of words.

“You know that she is Omega,” Charles said finally, when she had run to a stop. “Hosteen knows; Joseph knows, and it is something that he would tell you.”

She said something more, and her frown turned into a scowl.

Charles laughed, the quiet happy sound he made only when he was among friends. “Omegas aren’t submissive,” Charles told Maggie. “Some of them even have a sense of humor and tease well-meaning people who worry about them when they are hanging around big bad wolves. Don’t worry, she argues with me a lot. She even holds her own with my father.”

“With Bran?” Maggie looked at Anna as if she’d grown horns.

Anna said modestly, “My father-in-law could use more people who will argue with him. It would do him good.”

“I misjudged you,” Maggie said. “I’m sorry.”

She didn’t sound sorry. Charles might think that Maggie had been worried about Anna, but Anna knew better. She knew jealousy when she saw it.

She knew a number of very old people who looked as though they were twenty-five instead of two hundred or however old they were. One of the lessons that had been drummed into her was that no matter what a person looked like on the outside, who they were on the inside could be quite different. Lurking inside Maggie was a woman who still had feelings for Charles.

“People tend to look at me and think I’m a lightweight,” Anna acknowledged. “You aren’t the first.” She understood loving Charles, and since it was she who had him, she could make an effort to be gracious. “But you were worried, which was kind of you. It’s all good.”

She and the old woman exchanged equally insincere smiles. Anna had the distinct urge to roll her eyes and stick out her tongue.

Maggie ushered them into a suite of rooms with a sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom. “When you’ve freshened up, come down to the kitchen—you still remember where it is, Charles?”

“I do,” he said. “And we will.”

Anna used the bathroom, washed her face, and went back to the bedroom. Maggie was gone. Charles headed to the bathroom, presumably to do the same.

When he reemerged, she said as neutrally as she could, “Maggie likes you.”

He understood what she meant.

“We dated once upon a time,” he told her somberly. “Though ‘dating’ is too formal a word for it. Flirting is better, but too lighthearted. We didn’t suit in the end—and she and Joseph were married. 1962, I think. Though I could be off a year either way.”

Anna heard it all in his voice. The sorrow of friends who grew old and died when you did not. She hadn’t experienced it herself yet, but she knew that the probability was that she would live to see her father and brother grow old and die while she still looked like a woman in her twenties. Charles, she knew from talking to his father, had made a point of never getting involved with human women. Until Anna, he’d pretty much steered clear of any kind of real relationship with any woman. Maybe, she thought, Maggie had been one of the reasons why.

Charles knew the way around the house—it hadn’t changed much in the last twenty years. A few new pieces of art, different throw rugs, but mostly it was the same.

Despite what she’d said, Maggie met them at the top of the stairs. He could see her younger self superimposed in his imagination. Her fiery eyes were the same, and the straight spine that made people give way when she passed by.

Charles let the women lead the way down to the main rooms of the house, Maggie first, her back stiff and hostile. He was not unaware that Maggie had decided she didn’t like his Anna, a very unusual reaction to his Omega wife. Since it didn’t bother Anna, he let it ride. She had taught him that despite Brother Wolf’s determination to protect her from anything that would cause her discomfort, Anna was perfectly capable of protecting herself.

Brother Wolf had bowed to Charles’s belief that to protect Anna from everything would cause her more harm than good. It didn’t stop his wolf from being very unhappy with Maggie.

“I can’t find my phone,” said a half-familiar man’s voice in the kitchen. “I had it this morning. Have you seen it anywhere?”

“I don’t keep track of your toys, Kage,” said Hosteen. “But if I did, I might have seen it in the laundry room this morning.”

“I found it and put it on the phone table in the hallway,” Maggie announced as she entered the kitchen. “I thought you’d look there first. I’ll get it.”

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