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“Well, it’s like this…” Chuck paused for a moment, clearly thinking.
Summer took him in, wondering why she hadn’t caught the subtle things before: his fluid movements, the way he could command his presence even when lounging against the wall, the aristocratic lines of his face, or the intensity of the gaze he directed at her. She chalked it up to the circumstance of their meeting. When you fear for your life, everyone looks imposing.
Chuck shook his head. “There isn’t enough time for me to pontificate on what it’s like growing up as the Scion of an incubus. We need to get to your pack to warn them and start preparing them to fight.”
“Look, Summer, I’m good. I can take a werewolf out before he knows I’m hunting him. But a pack? An entire pack?” He huffed out a breath. “I need help. And it’s your pack’s territory they’re after, so I imagine you’ll want to help.”
Summer’s eye narrowed. “Yes. But–”
“No ‘but,’” he told her. “You’re in or you’re out. And if you’re out, I don’t think you’ll like who I bring in.”
“Right now, I’m doing this alone. You help me and you get a say in how this goes down. But if you don’t, I’ll have to call in another Hunter and I doubt they’ll be as discriminating about which werewolves they shoot.” He crossed his arms over his chest, still leaning against her wall like he didn’t just tell her they were pressed for time.
“Fine. But I want to know more about you.”
He pushed off the wall and stalked towards her sliding glass door. “Are we bargaining for questions again?” He opened the door for her will a slight flourish.
Summer eyed him as she walked through. “If you like.”
“It’s all about a balance of power. Last time I had the upper hand.”
Summer clenched her jaw but nodded.
“This time, you have what I need and I have what you need. We’re on even footing. More or less.”
“Even footing?” She barked a laugh. “I don’t think so. One ‘come hither’ look from you and I’ll be rolling over and showing my tummy and I probably won’t be fuzzy when I do it.” Despite her bold words, she blushed. “Incubi are rare, but you aren’t unknown.”
“Hmph,” he grunted, “but you don’t know everything about me. And I strongly suspect you could tear my throat out if I tried anything,” Chuck paused, “untoward.”
Summer flashing him a grin that was mostly teeth. “Fine, I accept we’re on even footing. Question for a question?” She snagged her keys and purse, following him through to the front of the townhouse.
“Question for a question, but they must be of a similar type.” He opened and closed her front door for her, only stepping aside when she went to lock the door.
Summer still felt like he was too close when he was two feet away. He seemed to radiate an alluring warmth. Incubus. He’s an incubus and you don’t need that in your life, she told herself firmly.
“For example, if I answer a question about my childhood, you must do the same,” he said as he opened his car door.
Sumer frowned at the sedan for a second, it might be as old as she was, but settled herself in his car. Am I really getting in the car of a man who kidnapped me a few weeks ago and willingly going where he drives? she asked herself. She had no proof of anything he was saying other than a strong suspicion that he, like fae, was unable to lie.
“Fine,” she said. “What is your first question?”
“My first question? Nope, that goes to you. You wanted to learn more, we bargained, you know the stakes, so ask.” Chuck eased his car out of the small paved space in front of her townhouse. She lamented that it was entirely bricked over, not a blade of grass to be seen, but the backyard against the bay and a reduced lawncare load made it worth it.
Summer cocked her head thoughtfully. “If you make such good money as a Hunter, why do you drive an old beater?” she finally asked him.
Chuck gave a laugh, deep and rich like the dirt turned under a paw at full sprint under a full moon. There was a vitality to it that made the corners of her mouth tug upwards unbidden. “Of all the questions, that’s what you start with?”
Summer grinned, then realized he was probably putting some kind of demon whammy on her and smoothed her features. “It seems like a benign start. I’m not about to start in on either of our childhoods.”
She watched him smile as he drove. It was an easy smile, seemingly genuine, and she realized that’s probably what made him such an excellent predator. With a jolt, she wondered if a thousand bunnies who had seen her lope by effortlessly and had died under her teeth had felt the same.
“That’s wise,” he told her. “I drive this ‘beater,’ as you call it because it’s so bland it goes by without notice.” He spared a glance at her. “Have you heard of ‘Gray Man Theory’?”
“No,” she said with a hint of question. “And I’ll grant that you asking that doesn’t count as your question.”
His mouth quirked up into a wry grin. “Gracious thanks, my lady.”
“So, little gray men?”
His smile became genuine. “Not little gray men. Just one man, me, or anyone else who wished to blend into a crowd. I stole it from those bonkers prepper survivalist types. You move naturally, don’t appear overtly strong or commanding, and work to deliberately keep from rising about the general buzz of humanity around you.”
“So, basically, an anti-incubus?”
“Uh, astute, yes. You are correct, I am paid a commensurate amount for the skills required, the experience I possess, and the difficulty or danger of a case. All that said, if I rolled up to a small cabin in the forest driving the Mercedes I could well afford, I would stand out.”
“That’s,” Summer pause, considering, “that makes a kind of sense, I suppose.” She watched as they passed out of the small urban area around her house from the beater’s window. “Ok, what’s your first question?”
“Why do you live on the water?”
“You asked me that once already,” she told him. Summer shivered slightly.
“You told me you rebelled by moving away from your pack and adapting to the human side–”
“There’s no human side or wolf side, by the way,” she interrupted.
“I’m a werewolf,” she told him firmly. “When I’m shaped like a wolf, I’m a werewolf. When I’m shaped like a woman, I’m still a werewolf. There’s no choosing a side. I am what I am, regardless of what shape I’m in or how I live my life.”
“Wait, what?” he glanced at her. “Do you keep your human mind, consciousness, whatever when you change?”
“Of course!” she told him with an indignant huff. “I’m not some slobbering beast just because I’m fuzzy. My wolf instinct is stronger, I have all the senses of the wolf’s body, but my mind is still very much my own.”
“Are bitten, not–”
“Not born, ok, I’ll accept that there are differences.” He was silent a moment. “I’ll save that question for my next. But you still haven’t answered the first one, wolf.”
Summer smiled. “Now you get it.”
Chuck gave a half-laugh.
“Simple, really. I live on the water because it’s pretty.”
“That’s it. I can sit at my kitchen table watching dolphins breach as I eat breakfast. I can get home from work and be launching a kayak in minutes. I can sit on my patio and watch the sun as it sets over the bay.” She gave a small smile. “It’s pretty.”
“Ok, I guess I can buy that.” His tone was skeptical.
“And my family is not inclined to visit. They claim saltwater makes their skin itch.”
Chuck gave another deep laugh and Summer grinned along with him. For all his talk about gray men, he had a magnetism that would be hard to hide.
“The truth will out!” He declared and thumped his fist on the beater’s steering wheel. A few flakes of desiccated vinyl dropped into his lap. He dusted it off with a sheepish grin. “Sorry. Ok, what’s your question?”
She squinted at him in the setting sun and gave a sly smile. “What’s your real name, Chuck? And bear in mind that I am only a werewolf and not capable of doing anything with your name.” She gave the word “name” a slight emphasis.
“Jackson Elliot, Scion of House Malcxasteco,” he told her blandly.
“Geez, that’s a mouthful.”
He glanced at her.
“Yeah, ok, innuendo. I said what I said.” She huffed again. “What in the hell all is a Scion of… what? And why in the world do you go by ‘Chuck’?”
“The first is its own question and has to wait, but I’ll consider the second as part of the original question. ‘Jackson’ is a family name and common enough that they shortened it to ‘Jack’ when I was growing up.”
Summer watch his mouth tighten as he spoke. Damn the man, even frustrated or annoyed, whichever he was now, he was damnably good looking.
“But when I joined the Army, my first medivac team already had a guy with the last name ‘Jackson,’ one with the first name ‘Elliot,’ and someone who went by ‘Jack.’” He shook his head and laughed. “They decided that ‘Chuck’ sounded ‘close enough,’ so I became ‘Chuck.’”
“Chuck the Incubus,” Summer said with a laugh. “Ok, but don’t think I’m not going to pull on about a thousand threads from that story!”
Suburbia faded away to tall, thin pines, skirted with ferns in the dying sunlight. Summer watched it all roll by as they continued north.
“Do feral werewolves take on the mind of a wolf?” Chuck asked after a quiet mile rolled past.
Summer tilted her head and considered the question. “Yes, as far as I know.”
“That’s not enough.”
“That’s all I can tell you that is a known, proven fact.”
“Ok, tell me what you think then. Your experience is valuable. I, uhh,” Chuck hesitated a moment, “I don’t often get to speak to werewolves about themselves.”
“I’ll bet putting silver bullets in them has that effect,” Summer responded dryly. There was a short beat before she went on. “Fine. As far as I, or any of my pack can tell, we are true werewolves. The whole, ‘I’m always a werewolf’ vibe. In human shape or wolf shape, I still have the same mind; not quite human but not fully wolf. Bitten wolves,” she cocked her head slightly, “I think it’s more like lycanthropy to them. The mentality is different. In human form, they’re a ravening beast, barely holding on to any residual humanity. In wolf form, the beast is more brutal and vicious than a normal wolf.”
Chuck nodded. “Do you talk to them? Try to reason with them?”
“Oh, no. The Elders are very clear. We stay away from them as much as possible and if it isn’t possible, we shoot to kill.”
“So, you don’t know for sure.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No. Like I said, this was my opinion and a departure from known facts.”
Chuck seemed to consider the answer. He glanced at her, eyes flitting from her face and down. Summer blushed.
“You need to turn that whole incubus whammy shit off, Chuck. Making me attracted to you isn’t going to help in this situation.”
“You’re attracted to me?” He smiled and gave her a hopeful look.
“Is that your next question? Because I think I’m owed one first.” Summer snapped her eyes back to the road.
“It is not.”
“Why does an incubus join the Army of all things?”
“Short answer? You cannot bind someone by contract if it would supplant a contract already signed.”
“What in the world does that mean?”
“You weren’t far off the mark when you first accused me of being fae. Like the fae, incubi are bound by certain laws. You felt it when we made our deal. So, I exploited a loophole. I signed a contract with the Army for four years. My father couldn’t bind me to his life and will if doing so would force me to break my contract with the Army.”
Summer realized her mouth hung open. “Are you shitting me?”
“Just because he was my father did not mean I was guaranteed to become the Scion of his House, his heir. But it made me the front runner. I was,” he frowned, “groomed from the onset of puberty, probably sooner, to be his heir.”
The way he said it, the words a cold void of emotion so unlike his normal speaking voice, cause Summer to shiver. The hum of the beater’s tires on asphalt filled the car for a long moment.
“When I was fifteen, I realized he was hurting the women and men he was preying upon and stepped back. As much as I could. I lived with him but still attended a normal high school. I took up as many extracurriculars as I could to stay out of his home. I stumbled upon the Gray Man Theory and I used it to counter everything he was trying to teach me in our home.”
“And your mother? She couldn’t help you?”
Chuck looked at her like he was going to challenge the additional question but answered. “No. My mother was nothing more than a vessel to him. She raised me until an appropriate time then handed me and her parental rights over for enough money to live comfortably for the rest of her days.”
Summer swallowed hard. “She sold you.”
A mile of now darken highway slipped by before Summer spoke again. She watched as the beater’s headlights reflected in the eyes of local fauna. “So, you joined the Army to escape him. What did you do?”
“I was a medic,” he said, his mouth twitching up into his characteristic smile again. “I healed people.”
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