Human Nature

Cat Kane

 

Chapter One

Beyond the crackling fire, the distant gunshots echoed through the silent evening like an unexpected burst of fireworks on the fifth of July.

Gage cursed silently as he narrowly avoided spilling his cognac, forcing his unsteady fingers into ruthless submission as he tightened his hold on the glass and took a sip.

Perhaps the gunshots startled him, but a moment before they rattled his windows like encroaching thunder, he’d sensed it. That innate disquiet of someone straying onto his land, uninvited.

With several hundred acres of land at his disposal, the issue just didn’t come up. Gage couldn’t see his neighbors even if there were any close enough to be classed as such, and he could barely sense in which direction the nearest town lay. He’d never seen the need for fences or formal boundaries; no one wandered close enough to pose a threat. He’d made sure of it. There wasn’t anything else out here but him.

But this … this was different.

He could still have ignored it easily enough. He could have remained sequestered in his library with his books and his brandy, losing himself in the flickering shadows of the fire and convince himself he’d made a mistake.

A decorous knock rapped at the library door. Gage closed his eyes, letting the simple presence of the man in the doorway ease the anxiety a fraction. Against the darkness of the hallway and the oak paneled door, he knew Randall was as pale and ethereal as a wraith. “There seems to be a disturbance, sir.”

So much for selective hearing. If the shots were close enough for humans to notice, it was even more of a concern. Oh, he wasn’t concerned about his staff—they wouldn’t be his staff if they weren’t capable, and above all, discreet enough not to ask awkward questions.

Randall was a prime example of that, he reminded himself, conveniently skipping over all the other things Randall might be. His assistant still had the dubious honor of being the only one Gage trusted. Also, the one least likely to be missing vital organs or limbs after daring to disturb his peace. Intruders, however, were a different matter.

He swirled the brandy, watching the firelight catch and glint on the dark liquid, reflecting red and gold on the facets of the cut glass tumbler. “Hunters.”

“Most likely,” Randall agreed. “Would you like me to arrange an interception party?”

“They’re not after us.” But they were after something. There shouldn’t have been anything worth hunting on his land. If anything of the sort had wandered onto his property, he wanted to know about it. “No interception. Just see what they want.”

“Of course, sir.” With a nod, Randall dissolved back into the darkness of the hallway.

Damn them. Gage glared at his cognac, only the reminder of its price and fine vintage preventing him from throwing the entire glass into the fire. It didn’t matter how far he tried to isolate himself from the mundane refuse of humanity, it always followed him. Even here, with alarms on the windows, and the invisible barrier of the land, the mountain ridges and the forest, it seeped in like a sickness.

It had seemed a wise idea, a dozen years ago, to spend some of his shrewdly invested fortune in the ranch. Being half a day from the nearest town worthy of being described as such, he should have been safe enough from the ravages of the outside world. He’d watched that world change beyond all recognition, and he’d always known the day would come when he would be forced to withdraw from it entirely.

He should, he mused, swirling the brandy, have annihilated most of them when he’d had the opportunity. But he’d squandered the chance, and now he had to make the best of a bad situation.

He’d known worse, he supposed, at least in terms of home comforts. He’d known countless years dodging through dark, dusty alleys and streets, stealing meals and lives. But at least he’d been safe then. At least it had been easy. Now, in his sprawling eight-bedroom house, with its gadgets and gizmos and high-tech anti-intruder systems, he was a prisoner hiding in the lush rooms, pretending nothing existed beyond the tree line, and startling every time something disrupted his routine. The dark, warm, oak-paneled library was better than alleyways. The plush wing chair and Persian rugs were an improvement on cold ground, but sometimes he’d trade it all in for a day of back then.

Trade everything except Randall. There were some pleasures he wouldn’t deny himself, and his assistant’s presence was one of the few.

He read and drank, lulling himself into a haze that grew more content and confident as more time passed and no word came. Granted there were several acres to cover, but surely there’d be more to report by now if there was a problem, and—

“Sir.” Randall didn’t even bother with the pleasantries of knocking this time. “They’re returning shortly. And they’ve found something they think you should see.”

Gage didn’t look up. “Kill it.”

“Please, sir. You should attend to this matter personally.”

He sent Randall a sidelong look. The man had been in his employ for three decades, since he’d been a belligerent little street rat. Good tutors had taken care of the manners, but it was an altogether different quality that allowed for the understanding and tolerance of a master who remained unchanged—in appearance and attitude—during those decades. If Gage had ever trusted a human, it would be this one.

Thoughts of Randall’s mortality depressed him. He’d be hard-pressed to find another as loyal, but there was little he could do about it. Once, he’d had friends who could have ensured his assistant’s services for an eternity, but he supposed it was a blessing he hadn’t heard from said friends in a long time. He shouldn’t consider inflicting this life, this existence, on anyone.

“I recall a time when staff never demanded I attend to a matter personally.” He smiled wryly, taking his time setting down the book and marking off the page in a tome he knew off by heart.

“I know.” Perhaps it was good manners that were responsible for that well-hidden amusement too. “You have told me about that glorious time on several occasions, sir.”

Gage stood, stretching slowly like a cat rousing grudgingly from a nap. “It bears repeating.”

“I’m sure, sir.”

“So what am I—” The loud interruption from the entrance hall answered the question he hadn’t even been permitted to finish.

Randall was in charge of all the ranch security. It was easier for Gage to allow him to deal with the humans, vet them and take the necessary steps to deal with any trouble that inevitably arose. He’d hoped this wouldn’t have been one of those times—the men seemed excited by whatever it was they’d found.

He got as far as the door before the scent assaulted him. Randall caught his elbow, and the doorframe kept him from falling. Not the scent of humans. Unfortunately, he was too accustomed to them and their scent. They bothered him little these days.

Blood. A richness and abundance of it, the likes of which he hadn’t felt in years. There went the last vestige of hope that this wouldn’t be trouble… “You could have warned me.” He glared at Randall, shaking off the helping hand, and straightening.

“I didn’t know.” Randall passed on the glare to the recon team. “I’m sorry, sir, I take full—”

“Never mind. I want it out of here. Now.” The men had disappeared into a drawing room closer to the front hall, as though they couldn’t take their cargo any farther. He stalked down the hall toward them.

The room fell silent. Randall had trained them well. Even so, Gage was ready to whirl around and snap the neck of whichever one of them still had the nerve to make that wet, wheezing sound. At least until he realized none of them were responsible for the noise.

The first thing that came to him through the disorientating vertigo of the blood-rush, was that someone had seen fit to drop this bloodied carcass on his carpet without thought to stains or putting blankets down first.

Blood. This close, the scent overwhelmed him. It almost seemed to be moving, slippery and gleaming in the light of another blazing fire, black-wet like oil. No. Not moving. The wretched matted creature in front of the fireplace was still alive. The shallow rise and fall of its sides was all that created the illusion of movement. He cast a glance at one of the men, the gesture as clear as if he’d instructed the man to speak.

“It was in the western woods, sir.”

“Only this one?”

The man blinked at the unexpected question. “Alive, yes.”

“Others?”

“One carcass. But there were tracks, blood. There were several others.”

“I see.”

“We decided to bring this one to you, because, well…” The man shook his head, waved a vague hand toward the creature. “Who’d believe us? There haven’t been wolves around here for years, let alone enough of a population to warrant a hunt.”

There hadn’t ever been wolves like this one, to Gage’s knowledge, but he chose not to share that information. “Did you see anyone else?”

“No, sir. This one was all that was left.”

“Very well.” He nodded to the men before beckoning Randall over with a look. “Good work,” he said blandly. “You may leave now.”

“But sir—”

“Do you honestly believe that thing poses a danger?” He looked back at the crumpled animal shivering on the rug. Each breath seemed like a colossal effort. “It can barely breathe, let alone attack. You may go.”

The men looked skeptical, and, Gage noted with more than a little annoyance, looked to Randall for confirmation. “It’s fine. We’ll see to it that whatever is necessary will be done.” Randall smiled, the expression reassuring, the pain around the edges barely noticeable. “Thank you for a good job.”

They waited until the men filed out of the room, before Gage glanced at Randall, brow raised. “We’ll do whatever is necessary, will we?”

Randall grimaced. “I’ll leave the animal to you. I’ll take care of them.” One shoulder jerked in the direction of the men’s retreat. “But if I may be so bold, sir, it’s a goddamned shame. They were good men.”

“It can’t be helped. If you want to blame someone, find whoever lured this damn thing here. I give you permission to take any steps you deem appropriate.”

Randall nodded. “You can be sure of it, sir. Will you be all right to deal with this alone?”

“Yes.”

“Right…” Randall checked the clip on his gun, sighing softly as he re-holstered it.

Gage glanced at him, tasting odd and unfamiliar words. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” Randall smiled wryly. “But I appreciate it in any case, sir. I’ll arrange replacements in the morning.”

“See that you do. I don’t care to be understaffed if this proves not to be an isolated incident.”

“Understood.” Randall nodded again, curtly, backing out of the drawing room and pulling the door shut silently behind him.

Contrary to his assistant’s belief, Gage was sorry. While he’d never grown attached to the fodder that filled out the ranks, Randall saw things differently. Randall saw them as people, as comrades. It was a strange human trait. In the past, Gage had offered to take care of the disposal himself, should any of the staff see or hear more than they ought. Randall had refused, claiming he preferred to deal with it alone, and Gage supposed it was the least he could do, to allow Randall that small indulgence.

He crossed the room, uncapping the top of a crystal decanter on the dark mahogany side table, and taking a sniff. Whiskey. Not his favored taste, but given the circumstances he couldn’t be choosy.

Taking a sip, he watched the creature by the fire. The wolf’s coat looked to be a dirty gray or brown, although it was difficult to tell with all the blood. It was losing its potency as it dried, and Gage frowned; not all this blood belonged to the animal. He could only see two obvious wounds, and they were already beginning to heal to the point where they no longer bled.

“You’re quite welcome to change now, should you see fit,” he said mildly. “You have my assurance it won’t disturb me in the slightest should you do so. I’ve seen worse.”

Even the shivering stopped then. Gage wondered if the creature had breathed its last, until the tiniest increment of movement betrayed the life still left in it.

“Very well.” He shrugged. “I’m sure you’re aware that your pack-mates are dead. My men will be rather curious as to why you survived the ordeal when your pack did not.” Well, they wouldn’t be curious for long. Randall was nothing if not efficient. “I have no interest in you. But I would like you to make yourself at home until you decide to inform me why hunters would be after your kind on my land.”

He set the glass down, walking over to stoke up the fire, keeping it warm and blazing. The wolf didn’t even flinch at his proximity. “I should kill you now.” He held up the finely tooled and polished titanium poker, turning it over in his grasp. “However, answers are far more valuable to me than your pitiful hide.”

At first, he thought the gleaming amber was the reflection of the fire on wet fur. But the animal’s eyes were cracked open, staring at him, a dull pained gold.

“So you are alive.” Gage replaced the poker in its stand, getting to his feet. “Rest. You may as well. You aren’t going anywhere.” He considered locking the door as he left, but decided against it. Even if he tried, the creature wasn’t going to get very far.

Not until he got the answers he sought.

 

 

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