Brand pushed through the office door amid the protests of Erik’s assistant.
Erik pinned Brand with a stern stare, then waved his assistant back. “It’s all right. Call me when Harris gets here.” She nodded, giving Brand a disapproving glare as she exited and closed the door behind her.
Erik stood, his hands braced against the dark wood of his desk. “You’d better have a damned good reason for barging in here like this.”
Coming to Erik’s office unannounced was a rather serious breach of etiquette, and relationships between brood males were strained at the best of times. Brand had distanced himself from his own kind for several reasons, but the most prominent was the constant power struggles. Existing outside the social structure of any brood, he was always considered a threat.
The complex rules of propriety even kept him from being able to apologize for bursting in without increasing the tension between them. Instead, he ground his teeth and crossed the office with slow steps. He lowered himself into a chair in front of the desk without breaking eye contact. Erik sat a few seconds later.
Brand cleared his throat. “I just came from a jobsite of mine where police found a woman’s body.” He kept his voice level, though he wanted to shout. “She was murdered by one of us.”
Erik leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over his stomach, but didn’t speak for several beats. “You’re sure?”
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise. The bites I saw were from a brood male, no question. I need to know who you think could have done this.”
Erik showed off his complement of elongated canine teeth in a silent snarl. “Why? You’ve no dominion over my brood.”
“She was shredded,” Brand said, his voice harsh with disgust. “I won’t abide it, Erik, not even from one of yours.”
As anger overtook him, Erik’s eyes lightened from blue to arctic white. “You are not in charge here. You gave up that right, so back the fuck off.” He growled, a low, menacing sound. Fury radiated from Erik in waves.
Brand could almost see the infectious cloud of rage. Through an often-practiced strength of will, Brand reinforced the barriers that isolated him from the emotions of others. Around humans he didn’t have to exert as much effort, their feelings were so much easier to shut out. The churning, mercurial emotions of the brood put Brand constantly on edge.
When Brand didn’t respond to the challenge, the tension in the room gradually eased. Erik’s fingers drummed on top of the desk. “It wasn’t one of mine. We were running at my lodge last night, like every week of the full moon. All males accounted for but one.”
Brand leaned forward. “Who was missing?”
“Lucas has been gone for a few weeks. I was going to call you in to help me look for him if he didn’t turn up by the full moon.” Erik ran a hand through his spiked blond hair. “He’s not aggressive. There’s no way he killed a woman, Brand.”
The sincerity and affection in Erik’s voice was cause enough for Brand to doubt Lucas was the culprit. “I’ll look for him, but if I find out he’s involved, I won’t spare him.”
“Fair enough.” Erik bent his head to write for several seconds, then held out a sheet of paper.
Brand reached for the note and looked down at the address printed in Erik’s neat handwriting. “A young male striking out alone isn’t unusual.”
Erik shook his head. “He wouldn’t leave without talking to me.”
The intercom buzzed. “Harris is on his way up,” the assistant’s smooth voice said over the speaker.
Erik pressed a button on his phone. “Send him in.”
Brand stood and turned to leave.
“You should stay for this, actually,” Erik called after him. “It’s a meeting with the Bioden lawyers.”
Brand’s company handled the security at all of Erik’s construction sites, so the name was familiar. “That’s the biotech outfit giving you a hard time with the new project?”
Erik nodded. “They’ve been glad-handing and paying bribes all over town. I can’t even get a foundation poured at that site off Mississippi Avenue because of the permit and license bullshit they’re shaking up.”
Brand moved to a credenza along the wall at a right angle to Erik’s desk and leaned against it. “What’s the problem?”
“Loki only knows.” Erik made a dismissive gesture. “They claim the construction will cause problems at one of their nearby warehouses.”
A knock sounded on the door, and Erik called for them to enter. The assistant showed two men into the room and retreated once more. Both men had the polished, easy manner of long-time businessmen. The taller of the two wore a navy suit, his dark hair impeccably slicked back. He extended a hand toward Erik.
Erik clenched his sharp-edged jaw and stared at the offered hand as if he were seriously considering biting it. “Harris, I don’t have time for your idiocy today. Sit down and get to the point.”
Harris swallowed and brushed at his knee as he took his seat. “A hundred-thousand-dollar donation to Mr. Rivera’s leukemia research fund would see this matter resolved without issue.”
Erik pressed his hands into the desk until his fingers mottled from the pressure. “That’s ridiculous.” His voice was low and dangerous. “He can have half that.”
Harris glanced at the man next to him. After a brief pause, the unnamed associate nodded. Harris’s eyes popped open, but he covered his shock quickly and turned back to Erik. “That will be fine, Mr. Sorenson.” Both men stood. “We’ll get out of your way now.” Harris crossed the room with the measured steps of a man trying his best not to scurry away, with the other man following close behind him.
Erik watched them go from beneath a furrowed brow. He reached for the phone and slapped the intercom button. “Molly, have a check cut for Harris and get him out of my building.”
Erik released the button before she responded. He paused to run his fingers through his hair and made the blond spikes stand up even more.
Brand cleared his throat. “I thought you were going to tear them apart. Glad you didn’t. Cleaning up their guts for the rest of the afternoon isn’t my idea of a good time.”
Erik smiled, but the strain was obvious around the edges of his mouth.
Before Erik could respond, Brand’s phone rang. Not wanting to take a call in Erik’s office, he gestured to the door and nodded his farewell before exiting into the lobby.
He pulled the phone from his pocket and glanced at the display before answering. “What is it, Cam?”
His assistant replied, “I’ve got Detective Grant for you.”
“Put him through.”
Harris and his colleague were still in the lobby, arguing with an annoyed-looking Molly. Brand turned his back on them and stared out the window at the darkening street.
Grant’s gruff voice came over the line a few seconds later. “I need to know if you’ve had any nuisance animal complaints at the factory site recently.”
Brand watched the cars roll slowly to the stop sign at the corner. “None of my guys have reported anything. Why?”
“When we canvassed the neighborhood, someone said they saw a wolf about a week ago. I’m wondering if that’s the answer to our bite mark dilemma.”
Brand hesitated before responding. “Isn’t a coyote a lot more likely? There hasn’t been a wolf pack in Colorado since the nineteen twenties. The closest wolf is probably hundreds of miles away.”
If Grant wondered why Brand had such detailed knowledge of wolf movements, he didn’t ask. “According to the witness, the animal was huge with dark red fur.”
Brand rested a hand on the windowpane and leaned his forehead against it. Red. Perhaps a dozen of their kind had that coloring, including Erik’s mate, Bera. The red coat was a trait specific to her father’s line. Björnkarl’s offspring were troublesome and, like their sire, tended to follow their own rules.
That the wolf had transformed so far from the full moon considerably narrowed the list. Few among them were powerful enough to transform more than a week away from the moon’s peak.
The image of the murdered woman flickered through his mind. Her tortured face wrenched his gut. He’d been witness to similar scenes more often than he cared to remember. With tension tightening his chest, he realized the woman’s condition bore an eerie resemblance to how he’d found Alice years before. His pulse raced, thudding in his ears.
The moment it took to compose himself seemed to go on forever. “It’s probably a stray dog.” His voice sounded choked. “I have a meeting.” Brand hung up without waiting for a response and ran from the lobby.
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