“Thank God,” Lydia muttered, climbing down from the wagon. She shook the dust off her skirts, looking about the street. “I was beginning to think that I was growing into that bench.”
And getting looks too, especially once she took off her bonnet and the sunlight caught fire on her hair. Beacon Hills was one of the more established towns in the area, but judging from the onlookers, it was still very much a trapping and mining outpost. Lots of rough-looking, grimy men, suddenly fumbling with their things at the sight of a skirt.
Giving Stiles some unfriendly looks too, once he’d climbed down beside Lydia. They’d only been in town a few minutes and he’d already caught at least one comment about not being able to tell which of them was the girl. Stiles suppressed his sigh and tipped said catcaller a sunny smile, and just happened to brush his coat back from his gun holster as he stretched out his arms. “Well, where to first?” he said, offering his arm to Lydia. “Hotel to find a room? Saloon for a drink?”
“Seeing as they’re one and the same, I’ll save you two a quarrel and direct you to the New Moon Saloon over there,” came an amused female voice. A tall, dark-haired woman dressed in men’s clothes sauntered off the boardwalk and came over to them. People averted their eyes from her, though she was beautiful enough to stand out anywhere. “Kali. Newlyweds?”
Lydia tipped her head towards Stiles, tugging at his arm so that they swayed together, and gave the woman a bright, slightly challenging smile. “Yes, well, I suppose the months in the wagon train to get here don’t count,” she said. “We are indeed.”
“Stiles and Lydia,” Stiles said, holding out his hand. “Stilinski. We’re the Stilinskis.”
Kali smiled back at them, showing a hint of sharper than normal canine, and took Stiles’ hand. She did not crush it, which, frankly, made Stiles just a little more wary. “Stilinski. Any relation to—”
“Yep, he was my great-uncle,” Stiles said. He paused and did his best to look sober, dropping his eyes when Lydia gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder. “We came as soon as we heard, but I guess you must’ve had the funeral already.”
“It was nice. Pretty tombstone, out in the cemetery, got sent all the way from San Francisco,” Kali said. She still sounded friendly enough, but she’d been weighing them up since their wagon rolled into town, and her gaze only grew sharper now. “You his heir?”
“Yeah.” Stiles held her gaze, just till he saw her brows twitch slightly in surprise, and then he smiled again. “I was so sorry to hear about his death, but my wife and I are just thrilled to be out here, ready to carry on with the ranch. We’re determined to not let my great-uncle’s legacy go to waste.”
“We’re going to run it just like he wanted,” Lydia chimed in, batting her eyes and adding a note of gushing enthusiasm to her voice. “It’s so exciting! A real Western ranch! I can’t wait to see it!”
That was a little much; Kali clearly wasn’t an idiot, taking in Lydia’s naïve act and then eyeing the well-worn, but very much intact covered wagon behind them. But something about it seemed to amuse her, and with just a thin smile, she nodded at the New Moon again.
“Well, you won’t be able to get out there before dark falls, and it’s still pretty rough in the woods around here. Robbers and plenty of wild animals,” she said. “My advice, you get yourself a room and a wash and a good hot bath, and then start out in the morning. And if you need any help, you can leave a message for me with the bartender.”
“Oh, thank you,” Stiles said, nudging Lydia when she simply frowned at Kali. “That’s—that’s very generous of you. Although we wouldn’t want to start off on the wrong foot in a new town, eating up people’s time—”
“No, no, it’s my job,” Kali said, and then she grinned at them. “I’m the sheriff around here, by the way. And I’m sure the mayor will want to come and greet you, too. We’re a friendly town, we always want to give newcomers a good welcome.”
* * *
“About as friendly as a rattlesnake,” Lydia said, getting up from drawing the last privacy sigil. She wiped the chalk off her fingers, then squeezed her way between the chests crowding their tiny room so that she could get up onto the bed.
It was the only way she’d have the space to take off her dress. Normally they’d leave the chests in the wagon—the curses branded into the bottoms would keep off most thieves—but with at least one alpha parading around town, that didn’t seem wise. So they’d carried all the important stuff up, and now Stiles was squatting on one chest while trying to wash off in the bowl the innkeeper had provided.
Awkward or not, proper hot water, steaming to touch, and enough of it to actually make decent suds, felt pretty glorious. For a moment Stiles just held his hands in it and enjoyed.
“What are we going to do about them?” Lydia asked.
Stiles looked up. “Do?”
Lydia dropped her folded dress on the bed and then, her shift hiked up around her thighs, stepped from chest to chest till she could sit down across the bowl from him. “Stiles. If she’s the sheriff here, then the mayor has to be another one of them, and that means that everything that druid told us is true.”
“What, did you think she was making it all up? She wasn’t that great a liar, so I’m not sure why you’d be surprised,” Stiles said. He gave his face a last splash, then glanced into the water and made a face when he saw how brown it was under the suds. “Anyway, they don’t know that we know anything. For all they know, we’re just a pair of harmless greenhorns who came to fail at ranching like all the others.”
“Do you really want to bet on that?” Lydia said, raising one brow.
Stiles made another face, then got up and stepping-stoned his way to the window. After checking that nobody was under it, he poured out the contents and then turned back. By then, Lydia had made her way to the second kettle that was waiting near the door, and had returned so that they met on the bed.
Damp bedding versus not getting splinters while she bathed. Lydia thought it over, pursing her lips, and then sat down on the mattress. She poured the kettle out into the bowl, then handed it to Stiles.
“Let’s not make this complicated. We’ll start with the usual story,” Stiles said, setting the kettle on the floor. “We’re just here for the ranch. It’s far enough out to not count as part of the town, and whatever the hell they want to claim as their territory, we’ve still got actual legal title.”
“Right, and a pack of alphas who all murdered their packs are going to care about that.” Lydia started to unpin her hair, then changed her mind and pinned it back up. Instead she pulled up her shift and tipped herself back on one folded leg so that she could extend the other over the bowl, sluicing over her calf and foot with soap and a handkerchief.
Stiles rolled his eyes. “Well, what, did you want to declare war on them?”
“No, of course not. But they’re a lot more brazen than I was expecting—than you were, too. She was all but showing her fangs in broad daylight,” she said. She had that little crease between her eyes, thinking it over. “I just think we’ll need to come up with that back-up plan a lot faster than we thought.”
And that was all that that meant, and Stiles had seen it more times than he could count, but for some reason, watching her bend over the bowl, it struck him a little differently. They were so used to each other by now, coughing in the dust or covered in mud or huddling together in the wagon, and now it was like he was seeing her all over again. With the cream of her thigh catching the lantern-light that the bowl of water reflected up, and the way she was biting her lip, and…
Lydia looked up, catching him at it. Stiles stammered something, feeling his face heat, and Lydia’s eyes widened and the handkerchief slipped a little in her fingers, and for a second she looked just as nervous.
Then she put her foot down on the bed, moving the bowl to a nearby chest, and gave him a mocking smile. “Honestly, Stiles, I wouldn’t put it past them to wonder whether we really are married,” she said.
“Well, that wouldn’t be a stupid question,” Stiles muttered. He rubbed at his face, then steeled himself and went back over to the bed.
She lifted her hands and put them on his shoulders, and they were shaking a little. He looked at them, then at her, just catching the edgy flicker before she firmed up her lips into another smile. This one was a little less mocking, though it was still as tense and off-kilter as he felt.
“It’s not like this is new,” she said. “And this time we even have a bed.”
“Yeah,” Stiles said. He slid off the chest and onto the mattress, then grinned as the rope supports creaked and swayed under the weight. “Springy, isn’t it? Real classy place they’ve got here, even if they’re dangerous homicidal maniacs.”
“Oh, just—” Lydia said, before she pulled him down over her.
They didn’t completely shake their nerves till Stiles had shucked his trousers and had his head buried in her neck, pressing into her cunt with his fingers. Lydia hauled at his back, then his ass, breathing roughly, and then she suddenly dug her nails into him, hissing at him to just get in already. He started to look at her and she reached down to grab his cock, and well, that was more like their usual rhythm. Falling in line afterward was as easy as breathing, at this point.
“It’s fine,” she murmured afterward. “I told you, banshees can tell much more precisely. No babies.”
“I know, I remember, it’s just…God, so many damn things to remember. You’d think crossing the country would make some of them go away,” Stiles said. He laid his cheek against her shoulder for a moment, smelling her hair—even at the filthiest, most terrible parts of the trek, it always smelled a little like flowers—and then he pushed himself up on his arms. Let her roll over him to get at the water and soap. “So the alphas. I still don’t think we need to change up what we usually do that much. They might see through the act, but you know they still won’t have any idea what we really can do.”
Lydia paused with the soap half-dipped. “You don’t think that’d make them more likely to attack us? And if there really are five of them, you know that’s too many for us to handle any way besides—”
“It’s not going to get to that,” Stiles said.
“How do you know? It’s always ended up with that,” Lydia snapped. Her hand jerked from the bowl, then slowly lowered as she looked away, chewing on her lip. She twisted at the ring on her finger, but jerked her hands apart when she realized what she was doing.
Stiles winced, but he knew better than to reach out to her. Instead he moved over, lying beside her without touching, and just waited till she relaxed and started washing herself again.
“I want that even less than you, you know that. Just…I was thinking, druid’s been right so far. So she was probably right about the tree too,” Stiles said. “I’m pretty sure they’ll let us get out of town. And once we’re out, we go to the Nemeton and start using it. That’ll keep them guessing about what we are, and even if they’re shifting in the streets, I don’t think they’re stupid enough to come at us before they’re sure they can get us.”
“That’s not going to throw them off forever,” Lydia said. “And who knows, they might be able to dig up something about the Nemeton. It’s been here for decades, from the sound of it, and they might hate druids but we can’t be sure they’ve killed off everyone around here who’d know something about it.”
“Yeah, I know. But if they already had somebody, they wouldn’t be holed up in town. We didn’t see a lot of signs of them away from the road, so they’re obviously staying out of the woods,” Stiles said, rolling onto his back. “Anyway, you’re missing the best part of this idea. We do this, and they’re probably going to think we’re druids. We can even tell them to their faces we’re doing something with the tree and it would just help us.”
Lydia’s head tilted. She ran water down her arm for a few more seconds, and then she looked over at him, grinning. “You know, husband, I think I agree,” she said.
Stiles winced again. “I hate it when you use that voice. Creepy.”
“Creepy, but effective,” Lydia said airily. “Well, then I’d better air out my muslin. If we’re to leave first thing in the morning, that’s barely enough time to shake out the wrinkles.”
* * *
The mayor, Deucalion, had an English accent that reminded Stiles a lot of the old university librarian who’d always been after him for overdue books. Despite that, Stiles and Lydia had been fairly friendly with the man, and he and his contacts at lending libraries and private collections up and down the East Coast had been very helpful. So hearing the same accent from a charming, handsome alpha who obviously wanted to have them waylaid and murdered at some point was a little disorienting.
“Are you certain you want to leave so early? You’ve had such a long, hard journey, I imagine, and you’ve barely had time to rest your oxen,” Deucalion said, smiling, the milky blindness of his eyes in no way disguising his menace.
“Well, that’s exactly why we can’t wait a moment longer,” Lydia said earnestly. “We should have arrived a good month ago, so we’d have the time before the Hunter’s M—”
Stiles made a show of pulling Lydia up against him by the waist, cutting her off, and then smiled tensely at Deucalion, and at the pair of tall, glowering alphas he had guarding the stable entrance. “My wife means, we wanted to have time to settle in before the fall round-ups. We’re new to this whole business, I’m sure you can see that—” he laughed nervously and Deucalion relaxed enough for a hint of a smirk “—and we have a lot to learn. My great-uncle, he left me some notes—”
“What kind of notes?” Deucalion said. And then, realizing that maybe letting his eyes flare red in interest wasn’t the best way of disguising his interest, he stepped back and then gestured at yet another huge alpha, who was lurking outside the stable. “My apologies. If I seem eager, it’s only that…well, we’ve had some problems in that part of the forest. The land is excellent, of course, but it’s still very untamed.”
“Oh, yes, I know, Great-Uncle wrote a lot about the trouble he was having clearing it out,” Stiles said. He eyed the new alpha, wondering idly if the pack selected based on a minimum height, and then dragged his eyes back to Deucalion as Lydia started to edge him towards their wagon. “There’s one tree that he swore was cursed, even! He just couldn’t dig it up no matter what he did.”
A laugh rang out across the stable, causing several horses to shriek in fear, and then Kali sauntered out from behind a stack of hay bales. She closed in on them from behind, but interestingly, the alphas at the door backed off, taking some cue from how she was grinning at Deucalion.
“Digging it up,” she repeated. “Well. The kind of trees out here, they can root deep, can’t they. Might be best to just work around it.”
“I think we’ll want to go out and see for ourselves first,” Lydia said, prim but determined. She and Kali matched gazes for a second, and then she laughed lightly. “Well, can’t look at it from here, can we?”
“I suppose not,” Deucalion said slowly. He pursed his lips a few times, staring a little too carefully ahead, as if he didn’t know exactly where they were, and then he also stepped back. “Well, it’s not fair to keep you. Although if you run into any problems, do feel free to come back and let us know. This is a very close town here. We like to know each other.”
“That’s very nice of you, thank you so much.” Lydia let Stiles help her onto the driver’s bench, and then twisted back around to smile at Deucalion again. “We will certainly come back to visit once the ranch is in order. We can’t wait to get to know our new neighbors too.”
* * *
“I’m just saying, I think you laid it on a little thick,” Stiles said, hopping off the wagon.
Lydia followed him, with a sharp swish of her skirts that made the oxen shuffle, and then stalked up the front steps ahead of him. “As if we won’t have to go back into town eventually, Stiles. Even if someone’s bothered to keep things up, and I doubt that since nobody came to see us in town—”
The front door swung open before they even touched it. Stiles had stepped on a very creaky floorboard just before, and he figured that the jar of it had moved the door, so that wasn’t too frightening. And to be honest, after everything that they’d seen, it would take a lot to scare them.
What was inside the main ranch house wasn’t anywhere near enough, but it was depressing. He hadn’t had much hope that anybody would do more than lock the place up, and not take too much of the furniture on the way out, but he wasn’t expecting a body. And it definitely wasn’t his great-uncle, with the claws on one hand and the waist-length, half-rotted hair.
“Well,” Lydia said after a few minutes of silence had passed. She stepped out of the doorway, took a deep breath, and then unbuttoned her sleeves and rolled them up. Then she walked carefully around the corpse, using her foot to scuff out the faded spiral that somebody had traced in blood around it.
Stiles took out a piece of chalk and laid down some temporary wards on the lintel and threshold while she did that. “You want any help with it?” he asked as she made to pass by him into the house.
“No, just go set up the boundary markers,” she said, tying a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. It’d been long enough that the corpse had dried out, but musty dead smell was still musty dead smell. “And if you could clear out that well…we’re going to need water. A lot of water.”
“Got it,” Stiles said, turning around.