“Oh my goodness!” Whitney exclaimed the instant they entered the famed Sanctuary biker bar.
Marguerite’s own eyes widened as she looked around the dark, grungy place that did appear to need a good and thorough cleaning. People were dressed in anything from biker leathers to t-shirts and jeans. The tables and chairs were a hodgepodge of rough design that didn’t even match. The stage area was liberally painted black with odd splashes of gray, red and white, and the billiard tables looked as if they’d survived many a bar fight in their day.
There was even straw spread out across the floor that reminded her of a barn.
The bar area to her right was occupied by rough-looking men drinking beers and yelling at each other. She could see a wooden stairway before them that led to an upstairs area, but she had no idea what was up there. Trouble came to her mind. A person could probably find a lot of trouble up there.
This place was definitely rustic.
But what held her attention most was the high concentration of handsome men working in the bar. They were everywhere. The bartenders, the waiters, the bouncers… She’d never seen anything like this.
Elise leaned over to whisper in her ear. “I think I might have just died and been sent to heaven. Have you ever seen so many gorgeous men in your life?”
It was all Marguerite could do to shake her head. It really was unbelievable. She was stunned that the news media hadn’t caught wind of this and sent in a team to investigate what was in the water to make so many hot men in one place.
Even Whitney was gaping and ogling.
“What kind of music is that?” Blaine said, twisting his lips into a sneer as a new song started over the stereo that was piped through the length and breadth of the bar.
“I think it’s called metal,” Todd shouted over the loud guitar solo.
“I call it painful myself,” Whitney said. “Did Nick really hang out here?”
Marguerite nodded. Nick had loved this place. He’d spent hours telling her about it and the odd people who called this place home. “He said they had the best andouille sausage in the world.”
Blaine scoffed. “Highly doubtful.”
Todd indicated a table to the back with a tilt of his head. “I think we should sit and have a drink in memory of old Nick. You only live once, you know?”
“Drink out of the glasses here and you probably won’t live through the night,” Blaine said. He looked less than enthusiastic as they followed Todd to the table and took a seat.
Marguerite shrugged her backpack off, then sat in the chair that Todd was holding out for her. The place was very loud and yet she could see Nick in here. There was something about it that reminded her of him. Aside from the rather tacky decor which Nick had always preferred. She often suspected that he dressed tacky just to nettle people.
To her it had been one of his more endearing traits. He was the only person she’d ever known who truly hadn’t cared what other people thought of him. Nick was Nick and if you didn’t like it, you could leave.
“Can I get you guys something?”
She looked up to see an extremely beautiful blonde woman around her own age. She was wearing a pair of skin tight jeans and a small t-shirt with the Sanctuary logo of a motorcycle parked on a hill that was silhouetted by a full moon. Underneath the picture was the tag line, Sanctuary: Home of the Howlers.
Blaine gave their waitress a hot once over that the woman wisely ignored. “Yes, we’ll all have the Westvleteren 8.”
The waitress frowned at his choice of beer. “What was that?”
Blaine got that familiar smug look on his face and used his do-I-have-to-talk-to-the-simple voice. “It’s a Belgian beer, sweetie. Please tell me you’ve at least heard of it.”
The waitress gave him a peeved glare. “Boy, I was born in Brussels and the last time I checked, this was my new homeland America, not my birthplace. So you can either order an American made beer or I’ll bring you water and you can sit there and act all superior until you puke, okay?”
Blaine looked as if he were ready to choke her. “Does your manager know that you talk to your customers like this?”
The waitress gave him a snide, indulgent smirk. “If you’d like to talk to my mother who owns this bar, my overindulgent brother who manages it or my father who delights in kicking everyone’s ass around about your treatment by me, just let me know and I’ll be more than happy to go get one of them for you. I know they’d just love to waste their time dealing with you. They’re real understanding that way.”
Marguerite stifled a laugh. She didn’t know the woman, but she liked her a lot. “I’ll have a Bud Lite, please.”
The waitress winked conspiratorially at her before she wrote it down on her small pad.
“Here too,” Todd said.
Whitney and Elise joined in with their orders. Then they all looked at Blaine and waited for his next nasty comment. “Bring mine unopened with a napkin and an opener.”
The waitress cocked her head with a devilish gleam in her eyes. “What? Afraid I’m going to spit in it, big boy?”
Before Blaine could respond, the blonde left them.
Marguerite’s smile faded as she suddenly felt something odd… The hair on the back of her neck rose. It was like someone was watching her.
Turning her head, she scanned the crowd, looking for the source of her discomfort. But there was nothing there. No one seemed to be paying any attention to them at all.
There were several burly groups of bikers playing pool. Tons of tourists and bikers milling about. There was even a group of seven men playing poker in one corner. Waiters and the waitress walked back and forth to the bar and tables delivering food and drinks while the two bartenders went about their business.
No one was even remotely looking in her direction.
I must be imagining it.
At least that’s what she thought until she spotted a man in the corner who appeared to be staring straight at her. Dressed in a baggy, untucked, white button down shirt covered by a dirty white apron, and faded, dingy black jeans that had seen much better days, he was a busboy who had paused in cleaning off a table. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled back to the middle of his forearms. His left arm held a bright, colorful tattoo that she couldn’t make out at this distance.
She had no idea what he looked like since his thick dark blonde hair obscured most of his face and fell over both of his eyes. The back of it hung just past his shoulders. In fact, given his hairdo she couldn’t really tell where he was looking, but every instinct in her body said it was at her.
There was something about him that seemed dark and dangerous. Predatorial. Almost sinister.
She rubbed her neck nervously, wishing he would turn his attention back to his job.
“Is something wrong?” Blaine asked.
“No,” she said quickly, offering him a smile. If she mentioned it, he would no doubt make a scene and get the poor man fired from a job he probably needed. “I’m fine.” But the feeling didn’t subside and there was something so animalistic and fierce about it that she was definitely unnerved.
Wren cocked his head as he watched the unknown woman who looked so out of place that he wondered how she’d happened into their bar. Sophistication and money bled from her every pore. She definitely wasn’t their usual clientele.
He could also tell that she wasn’t comfortable under his close scrutiny. But then no one was, it was why he seldom made eye contact with anyone. He’d learned a long time ago that no person or beast could stand the intensity of him for very long.
And yet he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Her dark chestnut hair that she had tied back into a ponytail held traces of auburn highlightsÃ¢â‚¬” that and her darker skin tone betrayed a Cajun heritage. She wore a delicate pink sweater set and a long khaki skirt with matching pink Espadrilles.
Best of all, she had a lush, curvy body that beckoned a man to hold it close and taste it.
She certainly wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, but there was something about her that held his attention. Something about her that seemed lost and hurt.
In the wilds of Asia where he’d been born, such a creature as she would have been killed and eaten by something stronger. Fiercer. Vulnerability of any kind was an invitation for death. And yet he didn’t feel that familiar swell of adrenaline that wanted him to attack the weak.
He felt an inexplicable desire to protect her.
More than that, he wanted to go over to her and offer comfort, but then what did he know about comforting a human? He was a feral predator in human form. All he knew was how to stalk and to kill.
How to fight.
He knew nothing of comfort. Nothing of women. Nothing of softness or kindness. He was alone in the world by choice and he liked it that way.
Marvin, the resident monkey mascot of Sanctuary, came running up to him with a new cloth for cleaning the tables. Wren took it from his hand as he forced himself to go back to cleaning the table. Still, he felt the unknown woman’s presence and before long, he found himself staring at her again while she talked to her group of friends.
Marguerite took a sip of her beer while Elise and Whitney ogled the men in the bar. She reached for a pretzel only to have Blaine slap her hand.
He looked aghast at her. “Are you insane? Do you know how long that has been out? How many grimy hands have been in it? For that matter, our termagant waitress probably poisoned it just for spite.”
Marguerite rolled her eyes at his unreasonable paranoia. She glanced back to the busboy who had moved closer now. He was working again, but even so she sensed that she was his primary focus.
She frowned as she saw a tiny brown spider monkey run up his arm to rest on his shoulder.
The busboy pulled a small carrot from his white apron’s pocket to hand to the monkey who ate it while he returned to work. She bit back a smile as she realized who this guy was. He must be Wren. Nick used to talk about him from time to time. He’d told her that at first he’d thought Wren was mute since he never, ever spoke to anyone. They’d known each other for a full year before Wren had finally mumbled, “hi,” one day when Nick had come in to visit his mother.
According to Nick, Wren was a complete loner who kept to himself and who refused to participate in the world. The only reason she knew it was him was that Nick would talk about the monkey… Wren’s only real friend, who was prone to steal their billiard balls while the two of them played in the back corner of the bar.
The monkey was named Marvin…
Blaine caught sight of her watching the busboy. He turned in his chair to see Wren who had returned to staring at her. At least that’s what it seemed like, but again, he kept his hair over his eyes so there was no way to know for certain.
“Is he bothering you?”
“No,” Marguerite said quickly, afraid of what Blaine might do. In a weird way, she felt almost flattered. Men didn’t normally notice her unless they knew who her father was. It had been her mother who had turned heads.
“What are you looking at?” Todd snapped at the man.
Wren ignored him as he moved to the table beside theirs that was covered with glasses and a plate of half-eaten nachos.
Marguerite could sense that he wanted to speak to her and she found herself wondering what he looked like underneath all that blond hair. There was an air of danger around him. One of powerful restraint and yet she sensed that he didn’t want to attract anyone’s attention.
It was as if he wanted to blend in seamlessly with the background, but was completely unable to do so.
A strange image of a sitting tiger in the zoo came to her mind. That’s what he reminded her of. A large beast that was carefully watching those around him, detached, and yet confident that it could take down anyone who messed with him.
“What a freak,” Blaine said as he looked over to see Wren watching them. “Hey buddy, why don’t you do something with those disgusting dreads?” Blaine tossed a few dollars at him. “Why don’t you use that to get a real haircut.”
Wren completely ignored him and the money.
The monkey started squealing as if protecting Wren. Without a word, Wren patted the monkey’s head, then whispered something to it. The monkey jumped off his shoulder and scampered toward the bar.
Wren set his pan of dishes aside.
Her heart pounded as she realized he was coming toward her now. Up close, he was much larger than he’d appeared from a distance. For some reason, he slumped down and appeared to be around six feet, but if he were to straighten to his full height, she was sure he’d be around six two or three.
There was an aura of supreme power that surrounded him. One of speed and agility.
He was simply magnetic.
This close, she could finally see his eyes. They were a vibrant turquoise blue that was so pale they were haunting in their color.
And in their mercilessness.
He indicated her empty glass with a tilt of his chin. “Are you finished, my lady?” His voice was deep and resonant, mesmerizing. It sent a thrilling chill down her spine.
She smiled at his polite title. “Yes,” she said, handing it toward him.
He wiped his hand off on his apron as if he didn’t want to offend or dirty her before he reached for it.
At first she thought their hands might touch, but he moved his away as if he were afraid of making such intimate contact. A strange disappointment filled her.
Dropping his gaze, he took her glass, holding it as if it were precious and moved away. He set it in the pan, then glanced back at her.
“Excuse me, Rasta-mon?” Todd said rudely. “You don’t need to be looking at her, asshole. She’s way out of your league.”
He cut Todd a bored look that said he didn’t find him much of a threat.
“Wren?” the blond waitress said as she came up to him and confirmed his identity for Marguerite. The waitress paused to give them a warning glower before she softened her expression and looked back at Wren. “It’s time for you to take a break, okay, sweetie?”
As he started away, Blaine pushed at the pan in his hands. “Yeah, sweetie, hang out with your own kind in the gutter.”
Before she realized what Blaine was doing, he slung his drink in the man’s face.
Wren let out a sound that was a strange hissing growl that didn’t seem quite human. In a split second, he dropped the pan and lunged for Blaine.
Out of nowhere a group of men appeared to pull him back. She staggered to her feet and watched as the four much larger bouncers had to struggle to hold onto Wren. They surrounded him so well that Marguerite couldn’t even see him anymore as they formed a barrier as if to protect her group.
The waitress was livid. “Get out!” she snarled at them. “All of you.”
“Why?” Blaine asked. “We’re paying customers.”
Another blond man came up, one who bore a striking resemblance to the waitress. He must be the brother she had mentioned earlier who managed the bar. “You better do what Aimee says, boy. We just saved your life, but even we can’t hold him for too long. By the time his vision clears, you better be long gone or we’re not responsible for what he does to you.”
Blaine sneered at him. “He touches me and I’ll sue all of you.”
The man laughed menacingly. “Trust me, there won’t be enough of you left to feed through a straw, never mind file a lawsuit, dweeb. Now get out of my bar before I throw you out.”
“Come on, Blaine,” Todd said, pulling him toward the door. “We’ve been here long enough.”
Whitney and Elise balked at having to leave, but like dutiful zombies they got up and followed the men.
Marguerite stayed behind.
“Margeaux?” Todd asked.
“Go on. I’ll catch up later.”
Blaine shook his head at her. “Don’t be stupid, Margeaux. Our kind doesn’t belong here.”
She was so sick of the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœour kind,’ Ã¢â‚¬Ëœtheir kind’ mentality. She’d had quite enough of that in her life and much to her entire family’s chagrin, her thought was there were only two kinds of people in the world. Those who were decent and those who were mean.
Personally, she was sick to death of those who were mean. “Shut up, Blaine. Go home before I beat you.”
Blaine rolled his eyes before he headed for the door with Elise and Whitney in tow.
“Are you sure you want to stay?” Todd asked.
“Yes. I’ll catch a cab home.”
He looked less than convinced, but he must have recognized her determination to stay. “Okay. Be careful.”
She nodded, then waited for him to leave before she headed off in the direction where she’d seen them take Wren. This whole fiasco had been her fault. The least she could do was apologize for the fact that she was dumb enough to hang out with assholes.
She found a small hallway that led to the restrooms and to an area marked Private. Staff Only. At first she thought the men might have gone into the private office area until she heard voices drifting out from the men’s room.
“Don’t wet his face again, Colt, he’ll tear your arm off for it.”
Again she heard that fierce, animalistic growl and something that sounded like someone being pushed back.
“I told you,” the masculine voice said again. “Stupid humans. That boy’s lucky we didn’t let Wren have at him. You don’t pull a tiger’s tail unless you want to get eaten.”
“What the hell were you doing talking to that girl anyway?” another voice asked. “Jeez. Since when do you talk to anyone, Wren?”
She heard the growl again, followed by the sound of breaking glass.
“Fine,” the first voice said. “Have your tantrum. We’ll wait outside.”
The bathroom door opened to show her two men who were well over six feet tall. One had short, black hair and the other had long black hair pulled into a ponytail. They stopped between her and the door to eye her warily.
“Is he all right?” she asked them.
The one with long hair gave her a strange look. “You ought to go on and get out of here. You’ve caused enough trouble for one night.”
But oddly enough, she didn’t want to leave. “I…” She forgot her words as the bathroom door opened to show her Wren again as he left the room to enter the hallway too.
His shirt was wet, making parts of it cling to a very well muscled chest. He had a towel draped over one shoulder and his head was down. The gesture reminded her more of a predator that was watching the world warily, waiting to pounce than someone who was bashful or shy.
He approached her slowly, methodically. Something about his movements was reminiscent of a cat right before it brushed up against its owner to nuzzle her or mark her as his.
He wiped at his face with the back of his hand before he cut a sinister glare at the men.
“Leave,” he growled.
The one with long hair stiffened as if he hated the idea of being ordered about.
“C’mon, Justin,” the short-haired man who must be Colt said in a conciliatory tone. “Wren still needs time to cool down.”
Justin let out a low, sinister growl of his own, before he headed back into the bar.
Colt passed a warning look to her, then headed off to the counter.
Marguerite swallowed as she approached Wren slowly. This close she could tell that his baggy shirt covered a lean, hard body. His skin was a deep tawny gold that was so inviting that it should be illegal.
There was something about him that appeared wild, feral. He even looked like he’d slept in his clothes. It was obvious this man didn’t care what anyone thought of him. He didn’t follow fashion or any rule of civility. From what she’d overheard while they’d been in the bathroom, it didn’t even appear he was moderately sociable at all.
In theory she should be repulsed by him and yet she wasn’t. All she wanted to do was brush back the mop of blond hair and see if he was as handsome as she suspected.
“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly. “I didn’t know Blaine was going to do that to you.”
He didn’t speak. Instead he took a step toward her, so close now that she could feel the heat from his body. He reached out toward her. He paused his hand just before he made contact with her cheek and held it there, hovering while those eerie blue eyes scorched her.
Wren wanted to touch her so badly that he could taste it. He’d never wanted anything more. But then he knew that he shouldn’t.
She was human.
And she was beautiful. Her hair appeared softer than down. Her skin glowed with vital warmth. He would give anything for one tiny taste of that skin to see if she were as delectable as she appeared.
But he couldn’t.
An animal like him could never touch something as fragile as her. It was in his nature to destroy, never nurture. He let his hand fall away.
“Are you Nick’s friend he used to talk about?” she asked quietly.
He cocked his head at her unexpected question. “You knew Nick?”
She nodded. “I went to school with him. We used to study together. He said that he had a friend here named Wren who always kicked his heiney at pool. Was that you?”
Wren looked over at the pool tables and nodded as he remembered his friend. Not that Nick had really known anything about him. But at least Nick had tried to befriend him. It’d been a nice change of pace.
“It was me,” he whispered, not sure why he bothered when he seldom spoke to anyone.
But he wanted to speak to her. He loved the soft, gentle lilt of her voice. She appeared so tender. So feminine. A foreign, alien part of himself actually wanted to cuddle with her.
He leaned forward ever so slightly so that he could discreetly inhale the scent of her. Her skin was warm and sweet and held traces of talcum powder and a spicy wood scent of lotion. It made him hard and aching.
He’d never kissed a woman, but for the first time he wanted to. Her parted lips looked so inviting.
He turned his head as he heard Nicolette Peltier’s voice behind him.
The older Frenchwoman approached them from the bar’s office. He could sense that Nicolette wanted to reach out and pull him away from the human, but like the others who made Sanctuary their home, Nicolette was afraid of him. His kind was unpredictable. Deadly.
Everyone feared him. Except for the woman before him.
But then she had no idea that he was a tigard walking in the skin of a human.
“I should go now,” he said to her, moving away.
The woman reached out and touched his arm. His groin jerked in response as that touch branded him with heated desire. It was all he could do to suppress the animal that wanted to take her for his own. Normally, he gave into those urges.
Tonight he couldn’t. To do so could hurt her and that was the last thing he wanted.
“I’m really sorry about what happened,” she said softly. “It was inexcusable and I hope they didn’t get you into any trouble or hurt you.”
He didn’t say anything as she glanced at Nicolette, then turned around and left.
She was gone. It went through him like a knife.
“Come, Wren,” Nicolette said. “I think it best if you end your shift now and retire for the night.”
Wren didn’t argue. He did need some time out of his human form, especially given how volatile he felt right then. It was as if his body was electrified. Elevated. He’d never felt anything like this in his life.
Without another word, he headed for the kitchen which had a door that led to the building next door where the animal-weres made their home.
Peltier House had long been a refuge for creatures like himself… creatures who had been thrown out of their clans for all manner of reasons. As Aimee so often said, they were all refugees and misfits.
Wren was more so than most. He’d never had an animal clan that he belonged to. Neither tiger nor leopard would tolerate his mixed presence. He was a mutant hybrid that should never have been allowed to live.
Here lately he could tell even the bears weren’t fond of him either. They damned sure didn’t trust him. It was subtle. They would gather up their cubs whenever they climbed on him. Or they would do like tonight and isolate him anytime they suspected that he might be getting angry.
That was why he’d valued Nick so much. Nick had treated him like he was normal.
“What the hell?” Nick would say. “We’re all screwed up someway. At least you bathe and I don’t have to fight you for chicks. In my book, that makes you all right.”
Nick had held a unique view of the world.
Wren pulled his wet shirt off as he headed up the stairs. Marvin came bounding up behind him. He’d only climbed halfway up when a bad feeling went through him.
She was in trouble.
Wren mentally willed a black t-shirt on his body as he sensed imminent threat for her. Without a word to Marvin, he flashed himself out of the building, onto the street.