Home > Wild Country (The World of the Others #2)(10)

Wild Country (The World of the Others #2)(10)
Author: Anne Bishop

“I can do that.”

Barbara Ellen had not shown this level of excitement when she’d met other young males who were staying in Bennett. She had been friendly, and being one of the few human females currently living in the town, her company was sought after by many. But this … giddiness … for a male she hadn’t met? Well, he would assess her emotions at the end of the day. If there was no change, he would preempt receiving another message of alarm from Officer Debany in Lakeside by writing to Vlad and telling him about Joshua Painter. After all, if Barbara Ellen’s brother was going to get excited about her living with a parakeet named Buddy, he could imagine the man’s reaction to a male who had grown up among the Panthergard—a male who was a few years younger than Barbara Ellen, although just old enough to be considered an adult. He wasn’t sure that mattered or should be a concern, but it was another thing to keep in mind.

“What are you going to do with the books?” Barbara Ellen asked. “Sell them? Give them away?”

“Jesse Walker indicated that we might find many copies of some books and only one or two copies of other titles. She also said some books are more valuable than others. First editions and uncommon texts.”

Barbara Ellen nodded. “That makes sense. We’ll probably find a lot of copies of last year’s bestsellers.”

“Jesse Walker’s suggestion was to make the popular books available for free and set aside the valuable books to be sold in the bookstore as a special category.”

Once they reached the government building, he led her to the room he had set aside for this sorting task. Boxes of books were piled along the edges of the room and under the big U-shaped table in the center, as well as on the folding tables that filled the space under the windows.

“Do you want me to stay and introduce you?” Tolya asked.

“No, I’m sure we’ll get along just fine.” She gave him the same bright smile she’d given him the day she’d stepped off the train. Barbara Ellen Debany was ready for another adventure.

He wasn’t sure he was ready for her to have another adventure. “I’ll be in my office if you need anything. The office is on the second floor.”

“I know.” She was already pulling boxes from under the table. “Oh! Is there a drinking fountain in the building? We might get thirsty.”

“I’ll arrange for water and glasses to be brought in.”

“Thanks.” Bright smile. Dismissive smile?

He wasn’t used to feeling superfluous.

He didn’t like it.

And he wondered if sending the Debany parents a card expressing sympathy for the work involved in raising a young human would be inappropriate.

* * *

* * *

Two minutes after entering his office, Tolya shifted into his smoke form, flowed down the stairs, then up to the ceiling, and … snuck … past the door to the book room before flowing down to the floor and shifting into human form. Then he waited near the building’s front door for Joshua Painter to arrive.

He was being cautious. That was all. Joshua might be human, but he had no knowledge of human behavior and what might be appropriate when a male and female were together. Alone. But not together. Barbara Ellen had a friendly manner that human males found attractive, but it might be misinterpreted as something more by someone who was in Bennett to learn about his own kind.

But maybe Joshua also needed protection from their almost-vet, who seemed a little too interested in this one particular male? The Sanguinati took advantage of humans’ casual mating practices, using seduction to lure their prey, but that knowledge didn’t help Tolya now when trying to anticipate a human’s potential interest in another human and how swiftly mating might occur once interest was indicated.

Mating was not part of this instruction. He would make that clear to both humans.

The door opened and Joshua stepped inside, stopping when he saw the Sanguinati.

Tolya took a moment to study the young male. A supple, lean body. Dark brown hair with a hint of gold and red—sun highlights, those hints were called. Unusual eyes—green with an outer ring of gray. At least, he hadn’t seen any other human with eyes like that. The boy’s short-sleeved shirt fit his body, but the trousers were a size too big and had those storage pockets on the outer thighs.

“Mr. Sanguinati.”

“Mr. Painter.”

“Saul said you wanted to see me.”

“Yes, I wanted …” Tolya breathed in and the words vanished.

He had seen Joshua and Saul walking around the town square, giving themselves a chance to become acquainted with their new territory. Tiny houses lined both sides of one of the streets off the square—houses that might have been built by the original settlers and didn’t look like they had more than one room and maybe a bathroom. When Saul decided the cabin he’d originally chosen as their den was too far from the town square and the activity he wanted Joshua to experience, he had claimed two of those tiny places, side by side, so that the boy would have his own den but would still have the security of his older brother nearby.

It had been a good decision since some of the young men who seemed intent on settling in Bennett also chose houses on that street. Tolya wanted to ask if humans formed bachelor packs the way some other animals did, but he hadn’t been sure if the question would be considered rude.

Yes, he’d seen Joshua Painter walking around the square, looking at the stores. He’d even spoken to the boy a couple of times. But they had been outside, and the wind had not been in his favor. Now, standing inside the building …

He doesn’t smell like prey. He’s human. I know he’s human. Why doesn’t he smell like prey?

He knew the answer. It just wasn’t a realistic answer because the only other person he’d met who didn’t smell like prey was Meg Corbyn, the Lakeside Courtyard’s Human Liaison. The blood prophet.

“You wanted … ?” Joshua prompted.

“Barbara Ellen is going to teach you how to sort the books.”

“Barbara Ellen.” Joshua took a step back. “How can she teach me? She’s not very smart.”

He bristled. “Why do you say that?”

“She tangled with Virgil. How smart can she be?”

Tolya sighed. The boy had a point. “Humans have a saying about having book smarts and street smarts. Barbara Ellen has book smarts, but her previous dealings with the Wolfgard were less … exciting … and may have given her a false understanding of what a dominant Wolf will tolerate.”

Joshua thought about this and finally nodded. “Street smarts are about knowing how to move in the world, yes? Recognizing what is safe and what is dangerous.”

Tolya nodded. “That is a good description.”

“So I will learn book smarts from her, and maybe she can learn some street smarts from me.” The boy looked like he was bracing himself for some kind of conflict. “But I don’t want to have sex with her. Saul thinks it would be better to avoid mating with females until I have learned more about what is expected from a mate.”

“I agree with Saul. It would be better to refrain until you understand more about human females. They have feelings about such things, and are, in their way, more like us in not seeing much, if any, difference between sex and mating when they are truly interested in a male.” He would find a pair of pliers and pull out his own fangs before admitting he felt insulted by Joshua’s lack of interest in the girl, especially since he didn’t want either of them to have that kind of interest in each other. And he realized he needed to stop trying to explain human sex before he got both of them confused.

“Come,” Tolya said. “I’ll introduce you to Barbara Ellen.”

Joshua followed him into the book room, and he made the introductions.

“Barb,” she said, giving Joshua a big smile, almost bouncing with puppyish enthusiasm. “My human friends call me Barb.”

Tolya left the room but stayed near the door, out of sight, as he listened to Barbara Ellen explain her sorting method. And then …

“What do you like to read? What was it like living with the Panthergard? I used to live in Lakeside and was studying to be a veterinarian because I wanted to take care of animals. I didn’t get all that far in the classes, but I did work as a vet’s assistant for a while. That’s how I ended up coming to Bennett. They needed someone to take care of the pets, and I was chosen. Mr. Sanguinati calls me an almost-vet. Do you like mysteries? I love mysteries, especially the Crowgard cozies, which aren’t cozy at all. And the Wolf Team books.”

He didn’t hear any of Joshua’s answers. Wasn’t sure the boy had a chance to answer as Barbara Ellen pelted him with questions. But Tolya felt reasonably sure the two of them were safe with each other. For now.

Back in his office, he stared out the window and thought about Joshua Painter. Why hadn’t other terra indigene noticed that the boy didn’t smell like prey? Or had they noticed but didn’t understand the significance? Had any of the shifters who had helped find and release the cassandra sangue relocated to Bennett? Or was he the only one here who had been close enough to a blood prophet to know what it meant for a human to be not prey?

He could be mistaken. Maybe Joshua’s scent was different because he had lived with the Panthergard. The boy was already different enough from the rest of the young human males. Why complicate his life by suggesting he wasn’t like them in other ways?

He didn’t have to say anything. He could wait and see if someone else noticed a difference in the boy.

After all, if Joshua Painter did come from a line of blood prophets, they would all know soon enough.

* * *

* * *

Jesse entered the general store in Bennett and sighed.

“Mom?” Tobias laid a hand on her shoulder. “You all right?”

She patted his hand. “I’m tired. I’m glad tomorrow is Earthday and we can stay home and rest.”

“You don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do.” Her right hand reached for her left wrist. She stopped the movement, but she knew Tobias had seen her tell. “If for no other reason, I need to figure out the most sensible way to stock the shelves in my own store.”

“You’re meeting Tolya Sanguinati?” Tobias asked. “Do you want me to stay with you?”

Surprised, she turned to look at him. Tobias’s intuitive gift primarily had to do with animals and with people only in relation to animals. It made him a good rancher—and it helped him deal with the terra indigene.

“I’m not looking forward to discussing what I strongly feel we need to discuss, but I’m not worried about being alone with him if that’s what you’re asking under the offer to stay.”

Tobias studied her. “Okay. But I’d like to talk to him too about how to distribute the new hands, assuming the Lakeside Courtyard finds any to hire, and who should be the foreman of each ranch we’re going to try to keep going.”

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