December 8, 060
Dear Santa Clam,
I'm not sure I believe in you anymore, but I don't know who else to ask, so I hope you're not just imajinary like daddy says. I'm in the hospital, but don't worry, I don't want you to use up your majick to make me better. The M-Psy came and looked at my leg and said I'd walk again. You know the Psy don't have feelings. I think that means they can't tell lies. And the nice changeling nurse—the one that can shapeshift into a deer—she told me with rebuilt rehab, I'd be o. k. The reason I'm writing to you is because I'm lonely.
Don't tell my mom, o.k. ? She comes to see me but she's always so sad. She looks at me like I'm broken, like I'm not her strong little girl anymore. And my daddy doesn't visit me. He never paid any utenl attention to me anyways, but it still makes my heart hurt.
I know you can't make my daddy come see me, but I was wondering, since you're majick, do you think you could send me a friend? Someone fun who wanted to be with me and who didn't care that my leg was all mangled up. The kids here are nice, but they all go home after a little while. It would be wonderful to have someone who was mine, someone who didn't have to leave.
My friend can be human or Psy or changeling. I won't mind. Maybe you could find someone who was lonely, too, and then we could be unlonely together? I promise I'll share all my things, and I'll let her (or even a boy) choose the games we play.
I think that's all. Thanks for lisening.
p.s. I don't mind if you don't give me any other presents at all.
p.p.s. I'm sorry about the speling mistakes. I had to miss a lot of school but now I'm trying really hard to catch up with the hospital's computer tutor.
Annie looked up and met the angry eyes of the seven-year- sitting at the child-sized desk in front of her own, arms crossed and lip jutting out. Bryan glared at her, the fury of his leopard apparent in every line of his body. Annie was used to teaching changeling children—a lot of DarkRiver kids came to this school, close as it was to their territory. She was used to their affectionate natures, their occasional accidental shifts into leopard form, and even their shorter tempers when compared with those of human children. What she was not used to was such blatant disobedience.
"Bryan," she began, intending, once again, to try to get to the bottom of this.
He shook his head, stuck out his chin. "I'm not talking to anyone but Uncle Zach."
Annie glanced at her watch. She'd called Bryan's uncle twenty minutes ago, not long after last bell. "I left a message. But he might not check it straightaway."
"Then we wait."
She almost smiled at the stubbornness of him, but knew that that would only make matters worse. "Are you sure you don't want to tell me why you hit Morgan?
Annie tucked back a strand of hair that had escaped the bun she'd anchored with a pair of lacquered chopsticks in a vain attempt at style.
"Perhaps we could talk to your mom together—would you feel more comfortable discussing things with her?"
She'd already called Mrs. Nicholson to tell her that Bryan would be late getting home. The woman had taken it in her stride—she had three boys. "And one of them's always in detention," she'd said with a laugh, love in every syllable. "Since you're waiting on Zach, he can drive this misbehaving baby home."
"Bryan?" she prompted, when her little mischief-maker remained silent.
"No. You promised I could wait for Uncle Zach."
He scowled. "Promises are for keeping, that's what Uncle Zach always says."
"That's true." Giving in, she smiled. "Let's hope your uncle makes it here soon."
"Hot date?" The voice was rich, dark, and completely out of place in her classroom.
Startled, she stood to face the man leaning in the doorway. "Uncle Zach?"
A smile that cut her off at the knees. "Just Zach's fine." Vivid aqua-colored eyes, straight black hair cut in a careless way, copper-gold skin and bones that spoke of an ancestor from one of the native tribes.
And he'd come.
She felt her cheeks blaze as the thought passed through her head. "I'm Annie Kildaire, Bryan's teacher."
When Zach accepted the hand she'd extended in a gesture of automatic politeness, the heat of him seared through her skin to burn her on the inside. She felt her breath catch and knew she was going even redder.
Dear God, she was useless around beautiful men. And
"Uncle" Zach was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.
He was also staring at her. Probably at her always messy knot of hair, her bright red cheeks, her mortified brown eyes. Tugging at her hand, she tried to extract it. He held on as he glanced at Bryan. His nephew continued to sit there with a mutinous expression on his face. Seeing their clasped hands, he favored his uncle with a look that shouted "traitor."
Zach returned his attention to Annie. "Tell me what happened."
"Could you—" She tugged at her hand again.
He looked down, seemed to consider it, then finally let go. Fingers tingling in sensory memory, she quickly moved to busy herself tidying the stack of book reports on her desk. "If you'd like to take a seat?"
He towered over her. That wasn't particularly difficult, but he was big in a very intimidating way. Solid shoulders, pure hard muscle and lean strength. A soldier, she thought, aware of some of the ranks within the DarkRiver pack, Zach had to carry the rank of soldier.
"I'd rather stand."
"All right." She didn't sit either. It didn't give her much of an advantage—or any advantage if she was being honest—but if she sat down with him looming all big and intense over her, she'd probably lose the power of speech. "Bryan punched a classmate during last period. He refuses to tell me what caused the incident."
"I see." Zach frowned. "Why isn't the other boy here?"
She wondered if he thought she was playing favorites. "Morgan is in the sick bay. He's rather . . . delicate."
Zach raised an eyebrow. "Delicate?"
She wanted to glare at him herself. He knew perfectly well what she was talking about. "Morgan gets sick very easily." And had a mother who treated him as if he was made of spun glass. Given that the same thing had driven Annie insane as a child, she might've tried to talk to Mrs. Ainslow about it, except that it was obvious Morgan liked the fussing. "He was too upset to stay near Bryan, though I would've preferred to talk to them together."
"Human?" Zach asked.
"No," she said, trying not to feel too satisfied by his look of surprise. "Swan."
"Swans aren't predators"—which, Annie knew, was why Morgan's family had been allowed to stay in DarkRiver territory—"but they're not exactly weak."
"While all humans are?" she was irritated enough to say.
He raised an eyebrow. "Did I say that, sweetheart?"
Her face heated from the inside out. "I am Bryan's teacher."
"Not mine." A grin. "You could be though. Wanna play classroom, Teach?"
She dealt with DarkRiver cats throughout the year, but for the most part, they were mated pairs, or couples in long-term relationships. She had no clue how to handle a teasing male who was clearly not only aware of the effect he had on her but confident enough to take advantage. Focus on the facts, she told herself, just focus. "Bryan is normally very good." He was, in truth, one of her best students. "He's kind, intelligent, and before today, he's never once hurt a classmate."
Zach's expression turned serious. "Strength is for protecting, not hurting. Bryan knows that as well as anybody in the pack."
Annie's heart clutched at the absolute way he said that, as if it was simply a fact of life. That core of unflinching honor was one of the things she most admired about the DarkRiver males she'd met. The other was the way they didn't make even the slightest attempt to hide the adoration they felt for their mates.
It was . . . nice.
It was also yet another point of contention between her and her mother. Professor Kimberly Kildaire had very determined views on what men should be like.
The word "civilized" appeared often in the description, along with generous helpings of "rational"—a man who teased with sensual ease was far too wild to ever make the professor's cut.
However, Annie knew her own mind, and her reaction to Zach was anything but rational. "That's why," she said, forcing herself to think past the nerves that threatened to turn her mute, "I was so surprised by what he did. Frankly, I have no idea what could've caused it. Morgan and Bryan don't even tend to play together."
"Give me a couple of minutes with him." With a nod, he walked to his nephew. "Come on, Jumping Bean, let's talk."
"Over there." Bryan got up and led his uncle to the back of the classroom. Annie looked away out of politeness, knowing she wouldn't have been able to hear the conversation even if they hadn't moved— changeling hearing was generally far more acute than a human's. But, and though she tried to keep her eyes on the book reports, her curiosity got the better of her.
She looked up to see Zach crouched in front of Bryan, his arms braced loosely on his knees. The position had raised the sleeve of his T-shirt to expose part of a tattoo on his right biceps. She squinted. It was something exotic and curved, something that beckoned her to stroke. Thankfully, before she could surrender to the urge to get closer, Bryan began to gesture so earnestly, she wondered what on earth he was saying.
"I didn't even hit him that hard, Uncle Zach." Bryan blew out a breath that made his dark brown bangs dance. "He's a sissy."
"I mean he's 'delicate,' " Bryan said, proving he had very big ears. "He's always crying, even when nobody does any-thing on purpose. He cried yesterday when Holly elbowed him by accident."