Chapter 5 –
When I finally got back to Longshadow territory, I knew I needed to check in with Justin before I did anything else. And I was not looking forward to it. At all.
Justin’s house was nestled in the forest on the outskirts of Kamiah, a small town on the Nez Perce reservation in northern Idaho. It was far enough away from the city that Sarai was able to lope right up to Justin’s back porch without having to worry about being seen.
She scratched at the door and waited as she heard someone moving in the house. If that’s Tony, I’m going to bite him, she warned.
Go right ahead. Tony was one of the more dominant wolves in Justin’s pack, and we had a hate-hate relationship. He would order me around, I’d ignore him, he’d get angry and say something sexist, I’d get angry and hit him. We just didn’t get along.
Luckily, Justin was the one that opened the door. When he saw Sarai, he stopped moving and his russet skin paled. Oh boy.
I think I have some extra clothes in my old room, I said warily. A frozen Justin was never a good sign.
Sarai slipped past our motionless uncle and headed down the hall past the kitchen before turning into my old room. Yes, now that I was older, I had my own apartment, but Justin’s house was still home. If I needed it, my room was always going to be there.
I had Shifted and was just pulling on my spare sweatpants when I heard Justin roar, “Riley!”
Definitely not good.
Being an Alpha meant that my uncle was a giant control freak, and that was putting it nicely. I was a part of his pack, therefore under his protection, and I had disappeared. That wasn’t something Justin could just let go.
Grimacing, I slipped my t-shirt on over my sports bra. Thus properly armed with real clothing, I opened my bedroom door to find Justin blocking the entire doorway with his big frame. He was wearing his sand colored sweater and a nice pair of jeans, so he must have just gotten home from a meeting with the Tribal government.
With anyone else, I would have met their eyes and glared right back at them, but not Justin. He was the closest thing to a father I had, so I kept my gaze on his shoulder and my posture relaxed. Even though Sarai was just as dominant as Justin’s wolf, I didn’t like antagonizing him. At least not when he was in a testy mood to begin with.
When he spoke, his voice was clipped and even. “Are you ok?”
“Yes,” I replied softly. “I’m just hungry. And tired. But I’ll be fine.”
He took a deep breath but didn’t relax. “What happened?”
The faster I got this over with, the sooner he’d calm down, so I told him. How the coyotes had kidnapped me and taken me to a house near Yellowstone. How I had been afraid that they were going to kill me, so I caught them off guard and escaped. Because I had inherited some of Justin’s paranoia, he didn’t question why it had taken me so long to get back. He knew that if I went to another pack, they would have sent me straight to my real father, and Justin had never trusted humans, so I wouldn’t have gone to them for help.
I told Justin everything. Except one, small, inconsequential detail: that I hadn’t escaped alone. As far as I was concerned, helping the Heir of the Pride was a secret that would stay a secret. Indefinitely.
When I was done, Justin sighed and ran his fingers through his dark brown hair, making several sections stand up on end. “You know what this means, don’t you?”
“Not a bodyguard,” I said, disappointment coloring my voice. Sarai growled disapprovingly.
Justin glared at me until I lowered my eyes respectfully. “You’re lucky that’s all you’re getting,” he retorted. “If you were still living with your father, he’d insert a tracking device directly into your arm.”
I grimaced. He would, and he’d probably do it without any anesthetics too, to make sure the lesson sunk in.
“But I got out.” I knew I was whining, but I couldn’t stop myself. “I’m fine. You taught me to be able to take care of myself, and I did.”
“And I’m supposed to be proud that they snatched you right in the middle of my territory?” Justin shot back, his voice hard. “You ran off by yourself. No one knew when you’d left or where you went. None of that is acceptable to me, Riley. So until I see fit, one of my top wolves will be with you 24/7.”
Understanding dawned and I grimaced. “No,” I pleaded, “please not Hunter. Anyone but him, I swear I’ll be good.”
Justin looked at me sternly. “You’ll have Micah and Steven and then it’s either Hunter or Tony. So pick your poison.”
Great. I got the choice of the jerk who couldn’t say ‘hello’ without challenging me versus the lawyer who couldn’t say ‘hello’ without making it an argument. I should have stayed in Yellowstone. “Hunter,” I retorted.
Justin looked at me knowingly. “The three of them are dominant enough to keep up with you. You may not like it, but they’ll keep you safe.” He cuffed my chin. “Now c’mon, I’ll drive you back to your place. You smell like you need a shower.”
That was pretty much Justin’s way of telling me that he had been worried sick and was now relieved beyond belief to see me alive and well. Some people say he’s hard to read; I say give it seventeen years and then they’ll be experts.
After getting to my apartment, I went straight to the shower. Running around in the wilderness for the past week had left its mark. The smell of sweat and mud didn’t bother Sarai, especially since it covered any lingering scent of lion that hadn’t gotten the chance to fade yet, but my nose was just as tired as the rest of me. I wanted to smell like me again.
Once I was clean and clothed, I ate almost everything in my fridge. Not having to pay rent was nice – the landlord was a wolf Shifter named Renaldo, and he liked me – but I still had to buy all of my own groceries. In the morning, I’d have to remember to call the manager of the Pizza Factory to see if there were any extra shifts I could pick up.
Feeling the need to unwind, I picked up my guitar, an acoustic Fender, and sat on my tiny couch. I had just finished tuning it when a wolf Shifter threw open my door and snarled at me.
I stared at Hunter for a few seconds and then gently set my guitar down when my gaze didn’t cow him. This was going to get ugly.
He swallowed with obvious difficulty and spat, “Why do I have to learn from Justin that you’re back?”
I looked at him pensively, refusing to break eye contact and trying to ignore how my heart twisted at the sight of him. Even furious, Hunter Donovan looked amazing, his harsh breathing emphasized the tightness of his t-shirt on his muscular chest. His dirty blonde hair was ruffled and his eyes, usually the color of the Mediterranean, were wolf bright.
“Riley,” he growled, his hand curling around my door handle ominously. “Why?”
Sarai didn’t like being below him, so I stood up. I was still shorter, but I felt less vulnerable on my feet. I kept my tone bored as I said, “Break my door, and you’ll buy me a new one.”
With a snarl he was on me, trying to push me down onto the couch. His big hands caught my wrists, and then he buried his face in my neck, scraping his teeth along my throat.
Hunter’s posturing was deliberate. But it wasn’t because of his excitement to see me safe. It wasn’t even a poor attempt at seduction. In that instant, he was trying to assert his dominance over me. Unfortunately, he had his chance to be important to me a long time ago, and he failed. Sarai was never going to submit to him and neither was I.
So I sank my teeth into his shoulder and kneed him in the groin.
His breath whooshed out, and he let go of me quickly, falling to his knees next to the couch. Both of his hands cradled his groin protectively as he tried to breathe.
I was on my feet in a second, glaring down at him and baring my teeth. “This is my territory,” I snarled. “Don’t you dare try to make me submit.”
It took him a couple of tries, but he finally managed to wheeze, “The only way… you talk to me… is if I make you.”
I had perfectly good reasons for never wanting to talk to him again, reasons I didn’t feel like debating for the hundredth time. It wasn’t my fault he refused to get with the program. “If you stopped challenging me and left me alone, we wouldn’t have this problem,” I snapped.
Hunter got to his feet slowly, his posture still assertive. He wasn’t going to jump me again, not with his eyes half amber and half blue-green, but he hadn’t given up. “You know that’s not going to happen.”
“I can dream,” I muttered, trying to ignore how his earthy scent clung to my skin. If I had to take another shower, I’d be pissed.
“I was worried about you. Is that really so bad?”
I grit my teeth and didn’t respond.
Thankfully, Emily chose that moment to knock on my still open door. “Am I interrupting something?” She asked innocently.
Renaldo, the landlord, and his mate, Maria, were Emily’s legal guardians. Both of her parents had been killed when she was six, making her an official ward of Longshadow pack. She had a perfectly good room of her own on the ground floor, but the 13 year old spent most of her time in my apartment. Sometimes it could be annoying – Sarai and I liked having our own space – but mostly, I liked knowing that she was close. She was like the little sister I never had.
Hunter growled softly, ordering her to leave us alone. Emily’s shoulders curved in a little as she fought with Hunter’s command.
Oh, hell no.
I snarled savagely, the grating sound ripping through my human throat. Sarai pushed herself forward, changing my eyes from their normal green to a bright amber. Hunter stopped growling immediately, taken aback by the ferocity in my warning. No one messed with Emily in front of me. No one.
With Hunter silenced, I held my hand out to her. “C’mon in, Em.”
She moved to my side quickly, wrapping her arms around my waist. “Where were you?” She asked, and her voice only shook a little. Before I could answer she kept going, stronger this time. “But first, where’s your stash of chocolate? I am feeling so bloated and crampy right now, it’s not even funny.”
Hunter cleared his throat. “We’ll talk later, Riley,” he said quickly, which would have sounded ominous if he had met my eyes. And then he darted out of my apartment.
After he left, I closed the door before turning to Emily. She was only a couple of inches shorter than me, and she had just sent Hunter, Justin’s Beta, his second-in-command, running for the hills.
“Did you just do what I think you did?” I asked her.
She shrugged and tossed her long, blonde hair over her shoulder nervously. “He was being mean,” she replied simply. “And nothing makes boys run faster than girls talking about their periods.”
I frowned. “But you’re not on your period.”
She smiled. “You know that. Hunter doesn’t because the idiot didn’t take the time to use his nose.”
I rolled my eyes and hit her arm before walking into my little kitchen and opening the pantry. “You are pure evil, you know that?”
“I learned from the best.” Then her expression froze as she saw what was in my hands. “Is that…”
“A bar of the darkest chocolate the store has?” I asked. “Why yes it is, and you just reminded me that I had it.”
Emily followed me out of my kitchen. I grabbed the remote for my TV and threw myself onto the couch where we reverently opened the bar of chocolate. After letting my first piece melt in my mouth, I leaned back and sighed happily. “I needed that.”
“Your little vacation that hard?” Emily asked as she stole the remote and began flipping through the channels.
“You have no idea,” I replied darkly. “Lions, coyotes, and bears…”
I chuckled before continuing. “If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought it was one of Justin’s training exercises.”
Emily laughed and began filling me in on everything that had happened while I was gone. She tried asking me about what had happened, but I always steered the conversation back to her and she got the hint. Telling Justin had been hard enough. Right then, I just wanted to forget about the whole thing.
When she was done lamenting about her three different crushes at school – one boy, two girls, all human – we settled down to watch a nature documentary. She had school the next day, so she couldn’t stay too late.
After Emily left, I went to bed with every intention of falling asleep the second my head hit the pillow. But I ended up tossing and turning, unable to relax. Sarai was just as agitated and neither of us had a clue why.
“Damn it,” I grumbled, before throwing my blankets off and finding my tennis shoes.
Justin’s house was about 20 minutes away by car, but it was only a 10 minute walk through the woods. I know, walking through the woods late at night was a guaranteed way to get yourself killed in any good horror movie, but I wasn’t too worried. I was faster and stronger than any human, and only a truly insane Shifter would try and grab me this close to my Alpha’s house. Also, they would have to deal with the large, male wolf that was tailing me. Sheesh, Justin hadn’t wasted any time in setting up my bodyguard detail.
When I got to Justin’s door, I knocked gently. I could see the flickering light of the TV through his kitchen window, so I knew that he was still awake. A couple of seconds later, he opened the door. With one look at my face, he sighed. “What was it this time?”
My voice was small. “Baby penguins.”
Justin stepped back, letting me in. He waved to the wolf in the forest, probably dismissing him for the night, and then shut the door. “You know,” he said, moving back to his old recliner. “Maybe you should stop watching nature shows right before you go to bed.”
I made a face as I took my shoes off. “I still can’t believe the cameramen just stand there! This little baby penguin was getting ripped apart by seagulls, and they just watched. It was horrifying.”
“They’re not supposed to intervene. That’s the point of a nature documentary.”
“Well, I think it’s stupid,” I grumbled, grabbing an afghan and curling up in the other recliner.
The corner of Justin’s mouth curved up. “Just go to sleep, Riley,” he said softly.
I stuck my tongue out at him before settling back into the chair with the afghan wrapped around me. The blanket smelled like Justin, a scent that was as familiar to me and Sarai as our own.
Falling asleep was easy now, with my uncle close by. Justin was family, he was safe. He wouldn’t let anything happen to us.
Walking around Pride manor a week after my triumphant return, it was like nothing had changed. My sister Hannah was still restoring her pet ’67 Chevy Impala. My brother Nathaniel was hiding from our cousins for some prank he had pulled this morning. My grandmother was driving the older lionesses insane by questioning the way they raised their children. My two aunts were locked away with my mother in her office in some top-secret meeting, so it was up to my Uncle Marcus to do damage control.
I was on my way to meet my pride-mates at the Gym. As I made my way to the garage, I heard Kara and my older cousin, Myra walking towards me, and I immediately turned into an empty sitting room.
Kara was the only lioness in Pride manor that was my age and not related to me. We had broken up a couple of months ago, but ever since I had gotten back, she had given me several hints that she would be interested in rekindling our relationship. I still wasn’t sure about that, and my indecision was making things awkward.
Although not as awkward as walking into a room that I thought was empty, but wasn’t.
“Darius,” Uncle Charles said. As my mother’s Chief of Intelligence, my uncle was a living, breathing stereotype. He was scrawny even by lion standards, and his receding hairline and wire rimmed glasses just added to the techno-geek image. The science fiction book his hands wasn’t helping. “What a surprise.”
I opened my mouth, not entirely sure what I was going to say when Kara and Myra walked by.
Uncle Charles smiled knowingly. “I guess it’s not that big of a surprise after all.”
I didn’t like that he was right. “Do you know anything about the meeting my mom’s having? They’ve been in there all morning, and I’m trying to decide if I should be nervous.”
Uncle Charles nodded. “They’re discussing the latest reports we’ve received about the Pack,” he replied. “Apparently, the Prince has been behaving erratically. Or at least, more so than usual.”
Well, wasn’t that interesting. And worrisome. An erratic Mad Prince was never a good thing. “Any idea what’s behind the mood swing?”
“Nothing concrete, I’m afraid,” he answered, adjusting his glasses. “We think it might have something to do with his daughter, but without knowing where she is, we cannot be sure that she is the cause.”
“When did he start behaving erratically?”
“A week or so after you had been taken,” he replied with a sigh. “Somehow, your Aunt Denise believes that clears him from our list of suspects for your kidnapping, but I don’t think she has your mother convinced.”
Aunt Denise wanted to believe the best in everyone, so that didn’t surprise me. “It won’t stop her from trying,” I said, grinning as I backed out of the room. Uncle Charles nodded and returned to his book, like I knew he would.
I just made it to the garage when something he said finally sunk in.
The Prince started freaking out a week after I was abducted. They thought it had something to do with his elusive daughter. A week after I was grabbed, Kent had thrown the wolf girl into my cell.
I never liked coincidences.
Turning on my heel, I headed back to my room. I needed to look into this or else the nagging uncertainty would kill me.
My laptop was on my night stand, so I grabbed it and sat down on the edge of my bed. It only took me a second to find the files I needed. Jiggling my leg nervously, I opened them.
The Pride knew embarrassingly little about the Prince’s daughter, other than the obvious: her name was Rilynn Daciana and she was a seventeen year old wolf Shifter. That was it. So I needed to be creative in proving myself wrong.
A picture of Aleksi Daciana glared at me from my screen. I fought back an instinctual snarl for the man who killed my older brother and tried to study his features, comparing them to the wolf girl’s.
I frowned. His eyes were a gray blue, not a vivid green like hers, and his hair was darker with none of the pretty red lowlights. Also, their body types were completely different; the Prince looked like a big man, and my wolf girl was almost waifish.
But I recognized that stubborn chin and sharp nose.
I needed more proof. Trying to ignore the growing ball of dread in my stomach, I flipped through the other pictures until I found the one I wanted. This time, the Prince wasn’t alone. Tucked under his arm protectively was his mate, Rochelle.
I felt like I had been punched. The green eyes, the reddish brown hair, the hint of mahogany in her creamy skin, the soft round cheeks, it was all there. Add the Prince’s stern chin and nose, and you had her.
My wolf girl was Rilynn Daciana.
I stood up sharply. My laptop crashed to the ground, but I ignored it. Images started to flit through my brain. Her silvery wolf leading me through the forest and fighting those coyotes to keep us safe. That smug little grin as she handed me more flowers to eat. That spark in her green eyes when I got on her nerves with my lack of survival skills. The fierce way she stood in between me and that damn grizzly bear. The adorable blush on her cheeks when I took my shirt off.
I wanted to hit something.
My cat scratched the back of my hands with phantom claws, his anger feeding my own. How could I not recognize her? Why did I not see it? The coyotes put her into my cell for a reason. I should have known that. I should have figured out that she wasn’t just some random wolf.
There was still one thing that made absolutely no sense to me. Honestly, I could understand why she kept her identity a secret. But why did she help me in the first place? Why go to the trouble of feeding me and protecting me when she knew I was related to the lion that took her mother away from her? Why take me to the Border when she could have easily led me to some wolf pack where they could have dealt with me accordingly?
The question ricocheted around my brain. Why? Why did she help me?