Chapter 6 –
After a month, my life had pretty much returned to normal, other than the annoying bodyguards. I studied, I trained, I worked, and I hung out with Emily. If I could just get rid of these weird dreams I was having, I would be set.
Maybe you should see a therapist, Sarai suggested.
Oh, that would go splendidly, I said sarcastically. “Hi Doc, I’ve been having dreams about this really hot guy I should have killed but didn’t. Sometimes he turns into this coyote that kidnapped me, but other times he turns into a taco and I eat him. What does that mean?”
Sarai rolled her eyes.
It was dark outside when I walked up the stairs to my apartment. I bit back a groan as the muscles in my legs protested. Fitness training had been particularly gruesome that day – Justin put together this obstacle course that could only be described as evil. All I wanted was the scalding water of my shower. And then a big piece of apple pie. Yes, pie was good.
But when I opened my door, all thoughts of a shower and food fled. My apartment was dark like I had left it, but something felt… off.
Frowning, I closed the door behind me and scanned the room. My night vision wasn’t as good as Sarai’s but it was better than a normal human’s. I took a deep breath, trying to sample the scents in the air when someone grabbed me. Strong arms crushed me against a muscular chest and a hand covered my mouth, muffling my scream.
His musky scent filled my nose, and I snarled. Are you KIDDING ME?!
“Quiet,” he breathed. “I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to talk.”
Oh, it was on, asshole. Writhing like a snake, I tried to break his hold. He had my arms pinned to my sides, and they tightened like bands of steel as I struggled. I tried throwing my hips back, but I had no leverage. I tried head butting him, but he was too damn tall. I tried kicking his legs and stepping on his feet, but he just moved out of the way.
He muttered a curse as I fought, but it was becoming painfully obvious that I wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t even bite him because his big hand was holding my jaw closed.
When the only thing I could do was pant, he murmured, “Now, let’s just relax for a second and think. I’m not here to kill you or kidnap you, or I would’ve done it by now. I just want to talk.”
If he just wanted to talk, ambushing me in my own apartment wasn’t the best way to start.
He continued to speak, his voice deep and reassuring. “I’m going to let you go now, but you have to promise not to scream, alright?”
Screaming would make it look like I didn’t think I could take care of myself. Hell would freeze over before I screamed.
Instead, I smothered the growl in my throat and nodded once. The second his arms relaxed, I jumped away and turned to face him.
Darius Ardeshir stuck his hands in his pockets as he grinned, teeth flashing white in the darkness. “You’re a hard person to track down.”
His spicy scent swirled around me, making it hard to remember how to breathe. Every breath I took just short-circuited my brain a little bit more. His dark jeans were tight and made his legs look even longer, and his leather jacket looked like it was specifically designed to make my mouth water.
He wasn’t this hot when he smelled like pee, Sarai murmured.
“Not hard enough, apparently,” I muttered, keeping my face as calm as possible. Anger helped me cut through whatever spell he had woven, and I used it like a shield. “How the hell did you find me?”
It should have been impossible; that’s the way Justin liked it. Oh no. The Heir of the Pride had somehow managed to breach all of my uncle’s carefully constructed defenses. He was going to have a heart attack.
“I have my ways” Darius answered cryptically. A smug grin curved the edges of his mouth, and Sarai growled softly.
I glared at him. “So how’d you get here?”
“And no one saw you?”
His grin grew. “I can be very sneaky when I want to be.”
Well, wasn’t he proud of himself. “You know, if you just wanted to talk, this was probably the worse idea you could have come up with.”
The grin vanished. “Tough,” he said, quirking his head to the side. “This is the only place where I could approach you and keep my presence here a secret. I’m not leaving until you hear me out.”
Sarai snarled. “I could scream,” I retorted, curling my lip at him, and hoping he didn’t call my bluff. “Half of the people in this building are wolves. Did you even think of that?”
“If you really wanted me dead, you would have let the coyotes rip me apart a month ago,” he shot back. “Forgive me for not feeling appropriately scared.”
My teeth clicked together in irritation. “What do you want?”
Darius smiled again. “I have a proposition for you.”
“There’s this awesome thing that’s been around for awhile, maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s called a telephone.”
He continued as if I hadn’t said anything. “I’ve wanted to do this ever since I was named Heir nine years ago. It started off as an idea, but now it’s more of a plan. But for it to work, I need you.”
Like that wasn’t suspicious at all. “Need me for what?”
“To help me end the war.”
Hysterical laughter bubbled up before I could stop it. “What? Even if I did want the war to end, what do you think I’d be able to do?”
His eyes met mine in the darkness, and I fought a shiver. “I think you know you can help me.”
“You’re joking. I’m one random wolf. Without a mate, I don’t even have a position in my own pack. I can’t help you.”
“Really?” He asked, his voice condescending. “That’s how you want to do this?”
Darius rolled his eyes. “You look a lot like your mom, you know. But you have Aleksi’s nose.”
I felt like my feet had been kicked out from under me. How the hell did he figure out who I was? When we separated at the Border, he didn’t have a clue, I made sure of that. Forget Justin. I was going to be the one having the heart attack.
Get it together, Sarai snapped. Panic later, think now.
Sarai helped me push the anxiety back and anger replaced it. When I knew my voice wouldn’t shake, I smiled. “Congratulations for figuring out my big secret, Ardeshir, but it doesn’t change a damn thing. I can’t help you.”
“I think you can.”
“And I know I can’t, so get out of my apartment and out of my life.”
Darius studied me for a few seconds, his expression shrewd. “You know, I can understand why you’re hesitant,” he said. The empathy in his voice made me want to smack him. “Walker’s built you a really nice life here. Quiet. Peaceful. A modern slice of paradise. The war can’t even touch you here. You’re lucky.”
No, I wasn’t, but arguing with him wouldn’t get him to leave. And I didn’t like that he knew Justin’s last name.
He kept talking, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. “I’m not going to spout statistics at you because you’ve grown up with this war same as me. You know how many people have died. But if the two of us work together, we can stop that.”
Everything about Darius’s performance made me want to believe him, but I knew that he was lying. If we didn’t end up killing each other in the process of ending the war, the second Aleksi found out what I was up to, I was as good as dead.
I clapped slowly. “Pretty speech. Did you practice that in front of the mirror before you got here?”
Little flecks of gold swam in his dark eyes, betraying his temper. “I’m naturally gifted. Genius comes as easily to me as breathing.”
And there was the arrogant ass I knew and hated.
“Look, if you want to try and end the war, be my guest. But you seem to be under the impression that I actually have the power to help you. I don’t.” The words were bitter as they left my mouth. I didn’t like broadcasting my own weaknesses, but the faster I made Darius understand, the sooner he’d leave me alone.
“So you’re not even going to try?”
“I don’t have to try to know that I can’t breathe underwater.”
“That’s a completely different scenario,” he argued. “Right now, you’re refusing to even try based on your own prejudice and fear.”
Sarai snapped her teeth angrily. I am not afraid.
I ground my teeth and tried to stay focused. “You’re not listening to me. I want to help. I want the war to end. But I can’t do anything.”
He looked at me scornfully. “You’re the Prince’s daughter.”
“Exactly,” I said flatly. “I’m his daughter. The only value I have is in how many children I can pop out for the mate that my father chooses for me.”
“That’s a lie. You have power. You’re just afraid to use it.”
I still had nightmares about the last time I stood up to my father. Of course I was afraid. “You got yourself here, so you can see yourself out.”
The gold specks in his eyes grew a little bigger, and he snapped, “I didn’t come all this way to be turned down by your inferiority complex.”
“That’s you’re problem, not mine.”
“He’s your father, he’ll listen to you,” he growled.
I almost laughed out loud. “I’m sorry, are we talking about the same person? You know he’s called the Mad Prince for a reason, right?”
For a second, it looked like I had finally managed to crack his calm exterior, but Darius took a deep breath. When he spoke, his voice was quiet again. “I know that you’re the first wolf I’ve ever met. I know that, for whatever reason, you don’t want to kill me, and I don’t want to kill you. The bloodshed can end, Rilynn; we just need to have the courage to stop it. Please, hear me out and then decide.”
Courage had nothing to do with it. This was idiocy, plain and simple. I knew the consequences of acting against my father. So why did Darius’s expression, a strange mix of hopefulness and challenge, make me pause? And I wasn’t the only one. Sarai was regarding him warily; she hadn’t forgiven him for invading her territory, but she wasn’t snarling at him anymore either.
The truth was I hated the war. My entire life revolved around it: what the cats were planning, how we could stop them, what we could do to retaliate, and who could be a strong enough Prince to take over for my father. My mother had been killed by Darius’s older brother, Gabriel, and my father ripped him apart. It was like we were caught in the vicious cycle with no way to break out of it. We would just keep killing each other until there were no wolves or cats left. If that wasn’t stupidity, I didn’t know what was.
Maybe that was why Darius was here. He had figured out that to end the war, he needed to risk everything in coming to find me. He was fighting stupid with stupid. I could kind of respect that.
It wouldn’t hurt to hear what he has to say, Sarai suggested. Listening doesn’t mean we agree to do anything.
No, it doesn’t, I replied. But what if he actually has a good plan? What then?
At that moment, my door burst open and two guys appeared. Using my stunningly superior reflexes, I froze and stared in shock.
The first guy lunged at Darius and shoved him into the wall. “Get away from her!”
The second darted past his brother and stood in front of me like a bizarre human shield. “Run, Riley!” He ordered.
Micah and Steven. Justin’s top enforcers.
I continued to stare. Did my apartment just have a big sign on it that said ‘please feel free to enter without permission’?
Micah’s punch caught Darius in the chin and he swore viciously, but he didn’t go down. Eyes a bright gold, he lunged forward and tried to grab Micah. Darius was bigger than him, but Micah was a fourth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon-Do. Even I didn’t like sparring with him.
Micah managed to throw Darius over his hip and he crashed into the back of my couch, snarling. He leapt forward to press his advantage, and Steven dragged me to the door. The coast was as clear as it was going to get, and apparently, Steven was tired of me standing there like an idiot.
Renaldo and his mate, Maria, were waiting at the door, and he pulled me into the hall, putting himself between me and the fight just like Steven had. With my safety taken care of, Steven ran back into my apartment to help his brother.
“Maria, get Riley to safety,” Renaldo ordered.
Sarai was immediately outraged. How dare they treat her like a helpless pup? Unfortunately, I was still hazy on what was happening, so when Maria ushered me towards the stairs, I went numbly.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
Darius had been found. Mr. I’m-So-Sneaky-Look-At-Me had been found. In my apartment. This was horrible. This was mega-terrible horrible. What on earth was I supposed to do now?
I had no idea. Surviving the zombie apocalypse would be easier than figuring out what to do with this mess.
Maria’s hands shook as she tried to unlock the door to their apartment. It was like she was terrified that Darius would chase after us any second. She was underestimating Micah. And Steven and Renaldo. Once she got the lock open, she ushered me in and shut the door behind her quickly.
Emily leapt up from the kitchen table where she had been waiting. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” Maria said carefully, before turning to me. “Riley honey, are you alright? Are you hurt?”
I frowned and tried to get my brain in gear. Maria looked like she wanted to hug me, but she was holding herself back. I usually had a hard time getting Maria out of my personal space. What was with the weird distance now? And why did she keep wrinkling her nose like she was about to snarl?
I took an inconspicuous sniff and winced. I smelled like Darius.
“I’m fine,” I replied, and my voice was surprisingly steady. “He didn’t hurt me.”
Maria didn’t believe me, I could tell. Her sympathetic expression made me want to cross my arms, but I’d rather chew off my own foot then look like I was vulnerable.
Sarai gnashed her teeth. I am not a victim.
I cleared my throat and tried to think around her indignant anger. “How did you know…” that I was in trouble? No, that would make it sound like I hadn’t had anything under control. It would also make it look like I was scared of Darius, which I wasn’t. I started over. “How did you know he was there?”
“Micah and Steven were finishing up their patrol when they found a car they didn’t recognize,” Maria replied. “When they went to investigate, they found the cat’s scent trail and followed it here.”
And then they came to my heroic and unnecessary rescue. I wanted to groan, but that would’ve sent the wrong message.
Emily’s voice was tiny. “Did he come here to kill you?”
No, he didn’t, but I couldn’t say that. I just shrugged. Shrugging was good, very noncommittal.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Maria said reassuringly, but she still made no move to come closer. “Justin will figure out what it wants, and then this will be over.”
He, I wanted to say. Just because he was a cat, it didn’t make him less of a person. And then what she said really sank in. After Justin interrogated Darius, this whole mess would be over. Because Justin was going to kill him.
“I need to use the bathroom.” I had to be alone. Immediately.
“Of course, Riley,” Maria said, smiling a little. “I’ll start making us some hot chocolate.” That was her solution to everything. A little stressed from work? Eat chocolate. Experiencing a full blown crisis of epic proportions? Here, have some more chocolate.
Emily looked like she wanted to say something but I just shook my head. “Give me a minute,” I said over my shoulder, making a beeline for the second door on the right. After closing and locking the door behind me, I lowered the lid on the toilet and sat down.
The numbness from earlier had disappeared, leaving a giant knot of emotions lodged in my chest. I bit down on my knuckle, but the panic crested anyway, and I struggled to breathe.
Darius was going to die. Justin was going to kill him and he was going to die because he was too stupid to hide his car properly. I wanted to laugh, but I was afraid if I started, the laughter would turn into tears, and then I wouldn’t be able to stop.
I would never know what his grand scheme for ending the war was. His stupid plan that he had risked everything for would die with him.
That was when I got angry. I hadn’t worked my butt off to keep that idiot alive just so he could die now.
The panic receded a little, and I knew what I had to do. I had to talk to Justin. If I could tell him the truth, then he wouldn’t need to kill Darius.
Maria won’t just let you go, Sarai said.
No, she wouldn’t. Maria was very protective and she wouldn’t understand why I absolutely had to see Justin now. Then I guess we shouldn’t leave through the front door.
As quietly as I could, I opened the bathroom door. Maria and Emily were still in the kitchen, talking softly. Holding my breath, I eased out of the bathroom and down the hall. I waited by Emily’s door for a few seconds, but they both stayed in the kitchen. Perfect.
After undoing the latch on Emily’s window, I swung it open and slid out, cursing silently as I landed on a couple of dry sticks. But I didn’t hear anything from the kitchen. I closed the window gently, and then I was running through the forest towards Justin’s house.
Sarai pushed herself forward, lending me her speed and superior night vision. I weaved around bushes and through trees. I jumped over rocks and logs, and I hardly made any noise. It was like my feet weren’t even touching the ground.
When I saw the lights of Justin’s house, I slowed down. I walked past the tree line and saw two figures standing guard in front of Justin’s backdoor. Elizabeth and her mate, Paul.
Justin never posted guards because he always wanted every single pack member to feel like they could come to him no matter what. But there they were, and that could only mean one thing. Darius was already here.
At least Paul was predictable. But Elizabeth was a different story. As the most dominant female in the pack, she held the honorary spot of Alpha female since Justin didn’t have a mate. She wasn’t cruel or vicious like a lot of other Alpha females I had met, but she was smart and refused to let anyone, even her own mate, manipulate her. If she decided that Justin was busy and didn’t have time to see me, then I was royally screwed.
I stopped in front of them. “I need to see Justin.”
Paul moved until he was standing directly in front of the door. “No one sees the Alpha.”
“Why don’t you come back in the morning, Riley?” Elizabeth stepped forward to put her hand on my arm, but I shied away from her. Her voice was gentle, but her upright posture and deliberate invasion of my personal space said that that wasn’t really a suggestion.
They weren’t going to move, and I didn’t have time for this. Darius didn’t have time.
With a deep breath, I pulled Sarai forward. My eyes changed from green to amber as I let her natural dominance strengthen my voice. “Let me in.”
The effect was instantaneous. Both of them dropped their heads to avoid my gaze, and Paul immediately stepped to the side, giving me access to the door. Justin’s guards were older than me by twenty years, but I was the Prince’s daughter. Paul and Elizabeth didn’t stand a chance.
When you were an extremely dominant wolf, two things happen. Weaker wolves flocked to you for protection, and stronger wolves constantly challenged you to prove their own strength. The thought of being responsible for people made me physically ill, and any wolf with a Y chromosome would challenge me simply because I was small and female. No thank you.
So I did the only thing I could: I hid Sarai’s dominance. I asked instead of giving orders, and I learned that people were much more inclined to like you if they didn’t see you as a threat. And it had worked, until now.
I could smell their surprise, and in Elizabeth’s case, anger, but I ignored the little seed of guilt in my stomach as I opened the door and walked inside. Besides, I could always feel guilty later. If I lived that long.
God damned lion. Could he screw up my life any more?
I followed the sounds of voices and growling to the big, formal dining room. Every Saturday night, members of the Longshadow pack came to Justin’s house. We would eat dinner and play games long into the night. It was a time where we could focus on what was truly important: togetherness. A pack couldn’t be a pack without that sense of unity.
Now, the big table was shoved against the far wall with all of the chairs crowded around it. In the middle of the room was Darius. He was on his knees, and Micah and Steven stood on either side of him, looking threatening. Other males surrounded them.
Justin stood in front of Darius, with Hunter off to his left. Hunter radiated menace, but Justin looked like he was still calm. I hoped he was calm. If their Alpha lost it, the other wolves in the room would tear Darius apart like hyenas.
I don’t really want to go in there. There was so much testosterone, I thought I was going to choke.
Sarai’s voice was just as small as mine. Neither do I. But we have to.
Some sixth sense must have alerted him because Justin turned around and saw me before I got the courage to say anything. His eyes were still brown, and I breathed a small sigh of relief. “Riley, what are you doing here?” He demanded.
The other wolves turned to look me too, and I fought back a growl as the weight of their stares pressed against me. I ignored them and looked straight at Justin. “Don’t kill him.”
Justin’s brown eyes melted to amber, and Sarai winced. That was stupid. Giving an Alpha orders was not the way to make him stay calm and want to listen to me. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“This lion came here to kill you, and he almost succeeded,” Justin growled. The thinly veiled rage in his voice made some of the men tense up eagerly while the others curled their shoulders in to make themselves look smaller. Behold, the Alpha’s anger in action. “The sooner he admits it, the faster I can deal with this before the wrong people find out.”
The wrong people being my father. If the Prince knew that Justin had Darius in his custody, Justin would be ordered to bring him to my father so he could blackmail the Queen of the Pride and then execute him. The end result? A blood bath for both sides. Only an idiot would kill another one of Queen Tanith’s sons. My father simply didn’t care.
Justin wanted to take care of this quickly and quietly. I did too. But Darius didn’t have to die.
I kept my voice calm and reasonable. “He wasn’t trying to kill me, he was-”
“Bullshit,” Hunter snarled, stalking over to me. I held my ground when he crowded me, and he growled. “I can smell him all over you. Why are you defending him?”
Sarai wanted me to bite him so he would give me some space, but I just glared at him, trying to keep my temper in check. If I wanted to help Darius, I couldn’t let Hunter distract me.
Justin’s eyes faded back to their normal brown and when he spoke, his voice was controlled. “What makes you think he wasn’t going to kill you?”
There was really no easy way to say this, so I didn’t even bother. “If he wanted to kill me, he would have done it the first time I met him.”
Hunter’s eyes went completely amber and he choked, “First time?”
“Riley, come here,” Justin instructed.
My audience with the Alpha had been granted. I winked at Hunter and stepped around him. I stopped a couple of feet from my uncle and kept my eyes on his shoulder.
“Explain,” he said sharply. “Now.”
“I wasn’t the only person the coyotes kidnapped,” I answered. “When I ran, he came with me.”
Hunter’s voice was indignant. “You rescued a damn lion?”
Looking at Darius right now would virtually sign his death sentence. Punching Hunter in the face would guarantee it. I did neither.
Justin’s expression was inscrutable. “And why is the lion here now?”
Because he was an arrogant idiot who thought the laws of common sense didn’t apply to him. “He said he wanted to talk about the war,” I said, shrugging slightly.
Hunter was practically breathing down the back of my neck in righteous anger. “And you believed him? He’s a god damned cat, Riley! Cats lie!”
Hit him, Sarai snarled. Hit him just this once.
Employing every ounce of self-control I possessed, I ignored both him and Sarai. “Justin, he didn’t come here to kill me,” I said gently. “He came here to talk to me. I swear, he’s not a threat.”
There was a hint of sadness in Justin’s eyes, but he sighed and then it was gone. In its place was the stone cold resolve of an Alpha. “He’s an Ardeshir. That makes him a threat. I don’t care why he’s here. He infiltrated Pack territory and broke into your apartment. That’s an act of war.”
What? No, no, this wasn’t how this was supposed to happen.
“But he wasn’t trying to hurt me!” Panic made my chest feel tight, and Sarai whined. Justin was supposed to listen to me. Why wasn’t he listening to me?!
“Your ideas of peace and loyalty are honorable, Riley, but Pack law is clear,” he said firmly, and the dominance in his voice stung my skin. “Any cat caught trespassing on Pack property will be executed. Now stand down before I have you restrained.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Justin walked over to Darius calmly and placed his hands on either side of his head. No matter how furious he was, it wasn’t in Justin to be cruel. He would make death quick and painless, because that was the merciful thing to do.
Darius didn’t struggle, he was probably too proud for that. He just glared up at my uncle with eyes that were molten pools of gold.
I didn’t realize I was moving until Hunter grabbed my arm, but I didn’t care. All I could see was Darius and Justin’s hands, hands that were seconds away from breaking Darius’s neck, and there was nothing I could do.
Sarai snarled savagely, her fury mirroring my own, but the sound stayed locked in my throat. Darius’s blood would be all over my hands because I couldn’t save him. He couldn’t die, not like this.
I wouldn’t let him die.
In one, inspirational wave, it hit me, and I yelled, “He’s my mate!”
Everyone in the room froze. Someone chuckled nervously, but I ignored them, focusing instead on Justin and what I was about to say. I had to get all the words out before Hunter gagged me.
“Under Pack law,” I said clearly, “a female wolf has the right to claim her own mate.” I risked a glance at Darius, who looked shell-shocked, before turning to face Justin.
“I, Rilynn Daciana, daughter of the Prince and Lord of the Pack, claim Darius Ardeshir, the Heir of the American Pride, as my mate.”