Chapter 7 –
Justin’s hands fell away from Darius’s neck. Several different emotions flickered across my uncle’s face before he managed to get them under control, and then he turned away from me.
“Call a pack meeting,” he ordered.
I opened my mouth, but the words stuck in my throat. Before I could say anything, Justin walked out of the room. Sarai winced and I felt something cold slide into my chest. He hadn’t even looked at me.
I didn’t have time to wallow in self-pity, because at that moment, Hunter’s hand tightened like a vise on my arm.
“What the hell are you playing at?!” Hunter growled, his amber eyes glowing ominously. When I tried to shrug him off, he dug his fingers into my arm painfully. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just kill him now and be done with it.”
“Let go of me.” My patience evaporated as anger replaced the pain from Justin’s dismissal. I had never given Hunter permission to touch me, and now he refused to let go. Nothing about that was ok.
Hunter looked feral as he leaned over me. “I didn’t chase after you for all of those years for you to stab me in the back now,” he said, contempt dripping from every word. “You owe me an explanation.”
“I said let go,” I retorted, sinking steel into my voice. He had two seconds to remove his hand or I would remove it for him.
Instead, he growled deep in his chest. “Tell me or I kill him.”
And time was up.
In one smooth motion, I knocked his hand away with my forearm and turned around. Hunter followed me like I knew he would. His mistake.
“This nonsense ends now,” he barked, “or so help me-”
That’s when I picked up one of Justin’s dining room chairs and hit him.
Hunter swayed with a curse, but he stayed on his feet. “What the-”
Again, Sarai growled.
I hefted the chair up and put the strength of my back and arms into the second swing. With a crash, Hunter fell to the ground, and one of the chair’s legs snapped off and flew across the room. Oops.
Pure, unadulterated rage swam through my veins, and I tossed the chair aside with a clatter. Before Hunter had the chance to get to his feet, I walked over to him and pushed him onto his back with my foot.
Hunter blinked dazedly, blood trickling steadily from his nose. “Wha-”
I stepped on his throat. Not hard enough to choke him or break anything important, but hard enough to get his attention. His voice died with a gurgle, and the amber in his eyes melted away as panic set in. Hunter was finally scared. Good.
“I have had enough of your domineering bullshit,” I murmured, feeling Sarai’s snarl echo through my voice. “Challenge me like that again, and I’ll kill you.”
My threat complete, I turned my back on Hunter and looked around. Micah and Steven were the only wolves left in the dining room; the other males must have wanted to give Hunter some space as he yelled at me.
I looked at Micah and Steven. “Get your Beta out of my sight.”
The brothers hurried to do what I said without actually looking at me, and soon, Darius and I were alone in the dining room. His eyes were bright gold and his face was cautious as he got to his feet, but his voice was remarkably calm as he asked, “What just happened?”
I shrugged and tried to get a handle on my out of control emotions. “I told him to stop touching me. He didn’t. So I corrected him.”
He paused for a second, digesting that, before he frowned. “By hitting him repeatedly with a chair?”
“I only hit him twice. He’ll be fine in a couple of hours.” Unfortunately.
“That just fills me with relief,” he retorted, and his voice gained a harsh tone as he continued, “Funnily enough, I’m more concerned about my own survival than your ex-boyfriend’s. Why did you claim me? What exactly does that accomplish?”
“Now they can’t kill you for trespassing,” I said, deciding to ignore the whole ‘ex-boyfriend’ issue.
“Trespassing.” His voice was incredulous. “Because that’s the worst of my crimes.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic. You’re still breathing, aren’t you?”
“But for how long?” He countered, taking an aggressive step towards me. “How exactly did you see this playing out in your head? You spew your nonsense, everyone agrees to it, ignoring hundreds of years of ingrained hatred and prejudice, and I get sent home with a pat on the head and a warning?”
I stared at Darius, bewildered. What did he expect from me? I didn’t have time to sit there and evaluate all of my options, so I went with the first thing that came to mind. So what if that wasn’t my most brilliant idea ever? He was still alive to snarl and curse at me, and that was the important part.
So why did the criticism in his voice make me want to hide under the nearest bed?
Sarai growled softly, warning Darius to behave. She was done with letting any male think they could walk all over her. One wrong move and she would go for his throat, just like I had done with Hunter.
Shaking my head a little, I said, “I don’t know. I just… I couldn’t let my uncle kill you.”
Darius stared at me shrewdly. “Why?”
“Because you were right,” I said simply. “I hate this war, but ignoring it won’t make it disappear. But I can’t stop it by myself. If you have a plan to end it, then I have to try.”
If I had a plan? Please. I had a plan for everything. My plans had plans.
The plan Rilynn was talking about had made sense. That plan was for the two of us to work together as allies, systematically brokering a peace until the war finally ended for good. That plan had been perfect. And now it lay in shambles at my feet.
I stared at the little demon responsible and wondered what I had done to deserve this.
After taking a deep breath, I asked, “Have you even thought about the consequences of claiming me as your mate?”
Rilynn frowned and guilt twisted her features. “Not really, no,” she replied in a tiny voice.
Of course she hadn’t. That would mean she’d have to think ahead, and I had yet to witness her doing anything of the sort. I rubbed my eyes and counted to ten in my head. It didn’t help. In my head, Rilynn waltzed through all of my carefully constructed plans, tossing grenades at random until everything was pure chaos.
My cat snarled at her, demanding that she give him an explanation for her behavior.
I wanted to snarl right with him, but I held him back for a number of reasons. I knew I had to keep Rilynn on my side if I wanted to see my nineteenth birthday. Also, I had no desire for her to see my actions as aggressive and challenging – which they would be – and retaliate by trying to knock me unconscious with some other piece of furniture.
Although, if I grabbed a chair first…
No. No chairs. I wasn’t stupid enough to attack Rilynn now, not after she had managed to save my life. Again, I thought sourly.
With a Herculean effort, I pulled my mind away from the raging inferno of panic and indignation. I even took a few steps away from her, distancing myself so I could think in peace. I would need more than Rilynn’s survival skills to keep me alive now. She had managed to buy me some time, and I had to use it. I needed to be sharp. I needed to be focused, and that meant letting my instinctual anger go.
Was I disgusted to be surrounded by the dense and musky scent of wolves? Yes. I felt like my lungs were being tainted with every breath I took.
Was I furious that those two wolves managed to restrain me and I hadn’t even seriously injured one of them? Of course. In my defense, the stockier one moved like a ninja, but still. I was six inches taller than he was. I should’ve been able to break something.
Was I livid that Rilynn Daciana had the audacity to claim me as her mate in order to save my life? You bet your ass I was. There were so many things wrong with that, I didn’t even know where to start. It was embarrassing, it was irritating, and it made getting out of this house alive ten times harder.
For a while, I had wondered if there was a method to her madness, some underlying scheme that I couldn’t see because I didn’t have all of the puzzle pieces. But now I knew better. There was no method. Only madness.
I would never understand wolves.
But none of that mattered right now. As difficult as it was to set all of those emotions aside, I had to figure out my next move. Calm now. Roar later.
Think. What were my options?
I could fight, but that made my chances of survival less than zero. Even if I Shifted, I would only be able to kill a couple of wolves before the rest of the pack overwhelmed me. While I could understand the draw of dying on my own terms, I didn’t like the idea of dying period. Pass.
I could deny Rilynn’s claim. Not bloody likely. That claim was currently the only thing keeping her Alpha from snapping my neck. Pass.
I could take Rilynn hostage. That was equally unlikely to succeed. While I could probably bring myself to hurt her, I could never kill her, and the second the wolves called my bluff, I’d be dead. Pass.
I could beg for the Alpha’s forgiveness. No. I was the Heir of the Pride. I didn’t beg. Pass.
That left one option: I had to go along with Rilynn’s crazy scheme. It was the only option that didn’t end in my immediate demise. I wanted to survive. Accepting her claim was the only thing I could do.
But if we somehow managed to survive this whole mess, I was going to get her back for this.
With my decision made, my mind cleared a little. I was still furious about being backed into a corner, but I had more important things to worry about. Like how I was going to convince Rilynn’s Alpha to let me live.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any time to think of a solution, before an older mated couple appeared in the doorway, followed closely by the two wolves that had taken me by surprise at Rilynn’s apartment. My hands curled into claws.
The older female didn’t bother to keep the scowl off of her face. “Follow us.”
Rilynn growled softly, and the female jerked a little. Well, wasn’t that interesting? I kept my frown hidden, wondering at her reaction. Had the woman challenged Rilynn somehow? Was Rilynn insulting her by not reacting properly? Was I reading the entire situation incorrectly? I had no idea.
Before I could worry about it too much, Rilynn walked out of the room. I glared at her back, cursing her inability to broadcast her intentions, and then followed her. The wolves that were supposed to be our escorts followed me.
The pack meeting was taking place in the backyard, probably because wolves liked getting in touch with their ‘natural’ side. I wanted to snarl. There was a reason why insulation and indoor plumbing were invented, and it wasn’t so we could continue to conduct business meetings in the cold and wet like animals.
The backyard was full of Shifters. Roughly 30 wolves in human form surrounded their Alpha in a loose circle. Every single member of Longshadow pack looked restless and uncomfortable. That was only to be expected considering my presence shattered their carefully constructed illusion of safety and security. I would have felt sorry for them, but I was a little more concerned about myself at the moment.
I knew that the real power lay not with the pack, but with the Alpha. Ignoring the other wolves for now, I turned my attention toward Justin Walker. His expression was grim, and there was a quiet desperation in the way he held himself that I didn’t like. Walker looked like a man that was drowning, stuck in between two impossible decisions with no life raft in sight.
Unease skittered up my spine. What would give a man with Walker’s reputation a look of such defeat?
Our escort melted into the rest of the pack. Rilynn continued to walk towards Walker, so I followed her and the wolves in our path parted easily. I couldn’t tell if they were getting out of my way or out of Rilynn’s.
Rilynn stopped a few feet from Walker and bowed her head a little. I stayed next to Rilynn and kept my head up. I didn’t even bow to my own mother. I wasn’t going to start here.
Walker addressed his wolves, and his voice sounded just as worn down as his face looked. “Tonight, Darius Ardeshir infiltrated Longshadow pack territory. Some of you already know this.”
Well, at least he got straight to the point. Although, I had to admit I was a little surprised when the pack remained silent after Walker’s first statement. In the Pride, if my mother paused like that in the middle of a meeting, it would be nearly impossible to get the other cats to shut up. But here, the wolves just watched their Alpha.
That’s when it hit me. This wasn’t a democracy. There wouldn’t be a vote. There was the Alpha’s will, and that was all.
Walker continued in the same level voice. “The punishment for trespassing is death. However, Riley has claimed the lion as her mate.”
The tension in the wolves around us skyrocketed, but still they remained silent. I hid my disgust under a mask of indifference. How could their reaction be so powerful, and yet they still waited for their Alpha’s permission to speak?
Walker looked at me, and I saw a thousand regrets on his face. “Do you accept Riley’s claim?” The Alpha asked.
I kept my frown hidden, but I saw what he just did. By asking if I accepted, he was letting me decide whether I could live with all of the consequences. For whatever reason, Justin Walker had just given me an out. He knew I couldn’t take it, but he had given it to me anyway. My respect for the man increased begrudgingly.
I met Walker’s calm gaze. “I do.”
Walker nodded, because there was nothing else I could say and still hope to get out of this god forsaken forest alive. “By accepting the claim, you become an honorary member of the pack-”
“-Which means the charge for trespassing will be dropped,” Rilynn finished smugly. “He can’t trespass on territory that’s technically his.”
Seriously, how could she live this long and be this ignorant? Instead of growling at her and forcing her to be quiet, I kept my eyes on Walker.
“But?” I asked expectantly. There was always a ‘but’.
“You are an Ardeshir which makes you an enemy of the Prince,” Walker explained, and I nodded. Tell me something I didn’t know. “Welcoming you into the pack as Riley’s mate would be treason.”
And the Mad Prince despised disloyalty. I wouldn’t be surprised if he massacred the entire pack just to make an example of them.
“There’s another issue at hand,” Walker continued. “For wolves, mates are considered one distinct unit, which means they share rewards and punishments equally. When one partner is proven guilty, so is the other.”
And that was what Walker was truly worried about. If he decided to kill me just for being who I was, he would have to kill Rilynn too. The desperation in his eyes made a lot more sense now.
There was only one thing I could do. I had to bring another option to the table, one that allowed both of us to walk away from this and cleared Walker’s pack of any hint of treason. No pressure.
“The decision is mine alone,” Walker said, turning his attention back to his pack. “But I would appreciate any thoughts. Whatever I decide, it will affect us all.”
For a second, I wondered if any of them would have the courage to speak, but then an older man with silvery hair and tan skin spoke. “I’m not sure which would make the Prince angrier. If we kill both of them, he’ll punish us,” he said matter-of-factly. “And if we let both of them live, he’ll punish us. Either way, the pack loses.”
A tall woman with a kind face and dark brown hair nodded. “Stanley’s right,” she said beseechingly. Her arms were wrapped protectively around the shoulders of a young blonde girl, maybe twelve or thirteen. “But if we made the lion’s death look like an accident…”
The old man, Stanley, nodded. “Then neither Riley, nor the pack can be held accountable,” he finished.
While those were very good thoughts, none of that was going to work in my favor. I was just about to open my mouth and interrupt when a man with curly black hair did it for me, shouting, “Riley forfeited her rights to be treated like a full pack member when she stood in between her Alpha and a damn cat!”
Rilynn whirled around to face her accuser. “I didn’t forfeit a damn thing, and you know it, Tony!” She snarled, baring her teeth at the older man threateningly. “I stood between my mate and a threat. Where’s the law against that?”
“Pack law is for wolves that are loyal to the pack,” the man retorted. “And you broke that the second you lied to your Alpha by not telling him the truth about your alleged kidnapping.”
Attorney, I thought to myself. Maybe even a prosecutor.
“Alleged?!” Rilynn shrieked.
The wolf continued. “By claiming the cat, you signed your own death warrant. But instead of taking ownership of your own actions, you now expect the pack to take the blame for your stupidity.”
Rilynn lunged just as I managed to snake an arm around her shoulders. “You’re making it worse,” I hissed in her ear, “so do me a favor and stop talking. Immediately.”
I dropped my arm quickly. I wasn’t stupid; I had seen what had happened when her ex-boyfriend had refused to let her go. Even though her expression was murderous, she nodded and stayed quiet.
Turning back to the Alpha, I found Walker looking between me and Rilynn with shock written on every feature of his face. Rilynn was too busy glaring at the wolf who had insulted her to notice the change in her uncle, but I did. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together.
I had just done something, and I had no idea what it was. Was it because I had managed to touch her without getting disemboweled? Or was it because Rilynn had listened to me? Would it work in my favor, whatever it was? Or had I just ensured that my death would be extra painful?
Time to gamble with our lives and find out.
“I have something I would like to add to this discussion.” I paused for a moment to see if Walker would stop me. When he didn’t, I continued a little more confidently.
“You have two choices,” I said, keeping my eyes on the Alpha. Walker, at least, didn’t want to hurt Rilynn, and I planned on using that to my full advantage. “You either kill me or you kill both of us. If you don’t do one of those things, the Prince will retaliate against the whole pack. Right?”
Walker didn’t bother responding. We both knew I was right. I was ready for it this time and caught the flared nostrils and tense jaw that usually indicated disgust or anger. So far, so good.
I took a deep breath. “I’d like to propose a third option.”
The ex-boyfriend snorted. “What makes you think we’ll listen to you?”
“The Alpha said he appreciated the thoughts of his pack. As Rilynn’s mate, I’m a part of that pack, which therefore allows me to share my thoughts,” I retorted, keeping my expression cool and detached. “Also, I’m pretty sure it was made abundantly clear that your opinion doesn’t matter when you got your ass handed to you with a piece of furniture. So shut up and let the grown-ups talk.”
He growled softly, but Walker cut him off. “What would you propose?” He asked. He was intrigued. Good.
“A way to figuratively kill both of us without physically having to touch us,” I replied. “Banishment.”
Rilynn went still beside me and several of the wolves behind us gasped, but I kept my eyes on the Alpha. Walker didn’t look skeptical or disgusted. Instead, he looked a little surprised, but still thoughtful.
C’mon, I thought. You gave me an out, now I’m giving you one. Just take it.
The pack was muttering as Walker considered my suggestion. A surprising number of them wanted to just kill both of us and be done with the whole thing. I only heard a couple of voices defending Rilynn’s actions, Stanley and the other woman among them. But it sounded like the idea of banishing us was even more shocking than my presence in the pack meeting, which didn’t make any sense. Maybe leaving the pack was a bigger deal than I thought.
After a while, Walker raised his hand and his pack quieted immediately. “From this moment on, I declare Rilynn Daciana and Darius Ardeshir as lone wolves. They are no longer members of Longshadow Pack and have forfeited any rights, privileges or protections that would be owed a pack member. They will immediately leave pack territory, never to return until such a time that they can atone for the charges placed against them.”
Since the “charge” was my identity, I had no idea how we would atone for that.
Several of the more outspoken wolves started to shout out their complaints, but Walker ignored them as he made his way toward us, and that’s when it really sunk in. The giant fist around my heart gradually loosened. I had done it. Rilynn and I would live.
Walker stopped in front of Rilynn, and with sad eyes, he reached forward and brushed his thumb across her forehead. Probably a metaphorical way of cutting all ties, if I had to guess. She shuddered a little, and then Walker did the same thing to me. I tried to bury the urge to wipe my forehead where he had touched me.
“Your status within the pack is gone,” Walker said formally. “You have one hour to leave my territory.” Then he caught Rilynn’s gaze and held it. “If you choose to come back, be prepared to fight for it.”