Chapter 10 –
I should have been suspicious when Darius got us a room at a real hotel the next day instead of the usual no name, cash only dive. But after being stuck in a car for so long, the only things I cared about were the clean sheets and the mice-free walls. I put my duffel bag down and then fell onto my bed with a sigh.
Oh yeah. This was so much better.
Then Darius ruined everything by saying, “We’re going out to eat tonight.”
I turned my head to stare at him. “We’ve been driving for ten hours a day for the past two days,” I complained. “I don’t want to go out.”
“Too bad,” he said unrelentingly. “I want to eat food that doesn’t take more than a microwave and 20 seconds to prepare. I’m going to shower, so be ready by the time I’m done.” Without another word, he walked into the bathroom with his own bag and shut the door.
“But I don’t want to go out,” I whined pitifully.
Silence. Damn it. I knew he could still hear me.
I think we’d have better luck arguing with the door, Sarai said.
I suppose this is the same idiot who still thinks Queen is overrated, I replied sourly. I still hadn’t been able to convince him otherwise.
With a tired groan, I unzipped my bag. I had no idea how long Darius would take in the shower, and I didn’t want him to come back into our room while I was still half-dressed.
I didn’t have to worry. The shower stayed on for a good thirty minutes. By the time he came out, I was dressed in my skirt and a nice tank top, lazily flipping through the channels on the TV.
I glanced up at him when he walked out of the bathroom and felt my mouth go dry. His jeans hugged his thighs, and his red button down shirt emphasized his shoulders. He had even rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, revealing the dark, smooth skin of his forearms.
And you’re officially staring, Sarai said.
I turned my attention back to the TV before I was caught. “I’d like the record to show that I was ready twenty minutes ago.”
He just shrugged, and my eyes were drawn to his shoulders again before I got a hold of myself. Snap out of it, Riley.
“Seriously, you don’t even have that much hair,” I said as I turned the TV off. “What took you so long?”
“I like being clean,” he replied simply, unwilling to be drawn into an argument.
Thankfully, the restaurant wasn’t far from our hotel, so we didn’t have to cram ourselves back into Darius’s fancy car. Instead, we walked down the sidewalk with my arm linked through his, looking like any teenage couple without a care in the world. Hopefully.
We were waiting for a table at the one nice steakhouse in some little town in north Texas, which was owned and run by cougar Shifters. According to Darius, they would still be required to serve us because he was the Heir, but because I was a wolf, they would report us to the Queen the second we left.
As we waited for the hostess to welcome us, Darius wrapped his arm around my shoulder and leaned down to whisper in my ear. I giggled and smiled when he told me too, even though I felt ridiculous.
“So explain to me again why you think this is a good idea?” I asked, looking up at him with my best heart-in-eyes expression.
Darius chuckled and his dark eyes glittered suggestively, making my pulse spike. Stupid heart.
“We need to be seen together,” he explained patiently. “If we walk into the Pride completely unannounced, my mother will kill you first and ask questions later. She needs to hear about us before we get to the manor. But she couldn’t see us too early or else she would’ve placed a bounty on your head.”
“Charming woman,” I muttered. “Can’t wait to meet her.” He ignored me.
“By going to this restaurant the day before we get to the manor, she gets a warning, but she doesn’t have time to do anything about it,” Darius explained. “Now smile and look away like you’re embarrassed.”
The only cat Shifter I had ever been around was Darius, so oddly enough, I was having a hard time pretending to be calm. The entire restaurant was saturated with the musky smell of cougars. Sarai was just as wary as I was, watching each staff member suspiciously.
The wait grew longer as the hostess continued to ignore us. Darius looked down at his watch. “A couple more minutes and this will border on rude,” he murmured.
Of course it would. You couldn’t just ignore the Heir of the Pride no matter what his date was. It just wasn’t done.
About 30 seconds later, the hostess finally beckoned for Darius to follow her. Since the hostess was a cougar, I let Darius stay in between us. I wanted her focus to be on him instead of me. Also, if she wanted to attack me, she’d have to go through Darius first.
She forced her smile as she led us to a table in the far corner of the restaurant. After we sat down, she bowed her head to Darius and murmured, “I hope you enjoy your dinner, my lord.”
Darius smiled at her. “I’m sure we will.”
I had no idea how he made that sound like a threat, but he did and the hostess raced away. She may have been a cougar Shifter, but cougars were no match for lions.
A few minutes later, the waiter came over. Like the hostess, he was also a cougar. When he stopped next to our table, his whole body was poised to attack. A hint of green lightened his irises as he tried to intimidate me.
Both Sarai and I wanted to snarl, but Darius caught my eye and shook his head ever so slightly. So I clamped my jaw shut and tried to stay relaxed. I couldn’t draw attention to us like that, not when most of the customers in the restaurant were humans. I had to stay calm. I had to trust Darius to handle this.
Sarai snorted. Easier said than done.
Darius frowned as the waiter continued to stare at me. “Is something wrong?” He asked, immediately claiming the cougar’s attention. Darius was surprisingly good at making people forget what they were thinking about so the only thing they could focus on was him. Show off.
The waiter was clearly struggling. If I had been with anyone else, he already would have pulled me into the alley and killed me. Funnily enough, being with Darius came with a few perks. One of them was that the cougar couldn’t view me as a threat without insinuating that Darius couldn’t protect himself. A sane cat generally doesn’t question a lion’s judgment.
“Is there a problem?” Darius repeated, and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. His expression was still polite, but his voice was like steel. Gold shimmered at the edge of his eyes, and I made a mental note to never insult a lion. At least not when I didn’t have a clear exit.
The waiter turned to Darius, finally dismissing me. “My lord, I apologize for the delay,” he said smoothly, with just a hint of a Texas drawl. “It’s not every day that we host Pride royalty in our humble establishment.”
“I understand,” Darius said, smiling. “I just hope the wait was worth it.”
The waiter paled a little. “What can I get you to drink, my lord?”
“Iced tea,” Darius replied imperiously. “Two.”
The waiter bowed his head and hurried away. When he disappeared into the kitchen, I looked at Darius pointedly. “Do you have to be mean to the wait staff? I don’t want to have to pick rat poison out of my food.”
“That wasn’t mean,” he replied, chuckling.“That was simply… cautionary.”
“Yes,” Darius said as he set his menu down. “I’ve been patient so far, but now he knows that my patience is almost gone. He’ll have to be on his best behavior if he wants to keep his life and his job.”
I blinked. “You would seriously kill him?”
“Of course I wouldn’t. He just has to think I will.” He paused for a second before adding, “Besides, I’m too tired right now. And it’s a pain to get blood out of denim.”
At that moment, the waiter came out of the kitchen carrying two glasses of iced tea. He set them both in front of Darius, and I fought a growl. Ignoring me completely was nicer than outright threatening me, but I still didn’t like it.
Darius ordered dinner for both of us, and I bit back another sigh. Sharing food was important to any Shifter; it helped solidify the bond between families and mates. But cats had strange rules when it came to food. Even if the waiter wasn’t ignoring me, Darius still would have ordered for both of us, because that was the male’s way of proving to any other cat that I was under his protection.
Rules, rules, rules. My head was spinning with all of the rules.
The waiter left again, and I tried to bring my mind back to the present. “That seemed better,” I said, even though I hadn’t been paying attention. “And he hasn’t tried to throw us out yet, so that’s a plus.”
Darius grinned as he rested his elbows on the table. “The only person in this room who would dare to think about challenging me is you. We were never in any danger of getting thrown out.”
“Well, aren’t you special,” I replied, leaning forward to tap his nose with my finger. “No one has even tried to touch me either. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.”
Darius caught my hand and laced his fingers though mine. “This isn’t my Clan,” he said. “These cats only know me from stories they’ve heard. They didn’t watch me grow up. The touching will come, trust me.”
I rolled my eyes and dropped my gaze to our hands. I hadn’t thought that I would ever get used to touching him, but it was almost easy now.
Before I could stop it, homesickness spiked through my chest like a hot knife. I didn’t want to be comfortable touching anyone, let alone Darius Ardeshir. I wanted to be home, where I understood everyone’s motives and the rules made sense. But I couldn’t go home.
I frowned. I didn’t like feeling so depressed.
Darius squeezed my hand a little. When I looked up at him, his dark eyes were concerned. “Why the serious frown all of a sudden?”
I shrugged but kept my mouth shut. I didn’t like talking about my feelings anywhere, let alone in the middle of a crowded restaurant run by cougar Shifters.
Darius was quiet for a minute, and I was thankful that he wasn’t pushing me. But then he cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking about something your Alpha said to you right before we left,” he said. “I think I’ve finally figured it out.”
Curiosity warred with the desire to snatch my hand back and tell him to leave it alone. I hadn’t pestered him when he didn’t want to talk. But what could he have figured out? What Justin said wasn’t exactly rocket science.
Darius watched me carefully. “How does the succession of the Pack work?”
I tilted my head curiously, caught off guard by his question. “When the son of the Prince claims his mate, he becomes Prince. When a daughter claims her mate, her mate becomes Prince.”
“And if the Prince doesn’t want to step down?”
“Then there’s a fight,” I answered. “The wolf that lives becomes Prince.”
Darius nodded as if it all made sense to him. “What happens when the daughter of the Prince claims her mate and he isn’t a wolf?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, tired of being left in the dark. “Nothing like us has ever happened before. Why?”
His dark eyes met mine, searching for something. “When your Alpha said, ‘If you come back, be prepared to fight for it,’ I don’t think he was talking about fighting for your old position in his pack,” Darius said gently.
Sarai perked her ears.
“Then what was he talking about?” I asked. What else could Justin have possibly meant?
“I think he meant that when you come back, you’ll have to fight for your birthright,” he explained. “You wouldn’t fight Walker; you’d fight your father for the title of Prince.”
I stared at him for a second, and then I started laughing. “Nice one,” I snorted. “But I can’t be Prince.”
“Why not?” Darius challenged. “You’re the most dominant wolf in North America after your father. Why can’t you be Prince?”
“Because the Prince is always a male wolf,” I said, resisting the urge to stick out my tongue and say “Duh.”
“But the daughter of the Prince has never claimed a non-wolf mate before either,” he countered. “Why can’t you be the first female Prince?”
I opened my mouth to say something, but at that moment, the waiter appeared with our dinner. Darius ended up with both plates again, but once the waiter left, he slid one to me. I took it rather bemusedly.
Me? Prince? Maybe in a fairy tale, but this was reality. For me to be Prince, I would have to fight and somehow defeat my father. Even if he wasn’t my father, I still wouldn’t want to fight him. He didn’t just defeat challengers, he destroyed them. And when he was done, he would use his network of spies to destroy everything his opponents held dear. I had seen him do it before.
My father, the Mad Prince, the last pure blood Siberian wolf on the continent. Aleksi was ruthless, cunning, and stronger than any wolf I had ever seen. If I wanted to have any chance of beating him, I’d have to be stronger, smarter, and more ruthless than even him.
I was only 17. It was impossible.
And even if, by some strange, ridiculous miracle, I did become Prince, I would be responsible for every single wolf in North America. I had a hard enough time living my own life, there was no way I could lead thousands of wolves. It would be a disaster.
Our relationship might have been awful, and there were times I thought I hated him. But challenging him to be Prince? If we wanted the war to end, someone would have to challenge my father. But it wasn’t going to be me.
You wouldn’t challenge him alone, Sarai pointed out. We would do it together.
Wait, you think this is a good idea?!
Sarai shrugged. I’m actually a little upset I didn’t think of it first.
“That’s it. I refuse to listen to either one of you, until you start making sense,” I snapped. And then paused.
Did I just speak out loud?
I glanced up. Darius was watching me with a confused and slightly worried expression. Yes. Yes, I had.
“Either one of us?” He asked carefully.
Be cool, just be cool, I chanted to myself. “Like I said, I’m not talking to you right now,” I replied, scooping some mashed potatoes into my mouth. When in doubt, deny any evidence of being crazy and keep denying it.
We ate quickly and my mind kept pinging around like a steel ball in a pinball machine. Could I really be Prince? Of course I couldn’t. But why not? Because something like that’s never been done before. Just because no one else has tried doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not the first one, and the reason why I’ve never heard of it happening is because it never worked out for the females that tried. But surely I would have heard of something?
I was going to give myself a headache.
I stood up as Darius waited for the check – for some reason, I still wasn’t allowed to pay for anything. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
Before he could reply, I walked away, heading towards the corner of the restaurant that had the little ‘Restrooms – This Way’ sign.
Once I was done with the facilities, I leaned on the sink and stared at my reflection in the mirror. My shoulders had been tense ever since we got to Pride territory, and there were dark circles under my eyes from the lack of good sleep.
I didn’t look very Princely. I looked like a 17 year old girl who had been kicked out of her home, drug unceremoniously across the country into enemy territory, and was physically and mentally exhausted.
I scowled at the mirror, trying to look more regal and dangerous. Gr. Snarl. All shall love me and despair.
Nope. Didn’t help.
With a sigh, I washed my hands. It was a ridiculous idea anyway, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Surviving in the Pride was going to be hard enough without having to worry about whether I could be Prince or not.
As I dried my hands, the door opened and two guys sauntered in, making me pause. They looked like kitchen staff in their white shirts and striped pants. I inhaled and felt my lip curl back over my teeth.
“You know, the little triangle on the stick figure usually means it’s a girls’ restroom,” I said dryly, still holding my paper towel. I should have been worried, but I was too tired. Instead, I was just pissed.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” the older cougar murmured. “You should have stayed in your forest.”
Sarai growled. Just try to get me to leave, pussycat.
The younger cougar frowned. He couldn’t have been more than a couple years older than me. “What are we going to do about the Heir? He’ll come looking for her when she doesn’t come back. Are our orders to take him out too?”
“No, we only kill her,” the older one replied. “Then we’ll lay a false trail for the lion to follow.”
Do you think they know I’m still here? I asked Sarai.
They’re underestimating you, she replied. Their mistake.
The younger cougar nodded and then leered at me. I stood my ground, glaring at him as Sarai snarled angrily in my head. “It’s a shame we have to kill you. Maybe we can have a little fun before-”
And that was my cue. I threw my paper towel at the older cougar, and then launched myself at the younger one who was still talking. Ducking his right uppercut, I wrapped my arms around his waist in a bear hug and threw all of my weight behind a knee to the groin.
The older cougar grabbed me as his friend dropped to the floor and made strange gurgling noises. His grip on my forearms was bruising as he yanked them behind my back, trying to incapacitate me. Remembering my training with Justin, I twisted my right wrist against his thumb, successfully breaking his hold. Before he could grab me again, I twisted and slammed my fist into his temple. He fell to the ground like a downed tree.
Panting, I leaned against the sink again and surveyed the damage. One unconscious, the other still cursing in soprano, and I was only slightly bruised. My hands started to shake as the adrenaline flooded my system.
Not bad, Sarai commented.
The younger cougar was trying to say something. “Get…you…bitch…”
“I’m sorry, are you trying to say something? Because I can’t hear it over the sound of how AWFUL YOU ARE,” I growled, before kicking him in the head. Leaving them both unconscious on the floor, I walked out of the bathroom.
The hostess saw me as I closed the door, and she froze in shock. Well, someone must be surprised to see me walking around on my own two feet.
I smiled at her, making sure to show her all of my pretty teeth. “You might want to clean up in there,” I told her. “Someone before me had a little accident.”
Darius got up from our table and started to move toward me, but I was still jumpy from the fight, so instead of waiting for him, I walked out of the restaurant. The warm evening air mugged me, making me feel damp and sticky. I didn’t like the humidity. It made scents linger and the air felt still and dead.
Dead. That’s what I would’ve been if those two cougars hadn’t been idiots about trying to grab me. But I wasn’t. I was very much alive. I was even walking away. Suddenly, the humidity didn’t seem so terrible.
“Riley,” Darius called. “Riley, wait up.”
I didn’t slow down. With his long legs, he could catch up to me without even trying. A second later, he grabbed my hand and I let him tug him to his side.
“We should get ice cream,” I said suddenly. “Are you in the mood for ice cream? Because that sounds really good to me right now.”
Darius frowned down at me, probably wondering if I had gone crazy. I didn’t care. I was alive and that’s what was important. Ice cream was a perfect reward for the living.
“Riley, what’s gotten in…” Darius trailed off and his nose flared a little as he inhaled. Slivers of gold appeared in his eyes.
Oh. I probably still smelled like cougars. And a lot of adrenaline. Oops.
“Before you explode,” I said, holding up a hand, “I’m fine. There were only two of them, and I took care of it myself. No harm done. So come on, let’s go get ice cream and celebrate how totally awesome I am.”
I tried walking away, but Darius still had a hold of my arm and refused to budge. “No harm done?” He asked, glaring at me is if I was mentally challenged. “What do you mean ‘no harm done’? What the hell happened?”
“Two cougars tried to jump me when I was in the bathroom. But I took care of it.”
“Are you ok?” He asked swiftly. “Did they hurt you?”
I shrugged. “I said I’m fine. The bruises will go away in an hour or so. What’s the big deal?”
Darius dropped my arm as the tension mounted in his body, but his voice was surprisingly quiet as he asked, “What did they say? When they jumped you, what were the exact words that came out of their mouths?”
I shrugged. “I don’t remember. Something about killing me and laying a false trail for you. I was a little distracted.”
He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “Riley, I’m trying to be patient, I really am, but I need to know exactly what they said. So try harder.”
“Who cares what they said?” I glared at him, feeling the excited buzz of survival shrivel and die as it was replaced by anger. “I kicked their asses without breaking a sweat, and you’re more worried about what they said?”
“Yes, I am more worried about what they said,” he hissed, his eyes half gold, half brown. “If they were ordered to attack you, that means someone in that restaurant contacted their superiors while we were still there, completely disregarding my status as Heir. I need to know what they said so I can figure out who they contacted and why they feel comfortable enough to order a hit on you while I was fifteen feet away.
“So,” he said, taking a hold of my arm once again and steering me down the sidewalk. “We are going to go back to our hotel. You are going to try and remember every single word you heard, and then, I’ll figure out what to do from there. No stopping for ice cream. Got it?”