*Don’t say I never get you guys anything nice. Happy Holidays, y’all*
Chapter 11 –
If I hadn’t been so angry, I would have figured out a better way to phrase that. After spending two days with her in a car, I knew better than to give Riley an order like that, because the second I did, she dug her heels in and refused to move forward.
Literally. She literally stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.
“No, I do not ‘got it’,” she said, tugging her arm from my grasp and glaring up at me with those sparkling green eyes. “I took out those two goons by myself, and that’s all you can say? No ‘Wait here, I’m going to go rip them to pieces’? What kind of lion are you?”
“What? Do you want me to say I’m proud that you can take care of yourself?” I asked. “Newsflash, I knew that already.”
While I felt the need to keep my voice down in order to avoid public scrutiny, Riley, apparently, felt no such desire. “Well, here’s a newsflash for you,” she retorted, little flecks of amber appearing in her green eyes. “I don’t give a damn who ordered what, so you can just figure that out by yourself.”
I wanted to keep arguing with her. I also wanted to toss her over my shoulder and carry her back to the hotel kicking and screaming. But years of being taught to be aware of the people in my surroundings had my eyes focusing on an older white man walking toward us. He was human, I could tell by the way he moved, but that wasn’t what drew my attention. His finger hovered over the call button on his cell phone, and he was watching me with a suspicion that had me wanting to curl my lips back and snarl at him. That look said he didn’t trust me simply because I was a black man with a light-skinned girl. I knew that look.
But I also knew better than to antagonize white men in Texas. The likelihood that he had a gun was extremely high, and I didn’t want to end up on the local news.
With a sigh, I somehow managed to smother my anger as I turned to Riley. “I know you’re mad, and I know you want to keep yelling at me, and that’s fine, but can it please wait until we get back to the hotel? At the rate we’re going, our Good Samaritan over there is going to call the cops, and I’d rather not spend the night in jail if I can help it.”
Riley frowned, and glanced over to the man who had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. He wasn’t even bothering to hide the fact that he was watching us.
She growled softly, “That is just it.” And before I could stop her, she stalked over to the man, purposefully invading his space and glaring up at him as if she wanted to rip his throat out.
“If there’s something you want to say, say it,” she snapped.
The man stepped back, clearly confused with Riley’s antagonism. “Do you need any help, miss?” He asked, raising his hand as if to placate her. “I would be more than happy to take you somewhere if this man is harassing you.”
“I was having a perfectly good evening arguing with my boyfriend until you ruined it,” she snarled. “If he was actually harassing me, I would break both of his knees myself.”
I was torn. Part of me wanted to laugh. Fury radiated through Riley’s every cell, but she was just so adorable. It didn’t help that she was a head shorter than him. If she waved her tiny fists in the air or stomped her foot, I would actually lose it.
Another part of me was completely indignant. I was a foot taller than Riley. I outweighed her by 100 pounds. I did not need some little wolf to fight my battles for me. Who did she think she was defending me like that, as if she actually cared?
The final part of me wanted to bash my head into a wall until I was unconscious. That seemed like the best option to go with at this point.
I moved forward to drag Riley away, but strangely, it was my cat that stopped me. Having finally piqued his interest, he was curious to see what she would do next. I could have sworn he even felt a little smug.
Riley continued to shred whatever dignity the man had left. “I know for a fact that you wouldn’t have been so concerned for my safety if he was white, so I’m only going to say this once, you hypocritical bigot. I don’t need your help. Keep your racism to yourself, because the next person you insult might not be as nice as me.”
And that was enough of that. I didn’t need Riley to be charged with harassment on top of everything else. Moving swiftly, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and walked away, surprised when she came with me willingly.
I sighed. This wolf was never going to stop surprising me.
“Riley?” Darius asked softly. “Can we talk?”
I continued to stare at the ceiling of our room. “I suppose we should.”
We had gotten back to our hotel room a little while ago, but I was still angry. After changing into my pajamas, I threw myself onto my bed, but I couldn’t fall asleep. My body was completely exhausted, but my mind refused to calm down, so I just laid there and sulked.
I was mad at Darius, even though I could kind of see where he was coming from. I was mad at that old guy on the street. I was mad at those two stupid cougars in the bathroom. I was mad at the waiter who had ignored me. And I still wanted ice cream.
Darius sat on the edge of his bed. “We’ll get to the manor tomorrow,” he said. “After what happened tonight at the restaurant, I would understand if you’re a little nervous.”
Sarai snorted. Even if I was nervous, the likelihood that I would tell him was slim to none. And I wasn’t nervous. Not in the slightest. The shaky hands and tightness in my chest was from the lack of ice cream, not nerves.
“So, how are you holding up?” He asked.
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said breezily. “Couldn’t be better. Except, you know, if I sneeze in the wrong direction, your mother might chop my hand off, but no biggie. It’ll be fun.”
Darius was quiet, but I could feel him watching me. When he started to speak, I expected to hear another one of his many lectures on duty and Pride etiquette.
“For the first 9 years of my life, I wasn’t the Heir. My older brother was,” Darius said, his voice gentle and contemplative. “He had been groomed since birth to be the next King. I wasn’t even jealous because he was always stuck in lessons while I was off playing with my pride-mates. But then Gabriel died, and I was suddenly the next in line.”
Darius paused for a second, and I sat up on my elbows, watching him. We had only been together for three days now, and he never talked about anything so personal before. His eyes were on his hands, and his next words were soaked in bitterness. “My life changed so much after that.”
I never really thought about how much Gabriel’s death had affected his family. Losing my mother had dwarfed everything else.
He glanced up at me and the corner of his mouth lifted up into a sardonic smile. “There was protocol to learn, Clan ordinances to read. No more playing, no more fun.” He sighed. “The Heir doesn’t have time to be a kid.”
Darius cleared his throat a little and continued. “When I was 11, there was this gala I was supposed to attend with my mother. Some big family of jaguars was just being accepted into the Pride, and for some strange reason, I needed to be there. But I missed my friends. The gala didn’t seem that important to me, so I just blew my mother off. I found Connor and Dominic, and we hunted in the woods behind the manor for hours.
“When we finally got back, my Aunt Linda was waiting for me,” he said, his eyes far away. “What I didn’t know was that it was traditional for the current ruler and their Heir to accept new families into the Pride, so the Queen had decreed that the gala wouldn’t start until I arrived. I was three and a half hours late, and to this day, the Lonescos still don’t trust me.
“Once the gala was over, I was sure my mother was going to kill me, so I hid in the attic,” he said, his face twisted in embarrassment. “I didn’t know the gala was so important, but I knowingly chose to do something else. My father was always more levelheaded than my mother, so eventually he was able to talk me down. When I finally went to see her, she just hugged me and said, ‘Now every cat in the Pride will know that the Heir will not bow to their wishes so easily.’”
I remembered hearing stories about Queen Tanith, and none of them were about how kind and understanding she was. But by the look on his face, Darius’s mother had surprised him too.
“In the Pride, everything you do will come with consequences,” he said, looking up at me. “Some of them will be clear and others won’t. If you make a mistake, we’ll deal with it, but don’t let it weigh you down. We’ll get through this the same way we got into it.”
I grinned, surprised when the knot of nerves in my chest actually loosened. “You mean me stupidly doing the first thing that comes to mind and you cleaning up the mess afterwards?”
Darius smiled back at me. “Exactly.”