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Authors: Tatiana Caldwell

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She blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Us. What is this between us?”

Sofia leaned forward in her chair and placed her elbows on
the table, taking a big spoonful of mashed potatoes and gravy into her mouth to
buy some time to figure out how to answer that.

There was so much going through her head. Being a Werecat,
sexing Nathan, learning about the Pride, breaking Pride rules, going back home
to the job she loathed. Plus she’d just met the man six days ago. How on earth
was she supposed to have her heart and mind all sorted out already? “I’m-I’m
not really sure.” Then there was the stuff Justin was saying about Nathan being
dishonest. Was she right to put as much trust in this man as she did? She cut
him a sideways look. “Are you?”

He narrowed his eyes, studying her. “What’s with that look?”

She forked the last bit of salad on her plate and shoved it
into her mouth. “Well, I mean, all this talk about me and my fertility and
meeting other men and everything—but what about you? This isn’t your first
retreat. Not to mention the fact that you were here by yourself for a couple of
days before I arrived. I mean, the Mating Ritual is something that happens
every single night…”

Nathan picked up his glass of soda and took a big swallow
before he sat it back down. When he responded his voice was even and mellow,
but his expression was stern and serious. “Yes, I participate in the Mating
Ritual and yes, I have lovers in the Pride. In case you hadn’t suspected it
yet, Cassandra was my most frequent and recent partner.”

Indeed, her pal Nathan was honest almost to a fault. At
least he was kind enough not to elaborate on
how
recent. She sneered
into the bowl of soup she was stirring surreptitiously with a spoon. It was too
disgustingly cold now to eat, but was still a good diversion from the
discomfort of the discussion. “Were you, or are you two a couple?”

“No. Never have been, never will be.”

“But does Cassandra feel otherwise? She seems kind of
jealous.”

He shook his head. “Doubt it. She’s not the commitment type,
but she is self-centered, and I haven’t been interested in anyone other than
you since you came here, and she doesn’t like that.”

“Well, I would be.”

“Would be what?”

“Jealous. If I were her. I mean, to lose you before I got
the chance to really figure out whether or not I want to even
have
you…”
Sofia let her voice trail off and lowered her eyes to her half-empty plate. Her
stomach was twisted in knots and her face was burning hot. If Sofia didn’t know
any better, she’d think she
was
the one feeling jealous. But what right
would she have? Cassandra had had him first. Sofia had no claims to this man.
So they’d learned each other’s names and then jerked each other off on a plane…
It’s not as if that made her entitled to his fidelity to her after they’d gone
their separate ways.

What exactly
was
it about Nathan Dawson that made her
so damn irrational?

Nathan reached across the table and touched the tips of his
fingers to hers. The contact made her heart all fluttery and when she looked up
at him, the intensity of his eyes bore into her very core.

“Sofia—” he began. But whatever he was going to say was
interrupted by the commotion approaching them. Cassandra and Justin, escorted
by three fierce-looking men and an equally menacing woman, stood around the
table, looking expectantly at Nathan.

“Get up, Dawson,” Justin demanded.

“Why?”

“You know why, don’t make a scene.” Cassandra scowled. “The
council has made their decision. Your Pride membership has been terminated
immediately.”

Chapter Ten

 

Sofia gaped for several long seconds, in shock. But then she
snapped to and leapt up from the table. “No, wait!” She chased after the men
pulling Nathan away. “Where are you taking him?”

Cassandra grabbed Sofia by the elbow, holding her back.
“He’ll be locked up for the night, prohibited from participating in any
activities. Tomorrow he’ll officially be terminated from the Pride and revoked
of all benefits and provisions. Then he will be assisted in either finding a
place to stay for the remainder of his time here, or in making an early flight
back home.”

Sofia’s heart sank to the pit of her stomach. “Please, don’t
do this to Nathan. This is all because of me. Don’t take it out on him.”

“The council has made their decision.”

Sofia snorted. “And I take it you and Justin were part of
that council’s decision? I can imagine how impartial
that
discussion
was.”

Cassandra frowned. “I can assure you that everyone on the
council treated this issue with integrity and fairness.”

Sofia scowled. “So fair that you guys decided to condemn a
man for his activities with a non-Pride member? Whom you haven’t even officially
met or even spoken to in order to get
her
take on the matter?”

“This isn’t about you—”

“But it isall about me though, isn’t it? Take me out
of the equation and there’s no conflict, is there? So when will someone talk to
me
?”

The brown-eyed brunette gave Sofia a careful, sideways look.
“The fact that you haven’t been inducted yet was discussed. The council will
see you in the meeting chamber shortly, after Nathan has been put away.”

“Where is this meeting chamber?”

“I’ll show you the way,” Justin offered his arm with a grin.
“It’s just at the end of this hall.”


Great,” Sofia mumbled as she went over to Justin.
Stood next to him but did not touch him. “I take it you’re my designated escort
for the entire night?”

He dropped the arm that she left hanging and his expression
turned serious. “Just trying to show you courtesy after my unintentional lack
of it the day we first, er, bumped into each other. You were new and sexy and
enticing and I lost my head. I never got to really apologize to you for that. I
am
sorry,” he said.

Sofia studied him carefully. His mouth was firm, almost in a
frown, and his brows were slightly arched upward with concern. He seemed
sincere. She nodded and smiled at him. “Thank you. I appreciate the apology.”

Justin’s entire body—even his aura—seemed to ease, and he
gave her a soft smile that made her notice for the first time just how
attractive he was. He continued to lead the way in a relaxed silence.

The large cave the Pride had chosen for this retreat was an
impressive one. The intricate details of the rock and stalactites on the walls,
floor and ceilings gave the place a modest beauty, and the use of torches and
candles for lighting provided a calm, intimate and romantic atmosphere. The
hall Justin led her down was actually a path defined by a long row of large
stalagmites that rose up from the stone floor. It was difficult to tell whether
or not the curved rooms and nooks had been formed by man or nature.

Justin stopped at the room at the end of the hall. The
majority of the rooms in the cave didn’t have doors and this one wasn’t an
exception. But it was made secluded due to the fact that it was alone at the
end of a very long corridor.

She walked into the room and was surprised by how
underwhelming the scene was. The council apparently consisted of only three
people. Or five, rather, when counting Justin and Cassandra, but there were
only three others sitting together at a single round table, eating dessert and
drinking wine. The room was small and almost completely dark, and they sat at
the center of it with only one lit candle.

Sofia wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but the council
had sounded so ominous that she’d imagined something much more elaborate than
this. The dining room she’d just left had ten times the flair.

When she looked at the council members again, they’d shed
their clothes and the two women and one man had turned into a cheetah, a cougar
and a male lion. Sofia turned to Justin.

“They want to greet the cat,” he said. “Do you know how to
shift?”

She nodded, unbuttoning her blouse. “Nathan taught me.”

Justin smirked as he took off his clothes then changed into
the mighty leopard she’d encountered earlier in the week, his golden-green eyes
still seeming to hold the facial expression even as Cat.

When Sofia undressed and shifted, her view of the dark room
surprised her. Although her human senses had all been enhanced ever since she’d
“awakened” as a Were a few days ago, the effect was three times as powerful
when she was in full Cat. She’d almost forgotten what a dark room was like for
the cat, since for the past few days she’d had the open sky above her, the sun,
moon and stars to provide some source of light, and naked Nathan to provide a
great source of distraction. But here in the confines of the cave, and in this
room lit by a single candle, her worldview transformed right before her eyes.

Though there was only that one little candle in the entire
room, she could see everything in it clearly—even more clearly than she could
see as a human in bright light. It was as if there were a flashlight between
her eyes, projecting a narrow but bright beam of light wherever she looked,
creating a natural spotlight of sorts on the objects she was viewing. And the
distance she could see… Sofia could clearly make out each and every crack,
curve and crevice in the stone wall clear across the room from where she was
standing. The sound of water off to the right made her turn her head, only to
see a tiny bead of condensed moisture slowly dripping from the ceiling.

Leopard Justin nudged her toward the council at the center
of the room and Sofia complied. She stopped once she reached them and watched
as Justin joined the other three in a line. The four of them circled her,
sniffing at her and allowing their coats to casually rub against hers.

Soon a fifth cat entered the room and joined the fray, this
one a regal-looking female tiger with hazel eyes. It took Sofia a moment to
recognize Cassandra’s scent. Tiger Cassandra circled Sofia with the others but
didn’t touch or sniff her.

After a couple of minutes of this, the five council members
shifted back to human and Sofia was in the nude company of a redheaded beauty,
a raven-haired knockout, a dark hunk with long, luxurious dreadlocks, Justin
and Cassandra.

The redhead smiled at Sofia once she too changed back to
human. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sofia Saldana. I’m Ava Mayer, and this is
Nadia Malaysay, Marcus Thorton, and you’ve already met Cassandra and Justin.
Welcome to the Pride.”

“Thank you.” She smiled back. “But I’m not agreeing to join
just yet.” She paused to let that statement jar them a bit, casually brushing
the hair out of her face.

“Oh?” Ava’s brows furrowed with confusion. “What is your
agreement hinging upon?”

“I heard of your decision to dismiss Nathan Dawson. Seeing
as how my only interest here was him, I don’t see why I would bother to join if
he won’t be in it. Is there some way to keep him in?”

“The rules must be upheld,” the dreadlocked man, Marcus,
chimed in. “Nathan broke the mating rules. For that, he must be punished.”

“Then punish him, but don’t ban him.”

“The ban is his punishment for rule breaking.”

“What rule did he break again?”

Justin was the one who announced Nathan’s crime. “He mated
with a Pride member before she was properly introduced, and kept said member
away for days during a retreat without council approval.”

“But I’m not even a member of the Pride! No one asked me.”

“Which doesn’t absolve him from rule breaking then, it only
changes which rule he broke,” Justin quipped. “Having sex with someone outside
of the Pride is completely frowned upon ’cause of the risk of contracting
diseases and illnesses. Everyone is fully tested and we remain clean by keeping
sexual activity confined amongst the membership.”

“If he’s to be punished either way then let’s go with that
one being the rule he broke, because I am
not
a member of this pride,”
Sofia spat. “And I won’t ever be one if Nathan isn’t in it.”

The five council members looked at each other then all eyes
converged upon Cassandra. Cassandra took a long, deep breath then gave a single
nod.

Sofia tipped her head to the side. Was Cassandra
the
head
cat in charge here?

“There is a way you can atone for him, to get him
reinstated,” the one named Nadia answered. “We’ve picked a different, more
appropriate punishment for him that retains you both—if you will cooperate.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Join the Pride.”

“Fine. What does that take?”

“Complete the induction process.”

“How do I do that?”

“For your induction, you need to be introduced to everyone
in the Pride the way we just greeted you, in both of your forms. Then you will
need to pick at least two males to mate with during tonight’s Mating Ritual.”

“Why two?”

“To increase the chances of successful conception, to prove
your loyalty and to get you quickly familiar with as many members as possible.”

“Can one of them be Nathan?”

“No. He’s banned from tonight’s Mating Ritual.”

Sofia frowned. “I’m not some animal you can just force to
breed.”

“You’re not completely human, either.”

“You can’t force me to sleep with anyone I don’t want to.”

“Then pick ones you
do
want to,” Ava snorted. “Surely
there are a couple of men in the Pride besides Nathan who you find attractive.”

Sofia’s eyes reflexively skated over Marcus’ solid,
chiseled, chocolate and well-endowed body then grazed past Justin’s firm and
fit physique. Suddenly she remembered that she too was naked, and she crossed
her arms in front of herself to cover her aroused nipples and blushing chest,
and shoved away the indecent thoughts that briefly flitted through her mind. “I
don’t want to pick anyone.”

“As one of the few highly fertile females here, you have an
obligation.” Cassandra was speaking now, for the first time since she’d entered
the room.

“I’m not obligated to do shit,” Sofia spat. “What happened
to it being a queen’s choice?”

“Nathan took that choice from you when he imposed himself
upon you,” Marcus said.

“No, I chose
him
. And I still do.”

“But you might not have, had you been introduced to other
males. Tonight you must be introduced to the other males. Give someone else a
chance.”

Sofia laughed. “I already said I’m not interested. I’m
heading out in a couple of hours anyway, what would be the point?”

“Then perhaps you could walk away from here with a planted
seed.”

“If it’s not going to be Nathan, it’ll be no one at all.”

“You’re expected to participate in the Mating Ritual.”

“And if I don’t? Do I get to choose to walk away? I don’t
think this pride is for me.”

“We’d rather you not. We can’t afford not to have you—”

“To have me rule out this pride forever?” Sofia quipped, her
temper at its peak. “Because that is what will happen if you force me to hurt
Nathan this way. He cares about me, yet you’re asking me to consider getting
knocked up by some random man.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes into thin slits. “You think
Nathan cares about you in that way? About
anyone
in that way?”

Sofia responded to Cassandra’s inquiry with a cool,
nonchalant glare as she grabbed her clothes and started getting dressed. “I was
going to stay here a few more hours but I think I’m ready to go now. I’ve had
enough. When you’re done punishing Nathan and you’re done trying to give me
fake choices, give me a call.”

She was pulling on her blouse when Justin grabbed her by the
wrist. “Wait, Saldana, do you really want to do this?” Justin’s face was severe
and he spoke in an urgent tone. “To yourself? To Nathan? Just do the ritual
tonight before you go, just this once. Nathan doesn’t even have to know—we’ll
move him to one of the campers tonight, make solitude this evening part of his
punishment. You tell him you’re leaving, but you convinced us to let him stay
in exchange for your membership.”

She blinked slowly. “You want me to lie to Nathan, do the
Mating Ritual and then keep it from him?”

“Consider the deception part of his council punishment,
which you had to participate in as part of our agreement. You can tell him
after the fact, if you want, including blaming us. Continue your fling with
him, if that’s what you want. But do this, join the Pride, and Nathan can
stay.”

“But I… Tell him after the fact? That I lied and screwed two
guys?”

“He’d understand,” Cassandra chimed in. “It’s Pride
tradition to have sex with multiple members. A tradition he knows
very
well.”

At this, Sofia rolled her eyes but she mulled it all over in
her head. “You said the deception would be part of his punishment. What will
the other part be?”

“His solitary confinement tonight,” Cassandra answered. “And
another punishment that I’ll determine and deliver myself.”

“Such as?”

“It won’t be too harsh, don’t worry. The result will be that
he gets to stay. So do we have an agreement?”

Sofia studied Cassandra for a moment, trying to read her,
but the woman was businesslike and serious. Sofia wasn’t completely sold on the
idea of lying
and
cheating on Nathan, but she wasn’t sure of what else
she could do. However telling them that she agreed would at least get Nathan
back in the Pride, while giving her a little more time to think of a better way
to resolve all of this.

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