Authors: Mary Calmes
I watched her shiver as her hand clasped mine. “Reah.” She bit her bottom lip. “It’s an honor.”
“I’m Liza Dempsey, mate of the maahes of the tribe of Deshret.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Her dark-brown eyes locked on mine. “Reah, may my mate and I accompany you to the home of our semel, Miguel Garza?”
“I would be honored.” I smiled at her.
Her indrawn breath was shaky as she nodded. All the men stood after that, and I felt the whole room exhale as I turned back to Blake Dempsey. “May I please see Ruslan Church?”
“Of course,” Blake breathed finally, turning to one of the men. “Bring both Russ and his friend Tony,” he said sharply before his eyes were back on mine. “Once he joins us, we should go immediately to see my semel.”
“Of course,” I agreed, offering him my hand.
He took it gently in both of his and tugged me forward without meaning to, just wanting me closer. If Yuri had been there, the impropriety would have never happened, but I was alone, so whatever I offered could be accepted.
I felt his hands around my one, watched him breathe me in, my scent.
“May I introduce the sister of my mate?”
He turned to meet Delphine, and Liza did as well, and then I met the other men, all speaking with lowered eyes that quickly flicked to my face when I took their hands.
“Oh, what the fuck.”
I turned to the door and there, with a split lip, black eye, and various scrapes on his knuckles, cheek, and chin, was Russ.
“Jin, why did you come?”
I stalked over to him. “Because, you fuckin’ idiot, your girlfriend called me.”
I grunted, reaching for him. “Are you alright?”
He sucked in a breath, and I watched him swallow hard.
“This was really stupid,” I said, putting my hand around the back of his neck, stepping into him, easing his head down onto my shoulder. He was bigger, but I was older. “You’re gonna be all right.”
He clutched me tight, and when Delphine put her arms around us both, I felt him tremble. He had been scared, and bitching or no bitching, he was glad to see me.
“Listen to me,” I said, leaning back. “You have a very important decision to make, and unfortunately you’re going to need to make it like right now.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“The choice you made not to be part of a tribe has blown up in your face. So now you have to either tell Samantha the truth, and she and you come back home with me so she can meet Logan and be initiated into our tribe, or you stay here and keep your secret.”
“If you stay here, then we have to speak to the semel, Miguel Garza, and ask for the status of duat, and you’re dead as a panther.”
“What does that even mean?”
“That means that you can never shift again on punishment of death.”
“Here or at home?”
“Anywhere, ever,” I told him. “You never shift again.”
“How is that even possible?”
“If you don’t want to share your secret with Samantha, then you can live on another’s land, but you have to do it as a human and not a cat.”
“And if I want to live as a cat?”
“Then you can only do that on Logan’s land.”
“Why? You can live wherever you damn well want.”
“Not if I was taking a human for a mate. If you want to mate outside your species and live as a cat, then you only live on the land you were born on. That’s the law.”
“But first I would have to tell Samantha my secret and have her meet Logan.”
“Why? Why can’t I just ask the semel here to accept me?”
“Because you’re asking to bring a human into the tribe,” I told him. “Only your original tribe will accept a mate outside our species, and normally not even then. It’s a huge deal, Russ, but you have more options than most because your brother is a semel. I don’t think you get how lucky you are.”
“So basically I can either tell Samantha about werepanthers and go home with you and Delphine or stay here and I’m only human, never a cat?” he asked me.
“The semel here, will he let me live on his land as—what is it called again?”
“Okay, so will the semel accept me as a duat for sure?”
“We’ll have to ask.”
“And if he doesn’t, then I basically have to tell Samantha anyway, right?”
“Yeah, probably, because you’ll have to move—he’ll drive you from his territory.”
“But I live here, I work here.”
“That’s no one’s fault but yours. You should have never put yourself in this position.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Oh, fuck you,” I groused at him. “I told you from day one that you should contact the semel of Los Angeles and speak to him. Before you even moved here, I wanted to come see him, just like I did the semel of Las Vegas, and Crane’s not even shacking up with a human, so all he needed was permission to be in the other semel’s territory, not special status.”
“I fucked this up.”
“Yeah, ya did.”
“So how do I get to talk to the semel?”
“You start by talking to the maahes, but you really need to know if this is what you want, Russ.”
“I know I—”
“Because you’re making a promise to the semel of the tribe that has granted you the status of duat that you will no longer act as a panther,” I told him. “It’s a big deal; breach of terms is punishable by death.”
“Jesus,” he groaned.
I turned my head, and there was another man there, just as beat-up as Russ. “You must be Tony.”
“And who are you?”
He was cocky and I didn’t like him, and Delphine was right; I was not myself. I breathed out to try and relax, but instead my pheromones washed over him in a drowning wave.
“Ohmygod,” he moaned, falling to the floor, his body bent in half as he began his shift.
“Jin!” Delphine cried out, and I closed my eyes, concentrating.
But I didn’t have any control to stop, calm, or gather myself.
I was so glad Russ wasn’t hurt, and even though I didn’t understand his reasoning, I wanted him to have the choice of what to do, not have Logan or Miguel Garza decide. But more than anything, I wanted to see my best friend. I needed to see Crane.
I wanted to see Crane.
I looked up at Delphine, saw the pain in her eyes as she went to her knees.
“Jin.” Russ gagged before he dropped to the floor at my feet.
His loss of control fed my desire to punish those who had taken him. At once I understood the true size of my ego. What in God’s name made me think that I could travel by myself with just Delphine in the state I was in? Why hadn’t I called Logan or Mikhail? Why hadn’t I reached out to Justin Cho, Logan’s friend and the semel of San Francisco, who probably knew the semel of Los Angeles well? And why, ever, would I go anywhere without an escort? I was the mate of a semel; I didn’t leave home without bodyguards. No mate of a tribe leader did that; it was considered unsafe, and you were inviting trouble. Why did I think I could or should simply because I was a man?
The truth was that I was furious at Logan and I had used his brother’s kidnapping as an excuse to leave. I was worried about Russ, but I also knew that they could not hurt him, not really, without first speaking to Logan. They could rough him up, as they had done, but that was all. And I knew that and I had gotten on a plane anyway. It was selfish and stupid because I had not only put myself in jeopardy but Delphine as well.
I could be killed. Delphine and Russ could be killed, and no one would ever know because no one knew where any of us were. I was counting on archaic customs and observed ritual to keep us safe, and that was insane. I should have been home, waiting for word on Crane, waiting for word on Russ, not acting on impulse. I was the mate of a semel; I needed to comport myself in that manner. What had I been thinking?
The scream tore me from my thoughts. When I turned to look for the man who had let loose the blood-curdling sound, I realized that Blake Dempsey and I were the sole humans in the room. Everyone else—Delphine, Russ, Tony, Liza, and all the rest of the men, including Dennis Jennings, the manu—were cats. I was surrounded by panthers.
I took a breath and everyone in the room, including the maahes, collapsed. A wave of guilt washed over me as I looked at the cats sprawled on the floor, panting, some throwing up, others lying curled in balls, shivering with the aftershocks of my power surging through them. I had no idea what apology I could make, what excuse would even be accepted.
“That was obscene.”
I turned my head to look at Blake Dempsey.
There was a stain on his pants: he had come in them, and where he had ejaculated was clearly, glaringly visible. I gave him a lot of credit for standing there, eyes locked on mine, swallowing his humiliation down as he stared at me with burning eyes.
“I’m so sorry.” I choked on the words because it hurt to say as much as it hurt for him to hear.
“Fuck you and your power, reah,” he roared at me, furious. “I will not suffer this insult; you cannot strip us of our humanity on a whim!”
“No,” I pleaded, motioning to Delphine, who lay panting on her side on the floor, and then to Russ, who was heaving and retching, bringing up nothing, his body simply spasming with the need to try. “I didn’t do it on purpose, why would I?”
Only seeing Delphine and Russ there, suffering the same fate as the others, both in their panther forms, cut through the veil of his rage. It made no sense that I would want to hurt members of my own tribe.
“You will come with me to see my semel, and he will determine what apology is to be made.”
“Agreed.” I nodded, wanting to say, or do, something but unsure what that could possibly be.
“I was so honored to meet you,” he told me, his voice low. “And now I can barely stand to look at you.”
I thought I might be sick myself.
at the hotel after leaving the restaurant, I realized that the experience had proven to be too much for Delphine. She wasn’t mad, she said she wasn’t a thousand times, but she wouldn’t look at me. She apologized as she packed and took deep breaths and sniffled. There was a lot of sniffling, a lot of her blowing her nose and shivering. I tried to touch her, but that was out of the question. I was making her skin crawl. She didn’t want a hug goodbye; she wanted nothing to do with me at all. She just needed to go home and see Markel. Her thoughts were only of him.
“I’m so sorry,” I told her as she was at the door, a cab downstairs waiting for her.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, again without looking at me. “You just—it’s Crane, I know, but you took away choices from me, and it’s like… it felt like… like….”
And she didn’t want to say, so she stopped herself. She didn’t want to say I had violated her, raped her, but it was how she felt. I had made her feel powerless, done it to all of them, and the only person who could have stopped it once it started was myself—or Logan. I had power but no control, and I was dangerous.
“Please forgive me,” I said to her, moving slowly closer to her.
“I have already,” she told me, her eyes finally flicking to mine, the green eyes she shared with all her brothers except my mate staring back at me, hers being the softest color, celadon. “It’s not in you to hurt anyone on purpose, and while I know that, it was brutal. I felt like I was being turned inside out, and even though I don’t hurt anymore, it was terrifying.”
I had scared my girl.
I was a monster.
“I want to see Markel.”
She must have said it a hundred times, and all I could do was nod like an idiot.
“I should send Artem here, and Ivan, or—”
“No, don’t do that,” I told her. “Just leave it—”
“Fine,” she said, cutting me off, opening the door. “You know best. Bye.”
She was gone that fast, and I let the wave of guilt come and flood me. My self-destructive streak that I could own having, sometimes it not only tried to drown me but everybody else as well. I needed to be more focused on what I was really doing. I sat down on the end of the bed, put my head in my hands, and tried to calm my racing heart. When my phone rang an hour later, I realized that I had not moved, and answered without checking to see who it was.
“Where are you?”
I cleared my throat to speak to my mate. “You know where I am.”
“I gave explicit orders that you not leave the grounds.”
“Russ was kidnapped.”
“Taken, held, not kidnapped. I received word from Miguel Garza, the semel of Los Angeles, and Justin was on his way to negotiate Russ’s release and to determine if my brother would come and present his girlfriend to me or would accept the station of duat.”
Of course my entire trip was useless, and it was my fault because I was mad and so had leaped before looking, as I always did.
“No. You don’t get to ask about Crane because now you have—”
“Logan, tell me about Crane!” I shouted, my voice a rasp as the tears blurred my vision.
“Crane is home! I’m home! You’re the only fucking one who’s not home because you’re a petulant child who doesn’t ever listen to anyone but himself! I’m the law in this tribe, Jin, not you, for this very reason. A reah is emotion, a semel is logic, and we see before us a clear example of this. You are not allowed to treat my orders like suggestions! You listen to me, and if you can’t, I’ll make you. Do you understand?!”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even speak.
“If you were here, you could see Crane. If you were where you were supposed to be, you would not be in danger of being scourged yourself for what you did to Miguel Garza’s maahes! If anyone did what you did to Domin, I would kill them. Do you get it? And Delphine was sobbing on the phone to me. Markel should fight Yuri in the pit to atone for the disgrace, but because we’re family, he’s leaving it to me to punish you. Are you getting it? Is it sinking in?”
Of course it was.
“You made Russ’s decision so easy! He already asked for and received the status of duat from Miguel Garza. And do you know why the semel granted the request without question?”