Authors: C. T. Adams,Cathy Clamp
She watched as Raphael’s golden eyes scanned the crowd. Someone had betrayed him, invited his enemy to this very private meeting, and Raphael intended to find out who.
Nearly every face showed surprise and mistrust mingled with fear. Only Martin and Daphne Black appeared unmoved. They didn’t even seem bothered by the fact that their son lay unconscious and very still in the gymnasium doorway.
Peter wouldn’t support his father in this. He’s loyal to Lucas, and to me. There was gratitude and pride in those words. Raphael knew it had to have been hard on Peter to make that choice. There was no doubt that for all their faults, he loved his parents. Martin wanted the pack. He was trying to undercut Raphael’s authority, make a move to take over the pack leadership. Raphael could see the realization dawn in Lucas’s eyes. Ahmad would push for capital punishment for Michael’s crimes. If Raphael refused he risked appearing weak before the pack. That combined with the pack’s mistrust for Cat could trigger a riot or revolt.
Cat, mind-speak to Betty. Have her go tend to Peter.
Cat did as he bid, and saw Betty discreetly leave her seat to climb down from the stage and head to the doorway.
“And to what do we owe this
Councilman?” Raphael’s voice brought Cat’s attention back to the main action. He didn’t bother to hide his displeasure. She saw his thoughts. This was his pack, his territory. Ahmad was a trespasser, an interloper. Councilman or no, it was for him to explain why he should not be killed outright. That he came with only two bodyguards – Three. Cat corrected him in his mind.
Are you sure?
He left one behind in the hall. It’s in snake form. I heard him shift.
Raphael bared his teeth at the leader of the snakes. “Councilman, please bid your third guard to come join us. There’s no need for him to be left out.”
Ahmad’s visage darkened, his eyes narrowing. After a long moment he gestured. A huge cobra slithered through the doorway, its scales making a soft hissing noise as it slid across the hardwood. Cat noticed that several people sitting on the first row of bleachers moved to higher ground as the snake passed by.
“So, Councilman. Why have you chosen to join us, and without even giving us the opportunity to prepare a suitable welcome?” Raphael was not growling. His words were perfectly polite, but there was a hint of sharpened steel beneath the velvet. “I am
you chose to omit the customary courtesies.”
Ahmad tilted his head slightly. It was the traditional gesture of deference between equals, but he managed to make the movement somewhat ironic. When he spoke there was the slightest hint of amusement in his voice. “Apparently there has been a…
My people made arrangements for this visit with your Second, Raphael. Or Lucas’s Third. Under the circumstances I’m not sure how to refer to him.” Ahmad turned a calm gaze to Martin, who looked as though he’d been forced to swallow something large and unpleasant. “I’m
that you weren’t advised.”
Even from this distance Cat smelled the black pepper of a lie, but far stronger was the orange scent of amusement. The snake was
“Martin Black,” Raphael’s voice rang through the clearing. “Come forth.”
Cat watched as Peter’s father stepped out of the crowd. He was a handsome man, tall and blond, with a square jaw and strong features. But Cat instinctively disliked him. It might be Raphael’s impressions bleeding over on her, but she didn’t think so. Something about the way he stood, the way his eyes were constantly scanning the crowd, made her distrust him. Everything about Peter was honest and open. His father was demonstrably not.
Raphael didn’t give Martin a chance to explain. He gave him no chance at all. Before the man had even come to a stop there was a shimmer of magic. A huge black wolf leapt, attacking the other man with teeth and claws.
Blood sprayed through the air in a wide arc. Martin fell to the floor with Raphael riding him. He shifted in a shimmer of power. He was a large, traditionally marked wolf. But even though he was larger than Raphael he was struggling to fight back, to defend himself.
It was a mistake. She realized he had earned a harsh punishment for going behind the Alpha’s back and for humiliating his pack leader in front of visiting dignitaries. Raphael was
to do exactly what he was doing. His form began to glow blue with the power of his magic until it hurt her eyes to look at him. Cat felt a surge of heat. She and everyone else in the gymnasium watched in shocked silence as with only the power of his mind Raphael threw Martin’s body more than twenty feet across the room to slam into the cinder-block wall. If he still breathed, Cat couldn’t see it.
The room was utterly silent for a long moment. Then, one by one, every wolf in die building, including Raven, sank to his knees in acknowledgment of Raphael’s authority until Lucas and Raphael were the only wolves still standing. Neither Ahmad nor his men had moved more than a finger’s breadth, although their clothing had been liberally splattered with Martin’s blood.
“Michael Santiago, come
forth.” Raphael’s voice was calm and clear. He was not the least bit winded.
Michael was still in human form. He wore faded blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt that stretched taut across his muscular chest. He belly-crawled in human form across the floor until he lay facedown at Raphael’s feet.
Raphael didn’t bother to look down for a long moment. Instead, his eyes were first for Ahmad, then Lucas. Cat could feel
pass between the eyes of the two wolves, but she couldn’t comprehend it. Their communication was almost an emotional shorthand, the kind of nonverbal communication that only came from years, decades, of working closely together.
“One of the most solemn duties of the Alpha Male of a pack must enforce the laws of our people and dispense justice.” Raphael gave a nod of his huge head to where Martin was just starting to stir.
He was healing. Damn.
“Michael Santiago, you broke both the human and the pack laws by drinking underage and driving drunk.”
The crowd began to murmur. Tatya rose to her feet, her posture rigid with nerves.
“If you had been arrested by the human authorities, this would be a matter for Wolven. Luckily, you were not. Thus this is a matter for pack justice.”
The crowd murmured more loudly. Cat saw Tatya’s eyes narrow, her nostrils flaring as she tried to use her sense of smell to determine what Raphael was up to.
Michael lay utterly still, barely daring to breathe.
Raphael softened his voice, deliberately sounding less stern. “I’ve lost a woman I loved…” He gazed at Tatya for the benefit of the crowd, then nodded to Lucas, who gave his own nod in acknowledgment. “If I could have, I probably would’ve gotten drunk,” he commented wryly.
A few members of the crowd laughed nervously.
“You do realize that what you did was incredibly stupid?”
“Yes, sir.” Michael’s voice was a whisper barely audible to even Sazi ears.
“And there is a price to pay. First, you
will pay reparations to everyone you damaged that night. I understand from your father that it’s quite an extensive list, but that you’ve already made a start.”
All eyes went to Lucas, who nodded in acknowledgment.
“But, there are other things you’ve done as well – including deliberately vandalizing an automobile when you were stone cold sober.” There was no warmth in Raphael’s voice now. The silence was palpable, as nearly everyone in the gym held his breath.
“The cost of the damages would have moved the offense to a felony under the human laws, and the fact that you lost control to that level speaks of a serious problem. So, I offer you a choice. Once we’ve dispensed with the mating challenge you can either voluntarily go to an inpatient facility and undergo a minimum of six months’ counseling at your or your family’s expense.” Raphael looked over to Ahmad whose eyebrows had risen high enough to disappear beneath his hair. Even in the open gym Raphael could scent the snake’s surprise.
I will take the damages out of your hide.” Raphael sighed. “Frankly, I’d rather not. I’m not sure you’d survive.”
“I’ll go.” Michael turned his head to look at Cat. A look of intense pain crossed his face. “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”
Cat forced herself to keep her expression calm. Her emotions were in turmoil. She couldn’t help feeling an odd combination of sympathy, regret, and frustrated anger at Michael’s self-pity.
“Fine.” Raphael’s voice brought her back to the situation at hand. His voice was utterly unemotional as he continued. “Then all that remains is the challenge. Since we have both dated Cat, and we are both mated to her, we’ll consider it mutually called. I would prefer to fight in wolf form. Do you object?”
“You may pick the format.”
Michael risked a look up at Raphael. It was obvious he was surprised that Raphael was giving him the choice. “I choose a physical rather than magical, or all-out battle.”
“Excellent. Change forms and we will begin.”
Michael shifted without bothering to strip, leaping to the attack as his body was still reforming in hope of having the advantage of surprise.
Raphael felt a jarring impact as his body hit the polished hardwood floor. The boy was strong, heavy, and determined to do everything he could to make it a true challenge.
Raphael used his momentum to roll away from his attacker. He regained his feet in a blur of speed. He crouched, edging sideways, fangs bared as he looked for an opening in Mike’s defenses. He was large and muscular, with traditional markings. His strength was obvious, but he was clumsy, and there was no subtlety to his fighting style. Every move was telegraphed in advance, giving Raphael plenty of time to move out of the way.
Raphael was not clumsy. He trained for years with Wolven to move with fluid efficiency born of experience and power. Not the slightest movement was wasted. He dashed in, ripping with his fangs, only to slide out of reach before Michael could close and use his heavier build to an advantage.
In the end there was no contest. Raphael closed the fight by grabbing Michael’s neck ruff and throwing him on the ground hard enough that everyone heard his bones crack against the floor. Raphael dived forward, his jaw closing against Michael’s throat too gently to draw blood, but firmly enough that the other man held utterly still.
“Do you submit?” The words were muffled by the thick fur and skin that filled Raphael’s mouth.
Raphael loosed his grip, backing away from his fallen foe as he licked the blood from his fangs. “Michael Santiago, for your own good you have agreed to leave this territory. Arrangements have been made for you to go into intensive counseling to help you in dealing with the one-sided mating bond that you have formed. You will only be allowed to come back to Boulder for the Founder’s Day celebrations and one other holiday of your choosing. Before each visit you will check with your psychiatrist and the Boulder pack administration so that appropriate arrangements can be made. Do you understand and accept these terms?”
It took three tries before Michael could roll over onto his belly and rise to his feet. His back legs were not working properly, as though sometime during the fight there’d been an injury to his spine. Even so, his voice taut with pain, he spoke clearly enough that his words carried through the crowd. “I do.”
“I claim right to court Cat Turner exclusively for six months. Does anyone gainsay me?” His golden eyes locked with Ahmad’s dark gaze. “Are you satisfied that justice has been served, Councilman?”
Ahmad smiled and let out a small chuckle. “I would say that you’ve handled it all remarkably neatly. Not a single misstep. I, and I speak personally and on behalf of the council, am
to offer congratulations to you on your triumph.”
Raphael sensed the trap in the polished words. His golden eyes narrowed, and he had to fight not to snarl.
But the councilman continued, making sure that his words reached every ear in the room. “Am I to assume that in
at least, the customary rules will apply?”
Raphael started swearing inwardly. He could see Cat’s confused expression, but he didn’t dare take the time to share the information with her even mentally. His whole focus was on Ahmad. When he spoke, his response was perfectly civil. “Of course.” He gave a somewhat ironic bow to the council member and padded to the center of the gymnasium. Martin had made it to his feet with Daphne’s help. Michael had dragged his injured body to stand with his parents at the edge of the stage.
“There are two more minor items that need to be dealt with.” He licked some more of the blood from his lips. “First, Martin Black, while you have declined to challenge me in open court at a pack meeting as is proper, you have deliberately sought to undercut my authority, and have fostered seeds of dissension within my people. I won’t tolerate it. You and your spouse have twenty-four hours to get out of my lands. Your sons can either stay or go at their pleasure. Peter Black remains welcome in this pack. But know this, if
ever set foot in my territory, for any reason, I will consider it a challenge to my authority and will act accordingly.”
There were some gasps among the crowd, but more than a few grim nods.
Raphael continued. “Anyone – “ His eyes settled on the cluster of Holly’s sister, Jasmine, and her husband, Max Black, both of whom supported Martin – “who is not willing to submit to my rule, and my decisions as to what is good for this pack should join them in leaving. Because I will not allow
to put my people at risk.”
He padded back to the stage and leapt up on it in a single, graceful bound. Turning, he faced the crowd. “And last, before we close, I want everyone to know that pack credit will no longer be accepted at Jake’s Burger Joint. All existing accounts are to be paid
with cash or certified funds, by no later than three months from this date. Any cases of true hardship can be brought by petition to me personally, but know that they will
be looked on favorably.” He glared at a few individuals in the crowd, who each hung his head in embarrassment.
Raphael announced that the meeting was ended. Cat waited at her seat as the spectators filed out of the gymnasium. Holly went over to join the few people who had approached the stage to offer Raphael congratulations on his promotion. Cat knew she should do the same, but she simply could not seem to gather enough energy to manage it.
“Cat.” Cat turned at the sound of her name. Tatiana had left Michael’s side and now stood on the opposite side of the table. She was beautiful in a black designer suit and pearls, her silver blonde hair worn loose so that it flowed across her shoulders. For the first time since Cat had met the woman she
smell of anger or jealousy. “I want to apologize to you, and thank you.” She swallowed hard. “Betty made a mistake. She thought there was as signed release authorizing her to discuss the situation with me. I don’t have that excuse.”
Cat didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure what to say. She could only guess how hard it must be for this woman to swallow her pride and humiliate herself.
“I owe you my life, and the life of my son. I won’t forget it.” She turned and left before Cat could answer, walking over to where her husband was helping support her injured son. Cat watched her go. And when Lucas mouthed die words “Thank you” over the top of Tatya’s head, Cat managed to give him a smile.
“Are you ready to go?” Ivan asked.
“God, yes. Get me out of here.”
“Good. Raven is taking us out the back way. Just in case.”