Authors: Amanda Arista
Nine Lives of an Urban Panther
Eight months ago, I was attacked in the back alley of my town home and rescued by an uber-hot guy named Chaz. He told me that there was a prophecy about me and that I might turn into a werepanther. He was right on both counts. Then Spencer, the guy who bit me, tried to convince me to join the dark side. It didn't work. So he poisoned me and left me for dead. My best friend, Jessa, an undercover fairy princess, saved the day but bonded us together as the dynamic duo for opening and closing the Veil.
Six months ago, in an epic battle against my maker to save the world, Spencer jumped through the Veil into the Neveranth and I ended up killing his father. As Haverty lay dying, he gave me the Haverty Legacy and the hellfire that comes with it.
I thought life was going to get better. After four assassination attempts, I finally changed my mind. When the Haverty pack needed a new leader and I was the one holding the Legacy, I quickly found having loyal followers really helped when the elemental Carlisle started killing his way through all other competition for leader of the Dallas Pride. When push came to claw, Carlisle got thrown into mirror jail and I got crowned as the Prima.
Yep, I think that's about it. All I have to do is keep sane from the prophetic dreams I keep having, run a pack, keep my “real” job, and have some sort of personal life with my shiny fiancÃ©.
EING A QUEEN
was exhausting. This was the first of four meetings for the day, the first of three appointments with new pack members, and my second lattÃ© with an extra espresso shot.
As I waited at my favorite coffee shop for my caffeine and my ten-o'clock appointment, I stretched my neck and slipped off my pointed heels. Cute but deadly. Now that I was a Prima, looking like a leader was starting to get tiring as well. The life of jeans and T-shirts was behind me. I had to look more responsible now and my feet were paying the price.
The cool wooden floor soothed the pain burning up my legs and let me relax for just one moment. This place was my second home and I'd single-handedly brought it back from extinction with a string of new customers by maybe making it the unofficial hotspot for the new Dallas Pride.
Secret club's got to have a clubhouse, right?
I looked down at my watch, my dreaded new accessory, and played with the charm at my neck. My ten o'clock was late. It had been hell to pin him down for a meeting. He was the last of the new members of my little family that I had to meet with before our first full moon together. I actually had to call his office to get an appointment. Neither of us was very happy about that.
My frustrated thoughts were quickly redirected by the feel of coarse fur brushing up my spine. I turned around to see a tall man enter the coffee shop and pause. His dark suit and briefcase were a stark contrast to the bohemian feel of the cafe.
He looked around the shabby chic dÃ©cor, and when his cool blue eyes landed on me, I knew him, even though I'd never seen his human form before. This was my ten o'clock: Peter Delmont, lawyer/wolf.
He wore his power like he wore his sharply tailored suit and slick blond hair, on the outside for everyone to know he didn't mess around. As he crossed the small space in long, purposeful strides, I was frozen in his gaze. The look. The suit. It was damn effective, and for a split second, I almost thought I didn't have the claws for this one.
He stopped just short of stepping on me and I had to look up at him. Something my five-foot-eleven frame rarely needed to do. He didn't bother with putting up borders to contain his power, and his scent overwhelmed me. Under the cologne I was sure he wore because it made the women in his office swoon, his power, his wolf smelled distinctively of leather and sandalwood.
“Miss Jordan?” His voice was low and deep as his eyebrows rose with his question.
My spine reacted to his power, going stiff and straight. “Mr. Delmont.”
“May we sit?” His eyes flicked to the open table in the back.
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
He strode over to the table and I looked back to the counter for my drink.
The young girl behind the counter had my coffee in her hands, her mouth wide as she stared over at Delmont. Good. So it wasn't just me.
I waved my hand in front of her face so she would relinquish my coffee. The girl jumped and spilled a bit of the coffee as she sloshed the white porcelain across the counter.
With a sigh, I took the mug and headed back to the table. Usually I would have said something about the waste of good caffeine, but I was going to need my strength for the conversation ahead. I had a feeling my usual spiel to all the other new members about safety in numbers and checking in and full moon responsibilities wasn't going to work with this one. I sealed my borders, keeping my power close to my vest, and knew the macchiato would get me through this.
This man had his suit and I had my twelve ounces of hot coffee.
Delmont had turned my usual table into his personal office, his briefcase on the small table already popped open. “I'm sorry this meeting is so delayed.”
An apology? Now that was unexpected. I sat slowly on the chair across from him and waited for him to stop shuffling papers. “No problem. I've had a few things to organize.”
He closed the briefcase, opening up the space between us. In the right light, he was handsome, slender and broad shouldered. But I knew underneath this forced perfection was an animal, a silver-mantled wolf easily the size of my panther. His energy had been primal when we bonded six weeks ago, when he had pledged his power to me and that pledge connected our magical souls. Even now, as we sat civilly across the table from each other, Peter Delmont was different. The connections to the others in my pack were silvery threads that I gently nudged this way and that. His was a rough-hewn twine that bound me to him as his Prima.
Now, more than with any of the other fourteen, I was wondering why me. He was powerful, in this incarnation and his animal form. He had been a high-ranking member of the Haverty Pride before I came in and destroyed it all. Yet, when push came to claws in the battle between my few and the darker Wanderers, he had chosen me as his master.
That was the story I wanted to hear. The story I was slowly coaxing out of all the Wanderers who had given me a piece of themselves, chosen me as their leader.
Delmont looked down at the papers in his hand. “I was the lawyer and executor of Haverty's will.” His voice was quick and succinct, with so very little affect I would have believed his act, if it weren't for the twisting of the twine between us, something undulating under the coifed faÃ§ade that pulled at me.
“Must have been an honor, being so young.”
All he gave me was a curt nod as he slid the stack of papers across the table toward me. “Reade Haverty had it set that the next leader of the pack should get all of his properties and assets.”
A sudden void of white formed in the space between my ears. “What?”
Delmont licked his lips. “Of course, he meant it to be his son, Spencer, but, well, we know that didn't quite work out, you throwing him into the Neveranth and all. So, it seems that as the new leader, chosen by a majority of the pack by one, you are now the beneficiary.”
“I didn't throw Spencer into the Neveranth. He jumped,” I corrected. I looked down at the stack of papers. “I always got the impression Haverty was loaded.”
“A full list of assets is included.” He folded his long fingers into his lap. “Including houses, foreign accounts and domestic holdings, it comes out to around one point three billion if you were to sell everything. Which I don't recommend in this market.”
I gulped and set my coffee down on the table. No need to waste the coffee by spilling it all over my new dress, though I think this meant that I could buy a million more cups of coffee if I needed, and a million new dresses for that matter.
His steel blue eyes finally rose to meet mine. “With the crown comes the kingdom.”
His words settled around me like an ice cold blanket and my skin prickled. It had taken me over three months to assume the title of Prima. I wasn't ready for a kingdom.
“I never asked for this.”
The smooth monotone of his voice didn't help. “No, you didn't.”
I licked my lips and cursed Haverty. Yet another burden to leave me with. Like the Legacy, his collected family power he forced upon me as he lay dying, this fortune was just another trap to tempt me in the direction everyone else in my line had gone: straight into the darkness.
“I know this is a lot to take in, Miss Jordan, but I will need a decision on the next step fairly soon. The property has been in limbo far too long.”
“Of course.” It had been in limbo for five months, since last December, when I'd killed Reade Haverty and his cowardly son had jumped into a parallel dimension. Don't imagine they have paperwork for that sort of thing.
A million story lines ran through my head about wealth, including a few scenes of Scrooge McDuck swimming through his money piles and all the horror movies I'd written with insane benefactors and large mansions and late-night feasts. But wasn't that one of the special little bonuses to being Violet Jordan: knowing the darkness so I can avoid it?
I wrapped my hands back around the hot coffee. “I'll need a little more time to think about it, Mr. Delmont.”
“Very well. Call my office for an appointment.”
He moved to leave the table, as if this meeting was over.
I chuckled and wrapped my fist around the charm on my necklace. It usually kept me hidden from other Wanderers, specifically the baddies out for blood. But covered like this, it let me push my power out and flow over Delmont.
He froze six inches from the seat as if I'd pushed the pause button on his movements. His eyes darted to me as he felt the power again and smelled the burned magnolia fragrance of his Prima.
“Not so fast, Stretch. I booked you for an hour.”
He gulped and his tanned face went pale. It was the first crack I'd seen in his faÃ§ade since he came in. He returned to his seat and smoothed out his jacket.
I released the pendant and leaned back in my chair. Like this, the world was a little duller, but I'd gotten used to it. It was better than jumping at every shadow in the window convinced the undefined
had found me again.
“I do appreciate the business portion of our meeting.” I tried to ignore the packet of potential just sitting between us and get down to the real meat and bones of this confrontation. “But I coordinated this to learn about you.”
Delmont licked his lips and was seemingly speechless. He finally mustered, “What do you want to know?”
I figured we'd start simple. “Did Haverty place you in your law firm or did he get to you afterwards?”
He adjusted in his seat again. “You really don't play around, do you?”
“No,” I answered quickly. “But I'm also not testing your alliance. We both know what you did. I just want a little more as to why.”
Delmont's eyes dropped to the stack of papers. “Haverty treated me very well. And yes, he did help me get a place at the firm. In return, he only asked that I wave my retainer fees.”
I frowned. “That seems tame for him.”
“I was a little fish in his very big pond.”
I nodded. “And what do you think about the pond now?”
He looked down at his briefcase and measured his words, seeming to roll them around in his mouth before he spoke. “I've been told you appreciate honesty.”
“Almost above all else.”
Delmont cleared his throat. “Dallas isn't better, just different. There are still holes that need to be filled, and if they aren't, I predict there will be chaos.”
I was glad for the charm around my neck that helped keep my power reigned in, because it also helped me hide when my emotions made my power jump, as his comment had just made my whole being tense in fear. What could he know that I didn't know?
I took a sip of my drink to bide some time with my answer. The coffee soothed my frazzled nerves. The sheer power of him was making me fray by the second. “Chaos is a strong word, Mr. Delmont.”
His blue eyes were brave enough to look straight into mine. “It is an accurate word, Miss Jordan. You may have secured the affections of the shape-shifters in Dallas, but what of the witches and the vampires and the elementals, some of which are still nursing their wounds from six weeks ago?”
“They can't all be treading on the dark side. I watched them fight against Carlisle's men. They helped us defeat him.”
“That just means they didn't want him to control things.”
I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration. It was a habit I'd picked up from no less than three men in my life. “None of them have made a move to try to challenge me.”
He began to pinch the flesh of his pinkie finger as his hands lay in his lap. “They might not see a need to. The shifters have their own way of doing things, other breeds have theirs. I wouldn't be surprised if the elementals were naming their Akasha as we speak.”
I would have let the sentiment go as a concern, but the fidgeting of his hands got me. Little things, like the fall of a shoulder and the pinch of a pinkie, had greater meaning to a person who had spent most of her adult life watching from the outside than a string of words put into a sentence. “You're not telling me everything.”
His eyes darted down to his hands and he spread them wide on his thighs. He knew I'd caught his tell.
I was right. He was keeping things from me. Dangerous things about the others in the city. I could force him to tell me, literally pull the information from him, but then where would I be? Connected to an embittered pack member? Not the best way to start out this whole leader thing.
“The other breeds have not made a move. Dallas has been quiet. I'd rather focus my efforts on my pack, making them feel safe, protected. I don't know what you knew of Haverty's methods, but after the stories I've heard in the past month, these people need healing and I won't use them as pawns in another war.”
“For now,” he said.
I straightened, looking into his eyes steadily. I knew them to be almost silver when he shifted. “Excuse me?”
“To protect them, you will need to use them, their strengths and their weaknesses.”
“And how are you so sure about that?”
Delmont took in an unnervingly calm breath. His long fingers went traced the edge of his briefcase. “This is not my first pack. Been in one or another my whole life, Miss Jordan. It will happen.”
I licked my suddenly very dry lips. “If you knew this, then why choose me? Why bind yourself at all?”
Delmont opened his mouth. A sliver of cold wavered around him and pushed against my own radiating power. He shut his mouth just as a cold, stony look covered his face and he hid behind his borders for the first time in our conversation, creating a void before me. He was nowhere near the confident man who had strode through the place, power out all willy-nilly.
I knew in an instant there was a story there, a painful memory he shut away with his steel-trap border. Those bound to me were like books, and stories like that are best served up willingly. Just like the information that I would need to get from him about the others in the city. Mother always said you catch more flies with honey.