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Authors: Nalini Singh

Poker Night

BOOK: Poker Night
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POKER NIGHT

Nate didn’t know how poker night at his and Tamsyn’s place had been invaded by a bunch of wolves, who well, played like
 
wolves
. “Damn it.” He scowled as a grinning Drew gathered up the pot. “I think we need to ban you and Hawke from the table.”

The wolf alpha glanced up at the sound of his name, husky-blue eyes amused. “Scared, cat?”

Nate bared his teeth. “Now you’re just trying to make trouble.”

“No bloodshed until after I win back my money,” Lucas said, the four slashing lines on the right side of his face catching the light as he looked around the table. “We’re meant to be thinking about plans for Riley and Mercy’s one-year-anniversary.”

Nate drank half his beer before replying. “Did anyone ask Mercy or Riley?” Leopard sentinel and wolf lieutenant, both were dominant predatory changelings with strong personalities, likely had plenty of ideas of their own.

“If asked my brother," Drew pointed out, counting his chips, "he’d be unable to resist the temptation to take over the whole planning process, and this is meant to be a gift for the two of them, not more work for him.”

Nate had to agree with the blue-eyed wolf on that. Riley was Hawke’s right hand—the entire SnowDancer den depended on his quiet, implacable strength. If anyone had asked Nate prior to Mercy and Riley’s mating if he saw them as a pair, Nate would’ve answered with an immediate and surprised no. Not that he didn’t respect the hell out of Riley, but where the wolf male was a rock in a storm, Mercy was wildfire. Two more different people, he couldn’t imagine.

What he’d forgotten was that they were both protectors, both blood-loyal, and that love wasn’t always a simple equation. Wild and vibrant Mercy adored her solid, strong wolf mate—a mate who looked at Mercy the same way Nate knew he looked at his own Tamsyn. As if she was the greatest, best surprise of his life.

“We’ll have to do something that pack members from both SnowDancer and DarkRiver can easily attend,” Dorian said as Lucas dealt the cards, the leopard sentinel’s surfer blonde hair bearing a streak of citrus-orange paint—he’d played babysitter to a group of the littlest DarkRiver cubs this afternoon while their normal caregivers had their monthly meeting.

Finger painting had apparently been on the menu. Mostly on Dorian.

Grinning at the memory of what the younger male had looked like
 
before
 
the shower he’d taken an hour ago, Nate said, “The Boy Genius is right,” and laughed when Dorian growled at the nickname that refused to die. “Location choice is critical.” Much as both the alphas at the table liked to jerk one another’s chain by claiming Mercy and Riley solely for their respective packs, the fact was, the couple straddled the line. They were part of the very core of DarkRiver and SnowDancer, beloved by their packmates.

“Thing is”—one of the wolves, a senior soldier, grabbed some nuts from the bowl on the table—“Riley might not appreciate us trampling over his own romantic plans for the evening.”

“Details, details.” Drew waved away the concern with an insouciance that so often blinded people to the fact that like Lucas, he was a hunter, born with the ability to track down and if necessary, execute violent rogue changelings. “We’ll do the celebration a week before the actual anniversary. That way, we stand a better chance of surprising them.”

“How about the eastern border between leopard and wolf lands?” suggested the sentinel seated across from Nate, green eyes so vivid, it was clear his leopard prowled close to his skin tonight. “Canopy cover in that section wasn’t impacted by the battle, so it’ll be private, and security’s airtight.”

Lucas raised an eyebrow at Hawke.

Leaning forward, the wolf alpha clinked his beer bottle to Lucas’s.

“Great.” Nate scowled at the hand he’d been dealt. “Now, what are we actually going to do?”

“Can I ask a question?” Drew said in a tone that had everyone around the table going,
“No.”

Ignoring the sound negative response, he said, “Where the hell is Bastien?”, naming the eldest of Mercy’s brothers. “He swore to me this afternoon that he’d be point man on DarkRiver’s end if I took SnowDancer.”

Showing impeccable timing, all three of Mercy’s siblings walked in that very second to pull up chairs around the already crowded table. “No trust,” Bastien said with a sigh. “Such a sad, sad world.” A shake of his head. “And this after I recruited these two”—nodding at his younger brothers—“to be our minions.”

Drew snorted. “I have Indy and Brenna. My mate and sister leave those two scrawny cubs in their dust.”

“Back to the point,” Nate said as one of the six-feet-tall “scrawny cubs” threatened to beat Drew dead, then went to raid the cookie jar with the ease of a packmate who’d been in and out of this house since he truly was a cub. “Ideas for the celebration?”

It was Hawke who came up with the winner. “Riley loved that trip he took with Mercy to Rio for Carnaval.”

“Carnaval themed party?” Dorian’s teeth slashed white against tanned gold skin. “It’s perfect—especially since Riley’s no longer holding a grudge against the South American cats who came sniffing around while he was courting Mercy.”

The blond sentinel’s statement was echoed around the table, and with the theme set in stone, Drew and Bastien parceled out tasks.

“Done,” Bas said ten minutes later, and the game resumed…to leave Drew and Nate as the sole survivors after the others folded with muttered imprecations about the blue-eyed wolf’s luck.

“Time to show and tell.” Drew fanned out his cards and proved he hadn’t been bluffing. “Full house.” A grin. “Your poor sad face informs me I’m about to go home a happy, happy man. Thank you very—”

Leaning forward with a slow smile, Nate laid out a hand that would make the angels themselves weep. Drew groaned and fell back, while the others around the table hooted, wolf and leopard in harmony—Riley’s brother had fleeced the lot of them.

“One more game.” Rolling up the sleeves of his checkered shirt, Bastien picked up the cards to deal the next round. “I feel lucky.”

The other man was shuffling the cards when Nate heard a suspicious whisper from the doorway to the kitchen. “Julian. Roman. In here now.”

His sons, both in sky-blue pajamas patterned with racing cars, feet bare, sidled over to stand beside his chair, heads ducked. He wasn’t fooled. Only this afternoon, the four-and-a half-year-olds had decided to coat each other in mud they’d dyed red using food coloring filched from the pantry, and he’d had to hose down the demons while they laughed like maniacs. “I thought I put you two to bed.” Tamsyn had gone to spend some time with a packmate who was pregnant with her first child, leaving him in charge of the twins.

“I was thirsty,” Julian said, meek stance forgotten as he tried to crane his neck to see the poker table.

“And I’m hungry,” Roman added.

“I saw you eat half a chicken an hour ago.” Reaching out, Nate poked at his boy’s stuffed belly, got a giggle.

By this time, Julian had wiggled his way between Nate and Bastien and had his hands on the edge of the table, standing on tiptoe to peer at the game. His leopard giving a feline grin, Nate rubbed at Jules’ hair, then pulled Rome up onto his lap and down over the other side, so he could copy his brother’s position between Nate and Lucas. “We have two new players.”

To the boys’ wide-eyed delight, Bastien dealt them in. Taking the cards, both his cubs shifted closer to him, their bodies warm and small against his own. “Daddy?” Julian whispered, pointing at the neat pile of chips in front of him. “Do I put those in the middle?”

Nate looked at his son’s cards, advised him to call. Jules did so with a serious expression on his face. And so the game continued, with Nate bowing out in favor of guiding the twins. He’d half-expected them to become bored, but they were fascinated all the way through, and Julian crowed in delight when Roman took the pot.

Grinning his thanks at the others around the table as Dorian exchanged the chips for cash, he pushed back his chair. “Right, off to bed or your mom will never leave me alone with you two again.”

This time, they didn’t argue or attempt to stay behind, knowing that tone in his voice. Discipline was as important to young predatory changelings as affection, and his leopard knew instinctively when they needed a stronger hand—as it knew when they needed room to give in to the wildness within. Because they weren’t human, were changeling, their leopards an integral aspect of their nature.

“’bye everyone!” Julian said, helping Roman carry his loot.

Getting them up to their room, he watched them deposit that loot in the shared piggy bank that sat on the table between their twin beds. He and Tamsyn had offered to buy two, but after a quick conference, heads together, the boys had decided they’d be better off pooling their funds.

Now, having made a last visit to the bathroom, they climbed into bed without help, but waited for him to pull the blankets up. Leaning down, he kissed each one of his sons in turn, smoothed the silky softness of their hair, his heart so huge with love that it was an ache in his chest. “No sneaking downstairs this time.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

Smiling at the sweet chorus, he turned off the light—no leopard needed it to see in the dark—and walked out, leaving the door open so he’d hear them if they called out. “Goodnight, boys.”

He knew if he came back in an hour, he’d find them in the same bed, curled up together in leopard cub form, claws carefully retracted to avoid damaging the superhero sheets they’d received from their grandmother.

However, close as they were as siblings, they’d already developed unique personalities of their own. Julian was a bundle of energy, outspoken and with his leopard an inch from his skin, while Roman was a planner, an intensity to him that said he had a thousand thoughts going on in that small head of his.

Together, they were hell on wheels. Jules came up with the “brilliant” ideas, while Rome figured out how to put those ideas into practice. Nate grinned, shaking his head at the way they’d not only retrieved the food coloring from the very
 
back
 
of the highest shelf in the pantry—their mother hadn’t been born yesterday—but created their own mud using soil dug up from one of the gardens Tamsyn had let lie fallow this year. His cubs weren’t stupid. They knew if they dug in their mother’s neatly kept vegetable patch, they’d be in so much trouble they wouldn’t get out of it until they were teenagers.

Stifling a laugh, he pulled out his cell phone and skimmed down to the photo he’d taken of them before turning on the hose. Naked as the day they’d been born under the scarlet mud, arms flung around each other’s shoulders, they grinned in open glee at the camera. “That’s my boys.” He knew the twins would grow out of this kind of mischief as they got older, but Nate hoped they’d never lose their trust in, and love for one another.

About to head down to the living room to rejoin the others, he felt his cell phone vibrate in his hand. The incoming message made his lips curve.

How many times did our gorgeous babies sneak out of bed? Did you kiss them goodnight for me?

Just once, and yes.

Did you save a goodnight kiss for me?

I saved two.

Charmer. I love you. Be home in an hour.

“Forty-five minute warning,” he said, sliding away the phone as he walked through the living room doorway.

“In a hurry?” Bastien drawled, a very feline glint in his eye.

“No offense, Bas, but you’re not my idea of a dream date.” As the others laughed, Nate retook his seat…and began to plan exactly how he’d pounce on his mate the instant she walked in the door.

Inside him, his leopard flexed its claws, ready to play.

 

BOOK: Poker Night
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