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"You planning to get there sometime this century, Vic?" I glanced at my watch, my foot tapping an anxious beat on the floorboard.
Victor Di Carlo shot me a long-suffering smile, then turned back to the road. "Speed limit's seventy-five, Faythe. I'm doing eighty. But if you think you can get there faster on foot, be my guest."
But of course, I couldn't. Not even on four paws. A cheetah can run sixty-five miles an hour, but can't sustain that speed for long. And I'm no cheetah. So I was stuck drumming my stubby nails on the passenger-seat armrest in Vic's Suburban as it stubbornly maintained a speed I considered unacceptable.
"Relax." Vic flicked on the left blinker, then moved the SUV smoothly out of the right lane to pass a lumbering semi. "We'll get there on schedule, and Marc will be waiting."
I nodded, locking and unlocking the passenger-side door until he glared at me. "Sorry."
"Jeez, Faythe, you act like you haven't seen him in weeks," Ethan said, and I twisted in my seat to see him roll his eyes from the back row, his usual good-humored grin firmly in place. He was the youngest of my four brothers—only two years my elder—and the one most likely to beat me up in training, then bring ice for my bruises. "How long has it been?"
I stared out my window at empty fields and winter-bare trees growing dim in the late-afternoon light. "Nine weeks, tomorrow." A lot had happened since Marc had been exiled, and the most notable example lay sleeping in the seat behind me.
Manx's baby. Des. The two-week-old was fastened into a reclined, backward-facing car seat on the bench next to his mother. Who somehow managed to look disarmingly beautiful, even with drool trailing from her open mouth. Since the baby came, she caught her z's when she could. Whenever he was quiet. As did the rest of us.
It turns out sensitive cat hearing comes with a serious downside.
In the past two months, Manx had given birth, and Kaci—the wild teenage tabby we'd taken in—had mostly settled into life at the ranch, though so far she'd refused to Shift. November had blown leaves from the trees, December had brought a rare Texas snowstorm, and the eighth day of January had crowned it all with an even less common and more beautiful layer of thick ice, which had yet to fully melt.
But I had not seen Marc. Not even once, in all those weeks.
Vic grinned at me for a moment before turning back to the traffic. "And I suppose it's the stimulating conversation you miss, right?"
"La-la-la!" Ethan sang. He slouched in his seat and stuffed earbuds into his ears to block out the response he might not want to hear from his sister.
"Right now, I'd listen to anything he has to say, so long as I get to hear it in person." Sighing, I snatched a paper cup from the drink holder and downed the last of my 7-Eleven coffee. It was cold. As I dropped the cup into the trash can wedged between the seats, Vic's cell phone rang. He leaned to the right and dug it from his left hip pocket, then flipped it open without swerving an inch. I probably would have put us in the ditch.
"Vic." It was my dad. We could all hear him perfectly well, except for Manx, who was now snoring delicately, if such a thing was possible. "Your father came through for me. I wanted you to be the first to know."
Vic's sigh was audible, and his face suddenly drained of tension I hadn't even realized it held. He smiled as the Suburban soared past another eighteen-wheeler. "I never doubted it." But the relief in his eyes said otherwise. He'd been worried. We all had.
Springs squealed over the line—Greg Sanders leaning back in his desk chair. He'd probably called as soon as he got the news. "Remind Faythe to deliver my message to your family, please," he said, and I rolled my eyes.
"I know, Daddy."
My father chuckled. "Drive carefully, and let me know when you get there."
"Will do." Vic was still grinning like a clown when he hung up, and I doubted he'd even heard what he was agreeing to. Fortunately, I had.
"So, that's three now, right?" I twisted in my seat to look at Ethan, who'd turned off the music and was no longer feigning sleep.
The backseat groaned as he searched for a more comfortable position. "Yeah. Uncle Rick and Ed Taylor." Whose daughters both owed their lives to our Pride. I'd freed my cousin Abby after we were both kidnapped by a jungle stray intending to sell us as breeders, then we'd caught and killed that same stray before he could snatch Carissa Taylor. Their fathers were understandably loyal to mine. "And now Bert."
Umberto Di Carlo—Vic's dad—was one of my father's oldest friends. We'd been counting on his support, but were far from sure we'd get it. After all, politics could uproot entire family trees, to say nothing of friendships.
Nine weeks ago I'd been acquitted—barely—of infecting my college boyfriend and then killing him in self-defense. On the last day of my trial—the day after Marc was exiled—Calvin Malone had made a formal challenge to my father's leadership, petitioning to have him removed as head of the Territorial Council. Though he remained our Alpha, my dad had been temporarily suspended from his position of authority over the other council members, pending an official vote by all ten Alphas. That vote was scheduled for the first of February—two weeks away.
Since his suspension, my father and Malone had been fighting—figuratively—for a commitment of support from each of their peers.
My uncle had thrown his weight behind us immediately, and Edward Taylor had followed suit a week later. But our Pride's other allies had asked for time to consider. To weigh their options. Their hesitance stung, but it made sense. However they voted, their decisions would have an irreversible effect on the council, and on the werecat community at large. After all, most of them had sons serving in Prides on both sides of the conflict. Brothers living in territories loyal to Malone. Daughters or sisters married to toms participating in the coup. I was lucky that three of my brothers—Michael, Owen, and Ethan—had no loyalties to anyone else. As for my brother Ryan, well, the less said about him the better.
The waiting was hard on Vic, but it was nothing compared to the effect the whole thing was having on our fellow enforcer Jace, whose stepfather had organized the attempt to unseat my dad. Jace felt personally responsible for Calvin Malone's betrayal, though he could have done nothing to stop it.
"What about Malone?" I asked, doing a mental tally of the other Alphas.
Ethan pulled his earphones from his ears and wound them around one hand. "Last I heard, he has three votes, too. Milo Mitchell, Wes Gardner, and Paul Blackwell."
Mitchell's son, Kevin, had been kicked out of our Pride four months earlier for repeatedly helping a stray sneak into the south-central territory. Gardner was irate over our "failure" to avenge his brother Jamey's death at Manx's hands. And as far as we could tell, Paul Blackwell was siding against us because he legitimately objected to my father's equal-opportunity approach to leadership. Apparently the saying about an old dog's inability to learn new tricks held true for old cats, as well, and though Blackwell—unlike Malone—didn't seem to hate women and strays, neither did he envision a place for them among the community's leaders.
That left only two undecided Alphas: Nick Davidson and Jerald Pierce—another fellow enforcer's father. And with both sides now scrambling to claim those votes, one thing was clear: the fight was about to get ugly.
"Parker's dad will come through." Vic sounded much more confident than I felt. "That'll give us four." But we needed Davidson's vote, too. Four votes would only lock the proceedings in a tie, and we needed a clear victory. Otherwise, even if my father managed to hold on to his position, the peace would never last.
"How much longer?" I asked, my hand clenched around the car door handle.
"Our exit's up next." Vic nodded at the sign ahead, advertising food and gas in one mile.
About time! After hours on the road and too many cups of coffee to count…
I turned in my seat to see Ethan sitting up straight now and shrugging into his jacket. Manx was still asleep, her long black ringlets draping the back of the seat and the front of her blouse. She was the very picture of peace and happiness, of maternal bliss, in spite of very little rest and the unpleasant reason for our trip.
Des was born on the last day of 2008, which would have given Manx an extra tax deduction for the year—if she were a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant. But she was neither, which also meant she couldn't board a plane. Which is how Vic, Ethan, and I wound up driving her from our ranch in eastern Texas to the outskirts of Atlanta, where Vic's dad—and my father's newest ally—was hosting Manx's hearing.
I'd volunteered for the transport—normally a very dull assignment—because we had to drive through the free territory to get to Atlanta. Marc was in the free territory.
And in minutes, he'd be in my arms.
"Manx, wake up!" Leaning over the armrest, I shoved the bottom of the center bench seat hard enough to jostle the tabby, but careful not to brush her leg. She didn't like to be touched. Considering the abuse she'd suffered, I couldn't blame her.
Her eyes fluttered open, and in a single blink she banished the sleep stupor from her expression, replacing it with an instant alertness I envied. Followed by an initial, panicked search for her child, as if someone had stolen him while she slept. And that's exactly what she was afraid of.
When she was still pregnant, we'd all heard her scream at night, crying in her sleep. The first few times, my mother had tried to wake her, but my father insisted she stop before she got a broken nose for her efforts. Fortunately, the dreams had ended when the baby came, and Manx insisted he stay in the bed with her. She said he slept better like that, but I couldn't help thinking she was the one who really benefited. As did the rest of us, from the peaceful silence.
Manx relaxed when her eyes found Des, still asleep in his car seat. She pushed hair back from her face and looked up. "This is Mississippi?"
"Yup." Vic flicked the right blinker on and veered onto the off-ramp as I settled back into my seat. I ignored the restaurants we passed, focusing on the Conoco station at the end of a strip of convenience stores.
By all accounts, Marc had settled into his new life as well as could be expected. He'd found a job and an isolated rental house, and was slowly carving out an existence for himself in the human world—a world that no longer included me. At least in person. But we spoke on the phone almost daily, and I'd even talked him through a partial Shift a month earlier. Though I'd only been ordered to teach my fellow Pride cats the partial shift, I was proud to say that Marc Ramos, my favorite stray, was the first tom to accomplish it.
Evidently he held more than enough suppressed anger to trigger the facial transformation. Not a surprise.
My eyes scanned the crowded lot. We'd scheduled a rest stop at Natchez, just beyond the Mississippi border, where Marc was supposed to join us and escort us across the entire free territory, including an overnight stay in the middle of Mississippi. But I didn't see his car. Disappointed, I clenched my hands in my lap until my fingers ached.
Vic turned right into the parking lot, then pulled into an empty space at the rear. I started to get out and look for Marc inside the store, but Vic laid one hand on my arm as soon as I got the door open. "Can you stay with them for a minute? I have to pee."
I glanced at Vic, then back at Ethan. Normally, my youngest brother would have been enough security for one postpartum tabby and an infant. But the free zone was unregulated, and Manx was skittish at best, even when she wasn't about to be tried for murder, so we were trying to give her double coverage at all times. "Yeah, I'll stay. But hurry up." He smiled in thanks as I closed my door, then shut his own and made his way to the front of the building.
Des made a mewling noise behind me, and I twisted in my seat to see Manx bring the baby up to one exposed breast, where he latched on eagerly. The mewling became a soft sucking sound as he began to nurse. Again. Did that kid ever do anything but eat? Even with his androgynous baby face, I could tell the little monster was a boy by his appetite alone.
Still, I couldn't help but smile as I turned to scan the parking lot out the driver-side window. The little guy was a true survivor. Just like his mother.
"Looking for me?" Something tapped on the glass behind me, and I jumped, then whirled fast enough to hit my head on the sun visor. Marc stood outside the window, looking warm and welcoming in a worn brown leather jacket and an old pair of jeans. His smile widened as I fumbled for the door handle. But in my excitement I couldn't find it, so he opened it for me, nearly ripping the door from its hinges.
My feet never hit the ground. One moment I was in the front seat, the next I was in his arms, my legs wrapped around his waist, his mouth soft but insistent beneath mine. People stared—I saw them over Marc's shoulder—but then they smiled and went about their business, except for a few kids, who giggled at our display.
Evidently reunions look much the same in any species.
"Your hair grew," Marc whispered, and the warmth of his breath against my ear gave me chills that had nothing to do with the ice half coating the parking lot.
"You cut yours." I ran my hand through cold, short curls.
He put me down, but still held me close. "Yeah, I figured with the new life, why not try a new look? What do you think?"
Grinning, I stepped back for a better look. "Not bad." Marc would look good in an orange clown wig, if he decided to wear one. Still, though he'd only lost two inches, I couldn't help missing the rest of his hair. But nowhere near as badly as I'd missed him.
I was threading my arm through his when a familiar scent caught my attention. A stray scent, and—oddly enough—one I knew.