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"I know what you say," Cook continued. "And I actually believe that you don't want the job. But look at it from the perspective of someone who hasn't met you. In less than two months, you've leashed two shape-shifters, one of them notorious--"
Michael's shoulders shook in a short, silent laugh.
"--and you've been involved in the deaths of two influential witches."
He held up a hand to stop me. "Again, I know what you say, but it looks like you're amassing power." He waved the same hand to indicate the house. "New house, new wealth, a coven. Witches on my payroll tell me there's a lot of strangeness going on with the, what"--he looked to Julian for help--"'earth magic' around here?"
I ground my teeth. "I'm trying to dispel all of that. All of it."
Michael gave me a stern look, but I ignored it.
Cook didn't even see it. "Again, Meg, look at it as an outsider."
"I don't give a damn about outsiders. I'm not trying to be grand dame!"
"Then maybe you should come to this party and show your support for Michelle Firenze."
Some of my anger deflated. "What?"
Cook crossed the room to sit on the couch beside me. He faced me, one knee up on the leather, one arm leaning on the back. "No one's going to believe that you don't want the job unless you endorse someone else."
I finally glared at Michael. "You've been coaching him."
Michael shook his head. "I've done no such thing."
"I don't need coaching in this, Meg, just good sense. If you stay holed up here in this house, talking to no one, everyone will assume that you're up to something. True or not, they'll all be convinced that you're aiming for granddame."
I glared at my knees again.
"But if you come out and show people that, yes, you have this newly acquired status, but that you're not looking to use it, then they might believe. If that's really what you're doing."
Now the glare turned up at him. "I'm not looking to be grand dame." My jaw was starting to hurt from clamping my teeth shut. Some of the rampant magic drifting around the house started to agitate. Not enough to really do anything beyond making the hair on my arms stand on end, but enough to let me know that my emotions were starting to get the better of me.
"Then come out and show that." Oblivious to the tingling magic, Cook spread his hands, palms up. "It doesn't have to be Michelle that you endorse. If you know someone else, then, by all means, back them."
I took a deep breath and let it out. "There isn't anyone else." There were two other witches in the Southwest that I knew of who were about on level with Michelle, but one was an environmentalist in Arizona, and the other was a recluse in New Mexico. Neither showed any interest in being grand leader.
Why didn't anyone bug them?
"Then you really need to come and show support for Michelle, or else this Sharpe character might take over."
"We don't know that's a bad thing."
"No, we don't. I'm asking you to come meet him and see for yourself."
Damn it! I stared at the arm of the couch, picking at a seam with my nail. Yet again I was being neatly boxed in and pointed toward showing leadership where I didn't want to.
"What?" I couldn't help from snapping, and I didn't look at him. I was pushing beyond being polite.
"May I ask why you don't want to be grand dame?"
I felt the surge of concern from Michael before he ruthlessly tamped it down. It wasn't concern for me, but for Cook. Sneering slightly, I dug my fingers into the arm of the couch briefly before getting to my feet. "No. You may not."
Cook stood with me, a hand reaching toward my arm. "But, Meg, you're the perfect--"
Michael's voice stopped Cook from touching me, which was probably wise. Oh, I wouldn't have done anything to him; my mother raised me better than that, and I wasn't that angry. But I might not have been able to keep from lashing out verbally. And, okay, the magic might have made him a bit hot or something. I clamped my lips shut and tried to breathe over it.
Michael shook his head when Cook turned to him.
Cook's hand dropped. "I'm sorry. But you do realize that you're the perfect candidate."
I shook with anger. A glance at Julian showed a mask of concern on his face. I had to control myself before Michael intervened and risked showing our connection in front of Julian.
Another deep breath. "No. I'm not. Despite what everyone seems to think, I'm not qualified and I'm not perfect for the job."
Howard Cook was a smart man. Clearly, he didn't agree with me, but he held his tongue.
I started for the door. "Make your plans for the party. I'll go." I waved a hand when my back was finally to all three men. Only Michael would know that tears were running down my cheeks. "Talk to Michael. Let him decide. He will anyway."
I took the back stairs to the second floor, not willing to meet any of the many inhabitants of the house. It took me past a few bedrooms, but all of them were empty since everyone else was still downstairs. Thank the Goddess, I made it to our rooms without seeing anyone.
But I wasn't alone for long. No sooner had I slumped to my side on the bed than the door reopened and Rudy rushed inside. "What's wrong? What'd they do?"
I had to smile through the tears that wet my face. That was Rudy--What did they do.
"Just trying to railroad me into being grand dame," I muttered as he lay down in front of me and scooped me up against him. "Nothing new."
He buried his face in my hair, throwing a leg over my hip, doing his best to completely smother me. It was exactly what I wanted, to be wrapped in warmth and comfort and compassion. He didn't ask for details, didn't want to know the reasons. He just cocooned me in strength and let me cry.
"Damn it," I finally muttered when the tears started to let me go.
Rudy let up on his embrace a little, reaching behind him for the box of tissues on the nightstand.
Sniffing, I took his offering and blew my nose. "This crying thing is getting to be a daily occurrence."
Again, he said nothing, just lay there with me, stroking my arm, my hip, as I blotted my eyes and nose with tissues.
He let me go when I got up off the bed and headed for the bathroom. I could feel Michael, still downstairs, probably still talking with Cook and Julian. Plotting my rise to power. What did they care if I didn't want it? Water running, I gripped the edge of the sink. It was rough deciding whether what I felt was anger or despair, but whatever it was gripped my heart and made my eyes burn.
Strong hands gripped my shoulders. I looked up as Rudy pressed in behind me, reaching for the tap. Silently, he turned off the water, then steered me back into the bedroom. I helped listlessly as he stripped me out of my clothes. Wasn't a damn thing sexy about how we did it, but again, it was comforting. He stripped quickly as I pulled the bed's single blanket up over me. He slid in behind me, pressing warm, silky skin against my back.
Marvelous creature, my wolf.
I smiled into the semidarkness as he nuzzled my neck. Not in a hurry, his hands lightly trailed over my thighs, my belly, my breasts, never resting too long in one place, not seeking to specifically arouse. I knew that I didn't have to respond. He wasn't even really hard yet, nothing that he couldn't comfortably let go. This, too, was comforting. To know that he just liked to touch me, to hold me, and would be perfectly fine to let me drift off to sleep.
I, however, wasn't perfectly fine with it. Releasing a small, sighing moan, I wiggled back into him, pressing my butt against his growing erection. With practiced ease, I let my desire float through my leash into him, letting him know that I wanted more.
Humming happily, his mouth opened on my neck, wet, warm tongue exploring what he knew to be a sensitive spot. His hand stopped wandering, landing on my breast, squeezing and kneading it as his fingers worked their way to my nipple.
I let him explore me, let Rudy's touch wash away the anger and despair, or at least sweep it into a corner of my brain that was easier to ignore. I rocked my hips slowly, doing my best to please him with just the pressure between our bodies. He moaned, sliding his hand down to my lower belly, splaying his palm to pull me back against him.
"Rudy," I moaned, turning my head into the pillow, letting myself fall forward just a little. "Now. Please."
Answering my moan, Rudy rolled on top of me, forcing me facedown into the pillows. I gladly readjusted, pulling my knees out to the side and tilting my hips, spreading myself, the better to welcome him into my body. He sank inside like coming home, his hard belly curved around my ass, our matching, blissful sighs filling the heated air. When he moved, it was slow, like the waves of a lake gently lapping at the shore. Since we were pressed so tightly together, he barely pulled out, used more of a twist of his hips to create friction rather than a push and pull.
I reached back over my shoulder to sink my hand into his soft hair, curling my fingers in it, knowing he liked the bite of pain to go with his pleasure. "More," I demanded, arching into him, turning my head to brush my lips over his jaw. Soft locks of his hair fell forward to tickle my nose.
He gave me more. Bracing strong arms to either side of us, he adjusted lean, powerful thighs to a better angle to start thrusting. Still too slow to take either of us over the edge, but enticingly delicious as his cock drove into me, the tip ramming into the entrance of my womb.
Pulling harder on his hair, I found his ear. "Fuck me," I growled. "Fuck me hard."