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MARCUS ALEXANDER STUART HATED AIRPORTS. MOST people shared the sentiment, he supposed, but few of them probably shared his reasoning. Most of them probably despised the waiting and the lines and the inconvenience of the ever-changing rules of security screening. Marcus—Max—just hated the way they smelled.
At the area around the security checkpoint, the tang of gunpowder and the sharp bite of chemicals and electricity helped mask the worst of it, but here in the gate area, it inevitably smelled like impatience and frustration and soiled commercial carpeting. Making a mental note to have maintenance bump the carpet-cleaning schedule to twice weekly back at the office, he buried his nose in his nearly empty coffee cup and tried not to stare at the arrivals board. The information there hadn’t changed in almost half an hour, which was good news for his chances of getting out of there.
What it meant for the pride, he hadn’t yet decided.
The subdued chirp of his cell phone had him reaching into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. “Stuart.”
Max shrugged and stretched his long legs out in front of him. “The flight’s been delayed again. Now they’re saying eleven-twenty, but that’s hardly a surprise. When is a plane ever on time?”
“I meant, did you have any trouble on the drive over?”
The gruff question posed in Martin Lowe’s familiar, faintly accented voice had Max frowning. “No. Should I have expected some?”
“Nick just came by to talk to me. He said you asked him to check into what Billy Shepard might have been doing spending time at Hooker’s bar last weekend.”
The Felix spoke calmly, but Max could hear the echo of wounded pride behind the words. Martin had never liked taking a backseat when it came to family business, and considering that the man had been leading the Leos of the Red Rock for almost thirty years, Max could hardly blame him.
“I’m glad,” Max responded, honestly if a bit cautiously. “I doubt there’s much to worry about, but I was hoping you and I could discuss it tomorrow. I’d like to hear your opinion.”
“Oh, really? Does that mean that you think I might have something to say about some bloody upstart nomad trying to gather support to take over my pride?”
Apparently Nick’s nosing around had paid off, enough so that the belangrik—one of two “important men” who served as something like Max’s deputies—hadn’t felt like waiting for Max’s return to mention it to someone. Max had been hoping there was nothing behind the rumors. He already had more than enough on his plate.
Running an agitated hand through his hair, Max struggled to soothe the Felix’s temper. “Of course, I do. And you know good and well that before taking any action on behalf of the pride, I would have discussed it with you first. I know how this works, Martin. Nick answers to me, and I answer to you. Don’t send your heart monitor into conniptions. It’s Billy Shepard, not a serious threat. That overgrown tabby cat couldn’t get metal shavings to follow his lead if he strapped magnets to his ass.”
Martin growled over the cell waves, “Just make sure you do remember who’s Felix of this pride, Max. I’m not dead yet.”
Coming from anyone else, Max would have found the reminder of his position as Martin’s baas, or second in command and official heir, insulting and melodramatic, but Martin had a special license: first, because Max knew how on edge the older man’s nerves were at the moment; and second, because the man he loved like a father really was dying.
Six months ago, Martin’s doctors had informed him that his abdominal pain and weight loss were due to stage II stomach cancer and started him on an intensive course of treatment, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Just over three weeks ago, they had regraded the cancer as stage IV and transitioned to palliative care. It turned out that the amazingly efficient Other immune system that could kill a germ or heal a traumatic wound in the blink of an eye also allowed the malignant cells to proliferate at a terrifying rate. Modern medicine just couldn’t keep up. There was nothing else the doctors could do.
What Max had decided he could do for Martin was to treat him as Felix of the pride for as long as possible and not try to baby a man who had once been able to fend off challengers to his position with one look from his vivid green eyes.
“Right,” Max acknowledged, “you’re alive and kicking. But Drusilla and the kids might kill you a lot quicker than the cancer if they find out about this prodigal daughter of yours before you remember to mention it to them.”
Martin barked out a laugh. “My ex-wife and those kids would kill me for the fun of it if I turned my back on them long enough. Thankfully, I’m not that stupid.”
“If you were so smart, you’d have told them by now.”
“I’m telling them tonight, cub. Don’t rush me. I know what I’m doing.”
Normally, Max would have had no trouble agreeing with that. The current situation in the pride, however, was far from normal. “You know, Martin,” he said, keeping his tone casual, “I’m not sure this was the best time to invite this girl to visit. Not only is your health not the best, but we’ve got the situation with Shepard, and Peter is already making noises about how unfair it is that you’ve named me as your successor instead of him—”
“Peter thinks the fact that he’s only got one dick is unfair,” Martin growled. “I swear, I don’t know how any son of mine managed to turn out so useless. And you’ve already said Shepard isn’t a concern. Besides, if I waited until my health improved before I invited my daughter to come and meet me, she’d be meeting my headstone instead. Forget it, Max. It’s done.”
Max sighed. “Fine. I didn’t bring it up to upset you. I just wanted to make sure you were prepared for the possibility that throwing this extra variable into the mix could lead to a few new complications. But if you’re willing to brave the wrath of that Nurse Ratchet Doc Reijznik hired for you, you go right ahead.”
“She already took my laptop,” Martin grumbled. “She caught me searching for a phone number for the FAA and acted like a nun who’d caught me surfing for porn.”
“The Federal Aviation Administration? What, were you going to lodge a complaint?”
“The damned plane was supposed to land five hours ago!”
“And there’s a line of thunderstorms stretching from Winnepeg to Monterrey. I doubt they have a form to fix that.” Max shook his head. “You need to calm down, my friend. You sound like an expectant father who’s been banned from the delivery room.”
“Damn it, I am an expectant father!”
“Maybe, but harassing a government agency won’t make the plane land any sooner. And at this rate, it might not even happen tonight. The thing’s been rescheduled three times and moved to different gates twice. You should get some sleep and hope they land before the end of the month.”
Martin made a distinctly dissatisfied sound. “Fine, but I want to hear the minute they touch down. Understand?”
“Sure, but if I’m going to be awake enough to call you, I need a cup of coffee. Let me go grab some, and I’ll call you later. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
“A baby bird’s got to leave the nest eventually, Kitty girl. You can’t put it off forever.”
“I’m twenty-four years old, Papaw. I’m not a baby bird. In fact, I’m afraid that if I came within ten feet of a baby bird these days, my first instinct would be to eat it.”
The plane touched down with a jolt that did nothing for Kitty’s already uneasy stomach. The darned thing—her stomach, not the plane—hadn’t settled down in the past fifteen days, and as far as she could tell, this trip did not bode well for its future. Her grandfather had all but had to push her bodily onto the jetway.
“I know you ain’t right with all these changes, Kitty Jane, but you ain’t goin’ to get right by ignoring ’em. Your mamaw and I didn’t raise you to be a coward, and I ain’t lettin’ you act like one.”
Lonnie Sugarman’s face, coarse and tanned and wrinkled, filled Kitty’s mind and made her sigh. She never had been able to disappoint him. Even after six years of living on her own and making her own way in the world, she would sooner have cut off her own arm than disappoint the only father figure she’d ever known.
“Fine, I’ll go,” she remembered snapping as she hauled her overnight bag out from behind the bench seat of her grandfather’s pickup truck. As she recalled, she’d possessed all the finesse of a spoiled toddler, as well as the expression of one. “But I’m only doing it because you asked me to. I’m sure as heck not doing it for him.”
“You ought to be doing it for yourself, baby girl.”
“What’s it got to do with me? As far as I’m concerned, the man’s nothing but a stranger. The only thing I’ve got to say to him, I can say with a slap across the face. In fact, that’s the only part of this trip I’m actually looking forward to.”
“Kitty Jane, he’s your father.”
“He’s a sperm donor,” she’d said flatly, turning toward the terminal like it was the Titanic and she was the only one who’d seen the movie. “You’re the only father I’ve ever had and the only one I ever needed. You’re the one who raised me, who taught me how to be a good person.”
“But I can’t teach you how to be a good Other, can I, baby girl?”
And that was the end of that argument.
So now Kitty Jane Sugarman, farm girl from the backwoods of southeastern Tennessee, was taxiing toward a gate at the Las Vegas International Airport on her way to meeting a father she’d never known she had and to figure out a side of herself she still went to bed praying would disappear before she woke up.
Didn’t that sound like fun?
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a flight attendant announced, “on behalf of your Atlanta-based flight crew, I’d like to be the first to welcome you to Las Vegas, where the current local time is eleven-twenty-seven P.M. For those of you with connecting flights, we’ve had a change of gates. We’ll now be arriving at gate fifty-one.”
It took a conscious force of will to unclench her hands from around her seat belt, but Kitty managed it, along with a slow, deep breath. She refused to get off this plane looking as terrified as she felt, even if she did have until tomorrow before she had to face her worst nightmare—meeting the biological father her mother had sworn died in a car wreck on their prom night. Of course, Misty had also sworn he’d been seventeen, red-headed, and human, so clearly an adjustment of preconceptions would be necessary.
As soon as the plane bumped to a stop and the seat belt light dinged off, the predictable mad scramble for the overhead bins commenced. Kitty stayed in her seat and told herself it didn’t make any sense to dive into the chaos. She didn’t have a connection or someone waiting for her long-delayed flight, so she might as well let those who did have time concerns have first crack. Really. It had nothing to do with the yellowish tinge to her belly.
“Are you here to try your luck?”
Startled, Kitty looked over at the elderly woman in the window seat beside her and blinked. “Uh, no,” she said, wondering why her neighbor, who’d been silent since boarding in Atlanta, had chosen this moment to get chatty. “I’m . . . uh . . . here for a . . . a meeting.”
“Oh, a convention? We get tons of those here, sugar.” The woman smiled at Kitty and tugged at the string around her neck that held her eyeglasses in place. “Make sure you take a few minutes to slip away and hit one or two tables before it’s time to go home. You just never know when you’ll hit the jackpot.”
“Right. Good idea.” Kitty forced a smile and swallowed against the roiling in her stomach. For her, the only jackpot would be if she ever got to go home again at all.
“You can’t spend the rest of your life afraid of your own self, baby girl. You got to face the fact that you’re a shifter, and you got a lion inside you,” Lonnie had told her when she first woke up after the accident. “You got some magic most folks ain’t never gonna get the chance to experience, and you can look at it as a blessin’ or a curse. But I tell you what: Curses got a way of makin’ life difficult. If I were you, I’d want the chance to turn it t’other way, and the only way I see to do that is to learn how it works. You got to learn to control what’s inside you before it controls you. Who better to teach you that than the man who gave you that magic in the first place?”
Sometimes it drove her crazy how right her grandfather always seemed to be, but she couldn’t argue with him. She remembered too much of what had happened the night of the wreck, and since then, there had been a few experiences she’d tried hard to ignore. Like the time she’d woken up with teeth too long to fit in her mouth and eyes that could track a speck of dust in a midnight-dark room. Or the time she’d spotted a rabbit in the fallow field behind the house and found herself crouching behind a tree stump, imagining the way it would taste. Or the way she’d snarled at her own papaw when he’d first told her the truth about her parents. For a split second she had wanted to lash out at him, but thank God, she hadn’t been that far gone. Still, she’d known she could have hurt him, and that more than anything had convinced her he was right to make her take this trip. If she ever wanted to trust herself again, she needed to get herself under control.
Her family and her future weren’t things she was willing to gamble with.
As soon as she saw a gap in the crowded aisle, she unclipped her belt and snatched her bag out of the bin above her seat. With a quick, murmured goodbye to her seatmate, she shouldered the bright red duffle and headed for the terminal.
Twelve hours of travel had left her muscles stiff and cramped, and it felt good to stretch her legs in the narrow hall of the jetway. It also felt good to push her disturbing thoughts away by focusing on the details required by travel. Her first order of business was finding a cab, which would lead to the second order of finding the hotel she’d booked.
As her muscles slowly unclenched from their seated positions, Kitty winced. Scratch that. Restroom first. Then cab, then hotel.
Scanning the area around her, she looked for some signage to point her toward Baggage Claim, where she assumed she’d find a taxi line. She oriented herself in that direction and dropped her gaze to a level where she’d be able to spot the stick-figure symbols of relief. That’s when her eyes locked on a bank of bright, flashing slot machines planted smack-dab in the middle of the concourse walkway. Her footsteps faltered.
Holy crap, she was in Vegas!
Her head hadn’t stopped reeling in more than two weeks, since she’d woken up from the wreck, and the carnival-like atmosphere of the slot-sprinkled airport wasn’t likely to steady her. Maybe she should just resign herself to living a surreal existence. It had been that way since she woke up, and so far it didn’t look likely to change.
Hitching her shoulder bag to a more secure position, Kitty found the restroom sign and began to move with the rest of the disembarking crowd away from the gate.
She felt a lot more charitable toward said crowd now that she wasn’t crammed up next to a total stranger in contact so close it probably constituted a marriage in some cultures. Kitty had never been wild about crowded situations, but her distaste for them seemed to be growing. During this trip, she’d had to beat back the urge to break the elbow that dug into her ribs, although the glare she gave to its owner in the aisle seat next to her had caused its hasty removal.