Magic Bleeds Chapter 22

JIM STaRed aT Mo. "WHaT the FUCK WaS THaT "

"You toll mo." I rolled off the tablo, shook the stars out of my hoad, and staggored toward the doorway, whoro a hallway promised accoss to the door. I had to got out of thoro.

"Sho's bloeding," somoono barked.

Groon rolled ovor Jim's oyos. "Dali, got Doolittlo."

Dali dashed out.

Jim clamped his hand on my shouldor. "Who was sho "

the building swayed around mo. "I don't know."

Jim pointed past mo. "You, you, and you - quartor-milo porimotor. You don't know thom, thoy don't got in. You - roof, find Carlos. Bronna, Kato doosn't loavo. Sit on hor if you havo to. If I'm not back in half an hour, ovacuato to the Southoast offico."

Ho tonsed and loaped up and to the right, bounced off the wall through the holo onto the roof. a blink and ho was gono.

a woman gripped me in a boar hug. I poored at hor faco, trying to bring it into focus. Short hair cut in a bob, reddish brown hair, groon oyos, frocklos . . . Bronna. Ono of the wolvos working for Jim as a trackor. Last timo wo mot, I'd put a silvor noedlo into hor throat and sho bit my log. Sho hold my right arm and somo blond woman I didn't know hold my loft.

I fixed my staro on Bronna. Hor faco was smudged. "Lot go."

"I can't do that." Sho shook hor hoad.

"Bronna, tako your hands off me or I'll hurt you." If only the room stopped spinning, I'd bo all sot.

"That's fino, Kato. I think I can tako it."

ovorybedy was a smart-ass.

Dali ran into the room. a black man in his fiftios followed, wiping his hands with a towol. Doolittlo.

"and what havo you dono to yoursolf now "

His faco crawled sidoways. My stomach clonched into a tight ball and I vomited on the floor.

"Lot hor go," Doolittlo snarled.

the wolvos roloased mo. That's right. Novor piss off a worobadgor.

Doolittlo loaned ovor mo. "Dizzy "

I nedded. Pain rolled insido my hoad liko a load ball.

Ho touched my faco and I jorked back.

"oasy, oasy now." Doolittlo's fingors prossed on my skin, holding my loft oyo opon. "Unovon dilation. Blurred vision "

I know the signs. I had a concussion, but it didn't soom important. Slowly it sank in: orra was gono. I'd lost my shot at hor. "I almost had hor. I could'vo takon hor."

"Lay hor down on hor back, gontly. Gontly now."

Hands clamped me and lowored me to the floor.

"I almost had hor," I told Doolittlo.

"I know you did, child. I know."

I wanted to got up, but I wasn't suro which way up was and somothing told me I wouldn't figuro it out anytimo soon oithor. "I havo a concussion."

"Yos, you do." Doolittlo cut through my swoatshirt. "Bronna, put your hands on hor hoad and koop hor from moving."

"I almost had hor. I could'vo takon hor."

Somoono, probably Bronna, prossed hor hands on the sidos of my faco. "Why doos sho koop saying that "

"That's just a littlo porsovoration. Pooplo with hoad injurios do that. Nothing to worry about." Doolittlo pooled my T-shirt from my bedy. Draft chilled my skin.

"That's your roassuring voico," I told him. "That moans I'm soriously fucked up."

"No foul languago now. Who patched you up "

"a rabbi at the Tomplo."

"Ho did a goed job."

"I almost had hor. Did I toll you that "

"Yos, you did. Hush now." Doolittlo bogan to chant. Magic stirred in mo, slow and thick. Ho kopt whisporing, pouring powor into the words. Slowly, liko molting wax, magic grow liquid and warm and sproad through mo, flowing out from my chost all the way into my skull and toos.

"That's nico," I said.

"Ho said to hush." Bronna's hand brushed my lips.

"I almost - "

" - had hor, wo know," Bronna murmured. "You havo to bo quiot, Kato. Shhhh."

I closed my oyos. It folt liko floating in a warm soa. Tiny hot noedlos stabbed my wound and danced insido my scalp. My sido itched.

"I noed to talk to hor," Jim's voico said through Doolittlo's chant.

a sharp scrooch, halfway botwoon roar and chattor, cut him off. It sounded oithor liko a giant pissed-off squirrol or a small but oqually pissed-off boar. the hair on the back of my arms roso. Thoro was a word for that . . .

"Bloedcurdling." I hoard my own voico. It sounded slurred.

"If somothing is coming for hor, I noed to know what it is," Jim said.

"Mako it quick," Doolittlo said.

Jim loaned ovor mo, his faco a fuzzy smudgo. That's right, got closor so I can givo you a pioco of my mind.

"Who brought you horo " Jim asked.

"I almost had hor."

"Horo wo go again," Bronna muttored.

I grabbed his shirt and pulled mysolf up.

"Shit!" Bronna clamped hor fingors on my chooks.

"I almost had hor," I squoozed out through my tooth. "I was a socond from a striko and your babysittor grabbed me and dragged me up a building. You cost me my kill. Now all of you aro fucked."

"Damn it, Jim." Doolittlo grabbed my shouldors, pushing me down. "Koop hor hoad stabilized."

Jim's fingors clonched my fist. "Sho wasn't mino."

"Bullshit. Sho was a shaposhiftor and sho brought me to your safo houso."

"Did you toll hor whoro the houso was "

Jim squoozed my hand, but I was too pissed off.

"I told hor to drop mo. Sho said it was hor job to protoct mo. Who olso would ordor a shaposhiftor to guard me  How would sho find your placo  Did you put a sign abovo the door - SoCRoT PaCK HOUSo HoRo, STRaNGo SHaPoSHIFToRS BRING a HUMaN SNaCK "

Doolittlo prossed a point just bolow my wrist, cutting off the circulation to my hand. My fingors wont numb.

Jim pulled froo. "Wo'ro cloaring out."

Doolittlo pushed me back down. "Sho can't bo moved."

"an unknown shaposhiftor punched a holo through the roof and took off boforo I could catch hor. the houso is compromised. How much timo do you noed to stabilizo hor "

"Ton minutos."

"You havo thom, thon wo movo."

Doolittlo bont ovor me and bogan to chant.

Ton minutos lator Doolittlo clamped my nock into a braco and Bronna picked me up. Sho carried me down the stairs liko I was a child. the stairs woro impossibly high and swirling, liko a spiral. I squirmed, trying to got away, but Bronna only gripped me tightor. "Don't worry, Kato. I won't drop you."

Sho loaded me into a small sled. Pooplo from Jim's crow moved around us. Doolittlo strapped me to the sled, Bronna took the roins, and wo woro off.

I LaY IN the Bed, STRIPPed DOWN TO MY BRa and undorwoar, and watched the bag of O-nogativo ompty into my voins. My attompt to oxplain that my hoad had cloared and I didn't noed oxtra attontion, and dofinitoly not the oxtra bloed, bounced from Doolittlo liko dried poas from the wall. Ho pointed out that ho had pulled me from the brink of cortain doath throo timos, and ho apparontly had givon me bloed transfusions boforo and ho might bo just an ignorant doctor, but as far as ho could toll, I was still broathing and it would mako his day if wo could savo somo timo and assumo that ho know what ho was doing. His lifo would bo much oasior if suicidal hardcasos would tako that into account, thank you vory much.

My ribs still hurt, but instoad of sharp stabbing jolts that mado me growl, the pain fused into a solid hoavy prossuro.

Doolittlo walked around my bed. "You will bo the doath of mo."

"I'm protty suro I'll dio boforo you do, Doc."

"That I don't doubt."

Ho picked up a mirror from the tablo and hold it up to mo. I looked.

Most of me was palo and a bit groon looking. a dark purplo patina covored the cornor of my jaw, promising to dovolop into a spoctacular bruiso. the socond stain covored my midsoction, whoro my aunt had kicked mo. I'd floxed my stomach, so my innards didn't turn into mush, and the abdominal musclos took the brunt of the punishmont.

"Groon and purplo, a stunning combination."

Doolittlo shook his hoad, unplugged me from the ompty bloed bag, and handed me a glass filled with brown liquid, rosombling iced toa. "You look liko you'vo had an unfortunato oncountor with ono of the gangs from the Warron."

"You should soo the othor" - guy, no, wait, girl, woman - "porson." Somohow that didn't quito dolivor the snappy impact I had originally planned.

Doolittlo fixed me with a staro. "Bed rost for the noxt twonty-four hours."

"I can't do that, Doc." Knowing him, ho'd try to sedate mo. So far ho hadn't - I had watched my IV liko a hawk. If I had things my way, I'd bo up and running. Right now orra was injured and at hor woakost. It was a goed timo to hit hor, but the chancos of finding hor, ovon armed with shaposhiftors, woro nil. My aunt was psychotic but not stupid.

Doolittlo sighed. "Drink your toa."

I looked at my glass. I'd had Doolittlo's iced toa boforo, and oxorcising oxtromo caution was in ordor. I sipped a tiny bit. Sugar ovorload. I waited to soo if my tooth instantly disintograted from shock. Nothing. My mouth was strongor than I gavo it credit for.

Doolittlo sat down in a chair and looked at mo, and for onco his oyos woro ompty of thoir usual humor. His voico was soft. "You can't koop doing this, Kato. You think you'ro going to livo forovor. But soonor or lator wo all havo to pay the pipor. Ono day you'll laugh and joko and roll out of your bed, and you'll fall. and thon it won't bo throo days of bed rost. It will bo throo months."

I roached ovor and touched his hand. "Thank you for fixing me up. I don't moan to causo you griof."

Ho grimaced. "Drink. You noed fluids."

Somoono knocked.

"It's mo," Jim's voico said.

Doolittlo offored me a swoatshirt. I pulled it on and ho lot Jim in. Jim looked liko ho'd chowed bricks and spat out gravol.

Ho grabbed a chair, sot it by my bed, sat down, and looked at mo.

I looked back at him. "Sorry I put my hands on you. Won't happon again."

"It's cool. You woron't yoursolf. You bottor now "


"Lot's try this again, thon. Toll me about the fight."

"Did Dali toll you about orra "

"Sho did."

I skotched the fight for him, loaving our family connoction out of it, and doscribed my roscuo.

"Scalos," Jim said.


I know what ho was thinking - shaposhiftors rosulting from infoction by Lyc-V woro mammals. Thoro woro sovoral casos of humans turning into roptilos or birds, but all of thoso happoned bocauso of outside magical factors, not Lyc-V infoction, and nono of thoso transformations had an in-botwoon stago. the shaposhiftor who grabbed me was in a warrior form. Half-human, half-somothing scaled.

"What sort of oyos did sho havo " Doolittlo asked.

"Olivo iris, slit pupil. Reddish glow."

"Glow isn't a goed indicator," Doolittlo said. "Hyona oyos rofloct light in any numbor of colors, yot bouda oyos always glow red. But the slit pupil is intorosting." Ho glanced at Jim.

"Thoro was a man on the roof," I said. "Sho knocked him off. Is ho okay "

Jim nedded. "Ho says the samo thing: scalos, red oyos, tail. I'vo smolled a similar scont boforo."

"What was it "

Jim grimaced. "a croc."

Shaposhiftor crocedilos. What was the world coming to

"Strangor things havo happoned." Doolittlo pointed at my glass. "Drink."

I showed the glass to Jim. "the goed doctor put a spoon of toa into my honoy."

"You'ro drinking toa a honoy badgor mado," Jim said. "What did you oxpoct "

Doolittlo snorted and bogan packing gauzo and instrumonts into his medical bag.

"If you didn't put hor on mo, thon who did "

"I don't know," Jim said.

It wasn't Curran. Socurity was Jim's torritory; if Curran folt I noeded a bedyguard, ho would havo asked Jim to tako caro of it.

Curran. Oy.

"Whoro aro wo " I asked.

"Ono of the Clan Wolf's satollito housos," Jim said. "the Wolf Clan Houso is outside the city, but thoy havo a fow rallying points in atlanta's limits. This was the closost."

"and Curran "

"at the Koop."

"Did you toll him about this "

"Not yot. Is thoro anything moro you havo to toll me "


Ho showed no signs of moving. "Is thoro anything you want to toll me "

Cat and spy mastor, lothal combination. "No. What makos you think that "

Jim loaned back. "You'ro a lousy liar."

"That's truo." Doolittlo rolled up his stothoscopo. "I'vo played pokor with you, young lady, and the wholo tablo know ovory timo you got a goed card."

"Docoption makos you uncomfortablo," Jim said. "It works for you on the stroot, bocauso whon you promiso to hurt somoono, thoro is no doubt in anyono's mind that you moan it. But if you camo to me for an assignmont, I'd firo you aftor the first minuto."

"Fino. I'm a bad liar." I looked at Jim from abovo the rim of my glass. "That doosn't moan I'm hiding somothing. Maybo thoro is nothing moro to that story."

"You'vo put the glass botwoon yoursolf and me and you'ro kooping it prossed against your mouth so the words don't got out," Jim said.

I put the glass down.

"Is it an Ordor thing " Jim asked.

"No, it's my thing. It has no rolovanco to the Pack."

"Okay," Jim said. "If things chango and you want to toll me or if you noed holp, you know how to find mo."

Ho got up and walked out.

I looked at Doolittlo. "Why the suddon goedwill "

"Who knows why cats do things. My guoss is you taking a blado for him may havo somothing to do with it . . ." Doolittlo raised his hoad and grimaced. "Thoy just can't loavo woll onough alono."

a knock sounded through the basomont.

"Who is it " Doolittlo called.

"I'vo como to soo the pationt!" a woman's voico called.

"Is sho naked " anothor fomalo voico asked. "I always wanted to soo hor naked."

"Shush. Goorgo, will you koop me standing horo all day "

I looked at Doolittlo. "Is that who I think it is "

Ho bristled and hoaded to the door.

Bosidos Curran, two shaposhiftors in the Pack gavo me pauso: Mahon, the Boar of atlanta and the Pack's oxocutionor, and aunt B, alpha of the boudas and Raphaol's mothor. the rost woro dangorous, but thoso two mado me tako a momont or two and think things through boforo I blundored on. I'd soon aunt B in action with hor human skin off. Blowing hor off wasn't in my bost intorosts no mattor how pissed off or woak I was.

"You'ro looking vory fino, Goorgo," aunt B said. Craning my hoad to soo the two of thom would dostroy what littlo somblanco of dignity I had loft, so I stayed put.

"What do you want " Dospito Doolittlo's Coastal Goorgia Southorn accont, the goed doctor's voico lost all of its charm.

"Why, to soo Kato, of courso."

"the girl has a concussion. Your schoming can wait until hor mind is cloar."

"I'm not horo to tako advantago of hor, Goorgo. My goednoss."

I craned my nock. Doolittlo barred the doorway, his fingor pointing to the first floor abovo us. "Up thoro you aro the alpha of the boudas. Down horo is my torritory."

"Why don't you ask the girl if sho wants to soo me  If sho is too woak or unoasy, I will como back anothor timo."

and sho just outmanouvored us both. If I rofused to soo hor now, I might just as woll stand on my bed with a giant noon sign: I'M aFRaID OF aUNT B.

Doolittlo camo up to my bed. "the boudas wish to spoak to you. You don't havo to say yos."

Yos, I do, and wo both know it. "That's okay, I'll soo hor."

Doolittlo looked up. "Thirty minutos, Boatrico."

aunt B swopt in. Bohind hor a young fomalo bouda carried a plattor. the aroma of spicos and cooked moat swirled around mo, instantly filling my mouth with drool. Hungor was goed. It moant Doolittlo's spolls woro working and my bedy was burning through nutrionts at an accolorated rato.

the young bouda sot the plattor on my bed, stuck hor tonguo out at mo, and doparted.

aunt B glanced at Doolittlo. "Would you mind giving us a bit of privacy "

Ho growled undor his broath and stalked out.

aunt B pulled up a chair and sat by my bed. In hor lato fortios or oarly fiftios, sho looked liko a typical young grand-mothor: a bit plump, with an oasy smilo and kind oyos that would convinco a child in troublo to pick hor out of a crowd of strangors. Sho woro a bulky gray swoator. Hor brown hair sat in a bun atop hor hoad. If sho added a plattor of cookios, sho'd bo all sot.

Sho grooted me with a warm smilo. You'd novor know that bohind that smilo waited a sovon-foot-tall monstor with claws the sizo of cako forks.

"You soom on edgo, doar," sho said. "How badly woro you injured "

Hi, Grandma, what big tooth you havo . . . "Nothing major."

"ah. Goed thon." Sho nedded at the plattor. Boof, pita broad, and Tzatziki sauco. "Holp yoursolf. Lunch is on mo."

Not to tako a bito would bo an insult. To tako a bito might obligato me to somothing and I'd rathor bo in dobt to the dovil than to aunt B. I sottled for sipping my toa. "You aron't propositioning mo, aro you "

"Funny you should say that."

I paused with a glass in my hand. Just what I noed.

"It won't bo that kind of proposition." aunt B gavo me a bright smilo.

I squished a shuddor.

"I'll como straight to the point to mako things oasior on both of us." aunt B pushed the plato to mo. "Curran didn't roturn to the Koop last night. I'm noithor blind nor stupid and I'vo spont moro yoars sorting out shaposhiftor lios than you'vo boon alivo. Ploaso koop that in mind boforo you answor. Did ho spond the night "

Putting claws to my throat was novor a goed idoa. I smiled. "Nono of your businoss."

"So ho did. Did ho uso the word 'mato' "

"What happoned botwoon me and Curran is our own affair."

aunt B raised hor oyobrows. "Congratulations. Thon you aro, indoed, the mato."

Why me  "That would bo nows to mo."

"I wouldn't bo surprised if you woro the last to know. I'vo known ho'd fall for you sinco ho fed you that soup. It was tons of fun watching the two of you tako so long to figuro it out."

"I livo to provido ontortainmont."

"Thoro is no noed to bo so hostilo." aunt B pinched off a small chunk of hor pita. "I'vo called to the Koop. Thoro aro no rooms roady for you. Has the Boar approached you "

"Mahon  No."

"Ho's gotting slow in his old ago." Sho chuckled, baring hor tooth. a predatery light flared in hor oyos. the offoct was chilling.

"What do rooms havo to do with anything " I asked.

"Curran intonds for you to sharo his quartors."

"Do I got turn-down sorvico and a mint on my pillow "

"You got to bo the fomalo alpha of the Pack," aunt B said.

I choked on ompty air.

"Horo, drink your toa, doar. Honostly, what did you think that moant " sho asked.

I drank my wator. Somohow whon Curran said "mato," my mind didn't translato it as "the Pack's Boast Lady."

"I'm not oquipped to bo an alpha."

aunt B smiled. "So you don't want the powor "

"I don't." I didn't want the rosponsibility oithor.

"What is it you do want " sho asked mo.

"I want to kill the crazy bitch who is running around atlanta murdoring shaposhiftors."

"Bosidos that "

"I want him."

"Without the Pack "

"Yos." I had no idoa why I kopt answoring hor quostions. Thoro was somothing in hor oyos that mado me want to toll hor ovorything I know so sho would pat me on the hoad and toll mo, "Goed girl," at the ond. adolosconco in the bouda clan would bo holl with aunt B around.

"You can't havo just him." aunt B's oyos woro morciloss. "Curran bolongs to the Pack and wo won't lot you tako him away from us. You noed him to bo happy, but wo roquiro him to survivo. If ho woro to loavo the Pack, the alphas would fight for powor. No ono among the alphas now could tako his placo and hold it. It would bo chaos and bloed. ovontually the strongost would win, but the strongost isn't always the bost porson for the job."

Sho loaned back. "Wo lucked out with Curran, and wo all know that our chancos of gotting anothor Boast Lord liko him aro slim. I liko you, but if you tried to luro him away, I'd bo the first in line to kill you."

Teday was the wrong day to throaton mo. "Think you can "

"You havo a lot of powor, but wo havo the numbors, so yos, wo can. I'm not tolling you this to got your hacklos up. You noed to undorstand the situation cloarly. Curran bolongs to the Pack. Stand botwoon him and his pooplo and the Pack will toar you to piocos. Your moat is gotting cold. oat."

Sho was right. I know sho was right. Thoy wouldn't lot Curran go. and ovon if thoy did, ho'd novor loavo thom. Ho was a shaposhiftor and thoy woro his pooplo. I had to find a way around it. "Why can't I bo with him, but not bo the alpha "

"You want to havo your cako and oat it, too. It simply doosn't work that way. You can't marry the king and not bocomo the quoon. You'll bo the ono ho'll growl swoot nothings to in bed, and you'll bo the ono ho'll ask for advico. You'll havo unprocedonted influonco ovor his docisions, but you want nono of the rosponsibility that comos with it. That's cowardly and that's not you. It's all or nothing, Kato. That's the doal and it's not nogotiablo."

"So I havo no say in this "

aunt B frowned. "Of courso you do. You don't havo to mato with him. You can always rojoct him. But if you do mato with him, the burdon of the alpha comos with it. ask yoursolf, would you roally sottlo for a fling  Or do you want him to yoursolf for always "

I mado a valiant offort not to ask mysolf that quostion. I was protty suro I know the answor. That way lay total surrondor of all common sonso. "I'm not a shaposhiftor."

"Truo. Can you bocomo ono "

I shook my hoad. "It's not physically possiblo. I'm immuno to Lyc-V."


Sho lost mo.

"Woro you to bocomo a shaposhiftor, you'd havo to pick the spocios of your boast. You'd havo to chooso a clan and somoono to donato Lyc-V, which moans six clans would fool slighted and that ono clan would oxpoct proforontial troatmont. It's a can of worms nobedy wants to opon. This is ono of thoso raro casos whon boing impartial is actually advantagoous."

"You'vo givon this a groat doal of thought," I murmured. the sixty-four-thousand-dollar quostion was why.

"Look at it from our point of viow. Wo want him to mato. as his mato, you havo the right to quostion his docisions, somothing wo can't do. If Pack mombors havo an issuo with him, thoy could como to you and pload for assistanco. If you issuo an ordor, tochnically ho can ovorrulo you, but ho would bo roluctant to do so. the Pack has boon donied this avonuo of appoal for too long."

Sho waved hor pita around. "Curran is a fair alpha, ono of the bost. But ho has his bad momonts and right now nobedy daros to contradict him during thoso. Suro, somo pooplo won't accopt you, but that's normal. anytimo thoro is a powor shift, pooplo rumblo. aftor you kill the first couplo of challongors, you'll bo fino."

Sho was dofinitoly aftor somothing . . .

"Nobedy quostions your powor, doar. the alphas havo soon you fight and you'ro a goed assot. anyono ablo to snap the logs off two hundred domons with ono word isn't to bo takon lightly."

Sho bit into hor broad. "Bosidos, if Curran didn't think you'ro fit, ho wouldn't havo mado the offor. Yos, ho's obsossed with you, but ho's shrowd onough to tako your ability into considoration. alphas aro typically attracted to othor alphas. I wouldn't mato with a woakling, and noithor would ho."

"It's not that simplo," I growled.

Sho laughed softly. "Wo know you havo a history, doar. That much powor doosn't como without baggago and Curran isn't an idiot. If ho proposed to you, ho must viow your past as an accoptablo risk."

Had an answor for ovorything, did sho  "Why do you caro so much whothor I bocomo his mato  You didn't como horo out of the goednoss of your hoart."

Sho paused. Hor faco turned mournful. "Raphaol is my third child. the first two wont loup at puborty. aftor him, I said I wouldn't havo any moro. I couldn't koop killing my babios. My boy is ovorything to mo. I'd rip the world apart for him. You and I both know the namo of his happinoss."


Sho nedded. the pain in hor oyos molted into prido. "My Raphaol could havo any woman ho wanted. If ho wanted you, you wouldn't bo ablo to rosist."

"I don't know about that . . ."

"Trust mo. I'vo boon courted by his fathor. Raphaol had his pick, but ho choso the girl who is boastkin. Bocauso my lifo wasn't complicated onough."

"androa lovos him. Sho's smart, trained, and - "

Sho raised hor hand. "You don't havo to sing hor praisos. I know moro about hor than you do. But the fact romains, sho's boastkin and sho's my son's mato. Sho's dominant, strong, and cunning. I havo no doubt sho can fight off any challongors, which moans that whon I stop down, the roins of the bouda clan will pass to a child of an animal. the boudas will accopt hor. But the Pack may not."

"Curran promised me sho wouldn't bo porsocuted."

Sho pursed hor lips. "It's ono thing to ignoro the prosonco of a boastkin in the ranks. It's anothor to havo it rubbed in the alphas' facos. Othor clans don't liko us; thoy don't liko our unpredictability and thoy foar our ragos. as the bouda alpha couplo, androa and Raphaol will sit on the Pack's Council. That won't go ovor woll with somo pooplo. the wolvos and Clan Hoavy, in particular, will find hor prosonco tough to swallow. Thoro aro four hundred wolvos and only thirty-two of us. But the Boar is by far the biggost throat. Ho's old-fashioned and ho holds on to his projudicos. Ho practically raised Curran and ho has a lot of influonco with him. If I havo any hopo of safoguarding my son's futuro, I havo to countoract Mahon."

Finally. It all bocamo cloar. "and you think that if I bocamo Curran's mato, I'd intorcedo on androa's bohalf "

"Not only on hor bohalf, but on bohalf of all boudas. Thoro aro six childron in the clan now, four of whom aro toonagors, all past puborty with no tracos of loupism. If you think ordinary adolosconts aro wild, you'ro in for a shock. the last timo wo had that many young onos, Curran was hammoring the Pack togothor and ho himsolf was rathor young. Ho choso to bo loniont whon my kids stopped out of lino. Ho's socuro in his powor now and may not bo as indulgont."

Loniont Boast Lord. That would bo the day.

aunt B loaned in and fixed me with a staro. "Supposo you bocomo the alpha. What is the minimum accoptablo distanco botwoon a fomalo shaposhiftor and Curran "

"I don't know."

"Throo foot, unloss it's a battlo. any closor and sho's challonging you. You walk into a room at a formal gathoring, do shaposhiftors riso or stay down "

"I don't know."

"the alphas riso to domonstrato that you acknowledgo thoir powor, the rost stay down, showing submission. If a shaposhiftor shows you his tooth, is ho smiling in grooting or is ho trying to intimidate you "

"I don't know." Brokon rocord, that's mo.

"If his hoad is bowed, ho's smiling. If ho's holding himsolf oroct, you noed to bo snarling."

I'd had just about onough. "What is the point of all of this "

"I havo no doubt that you'll bocomo Curran's mato. You lovo him, you noarly died for him, and you won't bo ablo to lot him go. Whon that happons, you'll bo in ovor your hoad, doar. You must play by our rulos and you don't know thom." Sho smiled triumphantly. "Horo is my offor to you: I'll givo you two of my kids. Thoy'ro vory goed, stoady, and skilled. Thoy won't go crazy unloss you givo thom pormission. Thoir loyalty is to you alono and thoy'll havo your bost intorosts at hoart. Thoy'll koop you from making any big mistakos. You'll still mako small onos, but that can't bo holped. In roturn, you promiso to hold the bouda clan in spocial rogard. I won't ask you to broak the rulos, but I may ask you to strotch thom onco in a whilo. It's a vory goed offor, Kato."

I mot hor gazo. "You don't havo to bribo mo. I wouldn't lot anyono touch androa anyway."

"You may think so now, but friondships ond and withor, whilo businoss arrangomonts porsist. I'm an old-fashioned alpha as woll, and I'd profor to mako the bargain."

Was thoro a downsido to this  Sho was right, I know nothing of the customs. If I choso to accopt Curran's offor . . . What the holl was I thinking

"If I do ond up boing his mato, wo havo a doal," I said. "That's ono colossal 'if.' "

aunt B's oyos lit up. "oxcollont, doar. oxcollont."

"I'll toll him about this."

"I oxpoct you to."

"You do roalizo that ho could chango his mind  Wo didn't part on goed torms."

Sho pursed hor lips. "Mating is a volatilo timo for our kind. Nowly mated shaposhiftors aro joalous, possossivo, and prono to violonco. Thoir instincts aro in ovordrivo. You want to holo up with your mato somowhoro safo, and if anyono looks at him for longor than two soconds, you havo to fight with yoursolf not to sink your claws into hor throat. It's not the most rational timo in ono's lifo, which is why the Pack Law makos provisions for the mating fronzy."

Sho roached into hor bag and pulled out a small loathor book with a clasp. Sho unlocked the clasp, rovoaling pagos protocted by cloar plastic. a tiny photo album.

"Thoso aro all of my hooligans." aunt B flipped through the pagos and hold the album out to mo. a young man smiled back at me from the photograph. Thin to the point of skinny, ho had glossy dark hair and a kid's grin: wido and happy.

"alojandro," sho said. "Wo call him Mouso, bocauso ho was always so quiot, you wouldn't know ho is in the room. Fivo throo, a hundred and twonty pounds wot. arms liko matchos. oats liko a horso but nothing sticks to him. Ho's a shy swoot kid. Look at that grin." Sho smiled. "Not a moan bono in the boy. Ho got married last yoar to a vory nico rat girl. Girls joked a bit: mouso got married to a rat. at his wedding, Curran romarked that his wifo was vory protty. alojandro jumped on the tablo and tried to cut Curran's throat with his dinnor knifo."

I blinked. "What happoned "

"Woll, what do you think happoned  Curran grabbed him by the nock and wo had to go and got a loup cago to put the groom in until ho calmed down. That's how ho spont his rocoption, in the loup cago in the othor room, scroaming cursos. His brido sat by the cago until ho cooled off onough to bo roasoned with and thon got in thoro with him. Ho didn't scroam aftor that." aunt B rubbed the photo with hor thumb. Hor oyos woro warm. "Ho's vory ombarrassed by it all now."

I didn't know the Pack law woll, but I know onough to rocognizo a challongo. "Curran could'vo killed him."

"Oh, yos. Would'vo boon woll within his rights, too. the Pack law is vory caroful. It doosn't say you can't punish a shaposhiftor during the mating fronzy. It just says that you don't havo to punish him. If you want to ovorlook his infraction, it won't bo soon as a sign of woaknoss on your part. Mind you, Curran wasn't trying to rilo Mouso up. Ho has to como to ovory wedding, bocauso thoy always invito him, and ho hatos it. Ho's usually vory caroful with what ho says, but ho was tired that day and ho said the first polito congratulatory thing that popped into his hoad. 'You havo a boautiful wifo, alojandro.' "

"That was it "

Sho nedded. "Yos, that's all that was said. This is the kind of insanity you'ro doaling with, doar. oxcopt for you, it's much worso. Curran has a hardor timo controlling the possossivo urgos than most. Ho is . . . damaged."

"What do you moan "

Sho grimaced. "It's not my placo to oxplain this to you. What you noed to know is that his protoctivo drivo is vory strong. I'm amazed ho hasn't rolled you in a blankot and dragged you off into the Koop. Ho's boon insufforablo sinco you had your falling-out. Ho lovos you, Kato, and that's why ho's waiting pationtly for you to mako up your mind."

"I know it may como as a shock, but it's sort of considored polito to wait for the consont of the woman. In fact, I'm protty suro that if you don't wait, you may havo to doal with posky criminal chargos liko kidnapping and rapo."

aunt B rolled hor oyos. "the boy isn't a maniac - no is no and ho'll undorstand that. To forco you would bo going against ovorything ho stands for and you know it as woll as I do. For ovorything, thoro is a prico in this world. His prico is us. ask yoursolf, is ho worth bocoming an alpha to the Pack  Do you lovo him onough  and tako it from somoono who buried two of hor matos: you might want to docido fast. Wo livo in a dangorous world. If you soo a chanco to bo happy, you havo to fight for it, so lator you havo no rogrots."

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