Logan Hunter and Rafael De Santos strode up the wide granite steps to the front door of Vircolac’s, braced to plunge headfirst into the heart of the enemy camp. Well, Logan was braced. Rafe’s step had a suspiciously eager spring to it, and his expression looked more lazily amused than wary. He’d recently defected.
Few people had been more surprised than Logan when Rafe decided to take a mate, especially a human witch. Actually, Rafe might have been slightly more astonished, considering he’d spent most of his adolescent and adult life demonstrating where the expression “tomcatting around” came from. But he had taken a mate, and apparently it didn’t matter to Rafe that he was supposed to be one of Logan’s closest friends. In matters of marriage and mating, not even friends could be trusted.
“Last week they somehow managed to rig the door of Graham’s office to lock from the outside.” Logan held open the door for his companion and checked the hallway to be sure none of the perpetrators he was currently griping about lay in ambush. “Then they sent me in there to wait for him. As soon as I stepped inside, the door slammed shut and trapped me in there with Annie. Annie, of all people!”
Rafe grinned at Logan’s obvious dismay. “I thought you liked Annie. She is a very attractive woman, after all. And intelligent. I would think she’d make some lucky Lupine a fine mate.”
Logan growled. “I grew up with her, man. It would be like sniffing my sister.”
“You and your pack mores. It’s not like she’s actually any blood relation to you.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Right. Because the point is that you probably humiliated a beautiful and sensitive young woman by tearing down the office door just to get away from her. How do you think that made her feel, you insensitive clod?”
Logan scowled. “I didn’t tear it down. I just kicked it in. But Annie knew it wasn’t about her. She’s cool with it. She’s not interested in me, either.”
“Right, puppy. She just smiled and thanked you for opening the door and told you to have a wonderful day.”
Logan paused and remembered. “She told me to shove the door up my ass and shit splinters.”
“Precisely. Logan, you need to learn that whether she’s a werewolf, a shapeshifter, a witch, or a human, women are women. They all need to be flattered and coddled and made to feel special.” Tipping the attendant who took their coats, Rafe led the way down the main hall and toward the club library. “It is a wonder to me that you’ve ever managed to get a woman to stand still long enough to take her clothes off.”
“And that’s such a sophisticated observation,” the Lupine scoffed. “Don’t bother to pretend with me, De Santos. Under that pampered, nancy-boy Casanova image you like to project, you’re just as much an animal as I am.”
“I might be an animal, my friend, but I am not a dog.”
“Very funny. And it’s wolf, Garfield. Not dog.”
Rafe smiled a feline smile.
“You can’t tell me all those single females didn’t drive you crazy.” Logan sniffed the air in the hall outside the library. His keen senses caught the faint but unmistakable odors of breast milk, perfume, and female skin, and his body went on high alert. Well, part of it went on high alert, the rest just went tense and frustrated.
Bracing himself, he clenched his jaw involuntarily as he reached out to open the door. “They were after you almost worse than me.”
“They meant well.”
“I don’t care what they mean. I want them to leave me alone.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be happy about the idea of finding a mate and settling down with one single female forever and ever and ever? You canines usually seem so taken with the idea.”
Rafe slipped ahead of Logan and entered the room. The fire crackling in the hearth at the far wall cast a very becoming glow on the skin of the two women standing beside it. Logan shook his head as he saw his friend’s gaze shift and fix on the one who looked like a curly-headed urchin. He was still getting used to that possessive gleam that sparked in Rafe’s eyes every time they turned toward Tess Menzies De Santos.
“And you took to it just fine, Morris. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do my own finding, damn it.” Logan had lowered his voice, and he looked carefully away from the women at the hearth. “Missy’s friends just don’t seem to understand that mating is a whole different ball game from just getting married. Maybe if they weren’t all so … human.”
Rafe shrugged. “Regina is not human. And Tess might technically qualify, but she is a cut above the average, you must admit.”
“Regina has been Other for less time than it takes me to mark a fire hydrant. And Tess doesn’t count. She’s a witch. And she’s taken.”
Logan heard the possessive note in Rafe’s voice and watched the Felix stalk toward his wife. The Lupine fought the simultaneous urges to snicker and roll his eyes. A couple of months ago, Logan would have bet his left canine tooth that Rafe would never settle down with one woman, let alone one who wasn’t a shapeshifter. Good thing for him no one had taken him up on that bet, because the marital bliss that followed Rafe and Tess around like a cloud would have meant some seriously tough hunting for Logan.
He still really didn’t get it. Not that he had anything against taking a mate—he was Lupine, for God’s sake—but he liked for there to be a certain sense of order to his world. And in his world, a Felix did not settle down with one woman and look happy about it. Of course, in the ideal version of his world, the only woman he’d wanted for himself in longer than he cared to think about didn’t up and marry his best friend—who was also the pack alpha—either.
Tearing his gaze away from the sweet, smiling face on the other side of the room and plugging his nose to the warm, milky scent of new motherhood that wafted from the same direction, Logan turned on his heel without bothering to say hello to the ladies. Damn Graham for getting to Missy first, and damn himself for caring. Graham Winters was like a brother to Logan. For all intents and purposes, the men were brothers, and Logan did not poach on his brother’s territory. Even if the concept didn’t go against every fiber of his loyal body, it also meant risking a fight to the death with an outcome that he honestly couldn’t predict.
He swore once more and then again, quietly, because in this house, you never knew who might pick up on it. Some of the folks who frequented this club had sharper ears than he did, and that was kind of a scary thought. He took a firmer hold of his self-control and tried to beat back the restlessness that seemed to roil constantly inside him these days. He had been called to a meeting with his alpha about pack business, and he’d present a businesslike demeanor if it killed him. Graham did not need to know that his beta had the hots for his mate.
* * *
Graham kept an office on the first floor of Vircolac in the heart of the action. He said it helped him keep an eye on the happenings at the club, and when your clientele consisted mostly of werefolk, vampires, and other assorted creatures of the night, keeping an eye on things made a heck of a lot of sense. Technically, it should have been Logan’s job as head of security, but Graham was the owner and the alpha, and that made him the boss. Logan suppressed the instinct to growl and stuffed back the newly ferocious tide of resentment. He could not let himself go there.
Puppy, you have got to get ahold of yourself. You are not the alpha here, and your best friend is. So quit trying to sniff on his wife and do your damned job.
He let himself into the outer office then paused outside the door of Graham’s inner sanctum to take a deep breath. He repeated his new mantra a time or twelve. Not mine. Not the woman, not the pack. Not mine.
He took another breath and waited for the hair on his neck to settle back into place before he raised his hand to knock. He ignored the voice in the back of his head that pointed out how the settling was taking longer and longer to happen these days.
“Come on in.”
Logan pushed open the door with his game face on. His brown eyes took in the office, empty except for Graham, and he met the other Lupine’s gaze for a second before he shifted his own to stare politely over his alpha’s shoulder. “Sorry I didn’t come earlier today. I was at the gym until after two, and I didn’t get your message until I got back.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Graham pushed back in his chair and closed the folder he’d been working on. He waved Logan to a seat. “It was your day off. I didn’t expect you to be on call.”
Logan settled himself in the leather armchair that faced Graham’s desk, but he didn’t relax. Oh, he sprawled and stretched out just the way he always had, but relaxation was out of the question. On the inside, he remained coiled and tense, the way he always did these days, and he felt Graham’s gaze on him. The sensation made his hackles rise, and he fought back the growl that wanted to rumble low in his chest.
Damn it, this is not happening. You are not challenging your alpha in his own damned home, moron, so shut up and play nice doggie. Now.
He clenched his teeth so hard, he thought he heard the grinding sound echo in the quiet office.
“All right. That’s it.” Graham leaned back until his chair threatened to tip over. He crossed his arms over his chest. “What the hell is your problem lately?”
“I don’t have a problem.”
“Right.” Graham’s eyes narrowed, and Logan looked at the alpha long enough to guess his own were probably sparking with an eerie amber light. “That’s why in the past month you’ve been in four fights, broken three pieces of gym equipment, driven six waitresses to tears, and destroyed the door to my office. Because you don’t have a problem.”
The nasty little voice inside Logan’s head was telling him to go ahead, pick a fight. Let him and Graham have it out and finally see who deserved to be alpha over this pack. To hell with the Winters line, to hell with Silverback tradition. To hell with loyalty. Alpha was about strength and ruthlessness and power, and Logan had more than enough of it to make the pack his own.
Logan had to fight the urge to curl his lip and meet the alpha’s gaze head-on, no more turning aside, no more avoiding the fight his wolf wanted so desperately to pick. His wolf wanted more, wanted a pack of its own, wanted to lead and rule and run at the front. His wolf knew it had the strength to be alpha on its own, and the role of second-in-command had started to feel more like a muzzle than a medal of honor.
The man in Logan hated that his wolf had begun to erode his relationship with the man he’d always called brother. That side of him, that voice was the one that screamed a denial every time the wolf began to growl and pace and look for a weak spot. Damn it, Graham was his best friend, the closest thing he had to family, closer than any other member of the pack. Logan would die for that man.
But damn it if he didn’t really want to kill him right now.
“You know this can’t go on forever.” The alpha’s voice rumbled deep, raising hackles. “Sooner or later, you won’t be able to ignore it anymore. What happens then?”
Logan’s lip curled, and he wrestled it back into place. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t be an asshole. Don’t lie to me, and don’t act like I’m not supposed to figure it out. It’s not like it’s a surprise. I knew it would happen one day, because I know you.”
Graham leaned forward and willed his friend to meet his gaze. Their gazes crashed together like two bighorn sheep on the top of a mountain. Logan could almost hear the echo.
“I know you, Logan, and I know what you’re going through. We can find a way around it—”
“There’s. No. Problem.”
Silence descended, stretched thin, and finally snapped with a backlash that stung.
“Fine.” Graham’s voice indicated things were anything but. He sat back again and picked up a piece of paper, which he tossed across the desk to Logan. “You say you don’t have a problem, that’s terrific. Because I do.”
Logan caught the letter in one hand, but didn’t bother to glance at it. He snarled in satisfaction. “Perfect. Who do I get to kill?”
“No one. It’s not that kind of problem.”
Well, shit. Just when he could have used a little judicious bloodshed.
Suppressing another growl, Logan got up to pace around the office. The restlessness inside made it impossible for him to sit still for long. “Fine. Then what do you want me to do?”
“If you’d read the damned letter, you might have a clue. There’s been a death in Connecticut. The White Paw Clan has lost its alpha.”
That bit of news actually managed to get Logan’s attention. He turned toward Graham with interest. “Ethan Tate is dead?” He paused, letting it sink in. “Challenge?”
Graham shook his head. “Cancer. And apparently he managed to hide it from the pack until the end.”
Logan let out a low whistle. That was old-school wolf, and a hell of an accomplishment. In the old days, any sort of illness that might compromise an alpha’s ability to lead would have been punished by a swift challenge and the likely death of the sick or wounded Lupine. Knowing that, the toughest alphas of the past would hide any sign of weakness, using whatever means necessary to camouflage their vulnerability and maintain control of their pack. But with an illness like cancer, it was damned difficult. Most Lupines could smell the taint of the disease and would have known immediately. He wondered how the old alpha had done it? Tate had been a tough old bird, but hiding cancer…? That took balls.
“So no one guessed at all? Not even his beta?”
“That’s probably one of the things that helped him fool everyone.” Graham nodded to the letter in Logan’s hand. “The e-mail I got is from his beta, who was also his daughter. She probably didn’t want to think her father was ill, so she denied it, and that made it even easier for him to deceive everyone else.”
A female beta? Female alphas and betas weren’t unheard-of in the Lupine world, but they were few and far between, more like myths and legends than actual people. Boadicea had been a pack alpha, but Logan couldn’t think of one more recent than that. The fact was, even if a female Lupine was ten times stronger than the average human male, a male Lupine was twice as strong as that. Females rarely managed to battle their way to the top of the pack structure, and when they did, they even more rarely managed to stay there. A male would always challenge, and males generally won. The old Lupine adage said, “A female alpha is a dead alpha.”
Female betas occurred only marginally more often. Usually they won the position not through challenges, but by appointment, and they kept their places with cunning more often than with strength. Tate had obviously installed his daughter as his beta, either before or after learning of his illness. A wolf strong enough to hide cancer would sure as hell be strong enough to ensure no one protested his decision on that front, but with Tate gone, his daughter would now be fair game. Given the traditional Lupine pack structure and its basis in rule through strength, when a pack alpha died, the logical choice to take his place was usually his beta, the next strongest wolf in the pack, but when that wolf was a female … Well, all of a sudden the old rules didn’t apply anymore.
Again, Logan felt a stirring of genuine interest, interest in something other than another man’s mate or a violent coup d’état even he didn’t really want to see happen.
“Do you think she can hold the pack together?” he asked.
Graham shrugged. “I have no idea. I haven’t visited the White Paw since I first took the reins from my dad. Because they’re one of the clans under the Silverback protection, I paid a courtesy visit. But she couldn’t have been more than nine or ten at the time. I’m sure she was introduced, since she was Tate’s daughter, but I didn’t pay her much mind. She could have grown up to be Queen of the Amazons, but even if she did, all it would take is a strong male to bring her down.”
Ironically enough, that wasn’t a sexist comment. If any of the parties involved had been human it would have constituted cause for a new feminist revolution, but when it came to Lupines, it all boiled down to physiology. Lupine males had evolved to be physiologically stronger than females, by a pretty hefty margin. There was no such thing as a fair fight between the Lupine sexes.
“All right. So what’s the situation right now?”
“Tate was supposed to be buried this morning, and according to the daughter, there were already two male pack members making noises about a challenge. One sounds like he’s just a cub, but the other one might bear watching. His name is Darin Major, and apparently he bucked for the beta job before Tate appointed his daughter. History’s only going to make things messier.”
Logan growled a little at the thought of the males calling a young female beta to an alpha challenge. There were just some things a Lupine didn’t do. Which was why females rarely became pack alpha or beta. Females mated with alphas and betas; they didn’t become them. “You want me to make sure the challengers let her live?”
Graham shook his head. “Noises aren’t the same thing as actual challenges. What I need you to do is go up to the clan center and assess the situation. Tate’s already been gone a couple of days, and if they buried him this morning, it may already be a moot point. As soon as he’s in the ground, the laws state that it’s open season on his job. The pack may already have a new alpha. But if the girl is still alive when you get up there, the situation gets a whole lot more interesting. I won’t take the pack away from an alpha that can do the job, no matter what is or isn’t between her legs. But if she can’t hold her pack, I need to know. White Paw is too close for me to let just any wolf take it over. I need someone stable and trustworthy heading that pack. If it’s not a Tate, I want an open challenge, and I’d have to oversee that myself to make sure the pack gets what it needs.”
“Is that what the girl asked for? For you to guarantee a clean challenge?”
“Not exactly.” Graham paused. “She asked for me to formally acknowledge her succession to alpha.”
Logan couldn’t help the eyebrow that shot up at that. “Does she think you saying, ‘Go for it, princess,’ would be enough to keep the challengers away?”
“It might scare off the weaker ones, and it surely couldn’t hurt. Having the backing of the regional alpha makes her a strong candidate to lead a local pack,” Graham pointed out, not with arrogance, but with the cool acknowledgment of the way the world worked. He was the highest-ranking alpha in the northeastern quadrant of the United States. He was stronger than almost every Lupine Logan had ever met. That was just the way things were.
But you’re just as strong, the voice in Logan’s hindbrain whispered. You could rule a region just as well as Winters.
Logan clenched his jaw and slammed a lid on the voice. Now was not the time. Now Graham was handing him a distraction on a silver platter, and damn if he wouldn’t grab that sucker like a lifeline and tow himself all the way back to sanity. Maybe someone else’s struggle for rank in her pack would keep him from worrying about his own need to lead.
“For how long?” Logan asked. “Even with your backing, it would take a female version of Genghis Khan to keep the title for more than a few months.”
“I know. Hell, every Lupine on earth knows that. True female alphas come along as often as three-headed wolves.” Graham shook his head. “I don’t want to see a female in alpha challenge, not when it could be prevented. I checked the records. It hasn’t happened in almost two hundred years for a damned good reason. The last woman who took a challenge ended up gang-raped and confined to her bed for nearly a month before she could even stand upright again. And she was widely acknowledged as the strongest female in five generations.” The snarl that passed over Graham’s face at that thought would have scared most people half to death. It just reminded Logan of why he considered this man his brother. “Tate’s daughter can’t be more than twenty-four or so, and I’ve never heard anyone but her own father mention her name. The chances that she’s strong enough to be alpha are slim to none. She’ll be like a rabbit in the lion’s den. If I can keep that from happening, I will. Or rather, you will.”
“Damn right.” Logan growled again and finally glanced down at the printed e-mail in his hand. “Provided someone hasn’t killed her already.”
“Right. Provided that.”
“So, if the girl is still alive, you also want me to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble while I scope out who’s likely to take Tate’s place?”
“Yeah.” Graham’s grim expression said he didn’t hold out much hope. But then again, neither did Logan. “And either way, I want you to keep an eye on the pack until the matter’s settled.”
Something about Graham’s tone made Logan look up and meet the other man’s gaze. He felt his mouth quirk in a reluctant smile. “What you want is to get me the hell out of your hair until I calm down, brother.”
“There is that.” Graham’s expression turned rueful. “Look, I don’t know how this is all going to play out, brother, but I’m hoping a week or two in the country will give you the space to settle your damned nerves or something. ’Cause you’re starting to get on mine.”
Logan clenched his teeth, drew a deep breath, and blew it out through his nose. “Hell, I’m starting to get on my own nerves. I don’t blame you for making me go stand in the corner.”
“It’s not like that. You’re the one I want handling this for me. Period. That would be true even if you were acting perfectly normal.”
“But I’m not.”
Graham didn’t answer, and Logan flipped him an obscene gesture on his way out the door. Just because Graham was right, didn’t mean Logan couldn’t call him a dick.
Copyright © 2013 by Christine Warren