Hungry Like a Wolf
Logan Hunter has finally found a woman he wants for his mate. The problem is, she's already married to his best friend, Graham Winters, who also happens to be his boss—Alpha of the Silverback Clan.
Honor Tate found herself moving up through the ranks of the White Paw Clan, attaining the position of beta when she was only fifteen. Nine years later the Alpha of the White Paw Clan is gone, leaving her to serve as alpha in his stead. Unexpectedly facing challenges from several males in her pack, she asks Graham Winters to acknowledge her right as the new Alpha. It's either that, or fight every would-be challenger, quite possibly to the death—theirs or hers.
Instead, Graham sends Logan to determine Honor's fitness as the new Alpha of her pack. Logan's grateful for the chance to get the hell out of town and get his raging hormones under control. Too bad for him that those hormones are going to rage even harder when he meets Honor face to face and realizes that sometimes fate is smarter than your average were.
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 to 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 they 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, his jaw clenched 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 curly-headed urchin of the pair. 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. "They 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 and 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 business-like 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 a hold 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 the neck of 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. They 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 use 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 email 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. Boudicea 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. Female 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 male 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 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 it 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 any more.
Again, Logan felt a stirring of genuine interest, interest in something other than another man's mate or a violent coup d'etat even he didn't really want to 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. Since 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 takes is a strong male to take her down."
Ironically enough, that wasn't a sexist comment. If any of the parties involved had been human it would have constituted the cause of 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. Female 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 might 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 in 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 acknowledgement 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 he'd 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 email 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 threw 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.
Honor Tate bolted through the front door of her home and straight into the bathroom. There, she proceeded to throw up her breakfast, her lunch, and several of her internal organs. It didn’t help. The taste of blood in her mouth was strong and metallic. It should have been familiar. Instead, it was sickening—sweet and sticky—and it coated her tongue in a thick, persistent layer like an oil slick.
She clutched the rim of the toilet bowl and heaved again, so violently she almost missed the sound of footsteps padding across the wooden floor of the big cabin’s great room.
“Honor? Honor, are you okay?”
She bit back a moan, her fingers clenching as another dizzy wave of nausea swept through her. Her cousin’s voice sounded as soft and concerned as always, and it was next to the last thing she felt like dealing with right now. She spit into the toilet, trying to rid herself of the taste of blood and bile.
“I’m fine, Joey.” As fine as a Lupine could be after chewing off the hand of one of her oldest friends and pretending to enjoy it. “I just wanted to wash off some of this grime.”
She heard a pause, then a soft question. “Why don’t you go upstairs, then? Take a proper shower? I can make you some dinner and bring you up a tray.”
The word dinner set her stomach racing toward the back of her throat, and she quickly shoved on the faucet full blast to mask the sound of more retching. Trembling violently, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and forced her voice to sound steady as a rock and calm as Sunday church. “Well, I was going to finish up delivering this week’s wood to the cabins on the lumber road . . . ”
She let her voice trail off and crossed her fingers that her tenderhearted cousin Josephine would reply in form.
“Don’t be silly. You’ve done enough today.” Joey’s voice sounded firm and soothing, and made Honor’s shoulders sag in relief. “Michael can finish the deliveries. You should take a shower and relax this evening. Or if you have to, work on the books. But stay in and get some rest. It’s been . . . a difficult few days.”
Honor stifled a laugh and flushed the toilet, grabbing a neatly folded towel from the bar beside the sink. A difficult few days? Why? Just because her previously healthy, arrogant, indestructible father had died, she had inherited his position as alpha over the White Paw Lupine pack, and had fought three alpha challenges in the same number of days? Pshaw.
She cupped her hand to her mouth and rinsed away the last taste of bile. Then she wet one end of the towel and used it to wipe her pale, chalky face. Damn it, she looked like hell, and that was not the sort of face she could let anyone in the pack see. Not even Joey. If Honor was going to assume the title of Alpha, she would need to act like an alpha at all times. Even when she felt more like a sniveling, whimpering puppy.
Even when she felt like crying.
Stuffing down those very dangerous thoughts, she draped the towel around her neck and used one hand to hold it to her face as if she were cleaning up, then reached for the doorknob with the other. One deep breath later, she stepped out into the great room with a false smile and the towel half concealing her face.
Joey stood just beside the door, her hands clasped nervously together, her brow wrinkled in concern. “I’m sorry it was Paul,” she said in that soft, come-down-from-the-ledge voice of hers. “I know how close you two always were.”
“Don’t be.” Honor forced her voice to come out casually as she turned and headed for the stairway. “If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. That’s just the way it goes.” As soon as she had her back to Joey, she let the towel drop and reached for the banister instead. She made it a point to barely touch it rather than to clutch and lean against it the way she wanted to as she walked up to the second floor. “Go ahead and tell Michael to finish the wood deliveries. I’m going to go take that shower. Send up a tray whenever it’s ready.”
Her steps remained brisk and measured all the way down the hall to the master suite and did not vary until the door closed securely behind her. Then she leaned back against it, squeezed her eyes shut, and willed herself not to cry. Pallor she could handle with a little make-up, but red, puffy, bloodshot eyes would take a lot more effort to conceal than she felt capable of just now.
“Damn you, Dad.”
The curse had somehow become her mantra over the past three days. Damn him for dying, damn him for leaving her his business, his pack and his problems all in one fell swoop, and damn him again just on general principle. The bastard deserved every extra second he spent in whatever passed for hell these days.
Pushing away from the door, Honor paused for a few seconds, swaying gently with the rush of fatigue and nerves that seemed to plague her constantly now. She could barely remember what it felt like to relax. And to think the fun of leading the pack was just beginning.
She padded across the floor toward the bathroom, thinking that right now a shower sounded better than sex or chocolate. Or sex involving chocolate. The smell of blood and sweat and soil lingered on her skin and clothes, and she felt pretty sure she carried enough small twigs and dried leaves in her hair for a decent fire. She doubted the ability of soap and hot water to make her feel clean, but at least it could get rid of the surface detritus.
Ignoring the cavernous room, looking even bigger now that it had been denuded of all her father’s personal possessions and the stamp of his decidedly masculine tastes, she pushed into the bath and flipped on the lights. She turned on the shower and let the water heat while she stripped. Her clothes landed in the wastebasket rather than the hamper. She’d never be able to bring herself to wear them again, so why bother scrubbing out the stains?
When she stepped under the stinging spray, she hissed at the scalding temperature and felt her skin immediately heat to a rosy glow. She kept her eyes squeezed shut as the water sluiced off the worst of the blood and dirt, not wanting to see the water turn as pink as her skin as it circled down the drain. The steel fence she had erected to cage in the memories of this afternoon still had a few weak spots, and she couldn’t afford to encourage any escaping thoughts.
She lingered in the shower, scrubbing herself from head to toe with a loofah three times before she could stand the feel of her own skin. That’s when she opened her eyes and reached for the conditioner. She applied it liberally to the mess of knots and debris that passed for her hair and let the thick liquid ease everything free. When she couldn’t feel any more pieces of bark or clumps of mud, she rinsed and applied a generous handful of shampoo. She lathered, rinsed and even repeated twice before she could make herself stop. Then she conditioned again and turned off the shower.
Hesitating for a long moment on the bathmat, dripping water onto the porous rectangle, she contemplated grabbing a towel, but found herself heading for the bathtub instead. She still didn’t feel really clean, but the shower had done the best it could. Time to give the big Jacuzzi and her least favorite scented bath salts a shot.
She set the tub to fill, grateful for her father’s ridiculously large water heater, and wrapped a towel around her hair before dumping two huge handfuls of subtly spicy-floral salts into the tub and turning on the jets. She slipped in before the tub was full, leaning back against its sloped side and left the water running until she was submerged up to her chin. Eventually, she used her foot to turn off the water and let the rumble of the jets lull her into a half-trance.
That was her first big mistake. As soon as her body began to relax from the pounding streams of water around her, her mind began to wander. And, of course, it went directly to the places she didn’t want it to go.
Damn Paul Clarke, anyway. Why had he needed to play the big man with her? Why now, just two days after she’d lower her only surviving parent into a cold, dark grave? They’d been friends since they were whelped, for God’s sake. They’d spent their childhoods playing fetch and chase together, their teen years learning to hunt side by side. They’d even brought their first deer down together. She’d considered him a friend. So why the hell had he chosen today to challenge her for the leadership of the pack they both loved? What the hell had he been thinking?
That he could win.
The thought echoed in her head, mocking her with the simple fact that it was completely true. That was exactly why Paul had challenged her now, when stress clouded her thinking and grief slowed her reaction times. As the beta, second in command of her father’s pack and a young Lupine in her prime, Honor should logically have been too much for him to take on. But as an unprepared and insecure new alpha—as a female alpha without any sort of extraordinary power—she had been ripe for a challenge. Three of them as a matter of fact, so the one coming from Paul never should have surprised her.
But it did. It shocked her to her toes. She hadn’t known what to do at first. Not until it became clear that even if she didn’t want to take the challenge seriously, that’s exactly how he had meant it.
He had gone for her throat, and as tough and strong as Honor was, she couldn’t underestimate a male Lupine who outweighed her by a good fifty pounds and had several inches on her in reach. Her father had taught her that every challenge needed to be dealt with swiftly and decisively, and he had made sure she knew enough to make her moves count. If she couldn’t compete with strength and size, she could use speed and treachery and use them well. Her father had pounded that into her until it became instinct. He had preferred the traditional end to a challenge—death—something Honor hadn’t been able to do. She had held back at the last minute and taken Paul’s hand instead.
She hadn’t wanted to. She’d tried stopping at a pin, as she had with the first challenger, but as soon as she let up, Paul had attacked again. So she’d hamstringed him, thinking if he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t fight. But still he had come for her, launching himself toward her throat with his good hind leg and suddenly there hadn’t been any other choice. It was his hand or his throat, and Honor had chosen his hand. He wouldn’t thank her for it, but at least her conscience would survive another day.
She laughed at herself, not with humor so much as disbelief. Like she could afford a conscience. That item now counted as a luxury in her life. It would until the challenges stopped, and she knew exactly when that would happen.
When she died.
Or when the Silverback Alpha came to Connecticut and formally acknowledged her as the White Paw Alpha.
Right. I predict that will happen on the third Tuesday after he also names me High Queen of the Oompaloompas
Honor sighed again and reached up to turn the jets to a lower setting, no longer quite in the mood to be battered. At first, she had thought sending that letter to Graham Winters was the solution to her problems. The alpha of Manhattan’s legendary Silverback Clan commanded respect from just about every Lupine east of the Mississippi River, and she suspected from a few of those out west, too. She had only met him once, when she was nine, but she remembered him vividly. He’d been a handsome young man then, only a decade or so older than her, but worlds apart. He had known his place as alpha and lord over the Northeastern Clans. She’d heard he had a good heart as well, and recently, rumors of his marriage to a human had circulated into her pack’s little corner of Connecticut. They said the regional alpha had a son now, another Winters cub to lead the Silverback Clan into the future.
Good thing someone’s future was secure.
Honor made a face and turned the tap with her toes to let more hot water flow into the tub. The temperature had dropped below scalding while she brooded over Paul. If she made a habit of this, she’d need to get a second job just to pay her water bills. The way things looked, Paul wouldn’t be the last childhood friend to try their luck against the new, female alpha. Not unless the Silverback Clan finally got around to answering its frickin’ email.
“Honor? Are you okay in there?”
Argh. What spawn of Hades gave Joey her sense of timing?
“I’m fine,” she called out. “Just enjoying a soak.”
“Oh.” A pause. “I brought you a supper tray. I made venison stew. And biscuits.”
Honor’s stomach launched a violent protest at the thought of food, reminding her exactly how badly she needed to brush her teeth. “Just leave it near the chair, Jo. I’m almost done in here.”
“Okay, then. Is there anything else I can get for you?”
Some warm milk, perhaps?
“Nothing. Thank you.”
Grateful for her Lupine hearing that could pick out the sounds of Joey moving around the bedroom even over the roar of the tub jets, Honor listened until she heard retreating footsteps and the sound of the bedroom door opening and closing. Only when she was sure Joey had gone did she sit up in the tub and turn off the jets. Time to brush her teeth and flush that dinner down the toilet so Joey would think she’d eaten.
She dragged herself dripping from the tub and wrapped herself in a huge towel before padding over to the sink and the comfort of her toothbrush. The cinnamon flavor of the paste improved greatly on the lingering traces of blood and bile in her mouth. She scrubbed for several minutes, making sure to brush her tongue thoroughly before she rinsed out her mouth and reached out to unwind the towel from her hair. The long, dark strands, almost black with the weight of the water, fell down her back in ripples that would dry into semi-wild curls. She ran a comb through them quickly then left her hair to dry and headed back into the bedroom.
As she had expected, Joey had turned down the bed, lit a couple of lamps, and touched a match to the fire laid in the hearth. The tray of stew, biscuits, and chilled dark beer sat next to her father’s over-stuffed armchair. It looked like a room well prepared for the lord of the manor routine, except that she didn’t feel a bit like a lord.
But the man staring at her from the door to the hallway certainly looked like he did.
Logan watched the slim, young brunette emerge from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, and placed an immediate stranglehold on his need to pounce. And sniff. And lick. And maybe taste. Even through the perfume-y fragrance cloaking her natural scent—bath salts?—she smelled nearly good enough to eat. He inhaled deeply and considered whether or not to try a nibble. Suddenly she turned and noticed him standing in the door, and he revised his plans.
“How did you get in here?”
Logan tore his eyes from the plane of creamy, pale skin rising from the top of the woman’s towel and saw the weary suspicion in her gaze. He also made note of the long, fresh scratch across her forehead and the bite mark on her right shoulder. It looked as new as the scratch. Seeing the obvious wounds, he made a surreptitious inspection of the rest of the skin he could see—which was quite a lot, praise be—and noticed a good dozen bruises. Some looked a few days old, others just pale shadows, not yet fully formed. She also had one skinned knee and a slowly bleeding cut on her left shin. This would-be alpha had gone through an interesting couple of days.
“Your housekeeper let me in.” He looked her in the eye as he answered her question, curious to see how she would react to the aggressive expression. It also helped him ignore the stirring of involuntary interest he had immediately felt in her. She met and held his gaze, her brown eyes steady and serious, but made no other show of force. Maybe alpha, but not stupid with it. “She also offered me dinner but I stopped in town and ate while I got directions up here. You aren’t exactly easy to find.”
“She’s my cousin, not my servant. Now, who the hell are you?”
Logan raised an eyebrow. “Some say they’re all servants to the alpha.”
She didn’t answer.
“My name is Logan Hunter.” He watched her face for a reaction. “I’m beta of the Silverback Clan. My alpha has requested that I offer you his condolences on the recent death of your father.”
“Beta. Sent to offer his condolences.” She blinked; wide, chocolaty eyes seeming slow to focus, but her expression didn’t shift. “Right. Tell your alpha to shove them.”
Then she turned her back on him and walked to a closet.
Logan tore his eyes from the point where her towel dipped down far enough to threaten to reveal what looked like a truly luscious bottom. Before Missy, he’d never really been an ass man, but as Graham could tell you, that little human had an ass that could inspire men to poetry. It had inspired Logan to a thing or two over the last few months, but now the image of this stranger’s derrière had all but supplanted Missy’s from his mind.
The thought caught him by the scruff. Lately, part of Logan’s subconscious had compared any female he encountered with the Luna, because he couldn’t get the woman out of his head. Just because he knew he couldn’t have her didn’t stop his wolf from insisting that no other female was worth his trouble. Until now. When he looked at Honor Tate, his finicky beast made not a peep of protest.
With all that going on in his head, it took Logan a few extra seconds to register what she had said.
“Excuse me?” he ventured.
“You heard me. Tell him he can shove his condolences up his ass with a pogo stick. I don’t want them, and I didn’t ask for them.”
Logan watched as she pulled some things from a drawer inside the closet and tried to keep his mind off the possibility of that towel coming loose and landing on the floor. And of him coming loose and landing on top of her.
“He knows that. He doesn’t offer you sympathy because you asked for it. It’s just the right thing to do.”
“No, the right thing to do would have been to come here himself instead of sending his lackey. And to have agreed to my very sensible request for a formal recognition of my new position as alpha of this pack. Since he has done neither, he can go take his pogo stick and have a little moment of privacy with his thoughts.”
She began pulling on clothes with that peculiar talent women have for dressing without undressing first. She pulled a pair of loose cotton pants on under the towel and topped them with a tank top that she managed to don without displaying one additional millimeter of skin.
Logan bit back the wave of disappointment and shoved his hands into his pockets while he attempted to wrestle his attention back to the question at hand. “The Silverback alpha hasn’t made up his mind about whether he’s going to agree to that request or not. That’s why I’m here. Before he makes a decision, he wants to hear an outside opinion of the workings of the White Paw Clan.”
“The White Paw Clan works just fine,” she growled, turning to face him and tossing aside the towel. “You can tell Graham Winters I said that. And you can tell him that if he will not honor the request of his fellow alpha, then he and his pack members are not welcome in our territory.”
Logan heard the fierceness in her tone and scowled. “That sounds like a hasty decision. Breaking ties between the clans won’t benefit either one of them. And in your current situation, frankly, it can only make your position in the pack even more precarious. Your people are not going to like hearing you bu-fued three hundred years of cooperation between our clans because of a fit of pique.”
He hadn’t expected her to move so quickly, and only instinct kept him from jerking backward when he blinked and found her about three inches from the end of his nose, snarling up at him with a fierceness that surprised him.
And aroused him.
“This. Is. Not. Pique.” The low rumble in her chest told him she meant every word she spoke. “And I am not the one who ‘bu-fued’ anything between our clans. That would be your alpha, the one who has denied our request in our time of need.”
Logan did not back down; it wasn’t in his nature—the only creature on earth he backed down from was Graham, and even that was a struggle these days—but he willed his hackles not to rise to the bait she presented. He could make her regret taking this attitude with him, but he was here on a diplomatic mission and pinning and mating the alpha of another pack with no warning, no invitation, and no permission stretched the bounds of allowable behavior. Actually, it was out of bounds. But if would have been satisfying.
“If you would listen more carefully to my words, you wouldn’t need to make an ass of yourself by making groundless accusations and hurling unnecessary insults.” He spoke through clenched teeth until he managed to force his jaw to relax enough for normal speech. “Graham Winters has denied you nothing. What he has done is to send me to observe the situation in your pack and conclude exactly what decision he can make that will result in a positive long-term outcome for both our packs. Graham has no horse in this race; he doesn’t personally give a shit who leads this pack, but as the alpha of this region, he most definitely does give a shit that whoever leads is qualified to do it. The most important thing to him at the moment is preserving the peace we currently enjoy in this part of the country, and he’s not going to let anyone jeopardize it.”
She sneered at him, her tempting pink lip curling up to expose her white canines. “Right. And what exactly do you pan to conclude then, Mr. Hunter? How long will you hang around here pretending to mull things over before you run back to Papa Wolf and tell him no female could ever be qualified to lead a pack as well as a male?”
“I won’t be pretending anything, Ms. Tate.” He tried not to make it a growl, but a man could only do so much. “I’m here to do a job, and I intend to do it, not just go through the motions or phone it in. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got better things to do with my time than play games like that. I was sent here to check out the situation, so that’s what I’ll be doing, and if that takes me a day or a week or a fucking year-and-a-half, then that’s how long it takes. This isn’t something I can rush, Ms. Tate, and neither can you. When we last spoke, the alpha and I figured it would take at least a week or more before any conclusions could be drawn.”
She laughed then, though the sound had not a trace of humor that Logan could detect. “Right. In a week or more, I won’t need your alpha’s endorsement, Mr. Hunter. Because I will already have been forced to cripple every adult male in my pack. So don’t you tell me about waiting for a royal blessing from his majesty, the King of Indecision.”
Honor turned her back on him then, but not before she saw his nostrils flare and his lip curl at the insult. She really couldn’t have cared less. Her day had already been for shit; this just topped the cake. She had been counting on Graham Winters, and now she found out her problem wasn’t even important enough to get his personal attention. He’d sent a worker bee instead. Well, fuck him. She’d been dealing for this long, she could deal a while longer. As long as it took.
She stalked back toward her closet, determined to don a pair of fuzzy slippers, find a bottle of Valium, and dose herself into oblivion at least until morning. She didn’t want to hear one more thing about Lupines, packs, alphas, challenges, or even the remotest connection to reality for at least eight hours. After that she’d go back to coping, but damn it, she needed a break.
It was a lovely thought, but it didn’t last much past the foot of the bed. She got about that far before she sensed his movement. She spun around just in time to avoid being tackled to the carpet, but not fast enough to prevent his getting a good grip on her upper arm. She felt his fingers digging into her skin, nearly bruising her, and she instinctively bared her teeth.
“I just took off one man’s hand, Silverback. I don’t have a problem with taking another.”
“And I don’t have a problem with putting you in your place, White Paw.” She saw his golden eyes snapping and felt her stomach knot at the knowledge that he spoke the truth. “I came here as an impartial observer, but if you want to make this personal between us, feel free. No one dismisses me but my alpha. Understand?”
She growled at him. “Oh, I understand perfectly well, beta.” She spat the title like a curse. “But you need to understand that no one gives me orders in my own territory. I don’t care how big, bad and wolfie you might think you are. I am alpha here, and I don’t take lightly to insults.”
“You might be alpha of this pack, but you still answer to the Silverback Clan. Don’t forget that.”
“I respect the Silverback Clan, beta. I answer to no one.”
Their gazes clashed for a long moment, a heavy silence weighted with rapid pulses and the sharp smell of temper. Neither of them blinked. Then the Silverback beta’s hand slid from her arm to the back of her neck, and he hauled her forward, mouth descending on hers for a rough, violent kiss.
It lasted no more than a handful of seconds, but it seared her senses with lips, tongue, teeth, and hunger. She tasted the thick, spicy flavor of him, smelled the musky, woodsy scent that clung to his skin, and felt the sharp edge of his strong, white teeth. When he pulled back, she blinked up at him, silent.
“We’ll see, honey. We’ll see what happens once I get around to asking the right question.”
Then he turned on his heel and strode out of her bedroom, closing the door softly behind him.
Honor stared at the white wooden panels for a long time before her knees unlocked enough for her to sink to the bed, where she sat for a while longer, trembling.