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Prey (Shifters #4)

By:Rachel Vincent
Prey (Shifters #4)

Rachel Vincent
Thanks first of all to No.1, who handled almost every single detail of our recent move, so I could finish the rough draft I was working on, as well as the line edits for Prey. Without you to keep track of the details, I would live in utter chaos.
Thanks to Elizabeth Mazer for all her hard work behind the scenes, to the MIRA art department for the amazing cover (my favourite so far!) and to the entire production staff, for turning my little story into an actual book.
Thanks to Miriam Kriss, who handles all the business so I can bury myself in other worlds. To Vicki Pettersson, who kept me accountable during the revisions. And to Jocelynn Drake, who lets me complain.
And thanks most of all to my critique partner, Rinda Elliot, for all the hours spent helping me sort this one out. You keep me working. You keep me writing. You keep me sane.
“You planning to get there sometime this century, Vic?” I glanced at my watch, my foot tapping an anxious beat on the floorboard.
Victor Di Carlo shot me a long-suffering smile, then turned back to the road. “Speed limit’s seventy-five, Faythe. I’m doing eighty. But if you think you can get there faster on foot, be my guest.”
But of course, I couldn’t. Not even on four paws. A cheetah can run sixty-five miles an hour, but can’t sustain that speed for long. And I’m no cheetah. So I was stuck drumming my stubby nails on the passenger-seat armrest in Vic’s Suburban as it stubbornly maintained a speed I considered unacceptable.
“Relax.” Vic flicked on the left blinker, then moved the SUV smoothly out of the right lane to pass a lumbering semi. “We’ll get there on schedule, and Marc will be waiting.”
I nodded, locking and unlocking the passenger-side door until he glared at me. “Sorry.”
“Jeez, Faythe, you act like you haven’t seen him in weeks,” Ethan said, and I twisted in my seat to see him roll his eyes from the back row, his usual good-humored grin firmly in place. He was the youngest of my four brothers—only two years my elder—and the one most likely to beat me up in training, then bring ice for my bruises. “How long has it been?”
I stared out my window at empty fields and winter-bare trees growing dim in the late-afternoon light. “Nine weeks, tomorrow.” A lot had happened since Marc had been exiled, and the most notable example lay sleeping in the seat behind me. 
Manx’s baby. Des. The two-week-old was fastened into a reclined, backward-facing car seat on the bench next to his mother. Who somehow managed to look disarmingly beautiful, even with drool trailing from her open mouth. Since the baby came, she caught her z’s when she could. Whenever he was quiet. As did the rest of us.
It turns out sensitive cat hearing comes with a serious downside.
In the past two months, Manx had given birth, and Kaci—the wild teenage tabby we’d taken in—had mostly settled into life at the ranch, though so far she’d refused to Shift. November had blown leaves from the trees, December had brought a rare Texas snowstorm, and the eighth day of January had crowned it all with an even less common and more beautiful layer of thick ice, which had yet to fully melt.
But I had not seen Marc. Not even once, in all those weeks.
Vic grinned at me for a moment before turning back to the traffic. “And I suppose it’s the stimulating conversation you miss, right?”
“La-la-la!” Ethan sang. He slouched in his seat and stuffed earbuds into his ears to block out the response he might not want to hear from his sister.
“Right now, I’d listen to anything he has to say, so long as I get to hear it in person.” Sighing, I snatched a paper cup from the drink holder and downed the last of my 7-Eleven coffee. It was cold. As I dropped the cup into the trash can wedged between the seats, Vic’s cell phone rang. He leaned to the right and dug it from his left hip pocket, then flipped it open without swerving an inch. I probably would have put us in the ditch.
“Vic.” It was my dad. We could all hear him perfectly well, except for Manx, who was now snoring delicately, if such a thing was possible. “Your father came through for me. I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Vic’s sigh was audible, and his face suddenly drained of tension I hadn’t even realized it held. He smiled as the Suburban soared past another eighteen-wheeler. “I never doubted it.” But the relief in his eyes said otherwise. He’d been worried. We all had.
Springs squealed over the line—Greg Sanders leaning back in his desk chair. He’d probably called as soon as he got the news. “Remind Faythe to deliver my message to your family, please,” he said, and I rolled my eyes.
“I know, Daddy.”
My father chuckled. “Drive carefully, and let me know when you get there.”
“Will do.” Vic was still grinning like a clown when he hung up, and I doubted he’d even heard what he was agreeing to. Fortunately, I had.
“So, that’s three now, right?” I twisted in my seat to look at Ethan, who’d turned off the music and was no longer feigning sleep.
The backseat groaned as he searched for a more comfortable position. “Yeah. Uncle Rick and Ed Taylor.” Whose daughters both owed their lives to our Pride. I’d freed my cousin Abby after we were both kidnapped by a jungle stray intending to sell us as breeders, then we’d caught and killed that same stray before he could snatch Carissa Taylor. Their fathers were understandably loyal to mine. “And now Bert.”
Umberto Di Carlo—Vic’s dad—was one of my father’s oldest friends. We’d been counting on his support, but were far from sure we’d get it. After all, politics could uproot entire family trees, to say nothing of friendships.
Nine weeks ago I’d been acquitted—barely—of infecting my college boyfriend and then killing him in self-defense. On the last day of my trial—the day after Marc was exiled—Calvin Malone had made a formal challenge to my father’s leadership, petitioning to have him removed as head of the Territorial Council. Though he remained our Alpha, my dad had been temporarily suspended from his position of authority over the other council members, pending an official vote by all ten Alphas. That vote was scheduled for the first of February—two weeks away.Since his suspension, my father and Malone had been fighting—figuratively—for a commitment of support from each of their peers.
My uncle had thrown his weight behind us immediately, and Edward Taylor had followed suit a week later. But our Pride’s other allies had asked for time to consider. To weigh their options. Their hesitance stung, but it made sense. However they voted, their decisions would have an irreversible effect on the council, and on the werecat community at large. After all, most of them had sons serving in Prides on both sides of the conflict. Brothers living in territories loyal to Malone. Daughters or sisters married to toms participating in the coup. I was lucky that three of my brothers—Michael, Owen, and Ethan—had no loyalties to anyone else. As for my brother Ryan, well, the less said about him the better.
The waiting was hard on Vic, but it was nothing compared to the effect the whole thing was having on our fellow enforcer Jace, whose stepfather had organized the attempt to unseat my dad. Jace felt personally responsible for Calvin Malone’s betrayal, though he could have done nothing to stop it.
“What about Malone?” I asked, doing a mental tally of the other Alphas.
Ethan pulled his earphones from his ears and wound them around one hand. “Last I heard, he has three votes, too. Milo Mitchell, Wes Gardner, and Paul Blackwell.”
Mitchell’s son, Kevin, had been kicked out of our Pride four months earlier for repeatedly helping a stray sneak into the south-central territory. Gardner was irate over our “failure” to avenge his brother Jamey’s death at Manx’s hands. And as far as we could tell, Paul Blackwell was siding against us because he legitimately objected to my father’s equal-opportunity approach to leadership. Apparently the saying about an old dog’s inability to learn new tricks held true for old cats, as well, and though Blackwell—unlike Malone—didn’t seem to hate women and strays, neither did he envision a place for them among the community’s leaders.
That left only two undecided Alphas: Nick Davidson and Jerald Pierce—another fellow enforcer’s father. And with both sides now scrambling to claim those votes, one thing was clear: the fight was about to get ugly.
“Parker’s dad will come through.” Vic sounded much more confident than I felt. “That’ll give us four.” But we needed Davidson’s vote, too. Four votes would only lock the proceedings in a tie, and we needed a clear victory. Otherwise, even if my father managed to hold on to his position, the peace would never last.
“How much longer?” I asked, my hand clenched around the car door handle.
“Our exit’s up next.” Vic nodded at the sign ahead, advertising food and gas in one mile. 
About time! After hours on the road and too many cups of coffee to count…
I turned in my seat to see Ethan sitting up straight now and shrugging into his jacket. Manx was still asleep, her long black ringlets draping the back of the seat and the front of her blouse. She was the very picture of peace and happiness, of maternal bliss, in spite of very little rest and the unpleasant reason for our trip.