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Prey (Shifters #4)(10)

By:Rachel Vincent

“Ethan said you handled yourself very well. I’m paraphrasing, of course.”
I grinned and speared a tangle of hash browns, more pleased by the compliment than I would have admitted. “So did he. The boy swings a mean ax.”
My father chuckled. “Call me when you get to Bert’s place.”
“I will.”
My dad said goodbye and hung up, and I handed the phone back to Marc, still smiling.
Twenty minutes later we were on the road. Vic drove, and Brian took the passenger seat, with Manx and the baby in the middle row. Marc and I sat in the back, his arm around my waist, my head on his shoulder. His scent and warmth, along with the rhythmic jostle of the van around us, lulled me into a peaceful trance, and I was almost asleep when Vic spoke up from the front, eyeing us in the rearview mirror.
“Hey, Marc, isn’t that Painter’s car behind us?”
Marc twisted, and I turned to look with him. Sure enough, there it was—a grimy white Dodge Daytona, with a fist-size dent in the front bumper.
Marc scowled. “I told you he wouldn’t be that easy to lose.”
“What should I do?”
“Nothing. Let him follow us.” Marc’s jaws bulged in irritation. “I’ll need a ride back from Birmingham anyway.”
The rest of the trip was blessedly uneventful. Even with several bathroom and breast-feeding breaks, the winter sun was just past its zenith when we pulled into a Shell station off the highway, a couple of miles south of Birmingham. While Vic pumped gas, I made myself say goodbye to Marc.
We’d planned for him to drive me back across the free zone—the guys would stay with Manx for the duration of the trial—but after the previous day’s ambush my father wouldn’t hear of another trip through Mississippi. So I’d be flying back.
“It’s not forever,” Marc insisted softly. But it may as well have been. 
My hand lingered on his chest, his on my waist, and only when Dan Painter pulled up behind us in his sick-sounding car did Marc let our foreheads touch. He whispered goodbye and kissed me. Then he pulled open Vic’s passenger-side door, pushed me gently onto the seat and closed the door again.
I rolled the window down and stole one more kiss, then he smiled and turned away.
“Need a ride?” Painter asked, one arm hanging out his car window.
Marc scowled. “Do you think you can resist announcing our whereabouts to any future opponents we may encounter?”
“Dude, I told you that was an accident. I had no idea some asshole was gonna round up the posse and come out guns a-blazin’. What do you want, a formal apology?”
“A little silence would suffice,” Marc snapped, stomping around the car. He jerked open the door and slid onto the seat, just as Vic emerged from the convenience store. Marc waved to him, then turned to Dan. “Let’s get out of here before someone gets a whiff of you. No one gave you permission to leave the free zone.”
With that, Dan stomped on the gas and they roared out of the parking lot and back onto the highway.
The rest of the drive was much less pleasant, but peacefully dull. And if not for several crying spells from Des, I might have made up for the sleep I’d missed the night before. But when the Atlanta skyline came into view, Manx began to fidget. Her foot bounced on the floorboard. Her nails tapped on the armrest. She stared out her window and didn’t seem to hear Des when he began to fuss, waving tiny red fists in the air.
“Manx, you okay?” I leaned over the bench seat with my chin resting on my folded arms.
She never looked away from the window. “That is Atlanta?”
“Yeah. See that big round building? That’s a hotel. I stayed there once with Sara. Her mom took us for a weekend downtown after she graduated from high—” I fell silent when I noticed Vic watching me in the rearview mirror, his eyes brimming with pain and full of nostalgia.
Sara Di Carlo, his only sister, had been raped and murdered seven months earlier by the jungle stray Ryan had fallen in with. Days later, his younger brother, Anthony, died during our attempt to capture Sara’s killers.
The Di Carlo family’s wounds were still fresh, and the tragedy didn’t end there. With no tabby to bear its next generation, their family line would die along with Vic and his brothers, and with no descendants, they would eventually lose control of their territory.
Which was why my father hoped that, if all parties were amenable—and if she survived her trial—Manx might join the southeast Pride. She could never replace Sara, of course. But she could help the Di Carlos hold on to their territory. Help them reclaim their future. If she were willing.
But at the moment, Manx didn’t look very happy to be in Georgia.
“So, we are close?” she asked, and I thought I saw her chin quiver.
Manx was one of the toughest tabbies I’d ever met in my life. Tougher than my mother, who’d once kept the Alphas in line single-handedly, and who’d saved my life only months earlier. Tougher than me, by far. And maybe even tougher than Kaci, who had to live every day of her life knowing what she’d accidentally done to her family. Manx had survived abduction, brutal beatings, the loss of her tail, serial rape, and the murder of two infant sons. Somehow, she’d come out of a living hell stronger than ever, and determined to hunt down the bastard who’d both sired and murdered her children.
But now Luiz was dead, and she was on trial for multiple counts of murder. If she was convicted and sentenced to death, the son she’d fought to save would never even know his mother.
After years of torture and months of running and fighting, now Manx was scared. And it almost broke my heart.“About forty more miles.” Vic flexed his injured arm stiffly, his free hand still on the wheel. “Mom has the guest room all fixed up for you and Des. She even dug up Sara’s old crib. It’s ancient, and I think it’s pink, but it’ll give him somewhere comfortable to nap.”
The sun had just dipped beneath the horizon when we pulled into the Di Carlos’ long, arched driveway, beyond which their beautiful, old Italianate house was lit by several strategically placed floodlights.
Vic’s family lived outside of Canton, Georgia, in the house they’d bought when Vic was still a toddler, and had been renovating ever since. It looked like a big white-framed box, lined in black-shuttered windows and crowned with four redbrick chimneys. As the SUV bounced over the gravel driveway, headlights illuminated an elaborate porch, complete with columns and latticed arches, lined in evergreen shrubs.
The property sat in the center of a broad, flat lawn that was green in the summer, but brown and crunchy in the middle of January.
In back of the main house stood a large detached garage, above which sat the former servants’ quarters. But the Di Carlos had long ago enclosed the garage and turned the entire building into an apartment, where their enforcers now lived.
Beyond the apartment were several acres of private woodland, a necessity for any large group of werecats. It was a place for them to run, play, and hunt, without being bothered by the surrounding human population.
Since the trial would begin the following morning, I’d expected the driveway to be full, cars parked in rows out back, even. But there were only three vehicles ahead of our van, all of which probably belonged to Vic’s family.
“Where is everyone?” I asked, pushing open the car door. The temperature had dropped when the sun went down, and I pulled my jacket tight around me, shivering in spite of the layer of leather.
Vic stepped onto the driveway, boots crunching on gravel. “The guys park around back. They’re probably in the apartment, lying low.”
Which I could easily understand. Large Alpha gatherings made me nervous, too.
“My mom and dad are both here.” Vic eyed the two cars parked closest to the house. “But I don’t recognize that one.” He nodded to the beige sedan we’d parked behind.
I bent to read the sticker on one corner of the rear windshield. “It’s a rental. Michael must already be here.” Thank goodness. I didn’t want to be the only one representing my family, even just for a few hours. As much progress as I’d made in the think-before-you-speak department, slip-ups still happened, at the worst possible times, and Alphas Gardner and Mitchell were already angry enough with the south-central Pride. 
“My dad said the Alphas all took rooms in town, so they probably won’t show up until tomorrow morning,” Vic said, as if he’d read my mind. Or my expression.
“Oh.” Good.
At the back of the van, Brian was stacking luggage on the ground. I zipped up my jacket and grabbed two suitcases, then followed Vic up the sidewalk toward the house. We were halfway there when the door creaked opened and a tiny woman in creased jeans and a dark blouse appeared on the porch.
“Victor!” Donna Di Carlo raced down the steps and stood on tiptoe to hug her son, heedless of the bags he held, or the cold that must have blown instantly through her thin shirt. She looked older than when I’d last seen her, the lines on her face deeper, her hair grayer. Losing two children was likely the hardest thing she’d ever endure, but Vic’s mother was strong; she hadn’t let it kill her.
In that respect, she reminded me of Manx.
“Why does it take a tragedy to get you to visit? Just once I’d like to see you when nothing’s wrong. When you just came home to say, ‘Mom, I love you.’”