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Prey (Shifters #4)(3)

By:Rachel Vincent

“Wow.” Marc’s eyes went softer than I’d ever seen them as he stared at Des, and I wasn’t sure whether I should be amused or worried. “Do I get an introduction?” he finally asked.
Manx’s smile widened. “This is Desiderio. He is my heart’s desire.”
“We call him Des,” I added, ever helpful.
“He’s beautiful. May I?” Marc pulled one hand from his pocket and mimed stroking the baby’s cheek.Manx hesitated, and her smile froze for an instant. Then she took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Of course.”
Marc ran the back of one rough finger down the child’s face. When he reached the corner of Des’s mouth, the baby turned toward his touch, lips pursed and ready to suckle. Marc laughed, and I couldn’t help but smile.
“I see you’ve met our latest addition,” Vic said, and I looked up to see him walking toward us from the convenience store, a white plastic sack in one hand.
“He’s amazing,” Marc said, and on the edge of my vision, Manx’s posture relaxed a little more.
“Yeah, he is.” Vic set his bag on the front passenger seat and glanced at the baby with that gaga look most toms assumed when confronted with members of the next generation. Yet more proof that propagation of the species was indeed their biggest goal in life.
Vic shut the car door and embraced his former field partner in a masculine, back-thumping greeting. Then he stepped away and glanced from me to Marc as Ethan settled a long coat over Manx’s shoulders, careful not to touch her. “You’re not going to believe who I ran into inside.” He tossed his head toward the building.
“Dan Painter.” I grinned.
Vic huffed. “You smelled him?”
I nodded. “He and Marc have…bonded.”
Vic’s brow rose in amusement, but a dark look from Marc kept him from pressing for details. “This cold can’t be good for the baby,” he said instead, still grinning at Marc. “Let’s get done here and get on the road.”
Marc and I flanked Manx on the way into the building, where he waited outside the ladies’ room while she and I went inside. She changed the baby’s diaper on a fold-down table while I made use of one of the stalls. Then she asked if I could hold him while she relieved herself.
“Oh, I don’t know.” My heart thudded in panic. I’d literally never held a baby, and whatever idiot had said all women possessed some kind of maternal instinct was wrong. “Can’t you just…put him down for a couple of minutes?”
“On the ground?” Manx glared at me, and I shrugged helplessly. She rolled her eyes. “Fine. I will ask one of the men.”
I sighed heavily. “Give him here.” I could not let Marc know I was…hesitant to hold a baby. He’d never let me live it down. “What do I do with him?” I held my arms out football-style, as I’d seen my mother do often enough over the past two weeks.
Manx placed the baby gently in my arms, settling his little head securely into the crook of my elbow. “Nothing. He is sleeping. Hold him for just two minutes.” 
I nodded, afraid to move anything but my head for risk of waking Des.
Manx hesitated, her hand on the swinging metal door. Then she shot me a smile that couldn’t quite relieve the nervous lines spanning her forehead and stepped into the stall.
I stared at the baby, taking in each detail up close for the first time. He was unbelievably small. Like a doll, but more fragile. His cheeks were round and red, his nose sprinkled with tiny, colorless bumps. His hands and feet were wrapped in the blanket, but a wisp of straight black hair showed above his forehead.
I saw no trace of Luiz in him, thank goodness.
But then, I saw no trace of Manx, either. I saw only a baby, cute in a red, squirmy kind of way, and perfectly tolerable when he was sleeping.
“Thank you.” The stall door swung open and Manx stepped out. She washed her hands, then took her baby back, and only then did the worry lines fade from around her mouth.
On our way through the store, we passed Dan Painter in line at the counter, holding a big bag of chips, a handful of Slim Jims, and a two-liter of Coke. I tapped him on the shoulder as I passed, and when his eyes met mine, he nearly choked on the chunk he’d already torn from one of the meat sticks.
I laughed. He obviously remembered our first meeting, when I’d knocked him unconscious with one swing. I like to leave a good first impression.
In the parking lot, Manx buckled Des into his car seat in the SUV, which Vic had already refueled and warmed up. Ethan had claimed the front passenger seat, which was fine with me. I was riding with Marc.
Squeezing into his tiny, low-slung car felt weird after weeks of riding in Vic’s Suburban, but it was a good kind of weird. Familiar and easy. And sorely missed.
We pulled from the lot first, and Vic followed as the last rays of daylight deepened to a dramatic red and orange. Then darkness descended, and Marc and I were together—and alone—for the first time in months.
Unfortunately, we were also on the road, which made anything more than conversation impossible. Or at least impractical.
“So, how’s your dad holding up?” Marc twined his hand around mine on the center console as outside, small buildings and restaurants gave way to open fields, then long stretches of woods.
“Okay, I guess.” I shrugged. “He’s pretty quiet lately. I don’t think he wants anyone to know how hard this whole sucker punch from Malone has been on him. The council’s completely fractured. Manx’s hearing should be interesting, considering the current coup-in-progress.” And though I would never admit it aloud for fear of sounding like a coward, I was greatly relieved that my responsibility to Kaci meant I couldn’t stay for the trial. Hanging out in a room full of angry Alphas did not appeal to my sense of adventure. Or my survival instinct.
Marc changed lanes, and I watched in the side-view mirror as Vic followed his lead. “Who’s on the tribunal this time?”
“Taylor, Mitchell, and Pierce.” Fortunately, that particular combination of Alphas gave Manx a decent shot at a fair trial. Taylor had thrown his weight behind my father, Mitchell was firmly in place behind Malone, and Parker’s dad was still sticking to his Switzerland routine. But on the downside, getting those three to agree on anything—much less a verdict—would not be easy.
“And Wes Gardner’s going to be there, of course.” Because his brother was one of Manx’s victims.
“I assume Michael’s going in a professional capacity.”
“Yeah.” While werecat law didn’t mirror human law exactly, as an attorney, my oldest brother was by far the most qualified to assist Manx in her defense. He’d be flying to Atlanta the following day, shortly after his wife—a human woman and honest-to-goodness runway model named Holly—left for a photo shoot in Italy. Michael was lucky his wife traveled so much, and that she stayed too busy to ask many questions. She knew nothing of our werecat existence. Theirs was definitely an odd marriage, but it seemed to fit them both well.Marc glanced in the rearview mirror, then briefly at me before turning his eyes back toward the road. “How’s Kaci? Still refusing to Shift?”
“Yeah. I’m starting to really worry about her. She’s tired all the time, and listless, and she only perks up when I let her watch me spar. She seems to think if she learns to defend herself in human form, she’ll never have to Shift again.”
“What’s the doc say?”
I sighed. “Her symptoms are similar to chronic fatigue and depression. And if she doesn’t give in to her feline form soon, her body will start shutting down a little at a time, until she’s too weak to move. He says refusing to Shift will eventually kill her. And by ‘eventually,’ he means soon.”
“Damn.” Marc looked surprised for a moment, then concern dragged his mouth into a deep frown.
“I know. I feel like I’m failing her.” I loosened my seat belt and twisted in the bucket seat to face him. “I mean, I’m supposed to be taking care of her, and instead I’m letting her wither up and die. She deserves better than that, but I can’t convince her to Shift. She won’t even listen when I bring it up anymore.”
“So what are you going to do?”
I shrugged, scowling out the window at the ice-glazed power lines running along the highway. I couldn’t get used to that question; until recently, I was rarely allowed to make my own choices, much less someone else’s. But Kaci wasn’t old enough or mature enough to choose to suffer. She was my responsibility.
“I don’t know. But I’m not going to let her waste away. She’s fought too hard for survival to give up now. Especially over something as simple as this.”
Unfortunately, Shifting wasn’t simple for her. The last time she’d been in cat form, she’d killed four people, including her own mother and sister. But that kid was strong. And stubborn enough to make sure nothing like that ever happened again, even if she had to kill herself to prevent it.
The rest of the Pride was counting on my strength and stubbornness to override hers. In the beginning, I’d thought it would work. But after nine weeks with no success, I wasn’t so sure.
“Dr. Carver said to call him if she hasn’t done it by this time next week. He’s going to try to force her Shift.” With an intravenous cocktail of adrenaline and a couple of other drugs.