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Prey (Shifters #4)(7)

By:Rachel Vincent

“We’re not spouting psychobabble, we’re trying to keep her healthy,” I insisted, sipping from my cup. “But you’re right. Michael’s full of shit.” My brother grinned, so I continued. “Listening to that MP3 player is the closest she’s ever going to get to a normal teenage activity. Well, that and ignoring the advice of her elders.”
“You’d know.”
“Bite me,” I snapped. But Ethan was right, of course. I’d recently begun seeing things from the far side of the generation gap, and the view from the adult side sucks.
“How long’s it been since she Shifted?” Dan asked, reaching for another piece of pizza.
“More than two months.”
He frowned. “Has anyone ever gone that long without Shifting?”
I searched my memory, but came up blank as Marc shook his head. “No one I can think of.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Ethan grinned. “I’m not one to deny my animalistic urges.”
I’d probably never heard a more truthful statement.
“Speaking of which, any idea what that whole ambush was about?” I asked, around a mouthful of Meat Lover’s. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. Not even from Zeke Radley and his Pride.” I raised the cup again and drank deeply that time. I was more relaxed now that the alcohol had kicked in, and was determined to enjoy my buzz while it lasted. “I thought strays were mostly loners.”Painter sat straighter as all eyes turned his way for verification from our resident expert. “Yeah, for the most part. But strays’ll come together if they have a good reason to, just like anybody else.”
“Like a common enemy?” I asked, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. How had we become that common enemy?
“Yeah. Or somethin’ they wanna know.” His cheeks flushed. “Like how to fight. To take care of themselves, you know? Like Marc’s been teaching me.”
And Marc was a fine instructor, if his protégé’s performance that night was any indication. Painter was damn talented with a hammer.
“So, did you know any of those toms we fought?” Vic asked, and I heard a thin thread of tension in his voice, though his expression seemed amiable enough.
“Not friendly-like.” Dan took another bite, but then his chewing slowed to a stop as the reasoning behind the question sank in. He swallowed thickly. “I had nothin’ to do with that. I fought with you guys.”
So he had, greatly strengthening our odds. And he could easily have been killed.
But Marc’s eyes had gone hard, and his expression sent a chill up my arms, in spite of the hotel heater and my alcohol-induced flush. “Dan, did you tell anyone we were coming through tonight?” His voice had gone deep and scary, and no one was chewing anymore.
Painter shook his head, eyes wide. “Just Ben. He’s interested in Pride politics and wanted to meet you guys. I told him I’d introduce him. But he never showed up.”
“Damn it, Dan!” Marc stood in a lightning-fast, fluid motion and kicked an unopened bottle of soda across the room. It crashed into the door and rolled away. “You may as well have handed us over bound and gagged. The whole damn ambush was your fault!”
Painter’s face flushed, and he shook his head vehemently. “Ben wasn’t there tonight.” The stray stood uncertainly, backing away from Marc out of instinct even a human would have understood. “He wasn’t with the toms we fought.”
“That doesn’t mean he didn’t cut my hose, or tell someone else where we’d be,” Marc growled, advancing on him slowly as we watched. “You need to understand something, Dan. You will never be a Pride cat if you don’t learn when to keep your mouth shut!” With that, he grabbed Painter by the arm, ripped open the hotel door and tossed him out into the parking lot.
Before the door swung shut, I caught a glimpse of Dan as he stumbled across the sidewalk and reached out to steady himself on the hood of the Suburban. He looked shocked, and as disappointed as an orphan at Christmas, still clutching a half-eaten slice of Supreme in one hand as the door slammed in his face. 
“Will he be okay out there?” I asked, as Marc threw the dead bolt and stomped across the carpet toward us.
“Who cares if he isn’t?” Marc folded his legs beneath himself as he dropped to the floor at my side. But his glance at the door gave away his conflict. Painter was a friend, and he clearly hadn’t betrayed us intentionally.
“Well, I guess that explains why the strays didn’t attack him until he took a swing.” Ethan wiped a smear of pizza sauce from the corner of his mouth with the back of one hand. “He’s their source.”
“Yeah, but he did take that swing, and he didn’t feed them information on purpose,” I insisted, glancing from one stony male face to another. “He fought alongside us, and even if the strays were inclined to spare him for further use, they won’t be now. And they’re probably still out there…” I let my sentence fade into silent censure, aimed pointedly at Marc.
“He’ll be fine.” Marc grabbed another slice of pizza and tore into it, speaking again only once he’d swallowed. “If getting rid of him were that easy, I’d have done it weeks ago. He’s probably in the front office right now, renting the room next to ours.”
The rest of the meal passed as Marc and the other guys got caught up after more than two months apart. After dinner, I checked on Manx to find her curled up asleep with the baby, both of them fully clothed, a paper plate scattered with pizza crusts on the floor beside the bed. I pulled a blanket from the empty bed to cover them, then closed the connecting door on my way out.
Ethan and Vic were already arguing over the remote control, so Marc helped me into my jacket and ripped pants, and we took one half-full box of pizza back to our room.
The door closed at my back, cutting off the biting January cold, and Marc’s hands were all over me, warming me everywhere my skin was exposed. Then exposing even more.
My hand opened, and the pizza box thumped to the table. His fingers slid beneath my jacket, pushing it gently down my arms and over the bandaged bite marks. The jacket hit the floor and I stepped over it, then winced and nearly went down when my full weight hit my injured leg.
Marc caught me, then lifted me. I wrapped my legs around his hips and pulled his ripped, bloodstained shirt off one arm at a time, while he supported my back with first one hand then the other. His shirt hit the floor. I nibbled on his collarbone. Four steps later he set me on the edge of the bed, and I let him pull my ruined pants off. His followed quickly as I pulled my tank top over my head and squirmed out of my underwear.
And finally, after months apart, we were alone, with nothing between us but memories and need…
Later, I lay next to Marc on the bed farthest from the door, propped up on my right elbow, my chin in my hand. I was bruised all over, and I ached from head to toe after the fight, but I pushed my discomfort aside, determined to focus on Marc for what little time we’d have together.
“You hate it, don’t you?” My left index finger traced the long-healed claw-mark scars that had brought him into my life fifteen years earlier, when he was infected by the werecat who’d killed his mother. My parents felt responsible for him because he was orphaned and infected in our territory, so my mother nursed him through scratch fever, then my father made him the first and only stray ever accepted into a Pride.
“Hate what?” His chest rose and sank beneath my hand with each breath, and our mingled scents surrounded me with an almost physical presence. It was intoxicating, just being near him, but the knowledge that his company was only temporary kept me from being truly content.
I ran my fingers over each hard ridge of his stomach. “Living here. Surrounded by humans.” Marc had lived with us for half of his life—for all of his life as a werecat—until my father had been forced to choose between us. Marc was exiled as part of the under-the-table deal that eliminated execution as a possible sentence at my hearing.Marc went willingly. He would do nothing to endanger my life, even if it meant living without me. But that was proving every bit as hard as we’d known it would be. Marc hadn’t lived among humans since the day he was scratched, and had, in fact, ceased thinking like one around the same time. He no longer knew how to relate to humans, which probably frustrated him even more than it would a Pride cat, considering he’d been born among their ranks.
He shook his head slowly, as if considering. “I don’t hate it. It does no good to hate something you can’t change.”
“How very Zen of you.” I smiled skeptically at his unusual display of composure, because we could change his location. As soon as my father’s position on the council was secure, I would do whatever it took to get Marc back into the south-central Pride.
But in the meantime… “Have you made any friends? Other than Dan Painter?”
“I don’t need friends,” he insisted, turning his head to grin up at me. “I just need you to visit more often.”
Unfortunately, we both knew that was impossible, especially now.
My father had hired Brian Taylor—Ed Taylor’s youngest son, and Carissa’s brother—to help pick up the slack when he’d been forced to exile Marc. Brian was a year my junior, which made him the youngest enforcer on the payroll. But he was also a quick learner, and eager to impress his new Alpha and earn the respect of his fellow toms. In short, the kid had real potential.