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Pride (Shifters #3)(2)

By:Rachel Vincent

“What do you want to know?” I couldn’t keep weariness from my voice, but I made myself meet their eyes, knowing they’d see guilt rather than grief if I didn’t.
Malone scanned his notes. “Where did you get the spike?”
The railroad spike. That horrid, seven-inch iron spear, which had gone right through Andrew’s neck, spilling his life along with his blood. “They were all over the floor…” I trailed into blessed silence when I couldn’t purge the image from my mind.
“Why did you stab him with it?”
My hands clenched into fists again, this time on top of the table, where everyone could see them. “I was trying to knock him off me. He was going to crush my head!”
Malone leaned back in his chair, narrowing his eyes at me. “Or maybe he was threatening to tell everyone what you did. That you infected him. I imagine that would seem reason enough to kill him.”
I took a deep, calming breath. “Look, I didn’t mean to kill him, and I certainly wasn’t trying to cover anything up. There were five other people with us minutes earlier, and even if I hadn’t already told them I’d infected Andrew—and I’m sure any one of them will swear I had—they could smell my scent in his blood. It wasn’t a cover-up. It was self-defense.”Malone’s eyes narrowed, his mouth already opening to argue, but Uncle Rick beat him to the punch. “We’ve heard all of this before,” he said, and I glanced at him in gratitude. “Let’s move on.”
“Fine.” Malone scowled, leafing through his papers until he found whatever he was looking for. His eyes settled on me again, and I didn’t like the eager look in them. “Is it true that you’ve turned down multiple proposals of marriage over the past six years?”
What? My face blazed in anger. “What the f—” I paused for a quick rephrase, because cursing at a panel of Alphas was a very, very bad idea. “What does that have to do with anything? Andrew never asked me to marry him.”
“Answer the question please, Miss Sanders,” Blackwell ordered, clearly irritated by my near slip.
Michael didn’t look any happier than I was about this new line of questioning, but he nodded for me to answer.
“How many proposals have you turned down, total?” Malone continued.
I closed my eyes, pretending to think, though I was actually trying to get a grip on my temper before my mouth dug a hole too big for the rest of me to crawl out of. “That’s hard to quantify,” I said finally, opening my eyes to meet Malone’s gleeful stare.
“Why is that?” he asked.
“Because I received multiple proposals from the same person.” Marc, of course.
“I see.” Malone nodded, as if he understood. And he probably did. Rumor had it he’d been after his wife for years and years before she finally agreed to marry him. My private theory was that he wore away at her defenses. But I knew better than to say that to his face.
“How many toms proposed to you, then? Surely that can’t be hard to quantify.” Malone said as my uncle scratched something I couldn’t read on the notebook in front of him.
I sighed. “Four.”
“And you weren’t tempted by any of these proposals?”
Sudden understanding clicked into place in my head, but instead of calming me, it made me angrier. One of the marriage offers had come several years earlier from a young man two years my junior, whom I’d barely known. Brett Malone. Calvin Malone’s firstborn son. The petty son of a bitch was mad because I’d opted not to give birth to his descendants. That wasn’t the reason for the hearing, of course. But it was surely the source of his malicious, twitching smile.
“Of course I was tempted.” It took most of my remaining self-control not to roll my eyes over such a petty grudge. “But I had reasons for turning them down.”
“What were those reas—” 
“Calvin, I think you’ve gotten your answer.” Uncle Rick cut Malone off in midword, having obviously come to the same conclusion I had.
Malone frowned. “Fine.” He consulted his notes again. “I understand that you are no longer involved in a relationship of any kind. Is this also true?”
Fuming, I glanced at Michael, but he only nodded, telling me to answer.
“And is it also true that you have no plans to marry, or to ever have children?”
Fury singed through my veins, lighting tiny fires throughout my body. No longer satisfied by my brother’s passive nodding, I whirled on Michael again, my long black hair swinging out behind me. “Why are they asking me this crap? It’s none of their business, nor is it even vaguely related to what happened to Andrew. Shouldn’t you…object, or something?”
“This isn’t a court of law, Faythe,” Michael reminded me for at least the hundredth time. “They can ask you anything they want. The best way to help yourself right now is to answer their questions.” With as little information as possible.
I’d heard that line often enough to know what he wasn’t saying, and to know that the unspoken part applied as much then as it ever had.
Unsatisfied by his answer, I dismissed Michael entirely, focusing on my father instead. “Daddy?” I begged him with my eyes to step in. To somehow liberate me from the indignity of discussing my sex life—or lack thereof—in front of a trio of old men, two of whom I barely knew. But there was nothing he could do, and we all knew it. He shook his head, the opposite of Michael’s typical response, but it meant the same thing: answer the question.
Beyond angry, I tried to relax, sinking into my chair as if there were nowhere else I’d rather be. “Yes. I am no longer in a romantic relationship, and at the present, I have no plans to marry. Or have children. And for the record, I object to this entire line of questioning on the basis of relevance.”
Michael coughed to disguise a laugh, and Malone frowned, already opening his mouth to ask another question. Fortunately, Uncle Rick stepped in again, eyeing me intently, as if to tell me something other than what he was about to say aloud. “But are you prepared to swear right now that you will never, under any circumstances, marry and start a family?”
“No, of course not.” I shrugged. “I can’t say for sure what I want for dinner tonight, so how can you possibly expect me to know whether or not I’m going to want kids five years from now?”
My father chuckled quietly, and Uncle Rick smiled. I must have done something right.
Malone scowled again. “Is it true that even in your relationship with Marc Ramos, you took active measures to prevent pregnancy?”
My hand clenched around the arm of the chair, and distantly I heard wood creak. My teeth ground together audibly. “You have no right to ask me these da—”
“Gentlemen, I think we’re ready for a break.” Michael stood, pulling me up with him. “Thirty minutes?”
“Of course,” Uncle Rick said, just as Malone said, “Ten.”
Michael didn’t hesitate, already hauling me away from the table. “Let’s meet in the middle and call it twenty.” Malone nodded reluctantly, and my brother shoved the door open, tugging me into a short carpeted hallway.
My father followed us into the living room of the rented lodge, where he stopped to stare out the broad picture window at a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains, so different from the Lazy S, my family’s East Texas ranch. My father peered out at steep, tree-covered slopes and snow-topped peaks, lit by the afternoon sun. He’d been doing that a lot lately—staring at nothing in particular, as if he had something important to say but couldn’t quite figure out how to say it. Which wasn’t like him at all.“What’s going on?” I demanded, jerking free from my brother’s grasp to settle onto the arm of a worn couch.
Before Michael could answer, a door opened on the far side of the room, revealing a young tomcat in jeans and an open button-down shirt, munching from an orange bag of Doritos. Behind him, I glimpsed two unmade beds and a pressboard dresser like those found in hotels all over the world. Though his name wouldn’t come to me, I recognized the tom as one of Blackwell’s enforcers—one of his grandsons, in fact. Blackwell and the toms accompanying him were staying in the main lodge, where my hearing was being held.
To the immediate east of the main lodge, out of sight from the front window, sat three smaller cabins, the first occupied by Malone and his men, the second by my uncle and the enforcers he’d brought. My father and I shared the last cabin with Michael, Jace and Marc.
Michael’s wife, Holly—an honest-to-goodness runway model—thought he was off on a father-son camping trip with our dad. Since there were no children to miss either of them, she was spending the week in Acapulco with her sister.
Our group had reserved the whole Oak Trails cabin complex for an entire week, though no one expected the hearing to take that long. It would have been a lovely place to vacation, complete with private hunting and fishing sites and beautiful nature trails, but that wasn’t why the council had chosen it. Oak Trails was the only location both neutral and isolated enough to suit all the Alphas, and we’d had to wait more than two months to reserve the entire complex. Giving all the employees time off had raised a few eyebrows, but they’d been delighted to have a free vacation.