FUCK MY life.
I’d have to check, but I was pretty sure I had a shirt that said that somewhere in my closet. If I didn’t, it was next on the list of things to get. Because it fit—my life was fucked.
Sighing, I turned the radio up in an effort to drown out my thoughts. I rattled down the road in my old beat-up work truck—which was another thing I needed to take care of. I’d owned a sweet ’69 Ford Mustang. Had being the key word. It went up in flames not long ago… with the mate of Dolf, our heir apparent and head beta, inside.
Kirk made it out alive. My baby wasn’t so lucky, and I hadn’t replaced her yet. Yes, I was mourning a car. I loved her. Ugh. So much for drowning out my thoughts. I turned on my blinker and made the turn onto Alpha Armonty’s street for an emergency meeting he’d called.
Bad enough this was Monday, but it was what humans called Cyber Monday, goddess help us. I turned the heat up a little more. December had arrived with what the South considered abnormally cold temperatures. Frankly I liked the cold—liked the snow, as long as we weren’t buried under a mountain of the stuff.
As I pulled up in front of his house, I saw Dolf’s truck was already there. Dolf, our head beta, was the Alpha’s son and heir apparent. The other three betas—Heller, Aidric, and Brier—had arrived too. That left me. I was also a beta for the West Falls Clowder.
I parked behind Heller and sat in my truck, staring sightlessly at the house. One of the reasons we were meeting was because I met my mate, Marshell Foles, a few days ago. Good news, right? Cue the canned audience applause.
Now the bad news. My mate was possibly stronger than my Alpha and the heir apparent together. Okay, now cue the canned boos and hisses. Maybe I should’ve said life was fucked with a capital F.
I flashed back to the night I found out he was mine and the heavy petting session we had on his couch. Now my cock was hard. Wonderful. Just what I needed—an erection right before I met with my Alpha.
I pushed at the bulge, frowning. “Down, boy. I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
In order for a shifter to mate, we had to share come and blood during sex—which involved bottoming. For my mate I could bottom. The thing was, I didn’t see myself doing it on a regular basis. I was a top—which was not that big of a deal, except so was Marshell.
Somehow I didn’t see Marshell bottoming any more than I wanted to. The man screamed Alpha male. That was another can of worms, and not the only one by any means. And sitting here analyzing this was useless. I got out and walked toward the front door before one of them noticed me sitting out here in my truck like a dummy.
Just as I got to the door, Dolf opened it, read my shirt, and promptly burst out laughing. “You have got to tell me where you get those.”
Smirking, I shook my head. “It’s a well-guarded secret.”
Today I wore a black shirt with white writing: Be careful when you follow the masses…. Sometimes the M is silent. “Masses” was in light blue, as was the letter M, to draw attention to the play on words. I’d been known to follow an ass or two in my day. Those days were over now.
Dolf nodded at my truck. “I was wondering if I was going to have to come out there.”
“I had a feeling you’d be tapping on the driver’s window if I didn’t get out soon,” I said as Dolf moved out of the way so I could enter the Alpha’s home.
“I was counting down. Dad and the rest are already in his office.”
“That’s where the food is, right? I just got off work, so I haven’t eaten.”
Dolf clapped me on the shoulder as he shut the front door. “Of course. Come on back before they eat it all—damn bunch of vultures.”
I followed Dolf. The smells coming from Alpha Armonty’s office made my mouth water. “Something smells good.”
“Mom got hot wings. There are fries, coleslaw, and potato salad to go with it. And rolls too.”
“Your mom rocks.”
We entered the office. Everyone was standing around helping themselves. Good. That meant there was still food, and I made a beeline for it.
“Hey! Look what the cat finally dragged in.” Aidric shoulder-bumped me.
“Oh, such sharp wit. It cuts like a dull knife.” I rolled my eyes. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you bumping me away from the table, you hog.”
“Hot wings, man.” Aidric winked at me. “Food of the gods and hungry werecat shifters.”
“You’re always hungry,” I griped, shoving Aidric out of my way. “Stop blocking the table, dude.”
“Hey, Remi,” Brier greeted me.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Good, good. Just got through helping my sister, Breanna, move into her new apartment here in town. I swear, how does one person accumulate that much stuff?” Brier complained.
“Oh that’s right. I forgot she was back,” I said. “Where was she living before?”
“Philadelphia. She moved up there for her job, but she couldn’t stand the cold weather and endless snow. All she did was gripe, gripe, gripe. I finally got tired of hearing it and told her if she was that unhappy, then she should move back home. I was kidding, but I don’t think she got that. Next thing I know I’m getting a phone call and a due date for her to move.” Brier scowled at a chip on his plate. “Should’ve kept my mouth shut.”
“What did you tell me she did?” I asked.
“She’s an accountant. Now that she’s settled into her new place, she’s started job hunting. She’s got some savings, but that won’t last forever.”
“Is she still unmated?” I asked.
“Yep. She had a boyfriend, but they weren’t mates. And speaking of mates, I heard you found yours. Man, sorry I couldn’t attend the dinner. Congrats.” Brier sat down at the round table we always used for meetings.
“Yeah, you should’ve seen his face.” Aidric chuckled.
“Thanks,” I said, unsure if I should say more. Did Brier know the situation? Aidric did. He was there that night.
“Welcome, Remi.” Alpha Armonty pointed at the side table where the drinks were set. “There’s several different sodas to pick from, and tea. Get yourself a plate and grab a seat.”
“Yes, Alpha.” I filled a plate and got a drink. After we were settled, Alpha Armonty cleared his throat. All talking ceased.
“We’re meeting for several reasons. First let me congratulate Remi. As I understand it, Remi met his mate during Heller’s Thanksgiving dinner, which I wish now the wife and I had attended.”
“Yeah, you never know what kind of trouble Heller’s going to stir up,” Aidric joked.
“Again, let me remind everyone Lawson’s to blame for the whole Thanksgiving deal. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.” Heller nodded as though that was the end of the subject.
“You chickenshit.” Aidric poked Heller in the ribs. “Look at you trying to throw it off on your mate, and the guy isn’t even here to defend himself.”
“I’ll tell him,” I volunteered, flashing Heller an evil grin. “Knowing Lawson, he’ll hide Heller’s hair-styling stuff as revenge. Hmm, I might even have to suggest that. Just in case, you know.”
“He’d need a storage unit for all of it,” Brier added and then took a drink of his soda.
“And a forklift to get it to the storage unit.” Dolf snickered, licking the sauce from the hot wings off his fingers.
“Just a damn minute here.” Heller threw his napkin at me. “How’d this discussion get onto me anyhow? And Remi? You might want to remember Lawson’s like a brother to your mate. Maybe I’ll tell Lawson to tell Marshell how you picked on me… and I’ll have you in the doghouse, man.”
“Doghouse? Really?” Dolf hooted.
“Sounds better than cathouse.” Heller shrugged and then bit into a wing.
“All of you need to behave, or I’ll sic Kirk on you guys,” Dolf threatened, and then smirked at the table as a whole.
“Oh goddess, anything but that.” Heller shuddered. Even Brier and Aidric shut up.
“Impressive threat, Dolf.” I looked around. Dolf had managed to get the last word. “Maybe I need a shirt that says that.”
“Gentlemen, can we get back to the matter at hand?” Alpha Armonty pinched the bridge of his nose.
“What was the matter at hand?” Brier asked, confusion clear on his face.
“I swear you have the attention span of a gnat,” I said to Brier as I took a bite of coleslaw. “Mmm, this is good.”
“Met a lot of gnats, have you?” Brier fired back at me.
I glared at Brier. “Why, as a matter of fact—”
“I’m retiring!” Alpha Armonty yelled, silencing the table.
What? Stunned, I looked at Dolf, who sat at the table, composed as ever. In fact, he looked like the cat who just ate the canary. Man, he looked pleased. I glanced around the table. At least I wasn’t the only one sitting there with his mouth hanging open.
Alpha Armonty pointed his finger at Dolf. “By all that’s holy, I wish you the best of luck with these guys, son.”
Shock rendered us speechless, and then the room exploded with questions. Our Alpha held up his hand, and then we all fell silent again.
“Dolf’s mother and I wish to do some traveling, and we want to do it while we’re still young enough to enjoy it,” Alpha Armonty said. “I plan to announce this to the clowder tomorrow night. Friday I’ll hand everything over to Dolf. That night, you betas will pledge your loyalty to Dolf. By Saturday, June and I are heading to Hawaii for several weeks. We’ve already checked with the Alpha whose territory we plan to stay in.”
“Hawaii? Oh man, I’m jealous.” Aidric bit into a wing rather viciously. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“And when you come back?” I asked, ignoring Aidric’s pout.
“I’ll take my place as an elder in our clowder. Once Dolf settles into his role as Alpha, I might consider running for Central territory leader. I have the experience as well as the connections.”
Paranormals had laws, a government, and punishments suited to their kind. The paranormals in each territory voted for which elected Alpha was on the ballot. The winner led that territory, and their title was territory leader. They were like human governors. There were five territories in the US: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Island, and Western Zones.
Those five territory leaders joined with other territory leaders from around the world to make up the Alliance of Paranormals, or AoP, which had over a hundred members at last count. They had the power to change laws voted in by territory leaders. It was very similar to the humans’ Supreme Court.
“Wow,” Brier whispered. “Well, I’m sure I speak for the rest of us when I say I wish you the best of luck, have fun in Hawaii, and is there a suitcase big enough for me to hide in?”
There were several murmurs of agreement as we all stood and made our way to him.
“Thank….” Alpha Armonty stopped speaking, his voice breaking. He took a deep breath and started again. “Thank you, my betas.” Alpha Armonty laughed slightly. “Well, soon to be Dolf’s betas. It’s been a pleasure working with each of you.”
“It’s been our honor, Alpha,” I said. The others agreed. We crowded around him, either giving him a quick hug or shaking his hand.
Brier turned to Dolf. “Congratulation to you too, man.”
Aidric pounded Dolf on the back. “Dolf, you dirty dog, you didn’t even drop us a hint.”
“Yeah, he can keep a secret, can’t he? Congratulations, Dolf,” I said.
So much had changed over the past year and a half. Dolf and Tal found they had a second mate. It’d been a rough time for them. Paranormals, as a rule, didn’t like humans, and Kirk was human before Dolf and Tal mated him. Then another shifter tried to kill Kirk.
Not long after that, Heller found his mate, who was also human. Of course. It just so happened Heller had a huge problem with humans—he hated them. But they worked it out. Or rather, they were still working it out.
Now I’d met my mate, who was very close to Lawson. In fact, they had a sexual relationship over ten years ago. Then hunters found Marshell and attacked. Lawson found out humans weren’t the only beings who walked the Earth.
My mate was a paranormal, which was kind of ironic. I’d been totally fine with a human. What I didn’t expect was someone who drank blood and had the power Marshell packed. Why was nothing ever easy?
We finished congratulating Dolf and Alpha Armonty and took our seats.
“Now, back to business. My retirement was my first announcement. Now for the second. As I mentioned, Remi found his mate a few days ago while attending a Thanksgiving dinner at Heller’s house. His mate is Marshell Foles. He has a sister, Janelle, who mated with Sam Ross, who, as you all know, is the owner of Arches. Marshell is a paranormal—a Vetala.”
“I remember Sam mating her.” Brier frowned. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but why do you sound concerned all of a sudden? We accepted her, so…?”
“Okay, let’s review,” Dolf said. “The Vetala are snakelike paranormals who don’t shift. I’d been told the word vetala translates into ‘vampire’ or ‘zombie,’ but neither is accurate. Unlike vamps or zombies, the Vetalas are very much alive. They age slowly, just like us, and die just like us.”
“Oh yeah. I remember that. They drink blood, right?” Brier asked, biting into another wing.
“Yes,” Dolf said. “Also the Vetala appear human until provoked. Or highly aroused. At which point their fangs drop and their eyes turn a very light blue with a black vertical iris.”
I spoke up. “Marshell and the others have to drink blood in order to survive, guys. But Vetalas also eat regular food. You should know they inject venom through their fangs, and this paralyzes the victims when they feed. As a rule they don’t kill their prey. Also, as with vamps, the Vetala can wipe their victims’ memory of the attack.”
What I didn’t add was Marshell told me he could use the venom to paralyze me during sex if he fed then. It wouldn’t hurt me, just make me completely helpless. He could do whatever he wanted, and I could do nothing about it. The idea freaked me completely out. Talk about a trust issue.
“Is he dangerous?” Aidric asked.
“No more so than the rest of us,” I said, trying not to get offended. “He hasn’t killed when feeding—only when threatened or attacked.”
“That does bring us to an important issue,” Dolf said. “Marshell is very powerful. I was there when Marshell found out Remi was his mate. The power he released was truly impressive, which is the problem. He’s stronger than Dad… and me.”
That scared me to death. What Alpha would accept a new member into his clowder who was stronger than him? Such a person could upset the power structure. Alphas were strong-willed, natural leaders, somewhat arrogant, and very confident.
“Wow. That’s serious.” Brier glanced at our Alpha, then at Dolf. “What are you going to do, Alpha?”
Alpha Armonty looked at Dolf. “I’m leaving it up to Dolf since I’m retiring.”
Dolf sighed and pushed his plate away. “At this point I have no idea what I’m going to do. He’s Remi’s mate, and I respect that. I don’t want to lose Remi as a beta, but… well, I’m still debating the issue.”
Thus the whole “fuck my life” analogy. I didn’t know what I was going to do either. I loved my job as a beta. I loved my clowder. I didn’t want to leave if Dolf couldn’t accept Marshell, but I also didn’t want to lose my mate. Mates were a gift from our goddess Bast, and we didn’t turn our backs on such a gift.
“Remi, I think you and Marshell need to talk.” Aidric pushed his food around on his plate too. “Marshell may be powerful. He may even be more powerful than you. But Dolf, has anyone asked him if he’s even interested in leading a group? He can’t challenge you for position since he’s not a werecat. Am I right about that?”
“You’re right,” Alpha Armonty said. “He can’t. But what if he let his power leak around the clowder members? That could erode Dolf’s position as Alpha. Or what if they refused to accept Marshell because of it? Dolf is well liked. Our members could be threatened by Marshell’s power.”
“What if we called a meeting and told the clowder? The Vetala don’t live in groups like us or werewolves, do they?” Brier asked.
“No,” I said. “They don’t. At the most you’ll have a hunting pair. They hunt in twos as a precaution. Other than that they stay to themselves. Janelle and Marshell hunt together, and they lived together after they moved here. Well, until Janelle met Sam and Heller met Lawson. They still hunt together, though.”
“‘Hunt.’ Earlier you called the humans they fed from ‘prey.’ Am I the only one who finds that kind of freaky?” Brier asked.
“We shift. For all we know, they find our shifting kind of freaky,” I spat. Oh yeah, I was beginning to see why Dolf reacted as he did when he told us about Kirk.
“I didn’t mean it as an insult.” Brier held up his hand. “But come on, Remi. You telling me it doesn’t freak you out some? I’m guessing your mate would want to feed from you. I mean, he would, wouldn’t he? Even though you’re not human?”
Shit. He would hit on the one thing I couldn’t answer.
“Okay, I’m going to throw this out there, so don’t yell at me,” Aidric said before I could formulate a response to Brier’s question. “Our clowder is already uneasy since we’ve added two humans—”
Dolf sighed. “This again? Dammit, they are not—”
“Yes, yes, they’re no longer human since they mated two of ours,” Aidric hurriedly added. “But they weren’t born werecats. They grew up with different values and beliefs. Now we’re talking about accepting another paranormal—which we’ve never done in our clowder until Janelle—who’s stronger than our Alpha.”
“It’s a problem,” Brier agreed.
“Look, the man’s my mate,” I snapped, my anger rising. “While I don’t want to leave you guys or my clowder… he’s my mate. Do you get that? I’ve watched how Kirk fought to be accepted. Hell, he still fights. Lawson probably will too. I’ve already heard rumblings about Janelle from some of the older clowder members and—”
“Wait a minute. Rumblings? What are you talking about?” Aidric demanded. “Dolf?”
“After her and Sam’s joining ceremony, the betas and Alpha met at Sam’s house for the welcoming party we always have,” Dolf said, rubbing at his eyes. “A few of the elders’ wives dropped off food—again, as they always do—then left. Janelle had a few words to say about there not being any other women there but her.”
“She referred to us as a ‘good-ol’-boys club’ and pointed out there are no women as betas either,” Heller said. “That there are very few women business owners. She asked Lawson if our clowder was stuck in the nineteen twenties.”
Dolf massaged his temples.
“How do you know she said that to Lawson?” Alpha Armonty asked. “Lawson wasn’t at the party after the joining ceremony. It was just those of us with rank.”
“She said that to Lawson after the joining ceremony,” Heller said.
“We’ve never had a woman try for a beta position,” Alpha Armonty added. “That’s why we don’t have one.”
“Do they even know they can?” Heller took a deep breath. “I feel I should add that Lawson considers Janelle and Marshell family. If Marshell isn’t accepted, Lawson has let me know it’s going to be a problem for him.”
“Now what does that mean?” Dolf demanded.
“He’ll leave the clowder,” Heller said. “He says if the man he considers a brother isn’t good enough for us, then neither is he. If he leaves, then I go with him.”
“So I might end up losing two of my betas?” Dolf slammed his hand on the table. “No, dammit. I won’t. All of you matter too much to me.”
“Janelle is right about the small-minded attitudes, Dolf. That might make some mad, but it’s true. You don’t want to lose us? Then this clowder needs to come out of the nineteen hundreds and join the twenty-first century. I won’t walk away from Marshell.” I sat back in my chair.
Well, looks like I made up my mind what to do about my very powerful, very deadly mate.