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My uncle had thrown his weight behind us immediately, and Edward Taylor had followed suit a week later. But our Pride’s other allies had asked for time to consider. To weigh their options. Their hesitance stung, but it made sense. However they voted, their decisions would have an irreversible effect on the council, and on the werecat community at large. After all, most of them had sons serving in Prides on both sides of the conflict. Brothers living in territories loyal to Malone. Daughters or sisters married to toms participating in the coup. I was lucky that three of my brothers—Michael, Owen, and Ethan—had no loyalties to anyone else. As for my brother Ryan, well, the less said about him the better.

The waiting was hard on Vic, but it was nothing compared to the effect the whole thing was having on our fellow enforcer Jace, whose stepfather had organized the attempt to unseat my dad. Jace felt personally responsible for Calvin Malone’s betrayal, though he could have done nothing to stop it.

“What about Malone?” I asked, doing a mental tally of the other Alphas.

Ethan pulled his earphones from his ears and wound them around one hand. “Last I heard, he has three votes, too. Milo Mitchell, Wes Gardner, and Paul Blackwell.”

Mitchell’s son, Kevin, had been kicked out of our Pride four months earlier for repeatedly helping a stray sneak into the south-central territory. Gardner was irate over our “failure” to avenge his brother Jamey’s death at Manx’s hands. And as far as we could tell, Paul Blackwell was siding against us because he legitimately objected to my father’s equal-opportunity approach to leadership. Apparently the saying about an old dog’s inability to learn new tricks held true for old cats, as well, and though Blackwell—unlike Malone—didn’t seem to hate women and strays, neither did he envision a place for them among the community’s leaders.

That left only two undecided Alphas: Nick Davidson and Jerald Pierce—another fellow enforcer’s father. And with both sides now scrambling to claim those votes, one thing was clear: the fight was about to get ugly.

“Parker’s dad will come through.” Vic sounded much more confident than I felt. “That’ll give us four.” But we needed Davidson’s vote, too. Four votes would only lock the proceedings in a tie, and we needed a clear victory. Otherwise, even if my father managed to hold on to his position, the peace would never last.

“How much longer?” I asked, my hand clenched around the car door handle.

“Our exit’s up next.” Vic nodded at the sign ahead, advertising food and gas in one mile.

About time! After hours on the road and too many cups of coffee to count…

I turned in my seat to see Ethan sitting up straight now and shrugging into his jacket. Manx was still asleep, her long black ringlets draping the back of the seat and the front of her blouse. She was the very picture of peace and happiness, of maternal bliss, in spite of very little rest and the unpleasant reason for our trip.

Des was born on the last day of 2008, which would have given Manx an extra tax deduction for the year—if she were a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant. But she was neither, which also meant she couldn’t board a plane. Which is how Vic, Ethan, and I wound up driving her from our ranch in eastern Texas to the outskirts of Atlanta, where Vic’s dad—and my father’s newest ally—was hosting Manx’s hearing.

I’d volunteered for the transport—normally a very dull assignment—because we had to drive through the free territory to get to Atlanta. Marc was in the free territory.

And in minutes, he’d be in my arms.

“Manx, wake up!” Leaning over the armrest, I shoved the bottom of the center bench seat hard enough to jostle the tabby, but careful not to brush her leg. She didn’t like to be touched. Considering the abuse she’d suffered, I couldn’t blame her.

Her eyes fluttered open, and in a single blink she banished the sleep stupor from her expression, replacing it with an instant alertness I envied. Followed by an initial, panicked search for her child, as if someone had stolen him while she slept. And that’s exactly what she was afraid of.

When she was still pregnant, we’d all heard her scream at night, crying in her sleep. The first few times, my mother had tried to wake her, but my father insisted she stop before she got a broken nose for her efforts. Fortunately, the dreams had ended when the baby came, and Manx insisted he stay in the bed with her. She said he slept better like that, but I couldn’t help thinking she was the one who really benefited. As did the rest of us, from the peaceful silence.

Manx relaxed when her eyes found Des, still asleep in his car seat. She pushed hair back from her face and looked up. “This is Mississippi?”

“Yup.” Vic flicked the right blinker on and veered onto the off-ramp as I settled back into my seat. I ignored the restaurants we passed, focusing on the Conoco station at the end of a strip of convenience stores.

By all accounts, Marc had settled into his new life as well as could be expected. He’d found a job and an isolated rental house, and was slowly carving out an existence for himself in the human world—a world that no longer included me. At least in person. But we spoke on the phone almost daily, and I’d even talked him through a partial Shift a month earlier. Though I’d only been ordered to teach my fellow Pride cats the partial shift, I was proud to say that Marc Ramos, my favorite stray, was the first tom to accomplish it.

Evidently he held more than enough suppressed anger to trigger the facial transformation. Not a surprise.

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