“You planning to get there sometime this century, Vic?” I glanced at my watch, my foot tapping an anxious beat on the floorboard.
Victor Di Carlo shot me a long-suffering smile, then turned back to the road. “Speed limit’s seventy-five, Faythe. I’m doing eighty. But if you think you can get there faster on foot, be my guest.”
But of course, I couldn’t. Not even on four paws. A cheetah can run sixty-five miles an hour, but can’t sustain that speed for long. And I’m no cheetah. So I was stuck drumming my stubby nails on the passenger-seat armrest in Vic’s Suburban as it stubbornly maintained a speed I considered unacceptable.
“Relax.” Vic flicked on the left blinker, then moved the SUV smoothly out of the right lane to pass a lumbering semi. “We’ll get there on schedule, and Marc will be waiting.”
I nodded, locking and unlocking the passenger-side door until he glared at me. “Sorry.”
“Jeez, Faythe, you act like you haven’t seen him in weeks,” Ethan said, and I twisted in my seat to see him roll his eyes from the back row, his usual good-humored grin firmly in place. He was the youngest of my four brothers—only two years my elder—and the one most likely to beat me up in training, then bring ice for my bruises. “How long has it been?”
I stared out my window at empty fields and winter-bare trees growing dim in the late-afternoon light. “Nine weeks, tomorrow.” A lot had happened since Marc had been exiled, and the most notable example lay sleeping in the seat behind me.
Manx’s baby. Des. The two-week-old was fastened into a reclined, backward-facing car seat on the bench next to his mother. Who somehow managed to look disarmingly beautiful, even with drool trailing from her open mouth. Since the baby came, she caught her z’s when she could. Whenever he was quiet. As did the rest of us.
It turns out sensitive cat hearing comes with a serious downside.
In the past two months, Manx had given birth, and Kaci—the wild teenage tabby we’d taken in—had mostly settled into life at the ranch, though so far she’d refused to Shift. November had blown leaves from the trees, December had brought a rare Texas snowstorm, and the eighth day of January had crowned it all with an even less common and more beautiful layer of thick ice, which had yet to fully melt.
But I had not seen Marc. Not even once, in all those weeks.
Vic grinned at me for a moment before turning back to the traffic. “And I suppose it’s the stimulating conversation you miss, right?”
“La-la-la!” Ethan sang. He slouched in his seat and stuffed earbuds into his ears to block out the response he might not want to hear from his sister.
“Right now, I’d listen to anything he has to say, so long as I get to hear it in person.” Sighing, I snatched a paper cup from the drink holder and downed the last of my 7-Eleven coffee. It was cold. As I dropped the cup into the trash can wedged between the seats, Vic’s cell phone rang. He leaned to the right and dug it from his left hip pocket, then flipped it open without swerving an inch. I probably would have put us in the ditch.
“Vic.” It was my dad. We could all hear him perfectly well, except for Manx, who was now snoring delicately, if such a thing was possible. “Your father came through for me. I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Vic’s sigh was audible, and his face suddenly drained of tension I hadn’t even realized it held. He smiled as the Suburban soared past another eighteen-wheeler. “I never doubted it.” But the relief in his eyes said otherwise. He’d been worried. We all had.
Springs squealed over the line—Greg Sanders leaning back in his desk chair. He’d probably called as soon as he got the news. “Remind Faythe to deliver my message to your family, please,” he said, and I rolled my eyes.
“I know, Daddy.”
My father chuckled. “Drive carefully, and let me know when you get there.”
“Will do.” Vic was still grinning like a clown when he hung up, and I doubted he’d even heard what he was agreeing to. Fortunately, I had.
“So, that’s three now, right?” I twisted in my seat to look at Ethan, who’d turned off the music and was no longer feigning sleep.
The backseat groaned as he searched for a more comfortable position. “Yeah. Uncle Rick and Ed Taylor.” Whose daughters both owed their lives to our Pride. I’d freed my cousin Abby after we were both kidnapped by a jungle stray intending to sell us as breeders, then we’d caught and killed that same stray before he could snatch Carissa Taylor. Their fathers were understandably loyal to mine. “And now Bert.”
Umberto Di Carlo—Vic’s dad—was one of my father’s oldest friends. We’d been counting on his support, but were far from sure we’d get it. After all, politics could uproot entire family trees, to say nothing of friendships.
Nine weeks ago I’d been acquitted—barely—of infecting my college boyfriend and then killing him in self-defense. On the last day of my trial—the day after Marc was exiled—Calvin Malone had made a formal challenge to my father’s leadership, petitioning to have him removed as head of the Territorial Council. Though he remained our Alpha, my dad had been temporarily suspended from his position of authority over the other council members, pending an official vote by all ten Alphas. That vote was scheduled for the first of February—two weeks away.
Since his suspension, my father and Malone had been fighting—figuratively—for a commitment of support from each of their peers.