I knew what she was going to do before she did it. She had just recently picked up a fascination with noses. And she was studying his awfully hard.


Isa grabbed it, digging her tiny fingers in, and wiggled it. She grinned slowly with a giggle bubbling past her lips at her ornery action.

Quickly, I pulled her hand back, muttering, “Sorry. She thinks it’s cute.” I paused and blinked. “I mean, she thinks pinching noses is cute,” I waved a hand at his nose, “not that your nose is cute.” Well, hell. That hadn’t come out right, either. “I mean, not that your nose isn’t cute.” I choked, because that sure as hell didn’t come out right, either. “Um, what I mean is—”

King Zeller held up a quick hand to stop my idiotic ramblings. Thank God.

A smidge of the hardness was gone from his gaze, green eyes sparkling with amusement and dancing as he watched me. “I get it. And it’s all right. I can handle a baby’s playfulness.” Appearing like he wanted to laugh at me, which pissed me off — I was truthfully upset at myself for my blathering — he turned to Isa, careful to keep his distance from her hand that twitched as she stared at his nose again. “And you, little one, are not only smart, but ornery.” His lips lifted, but this time it was his cruel, hard smile as he bent forward, whispering quietly near her ear, “Give your mom hell for me.”

“That’s enough of that,” Elder Zeller muttered, slapping a hand on King Zeller’s shoulder and giving him a reprimanding look as he straightened. “Try not to corrupt the young.”

A grunt was his answer, that cruel smile still lifting King Zeller’s lips before he glanced at those silent around us. “Shall we sit down to eat? Our food’s probably getting cold.”

Elder Zeller grunted, too, much like his son. “We might as well.”

Turning to take my seat and pulling my chair out, I froze as my gaze landed on a table three over. Or, more precisely, on a Mystical sitting at the table. His eyes were on me as mine were on him. John Smith. At King Cave he had challenged me, and we had fought, but I had ended up letting him live. He was also a hybrid, which I had figured out during our fight. He pretended to be fully Shifter, as I did, but where I hid my Vampire nature, he hid his Elemental side. I hadn’t seen him since the challenge, but here he was at King Shadow. And he was one hell of a powerful being, his power damn near rivaling my own Queen’s power.

“Queen Ruckler?” King Zeller asked, standing next to me, pulling my attention back to him as he waited for me to move. His eyes were also on John Smith where I was staring. “Is there an issue?”

“No,” I stated instantly, then I glanced at him unrepentantly. “But would you excuse me for a moment? I’ve just noticed someone I would like to speak with.” And I didn’t want the man disappearing again before I had a chance to talk with him. When King Zeller’s eyebrows raised slowly, his attention turning back to John Smith, he shook his head gradually. Placing Isa in Antonio’s arms, I stated, “I’ll be back in just a moment.” Quickly, I took my jacket off, blatantly showing the weapons I had on — which was what I wanted since the man was powerful — and set it on the back of the chair I would be sitting on. I walked over to where he was already standing away from his table, waiting for me.

He stared at me, eyes roaming my face then down my frame, hands in his pockets. When he was through with his perusal, slightly faster than my scrutiny of him, he stated bluntly, “You’ve changed.” His head tilted toward mine. “Maybe I should show you my creativity, after all.”

My head tilted, ponytail slipping over my shoulder. “The last time you got creative my wrist was shattered and you almost ended up dead.” I snorted. “Again, foreplay shouldn’t include a goddamn physician on standby.” I struck, lifting a quick hand, and jerked his chin down, leveling his face with mine, getting to what I wanted. “Are you a Commander here?”

He jerked his chin away, his wolf growing quietly.

“That’s what I thought,” I muttered, running my hands over the top of my head, tightening my ponytail. “Dammit, John.” I growled, thumping his chest, frustration and complete understanding filling me at the same time. “Meet me after dinner at my tent.”

His eyes became guarded. “To take me up on my possible offer?” No, he didn’t want to talk about himself, or the power he hid from everyone, and he was hedging to find out which it was I wanted.

I growled, not giving him an answer. “Just find my tent.” When he nodded, I turned away from him and rubbed a hand over my face, trying to decide how the hell to use him in this war in a way he would allow. He was too powerful an asset not to take advantage of. Sitting on my chair, the table’s occupants quiet, I lifted Isa from Antonio’s arms and onto my lap. “Sorry for the disruption.”

“Friend of yours?” King Zeller drawled across from me, reclined on his chair.

“An acquaintance,” I specified, resting on my seat more comfortably and taking a sip from my cup of coffee in front of my plate. I made a face and reached for the cream and sugar, the coffee black in my cup. My eyes met Elder Merrick’s. “You may remember him from King Cave.” He had been there during the fight.

Elder Merrick stared, then he glanced over his shoulder at John. Watched him a few moments. He chuckled, the sound still rough, turning back to me. “Yes, I do.” Navy blue eyes searched mine. “I remember you showed him leniency when he challenged you, but what do you plan to do with him now?”

I stirred the sugar and cream in my cup. “I haven’t figured that out a hundred percent yet.”

“Compassion during a challenge,” King Zeller murmured, taking a sip from his own coffee, staring. “He must be someone special.” When I only shrugged — I was not about to give away John Smith’s secret to anyone — King Zeller turned his attention to his plate. “So, Queen Ruckler, you were at King Cave?”

“Yes,” I stated, a bit of ice entering my tone, which couldn’t be helped. It was the place where I was mind raped. But I was still conscious enough to keep the conversation rolling. “Have you ever been?”

“Yes, briefly,” he glanced at me then down to Isa. “I think she’s beginning to sweat.”

“Oh!” I placed my coffee cup down carefully and quickly began taking her green knit jacket off, then her knit cap, setting them on the table. Her hair was a mess on her head, smashed down from the cap as it had been, and I quickly ran my fingers through it, feeling it was, indeed, damp with her sweat, the fire Elemental having done their duty. She grinned at me, rocking back and forth and babbling happily with the attention, making me smile at her sweet innocence. She bounced, pressing her cheek to mine, her baby arms around my throat as she glanced around at the table’s occupants, still grinning. I blinked, seeing everyone staring blatantly at us, their eyes darting back and forth between the two of us. “I’m sorry,” not really, “did I miss something?”

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