Abandoned the clan, gave up being an alpha, and took a ley line out of town." Raphael smiled. "What happened next only the alphas know. But I can tell you the facts: three days later Andorf's head showed up on the Capitol's steps. And two days after that, Curran became Beast Lord. The first law he made forbade Pack members from participating in or betting on the Games."
I counted in my head. Two thousand twenty-four, I was nine. Curran was only a few years older than me . . . "How old was he?"
Raphael nodded. "Yeah."
We sat in silence for a long minute, digesting the story. What meager hopes I had of finding a sympathetic ear within the Pack in regard to Derek's problem had just evaporated into thin air. This was one law on which there wouldn't be any leeway. What should I do now?
Andrea stirred her milk shake with a spoon. "So, how are things with you and Curran?"
There were times in life when I wished for supreme mental powers. Like telekinesis. Mostly, I wanted them to crush my opponents. But right now I wanted them so I could pull the chair out from under Andrea and make her fall on her butt.
I settled for spitting three times over my left shoulder.
"Are you warding off evil?" Raphael's eyes widened.
"Well, the two of you did say the forbidden name. I have to take precautions. I need something wooden. Lean forward, Andrea, so I can knock on your head."
Andrea cracked a smile.
"To answer your question, we're great. Never better. I haven't seen His Fussiness in two months, and I couldn't be happier. If my luck holds, he's lost interest and found himself somebody else to hound for his amusement."
During the flare Curran had finally found a way to pay me back for all those times I'd nearly brought him to apoplexy. He had told me I would sleep with him sooner or later and thank him for his services in bed. Hell would sprout roses first.
"He hasn't found anyone, as far as I know," Raphael said. "Nobody has seen him with a woman since the flare. That's not terribly unusual for him, but it's not common either."
I rolled my eyes. "And that means what?"
Raphael leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Have you ever seen a lion hunt a herd?"
"They are very single-minded. When a lion stalks a herd, he sneaks in close, lies down, and surveys them to choose his victim. He takes his time. The deer or buffalo have no idea he's near. He finds his prey and then he explodes from his hiding place and grabs it. Even if another, perfectly serviceable animal ends up within his reach, he isn't going to alter his course. He has chosen, and he would rather go hungry than change his mind. A dumb way to live, if you ask me, but that's their nature. Me, I don't ignore opportunities."
"Yeah." Andrea's voice dripped with sarcasm.
Raphael gave her a hurt look. "I am what I am."
"You're a man first. You sit here in a human shape, wearing human clothes, making human noises. Pretty obvious which part of you is in control. But when someone points out your excesses, you wave your hands around and start crying, 'Oh no, it's the beast! I can't help it!'
" Andrea caught herself and clamped her mouth shut.
I did my best to change the subject. "I think you give our relationship too much credit. I irritate the hell out of Curran and he found a way to pester me. It's nothing."
"You may be right," Raphael said.
"His Majesty needs a can-I girl anyway. And I'm not it."
"A can-I girl?" Andrea frowned.
I leaned back. " ' Can I fetch you your food, Your Majesty? Can I tell you how strong and mighty you are, Your Majesty? Can I pick out your fleas, Your Majesty? Can I kiss your ass, Your Majesty? Can I . . ."
It dawned on me that Raphael was sitting very still. Frozen, like a statue, his gaze fixed on the point above my head.
"He's standing behind me, isn't he?"
Andrea nodded slowly.
"Technically it should be 'may I,'" Curran said, his voice deeper than I remembered. "Since you're asking permission."
He stepped into my view, reached for a chair at a table next to us, and found it bolted to the floor. He gripped the chair and plucked it from the concrete with one hand, leaving four screws sticking out of the floor. He put the chair next to me, back first, and saddled it like a horse, crossing his arms on the top of the back to show off carved biceps.
"To answer your question, yes, you may kiss my ass. Normally I prefer to maintain my personal space, but you're a Friend of the Pack and your services have proven useful once or twice. I strive to accommodate the wishes of persons friendly to my people. My only question is, would your kissing my ass be obeisance, grooming, or foreplay?"
Raphael went a shade paler and bowed his head. "By your leave, m'lord."
Raphael grabbed Andrea by the hand.
Andrea blinked. "But . . ."
"We have to go now." Raphael's smile had a bit of an edge to it. He fled and dragged Andrea with him, leaving me and Curran alone. Traitors.
"YOU DIDN' T ANSWER MY QUESTION," CURRAN said. "What will it be?"
"No," I said.
Curran grinned and my heart made a little jump. I didn't expect that.
"That's it? That's your witty comeback?"
"Yep." Eloquence 'R' Us. When in trouble, keep it monosyllabic - safer that way.
Curran rested his chin on his crossed arms. Really, he wasn't anything special. Today he wore faded jeans and a grayish-blue polo shirt of all things. It's hard to look lethal in a polo shirt, but he managed. Perhaps because it did nothing to hide the definition on his chest or the hard lines of his shoulders. In fact, if he flexed, he'd probably rip it. I knew that under that shirt his body was hard like a suit of armor.
Perhaps it wasn't his body, but the air about him. When he wanted to, Curran literally emanated menace. I had seen him roar in fury and display an icy, determined anger, sharp like a dagger, and I wasn't sure which was more terrifying. The gold fire in his eyes triggered some sort of primordial fear in me, a feeling born ages ago by the light of the young fire, before reason, before logic, when human existence was ruled by the fear of things with claws and teeth and of being eaten. That fear shackled me. I couldn't rationalize it away. I had to fight it with pure will and so far I had held my own, but I had no guarantee I would resist it the next time he decided to treat me to his alpha stare.
Curran looked me over slowly. I did the same, matching him smirk for smirk. Blond hair cut too short to grab. Nose that looked like it had been broken and never healed right, an odd thing for any shapeshifter, and especially for one of Curran's caliber. Gray eyes . . . I looked into those eyes and saw tiny gold sparks dancing in their depths. And my heart made another little jump.