I met her gaze. “You don’t have to bribe me. I wouldn’t let anyone touch Andrea anyway.”

“You may think so now, but friendships end and wither, while business arrangements persist. I’m an oldfashioned alpha as well, and I’d prefer to make the bargain.”

Was there a downside to this? She was right, I knew nothing of the customs. If I chose to accept Curran’s offer .

. . What the hell was I thinking?

“If I do end up being his mate, we have a deal,” I said. “That’s one colossal ‘if.’ ”

Aunt B’s eyes lit up. “Excellent, dear. Excellent.”

“I’ll tell him about this.”

“I expect you to.”

“You do realize that he could change his mind? We didn’t part on good terms.”

She pursed her lips. “Mating is a volatile time for our kind. Newly mated shapeshifters are jealous, possessive, and prone to violence. Their instincts are in overdrive. You want to hole up with your mate somewhere safe, and if anyone looks at him for longer than two seconds, you have to fight with yourself not to sink your claws into her throat. It’s not the most rational time in one’s life, which is why the Pack Law makes provisions for the mating frenzy.”

She reached into her bag and pulled out a small leather book with a clasp. She unlocked the clasp, revealing pages protected by clear plastic. A tiny photo album.

“These are all of my hooligans.” Aunt B flipped through the pages and held the album out to me. A young man smiled back at me from the photograph. Thin to the point of skinny, he had glossy dark hair and a kid’s grin: wide and happy.

“Alejandro,” she said. “We call him Mouse, because he was always so quiet, you wouldn’t know he is in the room. Five three, a hundred and twenty pounds wet. Arms like matches. Eats like a horse but nothing sticks to him. He’s a shy sweet kid. Look at that grin.” She smiled. “Not a mean bone in the boy. He got married last

year to a very nice rat girl. Girls joked a bit: mouse got married to a rat. At his wedding, Curran remarked that his wife was very pretty. Alejandro jumped on the table and tried to cut Curran’s throat with his dinner knife.”

I blinked. “What happened?”

“Well, what do you think happened? Curran grabbed him by the neck and we had to go and get a loup cage to put the groom in until he calmed down. That’s how he spent his reception, in the loup cage in the other room, screaming curses. His bride sat by the cage until he cooled off enough to be reasoned with and then got in there with him. He didn’t scream after that.” Aunt B rubbed the photo with her thumb. Her eyes were warm. “He’s very embarrassed by it all now.”

I didn’t know the Pack law well, but I knew enough to recognize a challenge. “Curran could’ve killed him.”

“Oh, yes. Would’ve been well within his rights, too. The Pack law is very careful. It doesn’t say you can’t punish a shapeshifter during the mating frenzy. It just says that you don’t have to punish him. If you want to overlook his infraction, it won’t be seen as a sign of weakness on your part. Mind you, Curran wasn’t trying to rile Mouse up. He has to come to every wedding, because they always invite him, and he hates it. He’s usually very careful with what he says, but he was tired that day and he said the first polite congratulatory thing that popped into his head. ‘You have a beautiful wife, Alejandro.’ ”

“That was it?”

She nodded. “Yes, that’s all that was said. This is the kind of insanity you’re dealing with, dear. Except for you, it’s much worse. Curran has a harder time controlling the possessive urges than most. He is . . . damaged.”

“What do you mean?”

She grimaced. “It’s not my place to explain this to you. What you need to know is that his protective drive is very strong. I’m amazed he hasn’t rolled you in a blanket and dragged you off into the Keep. He’s been insufferable since you had your falling-out. He loves you, Kate, and that’s why he’s waiting patiently for you to make up your mind.”

“I know it may come as a shock, but it’s sort of considered polite to wait for the consent of the woman. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you don’t wait, you may have to deal with pesky criminal charges like kidnapping and rape.”

Aunt B rolled her eyes. “The boy isn’t a maniac—no is no and he’ll understand that. To force you would be going against everything he stands for and you know it as well as I do. For everything, there is a price in this world. His price is us. Ask yourself, is he worth becoming an alpha to the Pack? Do you love him enough? And take it from someone who buried two of her mates: you might want to decide fast. We live in a dangerous world. If you see a chance to be happy, you have to fight for it, so later you have no regrets.”

CHAPTER 23

AUNT B LEFT. I WAITED A FEW BREATHS, FOUND my shoes, and climbed up the stairs. And ran into Jennifer on the landing. Jennifer looked like she devoted her life to the god of running: long legs, long body, long face. Long teeth. Especially in the beast form.

Jennifer and her husband, Daniel, ran Clan Wolf. From what I’d heard, of the two, Jennifer was more aggressive and more likely to twist the head off your shoulders. Daniel could be reasoned with, but if you pissed off Jennifer, it was all over.

“Going somewhere?” The wolf alpha crossed her lean arms.

“Out.”

“I can’t let you do that.”

I looked into her blue eyes. “You might want to rephrase that.”

Jim wandered out of the kitchen and leaned against the door frame.

Jennifer raised her head. She had a couple of inches of height on me and she milked them for all she had. “You are the Beast Lord’s mate and under my protection.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“The wolf clan has its sources.”

Well, wasn’t that special. “Then the wolf clan also knows that my mate status is still in question. I haven’t said yes.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You dumped catnip on his bed and welded his weight bench together.”

Jennifer two, Kate zero. “That’s a private matter between me and His Furriness. Even if we were mated, I have my own name and I made my own rep. I don’t think the term ‘mate’ should trump everything I’ve done. I’ve earned more than that.”

Jim chuckled softly.

Jennifer took a step back and sized me up. “Point taken,” she said finally. “But if you walk out of that door, I’ll have to explain to Curran that I had you secured and let you go. I have enough to worry about as it is.”

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