Behind her, Andrea Nash, my best friend and the current beta female of Clan Bouda, walked into the room. Short, blond, and lethal, Andrea was engaged to Aunt B's son, Raphael. People really liked Andrea. She seemed nice and approachable. She also could shoot the dots off dominoes from great distances and turned into a monster with claws the size of my pinkies.

I smiled at Aunt B and pointed at the table. "Please, join me."

For shapeshifters, an offering of food held a certain significance. It could be a declaration of romantic interest, or it could be a confirmation of alpha status. Those who offered food declared themselves responsible for those who took it. Despite the fact that Aunt B had clued me in on the custom before I became the Consort, she had tried to feed me. Since I stood higher than Aunt B on the food chain, the tables had turned.

"Don't mind if I do." Aunt B seated herself on my right. Andrea took position behind her, as beta.

I glanced at her. "Really?"

Andrea sighed. "Oh fine, just don't tell anybody." She dropped into the chair next to me. I passed her a plate.

"What brings you up all these stairs?"

"I'm concerned for your well-being." Aunt B slid a piece of bacon into a pancake, folded it, and bit off a small piece. "And about the future of my clan, naturally."

Naturally. "Is it about the trip to the Black Sea?"

"Of course. Did Curran mention the Desandra incident?"

Here we go. "Yes."

"Did he also happen to mention that I was the one who had escorted that poor child back to her father?"

Oh boy. "No."

"How forgetful of him." Aunt B took another bite of the pancake. "Both my late husband and I had gone on that trip. His family was from the Iberian Peninsula. Half of our clan comes from Africa and the other half from Iberia, but I digress. Bottom line, I was there. I've met Jarek Kral, Desandra's father. He is a troglodyte."

I choked on my coffee.

"He is a ruthless, violent vandal without any shred of conscience."


"He came from nothing, so he's obsessed with building his 'royal line.' He's so hung up on passing down his own meager genes, it's making him crazy, and he wasn't playing with a full deck to begin with. Every single one of his children, except for Desandra, has gone loup or gotten themselves killed, so he sells and bargains with her like she was some prized heifer, and she goes right along with it. Desandra is a doormat."

Okay. This was clearly the day for frank revelations from the bouda clan.

I added more coffee to my cup. Curran was right. If Jarek was all about his dynasty, he shouldn't have been eager to kill his only daughter to keep some mountain pass. The Carpathian shapeshifters were playing a complicated game, and I had a feeling they planned on scoring goals by punting our severed heads.

Aunt B looked at her cup. Barabas filled it with coffee.

"Thank you, dear. Kate, you must understand the way you will be perceived. Curran is the Beast Lord, an oddity among alphas. Most alphas lead packs consisting of one species, with an occasional odd shapeshifter or two, and most of them have to fend off challenges from rivals from inside and outside their territory. Curran rules a huge prosperous pack and his competition here in the States is minimal. His territory is secure."

"That's because nobody here is dumb enough to take him on," Andrea said.

"Precisely. But the Carpathian alphas don't fully understand what he's capable of, and to them Curran presents an opportunity. They will want to either kill him for the bragging rights-a dangerous proposition, and most of them aren't suicidal-or benefit from an alliance with him. The point is, to them he has value. You, on the other hand, have no value at all. They don't know you and they win nothing by making friends with you. To them you're Curran's passing amusement that has grown into an obsession. A hindrance that should be removed, because the easiest way to Curran is through a woman."

"Or panacea." I still wasn't sure where she was going with this.

"I have my doubts about their willingness to actually part with panacea." Aunt B made another pancake wrap. "But I'm sure that the moment you step off that boat, you'll be a target. Can we agree on that?"

"If they want to dance, I'll be happy to oblige."

Aunt B sighed. "I have no doubt in your martial abilities, dear. I think all of us here know that you can hold your own. I'm worried about finding you at the bottom of some mountain ravine with your skull cracked open as you stumbled off the path in a 'regrettable' accident. Or the roof of one of those charming European cottages collapsing on you, completely by chance. Or someone accidentally shooting you in the back from half a mile away. It would be terrible. Everyone would express their condolences, and then they'd send a compassionate beautiful young girl wrapped in a pretty ribbon with a bow to Curran's bedroom to console him."

I leaned forward. "Do you honestly think he would take that consolation prize?"

She leaned toward me. "I don't want to find out. I also know that Mahon is thinking of going, and when the old bear wants something, he usually gets his way."

How the hell did she find out? "Do you have spies in Clan Heavy?"

"I have spies everywhere."

I looked at Andrea, who was hoarding bacon on her plate.

"She had tea with Mahon's wife," Andrea said.

Aunt B looked at her. "You and I need to work on your air of mystery."

Andrea shrugged. "She's my best friend. I won't lie to her."

I raised my fist and she bumped it with hers.

Aunt B sighed. "Mahon missed out on the last trip. He blames himself for our abject failure. He got to stay home and run the Pack and he nearly broke everything Curran worked so hard to build. Remind me sometime, and I'll tell you about what he did to the jackals. Mahon isn't your friend. He'll support you, because Curran chose you, but in his eyes the lowliest shapeshifter is more acceptable as Curran's mate than you are. It's not personal. Mahon had a lot of tragedy in his life, and it made him closed-minded where nonshapeshifters are concerned. He will never stoop to harming you, but if something unfortunate happened to you, he would breathe a sigh of relief and hope that Curran finds himself a nice shapeshifter girl."

Mahon and I had reached an understanding. We weren't the best of friends, but I doubted he'd stab me in the back. It just wasn't who he was. "Is there a cookie at the end of this lecture?"

"You need a friend on that team," Aunt B said.

"Which is why I'm going with you." Andrea stuffed some bacon in her mouth and chewed.

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires
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