"No fucking way." Rick stared at Max Cannon, the Halle Puma Alpha, and wondered what his head would look like rolling down the driveway. "My mate goes home with me."
"How are the Wolves going to react to an injured, non-Wolf Luna? Think, Rick! Not only is she injured, she's Puma. And until you can fully claim her, she's Pride. My Pride." Rick watched Max cross his arms over his chest. He wanted to rip them off and beat him over the head with them.
He'd had a thoroughly rotten day. He'd been shot, killed a rogue, found his mate, found out his mate was hurt, and now had to deal with a territorial cat intent on sending him on his way. "She comes home with me."
Max sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Look, Rick, I know how I would feel if this were Emma."
Rick nodded shortly. The big cat would understand, somewhat.
"But, and this is a big but, Belinda hasn't had the easiest time of it in the last couple of weeks. You're new to your position, as well. You need to solidify your Pack and prepare them for what they're going to have to deal with when Belinda gets there. You'll also have to prepare Belinda."
Rick looked at the pale mate of the Puma Marshall, Sheri Montgomery, the one who'd been the cause of Rick coming down to Halle in the first place. "Belle?" Who was this Belle, and what did she have to do with Belinda?
Sheri shot a look at Simon, who winced. Rick's eyes narrowed at the guilty flush on the Beta's face and wondered what the man was hiding. Sheri turned back to Rick with a grimace. "Belinda is who she was when she was friends with Livia, the mask she wore to fit into Livia's social set. Belle is who she really is."
Simon nodded. "And that's something else that needs to be dealt with."
Rick sighed and sunk down onto Max's leather sofa. The Alpha had dragged him, literally, out of Adrian's house, shoved him in his Durango, and carried him off. It hadn't taken long for the rest of the Pride's inner core to show up. Only the fact that his own Marshall hadn't been worried for him had kept him from biting some cat ass. "You are going to explain all of this shit, right?"
Emma spoke up. "I'll try. Okay, roughly a month ago Max marked me as his and claimed me as his Curana." Rick nodded. Curana was Puma equivalent of Luna, the Alpha female of a Pack, or in Emma's case, a Pride. "He gave me the Curana's ring, and I wore it to the annual Halle masquerade. When Livia realized Max had mated me, she freaked out. She attacked Becky, Simon's mate, while Becky was still human."
Ouch. That explained why the woman had been Outcast. An unprovoked attack on a human? This Livia person was lucky Max or Simon hadn't ripped her throat out. That's what Rick would have done. "What does this have to do with Belle?"
Emma shrugged. "Belle and Livia were best friends, and it was well known Belle wanted to mate with Simon."
Rick stiffened. Mate with Simon? Now he understood some of why the Beta had looked guilty.
Emma continued the story, leaning against Max with a sigh. "Because Livia attacked Becky, and Belinda wasn't anywhere near the party at the time it happened, most of the Pride assumed she'd helped Livia in some way or another. Hell, even we assumed it at first."
Rick clenched his jaw against his immediate response. He didn't know Belle well enough to know if she was capable of such a thing, despite every single one of his instincts screaming that she wasn't. "What happened next?"
"Livia was Outcast, and Belle..."
Emma looked up at Max, but it was Simon who answered. "Belle proved herself to us. She helped save Becky when Becky collapsed at work, and she sacrificed herself to save Sheri from a psychotic stalker." Simon shook his head. "I never thought Belle had it in her to do that, but she proved me wrong."
"She proved all of us wrong." Max snuggled Emma close, a frown on his face. "But we've had a difficult time getting the rest of the Pride to see that, despite everything she's done. In essence, they've shunned her. She's lost her job, almost lost her apartment, and even with her injury we had a hard time getting volunteers to protect her when she needed it."
Rick bit back a growl. The danger was past, and they had figured out how to protect his mate in the end. But the fallout on Belle had been, in Rick's mind, totally unwarranted. Just because her ex-best friend had been a psychotic bitch didn't mean Belle should be held responsible for the other woman's actions. He couldn't wait to get her away from the self-righteous assholes who were making her life a misery.
He stood, ready to walk out Max's front door, put his female in his car, and take off for home.
"Rick." Becky stood, ignoring Simon's outstretched hand. "I'm probably one of the last people Belinda would expect to stand up for her right now, but I have to say, she's had a horrible time of it. Don't make it worse for her."
Max blocked his path to the front door. "Are there any doctors up by you who can handle an injured shifter? Any who can deal with the physical therapy she's going to need?"
Max, the smug bastard, smiled. "Are you willing to move down here for the next few months? No? Then go home. Let her heal. Then, when she's ready, come and take her."
"Take her home."
"What?" Max turned to his little dark-haired mate.
"Take her home. You said take her."
Max gave her a puzzled frown. "Well, that too."
Rick snorted, amused for the first time that day, as Emma rolled her eyes at Max.
Max put his hand on Rick's shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. "I give you my word that no harm will come to your mate while she is under my protection."
The formal vow, accompanied by a flash of Max's power, reassured him. Looking around, he saw the determination on the faces of the rulers of the Halle Pride, and knew he'd lost this round.
He accepted Max's oath, and the separation that would accompany his decision, with a great deal of reluctance.
But there was no way in hell he was going to stay completely out of his mate's life for the next few months. He might not have her by his side, but he'd be damned if he didn't have some piece of her.
Belle picked up the little hand-held computer Rick had sent her and smiled. She'd only been out of the hospital for a little over a month, but he text-messaged or called every single day without fail. He'd even set up the chat program for her. She'd laughed when she saw the handles he'd given them both.
BgBdWlf837: How's my Luna today?
She started typing on the miniscule keyboard. The concentration helped with the pain, sometimes.
BellaLuna1345: So-so. Therapy was a bitch. No pun intended. I think my therapist was trained personally by the Marquis de Sade in a previous life. You?
BgBdWlf837: Work work work.
Something he very rarely discussed. One of these days she was going to nail his ass down and find out what he did for a living.
BgBdWlf837: You get my Christmas present?
She smiled as she thought of the present he'd sent. A beautiful aqua silk scarf, a pair of diamond earrings, and a thin gold chain had been in the exquisitely wrapped present. Knowing men the way she did, she wondered who he had buy the gifts, or if he'd actually bought them himself.
BellaLuna1345: Yes. Beautiful. Thanks. You get mine?
She'd sent him a watch. On the face was a howling wolf. She'd had it custom made by a friend of hers, who'd done the work for cost or she'd never have been able to afford it.
BgBdWlf837: Yes! Love it! Wearing it now.
That made her grin, even if he was lying through his teeth.
BgBdWlf837: Let me know if I need to come down there and rip the gonads off your PT, k? And keep that pussy Beta away from you.
Belle rolled her eyes. He had a real thing against Simon. She wondered who'd told him about her past relationship with the Pride's Beta.
BellaLuna1345: Down, boy. Sit. Good dog. Goooood dog.
BgBdWlf837: Merry Christmas, my Luna.
She couldn't help the big smile. Just seeing his name brightened her day in a way she couldn't explain. Those times when they actually spoke on the phone were the best, though. Then she could hear that deep, rough voice soothing the aches and pains of not just her injury, but her near-shunning.
BellaLuna1345: Merry Christmas, Fido.
Not that she would let him know that, off course.
He might be her mate, but she could still play hard-to-get.
"Wow, you're cranky today." Belle put the phone between her ear and shoulder and scratched blissfully at her arm. The cast had finally come off and she could reach that damn spot that had been bothering her for eight long weeks.
"What makes you say that?"
"Oh, I dunno. The fact that you growled at me, maybe?"
"Simon is mated, Rick. He's also my Beta. I have to talk to him sometimes."
"You may have to talk to him, but I don't have to like it."
"Really? Huh." His chuckle was music to her ears. Her gasp of pain as she shifted in her chair, apparently, was not music to his ears. "Don't growl at me, there's nothing I can do about it. Besides, you're the one who agreed to go back north until the doctor releases me for Lunatic duty."
She sighed as the pain subsided. It was so tempting to reach for the morphine when the pain got this bad, but she wouldn't. Jamie was right; she'd become too dependent on it. They'd mutually decided she should go on Ibuprofen instead, counting on her Puma metabolism to get the drug out of her system as quickly as possible.
The night she went off the morphine she'd chosen to text Rick first, not wanting him to hear the withdrawals she was going through. She kept it short, merely telling him she was having a bad day and she'd speak to him the next night. He'd responded, but he hadn't sounded happy. The next night her phone rang before the physical therapist was even done seeing her. That had been two weeks ago.
"I'm fine, Rick. The cast on my arm came off today."
"Yeah, I can finally scratch."
"And we all know how much cats like to scratch?"
"Very funny, Fido. Har har. Peed on any hydrants lately?"
"In this weather? Are you nuts? I'd be glued to the damn thing until the spring thaw."
She laughed out loud, the first one in over a week.
"Now that is the sweetest sound."
That rough, rich voice slid through her, speeding up her heart rate. And from the look of her no-longer-red nail polish her eyes had turned gold. There go my panties, getting all wet again. How does the man do that when I'm ready to rip my leg off from the pain?
She heard the front door to her small apartment open. Turning, she saw Sarah come in, a smile on her wind-kissed cheeks. "Sarah's here. Gotta run."
"Pizza and poker night?"
"Yup. I'll tell Adrian and Simon you said hi."
He was still grumbling when she hung up.