Oh, yeah. Come to the masquerade party, she says. Simon will be there and he wants you, she says. You'll have a blast, she says.
I am so gonna kick Emma's ass over this.
A low, inhuman growl rumbled from Livia Patterson's throat. Becky inched back, startled at the sound coming from the blonde. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as Livia slowly paced forward, her lips curling in a feral smile. Her teeth were way too sharp. Her eyes were weird, too. They gleamed like a cat's in the dim light provided by the paper lanterns.
If I live long enough.
Becky took another step back, her heart pounding with fright. The woman's nails had turned into claws. "Wow. Neat special effects." She laughed nervously. "It doesn't really go with the genteel senorita costume though. You might want to rethink it."
Livia's answer was a hissing growl that revealed a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
"Okay, not special effects." Never had she been more grateful that she'd decided to wear live steel rather than a plastic toy with her bandita costume. She drew her rapier and pointed it at Livia. Thank God for those fencing lessons I took in college. "Damn, I always knew you were a bitch, but this is ridiculous."
Livia lunged at her. Those sharp black claws swiped along her sword arm, shredding the lace and nearly causing Becky to drop her sword. "Ow!"
Becky gasped at the transformed Livia. The next time Livia lunged Becky parried, slicing Livia's arm. This time it was Livia who bled.
The weirdest sounds came out of Livia. They were scary as hell. She snarled, then growled, then finally screamed. It sounded like one of the big cats at the zoo. If Becky wasn't so focused on keeping those claws off of her she would be seriously freaked.
"More of a pussy than a bitch, huh?" She grinned when the woman snarled, riding that adrenaline high that always kicked in during a fencing match. Everything came into sharp focus as she began fighting, parrying Livia's lunges, making a few of her own. She knew the woman would rip her apart if she got her claws into her. They danced around each other, circling, lunging, parrying till both women were panting. She had the advantage of reach, but the blonde moved faster, coming in under her guard and going for her stomach.
The good news was the tight red senorita dress Livia wore hampered her movements, while Becky's flowing bandita outfit was almost perfect for fencing. The bad news was Livia was incredibly fast and agile, a fact that nearly made up for her hampered movements.
You know, I have better things to do on a Saturday night than get my ass kicked by Senorita Psychopath. Becky knew she was outmatched. She got a few good hits in, drawing blood along Livia's stomach and a deep slash along her cheek, but unless something happened, and soon, she would lose. She was covered in small bleeding cuts, far more than she'd managed to inflict on the other woman. The rapier hilt was becoming slippery with blood. She made sure she kept a death grip on it. From the look of raw hatred on Livia's face dropping it would end in her death.
Livia whirled away after a missed blow and Becky took the opportunity to thrust in low, slashing into her stomach and earning herself another growl.
The two women slowly danced around each other, looking for an opening. Livia snarled again, fur rippling along her arms as she lunged for Becky. With a startled cry Becky backed up a step, ready to parry the blow but stumbled over a bush and landed flat on her ass. Her hat rolled away and came to rest against another bush. Her rapier was knocked from her hand as Livia landed on top of her.
Becky screamed in pain as Livia bit down on her shoulder. Her claws raked along Becky's sides, drawing even more blood.
Livia sat up slowly, one clawed hand wrapped around Becky's throat. "Emma's coming," she purred, tilting her head to the side as she listened to something only she could hear. "So happy she could join our little party."
"Swell," Becky coughed, digging her fingers into Livia's forearm. She had to get the Bride of Satan off of her!
Livia hissed at her and arched down. Her teeth were pinching at Becky's neck when Emma appeared. Becky looked over Livia's shoulder at Emma and saw the horror in Emma's expression before it was quickly shuttered away.
Emma cocked one hand on her hip and stared at Livia like the blonde had lost her mind. "Okay, some of the peroxide must have leaked into your brains to make this seem like a good idea. What will killing Becky accomplish, other than to piss off Simon and Max and ruin your manicure?"
The bitch snarled again, but she didn't tighten her hold on Becky's throat. Those wicked black claws remained poised above Becky's stomach.
"Did you run out of Liversnaps or something? Oh wait, that's dogs."
Livia dug her claws into Becky's stomach, making her gasp. She really wished Emma would shut the hell up before Livia gutted her like a fish.
Beads of blood, black in the night, dribbled down her sides as Livia released Becky's throat and lifted her head. Her hand flexed, driving her claws deeper into Becky's stomach. "I want the Curana's ring."
Ring? What ring? Becky glared at Livia, but neither woman was paying any attention to her.
"A ring does not make you Curana, Livia."
Livia sneered. "It does to them!" She tossed her head towards the house, her hand flexing and sending shafts of pain rippling through Becky. She held still and quiet through sheer stubbornness alone; no way was Livia getting another sound out of her. "If they see I took the ring from you, they'll never acknowledge you as Curana." She smiled, her fangs glistening in the moonlight. "They'll see you for the weak, pathetic wallflower you've always been. Max will be mine, like he always should have been; he won't have a choice. He and I will run the Pride the way it was meant to be run, and you'll be seen as nothing but the Alpha's whore."
Curana? Alpha? What the fuck is going on?
Emma nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, all of that is true. Except for one thing. Well, two, really."
"One, Max doesn't want your double processed skanky ass."
"Hey! I'm a natural blonde!"
And I'm the next Powerball winner. Looking past Emma, Becky thought she saw a flash of gold, and frowned.
"Two, even without the ring, I am the Curana." Emma's expression turned fierce. "Let Becky go. Now."
There was a weird quality to Emma's voice she'd never heard before, the command running through her like an electric shock. She felt Livia stiffen above her, a small, almost unnoticeable shudder wracking her body. She watched wide-eyed as Livia whimpered, her claws slowly, reluctantly withdrawing from Becky's stomach. She crawled on all fours off her, her shoulders hunched as Emma's command somehow pulled the shaking blonde to her. "Kneel."
How the hell are you doing that? And can you teach me?
Livia knelt, trembling, at Emma's feet. She tried to sit up, wincing, when a pair of hands reached around her and gave her a helping hand. Max, thank God. She looked up to say thanks and gasped. His normally sunny blue eyes were gold and they glittered like...a cat's. "Oh, hell, not another one."
The angry scream of another big cat rent the night. Three of them? What did I do, stumble into some freaky werewolf convention?
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a streak of black land on Livia, knocking her to the ground. "I should kill you where you lay," Simon growled over her, digging his claws into her stomach in the same exact spot she'd wounded Becky. Simon leaned down, his canines extending. Becky felt her jaw drop open as his black Zorro cape partially obscured Livia's body. "I could rip your throat out right now."
Oh. Oh, shit. Simon? Hot, hunky Simon, the man she'd secretly been in love with for years, was like Livia?
"Uh, Simon?" Golden eyes blinded by rage met Emma's. "You're scaring the crap out of Becky."
His head swiveled towards her; whatever he saw seemed to calm him down a bit. "Becky." Becky jumped at the sound of his voice, moaning as her stomach protested sharply. "What would you have me do to her?"
Max's gasp was audible; his hands tightened on her arms. She'd have to ask what that was about some other time.
"Simon?" She knew she sounded pathetic, but the thought that he was like Livia was just way too much to deal with.
"Tell me, Becky. What should Livia's punishment be for injuring you?" Simon's voice was rough and growly, hitching slightly on the word injuring. He sounded supremely pissed off.
Becky blinked back sudden tears (damn, her stomach hurt) and stared at Livia. "What is she? What are you?"
"Pumas. Werecats. I'll explain more later. Right now, you need to decide her punishment."
Becky looked at Emma, who flinched with guilt. "I didn't know until Max bit me, then I didn't know if you would believe me or not. But I planned on telling you tomorrow, if Simon didn't do it first."
"You're a..." Becky swallowed hard at Emma's slow nod. "And they're..." Emma watched her, her expression pleading for understanding, which Becky gave. Emma was, after all, her BFF. Although Lucy still has a lot of esplainin' to do. When she blew out a hard breath, Emma visibly relaxed. "This is going to cost you a fortune in Tidy Cat." She laughed shakily, still trying to absorb everything that had happened.
Emma grinned, obviously relieved. "What would you like Simon to do with Livia?"
"What can he do with Livia?" Becky asked, glaring down at Livia's terrified face.
"Well, let's see: she was willing to kill you to get the Curana's ring, so Simon is well within his rights to rip out her throat." Emma shrugged. "Wouldn't be all that big a loss as far as I'm concerned."
She turned back to Emma, her patience just about at an end. She was bleeding all over herself, her stomach and shoulder hurt, and she still had no idea what the fuck was going on. "What the hell is the Curana's ring?"
"It's the ring Emma now wears that proclaims she's my mate and queen," Max replied, gentling his grip on Becky's arms.
"Whoa. Wait, so I was bait for Emma?" That bitch is so dead.
"Becky, the longer Simon smells the blood the harder it will be for him to not kill Livia. Decide her fate quickly." Max's voice cut through the mental fog surrounding her, focusing her again on the woman on the ground.
She looked at Livia one last time before staring straight at Simon. Something she saw in his face let her know that he would do whatever she asked of him, up to and including murder. The patient way he waited for her to pronounce sentence reassured her. Somehow she knew Simon would sit there all night if she needed him to. "What is the lowest status a Puma can hold? If Max is king and Emma is queen, is there a lowest of the low?"
"No!" Livia moaned, trying to break free of Simon's hold. Simon merely dug his claws in deeper while his other hand held her down by her throat.
"Outcast, someone who's been made Prideless. She'll hold no privileges, no responsibilities. She will no longer be welcome at Pride functions or homes. Kits will be taught to avoid her. If she wished for status again she would have to leave, find a Pride willing to take her in and earn it."
Becky nodded. Bye-bye, Senorita Psychopath. Have a nice fucking life somewhere far, far away from here. "Since the whole damn thing was about status, I think that would do nicely."
Simon nodded with a slow smile of approval. He bowed his head formally to Max. "My mate requests a casting out of the one named Olivia Patterson."
Max eased Becky gently back down to the ground before stepping up beside Emma. He positioned himself so Becky could see everything happening between them. "The Beta of this Pride has requested a formal casting out. My Curana witnessed the unprovoked attack on our Beta's mate, Rebecca Yaeger."
Becky shot Simon a narrow-eyed glare. Mate? She'd read enough werewolf romances to know what that meant. So if she was his mate, why was Belinda all over him like white on rice?
"The attack was motivated by greed rather than self-defense. In light of these allegations I ask you, Olivia Patterson: how do you plead?"
"Fuck you," Livia growled, trying once more to buck off Simon, who didn't budge an inch. Becky smiled, hoping she was digging Simon's claws in just a little bit deeper.
"I'll take that as a guilty."
Becky watched from her place on the ground as Max's stare turned icy cold. A strange, barely there mist seeped from the ground he stood on. Something about that mist seemed alive. His right arm rested around Emma's waist, unconsciously snuggling her close to him, the gesture sweetly protective. "As Alpha of this Pride, for the unprovoked attack against the Beta's mate, I hereby declare Olivia Patterson outcast."
There was that mate thing again. What the hell is Simon thinking?
"You are no longer one of us. You may no longer run with us, or hunt with us. You are no longer welcome in our homes. You may no longer approach our kits without risk to your life."
Livia began to sob quietly as Max formally kicked her out of the "Pride", another thing Becky was going to have words with Emma about. Curana? Queen werepuma? Hello! This was a bit bigger than "I'm screwing Doctor Hubba-Hubba"!
Not to mention that, thanks to Livia, it looked like she'd be joining the ranks of the perpetually fuzzy soon. Would she have to bow down to Emma? Kiss her ring? Sniff her butt?
"Any attack on you will go unpunished within the Pride; we leave you to human laws. If you attack a mate of one of ours you will be dealt with as an outsider, and your life will be forfeit. Any further contact with Rebecca Yaeger will be considered an attack, and will be dealt with as such. Again, your life will be forfeit. Any Pride member giving you succor will suffer the same fate as you." With a gentle nudge, Max turned so that he and Emma had their backs to Livia, effectively dismissing her.
Simon pulled his claws from Livia's flesh. His eyes returned to their normal dark brown and his fangs receded as he approached Becky with a wicked smile and a purposeful stride.
"Um, down, kitty? Good kitty?" Becky grinned weakly as Simon reached for her. Simon gently picked Becky up and walked out of the garden. He headed straight for the cars parked in front of the Friedelinde's mansion. And unless Becky missed her guess, they weren't headed to Halle General.
Her hands went to his shoulders, his dark brown hair brushing over the back of her hands. She suppressed a shiver at the feel of that dark silk sliding over her skin. "Let me go, Simon." Becky frowned, struggling slightly as she tested his hold on her.
"Not happening. Stay still, baby."
Becky flopped back in his arms, wincing when her neck and stomach protested. The big lug barely noticed, just tightened his hold slightly. "Great. Just great. I get to trade in my GP for a vet."
"General practitioner. As in my human doc. Geez, if you have to explain the joke it just isn't funny anymore."
Simon rolled his eyes. "No, you won't have to trade in your GP for a vet. Where do you come up with stuff like that?"
Becky's disbelieving stare merely caused his shit-eating grin to blossom. "I got bit by a werecat, Brainiac. Traditionally that now means I get to wear a flea collar and pee in a sandbox."
Simon was shaking his head before she'd even finished speaking. "Nope. We have to deliberately change someone. I'd be able to smell it if she'd done it, and she didn't. You're not going to change."
Becky sighed in relief.
That single word held a dark promise Becky did her best to ignore. He was scanning the large driveway like he expected an ambush. When Belinda stepped out from between two of the parked cars, Becky smiled cynically.
"Oh, look, it's Bondage Barbie." She ignored his snort of laughter as she remembered the way the blonde had been all over him during the masquerade. "Simon, your date's here, you can put me down now."
His only answer was to tighten his arms around her.
"Not now, Belinda. Becky's hurt."
Belinda's horrified gaze fastened on Becky's stomach. "Livia did that?"
Simon turned on the other woman with a low, warning growl. "If I find out that you had a hand in helping Livia hurt my mate I will kick your ass so hard you'll shit out of your mouth after I have you cast out of the Pride. You understand me?"
Becky groaned, "She's one too?" just as Belinda gasped, "Mate? Her?"
"I said, do you understand me?" He drawled out the syllables as if Belinda were an idiot.
"She can't be your mate." Belinda looked horrified.
Becky jumped when Simon pressed a quick kiss on her forehead. "You shut up." His voice was oddly affectionate as he looked down at her. His gaze, when he turned back to Belinda, was sharp. "I expect my mate to be welcomed by the Pride. Do you understand me?"
Belinda sniffed. "She's not even one of us."
"She will be."
"Will not!" Becky tried to straighten up and glare at him but the pain made her gasp and settle right back down. Note to self: stomach wounds and sit-ups don't mix. Ow.
"Will too. Now shush." His gaze never left the woman in front of him, but Becky knew he was well aware of her glare.
"Ass wipe." She folded her arms across her chest with a sniff.
He looked down at her and frowned. "What did you just call me?"
"You heard me. You have been, and always shall be, an ass wipe."
"But... I thought we would mate." Belinda's voice was shaky with unshed tears.
"What on earth would make you think that?" Simon looked totally confused.
Becky saw a shudder pass through Belinda, and wondered just how much the other woman loved Simon. If she did, she felt sorry for her. Simon had never been the type to settle down. Although he did call me his mate... Better not go there. That way leads to heartache a la Belinda. "Put me down, Simon. I'm bleeding and I need to go to the hospital."
"Good point. Good night, Belinda." He strode away, Becky still held firmly in his arms.
Over Simon's shoulder she saw the other woman lower her head into her hands. An unexpected wave of pity went through her. Belinda was a pain, but she'd never been as bad as Livia. The fact that Simon had dated her off and on for years had probably contributed to the other woman's belief that he was meant to be hers.
They reached Simon's truck. "C'mon, put me down. Seriously. I can go to the emergency room. It's just chock full of people docs."
His eyebrows rose in disbelief. "And how will you explain your wounds?" Simon put one foot on the running board and propped her butt on his leg, thus freeing a hand to dig out his keys. "Hello, I got bit by a werepuma, can I have some stitches and a rabies shot? Or will you send the county on a cougar hunt?"
"Considering who bit me, maybe a rabies shot isn't a bad idea." She winced when he had to shift her slightly.
He stared down at her, waiting patiently for her reply. She rolled her eyes and gusted out a sigh. Simon took that for the surrender it was. He opened the truck door and gently placed her in the passenger seat, putting her seat belt on with infinite care. He removed her bandit mask and put it in his pocket. He got behind the wheel, put on his own seat belt and removed his Zorro mask. He started the truck and drove carefully out of the mansion's driveway.
She didn't even realize where they were going until he pulled into his own driveway, and by then it was too late.