Cole surveyed the pack, looking for any hint of mutiny. He'd called the meeting to tell them Jane's status. Nobody seemed too worked up, but maybe they were in shock. He hadn't been their leader for months, and now he was coming back with this story. It was possible anything he told them would result in a smile-and-nod response. But just to make sure...
"Are we going to have any problems over this? Do I need to throw my weight around?"
They all shook their heads quickly. Various voices murmured things like "no sir," "we're cool," "whatever you say, we're just glad you're back with us." That last one was Blake.
Cole arched a brow at the beta. "You didn't enjoy playing substitute alpha?"
"Hell, no. It's too much work. I prefer being second-in-command where I can just stand around and look pretty."
Cole chuckled. "Good to hear." In between drunken stupors, he'd worried Blake would get a taste of power and he'd have to fight the beta to get his pack back. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt his friend, but Cole didn't sing backup for anybody.
"There's one other thing I think everyone should know. The pup is alive."
A murmur went up from the gathered wolves.
"How do you know?" one of the pack members in the back asked.
"Shut up!" another pack member said to the first one, jabbing him in the ribs.
"Guys, it's okay. I'm not going to bite anybody's head off for asking a question. Jane saw him while she was in heaven. She knows the pup's location, and the last she saw he was safe and being cared for. We're going to go get him as soon as she gets back."
"Where is she?" the same wolf asked. He was about nineteen. The potential alpha-ness rolled off him. Cole was going to have to keep an eye on him or encourage him to seek leadership opportunities elsewhere.
"She's with Cain learning alternate ways to feed when she isn't with me. I expect everybody to treat her like they always have. This is a good thing. Our alliance with Cain is secure now. We have a stable ally if we ever have to go against Anthony and the other vampires. Cain takes an interest in the well-being of the demons in his care. This involves him in issues he's previously had no interest in getting involved in, which could be good for us."
"How do we know Cain won't turn on us?" Ed asked. Ed. Always the cynic.
"Trust me. I know. Cain has a strong sense of responsibility toward his kind, and our alliance was solid before this happened."
The wolf seemed satisfied by the answer. Murmurs bounced around the cave as wolves discussed the new situation amongst themselves.
It had taken Cole a while after getting back to the hive to realize all the benefits of Jane's new condition. Once he'd pushed past his insecurities with regards to her strength - or mostly pushed past them - he'd seen that as a pack they could only be stronger now with Cain's interest in Jane. This new development would ensure they always remained free of Anthony's encroaching police state. The effects of the vampire's takeover weren't affecting the Cary Town pack, yet. But they would. Sooner or later they'd be found. At some point, there may be no place safe to be outside Cain's dimension.
"Hey, guys. Did you miss me?"
If he hadn't been preoccupied, Cole would have smelled her and felt her before he heard her, but he'd been too lost in thought. He looked up to see Jane standing in the cave entrance, a sassy grin on her face. The wolves inclined their heads toward her, offering their throat in a symbolic gesture. Good. They could accept her. No one had hesitated for a second when she'd stepped into the cave.
But then why would they? They'd come to love her when she'd had the enemy's blood in her veins and was human to boot. What difference would a change in species make now? Anything short of a vampire, they'd accept.
Against all odds they'd welcomed her when she'd been the weakest pack member, being only human. Their allegiance hadn't shifted in the slightest since she'd become a demon. There didn't seem to be a Goldilocks happy medium with her.
With the pack's support, it might be easier for Cole to accept the change. He didn't think she'd try to usurp him; he just wasn't sure if she'd start overstepping bounds, knowing she could get away with it. It made him feel like a powerless figurehead, and he hoped none of the pack started to see it that way. He tensed as she moved through the crowd to reach him, knowing she was about to set a precedent for how their relationship would be seen by the others.
But when she got there, she inclined her head. Her honey-brown hair fell back behind one shoulder, baring her mating mark to his gaze. She was going to play by the rules. Good. Cole growled his approval, allowing some of the wolf to come out in his eyes. He nuzzled the mark, then bit gently over it, eliciting a shiver from his mate.
"I told you, you were being ridiculous," she whispered, too soft for the pack to hear. "You think I want to boss you or the others around? Please."
"That'll be enough of that," he whispered back.
She shrugged. "You're the boss."
"Try not to forget it."
Slowly, pack members approached her. The males kept a larger distance, wary of crossing lines or appearing too affectionate. The females, however, came up and hugged her and started talking about how bad things had been without her. A few of them cried. Nobody came out and said anything about Cole not being himself while she was gone or him being unable to lead them, but the sentiment was there, just under the surface. It was an unspoken conversation that everyone but Cole was involved in. Without Jane, he'd become ineffective as a leader.
"As much as I hate to interrupt this happy reunion, it has to wait. We need to go collect our pup," Cole said, reasserting control of the situation.
Cole arched a brow at Jane's sudden diplomacy, but he didn't say anything until he'd led her away from the hive and into the forest. It wasn't just the words she'd said. It was the way she'd inclined her head and the plastic smile she'd put on, for whose benefit he could no longer be sure.
"Of course? What are you, a head of state now? Did Cain teach you that diplomatic submission crap?" It was always a mask with Jane. First the mask she'd worn while she was with the vampires to blend in as a vampire groupie to stay alive, and now this new mask: Jane the diplomat. It was less convincing than the vampire-slut mask had been.
It was an adaptation, something she'd learned to survive in varied and unpleasant life circumstances, but it still left him wondering who the real Jane was. Was she the tough-talking and jaded vampire groupie, the vulnerable and scared girl he'd rescued, some super-demon, or this new politically enhanced first lady image she projected now?
Her arms crossed over her chest, the posture telegraphing that she was more annoyed than defensive. "All Cain taught me was how to feed without cheating on you. And a few other demon tricks. Why don't you tell me who you want me to be, and I'll try to fit that role? I'm just trying to reassure you that I have no interest in changing the dynamics of our personal relationship. I'm sending the same message to the pack. There is no reason for them to suspect I could or would challenge you, because I won't. I trust you. I like it when you take care of me and take the lead. So I got stronger while I was away. So what? I'm here! Doesn't that matter to you at all?"
She hurriedly moved to wipe tears off her face. Now he felt like an ass. And he was an ass. The love of his life had returned to him, and he was still worrying about his territory being usurped, then throwing a fit as his mate tried to reassure him that wasn't her plan.
"I came back for you," she whispered. "And our pup. I thought you guys needed me."
Cole didn't hesitate. He opened his arms to his mate and held her, his lips brushing over his mark. "Shhh. We do. You know we do. You saw how I was without you. I'm sorry. You're right. I know you came back for us. Heaven must have been wonderful, and now you've come back to all this. And you gave it up forever." He didn't want to initiate the discussion about him losing heaven, too, and how her decision had affected him, tying him to her and her fate on Earth. As long as he had her, he didn't care.
Jane pulled away, her nose wrinkling in distaste. "Are you kidding me? Heaven was fucking boring and just awful."
Cole hid a smile at her potty mouth coming back in full force... courtesy of the tough-Jane mask she'd worn for so long. The truth was, she was tough. And she'd been tough before she'd been upgraded into a new, fully-loaded demon package. If she hadn't been, the pack never would have accepted her as a leader, mating mark or no mating mark. They would have deserted.
"What?" Jane said, her scowl deepening. "It was boring. It's like the cruel joke of the universe. It was so... plastic. I mean, there were lovely meadows and the sun never set and water so clear you can see miles down to the colorful plant life on the bottom and flowers of every variety you could imagine, but... do you know they have literal streets of gold? I couldn't believe it. Why would anybody care about gold in the afterlife? Who are they trying to impress? There was no challenge there, and it seemed like people were afraid of being thrown into hell. I like Cain's dimension much better. It's earthy and real. I guess heaven or hell is all a matter of perspective. It can't be one size fits all or it's not heaven."
"It sounds like a prison camp," Cole said sarcastically, amused by how adamant she was over what seemed like a world without worry. Wasn't a world without worry a good thing? Especially one so beautiful?
"You have no idea. Husbands and wives didn't have sex or any real physical or emotional intimacy. They lived in mansions next door to each other and waved like you'd wave to a neighbor as he got in his big SUV to go to work. I kept thinking about how sad I would be if you and I had been there together. We would have led lives of quiet desperation... except forever. There is something seriously wrong with the people up there, Cole. I'm not even sure it's the real heaven."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know. I guess I just thought 'is this all there is?' I know people think it'll be great, but you'd have to be a totally different type of being to think it's great. Nothing matters there. I'm just not sure it's all there is. And I get why people choose to come back. That's all I'm saying."
Cole shook his head, intrigued by the insight into the afterlife. It was yet another proof he'd had his head up his ass behaving like some animal since she'd returned. Otherwise wouldn't he have asked about her experience in heaven before now?
He brushed a stray bit of hair out of her face. "You don't have to worry about that place anymore. Does it bother you that you're trapped here and can't go back?"
"If I were powerless, yes. But I'm not powerless anymore."
"And I wouldn't want you to be." For the first time, he meant it.
They walked in a comfortable silence through the forest, their hands linked together, until they reached the portal point. Cole pulled out the talisman, and Jane put a hand on his arm to stop him.
"We don't need that if you're with me, remember?"
The shimmery film appeared when she stretched out her hand, and she pulled him through.
"Remember when I was trying to convince you this portal was safe? And now you don't even need a key."
"I am a key," she said.
"Just don't let it go to your head."
"Of course." She put on the diplomatic Jane face again, then broke into a laugh.
Now she was doing it on purpose. Cole stripped out of his clothes and tossed them at his mate.
She caught them, her brow raising in question. "I thought you said we were going to get the pup." She must have mistook the nudity for an overture.
"We are. I'll race you." He shifted and ran full speed through the cobblestone streets, past the colorful tents and torchlight to reach the portal for Golatha Falls. He couldn't have raced Jane full-out before. There would have been no challenge. No point. Now there was a good chance she could beat him. It was the next best thing to being able to run with her as wolves.
As he ran, Cole looked behind him, expecting to see Jane looking like Jane, or maybe in Demon form if she wanted to have a competitive edge. He was shocked to find a light brown wolf chasing him.
He put on another burst of speed, determined now, and reached the portal point just before her. He shifted back, still trying to pant like a wolf, re-acclimating to his human form. He wasn't sure if she'd let him win, but when she arrived and shifted, she was out of breath, too.
"Wow, that's trippy," she said. She stood fully clothed, holding Cole's clothes. She handed them back.
"What the hell was that? And how can you shift with clothes?"
"That was me taking another form and experiencing the limits of that form. As for the clothing, it's hard to explain. I basically held it in my mind. It's a demon thing. I guess we get to run together after all."
Cole slipped his clothes back on, a goofy grin covering his face. He'd never loved Jane less because she couldn't shift and run with him on the full moon, but he'd always wished it could be different. Now it was.
"It's hard for me to hold an animal form for long. Maybe I'll get better with practice. It's more an illusion than anything," Jane said.
"It doesn't matter. It's great."
When they crossed into the Golatha Falls forest, Cole nearly hummed with anticipation over getting to see his pup. He followed Jane through the tangled woods.
"Do you know where you're going?" he asked as they threaded between the trees, moving north.
"Of course I know where I'm going. The panther's cave is about a mile this way."
"Do you think they'll be awake this early?" Cole was beginning to get antsy, anxiety prickling at the back of his mind over what could go wrong. He wasn't sure if it was instincts or garden-variety paranoia. Being this close to the situation made it impossible to tell.
"I'm not waiting any more to see my kid."
Fiona woke to a sound in the cave and rolled over to see Z shoot straight up, his eyes glowing yellow in the darkness of the bedroom. Then he was out of the bed, shifting into his panther form.
"What is it?" Had the magic users found them and come back to finish them off?
Stay in here. Do not leave this room. He growled.
She nodded, but had no intention of listening. As soon as he was out of the room, she slipped out of bed and shimmied into some jeans and a T-shirt. As she dressed, she tried not to worry about whether or not his arm had still been wrapped around her when she'd first woken up. Now wasn't the time to dissect her first sexual encounter. And it wasn't the time to moon over him like he was a high school crush she was considering asking to the Sadie Hawkins dance.
There was possibly an intruder in the house. Possibly because it could be a possum or a squirrel, but her red flags were up.
Fiona moved into the hallway to listen. She heard growling and answering growls, but no intelligible words. Whatever was growling back at Z wasn't a panther. They didn't speak the same language, so they weren't bothering to use one. It was the equivalent of caveman grunting. What she sensed from both creatures, however, was protectiveness, not open hostility.
There was a woman's voice. "Cole, that's the panther therian. Just shift so you two can talk like civilized beings. I swear."
Fiona peered around the corner in time to watch both the wolf and the panther shift back into human form. Oh my. Two hot, naked males.
A growl came from the naked werewolf. "Jane, are you checking him out?"
So Fiona hadn't been the only one doing a double take. Talk about double your pleasure. She blushed. Had a single sexual encounter just opened some kind of horny Pandora's box with her?
"I'm a succubus. I can't help it. He's attractive and male and the sexual energy is coming off him... wow. Some girl is lucky."
"That's not helping," Cole said. "If you don't want me to kill him, maybe you should keep those thoughts to yourself."
"I'd love to see you try to kill me." That was Z, sounding laid back and lethal as ever. Not that Fiona wanted to watch them roll around on the floor fighting.
She came out from her hiding place before she started to imagine inappropriate things. "M-maybe if everybody would put clothes on, that would solve the problem."
"I thought I told you to stay in the bedroom," Z said.
"Yeah, I heard the growls. But then I decided on a different course of action."
The succubus laughed. "I see you've got one of these, too. You have to let them do their gruff, growly thing and indulge them. I don't know about yours, but Cole is sweet when you get to know him." Her hair fell back over her shoulder, revealing a bite mark that looked like it must have hurt, but the woman was unperturbed by it. As a demon, it probably hadn't hurt her at all. But why would a demon have a mating mark from a wolf?
"Jane! I'm not sweet," the wolf grumbled.
"What?" she said. "This isn't a battleground. Z wants to get his freedom back. We want the pup. Easy trade. No body parts lost."
"How did you know my name?" Z said, suspicion coming back into his eyes. By this point, Cole was putting on clothes, though Z still stood without a stitch of clothing on, with no sense of unease about it.
"Relax," Jane said. "I'm the pup's mother. I saw you on a screen when I was in heaven."
Z didn't look like he was buying it, and Jane could tell. "Nice try, but a demon and werewolf can't make a pup. They can make a vampire, but they sure as fuck can't make a pup."
"Oh, I was human when we made him. Why else would I have been in heaven? Do you think demons get visitor passes?"
While she spoke, Jane did that hungry once-over on Z again. It tripped Fiona's territorial meter, though she knew she had no claim on him. Before she could challenge the demon to a fight she couldn't win, she went back to the bedroom and grabbed jeans and a T-shirt for Z. When she returned, she tossed them to the panther.
He caught them mid-air without taking his eyes off the two interlopers. He put the jeans on, but eyed the shirt like it was infested with roaches. "I never wear T-shirts in the cave," he protested.
"Please." She hoped he wouldn't embarrass her in front of the pup's family by pointing out that she wasn't his mate and couldn't make such demands. He stared at her for a few seconds, then put the shirt on.
As he pulled it over his head, he said, "Pup's not here. He was taken by some magic users in the forest yesterday afternoon. I don't know who they are. I don't know who they're working for. I don't know why they took him. I don't know how to get him back. Thank you for visiting. Now I'd like to go back to sleep if you don't mind."
Cole growled, glancing over at his mate. "This is Cain's fault. If he hadn't felt like he had to teach you all your fancy demon skills, we could have gotten to the pup first." He turned back to Z. "Why didn't you go looking for him?"
And now the fangs were out. "Hey, crazy wolf. Did you miss my monologue just now where I said I don't know where the fuck to look for your rug rat?"
"Z!" Fiona said. He'd promised he'd go look. She felt so stupid. He'd never intended to look or form a plan. He'd just wanted in her pants. Shutting her up about the pup had been the necessary evil to serve that agenda. She couldn't hide the betrayal in her eyes. Z's return expression was tense, but obviously not looking forward to drama, because anything that inconvenienced him and his glorious bachelor lifestyle was drama. And they couldn't have that.
Fiona felt bad for the werewolf. The light went out of his eyes, replaced by a haunted look it seemed he'd gotten used to wearing. That was how easily it fit on his face. The demon, on the other hand was angry.
Her eyes glowed red. "Cole. We'll find him. Wherever he is, we will find him. Charlee knows that sorcerer guy."
"We are not dealing with Dayne Wickham," the wolf said. "Besides, if magic users took him, they'll have shields up. They could want him for anything." He paced in front of the couch.
Jane went to the cage. "Which one of these toys has the pup had the longest?"
Z pointed to a red ball in the corner. "That one."
She retrieved the ball and went to the kitchen, sorting through a drawer like she owned the place. Nobody bothered trying to stop her. She came back with a pen and paper and handed it to Cole. "Write down your cell number. They can call us if they hear anything, and I'm sure Dayne will be willing to do a spell to try to track him."
"Not after I cut him off from theriantype.com, he won't."
"Wait," Z said, "You own theriantype.com? That's hilarious. Nobody trusts werewolves, and they're all doing business with one. And a demon." He gave Jane an appreciative once-over that made Fiona feel insecure times thirty.
Jane and Cole both glared at Z as the wolf shoved the paper into his hands. "You call me if you hear anything," Cole said. Then the two disappeared out of the cave without another word.
"The manners of some people," Z said, sinking back onto the couch. He crumbled up the piece of paper and tossed it in the corner.
"You had no intention of looking for the pup, did you?"
"Fiona, I'm tired. I want to go back to sleep. Do we have to do this now?"
Her voice was cold when she replied. "That's all I needed to know. Take me home right now."
She was already packing up bags, putting her magic book back into the duffel beside the fireplace.
"You know I can't. It's not safe out there. We don't know who they are. They could come back. And anyway, it's outside" He used sarcastic finger quotes, putting emphasis on the word to remind her of her phobia, as if it were some red button he could push to control her. And ordinarily, it might have been. But at the moment she was too pissed.
"Yeah, I know how agoraphobia works. It's just that I don't care what happens to me right now because you lied to get me in bed. Maybe you're the thing the birds warned about. If you are, the danger's over so take me home."
Z stood, his jaw clenched tight. "Oh my god. Virgins are such drama. I did not lie to you to..."
Before he could finish the sentence, she slapped him. She'd moved so fast that for a moment he forgot she was human. The sharp snap of her fury echoed off the walls of the cave.
"Don't you ever make me feel like some lesser being just because I haven't screwed everything breathing. You are not the measuring stick of normal so get over yourself. Take. Me. Home. You have no right to keep me prisoner here."