He opened the passenger door for her and asked, “So, where are we headed?”
She sighed. “I don’t need you to come.”
“You can’t go off alone, Riley. None of us do anymore. The anti-shifter groups are getting more problematic. Just a few months ago they were here calling for Dexter’s death, remember.”
How could she forget? The two-year-old cub had been living alone on the streets for a while, surviving on scraps. No one was sure just how long he’d been homeless; he came to the attention of Social Services only when video footage of him partially shifting was uploaded on YouTube. That footage had also captured the attention of the human anti-shifter extremists, who had called for him to be “put down” like a rabid dog. Instead Social Services had taken him to a shelter for lone shifters.
“Don’t tell me I’m staying behind,” said Tao. “You know I won’t.”
“Look, it’s not that I’m being stubborn. Lucy didn’t explain what she wants to talk about. If it’s personal, she’s not going to tell me in front of you.”
“Probably not, but her feelings aren’t more important than your safety.” Tao wasn’t budging, and he let his determination show in his expression.
Riley sighed again. “You can come only if you agree to wait in the SUV. That way she can talk to me in private and you can be sure I’m safe. Everybody wins.”
He twisted his mouth, considering it. “All right, I’ll wait in the SUV.”
Eyeing him curiously, she walked to the vehicle. “You’re being uncharacteristically cooperative.”
“I can be cooperative . . . when I’m getting what I want.” And right now, the very thing Tao wanted most was sliding into the passenger seat. Life was good.
Nestled in the booth against the window, Riley drummed her nails on the scratched tabletop as she stared out through the glass. From there she had a clear view of the street and the diner’s parking lot. So far there was no sign of the person she’d agreed to meet.
Maybe they should have chosen a different venue, she thought as she rubbed at her aching temples. The sounds of country music, burgers sizzling, and cutlery clinking were aggravating her hangover headache. Really, she had only herself to blame.
True to his word, Tao had remained in the SUV. Proud as any dominant female, she couldn’t help but bristle a little at his insistence on accompanying her to protect her, but she knew it was a wise move. There didn’t seem to be any anti-shifter groups loitering around, but not all the radical humans carried banners and chanted bullshit. Some kept a low profile. The majority, however, were openly violent and destructive.
They called for shifters to be confined to their territories, electronically chipped, prohibited from mating with humans, limited to only one child per couple, and placed on a registry like damned sex offenders. Many went as far as bombing packs, prides, and flocks in an effort to “cull” the shifter population.
Shifters had retaliated by forming The Movement—people who hunted extremists and fought violence with violence. They had eliminated many of the radical groups and forced others into hiding. Humans rightfully feared them, but the prejudiced assholes didn’t seem to be smart enough to back down. It was an ongoing battle.
Hearing her phone beep, Riley dug it out of her pocket. There was a message from Jaime, but she didn’t open it. She’d read it later when—
Her head snapped up as the bell over the door rang and three familiar ravens entered, letting in a brief blast of traffic noise. The one in front did a quick scan of the diner. Spotting Riley, she smiled and made a beeline for her booth. No sooner had Riley risen to her feet than she was pulled into a tight hug. “You’re freakishly strong for someone so small,” said Riley.
Laughing, Lucy pulled back. “It’s so good to see you. Video chatting just isn’t the same.” She had almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and dark, straight hair—traits she’d inherited from her Native American ancestors.
Lucy gestured at the two indomitable-looking males behind her. Like Lucy and Riley, they had a slight blue tint to their hair that was typical of raven shifters. “Hugh and Duncan are my assigned bodyguards for the day,” said Lucy. As the daughter of the Exodus Flock Alphas, she never went anywhere without protection.
Riley smiled at the Beta and his son as they each gave her a brief hug. Drawing back, she asked, “How are you?”
Hugh patted her shoulder. “Good, thanks. Mad at you for staying away for four years, though.”
Duncan’s mouth curved. “I’ll be better when I’m home.” He’d never much liked leaving his territory. “But it’s good to see you, Riley.”
“Good to see you both too.” Her raven was also glad to see them; she’d missed the flock, especially Lucy, who’d been a close friend since childhood. Riley slipped into the booth and gestured for Lucy to sit opposite her.
“We need a little privacy,” Lucy told Hugh and Duncan. The males took a booth that was out of earshot, but they didn’t look happy about it.
Before Riley could speak, the waitress appeared and asked, “What are you having?”
“Just coffee, thanks,” replied Riley. Any other time she would have found the meringue pie inside the glass dome mighty interesting. But thanks to the aftereffects of the tequila, the smells of meat grilling and onions frying were churning her stomach rather than giving her an appetite.
“I’ll have the same,” said Lucy.
The waitress disappeared with a nod, the soles of her shoes squeaking on the checkered tile floor.
“So . . . what’s it like living with wolves?” Lucy asked.
“Fine, I guess. You’d like them. They’re good people.”
“But you’re coming home at some point, right? Dammit, I promised Mom and Dad I wouldn’t pressure you. Honestly, I’m not here to bug you to come home . . . though I won’t lie and say I wouldn’t do it if I thought it would work—peer pressure doesn’t work on your stubborn ass.” Lucy rested her elbows on the table. “As I’m sure you know, the anniversary of your uncles’ mating is coming up.”
Riley nodded. She’d already bought them a gift and a card, fully intending to post them soon.
“My parents have organized a last-minute surprise party for them to honor it,” Lucy continued. “It would be great if you could come. Your uncles would be overjoyed.”
Riley tensed, feeling mentally cornered.
As if sensing that, Lucy leaned back a little to give her space. “They miss you, Riley.”
“And I miss them.” Riley absolutely adored Ethan and Max Porter. Ethan was her mother’s brother and had mated Max before Riley was born. After her parents’ death when she was just four, her uncles had taken her in and raised her. She’d kept in contact with them since leaving the flock. They did a lot of video chatting and even met up occasionally, but she hadn’t seen them in over ten months. Her raven missed them as badly as Riley did. “The surprise party is a good idea, and I’m sure they’ll be thrilled about it.”
Lucy smiled, as if assuming Riley was consenting to attend.
“But I’m not sure my being there would be the best idea.”
Lucy’s smile faded. “Why not?”
“A party should be fun and exciting. If I waltz in there, it would stir up old memories.”
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