"It's my way, or no way," I said, and the words were squeezed out, because I'd let my air go, so I could shoot him.
He licked his lips, and spoke softly, carefully, being sure to move nothing but his mouth. "Your way."
"If I put this gun away, are you going to try to hurt me?"
"No," he said.
"Why not?" I asked, still staring at him down the barrel of the gun.
"You'll kill me."
"You sure of that?"
Some look passed through his eyes--pain, fear, something close to all of it. "I know that look, the one on your face. I know it, because I have one just like it. You will kill me, and I don't want to kill you. I can't win, so I won't play."
I stared at him a heartbeat longer. I thought about pulling the trigger. One, because I was ready to; two, because I was almost certain he was going to be trouble. But in the end I lowered the gun, and backed away until I was out of reach of him. I backed away, and made certain I didn't give him my back. I didn't offer him a hand up, and neither did anyone else.
I WENT TO one knee beside Richard, my gun not pointed at Haven anymore, but still out. We just weren't that far away from the fallen werelion. Tosay I didn't trust him was an understatement. The awful thing was, even knowing that he was bad news, knowing that he'd tried to cripple Richard just because he wanted him to hurt, knowing all that, part of me still wanted to touch him. Part of me wanted to go over and start licking the blood from his wounds. But the image in my head of me doing it wasn't of me, not human me. The image in my head was of a huge golden lioness licking his wounds. I shook my head hard to clear the image.
I glanced at Richard. He was huddled over his leg, hands over his knee, but not touching it, as if that had hurt. Not good. I put my gaze back to Haven. I didn't want him getting up without my knowing it. If I shot him, I didn't want it to be because he'd startled me, and years of training with a gun took over. No, if I shot him, I wanted it to be on purpose.
"How bad is it?" I asked.
He spoke through gritted teeth. "It's not dislocated, but it hurts."
I called, "Claudia."
She came to stand over us. "We need a doctor." I thought of Travis's arm. "Maybe more than one."
"Dr. Lillian is on her way." Doc Lillian was a wererat, and the local shapeshifters' most popular doctor for emergencies we didn't want anyone else to know about.
"Good." I fought the urge to look at her, and kept my gaze on Haven. He didn't seem to want to do anything but lie there and bleed, but I wanted to be sure of him. Sure meant looking at him. "Could you guys earn your pay, and actually secure him?" I didn't try to keep the irritation out of my voice.
"Yes, ma'am," she said. She motioned and Lisandro, Ixion, and Graham came up to stand around the fallen werelion. Haven didn't seem to notice. Had he passed out? Not my most immediate problem. I got to holster my gun without firing it, a rarity for me. I touched Richard's face. "The doc's on the way."
He just nodded, face pinched and pale with pain.
I looked up at Claudia. "Where the hell were you guys while Haven was abusing Travis and Noel?"
"If I say 'right over there,' will you get pissed?"
I stood up. "Yes."
She gave me empty cop face, though I knew she'd never been a cop. "This was a dominance challenge. We are not allowed to interfere in challenges of other animal groups."
"This wasn't a challenge for leadership of anything," I said.
Claudia gave me a look that said, clearly, I'd missed something. Whatever showed on my face finally let her know that I didn't know what the hell she was hinting at.
She sighed. "Sometimes I forget that you miss the obvious."
"What did I miss?" I asked.
"Your Ulfric has established himself as dominant to this guy." She smiled down at Richard. "Truthfully, I didn't think the Ulfric had it in him." There was a grudging compliment in her voice. "You needed for someone to establish dominance over him, if you planned to keep him." She jerked a thumb in Haven's direction. "Guys like this have to be forced to obey the hierarchy."
"You mean the hierarchy of the werelions?"
She shook her head. "Anita, if you add this guy to your men, then someone had to beat the shit out of him, at least once, so he'd know who was boss."
"I'm boss," I said.
She smiled at me. "I like you, Anita. I respect you. I take orders from you. But a guy like Haven is going to see you as a girl, a piece of ass. Unless you can personally beat him to a pulp, he's not going to behave for you. He'll tell you to your face what you want to hear, but you've got Nathaniel, Micah, Damian. I mean you have a lot of non-coms around you. You don't want to bring home a lion to play with your kittens unless you have a big dog to balance it out."
I frowned at her. "Are you saying that Richard is my big dog?"
"Maybe it's a bad example, but it's the best I've got."
"You don't think he would respect me--Haven, I mean?"
She shook her head. "He's got trouble written all over him, Anita."
"You think I should throw him back?"
Her dark eyes widened, surprised. "Does my opinion count?"
"I trust your judgment, and you're the only girl here."
"Why do you need a girl opinion?" she asked.
"Because I'm tired of all the damn testosterone."
She grinned at me. "I'm not sure I'll say anything that the men won't say on this one, Anita. Estrogen doesn't make me stupid, and you'd have to be stupid to want to keep Cookie Monster over there. I mean he could be a bodyguard, if we made the rules clear, but to take home as a lover, no way."
I nodded. "I agree."
"Then why ask?"
I hugged myself. "Because, knowing all of it, I still want to touch him."
She shrugged all that muscled upper body. "Then you're f**ked."
Richard's voice came strained. "You can't want to keep him, not now, not after this."
I knelt beside him. He grabbed my hand, so hard and sudden it startled me. "I don't want to keep him."
I watched him try to think past the pain. "But," he said.
"But it's not always about what I want."
His hand convulsed around mine, until I had to fight not to cry out. "Shift, Richard, you can heal this if you shift."
He shook his head. "If I shift I'll have to spend at least four hours in animal form. Can't go to the ballet as a wolf."
"You're not going to enjoy the evening like this."
His grip on my hand loosened, just holding me for a moment. He stared into my face like he was trying to memorize it. "Do you want me not to go?"
I frowned at him. "Why would you ask that? Of course, I want you to go."
He almost smiled, but winced instead. "You've got a lot of men to juggle, maybe one less would make tonight easier."
I drew his hand against my br**sts, and touched his face. "You didn't just assume I needed help to handle Haven. You asked me first, and waited for me to answer. I know you wanted to wade in and pull him off us. Thank you for asking, for waiting."
He grimaced, and tried to make it a smile. "I'm glad you're happy about it, but my waiting cost Travis a broken arm. Joseph's not going to want us to borrow his lions, if we keep breaking them."
That made me smile. "Good point, but the lioness in me is looking for someone strong." I looked at the wall, because I could feel that beast moving around inside me, as if it were pacing the cage of my body. I did not want another round of almost-shifting. I raised Richard's hand to my face. I sniffed it, and it didn't help. Yes, it was Richard, but he'd touched Haven, and the smell of lion was on his skin, along with wolf. The prickling warmth started to swell inside me.
I let go of his hand, and stood up.
"What's wrong?" Claudia asked.
"Her beast is trying to rise again," Richard said from the floor.
I nodded, and stepped farther away from Richard, and kept moving. I wanted distance between me and Haven. This didn't feel like the way I'd bonded to Nathaniel. This instant attraction to Haven felt like... I turned and found Micah standing there, closer than I'd realized. He hadn't wanted to interfere with me and Richard. I could feel my eyes widening. I reached out to him, and the wolf and lion quieted. Leopard stirred, and the movement almost doubled me over. Micah caught me, helped me stand up straight. But the leopard liked him too much, and I had to push him away from me. I stumbled, and Jean-Claude was there to catch me. I clung to him, burying my face against his chest, drawing in the scent of clean silk and him. I actually ripped his shirt open, so I could put my face directly against his skin. I drew in the sweet, clean, scent of him, as if he were air, and I'd been suffocating. His cologne was sweet, and always smelled as expensive as it was, but it was the scent of his skin underneath it, mixing with the cologne, that I needed. It helped clear my head, helped me ease the beasts back to sleep.