“What in the hell happened to you guys?” Ritch asked. He shut the car door and followed Christian over to where we were sitting near the tents.
“Did you guys pick up the ice like I asked?”
“Yeah.” Christian went back to the car and grabbed the bag out of the trunk. He opened the ice chest. “It couldn’t have melted that fast.”
“Nope.” I held up a strip of my shirt holding a handful of ice before putting it back over the split in my lip. “We needed it.”
“Seriously, what happened? Were you attacked?”
“Yes,” Beau said. The gator glared at me, holding another chunk of ice in another torn off piece of my shirt—it’d been damaged beyond repair anyway—against the back of his head. The only one not holding ice was the bear. He had a solid layer of fat over his firm muscles and a thick pelt of curly hair too.
He was watching me warily though. I might have taken a flying leap and drove my shoulder into his belly, knocking the wind right out of him.
“Training exercise,” I said.
“Seriously?” Ritch raised his voice. “So, you beat up your own guys right before you have a potential conflict with some seriously dangerous werekin and who knows how many humans and doctors?” His tone, the way he crossed his arms, and the expression on his face all screamed just how stupid he thought I was.
But the throbbing in my lip had masked the ache of his absence, and I’d discovered a few weaknesses we needed to fix. I pointed to the bear. “He’s slow.” The horse’s speed and strike power didn’t help when he was hampered by too many people around him. “Beau’s got a blind spot behind him.”
Ritch snorted. “We all do. Only moms have eyes in the back of their heads.”
“Ha, ha,” I fake laughed. “It was rough, but we’re all nursing minor injuries. I could’ve been hurt a lot worse if everyone knew how their strengths and weaknesses meshed. Now we have a fighting shot—pun intended.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “So having a busted lip and black eye is no big deal?”
“I’ll heal fast.”
Christian shook his head. “Why do you have to be such a dick?”
I snarled at him but didn’t get up. The bear might have gotten in a good punch on my ribs in return. Ritch gasped and stared wide-eyed at Christian.
“What?” Christian made a face. “You think he hasn’t done this before? He likes to sneak attack as a training tactic. If you’ve patrolled the border of our territory, you’d been on the receiving end of one of Park’s little games.”
“And you wouldn’t have been tricked when I took on everyone here, would you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Maybe. You wanna hear about what I did learn while I was gone?”
Christian and Ritch both grabbed seats. “There’s an old hunting camp, usually packed with guys this time of year, that’s empty. Confusing the hell out of the game wardens, except there’s been talk of some weird animal attacks high up in the mountain. Folks are nervous. Usually they’d just track it down and kill whatever’s mauling animals, but there’s a group of government guys studying the specimen. They’re not naming it, and that’s got conspiracy theorists—dime a dozen in a small down—whispering pretty loud.
“Nothing about werekin, though.”
“Do you think these are real government guys?” Landon asked.
“No.” Ritch shook his head. “I recognized one of the descriptions as a guy who was once at the doctor’s.”
“So that’s it.” I leaned back and winced. “Confirmation. You call Deke?”
“We’ve got to wait until tomorrow. Get the go ahead from the full council.”
I sighed. “Of course.”
“Time to heal.”
The gator hissed. “Time to waste.”
“No. We need to be prepared. Fighting a feral is nothing like fighting me. Ferals don’t quit. They don’t give up. They don’t care about borders or dominance. They want food. Or blood.” I avoided looking at Ritch. “Sex.”
“So, what now?”
“When it’s dark, we leave, staggered timelines to avoid the cars standing out as we go through town. Move closer. Wait for the word to go.”
“I’m going to take a nap.” Beau lumbered over to his tent.
“Probably a good idea for everyone,” Landon said. The purple bruise on his cheekbone was already fading to green around the edges. The guy healed impressively fast. “I’ll take first watch,” he offered.
“Thanks.” I followed Ritch toward our tents. He was wearing a pair of jeans that draped nicely over his ass, and I felt my tiger rumble inside.
“Can we talk?” Ritch asked.
“Of course. Do we need to go for a walk?”
Ritch shook his head. “No. You can lie down.” With the doors open our tents, we were close enough and angled so I could see him if I kept my head toward the door.
I didn’t quite hide my groan as I crawled into the low tent.
“Serves you right, you know.” Ritch snorted. “Getting in a fight.”
“I needed to know how they all defended themselves and if they could work together,” I said again. “It wasn’t all just a single attack. We also went through some defense scenarios, attack options.”
“Oh.” Ritch fiddled with the zipper on his tent door. “And where do I come into play?”
“You and Christian stay with the cars, protect our retreat.”
Ritch’s shoulders slumped. “Okay.”
“These are bonded werekin, and human werekin who might be altered and feral. We’re going to try to capture as many as possible, but you’re going to have a gun to protect yourself and you shoot to kill, you hear me? They get to the cars, you kill if you have to, and get out if that’s not enough, even if it means leaving us behind.”
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