Authors: Vivi Andrews
For my fabulous editor—thank you for sharing my excitement over this new pride.
And, always, for my family—you make my dreams possible.
Lila Fallon stared at the stack of wedding magazines with an emotion that was far too similar to loathing. Most twenty-three-year-old women would be giddy at the idea of planning their weddings. Especially twenty-three-year-old women who had a—let’s face it—near-compulsive obsession with girly clothes and pretty hairstyles.
But then, most twenty-first-century women weren’t shape-shifting lionesses marrying the pride’s next Alpha in a glorified arranged marriage. And most women had actually been proposed to by their fiancés.
Maybe that was the problem. Not that there was a problem. She was fine with the situation. Perfectly fine. So what if Roman hadn’t proposed? Or said so much as a single romantic word to her during her entire life? They got along well enough. Even if he had always treated her as a cross between a much younger sister and a pet—which hadn’t exactly inspired burning passion in return.
The age difference really hadn’t helped. She’d still been in grade school when her father hand-picked teenage Roman to train as his successor. Regardless of the eight-year gap, it had just been assumed that when she came of age, she and Roman would tie the knot to shore up any cracks in the solidarity of the pride. The Alpha’s only daughter and his personally selected replacement. Done deal.
And that was fine. Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine. Lila wasn’t a complainer. She knew her role, knew her duty, and was happy to be a contributing member of the pride. She was happy to be marrying Roman.
, damn it
She just seemed to be suffering from an irrational hatred of bridal magazines. Nothing strange about that.
Lila swept the magazines off her vanity and kicked them under her bed with one high-heeled foot. Not the most mature way to deal with the situation, but she didn’t want to see those smug bridal faces smiling up at her. Not today.
Her gaze was drawn inevitably to the clock. Five twenty. An hour and forty minutes before the All Pride meeting. Probably ten minutes of other pride business and then it would happen. In one hundred and ten minutes, her father would stand up on that stage, beaming like the proud papa he was, and announce the date of her wedding.
No more theoretical, vague, long engagement. Three months. New Year’s. Done deal.
Which was good. Great even. She was euphoric. Over the moon. Couldn’t be happier. Hadn’t she just been complaining to Patch the other day that she was living in a state of perpetual virginity, waiting for her future-Alpha pseudo-fiancé to make a move since all of the other lions in the pride were too damn scared of him to poach on what they perceived to be his territory? She’d been waiting for what felt like years for her life to start and now the date had been set. Prayers answered.
So why couldn’t she get a full breath?
What she needed was a celebration. A night out with her best friend. Drinking, flirting, dancing, forgetting—no, not forgetting. Nothing to forget. Life was good. Life was worth celebrating.
Lila plucked her cell phone off her vanity and dialed Patch. It went straight to voicemail and she sighed, waiting as Patch chattered through her
Thank you for calling Montana Mountain Guides
spiel. She couldn’t mention the wedding date on a message. That was in-person news. Instead, she waited patiently for the beep and put on her most cheerful voice, which was pretty damn cheerful.
“Patch, darling! I have news. I realize you’re probably out shooting the rapids or wrestling a bear or doing some other gloriously outdoorsy activity, but this is your friendly reminder that your ass had better be on time to the All Pride meeting tonight. And wear something cute. You’re taking me to the Den after.”
There. That was suitably mysterious.
Lila dropped the phone back on the vanity, exchanging it for a bottle of nail polish. When in doubt, primp. That was her motto.
By six thirty she was polished, curled and made-up to a glossy shine. Blonde hair tumbled around her shoulders in an artless tousle she’d spent nearly thirty minutes perfecting. Her blue eyes were lined with just enough kohl to be sexy without crossing the line into trashy. Lips that always seemed a little too big for her face were carefully lined and painted a demure pink. A soft flowing white dress with tiny red flowers twisting across the skirt and her red-and-white floral print heels completed the most bridal-looking outfit she owned.
As ready as she would ever be, she trotted quickly down the stairs of the lodging house and started across the compound to the Pride Hall. She’d probably be expected to move in with Roman soon. Funny, she didn’t even know where he lived, never seeing him anywhere but his office. There were scattered bungalows on the pride lands as well as the common buildings and a collection of lodging houses like the one she’d moved into five years ago that were more like condominium complexes. And then there was the main house up on the hill overlooking it all. The Alpha’s house. Where she’d grown up and where she and Roman would live when he took over the pride. Raising babies and ruling the world from on high.
Lila stopped, bracing a hand against the big maple tree twenty feet from the main entrance to the Pride Hall. Her knees were shaking.
Jitters. Perfectly normal. Everyone got bridal jitters.
The smooth baritone, the soft barely-there lilt of an accent touching the vowels. She knew without looking who it would be. And she didn’t want to look. Didn’t want to see those miles-deep brown eyes watching her with the unnerving mix of intensity and irritation. She’d never figured out why Santiago Flores always seemed so annoyed by her.
Conjuring up a smile, she turned her head and forced a sparkle into her voice. “Santiago. So good to see you.”
And it was always good to see him. The man was masculine beauty incarnate. Thick black hair just long enough to start to curl, burnished bronze skin, and a sculpted face and body that would have been pretty if it hadn’t been so powerfully
A slight frown put a crease between his brows. “Are you all right?”
“Me? Of course I am. Don’t be silly.”
A slow lift of one eyebrow seemed to argue that Santiago Flores was never silly. “You look like you’re about to vomit all over those pretty red shoes.”
“Why, Santiago, you do say the sweetest things.” She dimpled and batted her eyes at him—falling back on her second motto: It’s always the right time for flirtation. She angled her ankle to better display the shoes. “They
fetching, aren’t they?”
Those bottomless brown eyes narrowed. “You don’t have to be happy all the time like some kind of perfect little Stepford kitten. You’re allowed to have moods.”
She smiled brilliantly. “This is my mood.”
He snorted. “Of course it is. Why would anyone be frustrated by having their entire life story written for them? Never making any of their own choices—though maybe that’s what you want. If you don’t choose, it’s not your mistake, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lila swallowed, trying to maintain a smile that was wobbling around the edges.
He couldn’t know about today’s announcement. Only her father’s inner circle knew that they’d finally picked a date and Santiago was about as far from that inner circle as a pride member could get. He was one of the wanderers. The drifters. The outsiders who flocked to live under the protection of the Lone Pine Pride, but never truly fit in, living on their own off the pride lands, never giving up their isolation for the comfort of the pride. Lila couldn’t imagine living outside that security.
“I used to think you were too cowardly to take them, but do you even know that you have choices?” Santiago asked, his voice low enough that it started to pull the edge of a growl. “That you don’t have to march through life as the obedient daughter who never develops her own personality because she’s too busy following orders?”
Something hot pricked behind her eyes and she forced it back. He was just a loner. An outlier. His opinion of her didn’t matter.
Even if he’s right
“Oh, look, they’ve opened the Hall doors. I’d better go grab a seat before all the good ones are taken.” It was a flimsy excuse to escape, but she didn’t care. He already thought she was a coward. The cowardly lioness. If only there was a similarly fitting appellate she could throw at him about jaguars. Not that she would. The Alpha’s daughter did not lower herself to name-calling.
The Pride Hall was filling quickly. The large, open multipurpose room could fit sixty comfortably, but today it would be called upon to house nearly twice that number. The sixty core lions, plus roughly twenty cats of other breeds who lived on the pride lands, and nearly forty outliers coming in from miles around to heed the Alpha’s summons. Mandatory All Pride meeting. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d had one, but whenever it was, the pride had been smaller then. Over the last few months there had been a steady influx of shifters from the south, begging for sanctuary.
Something was coming. The Texas lions were stirring things up, trying to get the shifter community unified behind the idea of coming out to the humans by threatening them with the bogeyman of some mysterious organization that was abducting and running tests on shifters. People were scared, and everyone was looking to Lone Pine to see which way the wind was blowing. In recent years they’d become the biggest and most influential pride west of the Mississippi as well as the only pride in the country to accept non-lion shifters into their ranks, so everyone was waiting to hear how the Lone Pine Alpha would respond to the threat from the south.
That was what today’s meeting was about—informing the pride of the tales the new arrivals from the south had brought and warning the strays and outliers to be careful and stay close to pride lands whenever possible until they knew more about whether this organization was a legitimate concern. The wedding announcement was just the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Something positive for the entire pride to look forward to so they had something other than an unseen enemy to think about.
Lila smiled, chatted and flirted her way around the room—taking the time to introduce herself to new faces as she threaded her way toward a cluster of open seats along the far aisle. A good Alpha’s mate was accessible and engaged with her people, and Lila was going to be the best damn Alpha’s mate this pride had ever seen. Not that her mother hadn’t set that bar rather high.
She looked to the stage and there they were. The perfect power couple. Gregory and Lucienne Fallon. Her parents.
The man who’d been Lone Pine Alpha for the last twenty-five years didn’t look like he’d just had his fiftieth birthday and neither did the statuesque beauty at his side. They both still radiated strength, vitality, and calm, contained power. Roman had that same aura, standing at the foot of the stage with her father’s best friend and her godfather, the bear shifter Hugo.
The only one who didn’t fit in with the perfect Alpha power tableau was Lila.
Lila. Was it really so terrible to be obedient? To prefer going with the flow to making waves? So what if she always did as she was told? Since when was that a crime?
Lila twisted toward the door, telling herself she was looking for Patch, when in reality her eyes were searching out a certain black panther. He loomed near the door, leaning against the back wall, his sleekly muscled arms folded over his black T-shirt. Not lord of all he surveyed like Roman or her father, but apart from it all. Not above or below, just separate. Independent. Lila could almost envy him that knowledge of who he was outside the hierarchy. She only seemed to know who she was relative to the pride, like she would cease to exist entirely without them.
Santiago’s head turned, just a fraction, and suddenly he was pinning her with his gaze. Lila sucked in a gasp and whipped around, a blush heating her face from being caught gawking at him.
“You look guilty.” A pair of cowboy boots appeared at her side. Cowboy boots containing a big, lazy lion with a big, lazy smile. Kelly Mather. Biggest flirt in three counties. “I love guilty. Tell me all about it.”
Kelly tossed himself into the seat at her side, long legs stretched out in front of him. Lila smiled. She’d always liked Kelly. It was impossible to be stressed out around Kelly. Everything was light and easy with him. And though he never failed to make her feel pretty and pampered, he’d sooner cut off his arm than take it any further than flirtation. Kelly was safe. And so much fun to play with.