Michael Wyndham stepped out of his bedroom, walked down the hall, and saw his best friend, Derik Gardner, on the main floor headed for the front door. He grabbed the banister and vaulted, dropped fifteen feet, and landed with a solid thud he felt all the way through his knees. "Hey, Derik!" he called cheerfully. "Wait a sec!"
From his bedroom he heard his wife mutter, "I hate when he does that ... gives me a flippin' heart attack every time," and couldn't help grinning. Wyndham Manor had been his home all his life, and the only time he walked up or down those stairs was when he was carrying his daughter, Lara. He didn't know how ordinary humans could stand walking around in their fragile little shells. He'd tried to talk to his wife about this on a few occasions, but her eyes always went flinty, and her gun hand flexed, and the phrase "hairy fascist bastard" came up, and things got awkward. Werewolves were tough, incredibly tough, but compared to Homo sapiens, who wasn't?
It was a ridiculously perfect day outside, and he couldn't blame Derik for wanting to head out as quickly as possible. Still, there was something troubling his old friend, and Michael was determined to get to the bottom of it.
"Hold up," Michael said, reaching for Derik's shoulder. "I want to-"
"I don't care what you want," Derik replied without turning. He grabbed Michael's hand and flung it away, so sharply Michael lost his balance for a second. "I'm going out."
Michael tried to laugh it off, ignoring the way the hairs on the back of his neck tried to stand up. "Touch-ee! Hey, I just want to-"
"I'm going out!" Derik moved, cat-quick, and then Michael was flying through the air with the greatest of ease, only to slam into the door to the coat closet hard enough to splinter it down the middle.
Michael lay on his back a moment like a stunned beetle. Then he flipped to his feet, ignoring the slashing pain down his back. "My friend," he said, "you are so right. Except you're going out on the tip of my boot, pardon me while I kick your ass." This in a tone of mild banter, but Michael was crossing the room in swift strides, barely noticing that his friend Moira, who had just come in from the kitchen, squeaked and jumped out of the way.
Best friend or no, nobody-nobody-knocked the alpha male around in his own ... damned ... house. The other Pack members lived there by his grace and favor, thanks very much, and while the forty-room house had more than enough room for them all, certain things were simply ... not ... done.
"Don't start with me," Derik warned. The morning sunlight was slanting through the skylight, shining so brightly it looked like Derik's hair was about to burst into flames. His friend's mouth-usually relaxed in a wiseass grin-was a tight slash. His grass-green eyes were narrow. He looked-Michael had trouble believing it-ugly and dangerous. Rogue. "Just stay off."
"You started it, at the risk of sounding junior high, and you're going to show throat and apologize, or you'll be counting your broken ribs all the way to the emergency room."
"Come near me again, and we'll see who's counting ribs."
"Derik. Last chance."
"Cut it out!" It was Moira, shrieking from a safe distance. "Don't do this in his own house, you idiot! He won't stand down, and you two morons-schmucks-losers will hurt each other!"
"Shut up," Derik said to the woman he (usually) lovingly regarded as a sister. "And get lost ... this isn't for you."
"I'm getting the hose," she warned, "and then you can pay to have the floors resealed."
"Moira, out," Michael said without looking around. She was a fiercely intelligent female werewolf who could knock over an elm if she needed to, but she was no match for two males squaring off. The day was headed down the shit hole already; he wouldn't see Moira hurt on top of it. "And Derik, she's right, let's take this outside-ooooof!"
He didn't duck, though he could see the blow coming. He should have ducked, but ... he still couldn't believe what was happening. His best friend-Mr. Nice Guy himself!-was challenging his authority. Derik, always the one to jolly people out of a fight. Derik, who had Michael's back in every fight, who had saved his wife's life, who loved Lara like she was his own.
The blow-hard enough to shatter an ordinary man's jaw-knocked him back a full three steps. And that was that. Allowances had been made, but now the gloves were off. Moira was still shrieking, and he could sense other people filling the room, but it faded to an unimportant drone.
Derik gave up trying for the door and slowly turned. It was like watching an evil moon come over the horizon. He glared, full in the face: a dead-on challenge for dominance. Michael grabbed for his throat, Derik blocked, they grappled. A red cloud of rage swam across Michael's vision; he didn't see his boyhood friend, he saw a rival. A challenger.
Derik wasn't giving an inch, was shoving back just as hard, warning growls ripping from his throat, growls that only fed Michael's rage
(rival! rival for your mate, your cub! show throat or die!)
made him yearn to twist Derik's head off, made him want to pound, tear, hurt-
Suddenly, startlingly, a small form was between them. Was shoving, hard. Sheer surprise broke them apart.
"Daddy! Quit it!" Lara stood between them, arms akimbo. "Just ... don't do that!"
His daughter was standing protectively in front of Derik. Not that Derik cared, or even noticed; his gaze was locked on Michael's: hot and uncompromising.
Jeannie, frozen at the foot of the stairs, let out a yelp and lunged toward her daughter, but Moira moved with the speed of an adder and flung her arms around the taller woman. This earned her a bellow of rage. "Moira, what the hell? Let go!"
"You can't interfere," was the small blonde's quiet reply. "None of us can." Although Jeannie was quite a bit taller and heavier, the smaller woman had no trouble holding Jeannie back. Jeannie was the alpha female, but human-the first human alpha the Pack had known in three hundred years. Moira would follow almost any command Jeannie might make ... but wouldn't let the woman endanger herself, or interfere with Pack law that was as old as the family of Man.
Oblivious to the drama on the stairs, Derik started forward again, but Lara planted her feet. "Quit it, Derik!" She swung her small foot into Derik's shin, which he barely noticed. "And Daddy, you quit, too. Leave him alone. He's just sad and feeling stuck. He doesn't want to hurt you."
Michael ignored her. He was glaring at his rival and reaching for Derik again, when his daughter's voice cut through the tension like a laser scalpel. "I said leave him alone."
That got his attention; he looked down at her in a hurry. He expected tears, red-faced anger, but Lara's face was, if anything, too pale. Her eyes were huge, so light brown they were nearly gold. Her dark hair was pulled back in two curly pigtails.
He realized anew how tall she was for her age, and how she was her mother's daughter. And her father's. Her gaze was direct, adult. And not a little disconcerting.
"What?" Shock nearly made him stammer. Behind him, nobody moved. It seemed nobody even breathed. And Derik was standing down, backing off, heading for the door. Michael, in light of these highly interesting new events, let him go. He employed his best Annoyed Daddy tone. "What did you say, Lara?"
She didn't flinch. "You heard me. But you won't hear me say it again."
He was furious, appalled. This wasn't-he had to-she couldn't-But pride was rising, blotting out the fury. Oh, his Lara! Intelligent, gorgeous-and utterly without fear! Would he have ever dared face down his father?
It occurred to him that the future Pack leader was giving him an order. Now what to do about it?
A long silence passed, much longer in retrospect. This would be a moment his daughter would remember if she lived to be a thousand. He could break her ... or he could start training a born leader.
He bowed stiffly. He didn't show the back of his neck; it was the polite bow to an equal. "A wiser head has prevailed. Thank you, Lara." He turned on his heel and walked toward the stairs, catching Jeannie's hand on the way up, leaving the others behind. Moira had released her grip on his wife, was staring, openmouthed, at Lara. They were all staring. He didn't think it had ever been so quiet in the main hall.
Michael was intent on reaching his bedroom where he could think about all that had just happened, and gain his wife's counsel. He didn't quite dare go after Derik just yet-best to take time for their blood to cool. Christ! It wasn't even eight o'clock in the morning!
And Lara. His daughter, who jumped between two werewolves with their blood up. Who faced him down and demanded he leave off. His daughter, defending her dearest friend. His daughter, who had just turned four. They had known she was ferociously intelligent, but to have such a strong sense of what was right and what was-
Jeannie cut through his thoughts with a typically wry understatement. "This can't be good. But I'm sure you can explain it to me. Use hand puppets. And me without my So You Married a Werewolf guide ..."
Then he was closing their bedroom door and thinking about his place in the Pack, and his daughter's, and how he hoped he wouldn't have to kill his best friend before the sun set.