I swallowed the lump in my throat. “But you’re not that guy, Grayson. You wouldn’t take me by force.”
He dropped his gaze. “No. I’m not. But right now, that’s a weakness that could get you killed.”
I reached between the seats and covered his hand with mine. “It’s not a weakness to respect somebody’s wishes. I know you’re an alpha. I know how hard it must be for you to fight your primal instinct, and that…that makes me care for you more.”
There. I’d said it.
He locked gazes with me, questions burning in his eyes. Fuck it. I leaned in and pressed my lips to his in a soft, brief kiss.
“I look forward to getting to know you once this is over.”
His gaze tracked a path across my face. “Don’t die, Fee.”
A bonfire blazed in the center of the field, and huge tents were erected in the circumference of light the blaze emitted.
“You can tell which tent belongs to who by the colors,” Dean explained. “The red one belongs to the Crimson Pack, the black and silver is the Rising Pack, and we’re cream and gold.”
Figures moved back and forth across the clearing, both on two legs and four. My pulse picked up pace.
“How long before the fights start?”
“A half hour,” Grayson said.
Oh, fuck, my heart was going to explode.
He took my hand in his and laced his fingers through mine. “You can do this.”
It was the first time he’d said that to me, and fuck, did I need to hear it. “Thank you.”
“Dean, find out who we’re up against,” Grayson said before leading me to our tent.
We passed a couple of Loup wearing biker gear and swigging beer, and one in wolf form, curled up on the grass as if this were a fucking picnic.
They sneered at Grayson and leered at me as we passed. Grayson bared his teeth and growled low and menacing.
The Loup backed off.
“Fucking Crimson betas,” he said.
We ducked into the cream and gold tent, and I expelled a breath to find the Regency Pack in residence.
Bobby was slicing what looked like a whole roasted pig, and the wolves were loading up plates from a buffet that had been set up on one side of the tent.
Seriously? “I’m glad someone’s having fun.”
Grayson squeezed my hand. “It’s customary to feast before a culling.”
Bastian, the wanker Loup, caught my eye and raised his glass in greeting. Wow, now that was something.
“Fee.” Bobby joined us and handed me a glass of what looked like cider or beer. “Have a drink.”
Alcohol didn’t affect me in the same way as it used to, but the idea of eating or drinking right now made me want to puke.
“No, thanks, Bobby. Maybe after.”
He looked up at me with solemn brown eyes. “Mitchum is partially blind in his right eye, and Bradley has a hip injury that never healed properly.”
“Those are her opponents?” Grayson asked.
Bobby nodded. “I checked a half hour ago.”
Grayson’s shoulders relaxed. “Mitchum is Crimson Pack, a beta, and Bradley is also a beta in the Rising Pack.” He squeezed my hand again. “You have an excellent chance of beating either of them.”
“Wait, don’t I have to fight both?”
“No. They are fighting to claim you, so they go up against each other. The victor gets to fight you.”
Made sense. But then, “Who’s fighting to claim me from the Regency Pack?”
“No one,” Grayson said. “You’re an alpha female who took sanctuary with my pack and wasn’t claimed by the alpha. That negates the Regency Pack’s entry into the culling.”
“You mean, because you didn’t mate with me by force, you can’t try and claim me in the fight?”
“That’s exactly what it means,” Grayson said.
“As far as Loup law is concerned, if an alpha male cannot subdue a female, alpha or not, or chooses not to, then his pack is excluded from claiming said female in the culling.”
All these fucking rules. But there was one silver lining. I’d only have to fight one Loup. The knot in my chest eased a little. Just one fight. Okay, I could do that.
Dean entered the tent with Cora close at his heels. “I couldn’t find the adjudicator,” he said.
“It’s fine,” Grayson said. “Bobby checked earlier. We have Mitchum and Bradley.”
Dean puffed out his cheeks. “Just as we hoped. They’ve underestimated you.”
“But Hunter knows I’m an alpha.”
“He also knows you’re new to the Loup world, and you’re a female,” Grayson said.
“Hunter’s a chauvinistic wanker,” Dean said. “Sorry, Grayson.”
It took me a moment to realize why he was apologizing. Hunter was Grayson’s brother. What was the story there? I needed to find out when this was over.
“Don’t be,” Grayson said to Dean.
The sound of a bell tolling made my pulse jump.
“First fight is about to begin,” Bobby said. “It’s the qualifier to claim the female Loup from the Crimson Pack.”
“I’m going to claim her for our pack,” Bastian said. “I put my name down. I can take down the Crimson Pack champion easily. Rising didn’t even put in a champion.”
That’s because I was the main prize at this event.
“Guess who’s trying to exit Rising?” Dean asked. He didn’t wait for a response. “Logan.”
Grayson let out a low whistle. “Well, well. This should be interesting. Who’s challenging?”
“Ulrich, Hunter’s right-hand man,” Dean said with raised brows.
“Anyone from the Crimson Pack?”
“No,” Dean said.
“No, they wouldn’t,” Grayson added.
“Why not?” Cora asked.
“Logan has a reputation as a vicious fighter. He was Eldrick’s beta before Hunter joined the Rising Pack.”
I raised my hands. “Okay, back up. I thought Hunter was the Rising Pack alpha.”
“Eldrick has chosen Hunter to succeed him. Hunter’s in transition right now, which means he is acting alpha and will take over fully at the next full moon. Ulrich is unhinged. He’s a rogue Loup that Hunter brought into the Rising Pack and is loyal only to Hunter. It’ll be a close fight.”
My mind was whirring. “You think Logan knows too much about the inner workings of the pack. You think Hunter wants this Ulrich to kill him, not force him to submission.”
Grayson looked impressed. “Yes. That’s exactly right.”
I looked from Grayson to Dean. “If Crimson Pack isn’t challenging for Logan, then we need to.”
Dean nodded. “I agree. I can fight Ulrich.”
“The insane one?” Cora looked horrified. “I don’t want you to die.”
Dean frowned at her. “You think I can’t win?”
She shook her head. “No, but if he’s insane…”
“The champion fights aren’t till death. It’s submission only.”
Cora exhaled in relief, but Dean looked annoyed that his abilities had been questioned.
“I’ll go sign up.”
“Do it,” Grayson said. His eyes narrowed. “Let’s see what the Rising Pack is hiding.”
He left the tent just as the second bell tolled.
“Looks like the first qualifier is about to begin.” Bastian tore off his shirt. “Time for blood.”
There was blood. A lot of it. And baying and howling and the clatter of quills as one of the Rising Pack Loup who looked like a cross between a porcupine and a hyena did a weird battle dance on the other side of the fight ring. They’d shoved wooden poles into the ground topped with sconces and arranged them in a circle. The circle of fire.
Bastian fought as a huge brown and red wolf tearing into the Crimson Pack’s smaller gray coyote until it rolled over and exposed its throat.
Bastian threw back his head and howled. The Regency Pack howled with him. I felt the euphoria in my blood and the echo of a howl trapped in my throat. I was tempted to throw back my head and howl with them when my skin prickled all over with that sensation of being watched. Of being scrutinized. I scanned the crowd on the other side of the circle and spotted him easily.
Hunter stood, legs shoulder-width apart and arms crossed over his chest. His dark, gleaming eyes were on me, and his mouth was a straight unforgiving line. And then he smiled. That cruel, knowing smile that made my stomach hurt.
Arms wrapped around my waist, and Grayson’s chest pressed to my back. His lips brushed the shell of my ear.
“Don’t look at him. Don’t let him intimidate you.”
Hunter’s lips peeled back in a snarl, and I tore my gaze away, heart thundering like an epic storm inside my chest. I couldn’t let him have me.
The Crimson Pack challenger limped out of the ring, and Bastian shifted to human form, naked and triumphant. A female was shoved into the ring. She was pale, naked, and even in the firelight, it was impossible to miss the scars that crisscrossed her back. A low growl rumbled in my chest.
Bastards. Fucking bastards.
Grayson’s chest rumbled alongside mine.
The woman lifted her chin, her gaze defiant, and then morphed into a wolf. She attacked, but Bastian caught her easily, holding the wolf in a stronghold that she couldn’t get free of.
My body tensed. “He’s hurting her.”
Bastian pressed his face to the side of the wolf’s head, and I swear he was speaking to her. Long seconds passed, and the wolf went limp in his arms. He laid her on the ground, and she rolled over and exposed her neck to him.
He scooped her up like she was fragile cargo and cradled her in his huge arms. She curled into him, hiding her snout in the crook of his neck as he carried her out of the ring and into the Regency Pack tent.