As he glanced around at the assembled Elders and Council members, representing his village and the one where his mate, Makenna, had been living until recently, Stone Rockwell kept the emotions in his mind fixed on anger.
This group of men was supposed to be their leaders, their advisors, and the voice of reason in each village. He stopped short of spitting on the ground in front of them only because if he did, his next words would lose all credibility.
“An alpha male, whether he be a lynx, jaguar, cougar, or leopard, brings the penalty of death down on his head if dares to touch another alpha’s mate.”
Most of the crowd gathered in the clearing, behind the Elders and Council members, shouted their agreement. Some residents from Makenna’s village who had shown up today shouted as well, but their words were filled with calls for vengeance. The two males Stone’s best friend, Arizona, had recently killed were leopards from Makenna’s village.
This uproar continued until Laredo Gage, one of the new Elders of Stone’s village, banged a mallet on the gong set up in place of the gavel and block of wood he used indoors. The sound reverberated through the woods, causing Stone to glance around for different reasons. They were totally exposed here. If the rest of the leopards from Makenna’s village decided to start a war, this was the perfect time and place to do it.
“If you cannot keep order in this assembly I will clear it!” Laredo had said the same thing two times earlier. Stone felt it was time to act on his threat because his words were meaningless if no one believed he’d make good on them.
Plus, they were outdoors, on neutral ground, standing in a clearing. None of them had authority over the space, so Laredo couldn’t actually clear it. All he could do was leave.
After Laredo gave him a nod, Stone continued.
“Even if that mate is human, like Gillian, Arizona’s mate. But especially if those males first killed two patrols in this village, before breaking into an alpha’s house with the intention of raping and killing his mate!”
The uproar was crazy now, and Stone could guess why. There were no witnesses to the killing of the two patrols, and the only witnesses to Gillian’s near-rape were people who lived in Stone’s village, not Makenna’s.
Arizona had arrived home in time to stop the men from carrying out their intentions, but he hadn’t paused to ask questions or gather proof before attacking. He’d found his mate almost naked, with two leopards on top of her, taunting her and laughing at her. Arizona had killed on instinct and out of rage. He hadn’t even been aware at the time that others had come into his house right behind him.
As if reading his mind, one of the leopards from Makenna’s village shouted, “There were no witnesses to whoever killed the patrols from your village!”
“The two dead patrols had the scents of the dead leopards on them.” Hidalgo, also a new Elder and a cougar, spoke softly, but his words cut through the noise and silenced the crowd. “That was verified by Seth Vale and Tommy Floyd, two Council members from your village.”
Hidalgo turned his gaze toward Stone. “Have you anything else to say to this assembly?”
“Yes.” Stone stood up straighter and squared his shoulders. Giving his mate a quick glance, he was struck not only by her beauty, but by the love and trust in her stunning golden eyes. They still had secrets between them, but Stone knew she would tell him when she was ready. He trusted her, too.
“What Hidalgo said is true, and all of you know that. The same two males who killed our patrols tried to rape Gillian. Their scents were on the dead patrols, in the room where the attack on Gillian took place, and on Gillian’s clothing they tore off her.”
Stone waited, expecting another uproar, but this time only a murmur rose from the bunch. What could they say in defense to that, after all?
“This also was verified by Tommy Floyd and Seth Vale. Tommy Floyd’s son, Ricky, is one of the males Arizona killed.”
Again, Stone waited, but he knew he had made his point. He addressed the rest of his remarks to the leopards from Makenna’s village, gathered together near the back of the crowd.
“If that man, who had just lost his son, and who is a Council member in your village, deemed his son and Josh Bowman both killed our two patrols and nearly raped Gillian, who are any of you to demand more proof than that? Are you saying you don’t trust your own people and their capacity to distinguish another male’s scent?”
“Easy, Stone. Keep your cool.” The comment came from Gavin, the new Chief Elder, but Stone doubted anyone else heard it. He gave Gavin a quick nod before turning his gaze once more toward his mate. She stood with Gillian, whom Stone felt still looked too pale, and Fiera. The three women were fast becoming best friends, just as Stone was best friends with Arizona and Canyon, Fiera’s mate.
If it hadn’t been for Canyon and Arizona seeking him and Makenna out while they’d been hiding from the people in her village, he and his mate might both be dead by now. Stone owed his friends a debt he could never repay.
This time, it was Gavin who stepped up to address the crowd. “I think we’ve heard enough. Our decision stands. The males who killed our patrols and nearly raped another alpha’s mate are dead, but there will be no punishment for their deaths. Arizona Collins was within his rights as an alpha male to kill the men he found had violated his mate. The punishment for that always has been, and will remain, death.”
Gavin struck the gong with a mallet, and the sound gave Stone shivers. “This matter is concluded. Those of you who live in the leopard village are advised not to pursue this further. Your Council and your Elders have already spoken with us, and have agreed that the matter has taken care of itself. It’s time for everyone to return to their homes and let the dead bury the dead.”
As Stone made his way toward his mate, he caught sight of Arizona running from his place behind the Elders and the Council members toward Gillian. Watching him cup her face before kissing her tenderly sent a wave of guilt rushing through Stone. Gillian was pregnant, although the leopards had done no harm to her unborn child. Thank the stars for that. But Stone blamed himself for having put Gillian in the path of danger to begin with.
If he and Makenna hadn’t hidden like cowards, and if he hadn’t pulled away from his two best friends in the first place, those two friends and their mates never would have gone to Makenna’s village looking for him. The two leopards, in turn, wouldn’t have come to Arizona’s home, looking for Gillian, because they never would have seen her and harassed her while she was in their village.
Makenna ran toward him as soon as she spotted him. Stone could do nothing but stand there, rooted to the spot with his arms opened wide. This woman was more than he’d ever dreamed possible. He loved her with a fierceness he barely knew had existed before meeting her. Even after watching Canyon and Arizona find their mates, Stone hadn’t been close to prepared for what it had felt like to look into Makenna’s eyes the first time.
“I am so proud of you.” She put her arms around him and snuggled up next to his body. No surprise to Stone that his cock grew rock hard in seconds. He inhaled her scent and closed his eyes, letting everyone and everything around them fade away so he could hold her without outside interference for a few precious seconds.
It didn’t last long enough. Arizona was next to him, clapping him on the back. Canyon practically pushed his way into the embrace between him and Makenna to give him a quick hug. Very uncharacteristic of Canyon, which told Stone how afraid his friends had been that this meeting wouldn’t turn out well.
“You were amazing,” said Fiera.
“So well-spoken,” said Arizona, clapping him again on the back.
“Couldn’t have said it better myself, my friend.” Canyon shook his hand now, his grip warm and dry.
“Thank you so much, Stone.” Gillian’s quiet voice was the one he heard through the din. “For everything you said today, and for everything you’ve done since that horrible day.”
Arizona put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. “I second that,” he said quietly.
“I only said the truth, but you’re welcome. Both of you.” His gaze drifted toward Gillian’s still-flat abdomen. She couldn’t be that far along. She and Arizona hadn’t mated until two months ago. He couldn’t even put into words how grateful he was that those two pigs had not harmed her child.
As if sensing his thoughts, Gillian covered her lower abdomen in a protective gesture. “I’m fine. Really.”
Arizona had told him and Canyon that Gillian was becoming more like a shifter female every day, starting with being able to discern their thoughts with a glance. Stone wasn’t sure whether that was simply because of her training as an attorney, or because she spent all her time with shifters now. Either way, the look of gratitude on her face and the words from her and Arizona still couldn’t erase the guilt he felt.
“I know you are. With this guy to take care of you, how could you be anything less than fine?”
Arizona loved his mate fiercely. He’d stood up to everyone, from the three former Elders who had let things in this village run crazy for too long, to the members of Makenna’s village who had given him, Gillian, Canyon, and Fiera a hard time the day they’d come looking for him. Arizona, like his mate, didn’t take shit from anyone.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Makenna, giving the crowd from her village a wary glance. “I don’t like the vibe.”
“Surely they won’t do anything now,” said Fiera. “They have all the proof they need that the deaths of those two males were more than justified.”
“You haven’t lived with this bunch.” Makenna’s features took on the resigned yet terrified look Stone had seen far too often lately. “They have their own ideas about justice and revenge.”
He took a cue from Arizona and pulled his mate closer. “Don’t you worry. Whatever they try, they won’t get far.”
As the six made their way into the woods and toward their village, Stone wished he believed his own words. His friends hadn’t seen the fear that had paralyzed Makenna when he’d first found her. They hadn’t listened all these weeks to her stories of life in that village, or how things had really escalated after the female Medinas had fled this village for hers.
Stone wished he could make everyone understand that this threat was far from over. They could gather all the volunteers to patrol the borders that they wanted, but if the leopards decided this would be war, war was exactly what it would come to.
He only prayed he’d find a way to keep his mate, and his friends, safe through it.