“Screw that.” Kim tried to twist out of Liam’s hold, but Liam wasn’t about to let her go. “Connor,” she said over her shoulder. “Can you find something for me to stand on? A chair or something?”
Her question jolted Connor out of his frozen terror. Good for Kim.
The Shifters parted to let Connor leave the room. Liam hoped it would take him hours to locate a chair, or that he’d think better of returning at all, but Connor came back almost at once with a stepstool.
“Good enough.” Kim told him to put it on the floor in front of her, and Liam released her long enough to let her climb on it. He kept his arms around her as she straightened up, both to steady her and to keep her in his protective hold.
“That’s better,” Kim said. The stool let her stand half a head taller than Liam, and now she could look across the crowd of Shifters.
“There doesn’t need to be any violence over this,” she said. “What y’all don’t understand is that I can be the best friend you’ve got. You have a Shifter in jail, and the world howling for his blood. If I can prove he didn’t kill his human girlfriend, think what terrific PR that would be for all of you. Shifters are viewed with suspicion and hostility. If I show the world that Brian was wronged, make him a sympathetic figure, even a hero, imagine what an amazing step forward that would be. They might let you integrate more, let your kids go to schools that aren’t held in abandoned warehouses.”
Silence. Not one expression changed.
“Hey, maybe they’d even let us have cable,” a Shifter in the back drawled. The room rumbled with male laughter.
“I’m serious. I’m good at my job. I can do this if you help me.”
Fergus’s mouth drew to a thin line. “Liam, shut her up.”
Liam wasn’t about to. Kim had Fergus baffled, and he liked that.
“You act like you don’t want Brian released.” Kim went on. “He didn’t kill Michelle. Why should he be executed for it? Why would you let him be?”
Fergus drew the cat-o’-nine-tails from his belt. “Liam.”
“He’s going to whip me?” Kim asked Liam in amazement.
Liam lifted Kim off the stool. “Time to stop talking, love. Fergus, if we’re doing this Challenge, let’s get on with it, man.”
“Not until I teach the bitch some manners.”
Connor stormed forward despite Sean’s attempts to restrain him. The young man’s face was red, his large hands in fists. “Leave her alone! She’s not doing anything to you. She’s just talking. How can that hurt you, you bastard?”
“Connor, shut it,” Dylan said fiercely.
Fergus’s gaze chilled the air as it rested on Connor. “Come here, boy.”
“He’s a cub,” Dylan tried. “He doesn’t understand.”
Connor wiped his eyes. “I understand, Grandda’.” He glared at Fergus, though he dropped his gaze almost immediately. “I meant it too.”
Fergus was livid. Cords stood out on his neck, and his eyes burned with the intensity of a feral’s.
Liam knew full well how Fergus had envisioned this cozy scenario: Liam and family would scurry down to San Antonio, hand Kim over in abject apology, then hurry away again, letting Fergus do whatever the hell he wanted.
Instead all four Morrisseys had defied him—twice. The first time by refusing to respond to his verbal summons, yesterday. Now, in Fergus’s own lair, Kim had lectured him, Liam had made the Challenge, and Connor had broken the rule of a cub not confronting an alpha before he was of age.
Cubs could get away with a lot on account of their youth—Goddess knew Liam had been a pain in the ass during puberty—but flouting Fergus in front of the whole clan could not go unpunished. Connor was too young to fight for dominance, so he’d have to be swatted, as a lion might bat aside a cub who’d gotten too rambunctious.
“Come here,” Fergus repeated.
The magic in the command propelled Connor toward him. Sean started after him, but Liam shook his head. “No, Sean, let me.”
Sean opened his mouth to argue, then nodded, his eyes bleak. He turned away, unhappy, but knowing why he had to stand down.
“Let you what?” Kim asked Liam.
Her eyes were wide in her white face. She was afraid and angry, and so damn beautiful she made his heart ache.
Liam cupped her face in his hands. “Kim, my love, stay here with Sean and Dylan. Don’t even think about coming after me, and please, stay quiet.”
Kim’s lips parted as though she wanted to protest. Then she closed her mouth and nodded. Good girl. Liam turned from her and swiftly followed Connor.
Liam was the same height as Fergus. He and the big man looked at each other eye to eye, Liam without flinching.
“If you do this,” Fergus said in vicious fury, “then when I answer your mate Challenge, I’ll wipe the floor with you.”
Gods, what an arrogant bastard. “Just get on with it.”
Connor’s eyes held tears, but his head was up, though he couldn’t meet Fergus’s gaze or even Liam’s. “No, Liam. Leave it.”
“It’s my right, nephew,” Liam said quietly.
Two of the thugs, the one with the shaved head and the black-haired one, divested Connor of his shirt. Connor couldn’t meet their eyes either.
Liam stripped off his own shirt and dropped it on the floor. The thugs ignored him. They turned Connor around and bent him forward at the waist, exposing his young, unblemished back.
Fergus raised his cat-o’-nine-tails. With a grunt, he brought it down. Before it could strike Connor, Liam leaned over his nephew and took the blow directly across his own back.
“What the hell?” Kim shrieked. “What is he doing?”
Horror filled her as Fergus, eyes fixed, mouth curled in vicious enjoyment, struck again. The sound of the leather swished through the silence, followed by the slap against Liam’s skin.
Dylan moved toward them, grim-faced, tugging off his shirt to reveal a back as broad and muscular as Liam’s. When he reached Connor and Liam, he leaned over Connor as well, father and son enclosing the boy in a protective Shifter embrace. Fergus continued to ply the whip as though he didn’t notice, lips pulling back from teeth that had become fangs.
Kim started forward, but Sean stepped in front of her, blocking her way. “Stay here. Let it finish.”
Sean’s eyes held anguish, but she saw he wasn’t about to try to stop Fergus. She also sensed that if Sean hadn’t felt the need to keep Kim bottled up here, he’d have joined the human shield around Connor.
“This is insane,” she said, heart in her throat. Barbaric, uncivilized.
But they’re Shifters, a voice whispered in her head. Isn’t that why they’re forced to wear the Collars, to keep their barbarism under control?
The Collar wasn’t doing jack to keep Fergus from beating Liam and Dylan to bloody pulp. The leather straps opened Liam’s flesh, and blood dribbled to the floor. Liam was taking the brunt of it, only some of the blows hitting Dylan, as though Fergus’s aim was to debilitate Liam only. Nothing reached Connor, enclosed in a Shifter wall.
The other Shifters watched without comment, no murmuring, no growling, neither egging Fergus on nor trying to stop him. The beating went on and on, as though Fergus was taking out years of welled-up aggression on the Morrisseys.
“Why don’t you do something?” Kim asked Sean, tears in her eyes.
“It’s the Shifter way.” Sean’s mouth was set in a grim line.
“It’s a f**ked-up way.”
Kim waited until Sean again turned to watch, then darted around him and ran through the pack. Short height could be an advantage—the tall Shifters weren’t used to dealing with one small, athletic female slithering through their grasps.
She reached Fergus. “Stop this!”
Fergus gave Liam two more vicious blows, then trained his awful gaze on Kim. He was far more frightening than Dylan, his eyes red with rage, a tinge of madness in them. She was looking at a man who would do absolutely anything, no matter how ruthless, to get what he wanted. No holds barred.
Liam jerked his head up. “Sean, take her out of here.”
Sean was already behind Kim. Kim spun away and put herself right under Fergus’s nose. Fergus snarled. His face had half changed, his lips peeling back from his red, angry mouth. She thought of the Lupine who’d tried to kill her, and realized that Fergus wasn’t too far removed from that un-Collared Shifter’s vicious rage.
“I’m not Shifter,” Kim said. “I’m not afraid of you.”
Big fat lie. The man was terrifying, and Kim had no doubt he could kill her fast. But Kim couldn’t stand by and watch him beat on Liam, whose back was now coated with blood.
Fergus went for her, whip raised. Liam lunged at him with a fighting snarl. The sound filled the room, loud and inhuman.
Fergus’s eyes glittered, not in fear, but in glee. A second later, Dylan was next to Liam, his skin glistening with sweat and blood.
“No, Liam. It’s not your right.”
“Let him,” Fergus said.
“No.” Dylan’s voice was hard.
As Kim watched, tiny sparks raced around Liam’s Collar and into his flesh. Liam flinched as his muscles registered the shock, but he never took his eyes from Fergus.
So the Collars did work. Liam was in a deadly rage, his adrenal system signaling he was ready to fight and kill. The Collar was trying to stop him, to once again torture him from the inside out.
“Liam,” she whispered. “Please don’t.”
Her words seemed to penetrate the haze of fury in Liam’s brain. Liam broke the gaze lock with Fergus, turned his head, and looked down at Kim.
“I claim her as mate,” he growled.
To Kim’s surprise, Fergus’s angry look receded until he almost smirked. He spread his arms, the ends of the cat-o’-nine-tails fluttering. “I hereby release my claim. I wouldn’t want the bitch in my house, anyway, with my cubs. I wish you joy of her.”
The Shifters let out their collective breaths, stances relaxing. What the hell? “Liam…”
Liam seized Kim’s arm, his hand slick with blood. “I claim her before the clan, as is my right.”
Fergus’s eyes glinted. “The clan recognizes your claim.”
“He changed his mind quick,” Kim said. “Fastest one-night stand I ever had.”
Liam laughed, the sound rumbling. Fergus looked triumphant, as if he’d won, his eyes glittering in a way Kim didn’t like.
He wasn’t giving in. He was planning something.
Fergus gave the rest of the room a flat stare. “Everybody out.”
The Shifters started to leave, their voices growing louder as they wound down. Kim wondered how many truly supported Fergus and how many had been compelled here like Liam and his family. Glory had said Shifters didn’t like clan leaders who used the Summons so maybe Fergus had simply bullied them into showing up.
Fergus stepped past the Morrisseys, followed by his thugs, the only ones who hadn’t relaxed. His bodyguards, Kim realized. Fergus was the clan leader, the ultimate alpha, or whatever. But if he had such power over the clan, why did he worry so much that he’d lose it?
Dylan pulled his shirt back on, wincing when the fabric touched his raw back. Liam took his T-shirt from Sean and balled it in his hands, his back a bloody mess.
Liam had rushed to protect Connor from dire hurt, and Dylan had rushed to protect both his son and grandson. Kim understood love like that, the same that had reared up and kicked her when she hadn’t been able to save her brother all those years ago.
She took Liam’s T-shirt from his hands, giving him a watery smile as she shook it out and folded it.
The only one not pleased was Connor. When the last of the Shifters had left the room, Connor launched himself at Liam.