Tao planted his feet. "Don't let me stop you."
"In private," Shirley bit out.
"Now, see, if I thought you wanted a pleasant conversation I'd grant you that privacy. But it doesn't seem to me like either of you has anything pleasant to say to Riley, and that's a problem for me."
Cheeks flushed, Cynthia looked at Riley. "Are you going to let him dictate what you do?"
"He's not dictating what I do," said Riley. "He's dictating what you do."
"This isn't your business," Shirley said to him, nostrils flaring.
His wolf snapped his teeth. "Riley's my business. Unless you'd like to find out what lengths I'd go to in order to protect her, you'll step away and calm the hell down."
Cynthia inhaled deeply and took a step back. Shirley followed suit, though she stepped back only slightly.
Riley folded her arms. "Now let's get this over with. What do you want?"
"It was good that you attended your uncles' party," said Shirley. "I might have my issues with you, but I've always liked Ethan and Max."
That was true, Riley knew.
"You said you were only here for the weekend," continued Shirley, "but most of the flock seems to think you're back for good. Is that true?"
Riley sighed. "No, it's not. Maybe there are some who hope they can convince me to stay, but it won't happen." Hearing Cynthia let out a relieved breath, Riley turned to her. "I don't want Sawyer, Cynthia. I'm not here to try to win him back."
Cynthia's eyes flared. "You say that as if you have any chance of winning him back. You don't. You're no one. Nothing but a dumb little orphan."
There was the Cynthia that Riley remembered. The Cynthia who had bullied her throughout childhood; the Cynthia who had pulled out a chunk of her hair during a fight; the Cynthia who had once shoved her into the lake, laughing. Not that Riley had ever been an innocent party. She'd retaliated every time.
"I've yet to work out what Sawyer ever saw in you," Cynthia continued. "Fortunately, he no longer sees whatever the hell it was."
Riley looked her up and down. "Don't act like you're better than me, Cynthia. What have you ever done? Besides every guy in the flock, that is. You know, there are names for people like that."
Cynthia's body went completely still. "Are you calling me a whore?"
Riley snorted. "No one's ever going to pay you. Now I know that neither of you wants me here, but there's nothing you could say that would make me leave. There's really no point to this."
"You have no right to be here," sneered Shirley. "You lost that right when you manipulated my poor boy into-"
Tao stepped in and snapped, "Don't even start that shit. The shooting was a tragedy that I'm sure has affected the entire flock, and it's natural that you'd find it hard to accept your son caused it, but he did cause it. You can harp on at Riley all night long, but it won't change the truth."
Shirley's upper lip curled. "You know nothing."
"I know that I won't allow you to use Riley as a scapegoat," he said. "Deal with your issues and stop trying to make them hers."
"I know my boy," said Shirley, voice unsteady. "I know that what he did that night was something my boy would never have done unless someone manipulated him somehow. He was depressed-"
"So you're finally acknowledging that," said Riley. "Shame you didn't do it when Lucy and I went to you for help. Look, I'm sorry that you lost your son-"
"I don't need your pity," Shirley spat.
Riley sighed. "Nothing I say right now could make any difference to you. You're determined to hate and blame me."
"You're an easy person to hate, just like someone else I could mention
Like that, Riley lost every last bit of sympathy she'd had for the woman. "Don't go there, Shirley. You get a free pass just this once. But do not confront me or speak of my mother again." Riley turned their back on them, communicating her lack of fear, and walked with Tao to the rental car. After hopping in, she clicked on her seat belt and watched as the two females walked sharply out of the lot and into the trees.
"You okay?" Tao asked Riley.
"I just wanted to have some time with my uncles, that's all. It shouldn't be a big deal."
"No, it shouldn't." He slid a hand under her hair to massage her nape. "What was that comment about your mother?"
"Shirley hated her. No, 'hate' isn't a strong enough word. It was a bone-deep loathing. No one seems to know why. I figure something must have happened between Shirley and my mother at some point, but I've no idea what it could be."
Tao gave her nape a comforting squeeze. "Come on, it's late, let's get to the cabin." He followed the directions she gave him, driving up rocky trails and going deep into Exodus territory. When they finally arrived at the cabin, they found their duffels waiting on the porch swing. The small log cabin was framed by crooked trees and thickets. Beneath the sounds of crickets and leaves rustling, he could hear the soothing burble of a brook somewhere in the near distance.
"Has a certain charm to it, doesn't it?" said Riley.
"It does," he agreed. "Especially with the view." The backdrop for the cabin was the Red Rock Country.
He followed her up a small set of stairs onto the wraparound porch, crushing the dead leaves that littered it. Riley grabbed their duffels from the swing before he could, making him frown. She just flashed him an impish smile and led him inside.
He was instantly hit by the smell of wood, furniture polish, laundered sheets, and citrus potpourri. His wolf found the citrus slightly calming. Tao scanned the den, taking in the wall-mounted TV, bookshelves, and stone fireplace complete with a pile of logs, shovel, and poker.
The floorboards creaked beneath his feet as he walked farther into the den, looking at what were clearly antique furniture pieces-there were plenty on Phoenix territory, so he knew antiques when he saw them. They should have looked out of place in a guest cabin. Instead they added to its charm, just like the handcrafted cushions with their tribal markings.
"One of my chores was to keep the guest cabins clean," said Riley, sliding her hand over the back of a leather sofa that had a throw blanket folded over the arm.
"Not often you see antiques in a guest cabin," said Tao, holding an antique bronze candlestick, surprised by the weight of it. Putting it back on the cabinet, he turned to see Riley carrying some kind of black, winged ornament out of the den. "What's that?"
Riley opened the front door, dumped it on the porch, dusted off her hands, and shut the door. "A sculpture of a fruit bat." And probably a joke. Lucy was such a bitch.
Smiling, Tao followed Riley into the kitchen. "Oh yeah, you mentioned on the plane that you don't like bats. You weren't kidding, huh?"
"Not kidding at all." They were ghastly-looking creatures, in Riley's opinion. Opening the refrigerator, she said, "Someone-probably Lucy-has stocked the fridge for us." There were several cans of Mountain Dew, to her delight, and coffee. The hinges creaked as she opened a cupboard and retrieved two mugs before filling and switching on the coffee machine. "Well, what do you think of the flock?"