"I'll tell them."
Satisfied, Tao turned and left the office. Riley was waiting on the burgundy leather sofa outside, ankle twirling in a gesture of impatience.
She stood with a smile. "Everything okay?"
"Fine. Come on." Hand in hand they made their way through the building, passing various ravens along the way-all of whom looked shaken. Finding out that one of your flock mates was going around shooting fellow ravens would have a way of doing that to a person, he supposed. "How's Lucy doing?"
"Better, thankfully. She's awake, but she's drowsy and weak."
"Why don't avian shifters like being around others when they're injured?"
She shrugged. "I never really thought about it before. It's instinctive. We'll only tolerate people around us who we trust when we're vulnerable. Ethan only tolerated your presence when he was injured because he'd rather that I was guarded."
"Wolves like having pack mates around when they're injured."
"Yeah, but your breed is much more tactile than ravens."
He inclined his head. "I guess that's true." Outside, Tao noticed Sawyer at the fringe of the woods, having a fairly animated conversation with a red-faced Duncan. Duncan's body language was defensive while Sawyer appeared completely at ease. "I've been meaning to ask you. Why did you break up with Sawyer?"
"It wasn't really anything to do with him as a person," said Riley. "People thought I'd make a good Beta female, so they liked the idea of us together and hoped it was more serious than it truly was. Sawyer doesn't want a mate, because he doesn't want to share power when he ascends to Beta, but Hugh told me that makes him uncomfortable handing over the reins. He feels that he personally is a more effective Beta because he has his mate, Dana, supporting him, so he'd prefer it if Sawyer was mated."
"And Hugh was hoping you would be that mate." Tao's wolf snarled at the idea.
"Yeah, so I ended the fling to nip all that in the bud."
"The flock should have known better than to think you'd ever be Beta female-you wouldn't like that position."
He was right, but Riley asked, "What makes you think I wouldn't have been happy as Beta female?"
He snorted. "You're a nonconformist, Riley; enforcing rules and regulations would have gone against your nature. Besides, positions of authority don't impress you, so your heart wouldn't have been in it. Being a Beta is demanding work. Unless you love it, you can't be productive at it. The role of Guardian would suit you better." A Guardian watched over the young within a pack. "I told Taryn as much, and she agreed. She'll probably offer you the position when you finally give her official acceptance of the offer to join the pack." He frowned at her odd expression. "What?"
"I don't like how well you see me."
"I know you don't, baby. Isn't it better that I see you?" He smiled at her "not really" look and rubbed his nose against hers. "Don't worry so much about it."
"I cannot believe you."
At the new voice, Riley turned sharply to find Cynthia striding toward her, with Shirley close behind. "Problem?"
"My sister is shot because you led a madman here, and instead of taking responsibility for that, you're trying to pin the blame on someone from the flock?" clipped Cynthia.
"Not true, but I can see why you'd want to believe that," said Riley. "I mean, if someone really is finishing what Wade started, you're on their list." Riley wasn't ruling out Cynthia as a suspect, actually, but she decided to keep that part to herself
Hands curling, Cynthia said, "There is no 'list.' This has nothing to do with Wade or what happened four years ago."
Riley cocked her head. "I don't think you really believe that. I also don't really care what you think, though, so why don't we both just walk away?"
"If it were up to me, you'd be walking all the way off this territory. You brought this trouble here; you need to lead it back to where it came from."
"Everything was fine here until you showed up," Shirley piped up. "Now everyone's eyeing each other with suspicion." She looked at Tao. "If you want my opinion, your Alphas should think twice before giving Riley a place in your pack. Some people are just poison."
Tao glared at her. "That's the thing: I don't want your opinion. I'm clueless as to why you think I would."
Protectively, Cynthia ushered Shirley to stand behind her. "Don't bother, Shirley. Let him find out for himself what trouble he's accepted into his pack." Looking down her nose at Riley, Cynthia shook her head in contempt. "It should amaze me that you thought you'd get away with manipulating the flock into believing one of its own is a killer. But then, you got away with manipulating Wade into-"
Riley snapped her hand around Cynthia's throat and dragged the bitch to her. "Finish that sentence, I fucking dare you."
Eyes wide and nostrils flaring, Cynthia just stared at her.
Riley's raven wanted to peck her fucking eye out. "You know, Cynthia, there are no guys standing around with their pants down, so I can't help but ask myself why the fuck you keep opening your mouth."
Sawyer shouldered his way through the crowd that was beginning to form. "What the hell is going on here?"
"She has Cynthia by the throat," said Shirley, sounding a little shrill. "You're an enforcer. Aren't you going to do anything?"
Riley tensed. Not because she feared Sawyer, but because the laugh that came out of Tao was a dark, menacing sound that made the little hairs on her arms and nape stand on end.
"Touch her," Tao said to Sawyer, "and I'll kill you."
Sawyer sifted a hand through his hair. "Riley, stand down."
Ignoring him, Riley kept her attention on Cynthia. "You can submit or you can fight me here and now-either works fine for me. Honestly, I'd prefer the fight. I've got a lot of anger to burn off."
Cynthia's eyes fairly glowed with hatred, so it came as a sincere shock when the female then looked down in a gesture of submission.
Riley shoved her away. "I guess I can't blame you for backing down. I wouldn't want to get my ass kicked in front of my male either."
Stroking her throat soothingly, Cynthia bared her teeth. "Don't you have an off button or something? By the way, some guy from the village down the road just called; apparently their idiot's gone missing."
"Aw, bet you thought up that insult while Sawyer was using a map to find your G-spot. Am I right?"
Sawyer planted himself between them and snapped, "Enough." He sighed. "Riley, why don't you and the wolf go see your uncles or something? Cynthia, I thought you wanted to see your dad."
Shirley glared at him. "She's trying to make the flock believe one of us is a killer and you're doing nothing?"
"Stop trying to stir the pot, Shirley," said Sawyer. "You're a grown woman. Act like one." He turned his back on her and, with one last look at Riley, stalked away. The crowd then gradually dispersed, whispering among themselves.