"Going by the way you were so easily invited to a party that's taking place on your flock's territory, I'm guessing you were never banished." Tao had suspected as much, but he'd never been able to find out for sure. "Did you officially leave the flock?" It was one thing to leave for a little while and a whole other thing to become a lone shifter.
"Check your nose, Tao, because I'm pretty sure it's in my business."
His mouth kicked up into a smile. "It was a simple question."
"You seem to know plenty, so I'm surprised you have to ask."
"I won't apologize for looking into your background, not when I did it to be sure that you and the rest of our pack are safe."
"Your pack, you mean."
Tao snorted. He didn't believe for one second that she'd leave. She'd found a place for herself there and she was also too attached to Savannah and Dexter. "Don't insult my intelligence, Riley. Even before you were offered a place in the pack, you had no intention of returning to your flock. If you had, you wouldn't have gone to the homeless shelter. You wouldn't have asked Makenna to help you get a job and an apartment so you could blend in with humans. Now lower your hackles-all I'm asking is if you officially left the flock."
Knowing he'd keep bugging her, she sighed. "No, I haven't."
With a tone as sensitive as he could manage, he asked, "What happened to your parents?" He hadn't been able to uncover the cause of their deaths. "It would be best to have the details, since I'm going to this party-"
Her head snapped around to face him. "You're not going to the party."
"I was invited. It'll be nice to meet your family."
"You hate outsiders."
"I don't hate outsiders. I just have no time for them. They're none of my concern. But you are. Come on, you're not going to make me go alone, are you?"
She growled. "You're not going. And I'm done talking about it."
"Pity for you that I don't give up so easily."
"You should. My past isn't as interesting as you seem to think it must be. And neither am I."
Tao wrapped a strand of her gorgeous hair around his finger. He fucking loved her hair. "I think you are, but I won't know for sure until you drop that guard of yours." He put his mouth to her ear. "I'm getting around that wall you have up, Riley. Just letting you know so you won't be surprised when you find me there."
"Go floss your teeth with your itsy-bitsy cock, Fenris."
Tao tilted his head. "You know . . . I just realized I'm not the one who's riled for once. I feel funny."
"You are such an asshole."
"Yeah, I know." He dug out some cash from his pocket, set it on the table, and got to his feet. "Come on, let's get out of here before your head explodes."
She pushed out of the seat, eager to get away from the scents and sounds of the diner. She didn't bother complaining when he linked his fingers with hers as they walked to the door. There seemed little point when he wouldn't release her hand anyway.
Outside, he guided her across the lot. Just as they neared the SUV, the doors of a black Lexus parked beside it swung open. Four humans exited the car-all big and well dressed, with hard faces. There was something very shady about them that made her raven release a low, guttural rattle.
Tao came to a halt, suddenly radiating menace. "There a problem?" he drawled. His wolf pushed against Tao's skin, watchful and prepared.
The tallest and leanest of the group gave a surprisingly charming smile
. "Not at all. I'm Ramón Veloz. And you're Tao Lukas, the Phoenix Pack's Head Enforcer." Eyes the color of dark lead cut to Riley. "And you are Riley Porter. I've recently made it my business to know as much as I can about your pack." His gaze slid back to Tao. "I'd like a meeting with your Alphas."
The expectation of obedience in his tone rubbed Tao's wolf the wrong way. From the dark pinstriped suit to the shiny leather shoes, this human had "mobster" written all over him. "Not sure why you think that would interest me."
Ramón's face hardened. "It should interest you. This meeting is necessary."
"My Alphas won't consent to it without good reason." And they'd want to check the guy's identity and history before even considering it.
"I'm not an extremist, if that's your concern." Ramón smoothed a hand down his tie. "In fact, I have a proposition for your Alpha female. One I think she will be happy to accept."
Tao had to admit he was intrigued. He hid it, though. "What's that?"
"My brother, Dion, is ill. Very ill. The doctors can't do anything for him. I need the services of a healer. I've heard that your Alpha female is quite a powerful one. She will be paid well, of course."
"What do you mean by 'ill'?"
"He has an inoperable brain tumor," Ramón replied, voice surprisingly dispassionate. "He's been given just four months to live."
"I'm sorry to hear about your brother," said Tao, "but my Alpha female can't help him. She heals wounds, not fatal diseases."
"I've heard differently."
Tao had no idea what the guy meant by that, since, as far as he knew, Taryn had never healed an illness.
Ramón fished a shiny business card from his pocket and held it out to Tao. "Here is my card. Pass it on to your Alphas and explain my situation." His expression turned grave. "Be sure to impress upon them just how serious a situation this is, Mr. Lukas. I'm relying on you. Can I do that?"
Tao took the card. "You're not part of my pack, so no."
Ramón smiled. "I think I could like you." Turning, he slid back into the rear seat of his car. "I look forward to hearing from your Alpha female."
"She can't help your brother," Tao told him.
With that, one of the other humans closed Ramón's door and the three of them hopped into the vehicle.
Watching them drive off, Riley said, "Well, that was unexpected. Did you notice they were all armed?"
"I noticed," said Tao.
"I don't like his arrogance or sense of entitlement. He's fully expecting Taryn to do exactly what he wants without question. Think she will?" Personally, Riley didn't think so.
"I strongly doubt it. Let's go find out."
One look at their faces and Taryn knew something was wrong. Frowning, she straightened on the recliner at the end of the sectional sofa. "What is it?"
Others from the pack were scattered around the living room; some were seated on the huge, bulky sofa while others sat in armchairs. Like their Alpha female, they switched from relaxed to alert in a single second.
Tao came to a stop in the center of the room, glad when Riley stood beside him rather than finding herself a seat. "Just as we were coming out of Mo's Diner, we were approached by a human named Ramón Veloz."
Muting the TV, Trey said, "Who?"