THE LONE WOLF'S LADY Part 7
Rand lunged forward to plant himself between Tamara and his idiot older brother. What had started out to be a relaxing walk was about to turn bloody if he was reading Declan's mood correctly. No doubt he saw Tamara's presence as a threat to the pack and the vampire estate where they lived. That was bullshit, but the beta never missed an opportunity to throw his weight around, especially when it came to his younger brothers.
Well, maybe it was time to prove once and for all that Declan wasn't the only one who'd inherited a full dose of alpha personality from their father. Yes, Rand routinely took orders from their middle brother, but Rand worked for him. Ian had built the security company from the ground up, which made him the man in charge. Rand's wolf understood that. Outside of work, though, he and Ian treated each other as equals.
He kept his gaze on Declan, staring him straight in the eye and not with the deference his brother demanded from everyone except their father. Any other time, Rand might have let it slide. It wasn't as if he actually wanted to knock his brother off his beta wolf pedestal. That would only result in Rand having to take his place in the hierarchy of the pack. But right now, with Tamara's safety topping his list of priorities, he couldn't beat back his inborn aggression.
Declan took another step forward, another deep growl echoing through the trees. Back down, little brother. Take the woman back to your cabin and stay there. Or better yet, ship her back to New Eire where she belongs. Her problems aren't ours.
If Rand had been in his human form, he would have rolled his eyes at the degree of stupid arrogance Declan was throwing around at the moment. Instead, he settled for a succinct reply. No. Now, if you'll excuse us, we're out for a walk.
For a second, Declan looked stunned. It would've been funny if it wasn't a precursor to what would likely prove to be a damn bloody fight. They'd be lucky if at least one of them survived. He nudged Tamara with his shoulder, forcing her to back up several steps.
She clearly wasn't happy with the situation. "Rand, I know you can't answer me right now, but I'm guessing that's your brother growling at you. I don't know what his problem is, but I'd be glad to give your dad a call. Somebody needs to give Declan's leash a good yank."
Okay, her snark wasn't helping the volatility level in the situation, but he had to love her refusal to be intimidated by a pair of pissed off wolves. After nudging her back another few steps, he shook his head, hoping she'd understand that he didn't want her to go snitching to his father. She gave Declan a considering look and then finally nodded. Before backing up a little farther, she leaned down to whisper, "Kick his ass."
Rand gave her hand a quick lick and turned his attention back to his brother. So like I said, we're out for a walk, so move out of our way on your own"—he paused for effect—"Or I'll move you myself."
There, he'd finally drawn the line. This fight had been brewing for a long time now, and it would be a relief to get it over with. Again, he had no particular desire to take over as beta, but if that's what it took to teach Declan that Rand and Ian weren't going to ask "How high?" every time he ordered them to jump.
Little brother, I should hate humiliating you in front of the lady, but I won't.
Rand curled his lip over his canines, in a wolfish sneer. Have you been practicing that line in front of the mirror, Declan? Because I've got to tell you, it sounds like something straight out of a middle school drama.
That did it. The older wolf released a howl of pure challenge that echoed down the mountainside. When Rand answered with one of his own, Declan charged forward. Rand met him in the middle, and the fight was on.
Tamara had seen nature films that showed animals fighting for dominance, but nothing had prepared her for the sheer vicious brutality of it when it was up close and personal. It was tempting to scurry back to Rand's cabin to hide from the truth of his reality, but she wouldn't let herself be that cowardly. Instead, she retreated to the edge of the trees and leaned against a huge cedar, not that she needed its support. Not much anyway. But here in the wilderness, she felt safer with something solid at her back. Rand hadn't had a chance to explain much about how packs functioned, so she had no idea if other wolves might come running to join the fight in support of one brother over the other.
No sooner had that thought crossed her mind than another large wolf came charging down the path from the direction of Rand's home. All three wolves were of similar size and coloring. She didn't know for sure, but she suspected that meant they were related. Hazarding a guess, she said, "Ian, I'm guessing that's you."
The wolf glanced away from the fight long enough to jerk his head up and down. Okay, then. At least she could depend on him to side with Rand if the brawl took a turn in the wrong direction. After a few seconds, Ian nosed the backpack she'd set down on the ground. "There are some clothes inside if that's what you're asking."
She pulled the sweatpants out of the pack and dropped them on the ground beside Ian. At least that gave her something to concentrate on besides the terrifying battle going on only a short distance from where the two of them were standing. After reclosing the pack, she turned slightly to offer Ian some privacy. It was one thing to peek at Rand while he transitioned, but she had no desire to watch his brother do the same.
Seconds later, Ian was standing beside her, his arms crossed over his broad chest. "Not that I'm surprised by this, but what set them off?"
"I'm not exactly sure. I was getting claustrophobic shut up in the house with nothing to do, so we decided to go for a walk. Rand opted to go wolf, mainly because I think he wanted to see how I would react."
"And how did that go?"
She shivered just a bit. "It's one thing to know you guys can change forms, but it's altogether different to see it firsthand. I never could have imagined…well, it's amazing. He's beautiful and so strong."
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Ian gave a soft laugh. "At least you knew what to expect. Sort of, anyway. I was guarding Jaina when I got shot. That triggered a shift with no warning. Up until then she had no idea that people like Rand and I even existed."
"I imagine that came as a bit of a shock, but she seems to have handled it—and you—quite well."
A yelp of pain drew their attention back to the fight. What was she thinking to be standing there carrying on a normal conversation while Rand was fighting for his life?
She already knew the answer, but she had to ask, "Ian, can't you stop them? Or call your father to step in?"
"Maybe, but Rand wouldn't thank me for interfering. Neither would Declan, for that matter. This was bound to happen considering how alike they are. The only reason Declan and I haven't had the same problems is that I chose to build a life for myself outside of the pack structure. If we break up the fight now, they'd only find another excuse to face off again. Might as well get the matter settled once and for all."
The two combatants broke apart for a few seconds, both breathing hard and bleeding. If she had to judge, she would have to say that Declan was in worse shape than Rand, but not by much. Meanwhile, Ian winced as he watched them tear into each other again. "Declan seems to be the only one in the family who never realized that his position as beta was precarious at best. On a good day, I could take him, but Rand is the one he should have really been worried about. My little brother has grown in both strength and power to the point that he's surpassed me. Hell, I'm guessing he could even give our father a helluva fight, too."
As if that comment conjured him, Tobias stepped out of the trees. Like Ian, he was barefoot and wearing loose sweats. He spared her and Ian a brief glance before turning his attention back to the fight.
"Are you all right, Tamara?"
Tobias's voice was deep and gravelly, maybe a sign of his own wolf being close to the surface. She started to nod, but then shook her head instead. Far better to be honest about the situation. "Declan started this fight, but I don't want to see either of them hurt."
She realized she'd never really answered when Ian asked her what had happened. "Rand and I were out for a walk, just to work off some energy. He went wolf, so I could get used to his other half. When we reached the edge of the trees, Declan blocked the path. They seemed to be communicating with each other, but I have no idea what they were saying. After a few seconds, Rand herded me back out of the way. After that, they ripped into each other."
She also had no idea how Tobias felt watching two of his sons doing their best to tear each other to shreds. Finally, he sighed. "I'd really hoped it wouldn't come to this."
Ian put his hand on his father's shoulder. "Me, too. It's one reason I've tried to keep Rand busy working for me." He glanced in her direction. "To a casual observer, he might seem easygoing and able to go with the flow. But our boy isn't wired for taking orders from just anyone, and Declan really rubs him the wrong way."
After a brief silence, Ian asked his father, "What are you going to do when Rand wins?"
Which he was about to do. Even Tamara could tell that Declan was fading fast. In one last burst of strength, Rand knocked his brother over and sank his teeth into Declan's throat. He drew blood but made no effort to go the last bit of distance that would end his brother's life. She had no idea how a wolf signaled he was tapping out, but Rand released his hold and took a step back. Declan remained where he was, his breath ragged. Finally, he stretched his head further back, offering his throat to his little brother.
As soon as he did, Rand shifted to human form. "Do you need help getting to the medic?"
Declan moaned in pain as he rolled over onto his stomach and shifted. "I'll get there on my own."
That seemed to signal it was time for Tobias to step in. After giving each of his sons a hard look, he said "I'll go with Declan. Ian, you take my new beta back to his cabin and get him cleaned up. I'll be by later to talk about where we go from here."
With that, he and Ian pulled the wounded man up to his feet. Once they were sure he could stay upright, Ian started to release his hold on Declan but then pulled him in close for a quick hug. Tamara might not be particularly happy with Declan right now, but she understood even if the power structure in the pack had just undergone a major shift, family was family.
There was both pride and grief in Rand's gaze as he watched his oldest brother limp off down the trail. "I would say that I never wanted this, but that would be a lie. I couldn't keep pretending to be subservient to him any longer. I needed to know for sure where we stood, and so did he."
He slowly dragged his gaze back to Tamara. "I'm sorry you had to see that. If this changes how you feel about me, I'll understand."
There was only one answer to that. Ignoring the streaks of blood and sweat on his skin, she wrapped her arms around Rand and held him close. "Come on, wolf boy. Let's go get you cleaned up. I think we've both had enough excitement for one day."
With Ian following one step behind, the three of them headed home. The fight might have solved one problem, but they still needed to find out who wanted Tamara to die.