Thanks first of all to #1, who keeps me up and running. I wouldn’t be here without you.
Thanks to Jocelynn Drake, Vicki Pettersson and Kim Harrison for being there with me for both the cheers and the tears.
Thanks to Elizabeth Mazer, for all her work behind the scenes, and for holding the whole thing together. To D. P. Lyle, MD, whose medical expertise kept my corpses realistic. Any medical mistakes in this book are mine, not his.
Thanks to my agent, Miriam Kriss, for support and encouragement that goes way beyond her job description. You give me confidence, without which it would be so much harder to face that blank screen.
And a huge thank-you to my editor, Mary-Theresa Hussey, for showing me the path and letting me wander from it as necessary. Your guidance has been invaluable. You make me shine.
“Miss Sanders, tell us why you killed your boyfriend.”
Fresh irritation swelled in my chest like heartburn, bringing with it the first twinges of a migraine behind my right eye. I turned away from the fall-color panorama visible through windows spanning the south wall of the dining room to stare down the long mahogany table at a much less pleasant sight: Calvin Malone, Alpha of the Appalachian territory. As I watched, the left corner of his mouth began to twitch above his thin, trim beard, a sure sign that he was having fun. The pompous bastard loved pushing my buttons. He’d just found the one labeled Use with Caution, then poked it anyway.
“Ex-boyfriend.” I spoke through gritted teeth, my hands clenched on my black cotton slacks. “And it was self-defense. Which you’d know if you’d listened the last time I answered that exact same question.”
Michael cleared his throat from the chair on my right. Dark brows rose over the rim of his glasses, urging me to be good. Since he was acting as my adviser, the werecat version of a defense attorney, rather than as my oldest brother, I took his advice without argument. Possibly for the first time ever.
Sighing, I forced my attention back to the tribunal—three Alphas chosen by the highly regarded “short straw” method to sit in judgment of me. Officially, the hearing was to determine my guilt or innocence on two capital charges. However, the grudge Malone held against me was old long before each of my crimes took place. Allegedly.
But that wasn’t right, either. Unlike the human justice system, in the werecat world, the accused was considered guilty until proven innocent. And the burden of proof was on the defendant—me.
I was charged with infecting Andrew Wallace, my human ex-boyfriend, which I’d already confessed to doing—accidently. I also stood accused of murdering him to cover up my crime, which I’d vehemently denied. I’d killed Andrew in self-defense, and while I felt guiltier about that than any of my judges could possibly understand, I’d had no choice. It was either kill or be killed, and my stubborn sense of self-preservation insisted on the former.
If the tribunal found me guilty, in addition to a lengthy stay in the cage, I’d be facing some kind of corporal punishment. Possibly the loss of my claws, which was motivation enough to keep me on my best behavior.
“But you do admit to biting him?” Malone prompted, his mouth twitching again as he tapped a thin stack of papers lying on the table in front of him.
“Yes,” I said through clenched jaws, gripping the lacquered arms of my chair to anchor myself to the seat. “I did bite him, but the infection was an accident. I didn’t know my teeth had Shifted.”
“So you still claim to have experienced this…” Malone paused, glancing at his notes for effect. “‘Partial Shift?’”
His patronizing smile made my stomach churn, but in light of the circumstances, I was trying very, very hard to be good. “Yes.”
Malone huffed in disbelief, glancing around the room to make sure everyone else shared his skepticism. On his right, Paul Blackwell placed one wrinkled hand on the table. He scowled, scraggly gray eyebrows drawing low over small, dark eyes. “Why is it, then, that you can’t show us this ‘partial Shift’?”
Because I’m not quite ready to give in to murderous rage. Fortunately I was getting pretty good at not saying the first thing that popped into my head. Mostly. “I can’t do it on command. Not yet anyway. I have to be in a certain mood—excited, in one sense or another—to make it happen.”
“Well, isn’t that convenient?” Malone said with a conspiratorial glance at Blackwell.
“Quite the opposite, actually,” I snapped, and Michael kicked my shin under the table.
Malone’s fist clenched around his notes and his mouth opened. But before he could speak, the Alpha on his left cleared his throat conspicuously, drawing all eyes his way.
“Calvin, I assume you have a legitimate question for Faythe?” By some miracle, my uncle Rick Wade—my cousin Abby’s father—had been selected for the tribunal, and in my father’s honor, he’d made his allegiance to my family well-known. If not for him, I’d have already been convicted and sentenced.