“It's not stupid to be afraid of the fae,” said Mary Jo hotly.
'No?” Honey disagreed. 'But that's not what makes you stupid, Mary Jo. You aren't arguing with Mercy because she's wrong, you're arguing with her because you don't know who she is. You still think she's some dumb bimbo who seduced our Alpha and stumbled into a stupid magic trick that allowed her to become part of the pack. That she is a mistake. That she is a weakness.”
She looked around the room. 'Idiots. Every one of you. We drove a volcano god out of our territory, and you are afraid of the fae?” She made a noise. 'Oh, that's right. It wasn't us—it was Mercy, wasn't it? She put herself between Guayota and us. She nearly died to protect us— and you are all still wondering if she should be a member of our pack.”
'She is a weakness,” said Darryl reluctantly. 'Guayota saw it, too. She was the first of us he went after.”
'And she defeated him,” Honey said. 'She drove him out of her garage.”
'Tad and Adam defeated him,” Mary Jo said.
'That's a theme here, isn't it?” said Honey. 'Mercy stands up for what is right—and her friends back her up.” She paused. 'Why do you think that is?”
Her lip curled when no one said anything. 'Because they know she'll have their back in return. Pack is about not standing alone. About having people you trust to have your back. There is not another person in this room that I would rather have at my back than Mercy.”
'What about Adam?” asked Mary Jo instantly.
'Not excepting Adam,” Honey told her stoutly. 'Your pardon, Adam, if you find that offensive. But because you are our Alpha, you have other considerations, other responsibilities. Mercy, once she has your back, she has your back.”
Adam didn't open his eyes. He just waved her apology away.
'Offering sanctuary to the fae boy was the right thing to do,” Honey said. 'He'd given aid to our fellow pack member. It is right and proper that he ask for something in return.”
'And Joel wouldn't be a member of the pack who needed help if it weren't for Mercy,” said Mary Jo fiercely.
Honey opened her mouth, but Adam spoke first.
'Enough,” he said, and his voice was silky- soft.'Sit down, Honey.”
She sat, but her mouth was screwed up in anger.
Adam opened his eyes and surveyed the room with bright gold irises. 'Y'all are mistaken about the reason for this meeting.” His Southern accent was unusually thick. It should have made his anger sound softer, but it didn't.
Beside me, Warren's mouth quirked up.
'We are not here to discuss Aiden and the sanctuary he was promised. We are not here to discuss the fae in any way, shape, or form. We are here to discuss Mercy. And your attitude toward my wife. My mate.”
He rocked to his feet and began pacing slowly back and forth. 'Mercy is a tough, smart woman. She can defend herself—I do not have to protect her. She is not weak or dependent or needy. She doesn't need the pack. She doesn't need me.”
I shot to my feet. 'That's not true,” I said hotly.
He tilted his head a little, his eyes meeting mine. His eyes softened. 'I misspoke,” he said in a steady voice. 'She doesn't need me to make sure she has enough food or a place to live—that is my privilege, but she doesn't need me to do that. She doesn't need me to keep her safe or to make her a whole person. She doesn't need me to do anything except love her. Which I do.”
Well now, I thought, abruptly breathless. I nodded at him and plunked down in my seat before my weakened knees gave out.
After I sat down, Adam started that slow pace back and forth again. It was a hunter's gait. When he spoke, it was even more quietly than he had before. 'When she agreed to be my mate and when she agreed to be part of the pack, I understood that she would not welcome my standing between her and you. She's defended herself all of her life, and she is capable of defending herself from you when she cares enough to do so.” He stopped and looked around, an eyebrow raised in challenge.
Warren coughed the words 'blue dye” into his hand.
Adam's smile flickered into being, then disappeared. 'She has rightfully earned the reputation, that goes back to her days in the Marrok's pack, of being someone people respected. No one in Bran's pack wanted to get on her bad side because Mercy always comes out on top. And she has acquitted herself very well in my pack, defending herself from whatever you've thrown at her. But today on the bridge, I discovered something.”
He let the pause linger.
'I'm done with it.” All hint of softness was gone from his voice. 'I am done with listening to you attack my mate while she is trying to save you. Again. I called this meeting to give notice. If I hear or hear about any of you saying anything to my mate that is in the least bit disrespectful, I will end you. No warnings, no second chances. I will end you.”
And he walked through the aisle left between the chairs and out of the room without looking me in the eyes.
Darryl stood up in the silence and addressed the room. 'Adam has authorized both Warren and me to help anyone who wishes to leave this pack in light of this announcement. Do not go to Adam. I assure you that he is quite serious.”
I sat where I was, dumbstruck. On the one hand— that was pretty sexy. On the other— holy cow. He couldn't do that. I'd just started making real inroads into the general prejudice of the pack. He'd silenced them. My life was going to be hellish, full of people who hated me but couldn't say anything out in the open so we could hash it out. It would just fester.
'For what it's worth,” Warren said to me, 'if he hadn't done that, I think Honey would have. And that would have been a disaster.” He looked at my face. 'It'll be okay, kid.”
I opened my mouth. 'He can't do that.”
Ben grinned at me. 'Oh yes, yes he could. This isn't a democracy, Mercy. That was brilliant.”
I shook my head. 'That was a disaster.”
'How so?” asked Mary Jo, who had gotten up and was standing in the queue to get out of the room. 'And I mean that respectfully, Mercy.”
She didn't sound sarcastic, but it lurked in her eyes.
'He can't dictate how people feel,” I said.
'Some people need to shut their mouths in order to use their brains,” said George. He sounded . . . thoughtful.
I stared at him.
'And I'm beginning to think that I'm one of them,” he said. 'I think . . . I think that you're right. The Tri-Cities is our territory. If we don't police our territory, then who could blame the fae for thinking we wouldn't do anything when they sent a troll through downtown? It never occurred to me that the pack wouldn't help. I saw Darryl up there, and thought, 'Good, they've made it.' And if I know that— maybe we should make sure that the rest of the world knows it, too. It might stave off incidents like the one we had today.”
He crouched so his head and mine were at an equal height, ignoring the way that meant he blocked the path out of the room.
'Honey was right,” he said. 'If it had been Darryl up there on the bridge, promising the sun, moon, and stars, we'd all have backed him. And you not only outrank Darryl, you've proved that you deserve that rank to anyone who isn't an outright idiot. We should have backed you. And now we will.”
'This isn't a third-world dictatorship,” I said.
'Yes,” said Mary Jo slowly. 'Yes, it is, Mercy.” Her voice softened. 'It has to be. We are too dangerous. Controlling our wolves is much, much easier when we are a pack, following a leader. This needed to happen a long time ago.”
Warren stayed by me as the room cleared of strangely happy werewolves. When Honey made it to us, she slid into the row of chairs in front. She pulled out one chair and stacked it on its neighbor, then took another and turned it around until she faced us. She sat on this one, crossed her legs at the knee, and waited, bland- faced,for the room to clear. Under her gaze, it cleared a little faster than it had been. Darryl gave her an ironic salute as he passed, which she returned.