Quiet nights like this were supposed to be restful. Instead, clear nights with a bright moon and plenty of stars tended to make Damien Hancock stalk the halls of his mountaintop stronghold and snap at whatever wolf had the misfortune to cross his path. Soft breezes only prickled the hairs on his neck, and moonlight made it harder for his aging eyes to see his enemies coming. An alpha wolf in his position had foes at every turn.
Tonight, though, the next turn in the corridor simply brought him to the servants’ wing. Here the Hancock low-ranks who saw to the household had their meager rooms. Damien rarely bothered to patrol here. He must not have been paying attention.
A group of maids were clustered around a flat-screen TV, watching a movie. Those too low on the ladder to rate a seat lolled on the floor in wolf form. On the screen, Gerald O’Hara tongue-lashed a sullen Scarlett on the importance of land. It’s the only thing that matters, he insisted.
Damien’s lips curled. Territory. Holding one’s turf. Sometimes the monkeys got it right.
Wolves also knew the importance of territory. Land meant power. Land meant wealth. Dealing in real estate had made Damien a wealthy alpha and the Hancocks a powerful pack. He’d had the foresight to buy property before the interstate went in, back when land was cheap. Now he had a hotel on Boardwalk and restaurants on Park Place, so to speak. He wondered sometimes what the apes would think if they knew those pizzas and Chinese dinners they shoved into their gaping monkey mouths were being provided by werewolves. He doubted they would even slow in their chewing.
The Talbots hadn’t had such foresight. Look where they were now.
Damien’s smile twisted into a half-snarl. He shouldn’t have thought of the Talbots. They’d claimed the land and founded the town and built their own secluded mini-empire. Now they only served as a reminder of how fragile it all could be. How quickly power could be lost, and territory stolen.
He whirled and charged from the low-rankers’ enclave, back to his seat of power. The she-wolves caught up in Gone With the Wind hadn’t even noticed his presence.
# # #
The Hancock mansion’s alpha suite had belonged to Damien for almost thirty years. From his chair behind his huge mahogany desk he could gaze out the wall-length window at the surrounding peaks, or step out onto the balcony and peer down at the town snuggled at the mountain’s foot. Of late neither view could cheer him, so he welcomed the dark. Night turned the outside to shadowy dreams, and shrouded day’s stark reality.
For the first time in his three-decade reign, Damien faced competition.
Not from within the pack, of course. He was still strong. Still undisputed. His sole legitimate offspring, Devon, showed no inclination to challenge him. Frankly, Devon showed little inclination for anything other than fast cars, strong drink, and lovely tail. He wouldn’t last ten seconds as the Hancock alpha, which suited his sire just fine.
The threats that ate away at him came from outside sources.
His glare stayed fixed on the view straight ahead, but his thoughts turned to the west, and the Fledermaus spread. Those damn bats had been a thorn in the Hancock flank since his own sire’s time. The Flying F should be Hancock land. He’d made his move to grab it after old Johann’s unfortunate “accident.” But Johann’s son Brandon had proved tougher than expected, canny in the ways of power and with the money to back it up. After a number of futile sorties Damien had been forced to back off.
No matter. Brandon had no sons and, given his choice to date outside his species, was unlikely to sire any. Ditto for his psychotic brother, Jack. With no heirs as backup, Brand’s hold on the spread remained tenuous. Damien had only to sit back and wait for the inevitable crack in his defenses.
That left the tiger, Zhere Ghan.
A growl ripped out of him unbidden. Ghan posed a bigger threat than any flighty bat. He was a cat, for starters. Cats were patient, and given to stalking. Cats never played by the rules. You couldn’t meet them in a straight-on confrontation. They were always leaping on you from behind.
Worst yet, Ghan had sons. Four legitimate, and Lupa only knew how many bastards. The younger two were bigger idiots than Devon, and his agents reported the second-born, Ravi, had returned to India. But the oldest, Tasman … there lay the problem. He had a cat’s sly brain and Ghan’s aptitude for business without the elder tiger’s vicious streak. His ability to keep a cool head and not give in to instinct made him a deadlier foe than all the other tigers combined. Only the knowledge Tasman would take command had kept Damien from going after Zhere. Why the cub hadn’t deposed the old rug already, Damien had no idea.
Perhaps he actually honored his sire. Perhaps that was a weakness Damien could use.
He’d better move fast. The damned stripies had opened a nightclub on what should have been Hancock turf, and prelim reports said it was already doing a healthy business. The downstairs sex rooms catered to anyone with sufficient funds. Including, his spies told him, low-rank wolves. He trusted his betas and the sub-alphas of the many Hancock satellite packs, but low-ranks, all too often, could be bribed or bought. It was one of the many reasons they were low-ranks.
Something had to be done about the stripies. And the bats. And all those flat-toothed herbies walking the streets of his town like they owned the scatted place. For Lupa’s sake, that feeble-brained McMahon mutt had gone and married one. What the hell was up with that?
He’d put an end to that, by Lupa, and to everyone else who threatened him. He’d put the Hancocks back on top again, and this time keep them there.
Power. The only thing that mattered. The hardest thing to hold.