Well, you'll have to make it quick," Vanda said. "In about five minutes I'll be falling into my death-sleep."
Brynley nodded. "This battle Phil talked about, how bad will it be?"
Vanda was surprised. She'd expected Phil's sister to tell her to get lost. "We're at war. The Malcontents want to kill us."
"I've heard that vampires have the power of mind control. Is Phil under their influence, or does he really want to do this?"
Vanda tamped down her growing irritation. "Everyone I know in the Vampire World has the utmost respect and fondness for Phil. They would never control him. They consider him family."
"He has family here."
"His family here banished him."
Brynley took a sip of coffee. "Did he tell you about himself?"
"He told me how your ancestors became werewolves."
"Ancient history." Brynley waved a dismissive hand. "Did he tell you about his life here?"
Vanda was tempted to ask, What life? but she was too curious to brush Brynley off. "Is he really a prince?"
Brynley nodded. "A direct line from the old Welsh princes. Dad came from Wales about a hundred and eighty years ago and started his first ranch in Montana. Some of the clansmen followed him here. Over time the clan grew, and Dad became more and more powerful. He owns over fifty ranches now, spread over Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The entire western territory—that's over sixty packs—swears allegiance to him as Supreme Pack Master. No one dares disobey him."
Brynley shrugged. "It's hard for someone like Phil to submit. Dad understands that. Believe me, he'll be so proud when he finds out that Phil acquired Alpha status without the aid of a pack. It's never been done before. Phil is truly amazing."
"I have to agree with that." Vanda yawned as sleepiness tugged at her.
"And since Phil's one of the most powerful werewolves in the country, it's obvious that he has an important future with us."
Vanda rubbed her brow. "You want him to come home."
"Yes." Brynley leaned forward. "He belongs with us. Did you know he was betrothed to a werewolf princess?"
So, Princess Diana was a werewolf? An image flitted through Vanda's mind of a mangy wolf wearing a diamond tiara. "He never mentioned it."
"He was ten years old when Dad arranged his betrothal to Diana. She was two."
Brynley snorted. "Diana's father is the pack master for Utah. And he owns several ranches. She's an only child, so that makes her a very powerful and wealthy heiress."
"Good for her."
Brynley's eyes narrowed. "She can give him children. The royal line would continue."
Damn. Vanda closed her eyes.
"I'm sure you're a nice person, Vanda. My brother wouldn't care for you so much if you weren't. But try to look at this with an open mind. If Phil comes back, he can be a powerful leader. If he stays with you and your kind—what sort of life would he have? He would always be an employee, at the beck and call of a vampire. What would you wish for Phil: a life as a leader where he has wealth, power, and children? Or a life of servitude where he can't have children at all and his life is in constant danger?"
Vanda swallowed hard. The sun drew close to the horizon, dragging her into death-sleep. But she knew the heaviness in her heart wasn't caused by drowsiness.
"I've heard enough." She stood and trudged toward the trapdoor.
"Think about it, please," Brynley said. "If you love him, you should let him go."
As Phil walked back to the cabin, he noted the pink and gold streaks brightening the sky. The sun was breaking over the horizon, so Vanda would already be asleep. Dammit. He trudged up the porch steps. He would have liked to discuss this new problem with her.
He opened the door, and Brynley greeted him with a big smile.
"Well, did they cheer for you?"
"Yes." He glanced at the trapdoor. "Did Vanda make it into the cellar all right?"
"Yeah, she's fine. We had a nice talk."
He arched an eyebrow at his sister. "You didn't try to scare her away?"
Brynley snorted and strode to the ice chest. "Would you like some breakfast? I could scramble up a few dozen eggs."
"A few dozen?"
She removed two cartons from the ice chest. "I told you the boys are bottomless pits. They took down an elk last night, but I bet you they're already hungry again."
He filled up his coffee cup. "What do they do when you're not here?"
"I leave as much nonperishable food as possible. And they have hunting rifles. They manage."
Phil sipped some coffee. He'd had a good talk with the boys. There were ten of them. The youngest was thirteen. The oldest, seventeen. They'd all regarded him with a look of wonder, as if he were the answer to all their problems.
A surge of anger shot through him that his father would banish children and let them fend for themselves. "How long have they been here?"
Brynley cracked eggs into a mixing bowl. "The youngest, Gavin, came about a month ago. The oldest, Davy, came two years ago."
"He's been here for two years?"
She turned on the gas and lit a burner on the stove. "Davy was fifteen when he came here. What else could he do?"
"He could finish school, for starters. None of those boys have a high school diploma."
She banged a frying pan down onto the burner. "I can't enroll them in school. I'm not their legal guardian. I'd teach them myself, but I'm only qualified to teach elementary."
"You got your teacher certificate? I didn't think Dad was going to allow you to go to college."
She sighed. "He was worried I might get involved with a non-Lycan. But I was able to go to the local community college."
Where Dad was on the board. "Aren't you sick of him controlling every aspect of your life?"
"I'm happy with my life. And in case you didn't notice, Dad doesn't control everything I do. He has no idea I'm helping these boys."
"You're not helping them. You're enabling them."
"What?" She poured the eggs into the frying pan. "I gave them a home."
"They're doing nothing, Bryn. They should be finishing school, getting jobs."
"The only jobs around here are on ranches that are either owned by Dad or someone he controls. The boys are stuck."
"As long as they're here, yes. They need to leave."
Bryn gasped. "You would kick them out?"
"No." He drank some coffee. "I'll think of something."
"Like being their pack master?" She gave him a hopeful look. "They need a father figure. They need you."
He began to pace. The last thing he wanted was to act like a father.
He had wanted to go away to college, but his father hadn't seen any point in a higher education. Dad had every detail of his life already mapped out—the ranches he would run, the female werewolf he would marry, and his eventual ascension to the role of Supreme Pack Master in about three hundred years. All the wealth and power would be his, if he could just behave himself and do as his father said for a few centuries.
Maybe it was time for a change. Roman Draganesti had revolutionized the Vampire World when he'd invented synthetic blood. Modern Vamps, no longer shackled with the need to feed every night, were now engaging in careers in science, business, entertainment, whatever they wanted.
Maybe it was time for a similar revolution in the Lycan World. He'd broken free from the pack and all the old traditions and restraints. Maybe these boys could do it, too.
Phil spent the day preparing for the battle that night. He borrowed Brynley's car and drove to the nearest town, where he purchased more clothes and bottled blood for Vanda and more ammo for himself. It occurred to him that she might need more than a whip for protection, so he bought her a handgun plus a hunting knife with a sheath she could strap to her calf. And if anything happened to him, and she ended up on her own, she would need a cell phone to help her teleport.
On the drive back to the cabin, he charged his cell phone and Vanda's new one. Then, at the cabin, he downloaded all the contact numbers from his phone onto hers.
He heard the boys outside and peered out the window. They'd divided into two teams and were playing touch football in the meadow.
He stepped onto the porch.
Brynley was sitting in the rocking chair, creaking it slowly back and forth. "So are you really going to fight in that battle tonight?"
"Yes. I'm leaving Vanda here. I'd appreciate your help in keeping her safe."
Bryn nodded. "I can do that."
Phil leaned against a post. "How long can you stay? Don't you have a teaching job you need to get back to?"
She frowned. "Dad didn't want me to work. He thought it was beneath me."
Phil shook his head. "I know a school that would love to hire you. The boys could go there, too, and live on campus."
Her eyes widened. "Where?"
"The location is kept a secret 'cause the students are…different. Some are mortal children who know too much, some are half-vampire children with special powers, and others are were-panthers. I think these boys would fit right in."
She frowned. "I don't know. It sounds so far removed from the Lycan World."
"They can't have a life in the Lycan World, Bryn. They were banished. There's no going back."
"Hey, Mr. Jones." The youngest boy jogged up to the porch. "You want to play?"
"Sorry, Gavin. I need to conserve my energy."
"I told you he wouldn't," Davy grumbled. "He doesn't want anything to do with us."
Phil frowned. "That's not true."
"You refused to be our master!" Davy shouted.
Phil shot his sister an annoyed look.
She shrugged. "They wanted to know. What else could I tell them?"
"I said I would help them." Phil turned to the boys, who were clumped together in the pasture, watching him with injured expressions. "Okay, listen up. You were all banished because you challenged the authority of your masters, right?"
Davy lifted his chin. "So? You got a problem with that?"
"We wouldn't challenge you," Gavin insisted, his eyes pleading. "We think you're totally awesome."
The boys all murmured in agreement.
"Is it true you went Alpha without a pack?" a redheaded boy named Griffin asked.
"Yes." Phil held up his hands to quiet the boys, who were growing too excited. "Look. There's a good reason why you challenged your masters. It's because you all have natural leadership abilities. Each one of you has the strength, courage, and intelligence it takes to be a pack master, and your masters knew it. You're their worst nightmare—young Alphas in the making. The only way they could keep control was to get rid of you."
"Yeah, so we're tough," Davy growled. "We already knew that."
Phil smiled. "I'm sure you do. You also have the confidence it takes to be a leader. But consider how the Lycan World is set up now. With Alphas in charge who can live to be five hundred years old, how can someone like you become the leaders you were born to be? You're a threat to the leaders in power now, so they kicked you out. And all that's left in the Lycan World are the wimps and weaklings who are happy to submit. Over time the Lycan World will become weak and ineffectual because they rejected the strongest and fiercest of their youth."
"That sucks," Griffin mumbled.
"Do you know why I don't want to be your master? Because you would accept me, and it would hold you back. Each one of you has the potential of becoming Alpha, and I intend to help you achieve it."
The boys gasped.
"We could be like you?" Gavin asked.
"But there can only be one Alpha in a pack," Davy protested.
"According to the old rules, yes," Phil said. "But the old ways rejected you. Why should you follow them? Why should you accept being less than you can be?"
Gavin stepped forward. "I want to be an Alpha."
"You can do it." Phil looked each boy in the face. "You can all do it. I know a school where you can go."
"School?" Davy wrinkled his nose. "Who needs school?"
"You do. You need a high school diploma at the very least," Phil explained. "And then you'll be free to follow whatever aspirations you might have."
Davy snorted. "I want to kick ass."
Phil smiled. "I know the perfect place for you. It's a security and investigation company that would hire you in a second. But you'll have to learn how to fight."
"We know how to fight." Griffin elbowed the boy beside him, who pushed him back.
"You'll have to become experts in firearms, martial arts, and fencing. There's an enemy out there that wants to take over the world, and they tend to fight with swords."
"Cool," Davy said.
Phil snorted. "This is not like a hunt. You'll be up against a foe that actually fights back."
"Awesome," Griffin whispered.
Phil gave him a stern look. "They fight to the death. They're an evil group of vampires we call the Malcontents. They have super speed and strength."
"So do we," Davy insisted. "We can take them on."
Phil smiled. "I'm sure you can. But first you have to be trained. Each one of you can achieve Alpha. Take that power. Seize it and make it your own. Together, we can change the outcome of this war. We can save the mortal world. We can defeat evil. What do you say?"
The boys cheered.
Brynley leaned close to him and whispered, "If you get one of them killed, I'm going to be royally pissed."
He gave her a wry look. "Why don't you come work at the school, then you can watch over them?"
"Dad would never allow it."
"You're twenty-seven, Bryn. Time to break free."
She sighed. "I'll think about it."
"I'll leave you the number for Shanna Draganesti," Phil said. "She's in charge of the school. If anything happens to me, call her and get the boys enrolled."
Brynley scowled. "Don't you dare get yourself killed."
"I don't intend to."