That latter pairing would've normally made him grin. Tai thought Judd walked on water. The boy turned up at every training session and followed Judd's merciless discipline without a single word of complaint. Riley and the other lieutenants, including Judd, all knew Tai had both the mental and physical strength to make lieutenant after he grew up a bit more. Right now, he still had the edges of boyhood on him.
He spied the faint hint of Hawke's trail and veered off in the opposite direction. The last person he wanted to see right now was one of the very few men who could beat him into submission and make him talk. He didn't want to talk, didn't want to consider why he was so angry and frustrated . . . and lost.
But Hawke had other ideas. The alpha wolf moved out in front of him, having muddied his trail through experience and trickery. Riley wasn't pleased to see him. Baring his teeth, he warned Hawke to get the hell out of his way. Right now, all he wanted to do was brood. Or failing that, draw blood.
Hawke apparently realized that. But instead of leaving, he attacked. And he was fast.
Riley didn't have Hawke's speed. But he had something his alpha didn't. A body that could take just about any damage and keep going. Hawke had called him a f**king stone wall on more than one occasion, the reason behind his nickname.
Now he braced for impact and took it hard. Then rolled and rose to his feet, uninjured. Hawke was already coming for a second strike, and since Riley's aggression had been building ever since that fight with Mercy, he met his alpha in midair. The contact was raw, bloody, no-holds-barred.
Riley was one of the extremely small number of people in the den with whom Hawke didn't bother to hold back. He was alpha - stronger, faster - but Riley was dogged. He simply wouldn't go down. That leveled the playing field in a way that left them very well matched. And today, even their anger was well matched - they weren't fighting with logic. They were fighting like the wolves they were, driven by instinct, by emotion, by the need to savage their opponent.
There was no mercy in either of them.
Ten minutes later, they were both still standing . . . and bleeding, their sides heaving. They stared at each other, Riley looking into pale, pale eyes that never changed, no matter what form Hawke took. Staying in position, he watched as a mirage of color appeared around the wolf, and split seconds later, a man crouched in its place.
Riley shifted an instant later, touching his hand to his side. He was cut, but even with having fought Joaquin earlier, the injuries would heal fairly fast. "I'm bleeding. So are you. But you have a bruise the size of a cantaloupe on your ribs. That means I win."
Hawke snarled. "Shut up." But he winced as he sat down. "Damn wall. I think I broke a hand." He flexed his fingers.
Riley sat a little ways to the left, where he could keep an eye on Hawke's face . . . and use the night shadows to disguise his own. "What's got you so angry?" Easier to be the lieutenant, to make sure his alpha was fully functional, than think about the mess he'd created for himself.
"Sienna's gone to stay with Lucas and Sascha for a while."
"Good." Sascha might be able to help the girl as she'd helped Brenna after his sister had been violated, her mind close to broken. Riley would take a bullet for the empath without blinking - some debts could never be repaid. "But why does it matter to your wolf?"
"She's a juvenile," Hawke said. "My instincts tell me to protect her, that's all."
That only seemed to irritate Hawke. "You piss me off, Riley."
"All grounded and practical and shit."
"That's what she says."
"Ah." Hawke's face relaxed a fraction. "So Ms. Mercy's the reason you were out here sulking."
"I brood. You sulk."
Hawke bared his teeth. "I'm your alpha. Show some respect."
Riley snorted, though he was anything but relaxed. "I saw you puke your guts out after you stuffed yourself on chocolate cake. Respect's not coming easy."
"I was seven. And I seem to recall you threw up first."
"You have a faulty memory."
Hawke's eyes were wintry pale when he glanced over. "Enough dancing, Riley. You think I trailed you and got myself beaten up because I want to shoot the breeze over old times?"
"You and the cat - something happened." It wasn't a question.
Riley blew out a breath. "She won't let me look after her." And after his devastating failure in protecting his sister, he desperately needed to take care of the woman who'd become so much more than just his lover.
"Mercy's not the kind of woman who needs looking after."
"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Mr. Stick-in-the-Mud."
Riley turned to stare at a grinning Hawke. "How the f**k do you know about that?"
"I have big ears." He flicked an ear currently hidden behind messy strands of thick silver-gold hair.
"Then stop f**king listening." He stared out at the cool black of night in the Sierra, the early stars diamond pinpricks in the sky, the firs pointed silhouettes against a backdrop of mountain and rock. "I don't know if I can accept that."
"Then you'll lose her." Serious words. "She won't accept restrictions."
"Brenna humored you for a while because you're her big brother and she adores you. Mercy's probably not in the adoring stage, and even if she was, I can't exactly see her being happy to give up her duties as a sentinel to darn your socks."
"Darn my socks?" Riley shook his head. "Where do you get this stuff?" In spite of the light words, he couldn't stop thinking about the painful intensity of his emotions for Mercy. At first, it had been lust. Bright, sharp, changeling in its wildness. There was nothing wrong with lust - especially when she'd been in lust, too.