"Perhaps Astrid's right," Esmé said as Vivian walked into the kitchen.
"What do you mean?" asked Rudy from the counter, where he was pouring the coffee.
"Why aren't females allowed to compete in the Ordeal?" Esmé said. She sat at the kitchen table. There was a leaf in her hair, and Vivian was jealous of Esmé's night in the open.
"Gimme a break!" exclaimed Rudy. "Isn't it obvious? It's purely physical. Females are in a different weight category. Their muscles don't develop to the same degree. Why risk injury or death with no chance to win?"
Vivian took the cup of coffee meant for her mother from Rudy's hands and leaned back against the counter to drink it. Rudy rolled his eyes, but poured another cup.
"But some females are smarter than some males, craftier fighters," Esmé argued.
Rudy set Esmé's coffee in front of her and sat down himself. "Stop being awkward, Esmé. It's only a way of matching fairly and protecting our own. You females get your chance. It's only the top female who mates with the victor. She has to be the strongest and the smartest to ensure our survival."
"Yeah, great, some chance. It's a male's world, isn't it? A female may be queen bitch but she doesn't get to choose her king."
"You loved Ivan, didn't you, Sis?" Rudy asked. "You didn't beat the crap out of every new girl who came along with a challenge just for the status."
Vivian watched her mother's face closely.
Esmé glanced down, but not before Vivian saw her eyes soften. "Yeah," Esmé said.
"And he loved you. You had his tail between your teeth. Who's to say the queen bitch isn't the real pack leader?"
Yes, Vivian thought. Mom always got her way with Dad. But what if she'd wanted the power but not him? She couldn't have had it.
"So you had options," said Rudy. "You didn't have to fight for the leader. A female can choose any other mate as long as he'll have her."
"That's a mockery," Vivian said, startling them. "The match still has to be pack approved, and she isn't even allowed to whelp without the permission of the leader. What kind of choice is that?"
"Well," Rudy said, amusement in his eyes. "I didn't know we had another rebel in the house."
Esmé laughed. "She's a teenager, for Moon's sake. She's supposed to rebel."
Vivian bristled. How easily they dismissed her feelings as a stage she was going through. Her mouth closed into a thin line.
Esmé grinned and winked at Vivian. "Never mind, babe. I'm sure we won't dare deny you when you make your choice. You'd make our lives too miserable."
Yeah? Vivian thought. I might surprise you. She glared at her mother and drank in silence. Dammit, there's no reason I should let pack traditions rule me, she decided. The Law is supposed to keep us safe and strong and able to birth healthy children, yet the Law wants us to tear each other apart to find a leader. The Law's a bunch of hypocrisy.
In her room, relaxed after a shower, Vivian stood in the breeze of her fan, enjoying the coolness of air on her wet skin. She smiled lazily, imagining fingers trailing instead of water drops. There must be a way to cope with Aiden, she thought. There has to be.
But was Aiden angry with her after last night? She had ruined his surprise. The boys she had known in the past would have been pissed. But then, he wasn't like the boys she had known, was he? That was the point.
She walked down the hall to the phone.
"Why does he have to drag parents into this?" Vivian grumbled as she ransacked her closet.
Aiden's family were having their first cookout of the season to celebrate the end of school, and Aiden had invited her along.
"It'll just be casual," he'd told her.
Casual! What was so casual about being inspected by parents?
The weather was too hot for jeans, so she pulled out a scarlet tank dress. Parents liked girls in dresses, didn't they? She wanted them to like her, for his sake. She wiggled into the sheath of cotton and swept her thick hair back with combs. But that didn't mean she couldn't dress for him, too.
Rudy shook his head when he saw her come downstairs. "God help the poor bastard, whoever he is."
Aiden honked outside, and she hurried out before Esmé could have a chance to see who she was leaving with.
She was pleased with Aiden's low whistle when he saw her, and not even the kiss she gave him could completely wipe the silly grin off his face.
Vivian could smell the aroma of charcoal as soon as they pulled to the curb in front of a large brick, ivy-covered house. Aiden led her through a white picket side gate and past the kitchen steps to the backyard. On a crazy-paved patio a thin, slightly balding man in a striped apron was poking at the embers under the grill.
"Hi, Dad!" Aiden called.
The man looked up, waved a spatula at his son in greeting, and then saw Vivian. His mouth opened a fraction wider, and he raised his eyebrows. He recovered quickly. "You're Vivian?"
"Pleased to meet you," she answered.
"Well, you're an improvement," Mr. Teague said, and laughed.
"Dad!" Aiden looked mortified.
"He usually goes for the combat boots and black eyeliner types," Aiden's father explained. "I'm glad he's brought home someone normal for a change. His girlfriends usually scare the hell out of me."
"Stop embarrassing your son." An attractive woman, older than Vivian's mother, came down the kitchen steps, carrying a tray. A skinny girl in pink shorts, about thirteen years old, followed her with soda bottles under each arm. The girl eyed Vivian boldly.
"This is my mom," Aiden said, "and my sister, Ashley."
"We're happy you could come," Mrs. Teague said, but her smile was brittle as she took in Vivian head to toe. She put her tray on the picnic table.
"Yeah," said Ashley. "Sure." She dumped the big plastic bottles beside the tray, then flopped into a recliner and dragged the earphones around her neck back to her ears.
"Ashley, there are people present," her father called over.
Ashley closed her eyes in response, and Mrs. Teague sighed in exasperation. "Want a Coke?" she asked Vivian.
"Yes, please. Great."
"How do you like your burger?" asked Mr. Teague.
"Rare, thank you," Vivian answered. She sat on the other recliner and crossed her legs. Aiden sat on the flagstones at her side. She could tell Mr. Teague was sneaking peeks at her. Aiden was too busy looking at her himself to notice.
Aiden's parents were polite enough, but she didn't feel as if she was being welcomed as part of the family or anything; she was more of a curiosity. She felt vaguely worried. Would they change Aiden's mind about her?
The meal was served with small talk at the picnic table. Aiden took every chance he could to touch her, brushing her fingers when he handed her a fork, wiping some crumbs from her face, nudging her with his shoulder when he made a joke. Vivian noticed that his mother looked away when he did this, as if his affection bothered her.
Vivian told the edited version of her background. Mrs. Teague was thrilled at the concept of running a country inn. She had the impression that Esmé must be very chic. "You must introduce me to your mother," she said. Yeah, Vivian thought. I know you'd love to go with her to a biker bar and get into a friendly fistfight over some guy with "Suck My Crankshaft" tattooed over his heart.
"I expect you're proud of Aiden's poem in The Trumpet," she said to change the subject.
Ashley burst out laughing.
Mr. Teague stabbed another burger from the serving plate. "I would have preferred a team picture in the yearbook." It had the smell of an old argument.
Vivian expected some words of support from Aiden's mother, but none came.
Aiden concentrated on his food, but his cheeks were flushed. Vivian wanted to leave and take him with her.
When they'd finished eating, Aiden helped his mother take the dishes inside. Mrs. Teague looked surprised, and Vivian knew that Aiden must be on his best behavior.
Mr. Teague glanced over at his daughter, lost again in her Walkman, before he addressed Vivian. "Um, so, what's a gorgeous girl like you doing with my son?" he asked.
She was tempted to say He's great in bed, just to see Mr. Teague's face, but she didn't. "He's pretty gorgeous himself."
"He'd be better-looking if he'd cut that damn hair. I would think a girl like you would go out with someone older." He winked at Vivian.
Like someone your age? Vivian thought, repelled by the man's lack of loyalty to his son. She gave him a sultry look. "Well, some older men are attractive," she said in a purposely breathy voice, and watched him puff up like a rooster, "but I haven't met any for a while."
Luckily Aiden and Mrs. Teague came back before Mr. Teague figured out whether or not she'd insulted him, and Ashley removed her headphones to ask in a bored tone when dessert was coming.
"I'm gonna show Vivian my room," Aiden said.
Ashley perked up. "Whoa-oh-oh."
"Do you think that's quite proper?" his mother asked.
"Gimme a break," he mumbled. "You're all down here, aren't you?"
"I don't know why you'd want to show that room to anyone," Mr. Teague said. "But don't be long or we'll send the posse after you." He laughed self-consciously.
Aiden relaxed the moment they were alone. He nuzzled and kissed her all the way up the stairs while she squirmed and tried not to giggle too loudly. She wished his family was a thousand miles away.
"I'm sorry I mentioned the poem," she said.
He shrugged. "That's all right."
The woodwork in his room was painted black, and so were the radiators and the ceiling. The walls were covered with posters and hooks from which dangled such things as beads, tassels, and a fake shrunken head made from an apple. "My mom wouldn't let me paint the walls black," Aiden explained. "She said it would be hard enough painting over the ceiling when I finally left home, so I gave her a break."
I'll bet, Vivian thought, imagining the fight they must have had. "I'm painting my room, too." She told him about the mural.
He laughed. "I guess your mom's not too thrilled, either."
She shook her head. "Cute," she said, examining a plastic model of Godzilla that marched across the top of his black dresser, followed by half a dozen smaller Godzillas.
"Momzilla," Aiden said.
Next to the Godzilla family was a mound made of plasticine topped by a crucifix. She suspected it was meant to be a grave. A tiny doll's hand poked through the surface, like a corpse emerging.
"You've got a warped sense of humor, boy," she said.
Aiden laughed with her. "My aunt Sarah gave me the cross. It's real silver. She thinks I'm going to hell."
"Why's that?" Vivian asked. It seemed strange that one of his own pack would damn him like that.
"Oh, my long hair, I listen to Satanic music, and I have an unhealthy curiosity. She suggested to my mother that she burn my books."
She walked over to have a look at those dangerous works of literature in his bookcase. Most were horror and fantasy novels, but at the end of the middle row sat A Witches' Bible Complete and The Druid Tradition. An Aleister Crowley paperback lay open, facedown on the top shelf.
"You believe this stuff?" she asked.
He looked relieved that there was no sarcasm in her voice. "Well, curious really. I mean, we shouldn't close ourselves to possibilities right?"
So he liked to be open to possibilities, huh? Was he open enough to accept the truth about her? There was a thought. Would he still care for her if he knew?
"You read Tarot?" she asked, picking up a pack of cards. It was the classic Rider-Waite deck.
"I haven't learned yet. I've got something about it here, though." He shuffled through some books.
"That's okay," she said. "I only wondered. My great-aunt uses that deck." It was easier to call Persia Devereux that than to explain. A pack was like family, and all older members were aunts and uncles. "She's very good."
"Cool. Your aunt reads Tarot. What other neat stuff does your family do?"
Wouldn't you like to know? she thought.
"That's a wicked smile." He put his arms around her. "Are you getting ideas now I've got you in my den of iniquity?"
Den. She liked his choice of words. "And what ideas would I be getting?"
"Something like this." His lips met hers, and his hand slid up to cup her left breast gently. She put her own hand over his and made him squeeze harder as her tongue snaked into his mouth. Why did he always have to be so damn polite?
He moaned. That's better, she thought. Loosen up, boy.
"Dessert time!" Ashley's voice echoed up the stairwell.
"Oh, man." Aiden kissed her neck. "Better go, or she'll come and get us." His voice was husky. Vivian loved hearing him sound that way. "You go on down," he said, releasing her. "I've got to do a couple of things."
Yeah, like pour a glass of cold water down your shorts, she thought, and grinned. "See you soon," she whispered, and slinked out in a way that she knew would keep him up there a few extra minutes.
After dessert, Vivian excused herself. "I need to use the bathroom," she explained.