“Quit staring at him, weirdo. He’ll be fine,” Mom said.
“Mmhmm,” I murmured, focus still fixed on Michael.
He was on the other side of the bonfire, beer in hand. He wore the same jeans from earlier, but he’d thrown a sweater over his t-shirt: Michael in his most relaxed form. Something about seeing him like this did things to my libido that I was forced to suppress like a sonofabitch. I blamed my lingering attraction on his feigned flirtation. I’d nearly launched myself at him and he’d been joking. If he ever took to flirting with me for real, I’d be a total goner. Who would have guessed that Michael had moves?
Beside him stood Brian, my alpha, a light skinned black man in his mid-fifties who towered over my mate. The two of them were deep in conversation, discussing werewolf politics. Apparently one of the southern clans was encroaching on their neighbors’ packlands and Brian was concerned that an all-out war would erupt between the two. Michael had returned to his default mode of aloof politeness touched with a hint of elitism, and while he listened to Brian’s worries with a blank expression, he still offered the alpha good council on the subject. I counted it as an improvement, because at least he was engaging. I doubted he would have a few days ago.
Fingers snapped in front of my face.
I turned to see Gia frowning at me.
“Damn girl, you got it bad,” she said.
I covered her mouth and shot a panicked look at Michael. Mom and Natalie laughed as I dragged her away from the small crowd gathered in my parents’ backyard. I kept dragging her, all the way through the house and into the street beyond.
“You planning on throwing me into traffic?” she asked when I uncovered her mouth.
“Yes.” I paused, looking up and down the road. There wasn’t a car in sight. “I just need to find some.”
She laughed and pulled free from my grip. “What’s up with the two of you? You bone yet?”
“Oh yeah. Every chance we get,” I said, my tone laced with sarcasm.
We walked down the street, away from the glow of my parents’ front lights and into the darkness of the summer night. A gentle breeze lifted my hair. I turned my face into it and breathed deep. Cut grass, heated sap, fallen pine needles, and the scent of rich dark earth filled my nose. The stiffness in my shoulders eased some. I let out a deep sigh of relief.
“Are you okay?” Gia asked.
I lowered my shields. Only when I was sure that no one would overhear me did I answer. “No. I helped kill a vampire last night.”
Gia stopped in her tracks.
I turned to look at her. “Please tell me you don’t think I’m a monster.”
“I don’t think you’re a monster,” she immediately answered. “What the hell happened that led to that?”
I gave her a recap of all the shit that had gone down since I’d left home, minus the secrets I needed to keep for Michael’s sake.
I had to talk this over with someone other than my mate or my parents. Someone I trusted not to repeat any of it. Someone who wasn’t used to the madness of the city and would be just as freaked out by everything as I was. I needed to know that being freaked out was a normal response. And I really needed someone to tell me it would all be okay. In short, I needed my best friend.
Her blue eyes grew wider and wider the more I talked. When I was done, she blinked up at me like an owl. Her heartrate was elevated. A mixture of fear and near disbelief colored her scent. “I totally get why you didn’t call me now,” she said. “Probably best I heard all that in person.”
“What the hell do I do?”
She stared at me, mouth open. “Um…”
I raked my hands through my hair and paced down the street.
She caught up with me shortly after. “Sorry, I needed a minute to process.”
“I get it. Apologies for dumping all of this on you.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’m even talking like him now.
“I mean sorry,” I amended.
She shook her head, sending her blonde curls flying. “Don’t apologize. I’d absolutely drag you into this hell if our roles were reversed.”
“I killed someone, Gia.”
“Technically, Michael did,” she said. “And it wasn’t someone, it was something. The vampire virus fucks people up. You know that. Whoever that vamp was when he was alive, you guys didn’t kill the same person. You killed some sociopathic, blood-crazed version of them. And from the sounds of it, by ending him, you saved at least one life and the Goddess knows how many others that he would have gone on to kill throughout his undeath.”
“I keep trying to tell myself that. But then I remember the look on his face as he died.”
“I get it,” she said. “It’s okay to be torn up about this, even though he was a monster. You know that, right? Like, I’d be way more worried if you weren’t at least a little tormented right now.”
“Michael isn’t tormented. Should I be worried about that?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about the man. I’m guessing this wasn’t his first kill?”
“Maybe he’s just gotten used to death. Living in a city like Boston would force you to grow up pretty quickly. Especially in his family.”
I let out a heavy exhale. “Goddess, his family, Gia.”
“You need to get on his mother’s good side.”
“Have you reminded her that if you drop a litter of Michael’s pups, she’ll have superwolves for grandkids?”
I looked at her. “Drop a litter? Seriously?”
She shrugged. “Procreate? Have lots and lots of sex that leads to lots and lots of babies?”
I shut my eyes tight against the images her words invoked. “Stop. I’m begging you.”
“No. I’m dead serious, Layla. You need to get ruthless. You need to do everything in your power to survive until you and Michael figure out what the hell you’re going to do together. Or apart. If that means killing a few people and outright lying to that alpha bitch, do it.” She stopped and grabbed my arm, forcing me to stop too. “Because if you don’t survive this…”
I hugged her. “I’ll survive this.”
She squeezed me back so hard that I knew she wasn’t convinced. The smell of her fear prickled my nose, which only triggered my own fear to surge.
My phone chimed from the back pocket of my jeans. I let her go and pulled it out. It was a text from Michael, asking if I was okay. He must have felt what this conversation was doing to me.
I’m okay, I texted him. Be back in a bit.
Please hurry. A very large man named Scott is becoming insistent that I chug a beer with him.
I laughed and showed Gia the text.
“You should probably go save him,” she said.
“No way. I owe him some payback from earlier. He’s on his own. Tell me about you and Natalie. Her parents haven’t threatened to kill you, have they?”
She scoffed. “Please. Did you meet them?”
I nodded. Where Natalie had rainbow-hued braids and favored funky clothing, her parents exuded buttoned up professionalism. Her dad was a retired cop and still wore his hair in a crew cut. Her mother was a lawyer. I had a brief exchange with her earlier and spent the whole time feeling like she was getting ready to cross examine me. I’d fled before she could question me about Gia.
“How do they feel about your bond?” I asked.
“They’re fine with it. Her father seems to think it’ll settle Natalie down.”
“You don’t agree?”
She shook her head. “She’s got a wild streak a mile long.”
“Any progress on the relationship front?”
“Some. I told her that I’m open to the possibility of her not being monogamous.”
“But are you really okay with that?”
She sighed. “I don’t fucking know, honestly. I feel like I have to be, otherwise I’m an asshole.”
“And what about sex?”
“Again, I’d feel like an asshole if we weren’t intimate at some point.”
“You can’t be the only one to compromise. That’s not fair.”
“I’m not,” she said, jumping to her mate’s defense. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap.”
I waved her off. “You don’t need to apologize to me. Do you know how many times I’ve wanted to snap at people in the past few days? I’m bonded to a Kolbeck.”
“Right. Of course you get it. I should have figured,” she said. “But I swear I’m not the only one offering to compromise. Actually, that’s part of the problem. Natalie said she’d try monogamy and abstinence.”
I frowned. “So…you’re both willing to do everything for each other’s sake and now you’re at an impasse as to how to move forward because you can’t decide who would be sacrificing or compromising what for the other?”
“Boom. Nailed it.”
I shook my head. “It must have been the Goddess who interfered. This is all too complicated for it to have been witches.”
“Wait, what? Witches?”
I told her about Michael’s assumptions about the witches messing with the bonding ceremony to strike at his family.
“Do you really think half a thousand shifters missed their presence?” she asked when I was done. “The woods were crawling with wolves that night.”
“Apparently they can cloak themselves from us.”
“Enough that they fooled even the wards?”
“Uh…I didn’t think about that. I’ll have to ask Michael.”
She rubbed a hand over her face. “It still doesn’t make sense to me, even if they managed to sneak in. Because how could they know what the outcome would be? That Michael would even be bonded?”
“That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that either. You know magic isn’t really my thing. I guess I just sort of hoped it was witches after he told me his theory. Because if it was the Goddess -”
I held up a finger and turned to face the direction we’d come from. Michael was somewhere nearby, closing the distance between us. A shadowy figure appeared down the street a moment later, moving at a brisk walk. My heart swelled to see him again, which was ridiculous because we’d been apart less than half an hour.
“Done playing nice with others?” I called out.
“There are a lot of intoxicated people in your backyard that have developed a sudden allergy to clothing,” he answered.
Oh yes. This payback would do nicely. “Did the sight of so much wereflesh make you blush?”
He stopped a few feet from us and cut me a look that nearly froze me on the spot. “You are also not funny.”
“I feel like I’m missing out on the joke,” Gia said.
“Trust me,” Michael told her, “you don’t want in on it.”
“Well, then, I’ll leave you two to it. I promised Natalie we’d run together, and if people are already stripping, I don’t want to miss out on shifting with her.” She turned to me. “Talk more later?”
She hugged me and then jogged away from us into the night.
I looked at Michael. “What about you? I’m guessing you don’t want to try this shifting experiment in front of others?”
He shook his head.
“Come on. I know where we can go, if you’re still up for it.” I led him away from my parents’ place, toward the end of the road and the towering pines that loomed like jagged mountains over the pavement.
“I still don’t know that this is wise,” he said.
“What are you so worried about?”
He glanced around us.
“There’s no one close enough to hear you.” Which he would know if he stopped suppressing.
“The wolf can be unpredictable.”
“You, Michael. The wolf is you, just in a different form. You ever think that maybe part of why you’re unpredictable in fur is because you’ve divided yourself to the point that you’ve created multiple personalities?”
“Yeah. It is,” I said. “And it’s not entirely unheard of. One of the wolves in our pack got run over in wolf form and didn’t shift for a few months because of the trauma the thought of shifting caused her afterward. When she finally did, she went lunatic and we had to cage her. It took her weeks of regular shifting to normalize.”
Michael remained silent. Unease rose in the back of my mind, tinged with embarrassment.
I glanced over at him as we stepped from the road onto the dirt trail that led into the forest. “Please tell me you don’t have to cage yourselves.”
He clenched his jaw and nodded.
The Kolbecks were all lunatics.
“Fuck,” I said, with feeling.
“I knew this was an ill formed idea. We should go back.”
“Oh, no. I need to shift and so do you. We need to know how bad it is. Because what if your lunacy infects me when I turn? Think of the damage a MacKenzie wolf could do if it went off the rails. At least where we’re going, the only thing we can hurt is deer.”
And each other, but I didn’t need to say that. We were both thinking it.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.