“I’m not the one who just tripped over a pebble. You shush,” I said.
It was nearly dawn. Michael and I stumbled through the last few feet of forest behind my parents’ house with all the stealth of a drunken elephant. He couldn’t stop chuckling. I couldn’t stop grabbing his ass.
We were both exhausted and starving. My hair looked like I’d gotten in a fight with an octopus. There was blood on my collar from where he’d bitten me. His left nipple was visible through the hole I’d widened in my haste to rip his shirt off, and it puckered tight in the early morning chill. I wanted to reach out and pinch it, but every time I tried, he batted my hand aside and said, “Don’t start that again.” We looked like we’d spent the night brawling, which was why we were currently (unsuccessfully) trying to sneak back to the summer house.
It was a mark of how much he distracted me that I didn’t smell her. Grinning like a fool, I stepped through the thin scrim of trees into my parents’ back yard. Mom stood on the porch, leaning against the deck rail, sipping coffee. She wore her favorite cotton bathrobe and the most smug, self-satisfied smile I had ever seen.
I froze, throwing my arm out to stop Michael in his tracks.
Mom’s grin only widened. “Good timing. Your father just ran out to pick up breakfast.” She leaned forward and took a deep breath through her nose. “You two might want to shower before he gets back. And then burn your clothes. You reek of bodily fluids.”
My face paled. Oh, Goddess. Dad. I didn’t think I could live through the awkwardness of him realizing something had happened between me and Michael. It was one thing to know your daughter had sexual partners, another thing to have the smell of it shoved up your nose.
Mom chuckled and then disappeared inside. I glared after her. One of these days I was going to find a way to embarrass her the same way she did me.
The bonfire still smoldered in the center of the yard. Michael walked toward it, pulling his t-shirt off as he went. Judging by his haste, he really didn’t want Dad to realize what we’d done. He chucked the shirt onto the ashes, kicked his shoes in – seemed excessive, but okay – and then stripped off his pants, underwear, and socks, and tossed them in too. There was a bottle of lighter fluid on a nearby table. He walked over and leaned down to scoop it up, giving me a spectacular view of the finest ass I had ever seen.
I thought I heard a low whistle of appreciation come from inside the house. Thanks to his increased senses, Michael did too. Embarrassment flared over the bond. Turned out our connection was stronger after we blew it wide open last night, because I felt his cheeks burning.
Damn it, Mom!
She could tease me all she wanted, but Michael was intensely private and it irked me to no end that she’d made my mate so uncomfortable.
“The outside shower is right over there,” I told him, pointing. “Go on. Everything you need is already inside. Including towels.” We kept it well-stocked for post-shift cleanup.
He handed me the lighter fluid and retreated, hands over his crotch to preserve what little modesty remained to him.
As soon as he was safely inside the shower, I turned and flipped off the back windows of my parents’ house. Emphatically. With both hands. Mom laughed from somewhere on the second story. That woman was a menace.
I stripped my dirty clothes off and threw them on top of Michael’s. Then I added a few logs to the embers and doused it all in lighter fluid. The coals reignited a minute later and flames soon licked over the evidence of last night’s fun.
Uncaring of what Mom thought, I joined my mate.
“I’m sorry about her,” I told him.
“It’s okay.” He stood with his wide back to me beneath the gentle stream of water.
“What’s wrong?” I could feel that there was something troubling him beyond his embarrassment.
“I almost just gave myself away,” he said, quiet.
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
He turned and pulled me into the water with him, wrapping his arms around my upper back. His thighs caged mine in. My breasts flattened against his pecs. His lips brushed the shell of my ear, voice low so it wouldn’t carry. “I shouldn’t have been able to hear her. She did it to goad you, not me.”
But he had heard her and he’d blushed in response.
I stiffened within his arms. “You kept your back to her. She didn’t see.” And even if she had, would she have put two and two together?
“I know. But if that had happened in the city…”
I let out a shaky breath. He didn’t have to finish the sentence. If it had happened in the city, we would have been screwed. I’d already learned that city preternaturals were forever looking for weaknesses in those around them. Whether an enemy witnessed his slip, or his mother, the cat would be out of the bag. Or at the very least, it would put a question into their minds that we really didn’t need there.
I’d been so worried about his power giving him away that I’d overlooked all of the small ways his increased senses might do the same.
Why couldn’t we catch a break? Why did it always feel like we were only a heartbeat away from the next disaster? I knew the bond was supposed to test us, but this level of constant stress felt like overkill.
I sent my gaze heavenward. A little help here? Just, like, five minutes of peace and quiet?
If the Goddess heard me, She didn’t respond.
I wrapped my arms around the waist of the wolf She’d tied me to and hugged him, setting my chin on his shoulder so I could whisper back to him, “I have faith in you. The only reason you just reacted was because you were caught off guard. Now that you know it can happen, you’ll do better. You’re so good at masking what you feel from people that I know you can do this too. That you’ll be just as good at pretending you can’t hear and see and smell as much as you do.” I leaned back to look at him, lifting a hand to tap at his temple. “And that big brain of yours will find some way to use it to your advantage.”
Warmth radiated from him. Off of his wide frame and also through the bond. He caught my hand out of the air and kissed the sensitive skin on my wrist. “Just like that?”
I nodded. “Just like that. You’re magic.”
He shook his head and rested his forehead against mine. “So are you.”
I leaned into him and grabbed his butt.
He chuckled. “Don’t start that again.”
“What’s two times seventy-six?”
“You’re not funny, Mom,” I said.
“One hundred and fifty-two,” Dad answered. Mom and I looked at him. He shot me a victorious grin and reached out to ruffle my hair. “We haven’t played math games since you were in high school.”
“Yes. That’s what we’re doing,” I said. Playing math games. Not being mercilessly teased by the woman who was supposed to love and cherish me unconditionally.
Mom leaned forward, elbows on the dining table, dark eyes sparkling with mirth. “Eight times ninety-seven.”
I curled my fingers around my fork and bared my teeth at her. “I am going to stab you one of these days. And I’ll probably get off with nothing but a warning. Any rational judge would agree that I’d been driven to it.”
She leaned back in her chair and laughed uproariously.
Dad looked between us, confused. So did Michael. Good. They did not need to be in on this joke.
Instead of critically injuring my mother, I chose to ignore her in favor of the hash browns Dad had brought home from my favorite breakfast joint. They were crisp and warm and perfectly seasoned. We sat around the small table in my parents dining room. Up until Mom started lobbing equations at me, we’d shared a nice meal together. Clearly, the five minutes of peace and quiet I’d prayed for were now over.
“What are your plans for today?” Dad asked. He was so used to me and Mom’s weirdness that at this point he moved past it like a pro.
“Not sure yet,” I told him. “Food, then sleep. Then we can go from there.”
“How far did you two roam last night?”
“To the cliff cave.”
He whistled. “You must be wiped out after that.”
I must have absorbed some of Michael’s control, because I managed not to blush or fidget in response. “I am.”
Across from me, Mom grinned like the Cheshire cat. I lifted my fork in idle threat and stared at her until she stopped.
Dad turned to Michael. “It’s beautiful out there, isn’t it?”
Michael nodded and finished chewing his bite of pancake before responding. “It is. Quite the change of scenery from the city skyline I’m used to.”
Dad frowned. “I always wondered how you city wolves got away with shifting in such close quarters with humans.”
“We have a strict policy against wolf form within city limits,” Michael said. “Between smart phones and security cameras, the risk of exposure is far too great. Our pack holds several large swathes of land in the state that any of our members are welcome to use when they want to shift.”
Dad looked at Mom. “Imagine having to plan out when you want to shift instead of just walking out the back door.”
Mom shook her head. “I’d rather not. Sounds like a nightmare.” She winced. “Sorry, you two, I didn’t mean it like that.”
That was the thing about Mom. She loved to needle people, but she hated the thought of really offending them. If she knew she’d gotten to Michael earlier, she’d feel like garbage about it. Lucky for her, she’d never know.
“It’s fine,” Michael said.
Mom looked at me. “You going to shift again tonight?”
I nodded. I wanted to shift as much as possible and for as long as possible while I could.
“Just be careful,” she said. “I caught a weird scent out there last night.”
I paused with my fork halfway to my mouth. “Where?”
“Out near Mt. Bond.”
“What did it smell like?”
“It would take your nose to make sense of it.” She closed her eyes. “To me, it just smelled…old.”
I used my newfound control to lock down on my fear before my parents could pick up on it. There were all sorts of creatures that went bump in the night with lifespans long enough to make your bones grind together beneath the weight of their scent. Dragons. Djinn. Fae. Even Elves, which had passed through our territory five years ago while hunting their great adversary, the Jötunn. It could have been any one of those creatures. There was no reason for my mind to jump straight to one very specific vampire.
What is it? Michael asked over the bond.
I flinched, my fork clattering off of my plate and then down to the floor.
“Spider?” Mom asked, trying to look in every direction at once. She had an unholy fear of all things eight-legged and every time someone moved too quickly around her without her knowing why, she immediately assumed that there was one dangling overhead. Usually it entertained me to no end, but at the moment I was too worried to be amused.
I ducked beneath the table and scooped up my fork. “False alarm. Just a big speck of pepper.”
She settled back into her seat, but continued to sneak surreptitious glances around like she wasn’t entirely convinced.
Sorry, Michael said. This time I felt the forewarning press of his presence before he spoke.
It’s okay. I just didn’t anticipate it, I told him. And it’s nothing. I’m jumping at shadows.
I severed the connection. I was more than a little worried about something he’d asked me last night. If I was able to communicate with him like this, could I talk to any wolf in the same way? And if so, how much pressure did I have to exert for them to hear me? More than I did with Michael? Or the same amount? If it was close to the same, there was a risk that any wolf around us might pick up on our silent exchanges.
I stood from the table. “I’m done.”
I was so done. The road in front of me felt like it was paved with landmines. One false step, and me and Michael would be blown to smithereens.
I grabbed my plate and took it over to sink. Michael joined me, shoulder brushing mine as he reached for the soap. It was weird, seeing him wash dishes in my parents’ kitchen, clad in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Growing up, he must have had people to do this sort of thing for him. I leaned a hip against the counter and watched. He scrubbed our plates like he did everything: with great care and intense focus.
Before last night, I kept wanting to break him out of his shell. But he didn’t have one. Not really. He was kind of aloof and snobbish. A product of the fact that he was so private and…shy. The only reason he was different with me was because I’d wormed my way in over the past few days and he couldn’t get rid of me. That and the fact that he found me wildly attractive. A warm flush of satisfaction spread through me with that thought. At least we had a few good things going for us: we liked each other and had open, honest communication.
He glanced over, no doubt feeling my contentment. An answering warmth spread through him as he looked at me. Belatedly, he smiled, as if remembering that I’d asked him to.
I chuckled. He flushed a little and ducked his head, his focus back on the dishes. His opening up to me didn’t reveal a different wolf, hiding beneath his cultured exterior. Michael liked wearing three-piece suits. They made him feel put together, in control. He liked owning expensive, well-made things. He valued quality and craftsmanship. And yes, he also had a temper, but, like me, he didn’t let it show most of the time. He was funny, too, just out of practice. I thought back to the vampire in the alleyway and that deep vein of savagery I’d glimpsed. Of his possessiveness last night.
These aspects were the facets that made up his personality. He wasn’t wrong to like nice things or the creature comforts the city offered. His reticence to smile didn’t make him cold, just different than what I was used to. I needed to come to terms with these things. I needed to stop judging him and start accepting him for who he was. With the exception of how he othered his wolf form from his human form, but we were already working on that.
Michael set the last dish in the drying rack. We said goodnight – er, good morning – to my parents and then headed out back to crash for a few hours. Yes, the road ahead of us would be difficult to navigate, but I trusted that the Goddess had put us on it for a purpose, and that if we worked really hard, we’d make our way through.
I fell asleep wrapped in his arms, happy, sated, safe.
And woke up to a nightmare.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
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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.