I hoped our drive north would give me and Michael time to talk. For me to explain more of the bond to him. For us to hash out what the hell was going on between us. Yeah, not so much. I drove the Range Rover while he sat in the backseat, laptop open, papers spread out around him, phone pressed to his ear, the SUV turned into his mobile office. He hadn’t said three words to me since we’d left the city. I felt like his chauffeur.
A flare of irritation sparked over the bond. “I understand your concerns,” he said, his tone the dictionary definition of civil. “But we owe a responsibility to our employees.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw him openly frowning at his laptop screen. Someone was pissing off my mate and it made me want to snarl.
I turned my gaze back to the road. I was in the right lane, because apparently my need to protect him extended to traffic. With my eyesight it was easy to pick out cops. I could see the reflection of their lights even through the heavy tint of their unmarked cruisers. Because of this, I’d never been pulled over. Normally I drove with a led foot, left lane, all the way, that memorable Ludacris song playing in my mind. But with Michael in the same vehicle, I’d slowed to the speed limit and maneuvered the SUV into a long gap between two tractor trailers, keeping a wary watch on the vehicles around us, ready to dive into the breakdown lane to get out of the way if I had to.
A few minutes later we came up on a merge. I caught movement to my right and saw a middle-aged white man roaring up the oncoming ramp in a lifted truck. He had a cell phone pressed to his ear. The semi in front of me pumped its breaks. I eased my foot off the gas, holding the distance between us, giving the asshole on the onramp plenty of space to get in between. Instead, he slowed too, so that he was flush with the Range Rover.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I muttered.
The merge threatened. The man glanced over at our vehicle and visibly scoffed, then turned his wheel like he was going to beeline right for us. I knew this maneuver. A lot of New England drivers favored it. When merging, aim your car at the nicest one on the road because you bet your ass they’ll get out of the way instead of wrecking their baby.
Time to teach someone a lesson about manners. I rolled the window down, loosened the cage on my power just enough to shift my eyes and elongate my teeth, and gave him a deranged smile. He dropped his cell phone, gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and slammed on his breaks, disappearing from sight.
I chuckled and rolled the window up, letting my features slide back to human.
Michael put a hand over his phone’s mic. “Was that necessary?”
“No, but it was fun,” I said. And safe. Humans, I’d learned, would do anything to tell themselves they didn’t see what they thought they did. At least after a miniscule glance like that. It might be tougher if I changed form in front of one and paraded around for a little while.
Michael remained unamused by my antics. With a sigh, he brought the phone back to his ear. He’d spent the past hour and a half discussing the details of a merger between two of Kolbeck Industries holdings with his CFO. It sounded like a continuation of a previous conversation. The one he’d had on the drive down the other day that had left him similarly pissed off?
From what I could tell, the crux of the matter was that the merger would create redundancies within the newly formed umbrella company. Two directors of operations, two HR chiefs, and so on. The CFO’s solution was to lay off the more expensive of the redundant employees and cut down on costs. Michael argued for the creation of new roles, paired with promotions and reassignments, to keep from having to let anyone go. He spoke with logic and reason, citing sources and offering irrefutable evidence as to why his plan was best. The CFO ignored it all and dug his heels in instead. How Michael hadn’t bitten his head off yet was beyond me.
The fact that he was even the one arguing to keep people was not only surprising, but incredibly decent of him. Something I didn’t expect after all the rumors I’d heard of his boardroom blood lust. And yet, again, I wondered why he gave a shit in the first place. I mean, doing the right thing was commendable. Saving jobs was moral. But they were mostly human jobs. How did this benefit werewolves?
That might seem like a shitty, selfish thought, but all my life I’d been taught to focus on my own kind. Mom, as a beta, sat high up in our pack’s food chain. I knew from her that every time our pack council debated their next move it came with the question of how that move might advance our species in the grand scheme of things. Or how it might work against our common goals.
Did the Kolbecks have these same arguments during their weekly dinners? I somehow doubted it. It’s not like they used their vast accumulation of wealth to help the poorer packs. That kind of altruism I could get behind. But I hadn’t heard a whisper of that type of behavior. Instead, all I’d ever heard were tales of their greed.
“What’s troubling you?” Michael said.
It took me a minute to realize he was speaking to me. He’d gotten off the phone while I’d been lost to my thoughts, and now he stared at me through the rearview.
“Nothing I really want to talk about,” I told him.
We were both on edge. His frustration during the phone call had leaked through the bond and infected me, and I’d fed it back to him tenfold. If I started to demand answers from him on why his family did things the way they did, it might end in our first argument. We had more important things to do than bicker, and I really didn’t want to fight with him. When and if we had that conversation, I wanted it to be with a clear head, so I might be open to understanding his point of view instead of digging in my heels like his CFO.
“Are you sure?” Michael asked.
I nodded at him through the mirror. He sighed in response and tugged his tie free from his collar. I returned my focus to the road when he undid the top button of his shirt. Dying in a fiery car crash because I was fixated on these rare glimpses of my mate’s exposed flesh would be a stupid way to go.
“We share pain through the bond,” I said to fill the silence.
“I noticed that last night. How is your spine, by the way? I don’t feel any lingering soreness.”
“It’s fine, thanks.”
“Is it truly shared pain? Or only the illusion of it?”
“It’s as real as you or me. I had bruises on my knuckles after you broke the vampire’s ribs.”
“Fascinating. Does it persist even over long distances?”
“Yup. But it’s muted. Instead of feeling your spine crack against that brick wall, it would have been more like a dull ache.”
“So every time the vampire hit me…”
“He also hit me.”
Anger radiated out of the backseat. “I killed him too quickly.”
“That’s the bond talking,” I said. “I know Mom and Dad explained this to us, but I don’t think either of us were ready for how intense the need to protect each other has been.”
“It is proving rather inconvenient, isn’t it?” he said. “Perhaps its intensity is due to the fact that we’ve been under near constant duress since meeting.”
“Sounds like a fair assumption.”
“Hopefully tonight will provide us with a much-needed break.”
“Please don’t jinx us,” I begged.
A trickle of amusement escaped from him, but his expression remained stoic. “What’s on the docket for the evening? I only caught the tail end of your conversation with Gia before we left.”
“We thought a small bonfire at my parents would be nice.”
“Who’s on the guest list?”
“You, me, Gia, Natalie, Gia’s mom, Natalie’s parents, my parents, our alpha, and a few of my closer friends from the pack. No one should bother you. I told Gia to spread the word that if anyone does, I’ll flypaper their paws.”
Another hint of amusement flared in the back of my mind. I checked the rearview. Not even the ghost of a smile brightened his expression.
I sighed. “You know, I can feelyou smiling on the inside. Would it kill you to actually follow through? You’re destroying my ego here.”
“I can try,” he said, his tone sincere. “This level of openness is…new to me.”
“How? You were engaged to marry someone a few days ago.”
He turned his gaze out of the window, giving me the reflection of his profile. “Marlena and I ran in similar circles. Her family is from one of the larger packs in New York and our engagement was largely political. Early on, she and I came to an understanding of what our relationship would be.”
“And that was…?”
“That of close political allies. We had to maintain a united front, both in the face of our adversaries and our allies, chief among them our own families. To do that, we kept the relationship unencumbered by any romantic feelings.”
“Wait, you didn’t even sleep together?”
The discomfort I felt coming off of him manifested in the flush of color that appeared in his cheeks. He cleared his throat. “No.”
“You’re not a virgin, are you?”
He shot me withering look. “No.”
I grinned at him. “Just checking. You blush pretty easy every time we get close to this topic.”
He sniffed and turned to look out the window again. “My family is private about our affairs.”
“Your sexual affairs,” I said, just to push his buttons.
He took a deep breath before answering. He looked like he was counting to ten. “Yes. Now are you done being childish?”
“Perhaps your goddess is real after all. I can’t imagine someone better designed to test me.”
I laughed and took our exit off the highway. “Come on. Isn’t it nice to be able to drop your guard, just a little?”
“I’m not sure that nice is the word I would use.”
“I don’t mean it as an insult. It’s only that…” He fell quiet, and I could sense that he was gathering his words, choosing them with care. “Until this point in my life, I’ve cultured a certain image.”
“The untouchable ice king?”
“Something like that,” he said. “It’s unsettling that I’m unable to mislead you. The fact that I find it unsettling and that my default is to mislead others has turned me rather introspective.”
“Hiding from everyone around you all the time can’t be fun.”
“It isn’t,” he said. “I expend so much energy not reacting that I fear my natural instincts may be altered. Who knows, perhaps I was born with a temper and I’ve since trained it out of myself.”
“I’m sorry, born?” I asked. “I’m having a hard time picturing you as a child right now. Are you sure didn’t just appear on the earth one day, clad in Armani?”
“I assure you, I grew up the same as you did.”
“Uh…” I glanced at him through the rearview mirror of his bulletproof SUV.
“You know what I mean, Layla.”
“Sure I do.” I couldn’t picture him as a baby. Or even as a toddler. Until I saw photographic evidence, I decided to treat his childhood like a myth. “You do have a temper, by the way. You just suppress it. And I think you may even have a sense of humor hiding in there somewhere too.”
“Do continue,” he drawled. “You’re so handy with the compliments.” His expression was miffish, but beneath it burned a small ember of warmth. Michael liked it when I said nice things about him.
I grinned. “See? There’s that snark.”
In response, he rolled his eyes. It was the most expressive I’d seen him yet. I counted it a huge win. Maybe I could break him out of his shell after all.
The remainder of the drive went by quickly. The highway wound straight through the White Mountains, and after taking the exit, there were less than ten miles to go to my parents’ house. Michael spent that time picking up his paperwork and closing down his laptop. I spent it preparing to act like everything was normal around the two people who knew me better than anyone else in the world. Right. Should be a total piece of cake.
“Welcome back,” Mom said not long after.
We stood in the doorway, hugging. I struggled not to cry. Coming back to something so familiar after everything that happened the past few days lifted a massive weight off my shoulders, but it also reinforced the fact that this no longer felt like home. Neither did the city. It made me feel like I’d been set adrift. I was so sure I couldn’t remain in Boston, but now I didn’t know if returning to New Hampshire was the right move either.
Mom and I broke apart, and Michael, feeling my unrest, set his hand on my lower back. The warmth and steady weight of it suffused me, giving me courage. I did my best to blank my expression. Mom no doubt sensed how upset I was, but if I kept up a tough front, maybe she’d assume it was because I missed her and Dad.
“This was a quick turn around,” she said.
I forced a smile. “And just when you thought you’d finally gotten rid of me.”
“Nah. We knew you’d come back. You’re like cancer.”
Behind me, Michael nearly choked.
“Please ignore her. She doesn’t understand that dark humor isn’t for everyone,” I said.
I turned to see that he was openly smiling. He must have taken our conversation to heart. The fact that he was making such an effort for her drove the lingering anxiety from my mind and made me want to hug him.
Mom blinked at the sight of his dimples. Ha! It wasn’t just me they worked on. “Michael. It’s nice to see you again so soon.”
“You too, Chris. Thank you for having me.”
“Anytime. Come on in.” She led us down the hall toward the kitchen. “I hope you don’t mind, but you two will have to share the summer house again.” She shot me a look over her shoulder. “We already started converting your bedroom into a home gym.”
“Gee, thanks for waiting all of five minutes after I left.”
She smiled, but her scent was cagey. There was a gleam in her eyes that made me wonder if this was a setup. I narrowed my own at her and she looked away. Yup. She was definitely setting us up. And after all her talk about me and Michael not jumping into bed together before we were ready. I bet if I walked upstairs right now, I’d find my room untouched.
Michael and I carried our overnight bags through the back slider. Dad was on the far side of the lawn, splitting firewood for later.
“Hey, you two!” he called. “Want to lend me a hand after you drop your stuff off? I could use some help.”
I expected Michael to balk at such a menial task, but he surprised me by telling my dad we’d be right out.
“I’m sorry about this,” I said when we were alone in the summer house. “I can sleep in the hammock outside.”
He put his bag on the bed and then shrugged out of his suit jacket. “And disappoint your mother in her matchmaking?”
“You caught that too?”
“I did.” He paused and looked at me. “How are you?”
“Better than I thought I would be. I’m not over what we did, but I’m not nearly as freaked out by it anymore. Which makes me feel like a psychopath.”
“You’re far from a psychopath,” he said. I guess he would know, what with his mother and all. “What happened when we got here? You felt like you were…grieving.”
“It’s complicated,” I hedged.
“Would you care to elaborate? Be as open with me as you’ve asked me to be with you?”
The man made a good point.
“This doesn’t feel like home anymore,” I told him.
A small line appeared between his brows. “And neither does the city.”
“Bingo. My definition of what home even means has…shifted.”
He let out a breath. “That explains a few things about my sudden inability to stomach the thought of residing with you beneath my parents’ roof. At first I thought it was because of the threat my mother represented, but now…” He waved a hand in the air in that vague way he favored.
“It’s the bond,” I said. “Forcing us to forge our own way together.”
“Whichever way that is.”
I nodded. “I still hate lying to my parents about all of this, even by omission.”
He pulled the hem of his shirt loose from his slacks and started unbuttoning it. “Would you rather tell them and risk embroiling them in city politics?”
“No. They don’t need that level of stress in their lives. And they definitely don’t need to worry about me any more than they already are.”
The last button undone, he tugged his shirt off. Beneath it he wore a sleeveless white tank. His hands fell to his belt and I turned away, busying myself with my own luggage.
“Where is this sudden discomfort coming from?” he asked.
Fricking bond. Couldn’t I have anything to myself?
I decided to face his question head on, since we were still being honest. “It’s coming from the sight of you stripping. Ignore me. I don’t know why I’m having a hard time. It’s not anything I haven’t seen before.”
“I blame our forced intimacy,” he said. “I don’t know how often I pause to check in on your emotional wellbeing. That hypersensitivity extends to your physical health as well, which leads to me being…overtly aware of your entire body.”
Dear Goddess. Cannot unhear.
I really didn’t want to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling. It was much easier to think of him as an untouchable prude. It put distance between us that we desperately needed right now.
“Hopefully it’s like touching and the more we’re around each other, the less of an impact it will have,” I said.
He huffed in what sounded like disbelief. I turned to see him standing in nothing but his boxer briefs, hands on his hips. My gaze went straight to the outline of his bulge. Because of course it did. I jerked my focus up before he could catch me ogling him. Too late. His eyes were on me. There was no way he missed the look. Or the zing of surprise and interest that followed.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Why are you sorry?”
“For staring at your…” I waved a hand toward his crotch.
“I thought we were recognizing our attraction and proceeding as adults? That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?”
Was it? “Uh…yeah.”
He took a pair of jeans out of his bag. They sat low on his hips when he tugged them on. I nearly hummed in appreciation. His stomach had that glorious V-line of abs that draws the eye down, lower, to right where I’d been looking before. He grabbed a red shirt with a faded college logo next and pulled it over his head, messing up his hair. For once, he didn’t bother to smooth it back in place. Like this, he seemed different: younger, a little unkempt, a little wild, and far too accessible. He turned and slipped his suit into a garment bag. His ass looked phenomenal in jeans. I wanted to bite it. When he was done, he hung the bag from the window frame and then shoved his feet into sneakers.
He turned back to me. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Huh? What were we talking about? Oh, right. Acting like adults. Which I was totally nailing at the moment.
He headed toward the door, legs flexing beneath the worn fabric of old jeans. His t-shirt pulled taut across the breadth of his chest, and the hem of the sleeves cut into his biceps, putting all those glorious muscles on display. He moved differently too. In the city, he held his spine rigid, as if bracing for an attack. His limbs were looser here, more graceful. He didn’t walk, he stalked, like the predator he truly was had finally come out to play.
He slowed to a stop when he reached me, as if suddenly feeling my regard. Our gazes caught and held. I should have looked away. The Goddess only knew what my expression was. My pupils were probably blown wide. I was breathing heavy, which meant he was too. The bond lay open between us, my surprise at seeing him like this making me slow to suppress what it was doing to me.
Something unfathomable swam within the deep pools of his eyes. He leaned closer, gaze locked on mine, nose inches from my neck, and took a long breath in, scenting my attraction to him. His eyelids fluttered shut, like he was savoring the smell, and then a borderline arrogant smile lifted the corners of his lips. His dimples turned the look into something devastating.
“Do let me know if you change your mind,” he said, voice so low it purred. He opened his eyes and raked his gaze down over me. “Your legs look phenomenal in those shorts, by the way.”
And then he was gone.
I stared out the door at his retreating back, pulse pounding with lust. My face felt like it was on fire. What the hell just happened? Did Michael just hit on me?
He turned mid-stride and sent me a ruthless grin. “Now who blushes easily?”
My jaw dropped. He’d been messing with me!
“I take it back!” I yelled at him. “You’re not even remotely funny!”
He laughed and then jogged over to help my dad.
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.