I woke to the shrill ringing of a phone. It came from outside my bedroom. There was a frustrated growl and then the sound cut off. The closer I climbed to full consciousness, the more aware I became of Michael. Our bond opened up on the gnawing pit of his irritation. If he kept this up, he was going to give me an ulcer.
I rolled free from the tangled sheets and stumbled through the door in nothing but a tank and underwear. I’d never worried about being half dressed before and I’d be damned if I let it get to me now.
Michael stood in the kitchen. He wore sweatpants and was half turned away from me. I checked him over, looking for signs of last night’s fight. He’d healed cleanly. The tattoos that covered his back were slightly lighter in color than they had been yesterday, his body burning through the ink because of our increased regeneration. How often did he have to get it touched up? Or did he let it fade completely only to replace it with something else? The runes looked vaguely familiar up close. A spell?
His phone rang again. He declined the call and then flicked it to silent.
“Let me guess, your mother?”
“My mother,” he said, turning to me. “I informed her of our altercation last night and passed on our concerns about the vampire being cloaked.”
“Via text or a phone call?”
“Phone call. I’m not a heathen.”
Okay then. I beelined for the coffee maker. “How’d she take the news?”
“Quite well, all things considered. She only snarled twice.”
I looked over at him. Was that supposed to be a joke? His expression gave nothing away. I finished pouring my coffee and sat at the island. “Did you pass the news on to the witches, too, or are you letting her do that?”
“That responsibility falls to the alpha,” he answered, toeing the party line.
“Do you trust her to do it?”
He nodded. “If only because she likes rubbing the witches faces in their own messes.”
I tacked vindictive onto the list of words to describe his mother, and then considered adding a shot of booze to my coffee. If the day started like this, it might not be a bad idea to face the rest of it with a buzz.
Michael pulled out a barstool and sat beside me. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Like I helped murder someone last night.”
Hurt ghosted through the bond before he could snuff it out. Great. Now I was making my mate feel like shit.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This has all been a little too much for me and I’m not handling it well. I didn’t mean to call you a murderer. I understand why you killed him. And while I still feel terrible for the part I played, knowing what he’d done and what he might have gone on to do has…lessened that.”
“Understood. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
We sat in silence and sipped our coffee.
“Thank you for staying with me last night, after I woke up,” I said.
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry you were so distressed.”
“I’m sorry my distress was so distressing for you. I’ll try to get better at muting the bond.”
Michael shook his head. “Don’t. I…”
I looked over at him. His hair was rumpled from sleep. The band of his sweatpants rode low on his hips. Even sitting his stomach was stacked with abs. The man didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. There was something strangely soothing about all that compact muscle. Like he could hold the whole world at bay if he wrapped those big arms around me.
I shook my head against the thought. “You what, Michael?”
“I like the feel of you in my mind,” he said, voice soft.
I stared at him. What the hell did I say to that? It felt like such an intimate thing for him to confess. Outside of this apartment, he was so buttoned up. He hid his feelings from everyone around him, including his family. Acted as though he didn’t have any. Projected a persona of detached snootiness. Even last night, in the middle of a fight, he was cool and calculating and untouchable. Now he sat here half dressed, hair mussed, exposing himself to me both physically and emotionally. I didn’t feel worthy of it. I doubted more than a handful of people had ever seen him so open and honest.
If he was willing to be this vulnerable with me, the least I could do was drop my own guard. Watching Michael act one way toward people while only I knew his true feelings was a fascinating experience. Having an inside look into someone else’s emotions, especially someone as complex as him, was borderline addictive. It was a struggle not to pepper him with questions. “Why were you slightly annoyed by this?” “Why did that make you wary?” I wanted to know what made him tick. And if I was being truly honest, I just plain liked the feel of him in my mind. I might not have mastered the trick of borrowing his emotions, but already there was a steadfastness to his presence that grounded me. Centered me. Gave me something to hold onto in this strange and brutal city.
I took a deep breath and decided to be brave. “I like the feel of you in my head too. I wish you wouldn’t work so hard to mask your emotions from me.”
“It’s not intentional. It’s second nature.” He shrugged, shoulder muscles bunching in a way that drew my gaze. “Your people are able to control the shift, mine can suppress the wolf.”
I frowned. Suppress the wolf? What was this bullshit? In my head, I was a wolf. What he was saying sounded like the equivalent of giving myself a lobotomy. “What do you mean?”
“My family can cloak themselves to the point that we don’t even register as shifters.”
“How the hell do you do that?”
He shook his head. “It’s…difficult to explain.”
“Can you give me a demonstration then?”
He turned to regard me. “Apologies, but I’ll need your word that you’ll keep what I’m about to show you to yourself. Our family guards the secret with extreme prejudice, even from the rest of our pack, and if my mother ever discovered that I let you in on it without her approval…”
She’d probably graduate from threats on my life to attempts to take it. “You have my word that I’ll keep your secret.”
He nodded and turned to face forward in his seat. His expression flattened, eyes unfocused as he stared through the wall. The feeling of him in the back of my mind…shrank. The smell of fur and wilderness dissipated from his scent and then disappeared altogether. Shifters exuded preternatural power without thought. I was so used to sensing it 24/7 around my kind that it was like breathing. I never realized how expected it was. Not until Michael’s power started to dwindle.
The hair on the back of my neck rose. Anxiety punched through me, sending my pulse pounding. I sat there, staring at him, watching him breath, blink, and be alive, while in my head, it felt like he was dying.
I grabbed his arm to reassure myself that he was still there. “Michael?”
He didn’t respond, only retreated further. My anxiety turned into fear. It was worse than when he drove away from my parents’ house that first night. Worse than watching him fight a vampire. This was full-blown, uncontrollable panic. I sucked in shallow, rasping breaths, unable to fill my lungs. My head swam. Black dots danced in front of my eyes. It felt like someone had ripped into my chest and was reaching toward my heart.
And then Michael was…gone. A human sat in front of me wearing his skin. He looked like a human, he smelled like a human, he feltlike a human.
I let go of him and leapt back, knocking my barstool over in my haste to get away. Tears streaked down my face. Inside, I was howling. It felt like he was dead. Like he’d been torn from my mind. And yet here he sat, the sight of him conflicting with everything I felt and knew.
This was unnatural. Unholy. An abomination against our very nature. My mind tried to bend around this impossibility and ran into a brick wall of Nope. The ricochet of the bond snapping tore through my synapses. Insanity beckoned. In wolf form, my emotions were muted, simplified. The numbness of that called to me, and the sudden urge to shift was so strong that I started to shake.
“Stop it!” I yelled.
Michael blinked and came back to himself. His returning power splashed over me. The smell of musk and fur filled my nose. And then there he was, right where he belonged in the back of my mind.
The whiplash of him feeling alive and then dead and now alive again was too much. My knees gave out and I collapsed to the floor. Michael’s eyes widened as my emotions roared through the bond and he realized what he’d just put me through. How close he’d just driven me to losing my fucking mind. Wolves could turn lunatic after the death of their mates, becoming feral, crazed versions of themselves that were so dangerous to others, we kept them in cages until they came out of it. Some never did. This soon after bonding, the threat of that happening was much higher. I now understood why.
Michael came to sit on the floor beside me. His brows drew down in concern and he reached out, stopping just shy of touching me. “Layla?”
I abandoned all pretenses of keeping distance between us and scrambled into his lap. He pulled me close and slid his hands beneath my tank top, wrapping his big arms around my waist so that we had as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. From the way he squeezed me to the fear and regret coursing through the bond, he needed this reminder of our connection just as much as I did.
“I didn’t realize what that might do to you,” he said.
I grabbed at him with shaking hands and buried my nose into his neck, taking big gulping breaths full of his scent just to reassure myself that he was here, alive. “Don’t ever…do that…again.”
“I almost lost it. Wolves can turn lunatic when their mate dies.”
“I didn’t know. This is all very new to me.”
I kept forgetting that. And it kept coming back to bite us in the ass. We needed to talk this over more. We probably needed another crash course with my parents while we were at it.
“Michael, how did you learn to do this? Why would you do this to yourself?”
He let out a deep sigh. “We learn from birth. I was taught to mute the wolf before I could walk.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘the wolf’?” It wasn’t a separate entity, just him, but with fur. “Don’t you mean you, in wolf form?”
“No. We’re taught to think of it as apart from ourselves. It makes it easier to suppress the shift.”
That was wrong on so many levels. I let go of him and pushed away. Our touch was too distracting. I needed to see his face and focus on his emotions while he explained this to me. “Why would you want to suppress the shift?”
“Because the less time you spend in wolf form, the less you smell like a wolf.”
“So it’s true that you only shift once a month? When the full moon forces you to?”
My heart broke.
“Don’t be sad for me,” he said. “The benefits outweigh the costs.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point. For me, nothing would ever be worth neutering myself like that.”
“Really? Nothing?” The look he gave me made me feel small. “Then imagine if you lived in a city, surrounded by your enemies, and one of them killed someone you cared about. That they sat fat and happy, deep within their territory, congratulating themselves afterward. And then, after their celebratory fete, they went to bed, only to find a werewolf waiting for them. Imagine the myth that would surround your kind after such retribution. The message it sends to those who would harm us. That all of their defenses are useless. If you take one of ours, there’s nothing to stop us from strolling, undetected, into the belly of your stronghold to reap our vengeance.”
I stared at him. “Has that happened?”
He nodded. “A vampire killed one of my cousins several months ago, and my mother went, alone, into their brood and killed their leader. Messily. So that there wouldn’t be any confusion as to who had done it.”
I really needed to get on that woman’s good side. Otherwise she might decide to end me herself and I would never even see it coming. If she was able to kill a brood leader single-handedly, she could be a real threat to me.
“Maybe the vampires found out about your secret,” I said. “And have figured out how to mute themselves too.”
He shook his head. “I think it much more likely that they’re holding a witch and she’s being forced to cloak them. I doubt that a month undead vampire could gain such control so quickly. Most that age have barely mastered their blood lust.”
I took him at his word. He knew so much more about the abilities of other preternaturals that he was likely right. He’d probably studied them from birth, right along with hand-to-hand combat and muting himself. I frowned at him, thinking back to dinner with his family. “How else has suppressing your wolf form affected you? Has it numbed your senses?”
“To a degree. We have to focus to hear things that others of our kind pick up on without thought. Which is part of why we keep a retinue of security around.”
“That explains why your family missed our hearts beating in tandem at dinner the other night. And why their power seemed off. They weren’t being polite when they tested me, they were just weaker than the average wolf.”
“Not weaker, just suppressing,” he said. “But your assumption is typical. We seem like lesser wolves to others of our kind. And to the preternaturals in this city. The inevitable result being that everyone underestimates us.”
“And then when your alpha pops up in a bedroom undetected and kills a brood leader, the legend only grows. Makes them wonder how someone they barely thought of as a wolf managed to pull something like that off.”
He nodded. “Precisely. Do we possess some dangerous new magic? Have we formed an alliance with the witches and they cloaked us in? Or did we intentionally lull the vampires into a false sense of security? There are advantages to keeping our enemies on their toes.”
“I get it. My pack is the same way about our control. Few outsiders have seen us half shift.”
“The vampire and witch had quite visceral reactions to it, didn’t they? I can see how such an ability would be a boon.”
“Did it freak you out?”
He shook his head. “On the contrary. You were resplendently ferocious. Shame about the dress though.”
I sighed. “I really liked it too.”
“So did I. I’ll buy you another for our raincheck on last night’s date.”
Date? I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with thatcomment, so I decided to move past it. “I can try to teach you how to half shift, if you’re interested.”
He mulled it over for a second. “I’m not sure if that would be wise.”
“Why? What happens if you shift more than once a month? Do you stop being able to suppress your wolf form?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve never attempted to shift outside of the full moon.”
I wanted to cry again. “Never?”
“Not since I’ve been able to control it.” His scent turned slightly wary. A frisson of fear slipped through the bond. “Shifting for us is…an uncomfortable experience. After suppressing the wolf for so long, when its finally allowed an outlet, the result is…unpredictable.”
I could imagine. I hadn’t fully shifted since a few days before the bonding ceremony and I was starting to get itchy. The thought of holding my human form for an entire month…nope. Nuh-uh. I’d probably go berserk. Was that what happened to the Kolbeck’s? Was that why he was suddenly afraid?
I frowned at him. “When I partially shift, is it uncomfortable for you?”
“More like confusing. It feels as though corresponding pieces of myself have turned wolf, and then I’ll look down and see a fully human hand.”
“What would happen if I fully shifted? Would you too?”
“Is that how it works with other bonded pairs?”
I shook my head. “No, but this might be a special circumstance since you almost never shift.”
“Then there’s no way to know until you do. It’s Saturday, by the way. We could drive up to New Hampshire for the night and test the theory out.”
I hesitated. “I don’t know. I’m not sure if I can face my parents after last night.”
Michael rolled his heavy shoulders and then stretched his head side to side, looking slightly uncomfortable in his own skin. “Please don’t misconstrue this, I don’t mean it as an insult or a judgement, but you still feel close to snapping and its beginning to wear on both of us.”
Right. I’d been on emotional overdrive since last night and I hadn’t done a damn thing to subdue it. The need to protect me, to shelter me from my pain and confusion and sadness must be driving Michael to the brink. And the fact that he was feeling all of this while not being able to control any of it must make it even worse for someone like him.
I took a deep breath and tried to even myself out. “I’m sorry.”
Michael shook his head. “We’ve reverted. We keep apologizing again. There’s no need. I’m not upset with you. I just want you to feel better. I believe that spending a night or two in familiar territory, free from constant threat and sensory overload is the most obvious way to do that. And while I appreciate that lying to your parents, even by omission, is a terrible thing, the overall benefits to your mental health might outweigh that stress.”
I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a pigeon flap past the windows. The Kevlar shutters slammed shut, dropping us into darkness. I jumped so high I nearly hit the ceiling.
Michael was right. I needed to get the hell out of the city.
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.