Regarded as the strongest wolf shifter in generations, Alpha Zev Hassick is surprised and confused by his attraction to his best friend. His very human, very male best friend. A male shifter has to mate with a female shifter to keep his humanity, so shifters can’t be gay. Yet, everything inside Zev tells him Jonah is his true mate.
Maintaining a relationship with the man he has loved since childhood isn’t easy for Jonah Marvel, but he won’t let distance or Zev’s odd family get in their way. When unexplained ailments begin to plague Jonah, he needs to save his own life and sanity in order to have a future with Zev.
Zev and Jonah know they’re destined for each other, but they must overcome traditions ingrained over generations and long-buried secrets to fulfill their destiny.
“I don’t disagree with you, Mother. Clarissa is a very beautiful woman. But I’m not going to date her.”
Zev didn’t bother trying to hide the frustration in his voice. Honestly, how many times would he have to tell his family that he wasn’t interested in their setups? Exhaustion beating at him, he leaned against the back of the leather couch and rubbed his palms over his eyes. Sleep rarely came to him, and when it did, he remained partially alert, terrified of losing his humanity while he was unconscious. He was barely hanging on as it was; this intervention was the last thing he needed.
Grandma Mae’s voice broke into his thoughts. Her frustration with Zev had reached such a high level that she willingly questioned him, her Alpha, a practice unheard of in her generation. Then again, maybe it wasn’t just her frustration; maybe Zev’s attempts to bring their pack into modern times had been more successful than he’d realized.
“I don’t understand this, Zev. You’re thirty years old. Your grandfather and I had already been married for close to a decade by the time we were your age. It’s not natural or healthy for one of our kind to remain alone.”
As if that was his cue, Grandpa Walter jumped into the conversation. Had they drawn numbers in advance to determine the order in which to beat up on him?
“I realize you feel we’re intruding on your privacy, son, but any shifter with eyes can see the problems you’re having, and the reason is plain. Shifters are deeply sexual beings, but the…” Walter paused and swallowed hard, as if it pained him to continue the sentence. “The women you’ve been using to meet your physical needs are half-souls. They aren’t enough to bind your humanity, especially for this many years. You’re a strong man and a strong wolf, Zev, the strongest I’ve seen in my lifetime. But no shifter can outrun his nature, not that I understand why you insist on trying. Whatever the reason, if you don’t tie with a shifter soon, your human side will be lost.”
Did his family members actually think they were telling him something he didn’t already know? Their only error was underestimating his strength and determination. Though the idea of meeting his sexual needs with humans—or half-souls, as shifters called them—repulsed his family, they were certain he’d been making a practice of it. How else could he have lived with both his human and wolf sides intact for three decades? They couldn’t fathom a shifter living that long without sharing at least some physical bond.
Well, they were wrong. Zev hadn’t tied with anyone—human or shifter—in his life, whether they believed him or not. But for how much longer? Returning from the change was becoming more and more difficult, with his wolf clinging to its form, not wanting his human to take over. And the longer the wolf remained in control of their body, the less likely it was that the human would be able to find his way to the surface again.
“There’s no point in denying it, Zev. We know what you’ve been doing, and we don’t judge you.”
Though he trusted his father’s sincerity, Zev also knew he remained uncomfortable with the idea of a shifter engaging in sexual acts with humans. The only reason he accepted what he called Zev’s “oddities” was because the Etzgadol pack had grown steadily since Zev had begun his Alpha training, even more so since he had taken over as pack Alpha. And Zev had had equal success with the family business, which now earned an annual gross income that was more than double what it had been before Zev had taken over.
“Move your hands away from your face and look at us, Zev. This is serious. You cannot continue to choose this lifestyle. Your body cannot survive it.” Gregory Hassick’s voice tightened with worry.
Zev dropped his hands to his sides and opened his eyes, knowing they were bloodshot and surrounded by dark circles. When was the last time he’d truly rested? He combed his fingers through his hair and resisted the urge to yell. His family loved him. He knew that. And this conversation, no matter how misplaced, was a reflection of that love.
“How many times do I have to explain this, Father? I’m not choosing this. I hate being alone. I haven’t tied with any human women. I want to claim my mate more than anything.”
Lori scooted closer to him on the couch and took his hand. The new egalitarian pack structure Zev had put in place was helped tremendously by his strong sister. She led the pack females by example, and they all admired her. She couldn’t go against their elders, which was likely why Lori had agreed to take part in this little family gathering. But neither would she speak against her brother, so she remained silent and lent Zev support with her actions.
“Everyone wants a true mate, Zev,” Gregory told him. “But very few shifters get them. The rest of us fall in love and feel completely satisfied with our chosen partners. Your mother and I have been happy together for well over half of our lives without the mating bond. Please, it’s time to let go of childish fantasies and accept your fate. You haven’t been blessed with a true mate, but you can still live a full life. Just tie with Clarissa or one of the other females in the pack. What can it hurt to try? Best-case scenario, you find this true mate you insist exists. Worst-case scenario, you have more regular companionship and a proper tie.”
Zev couldn’t hold back the growl in his chest. He was tired of their constant refusals to acknowledge the existence of his true mate and their never-ending setup offers. His parents had long ago stopped pretending the offers were about dinner and a movie. Were his parents honest with these women about the purely sexual role they were expected to play in his life? Probably not. Nobody outside of his family knew the truth. Hell, even those within his family denied it, despite the fact that he’d been clear with them for years.
“Clarissa isn’t my true mate. And I’m not interested in her companionship.” He spat out his response, his tone expressing disgust with the very idea of their brand of companionship.
“Why not, Zev? Are her breasts too small? Is her hiney too big? Just talk to us, and we can help you. If the females in our pack aren’t satisfactory, we’ll find a female in a neighboring pack for you so you can make a physical tie.”
He winced. Now his other grandmother was engaged in the game. Had any other man ever faced an eighty-year-old woman offering him his choice of tits and ass? Dear God, please make it stop.
“I’m gay, Granny Betty. Any breasts at all are a deal-killer, and I haven’t ever paid attention to Clarissa’s, um, hiney.”
The diminutive gray-haired woman threw her hands in the air.
“Our kind can’t be gay, Zev. It just doesn’t work that way. A male shifter needs to tie with a female shifter in order to bind his humanity, and the female needs to accept that tie from the male in order to release her wolf. This is basic preschool information, dear.”
Zev dropped his head on top of his hands, which were crossed over his knees. Yeah, he was very familiar with their kind’s version of the birds and the bees. Every shifter’s soul straddled two bodies: the wolf and the human. Women were naturally connected to their human side, but their wolf side was locked away, unable to find the freedom to run. Males, on the other hand, had free rein of their wolf from childhood, but their hold on their humanity was tenuous. The only way for a male shifter to retain his human form was to tie to a female shifter and absorb a portion of her humanity. Likewise, in order for a female shifter to retain her sanity, she had to free her wolf from its cage, something that could be done only by accepting a male’s tie.
So, yeah, Zev knew the basic facts, but he’d long ago rejected the idea that they were absolute. Because to believe that would be to believe he was unnatural, which couldn’t be true, since he’d been blessed with the most precious gift nature could offer a shifter: a true mate.
Of course, he had told his family the reason he hadn’t tied was because he was waiting for his true mate. His male true mate. The first time he’d said the words to his parents, they’d been shocked. His father yelled so loudly at him that the windows literally shook, and his mother stood in the kitchen and cried. When Zev refused to back down, despite his parents’ protests, their feelings on the subject morphed into disgust, and they barred him from ever mentioning the issue again.
After several years passed without any female shifters in Zev’s life, his parents started to worry. They were too embarrassed to tell people about what they called Zev’s “condition,” but not knowing what else to do, they eventually relented and spoke to their own parents. All four of Zev’s grandparents insisted that they’d never heard of such a thing, and it couldn’t be true. So after that, Zev’s family grudgingly lived in a state of denial, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that he could actually be gay.
Sitting in his parents’ living room and fending off setup attempts made Zev realize there was a downside to empowering his pack to speak their minds—now, he was forced to listen to them. Maybe he’d have been better off leaving things as they’d always been. Then nobody, and certainly not a female, even if she was an elder and a relative, would dare speak to the Alpha in such a condescending way.
Zev dismissed the thought as soon as it entered his head. He was glad his family cared, glad his grandmother felt confident enough to question him, and glad members of his pack felt confident enough to share their feelings. The pack was stronger for it, even if it meant Zev had to endure this emotionally debilitating family intervention. He raised his eyes and responded to his grandmother.
“I will not seek companionship with anyone other than my true mate. You know only shifters without true mates can choose a life partner. A mated wolf can be tied to his humanity only by his true mate. So having sex with Clarissa or any of the other females in the pack won’t get the job done anyway. And despite what you think, I do, in fact, have a true mate. Our souls are connected at the heart; that’s not something a shifter can mistake. I can feel the bond all the way down in my bones.”
Oh, Zev had been confused at first, sure. The feelings he had didn’t make sense in the context of what he’d been taught. But no lessons, not even those that explained the very fabric of his kind’s makeup, could override the single most important truth that coursed through Zev’s body: the awareness of his true mate. So before he’d reached the end of his second decade, Zev had already accepted the idea that he was gay, despite the fact that it went against everything his pack thought was natural or even possible.
Zev looked at Grandpa Hugh and Grandma Betty, imploring them to help. They were the only true mated pair in the family, and one of the few true mated pairs in the history of the pack. Surely they understood the power of the bond. It was absolute. Zev could no sooner satisfy the need to tie with his true mate by tying with another shifter than he could satisfy the need to breathe air by inhaling water.
Hugh squeezed Betty’s hand and looked at Zev sympathetically.
“If you have a true mate, Zev, then you have a duty to her. She needs you in order to release her wolf or she will lose her mind. What if you’re abandoning your true mate, Zev? What if you haven’t found her because you’re not willing to keep an open mind about females?”
Zev rolled his eyes, too frustrated to care that it was an incredibly childish and disrespectful gesture. He often wondered whether his family would believe he was gay if he told them he’d long known the identity of his true mate. Maybe then they’d stop writing off his refusal to sleep with shifter females as some stubborn philosophical exercise.
But no matter how much Zev loved and trusted his family, he wasn’t willing to take that risk. Nobody would believe Zev if he identified Jonah as his mate, and the human would be perceived as a threat to the pack structure. The easiest way to eliminate that threat would be to eliminate the interloper. The basic principles of their kind were so ingrained, and so fundamentally based on the need for shifter males to tie with shifter females, that he feared harm could come to his mate if the pack knew the identity of the man destined to tie with their Alpha.
No, Zev couldn’t risk his mate’s safety. The only way for him to acknowledge Jonah’s role in his life would be to first tie with him. Then the mating bond would be complete, and nobody would be able to dispute their relationship. Or his sexuality.
“If my mate were anywhere within ten miles of here, my senses would pick that up. Blind dates aren’t how we find our true mates. But if you’re so concerned that I’m abandoning my mate, I’ll make you a deal. I promise to meet with whomever you want, on a platonic basis, to see if she’s my mate, and in return, you promise that when I do find my mate and make the tie, you’ll support the mating in every way.”
The relief in his parents and grandparents was palpable. All six of the tense bodies sitting around him relaxed, and smiles took over their faces. His sister squeezed his hand and winked at him. Zev was certain she’d known his mate’s identity nearly as long as he had, though neither of them had ever spoken the words out loud.
“Of course we will, dear. A mating is a blessing.” His mother’s pretty face shone.
“Even more so when it’s for the Alpha, because it unveils the heart of our pack,” Grandpa Hugh added with a wistful look on his face.
Zev knew the older shifter was likely remembering his own mating.
“You and your mate will be supported by us and the entire pack.” His father’s deep baritone voice left no room for debate. It was certain and sure. A vow.
Zev rose from the sofa, straightening all six feet seven inches and squared his shoulders.
“Then we have a deal. I’ll tie with my mate when the time comes, and you’ll stand behind us. No matter who she”—he looked pointedly at the faces of the seven people he loved most in the world, other than the man missing from the room, of course—“or he is. Good night.”
And with those words, Zev turned and walked to the front door, ignoring the growls coming from behind him. They’d given him their word, and it would bring unforgivable dishonor on their ancestors to go back on that vow, so he knew his family would keep their promise. As for the rest of the pack, it’d be a challenge, a possibly insurmountable challenge, even with both past Alphas and the current Alpha standing together.
A tie between two males threatened to disrupt everything the pack had been taught about a female’s connection to her human side and a male’s connection to his wolf side. And, as if the idea of two males accomplishing a tie wouldn’t be enough to cause widespread panic, Jonah wasn’t just a male. He was a human—a half-soul—not a shifter. And everyone knew that a shifter couldn’t tie with a half-soul.
But when the time came, the pack could either stand with Zev or find new territory. The Etzgadol pack land had belonged to the Hassick family for ten generations. And with his grandparents, parents, and sister by his side, Zev was guaranteed that he’d be able to continue that legacy. Even if it meant doing it while building a new pack to lead. And Zev knew if that was what it took to be with Jonah Marvel, he’d do it without a second thought. He’d do whatever was needed to claim and keep his true mate.
Zev walked out of his parents’ house and over to his truck, dropped his head against the door, and took in a deep breath, letting the fresh air cool his lungs. Standing up to his family once again and garnering their support for his future mating was all well and good, but none of it meant a thing if his mate didn’t return and accept his place in the pack beside Zev. If Jonah didn’t come home soon, Zev wasn’t sure whether there’d be a Hassick male available to lead the Etzgadol pack.
He looked up at the sky. The stars were beautiful out here. They sparkled above him, showing the spirits of those who came before. Come back to me, Jonah. Our spirits are intertwined, and my body cannot endure without its other half for much longer.
He felt the pain deep in his bones, the urge to shift and run. But he pushed it back, grateful that, at least for now, his human could still exert his will. His wolf was tired of waiting for his human to find their mate and the wolf wanted control of their form so he could go find Jonah and claim him. But their mate was long gone, well out of scent distance, and the chance of Zev’s wolf finding him before running into hunters or vehicles was slim.
Unless he claimed his mate, the time was fast approaching when his human would no longer be able to control his wolf. When that happened, the fear driving the intervention his family had staged that night would become a reality: Zev’s human would be forever lost. And without his human’s wisdom to limit him, Zev’s wolf would likely end his life trying to find his mate.
The black truck rumbled over the dirt and rock road, weaving through the trees and taking Zev from the family intervention at his childhood den to the place he’d been calling home for more than a decade. It was unusual for a shifter to live alone. His peers had remained in their parents’ dens until they’d found a chosen partner, and then they’d built new dens together, with cubs often following shortly thereafter. But Zev had moved out of the family home when he was eighteen, hoping a little distance would help curb his frustration over his family’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility that he could have a male mate.
The Etzgadol pack land encompassed thousands of acres abutting a national forest. In addition to being a place where the entire pack could run, the forest held the Hassick family ceramics business and the homes for his direct line. Every member of his family had equal rights to that land, so nobody could stop Zev from claiming a portion and setting up house. What his parents could and did do, however, was cut him off financially.
They hadn’t understood his desire to live alone; “unnatural” was what they’d called it. It might have been more meaningful if they hadn’t also used the word to describe his feelings when he told them he was gay. After all, his true mate was male and what could be more natural than the mating bond?
In any event, Zev’s parents had hoped to keep him in their den by withholding funds, but he had taken his tent, pitched it, and lived in the woods. He’d started working for the family business by then, so he’d lived off the land and saved almost every dollar he’d made until he had enough money in the bank to build a home, the home he planned to someday share with his mate.
Zev had been too young to tie back then. Oh, he was physically able, but shifters rarely tied until they were late in their second decade. So his wolf should have been satisfied to play and hunt, like his peers. But his wolf wasn’t satisfied and neither was his human. In fact, Zev hadn’t felt at peace since he was eighteen. Because that was the year he’d lost Jonah.
Zev flipped on the radio, hoping some loud music would help him stay awake. His neck felt like rubber, and he rubbed one palm over his tired eyes. His body had been hurting too much for him to have found peaceful sleep in way too long. The deep-seated ache that had been his constant companion since Jonah moved away twelve years earlier was partially to blame, but most of his restlessness was caused by the wolf pacing within him, trying desperately to get out. Zev hadn’t allowed himself to shift in three months.
His wolf had never gone that long without being free. In fact, Zev had always shifted more frequently and for longer periods than others. His mother bragged that it was because Zev’s wolf was so powerful. And maybe that was true. Zev’s wolf was bigger, stronger, and more acutely aware of his surroundings than the other wolves in the pack.
Gregory Hassick had started bringing Zev with him to interpack council meetings when the presumptive Alpha turned eighteen. It was part of the training, a way for Zev to learn what would be expected of him and to make connections with leaders of the other packs. Whenever he’d been introduced to those pack leaders, the shifters recognized the remarkable strength of Zev’s wolf. Some steered clear of Zev when they first sensed him, worried that he’d challenge them for control of their packs. But it never took long for them to recognize Zev’s fairness, to see that he had no desire to take what was theirs. And, as a result, he’d established some good relationships with neighboring packs over those twelve years, relationships that had already helped his pack and its members.
But the strength of his wolf was the very reason Zev could no longer allow him the freedom to roam. The fact was, Zev didn’t feel confident in his ability to rein that part of himself back in once it was released. So he’d been forced to cage his strong wolf. His family was right to worry about him. Three decades was too long for a shifter to go without tying.
He’d never expected his separation from Jonah to last so long or to be so difficult. When he’d figured out that Jonah was his mate on the eve of Jonah’s departure, he’d believed they’d be apart for only a few years and that those years would be interspersed with visits. No big deal.
Zev had grossly underestimated how much he’d miss his friend. He’d underestimated the ingrained need coursing through him to be with his mate. And, worst of all, he’d underestimated the length of their separation. When Jonah moved away that summer day twelve years prior, he tore a hole in Zev. And Zev was starting to wonder whether Jonah was ever going to come home to stitch that wound closed.
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Raised to become Alpha of the Yafenack pack, Samuel Goodwin dedicates his life to studying shifter laws, strengthening his body, and learning from his father. But despite his best efforts, Samuel can’t relate to people, including those he’s supposed to lead.
When Samuel meets Korban Keller, the son of a neighboring pack’s Alpha, he reacts with emotion instead of intellect for the first time in his life. Resenting the other shifter for throwing him off-balance, Samuel first tries to intimidate Korban and then desperately avoids him. What he can’t do is forget Korban’s warm eyes, easy smile, and happy personality.
When a battle between their fathers ends tragically, Samuel struggles to lead his pack while Korban works to break through Samuel’s emotional barriers. Two very different men with a tumultuous history must overcome challenges from all sides and see past their society’s rules to realize they are destined for one another.
The first thing I hated about him was his smile. Nobody genuinely smiles that much. It’s fake. I don’t trust fake people; they tend to hide things. And Korban Keller was as fake as they came.
He was older than me. Not by much, just a few years. With our packs being relatively close in proximity, I had seen him a handful of times when we were boys.
My clearest memory of him back then was of his eyes—they were a rich navy, the color of the deepest part of the ocean. He had a weird habit of tracking me with those eyes, and I wondered if it was because he planned to attack me or if he was waiting to catch me making a mistake so he could call me out on it in front of everybody. Whatever the reason, it distracted me, so when we were in the same room, I struggled to focus on anything other than Korban watching me.
His father was Alpha of the Miancarem pack, which lived on the edge of the same forest as my pack, Yafenack. But where their pack lands started on the northern end of the forest and abutted a human town, ours began in the center and continued with dense woods protected by a wide spring on one end and a rocky mountain on the other. The humans built a highway on the other side of the creek, but it didn’t have an exit near our town, so we remained secluded and safe.
Even at age eight, I understood the Yafenack pack would be my responsibility one day. I needed to learn how to be a good Alpha, so I rarely left my father’s side. Korban was in line to be Alpha of his pack too, but he seemed to have no sense of duty.
My first time going to an interpack council meeting with my father, Korban walked right up to me and said, “Hi.”
It was weird.
After thinking about the best way to respond to the son of the Miancarem Alpha and eliminating a couple of options, I finally went with, “Hello.”
“I’m Korban Keller.” He smiled so broadly his nose crinkled a little. “What’s your name?”
I glanced up at my father to see if he could help me figure out how to deal with the unexpected interrogation, but he was busy talking with the other adults.
“I’m Samuel Goodwin,” I said eventually.
“How old are you, Sam?”
I hated being called Sam. I also hated being asked questions when I didn’t know why they were being asked. And I didn’t like people poking their noses in my business. But on the other hand, I worried it’d be considered rude if I didn’t answer. I’d have to work with this boy one day because I’d be Alpha of my pack, he’d be Alpha of his pack, and my father said getting along with people was important. I wasn’t sure why or if I agreed, but he was a smart man and I tried to listen to him.
“Cool. I’m eleven.”
He kept grinning and looking at me. I wondered if I was supposed to say something or if we were done talking and he’d go away so I could stop feeling nervous and focus on my dad’s conversation.
“You want to go play, Sam?”
“It’s Samuel!” I snapped.
His eyes widened in surprise, but that was his only reaction to my obvious annoyance. “Do you want to go play, Samuel?”
I looked him over and tried to figure out what he was doing.
“They have a football in the back.”
I stared at him.
“And the yard is really big.”
Big as in big enough that nobody would hear me if I got hurt? Was he threatening me?
“But if you don’t like football, they have checkers too.”
Why wouldn’t I be able to play football? I was one of the strongest boys in my grade and, yes, Korban was bigger than me, but that was only because he was older.
“If you like checkers.” He smiled again, but it wasn’t as big that time. There was something softer about it. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
Oh, so now I wasn’t strong enough for football and I wasn’t smart enough for checkers. The nerve of that guy!
“We can shift instead. I bet we can find good stuff to sniff when we’re in our wolf forms.”
The conversation made me uncomfortable. He made me uncomfortable. I felt off-balance and confused, which was probably exactly what he intended. No way was I wandering off with him away from my father and the other adults. No way.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to—”
“Go ahead, Samuel,” my father said.
Surprised he was listening to our conversation, I jerked my gaze up.
“I’m sure you’d much rather play outside with your new friend than stand in here listening to a bunch of boring old guys talk.” He winked at me, smiled, and then ruffled my hair as he said, “Go on.”
I growled a little, not happy about this turn of events. Why would my father send me off with someone who made me feel strange? It was probably more of his training about getting along well with others. He was constantly talking to me about that and asking who I hung out with at school and why I didn’t have friends over to the house.
“Fine,” I grunted. “We can shift.”
Football was okay. Checkers too. But I was stronger in my wolf form, always had been. It was easier to follow my instincts as a wolf, and I wasn’t hampered by the constant questions I had in my human form about what I was supposed to say or do, neither of which came naturally to me.
“Great!” Korban grabbed my hand and yanked me toward the door. “Let’s go.”
Shocked that he was touching me, I could only follow speechlessly while my mind reeled. Wolves were naturally affectionate, I knew that. When our pack members shifted, cubs often rolled together on the ground and adults nipped at each other playfully. But that was different. They were friends or family members. And besides, I wasn’t usually involved in those games.
My father said people shied away from me because I was strong and they knew I’d be Alpha one day. He said that meant I needed to make the effort to approach them instead of waiting for them to approach me. Apparently he didn’t realize I wasn’t waiting for them and I had good reasons.
First off, when I grew up, my job would be to keep an eye on everyone in the pack and make sure they were safe. Starting that habit as a cub would be helpful, I’d decided, and it wasn’t something I could do if I was distracted by being part of the fray. Sometimes my father noticed what I was doing and insisted I take a break and have fun. But even then, I had no interest in playing silly games with hyper wolves. Fun meant running free, feeling the wind in my fur, and hunting.
And yet there I was, being dragged through a stranger’s house by a boy I didn’t know. To make matters worse, he was holding my hand, something only my mother did, and even then, I didn’t like it. But though I knew I should pull away, I didn’t. Later, when I thought back to that moment, I decided the reason I let him put his hands on me without socking him in the belly was because it was so unexpected.
“Should we race?” Korban asked excitedly as soon as we stepped outside.
I didn’t respond.
“Or we can wrestle.” He let go of my hand, clasped the back of his T-shirt, and peeled it off. “Or hunt. Are you hungry?” He tossed the shirt aside and kicked off his shoes. “Maybe there’s a stream nearby and we can swim.” He wiggled out of his pants and briefs in one move and left them where they fell.
With my brain working overtime to absorb all his questions and think about what he probably meant or could mean by each one of them, I hadn’t thought to take off my own clothes. So when Korban was finally undressed and ready to shift, I was left looking stupid. Immediately, I realized that had been his goal in distracting me with his litany of questions.
“Why are you still dressed?” His light blond hair was disheveled from when he’d pulled his shirt off. “Did you change your mind about shifting?” He bit his bottom lip. “We don’t have to race or, uh, hunt, or whatever. We can do something else.”
Because the fact that he caught me off guard so he could get undressed faster meant he could beat me in a footrace in wolf form? No.
“Racing is fine,” I bit out. “Hunting too.” I looked him straight in the eyes; my father taught me to do that. “We can do both.”
Unlike him, I was grateful for my belongings. I carefully unbuttoned my shirt and then folded it before setting it on a small patio table. Then I unlaced my shoes and placed them down under the table with my socks tucked inside. Finally, I removed my briefs and pants and, after folding them neatly, put them next to my shirt. Korban might have undressed faster, but I did it better.
“We’ll race to the trees,” I told him, making clear right off the bat that being older didn’t mean he was in charge. “Then we can track something to eat.”
He wasn’t smiling, so I figured I’d made my point, which was a good thing. Still, something didn’t sit right about it. Thankfully, it didn’t last long.
Korban shook his head quickly, like he was in wolf form and was flicking off moisture. Then he grinned again, squeezed my shoulder, and said, “Let’s go!”
Surprisingly, he didn’t shift midsentence or even after he finished speaking. Instead, he watched me, and only once I’d started taking on my wolf form did he change into his wolf. With his blond hair, it was no surprise I was standing next to a pure white wolf. His eyes were the same navy blue, and even as an animal, they seemed to be twinkling with mirth and laughing at me.
I huffed in frustration, knocked my muzzle against his, and jumped off the porch. I was going to win the race and then I’d track an animal faster and take it down. With that decision made, I ran off toward the trees.
I saw him again when I was twelve and he was fifteen. We were at the next gathering of all the Alphas from our region. I was there with my dad and Korban was there with his.
He looked mostly the same. His hair was still a light blond, but there were more golden streaks in it than when he was younger. His skin was just as pale and seemed to glow, like it had when he was eleven, but I noticed a smattering of freckles over his nose. His eyes, though, were exactly the same. Still a warm navy blue and still tracking me from the second I walked into the room.
“Samuel, hi!” he said as he hustled over to me.
Forcing down the smile that inexplicably started forming, I crossed my arms over my chest. Uncharacteristically, I wanted to say something, but typical to form, I didn’t know what would be appropriate. So I remained silent.
“I’m Korban Keller.”
I didn’t say anything. Not because I was trying to be rude, but because my words stuck in my throat. I hated that he was able to force me off-balance so quickly.
“We met at the last Southeast Alphas meeting.”
Two seconds in and already he was annoying me. So much so that my belly felt warm. I really did need to get my temper under control.
“We hunted in our wolf forms,” he added.
“I remember you,” I said coolly and then gave myself an internal pat on the back because I didn’t yell at him for assuming I was too dumb to remember someone from four years earlier. It hadn’t been that long. Besides, I’d been with him for hours. We had run through the woods, hunted together, splashed in the spring, and even tussled on the grass. It wasn’t until later that I realized he had tricked me into letting my guard down.
“Great.” He sighed in relief and his shoulders lowered, like he was releasing tension.
Immediately, I wondered why he had been stressed. I darted my gaze around but couldn’t see any obvious threats.
“I was hoping your father would bring you again this year, but when you weren’t there for the region leader’s welcome address, I was worried you weren’t going to come.”
My father was normally exceptionally punctual. He said being late was a sign of disrespect because it showed you didn’t value the other person’s time. I always made it a point to get to places early so I wouldn’t send that message. But there was no way for my father to have predicted the multicar collision that forced us to wait for the human police and deal with their paperwork.
Not appreciating Korban’s need to point out our embarrassing and out-of-character lack of timeliness, I hissed, “We were in an accident. We got here as fast as we could, and it’s not like we missed much.”
“You were in an accident?” If it was possible for his already alabaster skin to lose color, it did. “Are you okay?” He leaned forward and gently touched my shoulder.
My mind shot back to that day four years prior, when he had grabbed my hand. Clearly, the guy had an issue with personal boundaries. Then again, maybe it was my issue. Other shifters seemed to touch each other freely. With my thoughts occupied, I forgot to answer him.
“You weren’t hurt, were you?” he asked.
The question refocused my attention on him, and I noticed he was reaching his hand toward my cheek. My first instinct was to lean toward his touch, but as soon as I realized what I was doing, I jerked back.
“I’m fine!” I snapped. “My father is a great driver. It wasn’t his fault.”
“Okay. Good.” He dragged his hand through his shaggy hair. “You had me worried there for a second.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Why?”
“Because you’re—” He slammed his mouth shut, blinked rapidly, and then cleared his throat. “Because you’re the only other kid who comes to these things. The other Alphas don’t bring their next-in-line until they’re adults, and sometimes not until they’re almost ready to take over the position.”
That was true. My father brought me along because he knew I’d be well-behaved and it was important to me—to both of us—that I learn everything I could to lead the pack well. I didn’t know why Korban’s father brought him. Whatever the reason, it bugged me that he only wanted to spend time with me because there was no alternative. I mean, I didn’t want to hang out with him anyway, but still, it was rude to come right out and shove that in my face.
At home, the other kids had more grace than to be so overt about not wanting to be close friends with me. With them, I never felt like they didn’t like me, more that we didn’t have much in common and I intimidated them. That was what my parents always said.
But there was no way I intimidated Korban Keller. He was older and he had those navy eyes. Plus, I knew his type. He had one of those shiny personalities everybody liked. And with him being groomed to be Alpha of his pack, we did have something in common. So his considering me a last option stung more than usual.
“Well, maybe you’ll get lucky and another Alpha will show up late with a son and you can hang out with him.” I stepped around him and started stomping away.
“Wait.” Korban grasped my shoulder.
I twisted my head around, glanced at his hand and then at his face, and arched one eyebrow.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.
Though I was taken aback by how easily he had figured out my annoyance and the reason for it, I knew it was exactly how he had meant it.
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”
What he was sorry about was that he had dropped his “perfect guy” act. Still, I couldn’t let him think he had impacted me. I needed to be strong, not sensitive.
“Please,” I scoffed. “I’d have to care about what you think for that to matter.”
He winced and then closed his eyes and took a deep breath before opening them and meeting my gaze. “Well, I guess that’s good.” He grinned. “What should we do?”
After turning the question over every which way, I still didn’t understand what he was asking. He did it on purpose, I was certain—phrased things in weird ways to make me feel stupid. Well, I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing I cared or even noticed.
“Do?” I said, hoping I sounded nonchalant rather than frustrated.
“Yeah, during the meeting. Do you want to shift and hunt again?” He stepped closer to me, forcing me to raise my chin so I could keep looking him in the eyes. “That was really fun last time,” he said quietly. “I’ve thought about that day a lot.”
My stomach heated again, only this time it felt like a burn. I told myself it was from the seat belt tightening around me during the accident, but I knew that didn’t make sense. I had felt fine until Korban started talking to me. Because he hadn’t given me anything to eat or drink, I knew he hadn’t poisoned me, but it was possible I was allergic to something in his scent.
My body wanted to test that theory, it seemed, because without conscious thought, I inhaled deeply. The warmth in my stomach spread lower, and my muscles spasmed. I snapped my gaze up, confused and a little scared.
“Samuel?” Korban said worriedly as he stepped closer to me. “Are you okay?” He put his hand on my cheek and that, combined with his scent, undid me.
It was the best and worst feeling of my life: relief, elation, and satisfaction, followed almost immediately by terror, disgust, and guilt. Reflexively, I squeezed my eyes shut, and all of a sudden, I felt a strange sensation in my pants. My first thought was that I wet myself. It was the only thing that made sense, the only thing my penis had been used for up to that point.
“I’m, uh”—I blinked rapidly and looked everywhere but at Korban—“fine but I need to use the bathroom.” I gulped and slowly moved my hands in front of my groin, hoping the change in stance wasn’t noticeable. “Do you know where it is?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll show you.” He wrapped his arm loosely around my shoulders and led me down the hallway.
Had I been thinking clearly, I would have shoved him away or told him off, but my heart was racing, my briefs were wet, and my groin still felt funny. In a haze, I went along quietly, letting him take me to a bathroom at the far end of the house. He turned the handle, held the door open, and gently nudged me inside.
“Samuel,” he said quietly.
I looked back at him over my shoulder.
“It’s going to be fine.”
I had no idea what he meant, but then I never seemed to know what he meant.
“Maybe not right now, but eventually, it’ll be fine.” My confusion obviously showed on my face, because he smiled once again, this one gentle and understanding. “I promise. I’ll take care of things. No matter what, you’ll be fine.” He started closing the door slowly. “I’ll wait outside and give you some privacy.”
Later, I realized the wetness wasn’t urine and the feeling wasn’t due to an allergy. Though I doubted Korban knew what had happened, my feelings of discomfort around him were exacerbated by that incident. I felt like he’d seen me during a personal and vulnerable time, like he’d intentionally tried to confuse and disarm me and I lacked the control to stop him, and like something was very wrong about him or the way I reacted to him or both. Whatever the case, I made an effort to stay away and I hated him for forcing me to tuck my tail between my legs and hide.
The hate—I found over the years—was much easier to handle, much more comfortable and safe than the storm of confusion it replaced.
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Plagued by pain and weakness all his life, Ethan Abbatt is a wolf shifter who can’t shift. Hoping to find an honorable death by joining his pack mates in a vampire attack, Ethan instead learns two things: draining his blood releases his pain and his wolf, and he has a true mate—a vampire named Miguel.
Over four centuries old, strong, powerful, and vicious, Miguel Rodriguez walks through life as a shadow, without happiness or affection. When a young shifter tells Miguel they’re true mates, destined to be together, Miguel sends him away. But Ethan is persistent and being with him comes so naturally that Miguel can’t resist for long. Their challenge is staying alive so they can be together until forever comes.
I’m going to confess that this here was not how I had seen the night going. Trapped in a dark—and, might I add, stinky—alley. Surrounded by bloodsuckers. Two pack mates in wolf form passed out against the wheel of a truck, not clear whether they were living or dead. The rest of our ragtag crew had already skedaddled, frantic to make it home so they could lick their wounds before they passed out. And the tall, fierce vampire responsible for fully half of the pummeling we’d taken still looked fit as a fiddle as he stalked toward me. His long black hair blew behind him while he swiped his hands on his shirt to remove shifter entrails, spit on the ground to ensure that the blood in his mouth wouldn’t get absorbed into his system, and glared at me furiously.
“Ralph, don’t,” Scariest-of-Them-All growled at the bloodsucker that had me pinned against the rough brick. Blood oozed out the sides of my neck and both wrists in a steady flow, a puddle already forming around my feet, my heart finally, blessedly slowing.
Pinning-Me-To-The-Wall vampire, the one he called Ralph, held both of my wrists above my head with one hand and had just moved his free hand to my belly, claws at the ready, when the order to stop registered. He looked back over his shoulder, but didn’t release me. Not that I could have gotten away even if he had loosened his grip. There were seven of them and one of me. Plus, they were bigger, stronger, older. I chuckled at the last thought. They were immortal; of course they were older.
Ralph jerked his head back and scowled as he shook me. “You think this is funny? Are you laughing, dog?” He spat the last word.
My head flopped from side to side, my neck feeling limp as a cooked noodle. Huh, I felt almost…almost good. I mean, I was bleeding like a stuck pig and dying and all, but dang. Everything inside was looser, easier, like I’d been suffocating all my life and I finally had room to breathe.
“You are,” he said incredulously. “He is,” he repeated for the benefit of the other vampires. He was using the same volume level, so I wasn’t sure why it was necessary, but whatever. I shrugged, or at least I tried to shrug. I definitely shrugged in my mind. Could shrugs be mental? “Glad you think it’s funny, because it’s the last thing you’re ever going to feel.” He pressed his claws against my belly, cutting through my shirt and just piercing my skin. “Say goodbye, doggy.”
“Ralph!” the vampire with the long black hair shouted. I wondered if his eyes were the same color as his hair. Mine were. The same color as his hair, I mean. Not the same color as mine. My hair was brown but my eyes were black. Black as night. Black as coal. Black as—“One more inch and I’ll rip your head off myself!” Fiercer-Than-Them-All bloodsucker yelled at Ralph. “Step away from him.”
Ralph shook me one last time and then let go. I slumped against the wall, barely able to stay on my feet. I wondered whether that was what being drunk felt like. I’d never been drunk. Maybe I should have tried it. Oh, well. Pretty soon, it wouldn’t matter none anyhow. Nothing would matter ever again.
“Fine. You want the kill, Miguel, he’s yours,” Ralph said, and then he spit at me. It landed on my leg, I think, but there was so much blood it was nigh on impossible to tell. “I don’t need any more of their poison on me anyway.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see my previously prone pack mates moving. They were alive. With the bloodsuckers staring at their comrade approaching his next victim (uh, that was me, in case it wasn’t clear), Harold and George were able to drag themselves away. Good.
I turned my attention back to the threat slash salvation at hand. Coming at me in slow, steady footsteps was Miguel, the scary vampire who had maimed most of my pack mates and was apparently gunning to add me to his accomplishment tally, the one with the gorgeous long black hair and the— Wait, gorgeous? How much blood had I lost? Enough that death was imminent. Not that I minded.
That was, after all, the whole reason I had agreed to go on the vampire-eradication mission with the other males my age. Hell, it was the reason they had, for the first time since we were toddlers, let me join them for anything.
An unarmed shifter who couldn’t shift wouldn’t survive a confrontation with a coven of bloodsuckers. We all knew that going in. The others were there to defend the pack from our most detested enemy and gain notoriety for years to come. Me? I was there to die in the only honorable way my twenty-year-old brain could think of.
But like I said, things didn’t turn out like I’d expected. Because the closer that bloodsucker named Miguel got to me, the more I felt blood pooling somewhere other than around my shoes. My pants weren’t tight, but, unlike the rest of my body, my prick wasn’t small, and in its erect state, it didn’t have enough room to hide. I wondered if their kind could see well at night. Probably. They were nocturnal, like our wolves, so if they couldn’t see well in the dark, they wouldn’t be able to hunt, wouldn’t be able to feed. Oh, Lord, feed.
What would that feel like? I stared at Tall, Dark, and Deadly and wondered how it would feel to have those sharp fangs pierce my vein and suck the blood from my body. My knees buckled at the thought. The vampire’s gaze met mine. He licked his lips and that was it. Endgame. I was done, twitching and gasping as I coated the inside of my drawers with my release.
His eyes widened in surprise and his graceful steps faltered. Sure enough, they could see in the dark. Or maybe they had a heightened sense of smell.
Miguel got even closer, and I was finally able to track his scent over the millions of other foreign odors in the filthy half-soul street. I trembled with renewed desire.
No. Couldn’t be. Not possible.
He took another step. And then another one. His gaze never broke its lock on mine.
My eyes rolled back in my head, the tightness in my skin completely loosened. The pressure in my chest slowed to nonexistent. And then I was on all fours, peace finally overtaking me, before everything went black.
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Cardeno C. – CC to friends – is a hopeless romantic who wants to add a lot of happiness and a few “awwws” into a reader’s day. Writing is a nice break from real life as a corporate type and volunteer work with gay rights organizations. Cardeno’s stories range from sweet to intense, contemporary to paranormal, long to short, but they always include strong relationships and walks into the happily-ever-after sunset.
Cardeno’s Home, Family, and Mates series have received awards from Love Romances and More Golden Roses, Rainbow Awards, the Goodreads M/M Romance Group, and various reviewers. But even more special to CC are heartfelt reactions from readers, like, “You bring joy and love and make it part of the every day.”
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