Wolf Mates, Book 2
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Mrowwww!” Martine Brooks howled again, extra-long and extra loud for the benefit of her viewing audience. Then she hissed, opening her mouth wide for clarity—in case anyone in the room mistook her mewling for anything other than complete dissatisfaction.
Because being so rudely awakened from a sound catnap, then thrown into a plastic sweatbox the size of a sardine can, heinously lobbed into a moving vehicle smelling of beer and Fritos, bounced around for what felt like an eternity, and dumped at a 7-Eleven was surely cause for discontent.
And now she was here. Wherever here was.
By a man named Derrick Adams, who drove like a lunatic. A man who, though he’d rescued her, appeared put out by her very existence.
Which, on his part, was incredibly rude. It wasn’t as though she’d asked to be kidnapped to begin with. Though, she had to admit, as rescuers went, she could have made out far worse, because phew, this Derrick was pretty. So, so delectably pretty.
Angular cheekbones, hair the color of coal just touching the collar of his T-shirt, blue eyes with thick lashes, leaving his eyes looking like they’d been outlined with smudged liner. Dusky skin stretched taut over his biceps and thick thighs flexed against his low-slung jeans.
Martine shook off her stray lustful thoughts. First, because who the fresh hell was Derrick Adams anyway, and what did he want with her? Second, how had she ended up in a Dumpster at a convenience store, warranting the need for rescue to begin with? Third what if Derrick Adams was a homicidal maniac and she hadn’t been rescued at all? What if this was the place where he did all his killing?
Though, if this was the killing room where Derrick the Homicidal Maniac did the deed, he kept his sacrificial altar clean as a whistle, because it was beautiful.
But they weren’t alone in this beautiful place. So there was either a Cult of Derrick or these other two scantily clad people in the room were blissfully unaware he was a homicidal maniac.
Derrick and another equally hot, yet edgier-looking man named Max, and a pretty woman with gorgeous hair were in on this, too. This Max, according to the eavesdropping she’d been doing, with the sheet wrapped around his waist and the sinfully delicious body made of steel, was brother to the man who’d rescued her.
Max stuck his handsome face in the opening of the infernal carrier she’d been so callously stuffed into and muttered, “A cat.” He offered this wisdom with wooden words and a confused expression.
That’s right, big and brawny—a cat. Hashtag #Meow and all that feline-ery.
Martine sniffed the air, unable to pinpoint exactly what Max was. He wasn’t human, that much she was sure of, and neither was Derrick.
She sniffed again. Gargoyle? No. They didn’t have the right hint of musty old man and dragon breath to be gargoyles.
Derrick’s sigh grated her ears on the way out of his delectable mouth when he addressed Max. “Yeah. A cat. So what do you suppose this means, pack leader?”
Max tightened the sheet around him and chuckled. “You’d better get a laser pointer? Cat litter?”
Ah. Funny. Max was both funny smelling and ha-ha funny. Two funnies in one.
Derrick narrowed his eyes at Max, sending out a distinct vibe of displeasure. “You know what I mean, Max. Where do I go from here?”
What did Derrick mean? What did any of this mean? And what was a pack leader? Like a Boy Scout leader? Cult leader? Boy-band leader? Thank God she was stuck in full shift. If she had to escape, it would make getting away easier.
Max pulled the pretty woman wearing a bathrobe much too large for her to the couch, settling them both in before speaking. “Listen, you know the rules, Derrick. This is how it goes.”
Derrick held up the carrier, waving it in the air, making her dizzy. “How come when it goes for you, you get a woman who walks and talks, but when it goes for me, I get one with four paws that sheds?”
Wow. That was harsh. She walked and talked. In fact, she’d once had a really great job that involved plenty of walking and talking.
The pretty woman next to Max pointed to the carrier. “Put her down, would you, please? Stop treating her like she’s not in the room and she can’t hear you, Derrick. I thought when you were in shift you paranormal people could still understand everything we humans say? If that’s the case, don’t be an insensitive knuckle-dragger. There’s a person inside that carrier you’re talking about.”
Thank you, pretty woman with the hair to die for. Girl power.
Derrick set the carrier on the coffee table between the couch and an enormous chair, leaving the grate opening to face the far wall so everyone could see inside. “You’re right, JC,” he said to the woman, looking down into the carrier. “My apologies,” he offered, gruff and low.
Martine opened her mouth wide and yawned.
Derrick ran a hand over his jaw, littered with dark stubble she wanted to rub against. Which, of course, made her a dirty, dirty whore. But so be it. It had, after all, been six months since she’d had contact with a man. With anyone, for that matter.
Now, because the universe was LOL lately, a sinfully good-looking man had rescued her. One who potentially had nefarious intentions and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.
Derrick looked to Max. “So…shapeshifter, ya think?”
JC rolled her eyes at him, moving to the edge of the couch. “Oh, wait, I know what we should do,” she said, her voice laced with sarcasm. “Let’s play a guessing game instead of just asking her? You know, seeing as she’s in the room with you.” Leaning forward, she popped open the gate on the front of the carrier.
Derrick jumped up, his hand moving to snap the door shut, but JC whipped a finger in the air. “Leave it open! For the love of Pete, she’s not a saber-toothed tiger. She’s a cat, Derrick. You’re behaving like you’ve never encountered another species of the paranormal. Max told me you have vampires here in Cedar Glen, but you’re afraid of a cat?”
Derrick sat back, his pretty face turning hard. “I’m not afraid of a cat, but we don’t know if she’s just a cat. I’m just taking precautions because with the paranormal, you just never know.”
Okay, so JC was definitely a human, Derrick and Max were paranormal. Good to know. And they were in Cedar Glen. As in, New Jersey? Like farms and cows and trailer hitches?
Um, no. That wasn’t going to work. She was a city girl through and through. New York forever. No disrespect to the people who hoed the fields or tilled the lands or whatever they did in the country, but she liked city living.
Because you’ve done so much of that lately? Living, that is.
JC slipped off the couch and peered into the carrier, but she didn’t do it as though she were leering at some alien life form.
She smiled at Martine with a flash of white teeth and red lips. “You come out when you’re ready. Until then, I promise to help Neanderthal Derrick use his big-boy words to communicate. Deal?”
Martine decided poking her head out probably wouldn’t get her killed. She sniffed the room, taking in her first full view of how breathtaking this house she’d landed in really was. Windows spanned an entire wall, with a magnificent view of all varieties of trees, and there was a fireplace in the living room from floor to ceiling that was to die for. One a girl could curl right up by on a cold winter night.
JC sat back on the couch and looked at the men with a smile of satisfaction. “So, introductions. I’m JC Jensen, the Neanderthal is Derrick Adams, and the man next to me is Derrick’s brother Max. You’re in Cedar Glen, New Jersey.”
She let one paw touch the coffee table then another, wary as she listened to JC speak.
“You do realize you’re talking to a cat, right, J?” Derrick asked.
JC made a face at him. “You do realize that while your brother pretended to be my dog during our courtship, I talked to him all the time, don’t you? So quit waving your crazy stick at me like I’m the one who flew the freak flag first, buddy.”
Come again? This man Max, who looked like he’d eat your face off if you looked at him the wrong way, pretended to be her dog? What kind of kinkety-kink was that?
Derrick’s face tightened before looking at Martine and then he sobered, directing his gaze at his brother. “So again I ask, what now? I don’t get where I go from here.”
Max ran a hand through his dark hair. “Maybe you should explain why she’s here? I mean, to her.”
JC smiled and patted Max’s thigh with approval.
Derrick rolled his head on his neck, the crack of his bones sharp as he rocked it from side to side. Like he was preparing for a boxing match instead of a simple explanation. “Do you think she’s ready to hear why she’s here?”
JC leaned toward her again, her eyes warm and sympathetic. “I’m going to be honest with you. Girl to girl. This part’s a little hairy—the explanation, I mean. Literally and figuratively. But I promise you it’ll be okay. It might take some time before it’s okay, but it’ll be okay.”
Martine cocked her head, following the line of her whiskers to look at Derrick, waiting as she inched her way completely out of the carrier.
“Maybe we should wait until she shifts?” Max asked. “You can’t have a conversation if she’s not in her human form.”
“We don’t even know if she has a human form,” Derrick responded, clenching his fists. “Maybe this is some kind of flub in the prophecy?”
Prophecy? And she did have a human form. She just didn’t have it right now.
Max shook his head, clearly unconvinced. “First, you can smell she’s shifter. So of course she has a human form, Derrick. Second, when was the last time Aunt Eva screwed up a chicken noodle soup reading? She’s legend and you know it.”
His Aunt Eva read chicken noodle soup? Chicken noodle soup was good for the soul. Not your eyes. What sort of whackadoodle read soup? What in all of hell?
Yet another reason to hate being paranormal. All sorts of crazy rules and legends and nonsense, but absolutely no explanations.
Derrick’s lean face went grim and dark. “Fair.” He looked to Martine, his blue eyes scanning her face. “It might be a good idea if you shift now. So we can talk. There’s nothing to be afraid of. But we really do need to talk.”
If she could let out an exasperated sigh in her cat form, she’d blow it right in Derrick’s face. She couldn’t shift.
She hadn’t shifted in six solid months.
And it didn’t look like that was going to change anytime soon.
So now what, Derrick?
Derrick weighed his options as he watched the cat, the color of ebony, stretch out her front paws and yawn again, settling down on the coffee table to curl into a ball as though he’d bored her to death. They’d waited a full fifteen minutes for her to shift while they made coffee, poured her a bowl of fresh water, and all to no avail.
There were two possible reasons why she wasn’t shifting. Fear or avoidance. But there was no doubt in his mind, now that he’d adjusted to her scent, that she was half human. Well, mostly no doubt. She smelled half human, but then again, there was plenty of trickery to be had in the paranormal realm.
If this was some damn stupid joke his friends were going to heckle him for on poker night, if he was talking to nothing more than a domestic cat they’d somehow managed to disguise with a human scent, who didn’t really understand anything he was saying, he’d kick the shit out of every single one of those yahoos.
Yet, that didn’t sit right with him. Eva didn’t play on chicken noodle soup night. When she read a prophecy, she meant business.
So, that left him with two choices. Tell her she was his life mate while she was in shift and take the chance she’d be so freaked out, she’d never shift again. Or take her back to his place and wait it out.
But how fair was it for her not to understand why he’d brought her here to begin with? How scared would she be if she didn’t at least have some information to work with—like who they all were? Taking another gulp of coffee, he decided on the former.
He gave her ear a light tap, for which she responded by lifting her chin, haughty disdain in her enormous glasslike green eyes. “I’m just going to lay this on the line for you. I don’t know why you’re not shifting, but it’s only fair you know why you’re here.”
JC was back in the living room at the speed of light, dropping onto the sofa. “Hold that thought, Master of The Delicate Words. I want to be here to lend support to…her. Sorry,” she apologized to the cat. “But I don’t know your name yet.” Then she rolled her hand in the air to gesture Derrick should continue, patting the place beside her when Max brought her a steaming cup of coffee.
Derrick leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “So here’s the deal. I’m a werewolf. I don’t know if you can tell, because you either can’t or won’t shift and tell me so yourself.”
JC ran a finger across her throat, shaking her head. “Ixnay on the accusatory.”
He fought the well of impatience boiling up inside him and forced himself to display some restraint. “Sorry. Anyway, I have an Aunt Eva. She reads our pack’s prophecies, and as werewolves, we’re all expected to find life mates. If you know anything about werewolves, you’ll know we’re part of a pack. Our pack, the Adams pack, was cursed in retribution for saving werewolves who’d been used as experiments. So when we’re sent on our life-mate journey, the curse ensures the journey to finding a mate will be next to impossible—in the hopes that we’ll die trying. Which is probably true at this point, because just look at you, not shifting.”
JC tapped her coffee mug with a fingernail and gave him the same frowny face he’d often seen his sisters give him. That meant bad Derrick. “Decidedly not delicate. No finger pointing,” she said, sending him fiery signals with her eyes he didn’t understand.
Christ. He’d apologized more in two hours than he had in a lifetime. “Sorry—again. So, like I said, the curse dictates our life-mate journeys are next to impossible. As an example, we’ll use Dr. Phil here on the couch.” He gave JC a pointed look. “And my brother Max, who’s also the alpha of our pack. Max’s prophecy was read last month. He had to find his life mate, and when he did, he found JC. JC is a human.” He waited for a reaction, maybe a flick of her tail, a tuft of hair out of place.
Nothing. Cool as a cucumber.
“Are we still on board? Or do you want me to stop?” he asked her, trying to keep his wealth of indelicate to himself.
Her gaze was solemn, unblinking, maybe even snooty. So be it.
“Anyway, JC is a human. So you can imagine the kind of trouble Max, a werewolf, would have convincing her that werewolves really exist. You being a shifter, you obviously understand we have to hide and be very careful who we reveal ourselves to, right?”
She began to groom her paw, running her tongue over the shiny fur, utterly unaffected by his words.
“So that was the impossible part. And let me make something clear. I’m not sure who put you in the Dumpster at the 7-Eleven or where you came from before this. That wasn’t me. After Eva gave me the clue about where you were, instinct told me to look inside the bin. I can’t explain it. I just knew you’d be there.”
She rolled on her back, arching her spine, pushing her belly upward toward the sun streaming into the living room from the massive windows.
Derrick took another deep breath, fighting to stay unruffled. “Like I said, the curse was designed to set us up to fail, as was the case with Max and JC.” He still had major admiration that his brother had pulled that off.
Max had not only managed to find his life mate, but she’d actually fallen in love with him and come to terms with him being a werewolf all in one fell swoop.
It had to be the pretty words Max was so good at, which could mean Derrick was already on the road to failure.
“But!” JC chimed in, squeezing Max’s hand. “Max didn’t fail. Sure, I was probably more freaked out than I’ve ever been in my life. When he told me he was a werewolf, that topped even Pennywise in a Stephen King novel on the fear-factor scale. But you’re one up on me anyway. You already know all this paranormal stuff exists. Plus, it did all work out in the end. We’re together and in the process of getting to know each other better.” She smiled adoringly up at Max, snuggling against him.
“You’re forgetting the mating part of this,” Derrick reminded her. How could she possibly gloss over the worst part of it all?
JC’s sigh was ragged as she rolled up the sleeves of her bathrobe. “I was going for easy entry, not a crash landing. I wanted her to have a glass half full before you sucked it dry.”
Max chuckled, pulling JC closer, but he remained unhelpful, meaning this was Derrick’s to handle.
Derrick clenched his jaw. This was ridiculous. He was sitting in the middle of his brother’s living room, talking to a cat, gearing up to tell her she had to mate with him or he’d die. “Is there a delicate way to tell her the rest, JC?”
Max looked at JC and winced. “That’s a fair question.”
He took another deep breath and fixed his eyes on the cat’s—so green and round like colored glass, they were mesmerizing. “Let me preface this by saying, I still don’t know the impossible part of this prophecy, because as JC said, you’re a shifter, too. So you won’t find that information out of the ordinary. And I don’t think when you hear the rest of this you’ll find the idea so unappealing you’d rather be skinned alive.”
“Derrick!” JC warned, glancing down at the cat, now busy rubbing her cheek on her paw without missing a beat. “Skinned alive? Could you be any more insensitive? Save the analogies, Cyrano.”
Max nodded, trying to keep his face serious but for the twitch of his lower lip. “Wow. You really suck on every level at this, brother.”
He did suck. He wasn’t into sweet words or beating around the bush. He was very unlike Max. Max was patient and a good listener, always had sage advice, making him the perfect alpha for their crazy pack. Derrick, on the other hand, was impatient, struggled with flowery words, and was direct as all hell.
But he was trying.
So Derrick nodded his agreement. “Max is right. I do suck at this, and I’m leaving a blanket apology on the table from this point on for any foolish mistakes I make that offend your sensibilities. So, I’m just going to give it to you straight because I’m not any good at pretty speeches. Here’s the clincher to the curse. You, according to my aunt’s prophecy, are my life mate. As my life mate, you have to mate with me on the next full moon or I die.”
There it was in all its un-pretty-ness.
Boom. Life-mate speech complete.
* * * *
Martine fell forward, losing her balance on the coffee table and cracking her kitty skull on the hard surface.
Mate? As in, do the do? Make the woot-woot?
That couldn’t mean the kind of mating they meant. Could it? Martine tried to remember what she knew about werewolves and their mating rituals. When you mated, you mated for life with a werewolf, didn’t you? Very unlike the feline family.
And didn’t they want you to make more werewolves? Wasn’t that important to their packs for longevity?
She was absolutely not in the market to make little anythings—especially not with a werewolf. He was, if you looked at it from a very basic evolutionary aspect, essentially a dog. She was a cat. Cats and dogs didn’t mate. What would they produce if they mated anyway?
No-no to the mate. She liked single. She didn’t want to mate for life with anything but a copy of Vogue, and even then, she cheated religiously with Cosmo. What she wanted was her freedom.
And really, what kind of line was he spewing? I’ll die if you don’t mate with me on the full moon.
It certainly had more impact than “If I could rearrange the alphabet, I’d put U and I together” followed by a yuck-yuck-yuck, she’d give him that. But the curse of death? Not that she wasn’t privy to plenty of curses. She knew all about them.
Just ask Escobar the warlock.
JC had a sympathetic look on her face when she peered at her. “We’re not inspiring you to shift, are we? It was the death thing, right?”
Why would something as dire as death-sex keep her in shift atrophy? Silly.
Martine walked to the edge of the coffee table and looked at JC. Her instincts told her there was no malice here. If there were a way to tell JC how thankful she was that she’d at least been kind enough to address her, she’d do it.
Instead, she stuck a paw out, placing it on JC’s arm, hoping that was enough to show her she understood.
JC patted it, smiling at her. “It’s a little like the paranormal Hunger Games, huh?”
This was a little like the paranormal Crazy Games, was what this was like. Even in her world, this was crazy. How could she, out of all the shifters in the world, have been picked to be this man’s life mate?
Ah, but you’re forgetting the big picture here, Martine. While you’re here, you’re free. Sort of.
But for how long before someone came looking? Maybe this was a good thing. Maybe she could just hide here for the rest of her life?
And in order to do that you have to have death-sex and mate for life.
A lottery of choices, if you will, Martine.
JC nodded her head, tucking her curls behind her ear. “I know exactly what you’re thinking right now. ‘Who’s in charge of this life mate thing and how did I end up like this?’ I’m still not sure how I, out of all the people in the world, was chosen for Max,” she said, poking him in the shoulder playfully. “It was a little like, ‘here, take that. Have a human who’s going to drive you out of your mind because she doesn’t believe in werewolves. Then, for your troubles, go on and try to make her fall in love with you and convince her to mate so you won’t die. Ha-ha-ha.’”
Max wound an arm around her shoulders, a definitive possessive gesture, making Martine shiver. It was clear this man Max loved this woman, and JC loved him back. It was in the way he looked at her, in the way he touched her, in the way her eyes scoured his face with unadulterated worship.
The mate-or die-thing had clearly worked for them. Squee, love.
Martine looked to Derrick and waited. He had a jaw that possessed a delicious tic she’d take a nip of if circumstances were different. There’d been a time when she’d enjoyed a man just for the pure enjoyment of him. If she’d run across Derrick during that time, she’d have definitely chosen to enjoy him.
Like if they’d met in a club—or at one of her office parties. Not in the backwoods of Cedar Glen, New Jersey, where distant banjos plucked the tune from Deliverance.
JC cocked her head. “Maybe you should explain the details of the curse, Derrick? Tell her why the need to mate is truly so dire?”
He was clearly running out of patience. Martine smelled it, saw it in his rigid posture. “A long time ago, several scientists kidnapped a group of werewolves to perform experiments on. We’re still not sure what those experiments entailed. We only know the results. Anyway, the experimental weres managed to break free, but they were scarred from years of abuse, and their DNA altered somehow.
“When they returned to their packs, our elders shunned them, didn’t want them to reproduce for fear they’d weaken their packs. They were due for extermination until my grandparents stepped in and spoke out. When they chose to defy the elders by taking in those pack members and their families and coming here to Cedar Glen, the elders cursed all Adams males. Sort of retribution for disobeying their wishes.”
Shunned? She was somewhere in the country with a bunch of redneck werewolves who’d been shunned? That really was a banjo she heard playing in the distance.
So maybe the person who’d dumped her in the cat carrier thought she could help them? Maybe her kidnapper thought she could break this curse they were fretting over?
Fat lot of good she’d do them.
“Buuut…” JC said, looking like she was going to attempt to inject sunshine into a very dismal story. “The story has a happy ending. Max’s grandparents saved the day, and now everyone who was shunned lives here in Cedar Glen. Okay, there are some kinks in that happy ending, if I’m being fair, but so far, everyone’s been pretty great.”
Aha. Kinks. That was likely the key word here.
As everyone grew silent, Martine’s stomach began to roll. She hadn’t eaten in hours and there was so much to digest she felt dizzy from it. Curses and kinks and dogs and humans and death-sex.
Derrick finally rose, giving her a brief glance with those hard eyes before he said, “So where do we go from here? Maybe we should call Aunt Eva for advice?”
Max reached for his cellphone on the coffee table and held it up. “Nat just texted me. She’s gone again. You know her, she rolls on in here on chicken noodle soup night, whips up her crazy, and then she’s out until the next mate call.”
JC looked at Martine again and winked. “Nat is Derrick and Max’s younger sister. They have two. And a mother who’s an amazing cook. You’ll like them.”
The mention of food was her tipping point. Martine couldn’t stop the turning roll of her stomach. She heaved a long moment and then coughed, opening her mouth wide.
Martine gagged and finally relieved her throat of the ball lodged in it since some lunatic had stuffed her into that cage.
A round hairball lay at her feet.
But phew, that was better.
Derrick deposited her, cat carrier and all, on his kitchen counter, popping the grate door open with a lean finger. “So here’s the deal. I’m thinking you might be stuck in shift due to nerves. I don’t want you to be upset or feel pressured in any way. Take your time to adjust, and then we’ll start figuring this out. While you catch your breath, I’ll find you some water and maybe once your stomach’s settled, you’ll feel better.”
If nothing else, at least he was trying to work this out. After his explanation, and if what he said were true, he was in as much of a jam as she was.
Poking her head out of the cage, she sniffed the air and assessed the lay of Derrick’s land. It wasn’t an apartment in Manhattan; there were no sirens blaring, no horns squawking. In fact, it was pretty damn quiet.
But in Derrick’s favor, the house was really tastefully decorated—for a man. Lots of big, overstuffed furniture in sedate beige hues with touches of lemon and green for accents. The walls were taupe and gray with splashes of color in the way of framed art; the appliances shiny; the kitchen cabinets whitewashed and clean, with a wire basket of fake lemons and green pears in the middle of the large island.
An entire wall was devoted to what she suspected were family pictures framed in black. Derrick laughing with his arm around another man holding a rabbit. Derrick with his arms around two beautiful girls who vaguely resembled him. Derrick and Max, their shirts off, throwing a football.
To his credit, there were no deer heads hanging from the walls or crushed beer cans strewn across the floor in a puddle of chew, and not one dead squirrel freeze-dried in its “natural” repose, nibbling on an acorn and mounted to a slab of wood.
As Derrick filled a bowl full of water for her, Martine decided to explore. Hopping from the cage, she stretched from neck to toe before jumping off the counter and onto the hardwood floor. The sunlight streaming in from all corners of the breakfast nook was divine. She made a mental note to nap there as soon as possible.
She liked the smell here in Derrick’s house. It smelled of pine and the outdoors, brawny man and the woods. Making her way down a long hall, she found several bedrooms, all as well decorated as his living room and kitchen.
She stopped at what she decided was his bedroom, filled with an enormous bed big enough to fit a man of his size, covered in a dark green comforter with plump red pillows and a window with a view of the pine trees surrounding his house.
Slipping inside Derrick’s bedroom felt a little intimate at this point, but if he was talking mercy mating, surely he wouldn’t mind if she took a peek at where the death-sex was supposed to happen.
His bathroom was what dreams were made of, an enormous white tub with jets and a big-screen TV, a mocha and gray tiled shower with two showerheads, and a bench seat where you could sit under the spray of the water.
She’d missed taking showers—long, hot showers full of sweetly scented shower gel to wash away a long hard day.
Derrick stuck his head around the corner, interrupting her thoughts, his dark hair gleaming in the sunlight-bathed room, a question on his face.
A ripple of pure awareness skittered along her spine. Wow. He was really beautiful to look at—tight, tan skin, thick thighs, lean waist.
He drove his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, his expression tentative. “I’m a little at a loss right now. I don’t know what to offer you in terms of nourishment, and I don’t know how to ask without offending you.”
Please, for my dignity, don’t offer me tuna in a can.
“Tuna maybe? I have a couple of cans.”
Rather than offend him, she decided tuna from a can was better than nothing from a can. To communicate her willingness, she skirted past his legs to head toward the kitchen, her tail brushing his calf as she did.
And there was that tingle again, a small beat of electricity, beginning in her stomach and spiking along her spine in a whisper of heat.
She shook it off, chalked it up to her new surroundings and lack of male companionship for so many months and sauntered down the long hallway again, heading toward the kitchen, where she sat in the middle of the floor, waiting.
As Derrick made his way into the large space, she stopped breathing momentarily.
She’d have to attribute that to nerves, too, but while she watched him open the can of tuna and put it in a bowl, watched the muscles in his arms flex and move beneath his skin, she had to wonder if admiring him the way she was had less to do with nerves and more to do with pure physical attraction.
Derrick set the tuna in front of her along with a bowl of water. “I have to head out to get some work done. Will you be okay here alone for a little while?”
Martine looked up at him, pausing before gobbling down the tuna she’d wanted little to do with moments ago.
He dropped to his haunches, tipping her chin up. “Maybe we can work out a sign? Meow for yes, it’s okay to leave you alone for a little while, don’t meow if not?”
Derrick’s hand on her chin was sort of nice. She found she had to fight to keep from rubbing her head against it.
Instead, she meowed her consent.
Satisfied, he rose, grabbing his keys from the countertop and glancing at her one last time. “I’ll be back soon. Feel free to make yourself at home.”
With that he was gone and she was left alone with her tuna and her thoughts.
At least it was albacore packed in water.
* * * *
He caught sight of Hector just as he was crossing over the pathway connecting their houses.
“Look, Derrick!” Hector yelled from the doorway of his barn, his voice full of excitement. He held up a small brown bunny from the hut he’d had built for them right next to his house in order to keep them close.
Derrick let his head hang low, hiding his groan as he strode into the barn. Another bunny. “Hector, you’re going to need another hut the way you’re going. You can’t save them all, buddy.”
Hector rolled his dark eyes and made a face. “I could if you’d all stop eating them. You’re heathens, you filthy carnivores.”
Hector was a descendant of those damn experiments he’d told the cat about—a vegetarian werewolf who despised the hunt and refused to participate. Somehow, his DNA had been so irrevocably changed he managed to thrive without protein, yet was still able to shift.
Derrick held his hands up like two white flags before scratching Hector’s latest love under the chin. “Hey, I stopped eating them the minute you told me you gave them all names. I stick to stuff from the supermarket. No free-range woodland creatures in this belly. Promise, buddy.”
Hector slid bunny number eighteen at last count into the heated hut and smiled his approval. “So what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be with your mate, you know, mating?”
“About my mate…”
His eyes rounded when he grinned. “I heard. We all heard. A cat, right?”
Derrick sighed, jamming his hands into the pocket of his coat. The trouble with a close-knit family was the close-knit part. “Yes. She’s a cat. But she shifts. At least I think she does. She smells like she does, anyway.”
Hector leaned against the hut, readjusting the night-vision goggles he always wore in order to be prepared to watch for any small animals in distress. Unfortunately, as a result of his lineage, he’d also inherited poor eyesight. Or what was considered poor for a werewolf. “So what’s the problem?”
Derrick sighed. “She won’t shift.”
Hector threw his head back and laughed so hard his slender shoulders shook.
Derrick frowned. How was this funny? Okay, so maybe it was a little ironic that he’d ended up mated to a cat who wouldn’t shift, but it wasn’t damn well funny. “I fail to see the humor in this, Hector. I can’t communicate with someone who won’t shift.”
Hector lifted his glasses and wiped his eyes. “Yeah. That’s the funny in this. You, the crappy communicator, has to somehow communicate with someone who can’t. It’s priceless.”
Derrick fought a sharp retort. Mostly because Hector was right. Among his many flaws, he also wasn’t very good at communicating. That’s why he’d turned to Hector. Hector could talk a coon out of raiding a garbage can in ten seconds flat. No doubt he could communicate with his cat. “So any thoughts on what I should do? You’re so good with animals…”
Hector pulled his knit cap tighter over his ears, letting his goggles drop around his neck as he shook his head. “Oh, hell no. No, no, no. I’m not getting in the middle of the mate. And she’s not just a cat. She’s a shifter cat, meaning she’s half human woman. I suck at talking to women, and you know it. Sometimes I’m glad my DNA got all screwed up because it means I’m not forced to mate. But I’ll give you a little tip—don’t yell at her. You yell a lot.”
A lot? “Do I?”
Hector rolled his eyes and mimicked him. “Do I?” he squawked in a perfect imitation of Derrick. “Are you kidding me? You’re always yelling about something.”
He blustered at first, but then he gave that some thought. He did yell. Maybe it was from the years spent working in his bar in town, where he was always breaking up fights, or maybe it was from fighting for attention in a family of two sisters and an older brother. “Okay, so I’m impatient, and in my impatience, I get noisy sometimes. It’s not intentional.”
Hector threw up his gloved hand, the fingers of the wooly material cut off. “Exactly. But we all know that’s just Derrick. We know you and your big mouth. We’re used to you getting frustrated easily. But a woman? One you have to spend the rest of your life with? You might want to reign that shit in, pal. Use your indoor voice. Cats are skittish—easily scared.”
Derrick rocked back on his feet, nodding. “Fair enough. Any other tips?”
“A ball of yarn? Catnip? Oh! Salmon. Bet she’d like some salmon, and maybe one of those kitty condos. You know, with all the tiers and the carpet on them? Good exercise.”
Derrick scowled at him, his foul mood growing fouler. “Not laughing.”
Hector shrugged with a wide grin as he made his way toward the opening of the barn. “It’s all good, dude. I’ll laugh for you,” he said, before laughing again, the echo of it scaring the birds sitting atop the bales of hay in the rafters.
As Derrick watched Hector exit the barn, he sighed.
He needed to get to his mothers and grab some cans of tuna. Hopefully he’d be able to get in and out before she began the inevitable round of questions and answers about his mate.
His mate the cat.