Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Quill Press
Format(s): eBook, paperback
When my girlfriend’s cell phone went straight to voicemail for the fourth time in twenty-four hours, “worried” didn’t even begin to describe it.
I paced beside my kitchen table, eyeing my phone like it might suddenly spring to life with her ringtone the way I’d begged it to all day long. I hadn’t expected to hear from her last night. She’d had plans to have lunch with her estranged parents yesterday, and after those get-togethers, it wasn’t at all unusual for her to hole up in the house and block out the world for a while. It bothered me and worried me whenever she did that—the woman could drink like nobody’s business when she was upset—but the next morning always meant a text message saying she was okay. Hungover, probably depressed as hell, but okay.
This morning, that text didn’t come.
More than likely, things hadn’t gone well. They never did. I’d told myself all day long that she just needed some space, some time. I didn’t want to crowd her or smother her when she needed to be alone, but damn it, something about this raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
I looked at my watch. It was almost eight. Over thirty-six hours since she was supposed to meet them. Almost forty-eight since I’d heard from her at all. Something was wrong. It had to be.
Without another second thought, I grabbed my phone and keys. I hoped she’d be irritated with me showing up at her door. Annoyed by the intrusion, aggravated by me coming to her before she was ready to interact with the outside world again. At least that would mean she was home safe.
I pulled out of the driveway and ignored the posted speed limit. We lived about twenty minutes apart, and I was determined to get there in under fifteen. Ten if I could swing it.
I’d never met Alex’s family. She’d told me little about them, but just the way her hackles went up at the mere mention of her parents’ existence spoke volumes. It wouldn’t have surprised me in the least if they had abused her when she was young, and not just in the emotional, manipulative ways I assumed they still did. She was prone to unpredictable bouts of deep depression, which had been more frequent and more severe in the last six months or so. She went through phases—hours, days, weeks—when she’d balk at any suggestion of physical intimacy. Sometimes she didn’t mind an affectionate touch, but recoiled at the first hint of anything remotely sexual. An arm around her could make her melt against me or shrink away like a beaten dog, and I never knew when to give her space and when to give her a shoulder.
Then, almost overnight, she’d be insatiable in bed. Whenever I asked her about it, she clammed up. Apologized, avoided my eyes, changed the subject.
What did they do to you, baby?
I supposed it shouldn’t have surprised me that she’d refused to discuss the idea of getting married. After two years, I was more than ready to make this permanent, but she wasn’t. A couple of her worst depressive episodes were close on the heels of those conversations, so I’d let the subject drop. I just hoped she’d come around eventually. I’d wait. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Turning down Alex’s street, I took a few deep breaths and willed my pounding heart to slow down. She was fine. Probably drunk and upset, but no more worse for the wear than the last time she saw her mother and stepfather. I was overreacting. I was being too protective.
Or maybe I wasn’t.
I chewed my lip as her house came into view up ahead. Her car was parked in front of the garage, and the faint glow of a single lamp illuminated her living room window. There were no other cars in the driveway or on the street, so presumably she was alone. Assuming, of course, she was home. Someone else could have driven her somewhere, or she—
Easy, Damon. Don’t jump to conclusions yet.
Heart still pounding, I parked beside her car. On my way up to the porch, I hesitated, wondering for the hundredth time if she’d be upset with me showing up when she clearly didn’t want to see anyone. No, she’d understand. She might be pissed off at first, but when she calmed down, she had to understand why I was concerned.
After almost turning back twice, I made myself get all the way on to the front porch, and before I could find another reason to talk myself out of it, I knocked. Waited. I craned my neck a little, listening for movement on the other side of the door.
My heart beat faster. I knocked again, harder this time.
I rocked back and forth from my heels to the balls of my feet, staring at the door and wondering if I should give it one more try or leave. In my coat pocket, my keys ground against each other as I ran my thumb back and forth over them. Her house key was on the ring. I could let myself in. Damn it, where was the line between intrusion and caution?
One more try, and if she doesn’t answer, I’ll go.
Knock. Knock. Knock. Silence.
I exhaled hard, a knot twisting in my gut. She wasn’t here. Or she wasn’t answering. Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to stand here all night, so I turned to go.
Movement inside the house stopped me in my tracks. I froze, listening, and the muffled sound of approaching footsteps sent a cool rush of relief through my veins.
The deadbolt turned. I exhaled.
Then the door opened, and that relief turned to something else. Something much colder.
“Who the—” My breath and voice stopped in my throat. Confusion and fury slithered through my veins as I stared at the man on the other side of the threshold. He leaned on the door and rested his arm on the doorframe. Vague surprise flickered across his expression and straightened his posture, but the heavy fatigue in his eyes kept his reaction subdued. I wondered if he was drunk. Or maybe he’d been asleep. In my girlfriend’s bed. That was all too likely, I realized: he was pale, sleepy-eyed, dressed only in a pair of grey sweatpants, and his short, dark hair was disheveled enough to imply far more than I ever wanted to know.
Alex, baby, tell me you didn’t…
I finally found my voice again. “Who the fuck are you?”
Barely whispering, barely even keeping his eyes open, he said, “You might want to sit down for this. Come in and—”
“Just tell me what the fuck is going on,” I snapped.
He flinched, closing his eyes. “I can explain.” His voice was quiet and slurred. “Please, just—”
“You can explain?” I snarled. “Yeah, please do, because—”
Flinching again, he put a hand up. “This isn’t what it looks like. Not even close.”
I laughed bitterly. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not.” With every word, the barely contained fury rose, as did the volume of my voice. “I suppose you’re just keeping her company? Where the fuck is she? Where—”
“You…you know who I am?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, I do.”
The anger swelled in my chest. “But you’re still—”
“Please.” His hand went to his temple, and he grimaced as he whispered, “Don’t shout. You’re upset, I get it, I understand, but…” He winced. “Please. Don’t. Shout.”
I furrowed my brow. Anger made me want to grab his shoulders and show him the meaning of the word “shout,” but I held back. Quieter now, I said, “What’s going on?”
He stepped back and gestured for me to come in. I hesitated, but then followed him into Alex’s house. He closed the door and leaned against it, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. A low, pained sound escaped his throat. The light in here was dim, but not enough to hide just how pale he was.
“Are you—” I eyed him. “Are you all right?”
“No.” Lowering his hands, he rested his head against the door. Dark circles under his eyes and a dusting of five-o’clock shadow along his jaw only served to emphasize his alarming pallor. After a moment, he opened his eyes. He winced and brought his hands up again. “This is going to sound weird, but bear with me. I need to lie down.”
“Because when I stand, my head hurts so bad I can’t see straight.” With what looked like a hell of a lot of effort, he pushed himself off the door, paused when his balance wavered, then started toward the living room. I wasn’t sure if I should be impatient or concerned. At this point, the one thing I knew was that he was the only one who might know where Alex was, so I followed him.
With his back to me, a small white bandage was visible in the middle of his back. Perhaps two inches square, taped in place over his spine a few inches above his waistband. My own spine prickled with goose bumps. Contrasting sharply with his pale skin was a smear of something brownish-red. I thought it might be blood at first, but it looked too orange. Iodine, maybe? The remnants of something used to sterilize skin before a medical procedure?
Eyeing the bandage and the iodine and this stranger in my girlfriend’s house, I wasn’t sure this situation could get any weirder.
He eased himself onto Alex’s couch like he had every right to do so, and I took a seat in the recliner. For a long moment, he kept a hand over his eyes and didn’t speak. He took a few long, deep breaths, jaw clenched and cheek rippling as if trying to keep himself from getting sick. I might have suspected he was severely hungover or something had it not been for that bandage.
I waited. A million demands, accusations, and pleas for information were on the tip of my tongue, but I waited.
Without lifting his hand, he finally spoke in a quiet, vaguely slurred monotone. “None of this is going to be easy for you to hear, and I’m sorry I didn’t explain it a long time ago.”
I blinked. A long time ago? I’d never seen this guy in my life. Just how long had this been going on? Was he the reason she didn’t want to get married? I bit my tongue, though. Let him explain, then get pissed.
“Damon,” he whispered. “I’m a shifter.”
My heart stopped. “What?”
He swallowed. “I’m a shifter. This—” He gestured at himself with the hand that wasn’t shielding his eyes. “—is my male form.”
Confusion kept the pieces from falling to place for several long seconds. Then those pieces did fall into place, and all the air left my lungs in a single exhalation.
No way. No fucking way. But, how? She was…
I somehow managed to pull in another breath. I moistened my lips.
“Alex?” I whispered, almost choking on her name.
With a single, slow nod, he jerked the world out from under my feet.