Do you want a preview of Matebranded, the first book in a brand new series? Then keep reading below. There are no spoilers and no reason not to start here no matter how many of my other books you’ve read. Except…
The prequel short story, Paws & Claus is currently FREE on all retailers in ebook form and 99 cents in audio for a short time. So grab that in your preferred format then come back here and read on.
When is a wolf not a wolf? At home, where I played the adult yet still obedient daughter, keeping my inner beast under wraps for the sake of my adopted human family. At work, where I infiltrated dangerous shifter clans with practiced deception, using my furry scent to get in the door while wielding no obvious weapons other than a killer smile.
Tonight, though, I was neither at home nor at work.
I did need to touch base, though, before my time became entirely my own. Still, I toed off my shoes there at the edge of the wide-open desert, the cool night air making my inner wolf stir with familiar excitement. Then, before I succumbed to the urge, I forced myself to focus and text my boss.
Julius was not only my employer; he was also the closest thing I had to a father. Not that we were the touchy-feely sort. He’d be fine with me merely dropping a pin, ensuring he had my exact location if he needed it—fifty miles from where I was due to ferret out blood magic tomorrow and well within outpack territory where I was unlikely to run into anyone else.
Message relayed, I let my phone fall onto the driver’s seat and I closed my eyes, standing erect and listening to the dark.
The ping of a reply text tore through the silence, louder than it would have sounded before my ears started shifting. My fingers were still human enough to pick up the phone, though, and see that the missive wasn’t from Julius, but rather from his daughter.
Celeste was already thinking ahead to tomorrow, when I’d slide into the persona that made me into the Council’s secret weapon. There’d be lip-biting and lowered eyelashes. Feigned submission and, at just the right moment, a needle stuck into an unwary alpha’s arm.
Well, no, that’s what I was thinking about. Celeste was thinking past that to the moment when I’d bag the culprit then head home to the echoing mansion we shared with her father.
“Elspeth! Choose for me, please: Rom com or action flick? Pizza or popcorn?”
The answer was both, everything, obviously. My mouth watered and for one split second I could taste salt on my tongue, could feel our shared laughter filling the living room to bursting. Celeste was my opposite in so many ways, but whenever we were together we clicked.
We clicked…as long as I stayed human. As long as I kept my feral side under wraps, ignoring the way my inner wolf itched to stretch its legs and run wild.
As long as I never admitted that what I craved at the moment wasn’t popcorn but, rather, blood.
The distant scent of prey animals made my inner wolf itch now. My teeth sharpened as my hands curled into claws, reaching toward the sandy expanse beyond this isolated and silent gas station. I could almost see the terrified eyes of the critter I’d soon pounce upon, could almost feel flesh tearing beneath my fangs.
“You’re more than a wolf,” Julius had told me so many times. And that was true. I was much more than a wolf.
But, for one night, perhaps I didn’t mind being less.
Through lupine nostrils, the desert smelled like mesquite and sagebrush. No hint of wolf pee warned away outsiders the way it would have within a claimed territory. Instead, a hum of electricity I’d only felt in the outpack sped my feet to near flying while a distinct musk I’d grown familiar with during my previous visits to this region prompted me to lick my chops.
Peccaries were good eating. And, yes, I was well aware desert pigs had sharp tusks that could inflict significantly more damage than my canines. I knew their herds worked in unison just like wolf packs and that the largest grouping might contain four dozen individuals.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t have to mess up my takedown by looking small and meek the way I did on jobs. Game on.
Lowering my body closer to the earth, I transitioned from tracking to stalking. Swiveling my ears, I picked out the soft grunts and growls of the peccary herd, their vocalizations intermingled with chewing and digging. They didn’t sound alarmed, hadn’t noticed me creeping closer.
There was no moon to brighten the landscape. No glow of light pollution to assist my vision. But I could smell. My paws could feel. I could almost taste raw pork on my tongue.
And now I could see the faintest silhouettes of the animals I was approaching. A small one had wandered a good distance away from its neighbors. The meat would be tender. I angled myself toward the weanling. Tensed my muscles. Took off…
…and slammed directly into another wolf.
He was larger than me but for a moment I thought our collision was a mere accident. It was true that, with the wind blowing in such a way that I couldn’t smell him, he definitely should have caught my scent. But he didn’t growl. Didn’t raise his ruff in threat and pin back his ears the way wolves did during altercations.
Instead, he just got in my way. That time, then again and again as I tried to pad around him. I bared my teeth and he failed to return the threat, but he also resolutely refused to step out of my path.
Despite my best efforts, our standoff wasn’t silent. A peccary snorted. Teeth clacked together. Then they were stampeding away from us, disappearing into the desert. They’d be alert now. Not worth the chase.
I shifted, furious. Stayed on my knees so I could grab onto the wolf’s cheeks and drag him up until our eyes were at the same level. It was a dominance move, but he let me get away with it. Let me spit out my anger. “Cockblocker!”
Only then did he join me in humanity, my grasp on fur turning into fists cupping cheeks. A naked man not much older than my twenty-five years knelt knee-to-knee in front of me, his muscles and breadth making him roughly twice my weight.
Despite his daunting size, however, his scent was sweet as cactus flowers. The bristle-roughened skin of his face was warm beneath my knuckles. Warm and enticing. I found myself swaying inward before reality reasserted itself.
“Lone wolves are vermin,” a memory of Julius’s voice asserted.
Vermin might be extreme, but a lone wolf certainly wasn’t worthy of my attention. I settled back onto my heels just as the stranger’s lips curled upwards in a barely visible half-smile. His dark eyes glinted with starlight as he rumbled out a retort, “You intended to make love to the pigs?”
“I intended to eat one,” I back-talked, letting the spunk I usually hid turn even more audible. After all, wolves who hung out solo in outpack territory were generally those too submissive to survive in a clan. It wasn’t as if I was risking much. “Same thing you intended, presumably,” I couldn’t resist tacking on.
Abruptly, the stranger’s starlit eyes turned intense as he growled, “Smart wolves don’t hunt peccaries solo.”
My skin prickled. Maybe this stranger wasn’t so submissive after all. I’d acted without understanding the big picture and it was too late to pivot into dumb-brunette mode. I…
Then the flash of danger in his eyes faded so quickly I was left wondering whether I’d only imagined it. His hand rose, a single finger not quite touching my bare skin as it traced a line from my shoulder across my neck to the opposite shoulder. The heat of almost-contact made me breathless and my mind began playing crazy tricks.
What my eyes thought they saw: a strand of glowing dots momentarily rising upon my skin beneath where his hand drifted. What my body thought it felt: the same electricity that had seemed to buoy me up as I ran through the desert now coursing through my veins.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, crab-walking backwards then swearing as the sudden pain of a cactus spine embedded itself into the pad of my thumb. The jolt broke me out of the sensual daze the stranger’s attention had infused me with. Brought me back to the real world where even the earth bit back.
Bit and latched on. The spine didn’t want to come out easily. Instead, my efforts only worked it deeper into my flesh, the jerkiness of my motions not helping one bit.
I was furious with somebody. Perhaps with myself. Perhaps with the stranger. The spine was definitely part of it and I chose not to look deeper into my anger than that.
In front of me, the stranger let me poke at the spine until it became clear that I was only making matters worse left-handed. Only then did he gesture at my wound. “May I?”
I shouldn’t have, but I nodded. And when his long fingers encircled my much smaller wrist, luminescent spirals curled up from the point of contact. They slid across my forearm and veered toward my elbow, tickling at skin level while twisting and tugging deep within my gut.
I held my ground this time though. Whatever the light show was about, it wasn’t hurting either of us. It wasn’t a threat, so it was irrelevant.
Only once the stranger was sure I wasn’t going to jerk away again did he bend his head and close his teeth around the spine. As if he was a wolf, which should have been disgusting but…wasn’t. Instead, I watched, enthralled, as his lips brushed across the pad of my thumb, the resulting glow illuminating his face like Christmas lights.
He was beautiful, but not in the way one might expect. This wasn’t the rough attractiveness of a lone wolf or even the manicured perfection of a vain pack shifter. Instead, the lights erupting out of my skin cast tribal tattoos across the chiseled contours of his nose and chin, turning handsomeness into something otherworldly.
He was unlike anyone else I’d ever met.
Or maybe the vision was yet another trick of the night. Because the stranger tugged sharpness out of my flesh with one quick jerk. Lights dulled as pain flared. Cold replaced heat as his hand retreated.
“To answer your question,” he murmured. “I’m not doing anything. We’re mates.”
I didn’t feel tough, but toughness was all I had to fall back on at that moment. “Mates?” I forced myself to snort while reminding myself that wolves without a pack weren’t precisely rational. No matter how physically enticing this stranger might appear, I’d never see him again.
Which meant it was time to distance myself in the easiest way possible—with words. “So that’s how lone wolves get laid,” I finished, adding a twist of sarcasm to my voice.
I expected him to explode into anger. After all, hell hath no fury like a male werewolf scorned.
Instead, that tiny half-smile curled his lips again. “Think about it, then come see me. I live that way.” His gesture was vague. West somewhere. “My name is Orion. The bond will pull you where you need to go.”
I was too shaken to speak and I didn’t need words anyway. Letting my wolf body replace my human body, my receding rump said everything necessary. I trotted away in the opposite direction from the one in which Orion had pointed, back toward my car where granola bars would fill my belly and locks on the doors would prevent anyone from disrupting my slumber.
Three times along the way, however, I peered back over my shoulder to make sure the stranger hadn’t followed. He hadn’t.
I was oddly disappointed that he found it so easy to let me go.
I feigned a mechanical breakdown fifty miles down the road the next morning. As soon as a distant silhouette of a sentry suggested I’d entered the monitored portion of the rotten pack’s territory, I braked aggressively, wobbling the wheel as I pulled over onto the shoulder of the two-lane highway. Getting out, I pretended someone on my phone was walking me through checking the obvious, which I did very badly. Far more adeptly and subtly, I flipped open the plastic cover to the fuse box and loosened the fuel-pump relay.
Because packs like this didn’t like outsiders sniffing around. But if my car wouldn’t start, they couldn’t very well send me away.
By the time I was done, the sound of a vehicle on the road behind me suggested I wouldn’t even have to walk to the closest mechanic to put my plan into motion. Tires slowed then stopped right in the middle of the road, a hint that the driver was a local well aware of traffic patterns, or the lack thereof.
Meanwhile, hairs prickled on the back of my neck. This wasn’t just a local. This was a wolf.
I turned to find a thirty-something woman in braided pigtails considering me with her beast rampant behind her eyes. But I couldn’t smell her signature aroma, nor could I make out the pack scent that should have formed a foundation underlying that signature.
Instead, I smelled something very different. The subtle yet very present salty aroma of blood.
This was exactly what the Council had sent me to deal with. Blood magic at the alpha level rippling down to impact the entire clan—one of several issues too volatile for individual packs to handle solo. The werewolves involved were never glad to be intruded upon, but well-timed takedowns could prevent awfulness up to and including inter-pack warfare.
I was helping, not that the woman in front of me would see it that way. So I didn’t ask about the blood aroma, which clung due to her leader’s actions. Just got in when she offered me a ride and poured out my well-prepared sob story.
My car wouldn’t start. Could she possibly arrange a tow?
“Not a problem.” Empty desert flowed past outside our windows, but the woman didn’t look at me. Was she concerned I’d notice the wolf lurking behind her eyes, a wolf that should have been asleep during a situation that was far from perilous? “I’m Maya by the way,” she introduced herself.
“Elspeth,” I answered. Then, figuring I might as well go for broke, I added, “Could you possibly take me to your alpha? This is embarrassing, but I just don’t… I…”
“You’re a woman alone.” Her hand reached across the center console to cover mine, the contact deeply soothing in a way it shouldn’t have been with the scent of blood still redolent between us. “You’re asking for safe harbor, but you don’t have to ask. You’ll find what you’re looking for in town. There’s a cafe. Do you need any cash?”
Women were harder to hoodwink than men. Women understood that just because I was small and curvy, that didn’t mean I was defenseless.
But women also understood well-founded fears. I bit my lip and peered out the window, watching as the side road my research had suggested led to pack central passed by on our right. Then I continued to tell the truth—if not the full truth—while drawing upon the experience still at the forefront of my mind.
“I stopped last night in outpack land,” I told Maya. “I… There was a lone wolf… He expressed an interest and…” I swallowed.
The scent of blood grew stronger. “You’re concerned he’ll follow you. He won’t. We watch our boundaries.”
That assertion was hard to counter when Maya had found me mere minutes after I pretended to break down. So I didn’t argue. Just begged. “Please.”
“We’ll send someone out to handle the lone wolf,” Maya promised. “Just because no one owns the desert on the other side of our borders doesn’t mean we allow inappropriate behavior from vagrants. Describe him.”
Despite everything, my cheeks heated. I’d messed up. I couldn’t sic shifters dabbling in blood magic on a lone wolf who had, in reality, acted like a perfect gentleman, albeit a delusional one. “No, don’t bother. I’m overreacting. Orion didn’t do anything inappropriate.”
The lone wolf’s name tasted oddly sweet on my tongue, which might explain why I’d offered information that didn’t need to be offered. Maya’s response, though, was odder than my slip.
The car screeched to a halt so fast I would have slammed into the dashboard if my seatbelt hadn’t caught me. Then Maya stared at me with that wolf even more wide awake behind her pupils. “You met Orion in outpack territory? Orion scared you so badly you want to ask for help from our alpha?”
I nodded confirmation and she huffed out something that sounded an awful lot like mother of a whelp-mauler before yanking the steering wheel all the way to the left to make a U-turn.
“Where are we going?” I asked when an explanation didn’t appear to be forthcoming.
The scent of blood intensified further and Maya didn’t look at me as she answered. “Looks like I’m taking you to my alpha after all.”
The pack central I’d been sent to infiltrate resembled any other patch of desert until we were almost at its doorstep. Then, as our vehicle eased its way between close canyon walls, camouflaged gardens began to pop up amid the sandstone.
In satellite photos, the area must have looked like a few pockets of soil had provided a foothold for cliffrose and desert broom. Up close, however, I could see strawberries dangling from hanging planters. Crisp lettuce ready to turn into salads. A peach tree arching above everything else.
I’d been inside dozens of under-the-radar pack centrals and none had been as cleverly arranged as this.
Leaning into my pleasure, I did what everyone loved—I praised Maya’s home. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” I gushed. “It’s beautiful. Your alpha must be one of the good ones.”
Instead of relaxing into my enthusiasm the way I’d expected her to, Maya simply shrugged as she pulled up underneath an overhang where the car’s glass and chrome wouldn’t glint and catch the sunlight. “He’s unique,” she said as we both got out and edged around the only other vehicle present—a van. Maya’s long braids swung behind her as she strode purposefully into a crack in the sandstone that appeared entirely natural…until we passed through and I saw that the bedrock we’d parked on had transitioned into poured concrete.
Ahead were the kind of thick metal doors humans installed to slow the spread of fires and shifters used for more defensive purposes. If I followed Maya through, would I be able to get back out again?
“Will your alpha be angry with you for bringing me here?” It wasn’t hard to add a quaver to my voice and I paired that with rounding my shoulders so I’d look even smaller than my actual five feet two inches. “I can wait outside. I don’t want to cause any trouble…”
“He’ll definitely want to see you,” Maya promised, but she didn’t bother glancing in my direction. Instead, she tilted her chin upward in a way that suggested there was a facial-recognition camera embedded in the wall somewhere above eye level. I quickly turned my own head away, watching from the corner of one eye as Maya waited for the click of a disengaging lock then pushed the door open to lead me inside.
It wasn’t optimal to enter an enclosed space with a locking exit door, especially when I had very little information to go on. But I’d found my way out of worse pinches and I could almost smell success. My heart rate elevated, but not out of fear.
Instead, I stifled a smile as I ran through the game plan: Track down the alpha. Get him alone. Then subdue him with the sedative hidden in one of my pockets.
Finding the alpha turned out to be easy. The space Maya had brought me to was a gym full of fifteen shifters ranging in age from their teens up to their sixties. They were sparring hand-to-hand, none of them particularly adept at it, while a man with the aura of pack leader called out corrections.
Well, he did that for a moment. Then he tilted his wheelchair up on its back wheels so he could pivot to face us even though Maya hadn’t called out a greeting or caught his attention in any overt way.
I’d already guessed as much, but his ferocious eyes suggested I’d found my target. No wonder he took the time to look me over, which was perfectly fine since that gave me the opportunity to do the same.
Other than those alpha eyes, heavy muscles were his most distinguishing feature. The impressive physique wasn’t limited to his upper body, either, the way I’d expect from someone used to wheeling himself from point A to point B. Whatever kept this man from walking, it had occurred recently.
Was the injury temporary? Or was a permanent disability the reason the pack’s alpha had descended into the quick fix of blood magic?
It would have been easy to pity him, but the desert southwest seemed to spawn alphas who thought it was a good idea to kill their pack mates and use that dying burst to boost their own power. It was a rot and it wouldn’t happen again here, not after today.
My adrenaline spiked further as I went on the attack…obliquely of course.
“Sir.” I dropped my eyes to the floor submissively even though I could feel the alpha’s gaze continuing to scan me. “I appreciate you letting me come. I know you’re very busy and very important. I know I have no right to your time.”
I didn’t need much time, actually. Just a few minutes alone with him to complete the takedown without prompting a full-scale battle. Afterwards, his pack would bounce back in short order. The ingenuity of their residence spoke to a bedrock stability that a few months of off-the-rails alpha couldn’t fully erode.
“Elspeth,” the alpha acknowledged. The fact he knew my name without Maya having texted ahead proved that the pack bond was still strong enough to allow information to be passed along it. “We have a few minutes left in this session. Care to join in?”
I winced even though my chin was still tucked so low no one could see the gesture. They’d hear the uncertainty in my words, though, when I murmured, “Oh, I don’t know how…”
“You should.” This was Maya, sounding annoyed at the world that had created me. “A woman who can’t defend herself is like a fish on a bicycle. Sue will show you the ropes.”
This was a sidetrack, but sometimes it was necessary to go with the flow to minimize casualties. I let my chin come up as I followed Maya’s gesture to the dowdy middle-aged woman who could have been my mother if she’d had me very young. From what I’d seen when coming in, Sue hadn’t been the worst of the fighters but she was far from the best. She was, however, safest-looking for a scared female outsider to grapple with.
My cover was holding. Maya was being kind.
I glanced up through my hair at the alpha rather than taking Maya up on her offer. “Sir?”
“Leave your shoes by the door,” he suggested, a glint of humor softening his warrior-like face. “Wouldn’t want another accidental nose break.”
At that, all eyes flew to a teenaged boy on the other side of the room. The youngster flushed beet red and muttered at his feet, “I didn’t mean to.”
This was good-hearted teasing. I saved the teenager from another round by toeing off my sneakers then padding over to join Sue. My hands rose in front of my face as if I was a toddler playing peekaboo. Someone behind me snickered.
Then cold swept through the gym so hard and fast it couldn’t have resulted from anything other than an alpha command sent down the pack bond, one I couldn’t hear but could easily see the results of. Trainees plus Maya all fled without bothering to grab the shoes lined up along the wall near the entrance. Their faces twisted, their eyes averting from me as if part of the command had involved not just leaving the room but specifically removing themselves from my presence.
This was exactly the sort of over-the-top pack-leader behavior I would have expected from an alpha dabbling in blood magic. But the man in the wheelchair wasn’t the source of the flurry of activity. He was fleeing along with everyone else. Had already pushed himself through the door and left me alone in the gym by the time a man I hadn’t expected to see again strode in from outside.
Orion looked exactly the same as he had last night and also entirely different. How I’d taken him for a lone wolf was now a mystery as his gaze spun across me in a way it hadn’t in the desert. Intrusive. Challenging. Ten times as dominant as the man in the wheelchair.
I stared right back, daylight unveiling details that the dim night had concealed. Undeniable strength, both outer and inner, contrasted with last night’s vibe of gentleness. Sunlight streaming down through skylights kissed his chiseled jaw, accentuating a magnetism that was all alpha.
He waited until the last footstep faded into silence then he raised his eyebrows. “What are you doing in my territory, Elspeth Darkhart?”
My surname wasn’t Darkhart, but that was the name I’d used the one time my face had been caught on camera. Correction: the first time my face had been caught on camera. Because Orion must have snagged a shot of me this morning then run it through a hefty database to come up with that identification so quickly.
“Are you recording this?” I asked, eying the walls and ceiling while trying to figure out the location of the camera I’d missed.
“No.” He was in my space before I saw him move. In daylight, his bulk was overwhelming, both a threat and an enticement. But his cactus scent had turned prickly—less flowers and more spines—as he repeated his demand. “Why are you here?”
“You invited me.” Truth yet nowhere near the whole truth. And…it was hard to focus on mincing words when Orion had settled into a fighting stance so close I could feel his heat against my skin. “Do you intend to beat me up?” I asked in disbelief.
Orion’s eyes darkened as he moved in closer, his broad shoulders blocking my view of the exit. “Does it seem like I could?” he countered, using one of his feet in an attempt to sweep away both of mine.
I say attempt because I was already on the move, dodging with a grace I’d honed over a lifetime of practice. Yes, my hormones were reacting to Orion’s proximity. My breath was coming a little too quickly, my heart beating faster than it had when I thought the man in the wheelchair was this pack’s alpha. But I ignored that attraction and dropped the feint of incompetence I’d donned moments earlier.
After all, I’d already let Orion see who I was back in the desert. Might as well be myself and win now.
Winning, when dealing with a large and powerful man, didn’t just involve the quick dodge I’d started with. It also meant messing with my opponent’s head. In this case, I chose to focus on the question he’d asked me twice already. The one that lingered behind those obsidian eyes, unresolved by my assertion that I’d come here in response to his invitation last night.
“You didn’t tell me you were an alpha,” I murmured, landing a swift kick to his side. With Celeste, the blow would have had her flat on her ass. Orion merely staggered back a single step.
As he did, he growled out a question. “Does me being an alpha make a difference?”
The chop he paired with his words forced me to backpedal physically, if not verbally. My focus tunneled as I tried and failed to land another strike.
Looked like Orion had already learned my favorite offensives. Which meant I needed to dig deeper and become less predictable. Hit him where it really hurt.
“Yeah, you being an alpha does make a difference,” I said, watching for the moment his mouth would pinch. The moment he’d read the subtext: that I hadn’t been interested in Orion solely for his own sake but was willing to check him out now that I knew he was a pack leader. He seemed like the sort of guy who would be disappointed in someone who craved secondhand power, and that descent into disappointment would provide the perfect opening for my next attack.
Only, Orion didn’t react. Instead, he offered me information he shouldn’t have had access to. “You entered a pack in New Mexico six months ago under false pretenses. Their alpha disappeared that evening and wasn’t seen again.”
The next blow I attempted to land was less important than the question I paired it with. “What would you say if I told you that the alpha you’re referring to was using blood magic to solidify his leadership?”
“I’d call bullshit.” Orion’s words were more adamant than anything I’d heard from him previously. He didn’t attack, though. Just circled, his gaze so intent it felt like he was trying to pry open my skull and peer inside my brain. “I knew Prince,” he continued. “His pack was solid and he was honorable. Where is he?”
Orion could have lashed out physically in conjunction with his final words and I might have been too busy thinking to block properly. Instead, he continued padding around me, waiting for my response.
And words emerged before I could stop them. “I don’t know.”
I hadn’t meant to say that. But the scent I remembered from the desert—sweet as cactus flowers—was even more thorny now than it had been earlier. Orion honestly cared about his missing friend.
Not only that, my reference to blood magic didn’t appear to have rung any personal bells with him. Which was decidedly odd since my intel clearly said the alpha of this pack was the guilty party.
I only realized my attention had wandered when Orion’s hand landed on my arm. The contact was searingly intense despite the thin cotton shirt that separated us. It was also a warning that I’d made a fatal mistake.
I’d let myself be grabbed by someone larger and stronger. I hadn’t made such a beginner flub since I was twelve.
My opponent didn’t toss me to the ground, however. Didn’t pull me in close to threaten me further. Instead, his voice gentled. “Why are you here, Elspeth?”
I couldn’t win this match overtly, so I bit my lip and peered up into those dark eyes that had glinted with starlight only twelve hours earlier but were now shuttered and lightless. Then I played my final card.
Ten years ago, when I was a naive teenager, our trainer had taken me aside after a lesson. Just me, not Celeste also, which I understood when Gabi started delving into werewolf-specific abilities.
“And then there’s the mate bond,” she continued after running through a verbal summary of the pros and cons of going lupine during battle.
I rolled my eyes. “I thought we were talking fighting. Did Julius ask you to tell me about the birds and the bees? Because I get it. Safe sex. Consent. Consider me educated.”
Gabi’s lip quirked. At the time, she’d been in her mid twenties and Celeste and I had both wanted to be her. We’d practiced her signature lip quirk for hours in front of the mirror, but we never managed the insouciance Gabi pulled off with ease. “Glad to hear it,” she told me. “But, no, that’s not what this is about. When you’re dealing with male werewolves, you’re always going to be smaller and weaker. Banter and agility will only take you so far. Someday, you may need another edge, and that edge is the mate bond.”
She’d gone on to describe a connection so powerful that its formation tended to knock even the most powerful alpha off his game for a handful of minutes. “If you’re ready for it, though,” she told me, “then you can work through it. Compartmentalize. Pleasure, wonder, amazement—it’s a simple bodily reaction.”
“Like an orgasm,” I suggested, trying to sound edgy.
“Sure,” Gabi agreed, lip quirk promising she knew far more about orgasms than I did. “Today, we’ll mimic the formation of a mate bond a few different ways. See how you fight while being tickled. While eating something delicious. Later, we’ll use a stimulant.”
My eyebrows winged upward. “Julius approved this?” Julius never even let me and Celeste drink coffee. He said it would stunt our growth.
Gabi nodded, which gave me leeway to keep asking questions. “I can’t mate more than once though. Can I?”
“You can mate as many times as you like,” she assured me. “Just break the bond when you’re through with it. One and done.”
Over the intervening decade, I’d trained myself until I was confident I could continue fighting through anything. A fractured bone. A drugged haze. Yes, even when overwhelmed by the formation of a mate bond.
But I’d never actually used the latter technique. Had told myself I was holding back because I liked having one bonus tool in my arsenal that no one other than Gabi would ever consider a possibility.
Now, despite Orion’s hand on my arm, I wasn’t precisely desperate. So why did I open my mouth and tell the alpha in front of me: “I’m here to accept your proposal to mate”?