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By L.A. Witt, Carole-ann Galloway
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2014 L.A. Witt
All rights reserved.
When my girlfriend's cell phone went straight to voice mail 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 been begging it to. Alex had planned to visit her estranged parents yesterday, and after those get-togethers, it wasn't unusual for her to hole up in the house and block out the world for a while. I always worried myself sick when 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 hadn'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, 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.
I grabbed my phone and keys. Hopefully 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 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 severe in the last six months or so, and not just after she'd seen her family. 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 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?
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 wear than the last time she'd seen her mother and stepfather. I was overreacting. I was being too protective.
Or maybe I wasn't.
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, that 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.
After almost turning back twice, I made myself get all the way to the front porch, and before I could find another reason to talk myself out of it, I knocked. Waited. 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 caution and intrusion?
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 dead bolt turned. I exhaled.
Then the door opened, and that relief turned to something else. Something much colder.
"Who the—" 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 gray sweatpants, and his short hair was disheveled enough to imply far more than I ever wanted to know.
Alex, baby, tell me you didn't ...
I 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."
He flinched, closing his eyes. "I can explain." His voice was quiet. "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 my volume. "I suppose you're just keeping her company? Where the fuck is she? Where—"
"You ... you know who I am?"
"Yes, I do." His hand went to his temple, and he grimaced as he whispered, "Please don't shout. You're upset. I get it. I understand, and I'll explain, but ..." He winced. "Please. Don't. Shout."
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 an 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. But at this point, he was the only one who might know where Alex was, so I followed him.
As he walked ahead of me, I noticed a small white bandage 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 even in the dim light, 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, 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 low, 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, 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 into place for several long seconds. Then those pieces did fall into place, and 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.
"Alex?" I whispered, almost choking on her name.
With a single, slow nod, he jerked the world out from under my feet. Had I not already been sitting, my knees would have buckled. I sat back against the recliner. Two years. Two damned years together, and I'd never caught on. She'd never said a word.
Fuck, this wasn't going to fit into my head. Not for a while, anyway. I didn't know how to feel. Furious? More confused than before? Relieved to find out she was all right—well, sort of—and she hadn't been cheating? Deceived? I didn't know. I was simply ... numb. Stunned.
He took a deep breath. "This isn't how I wanted you to find out."
"You're ..." Skepticism, suspicion, maybe a little denial worked their way into the tangle of emotions. "How do I know it's you?"
The hand over his eyes didn't move. "Giving a foot massage relaxes you almost as much as it does whoever's getting the massage." His bare foot rubbed against the other, toes curling like Alex's always did whenever I suggested giving her such a massage.
I gulped. Leaning forward and resting my elbows on my knees, I said, "She could have told you that."
"The night we met, you were so scared to ask me to dance, by the time you'd worked up the nerve, you were almost too drunk to string a coherent sentence together."
Normally that memory made me laugh. Alex, too. No one in the room cracked a smile.
I cleared my throat. "She could have told you that, too."
He drew a ragged breath. In an equally unsteady voice, he said, "You just found out why I've changed the subject whenever you've brought up getting married, and right now, you have your hands folded so tight in front of your lips that your knuckles are turning white." He lifted his hand off his eyes and looked at me.
I unfolded my hands and let them fall to my lap, pretending not to notice as the blood rushed back into my fingers.
He rested his forearm over his eyes. "I'm sorry, Damon. I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
I swallowed hard. "But, why now? You've always been female around me, but ..."
Alex clenched his jaw, his lips thinning into a taut line. When he spoke, his voice threatened to crack. "Because I can't shift now."
A sick feeling churned in my gut. "Why not?"
"An implant," he said through his teeth. "In my spine." The bandage on his back flashed through my mind. "My parents, they ..."
Oh, God ... "What?"
"They forced me to get it. Drugged me. Said it was for my own good. By the time I knew what was going on, I was too doped up to fight back."
"Oh, my God. But, why would they force it on you?"
"Because I'm an abomination," he growled. For the first time since I'd arrived, he abandoned the quiet monotone he must have maintained to keep the pain at bay. "Ever since the implants came out on the market, my parents have been trying to badger me into getting one. They've always hated what I am, and it's—" He swallowed hard and then took a deep breath. Held it. Let it out. Drew another. Then he muttered, "Shit," and put a hand to his mouth. He flew to his feet and down the hall, and when he got to the bathroom, I cringed at the sound of him getting sick.
I rubbed the back of my neck, grimacing for him and trying to get my head around all of this. It didn't help that his condition had him unusually subdued and, aside from the sprint to the bathroom, moving in damn near slow motion. I could only imagine the emotional toll this was taking on him, and my presence was no doubt compounding his stress, but he was in too much pain to show it. It would have been hard enough to reconcile the Alex I knew with the one in front of me without pain muting her personality.
A moment later, about the time I'd stood to go see if he was okay, Alex returned. When he stepped into the faint light, my stomach flipped. His alarming pallor was worse than earlier.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Fuck, sorry about that."
"Nothing to be sorry about." I stepped toward him. "Need a hand?"
He made a dismissive gesture and pushed himself away from the wall. "No, I can make it."
"Is this a normal side effect? Of ... what they did?"
"I don't know. It's been—" He stumbled, catching himself on an end table. I grabbed his arm. When he'd more or less regained his balance, I held him steady while he eased himself back onto the couch.
"You sure you're all right?"
"I don't know," he whispered hollowly. "This headache, it's unreal. It started last night, and it just keeps getting worse." He cleared his throat and winced. "It's like the worst migraine I've ever had, times ten."
I winced. "Jesus. Can you take anything?"
"Nothing's helped. Anything I've been able to hold down hasn't done a damned thing." He laughed humorlessly. "I thought about drinking, but figured I shouldn't add a hangover to the mix."
I pursed my lips. That was a hint of the Alex I knew. Her drinking had worried me for some time, and it didn't surprise me at all to hear she—he—was tempted to drink now. The fact that he hadn't given in to that temptation was more than a little worrisome.
"At least when I lay perfectly still and flat, it's better," he said. "Not much, but better. But every time I get up ..."
"Would turning off the rest of the lights help?"
"Doubt it. I've been in the bedroom all day with the lights off, and it hasn't done much."
"Maybe we should take you to the emergency room. Just to make sure it's nothing serious."
I expected him to fight it. The Alex I'd known the last couple of years had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the doctor, never mind the ER. This Alex just released a breath and gave a subtle nod. Either this was a sign that the man in front of me wasn't really Alex, or this headache was bad enough to make even Alex think something was wrong. Neither option loosened the knots in my gut.
"Let's go then," I said softly. "Can you make it out to the car?"
"Yeah, I think so." He started to get up but groaned and lay back again.
"I can call an ambulance. That might—"
"No. I can make it. Just ..." He swallowed. "Just let me lay here for a minute."
He was right, he made it. By the time he got from the couch to the car, he was near tears from pain, and I wondered a few times if an ambulance was a better idea after all. As he stretched across the backseat, though, it occurred to me that waiting for an ambulance would mean waiting. By the time the paramedics got here, we could have been halfway to the ER. That, and he was in the car now. No sense dragging him back into the house.
No paramedics, then. I turned on the engine and backed out of Alex's driveway. I drove as fast as I could without jarring him, cringing on his behalf whenever I had to make a turn or slow to a stop.
The whole way to the emergency room, neither of us spoke. Aside from the occasional groan, Alex was completely silent. A few times, I thought he might ask me to pull over so he could puke again, but he didn't.
In between worrying about him and watching the road, I tried to comprehend this whole situation.
A shifter? Alex? All this time, I'd assumed she was a woman. And she was. A woman and a man. It wasn't that I'd never known a shifter, or that I assumed every shifter was out in the open about it, but after two years together, I didn't know?
Excerpted from Static by L.A. Witt, Carole-ann Galloway. Copyright © 2014 L.A. Witt. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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