The Thing About Weres
By Leigh Evans
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Leigh Evans
All rights reserved.
Wishing upon a star is a foolish exercise. I'd gone to bed late, after a quiet dinner of two maple-glazed doughnuts and a Kit Kat, followed by a chaser of grape juice.
"I'm dreaming again," I said, feeling miserable and happy all at once.
Because I was, and because it was as good a way as any of saying hello. The alternative was saying "Hello, beautiful," and that was both obvious and repetitive.
On his worst day, my guy is a freakin' work of art.
I've seen him on his worst day.
Robson Trowbridge stood hip-deep in the Pool of Life, caught in the act of raking his long, curling hair off his forehead. I could waste time wondering why each visit begins the same way — his hand lifted to his brow, his bicep flexed, his abdomen muscles ridged like some lucky girl's washboard — but I won't. It's my dream or his dream or our dream, and it never ends well, so it seems fitting that it begins with him hale and hearty, and so insanely sexy that a girl's heart picks up at the sight of him.
As mine had.
Evidently, art appreciation does that to me.
Blame it on his hair. Except for a few faint silver threads, Trowbridge's mane is as dark as a lump of coal and enviably thick. Though, at present, it was wet, and mostly, so was he. Beads of the Pool of Life's water stood out on the slope of my mate's shoulder — little translucent blips of healing Fae power that paid no heed to gravity — seemingly content to stay there, clinging to his collarbone and the rounded swell of his upper deltoids.
Therein lies one of the inherent problems about being around Trowbridge.
He's so damn beautiful that it's really hard to think in a straight line around him. For instance, when I saw those little beads of water on his hard shoulder, I didn't think "baby needs a towel." Nope. Instead, I imagined myself licking the moisture off.
Sad, the direction my brain slithers when I'm around my mate.
To be honest, I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with the full body flush of sexual desire that nearly levels me when I see him standing there, utterly desirable and absolutely unreachable. I don't trust it. There was no reason to it, no natural progression from first stirrings of attraction to my current level of "wave my panties over my head" lust.
I grew up in the same small Ontario town as he. His house was just on the other side of the pond. As a kid, I'd been the uninspired witness to many Trowbridge sightings. But one day, a few months before puberty, I looked at him, and it was like someone had pressed my sexual identity's switch to on. Bam! Bye-bye, Barbie. Hello, Trowbridge.
Like my body was preset for him, and him alone.
Behind my lover, Merenwyn's forest climbed a series of hills in rolling swells of golden yellow and deep green, providing a scenic foil to Trowbridge's own particular dark beauty. I studied the tree line until my heart settled down, then said with faux calm, "It's cold tonight."
Gorgeous grimaced and pulled his fingers free from his damp locks. "Why does it always have to be water? I hate water."
"You know, you look so real in my dreams. Sometimes I think —"
"That you're not dreaming. Well, check the list, Hedi Peacock. Am I wearing any clothing?" Trowbridge ran his hand down his gleaming chest, sliding it along the landscape of all that lovely taut flesh, to disappear under the water. "That's a definite no. Do you know what happens to skin when it stays in water for a long time? Things get shriveled. Important things, like —" He frowned, his hand busy under the water. "God, they feel like stewed prunes."
My mate pulled out his dripping paw, inspected it with a fierce scowl, and gave his hand a savage flick. Droplets of water sprayed — a bullwhip of diamond beads. "Why here? We could have this conversation anywhere else. You know —"
"I know. Weres can't swim. You hate water."
He wasn't listening. Instead he was concentrating on dragging his wet mitt across the single dry patch on his pecs — once, twice, and — ah, there we go — three times — before he was satisfied that his hand was dry enough to plant on his narrow hip.
Now his chest gleamed in the most distracting way.
"You making any progress on getting these nightmares under control?" he asked.
"This isn't my nightmare."
"Tinker Bell, if this was one of my dreams, you'd be naked and we'd be in bed. This is one of your nightmares. I'm standing in the middle of some damn millpond that the Fae consider healing and sacred, without a gun, a knife, or an Uzi. You're under the cherry tree, looking like ..."
He let his gaze casually roam. First to my mouth, where it lingered on my upper full lip, then slowly down the line of my white throat, from there to the hollow that he'd kissed, and finally to my breast, where it rested for a heated moment or two.
There went his nostrils. Flared as if he could scent me.
"Don't stare at me like that," I whispered, flattening a hand over my stomach.
"Like what?" His hooded eyes glittered.
As if your gaze were leaving a trail of heat on my skin. As if I were the sexiest thing you'd ever seen. As if you —
"You are. You are my fuckin' catnip," he said simply. "And I'm getting beyond tired of the whole 'look but don't touch' torture. Come to me, right now. Walk down that hill and meet me in this goddamn pond."
Eyes the color of the Mediterranean challenged me. Not the soft warm hue of shoreline shallows — with mellow hints of turquoise and green — no, more like the saltwater just past that, where the sea is deep and filled with unexpected currents.
Now, they demanded.
I took an unsteady step toward him and then ... found myself wobbling, my balance destroyed. I could not move forward one more inch. My muscles seemed frozen, incapable of the slightest task. No matter how I willed myself, no matter how I struggled.
With a ragged breath, I retreated. "I can't, Trowbridge. She won't let me join you."
"I've told you. There is no such thing as Karma. All you need to —"
"I can't! I cheated her when I pushed you through the Gates of Merenwyn. This is Karma's revenge. She brings us together every night, and she won't let me move."
He shook his head once, sharply, in denial. "She doesn't exist."
Anger momentarily tightened his features. Then he assumed control, taking in a long, slow breath. "Okay. We'll just talk about the weather for a bit. So, is it fall in Creemore yet? All the trees are yellow here." His gaze traveled as he spoke. A soft hiss of air escaped his lips. "God, I wish you could see what's behind you."
I can't. I'm stuck in my head. Just a dreamwalker without a true body, my gaze somehow fastened on you, as if you were the quavering needle on my compass, watching you and knowing that I won't be able to —
"Mannus was right about one thing: this slice of heaven has never met a douchebag with a chain saw. Most of it's virgin forest." His head swiveled left, then right, his brow furrowed. "That's the thing about Merenwyn. The land's whole in this realm. You can taste it — pure and clean — on your tongue. The wind smells —"
"Sweet," I whispered. "It's the magic in the air."
"Maybe. Mostly it smells clean without the humans polluting the place. They smell, and they don't even know it. Their accessories are worse. Their cars, their barbecues, their —"
"You liked driving."
He frowned, as if surprised he'd forgotten that. "Yeah, I did." Then with a light shrug, he pointed to a hill at least a mile in the distance to his left. "There's some whitetails up there. Smell them?" I shook my head to remind him — I'm only half Were, my little Fae nose isn't as keen as yours, Trowbridge — but his eyes had become slits, predator sharp; his concentration turned to fix on the quarry in the forest. "One of the bucks is rubbing his antlers against the bark of a tree. Hear it? He's telling all the other bastards to keep out of his way. He's chosen his doe." He listened for a bit, his face rapt. "There's so much game up in those hills."
His nose is perfect. Long and straight. Not misshapen and bleeding.
Trowbridge rubbed his shoulder and stared thoughtfully at the narrow lane that had been cut into the old woods. "How long do we have before the Fae come?"
"They won't come tonight."
He blew some air through his teeth. "They always come. How about giving me a crossbow to fire back at them?"
"I ..." My voice trailed off.
"Can't or won't," he finished quietly. "That's our basic problem. You keep making decisions without consulting me first."
Not fair, Trowbridge.
The trees behind him swayed, their leaves rustling and parting to reveal the glint of the sinking sun: a yellow-orange ball of fire, as luminous as one of Threall's brightest soul lights.
He lifted his nose to the wind. "Wait ... something's on the wind."
Not yet, don't let the guards come yet. Just a little longer.
Another inhale, deep enough to flare his nostrils and lift his pecs. "Someone's burning something in the hearth ... peat? Yeah, I'd say it's peat. Wouldn't it be better to have this conversation beside a cozy, warm fire?"
"You know what burning peat smells like, huh?"
"I'm a figment of your imagination, kid. So, basically, I know everything you know. Hear your thoughts, too." He began a slogging march through the hip-deep water. Six paces to the left, a sharp turn, and eight paces to the right. With each lurching step, the pool's water level rose and fell on the high-water line on his tawny skin. One step and the water was up to his waist, drowning his hands, with the next, it had lapped away, providing a coy glimpse of the soft swell of his ass.
The yearning to touch him began to grow again. Long roots had my desire — like weeds growing between cobblestones.
Trowbridge shook his head. "You know, the only bearable bit in the first twenty pages of The Highland Warrior's Mistress was the news that burning peat smells like scorched dirt. One day, I'm going to toss a handful of peat moss on a campfire, just to see if it does. Probably doesn't."
"Why are we talking about this?"
"I'm telling you, I'm well past done with that romance shit. Seriously, who calls his woman 'my sweet wee lassie'?" Water churned behind him in swirling eddies. "The next time you send Biggs to Barrie to satisfy your book binge, let the poor bastard come home with a few thrillers. Lee Child, Robert Crais, maybe an Ian Rankin or two. I don't know how he stands going through the checkout line at Walmart. Why don't you go buy your own books?"
Because you might come back while I'm gone.
"Not going to happen unless you've suddenly remembered the words to summon the portal. How's that going?" He paused in his pacing, his head shifted to one side, his eyes cast down, seemingly intent on something beneath the surface of the water.
Over and over, I've tried. The Gates of Merenwyn are summoned by song. One with very specific lyrics. Which I couldn't remember for the life of me.
When I didn't speak, he sighed, the way men do when they're trying to be patient — through the nose, teeth lightly clenched, jaw hard, impatience a stretched, jagged shadow behind his façade of tolerance. Very softly, too softly, he said, "If I can't find a way home, you're going to have to take your role as Alpha a whole lot more seriously."
"I am taking it seriously. I sign stuff. I —"
"For starters, calling yourself their Alpha-by-proxy is just asking for it. The pack has zero sense of humor about shit like that. Can't you see it's messed up, the way you approach the pack? For us, it's always about status. Who's higher than me, who's lower than me." Water sprayed as my mate swept his arm to demonstrate his point. "You can never let your guard down. You must act, think, and smell like top dog ... not ..." He scratched his ear.
A Fae? "I'm doing my best to hold on to your pack but being a leader doesn't come naturally. Until you come home, they'll just have to make do with me. It won't be for much longer anyhow. Sooner or later, I'll find a way to get you home."
"Sooner or later one of them is going to challenge you for leadership," he said.
For a bit, neither of us said anything. Trowbridge swished water through his fingers. I watched a dark smudge in the far distance, winging its way toward us. A bird. Long wings, torpedo-shaped body. Perhaps a duck, but they never flew alone.
"I have my flare," I said.
The bird dipped low, skimming the tree line. An emerald-green cap, a flash of gray and white.
"You have to turn into your wolf, Tink. They have to believe that you are one of them."
"It's a really good flare."
Wings beating furiously, the mallard came in for a landing. It reared back, wings arched, feet thrust forward. A splash and then a long glide. The duck preened its feathers, then paddled sideways to give us a bird glare from its beady eye, before it swam to the end of the pool where the water was murky and the trees hung low.
"Friend of yours?" Trowbridge asked.
I scanned the sky but it was night-gray and heavy, and as far as my gaze could sweep, I could not spot another dark smudge. "Shoo," I said to the mallard. "Go find your mate before winter sets in."
Trowbridge watched the bird, his lips twisted. "Let it go, Hedi."
"Tell me about your life there," I asked softly. "Have you found Lexi yet?"
He shook his head, ever stubborn. "It's moontime there, isn't it?"
"Tomorrow." Three nights of hell. "How'd you know?"
"You're more anxious around the full moon. That's when the worst dreams come." Trowbridge's shoulders flexed as he spread his arms wide. He bent his head, his fingers skimming the surface — seemingly poised for a dive.
Don't. Not yet.
Water curled up to his navel and then dipped back. "Have you heard from the NAW yet?"
The letter came this morning. I didn't explain how the air in the trailer had thickened with the sharp spice of Were anxiety after Harry, Cordelia, and Biggs had taken their turns reading it. But then again, in my dreams, I didn't need to.
His wince was the type that happens before a trigger is reluctantly squeezed. And for a second, it was all there. Despair worn down to weary acceptance, fatigue etched into bone weariness — the visual equivalent of a heavy sigh if my Trowbridge was a man given to such things. But he was not. He wiped out the bad and replaced it with a smile that promised hell and havoc. "I have to get out of this pool." My mate started walking toward me, the sound of the churning water loud to my ears. "I'm coming out now. We need to —"
"No!" I closed my eyes. "One thousand, two —"
"Shit! Stop with the counting!"
"Three thousand, four —"
"It's freaking annoying. Hedi," he called, his tone sharp and demanding. "Open your eyes and look at me. I'm good now. There's no scars on my chest or wrists. No silver in my gut. I'm healed."
"Five thousand, six —"
"That's it, I'm coming out of this water right now," he promised, the sound of his splashing progress getting louder, closer.
My eyes popped open. "No! You have to stay in the Pool of Life."
If anything he moved faster. "Dammit, I'm healed!"
"No! Every time you walk out of it, you die!" Acid began rising in my throat.
"I'd rather die on dry land!" he shouted back.
The wind came from nowhere. It whistled through the trees — frost tipped and javelin sharp — and whipped the water into a vengeful chop. It thrashed the trees and shredded their leaves. The remnants came in a whirl, a veritable barrage of dead and broken things; dry whispers of brown, bright flickers of yellow and red. They swirled and danced over my lover's head.
He hunched his shoulders as he batted them away. "Hedi, you're going to blind me with these damn things! I need to see! Chill. I mean it! Close your eyes and think of something else."
I did. I covered my eyes and thought of something easy, but in the landscape of my dreaming mind, the wind still moaned.
"Okay, okay. Shh, sweetheart, I've got you," he whispered in my ear. "Breathe deep. Steady now. It's a dream. That's all it is." A sigh — I swear I felt his warm breath on my face and the soft press of his lips to the peak of my ear.
"Please, Tink, go back to sleep. Dream of Krispy Kremes and napoleons, not of me." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Thing About Weres by Leigh Evans. Copyright © 2013 Leigh Evans. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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