Today was going to be a great day—I could feel it. Everything was going to go my way. I’d woken on the right side of the bed. My makeup was just right, and my hair was behaving. I was ready to start my Friday with a spring in my step. My bosses had started a new case and said I could join them if I wanted to. But I’d first see how much admin still needed finishing before joining them.
My jeans slipped over my hips and butt without effort or needing to suck in my stomach; the latest exercise routine I’d started was working. I’d lost some weight, although I still had a few pounds to go. I’d gained some muscle and hadn’t felt better in years. I never thought my late thirties were going to be this hard, and was dreading my forties, even though it was only three years away.
The only thing that could upset me today was the awfully long queue outside my favorite coffee shop. I grumbled to myself when I stood behind a man speaking to someone on his phone, writing down the list of coffee orders. This was going to take forever.
Unfortunately, I was as mundane as humans came and couldn’t freeze the line, so I could cut in front. I’d have to wait like the rest of the sheeple for my delicious cappuccino.
There were other coffee shops in Sterling Meadow, but this one I loved. Their coffees were smooth, rich, and mouth-watering. I only had one tiny addiction—coffee. I wasn’t a connoisseur, per se, but I liked what I liked. And this coffee was the absolute best; magnifique, as the French would say.
The line moved, and I was finally inside the shop. Peering around the shoulders of the man in front of me, I glimpsed at the counter. I moaned inwardly and hoped the owner didn’t see me. Not that I didn’t like Jason; he was gorgeous to look at, but… there was always a but. He was a wolf. An alpha were-wolf part of Shawn’s pack. And he owned the best freaking coffee in town. What alpha wolf, in his right mind, did that? A man like him should be out doing wolf stuff, not mess with my coffee, or bake the best muffins. Yet, it was his coffee I craved and bought daily.
“Claire!” boomed his voice from behind the counter. “Your order is ready.”
If this was any other coffee shop, I’d gladly smile and head over to the front, passing all the waiting suckers. But this was Jason’s coffee shop, and I’d hoped he wasn’t in today. The moon was full last night, and his kind usually hunted all night and slept all day. But he wasn’t sleeping. No, not this man. He had to be in his shop, staring right at me.
I didn’t like him much. But I wanted my coffee more. I sucked up my ego, avoided eye contact with the other patrons as I passed them, and headed for the counter.
I felt Jason’s dark gaze rake over my body, and I wanted to squirm. When I glanced up, his smiling blue eyes penetrated mine, and I touched my clothing instinctively—I still had my clothing on and nobody else was watching me. It was only Jason’s intense stare, making me feel this way.
Jason wasn’t drop-dead-drool-all-over-yourself kind of gorgeous; he was ruggedly handsome. He had a slightly crooked nose, a scar on his chin which was hidden beneath his short brown beard, and one ear was slightly pointy at the top. I may have been staring at him for longer than necessary, but then again, he was staring back.
And he was a were-wolf.
I couldn’t say for sure when I started hating were-wolves. I just did. They smelled like the earth, powerfully built, and most of them exuded dominant sex pheromones that tested my ovaries.
My core spasmed, and I shoved that feeling down and glowered at Jason when he approached the counter with a delectable smile.
“I didn’t order yet,” I said softly so only his super ears heard.
“After all these months you’ve been coming into my coffee shop, you’d think I wouldn’t know your order by now?” he asked rhetorically, pushing the takeaway cup and bag filled with two warm chocolate muffins that oozed chocolate bits my way. His large, powerful hands lingered on my items. The muscles on his tanned forearms bunched. I wondered if he was testing me and whether I’d touch his hands when I took my order from him.
My mouth watered. I wanted. Give me. Now! My anger dissolved on my tongue, and I fished for the money.
I flinched when an enormous hand touched mine. My gaze travelled up his muscular forearm until I reached his pleasantly smiling face.
“My treat,” he said with a gruff, masculine voice.
“I don’t want to owe you anything,” I said and slapped money on the counter. “Keep the change.” I grabbed my goodies and hurried out the door before he stopped me.
There was something wrong with that man. I didn’t know why Jason did that to me, but he did, and I hated it. I hated him. But after one sip of his coffee, I practically melted onto the sidewalk. It was orgasmic. And the chocolate muffin. Oh my gods, better than sex.
My thoughts drifted to a dark bedroom with a naked Jason, and I shook the vision away with a shudder. That would never happen. Besides, someone like him probably dated all the women in town, and I didn’t want to be just another notch on his very long and very thick belt. Oh, gods… I didn’t even want to go there.
Besides, I had a boyfriend. Which reminded me. I pulled out my cellphone and sent Erik a text message about our date tonight. It was our six-month anniversary, and I had a sneaky suspicion he was about to ask me to move in with him. I was so excited. Things were finally going well for me. Erik still gave me butterflies in my stomach when we touched. That had to mean something.
Erik was one of those silent, sensitive types, while I was slightly on the loud and wild side compared to him. And ever since I’d met him, I’d calmed down a little, because I wanted things to work out between us. Erik was a late bloomer, and I was the first person he’d ever slept with. I never made him feel embarrassed about that fact, ever. He was seven years my junior, but he was mature for his age.
I enjoyed the rest of my muffin, threw the empty liner in the trash can and pocketed the second muffin. I climbed the three steps and entered the building where I worked. Our office was on the fifth floor, but I hardly saw my bosses; Blaire and Ralph. Ulysses Assassins was a monster contract killer agency that became a legal entity when they started working with the police. I was a recent addition to the team because they were so busy, they needed someone to do their administration, legal paperwork, and even balance the books. Since I was a brainiac, although I never finished college, I taught myself how to do everything and I did it well. Blaire had even given me a bonus last month because I’d caught up with all their admin.
I reached my floor and came across Josh, the little five-year-old brat who belonged to the lawyer across the hallway. He was a busy-body but in hindsight a very sweet kid.
“What you got there?” he asked inquisitively, his big brown eyes staring at my bulging pocket.
“It’s a surprise. Do you want to see it?”
He nodded so vigorously I thought his head was about to fly off.
“I got you a special muffin again today. Do you want it?” Yesterday I brought him a bran muffin, and it surprised me that Jason had packed two chocolate muffins today without me asking. I smiled at the thought, then frowned at his audacity. I should’ve appreciated it, but he was a were-animal, a were-wolf, and I hated them all.
Josh’s smile split his face in two, and he held out his hands. The office door where his mom worked opened, and she stood in the doorjamb, her slender figure silhouetted by the light behind her.
“Josh! I hope you aren’t pestering Claire, again?”
“It’s fine, Lucy. Can I give him a muffin?”
“Thanks, Claire. You can,” Lucy said, then her voice changed to that commanding tone that made me want to do everything she asked. “Then you come back here, Josh. You know I don’t like it when you wander around.”
“Thank you, Miss Claire.” Josh grabbed the muffin out of my hands and ran to his mother.
I unlocked and entered my office, set my half-empty cup on my desk, switched on my laptop, and sat behind my desk to start working.
Blaire had asked whether I wanted to work from home. Although I loved my home, my apartment was too small to live and work in the same space. I’d go insane, and she’d have to visit me at that special ward, providing care for those in dire need.
My inbox pinged with all the new emails, and I started my workday.
I finished work around five. On my way home, I had to pass Jason’s coffee shop, which was aptly named ‘Alpha Coffee’. I snorted at the irony. The doors were already closed, and the lights were off. From what I knew, Jason kept it open till about three in the afternoon. What he did to fill the rest of his time, I didn’t know. He was probably at his pack’s clubhouse, or whatever they called it.
When I arrived home, I got ready for my date with Erik.
Erik had texted letting me know he was coming directly to the restaurant after work and asked that I meet him there.
I dressed in my stylish jeans, and wore a pretty blouse with a jacket over it. I managed to put on some makeup, making me feel ready to tackle the world.
At seven o’clock I entered our favorite Italian place and found our regular table at the back which Erik had reserved for our date. I ordered a couple of whiskeys for us and perused the menu while I waited for him.
After thirty minutes and two whiskeys later, Erik finally arrived, looking a bit disheveled.
“What happened to you?” I asked, staring at the buttons of his shirt. He’d gotten dressed in a hurry and buttoned the wrong holes. His hair was sticking up in all directions, and he quickly tucked in his shirt. “It looks like you fell off a truck or out of bed.” I swallowed hard as I stared at his attire.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” he said nervously, glancing over his shoulder.
I ignored the hollow feeling in my stomach and called the server over and ordered another round of drinks.
“I can’t stay,” he said, while remaining standing.
“What?” I yelled. “You just got here, and it’s our anniversary,” I said in a slightly softer tone so that the other patrons would stop staring.
“I know and I’m sorry.” He glanced over his shoulder again. I peered around him. Outside in the distance, a woman stood beside a tree with her arms crossed over her chest, staring our way.
I leaned back in the chair and folded my arms. That sinking feeling became a raging inferno. And I wanted to jump over the table and rip his heart out. I blinked rapidly because I would not cry.
“Don’t say you’re sorry. Just spit it out.” I croaked, not liking how desperate I sounded.
“It just happened.” He exhaled and bowed his head. When he glanced up at me, his eyes glistened in the light. “I never wanted to hurt you. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
“Who is she?”
“She’s a friend of a client. I first met her at a client’s meeting, then we bumped into each other a couple of days ago and we went for coffee. It escalated pretty quickly after that.”
The back of my throat ached as I tried to swallow. When I finally found my voice, I spoke. “So you chose today, our six-month anniversary, to tell me you’re fucking another woman?” I yelled. Other patrons glanced nervously our way, then quickly at their food when I asked if they wanted something.
“Shh,” he mumbled, embarrassed by my outburst. “I wanted to tell you on Wednesday already, but you were in such a good mood. And then yesterday came and went. Then today I realized I couldn’t lie to you anymore. I thought nothing would happen between Mindy and me, but it did, and I really like her.”
“You like her more than the person you’ve been sleeping with for six months. Is she so much better than what I’ve given you?” I said through gritted teeth.
“It’s not like that, Claire. Don’t compare yourself to her. You are very different. I know I’m the ass,” he said, glancing around. “I’ve paid for your dinner already. Order whatever you want. And I’ll send over the rest of your stuff from my apartment tomorrow,” he said clinically, like he’d rehearsed his speech for days and no longer felt anything. That the last six months of us being together meant nothing to him. That I was disposable; kicked to the curb like garbage.
I couldn’t answer him. Tears welled in my eyes, my heart cracked, and I’d lost my appetite.
“I’m sorry,” Erik said, turning around and left without glancing at me.
I tried not to see where he was going, but I did. I watched him snake his arm around her waist like he used to around me, and I burst into tears.
And I thought my day would be great—it was one of the worst.
The server darted over, offering me napkins. He set the two whiskeys down and offered to take my order. He’d overheard my break-up and tried to console me. I swatted his hand away and told him to bring me the bottle of his finest whiskey and a seafood pasta dish. Erik was paying after all.
* * *
Three hours later, I stumbled out of the restaurant before they called the police. I may have thrown my empty plate at the manager, pushed over a table, and smashed a chair into the wall. I decided it was best for all if I left before Blaire needed to bail me out of jail.
Not wanting to go home to my dark, very empty, and depressing apartment. I crossed the street and headed for the park. I loved visiting parks as a kid, but as an adult I was way too busy. Erik never liked the outdoors, and I tried to do what he wanted.
“Ugh,” I grumbled when I thought of Erik again. I was doing so well. The whiskey amnesia had almost worked. Almost. Until I thought of the park and the trees and how I wanted to go hiking, but Erik hated it. Then my thoughts swarmed around in my head of us in his apartment, then in mine. Then memories of us going to the movies or a restaurant surfaced. Our social life consisted mainly of visiting friends and doing mundane human things.
As much as I hated him and enjoyed doing those things. I didn’t think I’d ever want to do them again. I never wanted to watch a movie again, eat out, or visit friends. All I wanted to do was mope and wallow in my misery. Misery loved company.
I staggered through the dark alley toward the gate leading to the park, tripped over trash, and landed on my hands and knees. I burst out laughing at my silliness and that I hadn’t been drunk like this in years.
Using the wall to steady myself, I meandered through the entrance and fell again, but this time on soft grass. My thoughts sobered. Tears pricked at my eyes. The silence of the park deafening.
Casting an eye around the enormous park, I didn’t hear any night calls of animals or stridulation of insects; I was utterly alone. There was nothing but emptiness fueled by my loneliness. And I let go. I gave in to the sadness, and bawled until my throat was hoarse, my face swollen and most probably red, and my nose in desperate need of a blow. I hadn’t ugly-cried in years, but tonight it was necessary.
I allowed myself the time to mourn the loss of a boyfriend I thought I’d loved. He was the first man I took a chance on after I told myself never again. I would use this time to get it out of my system. To get over Erik and to never think of him, or our time together, again. Not wanting to become a walking disaster, I knew I had to move on.
I wiped away the irritating tears with the back of my hand, stood tall, raised my head, pushed my shoulders back and traversed farther into the play area. The smell of damp ground and freshly cut grass wafted in the air. But the dark shadows beyond the border left me wondering whether I’d made a mistake coming here.
There were still no animal or insect sounds, and the winds whispered through the trees, creating ominous sounds that caused my arms to pebble.
When my thoughts sobered me completely, I realized I was in the same park where they had attacked Blaire. This happened about four years ago and they had almost killed her; two different were-animals had left her for dead. I wondered whether it was safe for me to be here at this godly hour.
Swallowing my nervousness, I headed toward the exit. But the door was now closed. I was sure I’d just used that door when dread flooded my system. Now I stood with clarity. A chill ran down my spine. I felt another presence behind me; the weight of its stare unbearable.
A low, rumbling growl echoed around me. The hairs on my body stood on end. The thought of becoming a predator’s dinner left a nasty taste in my mouth, and I spun around, coming face to face with a large-ass wolf. He snarled at me, baring his large canines. Its hungry gaze wanting to feast on me.
I didn’t understand why, but the first thing that popped into my head was the coffee shop. “Jason? Is that you?”
The were-wolf stepped closer, growled, and showed me his teeth and blood-soaked muzzle. His black coat glistened in the moonlight, and I thought I saw a red shine.
Swallowing my screams, I realized he’d been hunting, and I was next on his list.
I raised my arms to show I was unarmed and stepped backward. The wolf snapped its jaw and closed the distance. I didn’t want to know how it felt between its jaws; I spun around and dashed toward the entrance on the other side of the park.
I didn’t get far.
A heavy weight crashed on top of me and I kissed the dirt. My head smacked the sandy surface with a loud thud, the wolf’s claws digging into my back as its enormous jaws clamped down on my shoulder. I screamed blue murder, hoping someone would assist.
It bit down harder, it’s huge teeth cutting more of my muscle and tissue. The pain seared through my back, burned through my veins, and tingled down to my toes.
I lay frozen, too scared to move in case it decided to rip its jaw from my body and took a large piece of me with it.
It was too dark and too late for anyone to venture out this side of the area, and I realized I needed to save myself. But in order to do that, I had to get this thing off me first or become human kibble.
“No!” I shrieked. With all my strength I turned over. The wolf unclenched its jaw from my shoulder and jumped off. But when I was on my back, it pounced on me again. He lay on top of me, pressing his large thing between my legs, and snapped its muzzle in my face. To protect myself, I raised my forearm, and he bit down. Hard.
For a moment my pulse raged in my ears, my heart thundered in my chest, and I closed my eyes. Tonight was one of the worst evenings, and to top it off, I was going to die. If I didn’t do something, I would become this were-wolf’s meal, and nobody would care that I was gone. My corpse would remain unclaimed and unnamed, and I’d have a pauper’s burial. I was sure Blaire and Ralph would miss me and perhaps claim my body, but I’d only been working for them for five months. I didn’t think they cared.
The surrounding air moved as the wind changed direction. Thoughts of strength flooded me and I knew I couldn’t give up. This was an evening from Hell and I’d like a refund. One particular thought swirled around in my small brain; I couldn’t give up. I couldn’t let Erik, the asshole, ruin my life, and I couldn’t allow this asshole-beast to get the best of me—or eat me.
The wolf pressed his thing harder against my core as he salivated over my arm. His sharp clawed paws stood on either side of my head, and I felt his hot, foul breath against my cheeks. With his large head close to mine, I saw his hungry gray-colored eyes with flecks of green.
When I moved my arm, he clamped down harder. Bursts of pain shot up my shoulder and I cried out again. Anger raged through my veins and another burst of adrenaline coursed through my system and on instinct I shoved two of my fingers into one of his eyes, gripped the squishy organ, and ripped it out.
The wolf yelped, letting go of my forearm, and moved away from me as it tried to assess its wound. I used the opportunity to ram my fist into its jaw. A loud snap sounded, and I kicked him in the balls. The wolf fell over, affording me the chance I desperately needed, and moved farther away from him. I cradled my injured arm against my chest and sprinted for the exit.
I glanced over my shoulder, but the big, bad wolf had disappeared. If it wasn’t for the pain lacing my body, I would’ve thought I’d dreamed it all.
With adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I ran as fast as I could until I reached my apartment complex doors and entered the building.
Everything was a blur; running across the park toward my apartment block and entering my apartment. I couldn’t recall how I got home. I was just grateful I arrived here without any other incident.
Once inside my apartment, I slammed the door shut, and dead bolted the locks. With my back against the door, I stood motionless. My body trembled until I could no longer stand, and I crashed to the floor in a heap of limp limbs and more tears.
I flinched when my shoulder touched the door, and I realized I should’ve gone to the emergency room. I couldn’t leave now; the beast could be out there waiting for me. Not wanting to leave the safety of my apartment, I leaned on my good arm and stood with a grunt. My head swirled now that the adrenaline started tapering off. Every part of my body ached; my shoulder throbbed and burned while my forearm felt raw and exposed to the elements.
I glanced at myself in the bathroom mirror and recoiled. Mud caked my face and body where I’d fallen on my front and back. And the beast had torn chunks of flesh from my shoulder and forearm and had ripped my clothing. My bra was on its last thread, my makeup had smudged across my eyes and cheeks from crying, and my hair was knotty and messy. It amazed me nobody had seen me in this condition. But as I thought about it, I couldn’t recall seeing anyone as I dashed through the streets.
Desperately wanting to clean myself of the wolf’s saliva and scum, I undressed, wincing every step of the way. Slowly, I climbed into the shower. The scorching water splashed against my aching body. My shaking limbs eased as the warm water caressed every inch of me.
I allowed myself to cry in the quiet of my bathroom. This would be the last time, I promised myself. I wouldn’t cry over Erik ever again. And I vowed to hunt down the beast who’d bitten me.