A Mate of One's Own
A Being(s) in Love Story
By R. Cooper
Copyright © 2015 R. Cooper
By R. Cooper
Copyright © 2015 R. Cooper
Zoe didn’t bother to turn around and head home when her run led her into town. Lately, her runs had brought her into town more often than not, and she’d anticipated that today and chosen to run as a human. It meant sweat, but it also meant clothing, which was good for when she found herself jogging down Main Street in midmorning.
She assumed the restlessness pulling her into town was due to sharing the same house as two mated idiots still in their honeymoon phase. It didn’t matter that Nathaniel and Tim weren’t home at the moment; their happiness scent was everywhere. She was pretty sure it was even in her work uniform, which she had resigned herself to for the time being.
As she slowed her steps and took a left, doing a small, short loop around some side streets, it occurred to her once again that she could move out. She was old enough, she’d paid off the last of her student loan debt from her classes in Carson, she could manage rent at Wolf’s Paw prices. But something stopped her from glancing at the houses converted into the single apartments humans usually rented. It wasn’t that weres couldn’t live alone. It was that many didn’t want to. Zoe had lived alone even in houses filled with foster kids. She had always been alone until she’d come to this town. She had no desire to live that way again. She had her room, her very own space, and a tiny pack of her own. She wasn’t ready to give that up for a life with no closeness, no pack touches.
Of course, the pack touches were probably how Nathaniel and Tim’s sex-and-love scent had ended up in her uniforms.
She wrinkled her nose and slowed more as she passed the Flores, then circled back around toward Main Street. Her shift didn’t start for another hour or so, but she saw no point in heading home now. She could shower and change at the station—something else she’d started doing more and more lately when she knew those two would be home at the same time. Little Wolf honestly had no shame, and Nathaniel only encouraged him.
But thinking of her favorite awkward pack brother made her head to Robin’s Egg’s. Calling Tim brother, even in her own mind, made her warmer than the run had. It helped that she knew Tim would squirm in embarrassment in exactly the same way if he knew. Nathaniel would just smile, and his pleasure was nearly as blush-inducing. He’d be so touched. He wouldn’t even comment that it had taken years for Zoe to admit how close she was to him, or how happy he was to know she loved his mate.
He knew anyway. Weres, unlike humans, thankfully did not need to discuss these things out loud.
Well, Tim did. But Tim hardly counted.
Zoe paused outside the door to the café, letting the air cool her skin as much as it could. September in Wolf’s Paw was much like August, at least for the first half of the month. Hot, with only slightly fewer tourists now that the main festivals were over. But she detected a noticeable change in the air, like far distant snow, and grinned as she stepped into the café.
She asked for a coffee at the counter, with lots of milk, and watched as the new elf hire, Sampson? something like that, went to work steaming milk on the new espresso machine over by the kitchen door. Sampson’s skill brought in more customers, Robin’s Egg claimed. Zoe wasn’t sure about that, but her coffee did smell amazing when he handed it to her. She ducked her face over it while he added it to her tab.
Rich whole milk from a local dairy, freshly roasted coffee beans, and no sugar, although something in it smelled sweet, almost like real vanilla. Zoe inhaled the steam, which was definitely sweet, and then took a sip without waiting for it to cool. Even with the burn, the coffee was good, but it wasn’t the source of the scent.
She sniffed around the counter as discreetly as she could, finding the usual grease and donuts and gravy that meant food and Cosmo in the kitchen. The humans smelled like humans, deodorant they didn’t need, and aftershave they usually had the sense not to wear in Wolf’s Paw, and toothpaste. A sex scent hung over a few of them, a cloud of sweat/sated/musk that, quite unexpectedly, made Zoe’s skin tingle.
Embarrassed, she hurried away from the counter, although the scent seemed to intensify. Tourists must be sowing their last wild oats before they left town. The air in the café was warm and getting warmer despite the constantly opening door. She took another gulp of too-hot coffee to fill her senses with something other than salty-sweet satisfaction and blissful contentment and made a beeline for Tim and the relative safety of the gift shop.
She expected a few customers, but for some reason seeing one leaning against the display counter while deep in conversation with Tim threw her. She stopped in the doorway, frowning at how close they were standing. Tim was very, very happily mated, something she knew for a fact. Also he tended to like men only as far as she knew. Seeing a woman in his space shouldn’t bother her, not even on behalf of pack brother Nathaniel.
She studied the woman in confusion. She was human, judging from her height. She was a head shorter than Tim, which meant Zoe would tower over her. Zoe felt like a hulking giant at the knowledge. Some humans claimed they didn’t mind so much, like Tiff. But Zoe was tall, even for a were female. She was height and strength and had been since fifteen.
She hunched her shoulders while the human laughed at something Tim said. The human was holding a paper cup of coffee much like Zoe’s, but Zoe could smell the sugar syrup in hers from where she stood. Vanilla, with low-fat milk and strong, bitter espresso, stirred with a birch stick. The human herself must have been more than a tourist, because Zoe couldn’t detect a trace of perfume about her, although something sensual drifted across the room, like oils made from flowers. Her hair, thick, bouncy black curls, was held in place with a pink scarf, and Zoe thought the woman might have been around fresh lavender sometime in the past few days.
Her lipstick smelled waxy, but not bad, and the purple-pink shade of it made Zoe wish she knew more about things like makeup. The human’s mouth was curvy and inviting. Her eyeliner was sharp and defined. There was a glisten to her dark skin, as if the heat had made her perspire a little, and Zoe felt her attention fall to her chest, the hint of shadow at the top of her breasts before her shirt hid them from view. She was built like a tiny, exquisite hourglass, with thighs that looked as soft as the plump outline of her upper arms.
She had muscle in those arms, in those legs, like someone who worked hard, but she was so yielding too, curvy and delicate. She smiled at Tim again, a beautiful smile, and leaned closer to him with her tank top showing much of her smooth skin, and her jeans tight over her backside, and the air was warmed milk and vanilla, like cream, and Zoe took another stumbling step forward.
Tim looked over first. He grinned at her like the bloodthirsty wolf he was, teeth always showing, even when he meant well, and then blinked when Zoe couldn’t make herself respond. Taking her eyes off the human woman seemed like an impossible task. Zoe wanted more of her coffee to wake herself up but couldn’t remember how to move the cup to her mouth.
“Zoe?” Tim asked slowly, while the human who smelled like cream and flowers turned to look at her. Her eyes were deep, dark brown, like tree bark or earth. She had a piercing at her eyebrow, and another at the side of her nose. Little silver hoops Zoe stared at in fascination.
“Zoe?” The human woman repeated. Her voice was soft too. Her gaze was not. It traveled over Zoe from her head to her toes.
“Zoe, did you leave the house in that?” Tim pressed, which at least allowed Zoe to move her head to glance at herself. She saw running shoes, because human feet did not have pads like the wolf. Gray sweat pants that had once been Nathaniel’s, cut off at the ankles and rolled down at the waist so they hung low on her hips. She paused at the pale, but flushed, skin of her abs, then stared at her black top for a moment before she remembered that it was, in fact, not a top but a sports bra.
Werewolves, at least, the wolves in this town, didn’t care about such things, but humans did. Zoe was basically half-naked in their eyes, and flung an anxious glance toward the human. The human stared at Zoe’s stomach for another moment while Zoe could feel beads of sweat inching slowly down toward her belly button. Then the human lifted her gaze and seemed to focus on Zoe’s arms.
Zoe’s arms were equally sweaty and flushed, only with the added bonus of freckles across the biceps. She wondered if her muscles were too big to human eyes. They’d used to say that when Zoe was growing up. Tiff hadn’t minded though. She’d even seemed to like them. Zoe missed her, even if they’d only gone out for a few months. But Tiff had left for school and Zoe would never have stopped her.
Tim froze in the middle of gesturing at her bra, which Zoe barely needed anyway, although perhaps the human did not think so, judging from her stares. Zoe should have put on more clothing. She didn’t own anything light, or pretty, or pink. Her dark red hair was short, shorter than it wanted to be, but she cut it regularly to keep the curls close to her head in a bob. She didn’t understand makeup, although it was lovely on this human.
Zoe inhaled again, vanilla pudding scent this time. Chocolate milk. Cinnamon rolls, the real kind, not the ones from the can she and Tim made. No one around them had any of those things, and yet she thought of them with every breath. Lilies too. Lilies and lavender and lilac. Spring scents in the fall didn’t make sense. Herbs and oils and healing mingled with comfort and sugar, forming textures and layers of good things and happy scent.
Zoe sank her teeth into her lower lip. The human’s eyes seemed to get darker, and wider. Her heart was a quick, rabbit thing, excited. Zoe’s pulse felt hot and heavy.
Tim glanced between them. She could see his head moving back and forth but couldn’t demand to know what the hell he was staring at. Maybe he smelled her confusion, because he spoke—carefully, like you spoke to feral weres and scared children. “Zoe, have you met my new friend here?”
The human suddenly smiled, bright and friendly. “I’m here every morning for coffee, and this is the first time I’ve caught you in here too. I didn’t know you were the Zoe he’s mentioned before.”
Something in that statement made Zoe straighten, but for the life of her, she couldn’t have said what. She took a deep breath while the human glanced at Little Wolf, who had an astonished look on his face, one he leaned over to share with someone else, probably Carl.
Zoe had forgotten all about Carl. She’d also forgotten words. “How…?” she began, although she had no idea what she was trying to say.
“Oh my God,” Tim exclaimed, but in nowhere near his usual tone of exasperation. “Zoe, oh my God!” He said it with wonder, and then a smile that lit up his face. Zoe frowned at him, more lost than ever until she turned to the human.
She was so little and pretty and breakable, soft and round and strong. Zoe smiled at her without thinking.
The human smiled back. “You always seem busy. This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen you not in uniform. I’m Cleo, by the way. I… It’s nice to finally meet you.” She paused there, then swallowed and held out her hand. Her short, rounded fingernails were painted clear and shiny. She had on jangling silver bracelets that fell against the delicate skin of her inner wrist. Zoe wanted to push them up and bite beneath them. She would very much like those fingers inside her. She needed that mouth on her, and her tongue pressed just there, at the human’s pulse point.
Zoe had the horrifying suspicion she was growling. She couldn’t hear it, but it would explain why the human’s heart was pounding.
Her attention fell, obviously, too obviously, to the thin tank top and that portion of bared skin, the hint of curving breasts and sweat. Zoe could feel the heat from that spot as surely as she could now hear her own heavy breathing. The warm, intimate place with the throb of blood beneath the surface smelled heavenly. Which she was happy to know, at last. This was the source of the scent that had called to her across the café and brought her here. She ought to be fine now that she knew, but she was silent and tense except for the loose, heady sound of her growl. She wondered if her eyes were brown or glinting yellow, and why she was so conscious of the fang now pressed hard into her lower lip.
Tim said something, her name maybe, trying to be calming, but Zoe shook her head to make him go away. She inhaled and dragged her gaze slowly up to the lovely throat and the wide, warm, prettily made-up eyes, and then down to Cleo’s crushed-berry mouth, and back to her throat and that bare skin. If Zoe put her face there, it would probably smell like home.
Home home home, her mind repeated, joyous and wild, and then finished her off with one shocking thought.
“Oh, you… you’re….” She tripped over her own words and ended in a soft whine that brought Tim rushing forward. Pack brother would save her. He’d keep her from ruining this. He was smart wolf. Crafty wolf. A wolf among the humans. He’d know what to do while she stumbled backwards in panic, and Mate’s eyes went wide with fear or disappointment.
“Nathaniel,” Tim said, saving her with one word, and Zoe listened, and fled before her mate could lose all faith in her.
Zoe managed to keep from tearing through the station to get to Nathaniel, but once she realized he was alone in his office, she burst through the door with enough energy to nearly take it off the hinges. She hadn’t done that since puberty, something that made her stop and try to act calm.
Obviously, that wouldn’t work around Nathaniel. Even if the door hadn’t tipped him off, Zoe’s appearance and scent would have given away her agitation. Nathaniel looked up from glaring at piles of paperwork that had built up during the busy time around the Full Moon Festival, then went very, very still.
“Zoe,” he greeted her, cautiously, as though she was Little Wolf in a fit of temper and he had to watch his step. “Can I help you?”
“I met my mate,” Zoe blurted, then gasped. Hearing the word was so different from thinking it. Someone outside agreed because they gasped too.
Zoe continued to stare anxiously at Nathaniel.
Nathaniel’s smile was slow, but as bright as Tim’s had been.
Oh God. Tim had known. Her face or her scent or something had given her away, so Tim had known before she had. That wasn’t fair. Someone who’d taken so long to recognize his own mate shouldn’t be so quick to identify hers.
But Zoe stared at Nathaniel’s smile and felt some of the tightness in her chest ease. This was good then. He wasn’t alarmed or worried.
She felt her mouth curve. Then she remembered the rest. “I left her there.” She opened her eyes wide and put a hand over her racing heart. “I left her there!” Zoe could still see the surprise on her mate’s face as Zoe had bolted from the café. “Oh God, I didn’t even speak to her. I just ran. I stared at her and I growled and then I ran. Oh shit. She’s going to think I’m a freak.”
Nathaniel considered her for several seconds, probably weighing how badly Zoe had fucked it up. But then he inclined his head, as if he wasn’t going to say she hadn’t fucked it up, but it wasn’t as bad as she thought. “She’s your mate, Zoe. That’s the most amazing thing about it. If anyone in the entire world will understand why you’d be afraid in that moment, it’s her. You only have to tell her.”
“Tell her?” Zoe pulled in a painful breath. “She’s not going to want to see me again.”
Zoe wasn’t wheezing, but she was close to it.
Nathaniel pushed away from his desk so he could come over to her and wrap his arm around her shoulders. Zoe didn’t know what was more astonishing, that he would hug her without asking first, or that she let him. He smelled so nice. Nathaniel always smelled nice, like family and dinner and man-smells—the good kind, like how Zoe imagined fathers on old human TV shows would smell. Tim said Nathaniel was like pine and smoke. That was close to what he was, but he didn’t remind Zoe of fire. Nathaniel had strength and heat, but he combed his fingers gently through her hair and let her feel small for a few moments.
He breathed in and out slowly, getting her to do the same, and then he lightly, just once, ran his fingertips down her cheek until she shuddered and calmed.
She was embarrassed to realize she was being coddled. She was not Little Wolf with a nightmare.
She pulled away and stalked over to the couch. After a small pause, she sat. Then she clasped her hands in front of her and stared at Nathaniel.
He stared back for a moment, his expression almost worried. But then he walked to his desk and sat down again without saying a word. He steepled his fingers, like he intended to wait her out. The horrible thing was, it would work. When Zoe had first arrived in town, eighteen, defensive about everything, and reluctant to talk about even the most harmless of subjects, Nathaniel had done the same thing until Zoe had given in and told him her favorite food.
Tim joked—or didn’t—that Nathaniel was evil. Zoe thought he was very, very patient, which could feel like the same thing when your insides were twisted and you didn’t know what to do or how to do it.
The phone lit up before Zoe could cave and tell him everything.
Her gaze went to it in horror. A call sent directly to Nathaniel’s office with no warning from the dispatcher usually meant Little Wolf, so of course, Nathaniel picked up the phone.
Zoe closed her eyes.
“Yes, she’s here,” Nathaniel answered before Tim could say a word. Tim was talking about her. He probably wouldn’t do that if Zoe’s mate was still with him, but Zoe tensed. Tim and her mate had already become friends. Zoe imagined her mate’s face, her smiles for Tim, her wide, blown pupils when she’d turned to Zoe, and how she’d stared, with her plush lips parted.
Zoe’s mouth fell open. “Oh.” She looked to Nathaniel. He was still smiling at her, because he was… well she hesitated to call her pack leader evil, but he was definitely pleased with the situation. “My mate desires me.” Already. Zoe hadn’t even had to try. She hadn’t known mating would be this wondrous, and yet terrifying.
“Is she breathing?” Tim asked, clearly audible to her ears even at a distance.
“Shut up,” Zoe barked at him.
Tim laughed softly. “Wow. Nathaniel, you don’t know how amazing that was. I’ve seen it happen before, but not to someone I know. I’m not an expert, but I think it well.”
“By your standards?” Nathaniel wondered, not without a hint of bitterness.
Whatever Tim had been about to say became a sort of a squawking sound mixed with sputtering.
Zoe suddenly became aware of the very real possibility that she might end up pining for her mate for months like Nathaniel had done, and that was one of the better possible outcomes. One of the ends that wasn’t madness, or depression, or a long, lonely, gray life. It didn’t matter that she’d never let herself dream of a forever after with someone the way Nathaniel always had. Now she had a chance at one, with someone amazing, and it might not happen.
She dropped down and put her head between her knees. They told anxious humans to do this all the time in First Aid Training. It had to do something good.
“Zoe?” Nathaniel’s chair squeaked as if he’d leaned toward her.
“Aw, Zoe, don’t freak out.” Tim’s words, part command, part plea, carried through the silence. “Come on. We’ve got this. Because trust me, this town’s rules make some sense, but they aren’t set in stone. I can handle everything for you, just say the word.”
Zoe tried to make herself take in air while imagining what kind of destruction Little Wolf might wreak upon the town in the name of her love life. He’d do it. That was the thing. At some point in the past few months, he’d become this person she’d find sleeping next to her on the couch, and sliding cups of coffee toward her in the morning. Zoe didn’t have a lot of friends. Neither did Tim. Maybe that was why he was so earnest about this. The problem was he was Timothy Dirus. He was nearly unstoppable.
She made a gurgling sound, like worried, hysterical laughter might burst out of her, and then almost choked when Nathaniel growled.
This growl was not friendly, or playful. The sound, loud and forceful, was not meant to communicate anything but authority.
Zoe sat up straight and swallowed any noises she might have been making. Tim shut up. People in the outer room went so silent it was like they were frozen.
Nathaniel let out another sound, huffing in satisfaction to have the world quiet at last, before he focused back on Zoe.
Zoe met his serious, steady gaze. The sheriff’s gaze. Pack brother was town leader alpha.
“Breathe, Zoe,” he ordered, voice still rough like wolf, and Zoe breathed.
“Holy crap…” Tim panted brokenly on the other end of the line, probably turned on. Not that it took much with him.
“Now go on,” Nathaniel continued after Zoe had taken several breaths. He was still mostly growling.
Tim sighed heavily for it. “Not fair, Nathaniel. Not fair at all,” he complained, longing and sweet enough to make Zoe blush if she hadn’t used up her blushes earlier. Then he let out a longer sigh and seemed to focus. “Zoe, listen. It’s okay. It’s better than you think anyway. It went really well. Even Carl thinks so. What?” Zoe couldn’t make out what Carl must have said in reply. Whatever it was made Tim snort. “Not on the floor in here! Aw, gross. Zoe, you’d better not.”
“Little. Wolf.” Nathaniel rubbed his neck as if his mate was killing him. The sound of work resuming came from the outer room.
“No, really,” Tim carried on smoothly. “Really, Zoe. It’s okay. It really is. I took care of it. I’ll take care of anything you want me to.”
“Run while you can,” Nathaniel told Zoe immediately. His tone was earnest, but he had that I love my Little Wolf light in his eye.
“Hey,” Tim protested quietly, and went silent while Nathaniel rumbled softly at him in an apology that some others might have been shocked to witness.
Normally Zoe would look away during an intimate moment like that, but it was strangely fascinating to watch them and realize that might be her cooing at someone someday. She’d never cooed in her life. She didn’t even think most humans would count growling as cooing.
But her mate would. That’s what mate meant. Of all the people in the world, this one would most understand Zoe. And Zoe would most understand her.
If they ever got to know one another.
“She’s going to think I’m weird,” Zoe confessed in quiet despair and lowered her gaze to the floor. “I’m tall, and were, and I ran out on her without even saying hello. She was looking at me, like maybe she could like me, and she was—” Zoe licked sweat from her upper lip “—she was pretty. She was lovely and smelled good and I ran.”
“Okay.” Tim cleared his throat like an old general about to give a speech. “First things first. Her name, in case you missed it while you were panting at her—which is all right, Zoe, because she was practically panting too—is Cleo. Everything is all right, Zoe. Better even. Because she didn’t yell in your face, right? Or run away from you. And she lives here now, which is great, because you won’t have to worry about her leaving. Like some wolves do.”
Nathaniel eased back in his seat but didn’t say a word. His gaze went to the ceiling. Zoe had a strange urge to get up and hold his hand. Mating was a fearful business.
“But, I ran. And…” Zoe waved at herself. Tim had been right to question her choices. There was no reason for her to be so distracted and eager to run into town that she’d forget to put on clothes—unless she considered that her mate had been in town for weeks, leaving traces of herself everywhere. “I finally found her and I left here there. She’s going to think—”
“That you are charming and wonderful and great,” Tim interrupted. “Here I am, entertaining the new girl in town with stories about life among the weres, because, you know, I figured she could use some warning, and living here does take some getting used to, and this whole time it turns out I’ve been describing Zoe to her mate. It’s enough to make me even more curious about human magic. I really wish the wizard was more forthcoming about the subject, instead of telling me to study. Humans. I’ve been studying. But I think human magic requires thinking like a human, and I’m not exactly that, am I? Or were enough for this town’s rules to make perfect sense either.”
“Timothy Dirus.” Nathaniel closed his eyes. Zoe couldn’t tell if he was exasperated with his mate’s rambling or soothed by his voice. Likely both.
Zoe was not soothed. Not at all. “What did you tell her about me?”
“Um.” Tim hummed. “I told her you had to go because you are a deputy and you heard a disturbance somewhere with your werewolf hearing.” Tim was such a liar. His time with the humans had taught him that.
Zoe sighed for it though. “Thank you.” She was going to have to tell her mate the truth eventually, but for now, it was good to know her mate didn’t think Zoe was a complete idiot.
“Pfft.” Tim dealt with sincere gratitude the way he dealt with all real emotions, by ignoring them as long as he could, something Zoe normally approved of. “She asked about you,” Tim went on, sly and pleased at the same time. Despite how he claimed to only be good at sarcasm, Tim could be genuinely kind at the strangest, but best, moments. “Did you hear her say she’d noticed you around? You are so in. All you have to do is actually talk to her, and then you can spring the mate stuff on her later. Don’t wait for that ‘recognizing the mate bond’ bullshit this town loves so much. The bond is there whether you know it is or not, and the effects are going to be just as strong, even if you might feel them in a different way. Without ever knowing the name for it, I would have been drawn to him, Zoe.” For one moment, for one small moment, Tim’s voice was quiet and hurt, and Nathaniel’s silence was almost raw. Then Tim perked up again. “Talk to her, get to know each other, acknowledge the bond as soon as it’s safe, and then pounce. Hmm,” he hesitated. “Humans take a while to even feel the bond, at least according to the wizard. So how did the weres in this town used to handle it when their mate was human?”
“Claim first, ask questions later,” Nathaniel commented, still with his eyes shut. “It led to… problems. There is a reason the rules are there, Little Wolf.”
“Rules always have exceptions, Sheriff Big Dick,” Tim replied crisply. Zoe would have been shocked at his tone if she hadn’t gotten used to his casual insolence these past few months. “Informed decisions are better than instinctual pounce-and-fucks. Carl, I swear to God….” Tim began to mutter something, probably at a cackling old man.
If Zoe’s mate had been were, that might have happened, that pounce-and-fuck, as Tim put it. They might have leapt at each other right there in the café, like something out of a story. Zoe put her hand over her mouth, trying not to lick or bite in frustrated arousal at the idea of a claim like that. But her mate was human, and that meant Zoe had to take care. That’s what it had to mean. Humans didn’t understand. They had to be calmed, and wooed, and then claimed.
Zoe wanted to learn everything about her, her mate. She could be patient. She could listen, if not talk. She could put on clothes, and remember to eat with manners, and not bite or lick until she was given permission to.
She could, for her mate.
“Cleo,” Zoe sighed the name.
“Cleo,” Tim repeated brightly, as though no subject change had occurred. “She works as a masseuse at the Flores—don’t growl.”
Zoe bit her lip to keep from letting the sound escape. She was a modern werewolf. She shouldn’t be upset that her mate touched others intimately for a living. But perhaps if Zoe claimed her, perhaps if Zoe bit at her neck and the soft skin of her thigh, perhaps if Zoe rubbed her scent at her arms and between her breasts, then it would be tolerable to have the scent of others near her too.
“She got into town a few weeks ago,” Tim carried on. “She’s not seeing anyone, and she’s into you. All you have to do is go to her. Bring her something she likes. Ask her to go get food with you. You can do this.”
“Shut up,” Zoe told him again, because Little Wolf’s gentle encouragement might kill her.
Nathaniel startled her by putting a hand to the back of her neck. She hadn’t heard him move. He always had been able to move fast, and deadly quiet when he chose to be. But this time his intent was calming support, and after a pause, Zoe let herself lean into it.
“Come on, Zo’.” Nathaniel’s voice was low and gentle. “I’ll get you home. You can shower and get ready for work, and give yourself time to adjust to the thought. She’s not going anywhere.”
“Work?” Oh right. Zoe had a shift starting soon. But Nathaniel was right. As much as the idea of finding her mate appealed to her, Zoe was in no state to woo anyone. She wasn’t panicking anymore, but she wasn’t ready to face her again yet without risking another incident.
“Work,” Nathaniel repeated firmly. “A nice long workday to keep you occupied while your senses calm down, and maybe give you an excuse to be out and about if you should find yourself wandering through town tracking bits of her scent.”
“You…” Tim drew in a sharp breath, making Zoe glance toward the phone resting on the desk. “You… did that?”
Nathaniel ignored him. “And if you also find yourself staring up at her window in the middle of the night, trying not to howl, it’s okay. We’ve all been there.” Nathaniel was just being kind, but Zoe nodded anyway and turned for a moment to rub her cheek against his hand.
“I didn’t… you…” Tim was sputtering again, but softly, in almost a whine. “Big Wolf, you didn’t…. You….”
“It’ll be all right. You’ll see.” Nathaniel reassured Zoe, although he had to hear Tim’s distress on the other end of the line. “Your mate already likes you. And everyone panics in those first moments.”
“You did not.” Tim’s objection barely carried through the phone.
“Yes, I did.” Nathaniel petted her while finally acknowledging his mate. “And so did you. And so did Zoe. So don’t overthink it, Zo’.” Nathaniel paused. “That’s Little Wolf’s job.”
“Hey!” Tim raised his voice again for the protest, and Nathaniel reached over to hang up the phone.
“Honeymoon already over?” Zoe wondered, the words thick and wet, as if she’d been crying when she hadn’t. Nathaniel hadn’t meant that stuff about sitting beneath Tim’s window, right? That had to have been that weird way he had of teasing Tim until they were both wound up. It had to be.
Nathaniel clucked his tongue, and Zoe realized he was smiling again. She lifted her head in surprise.
“Still discovering things,” he explained, as if he knew what she’d really been asking. “Still thinking he’s the strangest person I’ve ever met. Still drawn to him and fascinated by the way he thinks, and calmed by the way he presses close. More in love than I thought I would ever be. Upset with myself for hurting him a moment ago. Pleased that now he knows what I felt. It’s… complicated. It’s mating, Zoe, marriage.”
“Oh,” Zoe repeated herself from earlier.
“Oh,” Nathaniel echoed back at her, with an expression so pleased it made her chest ache. “You can take it.” This growl was warmer, but it still demanded her attention. “You can handle it,” he insisted, then grinned at her like Tim’s visiting imp friend had. “And you have a Dirus on your side.”
Zoe swallowed. “You know that’s horrifying, right?”
“Your mate won’t stand a chance,” Nathaniel agreed. “Luckily there are ways to distract him.” He probably meant his dick, but thankfully didn’t say it. “And he does mean well.”
“Yeah?” Zoe didn’t mean to sound so surprised, and it got her a serious, dark-eyed look from the sheriff.
“He loves you. And he wants you to be happy.” Nathaniel stroked her cheek again. “So do I,” he added, fully aware she wanted to squirm at the emotion in his voice. “So will she,” Nathaniel finished, soft and deadly. He was exactly as evil as Tim had always insisted he was. Zoe hadn’t understood before. Perhaps it took a mate’s eyes to see the real person, and know them, and love them anyway.
“Oh,” she said for what felt like the thousandth time, and let Nathaniel calm her.
Being a fancy hotel, the Flores had discreet parking in the rear so nothing blocked the entrance, although a driveway did lead almost all the way up to the doors. But only people like Silas Dirus, who had a driver to park his car for him, ever pulled up to the front. Inside the two huge doors was the great hall, built by some timber baron back in the day, who’d bought—or taken—the rest of the house from the original Spanish owner. The timber baron, mysteriously, had left town not long after that.
Zoe had always figured he’d been run off by the early were occupants of the forest he’d been intent on stripping away. He seemed like he must have been a massive asshole. His great hall looked like someplace Teddy Roosevelt would have hung out in, all human and macho and stinking of money.
Of course, even if Zoe had loved the hall, she wouldn’t have felt like stepping inside tonight. She stared at the entrance, the large doors, the ornate carvings, the lights flaring to life along the walkway. Night came early in the mountains, once the sun fell behind the trees. Lights were on in many of the hotel’s rooms. While Zoe had been waiting, several guests had walked out, all dressed up, on their way to try to hook a werewolf before their vacation time was up.
Zoe felt very obvious in her uniform. She was off-duty, which meant she’d removed the gun she was required to carry but had never used, although a detail like that wasn’t very noticeable to the tourists. From them, she got a leer, a respectful nod, and a tipsy salute.
Thankfully, none of them stopped to talk to her or ask why she’d parked her truck directly across from the Flores. Not her brightest move, but then she’d never intended to wait here this long.
She should have just gone inside the hotel. She should have walked up, asked Greg or whoever was working the front desk where the spa was, and then she should have marched right in there and spoken to her mate.
Except she had no reason to charge in there, and anyway, storming in to see one’s mate did not sound like a good plan to get them to like you.
Neither did leaning against the door of her truck and staring forlornly at the hotel. She’d been kind of hoping a reason to go inside would occur to her now that she’d decided to formally introduce herself. Two whole days to think about it, and in the end, the desire to see Cleo again had outweighed her common sense.
Zoe sighed and lowered her head. Her skin itched. The moon wasn’t close to full, but she could feel it rising. If she stayed here any longer, she was going to end up on all fours, pining for her mate in the street the way that Greenleaf had rather notoriously done a few months ago.
Although, the witch had relented and let him up, and now the two of them were almost inseparable, so maybe there was something to be said for it. Nathaniel had done his share of sad howling too, but that had been during the full moon, and anyway, his situation had been special. Zoe wasn’t special; she was just too awkward to go say hello.
“Oh! Hey!” a familiar voice called out from some distance away. Zoe raised her head to track the sound and felt like a deer catching the scent of a predator in the wind when she saw Cleo coming around from the side of the hotel.
Cleo had on black pants and a black top, and long, open coat or shirt of some thin material. She had a small duffel bag in one hand and the other was held up in a small wave.
Zoe waved back, then felt like a dork. “Hey.” At least she’d remembered to speak this time, even if she had to clear her throat to do it.
As if that was an invitation, Cleo slightly altered her course to head in Zoe’s direction. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around the hotel before.” She was all in pink where she wasn’t in the hotel’s required black, a pretty shade Zoe didn’t know the name of. Her springy curls were arranged in two bunches near the top of her head, and she wore big pink plastic hoops at her ears. Pink and black eyeliner made her eyes extra large and captivating. To complete the lovely picture she made, she was smiling.
Up close she smelled like lavender soap and sea salt and clay, like how the inside of a spa might smell. Beneath that she was flour and coffee and kitchen staples, warm sex and mate. Zoe nearly closed her eyes. As it was her mouth fell open as she got hot all over.
“I….” Zoe opened her eyes and found her mate close and patiently waiting for her to speak. She recalled that she’d been asked a question, but couldn’t seem to untangle her tongue enough to explain her presence here tonight. She had no reason to wander into the Flores. Admitting to wooing a mate held no shame, but humans wanted something first, didn’t they? Something less permanent than an announcement about forever. Cleo wouldn’t want Zoe barely saying hello before she announced they were, maybe, meant to be.
Zoe knew she was not the too tall, too strong, too fierce girl she’d been in her teenage years among the humans. But the wolf remembered being unwanted and unclaimed. It remembered no touches, no pack. No one took in werewolf children except the desperate. Weres were uncontrollable, violent, they said. As if Zoe had ever picked fights. She’d only kicked the asses that had needed kicking.
She tried to make herself seem less imposing. She moved her shoulders in an almost casual shrug. “It’s a nice night.”
Cleo’s work shirt was a tight black t-shirt with a scooped neckline. Somehow the small amount of exposed skin was tantalizing. The outline of her clavicle made Zoe bite down on her lower lip. Cleo’s neck was smooth and enticing next to the blushing pink of her earrings.
Zoe dragged her gaze away, but she didn’t think she was fooling anyone. Cleo was still smiling. It was a knowing smile, happy and hot. Making her react like that was the most satisfying moment in the past several days, and Zoe had spent a considerable amount of time in the shower, dreaming about her mate and making herself come.
She straightened her shoulders and tried not to whimper.
“You’re back in uniform.” Cleo made a small noise in her throat, not quite a hum, that slid through Zoe like liquid heat. She had an urge to cross her legs the way she had when she’d first seen Charlie’s Angels as a teenager and hadn’t been able to sit still. She felt noticed in a peculiar way, appreciated without being scrutinized.
She smoothed a hand down the side of her shirt, free of Tim and Nathaniel’s love scents for once, drenched in her own anxious longing. She tilted her head to the side and smiled without showing her teeth.
“So are you,” she answered, aware the words didn’t exactly make sense, although her body language would have, to a were. Offering her throat, even a little, had her breathing harder.
“This?” Cleo wasn’t a were, so Zoe tried not to take it personally that Cleo didn’t respond to the small, nonverbal attempt at flirtation. Zoe had known going into this that she’d have to use words. Humans were picky like that.
Cleo pulled at her shirt. “I like that they provide a wardrobe that’s not awful, and one that’s easy to clean. But it can get boring. Normally I would have showered and changed into my own clothes before leaving, but I was hungry and wanted to get home, so I figured I’d bring them back tomorrow and toss ‘em in the laundry.” She paused. “Oh right, your nose. I bet I stink like sweat and essential oils to you.”
Zoe quickly shook her head. “No, that’s good. I mean, you’re good.” She took a breath filled with metallic salts and ripe apricots. “You smell good,” she summed up, still breathless, and then flung out a hand in near panic. “There is, I should explain. The thing is nothing smells bad, especially not you. I mean, I’m a wolf.” She shut herself up, hard.
Cleo tugged at one earring in what Zoe hoped wasn’t a nervous gesture. “So I smell, but I don’t smell bad?” She summed up with a question in her voice. “Okay.” That was a little more doubtful, but not repulsed. “What do you smell?”
“Um.” Zoe was torn between discretion and honesty. “Everything?” Cleo’s eyes widened. Zoe called it back. “Not everything. A lot of things. I can’t tell what you’re thinking, but some people broadcast what they’re feeling through their scent.” And body language, but that was probably something Zoe should wait to mention, like how next to fear, arousal was the strongest and easiest scent to identify. “It’s different for everyone. Some weres are more factual, others get poetic.”
Cleo tugged at her earring again. Zoe belatedly realized Cleo hadn’t been asking to learn all about weres, she’d been curious about what she smelled like to Zoe. So Zoe learned forward about an inch, and deliberately inhaled. She let her eyes fall closed to filter out everything that wasn’t Cleo. “The spa. Herbs and oils. Sweet almond. Cucumber and water. Something on your hands, like soap but more… gentle? Then… perspiration, clean, salt, coffee. Skin, flushed with health, natural as pollen. Your scent is orange, yellow and pink. Nasturtium, the flowers. Not on you, but you remind me of them. They’re….” Zoe cut herself off before she could say edible out loud, and opened her eyes.
Cleo paused to lick her lower lip. “I guess I don’t need to ask if I smell bad then.” Her heart beat hard for a few moments when she met Zoe’s gaze.
Zoe slowly shook her head. “You smell very good.” Her voice was husky.
Cleo’s stare was difficult to read, although Zoe couldn’t look away. She thought, maybe, Cleo was pleased but embarrassed.
After a while she gave a small laugh. “There’s a whole industry built around perfumes and then you say something so…” Cleo trailed off and regarded Zoe curiously. “Tim says scent is a large part of how you all communicate. He also said sometimes I’ll have to prompt weres to speak. I just wasn’t expecting….” Again, she left her thought unfinished. “It feels rude though, constantly asking people to explain what they mean. But if it isn’t, I should do it more.”
Zoe wrinkled her nose, more at her own failures than anything Cleo had said. “I know I don’t talk very much by human standards?” It came out as a question.
“Oh no, it’s fine.” Zoe stepped closer, as if she needed Zoe to know she didn’t mind how Zoe smelled her. God, Zoe hoped that was true. “It’s going to take some getting used to, truth be told. Let me know if I ever bother you.”
“As if you could,” Zoe immediately replied, then winced. That was too eager. She wiped her palms down her shirt and then crossed her arms. Except that was not a good attitude to take with her potential mate, so she had to uncross them. “Um.” She cast about for a safer topic. “Do you normally leave work this way?”
“There is a back entrance, for the employees.” Zoe waved toward the hotel without taking her eyes from Zoe. “You look like you’re staking out the place. Are you?”
“Um.” Oh shit, Zoe was bad at this. “Kind of?”
Sitting and mooning over a mate was acceptable, according to Nathaniel. And Zoe hadn’t been spying on her or anything weird. But on the other hand, Tim had not been pleased to learn he’d made Nathaniel so sad and dejected he’d resorted to staking out Tim’s boarding house to be nearer to him.
She scratched the back of her neck. She still had no answer. “Uh.”
“Are you okay?” Cleo, to Zoe’s total confusion, came even closer. She seemed concerned. “Is this a body language thing? Tim warned me about those too.”
Little Wolf had told her almost everything. Zoe didn’t know whether to growl at him for it or sigh in relief. At least the presence of her mate was as calming as it was exciting. A few deep breaths and Zoe was feeling more forgiving. She cleared her throat. “Yeah. I’m fine. I just… I wasn’t expecting a direct question.”
Cleo grinned unexpectedly. “Well, when I moved here, they told me this town was full of werewolves sniffing the truth. It sounded great, to be honest. An entire town of people uninterested in deception of any kind. You guys don’t even respect deodorant. That’s commitment.” She ended with a small shrug. “I kind of expected to see a pamphlet about it.”
“Ah.” Zoe lowered her head to mumble. “Yeah. Little Wolf is working on that. He said we weren’t clear to humans. He… kind of took over the city council. He does that. Takes over things. But he’s right, about some things anyway. We don’t lie, and we expect the same in return, if you can. It’s, um, we aren’t offended by lies as much as… annoyed? That someone would try with so many of us around.” The concept was difficult to explain without reminding humans that they were surrounded by creatures who could hear their every heartbeat.
Living in Wolf’s Paw involved a delicate balance of being exactly the wolf you were born to be without regard to the rest of the human-run world, and yet carefully not drawing too much attention from those humans. “Wolves don’t really lie—not that we can’t, it’s that we tend to be bad at it, so we don’t bother.” Having said that much, Zoe ventured a little more. “I always thought that would make it easier if humans knew that. But tourists can still be nervous about things.”
“You mean sex,” Cleo agreed warmly, with a nod. “This town’s whole ‘sex etiquette’ thing. That does help, actually. Wolves might not speak much, but they don’t lie.”
If she wanted an intelligent response, Zoe didn’t have one. Her brain had momentarily frozen at hearing her mate talk about sex.
“The uh, sex etiquette thing?” she got out at last, in a higher voice than usual.
The expression that crossed Cleo’s face was wicked. Her heart was faster again too, as if she knew what she’d done to Zoe. Zoe’s eyes had probably glazed over, and her skin had likely flushed red.
“The sex thing,” Cleo repeated, with an alluring shiver. “I know it’s why the town is famous, and a lot of people come here for that, but have you seen yourselves? It’s a bit intimidating to know we have to ask you guys out.”
“Only the first time,” Zoe answered blankly, then shook away some of her mental fog. “But you know the traditions aren’t only about… that, right?” Self-preservation meant Zoe stopped herself from saying sex in close proximity to an interested Cleo. Zoe’s instincts were already urging her to bare her throat again and whimper.
“Sex?” Cleo rocked the ground beneath Zoe’s feet with another delicate, flirtatious wriggle, this one accompanied by a cute wrinkling of her nose. “I didn’t expect you to be so shy about it, considering the town’s reputation. But it’s kind of sweet to see you looking less fierce because I said one tiny word.” She inclined her head toward Zoe and lowered her voice. “Should I say it again?”
“So you and Tim seem friendly!” Zoe desperately moved away from the subject of sex before she fell against the truck and whined for whatever kisses her mate might give her.
“So odd.” Cleo let out a noisy sigh. “You aren’t at all what I thought you’d be.” Zoe wondered if she looked as hurt as that as she was, because Cleo shook her head and went on. “You, well, cops, in general, are people I avoid. And you always seemed very serious when I saw you around town. But you’re a marshmallow, aren’t you?”
“I am not!” Zoe nearly howled indignantly. She straightened from her slouch against the truck. “Nathaniel Neri relies on me and calls me pack mate. Deputy. Friend.” She huffed, loudly, and lifted her chin to make it clear she would stand her ground.
With Zoe at full height, Cleo seemed even tinier. But though her heart was pounding, and how she had to tilt her head up to stare at Zoe, she didn’t take a step back.
Zoe could have scared her. The realization had Zoe ducking her head down, although the wolf in her was thrumming with pride to note her mate hadn’t run away.
She peeked over. “You’re not afraid?” Every human in her high school had been happy to taunt Zoe until the moment she’d let her eyes flash, happy to call her names when they were in groups, but they had all tried to run away the moment they were alone with her. “That’s why Wolf’s Paw has the rules. It’s why so many wolves live here. But you aren’t scared?” Her voice went soft. “Really?”
“I’m small. Pretty much anyone could take me in a fight. I can’t be afraid of everyone.” Cleo spoke slowly, with her gaze intent on Zoe. “Besides, Tim said baring the throat was important, and you’ve been baring yours to me since I came over here.”
Zoe stopped moving. Oh, her mate was smart, so smart, and Tim hadn’t warned her. “Yes,” she admitted, and clenched her jaw. Apparently, Zoe was going to act as petulant as Little Wolf, and not even her mate’s presence could stop her. “So?”
Cleo lifted both eyebrows and then cracked a wide, wide smile.
Zoe raised her head again. It was humiliating enough that her attempts at flirting had been noticed, and it hadn’t mattered. Of course something else was probably wrong as well. Zoe had probably misbuttoned her uniform or looked as awkward around someone so delicate and fairy-like as she always did. Cleo continued to stare, so Zoe wiped at her mouth and cheeks. She’d eaten dinner not too long ago, and she was a notoriously messy eater. “What? Do I have something on my face?”
“Just those cute freckles,” Cleo answered without hesitation. “You have some all over the rest of you too. I noticed that the other day. It was another nice surprise after getting to see you close up with your shirt off. Very nice.”
Zoe opened her mouth, then closed it. She thought she might burst into flames.
Cleo stepped closer, surrounding Zoe with her healing/warmth/allure scent and flower softness. “I figure, since you’ve been letting me know it’s okay if I ask, that I should go for it.”
“Go for it?” Zoe repeated blankly, and bumped into the truck. Somehow, even with the town’s rules, she’d thought more wooing would be required before this might happen.
She stayed flustered the longer Cleo considered her. “Zoe,” Cleo pronounced her name carefully. “This is me expressing interest first.” She paused there. “That is how it’s done here? I’m not being too formal or anything? I don’t want to get my sex etiquette confused.”
Zoe’s heart kicked against her ribs. For one moment she’d been soaring, hitting the ground hurt. She swallowed and looked away. “Sex etiquette,” she echoed quietly.
“Oh.” The fall of Cleo’s shoulders made Zoe turn to her again. “You aren’t answering. Did I do it wrong? Or maybe you don’t like humans? Or girls? Or—?”
“I like girls,” Zoe interrupted. She was an idiot, but she couldn’t allow her mate to go on without at least knowing Zoe desired her. “I like you,” she added, although even her feelings for Tiff hadn’t matched the up-and-down storm of emotions from merely speaking to her potential mate. “I like you a lot. But you didn’t say.” She had to clench her hands into fists to keep going. “I’ll say yes. But you didn’t tell me what you were asking for. Sex, or… more.”
She didn’t quite plead for Cleo to ask for more, but her softly hopeful tone made her feel as small and delicate as the human in front of her.
Cleo’s smile returned, big and bright. Zoe stood up to bask in it as if it was the light of the moon.
“A date?” Cleo offered. “Dinner?”
“Yes.” Zoe had the word out before Cleo’s second question was finished.
“Great!” Cleo was so happy. Zoe would do anything to keep her that way. Which, at least for the moment, involved standing there while Cleo dug a cellphone from her bag. “Did I ever introduce myself to you?” She stopped. “Please don’t think I have no skills. I’m not usually like this.”
Zoe nearly asked if Cleo was magic, but held it back. Humans touched by magic were supposed to be able to feel the bond faster, but Zoe remembered a lot of humans could be touchy about that subject. Anyway, nothing about Cleo made her nose itch. “Are you a healer?” she wondered instead, because many of the human “natural” healers used magic in their practices, even if some called it by other names. “I don’t need an introduction,” she changed the subject quickly. “Tim told me your name.”
“Well, he didn’t tell me yours. What’s your last name?” Cleo typed something into her phone, then waited.
“Browne,” Zoe filled in obediently.
“Deputy Zoe Browne.” Cleo flashed a mischievous smile. “Can I get your number?”
“I don’t… own a cell phone.” Like that, Zoe was reminded that she was the sort of person who had stuck two bobby pins in her hair that morning to keep it out of her face and hadn’t checked a mirror since.
But again, Cleo didn’t seem to mind how awkward, or how non-human, she was. She did stop briefly, as if anyone not owning a phone threw her. But Zoe could actually see her reasoning why a werewolf might not require one.
“Whenever you want, I’ll be free.” Zoe was desperate and eager and her mate already knew it. Zoe had come out here to see her, and bared her throat. Zoe had told her she smelled like flowers. She’d already said yes. She saw no point in trying to play it cool. Her mate ought to know that.
Cleo parted her lips, although for a second no sound emerged. “Okay. Wolves are honest. I don’t think I fully grasped the concept until now.”
Zoe thought about repeating that she liked Cleo. But it was simpler to lift her chin. With the top two buttons of her uniform undone, she wasn’t showing much skin beyond the top of her throat, but she was showing enough.
“Friday.” Cleo was out of breath. “Friday is good. With my schedule. We can get dinner, or whatever you want.” When Zoe stared and nodded, she went on. She still hadn’t caught her breath. “We can meet at the café, if you like. Around seven? And we can decide on a place to eat then.”
Zoe nodded again. Her mouth was too dry to speak. She belatedly realized she had just agreed to eat food in front of her tiny, perfect mate, but she couldn’t call it back to suggest a movie or something instead. Cleo was bouncing into motion and talking excitedly about their dinner already.
“I can look up places. Or you can tell me best local spots.” She tucked her phone into her bag and went on with a nervous energy Zoe completely understood. “I want to say, forget it, let’s go to dinner now, but I don’t know if I can without making a fool of myself. Also, I want to dress up for you.” She put a hand to her mouth as if she’d surprised herself. “I can’t believe I told you that.”
“I don’t know how to dress up,” Zoe confessed in a rush. “But I want to look good for you too.” What would she even wear? Her one good vest? Tim would have so much to say about that. She shook her head. “I don’t really care about clothes. How you look right now is fine with me. More than fine.”
“Yeah?” Cleo’s duffel bag fell the ground. “Then why are we waiting?”
Zoe was at a loss. “I thought humans wanted to.”
“We have to. We’re liars.” Cleo’s gaze made Zoe feel like the moon itself. “We need the time to be more sure. But wolves don’t. You know. And you want. And you can tell when we do.”
Zoe had never seen a human grasp this so quickly. Her mate was smart, and adaptable, and brave. Zoe was going to love her in no time at all.
Cleo nodded too. “Then let’s go.”
“I thought weres had to eat all the time.” Cleo’s comment caught Zoe in the middle of tearing a roll into minuscule pieces and slowly nibbling each one. The rolls were good, but Zoe desperately wanted to cover them in butter and shove them in her mouth. She also wanted the meatballs and red sauce and spaghetti on Cleo’s plate, and not the soup she’d ordered.
Zoe froze guiltily the way she had when she’d opened the door to the restaurant for Cleo and Cleo had turned to thank her in time to see Zoe trying to discreetly inhale more of her scent. The opening doors thing was embarrassing enough, an instinctual need to show her mate she’d be good for her, but the sniffing thing was mostly because Zoe had hoped it would calm her down. She didn’t want to do anything too stupid on their date.
Their date. She still couldn’t quite believe it was happening already. She hadn’t had days to worry over it. It didn’t seem real.
But Cleo was sitting across from her in Giorgio’s, a restaurant known for its low key romantic atmosphere as much as its garlic bread and chicken parm. Cleo had a glass of wine, and somehow the smell of the Chianti combined with Cleo’s nervous excitement was making Zoe light-headed.
“Are you not hungry? Did I choose a bad place?” Cleo put down her fork and didn’t seem inclined to finish her story about her first college roommate.
“I ate earlier.” This wasn’t a lie, but it felt like one. Zoe immediately sighed at herself and lowered her gaze to her plate, and her nearly untouched soup. “I don’t… I’m a messy eater. I was trying to be neat.”
“But you’re hungry?” Cleo pressed. But her eyes widened when Zoe still hesitated. “There are other weres here, and they’re eating.” She glanced at the tables around them, filled with beings and humans alike on dates, or grabbing a casual meal. “With enthusiasm,” she added. “It’s nice that you want me to think well of you, but I’d rather you were comfortable with me.” She gave Zoe a gentle smile.
She probably used that smile and that even, soft voice when dealing with her clients to help them relax.
Zoe gave her a smile in return, but then tore another chunk of bread. “I grew up among humans,” she admitted as quietly as she could, although it still drew the attention of some of the weres in their immediate area. She fought the urge to hunch down and raised her head instead. She lifted her lip in a silent snarl at them, then remembered Cleo and ducked down again.
“I don’t understand.” Cleo startled her completely by taking her hand across the table.
Zoe let the bread fall onto the tablecloth and stared at her in amazement. “I was in the system,” she heard herself explaining, just like that, focused entirely on her mate and not on the words she rarely said aloud. “Weres burn a lot of energy, especially as teenagers. So we eat a lot, anything, but protein is what we need the most. Most human foster homes don’t want the expense or trouble of a were. We grow fast and eat too much. We need touch most of the time, as well, and plenty of space around the full moon.” She didn’t mention the nightmare of puberty on werewolf senses. “Money was limited for food as it was. No one believed, or wanted to believe, how much we’d need. So when I’d get food, I’d eat as much as I could, as fast as I could. I’ve never quite broken the habit. It’s… not attractive.”
Cleo squeezed her hand. “That’s a fucking crime. Excuse my language. But it is.” She frowned. “How did you end up in the system, if you don’t mind me asking? I thought the sheriff was your brother. You don’t look alike, but I thought, that happens, you know?”
Cleo’s hand was warm and very soft. Her thumb at Zoe’s wrist was distracting. Her voice and scent were so soothing. “My brother?” Zoe’s strength left her. She would answer any questions Cleo had, not that she’d been resisting in the first place. “Nathaniel is… he is… I never had a home, and he knew it, and he made sure I had one, that I will always have one. When I came here, I’d never had a room of my own, space of my own, and I kept all my stuff in a bag for a whole year. Then he asked me if I’d like shelves.” The memory was a good one. “Out of nowhere, he says he wants to try carpentry. With shelves. I said yes to make him happy, and we built shelves together in my room. I ended up doing most of it, and then hated how empty they were when I was done. I didn’t realize he was tricking me into decorating my den. My space. I….” Nathaniel was more than brother, but the term would do. “Yes, brother, if you want.”
“Oh.” Cleo’s gaze was soft. “Well, I’m glad he was there for you. And that you aren’t, um, into him, if you don’t mind me saying so. You said you like girls, but he’s a little… I mean. Damn. You know.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. “I know.” How Nathaniel had the patience to deal with his admirers was beyond her.
“But you guys aren’t like that,” Cleo reiterated, her voice a little more firm. The hint of jealousy sent a zing down Zoe’s spine.
“No, he’s family.” Zoe calmed her mate’s insecurity, and then blinked in surprise at how easily she’d said that sentence. “Nathaniel is family,” she said again, boldly, and then perked up. Zoe had family, and a potential mate who had narrowed eyes when she thought of Zoe with someone else. She repeated herself in amazement. “He’s family and he’s mated.”
“Mated?” Cleo took her hand away, but only to pick up her fork. She glanced pointedly down, and didn’t resume eating until Zoe—delicately, with restraint—had some of her soup. Cleo twirled some noodles, popped them in her mouth, and ate them. Then she stabbed half a meatball before holding it out for Zoe. “You’ve been staring,” she explained, although her breathing changed when Zoe leaned forward to eat it. Too late, Zoe realized she had let her mate feed her in front of anyone who cared to look. She didn’t feel sorry for it though, not even a little bit. The meat was good, but not nearly as satisfying as the sound Cleo made. “Oh,” she exhaled, as her scent grew sharp and hot.
A moment later she held out her fork, offering the other half.
“I’ve, ahem, been curious about that subject. Mating.” Cleo looked everywhere but at Zoe’s mouth for a moment, as if she was still used to the human world where some might object to two women together, but then her gaze came back when Zoe licked her lips.
“Mate,” Zoe replied dreamily, then heard a snicker from a wolf at her right, which brought her to her senses. She sat up. “Yes, mating,” she said, self-consciously, and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “Did you have questions about that?”
“Yes.” But Cleo didn’t ask anything about the bond, or wooing, or feeding one’s potential mate to show you could provide for them. “Do you still only have your room? No place of your own?”
American humans looked upon adults living with families as something disgraceful. Zoe hadn’t forgotten. “Most weres prefer not to live alone if we can help it. Some can, and do. But mostly it’s not good for us. A room of my own is enough, for now anyway.”
“A room of one’s own.” Cleo seemed to enjoy the sound of that. “I think I like how close you are with your family. I miss my mom, but this change of scene was good for me. I will admit, I’m used to the city where you have to have a roommate or two to afford anything, and having my own little place can be quiet.”
“It must be very different here.” It was as close to asking how long Cleo was planning to stay that Zoe could make herself get.
“Ha. Different is the word for it. I don’t mean that in a bad way!” Cleo took a moment to reassure her when Zoe dropped her spoon into her soup. “Despite how people think of the city, you spend a lot of time within the same circle, at the same places, and everybody knows your business.”
“You know this is a small town full of nosy werewolves, right?” Zoe gestured at the diners around them. Most weren’t paying attention that she could tell, but some were. They, naturally, knew all about Zoe’s mate already, from Carl or one of the other deputies. The human tourists, at least, were minding their own business. Being too loud when talking to weres, or drinking too much to cover their nerves, as usual, but minding their own business. Most of them were obeying the rules. The more serious incidents tended to involve aggressive weres, who thought in a Dirus, ‘might makes right’ sort of way.
“Everyone pays attention to everyone else, even if they don’t remark on it.” Zoe was a nosy werewolf too. She was monitoring more than one conversation around them, even if only absently. It was normal. Especially when some of the other diners were new to her, or seemed agitated. “Weres don’t exactly have human boundaries.”
Cleo took a sip of her wine, but maybe she wasn’t as nervous anymore, because she stopped there. “True,” she agreed. “Tim and Carl were smirking at me yesterday. But they’ve also been helpful. Tim especially has filled me in on a lot of things. In fact, he mentioned something about that being the point. Packs help each other, or something.”
Zoe released a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. Cleo wasn’t too freaked out about how the town worked. She liked it here. “That’s good,” she explained, at Cleo’s quizzical look. “I’m glad he’s been helping you. Everyone deserves a chance and a home of their own.”
“That.” Cleo grinned and took another sip, this time like a pleased cat with cream. “That attitude is all over the place here. You guys truly believe it.”
As if to prove her wrong, a group at another table began to snap at each other. Their voices were reaching annoying-even-to-human ears levels.
“Tourists.” Zoe sighed. “Worse than blizzards. Not that blizzards happen a lot. Plenty of people will help you when one does though,” she hurried to add. “Like me. I’ll help you.”
The tourists at the other table were getting louder. Cleo glanced at them, frowning. It took effort for Zoe not to grunt as she explained. “They’re fighting over someone’s attention. The waiter’s, I think.” Mostly they were grumbling, while the weres and humans and one fairy at the other tables kept shooting them glances.
Zoe sighed again.
“What?” Cleo appeared fascinated, but she must have caught the mood of the restaurant because she was whispering.
“Instincts can be a pain in the butt.” Zoe pushed away her soup and noticed yet another customer looking her way. She was still in uniform. And to be honest, she would have considered intervening anyway. Nathaniel had trained her, after all. “There is discord in the room. My instincts are screaming at me that it’s discord within the pack, and it needs to be resolved.”
Cleo’s lips formed a small circle. She studied the bickering tourists, then Zoe. “Should I be worried?”
“I doubt it.” Zoe sighed again. “But keep your distance, just in case. I’m…” She put her hands on the table. “I’m sorry about this.”
She got to her feet and turned toward the oblivious tourists before Cleo could respond. Those tourists had messed up her date, and Zoe was in no mood to be nice.
She slapped her napkin on the table and then shot a look at the waiter in question as she crossed the room. He was slim and striking, with dark black skin and short reddish hair. Fairly new in town. She thought his name was Abay. He was pissed enough to have glowing eyes, but wasn’t willing to make a scene yet. She gave him a nod as she approached to let him know she would handle it, then inclined her head toward the kitchen, and hopefully, a phone. She didn’t have her radio, and she didn’t feel like howling for backup. Interrupting her date was bad enough.
“Is that why we came to this town, so you could try to trick me into your threesome fantasy?” The man didn’t bother to lower his voice, although he did lean his head back to make eye contact with Zoe when she came to a stop at their table.
The other weres with them had gone silent a few seconds before. Maybe they were tired of this argument. They all noticed her, then lowered their gazes in either embarrassment or shame, so she dismissed them without taking all of her attention from them. Getting careless about how strongly someone might feel a pack tie, even to someone this obnoxious, had almost gotten her clawed in the face once.
She crossed her arms and waited for the snarling woman to notice her too.
When she did, Zoe met her stare, and she didn’t blink.
“All I want is just once for you to act like the virile alpha male you pretend to be,” the woman finished snarling at her male companion, then stopped to bark at Zoe. “What?” The woman, definitely a tourist, looked ready to stand up. She was possibly eager to fight. Her argument had gotten her riled up and now Zoe was here to challenge her.
Zoe raised her eyebrows. She glanced at the boyfriend, or husband, then back toward where the waiter had gone, although anyone could have set this woman off. If this woman was really going to fight her over this, in this town, she must be dumber than she looked.
That was conveyed in Zoe’s expression, judging from the man’s narrowed eyes. At least they weren’t a mated pair. They probably wouldn’t fight to the death for each other then. Not that Zoe wanted any kind of fight, to the death or otherwise. She was supposed to be wooing her mate.
She uncrossed her arms to jab her finger at the couple, who seemed so surprised they both sat back. “You’re disturbing the other patrons. I suggest you be quiet and enjoy the rest of your meal, or I’ll have to intervene. On any other night, I would have already.”
The woman had a glint in her eye Zoe didn’t like the look of. “We’re on vacation.”
Honestly, the number of times Zoe heard that, and always in the same tone. She was going to have to explain things. She hated explaining things that should have been obvious, especially to people that didn’t listen.
“You’re breaking the rules,” she responded, blank-faced and serious. “You’ve made your waiter uncomfortable. That isn’t tolerated here.” She grunted to give them their last warning.
“He can defend himself!” The man piped up. “He’s a were, he knows how we are.”
“You aren’t going to listen, are you?” Zoe asked, not really expecting an answer. She locked eyes with some of the people sitting with them, and angled her head slightly in question. Two of them immediately stood up and stepped back. The other stayed in her seat, but kept her head down.
The woman growled aggressively at them. She could not have been in town for long or someone else would have corrected her behavior by now. Warnings weren’t going to work on wolves like this. They still thought the toughest wolf won.
Zoe focused back on her. She had no doubt her eyes were yellow as she tried to express how she would leave the woman gutted and bleeding in the street outside if she had to. Nathaniel could do that with just a look, but Zoe still had to use words. “This town is not for you. Behave or leave.”
She didn’t have to say more than that. Some of the other patrons stood up behind her. The werewolf citizens, maybe some humans, signaling they’d help, if necessary.
Both the woman and the man appeared startled, although she was the only one to slam a palm onto the table and let Zoe see her emerging claws. She snarled as she got to her feet, showing off her height and size in challenge, then dragged her claws across the table. Dishes crashed to the floor. The display was familiar. At least once a month during tourist season some deputy had to deal with this sort of posturing.
Unfortunately for this woman, she’d picked a night when Zoe had not wanted to frighten her potential mate away and now had no choice.
Zoe kicked the table forward with all of her strength, because Nathaniel had taught her that bullying wolves never expected other wolves to fight like humans, and it surprised them, every time.
The table slammed into both of them, hitting the man hard in the chest and nearly knocking the woman off her feet. Zoe moved while she was stumbling for balance. She darted to the side and then forward, took hold of one furry arm and twisted it behind the woman’s back. She shoved her body down onto the table in the time it took her to inhale. Then she snapped a warning to the stunned man still in his seat. “Stay there.”
She shoved down harder on the woman, who was going to break her arm if she kept struggling while in this position. The break would heal, but Zoe didn’t want the paperwork.
She showed a mouthful of fangs to the asshole who wasn’t bothering to defend his girlfriend, then leaned down to let her teeth graze the woman’s ear. It took her a moment to breathe, and then shift back enough to speak normally. “You have an hour to pack and leave. Him too.”
When she looked up, Pema was gazing at her with mild interest. Zoe blinked at the other deputy, and Pema started to say something, but then narrowed her pale amber eyes at the man for a moment, as if he’d twitched or tried to get up. “The hell is his problem?”
“Romance,” Zoe grumbled. She belatedly realized the woman beneath her was still snarling.
“Speaking of,” Pema changed the subject with an eyebrow waggle. “Weren’t you on a date?”
Zoe huffed. She couldn’t look over at Cleo yet. After a while she spoke again. “I was.” She was very conscious of the quiet, watching restaurant patrons.
“Did you follow ‘the rules’?” the woman beneath her sneered, but shut up when Zoe growled at her, deep and low and threatening.
Zoe took a moment to breathe. “I don’t think this one is going to leave peacefully,” she commented to Pema, who nodded and spoke into her radio. Two deputies appeared in the entrance almost immediately, with all the handcuffs required to keep even a rabid wolf locked up for a while.
When they took the annoying tourist and her charming companion away, Zoe was left in the middle of a mess of broken dishes and awkward silence.
“Aaannyway.” Pema grinned at her. “We’ll leave you to it then. This was nothing. I’ve got the paperwork, if you want. Just come in tomorrow.”
“Thanks, but….” Zoe trailed off there rather than admit her date was probably over. Some of Cleo’s scent clung to her, wonderful and awful because it couldn’t last. She smoothed her hands over her uniform—splashed with marinara but not blood, and let out a breath.
Pema clicked her tongue at her, with a wink, and shook her head like Zoe was being ridiculous. Then she jerked her thumb to the side, in the direction of Zoe’s table.
Cleo was there. On her feet, and frowning, but there.
Zoe swallowed, then nodded to Pema, who left to follow the other two deputies.
Giorgio himself came out of the kitchen to scowl at the mess and curse dramatically. He offered free slices of tiramisu to everyone to apologize for the disturbance, and Abay came out to help some of the other staff with the cleanup.
The rest of the weres at that particular table took off, probably to pack and leave town.
Zoe didn’t really care about any of it, not even when Giorgi shook her hand and waved off even the idea of Zoe paying for anything tonight. That was great, but Zoe didn’t care.
Cleo’s eyes were huge.
Zoe crossed to her, but couldn’t maintain eye contact for longer than a second. She had to use words. “I know that looked bad. I know we’re scary, especially people like that with more fur than sense. But I didn’t lose it, not then, not ever.” She needed Cleo to know that, whatever else happened. “I wouldn’t hurt you. But I understand. If you want to go. If you saw my teeth and thought… I was a monster.”
Someone else in the room hissed in displeasure at the term. Sometimes she didn’t like that everyone knew she was as awkward as Little Wolf, that they were all watching now, concerned that she’d fucked up her chance at keeping her mate.
Zoe had been supposed to dress nicer, maybe take Cleo into Carson. Show her she could provide, and that there were places she could go outside of Wolf’s Paw if Cleo felt the town was too small. That was without getting to the part where Zoe might hopefully be allowed to woo her in other ways, to please her in bed and out of it.
“Zoe,” Cleo whispered her name. She cleared her throat and raised her voice when Zoe lifted her head. “First of all, I’m from the city. I’ve seen a fight or two. And secondly…” She gestured at Zoe in a way Zoe didn’t understand.
Zoe peered down at the stains in her uniform. “It’s just red sauce. It’s not blood,” she explained, only to abruptly shut up when Cleo reached out and grabbed a handful of her shirt. She tugged her down, gently, slowly, while Zoe was blinking at her, and then her parted lips were against Zoe’s.
She offered one kiss, short and soft, and then licked across Zoe’s bottom lip before releasing her.
Zoe stared at her in dazed arousal, flowers and wine her new scent for happiness. “Cleo?” she asked, sort of stupidly, sort of not caring how stupid she seemed. She wanted to touch so the world would know this was her mate.
“And secondly,” Cleo finished, a touch out of breath, “you are on a date.” She looked around them as if worried, but then gave everyone an embarrassed smile when someone whistled and no one interfered or called them names. “And thirdly….” She reached out and took Zoe’s hand. “I wouldn’t ask a monster to walk me home… unless you were still hungry?”
Zoe mutely shook her head. This could not be happening. Zoe was not the girl who got people like this, a mate like this, for her own. Cleo was too wonderful for just her.
But she held her hand tightly as Cleo led her from the restaurant.
“People think it’s short for Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. They’re always surprised when they find out my mother loves Blaxploitation films.” Cleo’s voice would have drawn Zoe after her even if their hands hadn’t been linked.
They could have walked all the way to Carson and she wouldn’t have noticed, although she thought they had gone from the center of town to the more quiet residential area. Her truck was several blocks in the opposite direction. She could not have cared less.
She shook her head. “I don’t know those. Unless we make a trip into Carson to see something new, the only films at the cabin are the romantic kind, the human ones.” Romantic comedies were considered fluffy and silly. Zoe swallowed. “They aren’t mine. I mean, I watch them, I like them, but they weren’t really made for me, were they?”
Cleo stopped and gave her a nudge. “You don’t see anyone like me in them either, do you?”
“Maybe….” Zoe took a deep breath and focused on that hand in hers to give her strength. “Maybe you can show me the ones you were talking about, sometime.”
Cleo turned to her, studying her in the glow from the streetlamp and the dim light from several windows in the homes around them. “It’s your turn to ask me out?” she guessed, but then tugged Zoe closer. “So this went well?” she wondered, a trace of huskiness in her voice when Zoe leaned down so she wouldn’t tower over her.
Zoe’s chest was tight. “It could have gone better. I didn’t do the things I was supposed to. But you kissed me anyway.” The amazement in her tone was embarrassing, although it didn’t make her step back.
“Yes, I did.” Cleo smiled but then scrunched up her face while she considered Zoe. “What were you supposed to do?”
This part was definitely embarrassing. Zoe cleared her throat and focused on Cleo’s earring to avoid meeting her eyes. “I should have showed you how I could provide for you. In the old days, or if you were wolf, I would hunt for you, feed you. And give you things you like, although I don’t know much yet, except for your coffee order.” She flinched a little, in case that sounded stalkery to human ears, although it was based on smelling her latte, not following her around. “I’m supposed to demonstrate any skills I have to you, to make you want me. It’s how we, um, woo.”
“You’re wooing me?” Cleo seemed about to laugh, and Zoe tensed although Cleo was likely amused at the idea of wooing, which was old-fashioned to humans, and hopefully not the idea of Zoe wooing her.
“Not well,” Zoe grumbled. “The only thing I’ve done right is display myself for you, and that was an accident.”
Cleo made a strangled noise, but shook her head when Zoe looked at her in concern. “This town,” she said, then lowered her voice. “I liked it when you displayed yourself, accidentally or not,” she pointed out, making Zoe jolt. “Doesn’t that count? And I think you demonstrated your skills just fine with that rude woman… unless that wasn’t what you meant.”
“That impressed you?” Zoe straightened for a second, pleased with herself. She hadn’t even done much. Then she processed the rest of what Cleo had said and went hot all over, which hopefully Cleo couldn’t see. “Um… not exactly. The rules. They say I can…. If you desire me I can use that.”
“To woo me?” Cleo repeated, softly, warmly. “For what, exactly?”
“To stay,” Zoe answered, stumbling. “To… to be my—”
“Girlfriend?” Cleo finished. “That seems fast.”
“Wooing is supposed to take time,” Zoe justified it, and let the matter rest at ‘girlfriend’ for now. “Humans usually need time. But you…” Cleo had understood so quickly, and leapt forward. “You wanted. And you smell good, to me.”
Cleo was silent a few moments, possibly confused or ashamed or embarrassed or some other mostly human emotion. Zoe tried not to fidget or growl. Cleo was still holding her hand after all. “Weres don’t need time?” Cleo questioned at last, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Because of how we smell?”
Zoe nodded eagerly, grateful she wasn’t going to have to talk about it. “You don’t have to decide now, or even soon. Just know that I want you.” She exhaled that part shakily, but stood in place while Cleo stared at her without blinking. “So,” Zoe made herself go on, “if you want to do this again, I am… I would be… happy.”
Cleo was silent for another moment, and then released Zoe’s hand. Zoe staggered back, suddenly adrift in the middle of the street while Cleo turned and walked up the sidewalk. She headed up a stoop, to a small, well-lit porch, and then pulled a set of keys from her duffel bag. “Zoe,” she called without turning around, wavering and uncertain. “I want to invite you in for tea, but it seems dishonest after all that.”
“Tea?” Zoe echoed blankly. “Dishonest?”
As if that proved something, Cleo put a hand to the door and then twisted around to study her. She put her shoulders back before she spoke. “Would you like to come in?” Her voice was soothing and stirring, carrying clearly over the distance between them. “For tea, or, for something other than tea?” She smiled, almost shyly. “I’m not ready for this date to end.”
“Yeah?” Zoe wondered breathlessly, probably to the amusement of anyone listening in. Not that she gave a shit. She tripped into motion, following the same path Cleo had taken, trailing after her with a few respectable feet between them when Cleo opened the door and stood aside to let her in.
She turned on lights Zoe didn’t really need, and closed the door, and shoved her bag on a chair in the small living area that served as her entranceway. Zoe noted a kitchen on her other side, in soft yellows and blues, and an opened door revealing a bedroom decorated in the colors of spring. Everything smelled of Cleo.
“Is it true what they say about werewolves?” Cleo asked from behind her, then moved past her little dining table into her kitchen with restless energy and a hammering heart. “You claim each other?”
On the verge of complaining about the ‘werewolves can go all night’ legends, true though they might be, Zoe shut her mouth. After a moment, she nodded.
Cleo’s cabinets had no doors. She pulled out two pale blue mugs and put them on the table. “Humans too?” She went to a clay jar labeled ‘Tea’ but stopped with her hands wrapped around it.
“If they agree.” Zoe watched her carefully, the splay of her fingers, the quickening pace of her breathing. “We want others to know.”
“So if someone claimed you as their girlfriend, everyone in town would know about it?” Cleo was very still.
“No one’s ever claimed me,” Zoe confessed, shivering at the idea. “But, yeah. If I—” She swallowed dryly. “If I claimed someone, I’d be faithful. We’re possessive, but we’re not animals. It goes both ways.”
Cleo gave a small shudder. “I’m trying very hard to be sensible, but you’re making it difficult.” She held out her hand without turning around. She was quiet. “Tell me again how I smell to you. Please.”
Zoe had once seen Tim offer his hand to Nathaniel, had seen Nathaniel take it with a careful, reverent sort of joy she had been uncomfortable to witness at the time. But she thought of it now as she came forward to curl her hands around her mate’s fragile wrist. She raised it nearly to her mouth, and inhaled over the thin skin, although she already knew the scent better than any other.
“Bright. Warm,” she answered, and wanted, needed, to kiss her hand the way Nathaniel had done. “Spring and flowers. Nectar,” she added, and made a rough noise when her lips brushed Cleo’s skin.
Cleo turned. She pulled her hand from Zoe’s in the same moment, but only to slide it to Zoe’s shoulder. She tilted her face up before curling her fingers greedily into Zoe’s collar. “I need you to kiss me, Zoe,” she whispered, soft and brave.
Zoe kissed her, trying to be gentle, failing when Cleo parted her lips and pushed forward for it. Cleo was trembling, and Zoe pulled back to press lighter, careful, kisses at the edge of her mouth. Her mate was sweet, and fierce, one hand wrapped tight in Zoe’s shirt, her body hot and shivering. Kisses at the corner of her lips became kisses at her jaw, kisses down her throat, where the scent made Zoe growl.
Cleo clutched at her, her pulse delicious beneath Zoe’s mouth. Warm skin, with the hint of salt and lavender from the spa, mate’s skin, flushed and ripe. Zoe nosed at the orange-and-pink scent and grunted in approval. She followed it down, licking at the collarbone that had tempted her all night long, and Cleo made a small, choked sound.
It brought Zoe out of her daze enough to raise her head. Cleo stared at her with wide, dark eyes, her lips wet from Zoe’s mouth. Zoe came closer, uncertain for another moment, until Cleo’s fingers curled at the nape of her neck to bring her in for another kiss. It was so hungry Zoe felt it between her legs. Her knees went weak at the hot throb there, the instant ache for her mate’s fingers, her mate’s tongue.
She slapped a hand to the counter, but the other went to Cleo’s waist, to Mate, to keep her on her feet even if Zoe fell. Cleo barely paused in her exploration of Zoe’s mouth. She tightened her hold on Zoe’s neck and leaned forward to pull at Zoe’s shirt buttons. Her arousal was a wet, orange-blossom honeyed scent that had Zoe growling again, licking desperately into her mate’s mouth for more. She remembered vaguely, distantly, that first times between mates could be like this, overwhelming, but couldn’t make herself care. She felt her uniform shirt pushed from her shoulders, the t-shirt beneath that lifted up, and then her mate’s palm over her breast, hot even through her plain bra.
“Zoe,” Cleo begged against Zoe’s cheek, as if she wasn’t the one creating this ache with the slow friction of her hand over Zoe’s nipple. Zoe whined in answer and bared her throat. Cleo dragged her mouth over the offered skin but didn’t bite, so Zoe whined again.
“Zoe,” Cleo repeated herself, husky and impatient, telling Zoe she was failing to give her what she needed, which Zoe could not allow. Zoe lifted her to the counter and slid her hands to her hips as she stepped between her legs. Cleo gasped. This was right, Mate’s scent told her. This was good. Their bodies closer, thighs warm around Zoe, her mate free to run her hands up Zoe’s arms and back, and down over her stomach. “I don’t normally…” Cleo started, but left the thought unfinished as she unclasped Zoe’s bra enough to push it up. “Oh my God.”
Zoe stilled in embarrassment, but with a sweet sound of pleasure, Cleo continued to touch her. She put her mouth to Zoe’s bicep as her fingers trailed over her exposed nipples. It was only for the few moments before she leaned back to look at Zoe. She watched Zoe’s face while she ran her thumb across the peaked, sensitive skin, and when Zoe bit back a cry, she slid her other down, past Zoe’s belly button, to the waist of her pants. She was breathing raggedly. Zoe was too. She was wet, as swollen as Cleo’s mouth, and all she could do was shiver for the press of Cleo’s fingers, over her underwear, then inside them, cool where Zoe was so hot.
She closed her eyes, knowing she didn’t wear anything pretty or pink, although Cleo didn’t seem to mind white cotton. Cleo hummed for how wet Zoe was, and finally scraped her teeth across Zoe’s throat as she spread Zoe open. She began to smell of sharper arousal, the scent enough to make Zoe weak. Zoe wanted to taste her and couldn’t, not like this. She moved her hips instead, rocking forward into the tease of her mate’s fingertips, and then gasped for the heat of Cleo’s mouth on her skin, her teeth pressing not quite hard enough, the suction going straight down to her clit.
“Mate,” Zoe pleaded, after a long time of heavy breathing and tentative, bruising hickeys, and spiraling, building hot need beneath the push of Cleo’s fingers. She grasped at Cleo’s hips and shuddered for Cleo’s breath over her damp skin.
Cleo dropped her mouth to Zoe’s chest, kissing as she whispered fragments of sentences. “I’ve never…. But you need…. I want…. Oh, good, Zoe. So good.” Her mouth went everywhere, Zoe’s shoulders, her arms, dragging across her nipples in slow approval when Zoe squeezed her harder. Cleo’s edged, honeysuckle desire was nearly on Zoe’s tongue. Her mate was aroused by her arousal. Zoe wanted her to have it, and begged for her, rough, panting sounds that grew louder and louder until Cleo finally let her come, left her shocked and trembling and weak-kneed. Zoe leaned onto her while lightning flashed behind her eyes. Cleo wrapped herself tighter around her, one hand curled lightly at the back of Zoe’s neck. “So good,” she murmured again, while Zoe caught her breath. “So good it hurts, Zoe.”
Zoe found Cleo’s mouth, blindly, and licked at her parted lips, her tongue. Even with her underwear soaked and her mate’s fingers stroking smaller bursts of pleasure from her, Zoe needed more. “Taste. I need to.” She wondered if Cleo knew about weres, how they couldn’t get sick, that they couldn’t spread sickness either. They barely got tired. She put her face to Cleo’s shoulder and inhaled. “Let me taste you.” Desire was rich at her mate’s skin now, blood-heavy, like the pulse Zoe could hear, like the hungry gasp of her name when Cleo heard Zoe’s request.
Zoe followed the sound, nosing at the damp valley between Cleo’s breasts and moaning in gratitude when Cleo pulled her own shirt away. Zoe felt empty with her hand gone, but nuzzled at the swell of cleavage and the light, blushing lace of Cleo’s bra. The taste was closer there, but it still wasn’t enough. Zoe whined. For a moment her thinking wasn’t entirely human. She gathered sweat with the flat of her tongue and whined again.
Cleo curved her body forward for Zoe’s mouth, and twined her hands into Zoe’s short curls. She displaced the bobby pins and tugged until Zoe lifted her head. Cleo forced Zoe to look at her. She used words. “You want to taste me?” she demanded, her tone muzzy, her eyes dazed. She hitched a loud breath when Zoe considered the words and gave a human response. She nodded. Cleo immediately knotted her fingers in Zoe’s hair and urged her closer. “Then eat me out already,” she whispered, her breath light and damp at Zoe’s mouth. Whatever look crossed Zoe’s face made her shiver.
Her mate knew about weres. Knew enough to give Zoe what she, what they both, wanted. Zoe picked her up, arms careful under her thighs, and carried her to the bedroom. Cleo’s pulse jumped. She slid her mouth over Zoe’s, a kiss of surprise and delight that tormented Zoe’s instincts. She wanted to kiss back, harder, leave marks. She wanted to protect and please. That instinct won. Mate would be comfortable. Zoe would please her. She placed Cleo on the bed, gently, controlling her strength now, and liked how eagerly Cleo kicked off her shoes, how she arched up to help Zoe remove her pants. “Zoe,” she kept saying, “Zoe,” calling Zoe back to humanity, and words, “Zoe,” as Zoe undressed her.
If Zoe wore underwear, Cleo wore panties, fragile, soft, and thin, lace Zoe wanted to tear with her teeth. But the scent brought her to her knees first, made her collapse at the edge of the bed, breathing hard, and then she leaned forward to put her mouth against the soaked fabric.
Cleo bucked up, but Zoe didn’t mind. It was easy to glide her hands along Cleo’s thighs to hold them apart, and then lick in again, mate/home/mate heady in her mouth. She pushed the panties aside at first, impatient for slick, throbbing heat against her fingers, and then her tongue.
The sounds from her mate were beautiful, starving little cries that the whole town could hear for all Zoe cared. She understood it now, the need that made Little Wolf demand this in public, and why Nathaniel had let him. She lapped up concentrated flower scent and musky, metallic warmth and slipped her fingers inside, deep enough to make Cleo tangle her hands into Zoe’s hair to make sure she wouldn’t stop. Her body jerked when Zoe sucked at her clit, but then she was gasping at the ceiling. She said Zoe’s name again, as though it meant something. Zoe growled in pleasure, right where she was, and Cleo arched up again with a choked noise, coming.
Surprised, but not unhappy, Zoe coaxed more shocks from her with her mouth at her clit and fingers sliding free, loving the following rush of more honeyed arousal. Zoe kissed her trembling thighs for a few moments, trying to remember to be gentle with the human, to wait a moment before continuing. The growl was still there in the back of her throat, waiting. Her breathing was heavy, wild. Her face was wet and hot. She smoothed her hands up over Cleo’s hips to her stomach, petting, soothing, mouthing at Cleo’s pretty skin distractedly while she waited to be allowed to make her come again.
When Cleo exhaled with a shudder and shifted her hips, Zoe grunted happily and went back to get more of her mate on her tongue. The lace of Cleo’s panties was drenched in mate-scent, pleasure-scent, burning desire for Zoe. Zoe bit at it to get at the source of that smell.
“Just take them off.” Cleo’s throaty command made Zoe pause. She withdrew her teeth and pushed the panties from Cleo’s hips. When they were past her ankles, already forgotten, Cleo wrapped a leg around Zoe’s shoulders, without letting go of Zoe’s hair. “That’s better,” she decided, in a slow, slurring voice that made Zoe’s toes curl. She rolled her hips up, hinting, or giving Zoe what she still needed.
Zoe didn’t need any other encouragement. She buried her face in the thatch of her mate’s short curls and lost herself in the feel and scent and the sound of her mate’s pleasure.
Zoe woke to the smell of her mate’s bed, and her mate’s pleasure, but not her mate herself. Some light peeked through the bedroom curtains, indicating it was morning, which meant Cleo had likely gotten up to get ready for work.
Zoe tracked the sound of her movements in the kitchen, then gave herself a few minutes to bury her face in the pillows and breathe in the best scents in the world. She stretched out, for once not feeling too tall. Her limbs felt strong, put to their proper use. She almost wished she could experience lingering soreness from exertion the way humans did. But sleeping next to her mate, even for only a few hours, was invigorating.
She stretched again, taking up the entire bed for one greedy, giggling moment. She was naked under the covers, which was vaguely concerning until she remembered losing her belt and pants… and shoes… sometime after making Cleo come for the third time, and before Cleo had sleepily curled up next to her and fingered her beneath the blankets.
Zoe put a hand to her neck, but of course, even her whispered requests for bites and hickeys wouldn’t matter now. They’d already healed.
She turned to stretch over the soft sheets, proof of her mate’s good taste, and sniff out more traces of damp spots. Her cheeks were burning, but she hid her grin in her pillow. She had been permitted to touch her mate and made her gasp her name. That was good. That had to be good.
Tim would tease her, but whatever. It was worth it.
But since she had no idea what time it was, other than early morning, with the sun rising steadily higher, she rolled to the edge of the bed to look for a clock, or at least her clothes.
She didn’t see an alarm clock on the nightstand, only a charger for Cleo’s phone, which was missing.
So were Zoe’s clothes, although she identified the lacy bundle on the floor as her mate’s underwear. She still saw no sign of her own clothes, not even her shoes. That made her smile dip somewhat, because being naked alone in the woods was different from being naked in front of someone important.
Zoe flung an arm across her chest and sat up. She cocked her head toward the sound of Cleo’s voice again, wondering if Cleo was doing laundry, and if, in her animal, lustful fog last night, Zoe had failed to notice a washer and dryer in her kitchen. Then she remembered the small washer and dryer unit by the bathroom.
“You realize what time it is? I could have been sleeping,” Cleo was saying, faint exasperation in her tone. There was a quiet bang, like a pot or a pan hitting something else. Cleo hissed at the sound, then spoke again. “Well, no, I wasn’t asleep, luckily.”
Zoe became aware that Cleo was whispering. All her movements were muffled, in fact.
She reached out, finding the top blanket and dragging it around her shoulders as she put her feet on the floor.
“I was going to make breakfast,” Cleo went on. This time, Zoe just made out the mumble of someone else on the other end of the call. Either the connection was bad, or Cleo’s walls were more solid than they looked. In an apartment intended for humans, in a town constructed for werewolves, that was a real possibility.
“I make breakfast for myself all the time, Mom!” Cleo’s volume ticked up for a moment, before she lowered it again. “Okay, not usually on workdays, but it doesn’t automatically mean I’m seeing someone because I’m making a real breakfast.”
Zoe stopped breathing.
“You always assume everything is serious,” Cleo told her mother. “I wanted French toast. That’s all. I’m not seeing anyone.”
Their sex smells were overpowering, undeniable. Zoe swallowed, but the taste she’d reveled in last night felt inescapable now. This was Rejection, she realized, and got to her feet in a panic to avoid the moment Cleo would tell her this had been nice but she wasn’t looking for more. She didn’t want serious, she didn’t want girlfriend, and she didn’t want mate. She wasn’t seeing anyone, certainly not Zoe with her white cotton underwear and her stupid hair.
Zoe scraped her curls from her face, but her pins were long gone, like the rest of her uniform. She couldn’t bear trying to find it now. She had to go. She’d flee into the woods. She’d escape to parts unknown, like Albert, broken and alone, anything rather than hear her mate say the words, No, you aren’t wanted.
She fell to the floor on shaky legs, the blanket slowing her down enough for her to remember she was naked. She was wolf before she had time to consciously think about it. She could go far on wolf legs, wouldn’t have to think of anything unless she wanted to.
But the scents made her dizzy and had her whimpering the moment she’d nosed open the bedroom door. Mate in the carpet, mate at the couch, mate in the kitchen.
“Mom, I have to get ready for work. I’ll call you later, I promise,” Mate said, Spring-mate, Flower-human, who still smelled of Zoe. She ended her call, and Zoe froze to see her. She had her back to her living room, and Zoe, as she fussed with her stove.
Zoe hunched down, fully prepared to slink away as long as she could get the front door open, but then Mate spun around with a happy humming sound.
She was wearing an oversize t-shirt and long bathrobe with a pale pattern lining the inside. Her t-shirt had a large lightning bolt down the middle. Her hairstyle was a wreck from either the pillows or Zoe’s hands.
“Oh my God!” she half-shrieked when she saw Zoe, and slapped a hand over her heart. She dropped the bag of coffee in her other hand, but it hit the floor without spilling open. She panted for several seconds, her eyes wide, and then shook her head. She shook it again when Zoe didn’t move. “Zoe?” she questioned, and took a step forward for a longer, better look at the giant wolf in her living room.
People had seen Zoe as a wolf before. Her packmates, but also others from town when they caught glimpses of each other out in the woods. But never a human in a house like this, never mate.
Zoe stayed a wolf despite that. She didn’t want to shift to human right now. But she didn’t want Mate afraid of her either, so she sat on her haunches and lowered her head.
“You did not look like that when I left you in bed,” Spring-mate burst out excitedly, and met Zoe’s stare. She made a noise of confusion when Zoe turned her head away. “Oh,” she said a moment later. “Were you trying to sneak out?”
The throb in her voice had Zoe whining before she could control herself. She pushed forward to place her muzzle into her mate’s palm, and then licked it. She hated how easy it was to do and how she wanted to do it again. Mate let out a shaky breath and twisted her arm to offer Zoe her wrist, like she’d done the night before. But she abruptly yanked her arm back before Zoe could sniff her. “Last night you said—” She cut herself off and turned around to pick up the coffee. “If you wanted to go, I won’t stop you.”
The waver in her voice made Zoe whine again. She got up in indecision, stared at her paws and then the tense line of her mate’s back, and knew she couldn’t do it. This was why Pack-brother had let Big-mouth stay, even with the pain he must have been in.
She shifted, grunting a little in exhaustion—it expended energy and she’d used up a lot last night, and had never really gotten to eat her soup. She stayed on the floor for another few moments, breathing hard and trying to work up the nerve to speak.
“I couldn’t find my clothes,” she explained hoarsely and darted a glance to Cleo. Cleo jumped at the sound of Zoe’s voice, but spun around to face her. She’d put the bag of coffee on the counter, in the same spot where Zoe had picked her up and kissed her.
Zoe looked away, face hot, and then got to her feet. She crossed her arms over her chest, even though it felt stupid after everything.
“You want them?” Cleo wondered softly. She might have been staring at the awkward picture Zoe made, but Zoe couldn’t be sure without checking. “You haven’t even showered.”
Zoe lifted one arm to sniff herself, then gave a distracted, embarrassed shrug. “Werewolves have a different view of these things. I liked… I liked how I smell of us.” She lowered her head, like the eager, instinctual creature she was.
“There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. And I haven’t had any caffeine yet.” But Cleo didn’t move to prepare any. “I hid your clothes so you couldn’t leave,” she added.
Zoe raised her head in surprise. “Really?”
“No.” Cleo leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. Her mouth looked bruised from so many kisses, but the corners were turned down. “But I should have. I folded them and put them on the couch for you. The stains in your uniform shirt look set. I don’t know if you can get them out. Why am I still talking?” She sighed heavily. “Maybe you weren’t lying last night about wanting something serious, and you just changed your mind this morning. It isn’t like you’re the first to skip out before I can make you breakfast.”
Zoe was very, very bad at this. She swung a look to the couch, where her clothes were neatly stacked and waiting. She turned back toward Cleo, who watched her with an expression Zoe couldn’t read. Her other senses were too distracted by sex scents to tell her anything useful. Nathaniel always said werewolves, shifters in general, were too quick to forget they could use words, think like humans. As usual, he was probably right.
“You wanted me to stay?” Zoe asked, because that’s what it was beginning to sound like, despite what she’d heard earlier. “This is why we’re supposed to take our time with non-weres,” she realized out loud.
“What?” Cleo was capable of stubborn silence. Zoe wished she’d known that before.
She reached for her t-shirt and yanked that over her head to help her feel slightly less naked, although it barely reached the top of her thighs, and that only when she pulled on it, which made her nipples stick out.
Cleo let out a harsh breath. Zoe lifted her head guiltily. “I thought you were sneaking out,” Cleo accused, although her gaze tripped down over Zoe’s body before she met Zoe’s stare.
“You want to make me breakfast?” Zoe asked in return, totally confused. “You told your mom you weren’t seeing anyone.”
Cleo’s eyes widened. After a pause, she nodded. “I thought you were sleeping, but of course you heard that. You slept through me getting up without even twitching, but apparently the sound of my voice woke you right up. How much of that call did you hear? Because you don’t know my mother. I had to… oh. Is that…?” Her sudden smile was like the absence of pain when healing was done. “Is that why you were sneaking out? You thought I wasn’t serious about you?”
“You said….” Zoe shrugged, although she could hear the hurt in her tone and knew Cleo could too. “…What you said. And I couldn’t smell you.”
“So you didn’t know I was lying,” Cleo interpreted, and nodded again. “No wonder you all hate lying so much. I’m sorry. Humans lie as routine, and my mother is… determined. If I told her I was seeing someone, she’d have questions. And once she found out I’d slept with you so fast—and she would have, she’s like that—she’d have been worried. I just didn’t want to deal with that. Not this morning.”
Zoe pressed her thighs together. It did not make her feel anymore dressed. “Is she… would she be unhappy to know about me?”
“My mother is protective.” The way Cleo said it made Zoe abruptly remember Cleo saying other people had left her before she could even make them breakfast.
“Have you made a lot of people breakfast?” Zoe wondered, and nearly bit her tongue. “That’s not my business. I meant that I don’t understand why anyone would leave you, before, um, before breakfast.”
“I don’t have a lot of one-night stands, if that’s what you’re asking.” Cleo tapped the countertop for a second. “But I have dated people who, metaphorically anyway, left before things really began. I think… what did you say last night? You have to show you can provide? You feed the person you like, to show you’re ready for more?” Zoe nodded, not following, and Cleo glanced at her small kitchen table. “I think I’ve been offering that to other people without realizing I was. Did you want to borrow some underwear?” She changed the subject so suddenly Zoe only blinked at her. Then she lost herself for a moment while imagining herself in her mate’s panties.
Cleo must have had a similar thought because she bit her lip and gave Zoe a heavy look. “Or,” she went on, “I might find a pair of sweatpants that’ll fit you, for you to wear while you eat.” The corners of her mouth curved up this time. “I like you in sweatpants.”
If Zoe’s stomach hadn’t been rumbling, she would have forgotten about breakfast entirely. “You’re flirting with me?” she asked, puzzled. “And you’re going to make food for me?” Something important was eluding her, but she couldn’t focus to pinpoint what it was. “Do you want help? I can cook. Or you don’t need to make anything fancy. Weres will eat anything.”
“You can say that again.” Cleo stuck out her tongue at her.
“You are flirting with me!” Zoe stopped in astonishment, then put her hands to her cheeks. Her t-shirt immediately rode up again, causing Cleo’s eyes to drop.
She hummed. “You’re a constant surprise, Deputy Zoe Browne.” Cleo met Zoe’s startled gaze. “With that woman, you were exactly how you seemed whenever I saw you in town, fierce and serious, short with words. Then, right now, I don’t know whether to pet you or fuck you.” Zoe gave a start. But Cleo wasn’t quite done. “Or just feed you.”
For several seconds, Zoe felt like one of those people who sat at the library bookshop to watch the firefighters wash the trucks. The firefighters flirted as Cleo did, especially when someone they wanted was in the audience.
Zoe had never understood it, teasing someone who obviously wanted you desperately, making them want you so much they could barely think. If she were watching Cleo like that, she’d probably stare until her eyes were stinging and her cheeks were tomato red, and she’d agree to anything Cleo asked.
“I like you,” Zoe admitted quietly. “I really like you, in a way I can’t help. And I want you to like me. It’s making me… awkward. More than usual.”
Her mate took a long, long breath, and then let it out with a satisfied sound. Then she patted the table. “Then come sit down, so I can cook you all the food.”
Zoe gave her shirt another useless tug and then walked slowly into the kitchen. She sat, studying her mate in absolute wonder when Cleo grinned to see Zoe at her table. She showed teeth, like a pleased wolf, and then everything finally clicked.
Her mate was wooing her. The teasing, the offer of clothing, of breakfast. These were to convince Zoe to stay. As if Zoe was going anywhere.
Zoe sat up straight. “You… don’t have to go into work?”
“Not until later.” Cleo seemed unconcerned with time as she swayed to her refrigerator to pull out milk and eggs.
“And you don’t want my help?” Zoe asked again, which made Cleo pause. She put the food down and then approached the table.
“Well, I did forget something,” she remarked innocently, before bending down to give Zoe an unexpected kiss. She pulled away several moments later, breathing harder, and beamed at the expression on Zoe’s face, and Zoe’s soft whisper for more. Then, as though nothing had occurred, when everything had just happened, she went to start the coffee.
Zoe stared after her, hot all over, and stared, unabashedly, as her almost-mate made her breakfast.
Zoe made it to Robin’s Egg’s sometime around ten, although she wasn’t really certain of the exact time. She knew the sun was out, she knew the approaching fall-scent was getting stronger, and she knew her mate put strawberries on her French toast when strawberries were in season. They weren’t now, but next year Zoe would get her some. A whole bushel, or whatever it was strawberries came in.
There might be a next year. The idea was so heady Zoe had nearly walked into a stop sign on her way over. Zoe had been wooed. By a non-were, who hadn’t even had to be told about the traditions first.
She had eaten breakfast, as neatly as she could, although syrup was probably in her hair, and felt ridiculously proud of herself for bringing so many smiles to her mate’s face simply by accepting her food, and staying.
She had learned that her mate normally took long showers but couldn’t that morning because of the time she spent cooking and then crowding Zoe against her sink when Zoe had offered to do the dishes and gotten her t-shirt wet. Her mate only ever loosely made the bed, but couldn’t leave for work if her kitchen was a mess. She spent ten minutes applying her makeup in smooth, practiced motions, but took longer when she noticed Zoe watching her put on lipstick with hot fascination.
Zoe had put on her wrinkled uniform with a new shirt underneath and a borrowed pair of underwear that she blushed to think about, and then walked alongside her mate in the morning sunlight after remembering she’d left her truck by the Flores.
Then Cleo had kissed her outside the hotel, with people around, looking, her hands urgent on Zoe’s clothes. Zoe had been too stunned to object, not that she would have. She felt about as shameless as Little Wolf, although it had only been kissing.
Of course, to any wolf noses, she reeked of sex, which was as close to publicly declaring herself mated as she could dare come yet.
But she came through the gift shop entrance to the café and felt something like fear for the second when she saw Nathaniel with Tim at the counter, and Carl in his usual spot. They all looked up. Nathaniel immediately rubbed his nose.
Zoe gulped a breath, then reminded herself of months Tim and Nathaniel’s sex smells in her clothes just from being near them. They could deal with a little of her mate’s bloom-scent wafting in the air.
Robin’s Egg floated over to greet her and ask if she had an order, then smiled beatifically at her in a way Zoe didn’t understand. Although to be honest, fairies always made her nervous. Creatures who saw the truth when they looked at Zoe and then smiled must know something she didn’t. But she ordered her coffee, then remembered the vanilla her mate put in her French toast too and changed her mind. She ordered a latte with low-fat milk and strong, bitter espresso, with a hint of vanilla syrup, like Cleo did. Robin’s Egg dashed off before she could rethink it.
“Look who didn’t come home last night,” Little Wolf chirped the moment Egg was gone, a wicked grin on his face. Then he took a breath and wrinkled his nose. “Aw, Zoe. Gross. You smell like girls.”
Nathaniel, casually, leaned down to whisper something in his mate’s ear. Zoe couldn’t make it out, but it made Tim meet her gaze. “Which is great,” he added, and briefly closed his eyes in pleasure when Nathaniel gave him a peck on the cheek.
“Well, well,” Carl commented. He always had been a nosy old man. “I take it you haven’t been home.”
Zoe stopped. She glanced to Nathaniel, who had such a warm look on his face Zoe had to resort to checking with Little Wolf to get some clarity.
His eyes were ferociously blue for a moment. “Tell us about last night, Zoe,” he ordered. He might have meant it as a question, but it didn’t come out that way.
Zoe bristled. “No.”
“Then this morning. Tell us about this morning,” Tim pressed. He was being very Dirus right now, and unusually, Nathaniel wasn’t reining him in. He wasn’t even trying.
Nathaniel’s eyes were gold. Zoe blinked at him and nearly took a step back as she tried to determine what was going on. “I’m going to go home and shower and change. I know about the marinara on my uniform, and… everything else.”
“Anything else you want to tell us.” Tim waved off the stains, or stink of girls, as if they’d never really bothered him. He crossed his arms. Zoe crossed hers right back at him. At least until Robin’s Egg came over with her coffee. Then Zoe stood there, inhaling milk and sugar and vanilla and thinking of Cleo.
After a few moments of a standoff she knew she’d lose, she huffed. “Nothing bad happened. We talked. She wanted me, and asked me to stay. She made me breakfast.”
A smile was slowly growing on Nathaniel’s face. “That sounds like wooing to me.”
“Oh my God!” Tim almost howled. “Not fair. I had to catch this one a rabbit!”
“Yes. That’s what won me over. The rabbit.” Nathaniel rolled his eyes, but with affection. Hearing him joke like that was still so strange. His tone was mean but kind; Zoe had never understood it, although Tim seemed to.
But Tim pooh-poohed Nathaniel as well for the moment. “It was my very first rabbit. It was special, and he loved it.” He turned to Zoe. “What did she make you for breakfast?”
“French toast,” Zoe revealed, hating Tim a lot for how he could ask simple questions and still have her flustered. She hadn’t said anything weird or suggestive, but now he was grinning at her. “And then—”
“Spare me the ‘and then’,” he interrupted, then glanced to Carl with an offended expression on his face.
So did Nathaniel. He outright scowled. “Not a word.”
Carl grumbled at him, fearless before that scowl in a way most others weren’t, but didn’t say whatever he’d been planning on saying. He pretended to be reading his paper again.
“But you didn’t tell her?” Having dealt with the dirty old man, Nathaniel focused on Zoe once more.
Little Wolf snorted. “I keep telling you, the traditions are nice and everything, but waiting for the other person to recognize the bond is a waste of time. It’s already there. She clearly feels it, if she’s wooing you.”
“It doesn’t matter if I say it or not, then.” Zoe stared at Tim as this idea occurred to her, which was right, by his own logic, but which felt wrong, instinctually. She could tell he thought so too, because instead of arguing, he opened his mouth, then closed it. It felt like a lie to keep it from Cleo when there was no reason to. Cleo was the opposite of Little Wolf. She wasn’t afraid.
She had implied she wanted permanent, had sought it with others.
Zoe bit her lip to hold in her growls at the thought. Her instincts, on edge with things still unsettled between them, were somewhat soothed by the realization that Cleo wanted it with Zoe as well, and that Zoe had already done what the others hadn’t.
“I have to tell her before we go any further,” she announced with a sigh. “She…we… do better with truth between us.”
“Truth.” Nathaniel was dry, the way he usually only was with Tim. “What else have you told her, Zo’? Because she’s telling you something.”
“Huh?” Zoe frowned at him, well-fed and semi-caffeinated, but still needing sleep and a shower and another visit from her mate to wake her up.
Clearly enjoying himself, Tim swung a hand dramatically toward the rack of touristy souvenir t-shirts, which had a small mirror at the top. Zoe twisted around to see what he was gesturing to and caught sight of her reflection.
The hickeys at her neck had healed, but Cleo must have remembered Zoe asking for them, just like she’d noticed Zoe drooling over how she put on lipstick. Zoe had been so happy to be kissed outside the hotel she hadn’t thought about what that might mean. No one she’d been with had ever really worn make up or lipstick like Cleo did.
The shape of Cleo’s mouth decorated Zoe’s throat. Pink lips, pink smears, wet and shiny where she’d put each kiss on Zoe, deliberately marked Zoe, in a way even a human would understand. She wanted everyone to know she was allowed to kiss Zoe, maybe because Zoe had told her about claiming, told her it went both ways, and promised to be faithful.
“Oh,” Zoe said breathlessly, studying the line of kisses along her neck, the stain of pink at her collar, the filthy smudge of it at her mouth. “Oh, she claimed me. She….” She’d asked Zoe about claiming. She’d hinted this morning about what she wanted. “My mate is brave and magic.” Zoe exhaled shakily. She wanted to touch the marks, but wouldn’t risk smearing them for anything.
Cleo had stopped Zoe by the side of her truck and turned to her in the full light of day and painted a mark on her to show the world Zoe was taken. “Nathaniel, she’s wonderful.”
“Of course she is, Zo’.” Nathaniel was wonderful too. “She’s your mate.”
In that moment, Cleo’s soft voice was not soothing.
Zoe had been tricked by the vanilla coffee in her hand, and too distracted by the bright marks at her throat to notice her mate’s presence behind her.
She went still and stared at Nathaniel in betrayal before she understood what he’d done for her. Then she turned.
Cleo was dressed for work, black pants, black shirt, white and pastel green scarf in her hair. She had reapplied her lipstick, and her gaze went right to Zoe’s neck.
“What are you doing here?” Zoe didn’t know why she bothered asking. “I thought you were at work.”
“I don’t work the mid-shift today. I go in a little later, which I forgot this morning. I suppose I was distracted.” Cleo wet the corner of her mouth and reached up, maybe to fiddle with an earring that she wasn’t wearing. “What were you saying as I walked in? What was that?” She looked Zoe in the eye, but only briefly, and then her attention was back on the lipstick marks on Zoe’s skin.
“You claimed me.” Zoe wasn’t sure if she was complaining or asking a question.
“I’m your mate?” Cleo responded. She brought her gaze up to Zoe’s face and kept it there. “Your mate?” she repeated, in a high voice.
“If you want to be.” That wasn’t exactly right. Zoe looked down at the latte she probably shouldn’t have ordered. “You are,” she corrected. “But you don’t have to be, if you don’t want to. People don’t usually want me. I understand.”
Cleo didn’t move away. Zoe lifted her head in time to watch her glance from Carl to Tim to Nathaniel and then back to Carl. Carl smiled warmly at her. “Okay,” she agreed cautiously, as if that had reassured her. She sounded calmer than her heartbeat said she was. Zoe peered up again. Cleo was watching her now. “I’ve seen the movies—”
Nathaniel made that scornful noise he made whenever someone mentioned the human pop culture versions of mating.
“But I don’t think I really grasp… were you trying to tell me this last night?” Cleo studied Zoe intently.
“Yes.” Zoe stared back. “You marked me.” Her voice was embarrassingly quiet.
“I,” Cleo swallowed, “thought you wanted to be girlfriends.”
“You said that was fast.” Zoe was practically whispering. She didn’t know why. Cleo wasn’t.
“Because it is!” Cleo raised her voice, then glanced toward Nathaniel again before refocusing on Zoe. “But also, it isn’t.” She went quiet too. “I marked you. You asked me to, last night, and you’re so… incredible, Zoe. I didn’t want anyone else moving in on you.”
Mate. Zoe felt her mouth fall open. “We can be girlfriends.”
“I thought we were mates.” Cleo shook her head. Her entire posture screamed confused and embarrassed. Zoe didn’t have to smell her, although she did anyway. The rightness of her was breathtaking.
“We can be girlfriends first,” Zoe assured her. “I didn’t shower so everyone were in town would know you’d touched me.”
Somewhere she didn’t care to look, Tim was making eager gestures, the kind he did when his soap was on and he couldn’t contain his excitement.
Cleo’s mouth, shiny and pink again, formed a small ‘O’. “You marked yourself before I could. What if I… what if I hadn’t? Is this like this morning when you thought I wasn’t serious about you, but came up to lick my hand anyway? Is that what it means, mates? I meant to ask you last night, when you asked if I had questions. Oh God, at dinner you asked if I had questions. Zoe.” Her eyebrows came together. “And you were going to leave….” She stopped, then swallowed. “Girlfriends?” She hesitated. “Really?”
Zoe thrust the latte at her. “I can provide for you. If you let me, I’ll show you. I’m allowed to try, as we get to know one another. It’s exactly as I told you. I just… left a word out. If you like, we can continue as we were.”
“You were doing a bang up job so far,” Tim interjected. Carl actually hissed at him to shut up. Tim was undeterred. “No, really. I think she’s magic, Zoe.”
Nathaniel calmly placed a hand over his mate’s mouth.
Cleo stared at them in wonder. “Magic?”
“I think you’re magic too,” Zoe confessed. “You’re wonderful.”
Her mate’s honest, sunshiny pleasure was lighter than the vanilla in her latte. She still hadn’t taken it, but she looked down at the cup as though it held the key to all life’s mysteries.
“I like you, Zoe. Very much.” She finally took the cup in both hands although she didn’t drink from it. She flicked the plastic lid in a nervous gesture. “I moved in with my last girlfriend after knowing her a month, and it did not end well. She was… not the settle down type. You know, I think I was….” Cleo’s gaze sharpened. Zoe tried not to look too obviously upset to think of her mate’s broken heart, or of someone touching her who hadn’t appreciated her. Whoever she was, she had better not ever step foot in Wolf’s Paw.
“I think was treating them, her, like you. Like I was searching for you with them, and…. Are you growling?” Cleo came forward, as if a frustrated predator wasn’t in front of her. She put one hand on Zoe’s cheek. Her skin was warm from the coffee and silenced Zoe immediately.
“Maaaybe don’t mention your exes around her until things are settled between you,” Tim warned from behind Nathaniel’s palm. “Also, I know you touch people for a living, but until you decide, um, she’s going to be sensitive about it. Growly, you might say.”
“Shut up, Little Wolf.” Zoe growled again, unintentionally proving him right.
Cleo petted her. “I’ve never slept with anyone after one date, Zoe. Or felt so strong of a need to make sure they knew I wanted them.” She gently angled Zoe’s head to the side to study her handiwork. Her smile made Zoe want. Her scent was sticky and familiar. “Do you mind them?”
Zoe stared at her with open hunger.
Cleo’s eyes went wide.
“But I don’t really know what mate means to you.” She sighed, but let Zoe go. “What happens if I say no? Are you going to sneak away on all fours again?”
“Yes.” Zoe didn’t explain. The stark silence around her said enough as it was. She wasn’t going to pressure Cleo into staying by mentioning the fate of the Rejected.
“Will I feel it, what you’re saying we are?” Her mate was so smart, always with direct questions Zoe didn’t have the answer for.
“They say humans do. Magic humans most of all,” she responded at last.
“You don’t get to take it back, Cleo. You fucking claimed her.” Tim’s muffled snarl was oddly comforting. “You feel it and you know it.”
“Shut up, Little Wolf,” Zoe told him a second time, but weaker, softer. He meant well. He was worried. He loved her.
And he was right. Zoe finally believed him. The bond was there no matter what else happened, and they both felt it, even if Cleo felt it differently than Zoe did.
Cleo made a little noise, a gasping, surprised sound Zoe had last heard in her bedroom. She put a hand over her heart. The beat of it was quick, excited. “I felt like I was waiting to meet you,” she revealed, on a panting, puffing exhale that made Zoe stand up straight. “Every time I saw you, I was waiting for you to look at me. I think I do feel it, and I don’t even know what it means.” She met Zoe’s eyes. “What does it mean, Zoe?”
Zoe took a deep breath, trying to put into words how Cleo could physically smell like sweat, or detergent, or the coffee in her hand, and yet to Zoe she was a garden. Weres never had been able to explain it, not even to each other. To Tim, Nathaniel was a hearth fire—burning, passionate, potentially dangerous, but warmth-giving, life-giving, home. To Zoe, Nathaniel smelled like home as well, though she had never once thought of his scent as fire-like.
Cleo was freshly tilled earth and pollen, the bright blooms outside the cabin that Zoe had planted. She was spring and sex and life, and meant for Zoe.
Zoe tried to say that, for the third time, and thought Cleo was beginning to understand what Zoe had been trying to express. Cleo was the right one. She was mate. She was….
“Home,” Zoe murmured, and closed her eyes when even that term didn’t seem enough.
But then Spring-mate’s scent was at her mouth, and her soft skin, and Zoe raised her hands to delicately encircle her mate’s wrist. She opened her eyes to find Cleo smiling at her.
“Home?” Cleo whispered, over the sound of Little Wolf’s jubilant shouting. “Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance at that?”
Cleo hummed a bit and pressed her face to the back of Zoe’s neck. She was supposed to be holding on to Zoe’s shoulders, but one of her hands kept finding its way to the collar of Zoe’s shirt to tug at it.
Zoe focused on the ground in front of her with determination. Hiking up the old trail had been Cleo’s suggestion, a way for her to learn more about the area around Wolf’s Paw while also getting to know Zoe better.
After several weeks of dating, Zoe wasn’t sure what about her Cleo hoped to learn by walking up a mountain, but she hadn’t been about to turn down the chance to spend more time with her mate either.
Now here they were, almost to the summit, on the first real nippy day of the season. Cleo was wearing an oversized sweatshirt, and Zoe had chosen flannel to keep out the chill. Of course, she hadn’t realized she would be doing most of the work and end up too heated to feel any cold at all. She also hadn’t expected Cleo to be so interested in her choice of shirts.
“Is this Nathaniel’s?” Cleo nuzzled at the worn fabric in a way practically guaranteed to make Zoe miss a step. She came down hard on her right foot but didn’t lose her balance, thank God. She would never forgive herself if she dropped this bundle.
Cleo was curled around her, piggyback-style, and had been since about halfway up the trail.
“I don’t remember hiking being this exhausting,” she’d grumbled, after collapsing on a log to rest. Zoe had stood there, a touch guilty about the strength that allowed her to keep going without the breaks that humans needed. So she’d made the offer and bent down, and flushed at the delighted laughter from her mate at being carried.
Zoe was, to be honest, finally starting to feel tired, but she wasn’t going to put Cleo down. Not for anything.
Cleo kissed her shoulder. “Zoe? Is this shirt Nathaniel’s?”
“So?” Zoe answered after a while. So she was wearing his old plaid shirt. He’d never worn it more than once, and it was comfortable, even if she had to roll up the sleeves.
“I like you in it.” Cleo apparently accurately interpreted how defensive Zoe was about it, because she kissed Zoe’s shoulder again. “Of course you’re one of those redheads who can wear red.” Her fingertips traced circles at Zoe’s nape, making Zoe shiver. “But did you ever think of buying your own clothes?” She pressed closer when Zoe stiffened. “Buy all the flannel you want,” she whispered soothingly. “Be my comfortable werewolf lumberjack fantasy.” Her kisses felt like smiles. “I just worried, I guess, that you don’t seem to think of those things for yourself.”
She touched on subjects Zoe had never talked about with anyone else. But she wasn’t anyone else. She was Cleopatra Jones Goodwin, and in two days, Zoe was going to meet her mother.
Zoe frowned at the rough ground of the trail. “I’m not good at those things. Shopping for clothes. That stuff. Whatever fits is fine. Unless you think—”
“I like you.” Cleo kissed her ear. “And I like how you have no idea how you fill out your clothing, even your hand-me-downs.” She was making it hard for Zoe to think. “But if you want me to help you ever, for anything, just ask, okay?”
“Okay,” Zoe agreed, with a small breath of relief and surprise, and continued up higher. The trail was steep, but she held tight to Cleo’s legs.
Cleo squirmed a bit and took one hand from Zoe’s shoulders. Zoe heard a zipper of Cleo’s small backpack, and then crinkling foil. A moment later a piece of a granola bar was held out for her. She bent her head to take it from her mate’s fingers and eat it, although she was not a dog, and it was not a treat. When she swallowed, Cleo offered her more, as if she’d noticed Zoe’s energy was finally flagging.
She put her face to Zoe’s neck. “You could always put me down,” she pointed out, her tone soft and sweet.
Zoe stubbornly shook her head, which earned her a laugh and another piece of granola. Now her mouth was dry. And as if she knew that too, Cleo held out the water bottle next. Zoe had to stop to take a drink, but then she was right back at it a minute later. The summit was in sight.
“You know,” Cleo mused, so much contentment in her tone Zoe didn’t need to smell it. “You’re carrying me up a mountain. I think that says all that needs to be said.”
Zoe considered that. Maybe it was all the hiking, or the growing crispness in the air, but she didn’t follow. “What do you mean?”
Cleo tugged the flannel shirt away again, this time pressing a long, lingering kiss to her nape that made Zoe gasp. Her mate had to be testing her. Why else would she do this to her when Zoe was trying to hold her up?
Zoe growled, not amused, but she must have been wrong about Cleo’s motives, because Cleo kissed her again. Zoe was going to smell like her Chapstick for the rest of the day.
“Zoe,” Cleo spoke slowly, with fondness. “I’m telling you I’m very happy you’re my mate.”
My mate. Hearing the words aloud for the first time made Zoe stop dead in her tracks.
She swallowed. “Yeah?”
Cleo nodded against her skin, although for a moment her hold on Zoe was alarmingly tight, as if she was more nervous than she seemed.
She’d acknowledged the bond. Of course she was nervous. There was no going back now. This was them, forever.
“I’m happy too,” Zoe told her. She was quiet, which was strange when the rest of her wanted to howl to share her joy.
Cleo released a pleased sigh. “Then wanna step off the trail and go make out in the woods for a while? Your display of strength is doing things to my ability to think rationally.” Her kisses had Zoe shivering. “Come on, Zoe. It’s my turn to take care of you.”
“I, uh,” Zoe couldn’t think anymore either. “The summit is right there.” She did not care about the summit. Yet she heard herself saying that, of all the dumb things.
Cleo nibbled at her ear. “It will still be there when we’re done,” she pointed out. And she was right. Zoe’s mate was very smart.
Zoe took them off the trail without another word.
Cleo hummed happily in approval.