Authors: T. S. Joyce
But Clinton was warm. So warm. Hot almost, like a heating pad against her entire torso. Clinton softened, muscle by muscle, and then he stunned her when he unfurled his arms from his chest and patted her awkwardly on the back. And when she squeezed her eyes tightly closed and hugged his impossibly taut waist even harder, he let off a shallow breath and slid his arms around her back. God, it felt so good to be hugged. Clinton pulled her tighter against him, and that’s when she heard it. His heartbeat was drumming fast, like a horse running full speed on soft earth. She moved her cheek over by inches just to feel it. To feel him. So fast. So hard. How was he upright and not passing out? His hand brushed up her spine and gripped the back of her hair at the base of her neck, and when he rested his cheek softly against the top of her head, an accidental sob left her lips. This was better than any kiss she’d ever had, any embrace, any compliment. For one blinding moment, she felt okay.
And then he whispered something so terrifying into her ear, she froze against him, too scared to flee, too scared to give him her back. “I want to bite you.”
She wasn’t okay. She wasn’t softening his heart. The desperation to connect with him had overshadowed her survival instincts.
Alyssa was nothing but prey to a monster like Clinton.
The vision of Shae scrambling away from him, out of his arms, was like shrapnel in his chest. Clinton huffed a pissed-off laugh. She’d tricked him into that hug at Moosey’s.
That’s what women did. They tricked him.
No. Not Shae. He remembered when they were fifteen, and he’d snuck into her window and spent the night with her for the first time. She hadn’t tricked him into what they’d done then, and she wasn’t tricking him now. She wasn’t
. She wasn’t Amber.
He slapped himself in the head a few times to get away from thoughts of his second mate. That would bring him nothing but uncontrolled Changes and pain.
The pre-dawn air was crisp and cold, and it was windier up here on top of his trailer. He liked sitting above the trailer park before everyone woke up. Before the noise. Before the disappointment he brought everyone.
Clinton wrung the small yellow T-shirt in his hands and hated himself for what he was considering. She hadn’t left, and then she’d touched him. She’d hugged him. She’d split him wide open, and now he couldn’t fight anymore. He couldn’t leave her alone.
He opened the wrinkled shirt and read the black lettering.
Everyone had a support group cheering them on for the upcoming Lumberjack Wars, but not him. He had a stack of shirts Beck had given him to pass out, but they all still sat boxed up in the vacant trailer where he left all his other trash. But now he couldn’t get the imaginings of Shae wearing his shirt out of his head.
Dana had been mad when he hadn’t gone back for her daughter. She’d been like a mother to him once. He’d spent his youth eating dinners over at their house and going to church with them on Sunday mornings. She’d known what he was, and so had Shae’s dad, and they’d still loved him. Clinton ran his hand down his beard and stared at the first rays of dawn peeking over the mountainous horizon. Going back for Shae had been all he’d thought about in that testing facility, but something had happened while he was there that had made him too dark to track down Shae when he’d escaped. He couldn’t poison her. He cared about her too much to expose her to what he’d become. She would’ve gone right down to hell with him. She’d talked about being in the dark and not knowing where the light switch was, but he was no one’s light.
He’d gotten better, right? Sure, his control over his fucked-up animal was still at about thirteen percent, max, but he’d made some effort over the last year at the Boarland Mobile Park.
He’d been good. He’d stayed away, but now things were different. Shae had come looking for him. She’d been dreaming of him, sketching his likeness.
Against all odds, she remembered him.
She’d come in and blasted apart the cinder block walls he’d constructed to keep others at a distance. Now how would he tuck all his emotions away again? It had taken years the first time, and look what it did to him. He had no shot of being all right, and then this angel shows up hugging him?
Shae was his light switch. She always had been.
Clinton jumped off his roof and landed easily on the ground, then strode for his truck, T-shirt swinging from his hand. Fighting this was pointless. She’d been his first mate. In a way, she’d been his only. He’d picked her at age ten and had thought they had their whole lives. Mom and Dad had called him “a lucky one.” He was an early chooser. He was supposed to have more years to make her happy, to love her.
And then she’d been taken, and nothing had been right since.
Right now, Shae wanted some connection with him, and it made him sick to think of denying her anything. She’d already been through so much. He wanted to make her smile, but instead, he’d made her cry. Typical Clinton. He spat and yanked the door to his truck open, then blasted out of the trailer park.
Shae wasn’t the only one good at Internet stalking. She’d given him enough information yesterday for him to track her down. Her friends had rented a cabin, so he’d simply poked around, marked off available cabins, and narrowed his list down to two. And then he’d seen her car parked beside one when he’d gone hunting for her. He’d watched her shadows through the window of her one-bedroom cabin last night. And no, he didn’t feel guilty about being a Peeping-Clinton. He was a monster. Monsters didn’t have guilt over shit like that.
It was full dawn by the time he reached her cabin. Plenty of time to get her a present. He cut the engine down the drive so he wouldn’t wake her up, then stripped down to his birthday suit and let his bear rip out of his skin.
This morning, he wouldn’t put those tears in his mate’s eyes again.
He was going to make up for that by giving her smiles instead.
Alyssa swallowed the bile that clawed up the back of her throat and asked, “What is that?”
Clinton stood in the woodsy front lawn of her cabin, clad in only a pair of jeans, and from his hand dangled one very dead animal.
Clinton frowned, and in a voice that said it should be obvious, he said, “It’s a present.”
She pursed her lips to keep from gagging. “You…killed it?”
“Yeah.” His frown deepened. “You said there was something scratching at your cabin. It was this coyote. Now you can sleep. You’re welcome.”
Clinton the Monster Shifter had killed for her. She didn’t know whether to be terrified or flattered. “Thank you?”
Clinton let off a snarl and spun around, then strode off for the dirt road that led off the property. “Forget it. Stupid human, you don’t even know what a good present is.”
“Hey!” She stomped off the porch, pulling her jacket tighter around her shoulders. “You can’ t just call me names and think that’s okay. It’s not!” How was he walking so fast? She picked up her pace to a jog. Anger blasted through her veins as she sprinted, and before she could help herself, she shoved him hard in the shoulder blades. “Take it back!”
Clinton spun and growled a feral sound, but she was good and done with his attitude, so she stomped her foot in fury and held his blazing silver gaze.
Clinton’s pissed-off expression faltered, and he countered back a couple steps, looking unsure. “Fine. You aren’t a human.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it. Just because I’m not used to seeing dead animals hanging from a man’s bloody hand first thing in the morning doesn’t make me stupid. Take. It. Back.”
Clinton curled his lips back, exposing his teeth, and his gaze drifted to the woods. God, if she could ignore the carnage of his “present,” he was beautiful here in the early morning light that filtered through the thick pine canopy and speckled his body in gold. His profile was rigid, angry, and his muscles were tensed, his abs flexing with each heaving breath. His tattoos were dark against his skin, and yep, there were those nipple bars on full display. She’d never seen piercings like that in the small town she’d come from, but they were sooo…Clinton. And sexy. She wanted to bite one.
“You aren’t stupid,” he gritted out.
Okay, she was a little surprised that being direct had actually worked. “Good monster. Now dispose of that,” she said, waving her hand in the direction of the coyote, “and then come in for breakfast.”
“What if I don’t want—”
, we’re gonna do something fun because I hate that every encounter with you leaves this uncomfortable pit in my stomach. I’m one foot out the door at this point, and I have one day left here before I go back to my life, so why don’t you shock the shit out of me and show me you aren’t actually the incessant ass-hat you pretend to be.”
“You cuss a lot. That’s not sexy on a lady.” But the fire in his eyes had dimmed, and the hint of a smile showed through his beard.
She sighed loudly. “Are you done?”
He gestured to her jeans. “At least you have actual clothes on today.”
Alyssa arched her eyebrows and waited for him to wear himself out.
“And your glasses make you look like a nerd.” He cast her a quick glance, then away again. “Now I’m done.”
“Great. I’ll start making breakfast and see you when you’re cleaned up.”
“Great,” he muttered uncharitably, then strode off down the road again, his back muscles flexing with a sexy undulation with every powerful stride away from her.
Alyssa watched him until he disappeared around a curve behind thick brush. There was a ninety-eight percent chance he would disappear, and she’d be left with a huge breakfast-for-one, but this was his shot to push her away completely or step up. So against her better judgement, Alyssa made her way back to the cabin and started yanking groceries out of the fridge in a big enough quantity to feed a small army or, as the research she’d done online had turned up, one hungry werebear.
The rumble of a truck sounded against the quiet of the cabin, and mildly shocked that he was actually back, Alyssa brushed aside the earthy green curtains on the window above the kitchen sink. Sure enough, Clinton was getting out of his Raptor, with a wad of yellow fabric clinched in his fist. He searched the ground for something, striding through the wild-grass yard until he apparently found what he wanted. Kneeling down, he picked something up and made his way to the front door. And right before he climbed the trio of stairs in front of the porch, he lifted that animal-bright gaze to where she was spying. With a tiny squeak, Alyssa dropped the curtains.
She’d felt all brave and bold outside when she was angry with him, but now he was here, and she was really going to make him breakfast. She would actually have to attempt to carry on conversation with him, and right about now, she was feeling completely overwhelmed.
Up until the point where Clinton rudely barged in and the door banked off the wall hard enough to rattle the small cabin.
Nerves evaporating, she shook her head and went to cutting open the package of pork sausage. Clinton wouldn’t be sweetened easily, but maybe the way to his grumpy-ass heart was through his belly.
His boots were ridiculously loud on the wooden floors, and as he entered the small kitchen area, she held her breath against the heaviness he brought to the air. He was right behind her now, so close she could feel his warmth.
“I like your glasses,” he murmured.
Alyssa blew out a breath and turned, dared a look up at him. He was holding a yellow dandelion flower, and the milky residue at the bottom of the green stem was still welling up.
“I don’t get women, never will, but I thought I was doing good getting rid of what was scaring you at nights.”
The coyote. And well, it did scare her that it wasn’t just a raccoon or something, but a predator trying to get in here when she was trying to sleep. In a way…a Clinton way…it was sort of sweet. But this? Alyssa plucked the flower from between his fingertips and sniffed it delicately. Even though it was a weed, it smelled floral.
“Don’t mushy smile at me like that. It’ll probably be the only flower you get from me.” Clinton crossed his arms and glared, the yellow cloth hanging from his grasp.
“Is that for me, too?”
Clinton angled his face away, but his suspicious eyes never left her. Slowly, he handed her the fabric—a T-shirt, as it turned out. She opened it up, and through the wrinkles read aloud, “Team Clinton.” Baffled, she asked, “What is this for?”
Clinton rolled his eyes to the ceiling and lowered his voice. “I’m giving them to everyone. I’ll be part of the Lumberjack Wars coming up in a few days.”
“And you want me to come cheer you on?”
A single dip of the chin was all she got, but damn, her insides were melting. Clinton was secret-sweet, and she made a mental note to go easier on him. This was a proud man who struggled with communication, but at least he was trying with her.
“Maybe I can spend a couple more days here.” With a sigh and a silent prayer to the heavens that she wasn’t making a huge mistake, she promised, “I’ll be there.”
Clinton uncrossed his arms and stuck his hands in his back pockets, exposing his gloriously bare torso. He shifted his weight from side to side and dropped his gaze to the floor. “Should we hug now?”
Alyssa swallowed her laugh, pursed her lips hard against her smile, and stepped across the space that separated them. Gently, she slipped her hands around his waist and rested her cheek lightly against his chest, and there it was again—that impossibly rapid beat of his heart. Maybe shifters had faster pulses.
Clinton rested his chin on top of her head, tense as if he would pull away, but instead, he growled and squeezed her.
“Too tight,” she rasped out.
Clinton gentled his bear hug and saved her ribs from cracking into little pieces.
“Can I tell you something?” he asked in a low, sultry voice that made her panties instantly wet.
“Mmm hmmm,” she hummed, feeling drunk.
He lowered his lips to right against her ear and held her closer. His lip brushed her lobe, and then he whispered, “You’re burning the sausage.”
“Oh!” Alyssa jumped out of his embrace and stirred the meat. Sure enough, it was starting to stick to the bottom of the iron skillet.
“I wish Mason was here,” he said, his deep tone tinged with humor.
“The boar shifter? Why? Please don’t say ‘so I don’t have to be alone with you.’”