Authors: Annabeth Leong
Her glare softened, but her lips remained pressed together. “Fine. Maybe there’s something to that. Let’s go.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Where?”
“You want to do this? Let’s do this right. Dragon Hollow.” She’d jumped out of the truck before he had a chance to respond. Neil had to take long, loping strides to catch up.
She spoke to him over her shoulder. “It’s the name of the place I took you last time. You didn’t know that? Come on.” She grabbed his hand, but somehow didn’t slow her pace. The contact must not have given her the same jolt it gave Neil. Not wanting to seem slow compared to her, he forced himself to speed up. Really, he wished he could tumble to the ground with her right there.
She propelled them past the carousel and into a castle-style kids’ playground. Yellow plastic flags rose above the structure. Green slides emerged from wide-open painted dragon mouths as if they were tongues, flowing past cartoonish teeth. Given the hour, Juli and Neil were alone there.
She released him, shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans, and executed a slow turn. Her sneakers crunched in the cedar chips that padded the ground. “Let’s see. Yeah, I think it was right there, under that really fierce-looking one. When I was little, I thought he was wearing a necklace on his forehead, but now I think that’s just supposed to be a wrinkle.”
Neil shook his head and laughed. “What are you even talking about?”
“I thought long and hard before I brought you here, Neil. I must have spent three hours earlier that day deciding where exactly I ought to stand. I don’t know why I wanted to be right under the fierce dragon. At the moment, he reminds me a little of my Daddy.”
“Maybe that’s why I was so freaked out. I would not have liked the idea of Darrow watching us.”
“I’ll bet. Then maybe we should go somewhere else. Like the base of that curly slide right there.”
He had to smile at the serious way she bit her lip. “You sure that doesn’t ruin the magic? Do we need to be in exactly the same spot, or is it okay if we’re ten feet away?”
Juli’s expression turned sly. “You tell me.”
Neil thought the magic would be in full force anywhere she was, but he couldn’t say that just yet. “I think we’ll be okay. We have to do things a little differently anyway, don’t we?”
She looked so grateful that he wondered if he’d said more than he’d intended. Neil followed her to the small clearing at the base of the curly slide, where they both sat down. “I can’t believe this is where I decided to tell you I wanted us to be together. I guess I was pretty much still a kid, even if I’d turned 18.”
“Hell, I was still a kid too, and I was 20.”
“You made me feel like you were so grownup and mature, and I was just a little fool.” She sighed, and tears welled up in her eyes. Had she been hurt that badly? When she’d avoided him afterward, he’d assumed that conversation was a childish impulse she regretted.
“I’m sorry I was such a jerk about it. I had to make sure you didn’t bring it up twice.” Neil confessed, “I didn’t have it in me to refuse you again, and I really thought Darrow would kill me if I ravished his daughter the way I wanted to.”
“Ravish, huh? That’s a strong word.”
Neil let a little of his desire show on his face. “It was a strong feeling.”
She laughed. “You hid it well.”
Her beautiful face seemed so open and vulnerable right then. Her pale skin shone in the night like the full moon. Guilt pierced Neil. He’d never dreamed she’d felt anywhere as hurt by him as he had by her. They had even more to talk about than he’d imagined.
That was what he ought to be doing right now. Talking. Not giving in to the urge to take her into his arms, to pull her into his lap, to finally feel the soft black hair he had dreamed about so many times.
Juli’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”
Neil knew he ought to get control of himself, but he’d gotten closer to her than ever before. He would pull himself together in just a minute. First, he had to know what those plump, pink lips tasted like.
She opened her mouth to his tongue willingly. A moan swelled between them, and Neil couldn’t tell which of them had originated it. He tightened his grip on her, and his good intentions abandoned him. She tasted like every wild thing he longed for. She tasted like the dark and joyful world he glimpsed each full-moon exemption, like the freedom that tempted him 27 days out of the lunar cycle.
Before he knew it, he’d rolled her onto her back in the cedar chips, settling himself between her legs. Beneath him, she responded, ripping into his skin through the flimsy protection of his T-shirt, and growling again. Fiery lines of delicious pain trailed after her touch. He could take that and more. Neil nipped at her throat to remind her who had her pinned. He clawed in turn at the damnably thick denim shirt that stood between him and the soft flesh of her breasts.
Sober realization pierced his lust. He’d half-shifted in a downtown playground, a stone’s throw from a popular night spot. He needed to get control of this before it went too far, but his body would not cooperate. Neil’s every cell screamed for him to take this all the way, to fully shift so they could bond here and now as mates. Who gave a damn if the Council said it was illegal outside the full moon? A much older law pulsing in his veins—and in his erection, for that matter—insisted right now would do just fine.
Juli raised her head, a dazed expression clouding her face. “Neil?” The beginnings of fangs peeked from under her lips. God help him, all he could think about was how those sharp points would feel sinking into his flesh as the two of them engaged in an ancient struggle guaranteed to end in surrender. If she shifted any more, he’d follow her into it all the way, whether he wanted to or not. Then they’d both wind up censured by the Council when a dozen humans witnessed their rutting, and neither would lead the pack. Neil staggered to his feet.
He grabbed one of the wooden posts supporting the dragon castle, then frowned at the deep marks he’d inadvertently created there. “We have to get hold of ourselves, Juli. We certainly can’t mate here, and it seems like our chance of staying human while having sex is less than zero until we get that out of our system.”
That got her attention. She jumped up after him, eyes blazing. “Who said anything about mating? Hell, who said we were even having sex?”
Neil shook his head and gave her a rueful smile. He turned slowly, so she could see what she’d done to his back. “This says.”
“Jesus.” He raised an eyebrow. He didn’t remember ever hearing her use the full-strength version of that exclamation. “Neil, I’m sorry.” She touched his bleeding scratches with a fingertip, and he suppressed a full-body shiver.
“Don’t be. Believe me, I was enjoying that. In fact, you’d better take that hand away, or there’s no telling what I’ll do.”
He waited until he heard her back away a few steps. Then he faced her and found an odd light of triumph in her eyes. “You really did want to ravish me.”
Had she really not known? “Of course I did.” He corrected himself. “Do. Maybe coming here was a bad idea.”
Her shirt was a little the worse for wear thanks to her partial shift, and Neil knew his clothes had fared no better. Juli drew a shuddering breath and hugged herself. He managed to resist the urge to unwrap her arms and take over the action. She lowered her head for a long moment. When she lifted it again, unshed tears glistened in her eyes. “What do you want with me, Neil? I need to know the truth. You’re throwing around talk of mating like it’s nothing, and all these years I...” Her words trailed off.
She had a point. Neil sighed and leaned his head against the post he’d vandalized. Werewolves mated for life. Of course, they could have casual sex so long as they managed to stay in mostly human form while they did it. Fully shifted sex, on the other hand, created an unbreakable bond. Aside from the many legal issues that surrounded it, it shouldn’t be done lightly. By talking about mating as if it were inevitable, he’d practically asked her to marry him. He ground his teeth. He’d done a great job not bombing this so far.
“Neil?” She sounded tentative. The way she shifted between tender and fierce would drive him mad. She inspired his full range of male feelings, from protective to defiant.
“Stay, Juli.” He wanted to roll his eyes as soon as he said the words. It sounded like the tortured admission it was, not the simple request he’d wanted it to be. Since he’d said that much, he decided he might as well give her the rest. “Stay, and we’ll figure out whether we ought to mate. What I know now is I can’t just kiss you. I can’t even settle for being with you as a human man. You bring out the beast in me, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
She chewed on a fingertip. He had to stop thinking about her teeth. “Neil, have you ever... I mean, I’ve never...”
He raised an eyebrow. Surely she wasn’t about to tell him she was a virgin. Not with all that passion ripe to burst forth. “I’ve been with other women, if that’s what you’re asking. But I’ve never even thought about mating. It’s never been a problem to keep the wolf on the inside of my skin, if you know what I mean.”
She nodded. “Me too. I’ve never wanted anyone this way before.”
Lord. Did she have to go and tell him that and then expect him to stay on his side of the playground? He felt exhausted from holding back his desire. “Will you stay? In town, I mean?”
“Of course I will, Neil. You know what’s going on.” She held up her hand, showing Darrow’s leather ring.
“No. I need to know that you’ll stay no matter what. With me. Even if...”
She narrowed her eyes, a dangerous expression growing on her face. “Neil, you’re not asking if I’ll stay and mate with you even if your complaint is upheld. Right? Because that would be completely ridiculous.”
Indignation ripped through his body. He clenched his fists at his sides. “You’re not asking if I’ll mate with you after you’ve humiliated me by defeating my complaint. Right? Because that would be equally ridiculous.” Fury cracked through his voice. Neil had always thought himself above bouts of uncontrolled werewolf temper. This encounter with Juli was bursting a lot of his bubbles.
She stared at him. “I can’t believe you, Neil. You just can’t bring yourself to respect me, no matter what.”
“What are you talking about? Of course I respect you. I wouldn’t mate with someone I don’t respect.” Fur sprouted along his forearms. He still felt too much emotion from before, and too many powerful instinctual urges. He didn’t have anywhere close to his normal control. This entire evening had become a huge embarrassment.
“You don’t respect me as an alpha. You only want me as a mate if I’m less than you. You’ve never missed an opportunity to remind me of how young I am, of how little I know.” She punched the air, then spun in an angry pirouette. “Screw what our hormones want, Neil. You will never have me.”
Oh, hell. He couldn’t imagine how the conversation could get any worse than this. “Juli, wait.”
“No.” She flared her nostrils and bared her teeth. Her blue irises took on the weird yellow cast of her inner wolf. “Hell, no. I’m walking home, Neil. I recommend you stay out of my way. I’ll see you in werewolf court.”
It seemed useless to try to call her back. He watched her walk away, her perfect ass swinging with defiant freedom. The claws of his fisted fingers tore into his palms. He counted the hours until the full-moon exemption, and came up with too damn many. He counted again, and again, but the beast within did not abate. Finally, Neil had to resort to running circles around that dragon castle until he tired himself into being fully human. No matter how exhausted he became, nothing could erase the powerful urge to find Juli, to take her mouth again, and, yes, to take her as his mate.
With baseball season in full swing, Juli found it easier to avoid Neil than she expected. He spent a couple nights playing in Helena, and then a couple in Billings. The Werewolf Council’s investigators interviewed each of them separately, so the formal resolution meeting they scheduled in the Gunby living room turned out to be the first time she saw him since that disastrous night in Dragon Hollow.
She walked into that meeting after a day of job interviews, feeling frazzled, her hair messed up from the wind on the drive home. She recognized all three of the investigators present, but hadn’t been friendly with any of them back in Lewistown. She acknowledged them with a series of nods, then dragged a chair in from the kitchen and perched on the edge of it.
Neil looked good, fit and way more relaxed than Juli felt. He leaned back in her father’s favorite armchair as if he owned it, his muscular legs sprawled out before him. He’d just made a joke to the female investigator, and she responded with an interested laugh that made Juli’s hackles rise.
Not hackles, she told herself sternly. The last thing she needed right then was another slip, this time in front of Council officials. She’d even considered asking Dr. LaMont for a single dose of lycanthropy suppressants, just for the day. Fear of coming to rely on them stopped her, so control would be the word of the day.
Neil finally got around to greeting Juli, throwing her a tight smile that didn’t reach his eyes. One of his knees bobbed rapidly up and down, and she felt a little better. He was nervous too.
The female investigator cleared her throat, and the two on either side of her came to attention as swiftly as if she’d yanked their leashes. “Let’s not waste any more time.” She placed a recorder on Darrow’s glass coffee table. Juli noticed with an inner wince that a fine layer of dust marred its surface. Apparently, she and Neil couldn’t match her father’s level of housekeeping.
The female investigator continued, assuming an even more professional voice, if that were possible. “June 19, 5:33 p.m., Missoula, Montana, in the house formerly belonging to Darrow Gunby. This is Heather Compton, Alpha-Level Investigator for the Werewolf Council. We’ve completed our interviews with the two principals involved in complaint A-7852, regarding pack succession for werewolf group 7B. Please acknowledge you are both present in the room with me.”