Authors: Eve Langlais
The admission, when it came, stunned him. “I can’t shift. Not anymore. My wolf is gone.”
Admitting her shameful secret aloud hurt, but not as much as the memory of why her wolf no longer came out to play.
She should have known Hayder wouldn’t just take her word for it. “What do you mean, you can’t shift? You’re a wolf. I can smell it.”
“I used to be a wolf you mean. Not anymore. I haven’t been able to coax my other side out in years. Not even on the full moon.” When the urge to shift was strongest.
It occurred to her to tell him to mind his business. She didn’t want to admit her shame aloud, but knowing Hayder, and despite their short acquaintance, she knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t let it go. Might as well tell him the truth and get it over with. “I tried to escape a while ago. Or, that is, my wolf did. She, that is, we failed. When Harry found me, he and his cronies beat me. Bad. So bad my wolf retreated and hasn’t come out since.”
For a moment he didn’t say anything, and she feared looking at him. Would he finally show disgust at her weakness? Would he finally realize he was mistaken in his belief they belonged together? A man like him deserved someone strong. Someone—
“Would you stop that!” he yelled.
Startled, she raised her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what? You have nothing to be sorry for.”
“But I made you angry.”
“Fucking right, I’m angry, baby, but not at you, although I am pissed that you keep looking like I’m going to hurt you every time you talk. The only person I want to hurt is that asshole who did this to you. He’s the one I’m angry with. Him and that entire pack of cowards who thought it was okay to let a guy beat on a woman.”
His vehemence, far from scaring her, brought a tremulous smile to her lips. “I know you won’t hurt me.”
“About time you admit it. I am awesome.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Is arrogance a lion trait?”
“Nope. That’s all me, baby. Now enough about how great I am. Let’s get the focus back on you. You’re a shifter. No matter what happened to you, that hasn’t changed. I’ll bet your wolf is just scared to come out. But she doesn’t need to be scared anymore. Tell her it’s safe to come out.”
Her lips drooped. “I’ve tried communicating with my other half. She doesn’t reply. I can’t even feel her anymore. It’s like she’s gone.” She didn’t mention the fact that she thought she’d heard her whisper a few times since they’d met. She still was trying to convince herself she hadn’t imagined it.
“She can’t be gone. Let me try. Hey, you, the wolf inside my baby, mind popping out for a bit? Arabella here really misses you.”
She shook her head. “I appreciate what you want to do, but it won’t work.” How she’d tried and tried to get her furry side to react, respond, anything.
“Maybe she just needs to be reminded of what it’s like to run free.”
Incomprehension meant she watched as his hands went to the hem of his shirt. He managed to pull it off halfway before she asked, “What are you doing?”
“Getting naked. I hate shifting fully clothed. Shopping for new duds sucks.”
“Why are you shifting?”
“To help you, of course.”
“What makes you think shifting will help?”
“Your wolf is scared to come out. So my reasoning is it can’t hurt to let her see she’s in a safe place where she can be herself. And if that doesn’t work, then maybe a forest jaunt will.”
“You’re going for a run?”
“Yup. And you’re coming with me.”
“I can’t come with you. I’ll never be able to keep up.” Nor did she want the reminder of what she could no longer enjoy.
He didn’t pay any mind to her protests. Apparently his lion was bursting to get out. Clothes hit the ground. Naked skin bathed in warm sunlight—and was the object of a much-too-interested gaze. A gaze that did not go unnoticed she realized as her perusal went from his face and dropped lower.
She turned her head and thus missed his transformation. With a rawr that vibrated her bones, Hayder traded shapes, human for fur. He chuffed, an animal sound.
With the temptation of his flesh gone, she dared to look again and then stared. She couldn’t help an uttered, “Your lion is beautiful.”
And it was. As Hayder stood on four paws, chest proud, head held high, his tail snapped and he shook his head, the feathery fur of his mane ruffling.
Such a majestic beast. Such a conceited one. She caught the wink he tossed her as she stood admiring him.
Needing distraction, she peered around, yet nothing truly grabbed her attention.
Don’t stare. He’s already got a big enough head.
Two of them as a matter of fact.
How was it when she thought of him her thoughts indubitably ended in the dirty gutter running through her mind? She needed something to do with her hands, something other than wanting to stroke his tawny fur and see if it was true that lions didn’t purr.
I’d like to stroke him and see for myself.
But she wouldn’t.
Stooping to grab his clothes from the ground, Arabella caught the musky scent of his cologne clinging to his shirt, and the sharper scent of his predator.
She sneezed. A few times.
They’d really have to do something about that. Maybe she should look into that shot the doctor suggested years ago.
Look at me, thinking of a future that involves cats.
She deposited his clothes in the car, folding them in a neat pile, years of habit where cleaning meant avoiding yet more haranguing. As she shut the vehicle door, Hayder butted his head against her. Practically knocked her over.
He had a pretty big fluffy head.
“What do you want now?”
He stared at her, his eyes questioning.
“No, despite your shifting, my wolf still isn’t talking.” Although she could have sworn she sensed a second set of eyes spying. Did her inner self watch?
Are you in there? You can come out. It’s safe.
Nothing, but the voyeuristic sensation remained.
It seemed Hayder wasn’t content with simple admiration. He nudged her again and then did a lazy glide where he ended up alongside her. His tail twitched, thrashing her like a serpentine whip.
He twitched again, and this time, the tip of his tail tickled the underside of her chin. She craned away. “I mean it. Stop it. I don’t know what you want from me. She’s not coming out.”
Amber eyes, set amidst a shaggy mien, perused her. They seemed to ask something.
She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
He tossed his head and emitted a soft growl. He wanted something.
“What? What do you want? I’m not shifting. So if you’re waiting for me, you’ll be waiting a long while. You might as well go for your run. I’ll wait for you here.” And hope she didn’t have to deal with any of her old pack. Hayder seemed convinced this place was secure, but Arabella couldn’t halt her doubts.
The buzz of a lone bee kept the silence from being complete. She pretended interest in the mish-mash of additions to the farmhouse. She waited. He waited.
“Daylight’s wasting,” she reminded.
He didn’t leave. Leaning, he brushed his side against her legs. He chuffed, a whoosh of air and sound.
Surely he wasn’t implying she should… “Are you trying to get me to climb on?”
No way. No lion would ever allow himself to be ridden like a pony.
Again, he nudged her.
Say no. This is insane. Don’t do it.
Ignoring her inner voice, she swung a leg over his broad back. She straddled him, impressed by his size. Her feet didn’t come close to touching the ground. She wobbled atop him when he took a step. Feeling herself losing her balance, her hands shot out and snagged a hold of the first thing she could find.
While she did manage to steady herself, she froze, partially horrified. Everyone knew how sacred the mane was to a lion. She’d heard of pack wars started over an insult to a feline’s pride and joy.
Yet here she was, using the mane of the beta for the most powerful pride on this coast as a bridle.
He’d eat her for sure.
She held her breath waiting. She also didn’t let go, her muscles locked in place.
He didn’t buck her off. He didn’t snap his mighty teeth at her. He walked.
With a loose-legged stride, he carried her.
He probably just wants to get me out of the driveway before he loses his furry temper and eats me.
Cleaning blood off asphalt and concrete was never any fun. She should know. Poker night with Harry and his cronies had always ended in violence.
They hit the shadow of the forest, the sunlight filtered by green leaves, and still he didn’t react to her clinging to his mane.
Was it possible it didn’t bother him? Hadn’t she seen plenty of examples that Hayder was different from the men she’d known these past years? Time and time again, he kept proving it.
The longer he didn’t snap, the more she relaxed. As the tension eased from her, she began to take in her surroundings, the beautiful and peaceful surroundings. How long since she’d gone into the woods?
Too long. It had been years since her last visit to the mini copse in the park that she was allowed to visit when living with her old pack. The supervised outings after her escape had been just another example of the lack of freedom in her miserable life. But even a leering guard was better than nothing. Except nothing was what she got. Either the mini woods didn’t appeal or her wolf was well and truly gone. Once she realized her wolf wouldn’t come out anymore, she stopped the park visits. Why torture herself?
But how she’d missed the beauty of nature. The quiet serenity of the wild forest surrounded her, a quiet comprised of natural sound. There was always an abundance of that in the world, from the gentle hum of insects to the gentle sloughing of a breeze through branches. What lacked was the chaos of industry and humans.
The abundance of plant life filled her visual senses as the soothing shades of green and brown, interspersed with the occasional startling splash of color, proved a relief after the garish signage and lights of the city.
Best of all was the smell. Could anything really compare to the crisp scent of foliage, a sharp pure tang that screamed life, the fascinating scents of the creatures who lived amongst the roots and branches and then the richness of the earth, musty and yet wholesome. The occasional flower bud provided a hint of sweetness. Such a symphony of flavors.
She inhaled, drawing deep of the fresh air. How wonderful. How—
Miss it so much.
The sudden observation startled her. She stiffened.
Is that you?
For a moment, she thought her other side wouldn’t reply.
Did I imagine it?
I am here.
Not so much spoken but thought. A communication based less on words and more on that of a feeling.
I thought you were gone.
And she’d mourned the loss keenly.
Hiding. Staying out of the way.
But you don’t need to hide. We are free now.
Free and you don’t need me.
With that, the watching presence vanished, and Arabella almost wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing. Except…
No. She had spoken to her wolf. She was still in there. Wanting to come out, but afraid.
Perhaps Hayder was right. Maybe her wolf needed to be shown it was safe to emerge, to remember the joyful part of being wolf.
Hoping he’d understand, she leaned forward, practically plastering herself to his back, burrowing her face for a moment in his mane, her legs pressing tight against his sides.
Intuitive to her unspoken request, he bounded forward, and she had to tighten her grip. She held on as Hayder ran through the woods. She clung to the muscled and furry back of the lion. She noted the roll of the powerful muscles. Enjoyed the breeze that streamed her hair and that of the lion’s mane—which, even though it tickled her face, didn’t make her sneeze.
Good thing. One good achoo and she might have flown off his back. Their run took them to the edge of the forest and into a golden field. Swaying stalks extended for acres around.
He dove into them and the whip-like strands tickled at her skin and got caught in her hair. She couldn’t help but laugh aloud, all her fear and worries abandoned in that moment as she let a humble wheat field remind her of the simple joys in life.
Remember when we used to play in the fields by our house? I’d hide and Mom would make Jeoff come find me.
Her wolf didn’t reply, but she could have sworn she listened and remembered the exhilaration of sneaking through the tall strands. Moving carefully so as to minimize noise and movement.
A wolf more stealthy than a fox, or so her brother used to say.
Was she still as tricky as that girl of long ago?
She slid off Hayder’s back. He immediately stopped and turned to eye her. A concerned-looking lion was a sight to see. She laughed as she petted him.