Now that NaNoWriMo is over, Maz and I will try to get back to regular updates. Thanks so much for hanging with us!
Brian leaned against the bedroom door with a sigh. They were finally home from the hospital. He wanted to shift and run. He wanted to roar with relief. He wanted a damn shower. Growling, he fought with the clothes his mom brought him as he headed for the bathroom. The cast kept him from shifting or showering. In addition, they had guests. Human guests. He filled the tub and growled again.
He liked his future mother- and father-in-law. Really, he did. He did not currently like them in his house. He wanted time alone with his mate. He needed to check every last inch of her to convince himself she was okay. Sinking into the scalding water with a hiss, he leaned against the tile. He also needed to tell her about PSI Technology’s involvement in both the accident, the separate hospitals, and probably the latex screw up.
He clawed at the cast, shredding the edge by his thumb. She was going to kill him for keeping the information from her even if it hadn’t been deliberate. She was going to growl and roar. Her parents were going to think they were torturing a zoo animal. Maybe he could send them on a grocery run? It was times like this he wished all those shifter books were true. Being able to talk to his mate without others hearing would be a nifty trick right about now.
Trying to wring out the washcloth was like trying to herd cats. He gave up and draped it over the faucet with a growl then eyed the shampoo. Nulli had offered to help him wash his hair. He refused. A cast didn’t make him an invalid, it simply made things a bit harder to do. Harder, not impossible. Resting his cast on the side of the tub, he leaned back to wet his hair. The cast slipped. He scrambled for the side of the tub with his good hand and rose from the water, coughing and spluttering.
“Son of a bitch!” He had a new bruise on his elbow and the cast was soaked for at least two inches, but his hair was wet. So was the floor, the wall, and his towel. He growled and snatched the shampoo bottle from where he’d knocked it onto the floor. After all that, the least he could do wash his damn hair.
"Brian?" Nulli opened the door and stepped inside. "What's wrong? I growling, splashing, then swearing. You okay?"
“I’m fine.” He held the shampoo bottle between his head and shoulder like a telephone trying to squeeze some onto his good hand. “Just had a bit of a slip. Everything’s fine. How are your parents? They didn’t hear the growls, did they?”
Nulli approached with ginger steps, plucked the bottle from his careful grip, and sat on the side of the tub. "No, they didn't hear you." She tilted her head to the side and frowned. "If I was in your place, you'd be elbow deep in lather and ignoring my protests."
“You needed time with your folks, mate. I can do this. It’ll just take a bit of effort.” He looked over the edge of the tub and made a face. “Okay, a bit of effort and a mop.”
Nulli shook her head and squirted shampoo into her palm. Before he could speak, she pushed her fingers into his hair and massaged his scalp until a lather formed. "Ever hear the phrase, in sickness and in health?"
He bowed his head and purred as her fingers threaded through his tresses. “I know, sweetheart. I should have called you, but I hate feeling helpless. I’ve only been in a cast once before and I felt like chewing the damn thing off then. I really thought I could do this, no problem. Didn’t exactly turn out that way, huh?”
"You've spent so much time telling me how great it is to not be a stray, to not be on your own anymore, and when the time comes, you want to live like you don’t have a mate." She pinched his ear. "I'm here, Brian. We're a team."
“It’s not that I want to return to being a stray.” He captured her hand in his good one and nuzzled her palm. “I’m a fairly laid back and passive guy. I know that. You know that. I love your strength, your passion, and your ability to fight for your dreams and happiness. I adore it, but sometimes I want to be strong for you. I just use the most bull-headed ways of doing so.” He sighed and kissed her hand. “I just want to be someone you can both love and be proud of. I don’t feel like I achieve that very often.”
"Who says I'm not proud of you?"
“I didn’t say you weren’t. I said I didn’t feel like I achieved it often. Twisted, skewed perception, perhaps, but there you have it.” He wiped soap from his face and gave her a rueful smile. “So, I do crazy things like try to bathe with a broken arm and end up flailing like a trout on dry land. I’d like to blame it on medication, but I’ll own this one.” He reclaimed her hand and held it against his cheek. “Every day, I am amazed that of all the men in this crazy world, you chose me. Every day, I am determined to never make you regret that choice. I didn’t want you to see me as weak.” He chuckled. “Instead, you saw me make a fool of myself.”
"Weak? Are you sure you're not on drugs?" Nulli rolled her eyes and breathed deep. "Brian, you tried to stop a truck from hurting me with your bare hands. Most people would react by trying to save themselves. If you call that weak, what the hell do you call strong?"
“Being able to wash my own damn hair?” He shrugged with a half-hearted chuckle. “Seriously, though, there are many times I’ve felt like I could do more. The what-ifs kill me, the should-haves or the if-onlys. What if we had gone to a different restaurant? If only we had gone home instead of out to eat. I know I’m not psychic, but… you didn’t see how you looked when they wheeled you into the room. You were hooked up to all sorts of machines. They had to fucking help you breathe! And all I could do was lie there and watch and pray that you’d be okay. And wonder what if.” He covered his face in his hand and pinched the bridge of his nose. His tears mingled with the soap, no doubt leaving streaks on his face. “I almost lost you, kitten. If that’s not reason enough to try do better, I don’t know what is.”
“It was an accident, Brian. How are we supposed to live our lives if we are constantly trying to prevent things that are out of our hands? Stuff happens, that’s life. You’re still with me. You’ve got a broken arm and my entire right side feels like it’s been through a meat grinder. I’ll wash your hair and you can help me get my bras on and off. Deal?” Nulli kissed his forehead and pulled his hand from his face. “Let’s focus on the things we can control.”
“I understand and agree except for one thing.” He scowled and his fangs dropped to press against his lip. “It wasn’t an accident. Everything was planned. The car that rear-ended us into the intersection. The ambulance that took you to a separate hospital short on shifters. They were the work of that bitch from PSI Technologies. She was the driver of the car that pushed us into the street. I think the only accident, at least I hope it was an accident, was their use of latex at the other hospital. The rest was contrived to separate us, isolate you, and either take your DNA or capture you.”
His mate pulled back, staring at him with amber eyes and elongated fangs. A rumble started in her chest, quiet at first, but it grew in volume. “What. The. Hell.”
“I couldn’t tell you at the hospital because of this. I knew you’d growl. Hell, I growled! I didn’t tell you there because your family was around and I’m not sure they’re ready for all our secrets.” He tugged her forward again and kissed her hand. “The Wardens are looking into it. I told them about the woman from the gym, how she’d been hanging around, and that I saw her just before she hit us. The SUV that t-boned us might have been a lucky strike, but I don’t know. Killian is looking into it as is Dr. Roberts. We have to know what all they took from you at the hospital.”
She pushed away from him with clawed hands, but she didn’t break his skin. “She could have killed you!” There was more growl than voice erupting from his mate and her eyes narrowed. “Do they know where she is?”
He tapped her claws. “Sheathe them, sweetheart, until we have a chance to run. Your parents are downstairs, and we have to try to remain somewhat calm. Believe me, I want to shred something and roar until the windows crack, but it will have to wait until they go home.”
She didn’t respond right away, in fact, she seemed to grow even angrier. Her face twisted into a sneer for a few moments before she closed her eyes. “I just…” Her fingers flexed, her claws retracted, and her growls ceased. When she opened her eyes again, they were still amber. “I will hurt her for what she did to you. As soon as I see her, I promise you.”
“I don’t think they were after me at all. I believe their target was you. I can only guess at why. Maybe they wanted to see the differences in DNA from a newly turned human as compared to a born shifter. Maybe they just wanted what they perceived as the weaker of the two of us. Maybe it was just dumb luck. Whatever it was, they nearly killed you in that hospital by using a shit-ton of stuff you’re highly allergic to. You almost died from anaphylactic shock. Your lungs threatened to collapse. I want their heads on pikes lining my drive.” A low growl rumbled through his chest.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know her location. The police are looking for her car, the Wardens are looking for her as well, but we’re still waiting for that information. Terry will notify Killian if she returns to the lab. He’s staying there trying to get more information. The bear’s got the IRS looking into their finances. He believes their accounts will be frozen in the next day or so. Once that happens, a lot of their mercenaries will jump ship. Doc Roberts hopes the Wardens can act during that time.”
“If I’m the target, it’s pretty simple. I’ll make myself available, and then we’ll see how they like it.” The start of a vibration rolled through her chest, but she cut it off.
“I must have water in my ears, because I did not just hear my injured mate offer herself up as bait to those monsters!” He rose onto his knees, his claws tapping against the porcelain tub. “The very same mate I watched a machine help breathe. You are healing, Nulli! For fuck’s sake.” He pulled her against his chest and kissed her. A growl vibrated his body as he struggled to hold on to her with just his one good arm and the awkward cast.
As he plundered her lips, his mind tormented him with images of her on that hospital bed. The machines. The tubes. That damn ventilator. PSI Tech had put her there. No way in hell was he letting her bait them into doing it a second time. Not if he could stop it.
“Brian.” His name from her lips broke the kiss and she wrenched herself out of his grasp. “If they did this once, they could do it again. We can control this, put it on our terms. I will not have them threatening you or me indefinitely and I will not run and hide. In nature, an injured animal is the most dangerous. I’m more than just an animal, and I can be more than a little dangerous.” There was a threat in her voice unlike any he’d heard before.
“I don’t know if I can do it, Nulli,” he whispered brokenly. “I don’t know if I can watch you throw yourself into danger and not want to do something, anything to protect you. I close my eyes and see that truck coming straight for you or hear that damn ventilator or see you laying so fucking still because of the drugs. It terrifies me.” He raised his eyes to hers then let them slide away. “You’re asking me to risk you being back in that position or worse. I’m being as honest as I can. I simply don’t know if I’m capable of that.”
“I have to go to work sooner or later. I can’t lock myself in the house and hope they don’t throw gas bombs in the windows while we’re sleeping. They’ve shown us they’re willing to draw blood. We need a plan. I am not going to be on the defensive until they get bored. I can talk to Natalia, see if she has any better ideas, but I won’t sit on my hands while they plot and endanger you or our families.”
“I know we can’t stop our lives for them, but please try to heal some before you throw yourself into danger. As strong as you are, you’re not invincible. Let’s talk to Killian and the Wardens. I don’t know this Natalia, but I’d like to talk with her, too. A plan is good, but we need more than just the two of us to make it work.”
“You want to meet Natalia? What are you--You never got her first name.” Her voice lowered as if she was thinking the last sentence out loud. Her eyes returned to their normal color and she shook her head. “Natalia is Dr. Roberts’ first name.”
“Oh. Well, good. She struck me as a reasonable wolf, as far as wolves go. She cares for you, which is all that matters to me.” He sank back into the water, worry etched into his face. His mother’s words and the haunted look in her eyes pressed upon him. For the first time since his father’s death, he understood a fraction of what she had endured. Brushing soap from his eyes, he sighed. “I can’t stop you from doing this, but please promise me you’ll be careful?”
“I’m not doing anything just yet. I’ll talk to Natalia, and even that crazy bear friend of yours if I have to, and then we’ll see what we can come up with. I don’t want to wait on this though. My family and yours are here with us. If those PSI Tech people try to do anything to them, I won’t hesitate. I need you to know that.”
“I know and I understand. I don’t like you putting yourself in danger, sweetheart, but I do understand your feelings.” He sighed, but gave her a faint smile. “I’d love to wrap you in bubble wrap and hide you away forever, but then you wouldn’t be my Nulli, would you?”
She returned to the side of the tub and sat on its edge once more. “I don’t want to scare you. God knows you scared me to death when I saw that cast.” She reached for his washcloth and wiped his face. “We’ll talk about this in detail when the time comes, okay? For now, my parents are probably downstairs wondering if we need help. Now lean your head back so you can stop raining lather into your face.”
“If they remember being our age, they’re probably guessing we’re doing far more delightful things than simply washing my hair.” Brian grumbled as he tilted his head back. “Lord knows I’d prefer it. When can we run them off? I tend to roar and your purrs can get rather loud.”
Her infectious laughter chased away some of the strain plaguing his muscles. “Such a bad kitty. You thought I hadn’t healed enough a minute ago.” She poked her tongue out at him and leaned over his face as she poured handfuls of water onto his hairline. “They’re not spending the night.”
“Thank God!” For the first time since they got home, his smile felt genuine. He even managed a soft purr. “Just because you’re not healed enough for some things doesn’t mean we have to forfeit everything. I believe I can make you purr without hurting you. I may only have one good arm, but the accident didn’t hurt my tongue.” He waggled his brows and grinned.
A small flush moved over her face and she swallowed before she spoke. “One step at a time, kitty. My parents are still here, your mother is on her way, and I need a shower. I keep finding glass in my hair.” Leaning forward, she nibbled on his bottom lip before standing. “Guess I’ll put on some dry pants. Don’t turn into a prune.” A quick wink and she was gone, closing the door behind her.
Brian smiled until the door closed. It faded to be replaced with a fearsome snarl. He’d rather get skinned alive and hung by his toenails than let his injured mate pose as bait for the sick fucks at PSI Technologies. He drained the water and carefully climbed from the slick tub. Drying his body was an adventure in frustration with only one useful arm. He gave up on “dry” about fifteen minutes in and settled for “damp.” He relied upon the air to finish the job before he wrestled with his underwear.
He stomped down the stairs ready to chew the horns off a bull. The underwear had stuck to his damp body, rolled when it needed to slide, then bunched in places he never thought possible. He’d clawed a hole in one side. He was tempted to just go commando but zippers chafed. At this rate, he would spend his entire time in a cast stark-assed naked. Thankfully, the shorts were easier. He didn’t even attempt shoes.
The kitchen was a haven of heavenly scents. Nulli’s parents had brought over food. A lot of food. More food than would feed a small village of bear shifters. There was a whole roasted chicken, a salad the size of Montana, buttery rolls, a gallon of gravy, and an acre of mashed potatoes. His stomach rumbled. His mouth watered. He grabbed a plate. He piled it with potatoes smothered in gravy. He even grabbed a bowl for some salad. But the chicken proved a challenge. A succulent, tasty challenge. For such delicious offerings, he was willing to set aside his pride and ask for help.
“Nulli?” He peeked into the living room, licking gravy off his fingers. “Could you give me a hand, please? Oh, and hey, Mr. and Mrs. Ora. My stomach and I thank you for the wonderful food.”
Nulli’s mother smiled and nodded. “You’re welcome. We figured you’d be hungry.”
Nulli strolled over to him, picked up his plate, and began piling food onto it. “Say when.” When he gave the word, she chopped up his chicken and sprinkled it over the mashed potatoes and gravy. “I think that should work.” A few moments later, a bowl of salad appeared beside his main course, and she sat down next to him with a bowl of her own.
“Your parents are worthy of gifts and adulation for this. I’m starving.” He hummed appreciatively over the chicken, potatoes, and gravy mixture. “Sweet baby Jesus, it’s delicious! That’s it, kitten. We’re keeping them.”
A small smirk appeared on Nulli’s mouth as she watched him eat. “Okay. They can sleep upstairs with you. I’ll take the couch.”
Her parents found her response worthy of deep laughter, and Brian nearly choked on his next bite. “Like hell you will!” He stifled his growl just in time. After the accident, he wasn’t about to let her out of his sight if he could avoid it.
He watched her as she moved around the kitchen, but something tugged at him. Something was different, wrong. Her fluid motions held a hesitation that had not been there before. Her steps were measured. Precise. There was a tightness around her mouth, a pallor to her face. He narrowed his eyes as she eased into the chair again. He caught her faint hiss as she reached for her glass of water. His mate was in more pain than she wanted them to believe.
“Did you forget to take your meds, sweetheart? I can go get them for you, because you’re looking a bit pale.”
“I’ll take them before bed. They make me so sleepy, I didn’t want to take them yet.”
“Just don’t wait too long. There’s no point in being in pain when you don’t have to be.” He met her glare with an arched brow and a pointed look. He would be just as stubborn as she was on this one. When she finally muttered her agreement, he offered her a smile before resuming his meal. He’d have to keep an eye on her.
Early the next morning, Brian awoke to find cool sheets on Nulli's side of the bed. He slipped on a pair of shorts and went in search of his mate. Her heady scent lingered in the kitchen, but she did not. A low growl rumbled in his chest as panic flooded his brain. Had she been taken? He started a quick but thorough search of the house. All was quiet in the living room. The sliding doors leading to the patio remained locked, so she hadn’t gone for a run. He checked each door off the main hall. Then he heard a groan. His claws extended. His fangs dropped. He ran towards the last door with his heart pounding in his ears.
He burst through the door ready to rip apart whoever was hurting his mate. An initial scan revealed no one in the room, though her scent teased his nose. He sniffed the air, but detected no other odors. There was nothing but Nulli’s rich mixture of freshly turned soil, sweet flowers, and musky bobcat. And sweat. His lip curled as another growl escaped him.
“You better not be doing what I think you’re doing.”
Nulli looked up at him with strain in her eyes. She was on her knees with one hand clutching her side. Sweat poured down her face, and her breaths were short and shallow. “Not now, Brian. I just need to finish this.”
“Finish this?” He arched a brow and stalked towards her. “Pray enlighten me. What, exactly, did you need to finish?”
“I’m just testing myself. I need to see how far I can swing now, how high I can lift my arm, which ways I need to move to block any attacks. If something else happens, I want to be ready, even like this.” She made an attempt at standing, and shut her eyes tight. “Damn it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest to keep from grabbing her. He wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t shake her until her teeth rattled instead of helping her to her feet. “Testing yourself? You were released from the hospital yesterday, mate. You have several broken ribs. Too much activity could cause one to shift and puncture your lung. Yet you think you’re well enough to test yourself?”
He clamped his lips shut when his voice rose to a yell. He wanted to yell, though. Yell and growl and claw up the room. Shift and run. Bite someone. Anything to dampen the anger that threatened to spill out and make him say something he would later regret.
“Those people tried to run us off the road. Do you really think they’ll give us a pass? Put us on injured reserve?” Her next words were spoken in a heavy voice, almost threatening. “How are you standing there giving me grief when I had to force you to let me shampoo your hair?”
“I don’t think they’ll give us a pass. What I do think is that they won’t have to. You’re working hard at doing their job for them.” His claws dug into his arms until he drew blood. “Three of your wolf friends are patrolling the property tonight. Killian will be here in the morning. I don’t see PSI Tech making it past them, but if they do…” Again, he snapped his mouth shut with a growl. Fear and anger were not a good recipe for reasonable discussion. “You are wounded. Healing is all you should concentrate on.”
“Well thank you for that grand revelation.” She pushed herself into a wobbly stance before squaring her shoulders. “I don’t need you to tell me I wounded. I feel it every time I take a breath. I also don’t need you judging me for wanting to do something on my own after that stunt you pulled yesterday in the bathroom. If understanding how frustrating this is is beyond you, then there really isn’t any point in talking about it anymore.” A low rumbling growl poured through her chest as she walked away. Her steps were a little awkward, but she didn’t stop.
As the door closed behind her, he tilted back his head and released a window-rattling roar. His rumbling growls muffled the thunder of an incoming storm. He bumped into the treadmill on his way towards the door and turned on it with the full force of his fear, worry, and anger. The belt snapped as he shredded it with his claws. The hand rail bent and twisted in his hands. His growls grew as he flung the machine against the wall. Plaster fell from the ceiling. He fell to his knees and roared again.
He knelt beside the wreckage and wrestled his anger under control. That’s when the self-recriminations began. He should have known she would do something like this. He should have stopped her before she injured herself further. He shouldn’t have let his fear rule when he confronted her. But God-fucking-dammit, she should not have been down here the day after she came home from the hospital! A booming crack of thunder shook the house as lightning danced across the sky. Fuck. Even the weather was giving him shit.
He stumbled to his feet when the power went out. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Thunder rumbled low as he started up the stairs. Another loud pop of thunder followed by a close ground strike of lightning lit up the house.
“Son of a bitch!” Nulli’s curse sounded above him. He heard her fear, her strain. When she started running, so did he. He took the steps two at a time.
The door bounced off the wall as he charged into the bedroom. He scoured the room, cursing the lightning for robbing his night vision as it streaked across the sky. Nulli wasn’t there. He checked the bathroom, pulled aside the shower curtain, but it, too, was empty. Only the faintest trace of her scent remained from earlier. Returning to the bedroom, he ran his fingers through his hair as he searched each dark corner.
A whimper drew his attention to the closet. Thunder boomed again, shaking the windows and setting off the neighbor’s car alarm. Lightning followed within seconds, striking a nearby transformer and killing the remaining lights in the neighborhood. He eased the closet door open.
“Kitten? Are you in here, sweetheart?” He shifted the clothes along the bar. Her scent teased his nose. He did not like the acidic tinge of fear he detected.
“Close the door!” She curled into a ball on the closet floor and clamped her hands over her ears. “I-I just need a minute.”
He pushed the clothes farther into the opposite end of the closet. As thunder continued to boom and roll outside, he pulled the door closed and gathered her into his arms. “What’s wrong, kitten?”
“Why is it so loud? All the air is-what is this? It’s electrified. Everything’s vibrating. The ground doesn’t feel steady. I just need--I don’t know. I need to breathe, underground or something.”
“Ah, shit. I didn’t think. It’s okay, sweetheart.” He pried her hand from her ear and placed it over his heart. “Concentrate on my heartbeat, Nulli. Focus on it. Tune out the storm.” He nuzzled her hair and stroked her back.”It’ll be okay.”
“It feels like the world is going to blow up or something.” Another loud rumble and she threw herself into him. “God!” Small, quick breaths forced their way in and out of her chest as she clung to him. “I’ve never been like this in storms before.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. You’re more sensitive now that you’re a cat. Sharper hearing. Heightened senses. I should have thought about this, explained it better.” He ran his hands over her bare arms, her legs, along her back. He peppered her brow with kisses as he cradled her in his arms. “It’ll pass soon, Nulli. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Is it always going to be like this? Will I get used to storms?”
“No, it won’t always be like this. You’ll learn to adjust naturally, without thought, just like you do now with traffic. Remember the first time a car backfired? I thought I’d have to peel you from the ceiling like in those old cartoons.” He chuckled softly and hoped his teasing would calm her somewhat.
“My ears are ringing, and all I can think about is shifting and hiding in a deep hole. Do you think my ribs will bend more if I changed?”
“Don’t change, Nulli.” He clutched her against his chest. “Don’t shift. Your ribs should be fine, but it’ll hurt like you’ve been kicked in the chest by a horse. The pain will keep you from shifting back. You’re too new to shifting to try it, sweetheart. Try those breathing exercises like up at the cabin, and focus on my heartbeat, my voice, my scent, anything but the storm.”
“Breathing?” She shook her head. “You try breathing deep with broken ribs. I’ll just stay close, kitty.”
“Then don’t try for deep. Try for a rhythm.” He threaded his fingers with hers and brushed her knuckles with his lips. “Did I tell you I might get a promotion at the conference center? Joe, the senior security manager, retires in a few months. Though I’ve been there the shortest amount of time, I have the most experience. Chances are good I’ll get his position.” He smoothed her hair from her face as the storm slowly moved into the distance. “We’ll have to celebrate with a weekend up at the cabin if you can get away. Just the two of us. No cars. No storms, hopefully. Just us. What do you think?”
“That sounds good. Congratulations, Brian.” She squeezed him tight and pressed her face into his chest. “I’m glad they value you and are giving you more opportunities. Are you trying to impress your mate? It’s working.”
“It is? Cool.” He purred softly. “I won’t know for another month, but it looks pretty good. For once, being on that ghost hunting show did me a favor. I think the boss is a fan.”
“Nice.” Soft drops of rain continued to beat against the windows, but the thunder seemed long gone. “Thanks for talking me down, Brian. I might have actually found a way to burrow through to the basement from here.”
“Always, sweetheart. I advise against the burrowing, though. It’s tough on the claws. And the floors. Raises questions from housing inspectors. Makes repairmen wonder if you have rats the size of elephants. All sorts of strange things.”
“Speaking of things that make you wonder, what the hell was that crash I heard after I left?”
“Yeah, about that.” He rubbed the back of his neck and gave her a rueful smile. “You know how much I love you, right? How much I cherish everything about you? How I’d kill or die for you? Yeah, just remember that, okay.”
His mate’s eyes went amber before narrowing into slits. “What did you do?”