Dozens of hopeful couples murmured private conversations in the (recently renamed) Lovegood Café, busy, no matter that it was a Thursday. But this was the new usual. I rolled my eyes every time I saw the new logo, all swooping calligraphy and red hearts, trying to capitalize on the fame of their “romance risotto.”
It all clashed horribly with the randomly hung St. Patrick’s Day clovers and wee lil pots o’ gold with fluttering crepe paper rainbows.
“Yo, Liv!” Chef called from the kitchen. “Only got a few orders left. Sucks to be you.” And he flashed a shiny pair of fangs at me. Vampires. Always with the sucking jokes. It was dusty as an old mummy.
But I didn’t have to ask what dish he was talking about. I knew. And I did not want to be the one to tell some doe-eyed couple their relationship was doomed because some asshat in the back hadn’t cooked up enough arborio rice. And seriously? Who pinned all their romantic hopes on a bowl of rice and mushrooms?
All the people in this room. That’s who.
I gave my specially crafted, always-popular O+ cosmos one last shake and poured it into two red-stemmed martini glasses, then deliver it to the table to two vampires canoodling in the candle light. Betcha can’t guess what they ordered for dinner.
The owners had Tetris-ed ten more two-tops into the already small space, meaning I had to sashay through the dining area to get back to the bar. As the door opened, a wild scent—evoking towering pines and damp earth—twisted under my nose. I paused at the familiar aroma, my back to the café entrance; it had been decades since I’d gotten a whiff of one of them.
Wind whirled and whooshed as I opened the door to the café. The long green scarf draped over my shoulder slid almost to the ground and I bumped into the hostess stand trying to retrieve it. Thankfully only a friendly, understanding smile greeted me as I straightened.
“Do you have a reservation?” she asked.
So many, you wouldn’t even believe it, I thought, but instead nodded. “Catie… Robbins, two for 7:30.” I’d never been here, but it was cute in a forced romantic sort of way, with all the two person tables and low lighting, but it seemed nice enough.
“Welcome Ms. Robbins. Your table is ready. Right this way,” the hostess said and picked up a pile of menus, leading me through the crowded restaurant. Must be a popular place, since I’d been lucky to get this opening, and then only because there’d been a cancellation literally minutes before I called. I’d glanced at their menu online (according to reviews, they were known for their wild mushroom risotto and the supernatural diners who frequented the place) and had been pleased to see they offered an affordable steak dinner.
Joe and I had been chatting for about a couple weeks on SoulLessMates, that new dating app for other-than-human who wanted to find someone, too. Each conversation we’d had lasted longer and later into the night. But he’d only finally suggested that we meet in person two days ago.
I hoped he could hold a conversation in person as well as he did over chat. Most people couldn’t.
Everyone in here was non-human, from the wait staff to the cooks to the customers. It was the first time in a very long time, maybe the first time ever, I’d been in a place that was only other and I wasn’t sure it was comforting. I was glad I faced the door instead of having it at my back.
My sensitive nose twitched, identifying vampires and shifters, the occasional fae. And one mystery scent. A creature I’d never encountered before. Not that I’d been in this situation very long. Only fifteen full moons separated current me from old me.
The one that wasn’t a werewolf.
I fiddled with my phone, forcing myself not to open the images of my parents and fiancé. Ex– fiancé. They’d all thought I was crazy when I’d finally told them what happened, why I’d quit my job, why I was hiding under the blankets all the time. Why I disappeared for three days every month and came home looking like I’d been sleeping in the woods (Hint: I had. And I hated camping so much).
They’d tried to have me involuntarily committed.
So I’d run away. Found someone to recreate a new life for me. Found another someone to blow up my car with just enough DNA that it would look like I’d perished in the fire. No one would push too hard to get to learn the truth.
Catarina Flynn was dead. She’d died the night that ‘were attacked an old woman and she’d intervened. The old woman died, too, for all Catarina’s sacrifice had helped.
In her place rose Catie Robbins. Computer nerd extraordinaire (some things a person simply couldn’t change, I needed a job, and computers and coding were the only things I was any good at). Blondest of blondes. Lover of the rarest of steaks and the reddest of wines. Possessor of the most awful of scars on her lower back.
Shyest of them all on blind dates.
But it’s not like I can go out with a normal guy, I sighed to myself. Been there, blown that up. And, I hated to admit it, but I was lonely. Wolves are naturally pack animals and I’d been solo for more than a year.
I resisted checking my phone for the fifth time. Joe was late. Not stood-up-late. But late. Not like my super keen hearing would miss a text. Heck, I could hear the hiss of burning wicks and the constant phone beeps all the way from the other side of the room.
Fifteen minutes. I decided to stay and enjoy a delicious meal on my own if he wasn’t here within the next fifteen minutes. I’d never minded eating alone, one of the few things becoming a werewolf hadn’t changed, and that steak on the menu made my mouth water in anticipation.
The bell over the door jingled. Wildness rode the resulting draft that twisted through the restaurant.
Alpha-ness overwhelmed the crowded room with enough potency that everyone paused, just for a moment. I doubted most of them even understood why. Joe—and I knew it was him even without asking—wasn’t much to look at. Average height. Slim, slightly muscular build. Brown hair and eyes. Glasses.
Power wafted off him like the most perfect of perfumes.
And he knew it. Panic filled my heart as he offered a polite smile to the hostess, then strode effortlessly through the restaurant directly for me.
I wasn’t ready for this. For the feelings pulsing through me. For the closeness. He hadn’t mentioned, in any of our conversations, that he was the Alpha of his pack. Would’ve been nice to know. Would’ve been nice to be able to say no. It’s not like there were a lot of single wolves out there to choose from, but hooking up with an Alpha was not on my profile wants and desires.
Maybe I could dash out the back before I literally rolled over on the floor and showed him my soft, weak underside. The power bounced around the room, riding the wind like a rodeo star. It was almost impossible to know now where it emanated from. It surrounded me. Filled me. Responded in ways I couldn’t interpret.
I didn’t see a back door, or any other means of escape, even though my eyes were better than any humans’. Besides, his eyes were locked on mine. I wasn’t going anywhere. I gripped the sides of the table and dug my heels into the floor. Figuratively. Though I probably could’ve left a pair of heel prints if I’d really tried.
You’re stronger than this, I reminded myself. You started over with pretty much nothing. This guy is just a guy. For goodness sakes, don’t make a fool of yourself. Do not go belly up.
He slid into the seat across from me, knowing darn well the effect his presence had over someone of my—of our—kind.
The roar of want and power was overwhelming. I was drunk. On the best Champagne. The richest chocolate. The bloodiest steak. I’d never felt this way around other Alphas. Not that I’d met many.
It bit big time.
My mind spun out of control.
Every full moon was a fight within myself as my body tore itself apart and pieced itself together again with sinewy muscles and elongated bones, nothing in the right place. It was awful. It was wonderful. It was a fight for control that I was destined to lose. But I didn’t have to lose this battle. I might not be fully content as a lone wolf, but I had zero interest in being intimidated into joining this dude’s pack.
Joe smiled. It was easy, warm, charming. Perfect without being perfect.
“Catie! It is so nice to meet you in person,” he said in the sweetest of honeyed voices. “But first things first.” He waved over the waitress who’d been hovering since she filled the water glasses, and ordered a bottle of red wine and the risotto as an appetizer.
My internal hackles rose. If he thought I was staying at this table with him without a massive explanation, he was going to feel my teeth in his neck.
“I hope that wasn’t too forward,” he apologized. “The risotto sometimes sells out and I don’t want to miss our chance. Now, I’m sure we have some boring details to work out, but I think that can wait, don’t you? I’d rather hear about you.”
I wanted every unspoken promise oozing from his lips. I wanted to whimper in subservience. I wanted to hump him in the back alley. And I hated myself for all of it.
Yet a part of me was beginning to relish the warmth his influence brought. Pleasure, love, and a feeling I couldn’t identify burbled from within my very soul.
“Shy in person? That’s… unexpected.” Bemusement colored his deep brown eyes behind the glasses. “Okay, I’ll go first. I’m new in town, as you know,” he went on. “It’s been a challenge to meet others like me.”
“I understand,” I said, finding my voice, doing my best to hide the lust that thickened the words. Not that it mattered; it was wafting out my pores like a bubble machine.
Joe leaned closer, like he had the biggest secret hiding behind his grin. “Have you met Patrick yet? Never mind. Of course you did. He probably sensed the moment you crossed into his territory. Not sure how you resisted his invitation to join the pack. Dour as he is, even I was tempted.”
Patrick, Alpha of the largest pack in the area, with territory that spread across the nearest three towns. He’d shown up at the door of my motel within an hour of my arrival, offering protection and a home. Family. A place to belong. I was desperate. I was exhausted. I was lonely and scared.
I’d almost said yes to the hulking, bearded man on the spot.
Instead, I’d come to my senses and told him I’d think about it. Made my own literal blood promise that I wasn’t there to challenge his authority (I wasn’t) or make trouble (I wasn’t).
And I’d been avoiding him ever since. Keeping my tail figuratively tucked when I passed one of his pack members. Making sure I was on the other side of town when the moon changed me. It was getting harder and harder to resist the allure of a pack, even though I’d be at the bottom of the benefits.
Joe, though, it didn’t seem like he was here to keep quiet or keep his claws to himself.
He flashed a tantalizing, toothy smile at me as the risotto arrived and the waitress refilled our wine glasses. “Thank you. Smells wonderful,” he said and made sure the bowl of warm, cheesy rice and mushrooms was in my reach. “You said you wanted the steak, right? Two please. Rare.”
The waitress returned his smile and glanced at me, confirming the order. With my nod, she tossed long, dark hair over her shoulder, revealing the pointy tip of an ear, and disappeared into the shadows.
look at that. I’ve done all the talking so far,” Joe said, scooping the risotto
onto my plate. “Tell me how your most recent project went? The new website, the
one you showed me. The client would be a fool not to love it.”
Darn it! Why was he as amazing in person as he’d been over chat? Never mind this was exactly what I’d hoped for! Why was I the spazz?
Because he’s an Alpha, I reminded myself. Or setting himself up to take on the job, if I’m reading his questions correctly. Not like social situations were my strong suit.
Digging my nails as hard as I could into my palms helped clear my head a bit. I took a small forkful of the risotto, trying to avoid the mushroom. After that one taste, though, I decided I was now a huge mushroom fan. Calmness washed though me. This was only a date. No one could make me do anything. I’d stood up to Patrick, I could handle this guy who didn’t even seem to have a pack of his own yet.
So chill already, Catie. Yes, he should have told you about his Alpha status, but hey, he’s sweet, he’s cute, and wants to know about you. Go with it!
I took a breath and answered, “They did. Just a few tweaks, but I should be done with it tomorrow. They already have more work for me, so that’s a relief. They pay well, too.”
After that, we chatted non-stop, pausing only to devour the risotto. The steaks were the best I’d ever had, rare, yet sizzling and charred in all the right places; the potatoes and carrots classic but delicious sides; the wine a perfect accompaniment, rich and full.
“Do you want to share a dessert? The chocolate cake looks good, or maybe the—” he asked, then stopped and laughed as I glared, raising one lip and baring a few teeth in warning. “Right, we can each have our own. I wouldn’t dare get in your way!” His voice was teasing, bees droning over a sun-warmed meadow.
“I like how well you read me. And so quickly. It’s like I’ve known you all my life,” I said. I bite down on my lips, afraid of what else might slip out. I blamed the wine. The romantic atmosphere. The potency of his very self. I’d never felt this way with my ex-fiancé, and we’d been together for more than three years.
“Bodes well for the future. Our future…” Joe paused, eyes suddenly wide with surprise. Or was it…? How could it be fear? “Is that too forward? I don’t… I don’t usually say something like that on a first date, and certainly not to someone like you. But there’s something so alluring about you, Catie. I felt it the moment I walked through the door.”
“Someone like me?” I was about as ordinary as they come. Aside from the whole werewolf thing, of course.
Joe’s cocked his head to the side in such a canine manner, I giggled. I hadn’t giggled in years. His shoulders relaxed, releasing a tension I hadn’t realized held him upright until he slouched back in his chair. He studied me like I’d never been scrutinized in my life, not even when I told my parents the truth about what happened; not even when the psychiatric doctors examined me.
Understanding washed over him.
Uncertainty washed over me.
He nodded and smiled, reaching hands across the table, snaring mine. It tingled. I didn’t know all those romance novels were telling the truth.
“You don’t know, do you?” he finally said.
“I know lots of things,” I gasped, practically panting. Whatever power he held over me earlier was amplified ten-fold, pulsing from the skin-to-skin contact. I wanted to be with him. Always. In all ways.
“Do you have any idea what you’re doing to me?” he asked. “Your strength. Your power. It’s all I’ve been able to do tonight to keep from flopping to the ground and showing you my belly. Following your lead, letting you evaluate me. I’ve never been around an Alpha as influential as you. It’s no wonder Patrick and his pack haven’t pursued you any further. If he let you in, you’d take over within a few days, a week tops.”
I laughed. No girlish giggle. But a full-on snort of disbelief. Me? An Alpha? When I’d been ready to roll over for Joe the second he walked through the door…
But what if …? What if that had been my own power igniting?
I took a breath and tested it. Taking control instead of letting it rule me. The desire to submit to anyone was gone, replaced with an urge to growl and snarl and fight.
Joe didn’t meet my eyes. “You feel it now, don’t you?”
“How is this possible? How did I not know?”
Our fingers tightened, his eyes met mine. He was mine. My first. My pack. “Guess you just hadn’t met the right wolf.”
“Have a good night , Liv,” Chef called out. “See ya tomorrow.”
“G’Night,” I said and paused, checking on the one table that raised a red flag earlier.
The wolfy couple was deep into dessert, not a bit of notice to anyone else in the restaurant. Guess the risotto lived up to its reputation again. Still, I’d have to be on alert for a turf war. Patrick was not going to be pleased with the new Alpha in town.
But hey, life would be boring without the occasional coup d’etat.
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