Caught by Surprise
“I’m sorry, what did you just say?” I mumbled, as Tag’s question tumbled around in my head. My brain hitched, unable to follow. The kitchen island was a hard edge at my back as I clutched the sweating glass of soda tight in my hand. Huh, the refrigerator door was open. Did I leave that open? That’s such a waste of energy. Why was I worrying about the electric bill and the energy? God, Brittany, pull it together. Focus!
“I asked if you would like to go to dinner with me,” the werewolf asked . . . again. “On a date,” he clarified as if I hadn’t understood the first time. In all honesty, I hadn’t. I was staring at him with my mouth gaping open wide enough to catch flies but I couldn’t seem to snap myself out of a stupefied shock. His lips turned up in a teasing smirk that made my gut tighten and my brow crinkle in confusion.
“A date?” I asked, my voice uneven and hesitant as I considered. As many times as I’d dreamed of being asked that question by a werewolf—and I had, many many MANY times—the werewolf in my daydreams had never been Tag.
Stewart Taggar was long and lean, towering over my five foot six inches. I wasn’t a giant but I wasn’t tiny either. His red hair was more carrot than auburn but it seemed to shimmer when set against his bronzed skin. He was muscled but not bulky like a lot of the werewolves in the pack. He gazed down at me now in a way that was new or maybe it wasn’t and I just hadn’t noticed. He’d always treated me—I’d thought—like a little sister. Honestly, most of the pack did. Yes, I was only twenty-two and decades or centuries younger than most of the wolves and vampires but that didn’t mean I was a child. Tag wasn’t looking at me like I was a kid, that’s for sure. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about that development.
“Aren’t you a little old for her?” a gruff, clipped voice called from the kitchen doorway. Without my knowledge or permission, my body reacted to that voice in ways that made heat creep into my cheeks. Everett Cooper was three or four inches taller than me at most; lean and muscular. He seemed to be gaining bulk every day and it looked good on him. His sandy blond hair was styled away from his face, exposing the deep navy-blue of his eyes. His gaze fell on me like a weight, not crushing or overwhelming but comforting and all too familiar.
“That’s for her to decide, pup,” Tag responded, with an edge of condescension in his last word that surprised me.
Tag and Ev were friends, or at least had been, I’d thought. I wasn’t sure what was going on between them lately, but something was definitely up. Standing between them, I was ridiculously uncomfortable. Tension boiled in the kitchen until it was a physical heat against my skin as the two werewolves faced off. Sweat beaded on my upper lip. I was waiting for one of them to pee on me and mark their territory or something dumb like that. To be honest, I only wanted one of them to pee on me. Oh God, that didn’t sound right.
“She’s not going anywhere with you, old man,” Ev growled, squaring his shoulders. I perked up at that statement. I may be desperately in-love with Everett Cooper in a shameful and embarrassing sort of way, I wasn’t fool enough to lie to myself anymore about that fact. I was head-over-heels in-love with the idiot. That didn’t mean he could order me around like a piece of property. Because he couldn’t. I did not belong to him.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” I huffed out, throwing my shoulders back in irritation and raising my chin in defiance. I was a strong independent woman, darn it, and even if Ev was the man of my dreams, I wasn’t going to let him talk about me like a piece of meat.
Yes, Ev had kissed me a couple of weeks ago. Yes, it had been a-maz-ing. And yes, I’d said I would wait for him to figure his stupid, insecure, man-baby crap out. But it had been more weeks than I’d like to admit since our kiss and I was tired of waiting for this grown man to figure out what he was going to do with me. If anything. Maybe a little fire under his rear end would move his addled brain along. Or maybe he’d decide I wasn’t worth the effort and let me go. Either way, it was good to know . . . wasn’t it? That’s what I told myself, anyway.
Both men turned, meeting my heavy—okay, angry—stare. I was too young and too cute for heavy. I just didn’t have the menace behind any stare to classify as heavy. Feisty anger though, I could do.
“First,” I started, meeting Ev’s deep, dark, and penetrating gaze. Ugh, he was so cute. Shake it off, Britt. Pull yourself together. “You’re not the boss of me,” I hissed. Tag snorted in laughter and I turned on him, “Second, don’t provoke him.” Tag had the good sense to drop the grin on his face and appear suitably apologetic. “Third,” I said with a bright and cheerful smile that was actually true, and my smiles hadn’t been true for a very long time. “Tag, I would love to go to dinner with you.”
“What?” Ev erupted, wide-eyed surprise clear on his face as he took an aggressive step in my direction.
Ignoring Ev’s apparent surprise, Tag stepped in front of me with his back to Ev, blocking my view of the angry werewolf. “I’ll pick you up tonight at seven.” Clutching my hand in his, Tag squeezed reassuringly and smiled down at me in a way that made me feel like I was his whole world. Something about that expression made my insides flutter and I couldn’t help but grin back at him. I hadn’t expected that look in his eyes or my reaction to his attention. Did that make me an attention-starved idiot? Ugh, maybe it did.
“I’ll be ready,” I said, feeling giddy at the prospect of just being wanted. Yep, attention-starved idiot right here. He squeezed my hand again and strode by Ev, his head just a little bit higher.
“My shift starts soon, so I’ve gotta go but dress up tonight,” he said over his shoulder. “We’re going someplace upscale.”
“We don’t have to,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward at the thought of Tag spending money on me. Somehow, I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of a fancy date. I could clean up, for sure, but I wasn’t very comfortable—like it wasn’t me but a bizzaro-world version of me.
Tag stopped, maybe hearing the uncertainty in my voice or wanting to drive the knife into Ev a little deeper, I don’t know. He turned to me and said, “You deserve the best, Brittany,” meeting my uncertain gaze with a self-confident grin. I blinked hard at him, seeing the man instead of my friend. It was the first time since we’d met—that I could remember, anyway— that he’d called me anything but “G”. He liked to refer to me as Glenda the Good Witch of the North because, by his own words, I had been all pink-fluffy-witchy-goodness when he’d first met me.
Tag continued, “You deserve so much more than anyone can or has ever given you.” With that last parting jibe, he left to go to work at the coroner’s office.
The front door closed behind Tag and silence descended on the kitchen. Uncomfortable and now, suddenly anxious, I turned and made my way around the overly large island toward the stairs. I took the long way around the island, clutching my soda close to my chest and letting the condensation soak into my shirt in an effort to keep as much space between me and Ev as I could.
“You said you’d give me time,” he whispered, sounding pained, or maybe that was anger. I couldn’t tell. Living in a house full of werewolves and vampires meant that nothing was really private unless you worked really hard to keep it that way. At that moment, I couldn’t decipher if he was protecting my privacy or his own.
“I did,” I agreed, turning to meet his now sea-foam green eyes. His wolf was close to the surface, magic flooded his irises with his wolf’s power. That show of power would have worried most people. But not me. I knew in my gut that neither Ev, nor his wolf, would ever hurt me. “I also told you not to wait too long or you might miss your chance.” I was so proud of myself, managing to get the words out without my voice shaking too much. I made my way around him with my shoulders back and my head high, looking to escape as quickly as my two feet would carry me.
“Brit,” he sighed, reaching for me, he caught my hip with the tips of his fingers. I froze at the touch as heat pooled in my center. My breath hitched in my throat and my fingers tightened around the glass. He made me stop and meet his questioning gaze instead of retreating up to my room like I desperately wanted. Ev and I lived in the same house with the vampire colony liege, the werewolf pack alpha, and their significant other—The Blushing Death. It’s a long and complicated story. Our living arrangement had made the last few weeks . . . awkward at best. “Brit, I—” he started but didn’t seem to know how to finish.
“Ev,” I said, wanting very much to ditch this mostly embarrassing and gruesomely uncomfortable conversation. “I’m not your mate. We both know it,” I said, the words sticking in my throat a bit. Werewolves had a mystical fated mate. Some werewolves found that mate over the course of their lifetime and some didn’t. Kurt, the pack Beta, had described it as a string tugging in his chest that linked directly to his mate’s heart.
Voicing the unequivocal fact that I was not Ev’s mate, made my heart break a little bit more each time I said it. Actually, a lot. It crushed me to my very soul. I cannot overstate this fact. Knowing I wasn’t his mate broke me on a foundational level. But the reality was, werewolves had fated mates and I wasn’t Ev’s.
He closed his eyes and breathed deep.
“It’s not fair to me to keep beating around this bush when nothing will ever come of it,” I said around the defeat lodged in my throat.
“You’re not Tag’s mate,” he growled as if that solved everything.
“No, you’re right about that,” I said, very proud of myself for not bursting into tears. “But I don’t love him,” I whispered, wishing desperately that I could suck those words back in. But I couldn’t. I’d said them out loud and to his face. There was no going back now.
His gaze narrowed on me in question and what I thought might be pity. I don’t think I could stand it if he pitied me. Before I could let that thought sink in, he asked, “Then why?”
“Because HE can’t crush me,” I answered succinctly. Blinking back the hot tears now flooding my eyes, I shifted my hip out from under his soft touch and made my way up to my room. Carefully, I closed the door behind me and finally released the tears I’d managed not to shed in front of Everett Cooper.
“Crying again?” a distant voice teased from my desk.
“Stay out of it, Cerridwyn!” I hissed, not wanting either of our voices to be heard by anyone. Everyone pretty much thought the succubus-witch that had killed ten people across Columbus and almost destroyed our house was dead. I hadn’t had the guts or the stomach to kill her. But I had managed to drag her soul out of her body and shove it into an amber amulet. Thinking back on it now, I’m not entirely sure I chose the kinder option. Maybe this was why the preternatural community thought sorceri were evil. Wynne certainly didn’t like being confined to the amulet. I was working up to telling everyone that I’d messed up on that one. Actually, I was trying to find a way to banish her so I wouldn’t have to confess my mistake to anyone. That seemed like a better idea. It was just taking longer than I’d thought. Especially if I didn’t want to destroy her soul in the process which I didn’t.
“So young and stupid,” she muttered loudly, clearly wanting me to hear her.
“I don’t need your two cents, Wynne,” I snapped. I’d come to my room for quiet but had forgotten about the nagging succubus currently residing in the amulet on my desk. How had I ever forgotten? The woman took every opportunity to gripe, badger, harass, or simply voice her opinions. I’d tried silencing her with my magic but it hadn’t worked. Sometimes my magic just did what I wanted with a single thought. Other times, I couldn’t do the simplest parlor tricks. My whole life, all I’d ever been told was how powerful I was. But since my mother’s murder, I haven’t been able to get anything to work right. It was either all or nothing at all. Unless, that is, I was cornered. Then everything seemed to work just fine.
“What two cents? I have no money,” Wynne replied, confused.
I smiled to myself at her confusion. Having been stuck in a vast wasteland of desert and mirrors the succubus-witch had dubbed the In-Between for more than a millennium, sometimes Wynne’s understanding of colloquialisms wasn’t up to scratch. I don’t know why I thought it was funny, but I did.
“Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that you are young and stupid. How many times have you cried over that boy? Too many to count by my opinion.” She huffed at me as if I was wasting her time. All she had was time. Plus, I was pretty sure she secretly loved it. I’d come to understand that Wynne liked to be needed. Who didn’t though? That was the point, wasn’t it? I wanted to be wanted and needed and it didn’t seem like Ev wanted or needed me at all. But maybe Tag did.
“Well, you’ll be glad to know that I have a date tonight,” I said, my chin high. I couldn’t keep the pleased grin from my face, even through the tears. When she stared at me, the words clearly not registering in her mind I added, “I’m going to be spending time with someone tonight in a romantic way . . . a man.”
“The boy finally became a man,” she grumbled and this time I wasn’t so sure she’d intended for me to hear her.
“Ev?” I asked, confused but continued on, “No, Tag. I’m going to dinner with Tag.”
“The soul stealer?” she asked, and I could hear the surprise and disgust in her voice. She almost spat to ward off evil spirits. I could almost see her bright blue eyes the size of saucers in astonishment from the small amulet.
“Wynne,” I said. “Redheads don’t steal souls. They just don’t.” I sighed. “But you know who does?” I asked and she was quiet for a moment, waiting. “Succubi. Succubi steal souls and that’s you.” When she didn’t respond—because I had her on that one—I said, “Tag is a nice guy. He’s steady. And he wants me.”
“Ahh,” she responded in a way that made my blood boil, as if she saw everything and I saw nothing.
“Ahh? What does ahhh mean?” I hissed, angry now. It felt good to be angry and show it. Turns out, I’d been angry for a while and keeping it pent up wasn’t doing me any favors. For some reason though, I felt completely comfortable showing anger to Wynne.
“Nothing,” she clipped, pleased with herself. “Just . . . ahh. Have fun on your . . . date,” she said with a snide lilt. And in the blink of an eye, she was gone, retreating back into her amulet to let me stew. I hated when she did that. She put just enough doubt in my head to make me second-guess everything. Wynne was just mean.
“I will!” I snapped at her, knowing full well she wasn’t listening. I plopped down on my bed and sighed. I would have a good time with Tag. I always had a good time with Tag. We were friends and I wouldn’t let Wynne’s nagging doubts cast a shadow on our date. This wouldn’t be weird at all.