IT WAS the fourth day of having his bandmate, Rory, as his pretend “boyfriend,” and Benny had to admit it was going better than he’d hoped.
A huge sigh came rocketing through the dark from the bed next to him.
“What’s wrong?” Benny asked dutifully.
“Nothing,” came the expected reply.
Well, it would have been going well if Rory hadn’t fallen for the leader of the group they were performing for, head over moony heels.
Benny rolled his eyes in the dark as the residual of the music hummed through him, making it almost impossible to lie still. Benny’d gotten the group an amazing gig—a chance to play a really small venue and try out some of their new music in an intimate setting. Three consecutive shows for their band, One Wish—and the one tonight had been a cappella, and it had sounded like a fucking dream in the outdoor amphitheater.
He’d been so jazzed to have the request land in his lap just when he’d been wanting to try out the ballads taking over his mind that Benny had eagerly had their new manager, Les, sign the gig. It was essentially a private performance for some kind of religious organization or something, and he’d talked over, ignored, and railroaded Les until it was a done deal. It wasn’t until he’d come down from one of his almost manic highs of excitement that he’d realized they’d laid down some very bizarre ground rules.
No photography or videography. Whatever. Rory had been pissed, but Benny was secretly relieved that his initial foray into the slower-paced, lyric-heavy music wouldn’t be recorded until he knew how it would sound.
Once the band arrived at the property containing the venue, they could not leave until after their last show. Again, he’d shrugged. Why would they?
And everyone involved had to be in a committed relationship. He’d looked that one over at a loss several times before hitting on the idea of pretending to be with Rory for the duration of their stay. After all, they were long-time roommates and had once been lovers, so acting the part should be a snap. He knew they could pull it off… if he could get Rory to go for it. He’d used every bit of charm he possessed to get his oddly distracted friend to come around. Benny needn’t have worried. Rory was his best friend and a sexy guy, but his one flaw was that he was almost too agreeable, too easily led. It was why they hadn’t made it as a couple. Benny preferred a bit more salt or spice to sweet.
It was their fourth night at the lodge, and the a cappella show in the amphitheater had been a rush. Rory and Benny had given themselves several hours to wind down before going to their shared bed, but apparently that wasn’t enough. Rory was tossing and turning, and Benny could tell he had Jared on his mind. The tension between his friend and the huge, hunky owner of the lodge was palpable, and the fact that Rory couldn’t act on it, due to their deception, was evidently driving him crazy. Benny tried not to think about Jared’s nephew, Curtis, or the crackle of sexual attraction that seemed to pull him to the big man’s side whenever they were in the same room together.
No, Curtis wasn’t his type. Too… young, for lack of a better word. Oh, he wasn’t any younger than Benny chronologically—they were both in their mid-twenties—but while Benny had been playing in the cynical and dog-eat-dog music scene since he was a teenager, Curtis seemed to have led a very sheltered life, living quietly with his uncle and extended family up here in the back of beyond. The lodge was so secluded, Benny would never have been able to find his way here if his GPS had gone out.
Rory broke his mental rambling with yet another pathetic sounding sigh, and Benny knew it was time to give up. “That’s your third sigh in as many minutes, love. What’s eating you? And don’t say ‘nothing’ again, or I might have to smother you with my pillow.”
“Dunno. Just… antsy, I guess.”
“Oh, that’s much better than ‘nothing’.” Benny’s voice dripped with sarcasm. Then it was his turn to sigh in the darkness of the wee hours of the morning. “I’m a little wired too. Wanna mess around?” A little friendly sex might take both of their minds off things. He ran his hand with easy familiarity down Rory’s side. They had an extensive history together, in and out of bed. But since they’d been at the lodge, despite their constant fondling in public, neither man had pressed for more in private. They shared a bed as part of their ruse, which wasn’t new for them, but they hadn’t been inclined to do anything more than chat and sleep.
Rory only chuckled in response, and Benny’s pride took a light hit. Ouch. “Oh, sure, laugh at the idea of sex with me. You’re great for my ego.” Suddenly unable to lie there for another moment, Benny stood. “I’m going for a walk. Light bright,” he warned a millisecond before he snapped the bedside light on.
Rory groaned and squinted against the sudden brightness then sat up and watched as Benny picked up his shirt and slipped it on, adding his favorite white silk scarf around his neck. “A walk? Where? Not outside alone. It’s dark, and there’s probably animals and stuff out there.”
Ha. “Oh, quit being such a drama queen. I’m only going out to the parking lot, and they have lights out there. I just want some fresh air. I’m obviously not going to sleep anytime soon, and I’m keeping you up. Don’t bother,” came the second Rory opened his mouth to protest. “You know I am.” Benny pulled up and fastened his jeans and slid his feet into the old battered mocs he took everywhere. “Don’t forget, I know you. We’ve shared space in one form or another for a decade, yeah? So I know when I’m bugging you.”
He walked over and leaned down to plant a sincere kiss on Rory’s lips. It was moments like this he regretted that they weren’t compatible as partners for real. “Get some sleep, Ree,” Benny whispered reassuringly, inches from Rory’s concerned face. “M’kay?”
“M’kay. Be safe.”
Benny gave him a wink. “Don’t worry about me, babe. I’m like a cat.”
“In the nine-lives way, or the land-on-your-feet way?”
Benny chuckled, picturing himself as a feline flailing for position in midair. He was way too visual. “I was thinking more the prowling-tomcat way, but those’ll work too. And no”—he held up a hand—“I’m not going out looking for some tail. Ha-ha. Just taking a breather.” Rory’s expression relaxed just a bit, and Benny gave his friend one last smile before heading to the door to their suite.
He walked out and headed for the big main staircase down to the circular lobby of the mountain lodge. It was quiet with no one in sight. A brief hit of disappointment surged before he ruthlessly cut it off. Just because Curtis Salinas was rightly in bed rather than waiting downstairs on the remote chance Benny might appear…. Benny gave himself a mental bitch slap. How conceited could he get? Get over yourself, Oshiro. He’s not that into you, it’s not the time or the place, and he’s not your type.
Okay, tall and gorgeous with muscles on top of muscles? Yes, physically he’s perfect, but c’mon. You’d be bored as soon as you got off the first time. Maybe even before.
Yeah. You just keep telling yourself that.
The huge fireplace had mostly glowing coals with just an occasional flicker of flame remaining. Four o’clock, the mantel clock told him. No wonder it was dead.
Benny headed out the huge front doors to the porch and tried to adjust his eyes to the darkness as he moved through the parking lot, aiming for the picnic table he remembered being on the far side. The longer he was outside, the more stars appeared, until it seemed there were millions scattered in an uneven fashion across the looming black universe above him.
A chill shook his frame, reminding him he hadn’t grabbed his coat. Even though it was summer, the nights at this altitude could be very cold. It was more exhilarating than uncomfortable, though, so he hopped up on the table, thinking to lie back to watch for shooting stars.
Instead, he saw stars of a different sort as something impacted his upper back. Then pain exploded in his head even before the stars disappeared.
CURTIS stepped out of the side entrance and walked along the wraparound porch to the corner where it met the front. Yet another night he was unable to sleep with the mating call roiling inside him.
He’d known as soon as he met Benny that he was his mate. Or, as his uncle Jared had explained, could be his mate. Technically, there wasn’t one mate and one mate only for shifters. You could meet several possible mates over the course of a lifetime. It was whether they were available, suitable, and there at the right time in your life that determined whether you could or should act upon your pull.
Unfortunately, Benny was none of the three. He was seeing Rory, though Curtis was dubious that they were as close as they portrayed. Benny was known worldwide and a media magnet—about the worst possible person to get close to. And Curtis was in his period of celibacy prior to the solstice ceremony during which he would come into his powers. But Curtis was hard-pressed to think that he’d ever feel this way about another person in his life, ever have the same overwhelming sense of rightness. The urge to claim Benny, to keep him away from any… threat, was almost overwhelming.
Curtis frowned. Why was he thinking threat? Just then he noticed all the outside lights were off. Maybe the breaker? Before he could turn to go inside, he caught a hint of movement in the parking lot.
He inhaled. Not one of his own. It was the all-too-familiar mixed scent of Rory and Benny, but it was difficult to distinguish which man it was. After he went through the change in a week’s time and came into his powers, he would not only be able to tell which man it was, but would be able to see him clear as day. Right now, though, he was hampered by his only slightly enhanced human state.
Now movement on the porch by the front door. Even in the poor light, he could tell this one was Rory, which meant the man on the far side of the parking area was Benny. He froze in place, not wanting Rory to see him and think he was spying on Benny.
Rory walked tentatively out through the dark parking lot. Curtis could hear his low voice. “Fuck,” he whispered. “Ben?” he called in a slightly louder tone. “Benny?”
Suddenly the scent of blood overwhelmed Curtis. Benny’s blood. Rage boiled up inside him, bringing with it a burgeoning well of power. He dropped helplessly to his knees, instinctively scrabbling at the fastenings to his clothing as the rapidly submerging rational human was overtaken by the rising change. In a dim part of his mind, he knew it was too soon, that he needed to get help. But the smell of his mate’s blood colored his perception red, and he lost all will to fight what was happening within him.
Freed of his clothes, he hovered in between states for a moment before his mind seized on the image of a wolf, the shape his uncle preferred. A moment later it was so. He bounded to his feet and took off running even as he heard Rory scream. “Ben!”
Almost instantly across the darkened lot, his vision now acute, he stopped a short distance from Rory. No Benny in sight. Crouching as Rory turned, he could instantly scent the worry turn to fear when Rory saw him and froze, holding Benny’s bloody scarf loosely in his hand. Curtis sprang forward, snapping his jaws around the fabric, and pulled it from Rory’s fingers.
“Hey!” Rory’s exclamation followed him into the night as he turned all his senses toward tracking his injured mate. Whoever had him was dragging him, according to the evidence on the ground. A growl gathered in his throat, and he picked up speed. He hit a gravel road and stopped as the visual trail became more difficult to distinguish and he had to use his senses of smell and hearing.
Wheeling to the right, he arrowed down the roadway, then slowed to a silent prowl as he rounded a curve, not wanting to miss the trail if they suddenly went off the road. The trail led to a seldom-used side road opening into a clearing. His gaze narrowed on a large vehicle with a motionless figure lying on the ground behind it. Benny. He scanned for danger, but the sight of his mate quickly overcame his caution as he moved forward more quickly now. He didn’t see anyone inside the Hummer, but he was too low to the ground to get a good look.
As if in response to that thought, he felt a disorienting haze flow through him, almost as if he was on the verge of fainting; then he realized he had the rocky ground under his hands.
He had regained his human form, but that probably wasn’t the worst thing since he would need arms to carry Benny. Rising cautiously, he peered into the Hummer and didn’t see anyone. He knew the assailant had to be around somewhere. Where could he have gone?
Then Benny groaned from beneath him, and he dropped to his knees next to him, heedless of the stones beneath his knees. The smell of his own blood was suddenly in the air, and mixed with Benny’s, it was a heady combination.
All at once, Curtis’s efforts at restraint, in holding himself back from Benny this week to protect him, didn’t seem so important anymore. Never having chanced being with a more fragile human, very conscious of his physical size coupled with his latent powers, he’d tried his damnedest to keep from touching his potential mate. Oh, he knew deep down that no matter what Benny and Rory portrayed, they weren’t in the intimately involved relationship they claimed. At least not presently, though the familiarity with which they interacted bespoke a past connection. No—when Benny looked back at Curtis, it was with a mutual interest and heat he knew was reflected in his own eyes.
An interest he couldn’t act upon at this vulnerable crossroads in his alpha training. By the time he had enough control to touch Benny, the man would be long gone.
Damn it! Of all the fucking timing.
Benny’s eyes fluttered open and slowly blinked as he appeared to try to focus on Curtis, bringing him forcibly back to their current predicament. “Curt?”
“Yeah, I’ve got you.” He began to carefully slide his hands under Benny’s shoulders and knees, kicking himself for his damned scruples. It was just wrong that the first time he touched and held Benny was when he was injured and in danger. Damn his automatic obedience to his alpha and clan laws.
A metallic click that could only be a safety disengaging froze his motion.
“Stand up!” a voice ordered from a few yards away in the depths of the tree line surrounding the clearing. Curtis slowly raised his head and stood as ordered, his newly acute vision finally spotting the man dressed in all black pointing a gun directly at him. He could just make out a smallish tent in the trees behind the man.
“Now back away from him.”
An ill-timed groan from Benny had him looking down, and he met Benny’s uncomprehending, drugged stare.
He was helpless to stop the growl that bubbled up from inside at the thought of moving away from his injured mate, and he shook his head as he narrowed his gaze on the man, mentally gauging whether he could get Benny and himself behind cover of the Hummer before the lunatic could get a shot off.
The man either read his mind or had the same thought, because an instant later he heard the shot just as pain impacted his deltoid. “Uh.” He staggered back a step, trying not to tread on Benny, as his eyes went automatically to his upper shoulder. Dart.
Curtis could feel himself losing his already tentative hold on his magic, and as his head became woozy, he felt the newly discovered and disconcerting moment before the change came over him, way faster than earlier on the porch. It was as if sheer muscle memory was kicking in, because he had zero control, and it took no effort at all. When he hit the ground next to and partially atop Benny, he was already a wolf.
“Holy shit….” Benny’s voice seemed tinny and distant, but it caught Curtis’s attention, and with effort, he raised his head to look at his mate, dimly satisfied to be touching him but vaguely concerned that he was forgetting something. He felt Benny’s hand stroke him lightly and keened with pleasure deep in his throat.
Then Benny was leaving, moving away. No! He reached out and watched bemusedly as his paw changed to a hand before his eyes.
“Leave him alone!” Benny shouted. Then another sharp report, and he landed with a thud atop Curtis, whose arms instinctively went around Benny. The black-clad stranger came into his vision, and he tried to marshal a defense, but the sucking effect of the tranquilizer held him immobile as another dart plunged into his chest from a short distance away and everything went black.