BRIAN moved agilely around the kitchen, soft Christmas music playing in the background. His mixed CD of pop artists singing about Rudolph, Santa, and Jesus put him even more in the mood for the family holiday, as if he needed any help with that. He had already gone overboard with the decorations and the food, not to mention the presents. The music felt like the final touch to it all. The turkey baked in the oven, the heavenly smell making Brian’s mouth water and the dogs around him whimper with want. There was just something about that smell that made the house feel even cozier, the holiday brighter. The potatoes sat in a bowl waiting to be mashed as he mixed the salad. The dogs, all seven of them, waited with eager anticipation, willing him to drop something. But he hadn’t yet. Of the seven pairs of eyes on him, three belonged to two German Shepherds, Joan and Gable, and a black pug named Fenrir. Those dogs were with him before he had met Derek. Three other pairs of eyes belonged to a brown mastiff named Goliath, an old hound dog named Henry, and a Labrador retriever named Betty Boop. They had been Derek’s dogs. The last pair belonged to Dante, a Rottweiler he and Derek had adopted after they became partners. Dante was their three legged wonder. Brian knew it was torture for them, watching him. He could see the images, the desire, in their heads—that of some meat falling onto the floor. This unique ability of his was the main reason why he was such a good veterinarian; he always knew what was wrong with an animal because the animal could actually show him, and he, in turn, could send comforting images back. Brian glanced down at his dogs and chuckled. His ability also gave him a good laugh, especially around dinnertime. As he continued to toss the salad, he knew that if he did drop some vegetation on the floor, all the dogs with the exception of Joan would snub it.
Tinker, his gray tabby cat, sat atop one of the cabinets and flicked his tail back and forth, eyes fixed on the potatoes. The cat was strangely obsessed with mashed potatoes, although Brian had never figured out why.
This was his first Christmas with Derek, and he looked forward to it with a horde of butterflies in his stomach. The entire house was decked out; he had spent the entire first weekend of December decorating it. He was determined to make this Christmas an unforgettable one because Derek had never celebrated Christmas before. The thought of exactly how Derek’s family celebrated holidays made him grin; going furry and howling at the moon on Yule and hunting down prey was not exactly a socially acceptable tradition in human society.
He glanced at his calendar, and the horde of butterflies reacted at seeing the large Christmas tree sticker he had put on December 25th. But it wasn’t Christmas yet—it was Christmas Eve, and he planned on making a huge dinner tonight, so they could eat leftovers tomorrow and spend the day in bed. As much as the dogs would allow them, of course. Brian wiggled his hips just thinking about it, and he knew he wore a stupid grin on his face. Derek wasn’t a perfect man; he was bull-headed, had a temper that could melt steel, and his mouth was as foul as any sailor’s. But God, that wonderfully imperfect man could twist Brian around his little finger, because he could also be tender, loving, and could go all day and night without rest.
Brian had been in love with Derek for two years, and it had been a gift from God when Derek had asked him out on a date nearly a year ago. They both worked at the Seattle, Washington Humane Center, where Derek was a humane officer. They had worked side-by-side for two years, and Brian had never known that Derek was gay. Only when Derek had asked him out did that important fact come to light. It hadn’t been a smooth ride, however; there had been major bumps in the road, but after maneuvering around those, they’d found their rhythm and were now devoted partners. A few months later, they’d moved into a bigger house which was closer to the Humane Center with a large backyard for their dogs and a wooded park not too far away. Even now, it wasn’t unusual for Derek to just disappear in the middle of the night with the dogs and drive to that park. Sometimes Derek just needed to let the wolf within him out. That inner wolf was one of the other things Brian found so appealing about Derek. He was a wolf shifter. And he was damn gorgeous as a wolf. Big and black, strong and swift, with glowing eyes. Sexy.
A knock at the door startled Brian out of his thoughts. He frowned and wiped his hands on his apron. He knew it couldn’t be Derek—he was out shopping for some last-minute supplies, and the man never forgot his keys. Who would be knocking at the door on Christmas Eve?
Brian untied his apron and walked swiftly to the front door, his bare feet never making a sound on the polished wood or the carpet. The dogs followed him, breath huffing and tails wagging, jostling in doggy happiness. He opened the door and saw the face of a person he never thought he’d see. Ever. Again.
Brian froze in shock as he gazed upon his very ex-boyfriend from nearly four years past. The very same ex-boyfriend who had abused him both mentally and physically. The very same ex-boyfriend who, when Brian had gotten up the courage to break up with him, had set fire to their house. The same man who had told Brian that he had to stay at home and stop being a veterinarian.
That man was standing on the other side of his doorway, on Christmas freaking Eve, towering over him like the six-and-half-foot giant he was. To make matters worse, the man was smiling, as if the violence between them had never happened. As if he hadn’t threatened Brian’s life and warned him that if he ever left, Kyle would kill him.
“Looking good, Bri,” Kyle said with that familiar cocky, toothy grin.
Brian couldn’t speak. He was vaguely aware of the fact that his mouth was hanging open, but his brain had short-circuited.
“It took me a lot of time to find you, darling. I contacted your family down east, but they didn’t know where you were. I looked in the phonebook, and I checked the Internet. Finally found you, though, over here on the shitty West coast. You put a country between us, babe. It was like you were running from me. Bad boy.” He clucked his tongue and shook his head before he wrapped his arms around Brian. Brian gasped in shock, fear making his blood run cold. His body trembled at the other man’s touch.
“But here you are,” Kyle continued, undaunted. “I’m never letting you go.” The larger man lowered his head. Brian knew Kyle intended to kiss him, but he couldn’t make his body move. He was frozen in place, his heart banging in his chest. He snapped out of his shock as the seven dogs behind him growled in warning, their images floating into his mind, giving him strength and control of his mouth and body once more.
“Hands. Off.” Brian said firmly. He pressed his hands to Kyle’s bulky chest and pushed slowly but forcefully away. Kyle let him go, and he guessed it was because the other man was afraid of the seven angry dogs who might attack him. Kyle looked confused, angry, and afraid. His eyes kept flickering back at the dogs.
“But why, baby? You always liked my hands before.” Kyle tried to charm him with that cocky grin, but Brian wasn’t falling for those tricks anymore. Most of the charm lost its impact with the fear in Kyle’s eyes.
“Times change. I’ve changed.” Brian managed to keep his voice controlled. He took strength from the dogs behind him, remembering that this was his home. This was now, not then.
Brian sent a silent message to the dogs to be steady, not to attack. He could tell they wanted to, even Fenrir. The little pug was sending up high-pitched barks that made his small body jump. But it was Goliath he called in his defense. The big brown lug walked in front and the other dogs fell back, still growling.
Kyle backed up a couple of steps. He’d always hated dogs; he’d been attacked by one as a small boy and had never recovered. Brian had owned Fenrir while together with Kyle, and it had been the cause of many arguments, which always ended in violence.
“Jesus, Brian. No need to be hostile, babe.” He said the word “babe” like others would say the word “bitch.”
“Isn’t there?” Brian countered, resting his hand on Goliath’s back. “Remember the last time we were together, Kyle? You told me if I left, you’d kill me. Then you burned down our house.” He still remembered that night as if it had happened yesterday. He still remembered the terror, the grief, the time he had wasted on this jerk. He remembered the helplessness he had felt and the fear that he might never get away from this brutal man.
“You made me burn it,” Kyle retorted, his hands clenched into fists. “You’re the one who dumped me. You had no right.”
“Get lost, Kyle. I don’t want you back,” Brian snapped, the memories like an old wound that had healed badly.
“Come on, baby, let’s talk—”
“I suggest you do what he says unless you want your face rearranged.”
Brian had been so focused on Kyle that he hadn’t seen his lover walking with long strides up the driveway. Derek was tall and rangy, and right now he looked like a predator protecting his territory. He had two sacks of groceries in his hands, and Brian quickly sent a mental image to him to stay calm. He only wanted Kyle to leave. He definitely did not want the two men to get into a fight. He had no doubt that Derek would wipe the floor with Kyle, but the last thing he wanted was his lover to have to face the cops and assault charges. Or for Derek to shift.
Kyle whipped around and scowled. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
“I’m his partner, dickwad,” Derek snarled and stopped a few feet away. Brian saw his lover’s internal struggle to keep the wolf at bay, to keep it from shredding Kyle into bloody strips. His dark-brown eyes were slightly glowing, the way they did when he was either angry or horny. His muscles tensed and—only because Brian knew him so well and knew what to look for—he saw the way his lover’s bronze skin moved, the slight ripple there. He usually found those changes in his lover’s body fascinating, but not this time.
“Partner?” Kyle glared accusingly at Brian. “You’ll bend over for just about anyone, won’t you?”
Brian bristled, but his voice remained calm. “We’ve been over for a long time, Kyle. Leave now, or I will sic my boyfriend and my dogs on you.” As if on cue, all the dogs barked, and even Tinker gave a hiss, his hair standing on end, his ears flat and his sharp little teeth bared.
Outnumbered, Kyle backed away and walked past Derek. Brian knew that even without the dogs, Derek’s glare alone would have been enough to make the man leave. Derek could scare Bigfoot. He just stood there, his body braced to strike, only his eyes hinting at what horrors he might unleash if Kyle so much as touched Brian.
Kyle got into his car and drove away, his proverbial tail firmly set between his legs.
Brian took several deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart. He turned and shooed the dogs back into the house as Derek walked up to him with a scowl on his face. Brian took one of the sacks from his hands and was thankful Derek had come home when he had.
“What the fuck just happened, Brian?” Derek looked over his shoulder and down the street to where Kyle had just left.