SHAVING MUST rank as one of the most irritating grooming habits ever conceived, Dae Anderson thought, wincing as he nicked the delicate skin under his ear. Frowning, he tore off a tiny piece of toilet paper and placed it over the scratch, watching it instantly soak up red. If it weren’t for the need to present a well-groomed, friendly, boy-next-door image to his clients, he’d happily give up the razor in an instant and run about au naturel.
It wasn’t as if he had anyone to impress, anyway.
Angrily, Dae renewed his attention to the task at hand, drawing the razor up over the curve of his cheek, his thoughts on his ex, Jack. He didn’t want Jack back. No, taking Jack back was not even an option as far as Dae was concerned—not in a million years would he even consider the possibility of accepting Jack’s apology. Not this time.
Of course, the fact that Jack would never offer Dae one in the first place was beside the point.
Jack was nothing if not consistent. In the entirety of their three years together, Dae had never once heard him utter the words “I’m sorry,” even though there had been a plethora of opportunities in their relationship for him to do just that. Opportunities with names like Justin, Mason, and Bobby, to name a few.
Bobby, by the way, had turned out to be Bobbi-with-an-i, the kind who had boobs and was missing an essential piece of equipment between her aerobically sculpted thighs.
For a while Dae had turned a blind eye to Jack’s roving one, pretending that what he knew damn well was happening was just his own imagination working overtime. He’d ignored Jack’s snide comments about the way Dae dressed and the complaints about how many hours Dae worked. Dae had turned a deaf ear to Jack ranting about how jogging was a waste of time and energy better spent on Jack, and that if Dae wanted to get himself killed by running alone at daybreak or at dusk, then he ought to leave Jack the PIN numbers to the bank accounts to make things easier when they scooped Dae up from the side of the road with a spoon. But in the end, it had been Jack’s roaming dick that had finally pushed Dae over the edge. After six months of hearing strange voices on the answering machine and smelling strange cologne on the sheets, Dae had finally come to his senses and had tossed Jack out on his double-pierced ear.
It had been the first time but hardly the last. For the next three years, he and Jack had played out that same scene over and over. Unfortunately for Dae, he was not Jack-resistant. Like cabernet on white silk, no matter how many times he tried to rub Jack out of his life, the man would reappear.
While he cringed to think about it now, the truth of the matter was that Dae had never really tried very hard to make Jack stay gone. He would cave in the instant Jack appeared at his doorstep, bag in hand, flashing that lopsided, boyish grin at him.
The problem wasn’t that Dae had low self-esteem or some twisted and kinky need for punishment. When Jack had insinuated himself into Dae’s life, Dae been thirty-two, a successful veterinarian with an established practice, and while he wasn’t supermodel material, he wasn’t exactly ready for a carnival sideshow, either. On the cosmic scale of things, Dae would rate himself as being right around dead center. Average. Dae’s shoulders were broad, and his body was well muscled, but due to genetics and not a workout schedule, and even though he was fit, he wasn’t so buff that he would be taken for a bodybuilder. His hazel eyes were set in a square-jawed face that was pleasant. Not too tall, not too short, he was the first to admit that he was simply average, and average, as far as Dae was concerned, was a fairly good place to be.
No, the problem that Dae had with Jack was strictly primal—Jack had the unique ability to tent Dae’s underwear with his smile alone.
Every time, just a few days or a week after Dae had last kicked Jack to the curb, bag and baggage, the doorbell would ring, and there Jack would be, his head an unruly mess of blond curls and that cocky goddamn grin on his face. And right on cue Dae would morph into Oliver Twist holding out his bowl and pleading that he wants some more.
Shaking his head to dispel the intrusion of the unwanted mental image, Dae turned off the faucet, which continued to drip water into the tub in evenly spaced, annoying plops, and stepped out, then dried off with a fluffy towel. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror that hung over the sink, his reflection looked no more refreshed or relaxed than it had before he’d taken his shower.
Dae’s hair, a shade that looked like it couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to stay blond or turn gray, stuck out in disheveled, uncooperative spikes. He would need another haircut soon, he realized, and rolled his eyes at his reflection. If he didn’t keep on top of his trims, his hair would quickly grow shaggy and wild, a look that he, as a professional, was better off avoiding. While he eyed the shelf that held a platoon of hair-care products, he made no move to use any of them. He wasn’t in the mood to primp and really couldn’t have cared less if he looked feral enough to frighten small children. Instead, he ran a comb through his wet mop, flattening it to his head like a skullcap.
Dressing in a pair of threadbare gray running shorts and a ratty T‑shirt, Dae slipped on his tennis shoes, grabbed up his water bottle, and left the apartment, fully intent on running until he either forgot Jack or keeled over dead.
In his current frame of mind, either would be an acceptable option.
Hitting the blacktop, Dae tried desperately to concentrate on running, on breathing, on pacing himself, but his mind refused to cooperate. Instead he found himself remembering the last time he had seen Jack.
Six long months had already passed since that rainy afternoon when Dae had come home from work early, sopping wet and miserable, only to find Jack in their bed and buried up to the hips in the ass of his latest conquest. The young man writhing underneath Jack had been a trim, platinum blond lifeguard with a perfect tan and a cock that could have choked a horse. In passing Dae had thought that, when on the beach, the guy must have looked as though he was smuggling a fire hose and a pair of basketballs in his Speedos.
That had been bad enough, but the kicker had come when Jack, instead of jumping up from the bed to spout explanations and beg Dae’s forgiveness, had instead simply paused in his wild thrusting and had patted the side of the mattress, asking Dae to join them. He had said that he was of the opinion that Dae was getting boring and needed to learn to live a little, and what better place to start than with a ménage à trois?
Dae’s reply to Jack’s generous invitation had been less than genial.
In fact, he distinctly remembered chasing the two of them around the apartment with his umbrella, clouting both of them on whichever parts of their anatomy came within smacking or poking distance. With the precision of a sheepdog, he’d herded them right out of the door and into the freezing rain—both of them bare-butt naked and howling—and in the process had rid his life of Jack once and for all. Jack had hurt him more times than he could count, but truthfully, as Dae had watched Jack’s firm, white ass make a run through the rain for the car, Dae had felt angrier with himself for standing in line for second and third helpings of Jack’s shit than he was at Jack for dishing it out in the first place.
Dae had been sorely tempted to shift right there in the bedroom in full view of Jack and his boy toy. Of course, Dae hadn’t. He’d never shifted in front of anyone since he was a teenager back home. As far as his shapeshifting abilities were concerned, Dae remained firmly locked in the closet. It was Dae’s contention that people might hesitate to bring their peaked Pomeranians and fussy felines in to his animal clinic if they knew that their veterinarian was a werewolf. Regardless, Dae still thought that it might have been worth the risk of exposure just to see Jack lose control of his bodily functions.
Dae’s friends, mostly straight women who he’d met through his clinic and who considered Dae to be “one of the girls,” had commiserated with him as friends always do, pouring frozen margaritas down his throat along with all the tired and virtually useless clichés that one is comforted with after a breakup. Dae would be so much better off without Jack. Dae would meet someone new, someone better. Someone who would respect him, someone who would be considerate, someone Dae could trust. Someone who wouldn’t hump everything that moved like an oversexed Jack Russell.
They meant well, but, as Dae reminded them, they also got to go home to their husbands and boyfriends and get laid periodically. Yet, after a while Dae began to believe his friends’ mantras, telling himself that Jack could easily be replaced by a porn movie and a battery-operated boyfriend. After all, unlike Jack, Dae could trust that kind of boyfriend to be found exactly where it had been left, and it wouldn’t leave someone else’s underwear in the hamper for Dae to wash.
Dae shortly came to realize that there was a downside to that philosophy. While eight-inch butt-lovers were readily available for purchase with variable speeds and in more colors than Crayola had crayons, as of yet no one marketed one with a lopsided, boyish, underwear-tenting grin.
Worse yet, with Jack gone, Dae found himself living alone in a small, backwater town where breakups were a spectator sport, especially when the lovers in question had been the only gay couple in town. He found himself the recipient of sympathetic pats on the arm and sad smiles from everyone from his bank teller to the teenaged cashier at the Piggly Wiggly, as if Dae was an elderly widower doomed to live alone with only a couple dozen stray cats for company, pulling on his pecker while he ate frozen dinners in front of the television. He got the distinct impression that the town was in mourning for having lost their token odd couple.
Even Sean, the twenty-five-year-old veterinary assistant and office manager at the Blue Moon Animal Clinic, had been watching Dae with sad, pity-filled eyes whenever he thought Dae wasn’t looking. Although, Dae had to admit that to his credit, Sean had never once said “I told you so,” even though the young man had told Dae time and time again that Jack was nothing more than an asshole with feet.
It was infuriating.
His running shoes slapped the pavement with an angry cadence as Dae jogged along the road, and even after six months spent convincing himself that it had been time, that Jack hadn’t been worth it, that it was for the best, his eyes still stung with tears and his vision blurred. Another mile found Dae leaking from both his eyes and his nose, but he refused to stop running. He couldn’t stop, because to stop would mean going home, and home was a silent apartment with a cold bed, a shelf full of overdue porn movies, and a garbage can full of dead disposable batteries.
Another mile gone and Dae had run out of blacktop. Without his noticing, the macadam had ended, and the road had become a strip of hard-packed dirt. If Dae had been in a better frame of mind, he might have realized that the road he’d been running on had devolved into not much more than a logging trail, but his thoughts were still on the aftermath of Jack. The temperature was going down along with the sun, although Dae’s exercise-warmed body didn’t feel the cold. Fog began to rise, obscuring the fields that lined the road and sending vaporous fingers swirling around his ankles.
The light was quickly fading, but Dae didn’t care, focusing solely on the emptiness in his heart and the pain in his feet as he kept jogging, kept pushing himself, kept forcing his legs and arms to keep pumping. Regardless of the fact that full dark would soon be on him and that he hadn’t seen anything even resembling a lamppost for the last six miles or so, Dae graduated from a healthy, steady jog to a full-out run, racing away from the memory of Jack.
Eventually it became too much for him. Running on two legs was not fast enough, not free enough to leave the memory of Jack behind. Barely breaking stride, Dae pulled off his T-shirt, managed to kick off his tennis shoes, and wiggled out of his running shorts and Jockeys. Once naked, he shifted. In the space of a heartbeat, where there had once been a man running hell-for-leather down the road, there was now a wolf.
Running faster on four legs than he had on two, Dae’s muscles moved fluidly under his thick, shaggy pelt. In his mind, he still saw Jack’s cocky grin and the tanned face of Jack’s young lifeguard lover lying in their bed. A low rumble started deep within Dae’s chest, and he bared his teeth to the wind as he ran.
It came out of nowhere. For all his keen hearing and eyesight, Dae was so caught up in running away from his pain and the memory of Jack that he never heard the growl of the engine as a pickup truck, splattered with mud from four-wheeling, barreled up onto the road from the fields and slammed into Dae’s body. He felt himself fly up into the air, bouncing off the hood of the truck and cartwheeling across the road.
Dae’s last thought, one that popped into his mind just before his head impacted with the rocky ground at the bottom of the gully at the side of the road and everything went black, was that he had managed to get killed while jogging, and that Jack would get the last laugh when he read about it in the paper.
No doubt while Jack was boffing the mortician.
WHEN DAE awoke, it was to a splitting headache and the urge to pee like a racehorse. How long he’d been out was anyone’s guess, but when he tried to move and every muscle in his body screamed in protest, he realized that it could have been minutes, hours, or days. From the pressure on his bladder, he was leaning toward weeks.
Lying on his side, a ripple ran across his skin as he cracked open his eyes and looked up at a low, metal ceiling. Without moving his head, he flicked his eyes around, taking in the steel mesh that surrounded him on all four sides and formed the flooring beneath his paws.
He was in a cage.
Dae groaned, a sound that reached his ears as more of a whine. A dim memory surfaced of the muddy grill of a truck looming up in front of his eyes, and he remembered the impact that had sent him thumping and skidding across the road. The pain in Dae’s head told him that he must have been knocked unconscious.
Had Dae been alert, he never would have allowed anyone to pick him up and bring him anywhere. He would have snarled savagely at whatever Good Samaritan thought to approach him, resorting to a nip if necessary, and then dragged himself off into the brush to lick his wounds in privacy.
Instead he’d been brought here. Just where here was became clear as Dae looked out through the metal mesh of his cage and into the room beyond.
Not only had he allowed someone to cart him off in the back of a pickup, but he had allowed that someone to bring him to his own animal hospital.