The Return: Chapter Four
Corey closed the coffeeshop for the rest of the day. There wasn’t any sense in keeping it open since no one was going to come anywhere near me until the all clear was given. I would make it up the lost business to him somehow.
When we got to the house his parents had owned, I was surprised by the changes. Gone was the flagstone in front of the house. In its place were blooms in bursts of riotous color. The landscaping was immaculate, as opposed to when we’d been kids and the house had a truly lived in look. I could still picture Corey’s bike laying in the driveway, and still hear his father’s vain attempts to get him to put it away.
I’d practically lived in this house for years. I could recall so many memories, and it was those that helped me through my tribulations after my dad took me away from Corey. The living room where his mother made us a blanket fort to watch cartoons in, then baked us some cookies. How we’d dozed off, lying side by side, with Corey’s head on my shoulder. I knew I wanted to protect him. If I could have, I would have claimed him then. Even if I had no idea what that meant.
“The place looks great,” I said.
Corey smiled, and my heart melted. “I know it’s different from when we were kids, but I wanted it to look nice.”
“It doesn’t look nice,” I informed him. “It’s remarkable. Hard to believe this was where we’d sit and watch Tom & Jerry cartoons.”
His cheeks pinked. “I might still watch them,” he admitted.
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.” I moved closer, grateful when he didn’t back away. It took everything I could muster not to reach for his face. “I know it doesn’t help, but I missed you every fucking day.”
He leaned in closer and inhaled. “It means a lot. I…. I thought you forgot about me.”
This time I couldn’t stop myself. I swept him into my arms and tilted his head so he had to look me in the eye. “I could never forget about you. Thoughts of you consumed me, and that was what made it harder to get through my training. It took more than a year for my dad to get me to focus on the pack, and he only did that by reminding me every day you were a part of it, so I was actually doing it for you.”
He pulled away, his shoulders drooping. “I’m hungry. You want something?”
“Pizza?” I pleaded. “You don’t get those in the woods. You get gamey rabbits and chipmunks. If you’re not fast enough to catch your food, you don’t eat that night.”
He turned, but I saw the emotions that flitted across his face. Anger, annoyance, sadness. I grabbed him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said, but I knew it wasn’t true. I could read Corey like a book. I wanted him to be in a braille edition so I could read that, but….yeah.
“We both know it’s not true, and we also know that you’re going to come clean eventually. Save us both the trouble and tell me what’s going on in your head.”
“I…had bad thoughts about you. I was pissed you up and left, and then your family did the same. I felt like I’d been thrown away by people I loved and—and—”
Now the tears came. I tugged him closer and held him.
“I’m so very sorry,” I whispered into his hair. “I think my dad handled it poorly, but he did what he felt was best. If he had known you were aware of what we were, he would have talked to you, I’m certain.”
“You can’t know that. I wasn’t part of your group, so I didn’t matter.”
Oh, fuck no. I stepped away and pulled out my phone. Dad was my first contact, and I pressed the screen, ignoring Corey’s demand to know what I was doing.
“How’s it going?” he asked. “Have you seen Corey?”
“I’m with him now.”
“Are you going to claim him?”
God, I wanted to. I wanted to worship his body before I took him. But I wouldn’t until everything was cleared between us.
“We have a problem,” I said, ignoring his question.
“Corey knows what we are. He has known for years.”
“He what?” Dad blew out a breath. “How is that possible? We were so careful.”
“Not so much. The thing is, he kept our secret all this time, even after you took me for training. The problem is, he thought we were throwing him away, like he didn’t matter.”
“I—I never meant for him to think that. Look, put me on speaker, okay?”
I pressed another button. “Dad, you’re on speaker.”
“I… Look, words can’t express how badly I feel for hurting you. We never meant for you to feel like we were tossing you aside, because nothing could be further from the truth. Jonas was—is—in love with you, but his body was all out of sorts, and I was afraid he’d hurt you or someone else. Please don’t be upset with Jonas for my mistake. You and your family are and always will be welcome in our pack.”
Corey swallowed hard as he rocked on his heels. “Okay.”
“No, it’s not. I messed up big time. I didn’t know you were aware of us. It was the thought you were didn’t know that kept me from talking to you. I swear to you, I tried to do what was best for everyone, and in the end I hurt one of the people I sought to protect.”
“Protect?” Corey’s voice rose, pitched high. “How is it protecting me by leaving me to worry for years that I’d somehow fucked up and forced my second family away from me? How in the hell do you consider that protecting me? I was inconsolable. It took me years to come to terms with thinking I wasn’t good enough for anyone. I wallowed in self-pity for the longest time, because you said not to look for Jonas and then hung up on me. And guess what? I didn’t fucking listen to you! Every goddamn day for a year I rode my bike around town, asking people if they’d seen him or heard from him. It’s no wonder no one told me anything. You made them keep it all secret.”
My blood ran hot as Corey clenched his hands into fists. His cheeks were mottled purple.
“You fucking gutted me by taking away the most important thing in my life without doing me the courtesy of even lying about it.”
He turned and rushed away, and I could hear the sob in his wake.
“Jonas, I—fuck. I’m so sorry.”
“It’ll be okay, Dad. I’ll make him understand.”
“I know you will, but that doesn’t make me feel better about what I did.”
“You did what needed to be done. I get it, and Corey will in time.”
“I hope you’re right. Call me later?”
We disconnected, and I followed the heartbreaking sounds coming from Corey. I found him lying on a queen sized bed in what had been his parents room. After I toed off my shoes, I lay beside him and pulled him closer.
“He didn’t trust me. You didn’t trust me.”
“Can I say something? Do you promise to listen to me with an open mind?”
“Why should I? It’s not like you gave me that courtesy.”
He had a fair point. We’d hurt him badly, and he had no reason to trust us to tell him the truth now.
“I was four the first time I saw my mom and dad shift. I was so excited to have not one but two puppies. It took them months to explain what they were and what I was going to be. They also told me how badly I needed to keep a secret, because people wouldn’t understand. Harken’s Corners was meant to be a safe haven for wolves. We vetted everyone who came to town very carefully. Somehow your family evaded every single safety protocol we had, and before we knew it, you were our first human members.”
He grunted, but at least he was listening.
“A lot of the people in town wanted us to force you out, and my father considered it. Then I met you and I knew balls to bones that you were mine. Every instinct in me screamed that I had to protect you, to keep you safe. My father saw us together, and he opened up the pack to take you all into it. He did that because he knew, without a doubt, you were meant for me.”
Corey scooched a bit closer, our bodies nearly touching. His heat rolled over me, warming me from the outside in.
“People weren’t happy about it, but all that changed the day of the fire. Your family was there, working shoulder to shoulder with us. You had such determination, and it made me insanely proud to know that one day we’d be mated. After that, no one questioned your family being here. You were one with us. But we couldn’t tell you our secret. It was a huge risk for the pack, you understand? It had the potential to blow up in our faces in the worst way. That was why Dad said we had to keep it a secret. Not because he didn’t trust you would understand, but because the pack was at risk, and as our Alpha it was his job to protect us all.”
“But if I was part of your pack, then I should have mattered.”
Once again, he was right. Dad said Corey’s family was pack, and that meant they should have been told the truth and then spoken to about anything pack related. Instead, we treated them like children. We made decisions that affected them, without considering how it would impact them.
“I can’t speak for my father. He messed up, and he’s aware of it. I know something, though. He loves you with his whole heart. He and my mom were beside themselves when we moved. Mom kept on Dad about how I needed to be near you, but she understood why I couldn’t. Doesn’t mean she liked it at all.”
He sniffled. Corey was so full of conflicting emotions, all looking for an outlet.
“If I could have, I would have run away and gotten back to you. I needed my mate.”
“You keep saying that. What does that mean?”
“In a nutshell, it means the two of us are meant to be together for our whole lives. There will never be another for me. I’ve wanted you since I was a kid.”
“What if I said I wasn’t gay?”
I frowned. “Honestly, that never occurred to me. Fate chooses our mates, but I suppose there could be a screwup somewhere. But I know we could make it work.”
He chuckled. “Totally gay, dude. Like in I’d suck your dick for a Snickers.”
I jumped off the bed and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” he demanded, his eyes wide in what I could only assume was disbelief.
“To get you a Snickers. Duh.”
That earned me a laugh. Not a chuckle, but a full on, body shaking laugh full of snorts as he tried to draw a breath. “I missed you so much.”
I dove back onto the bed. “I missed you too. Sleeping by myself sucked. I couldn’t roll over and wrap my arm around you or pull you close.”
“You bastard. I thought you were conked out when you did that!”
“Nope. I needed you near me all the time. When you weren’t, it felt like ants crawling across my skin. You calmed me, made me think. My dad liked me better when I was rational. My mom loved you because you made no bones about how you felt when we were together.”
“Guess it was no surprise I was gay, huh?”
“Not to me, no,” I admitted. I peered into his eyes, and realized what I needed too. “Can I hold you?”
He snuggled up close to me, and I put my arms around him. For the first time I wasn’t just holding Corey, I was surrounding my mate. And he felt so goddamn good. We lay there for about ten minutes or so before his breathing slowed, becoming deeper and more even. I stroked my fingers through his hair, loving the fact I finally got to do this.
“I love you, Core.” I planted a kiss on his forehead. “I will always do my best to make you happy.”
“Love you too,” he murmured, then followed that with a snore.
It didn’t matter we were both dressed. At the moment, I couldn’t have been happier if we were skin to skin. Well, okay. Naked would make it better, but I’d waited all these years to claim Corey, and I’ll be damned if I was going to rush him now, especially when he was so uncertain about his place in our lives.
He rolled in my arms, and I felt the loss of his warm breath on my skin. Then he moved back, his ass pushing into my groin. I was surprised I didn’t pass out as the blood drained from one head and moved into the other. I leaned in, letting his scent fill my lungs. Corey smelled of new fallen snow, sweet and crisp, plus cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla. He was a winter wonderland every day of the year.
Winter had always been my favorite season. I loved traipsing through the snow, dreaming of the day I’d be able to run on my four feet through the high drifts. Then I met Corey, and everything I loved about the festive time was condensed into one package. I couldn’t get enough of being around him, because…well, he was going to be my home, and I knew it.
He slept for two hours. Me? I lay there and marveled at the fact I had Corey Mills beside me once more. My wolf, after years of pleading, whining, and anger fueled rage was at peace. There’s an old saying that you can’t have everything, but that’s wrong.
I had Corey, I had my pack, and I finally had a future to look forward to.
“Time is it?” came the sleepy voice beside me.
“A little before three,” I answered. “You haven’t been asleep that long.”
He sat bolt upright. “Holy shit!” He turned and looked at me, then reached out and put a hand on my chest, plucking at the hair there. “You’re really here.”
“Yep, I have returned.” Corey needed to know that I was solid, dependable. I couldn’t allow him to feel abandoned again. “And I’m never going anywhere again. At least not without you by my side.”
He shook his head. “I thought this was all a weird, amazing dream.”
“Nope. I’m here, and I’m praying you won’t send me away. I—we—all fucked up. I only ask that you keep one thing in mind. We have never had a human pack member, let alone a family. We didn’t know how to deal with it, and when it was decided, it was the wrong decision. But you bear partial responsibility for this too.”
His eyes widened. “Me? How the hell do you figure that?”
I snuggled back on the bed and pulled him down with me. He whined a bit, but then settled in, his head resting on my chest and his hand skimming my stomach. If only he reached a little bit lower…just a bit.
“You knew our secret, but you never once told me. Things would have been far different if you had.” Before he could say anything, I plowed ahead. “I’m not saying things with Adam would have gone a different direction. He was a dick, and it was bad enough when he bullied you, but when he put hands on you, I would have lost it regardless. We probably would have still been in the same positions we are now, but my dad could have explained things to you so you’d understand.”
He leaned up and blew a raspberry on my neck. “I hate it when you make sense. Good thing I don’t have to deal with that too often.”
“Okay, now that you know I know, teach me about werewolves. I’d like to know what I’m in for.”
“That’s a tall order. In the past, many millions of years ago, creatures evolved. If you look at the science books, they’ll tell you that man rose from the muck to become the dominant species. For the most part that’s true. But what science doesn’t talk about, mostly because they don’t know, is that other animals walked the same evolutionary path. Remember Planet of the Apes? Earth could have been that, or any other number of animals could have stood atop as the pinnacle we call man. Shifters, like wolves, went off in various directions. As with homo sapiens, they had ancestors. A lot of shifters didn’t survive, because they couldn’t adapt to the changing world. Others, again like wolves, formed packs and helped each other.”
“So there are other types of were creatures?”
“There are. Pretty much any animal likely has a human counterpart out there somewhere. Even animals like dogs and cats could very well be shifters.”
“So Barney could have been a shifter?”
Barney had been Corey’s dog when we were kids. A big, goofy beagle, Barney was filled with stupid love for Core. If anyone could have been a shifter, it would have been Barney.
“It’s possible. There aren’t many ways to tell, unless you see them shift. Down to the cellular level, we are identical to humans. The only difference is something most of us refer to as iskra. It’s an unquantifiable something that gives our bodies the ability to call upon our ancestors and take on their forms and abilities. For some animals, it also brings their weaknesses. Like rhinoceroses, for example. The animal has horrible eyesight. The human counterpart will likely be a little better, but probably needs glasses not long after birth. I like to think of it as nature’s way of evening things out.”
“And what weakness do wolves have?”
It wasn’t something we talked about, and never with someone who wasn’t a wolf. “We can die of loneliness. Wolves are not meant to be alone. It’s why we form packs. The more of us there are, the happier we will be. We’re also needy animals, who have to have constant touch to keep us grounded.”
“Like this?” Corey reached out and slid a hand over my chest. “Would something like this work?”
When I was in exile, my parents touched me. Dad was forever nudging me and Mom would give me hugs. It was good—great, in fact—but it wasn’t the same as a friend or Corey. No one but Corey could warm me from the outside in with little more than a brush of hands over mine.
“God, yes,” I whimpered. “You don’t know how desperate I was to do something stupid like ruffle your hair or bump shoulders with you or any of the other thousand ways we touched when we were together.”
He moved closer and put his arm around my waist.
“So it’s okay that I’m touching you?”
I grinned down at him, even though he couldn’t see me. “You’re my mate. You can touch me anywhere, anytime.”
He chuckled, and it reverberated through me. “Remember you said that.”
Trust me, I’m not likely to forget it, because I finally feel like I can breathe again.