The Return: Chapter Three
I sat there, drumming my fingers on the tabletop, trying to think of how to broach the discussion. Inside the shop, I could see Corey as he measured something into a metal ball, then placed it inside a pot. I’d never seen tea made this way. I usually popped a cup of water into the microwave for a minute, then added the teabag. What Corey was doing seemed more like a show than anything else, but it was one I would never tire of watching. His slender body, firm yet giving, seemed to be dancing around the empty shop.
When he turned and headed for the door, I panicked. What could I say? How was I supposed to tell him the truth and deal with the fallout in an hour? What if he refused me and left? Could I survive without him?
The bell above the door chimed as he stepped out and placed a cork covered tray on the table. He turned over the delicate cup and poured a dark, rich liquid from the gleaming pot, then he place a cup of coffee in front of his seat.
“Okay, if you don’t like it, let me know. I don’t have Lipton—and I pray I never will—but I’m sure I can find something you’ll like just as much.”
I inhaled and hummed my appreciation. The smoky scent of the tea was bold and screamed ‘drink me’. I picked the cup off the tray and grinned up at Corey, then took my first sip.
“Holy shit,” I gasped, staring into the liquid as if the secrets of the universe were contained there.
That was an understatement. This wasn’t tea, it was nectar of the gods. “It’s sweeter than the smell would have you believe. I can taste a hint of pine.”
Corey smiled, and my heart went into overdrive. I wonder what people would say if I bent him over the table to claim him. I didn’t give a damn if everyone watched. Hell, we could make it a pay-per-view special. They should all know who he belonged to.
“Very good. Pine needles and pine wood are used in the crafting of the tea. It’s one of the more unique blends I’ve found.”
“It’s remarkable,” I assured him. “Thank you for picking it out for me.”
He wave a hand. “Nope. The tea chooses the drinker, not the other way around.”
“That’s very…Zen of you.”
He shrugged. “I try to stay chill. After you left, I had to adapt.”
And bam, right in the heart. “Corey I—”
“Water under the bridge, right? You don’t owe me any explanation.”
“I owe you everything. Please, sit down.”
He averted his gaze. “I have a lot to do.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Look, you said you’d give me an hour, and I expect that you’ll keep that promise.”
His scowl could have curdled milk. “Fine. So we’re clear, you have forty-eight minutes left.”
“What? You can’t count the time you were in there making the tea!”
“Might be your game, but it’s my rules. Now, get on with it.”
“This isn’t something I can just—”
“Goddamn it, Corey! I want to explain, but it’s not easy. I’ve got to say some things, and they might freak you out. I never want to do that.”
He pinned me with a stare.
“Does this have something to do with you all being werewolves?”
I swear to God, if he had hit me in the face with a sledgehammer, I would not have been more shocked.
“I’m sorry, what?”
He sucked in a breath and flapped his hands in front of him. “Wait! Is that a bad term? I mean, when I looked it up, I found others. Lycanthrope? Loup Garou? Wolfman? Well, person, since some of you are women? I’ve got a list, but it’s at home. Help me out here. What should I be calling you all?”
We’d worked so hard to keep Corey and his family from learning about us. “W-what makes you say that?”
He smirked, and it was the most adorable thing ever.
“I wondered what you’d say.” He blew over the surface of his coffee, then took a draw. “You do know I’m not stupid, right?”
“I never said you were!”
“Well, no, but everyone in town apparently thought so. How did you think you could hide something like this? I mean, really. Boys literally sniffing after girls in school was odd, but I didn’t think twice about it. But then I started to notice other things, like the fact you never came over on nights when the moon was full. Or that nearly everyone in town mysteriously vanished, only to show up again the next morning with wide smiles on their faces.” He leaned closer. “They got laid, didn’t they?”
Of course they had Our monthly runs were bacchanals of the highest order. Married men went into the woods with their wives, sometimes allowing others to join them. The single people met in the clearing, and went at it until they swore their privates would fall off.
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You were always on edge, so no way did you get laid.”
“And what do you know about getting laid?” I challenged, praying my father was right, and that Corey hadn’t been with anyone else. Though I was more in control than before, I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t resort to violence if the need arose, especially if I found out someone was touching what everyone knew was mine.
That earned me a chuckle. “I like how you’re not trying to tell me you’re not all…. I’m sorry, is werewolves okay, or should I be using another term? I don’t want to offend anyone with my own ignorance.”
I’d come with the intention of telling him the truth about us, about his place in my life, and now I find out he’d known all along?
“Werewolves is fine,” I muttered, taking another drink of my tea. It really was very good.
“I never told anyone,” he swore. “Even my parents never figured it out. At least not that I know of.” He cocked his head. “I read everything I could, but it all seemed to be bullshit. Mostly romance novels—which were hot, by the way—but nothing based in reality.
“Because most people don’t know we exist.”
“Well, I’m glad I do.”
I stared into the blue-gray eyes I’d loved for so long. The way they sparkled, like they were there for the sun to light up. “How does this not freak you out?”
“I’m going to admit, when I figured it out, I did freak. For about five minutes. Then I thought about you, and how you were the very best friend I’d ever had, and I knew you’d never let anyone or anything hurt me. So instead of worrying, I started listening. You know how it is when someone is talking about you, but then when you show up, they turn away like they weren’t? The guys were like that.
“Everything came together in bits and pieces. Guys talking about how they couldn’t wait until next year when they’d be allowed to attend the gathering. Others who complained they couldn’t go, because their parents were making them watch the pups. And then there’s the night I saw Dan Garver change.”
“You were staying overnight, and there was a low howl outside. I mean, it wasn’t unusual. I’d heard wolves since the night we got here, but never that close. This time it was different, though. You jerked up instantly, and got out of bed. You went to the window and stared at something for a bit. Then, a few moments later, you snuck downstairs. I went to the window to see what was going on.”
I remembered that night. Dan was twenty-two. He had gotten married to Ginny Daley the year before, and not long after she got pregnant. I’d never known anyone as over the moon as Dan had been. Then Ginny miscarried. Dan needed to talk, and he—like everyone in the pack—knew I was with Corey. He came to Core’s house and poured his grief out to me instead of my father. I’d comforted him, told him he and Ginny needed to hold on to each other, especially now.
Two years later, Ginny gave birth to baby Isaiah Jonas Garver, and Dan was the happiest I’d ever seen.
“You were standing there, in nothing but pajama bottoms, talking to a wolf. I was certain I was dreaming, but then you knelt down and wrapped your arms around the wolf’s neck. Then a moment later, you weren’t holding a wolf, but a naked man who was crying on your shoulder.”
“His wife had lost a baby and he’d come to me for comfort.”
“Oh.” Corey’s face fell. “I’m sorry. I wish I could have helped.”
And I believed him. Corey was the most empathetic person I knew. He felt the pain of others like it was his own.
“I know. You’re a good man.”
“When he changed again, he ran off into the woods, and you came back upstairs and crawled into bed. I lay there for hours, trying to understand what I’d seen. You? Fell asleep about fifteen seconds after you laid down.”
“Why didn’t you say something? You had to be so scared.”
He snorted. “Of you? Never. Nothing in my world could make me afraid of you. I mean, yeah, I didn’t realize at the time that you were a werewolf too, but I mean, after I figured out everyone in town was, it made sense.”
I reached out and took his hand in mine. I was grateful he didn’t draw away. “I’m so very sorry that you had to go through that by yourself.”
He smiled brightly. “Actually, it became kind of comforting after a while. Knowing this part of you existed, and that I got to be in that world made me feel…. I dunno. Part of something wonderful.”
“You were. You are.” I sucked in a breath. “There’s more you need to know.”
He gave a wobbly smile. “There always is. Unfortunately, your hour is up.”
Jonas’s jaw fell open. “But—”
“You asked for an hour, and I agreed to that. Your hour is now up.”
“It was nice seeing you again, Jonas. I hope we can talk again sometime.”
He was gaping like a fish when I stood and collected our cups. Yes, I was being petty, but he was gone from my life for years, and not a fucking word. I needed him to understand how I felt.
What surprised me? How fast he could move, especially for such a big guy. He grabbed my shoulders and pushed me back against the building. The cups tumbled from my hands and smashed on the concrete, the remaining coffee in mine moving slowly toward the cracks.
“What the fuck?” I ground out.
“You will listen to me,” Jonas demanded, his voice unlike any I’d ever heard before. It was like a mix of wolf and man. And damn, it was hot.
“You said an hour, and that—”
He buried his face in my neck, and prickles skittered across my body as goose bumps rose.
“Why do you always smell so good?” he murmured into my collarbone. “It always drove me fucking crazy to be so close, to have that smell wrap around me, and not be able to do anything about it.”
What the what? “Huh?”
“If you had any clue what you smell like. It’s why I stole your shirt the day I left, before my father sent me away. If I didn’t have it, I would probably have gone insane.
“I—I don’t understand.”
“I need to bite you. I need to make you mine. No other wolf or person can have you, ever.”
My head was floating. I was so out of my depth here. “What are you saying?”
“You’re my mate, Corey. Mine! That’s why people stopped coming to the shop when I got back to town. While I was gone, they were supposed to keep an eye on you. Protect you. As soon as I came back, all that changed. You are mine, Corey. Only fucking mine.”
It was then I felt it. A warmth on my neck, leaving a track as it trailed down into my shirt.
“It wasn’t fair. I wanted to be a good mate. I wanted to fucking worship you, just like you deserve. Then fucking Adam had to go and start the change and—”
“What are you talking about? What does Adam have to do with any of this?”
He clutched me tighter. It was just this side of uncomfortable.
“Wolves usually have their first shift in their late teens to early twenties when their bodies can handle the strain,” he whispered in my ear. “Our hormones are all over the place, and our bodies are primed to undergo the first transformation. It wasn’t supposed to happen to me for few years yet, but fucking Adam had to go and hurt you. He touched my mate, and I was going to kill him. When you told me what he’d done, my adrenaline spiked, and that probably started my body preparing for the first change. By the time I got to his house, my anger needed an outlet, and he was going to be it.”
So Jonas had beaten Adam. I wasn’t sure how I should feel about this. My friend was a non-violent geek, not some beast-monster type thing.
“I would have killed him, Core. I was so fucking close to it. My dad stopped me, but even that was a near thing. I was out of control, and he knew it. That’s why he sent me away, and why he said I couldn’t see you. If I had, there was no telling what I would have done. I’m sorry I was gone for so long. You don’t know what it’s like for me. Mates are a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I found you when I was a kid. You were what tempered the wolf, because if you hadn’t, I’d have shifted when I was like ten and we got into an argument over which Pokemon was strongest.”
During this entire exchange, not once did he loosen his grip. I was locked in his arms, held against his enormous body, breathing in his musk. And goddamn it, I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
“It was years, Jonas. You were gone for years.”
“I was that out of control. My dad said he’d never seen anything like it. And…. And he told me that if I hadn’t stood down, he might have had to kill me to protect the pack.”
“What the fuck?” I shouted, jerking out of his grip. “You’re telling me your father would have—”
“Only as a last resort,” he hastened to add. “I would have killed Adam, and I’m not sure my bloodlust could have been tamped down after that. I would have looked at every person as a potential threat to my mate—you—and slaughtered them all to keep you safe. It’s why he took me away. It was to keep them—you—safe from me. A wolf without control is a threat to pack and human alike.”
My stomach flipped.
“Please,” Jonas pleaded, putting me down and stepping back. “Don’t be scared of me. Be angry, whatever. Just…please, don’t send me away.”
He held his hands out, palms up. He wouldn’t meet my gaze. Worst of all, I could see him shaking.
His head lifted, and I saw the tears I’d felt earlier.
“You’re my mate, Corey. I’ll do anything to make things right between us.”
And I believed him. I had never considered me being part of the reason he’d had to go. Never thought it was possible that he could hurt anyone. My Jonas, the one I’d fallen in love with all those years ago, wouldn’t harm a fly. This one? The man who stood before me and admitted he could have killed someone? It was still my Jonas, no matter what.
I held my arms out. “Come here.”
He was to me in less than a heartbeat. He stood there and let me hold him as shivers coursed through him. The body might be bigger, harder, but the heart? As soft as always. That was the Jonas I knew. The one who wouldn’t hurt me no matter what.
“I know you’re mad at me,” he said, his voice breaking. “I never would have walked away from you if I could have helped myself.”
And I had been mad, but I’d also been unfair. I thought of my hurt, my sadness, but never once gave consideration to what Jonas had gone through.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured into his chest. “I should have let you talk.”
“No, you were right to be angry. I hurt you and—”
“I think there’s been enough hurt, yeah? How about we sit down and clear the air? Would that be okay?”
He smiled then. It was tremulous, uncertain, but it was a smile nonetheless.
“I’d like that.”
“How long will it be before people come back to the shop?”
He nibbled on his lower lip. “I’ll send out a mail blast tonight. I’m sorry about that, truly I am.”
“A mail…” I laughed. “Twenty-first century werewolves. How awesome is that?”
He snorted and pulled me in again. This time there was no fear I could feel. It was a welcome home.
And I was grateful for it.