Chapter 1: Out Of Service
For the longest time, I enjoyed the city life. The noise, the people (the nice ones), and the food were appealing. But one cold fall night, my entire view of urban living just changed.
If I’m being honest, I guess there were other things that had occurred that contributed to my sudden need to jet out of the city and settle somewhere surrounded by miles of trees, but I only want to remember one. It was the result of a pity gift, a toe-curling, awe wrenching, secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere.
The cabin—my new home—had come fully furnished and stocked with everything a twenty-year-old like myself would ever desire. When I say everything, I damn well mean it. But, for the life of me—as I look out at my ridiculously vast property, sipping tea— I can’t figure out why in the fuck there is a naked muddy man running through my backyard.
I know nudists hadn’t been included on the inventory list of my home.
Tea splutters from my lips as the reality of what I’m seeing sinks in. A naked, muddy man is running through my backyard—I drop my cup in the sink and hightail it out of the back door and after him.
“Hey!” I shout from across the lawn as soon as I’m out the door. He doesn’t stop for a second or even glance over his shoulder. Instead, he keeps sprinting and disappears inside my garage seconds later.
“Dude, really,” I groan as I half run-limp after him.
About the most cardio I have done since leaving the city—two months ago—is walk to and from my kitchen to my bed. I damn sure am not remotely prepared for chasing nude weirdos across my property at 6 am.
My chest is heaving by the time I come to a stop outside of the garage. I take a determined step in until the stark creepiness of the situation dawns on me. There’s a stranger, a very nude, very male stranger somewhere in the pitch darkness before me. The fucking light is somewhere in the midst of the junk I don’t use.
I shiver with unease but suck it up and walk forward, body tense as I ready to spring away from anything that jumps out or even moves in the slightest. I’m not a sissy, but I know my strengths. Cardio, hand to hand combat, and pretty much anything aerobic is not one of them. Acting on my flight instinct, that is one of them.
My mind starts up with ridiculous strands of thoughts obviously stimulated by the wariness coursing through me. The best one: If I sprang on a raccoon, would my face be half as fucked as this situation in the end? The answer is no. And I cringe at the imagined outcome.
I maneuver around my cars and other useless junk—squeaking at any noise that I probably made—before finding the draw string to the light with my face. I jerk back and then let out a breath of relief when I realize what it is. Clenching my eyes shut, I send a quick prayer up to every god or goddess ever mentioned and tug on the string. A click is followed by brightness that stuns my vision for a brief moment. When it focuses again and I take a fearful look around me—I don’t spot the man anywhere.
“Where the fuck are you?” I whisper to myself. I’m so damn thankful no one answers me.
My garage is a tight space. Due to the influx of junk, there are hardly any places to hide; so whoever this guy is, he sure as hell has bested me at hide and seek.
A sniffle comes from behind me.
I spring forward instantly, crashing into a bag of golf clubs that clamber onto the concrete floor loudly. You don’t even fucking golf! I hiss at myself mentally.
Luckily, I’m limber just enough to not follow the items onto the floor. I snatch up a club and turn and jump at the stranger with it held high.
I freeze in place when I see him.
Huddled, hands clutching at his head tightly, he’s sobbing and rocking back and forth. Every emotion I had felt before now quickly dissipates, making way for pity. Especially when— as he’s sobbing—his breath catches and a heart-wrenching gasp for air leaves him.
Being the first time I’ve ever witnessed a grown man crying. I stand there watching in shock before my wits come crashing back.
I set down the golf club, pull out my phone, and have 911 dialed in seconds.
The dial tone rings in my ear a moment before the operator begins talking, and not saying what I want to hear.
“We’re sorry but the number you have dialed is no longer in service.”
No longer in service? Since when does 911 go out of service! I curse under my breath and clench my phone in my hand.
Kneeling in front of the man, hoping I don’t scare him—if at all possible—I ask, “Sir, are you okay?”
As soon as the words are out I mentally curse at myself for being so insensitive. Of course he is not okay, anyone with eyes can see that.
There’s no break in between his sobs. Instead, trembling sets in, affecting his entire body. Though my heart pangs with pain once again, something else steals my concern.
Beneath the layers of mud and filth that cover him, I can just barely make out jagged scars. The gruesome patterns mar every inch of his body.
I draw in a shaky breath and instinctively reach for his hand, meaning to comfort. “I’m going to call an ambulance but I—” The exact moment that my fingers brush his, he flinches back. Hard.
A sickening crack echoes in the garage and the man’s body sags forward, clearly unconscious.
“Shit!” I curse, grabbing him before he can fall completely forward, and examine the back of his head for injuries. I don’t see a gaping wound or find flowing blood when I feel for anything; I do feel the swelling of his head as a knot forms. He’s definitely going to feel that when he comes to.
I was only trying to get him to follow me inside. God, you really know how to screw yourself, B. I make a face at my unhelpful thoughts and attempt to lift the guy’s body.
I only succeed at bruising my knees when I fall back to the ground roughly, his weight almost completely on me. “Fuck dude, you’re beastly,” I groan, managing to use his heftiness to my advantage by pushing him aside, quickly catching his head in my lap.
I sigh and look down at him, at the scars that blemish his face. It’s then that a word replays in my head. Beastly.
My back turns rigid. I didn’t even think— I scrutinize his form a last time and decide that the possibility of my thoughts being true is too likely. Way too likely to the point that if he happens to wake up with me so close, I could very well face instinctual retaliation.
Careful not to hurt him further or—heaven forbid—wake him now, I set his head back on the cool floor and scoot away, wanting to distance myself as much as possible.
There are few reasons to ever see a naked person—in this case, man—covered in mud and running through the forest. It’s either because, A, he’s a fucking shifter; or B, he’s batshit crazy.
Is he a shifter though? I ask myself.
His demeanor screams shifter, but the closest pack is nearly a days travel away, and that’s according to shifter time.
You’re in the middle of the six reigning packs, B. He could’ve been traveling... I have no way of confirming that though. There are only two ways to identify a shifter from a human. The most obvious way is definitely not happening when he’s unconscious or hopefully at all because I don’t feel like being mauled by whatever his animal side is.
By his size, I suspect bear, but there’s a litheness to his form and all of the bear shifters I’ve met are far more neanderthal like and bulky in the shoulders, specifically. This guy... he’s closely as thick with muscle but not quite like them, that leaves wolf as the last possibility. Much more unpredictable and ferocious.
I hug myself as I look over him warily. The second way to identify him as a shifter is by markings... Considering his body is covered in grime and scarring, this won’t be an easy task.
I slink forward cautiously and brush crusted filth off of the area where his shoulder and neck meet. Aside from his scars, there is no bite mark from a mate. A sudden pang of relief fills me at that, I pass it off as because that lessens the chances of him turning into a feral beast.
My eyes do a final once over of his form and water at the grisly sight. “What have you been through,” I whisper, impulsively wiping more muck from his face.
It’s when my fingers brush over his sharp jawline that his body jerks and his eyes snap open.
Stunning gold irises stare back at me and I’m completely hypnotized by their beauty.
My hands on his jaw remain in motion. The texture beneath my fingers combined with his paranormal eyes has me mindless. Fingertips move over the softness of his full lips and a scar that splits his top lip down the middle.
Curiosity blooms inside me, strong enough to have me blinking and looking at where my hands are. I brush dirt away from his mouth, honing in on the long pale scar. It’s only when his lip curls that I realize my mistake.
When I meet his gaze again, I gasp. It’s full of rage, pain, and grief. Anger alone would have been a boon in comparison to the look he’s giving me now. I jerk my hands away, blurting, “I’m so sorry!”
Either the abruptness to my voice, movement, or both startles him. He flinches, cowering on his side and raising his arms to cage his head.
I take a deep, calming breath and try to goad him into following me. “I have to go inside to call an ambulance. I need you to come with me.”
The sooner I get him inside, the sooner I can hopefully get a hold of someone on the landline— someone more qualified to help him.
He begins rocking again.
I bite my lip to stop myself from frowning. He looks so vulnerable. It’s heartbreaking to watch. I try using my cell a last time, meeting the dial tone as quickly as I dialed the number. I give up hope, rubbing my face in frustration.
I stand up, only to have arms wrap around my lower body and nearly take me off balance. He moved so fast, I barely caught a blur. “P-please,” he stutters, shaking so harshly that I fear he might knock me over. “No one e-else.”
Another sob racks his body and he clutches me harder. “It’s too much,” he cries.
My hand twitches.
My first instinct is to pry him off of me. The second, more overwhelming, is to hold him as tight as he holds me and soothe him as he weeps.
I don’t know why it even crossed my mind. I’m far from being a softy, but maybe it’s just because he appears so broken. If my past has told me anything, it’s that men like him are my weakness.
I close my eyes, half hoping when I open them the man at my feet will be gone. I know it’s selfish of me to think, but I still have healing of my own to be doing. I don’t think I can handle this.
When I open my eyes, he’s still present.
“Okay,” I speak softly. “No one else.”
After a long moment of feeling his trembling and tears as they soak into my pants, I give in to the desire to touch him. I rest my hand on top of his head, carefully running my hands through his tangled hair; he relaxes subtly.
Gradually, his form begins to shake less and less. The sobs, however, remain.