“Why don’t you put your pants back on,” I suggested roughly, my eyes darting to the hall leading to the kitchen, waiting for Laura to reappear. Something told me she hadn’t gone very far.
Without turning his back on me, Gabe eased back around to pick up his jeans from the ground behind the other couch. He held my gaze as he reached down and dragged his jeans up his legs and strangely, that actually helped to calm me a little. Gabe was treating me as you would a threat, someone to be watched and be wary of and I knew that was a sign of respect.
I lowered the poker, letting it point towards the floor, but not letting it go completely.
“Sorry.” The word seemed inadequate, but it was all I had.
“No problem,” Gabe answered, his voice low and even. “It was my fault, sorry. As we told you, we’re the same being, no matter what form we happen to be in at the time and I reacted to my sister without thinking. I can see how that would’ve been a little intimidating.”
Shaking my head, I scanned the room again, unable to keep my gaze still. “No, it’s not that,” I said, distracted. “Flashback.”
Gabe’s expression darkened at my revelation. “They had a wolf with them? A wolf that hurt you?” Under different circumstances, I’d have been alarmed to have that tone aimed at me, the deep, even inflection doing nothing to hide the menace lurking below the surface. But I knew it wasn’t me he was angry with.
“Yeah,” I said, finally able to look at him. “Seeing you reminded me. I must’ve blocked it out. It was pretty terrifying.”
“I’ll never hurt you, Em. On my life,” he vowed.
“I know.” And I did. This man, for whatever reason, would protect me with his life, of that, I had no doubt. I should probably be more concerned I was so trusting of a total stranger.
“Is it safe to come in?” Laura’s voice called from the kitchen.
Gabe looked at me, waiting for my answer. With a final deep breath, I lowered the poker all the way and relaxed my stance.
“Yeah, for now, but I can’t promise I’m not going to freak out again unexpectedly,” I called back to her.
Laura rushed back into the room and headed towards me with purpose, as if she were going to hug me, but my hands instinctively flexed their grip on the poker where it rested at my side and she stopped, obviously rethinking her action.
“Emma, I’m sorry. That was my fault, I should’ve stayed away. Forgive me?”
Forcing myself to relax, I tried to flash an encouraging smile, but from her unchanged expression, something told me I missed the mark.
“It’s fine. Seems like I have a bit of a hair trigger, is all. I’ll know to be more careful next time.”
“We’ll know to be careful next time,” Gabe responded with a meaningful look. It was nice that it wasn’t all on my shoulders, even though I was the cause of the drama.
“Maybe we should sit down and try again,” suggested Laura as she moved to take her seat again on the other couch. Gabe stayed standing where he was, waiting for me to move, to decide how I was going to react. Sighing, and starting to feel ridiculous holding on to the poker in my hand, I leaned over to put it back, before walking around to sit once more. Only after I was settled did Gabe move, and though he also came back and resumed his position next to me, this time he kept his distance, giving me the space I needed to calm my jumping nerves.
We all seemed to be at a loss after that, none of us really knowing where to start. The more I thought about it, the more overwhelmed I started to feel, the ever-present, oppressive blackness hovering above me, waiting for a chink in my armor to be able to come in and take me down.
Before we could start talking again, there was a loud pounding on the door. Someone seriously wanted to come in. Jeez, the pounding was so loud I started to feel like one of the three little pigs and someone was about to huff and puff our little house down if we didn’t let them in. Considering the company I was keeping, it seemed kind of apt. Thankfully, by sheer force of will, I managed to contain my amused snort at the mental imagery.
Laura, who’d jumped when the banging had first started, exchanged a look with Gabe, then got up to answer the door. Gabe was also on his feet, not so subtly putting himself between me and the entrance.
After glancing over to see where everyone was positioned in the room, Laura opened the front door, leaving the screen door closed between her and the person on the other side. From where I sat I couldn’t see who was there as Laura had angled herself to shield as much as the room behind her as possible.
“Douglas,” she said, her tone not particularly welcoming.
“Laura,” a gruff voice sounded from the other side of the portal. “I’m here to see Gabe.”
Looking up at Gabe’s unkempt appearance and man scruff, I almost laughed aloud. If there was a wolf at the door demanding entrance, he wasn’t getting in by the hair on Gabe’s chinny-chin-chin. Also, we already had a wolf on this side of the door. One and a half if you counted me. Oh god, I was losing it for sure.
“Now’s not a good time, sorry. I’ll get Gabe to call you to set up a meeting.” Before Laura could close the door, Douglas’s voice cut through, subdued, but filled with menace.
“I’m not asking, Laura. I’m here to see Gabe, and I’m not leaving ’till I do.”
Despite the levity of my thoughts, a shiver ran down my spine. Here was a man that thought he was dangerous, which sometimes, could be worse than someone who actually was dangerous. Because people who only think they’re dangerous are often the ones who feel like they’ve got something to prove.
“It’s okay. Let him in.” The air of command was unmistakable in Gabe’s voice. Gone was the goofy, immature flirt, in his place was an alpha, someone who was assured of their command and ability to back up their threat.
Laura stumbled to the side as a great, hulking giant of a man opened the screen door and pushed his way in. With the light behind him, I couldn’t make out much of his features, only that they were harsh and lines were abundant on his face, as if he frowned a lot. His jaw was covered with a wiry beard and his eyes were overshadowed by his bushy eyebrows. His dark hair was long, held back in a ponytail at the back of his neck. I noticed as he moved further into the room that he was so large, he topped Gabe by a few inches, and I was pretty sure that Gabe was at the taller end of the species. Douglas stepped forward, in Gabe’s personal space, but not so close as to warrant a shove back, clearly trying to use his considerable height and girth to intimidate.
Gabe didn’t budge an inch and from what I could see of his face, he managed to look bored. Impressive.
“What can I help you with, Douglas?” Gabe crossed his arms over his chest and waited for the mountain to speak.
“I’ve been hearing rumors, Gabe. Ugly rumors and I’m here to see what you’re doing about it.”
Gabe nodded as if this made sense, speaking calmly. “I’ve got it under control.”
“Really,” Douglas sneered. “Because from where I’m standing, you’ve got control of shit.”
The sound of a snort filled the room and everyone turned to look at me. Oops, I let that one slip out.
“Did I say something funny, bitch?” If Gabe hadn’t been standing firmly between us, no doubt Douglas would’ve stepped forward to try using that size to intimidate me as well.
Well, no backing down now. Besides, I had this vague thought that you’re supposed to stand up to bullies?
“Yeah, you did. I should certainly hope Gabe’s got control of shit. Isn’t that one of the things most people learn as a baby? To control their bowels?” I looked upward, pretending to ponder the issue. “Otherwise he’d be pretty unpleasant to be around.”
Gabe rolled his eyes and turned back to face Douglas, who was looking at me in confusion. Awesome, he was an idiot as well. Laura was frowning and shaking her head at me. I didn’t need her advice, it was already pretty clear it was stupid to provoke angry giants, but apparently, the new me was made without a brain/mouth filter.
Douglas gave a dismissive shake of his head and decided to stop wasting time trying to figure out what I was talking about, turning back to Gabe with a glower.
“What is that thing doing here? Why haven’t you killed it yet,” he snarled, stabbing a finger viciously in my direction and bending forward to get in Gabe’s face. Who, other than raising an eyebrow, didn’t react.
I, however, was not quite as disciplined. It? That thing? Yeah, this guy was just plain rude.
“Hey, asshole, what’s your problem?” My belligerent demand echoed through the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Laura lay her head in her hand.
“You want to know what my problem is, bitch?” Douglas stressed the last word to really grind in the insult. All things considered, I was pretty sure he was a wolf himself, so does the term ‘bitch’ really still have the same amount of power? The behemoth continued, interrupting my inner musings, stabbing a massive, sausage-like finger in my general direction to emphasize his point.
“My problem is you! You’re an abomination who shouldn’t be breathing, let alone sitting there taking tea like a lady of the manor.”
“Are you blind as well as stupid?” I asked cooly, as if I were called an abomination every day of my life. Though I was acting unruffled, a boiling rage was building inside me. Unlike before though, when I’d attacked Sam, or earlier in the kitchen, I was calm and in control. Almost clinical. “Do you see any teacups around here? I’d be surprised you know such a big word like ‘abomination’, but I’m pretty sure that’s the first thing they teach you in redneck racist school, isn’t that right, Jethro?”
Douglas lunged, trying to shoulder past Gabe, who held him back. Thwarted, he obviously decided to settle for words to express his displeasure, since beating me senseless wasn’t an option. “You fucking cunt! I’m gonna rip your throat out and fuck your corpse as you bleed out. We’ll see how smart you’re talking then.”
Standing slowly, I tilted my head to the side slightly and stared unflinchingly into his eyes. I had no plan and didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but it felt right, so I went with it.
Taking one step forward, then another, stalking ahead till there was only a hair’s breadth between my chest and Gabe. Until I was almost touching his arm muscles, bulging with the effort he was using to keep the behemoth back. As tall as Douglas was, the top of my head didn’t even reach his shoulders, but I refused to tilt my head up to look at him. Instead, my eyes were raised till I was looking at him from beneath my brows. The staring continued and my fingers started to burn, but I ignored that, pushed the sensation down. No, that’s not what I needed now, not the weapon I needed to use in this battle. Not only did I not want to tip my hand (no pun intended) to this guy, but I needed something subtle, something to grab his attention and make him worry, not an out and out challenge.
Time seemed suspended as I stared the great hulk of a man down. My eyes burned with the need to blink, but I refused to give him the satisfaction. Then the burning in my eyes changed slightly and so did my vision. The room was clearer, my peripheral vision wider. I was more attuned to movement and because of that, I was able to see Douglas’s slight jerk, his quick blink of surprise and his eyes darting away even as he started to growl.
“You can try,” I responded softly to his threat of raping my dead body.
I knew then two things. One, that I’d won the confrontation and for now, through force of will, shown myself to be dominant. Though something told me Douglas wasn’t the kind of guy who would sweat the hierarchy if he managed to catch me by surprise one day. More likely he’d beat me to a bloody pulp, rather than acknowledge my superiority.
The second thing I was sure of; I’d made a dangerous enemy. I was also pretty damn sure there’d be others who would feel the same way as Douglas.
The sound of the kitchen door opening in the hall caught my attention, though I didn’t dare take my eyes off Douglas, where he still strained against Gabe’s hold. In my peripheral vision, I caught James walking into the room. James, Gabe’s best friend, one of the top dogs in the pack and all ’round pain in the ass. One of those irritating men that had good looks, charm and an overabundance of personality that bordered on smugness. But you couldn’t help but like him.
“Douglas, my man.” James’s voice boomed through the room, breaking the silence. “I’m pretty sure that’s your cue to leave. As always, it’s so nice to have you visit, but as you can see, we’ve got our hands full. So you’re going to have to excuse us.” As he spoke, James walked through the room, clapping his hands once and rubbing them together as if he couldn’t wait to physically manhandle Douglas out the door, even though the other man had a few inches and a lot more bulk than James.
Douglas dismissed me and glared at Gabe, but not meeting his eyes in direct challenge. “This isn’t over,” he muttered as he turned to precede James out of the room.
“You’re right,” said Gabe in a calm voice. “You better think again before you come into my home and insult my guests. Because the next time you do, instead of letting my guest handle your insult, I’ll personally teach you a lesson in etiquette.”
Snarling, Douglas pushed past Laura again and slammed the screen door closed behind him. James followed him to the door and stood to watch the other man leave, staying where he was until we all heard the unmistakable sound of squealing tires.
“Well, don’t you just know how to make friends,” James said cheerfully as he turned to look at me.
Gabe, who was beside me, simply turned his head down to look at me with an inscrutable expression on his face. Shame filled me at my lack of control and I looked down at my feet, my hair falling forward to cover my face. There was a beat of silence and I peeked up, glancing through the brunette strands, trying to gauge just how angry he was.
“Will you two please give us a minute?” Gabe’s asked the others without looking away from me. I saw Laura glance at me with a worried expression as she nodded and headed towards the kitchen, James following silently after.
There was a soft swishing noise as the door to the kitchen closed behind them. Bracing myself, I knew I had to be an adult and face up to my less than mature actions. With a fortifying breath I turned, tilting my chin to face Gabe squarely, ready to hear his reprimand. Shifting his body as well, he faced me, he muttered, “I’m sorry, I have to do this right now.” Without further warning, he framed my face in his hands and bent his head down, slanting his lips over mine in a hot, demanding kiss.
What. The. Hell? The heat of his hands burned my face, but that was nothing compared to the heat that flared to life in my lower body as Gabe ruthlessly took my mouth. There was no hesitation, no gentle coaxing, just raw passion that made me think naughty thoughts of unadulterated sex. And I was all for it.
Grabbing his wrists to keep my balance, I kissed him back with abandon. Other than his hands on my face, Gabe didn’t touch me and made no move to get closer. In a distant part of my brain, I registered the controlled strain in his stance, the muscles of his forearms tensed and corded as he seemed to fight himself closing the distance between us.
But the majority of my attention was focused on our mouths, meeting, again and again, tongues clashing, teeth nipping at lips, breathing ragged. I was so turned on by a simple kiss and his amazing talent that unbidden, images of Gabe using his amazing kissing techniques on more southern parts of my body burst into my mind. A shudder of lust ran down my spine and it was all I could do not to throw him on the ground and have my way with him.
With an effort, Gabe ripped his mouth away, resting his forehead against mine, eyes closed, trying to catch his breath. I had no idea why he stopped, but I really wanted him to pick up where he left off.
“Sorry,” he said after a few seconds, his deep voice still a little breathless. Releasing my face, he stepped back and my hands fell away from where I’d been holding his wrists. He watched me cautiously as if waiting for me to slap him, which I probably should do, but my bell was still ringing from that kiss, so I couldn’t muster up the energy.
“What?” I asked with a blinding lack of intelligence.
Gabe grinned and looked pretty pleased with himself until I narrowed my eyes and frowned at him. Then he was smart enough to wipe the look of smug satisfaction off his face.
“That wasn’t how I expected you to react,” I managed to say when I finally got my brain working again.
“Yeah, sorry if I came on too strong there,” he said, though funnily enough, he didn’t sound particularly contrite. “I just couldn’t help myself. You have no idea how unbelievably sexy you are, do you?”
“Being a smart ass with no self-preservation instincts is sexy to you? God, how have you managed to keep your clothes on around me?” Acting as if a thought suddenly struck me, I tilted my head to the side. “Oh, wait…” Before I could make a snarky comment about him being naked only minutes earlier, Gabe crossed his arms over his chest and I was momentarily distracted by his biceps flexing, drawing attention back to the fact that he hadn’t put his shirt back on.
“Haha. Yeah, you’re a smart ass alright, but no. You standing up for yourself? Backing that fidiot down using nothing but words? That was unbelievably hot.”
“Fidiot?” Confusion covered my face.
“Fucking idiot,” Gabe clarified.
Feeling my face clear with an ‘oh, right’ expression, I analyzed Gabe’s words. I’d honestly expected him to blow up at me for intentionally inciting Douglas’s anger, so Gabe’s approval came as something of a shock. What I’d done was not only rude, it was just plain stupid. Yeah, okay, the guy had come in insulting me and calling for my death, but that didn’t mean I had to respond with scorn and sarcasm. At least not straight away. Probably would have been smarter to at least figure out if the fidiot was going to be a genuine threat before I made him an enemy.
“Oh shit,” my voice came out on a rushed breath as I had a new thought. “What if he goes to Clayton, tells him where I am?”
Though it hadn’t yet been confirmed the mysterious Clayton had been responsible for my kidnapping and the subsequent experiments and torture I’d endured before I’d escaped and found Gabe, it was easier at this point to assume he was. Because if he was the one who’d hurt me, even indirectly, then I finally had some answers, or at least an idea of motive. If it had been someone else, I was back to square one and I wasn’t sure my sanity could take it.
Before I could start to hyperventilate at that the thoughts racing through my head and images of being recaptured, Gabe took a step forward, grabbing my shoulders with his big hands and giving a little shake so I’d look up at him.
“Not gonna happen, Em. You heard the man; he thinks you’re an abomination. So how do you think he feels about Clayton and his research?” Gabe’s logic cut through my panic and I started to see sense. “Trust me, if Douglas ever met Clayton, he’d try to kill the bastard. You were pretty damn spot on with your assessment of Douglas, you know. He’s a racist prick, believes in the purity of the species and all that crap, thinks we shouldn’t be consorting with humans of any kind, not even our human families. The guy’s a nut job, but unfortunately, he’s third in the pack, so he feels he has some power.”
“Does he?” I asked.
Gabe shrugged it off. “Not enough to be of consequence. But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s probably going to try and make trouble. Doesn’t matter though, because you’re under my protection. We’ve got your back.”
“Good to hear. I’m sorry if I exacerbated things just now. Apparently, my survival instinct is all fucked up. I prepare to fight when I don’t need to, or when it’s just plain stupid to even contemplate a win. I’m hoping that’s only a temporary thing.” The rising defeat I felt came through loud and clear in my voice and Gabe moved forward, gently, slowly enfolding me in a hug.
Standing stiffly, I wasn’t sure how to react. Part of me was desperate to push myself as close to him as possible, to have his arms wrapped tight around me and just be held against his warmth.
But there was a large portion of my brain that swam with memories of what had happened to me before, of all the other times I’d had someone bigger and stronger than me so close, with less than pleasant results.
That portion of my brain made me skittish and unable to just let go and accept the comfort Gabe offered. Stupid, considering only moments before I’d been on the verge of getting naked with him, which definitely would have led to further closeness between us. But shit, emotions, fears, phobias, they weren’t particularly logical, right?
I had to give Gabe credit for being smart, though. He offered me support and affection with the hug, but kept his touch feather light and unthreatening. I knew if I really wanted to, I’d be able to break away with a minimum of effort.
I much preferred to get back to the lighter atmosphere we’d managed to maintain for almost five whole moments. You know, before Gabe had stripped naked and gotten a little too friendly with my chest, freaking me out. Not to mention the arrival of the angry redneck, accusing me of being an abomination and threatening to do unspeakable things to my corpse.
Pushing away gently, I wracked my brain for some smart-ass comment to break the tension. Typical, the one time I could really use a sarcastic quip and I was coming up empty.
“Come on,” said Gabe gently, and gestured with his head towards the kitchen. “Let’s go save Laura from James.”