“I don’t disagree with you, Mother. Clarissa is a very beautiful woman. But I’m not going to date her.”
Zev didn’t bother trying to hide the frustration in his voice. Honestly, how many times would he have to tell his family that he wasn’t interested in their setups? Exhaustion beating at him, he leaned against the back of the leather couch and rubbed his palms over his eyes. Sleep rarely came to him, and when it did, he remained partially alert, terrified of losing his humanity while he was unconscious. He was barely hanging on as it was; this intervention was the last thing he needed.
Grandma Mae’s voice broke into his thoughts. Her frustration with Zev had reached such a high level that she willingly questioned him, her Alpha, a practice unheard of in her generation. Then again, maybe it wasn’t just her frustration; maybe Zev’s attempts to bring their pack into modern times had been more successful than he’d realized.
“I don’t understand this, Zev. You’re thirty years old. Your grandfather and I had already been married for close to a decade by the time we were your age. It’s not natural or healthy for one of our kind to remain alone.”
As if that was his cue, Grandpa Walter jumped into the conversation. Had they drawn numbers in advance to determine the order in which to beat up on him?
“I realize you feel we’re intruding on your privacy, son, but any shifter with eyes can see the problems you’re having, and the reason is plain. Shifters are deeply sexual beings, but the…” Walter paused and swallowed hard, as if it pained him to continue the sentence. “The women you’ve been using to meet your physical needs are half-souls. They aren’t enough to bind your humanity, especially for this many years. You’re a strong man and a strong wolf, Zev, the strongest I’ve seen in my lifetime. But no shifter can outrun his nature, not that I understand why you insist on trying. Whatever the reason, if you don’t tie with a shifter soon, your human side will be lost.”
Did his family members actually think they were telling him something he didn’t already know? Their only error was underestimating his strength and determination. Though the idea of meeting his sexual needs with humans—or half-souls, as shifters called them—repulsed his family, they were certain he’d been making a practice of it. How else could he have lived with both his human and wolf sides intact for three decades? They couldn’t fathom a shifter living that long without sharing at least some physical bond.
Well, they were wrong. Zev hadn’t tied with anyone—human or shifter—in his life, whether they believed him or not. But for how much longer? Returning from the change was becoming more and more difficult, with his wolf clinging to its form, not wanting his human to take over. And the longer the wolf remained in control of their body, the less likely it was that the human would be able to find his way to the surface again.
“There’s no point in denying it, Zev. We know what you’ve been doing, and we don’t judge you.”
Though he trusted his father’s sincerity, Zev also knew he remained uncomfortable with the idea of a shifter engaging in sexual acts with humans. The only reason he accepted what he called Zev’s “oddities” was because the Etzgadol pack had grown steadily since Zev had begun his Alpha training, even more so since he had taken over as pack Alpha. And Zev had had equal success with the family business, which now earned an annual gross income that was more than double what it had been before Zev had taken over.
“Move your hands away from your face and look at us, Zev. This is serious. You cannot continue to choose this lifestyle. Your body cannot survive it.” Gregory Hassick’s voice tightened with worry.
Zev dropped his hands to his sides and opened his eyes, knowing they were bloodshot and surrounded by dark circles. When was the last time he’d truly rested? He combed his fingers through his hair and resisted the urge to yell. His family loved him. He knew that. And this conversation, no matter how misplaced, was a reflection of that love.
“How many times do I have to explain this, Father? I’m not choosing this. I hate being alone. I haven’t tied with any human women. I want to claim my mate more than anything.”
Lori scooted closer to him on the couch and took his hand. The new egalitarian pack structure Zev had put in place was helped tremendously by his strong sister. She led the pack females by example, and they all admired her. She couldn’t go against their elders, which was likely why Lori had agreed to take part in this little family gathering. But neither would she speak against her brother, so she remained silent and lent Zev support with her actions.
“Everyone wants a true mate, Zev,” Gregory told him. “But very few shifters get them. The rest of us fall in love and feel completely satisfied with our chosen partners. Your mother and I have been happy together for well over half of our lives without the mating bond. Please, it’s time to let go of childish fantasies and accept your fate. You haven’t been blessed with a true mate, but you can still live a full life. Just tie with Clarissa or one of the other females in the pack. What can it hurt to try? Best-case scenario, you find this true mate you insist exists. Worst-case scenario, you have more regular companionship and a proper tie.”
Zev couldn’t hold back the growl in his chest. He was tired of their constant refusals to acknowledge the existence of his true mate and their never-ending setup offers. His parents had long ago stopped pretending the offers were about dinner and a movie. Were his parents honest with these women about the purely sexual role they were expected to play in his life? Probably not. Nobody outside of his family knew the truth. Hell, even those within his family denied it, despite the fact that he’d been clear with them for years.
“Clarissa isn’t my true mate. And I’m not interested in her companionship.” He spat out his response, his tone expressing disgust with the very idea of their brand of companionship.
“Why not, Zev? Are her breasts too small? Is her hiney too big? Just talk to us, and we can help you. If the females in our pack aren’t satisfactory, we’ll find a female in a neighboring pack for you so you can make a physical tie.”
He winced. Now his other grandmother was engaged in the game. Had any other man ever faced an eighty-year-old woman offering him his choice of tits and ass? Dear God, please make it stop.
“I’m gay, Granny Betty. Any breasts at all are a deal-killer, and I haven’t ever paid attention to Clarissa’s, um, hiney.”
The diminutive gray-haired woman threw her hands in the air.
“Our kind can’t be gay, Zev. It just doesn’t work that way. A male shifter needs to tie with a female shifter in order to bind his humanity, and the female needs to accept that tie from the male in order to release her wolf. This is basic preschool information, dear.”
Zev dropped his head on top of his hands, which were crossed over his knees. Yeah, he was very familiar with their kind’s version of the birds and the bees. Every shifter’s soul straddled two bodies: the wolf and the human. Women were naturally connected to their human side, but their wolf side was locked away, unable to find the freedom to run. Males, on the other hand, had free rein of their wolf from childhood, but their hold on their humanity was tenuous. The only way for a male shifter to retain his human form was to tie to a female shifter and absorb a portion of her humanity. Likewise, in order for a female shifter to retain her sanity, she had to free her wolf from its cage, something that could be done only by accepting a male’s tie.
So, yeah, Zev knew the basic facts, but he’d long ago rejected the idea that they were absolute. Because to believe that would be to believe he was unnatural, which couldn’t be true, since he’d been blessed with the most precious gift nature could offer a shifter: a true mate.
Of course, he had told his family the reason he hadn’t tied was because he was waiting for his true mate. His male true mate. The first time he’d said the words to his parents, they’d been shocked. His father yelled so loudly at him that the windows literally shook, and his mother stood in the kitchen and cried. When Zev refused to back down, despite his parents’ protests, their feelings on the subject morphed into disgust, and they barred him from ever mentioning the issue again.
After several years passed without any female shifters in Zev’s life, his parents started to worry. They were too embarrassed to tell people about what they called Zev’s “condition,” but not knowing what else to do, they eventually relented and spoke to their own parents. All four of Zev’s grandparents insisted that they’d never heard of such a thing, and it couldn’t be true. So after that, Zev’s family grudgingly lived in a state of denial, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that he could actually be gay.
Sitting in his parents’ living room and fending off setup attempts made Zev realize there was a downside to empowering his pack to speak their minds—now, he was forced to listen to them. Maybe he’d have been better off leaving things as they’d always been. Then nobody, and certainly not a female, even if she was an elder and a relative, would dare speak to the Alpha in such a condescending way.
Zev dismissed the thought as soon as it entered his head. He was glad his family cared, glad his grandmother felt confident enough to question him, and glad members of his pack felt confident enough to share their feelings. The pack was stronger for it, even if it meant Zev had to endure this emotionally debilitating family intervention. He raised his eyes and responded to his grandmother.
“I will not seek companionship with anyone other than my true mate. You know only shifters without true mates can choose a life partner. A mated wolf can be tied to his humanity only by his true mate. So having sex with Clarissa or any of the other females in the pack won’t get the job done anyway. And despite what you think, I do, in fact, have a true mate. Our souls are connected at the heart; that’s not something a shifter can mistake. I can feel the bond all the way down in my bones.”
Oh, Zev had been confused at first, sure. The feelings he had didn’t make sense in the context of what he’d been taught. But no lessons, not even those that explained the very fabric of his kind’s makeup, could override the single most important truth that coursed through Zev’s body: the awareness of his true mate. So before he’d reached the end of his second decade, Zev had already accepted the idea that he was gay, despite the fact that it went against everything his pack thought was natural or even possible.
Zev looked at Grandpa Hugh and Grandma Betty, imploring them to help. They were the only true mated pair in the family, and one of the few true mated pairs in the history of the pack. Surely they understood the power of the bond. It was absolute. Zev could no sooner satisfy the need to tie with his true mate by tying with another shifter than he could satisfy the need to breathe air by inhaling water.
Hugh squeezed Betty’s hand and looked at Zev sympathetically.
“If you have a true mate, Zev, then you have a duty to her. She needs you in order to release her wolf or she will lose her mind. What if you’re abandoning your true mate, Zev? What if you haven’t found her because you’re not willing to keep an open mind about females?”
Zev rolled his eyes, too frustrated to care that it was an incredibly childish and disrespectful gesture. He often wondered whether his family would believe he was gay if he told them he’d long known the identity of his true mate. Maybe then they’d stop writing off his refusal to sleep with shifter females as some stubborn philosophical exercise.
But no matter how much Zev loved and trusted his family, he wasn’t willing to take that risk. Nobody would believe Zev if he identified Jonah as his mate, and the human would be perceived as a threat to the pack structure. The easiest way to eliminate that threat would be to eliminate the interloper. The basic principles of their kind were so ingrained, and so fundamentally based on the need for shifter males to tie with shifter females, that he feared harm could come to his mate if the pack knew the identity of the man destined to tie with their Alpha.
No, Zev couldn’t risk his mate’s safety. The only way for him to acknowledge Jonah’s role in his life would be to first tie with him. Then the mating bond would be complete, and nobody would be able to dispute their relationship. Or his sexuality.
“If my mate were anywhere within ten miles of here, my senses would pick that up. Blind dates aren’t how we find our true mates. But if you’re so concerned that I’m abandoning my mate, I’ll make you a deal. I promise to meet with whomever you want, on a platonic basis, to see if she’s my mate, and in return, you promise that when I do find my mate and make the tie, you’ll support the mating in every way.”
The relief in his parents and grandparents was palpable. All six of the tense bodies sitting around him relaxed, and smiles took over their faces. His sister squeezed his hand and winked at him. Zev was certain she’d known his mate’s identity nearly as long as he had, though neither of them had ever spoken the words out loud.
“Of course we will, dear. A mating is a blessing.” His mother’s pretty face shone.
“Even more so when it’s for the Alpha, because it unveils the heart of our pack,” Grandpa Hugh added with a wistful look on his face.
Zev knew the older shifter was likely remembering his own mating.
“You and your mate will be supported by us and the entire pack.” His father’s deep baritone voice left no room for debate. It was certain and sure. A vow.
Zev rose from the sofa, straightening all six feet seven inches and squared his shoulders.
“Then we have a deal. I’ll tie with my mate when the time comes, and you’ll stand behind us. No matter who she”—he looked pointedly at the faces of the seven people he loved most in the world, other than the man missing from the room, of course—“or he is. Good night.”
And with those words, Zev turned and walked to the front door, ignoring the growls coming from behind him. They’d given him their word, and it would bring unforgivable dishonor on their ancestors to go back on that vow, so he knew his family would keep their promise. As for the rest of the pack, it’d be a challenge, a possibly insurmountable challenge, even with both past Alphas and the current Alpha standing together.
A tie between two males threatened to disrupt everything the pack had been taught about a female’s connection to her human side and a male’s connection to his wolf side. And, as if the idea of two males accomplishing a tie wouldn’t be enough to cause widespread panic, Jonah wasn’t just a male. He was a human—a half-soul—not a shifter. And everyone knew that a shifter couldn’t tie with a half-soul.
But when the time came, the pack could either stand with Zev or find new territory. The Etzgadol pack land had belonged to the Hassick family for ten generations. And with his grandparents, parents, and sister by his side, Zev was guaranteed that he’d be able to continue that legacy. Even if it meant doing it while building a new pack to lead. And Zev knew if that was what it took to be with Jonah Marvel, he’d do it without a second thought. He’d do whatever was needed to claim and keep his true mate.
Zev walked out of his parents’ house and over to his truck, dropped his head against the door, and took in a deep breath, letting the fresh air cool his lungs. Standing up to his family once again and garnering their support for his future mating was all well and good, but none of it meant a thing if his mate didn’t return and accept his place in the pack beside Zev. If Jonah didn’t come home soon, Zev wasn’t sure whether there’d be a Hassick male available to lead the Etzgadol pack.
He looked up at the sky. The stars were beautiful out here. They sparkled above him, showing the spirits of those who came before. Come back to me, Jonah. Our spirits are intertwined, and my body cannot endure without its other half for much longer.
He felt the pain deep in his bones, the urge to shift and run. But he pushed it back, grateful that, at least for now, his human could still exert his will. His wolf was tired of waiting for his human to find their mate and the wolf wanted control of their form so he could go find Jonah and claim him. But their mate was long gone, well out of scent distance, and the chance of Zev’s wolf finding him before running into hunters or vehicles was slim.
Unless he claimed his mate, the time was fast approaching when his human would no longer be able to control his wolf. When that happened, the fear driving the intervention his family had staged that night would become a reality: Zev’s human would be forever lost. And without his human’s wisdom to limit him, Zev’s wolf would likely end his life trying to find his mate.
The black truck rumbled over the dirt and rock road, weaving through the trees and taking Zev from the family intervention at his childhood den to the place he’d been calling home for more than a decade. It was unusual for a shifter to live alone. His peers had remained in their parents’ dens until they’d found a chosen partner, and then they’d built new dens together, with cubs often following shortly thereafter. But Zev had moved out of the family home when he was eighteen, hoping a little distance would help curb his frustration over his family’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility that he could have a male mate.
The Etzgadol pack land encompassed thousands of acres abutting a national forest. In addition to being a place where the entire pack could run, the forest held the Hassick family ceramics business and the homes for his direct line. Every member of his family had equal rights to that land, so nobody could stop Zev from claiming a portion and setting up house. What his parents could and did do, however, was cut him off financially.
They hadn’t understood his desire to live alone; “unnatural” was what they’d called it. It might have been more meaningful if they hadn’t also used the word to describe his feelings when he told them he was gay. After all, his true mate was male and what could be more natural than the mating bond?
In any event, Zev’s parents had hoped to keep him in their den by withholding funds, but he had taken his tent, pitched it, and lived in the woods. He’d started working for the family business by then, so he’d lived off the land and saved almost every dollar he’d made until he had enough money in the bank to build a home, the home he planned to someday share with his mate.
Zev had been too young to tie back then. Oh, he was physically able, but shifters rarely tied until they were late in their second decade. So his wolf should have been satisfied to play and hunt, like his peers. But his wolf wasn’t satisfied and neither was his human. In fact, Zev hadn’t felt at peace since he was eighteen. Because that was the year he’d lost Jonah.
Zev flipped on the radio, hoping some loud music would help him stay awake. His neck felt like rubber, and he rubbed one palm over his tired eyes. His body had been hurting too much for him to have found peaceful sleep in way too long. The deep-seated ache that had been his constant companion since Jonah moved away twelve years earlier was partially to blame, but most of his restlessness was caused by the wolf pacing within him, trying desperately to get out. Zev hadn’t allowed himself to shift in three months.
His wolf had never gone that long without being free. In fact, Zev had always shifted more frequently and for longer periods than others. His mother bragged that it was because Zev’s wolf was so powerful. And maybe that was true. Zev’s wolf was bigger, stronger, and more acutely aware of his surroundings than the other wolves in the pack.
Gregory Hassick had started bringing Zev with him to interpack council meetings when the presumptive Alpha turned eighteen. It was part of the training, a way for Zev to learn what would be expected of him and to make connections with leaders of the other packs. Whenever he’d been introduced to those pack leaders, the shifters recognized the remarkable strength of Zev’s wolf. Some steered clear of Zev when they first sensed him, worried that he’d challenge them for control of their packs. But it never took long for them to recognize Zev’s fairness, to see that he had no desire to take what was theirs. And, as a result, he’d established some good relationships with neighboring packs over those twelve years, relationships that had already helped his pack and its members.
But the strength of his wolf was the very reason Zev could no longer allow him the freedom to roam. The fact was, Zev didn’t feel confident in his ability to rein that part of himself back in once it was released. So he’d been forced to cage his strong wolf. His family was right to worry about him. Three decades was too long for a shifter to go without tying.
He’d never expected his separation from Jonah to last so long or to be so difficult. When he’d figured out that Jonah was his mate on the eve of Jonah’s departure, he’d believed they’d be apart for only a few years and that those years would be interspersed with visits. No big deal.
Zev had grossly underestimated how much he’d miss his friend. He’d underestimated the ingrained need coursing through him to be with his mate. And, worst of all, he’d underestimated the length of their separation. When Jonah moved away that summer day twelve years prior, he tore a hole in Zev. And Zev was starting to wonder whether Jonah was ever going to come home to stitch that wound closed.