MRS. CHOI didn't bother looking up when I walked in the store again, even though the bells over the door jangled like mad. The shopkeeper, who had gone to school with my father, was purposely ignoring me. I couldn't very well blame her. I had been in and out a total of six times in the last seven, maybe nine, minutes.
Walking right by her, I strode quickly to the back of the store, which I had been in more than a thousand times in my life. It was the local hardware store, and being in construction - demolition - it was a place I frequented often. So it was crazy that I had flushed hot and cold within seconds and then had to grit my teeth through a surge of adrenaline only to feel an absolute sense of peace roll through me in the very next moment.
What the hell is going on?
"What are you doing?"
I snapped my head up and looked at Louisa Maberti, the ahir of the kettle of hawks, or the second of the flock, that I lead. The fact that she was also one of my best friends - so I trusted her not only with the ket but also my sanity - was a big fat bonus. At the moment, though, watching her lift one of her thick, dark eyebrows as she crossed her arms, I knew she was very concerned about what I was doing. I knew she'd have questions when I passed her for the sixth time in my back-and-forth madness.
"It's like watching a pinball from my cruiser," she said snidely. "What can you possibly need in here, Vy?"
I always thought of myself as short, but compared to the five-foot-four deputy sheriff, at five foot nine, I was huge.
"Vy?" she pressed.
Inhaling deeply, filling my lungs with the rich, smoky scent that was hovering around me, I closed my eyes a second and breathed it in.
"This is where you do that thing called speaking and don't make me dig," she said.
What to say?
"I hate digging. You know that," she said.
"Vy," she said, her voice rising shrilly. "I have a taser, and I'm not afraid to use it."
As hawks, if we weren't careful, sometimes we got a little screechy.
Clearing my throat, I looked her straight in the eyes and said, "I think I smell my mate."
Her mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. She looked good and stunned.
"Crap," I grunted.
She huffed out a breath, obviously trying to pull herself together. "I…. Your mate?"
"I think so," I said forlornly, feeling worse than I sounded.
She rushed up to me, grabbed my biceps, and stared up into my face. "Vy…. Kuar… you sense your mate… I'm so happy for you."
"No," I snapped at her, yanking free. "You feel the same way I do about it - like shit."
"I - "
I made the sound in the back of my throat, the scolding call all predatory birds made.
Taking a step back, she winced. "We knew this day would come. We did. And we're both, well, you're - " She gestured at me. " - prepared. I don't know if I ever will be."
Squatting down in front of her, I raked my fingers roughly through my hair.
"God, you're a mess," she said, chuckling, trying to divert me, using her hand to tousle my hair, trying to shake some of the dust loose. "You can't even tell there's blond under all this. What were you doing today?"
"We gutted the Coleman house; then we had to load it up and haul everything out."
She started picking tiny pieces of gravel out of my hair.
"Will you stop?" I pulled away, irritated at the whole world and knowing she was going to bear the brunt of it because of geography: she was closest. "You're driving me nuts."
She stepped back and crossed her arms again, which emphasized her muscle definition, the utility belt, and gun. The woman was not big, but people always forgot that. Criminals remembered Louisa Maberti as being tall and big and tough. They were always surprised when they saw her later and found she was not.
She could bring down a man twice her size. She knew pressure points, was a black belt in tae kwon do, and Lord help you if she drew her gun and had to shoot at you. Game over. In our small town of Elk River, Colorado, she was much scarier than Sheriff Davis, her boss. There were three employees in the sheriff's office altogether, but they called Lou when things got dicey. The sheriff was a pacifist, and Zach Westerman, the other deputy, was great as backup but not so scary out front. Lou did all the heavy lifting. What helped was that people never saw it coming before she had them in a choke hold on the ground. At first glance, the woman looked fit, but not fearsome.
When Lou wasn't in her uniform, she looked like the toned, buff Pilates instructor she also was. Every other weekend, at nine, eleven, and one, she taught class at Mike's Gym on Main Street. Her husband worked two weekends a month on a hotshot crew, battling forest fires. Instead of sitting home, waiting, worrying herself to death, Lou got out and did something. She knew going into the marriage that being a firefighter's wife would mean a life fraught with worry, but added to that was the man himself. He could have easily graced a month in a beefcake calendar if his wife would have allowed it. Fortunately, no woman in town was stupid enough to make a play for Carlo Maberti; not when his wife could kill them and make it look like an accident.
"… and don't take this crap out on me!" Her snarl brought me back from my drifting thoughts. "Oh for fuck's sake," she groused, throwing up her arms in resignation. "Were you even listening?"
"I am now," I sighed, smiling at her, standing up. "And sorry for being a dick. It's just, you know, I - I always thought when I met my mate I'd still be me."
She nodded, brows furrowed, trying to keep it together for me.
"I told you. We've talked about this a million times," I said.
"Yes," she croaked.
"What would you have done if your mate was a woman?"
"I don't know."
"Not that that could have happened, because why would it? Mating is about the natural order of things, and two women or two men - " The shot to my shoulder hurt. "What the hell?"
She pointed at me. "Don't you dare start quoting Sophia Aleknos. I don't like it. We both know your folks won't like it, and - "
"You can just say my grandmother," I grumbled, rubbing my left bicep where she'd hit me. "You don't have - "
"Sophia Aleknos ceased being your grandmother when she called the ket together and tried to have you first removed and then jointed."
I came out to my parents when I was fifteen. They had both announced that they had known for some time and were pleased I'd told them, but, really, beyond that, they couldn't have cared less. The similarity with the rest of my family stopped there. Because someday I was going to be kuar, or leader, of our flock, my grandmother and my Uncle Peti - my father's brother - his wife, my cousins, all of them said I owed it to the ket to try and be cured of my affliction. I was stunned. My parents weren't; they were livid.
When my mother stood up at that Thanksgiving dinner, incensed, ready to defend me, looking like she was going to rip peoples' heads off, my father slowly rose beside her. He took her hand in his, squeezed it gently, and smiled. I saw the tension drain out of her as my father gave his attention to the rest of the table. I had never seen his eyes turn hawk gold in his human face. I had no idea that could happen. Everyone, including me, went mute.
"My son will be kuar after me," he announced, and his voice was trembling with razor-thin rage. "And anyone who does not think him fit may leave my table and my ket… now."
The man had always been the strong, but very silent, type. The windfall of words from him, the way his voice stayed low and yet filled with anger, had been amazing.
Two weeks later, at our normal conclave, my father's ahir reported that his mother had called the ket together in secret, under false pretenses, and tried to rally the ket to turn on me. She wanted my father to replace me with my cousin Adomas and have him become kuar instead. And her plot only grew more sinister after that. Not only would I be removed from the line of succession, but my wing joint would be cut through as well. It would render me flightless in hawk form, and when I transformed back, my arms would be severed at the elbow. I was horrified and hurt. My father was furious.
He stood up in front of everyone, and his voice rose with his anger, seething, boiling, until it finally became a sharp, whiplike cry.
No, I would not be sent to a conversion therapy program!
No, the youth minister would not be asked for help!
No, the matter was not up for discussion!
And finally, anyone who had anything to say could shift and meet him in the sky for an individual challenge.
No one even breathed in the room. I had no idea two hundred people could be that quiet.
"If you joint him," my grandmother said, breaking the thundering silence, "then he would be disfigured. If he were, then perhaps men wouldn't want him, and I would never have to live through the horror of having a gay grandson."
"It could kill him," my father stressed to her.
"Better dead than gay."
And with that, he sent her from his ket, his house, and his sight forever. On the way home in the car, I had apologized to him, because she was his mother, and because of me he didn't have one anymore.
He stopped the car, got out, opened my door, and ordered me out. I stood on the side of the road, unsure of what was going to happen, and he grabbed me tight, crushed me to him, and kissed my hair.
"Your mother and you - that's all that matters to me. Never forget it. You will lead the ket. You love your family. We'll never speak of this again."
We never had.
Jecis Aleknos, my father, paid for my grandmother to go live with her sister in Philadelphia as well as for his brother Peti and his family to relocate to New Mexico. I knew, not from my parents but others, that they hadn't wanted to leave my father's flock. He was a good leader, a strong one, and there were benefits to being related to the kuar. But their feelings were known, and just looking at them made him sick. He was raising his heir and the child he loved; no one was allowed to be near me who could poison my vision of myself.
I never heard from any of them again, and my folks acted like they were dead. I missed having an extended family, but we had our ket, and my parents were beloved. Friends became family, and it was enough. My mother wished often that her folks had lived to see me, and I wondered if they too would have turned their backs on me for being gay. My mother was certain they would not have, and I liked to believe she was right.
"You're not listening to me!"
Again, my mind had drifted. I forced myself to focus on my best friend.
"I know you… wait." I watched her swivel toward the front door of the shop.
Slowly, she turned back to me. "You said the scent you're picking up in here, you think that's your mate?"
"No. I have never felt anything like this in my life. The first time I came in here I was instantly furious, and I only now figured out why."
"Because this whole place reeks of pheromones and - "
I gestured at her. "You see? You can't smell it because she's my mate and no one else's, so I'm the only one who's picking up her scent."
"So that's why I don't think I'm scenting my mate; I know."
"Walk me through it. First you were mad and then?"
"And what? You gotta delve?"
"Yeah, I gotta."
"My body is betraying me. Are you fuckin' happy?"
"Oh." Her eyes got big.
"Yeah," I snapped angrily, my emotions all over the place and impossible to control with the adrenaline pounding through me.
Being an out and proud gay man, my logical human side was confused, wary, and defensive. I no more wanted a mate than I did a hole in my head. I wanted to pick the people who shared my bed based on desire and compatibility. But the shifter in me, the hawk, the animal, had no interest in logic. The hawk wanted his mate, and nothing else mattered. I would go out of my mind if I didn't claim what was mine.
Her smell was everywhere in the back of the store, and I was incensed that my choices had been stripped from me, buried under an avalanche of lust, need, and hunger. I had never guessed such an intense animal craving could take up residence in my chest. I was the kuar. I was in charge. People lived and died on my word. But I was suddenly a slave to an ancient thirst that lived deep inside my blood.
"The irony here is if my grandmother had just waited, she would have had a straight grandson after all. Tell me that shit isn't funny."
Lou squinted at me.
"Remember when I said I was out there in the cruiser watching you come in and out of here like a madman?"
"Well, I've been out there for an hour, and I only saw one other person come in, and that was not a woman."
Lou's gaze locked on mine.
"What are you saying?"
"I think you know what I'm saying."
Brushing by her, I charged up to the front of the store and leaned over the counter to look at Mrs. Choi.
"I like your father, not you," she said bluntly, glaring at me from where she was sorting bolts on her desk.
"Yeah, I know," I placated her. "But, Mrs. Choi, I gotta ask: Besides me, who's been in here today?"
"Ma'am," Lou said pointedly, giving her the cop stare. "Please let's just answer his question."
Mrs. Choi took in Lou's dark eyes, the hard line of her pressed-together lips, the severe tight bun her hair was pulled into, and her crossed arms. "That biologist - botanist - whatever he is. He was in here to get a hammer and nails and some chicken wire. He said he found some wounded birds and didn't want anything to get at them while he was out collecting rock samples or water… I don't know. I wasn't really listening. He talks a lot. Smiles too. I don't like him."
The only important part of what she'd said was "him."
Suddenly my life made sense again.
"Do you know where he's camped?" Lou asked Mrs. Choi.
"No. But he said he needed a hammock, so I sent him to Ursula's."
The town was so small no one said the real name of anything. It was Mr. Sandoval's or Mrs. Choi's or Mr. Desmond's or Ursula's, who was on a first-name basis because everyone knew her. Ursula Bailey had been a bit wild when she was younger, and her overly solicitous reputation had followed her into adulthood. It might have been the five husbands that did it.
"Okay. Thank you," Lou said quickly. She turned me around and shoved me out the front door.
On the sidewalk, in the early October air, we stood and stared at each other.
"So," she said after what felt like several minutes. "Go over to Ursula's and see if you can find your mate."
"How weird does that seem?" I asked breathlessly.
"Who cares?" She sounded just as excited as I did. "If this is real - holy fuck, Vy… your mate. And he's a guy."
I patted her arm hard, and she nodded.
"You know," I said, my mind suddenly all over the place, "I really appreciate you always having my back, even when I'm a dick. It means a lot."
She shook her head. "Well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, but I will always be on your side. Good luck trying to get rid of me."
Between her, my folks, and my small, tight circle of friends, I was very blessed.
"Go find your mate, you idiot," she snapped.
After wheeling around, I started to cross Main Street toward the store where the man destined for me was supposed to be. My hands got sweaty and cold, and I flushed hot as I made my way there. I stopped halfway, frozen, my gaze riveted on the man in front of me.
He was loading the bed of a beat-to-crap Ford truck, and watching his muscles ripple under his shirt with every movement was an absolute treat. Never had I seen a more breathtaking man. His towering height, the breadth of his shoulders and back, the way his denim jeans hugged his long, muscular legs…. I was entranced. But more intoxicating than any other part of the man was how I knew, just at a glance, that he was mine.
It was hard to move, but I made myself, took steps, and closed the distance between us even though it felt like that weird thing that happens in the movies where the hall is suddenly stretched out, and the faster you run the longer it gets. His scent hit me before I could reach out and touch the truck. I stopped, watched him, and waited. Still loading supplies, he looked up, glanced around, saw me, and went back to what he was doing. Suddenly, he jolted and locked his gaze on mine.
I thought about oxygen, about making sure I was breathing, in and out, slowly, calmly, even though everything else in me was shutting down. Certainly if someone needed multiplication done at that moment, I would be useless.
"Hello," he said after a moment, his voice husky and low.
He had gorgeous deep-set brown eyes, short, tousled brown hair that was curling at the moment because it was damp, thick eyebrows, high cheekbones, and the kind of sharp jawline usually reserved for animated superheroes. I had never seen anything like him.
He cleared his throat and came around the back of the truck, inhaling deeply as he moved. His eyelashes fluttered a little, like he was enjoying whatever he was smelling, and I really hoped it was me.
"Hi," he greeted me for the second time, putting his hand out as he neared. "I'm Robert Cimino."
I nodded, getting angry with myself for how I was acting. I was the kuar of the ket, and no one had ever reduced me to such a weakened state.
"And you are?" he asked, stopping inches from me.
I took his hand harder than I needed to, and from the surprise on his face, I could tell he wasn't expecting it, wasn't thinking that a man easily seven inches shorter than his own six foot four would be so strong. He would learn that I wasn't some twink he could manhandle. I was his equal in all things.
He smiled kindly, laugh lines crinkling in the corners of his eyes. "I can see a whole inner dialogue going on."
I clenched my jaw so I wouldn't yell.
Gently, he slid his other hand over our clasped ones, took another step closer into my personal space, and breathed me in. "I thought… I was at the hardware store earlier," he began, "and I… you smell like juniper."
"What does juniper smell like?" I asked, the first words I was able to get out.
"It's like a woodsy, sort of sweet smell," he explained, his gaze all over my face. "It's nice."
He had a warm, earthy, crisp fall scent that I wanted to curl up next to. It was odd; my protective instinct had been triggered, but also something unfamiliar that resulted in a vivid image of me in the back of his truck, pinned under two hundred pounds of hard, muscled man. What the hell?
I did not submit; others submitted to me. So why was I suddenly breathless thinking about his hand knotted in my hair, about begging while I was bent over with my ass in the air?
"Can I - " he whispered, and then he bent forward, tipped my head sideways, and pressed his nose to the side of my neck.
I jerked back, scared of myself, not him, terrified of giving up control.
"Sorry," he said quickly. "I'm a bear, and even though I don't shift - ever - my base nature comes out sometimes."
"I get a little handsy."
"You shouldn't touch people," I scolded sharply without thinking.
"I know." He looked down, ashamed.
"Hey." I stepped toward him and put my hand on his shoulder. "I didn't mean it like - "
He glanced up and stared at me.
I wrinkled my brow, the change in topic taking me off guard. "What about my eyes?"
"That gold sure is pretty."
Gold? My eyes didn't turn -
"Can I get your name?" He slid his big, strong hand around my neck, holding gently but firmly, making escape impossible.
"Vytautas Aleknos," I answered. My chin snapped up involuntarily, and I felt my feathers puff up on the inside.
"Wow," he rumbled as he gently massaged the back of my neck and drew me closer. "That's a lot of name there. You got a shortened version?"
His grin fired his eyes and showed canines longer than the others, a sort of lopsided toothy grin that sent a sliver of arousal directly to my cock. His smile was warm and sexy. The vise on my heart and the knot in my stomach both eased.
"Vy," he repeated. "I like that."
He smoothed his hand down my forearms and over my hands. When I flipped my wrist and tangled my fingers with his, he gasped and then made a noise that sounded equal parts surprised, pained, and just plain horny. The next thing I knew, he yanked me sharply, almost off my feet, and dragged me around the side of the building. Once there, he rounded on me and shoved me into an exposed-brick wall.
"What are you - "
"I'm not sure what's happening, Vy, but you look… or smell familiar."
"I don't - "
"Why is that?" he growled. "Who are you?"
"I'm the one asking the ques - "
"Never mind," he huffed before slipping his hand under my chin and tipping my head back. "It doesn't matter. You can tell me later. Right now I want to kiss you."
And I would have argued because I was the one who said what something was or wasn't - no one else, just me. But then he bent and sealed his lips over mine and nothing else mattered but kissing him back.