Authors: T. S. Joyce
“Because you’re cooking his people.”
“Oh my gosh! Is this offensive? I didn’t know! Do you not eat pork?” She scrambled to pull the skillet off the heat but Clinton stilled her with his hand on her forearm.
He chuckled a deep, warm sound that caused a fluttering sensation in her chest. “I’m teasing. I eat sausage all the time just to piss him off.”
Now her heart was the one hammering because she really thought she’d made a huge mistake. That and Clinton’s hand still rested on her forearm, his touch only separated from her skin by the material of her jacket. How could something not even touching her bare skin feel hot and cold all at once? Taking quick, shallow breaths like a panicked bunny, she slowly leaned her back against his chest. Clinton dragged the lightest touch up her arm, and she cursed the jacket she was still wearing, right up until he carefully pulled it off her shoulders. And then she was cursing her sweater since Clinton could only run a light touch over where her sleeve met her wrist, just a soft brush over her tingling skin. Was she being seduced right now?
She pulled the meat off the hot coil and turned off the burner before she turned slowly in his arms, too afraid to meet his gaze if this wasn’t what he wanted. Alyssa, on the other hand, had never wanted anything more than this—for him to let her in. It made no sense. He’d made it clear they were strangers, but something deep inside of her recognized him. Recognized his soul perhaps. Clinton didn’t feel like a stranger. He was that comfortable feeling of coming home after a long day of work.
Hands trembling, she ran her fingertips up his bare stomach, over his chest, and then slid them behind his neck.
“I don’t like touch.”
His eyes were wide, panicked, and hurt slashed through her chest. She moved to give him space, but he caught her wrists and held her in place, and now it was he who wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Someone hurt me.” Those words, whispered so quietly, almost an inaudible admission, blazed through her mind, creating a pain that spread through her body.
“Who hurt you?”
Clinton bit his lip and shook his head for a long time.
She cupped his cheek and stilled him. “Who?”
Oh, she didn’t like that. Possessive, protective instincts flared up in her chest. “How?”
A muscle twitched under his eye, and he murmured, “It’s too soon.” He took a step back, and the spell was broken.
Her palms turned to ice where his warmth left her, and she took an unintentional step toward him, chasing that comfort he’d given her. Clinton shook his head, warning her to stay put, and now he smelled like fur.
“I like touching you,” she said. “It feels right, but if you can’t, I understand. I’ll wait until you trust me.” She straightened her spine and infused steel into her voice as she promised, “I would never hurt you.”
Clinton huffed a breath as an empty smile took his face, like he didn’t believe a word she said. How heartbreaking that his mate had made him like this—so able to flip his emotions on and off. She hated the woman who had done this to him. Hated her with every cell in her body.
Alyssa had to know. “What happened to your mate?”
Clinton sauntered backward gracefully, looking more animal than man with the movement. “Amber? Amber’s dead.”
Clinton leveled her with feral, angry, mercury-colored eyes. “I killed her.”
Alyssa slammed her open palm against the countertop and pointed to him. “Don’t you fuckin’ do that, Clinton. Don’t you try to scare me.”
“I killed her,” he repeated, backing toward the door, but now he looked sick, as though he would retch.
“Tell me why.”
He shook his head, denying her, so she screamed, “Tell me why!”
“She was sick.”
“Her body was sick. It took a year of medicine. She smelled sick, tasted sick. She was going to die, and my handlers said I needed to save her.”
He showed her his teeth, and now his eyes were almost white. “IESA wasn’t the only one doin’ experiments.”
“No,” she choked out. She wrapped her arms around her stomach as his words curdled her middle. She’d heard all about IESA and their Menagerie.
“I was a breeder, and Amber was hired. They wanted to study the bond, study how different shifters fuck, study pregnancies, birth, the shifter kids, all of it. Amber got paid a lot of money to bind my animal to her.”
“You mean to force a bond?”
“Call it what you fuckin’ want. I might have fought her for a while, but she was my bear’s to protect, and I couldn’t heal her. When she got too sick to stand, they told me I had to try and save her, so I did.”
“What did you do?”
Clinton’s face crumpled, and he linked his hands behind his head. He gritted his teeth and made a long, pained keening sound. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do it.” He was close to the door now.
“Don’t you run. Don’t you tell me this much and run.”
“I bit her. I bit her. I didn’t want to claim her, and she smelled sick. Tasted sick.” He was repeating himself now. “The bear I gave her killed her instantly. It doesn’t work on everyone. I couldn’t Turn her. Not when her blood was so sick. I hated her and I loved her and I hated her and now I’m this…ugly…awful—”
“You stop it,” she gritted out through her streaming tears. “You stop it right now.” Alyssa ran to him and hugged him tight, wouldn’t let him go, wouldn’t let him run.
“Shhhh,” he whispered, like she was the one who needed comfort.
What an awful thing to carry. What a fucked-up thing to happen. “Tell me fast, Clinton. Tell me how she forced the bond.”
“No.” He shook his head, his rough cheek rubbing against hers. Rough on soft.
“Please,” she begged. This was Clinton’s chance to rid himself of the load he’d been carrying. “I’m a stranger, and I’m so good with secrets. There’s no risk in telling me.”
He huffed a heartbroken breath. “No risk? You’ll see the monster in me.”
“I want to. I swear I won’t run. I won’t think you’re a monster.”
Bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum
. His heart raced so fast against her cheek. He swallowed audibly and cupped his hand around her ear, like he didn’t even want the walls to know. “She was my first fuck, but I wasn’t willing. Not the first time, or the second, or the third. Not until my bear gave in and formed some sick bond with her. I went months in a room with her, no clothes, fighting her, hating her, hating the people on the other side of the window watching us, waiting for me to breed her. Amber was older and more experienced, and she got impatient. She didn’t get paid unless she put on a good show, so I was restrained and she went at me until I came. She called what she was doing to me ‘love.’ She said it wasn’t rape because I was a man, and she always got me to come. And eventually I was broken and disgusted and angry enough that I stopped fighting. And then every time I was with her, it was out of rage—at her and at the people watching on the other side of the glass. I was missing someone from my old life, but I had to stop thinking about her. They took everything.” His voice hitched. “Amber took everything, and now I can’t fuck a girl without hating her.”
Alyssa buried her face against Clinton’s chest and squeezed her eyes tightly to stave off the sob that filled her throat. He smelled of soap, fur, and something else so deeply familiar it made her head spin. She could almost reach a memory in the dark. Almost. It was on the tip of her tongue, and the boy from her dream flashed across her mind, like he was trying to help, but nothing was there. Nothing solid. It was air and gas, not even thick enough to constitute as fog.
Clinton cupped her face gently, like if he pressed too hard against her skin, she would disintegrate. “Can I try something?” he whispered, his churning eyes so open and vulnerable.
She smiled emotionally and nodded, gripping his wrists, desperate to keep his touch. After a second of hesitation, Clinton lowered his lips to hers and sipped softly. More familiarity. Maybe this is what it felt like to find her person. Her match. Clinton felt so important. She didn’t know how she knew, but he hadn’t shared this story with anyone else. Only her. He trusted her, and despite the soft snarl in his throat right now, she trusted him, too.
He pressed against her mouth harder, and she gasped at how good he kissed her, as though he knew just what she liked. When Clinton’s tongue brushed hers, she was done. A moan escaped her as she opened up wider and slid her hands around the back of his neck. Clinton tensed and huffed a frantic breath, so she released his neck quickly. His lips went soft again as he swayed side to side, sidling up to her, cupping her neck. Alyssa would have to be gentle with him. She would have to be careful not to make him feel trapped, and that was okay. Some deep well of instinct told her Clinton was worth the effort.
His erection was thick and long against her belly.
Clinton ran his fingers up her shirt, and his hands shook as he pulled her sweater over her head. He huffed a long, relieved breath as he looked at her boobs, cupped snuggly in her favorite black bra. His palms hovered just over her breasts, and God, she wanted to melt against him. She wanted to press forward and settle into his hands, but pushing a man who had endured what he had wasn’t right. Clinton stepped back, eyes panicked as he raked his fingers through his sandy-blond hair.
“I don’t want you to hate me,” she whispered.
His chest heaved with his heavy breath. “We should just make out.”
An accidental smile curved her lips—he was still trying for intimacy with her. “Okay. I’d like that.”
Clinton was already pulling her toward the couch, and before they’d even settled onto the cushions, his lips were on her again. He brushed a wayward strand of her hair out of her face and angled the other way, pushing his tongue into her mouth. He was blanketing her with that strange sensation of déjà vu again. She loved this, feeling normal. Since Clinton had baggage of his own, he wouldn’t judge her past when she admitted everything to him. She was safe here. Safe with him. Safe to lose herself in his kiss.
She never pushed him, always let him lead, and it would have to be like that until he gave her the signal he was ready for more. But as each minute passed, lost in their own little world, connecting in a way she’d never expected, she had to work harder and harder not to touch him or pull at his jeans.
His hands were steady at first, resting on her waist, then on her ribs, her neck, the back of her hair, her ass. But he was circling, and when he finally slid his fingers up her ribs to her bra and cupped her gently, she rocked her hips. Too soon, she knew. It was just a primal reaction to a sexy, muscled-up, brash, burly, tatted up, pierced, secret sweetheart. His body was calling to hers, drawing her closer to him with every smooth movement of his lips against hers. Clinton pulled her over his lap, and they both froze. Alyssa relaxed her legs over him slowly, settling into the straddle, resting against his erection.
“Are you okay?” she asked, ready to catapult back onto the couch.
Clinton sighed a shaky breath, and then a slight smile took him. “I think I’m good. I just wanted to see.” He brushed her long black hair off her shoulder and asked, “Can I see you?”
Heat shot into her cheeks, and the urge to run away was back. It was full daylight, and the cabin was well lit. But he’d exposed some very dark pieces of himself, and a part of her wanted him to see her, too.
She nodded and unsnapped the back of her bra. Eyes focused on her chest, Clinton hooked a finger between her cups and pulled slowly until the covering slid off her arms. And then he inhaled deeply and relaxed against the back of the couch, hands linked behind his head and a look on his face that made her feel beautiful. It was one of those looks that she’d waited her whole life for. One that said she was everything he wanted and needed. Emboldened by his stark approval, she slid off his lap and straightened, then unsnapped her jeans and shimmied out of them. Fighting the urge to cover her breasts, she stood there for him to drink in, clad only in her black cotton panties and hoping with all her heart that he liked the way she looked as much as she adored the way he looked.
“Come here,” he rumbled low, his eyes darkening to his human gray. He wore a proud smirk and held out his hand invitingly.
Her face was raw from his beard, her legs were trembling, and her panties were soaking, but she was excited for whatever he was ready for. Her skin was flushed, on fire, ready to be ignited further by his touch. No intimacy had ever been like this—so easy and natural. She’d never felt so brave.
“Can we try something else?” he asked as she slid her palm against his.
She nodded, waiting for an uncertainty that never came.
Clinton settled her onto the couch, her back against the arm rest. And ever so gently, he pulled her knees apart. He would see how wet she was now. Mortified, Alyssa closed her eyes, but was shocked when his lips pressed onto hers, and his weight pushed her into the cushion. For a moment, his hips settled into the cradle of her thighs.
“Are you on birth control?” he asked.
“Yes,” she rushed out, hope blooming in her chest.
“I probably won’t…I might not be able to…”
She smiled up at him and traced the tattoo across his collarbones. “It’s okay.”
His arm locked on the couch beside her, he slid his other hand down the front of her panties and pushed his fingers through her wetness. “Oooooh,” he moaned, rolling his eyes closed.
Clinton rested his forehead against hers and dipped his finger inside her. His hips rolled over her, and he pressed his lips to hers again. When he eased back, he said, “I feel okay.”
“No, I mean…feeling okay with you, doing this…it’s a really big deal. I don’t want to push, though. I want you to think back on this and touch yourself to it later. Not get scared away from me.”
“What do you need from me?”
Clinton pulled his hand from her panties, slid away from her, and unfastened his jeans. He relaxed onto the opposite side of the couch and gave her a wicked smile as he lowered his pants enough to unsheathe his massive dick. “Touch yourself.”
“Tell me you haven’t for another man.”
“Good. Do it for me.” Clinton dragged a long stroke of his erection and flexed his hips as he let off a satisfied rumble deep in his chest.
Stalling, Alyssa took a long drag of oxygen. This was something she did in the dark of her room, not in broad daylight in front of company.
But it’s Clinton. It’s him.
Clinton pulled at his long shaft again, and she couldn’t take her eyes off the motion. God, he was sexy, abs flexed, thick shaft swollen and ready, the head of his cock tipped with a drop of moisture already. She could do this for him. He was right there, doing it for her.
Alyssa slipped her palm down the front of her panties and squeaked in embarrassment as she ran her finger along her folds. Clinton’s fiery eyes were glued to the movement there, his look so intense his nostrils flared as he pulled another stroke, matched her pace.
“Wanna see,” he said gruffly.
Okay. Be brave! Alyssa pushed her panties down her legs, then looked up at the ceiling to gather her courage before she relaxed her knees apart.
“In,” Clinton begged.
He was stroking himself faster now, harder, and for a moment, she imagined how fulfilling it would be to watch him come all over his chest. How fulfilling it would be to hear him cry out and grit his teeth, eyes on her as he finished. Revved up, she touched herself again, and now Clinton’s hips were jerking as he worked himself closer to release.
She dipped her finger inside of herself, and Clinton whispered, “Fuck,” an instant before he was on her. He pulled her hand away and settled between her legs. “Is this okay?” he asked. “Are you okay? It’s not too fast?”
He needed her spoken consent, and she got it. He’d been hurt. Abused, and he was determined to never make her feel helpless like he had.
“I want you inside of me,” she said on a breath.
Clinton’s lips crashed onto hers, and his teeth scraped against her bottom lip, just like the boy in her dreams had done to Shae. The sensation of familiarity was dizzying, but the second the head of his cock pushed into her, she lost her senses completely. It was just her and Clinton here together, and now he was looking right into her eyes, the panic gone from his face, and she knew she had him. All of him. Amber wasn’t in his head right now. Only her—Alyssa.
Clinton’s triceps bulged, and his abs flexed as he rolled his hips and slid all the way into her, deep enough to fill her and touch her clit. “Clinton,” she whispered, arching her back.