Authors: T. S. Joyce
He wasn’t slow or methodical like some of his kisses had been. Clinton was gone, too, thrusting into her with pure power and determination. His arm snaked around her lower back, and he drew her closer. He wasn’t pulling all the way out, but staying deep, pumping his hips just right to hit her clit over and over, faster and faster. God, he felt so good inside of her.
Orgasm crashed through her, and she was careful not to claw up his back like she wanted too, just in case that was a trigger for him. Clinton grunted and bucked into her faster, then froze and gritted out a long, sexy snarl as his dick throbbed inside of her. Pulses of warm seed filled her as he thrust into her erratically, encouraging more of her own aftershocks.
Clinton buried his face against her neck and murmured in a desperate voice, “I missed you. I missed you so bad.”
And she got it. She’d been waiting her whole life for someone like him to come along, too. She’d missed out on every other moment like this with her exes because they weren’t special. They weren’t Clinton. They weren’t her match.
And as he relaxed and slowed his pace, took his time drawing another orgasm from her, the words he’d chanted were so perfect. They felt so right.
She laid a gentle kiss on his neck and whispered, “I missed you, too.”
The silence was beautiful as Clinton pulled his shirt on and smoothed it over his stomach. For the first time in as long as he could remember, his bear wasn’t snarling and ripping at him, begging to fight, begging to brawl. His mouth ticked up in another smile, and he reveled in how good that felt.
Being with Shae wasn’t the anger fucking he’d done with Amber. There wasn’t hatred or fear, or wishing the drugs were out of his system so he could Change and protect himself from what was happening. With Shae, it was so natural. So good. He felt…happy.
She hummed under her breath as she made biscuits and sausage gravy from scratch. He’d tried to help, but she’d waved him to the table and told him she wanted to cook for him.
He loved her.
That thought drew him up short and banished the smile from his lips. Loved her? What a terrifying thought. Love meant pain. Maybe not in the beginning, but love always ended up the same. Broken. Was he even capable of that emotion anymore? Maybe.
He couldn’t believe what she’d done for him. She would never know the full extent, but he’d never made love before. He’d only fucked. And in her arms, he’d been safe. No one was watching, no one was judging, and Shae had worn that look in her eyes that said that deep down inside of her memories, he was still there. Her childhood love. The Clinton he wished he still was. The only place the unbroken side of him lived was in her mind, and there was something beautiful about that. He liked the thought of Shae protecting the boy he’d been.
He should tell her who she was.
Ticking a sound behind his teeth, he fought the urge to flip the table and hated himself just for thinking about telling her the truth. If she found out how royally she’d been lied to, by her parents, by him, she would leave and never come back. And now that wasn’t acceptable anymore. Not after what they’d done together. She didn’t know because she was human and didn’t have his animal instincts, but she’d bonded them better than Amber had ever managed. Or maybe he’d never broken the bond with Shae like he’d thought. Maybe the bond had been sitting in his shredded heart all these years, waiting to be strengthened by her healing touch again.
Clinton pulled at the neck of his T-shirt to make it easier to breathe. She would need more time. He had to be a patient hunter if he was going to convince her to stay with a fuck-up like him. She’d fallen in love with the good Clinton all those years ago. She didn’t know him now. Would be disappointed in how far he’d fallen. In how weak he’d become. She would see him act out in an effort to keep his bear steady and would see the disappointment in the Boarlanders’ eyes. She would watch him spiral, because that’s what he did. And a woman like Shae wouldn’t put up with the shit he pulled. He had to figure out how to get better, fast. He had to show her he could be good again someday if only she would stay and push him in the right direction. If only she would stay and stitch his fucked-up, shattered heart back together one tattered piece at a time.
She could banish Amber and all her poison from his mind if only Shae would stay here with him.
He’d hated women for a while, and he hadn’t wanted them at the trailer parks where he’d lived. He’d bounced from crew to crew avoiding the couplings, and now, after a few days back in Shae’s presence, he wanted to draw up and face the world to keep her safe again. He wanted her close where he could protect her. Where he could adore her. Where he could see the smiles on her face and hope he’d caused them.
“Can you meet my crew?” he asked, feeling like a jackass for what he was really asking. Shae still deserved better, but maybe someday, if he worked long enough, and hard enough, he could give her a happy life.
“I met them yesterday,” she said in a happy tinkling voice. It was so strange comparing her to the girl she used to be. Shae had changed completely in some ways, but was utterly the same in others. It was fun peeling back her layers now.
“I mean, I don’t want you to leave, so maybe could you meet with my alpha.”
Shae pulled the pan of gravy from the burner and frowned over her shoulder at him. “For what?”
Just say it you coward.
“I don’t want you to go. I want you to meet with Harrison so I can ask him if you can stay in ten-ten.”
“An old singlewide trailer. It’s special, though. The mates have all stayed there. Bash swears it’s magic. Good luck and all that shit.”
Oh, right. “The girlfriends and wives. They’re called mates.”
“O-oh.” Shae blinked those big, gorgeous hazel eyes, then turned away from him, back to her work at the stove. He hadn’t missed it, though—the smile right before she’d hidden her face from him. “That would be okay. I can ask my boss for a few more days off.”
“Okay.” But in a few days, he was going to ask her to stay a few more, and a few more after that, and then forever. For Shae, this would all be fast, but for him, he’d been hers since he was ten.
“I should tell you something.”
There was darkness in her voice and he wanted to kiss her, make her feel better. “Tell me anything.”
I mean, goddamn, she absorbed your secrets and went straight to healing you.
Shae could tell him she was a bucktoothed cannibal were-gopher, and it would only make him like her more.
“I had an accident…”
Oh shit, here it was, and now he felt like grit.
“I was eighteen, and I got lost in the woods. Fell down some big ravine and hit my head. I was in a coma for a while, and when I woke up, I couldn’t remember anything from before. Nothing.” She cast him a quick glance over her shoulder, and that helpless expression drew him to her.
Clinton approached her slowly, then slipped his arms around her waist from behind and rested his chin on her shoulder.
“So, I had a really hard time after that. I didn’t remember my parents or any of my friends from before. I remembered how to read, talk and walk, and all of the things I needed to function, but everything else was just gone. Just…poof.”
She laughed out the saddest sound, and it gutted Clinton. It had been his idea to lie, his idea for her parents to give her a new name and a new life far away from here, just in case the International Exchange of Shifter Studies reneged on their deal and came after her again. Hell, it had been his fault she’d been taken in the first place.
“So anyway, I’ve had trouble holding down relationships because I just don’t have that much history. I have no memory of my childhood. I woke up at nineteen, three weeks after my birthday, and I was a blank slate.”
“That’s okay with me.”
“You say that now—”
“I’ll say it always. It’s okay.”
She blew out a shaky breath, and her shoulders relaxed. “I like the way you handled it.”
Crap, was he too flippant? “What do you mean?”
“I mean, most of the time when I admit that to someone, they don’t know what to say and get really uncomfortable, but you just, I don’t know. You just took it in stride and were okay with it. So, thanks for that.”
Her cheeks swelled with a smile, and he nuzzled his beard against her neck, drawing a breathy giggle from her lips. The sound settled his snarling bear.
Growing serious as she made two plates, he swore, “I won’t ever let you get lost in the woods again.”
Shae didn’t know the full extent of his oath. She didn’t know that it was his declaration he would never let harm come to her again. He would never let IESS or IESA or this damned shifter rights vote hurt her. She’d been through enough.
They both had.
“I was supposed to get a pedicure today and get a massage.”
Clinton turned from where he was washing his hands in the en suite bathroom and offered her a horrified look. “Why would you want a stranger touching you?”
“Well, I don’t. I’m setting it up for you to paint my nails and give me a back massage,” she teased.
Clinton ran and leapt through the air, and Alyssa screamed as he landed on his hands and knees, straddling her on the bed. “I’ve never painted a nail in my life, but I would be fucking awesome at it. I’m awesome at everything.”
“I have a big cocky, too.”
Alyssa groaned, but the sound turned to giggles as Clinton tickled her ribs. “Stop! I was comfortable!”
“Are we spending the entire day in bed? I’ve never done that before.” Clinton was practically humming for some kind of action, and it was plain and clear to Alyssa he wasn’t the type of man to sit around. He got bored too easily. Clinton lifted off her in a perfect plank, his muscles bulging everywhere, tattoos on display, nipple bars looking so damn bitable. “Where is your nail polish?”
Clinton nodded. “Tell me quick before I change my mind.”
“In that floral bag on the sink,” she rushed out. As he slid off the bed and sauntered into the bathroom, she told him, “I’ve never had a man paint my toes.”
“Have you had boyfriends?” he asked in a careful tone.
“In my whole life?” Because she didn’t know the answer for her first eighteen years.
“No, just that you remember.”
“Yes. Two. They both lived in my hometown. Kyle was a bank teller, and Ben owned a coffee shop.”
Clinton growled. “What color do you want?”
“You pick. Whatever you think would look pretty on me.”
“Well, that narrows it down to every color on the spectrum.” He meandered back into the bedroom with a slight frown marring his blond brows, and he wouldn’t meet her gaze again. “What were their names?”
“Your ex boyfriends.”
“I told you, Kyle and Ben.”
“No, I mean their last names.”
She shook her head and laughed. “Oh no. I’m not talking about them anymore. It’s about us now, and if I tell you their last names, I’m gonna be real disappointed in you if they end up in a ditch somewhere.” She was mostly teasing. He probably wouldn’t actually go find them.
“Fine,” he muttered, unscrewing the cap on some fire-engine red nail polish. “Oh, my God, your toes are so fuckin’ cute.” He plopped down on his side and drew her leg over his waist. “I always loved how they were in a perfect diagonal line.” He brushed his fingertip over the top of her toes.
Alyssa put an extra pillow under her head and frowned at him. “What do you mean you always loved them?”
But Clinton was apparently very busy painting her toenails now because he didn’t answer.
“Clinton, what did you mean?”
“I mean from the first day I saw you in Saratoga, you were wearing flip-flops, for reasons I can’t fathom, because it’s cold as a witch’s tit up here, but I noticed your toes.” His voice dipped to a grumpy snarl. “And I liked them.”
“Oh.” She let him work for a while before she asked, “Can I tell you the dream I had about the boy who looks like you?”
“I wish you would leave it alone.”
“You’re being rude again.”
Clinton blew on her toes and then tossed her a bright-eyed glare. “I ain’t him, and he ain’t me. I don’t want to hear about this boy who has nothing to do with me. You can like me as I am or not.”
“Oh, Clinton. That’s not what I was saying at all. I’m sorry if you think I’m trying to mash you up with some idealistic image I have in my head. I’m not. I like you the way you are.”
Clinton snorted. “You would be the only one.”
She canted her head on the pillow and watched him paint the big toe of her other foot. He was so gentle and precise, like he wanted it to be perfect for her. “What do you mean?”
“I’m the resident screw-up at the trailer park, really of all of Damon’s mountains. I’m on a C-Team crew, and even my own people call me Crazy Clinton, and they ain’t wrong. When I talked to my mom a few months ago, she told me she doesn’t understand how I got this way. She said she doesn’t even recognize me anymore.”
Alyssa reached down and brushed her fingertips over his elbow. Clinton tensed but allowed the affection. “Were you two close?”
“Yeah. I was close with both my parents. But I made a decision when I was sixteen that they hated, and when I came out of that decision, I wasn’t their little boy anymore. And I guess that still makes my mom really angry. And I get it. I would be pissed at my kid, too.”
Clinton shook his head for a long time, then blew on her other foot. “It was just something I had to do if I was going to have a shot at being happy again.”
“Do you know a girl named Shae?” Alyssa blurted out. Because what he was saying seemed so familiar, like maybe she had a supernatural connection with this girl in her dream.
Clinton went rigid, then slowly leveled her with an angry look. “No, and if this is something to do with your dream, I told you, that ain’t me. You have to let that go.”
“But, I can’t.”
“But you have to!” Clinton rocked off the bed and strode into the bathroom again.
She’d pissed him off. Something about her dream made him angry, but that wasn’t fair. “So,” she drawled, stepping carefully off the bed so she didn’t mess up her nails, “you’re allowed to have baggage, but I can’t? You don’t want to deal with me, is that it? Because I’ve done this before with Ben and Kyle, and this is just like what always happens, except at least they were nice enough to wait a few months before they bolted.”
“Don’t compare me to those assholes,” Clinton gritted out, brushing past her. “They weren’t worthy of you. You picked bad. That had nothing to do with me.”
“But you’re shutting me down—”
“Because it hurts!” Clinton backed into the kitchen and she followed. In a softer voice, he said, “It hurts to talk about some boy you obviously have a connection with. I want to be it for you now. Me. Not anyone else. Not your exes. Not that boy from your dreams.
will give anything to protect you,
will give anything to see you happy,
will be the one breathing for your smile, and all those ghosts you keep bringing up are pitting me against people who have no substance! I want you to see me.” He gripped his shirt right over his chest. “
. I thought my biggest competition would be myself. I’m a hundred percent guaranteed to screw this up on my own. I don’t want others in your head. One minute I think I can do this, and I think I can get better, work hard, and make you happy, but not if I’m dragging ghosts, too! I don’t want to be compared to anyone else. I’m worse. I already lose, and I’m really fuckin’ tired of losing.”
“Okay.” Feeling like crap, she murmured, “You’re right. I wasn’t thinking about your feelings. When you were talking about Amber, I hated her, and it made me angry. You weren’t mean enough to compare me to her, and I just did that with two people. It was messed up, and I’m sorry.”
Clinton eyed her suspiciously. “You don’t have to apologize.”
“Well, that’s what you do when you’re wrong. You apologize, and I was wrong. I
sorry. And…” She looked down at her perfectly painted toes. “You did a really good job on my pedicure.”
“I told you I was good at everything.” But the cockiness had gone, and in its place was a tinge of humor. “Did we just have our first fight?”
“Clinton Fuller, I think we’ve been in one long fight since I laid eyes on you.” He was letting her in, but on his own terms. This was his language—combativeness, defensiveness, pride. She’d never met anyone so complicated, but that was part of the fun with Clinton.
After one argument, she knew so much more about him than maybe she knew anyone. He might sound overconfident, but he’d just exposed his insecurities. He’d just told her he was in this, but she had to go easy on him until he could find his footing.
What a mess Clinton was.
What a mysterious, complicated,