Outlier Prophecies Book Five: Shifter Variance – Chapter One
If the world’s going to be a carousel ride with no stops, then I at least want a shower first.
Becker carefully tucks his sheets around his waist, as if I’ve not already seen his nakedness and he wishes to preserve my innocence. He sits at the edge of his bed, lips pressed together and head tipped to the side. I’m still gauging how much of the phone conversation from my ex-boyfriend Kyle Dillingham Becker heard.
Although I’m no longer in immediate danger from Wyrd (that we know of) Kyle informed me that Dalia, Ian Becker’s maybe-sister, is predicted to go missing. Worse, if things could get an extra heaping of complicated, the well-respected and revered Michelle Kitman edited Dalia’s case to appear so low a probability that it won’t show on anyone’s radar.
I sit at his desk chair and peel off the surgical tape from my feet. “I’m sure you heard. Ali’s at work and Lipski’s sleeping. So it’s just you and me.”
I loosen one end and grimace, trying not to look at the rust red and yellow spotted bandage. Last night we’d traipsed through the woods, followed by three witches who wanted to kill us, and me without my shoes.
“What did I hear?” He fiddles with the edge of his sheet.
I stand and limp to the trash. His gaze drops to my legs. I’m currently wearing his shirt and nothing else. He bites his lip—I’m guessing this isn’t how he was planning on spending his first sick day in years.
I suck in a deep breath. If he’s playing dumb for my benefit, or maybe his own, this would be my chance to go along with it. Considering we were working with the vague knowledge that Becker could or could not go feral depending on a billion factors we had no control or prediction capability over—we’d entered unchartered territory. By involving himself with me—a fateless—someone who couldn’t be predicted on by oracles or seers, he’d made an important part of his own future slightly fateless.
“Dalia.” I close my eyes and wait for an answer, but nothing comes. Better not to keep secrets, right? Relationships don’t survive on miscommunication. “She’s going to go missing along with the rest of the Turmoil pack. Moderate to high probability. Don’t really know since the prediction’s already been tampered with to appear too low for investigation.”
He scratches his chest. “Right. I heard that part of your phone call.” He frowns. “Are you sure you should be doing that?” He motions to my feet as I remove the second bandage.
“I’m taking a shower.”
“A shower?” His brows crinkle together. “Hold on.”
I pause in my self-doctoring. But gods dammit, if he’s going to make us rush out of here to rescue Dalia from an unknown fate, then I want to be clean doing it. Maybe I should have showered first, answered questions later. I realize that made me selfish. If we missed Dalia by five minutes it would be on me, a clean-dressed-with-proper-shoes me.
Becker leans over and slides his phone off his nightstand and pecks out a text message, hits send, sets his phone on the bed beside him, and reaches for his boxers. He shimmies the things on under the sheet and meets me in two steps, scooping me into his arms and depositing me back into his bed. He nudges me until I make room for him to snuggle into my side.
It’s not the reaction I expected.
“Becker.” I shove him aside, but his oversized body doesn’t budge. “I’m taking a shower. We’ve got to get on this.”
He counters my wiggling protests by flattening me under him. “Oh, I’ll get right on that. Don’t worry.” He nibbles my neck.
Where the hells is my over-reacting, over-protective werewolf boyfriend? His lazy strokes soften me and I melt into the mattress.
“I texted her to come back to Angel’s Peak ASAP.”
His touch relaxes me, but my mind won’t let go of the current dilemma. Except Dalia’s predicted missing person case isn’t the tip of the iceberg. Michelle Kitman, hero to every predictions actuary everywhere, is the one who tampered with the case. I couldn’t quite understand what it meant.
My brain kept coming around to this new development. Why? What is her motive? Was there something else going on I wasn’t aware of? Is she helping Wyrd or New Karma? Or both?
Becker kisses my neck a few more times and stops. “You’re not happy.” He eases away from me and waits for my explanation, but his fingers stray along my stomach.
“I’m just a little shocked is all. Don’t you want to track Dalia down and meet her on the road? We can’t risk her getting nabbed between there and here.” I push him away, this time I’m successful and he moves to let me go. “And I want a shower before we do any chasing.” I eye him, thinking of a better way to get him on my page. “Don’t you want a shower?”
He straightens. “Yes…” His hand moves down my thigh and cups my calf. He lifts my feet and sniffs.
It tickles and I jerk from his grasp. “Is this some kind of fetish?” I giggle.
He catches one of my feet and sniffs again, a half grin creeping on his face. “If you’d spent your youth in hospitals while your dad dressed injuries of all kinds, you’d get a scent for infection, too.” He sets my leg down. “Hold on.” He goes for his phone again. Texting.
“Given I’m not a wolf, I doubt that’s how I’d have spent my youth.”
This person texts back and a short conversation takes place. Becker sets his phone down again. “There’s a slight risk of infection, but it’s also an opportunity to clean around the wound more effectively at least, says my dad.” He tips his chin to his phone. “I think he’s curious now. I haven’t really told them about you. Not exactly.” He scratches his chin. “He wants a picture.”
I reflexively cover my upper body with the nearest object, which happens to be a Labrador-sized stuffed dragon. “Maybe, um, after the shower and proper clothes.”
Becker blinks, confused for a second, then laughs. “Your feet, I meant. He wants a picture of the lacerations so he can advise on the shower.”
Oh, ha. I kick off the sheets and swing my feet onto a mountain of pillows. Becker takes the picture at just the right angle so the rest of me is safely hidden from view.
“Handy having a dad who’s a nurse,” I say.
Becker concentrates on cropping the photo to include only my feet. “Yeah,” he says absently. “And if you ever have a nervous breakdown my other dad will come in handy too.” His brow furrows while he waits for his dad’s response.
An undeniable tension sneaks between us. Becker’s shoulders appear stiff and forced into an unnatural position. I lean forward and rub my fingers over his chest. I want to rush in and fill the silence with reassurance that he’ll never require that kind of help again. That he never has to worry about having a breakdown or going feral, because he has me. He has pack again.
But those are empty promises. I can’t assure him of anything for his future. Not anymore. Not by me. Especially not me. Sometimes hope can be an effective, unintended weapon.
“Let me see your phone for a second,” I whisper.
He hands it over. I nudge him to lie next to me and I snuggle up close, dropping a kiss on his cheek and holding the phone above us at an angle. I bring it back down to inspect the product. Not perfect. My hair is a greasy, twig-infested mess. Becker’s stubble is nearing beard status. He has a satisfied look on his face that nobody would mistake. He obviously got laid.
I sigh, giving in to my fear of commitment and what this next step will mean for us both.
I show him the photo. “You can send that one to your dads.”
He takes a long look at it, a small smile twitching on his lips. “They’ll love that.” He places his phone down onto his chest and lets out a long breath. The concentration on his face giving away a darker emotion under it.
I test him with a flutter of fingertips on his bicep. “Becker?”
He doesn’t break from his deep thoughts.
I try again. “Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”
“The shower.” He gathers himself, pushing up from the bed. “Maybe you should take a bath instead.” He disappears into the bathroom. There’s a moan from the pipes and the unmistakable rush of water into the tub. “You’re in luck. I have one clean towel.”
His forced optimistic hero routine doesn’t fly.
I bite the insides of my cheek, letting that familiar heat of anger flame out. If Becker won’t be honest with me, we’re doomed. But I can’t solve this by a knock-down-drag-out fight. And definitely not by avoiding and waiting for him to come to me. If he’s troubled about the prediction from the Wyrd witches that he’s going to turn feral, we need to be open about it.
Although, maybe talking about something we have no control over is a recipe for disaster. Especially to a wolf like Becker who’s prone to anxiety.
Becker appears at the doorway that connects his room to the master bathroom, clutching a towel. “So I have one towel and I’d like to get clean too.” His skin marbles in red blotches down his chest and on his face. He clears his throat. His eyes shift to the floor, and he looks up at me through his lashes.
I rub my chin, pretending to decipher his meaning.
He points his thumb into the bathroom and quickly lowers his hand to scratch his chest. “I mean, you could use the towel first. Or the bathroom.” He glances around behind him. “Let me just, uh. Hm.”
Now who could say no to a horny werewolf?
“Would you like to join me in the bathtub?”
His eyes go wide and he swallows a few times, unable to answer right away.
I inch off the bed and shrug. The extra-large shirt covering me falls off my shoulder. “I mean, you have to be sure I do a good job cleaning the wounds, right?”
He nods. Vigorously. “That’s what I meant.”
I stand, but he flings the towel over his shoulder and catches me as I rise. He tucks my legs over one arm and I tip backwards into his other. Caught by surprise I grip around his neck.
He jogs us into the bathroom and I let out a scared squeak when he lowers me into the half-filled tub. “What are you doing?” I scramble to sit up. The bottom of his shirt I’m wearing is soaked. Along with my only pair of clean underwear that Ali brought over this morning.
I swallow down a hiss as the soapy water stings the cut under my pinkie toe and the prickles of raw red skin on each heel.
He crawls in after me, pupils dilated and glowing teal eyes. No hint of gold—a good sign? I don’t know. He makes quick work on my shirt buttons. As in he unbuttons the top two but the rest ping off when he pulls the front apart.
He paws the fabric away from my skin. “I’m sorry, that was clumsier than I’d imagined in my head.” He dips to kiss my chest. “It’s going to be like this for a while.” He kisses down my front and thrusts his boxers off. They hit the tile with a wet thwack. “Maybe forever. I’ve never been graceful.” He grips each side of the tub and his gaze grows more intense.
His cell phone rings in the distance. Neither of us acknowledges it. It chirps six times and stops.
“You were plenty graceful last night.” I ease forward to kiss just above his belly button while my hand explores down his thighs and between his legs. “I’m not complaining.”
He bites off a curse, his breath sawing in and out as if he’s just come back from a run. I test him with an experimental lick.
He dances away from my mouth, going straight for my underwear. “Here I was attempting to be a gentleman and clean you first.”
I lift myself to make it easier to get the rest of my clothing off. My shirt and underwear land on the floor next to his. A small puddle is forming and the water level in the tub is much higher with both our bodies inside.
Becker shuts the faucet off. “We can do the doctoring later.”
He kisses me and attempts to shift us into a better position, but ladies and gentleman, this is the worst place to have sex. Becker gets an A for effort, not seeming to notice the space constraints. And to be honest, I’m so delighted he can’t help himself, it’s got me excited all over again. He gently massages my leg and hooks it over his shoulder, moving himself into place.
Becker’s phone goes off again.
His forehead lowers to my shoulder. I think he’s distracted by the phone so I encourage him forward with my foot. He resists.
Ian bites my shoulder and lets out a long groan. “I forgot the condom.”
Fateless werewolf babies. Right. I loosen my leg from above his shoulder and give him room to move away. “We can do other…things.”
He pauses, considering.
The phone rings again.
I sigh. “You need to get that. Someone is going to a lot of trouble to get a hold of you.” And with all that’s going on, we can’t play pretend that our lives aren’t a tangled mess right now.
Becker reluctantly and gingerly removes himself from the tub. The moment he stomps off to his room, I quickly wash my hair. Dalia’s got some vitamin enriched stuff that promises to make my hair shiny and add volume. For showmanship. What?
I turn the label over and see it’s a pet shampoo for horses. Too late now, I’ve got it all lathered in, so I dunk my head under water and rinse it out. At least now Becker can make a run with me for best of show. The conditioner is for humans. Thank the goddess for small favors.
Soaping my body at lightning speed, I rinse it all off and drain the tub. Snatching Becker’s towel, I dry, patting the pads of my feet so I don’t irritate the injury. Walking is a chore. Especially on the hard surface and being careful to not slip in the water mess we’ve created.
I didn’t think I took long, but I stop at the door to Becker’s room to see he’s already dressed in a navy blue Angel’s Peak Police Department T-shirt, faded jeans, and a hat shoved down low. He sits at the end of his bed with his phone dangling between his fingers.
His jaw is tight and his eyes flare. “We’ve got a problem.”
I wrap the towel around me, suddenly self-conscious. Somewhere in the back of my mind my biggest worry is that I won’t have a chance to get dressed. In the last few days I’ve chased after suspects in pajamas, last night a shirt and barefoot—this time I’ll be running around chasing villains in a towel.
Becker jams his phone into his pocket. “The Turmoil pack won’t let Dalia go. They’re holding her and requested a challenge. If I don’t go they’ll keep her.”
“But she’s in danger.”
“That isn’t an issue to them. If they suspect I’m the source of danger, then I need to keep away. They suspect me of breaking an agreement.” His gaze lingers on my towel-wrapped body and he blows out a long rush of air from his nose. “When I told them I’d take Dalia for a short time, I did it when I thought there was no chance for us. I didn’t break it, I’ve obliterated it.”
“As pack, right? You said you’d take her as pack.”
Becker doesn’t answer. He doesn’t even look at me.
Okay, never mind. I didn’t want to delve into that little tidbit of drama. Becker knew Dalia could be his sister from the beginning and was too hung up on that to consider her a serious romantic interest. Right?
I decide to bring this conversation back to the immediate topic. “Did you tell them someone is after them? Not just Dalia?” I toss the towel and go for one of Becker’s shirts. His sweat pants are twice my waist size, but I fold and roll them up to make them fit. “We are going to my house so I can get proper clothes.”
Becker leaves the room and goes to the living room, opening the front door.
I stumble after him. “Hey, you can’t leave me here. I’m going with you.”
I’m confused to see Lipski on Becker’s porch. Becker must have heard him coming. Some day I vow to get used to living with a sensory sensitive.
Hank holds out a cake box to Ian. “This is probably shitty timing, except I can’t keep this secret from you much longer. I heard you guys discussing something about Dalia as I drove up, but…” He shoves the cake in Ian’s direction. “Congratulations, you have a sister.”
Hank opens the box and Ian glances down at all the pink frosting inside. Then Ian backs up from the door, marches into his room, and slams the door shut.
Hank sets the cake on the counter and shoots me a worried look. “Okay, we need to work on his reaction. He can’t act like a hormonal teenager when he tells her.”
I tip the cake box lid open and stare at the baby pink frosting and curly congratulations in a shade of hot pink.
Hank leans over my shoulder. “Angela went a little crazy on all the pink, but you get the idea.”
I carefully close the lid. “You know this means Becker is one of the experiments.”
A few decades ago, two scientists used frozen sperm from the last known shifting werewolf and inseminated dozens, possibly hundreds of nearly full-blooded female werewolves in the hopes of waking up the shifting gene in the now latent wolf population. The experiment was not only a failure, it produced an unknown number of wolves that were labeled as emotionally unstable and unable to integrate into wolf society due to the stigma. Dalia had kept her background a secret from her pack. Becker had been adopted and didn’t know his genetic background beyond the small non-specific details his mother provided his adoptive parents.
Now we had no room for maybes and benefit of the doubt. Ian’s difficulty regulating himself even in the presence of stable pack had a diagnosable reason behind it. And not one that came with a treatment plan that wouldn’t lead to potentially losing his job or to being invited into werewolf society in the future.
Hank sighs. “Yeah. We’ll deal with that, Katie Cupcake. Ian is going to need a lot of support.” His rough palm lands on my back. My throat tightens.