*** SPOILER ALERT ***
This book is a sequel and should be read after The Better to Hold You.
“Mad” Mal, Abra’s former teacher, is now running a veterinary clinic in the town of Northside, and Abra’s working alongside him. But when a dog-abusing client causes her to start shifting in broad daylight, Abra realizes that something’s going haywire with her hormones. Malachy insists on driving her back to the cabin she shares with her shapeshifting boyfriend, Red Mallin…but their trip takes a turn for the unexpected.
Malachy turned his ancient Jaguar onto an unpaved driveway which looked pretty much identical to Hunter’s. Except there was a fantastic, dilapidated old Gormenghastly mansion at the end of his dirt road, and a log cabin with an outhouse at the end of mine. I half expected a snarky comment, but Malachy didn’t say anything as he turned off the ignition.
I tried to tell myself that I had no reason to feel embarrassed. After all, the outhouse had a hand-carved toilet seat, and we did have an indoor toilet for blizzards and emergencies. Besides, the cabin was only temporary. Red and I were still working on the plans for our new home, which was going to be a shapeshifter dream house, intended to accommodate both our human and canid forms. Red intended to build it himself as well, as soon as he had the spare time. And I knew Red meant what he said. Unlike my former husband, he didn’t specialize in saying what people wanted to hear and then doing whatever the hell he pleased.
Still, for the time being, I was living in a log cabin with no electricity, and sharing the space with various rescued wildlife, including a half-blind red-tailed hawk, a bat with a broken wing and a raccoon kit with an eating disorder.
Malachy pulled the key out of the ignition. “Are you finished contemplating the view? Can we go inside now?”
“You don’t need to see me in.”
He paused. “Actually, I thought I’d wait for Red.”
“Come on, Mal. There’s no telling when he’ll be home. Leave. I’ll be fine.”
“I need to speak to him about another matter.” Malachy opened the car door and started heading toward the trailer. From the back, he looked like an emaciated thoroughbred. His shoulders and chest had been designed to carry more flesh and muscle, and the thick Irish cable-knit sweater and loose corduroy trousers hung on his rangy frame. I wondered, not for the first time, what was wrong with him.
“Are you coming, or do you require assistance?” Malachy paused, ostensibly in annoyance, but I could see the puffs of his breath on the cold air.
“I just wanted to watch your ass move,” I said, grabbing my handbag.
Malachy ignored me, making my wonder if my last comment had been too crass. He had that odd English quality of being dignified when an American would have been easy and then saying something so crude no American would have dared mention it in public. Once he and Red had gotten into a discussion about the difference between bear dung and human feces that had turned personal enough to make me leave the table. But sex wasn’t something that Malachy talked about, so maybe I’d stepped over some line.
“I’m sorry if I offended you,” I said. “The truth is, as far as I can tell, you don’t even have an ass.”
“You’re being unusually tiresome. Is there anything in particular that has you on edge?”
As soon as he asked the question, I realized that I’d been baiting him. This wasn’t our typical mode of teasing; I’d been spoiling for a fight. “I’m not sure why I’m so cranky,” I admitted, taking a deep breath. There was a sliver of moon in the sky, a wink of light between two half-bare birches. Something cramped low in the left side of my abdomen, and I wondered if I was ovulating.
“Hang on a moment.”
“Are you feeling dizzy?”
I tried to shake my head no, but got stabbed by another cramp. Malachy grabbed my arm, right above my elbow, and with his touch my head really did begin to spin. It made no sense. This wasn’t even close to the full moon, and it was still broad daylight. My throat was parched. I couldn’t swallow. I thought of losing control in front of my boss and something clogged in my chest, making it hard to breathe. Reaching for the high neck of my turtleneck, I tried to pull it away from my skin.
“All right, Abra, hang on, let’s get you inside.” I felt one of Malachy’s arms come around my shoulders, the other around my waist. He’ll never be able to support me, I thought, but I couldn’t seem to keep my weight from leaning into him. I tried to tell him just to let me sit down, but my voice seemed a long way away. I managed to get my foot onto the front step, then sagged more against his arms. We both went down hard, and I banged my head against something, a rock or a tree. The ground was cold and slightly damp.
“Bugger,” I heard Malachy say. “All right, let me up, I’ll get my bag from the car. Abra? Abra?”
But as I tried to get up, I found that I couldn’t breathe. I wrestled with my turtleneck again, trying to tear it off me, but found my wrist pinned to the floor.
“Abra? Look at me. Try to focus. Abra!” My boss’s sharp voice brought me back and I stared up at his craggy face. He looks different from this angle, I thought woozily. Then it struck me that I was belly up to him, submissive. That wasn’t right; I always argued back with Malachy, I never just rolled over. Tightening my wrists, I was about to break his grip and flip him over when my boss narrowed his eyes and leaned more of his weight into me. “Stop that,” he said, and there was no doubt in his voice. “Stay still!”
I obeyed him without thinking. He was lying on top of me, which should have made it harder to breathe, but instead I felt comforted by the pressure of him weighing me down. “Do you know where you are?” He was still pinning my wrists. I nodded, coming back to myself enough to feel embarrassed, then tucked my chin so that my nose was close to the armpit of his sweater. I caught a hint of his scent in the wool, faint and muted but still discernible. But underneath the familiar smell of the man there was a trace of something unusual. It was an illness, but not one I recognized. Not the warm, deep musk of a lycanthrope, but not a conventional disease, either. I couldn’t detect any of the putrid sweet tang of cancer or diabetes, or the acrid, singed edge of some of the neural disorders.
From this distance, I could see the strands of silver woven into Mal’s tangle of dark, unruly curls. Without thinking, I dipped my nose closer, trying to isolate that last layer of scent.
“Stop that!” A hand, clenched in my hair, tugged my head back. I stared back at him, noticing for the first time that his eyes were the pale green of early spring, when everything is bright with untapped potential. I could feel how close I was to the change, but he was holding me back by sheer force of will. Even with natural wolves, it is not always the strongest male who leads the pack.
“Sorry,” Malachy said, a moment later. His hand eased its grip on my hair. “Did I hurt you?”
I just continued gazing up at him, passive, waiting. For a moment, I had a dazed impression of him as an ancient tree, his outer layers gnarled and ailing, his inner channels still filled with sap and the possibility of life. A tremor went through Malachy, not muscle fatigue but something that rippled through him like the change that transformed me from woman to wolf.
His knuckles were white with strain, but I was no longer struggling. I didn’t know what Malachy was holding back by sheer force of will, but it wasn’t me. His arms shook with another spasm, and the long muscles of his thighs contracted where they pressed against mine, hardening until my own body yielded in response. His eyes began to glow with an uncanny light. It called to me like the moon, and I could feel the dull ache of my bones as they began to shift under him.
Just as I could feel something shifting in him. Not a wolf; something else, monstrous and strange, that tore at him as it tried to emerge. His face turned white. “No,” he whispered through clenched teeth, a muscle jumping in his jaw. “No.”
Lower down, the change didn’t seem to be paining him.
Arching as my muscles rippled convulsively, I threw my head back, staring up at the blue sky, the crescent moon, the tops of the trees…and Red, frowning down at us.