The first time she realized she was being followed through the city, Tess was expecting it. She’d been waiting for that prickle of awareness to travel up her spine, crawling between her shoulder blades and making the hair at the nape of her neck stand up. She’d been staying with Al for three weeks at that point. Her first tattoo was still healing, a steady itch of ink and scabbing between her breasts.
She was already planning her next. A phoenix, she thought, scrolling up her back and enfolding her shoulders in its wings. It was ambitious for someone who’d only been introduced to tattoos a few weeks past but she wanted something big. It would symbolize her rebirth.
And it would look fucking awesome too.
She’d popped into a local Iranian-run deli to grab some shawarma for dinner. Al was “working late”, which meant he and a bunch of his buddies were hanging around the shop drinking beer and talking about old times. After she’d tidied up the place, Al had slipped her some money and sent her out to pick up some food. It was on the way back that Tess became aware she was being followed. One of them was close by. She could feel their eyes on her, she could practically feel their breath sliding down the back of her collar.
It was unsettling to know she was being hunted and even worse to know that the hunters were her own blood.
Tess knew she didn’t want to lead the pack back to Al’s place. She picked up the pace, tightened her grip on the plastic bag that held the shawarma and ducked down the first alley she came to. It was a narrow lane that ran between a bank of storefront apartments and a multi-level parking garage. The stink was something else– old urine and a stew of mulched refuse.
Thank god there weren’t any bums hanging out in there. She knew as soon as she was out of sight of the public, they’d fall on her. If they were going to drag her kicking and screaming back to the homestead, she didn’t want anyone watching. Witnesses could end up as collateral damage. Except it turned out she was wrong about that. No one fell on her. Instead, on the other side of a blue dumpster about ten feet ahead, Jack stepped out to block her way.
He looked royally pissed off. That, at least, she’d guessed right about.
“Hello, Tess. I’ve been waiting for you.”
The greeting sounded so textbook scripted that for one brief, semi-hysterical moment, Tess wanted to laugh. The way he was grinding out each word between clenched teeth didn’t bode well– laughing would be a death sentence.
“Jack.” Her voice sounded steady in her own ears. She wasn’t sure how she’d managed that. “You’re wasting your time. I’m not going back with you.”
He answered her with a growl that turned her blood to ice. Before she could turn to run from him, he was there. His body pressed her against damp brick. Tess could feel the heat pouring off of him and his eyes, so close to hers, were a molten amber. Wolf’s eyes. The Jack who had smiled at her, who had so often tweaked her nose and teased her silence was nowhere to be seen.
There was a muted plastic thump as she dropped the bag of shawarma and put her hands up to ward him off. His chest scalded her palms through the thin cotton of his t-shirt. He didn’t budge; she may as well have been pushing against the wall.
His head dipped low, his face close to the hollow behind her ear, and she could hear him draw in a sharp breath. Marking her scent. On the exhale, her hair fluttered and raised on the nape of her neck.
“You’re mine.” Grinding rocks would have been a gentler sound, for all that his voice was soft enough to be a whisper.
She felt a brush of wet heat below her ear and knew he’d pressed the tip of his tongue against her skin. First her scent and now her salt.
Her answering shudder went through her from crown to toes.
“No,” Tess whispered through a throat gone tight. “I’m not a thing. Not a…a brood mare.”
His breath was a shallow pulse against her skin. The tension humming through him promised violence but the hand that lifted to curl over her breast was softer. Tess shuddered again. Jack didn’t move.
“You can’t lie to me. I can smell you. You want me,” he growled.
She became aware of how her nipple was rising to meet the pressure of his hand. How it ached. How the delta between her thighs ached. Werewolves compelled those of their blood. He was giving off pheromones as well as heat and her body was responding. But more than that, more than just the chemistry of blood and body, she did want him. She’d wanted him when he kissed her in the barn and she wanted him now.
Jack seemed to know when she recognized that fact for herself. His mouth opened and pressed against her neck. He kissed her throat the way he’d kissed her lips, firm and wet and probing with his tongue. Her knees almost buckled but his arms and body were there to keep her upright, held fast to the brick wall.
He hissed at her, a sibilant command to hush. His fingers closed hard on her breast and Tess stiffened against the expected pain. Instead the deep throb that began in that soft flesh matched the pulse between her thighs. She knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he could smell the peach-sweet musk of her moistening sex.
The dank smell of the alley was lost in the cologne of Jack’s own body. It invaded her senses and left her feeling light-headed.
He kissed his way to her ear and then uncurled his tongue in its shell. Tess’ next protest was voiced on a heartfelt moan of desire.
“Jack!” This time, when she pushed at him, he drew back and his face aligned with hers. Their parted lips were almost touching and each ragged breath mingled. The world has lost in a haze of molten gold, the same shade as the eyes that were blazing at her.
Whatever he saw in her unfocused eyes caused his lips to curl back from his teeth, precursor to a snarl.
But his hands fell away and a moment later, he slid back half a step to place distance between their bodies. Hers seemed to cry out for the loss of his but Tess steeled herself, through the welter of lust and need.
She couldn’t just be his. A possession, a thing, no different than the goats or the cows they kept. He had been kinder to her than any of the others but as his mate, that’s all she’d ever be: his mate, the mother of his children. Never just Tess, to be loved and cherished for herself.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered and her breath was shaken by more than just passion. There was true regret there as well. His hands closed into fists at his sides.
“You can’t deny it, Tess. You want me.”
Jack was coiled and ready to move again, she could see it in every line of his body. He might charge off– or he might press her to the wall again and simply have his way with her. Tess couldn’t read his expression, that almost-snarl of frustrated lust, to see which it would be. It would depend on her answer, she knew.
She touched the tip of her tongue to her lips, which felt swollen from the need to be kissed. His eyes flicked down, marking that movement.
“I want you,” she admitted roughly. “But I want me too. I want my own life, Jack. Not just…the farm and babies and the same day every day.”
The growl that rolled out of him chilled her to the bone. Faster than she could see, he turned and slammed his fist against the wall. Brick dust showered down, and small chips that pattered against the ground of the alleyway. Tess flinched and drew herself up, summoning the shreds of composure and will together. She didn’t want to use what she could do against him. Even thinking of doing so felt wrong. But she would, if she had to.
When Jack turned back towards her, his eyes were a lambent gold.
“You’re making a mistake,” he snarled. “But fine. Make it alone.”
Between one breath and the next, he was gone and Tess sagged against the wall. The bag of shawarma lay deflated at her feet, speckled with red dust and flakes of brick. She stared dully at the plastic. Had she made the right decision? There was something in him that called to her.
But every day she’d lived separate of farm and family, there was something else inside of her that grew. For the first time in her life, Tess felt like her own person and it was that feeling which gave her the strength and steadiness she needed to pick the bag up and make her slow way home.