Hot, slick skin drew her mouth to his flat belly. The sheets had been kicked off. The window air conditioner droned softly from the other room but it wasn’t a match for the sweltering heat of an early Texas summer. Charma licked a bead of sweat just under Brand’s bellybutton. She loved his taste, his scent—everything about him. He instantly responded. His cock stiffened, lengthened and proudly rose to full mast as a soft moan rumbled from his broad chest. She grinned and kissed the curve of his hip. His large hand fumbled for her hair, missed, and gripped her bare shoulder. “Good morning,” he rasped. “Not quite but it’s getting there.” She lifted a little, gauged how awake he was, and opened her mouth again. Her tongue traced the underside of his shaft, making his cock twitch. He raised his head to stare at her with passion-filled eyes. Their soft brown depths appeared more golden than chestnut when he woke.
His nose flared and his body tensed. “You’re going into heat.” She nodded, purposely breathing warm air on his sex as she spoke. “I know. I realized it when I woke. Should I take the pills? I need to start them right away to mute and control it, otherwise it’s going to hit me full force in a matter of hours.” “Don’t take them. We’ll call in sick for the next few days.” His hand caressed her shoulder. “I survived last month.
” His full, generous mouth curved into a grin. “I’m up for it.” She glanced down at the impressive evidence right in front of her mouth. “You certainly are.” He sat up. “Come here.” “I’m good where I am.” “You’re better than good but I also remember how aggressive you get.” He chuckled. “And while I’m tough, I don’t want your fangs giving me any accidental piercings.
” “I won’t bite.” “Hon, it’s the only time of the month you grow fangs. I love you but I’m not risking it. I wouldn’t be much good to you packed in ice until I heal tomorrow.” Charma pouted. “I want to taste you.” “Trust me. I’d love that too but you aren’t really in control right now. Want me to show you the scars on my shoulder from last month?” “I’m so sorry.” “It’s okay.
It’s not a complaint. Stop apologizing. I like wearing your marks.” She sat up. “You could put a scar on me and I’d feel better.” Brand lunged, took her down flat on her back and pinned her under him. “It was an accident. You didn’t mean to bite into me and I’d never mar your beautiful skin.” Her mood darkened. “I know.
” “Hey.” He adjusted over her until their noses touched and stared into her eyes. “You’re the one who won’t mate with me. I want you to. That’s the only way I’ll ever sink my teeth into you.” She turned her head away to study the wall. Tears threatened to spill but she managed to blink most of them back. “You know I can’t.” She could smell their pain as it filled the room, mingled, until she couldn’t detect which one of them scented of it more strongly. Brand suddenly rolled away and climbed off their bed.
He stormed toward the door. “Take your pills.” “You’re going to punish me?” He stopped. She could stare at his big sexy body all day. He didn’t turn to look at her. “It’s getting harder for me not to mate you. I think it’s best if you take them to manage your heat. You’d hate me if I lost control.” He left the room. She lay there staring at the empty doorway long after she heard the shower come on.
The urge to join him made her ache. It wasn’t just because her body throbbed for sex or that hormones now raged inside her. She loved Brand with all her heart and wanted nothing more than to mate with him. She just knew it could never happen. Memories of four months ago filled her mind… ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ She was sitting in class listening to the history professor drone on and she barely heard the door open to admit someone who’d arrived late. She’d been tapping her thigh lightly with her thumb, trying to pay attention, but boredom had taken hold. A scent filled her nose, nearly sending her into a panic. She jerked her head to stare across the room at the really large, tall, black-haired male who took a seat. He didn’t so much sit as plop down in an indolent sprawl. He had to be six foot four and about two hundred forty pounds.
Most would assume from his beefy, muscular body that he belonged on the college football team. Charma knew better. The distinctive smell of werewolf assured her of the danger he posed. It was clear the second he caught her scent. Instantly alert, he sat up straight. His head snapped in her direction and his dark gaze focused on her. Her fingers dug into her jeans as terror gripped her. The only thing that kept her from bolting out of her seat to run for her life was fifty students and the boring professor who were witnesses. He’d never attack her in front of humans. She was safer to remain still.
He frowned but then did the unexpected. He lifted a hand and gave her a small wave. She gaped at him until a slow grin spread across his handsome face. Those soft brown eyes didn’t flash a warning of impending attack. He winked instead before looking away to ignore her for the rest of the class. Charma lingered inside the classroom after it ended, afraid to go outside in case he waited to drag her somewhere remote. There were plenty of places on the large Texas campus where no one would witness her death. Filled with dread, she headed for the door, knowing she couldn’t hide there any longer. He stood outside, as she’d feared. She stiffened, her heart pounded hard enough to cause pain and she trembled.
She knew she had no chance of surviving when he attacked. “Calm down. I’m no threat.” He frowned. “Damn, you’re terrified. There’s no reason to be.” She didn’t believe him. They were natural enemies. “I came to college to learn.” His voice was pleasant, husky.
“You know—meet new people, experience new things. You’re the only person I’ve run into who is…” He paused and glanced around, before meeting her gaze again. “Special.” She couldn’t find her voice. It had to be a trap. He wanted to play with her, maybe lure her into a false sense of security and then strike for the fun of seeing the shock on her features before her death. “I think we should leave bullshit family politics at home where they belong, don’t you? We’re just two college students right now. I swear I’m not going to hurt you.” He drew in a deep breath through his nose. “Are you a panther?” She still couldn’t talk around the lump balled inside her throat.
She shook her head instead. Her books felt extremely heavy clutched in front of her chest to shield her heart if he decided to suddenly claw it out. “I’m not familiar with your scent.” She cleared her throat. It took long seconds to work up the nerve to speak as she fought her instincts to flee. “I’m half human, half spotted leopard.” He grinned. “Really? I bet you’re pretty when you shift. I mean,” his smile faded, “you’re pretty as a human but…you know what I mean.” “I can’t shift.
” She wanted to kick herself for admitting that but her brain refused to work right. Terror made her blurt stupid things. “Too human?” “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll leave. I’ll go to my dorm and can be gone in less than an hour. I don’t own much so it won’t take me long to pack.” “Aw, damn.” His voice turned gruff. “Don’t do that. What can I say or do to assure you that I’m no threat? I just waited around to make that clear and, um, I kind of hoped I could buy you coffee.
” She gawked at him again. “I’m used to being with a pack.” A sheepish look crossed his features and he sighed, meeting her gaze again. “I’m lonely. We’re surrounded by humans and I miss talking without always having to watch what I say. I was hoping we could hang out. I found a great spot where humans don’t go. I guess if you can’t shift you wouldn’t want to go running with me though.” He looked sincere and it stunned her. “I love to run anyway.
” His expression brightened. “That’s great. We could go together. Hell, I’m always worried about someone spotting me and calling animal control. They’d just think you were a woman out jogging with your big dog if you were with me.” He laughed. “A really big dog that resembles a wolf but most humans mistake me for a German Shepherd from a distance.” Charma started to relax. He wasn’t growling at her or making threats. She still breathed.
All those things surprised her. “I haven’t run into any other shifters.” “Most of us don’t seem to go to college.” “True.” “I’m the only one in the history of my family. What about you?” “The same.” “I really didn’t mean to scare you. May I buy you coffee or dinner to make up for it? We should stick together. I bet you miss your pride.” She didn’t dispute his assumption, though she disagreed.
“You seriously want to spend time with me?” “Yes.” He moved slowly. “Those books look heavy. You’re such a little thing. Allow me.” She didn’t want to release them but she didn’t have a choice when he gently pried them from her desperate hold. He watched her from his towering height. “See? It’s okay. I’m tame. Think of me as a big puppy.
” He has to be kidding. The guy was a werewolf, one of the most feared shifter breeds ever born, and the enemy. He offered her his arm next. “It’s okay. I’m Brand Harris. What’s your name?” “Ch-Charma Heller.” “It’s nice to meet you, Charma. There’s a cafe around the corner. Lots of humans will be there if that makes you feel safer. It’s okay.
” He held her gaze. “Really. I’m just lonely and thrilled to find someone else special I can talk to. I’d never hurt you.” “But we’re natural enemies,” she blurted, still not taking his arm. “Says our parents.” He made a point of peering around them. “I don’t see them. Do you?” He flashed a friendly grin that once again made her notice his good looks. “I won’t tell if you don’t.
” Indecision nagged at her but she reached for his arm. Her fingertips brushed warm, firm, tan skin. He didn’t snarl or jerk away. She curled her fingers around his forearm as they walked together. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? I just arrived here after transferring from another school. It didn’t work out there. I’m afraid a wolf running around California didn’t go over well. I knew I had to take off when they started to pass out flyers to warn the students of a wild wolf.” A laugh escaped her. “Really?” He actually blushed, his cheeks turning a rosy hue.
“I messed up. Man, was my uncle pissed. How long have you been here?” “This is my second year.” “What’s your major?” “I want to be a veterinarian.” He nodded. “I’m going for a business degree. So you got stuck with history too. Is that guy always so boring?” “It was a required class, and yes, I’m afraid so. I play music inside my head just to stay awake.” She completely relaxed… ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Brand pulled her back to the present when he stepped into the bedroom with a towel slung low around his hips.
He regarded Charma. “Did you take your pills?” She crawled off the bed. “I’ll do it now.” She tried to pass him but his hand shot out to curl around her upper arm. She refused to look at him. “I love you and I know you love me too. I don’t care how our families will react. I want to spend my life with you. I thought we started one together when we moved out of the dorms and rented this house. We’re happy when we’re not stressed about our future.
” Charma turned her head to peer up at him. “I told you. My family made a bargain with the pride leader. I’m promised as mate to someone else and they paid for college in exchange.” “I’ll pay back every dime. My family has money.” “It’s not that. It’s about a promise.” “Paying for college wasn’t worth signing your life over to someone else.” Anger deepened his voice into a snarl.
“You don’t want that jerk. You love me.” “I do.” She turned into him, pressed her nose against his chest and inhaled his wonderful scent. “I love you so much.” Her hot tears mingled with the chilled water droplets that remained on his skin from his cold shower. “I didn’t have a choice. I would have been ordered to mate whomever the pride leader chose. But this way I was able to postpone it and get an education first. He allowed it because they need a vet.
” Brand released her arm to pull her tighter against him. “Hon, we can work this out somehow. I’ll never let you go. We are mates already, even if we haven’t cemented the bond yet.” She wished with her entire soul for that to be true. Fate had been cruel to her family. Brand didn’t understand pride politics or the consequences if she didn’t mate with Garrett Alter. She couldn’t explain either. She was too afraid Brand would do something really insane to keep her. It would get him killed.
“Don’t take the pills. Not even the ones to prevent pregnancy.” Her gaze shot up to lock with his. “You know I have to.” “Would it be so bad to have a baby with me?” It would destroy her family. “It’s probably not even possible. I’ve never heard of it happening. We’re too different.” “Your human half could change that. We won’t know unless we try.
” “I just can’t.” Her voice broke and she pressed her face against his chest again, unable to witness the pained expression that twisted his features. “I do love you. Know that. No matter what happens in the future, you’re the only man who will ever truly own me.” He snarled and suddenly jerked away. “Don’t tell me that and then say I can’t have you in the next breath. I need to go for a run.” He spun, tore off his towel and stormed out of the room. The front door slammed with enough force to shake the old cabin and Charma collapsed to her knees, tears sliding down her cheeks.
Her obligation to her family was tearing them apart. She knew Brand would run himself into the ground to work out his frustration before he returned from the woods behind their home. She had at least an hour. It took all her strength to rise to her feet. She couldn’t destroy the man she loved, yet that was exactly what would happen as their bond grew. One day she’d have to return home and leave him. If she left now, he’d only have a few months of memories to get past. Her sobs carried her into the bathroom to take her pills. She nearly choked on them and the bitterness that carried them down her throat. She gazed at her pale reflection in the mirror.
Her blonde-and-brown-striped hair mocked her. Lots of humans had streaked hair, but hers was actually striped. It drew attention and she’d been asked many times where she’d had it done. To avoid unwanted attention, she’d dyed it. It was a trait she had stopped hiding at Brand’s insistence since hair dye made his nose itch. Her long, now-natural hair flowed to her waist. She pulled her mass of wavy hair to the side and turned enough to see her back. The dark spots along her lower spine were something she always hid beneath clothing or with her long hair. They were markings she’d been born with, ones that reminded her that no matter how much she wished she could change her heritage, it would never happen. They kept her from passing as human but the shifter world was destroying her one day at a time.
Her gaze lifted to stare into her blue-and-yellow eyes. The yellow flecks in her irises seemed more pronounced from crying. She reached for the contacts that would hide that uniqueness from humans and make her appear totally normal. There was only one thing to do. She had to leave Brand to spare him more pain. She loved him too much to be selfish. More tears spilled until they blinded her but she moved on wooden legs to pack her things. She needed to be gone before he returned. She threw back her head in anguish and stifled a scream. * * * * * Brand howled with grief after a quick search of their home.
Charma’s clothes no longer hung in the closet with his and her car wasn’t parked next to his truck when he rushed outside. He panted, sniffing. No gas exhaust hung in the air. She’d been gone for at least half an hour or he’d have smelled the engine still. He spun and went back inside the house. NO! He couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing her again. The first shirt he grabbed ripped in his hands, making him aware that his claws were out. “Fuck!” He had to pull himself together enough to get dressed without damaging everything he owned. He didn’t bother to put on shoes, just jeans and a T-shirt. He snagged his keys and rushed out the door.
Please break down, he prayed as he threw his truck in reverse and nearly slammed the tailgate into a tree in his rush. Her car was an old clunker and had an oil leak he’d planned to fix but she hardly drove it. He stomped on the brake, threw the vehicle in drive and punched it. The ass end slid on the grass as he took off. His frantic gaze scanned the road ahead as he took the curves far too fast for safety. He only slowed when he entered town, afraid the cops would pull him over. He couldn’t waste time getting a ticket. Where would she go? She didn’t have many friends. The fear of discovery was too great. The college girls loved to go swimming at the river but his Charma was afraid they’d see the faint spots trailing down her spine.
He’d assured her a hundred times she could say they were tattoos but she didn’t like to lie. Oh, baby. Where are you? Don’t do this. Don’t leave me. He drove past one of the dorms, searching for her car. It wasn’t there. Within ten minutes he was sure she hadn’t gone to crash with Dina or Barbara. Panic set in. She might have left town altogether. He made his way to the main highway and checked out the gas station.
She wasn’t there but he stopped anyway and went inside. The guy behind the counter frowned at his bare feet. “No shoes, no service.” Brand wanted to snarl but terrifying the clerk wouldn’t be to his advantage. “I’m sorry. My girlfriend is missing and I’m worried something has happened to her. She drives an old rusted Ford.” “Ah. The one with the cool two-toned hair down to her butt?” “Yeah. Charma.
Have you seen her lately?” The clerk nodded. “She was in here about forty minutes ago. She filled up her tank and bought a few candy bars.” Filled the tank. He felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. “Did she say where she was heading? Ask for directions? That car breaks down.” Suspicion narrowed the clerk’s eyes. “You guys have a fight?” Brand reached up and ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Yeah. It was stupid and I stormed out.
I came back and she was gone. Please tell me what you know. I can’t lose her.” “I don’t blame you. She’s a babe.” It took a lot of control for Brand not to lunge over the counter and tear the asshole’s throat out for noticing that about his woman. “Did she say where she was heading? I have to find her and tell her I’m sorry.” The clerk hesitated. “No, but I saw her get on the freeway. She went east.
” “Thank you!” Brand rushed outside, realizing he’d left the door open and the motor running. He jumped in his truck and drove like a madman, pushing the engine to the limit as he surpassed speeds of over a hundred and ten, weaving through traffic, searching for her car. His enhanced reflexes saved him from crashing a few times. The hope of catching up to her lasted until he reached a four-way split on the freeway. He tried to feel out her presence, using his senses to see if he could track her but nothing happened. “NO!” He checked his mirrors and crossed four lanes, only to slam on the brakes along the shoulder. He got out and sniffed the air, hoping to catch her scent. It was a long shot but he was desperate. Exhaust from the traffic choked him and he dropped to his knees beside the open truck door. He bellowed, “CHARMA!”