Wolf Mates, Book 4
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
Vivienne Hathaway fought to open her eyes, the foggy haze of what felt like an ugly hangover making it a struggle.
She attempted to roll her head in order to fight off the sleepies, but her head hit something she was unable to identify that sounded strangely like metal.
And on that note, why the hell couldn’t she stretch her legs and arms out?
“Yeah, she was pretty freaked last night. Scratching and hissing, howling like I was peeling her skin right off. I ended up having to sedate her. But by the time I went to bed, she was out like a light,” a deliciously deep, buttery voice said.
There was a pause, and then the man with the rumbly deep voice said, “Nah. It was a low dose. She’ll be fine. I put her in Scar’s cage for the night rather than take any chances she’d hurt him. Because you know Scar, he’d make Satan his BFF if he didn’t hate the heat so much. So no worries. I’ll just put the cage in the back of the van after I shower and bring her right over. Do you have the surgery suite prepped?”
The what now? Viv’s heart pumped when she attempted to sit up, but found she was thwarted by some kind of metal, cold and pressing against almost all every area of her flesh. Damn it. Why wouldn’t her eyes open?
“Perfect. I’ll see you in about twenty. I’d like this to be as painless as possible. I’d also like to have some flesh left on my body,” sexy-buttery-rumbly said on a pleasant chuckle.
Using her index fingers and thumbs, Viv pried her eyes open and licked her lips. Why was her mouth so dry?
Forcing her eyes to remain open, she fought a gasp. Not just because of her surroundings, but because she was buck naked.
In a crate.
A dog crate, if she wasn’t mistaken.
How ironic that she, a domestic cat shifter, would end up caught in a sworn enemy’s crate. This was one for the books.
She sniffed the air and ran her fingers over the fuzzy blanket beneath her backside. Yep, that was definitely the distinct scent of dog. Though, she mentally cheered her ability to even note the scent of a dog, because she sucked at sniffing out most everything else.
The crate was sitting on top of a wide chest, as far as she could tell, giving her a good view of a rustic bedroom, which, incidentally, was quite manly. A large four-poster bed sat in the middle of the room with a mattress so large and wide, it looked like it was made for an entire NBA team.
The thick comforter was blue, cream, and taupe, with matching square pillows; the wall behind the bed made of scarred logs. There were throw rugs on either side of the bed, covering the gleaming wood of the floor.
Only one nightstand, which possibly meant the person who owned this manly bedroom was single. There was a book sitting on top of the nightstand’s wood surface, but she couldn’t quite make out what the title was due to the angle the book was at.
Okay, so it was time to take some mental personal inventory before she panicked.
A. Why are you in a dog crate, Viv?
B. Why are you in a dog crate in what’s actually a pretty nice bedroom?
C. What did you do last night that landed you in a dog crate?
She didn’t have time to take stock or reflect on how she’d ended up here. She needed to get the hell out of here before Mr. Delicious Voice came in and took her to the surgery suite. She didn’t even want to know what that meant.
Maybe some mad scientist was lurking in Cedar Glen, looking for paranormal subjects to test out his mad scientist skills. Wasn’t that how Max and Derrick and their poor family had been cursed to begin with? By some crazy scientist who’d messed with their family’s DNA back in the eighteen hundreds?
She was, after all, now living in the country as opposed to the sort of city-like atmosphere of Hoboken. The perfect place for a lunatic to hide his laboratory. She was also living in a town made up only of other paranormals. She’d never lived in a community where people could do what she did. What if, in this community, fanatics lurked?
When she got out of this damn crate, she was going to kill JC for ever talking her into moving to this place—no matter how scenic or how welcoming the people of Cedar Glen were about other species of shifters.
A shiver ran along her bare arms as she allowed her vivid imagination to take hold. Pictures of her tied to some cold metal table, an overhead light flickering with an electric buzz as a man in white scrubs and a surgical mask laughed maniacally while he showed her his sharp, gleaming scalpel flitted through her head.
Yeah. It was time to get the hell out.
Vivienne Hathaway was good in emergency situations. Okay, that was mostly when it came to the animals she rescued, but whatever. She could do this.
Shaking off the haze of her sedation, Viv took a deep breath and attempted to reach forward in the crate to slide the latch. Not a snowball’s chance in Hell was she going to be able to relax enough to shift. Not that it would help her anyway—cats didn’t have fingers.
The dog crated in this cage was big, but not quite as big as a human being—even a short one like her—making getting past her knees to the sliding latch almost impossible.
Attempting to make herself as small as she could, Viv pulled her knees to her chest, took a deep breath, and hooked her hands around her ankles.
Viv froze as a cold nose pressed to her arm and sniffed. Her nostrils flared as she tried to turn her head enough to see what she was dealing with. This must be whose crate she was occupying.
“Woof.” The dog made another Eeyore-ish attempt at sounding out a greeting.
“Go away!” she hissed, gripping the side of the crate she flapped her fingers at him through the hole.
“Woof, woof, woof,” the dog barked again, still slow, lazy emissions, but with a bit more attitude.
Viv winced, fighting the ache in her belly—which was unused to any sort of exercise, let alone this crazy, pretzel-like pose.
“Shhh, buddy! Can’t you see I’m trying to get out of here unnoticed? Now go away. Go chase a squirrel, steal a steak. Sit. Lay down. Quiet. Go—shoo!”
His tongue swiped out and licked her arm, making her jump.
It was obvious she wasn’t going to be able to unlock the crate herself; she couldn’t get her knees far enough out of the way.
The dog sniffed at her, his wet nose exploring her arm with snorts and grunts. She managed to turn her head enough to the left to take stock of her new friend—a bulldog. An enormous bulldog, white and tan with a jutting lower jaw and two scraggly teeth pushing upward toward his flat nose.
Even in her heightened state of anxiety, Viv couldn’t help but smile. He was precious in the most squishy-faced of ways. She loved animals—all of them—even ones whose owners were mad scientists.
The dog sat back on his haunches, looking up at her. “Is this your bed, pal? Am I squatting in your special place?” she whispered.
He cocked his head at her in question. Obviously he wasn’t a shifter. Or was he, and she just couldn’t smell him?
As she assessed her predicament and the various means to an exit, she discovered there was only one way out.
There was no other choice but to tip herself over and hope she could manage to jar this latch loose when she hit the floor. She’d figure the rest out when she got free. Like, how she was going to fight her way out of here if the mad scientist caught her trying to escape when he was done showering.
Using the bottoms of her feet for leverage, Viv began to lurch forward in the crate, rocking it until it sat at the edge of the chest, teetering.
The dog didn’t appear to mind either; rather, he watched in quiet fascination, occasionally cocking his head as she worked up a sweat.
“I know, I know,” she mumbled on a huff of exertion. “You probably think I’m a lunatic, but I’m not the nut your owner is, with his surgery suites and pointy objects. Maybe—if I can get out of here, that is—you should come home with me before he turns you in as his project for the science fair. I have six cats. They’ll love you like you’re one of their own. Promise. Now look out below, buddy.”
Slipping her fingers between the crate’s bars to get a good grip, she used her arms now, rocking, rocking until—timber!
She fell face first toward the floor, hitting it with a rattle of metal and biting the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out.
The bad news? The cage landed on its side and the latch at her feet remained locked.
She fought a groan at all the racket she’d made and her sore limbs as the dog came over to inspect. He let out a low woof again then sighed, sitting back once more and watching with lethargic eyes.
Now on her side, Viv moaned to him. “I know. I get it. Failure to launch and all. I also know, technically, we’re a species of animals known for warring. But I love dogs, and I like to think of myself as very loveable. So I’m going to ask one little favor. Go keep your master busy, would you? I need a distracti—”
“Scar?” that grumbly-deep voice called out, followed by heavy footsteps coming her way.
Viv began to kick at the door of the crate in panic, using all her strength to try to break the latch.
“Aw, hell!” sexy-smexy voice yelled. “Hold on!”
As the voice came into full view, towering over the crate, she looked up to find one of the largest men she’d ever seen. Easily he was six-five.
Yowza, he was good-looking. Dark and brawny, with ruddy skin, hands that would easily palm a basketball, thick thighs in a pair of black jeans, tapered waist, and coal-black eyes full of genuine shock.
Damn. Wasn’t it just her luck that this gorgeous man was a raving lunatic? Why couldn’t the hot guys just be normal? Either they were far too into themselves to care much about anything other than vagina, or they lacked a brain, or they were nutjob mad scientists.
His eyes were wide when he asked, “You’re a shifter?”
“You’re a mad scientist?”
Viv rolled her eyes, panic settling in her belly. “Oh, please. I heard you on the phone, talking about your operating suite. I know what you want to do to me, you crazypants! But I’m here to tell you, I won’t go down without a fight, buddy! I’m small, but I’m scrappy. Also, people will miss me. They’ll come looking for me—like my friend JC. She won’t rest until she finds me and when she finds out about you, she’ll sic her husband Max on you. He’s a ferocious—” She stopped short.
He’d asked if she was a shifter. But that didn’t mean he was one, or even that he knew everyone else in town was, too. She wasn’t going to risk exposing the people of Cedar Glen to cover her own butt.
“Max Adams? The were?” he asked affably as he stretched out on his stomach and put his chin in the palm of his hand in order to see her better, yet respectfully keeping his eyes on her face.
Her eyes narrowed as she looked into his, still unsure how he’d come upon this information.
She decided to feign innocence. “The what?”
“We’re talking in circles.”
“This is awkward.”
He grinned, and damn, it was amazing on a man who was so burly he made her cramped knees buttery. “Yeah. Tell me about it. Me fully dressed and you…well, not dressed at all. The least you could have done was put some clothes on. We hardly know each other.”
Her eyebrow rose as the metal of the crate dug into her cheek. “Who are you?”
“Jagger Durov. Cedar Glen’s new mobile veterinarian. Who are you?”
“Naked—I mean, Vivienne Hathaway. Cedar Glen’s newest cash-poor resident.”
“JC’s best friend?”
“How do you know JC?”
“She’s married to Max and we play pool together sometimes at his brother Derrick’s bar. She said you’d moved here to be closer to people who are like you.”
Well that. But mostly because her trust fund had been embezzled and she’d had nowhere else to go when her apartment building had gone into foreclosure, but whatever.
“People like me?” She feigned more innocence.
If JC and her husband’s family had taught her nothing else, they’d taught her discretion, and while this Jagger smelled delicious, she didn’t know if that was delicious man or delicious deranged. She still couldn’t pinpoint species with her nose very well.
But give her the scent of a can of tuna opening from five miles away, and she was a superstar.
Jagger swished his finger, his deep eyes sparkling. “We’re doing the circle again. You’re a shifter, obviously. I put a cat in the cage and woke up to a beautiful woman.”
She fought a smile. He thought she was beautiful. She’d twirl her hair if she could lift her arm.
Then she wondered what kind of shifter he was. Cedar Glen was made up primarily of werewolves, and, judging by the size of him, he fit the bill.
“Are you a shifter, too?”
“Yep,” he said on another grin that stole her breath.
“So not a mad scientist?”
“Nope. Just part of the catch-and-release program we’ve begun here in Cedar Glen. You know, I humanely trap feral cats, spay or neuter them, then return them to their colonies.”
He liked animals. Dreamy.
That was when it all came back to her. She’d been practicing shifting and running in the wooded areas surrounding Cedar Glen, the urge to shift overwhelming when living amongst people like herself. But it was the safety of Cedar Glen and its paranormal inhabitants that made it such a huge draw to someone like herself, who’d had very little practice shifting.
Shifting wasn’t easy in a populated place like Hoboken, and she didn’t know many of her particular kind to begin with in order to learn. She’d always done it in secret.
So last night, after she’d moved into the guesthouse at JC and Max’s, she’d decided to explore her new home and the next thing she knew, she was caught in a cage. The rest was a bit of a blur. Though, she was beginning to remember putting up quite a fight.
Then his good intentions with the catch-and-release program dawned on her. Holy moly, she’d just missed being spayed.
But it made her breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe not so mad scientist after all. “So you were going to spay me? That’s what the surgical suite was about?”
Jagger grimaced, his luscious lips thinning. “Yeah. Damn good thing you shifted. I was just about to take you over to the clinic in town that I share with the local MD. Can’t believe I didn’t smell you as a shifter. Sorry about that.”
Viv shuddered. She had to figure out this shift thing and get it right at least half the time or she was going to end up mounted as part of some crazy cat lady’s collection.
“I need clothes.”
He chuckled. “I guess that depends on who you’re asking.”
She fought a flirty snicker. “I really need clothes.”
“You sure do. You can borrow something of mine, if you’d like.”
Viv pointed toward her feet, to the latch on the door. “Would you mind?”
“Damn. Sorry. You bet.” He used a long finger to slide the latch over. “You get yourself out of there, I’ll go find you something to wear and take you home. That work? Or would you rather I call JC? Me being an alleged mad scientist and all.”
She found herself smiling even though she was naked. Not a mad scientist who wanted to play lab rat with her, super-duper hot, liked animals, and was willing to give her a ride home?
Um, yes, please.
But she played it cool—because well, naked.
“No. Don’t bother JC. She’s probably busy at the new salon. I’ll take you up on that ride, though, if you don’t mind.”
Jagger smiled at her again, still keeping his eyes on her face. “Done deal. You can use my bathrobe for the moment. Just gimme a shout and let me know when it’s safe to come back in.”
Viv watched him and his hunky ass as they exited his bedroom and flushed all shades of red.
As she managed to push her way out of the cage, un-crimping her muscles one by one, she looked at Scar, who looked back at her with expressive, sad eyes. “You could have told me he wasn’t a mad scientist looking for his next subject, you know. You might have also mentioned he was hot times infinity.”
Scar yawned and shuffled his wide backend up against the bed until he was flush with the wood floor, clearly unfazed by her words.
Viv scratched him on the head then rose to throw on Jagger’s bathrobe, leaving her swallowed in fuzzy plaid fabric and dunked in the scent of delectable man.
And then the ramifications of what had just happened hit her with another fact.
She’d been naked in front of the new local vet—one she’d likely see often with six rescue cats to care for.
He saw your no-nos. How will you ever look him in the eye again when you have to bring one of the brood in for shots? He’s the only vet in town. You can’t drive all the way back to your old vet in Hoboken every time Howie’s constipated.
Were there veterinarians on Mars?
That seemed like a safe place to start looking for one.
“Hide me!” Viv urged her best friend since childhood, ducking down behind the bar she was tending.
JC stopped humming a Christmas tune, peering over the top of the bar at her with a frown. “From?”
“The hot vet.”
“The hot vet who’s the size of a lumberjack.”
“Jagger? I know he’s big, but he’s harmless. Super-nice guy. Eats lunch here almost every day since he came to town. Eats a lot of lunch. But I promise he’s okay. I know you’re not used to this whole paranormal thing en masse yet, Viv, but don’t overreact. He’s just like you.”
“Said the woman who almost had a coronary when she found out her boyfriend was a werewolf?”
JC giggled at the memory Vi referred to and disappeared from sight, tapping the top of the sleek wood. “Lookie here, buddy. I’m a damn human. I didn’t know you people even existed. It’s a little different than being a paranormal who just needs some practice. Anyway, why am I hiding you?”
Viv peeked out over the edge of the bar at her friend and whispered, “Because…I had a mishap…”
JC’s blue eyes went sharp and probing. “Mishap? I know I should be afraid, but I’m going to venture into the deep end of the kitty litter anyway. What mishap?”
Viv sighed and rolled her eyes at her shame. “I was out last night in cat form, just exploring the woods and stuff, and he caught me and stuffed me in a cage and sedated me. I woke up this morning after I’d shifted back into my human form, twisted up like a pretzel in a dog crate, his dog Scar’s crate, preparing to be spayed as part of this catch-and-release program he does for ferals.”
Her face turned bright red again. She felt it creeping up along her cheeks, warming her skin with renewed humiliation. That ride from his house to hers, dressed in his T-shirt and sweats she’d had to hold up with both hands, wearing shoes easily six sizes too big for her, was the worst walk of shame she’d ever taken.
But she’d turned to him in his sparkly new vet van just before hopping out, stuck out her hand to shake his, thanked him and held her head high as she sloshed her way through the snow to her new residence, vowing to take her cats to Mars for veterinary care before she’d ever look that man in the eye again.
And now here he was. Oy.
“Oh and one more small detail. I woke up in the cage naked.”
JC’s lower lip trembled, her eyes tearing up before she burst out into laughter.
Viv pinched her hand. “Shut up! Don’t make it any worse than it already is.”
JC held up a hand while she gasped for breath. “Sorrysorrysorry! Let me catch my breath!”
JC barked another laugh-snort. “It’s okay. I’ll laugh for you.”
Viv rasped an aggravated sigh. “Okay, so it’s funny. I’d laugh at you, too. Does he come in here a lot?”
She’d just begun to work at JC’s brother-in-law’s bar—aptly named The Bar—two days ago, so she wasn’t familiar with the regular clientele at this point.
“Like I said, he comes in almost every day for lunch. He’s a regular. Single, probably doesn’t cook much. Bet he’ll be in here more often now after this morning…”
Rising, Viv brushed her hair from her face and wrinkled her nose at her friend. “Oh hush. Seeing my fluffy ass naked won’t get me repeat offenders.”
“Really? I dunno, Viv. Looks to me like he’s headed your way, and he shows no signs of fluffy ass syndrome either.” She pointed with a perfectly manicured nail to the mirror behind the bar decorated with silver garland and Christmas balls.
Viv whipped around, horrified and confirmed Jagger’s big, sexy reflection strolling toward her. Letting her head hang low, she winced and did the only thing she could do.
Dove for the floor.
“Hey, JC! Good to see you,” he rumbled, deep and resonant over the Christmas music playing in the background.
Oh, that voice made her melty and weak.
“You, too, Jagger! How’s life treating you since the big move here?”
“I like it a lot. Everybody’s pretty friendly, loving the freedom to shift at will, too.”
“Funny you should mention that. I hear that’s a huge plus to living in Cedar Glen,” JC said on a giggle as Viv rolled her eyes at her friend’s obvious insinuation.
“You okay down there?”
Viv froze at the sound of Jagger’s voice just above her head, bracing her hands on the shelf that held the beer mugs, biting her lip to keep from irrationally screaming at him not to look at her.
“I’m good, thanks.” Her reply sounded wooden and stiff.
“Got a minute?” Jagger asked, his voice closer than it had been a moment ago.
“Sure. What do you need?”
He tapped her on the shoulder. “Well, first, I’d like to see your face.”
She looked up to find he’d leaned so far over the bar, their faces were but inches apart, with his minty breath wafting in her nose. Up close, he was just as ruggedly handsome as he’d been from behind the metal bars of Scar’s crate.
Viv swallowed hard. She was no stranger to men. She’d had all manner of boyfriends in her almost thirty-three years—dates, casual lovers from time to time, two serious relationships.
But they didn’t see her naked before she said they could.
Jagger rested his square chin in his hand like he had when they were on the floor of his bedroom. “Are we still at the awkward, ‘oh, my God. You saw me without a stitch of clothing on’ stage?”
Viv couldn’t stop a snort as she rose. “Nah. Waking up in a dog crate in a strange man’s bedroom naked isn’t even a little awkward. It’s the complete opposite of awkward.”
“You mean comfortable?”
“Yep. I was very comfortable. You sure can pick a crate.”
He grinned, his eyes sparkling.
“So what’s up?” she asked, rather squeaky and pitchy, to the tune of more muffled giggles from JC.
“I was wondering if you’re busy tonight?”
“Do you need to practice your sedation technique on someone? Because I think you’ve got that squared away. Or is it tips on how to fit a fully grown woman into a dog cage that you seek?”
Jagger barked a husky laugh, sending a ripple of awareness down her spine. “Not tonight. Though, I will ask that you wear clothes so as not to hurt my delicate sensibilities.”
Now she laughed and shook her head, her cheeks hot all over again. “I’m sorry about this morning. I guess I never really explained. I wasn’t raised a shifter. I’m adopted. I found out much later in life I was different than my parents. So while I’ve shifted, I’ve never really had this kind of freedom, and scenting danger or another shifter is still kind of wiggy and off. In essence, I’m still learning. I wasn’t paying attention last night, and bam—I ended up in a trap. Totally my fault.”
He grinned, the smile lighting up his entire face. “Nah. I should be the one to apologize. I should have scented you, but you were wired for sound. I couldn’t calm you down and I was too focused on capturing and calming you. My fault completely.”
As the full effects of the sedation had worn off, Viv had begun to remember fighting him as he’d tried to settle her in the crate. She taken a good chunk of his arm and the evidence of her catching him on his cheek with a claw was staring right at her.
Her fingers went to his face to stroke the crimson scratch without thinking. “Oh, I scratched your cheek. I’m sorry.”
But Jagger grinned again, catching her hand in his and holding it while her pulse raced. “Hazard of the job. But I know how you can make it up to me.”
The warmth of her hand in Jagger’s much bigger one overwhelmed her, but it was a nice way to be overwhelmed. “Neosporin?”
“Nope. A date.”
“As in go on one with you?”
She played coy. “But we have no mystery. No big reveal to look forward to. You’ve already seen me naked. What’s left?”
“Who said I wanted to see you naked again? That’s so repetitive. And maybe I don’t want to have to solve the mystery.”
She giggled—foolishly, breathlessly. “You’re a man. You all want to solve the mystery.”
Now he rolled his dark eyes in jest. “Okay, fine. I won’t say I didn’t think about solving the mystery. But I’m okay already knowing the ending. I’m not much for surprises.”
Even as flushed and distracted as she was from all this flirting, she still managed to note how utterly in the moment she was with him—how easy it was to banter back and forth.
“So where do you want to take me on this date?”
“What’s your take on paper shredding?”
“As a rule or as fun date activities go?”
“Fun date activities.”
“Oh, it’s right up there with scorpion petting, fitted-sheet folding, and watching ketchup drip for NASA.”
“NASA watches ketchup?”
“Duh. Astronauts deserve condiments, too.”
“You can get a job watching ketchup drip at NASA? What sorcery is this?”
“Who knew, right? But that’s what Craigslist tells me. It’s called viscosity, I think. I was all in until I found out I had to use a ruler to determine the rate of the drip per nanosecond. I’m the un-math.”
He nodded in solidarity, his eyes twinkling. “Yeah, me, too.”
Viv shook her head and mocked sadness, letting her lower lip jut outward in a pout. “Oh, forget that date then.”
His eyes went wide, all the while, his thumb making a lazy pattern of heat on her skin. “You’re breaking up with me already? Even after I said I’d get over seeing you naked? Why so soon?”
“How can two people who have no fiscal sense ever date? What if our scorpion-petting, ketchup-drip watching date was so awesome we decided to get married? We’d be broke in no time flat. There has to be a yin and yang. You know, I pick up the slack where you falter and vice versa. Two un-maths would be death, for sure.”
“What if I told you I’d buy a calculator?”
“I might reconsider.”
“Then how about I pick you up tonight at seven at your place. We’ll grab dinner. I’ll bring the calculator, you bring the ketchup.”
“But what about the scorpion?”
His raven eyebrow rose with a skeptical slant. “Does he eat a lot? Remember our fiscal obligations.”
Viv’s head fell back on her shoulders as she laughed. “Seven’s perfect.”
He leaned in a bit closer before letting her hand go, his cologne settling in her nose with woodsy perfection. “I’ll see you then.” With that, he let go of her hand and sauntered out of the bar, the weak mid-afternoon sunlight glancing off his dark hair as he opened the door, and then he was gone.
She stood rooted to the spot, her heart thrashing in her chest, her thoughts muddled.
JC held up her empty glass under Viv’s nose and fanned herself with a grin. “Phew, girl! I’m all hot and bothered. Ice, please.”
“It’s twenty degrees out with another five inches of snow forecasted. How could you be hot?”
“After that exchange about ketchup and shredding and scorpions? Who wouldn’t be hot?”
Viv giggled like she was at the high school dance and the cutest guy in school had just asked her to awkwardly sway back and forth to a Backstreet Boys song. “He’s cute, huh?”
JC leaned in on her elbow and chucked Viv under the chin. “He’s adorably enormous. I can’t believe you’ve been here all of a week and managed to snare yourself the town’s most eligible bachelor.”
“Yeahhh,” she whispered, still inhaling the scent of his cologne and reminiscing about his thick thighs. But then she straightened. “Wait. Most eligible? Is he a serial dater or something?”
JC shook her head full of dark curls. “No. By eligible I mean he’s the only bachelor in town. Most everyone here is mated.”
“I’m not getting myself into something I’ll regret, am I? He’s not super-Casanova, is he? Because as my BFF, it’s your responsibility to tell me all the juicy details you have on him. I don’t want to get all excited if he’s a bag of dicks. Remember Nick?”
JC nodded her dark head. “The one you dated because he had a Backstreet Boy’s name.”
“That wasn’t the only reason. He was pretty cute. Super smart.”
“Exactly. No repeats of messy entanglements part two.”
“So his fiancée showing up at the fundraiser for the Hoboken shelter and all but knocking you out of that amazing pair of shoes you wore is out?”
Boo-hiss. Just remembering those shoes made her heart hurt. They’d been amazing, all right. Sparkly, gold Louboutins. Now sold in the estate sale the bank had forced her into.
But the worst part of that night was the pain she’d help cause without even knowing she was a party to it.
“Definitely out. I never want to be a party to someone else’s heartache again. So have you heard anything about Jagger? Tell me the truth. I can take it.”
She held her breath. JC would come clean if she had, but Viv really, really didn’t want there to be any dirt.
JC lifted her fork and grinned. “Clean as a whistle as far as I know. But he’s only been here a few months, Viv. Finally moved his practice for good last month after Max talked him into leaving New York and coming here to help with the pack, among other things. He’s been a tremendous resource for those who’ve suffered with the DNA issues.”
“But he’s a vet. Not a doctor.”
“Which is better than a human doctor and discovery, don’t you agree? How do you go to a human doctor and explain getting stuck in shift and the side effects that creates?”
Viv smiled and raised a finger in the air. “Point. So wish me luck?”
JC rolled her eyes. “As if you, the queen of vixens, need help? I’d be smarter wishing Jagger luck.”
But this was different somehow. Jagger was different. She just wasn’t sure why or how it was different. But it felt important. Really important.
Grabbing JC’s hand, she looked at her friend. “No. I mean it. Wish me luck.”
JC’s blue eyes were confused at first and then they went soft and warm. “Luck. So much luck.”
Viv straightened, her stomach in an unfamiliar knot, her heart pitter-pattering at an erratically excited beat.
She squared her shoulders as she looked at the clock. She still had four hours until her shift ended. No more daydreaming about Jagger or dwelling on the magic that was just his mere presence.
But she found herself humming another one of those Christmas tunes someone had played on the jukebox, a smile on her face.
* * * *
Jagger dropped his cell phone in the jacket of his white lab coat and inhaled a deep breath of the cold air as he left Floyd and Marcy Brown’s old farmhouse, smiling at them as they stood at the front door with their cockapoo, Mookie, safely in Marcy’s arms.
“Thanks, Dr. Durov,” Marcy said with a watery smile, the tears she’d shed earlier drying to leave streaks in her makeup. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to my Mookie.” She snuggled the white dog closer.
Mookie had been the victim of some kind of animal attack. An attack, because he couldn’t identify the tooth mark, he’d have to discuss with Max. Here in Cedar Glen, they didn’t hunt out of respect for Max’s cousin Hector, who was, due to the tampering of his ancestors’ DNA, a vegetarian.
The nick to Mookie’s paw wasn’t significant, and only a partial nick at that, but it was definitely done by another animal. But what kind of animal? Certainly nothing he could smell. This had occurred just outside the fence of the Brown’s farmhouse and there weren’t any dogs in this particular part of Cedar Glen.
“My pleasure. Now make sure he finishes all the antibiotics. They should take care of the swelling in his paw, and he’ll be back to his old self in no time flat. Give me a call if you have any questions. Have a good night.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Floyd said, clapping him on the back. “Make sure you spread the word somebody’s out there somewhere, attacking our pets. Damn well better not let Max catch ’em. He’ll draw and quarter ’em just like the old days.”
Jagger winced and held up a hand. “Let me investigate before we hang ’em high, huh? Could be an animal who’s not a shifter has migrated due to population or something. So let me look into it before you break out the shotgun, okay?”
“You got it, Boss,” Floyd said as Jagger turned to leave.
He smiled at the sheer amount of Christmas lights the older couple had hung from the wide front-porch railings, stepping over the big basket full of pinecones and ornaments.
The days were darker much earlier now and he had a date to prepare for; that made him smile wider as he strode down the steps toward his van.
The longer he was here in Cedar Glen, the more he liked the people, the surroundings, the new practice he was creating since leaving his mentor, Dr. Milo Mathews, back in New York. But after meeting Viv today, everything else paled in comparison.
Jesus, she was beautiful. Blonde hair falling around her shoulders to the middle of her back; big, round green eyes fringed with dark lashes; soft, pale curves; pouty peach-colored lips.
His chest tightened as the visual of her in Scar’s cage came back and then he smiled again. He knew he shouldn’t laugh, but their first meeting was pretty damn funny.
She didn’t seem to mind his poking fun, either. She’d played right along. That’s when he’d found he wasn’t just instantly attracted to her physical beauty. He’d met plenty of those women back in New York. Great looking, but uninteresting in a deeper way.
He was attracted to Viv’s willingness to laugh at his jokes, to spar with him. She was quick-witted, open, and it had taken all of ten minutes for him to decide he wanted a date with her.
Among other things.
But for right now, he’d settle for some one-on-one time with her. He wanted to know what made Vivienne Hathaway tick. Why she’d mentioned the being cash poor. How she’d come to find out she was a shifter, how her family dealt with it. What it was like to grow up with humans.
Mostly he wanted to see her smile again, hear her laugh. Find out if those saucy retorts came from equally saucy lips.
As the day began to fade into a purple and bruised-blue twilight, Jagger turned the key in the ignition of his Doggy Doctor van, catching yet another smile on his face in the rearview mirror.
The smile of anticipation.
Wrapping a towel around her head, Viv sorted her way through her meandering herd of cats and headed for the bedroom in the cottage JC had offered to rent to her while she got on her feet.
Four furry black bodies zoomed ahead of her, racing each other to her new bed, where the other two cats slept soundly, curled into the fluffy red and white pillows she’d managed to somehow hide from the bank and their estate-sale hounds.
Viv shook her head, pulling off the towel covering her hair and draping it on the antiqued white dresser. No feeling sorry for herself today. All that money didn’t define her. It just made her life easier.
She could handle difficult. She would handle difficult. So she wasn’t rich anymore. So she couldn’t devote all of her time to rescuing animals anymore, but instead had to work a real job for a living. And so what if she’d given her parents what was left in her checking account to get them to Florida. Her mother’s sister, Evelyn, lived there and had welcomed them with open arms. Since her husband, Martin, died, Evelyn said she was lonely.
They were safe and unscathed, and that was all that mattered. Out of harm’s way while she attempted to track down the bastard who’d stolen all their money.
Hiram Abrahmowicz was going to rue the day she found him—wherever the hell he was. He hadn’t just been her parent’s accountant, he’d been hers, too. He’d sauntered off with the family fortune and was likely sunning himself on some island he’d bought with her parents’ hard-earned money.
Still, she’d fared well. When JC had found out about her predicament, she’d driven to Hoboken like the cavalry, bringing her husband Max, his brother Derrick, and Derrick’s wife Martine. They’d scooped her up on the last day of the estate sale, wiped her tears, packed up what little she had left, herded the cats and driven her to Cedar Glen, where JC had demanded she stay in the adorable white cottage behind their house, rent free.
To which Viv had vehemently opposed until Derrick offered her a job at the bar as a bartender. If she had few skills other than debutante and an unusable degree in the arts, she was, in fact, a killer bartender.
She clenched her fists as Howie hopped up on the dresser and head-butted her, purring softly. Viv softened and scratched him under the chin, the only white spot on his entire body.
“I know, I know, Snookums. This, too, shall pass, right? Our budget has nowhere to go but up, right?” Howie head-butted her in acknowledgment, resting his soft cheek against hers.
AJ pawed at her calf, reminding her she had to move it along if she was going to be on time for Jagger.
Viv inhaled a deep breath. Jagger. He was delicious and funny and sharp and enormous. The-size-of-a-mountain enormous, leaving her feeling small and delicate. Not something usually attributed to her and her curves, but it left her feeling sexy.
She hadn’t been this excited about a date in a hundred years, and despite her poverty, she felt a little more hopeful today than she had yesterday.
She had a job, a place to rest her head, a paycheck coming, and a date.
Things were looking up.
Nick rolled his round body at her feet, looking for tummy scratches, his wide green eyes hopeful. “Later, gator. Promise. Mommy needs to get her butt in gear. I only have an hour to get ready.” Giving Nick one last stroke with her toes, she turned to assess her sparsely filled closet.
Gone were her fancy designer labels, replaced by some clothes she’d managed to sneak past the bank’s estate-sale people—a couple of pairs of jeans, and some T-shirts she used when she was on a rescue.
Shit. She hadn’t given much thought about what she was going to wear on this date with Jagger. She didn’t even know where they were going.
Lack of a cute outfit had never been a problem before, even though she preferred jeans. Scratching her head, she began digging through a black bag of clothes JC had dropped off earlier in the week.
JC was miles taller than she was, but she could always roll the sleeves up on a sweater.
The doorbell’s loud gong interrupted her search and had the cats scattering to investigate. Maybe it was JC with another one of her casseroles, or Max’s mother, Faith—who was the most beautiful decades-old woman she’d ever seen—with cookies. Faith made amazing cookies.
They’d all made her their Project Pitiful, and while she was incredibly grateful, she was determined to earn her keep and find her way in this strange new land called Only Lint In My Pockets.
It was probably JC. She’d offered to come over and hang out while she got ready for her date if she could get away from the new salon.
Making her way to the door, she popped it open, a smile on her face.
To find Jagger standing outside, fluffy snowflakes whispering across his raven hair, the light from the porch swaying on its hook from the frigid wind, his big hands holding a bouquet of ketchup packets.
He sighed and clucked his tongue at her with a saucy grin. “Are you still trying to tempt me with your luscious curves and wicked ways? I think I told you, young lady, and I stand firm, naked won’t work. What made you think half-naked would?”
She barked a laugh as her brood hovered around her ankles, weaving between them in inquisition, and clung to the towel’s edges at her breasts. “You’re early. I don’t get dressed before seven,” she joked, even as she watched him try to avoid assessing her with his eyes.
He held up his wrist and pointed to his watch. “Um, no. I’m on time. I’m always on time.”
She let the door swing wide, inviting him in as she shivered before pointing to the microwave in her small white and dove-gray kitchen. “See what the microwave says, funny man? Six-fifteen. I still have forty-five minutes.”
He dug his phone out of the pocket of his jeans and used his thumb to scroll the screen. “See what the calendar says? Someone forgot to change her clocks back in November.”
Viv frowned, tucking a strand of her wet hair behind her ear. “Damn. I’m sorry. But I promise if you give me five minutes, it’ll be worth the wait.”
Jagger held out the ketchup packet bouquet, shutting the door with the heel of his booted foot. “Better put these in water before they wilt. And five minutes is all you get. One minute more and I turn into a pumpkin.”
It was at that moment when her brood decided Jagger was an interloper who needed a thorough investigation.
The BSB Boys plus one weren’t shy. They were people cats with almost no hang-ups, ready and willing to sit in any lap available—and clearly, Jagger’s looked like a lap worth inspecting.
The lot of them bum-rushed him, circling his feet until he knelt down and held the back of his hand out. Looking up at her, he asked with a devastatingly handsome smile, “How many do you have?”
“Six total—all rescues—all almost totally black because as you know in rescue, black cats are hard to place. Nick, Howie, AJ, Brian, Kevin, and JT.”
Jagger chuckled and nodded. “Backstreet Boys and one NSYNC?”
Viv fluttered her eyelashes at him as her furbabies decided Jagger was worthy, rubbing up against him and yowling their pleasure as he tried to stroke all of them. “You know the names of the Backstreet Boys? Be still my beating heart.”
Rising, he stared down at her, still avoiding anything but her face—which almost made her swoon—and winced a sheepish grin. “Hang on to your heart. I have a confession. I interrogated—er, asked JC about you today while she trimmed my hair.”
Her heart returned to its erratic pounding as she took the ketchup packet bouquet and set it on the counter, leaving only a few inches between them. “Did you get a haircut just for our date?”
“No. I had split ends. They were hideous.”
Laughter spilled from her throat as she found herself leaning in closer toward him, savoring his cologne, the sharp square of his jaw. “That was very sweet.”
Jagger leaned in, too, his big presence soothing and sexy at the same time. “So you don’t mind that I asked her about you? It was just general stuff, like your favorite color, what you like to eat, if you’d send me packing if I didn’t get you the right brand of ketchup. Where I could find a scorpion. You know, nothing too personal.”
Goose bumps skittered along her skin as his minty breath wafted over her face. “Nah. It was a smart thing to do. If you’d brought the wrong brand of ketchup, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Just then, Kevin decided Jagger wasn’t paying the proper attention to him and launched himself at Jagger’s thigh. The scrape of claw meeting denim had Viv forgetting about the towel around her and reaching between them to extract Kevin.
But she stumbled on JT, who’d apparently decided to throw his back into this effort to get Jagger’s attention, and then she tripped on Howie, almost knocking him sideways.
Jagger, reached for her just as she fell into him, his solid chest like a wall of bricks as they stumbled backward and fell to the floor in order to avoid hurting the cats.
The BSB Boys and JT scattered, leaving only tufts of fur and Viv naked in Jagger’s arms.
Lifting her head, she rose up on the palms of her hands and looked down into his deep brown eyes. “I’m naked.”
Jagger popped his yummy lips and instantly dropped his arms to his sides. “It’s like you just can’t get it together, Vivienne Hathaway. Why is that?” he teased.
Her nipples scraped against the fitted shirt he wore, creating a sweet friction she had to clench her teeth to contain, yet neither of them moved. “It must be all the talk of ketchup.”
“Can I just say something?” he asked, his tone husky, his eyes still fixed on her face.
“Really. What is there left to say? I’m naked.”
“And I’m trying to remain a gentleman while you’re naked. But I gotta tell ya, the way you’re always throwing yourself at me like this is unnerving. How long’s a guy supposed to hold out before he cracks?”
Her cheeks grew hot as a thrill shot up along her spine. “You feel like you’re going to crack?”
Jagger cleared his throat. “I don’t want to mention the unmentionable because it’s unbecoming of a gentleman, but don’t you feel that part of me that feels like it’s going to crack?”
Did she ever. He was hard everywhere. Ev-ery-where. And it was doing things to her she’d never had done before.
Her laughter tinkled through the cottage as she sank deeper into his long length before she could catch herself. “I do. But I don’t mind if you don’t mind,” she managed to murmur while her head spun and her pulse raced.
“That’s what all the girls say,” he grumbled in that deep, dripping-with-hot-chocolate-sauce way.
“All of them? How many naked women have fallen on top of you after a full-on feline assault?”
He scoffed, his chest rising against hers. “I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count.”
“You’re a popular guy, huh?”
“Senior prom queen and everything.”
Her giggle was light and flirty, and she didn’t even care that she was naked anymore because their lips were now but a half-inch apart and his mouth was too busy mesmerizing her.
“You know what, Vivienne Hathaway?”
“What, Jagger Durov?”
“I think if I don’t kiss you within the next couple of seconds, something really terrible is going to happen. I know it’s really soon in our budding relationship. I know it’s untoward. Nay, bold even. But I’m just sayin’ it could get ugly fast.”
Viv made a pouty face, her body relaxing against his, relishing the long, muscled solidness. “I would never want anything terrible to happen to you. You brought me ketchup,” she whispered, lowering her head just a half inch more as he raised his.
Their lips whispered across one another’s, creating an instant zing of heart-pounding anticipation deep in her belly. Viv inhaled all this man beneath her, all those scrumptious ridges and planes, the scent of his cologne, his warm breath on her face.
She wet her lips, her tongue snaking outward, almost catching the soft pout of his mouth. Her pulse raced, her head grew dizzy, her nipples tightened, scraping against his shirt as Jagger’s fingers just barely touched her skin.
Just as their mouths almost touched again, the ringing of Jagger’s cell phone in his jacket pocket made them both jump, making Viv’s muscles clench in disappointment.
He ran a wide hand over her bare back and apologized on a ragged sigh. “Sorry, that’s my emergency number. I have to take this.”
Viv rolled off him with more reluctance than she cared to admit and scrambled for the towel she’d lost in their fall. “No worries. You get that, I’ll just go finish getting dressed.”
She wrapped the towel back around her and zipped toward her bedroom, closing the door, her breathing uneven, her limbs shaky.
God, he was sex on a stick. She’d done nothing more than lie on top of the man—granted, she was naked, but still, she’d been more turned on than she could ever remember.
AJ and Kevin circled her ankles while she rooted in her closet for something to wear. Still unclear about where they were going.
“I’m on my way,” Jagger reassured from behind the door.
Damn. He probably had an emergency he couldn’t ignore. Disappointment settled in, but he was a doctor, emergencies were part of the deal.
Knuckles rapped against her bedroom door, reminding her to put some clothes on. “Viv? I’ve got an emergency. I have to go.”
She swallowed hard, still trying to compose herself. “I totally understand. You go. I hope everything’s okay.”
“Why don’t you come with? JC tells me you’re really good at soothing frightened animals with all the rescuing you did back in Hoboken. I’d really appreciate an extra pair of hands. Do you mind?”
She grinned, jamming her legs into her favorite pair of jeans and reaching for a tie for her hair. “I’d love to,” she responded, throwing a sweater over her head and grabbing her boots.
Viv popped the door open to find Jagger towering there, his eyes amused. “You sure you don’t mind? It’s not exactly the kind of stuff first dates are made of.”
She scoffed at him, slipping past his bulk to grab her coat and gloves. “Are you kidding? I live for this. If you couldn’t tell, I love animals. All animals. I’m happiest when I’m with them.”
Jagger stared at her for a moment, one that felt long but was likely only seconds. “I like you, Vivienne Hathaway,” he finally said, as though it stunned him to like her.
She beamed from the inside out as she wrapped a warm scarf around her neck. “Good thing, too. It will ease the crushing blow when I confess you brought me the wrong brand of ketchup.”
Jagger barked a laugh, opening the front door and making a sweeping motion with his hand for her to exit. “After you, Miss Persnickety.”
Her laughter echoed into the dark night as she tromped through the falling snow toward Jagger’s van, her heart warm, despite the frigid air.