I'm so happy to share my first chapter with you! I hope you like it - we have less than a month to go before TRUST THE WOLF release. Enjoy!
The music in the club throbbed louder, assaulting Emilia’s sensitive eardrums. It was past midnight, and she was grumpy as a bear. She couldn’t shake the feeling that people were watching her as she sat alone at the table, and the first tendrils of a headache unfurled behind her eyeballs. She’d just about had it with this evening.
The blind date Anaya had set her up with hadn’t shown, leaving her as the odd one out with a couple eager to party. Anaya swore she’d murder the guy, but Emilia told her not to bother. Blind dates were always torture, and she’d have weaseled out of this one if her friend had let her. So Emilia couldn’t really blame him for bailing. She’d never let Anaya set her up again, though.
Gulping down the remains of her cosmopolitan, she set the glass on the table with a click. She found Anaya’s gaze in the crowd, where she was dancing with her date, pointed toward the opposite end of the club, and mouthed, “Bathroom.”
She picked up her purse, took a quick, shallow breath, and dove into the mass of people. Insomnia, the newest sensation of New York City’s Meatpacking district, was crammed full of sweaty, gyrating bodies that jumped and swayed under flashing lights. The smells mixing in the hot air were enough to make Emilia’s head spin. Perfume and spirits, hairspray and body odor. She lifted her head in search of a gust of fresher air from the vents but had no luck.
A hand snaked from the crowd and clamped down on her wrist. She tugged, but the person only squeezed tighter. Annoyed, she followed the arm to its owner and met the narrowed eyes of a thin, disheveled man. He grinned at her, leering, and Emilia’s sense of unease tingled. She pulled again, ready to yell at him, but a pair of women came barreling through the crush, each holding two cocktail glasses high above their heads.
One cut between them and shouted, “Ex-cuse me! Coming through!”
The man released her and was gone. Emilia shook off the encounter and headed toward the restrooms. The third DJ of the evening was about to start his show, and the crowd coming from the bathroom jostled her as she fought her way in the opposite direction. She decided then and there to call it a night.
She placed her hands under a cold tap, cooling her wrists, and pressed her palms against her hot cheeks. Her reflection stared back at her, sweaty and annoyed. Pulling her long black hair into a ponytail to keep it off her sticky neck, she stepped into the hallway.
A body slammed into her, pushing her into the wall. Her breath got knocked out of her lungs, and her head hit the concrete with a painful thump. Rancid body odor assaulted her nose, and she flinched from it instinctively. This cost her; the man seized her wrists and pinned her arms to her sides, leaning so close, his entire body was plastered to hers.
Emilia gasped in pain. What the hell? Her instincts kicked in, and she struggled, but the man—the same man who’d grabbed her wrist earlier—just gripped her tighter, his fingernails digging into her skin. She gagged from the smell of his breath and fought to get her stomach under control. Her muscles tensed, and she jerked, trying to wrench away, but it was impossible with the wall at her back. I need to get out of here, fast.
“Get off me!”
Remembering a self-defense trick Mat had taught her in high school, she lifted her foot and slammed it onto the man’s instep, but their legs were too close together.
“Keep fighting, little cub,” he rasped in her ear, then licked it with a hot tongue.
She shuddered, revolted, and twitched away. He released one of her wrists to paw at her breast. Her first thought was to slap his hand, but she gritted her teeth and cupped her free palm instead, remembering Mat’s lessons. With as much force as she could gather, she slammed the palm onto his exposed ear.
He staggered to the side, releasing her, just as she’d expected, and she wasted no time in breaking free, ready to run and scream for help. Why hadn’t anyone noticed yet? From a distance, they probably looked like a couple hooking up in the empty hall. Picking up her pace, she started down the hallway toward the crowd and caught a glimpse of the man who was already regaining his balance, his face contorted with fury, lunging after her once more.
Before he reached her, a dark shape hurtled into him from the side, and his body collided with the wall, a sickening crunch punctuating a quiet lull in the music. The man howled and crumpled to the sticky floor, clutching his wrist to his chest.
Emilia stared, wide-eyed, at the tall man who’d stopped her attacker and now crouched to speak in a voice too quiet to carry over the music. He pulled something—a card?—from the jerk’s jacket pocket and inspected it. When he was done, the smelly guy on the floor grabbed his card and backed away in an awkward crab-like crawl. He stumbled to his feet and disappeared down the passage. Emilia retreated a step, ready to escape into the crowd, when her savior stood to his full height and turned to her.
Her breath caught in her throat at the feral look on his face. He was furious—but not with her. His gaze was already softening and losing some of its wildness.
He stepped closer, his hand out like he was trying to calm a frightened animal, and Emilia realized she was still tensed to run, half-turned toward the exit. She made herself straighten up.
“Are you okay?” he asked. His voice was deep and low, barely audible in the loud hallway.
Emilia’s heartbeat slowed, her breaths no longer fast and panicked, and she took a deep breath to calm herself. His scent hit her nostrils, fresh clothes and spicy man, and she found herself leaning forward—both to hear him better and to get another whiff. Then she pressed her mouth into a thin line. Don’t sniff people in public.
“Yes.” She schooled her expression into a neutral one, eager to appear as unaffected as possible. “And thanks. For scaring him off.” She waved her arm in the direction her attacker had disappeared.
“No problem.” A small smile tugged at the corner of his serious mouth. “I thought you had it covered, but damn hyenas never know when to quit. They’re a fucking nightmare to track.”
She laughed, surprised and intrigued. “Hyena. I’ve never heard it used as an insult before, but it fits.”
He gave her a strange look. “It wasn’t an insult.”
“Oh.” Emilia frowned, unsure how to proceed. Was she supposed to be in on the joke? “Well, thanks again…” She trailed off and lifted her eyebrows in question.
“Jason.” He extended his hand toward her.
“Emilia.” His palm was big and warm, and he squeezed hers in a firm grip, his hazel eyes still locked on her.
Their handshake was just a bit too long to be formal, but she dropped his hand before things could get awkward. She cursed the butterflies fluttering in her stomach. Now’s not the time.
“I’m sorry, but I’ll need your ID to file an incident report.” He was already pulling his phone from the pocket of his jeans. He wasn’t as affected by that handshake as she was, apparently, and Emilia fought to keep her cool.
“And I’m reporting his card number right now.” His thumbs flew as he typed. The light from the screen illuminated his face from beneath, shadows playing at the edge of his sharp jaw. “I fucking hate paperwork,” he muttered as if talking to himself.
Emilia studied him curiously. He didn’t look like the other club bouncers she’d seen around the dance floor, but maybe that was the point. Maybe he was undercover. Her lips turned up at the thought.
She picked her ID card from her purse and handed it to him. “Here.”
Jason glanced up from his phone, then frowned at her. “I need your SANA card.”
“Your SANA card. This is your human ID. I need your registration number.”
She stared at him. Were they speaking the same language? “Excuse me?”
He was staring at her intently, his straight eyebrows drawing down in a frown. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I need you to hand over your identification now.”
She shoved her ID card back into her purse. He started at her abrupt movement and retreated a step, and Emilia got the sense he was sizing her up as an opponent.
She stepped back, too, though that put her even farther from the dance floor and the safety of the crowd. Too bad the guy was weird, because he was really hot. And he smelled amazing. But he wasn’t making any sense, and she was too tired to deal with this.
“Sorry,” she said. “That’s the only ID I’m carrying.”
“You’re supposed to carry your SANA ID at all times. Why can’t you follow the rules? It’s not that hard.” Now he sounded more annoyed than angry, like he dealt with this sort of thing a lot.
“Right,” Emilia said and nodded like this meant something to her.
He clearly thought she was some other person. In different circumstances, she’d have stayed to clear the misunderstanding, but right now, she wanted to go home, shower off the stench of the club, and sleep for fourteen hours. She stepped to the side, intending to move past him, but he shifted just slightly in her direction, not threatening but watchful.
His gaze swept her body, but she had the distinct feeling that this look wasn’t sexual. She still squirmed under the attention. There was something to be said about having such a man focus so completely on her. His nostrils twitched, and he closed the distance between them again, his posture relaxing.
“Why are you so confused?” His eyes were strangely bright as he waited for her answer.
“Uh, because you’re not making any sense. I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
She glanced around and relaxed a little. Another couple wandered along the passage, so there was no danger of getting cornered by this guy. Yeah, a definite pity. In other circumstances, she wouldn’t mind getting cornered by such a fine male specimen. He was tall and lean, and his broad shoulders stretched his t-shirt to perfection.
“Shit.” Whatever the correct answer was to his question, she didn’t pass the test. He grabbed the back of his head with both hands and blew out a long breath. “Okay. Uh. Wait, please.” He seemed to be debating something with himself, then leaned right into her personal space and inhaled sharply.
Emilia jerked away and retreated until her back hit the wall. “Did you just smell me?” she asked, her voice shriller than she wished. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Really, was it too much to ask not to meet two freaks in one evening? And her senses deserted her in a really bad moment, because this guy didn’t feel weird. Apart from confusing her with someone else, he seemed nice. No, not nice. Dangerous, but not to me. Still. It was time to put this conversation to an end if her instinct wasn’t working properly.
He opened his mouth to speak, but she pointed at him. “No. That’s enough. First that creep licked my ear, and now you’re sniffing me and talking like a crazy person. I’m done with this.” She felt like a hypocrite, going off on him about sniffing her when she’d done the same just moments ago.
She turned to walk back toward her friends, but he danced around her, his arms held out in a gesture that was probably meant to look non-threatening.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had to check.”
“Check what?” She was close to yelling, and a pair of women passing them on their way to the bathroom turned to glance behind her.
“Please,” he said, his beautiful eyes earnest. “Keep it down. I’ll tell you everything, just please, calm down.” He kept his voice low, but his stance was still tense.
“I don’t need you to tell me everything, I need you to get the hell out of my way.”
He sent her an exasperated glare. “How about this: I stay out of your comfort zone and you give me five minutes to ask you some questions.”
“Are you trying to sell me something?”
He barked out a laugh. “No. I’m trying to figure out if you know you’re a shifter.”
“A what?” she asked.
“That’s a no, then. Fuck. I’m not sure I’m the right person for this.” He paced back and forth, his footsteps completely silent. He stopped abruptly in front of her. “This is going to sound weird, but I have to ask: have you ever, uh, turned into a bear?”
“A bear.” Emilia lifted her arms and dropped them back down. “What does that—” She trailed off and shook her head. “You know what, my friends are probably wondering where I am. I really have to go now.”
The man—Jason—seemed as frustrated as she felt, his frown deepening. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I know I sound like I’ve fucking lost it,” he said. “But I’m asking you, please, to stick with me for just a minute.”
Something in his expression made her stop. He didn’t look crazy despite his words; he, at least, seemed to understand what he was saying.
“Were you adopted?”
Emilia went still. Was this another random question? “Yes,” she said. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Jason closed the distance between them, and she didn’t flee. His clean scent tickled her senses, making it harder to think. Why, why couldn’t she have met him half an hour earlier? They’d have danced and flirted, and maybe she’d even have found out if his lips were as firm as they looked.
“What happened to your birth parents?” His question was serious, but his gaze was focused on her with predatory intensity, and she shook her head, suddenly certain he somehow read her thoughts.
“My birth mother died at the hospital hours after she had me.” Why was she was sharing this information with a stranger? But she’d already begun, so she added, “I don’t know who she was, or what happened with my birth father.”
He nodded like he expected a similar answer. “Has anyone ever acted strange around you? Or maybe something weird happened to you?”
Emilia started to shake her head but stopped. She remembered a cute guy in college who’d always taken a seat right behind her, which had made her think he was trying to gather the courage to ask her out, until she’d found him sniffing her hair that one time. And the angry owner of a bakery near Columbia University who’d chased her out of her shop with shrill yells in Polish that Emilia had interpreted as insults to her brown skin.
And the time just after her father’s death when she woke up in her bed, naked, with the covers and the magazine she was reading shredded to ribbons, and a blank, vacant period in her memory.
She swallowed and refocused on Jason, who gave her a knowing look.
“Okay, so people are weird,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “Nothing new there.”
She didn’t like to think about the Naked Incident, as she’d dubbed it. It had scared her enough that she got herself tested for all sorts of neurological conditions. Of course, she hadn’t considered the obvious option—that she’d turned into a bear. A giggle that bordered on hysterical escaped her, and Jason stepped closer, a worried furrow appearing between his brows. She shook her head and composed herself.
“I think you’re a half-blood shifter,” he said finally. “One of your parents was human, and the other must have been a bear shifter. Probably your father since your mother died at a human hospital.”
“I still don’t understand what you’re talking about. What’s a shifter?”
“A shapeshifter. A person whose body can take two forms, one that looks human and the other that looks animal.”
Emilia blinked at him. There wasn’t the slightest tic or twitch to betray him and reveal this as some perverse joke. He sounded so sure of himself. His voice was level, his expression calm and assertive.
Emilia tried to come up with a polite way to phrase her worries but ended up blurting out, “Do you actually believe there are people who can turn into animals?”
Emilia nodded. “Of course you do. And my father was a bear.” She inched back toward the dance floor. This was too much madness for one evening. “You know, it’s been really nice talking to you, but I have to go now.”
She trailed off as Jason took off his t-shirt. Holy shit. She should probably be freaked out by the man getting naked in public, but really, the sight was too good to miss.
She caught an eyeful of golden, smooth skin stretched over gorgeous abs and strong, muscular shoulders before she snapped her gaze down to his belt, which was in the process of being unbuckled.
“What the hell are you doing?” she yelped. “Stop it!”
“Please don’t yell,” he said, calm, as if wearing nothing but his underwear in a nightclub was nothing new to him. “There’s nobody here, anyway.”
Emilia turned to glance around them, anxious for the first time since she’d begun talking with this strange man. He was right; there was a lull in bathroom visitors as the new DJ filled the club with a surging beat, and the darkened passage that led to the dance floor was deserted. She backed up against the icky wall and slowly opened her purse to see if she was carrying anything that could double as a weapon. Maybe she could swing her purse at him? She didn’t have any illusions that she could win this fight. He had six inches on her and looked like he could handle himself, unlike the stinking lunatic who’d attacked her earlier. She half wished she was facing Dog Breath again.
Jason sighed as she retreated. “This is the only way. I’m sorry.”
Before she had a chance to open her mouth, something happened to his body. It was a surge of energy, a tingling burst of warmth, and a blur of skin and hair. Emilia blinked and lowered her gaze to where a large gray dog stood in the middle of the corridor. No, not a dog—a wolf, complete with a pointed muzzle full of sharp white teeth and a powerful tail that curved from…a pair of black boxer briefs.
She choked on a panicked laugh and clapped a hand over her mouth. The animal padded closer on silent feet and sat on the floor. She stared into its yellow eyes and saw Jason looking out at her. It was the strangest sensation, but Jason’s expression was somehow trapped underneath the furry snout and soft ears that twitched almost imperceptibly as the music changed in the background.
A second shimmer followed, and Jason was back in his human form, sitting on the floor in his underwear. Standing, he backed away a step and calmly put on his clothes as if he hadn’t just been wearing fur.
“Breathe, Emilia,” he said in a low voice that rumbled through her and made her aware that she was still clutching her hand over her mouth. Lowering her hand, she noticed it was trembling and stuffed it into her jeans pocket.
“You’re a wolf,” she said. She needed him to confirm it to be sure she hadn’t been hallucinating.
He shook his head. “I’m a shifter who takes a wolf’s form. I don’t become a real wolf.”
“Right.” Emilia’s knees threatened to give way, so she slumped against the wall and slid to the floor. “Okay. So you’re a wolf.”
“I just said—” Jason tried again, but she held up her hand.
“For all intents and purposes, you’re a wolf, okay? And you’re saying my father was a bear?” Her voice was too shrill, but she couldn’t keep it under control.
“Yeah.” His eyes creased in the corners. He stepped forward, probably to help her stand, but her outstretched arm stopped him. She wasn’t ready to get up just yet.
He sighed. “Look, I know this is a lot…”
“It’s insane,” she said. “How do you know I’m half-bear?”
“It’s the smell.”
Emilia tried to sniff her top casually and failed. “I smell?” She probably did, but it wasn’t very nice of him to say so.
Jason smiled, and Emilia’s heartbeat stuttered. If she thought he was handsome before…
“Not like you’re thinking,” he said. “Every shifter species has a distinct smell. Like that guy earlier—didn’t you notice how he reeked?”
Emilia nodded. “When you said he was a hyena, you actually meant he turns into a carrion-eating beast?”
“That’s…nice.” She had to focus on not hyperventilating. The stuffy air in the club suddenly felt constricting, and she closed her eyes, trying to calm down. Deep breath in, deep breath out.
“Hey, are you okay?”
She heard Jason move closer and felt the heat of his body a moment before a hesitant hand touched her back between her shoulder blades. Another deep breath, and his scent flooded her senses, unfamiliar and yet achingly attractive. His palm was warm as he drew soothing circles on her clammy skin and lowered his voice, telling her to breathe.
His presence calmed her nerves, and his words brought her back from the edge of an anxiety attack. She pushed her hair off her sweaty forehead and took one more deep breath.
“What do I do now?” she asked, uncertain whether she was addressing herself or Jason.
He was still close enough that his quiet huff of laughter ghosted against the skin of her neck. Goosebumps rose on her skin, and she shivered.
“I was hoping you’d let me buy you a drink and discuss this.”
“Now?” Emilia heard the whine in her voice, but the adrenaline that had rushed through her body at the sight of a wolf sitting in the middle of the corridor was crashing now. She was exhausted.
Jason looked her over and offered a small, kind smile. “No, maybe not.” He dug into his jeans pocket and brought out a creased business card. “My number’s on there. Give me a call tomorrow?”
Emilia accepted the card and tucked it into her purse. She lifted her gaze to meet his and was startled by the concern reflected in his eyes. He offered her a hand, and she grabbed it, allowing him to pull her to her feet. She took care not to stumble into him—she didn’t think she’d be able to let go if she got her hands on him.
“I need you to keep this to yourself.” He winced, then added, “I know it’s hard, but if you could refrain from telling anyone until I explain…”
“I’ll call you,” she said, still unsure whether she meant it. “But my friends will really be searching for me now.” She backed away down the corridor, keeping eye contact. “Bye, Mr. Wolf.”
His parting smile was wide and gorgeous. “See you around, Ms. Bear.”
That's it for today! I'll share an excerpt from later in the book soon.