Jessica Murphy hugged her lined coat a little tighter and squeezed the sides of her hood together around her face. Wind whipped across her cheeks until they felt raw and tight. Leaning against the fence railing, she rested her chin on the rough wood and stared out across the acres of pasture presented like a photograph. White extended as far as she could see, unmarred by any human or animal prints after this morning’s dusting of snow that erased all the smudges and dents that had covered the several inches already in place. Through the small slit she left open for her eyes, the world narrowed until she could almost imagine she lived inside the picture-perfect rolling terrain. Nothing but her and the land.
Footsteps gingerly shuffled toward her from behind. She didn’t turn to look at the intruder. She didn’t need to.
“When are you going to tell them?” The gentle words were not accusatory or angry or worried or even frustrated. They were simply words. A question. One she didn’t know the answer to.
“Tell who what?” She still didn’t turn, but kept her gaze on the pasture, the pure white innocence of the snow sparkling as the sun peeked between the dense clouds. Large glorious flakes still landed all around her and on the fur lining of her hood. She wanted to stick out her tongue and grab a unique piece of fluff, but that would be childish, and this conversation should be a serious one. She needed to pull up her big-girl panties and act like an adult.
Justin didn’t say anything else. He didn’t need to justify her ridiculous counter-question with a response. He merely leaned against the fence alongside her. Glancing his way, she wondered if his gaze interpreted the same thing hers did. Did he too find the expanse of land as beautiful as she did? Did he, or anyone else for that matter, ever stare out at this field and let all of life’s responsibilities just fade into the background for however long one could hold them at bay?
Jessica cleared her throat and reluctantly turned to face her friend’s mate; well, one of them anyway. She was surprised Trevor wasn’t standing here also, doubling their efforts. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I never meant to come out … ever.” She enunciated that last word so Justin would understand better.
He chuckled. “You say that as if you’re gay.”
“Ha ha. You know what I mean. I wanted to live a normal life. A regular, human, average existence.”
“I see.” His brow furrowed as he stared. “It wouldn’t have worked, you know. At least not for—ever.” He repeated her word. “You can’t deny who you are … what you are. What did you think you were going to do when you met your mate?”
“Ignore him and run for the hills.” Jessica half-chuckled. That had been her plan, actually. Precisely her plan. Until she’d witnessed what happened to her two best friends, her roommates, when they met their mates. Kara and then Lindsey had clearly experienced a sexual frenzy that was undeniable. Even though they were both humans and this world of wolf shifters was new to them, they’d both succumbed, unable to fight the inevitable pull of mates.
Jessica glanced behind her toward the house. It felt awkward standing out here talking to one of Kara’s mates like this.
“They know something’s up. You’ve been avoiding them. Acting kinda strange. They’ve both mentioned it.”
Jessica ducked her head. Lindsey and Kara had been her best friends for four and a half years, ever since they’d been assigned as roommates when they’d arrived at Oregon State University as freshmen. “I’ve been busy. They know that. I’m working.”
“Yes, but they also realize you never come out here to visit. They have to come to you. Jess, they don’t understand why. They’ve spent months pondering the possibilities: ‘Do you think she’s that uncomfortable with our lifestyle? Do you think she blames us for what happened in August?’” Justin enumerated the possibilities her friends had expressed in Kara’s sing-songy tone of voice, making Jess smile. He did a pretty good imitation. A chill went down her spine as she recalled being kidnapped by religious zealots at the end of the summer. Thank God she’d had a pack of wolves to rescue her, literally.
Her expression fell flat when he repeated the initial question. “Jess, they are your friends. You need to trust them. When are you going to tell them?”
Laughter erupted from the house, even though it was quite a distance from where the two stood. Jessica jerked her attention to the back door again, uncomfortable with the conversation and the circumstances. There was a baby shower going on, for heaven’s sake. Shouldn’t Justin be inside with his “wife” opening gifts instead of out here entertaining her wayward friend?
“Stop worrying about them. They know I’m out here. Hell, they sent me.”
Jessica jerked her gaze back to his. “What?” Embarrassment made her cheeks burn, though she doubted they could get any redder than they already were from the cold wind beating them.
“Hey, they were just hoping if they sent someone else, you might be willing to talk since you sure aren’t really confiding in them.” Justin threw his hands in the air.
Jessica exhaled, defeated. It was true. She was going to have to come clean. Soon. Later. Not now. “Look, this is just weird. Let’s go back inside.”
“Will you at least think about it?”
“Yes. Please, don’t tell them. I’ll figure something out.”
“You have to ask? Come on, Jess. There are only two people in that room who haven’t known you were lupine for the last seven months. You don’t think we can keep a secret?” He laid a hand over his heart in mock wounded gesture.
True. He had a point.
“Hey, join us for Christmas.”
“What? No. I couldn’t.”
“Why? You have other plans?” Justin narrowed his gaze. “Look, I don’t know what your secrets are, but I do know you don’t have any family, at least not family you are willing to acknowledge. I know you’ve spent every Christmas for the last four years at either Kara’s or Lindsey’s house. I’m just asking you to join a bigger group this year.”
Jessica tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Ever since she’d started growing out the thick brown locks in order to look more sophisticated as a teacher, she’d been in a constant battle with the new bob to keep it out of her eyes. She’d loved her shorter spiky hair for several years.
She wasn’t ready. She’d been ignoring her genes for so long now she couldn’t remember what it had been like to be a wolf. Not that she’d ever shifted. Females didn’t until they mated. But still…
Sensing her hesitation, Justin rambled on. “We’ll all be there. Even Charles is coming home.”
“Your brother? Where’s he been?”
“He went to Texas with his friend Reese Becker to ‘sow their wild oats.’”
“What’s so funny?”
“I can’t imagine why any of you would have to go somewhere else to sow wild oats. Isn’t that all you do around here?”
“Hardy har har. I have my theories about those two.”
“You think they’re gay?”
He laughed this time, loud and short. “Hell no. Not any more than I think you are. I think they share women.”
“And? There aren’t any around here? They needed to go to Texas to find women?” Jessica furrowed her brow. This family was so complex she couldn’t even begin to understand the dynamics. And why on earth would Charles need to hide that fact? Hell, both his older brothers shared women with other men.
“It’s tough.” Justin turned to stare out across the land and then lifted his gaze to the sky before inhaling a deep breath of the clean air. “I’m only speculating here, of course, but Trevor and I have known each other since we were kids and shared women almost as long.” He turned back to face her. “That’s a hard way to live. Society doesn’t accept it. Even our society finds it a bit unusual. Rare. Well, it was rare until recently.”
Jessica smiled. “I guess so.” Hell, first Justin and his best friend, Trevor, had claimed Kara, and then right on their heels, Justin’s brother Ryan had claimed Lindsey in a similar threesome with Alejandro. There must be something in the water around here.
Justin could surely sense her thoughts as she pondered all this. “Yeah, it’s rare among wolves, but not unheard of. Not sure how all three of us happened to enjoy that way of life. I think Charles was embarrassed. Maybe he didn’t want us to know. Or maybe he thought we would think he was a copycat or something.”
“How are you so sure? Just because he went to Texas with a friend doesn’t mean they’re having sex with every woman they meet.”
“I saw them together, once.” He scrunched his nose, chagrinned. “They were with a woman in the barn. They didn’t know I was there. I slipped back out unnoticed, but there was little doubt.”
“Oooh.” Jessica squeezed her eyes shut, imagining walking in on three people having sex. In the barn.
“Anyway, we should get back inside. Before they cut the cake and play pin the tail on the wolf pup.” Justin flashed a proud grin.
Jessica cringed. There was something just wrong about that.
With a glance back at the perfection of the gorgeous northwestern landscape, Jessica followed Justin back into the house. Right on his heels, she walked straight into the crazy world she was quickly coming to realize she was going to have to own up to.