THE LONE WOLF'S REJECTED MATE
coming DECEMBER 26, 2022
FOUR YEARS AGO
“Holy shit.” Kennedy drops her hoe. “The witch is a cougar.”
Annie squints up from where she’s squatting in the furrow, patting soil around a rhubarb plant. “Is that Darragh Ryan?”
I freeze where I’m standing in between the handles of the red wheelbarrow. My mouth goes dry, and my heart begins to thump like a woodpecker.
It is Darragh Ryan, and he’s not wearing a shirt. His worn, faded jeans are so low on his hips, you can not only see the muscles cutting an arrow from his hips into his waistband, but I swear, you can make out a dark thatch of hair on the taut, tanned skin above his zipper.
I lick my suddenly parched lips.
Is that the last stop on his happy trail or his wolf’s fur? It’s hard to tell from over here, especially since he’s got a hairy chest. He definitely doesn’t wax for definition like the younger males in the pack.
He’s standing on the top step to the crone’s cottage, surveying the horizon in the distance, shoulders stiff, sipping from a tiny china cup that looks ridiculous in his huge, rough hands.
“Damn, Abertha’s still got game,” Kennedy says under her breath as she scoops up her hoe and attacks the dirt again with a satisfied thwack.
For some reason, my stomach curdles. “He’s probably just visiting.”
“At six in the morning?” Kennedy snorts. “He’s pre-gaming for his walk of shame.”
“Yeah, he was visiting all right.” Annie’s brown eyes twinkle, banishing her usual shyness. “Visiting her vagina.”
Kennedy smirks. “Saying hey howdy to the hoo-ha.”
“Calling on her coochie.” Annie softly fakes an English accent and lets the corners of her mouth sneak into a small smile.
“Shut up,” I hiss. “He can hear us.”
I don’t know why my face is on fire. Usually, I’d be quick with a “up-highing her downtown” or “saying good day to her goodies”—it’s just too easy—but I can feel him standing there on the creaky porch, barefooted, his wild, snarled hair falling out of the world’s messiest man bun.
He’s way too old for a man bun, mid-thirties at least, but he’s hot enough to carry it off. Well, as hot as a rough-looking, hungover, sketchy lone wolf can be. As far back as I can remember, he’s never lived with the rest of the pack, but he does come around sometimes to talk to our alpha, Killian, or drop off a kill at the lodge.
He noticed me once about a year ago. I was up in my favorite tree, reclining against the trunk with my legs stretched along a branch, pretending to read but really scrolling the internet, when he came along the trail on the ridge above our cabin. From his vantage point, he could totally look down and see the phone hidden in the book.
He stared for a few long seconds, and I thought for sure he was going to bust me, because you know, females can’t be trusted with phones—we might forget to start dinner or join the revolution or something—but he didn’t. He just got really stiff and glowery and hotfooted it away. I was sweating bullets for the next day or so, though.
He has to see the three of us now. The garden is only a few yards away. He’s ignoring us, but he’s tense. All he’s doing is holding a wee teacup by its dainty handle, but his muscles are bunching like he’s priming for a fight, his shoulders flexing, biceps bulging, abs tensing into sharp ridges.
I swallow, barely. My throat is so tight.
Is he embarrassed he got busted banging the crone? The idea makes me queasy, but not because Abertha’s older. She’s super-hot for fifty or sixty or however old she is, and regardless, I’m not a hater—but because—
I don’t know why. He’s just acting weird.
Unmated males usually act like King Shit of Turd Mountain when a female’s dumb or desperate enough to let him mount her for fun. They strut and preen around camp; some won’t even shower for a few days just to make sure everyone knows.
I subtly sniff the air. It’s early spring, so there are tons of my favorite scents—tilled earth, fresh air, yesterday’s rain. It doesn’t smell like sex, but there is a strange muskiness coming from his direction. If I had to say, I’d call it a combination of bark, leaves, sunshine, and warm horse’s mane. It’s an outdoorsy smell, and it makes my belly flip and my spine tingle at the base in a weird, unfamiliar way. Kind of like I have to pee, but I don’t.
I step closer to the wheelbarrow as if I can hide myself behind it. Unlike Kennedy and Annie who are wearing long jean skirts and button-down shirts like normal lone females, I’m gardening in a gauzy, pale pink sundress, floppy straw hat, and army green rubber boots. I don’t really blend into the background. I’m a whole mood.
Darragh’s not looking at me, though. His eyes are glued to the foothills in the west. He’s got a very rugged profile. His jawline is as sharp as an axe blade despite the cropped beard threaded with gray. It’s like all his features were carved from rock—his high cheekbones, his straight nose, his proud forehead, everything except his lips.
His lips look soft.
My fingers itch.
I have the sudden urge to touch his mouth, and that’s so freaking weird. He’s old enough to be my father even though he’s way younger than my dad was. Folks my dad’s age grew up in the dens. Darragh’s too young for that, but he’s definitely from the generations messed up in the head from coming up under Declan Kelly, our last alpha.
Older packmates don’t get human references or jokes or the concept of “chill.” The males don’t talk to females unless they want to mount them, and they’re obsessed with patrolling the pack territory, hunting, and the shifter fight circuit, exclusively and in that order.
Apparently, Darragh Ryan does talk to females. Older, powerful witchy females. God, my stomach doesn’t like that. When I think of him and Abertha even drinking tea together—the flips and tingles begin to flop and slosh. Good thing I don’t eat breakfast.
Kennedy sidles up beside me and pretends to hack at a row she’s already dug. “What’s he doing?”
“Watching the sunrise?” I hazard a guess.
“The sun’s already up, and he’s facing west.”
“I don’t know. Enjoying a cuppa?” He’s not sipping anymore. He’s just holding the cup midair in a death grip.
“It’s coffee,” Kennedy says. “Well, mostly. Coffee and hair of the dog.”
“You can smell that?”
Kennedy wrinkles her nose. “You can’t?”
I draw in a breath. My lungs fill with that earthy, horsey, straw-in-sunshine smell. It swells in my chest, and suddenly, my eyes prickle like I’m about to cry, and breasts grow heavy. I cross my arms to cover my nipples as they bead into hard points. Kennedy’s eyes narrow.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asks.
“Can we just change the subject? He can definitely hear us, you know.”
“He’s not acting like it.”
“Maybe because he has chill.” I’m aware I’m being salty with my best friend, and I don’t want to be, but it’s like I went from zero to PMS in sixty seconds. Even my wolf is being weird. If I like to play princess, she’s a genuine, pure-bred grand duchess—snoot in the air and prancing—but right now, she’s growling in the back of her throat and baring her tiny, pointy teeth.
She doesn’t like Darragh Ryan on that porch.
I press my open hand to my breastbone. My heart drums a beat against my palm.
No fucking way.
This cannot be what I think it is.
Darragh Ryan is a grown-ass man. A man-sized man. And he’s all mysterious with a past and issues and a possible friends-with-benefits arrangements with a witch. I cannot handle that. I’ve never even let a male kiss me.
Does he even have a cabin? I know he lives by himself somewhere up in the foothills. Does he have a den? He looks like he lives in a den.
I can’t live out in the middle of nowhere. I have shoes. And I cannot—I will not—live without baths. Or electricity.
Blood roars in my ears. Annie and Kennedy are whispering back and forth, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. All I can do is stare at Darragh Ryan with bugged out eyes.
Fate has to be playing a joke. My aesthetic is delicate, sweet, romantic, cottagecore. His aesthetic is—the pants I wore all last week are fine. No shirt, no shoes, no problem. Haircuts are for the weak. I kill things with my bare hands in human form. I’ve been through hell and seen the other side.
Tingles race across my skin as my stomach drops to my feet. When does it end?
Since the day I was born, Fate hasn’t once made it easy for me. I keep my head down and my mouth shut like a good unprotected female, but still, it’s like I’ve got a target on my back. When I was a baby, my father went moon mad and tried to kill me because he thought I wasn’t his.
My mom became a shell of herself after he was put down until one night, during a full moon run, she leapt off the bluff at the river’s bend when there was no way she could make the far bank, not with a wolf as wasted and weak as hers.
I was shuffled from family to family until I landed with Una in the lone female’s cabin, and I kind of curled into a ball and gave up on life for a while. Well, I wanted to hide in bed, but Una insisted on herding Annie, Kennedy, and I up to Abertha’s cottage all the time, slapping trowels in our hands and making us dig and weed and hunt mushrooms in the woods. And then she got into bees—
I’m a good wolf, and Una saved my life when my father attacked me as a baby, so of course I helped, but I’d still rather have been under the covers. Then, one day, Una brought home phones.
And phones have the internet.
And the internet has everything, and they will ship it to you, or the humans at the farmers’ market in Chapel Bell, which is close enough.
So, yeah, the world is cold and lonely and ugly, but I can buy pink dresses and fairy lights and big-ass hats like fancy ladies wear at horseraces. I might be stuck in the kitchen, in the cabin as far away from the pack as possible, in a pack where I couldn’t matter less, but Killian Kelly missed the message about the internet. I can go wherever I want, talk to anyone, be anyone, anytime, day or night.
I do not care that I have to dig in the mud and mess around with bees to pay for it. I look cute in rubber boots, herbs and flowers are my jam, and I’ve got good company.
But here’s Fate, lobbing another one at me. Darragh Ryan. He was more or less my current age when I was born.
I force myself to ignore the butterflies drunk driving bumper cars in my belly, and I take him in.
I draw in a deep breath, and his peculiar scent seeps into my veins, flows all the way to the tips of my fingers and toes, and disconnects the part of my brain that’s freaking out over how my body is going haywire.
He smells like the most picturesque barn on the most pleasant day with the bluest sky and puffiest white clouds ever. And for an older guy, he is freaking hot as shit. Ignore the hair and beard, the rough hands, and the wolfishness. His eyes are amazing, dark, dark brown ringed with copper and gold, and they crinkle at the corners, like he’s spent a lot of time in the glaring sun.
He’s as ripped as Killian Kelly and his lieutenants, but maybe because he’s that hardened generation—or because he lives alone in the woods—he doesn’t have that cocky swagger. He exudes pure grown man confidence as he hangs out on the crone’s front porch looking hungover, uptight as hell, and inexplicably frozen with fascination by the view to the west.
I follow his gaze just to make sure I’m not missing anything, like maybe a flying saucer, but there’s nothing but scenic wilderness. Is he ignoring me on purpose?
Does he feel it too? The strange gathering, seeking sensation under his breastbone?
He might be pretending I’m not right here, but he’s not bailing, and he definitely has the look of an animal about to bolt, albeit a dangerous, terrifying, muscle-bound apex predator. Like a tiger. Or a grizzled lion with a wild ol’ mane. And a little ol’ teacup.
I guess he realizes he’s been holding the cup like one of those living statues because he finally shakes himself, sets it on the railing, and shoves his hands in his pockets. His thighs are so thick that he doesn’t have a lot of room, so he kind of wedges the fingers in. I’ve never seen a man look less casual.
I rub the place in the center of my chest where the bond is sprouting like weeds through a sidewalk crack.
Maybe this could be okay. He’s not completely feral. People are wary of him, but the few times I’ve seen him around camp, no one runs from him or bends the neck or anything. They just make way for him. And the males my age do go on and on about what a great hunter he is. Hunting is good. I like meat as much as the next girl.
I shoot a glance at Kennedy where she’s gone back to hacking at a stubborn clump of dirt, roots, and stones. If I’d said “I like meat” out loud, she would’ve definitely came back with “that’s what she said.”
What else do I know about Darragh? There are whispers about something that happened when he was young that made him vow to never live with the pack. Something to do with Declan Kelly. There are a lot of whispered, vague rumors about those times, but no one ever comes out and tells the whole story. Shifters are superstitious. They don’t like to talk about evil in case the words call it back.
And there are the warnings about his wolf. If you’re ever alone in the foothills and you see golden eyes glowing in the dark, run like the devil is on your heels. But who’s alone in the foothills at night? Not me, that’s for sure.
I figured it was some ghost story to scare us females into staying on pack territory. We don’t go wander the wilderness, though. We go to Chapel Bell during broad daylight to do capitalism. We’re not about getting in touch with nature, we’re about getting paid.
I refocus. What else have I heard about Darragh Ryan?
My cheeks blaze. Haisley Byrne and her crew make jokes about getting fucked like an animal, but with them, you can never tell if they’re talking out of their asses or not. Haisley claims she and Killian bang like pots and pans, but if that’s true, she must suck at it. He doesn’t even get someone to bring her a folding chair so she can sit next to him at dinner in the lodge. She’s got to stand up there on the dais beside him like a potted tree.
What’s it like to get fucked like an animal?
My eyes fall helplessly to the crotch of his jeans. There’s a bulge. A freaking huge bulge. It’s created a gap between his waistband and his tight abs. Yeah. That’s not wolf fur. It’s happy trail.
My cheeks burst into flame.
“Mari,” Annie hisses from where she’s squatting. “You’re staring.”
I squeeze my eyes shut, my hands flying up to cover them like a little kid. Shit. Not cool. I fling my arms back to my side, summon some remnant of chill. Now he’s looking over here. Right at me.
My entire body goes nuts. I break out in sweat—big, dripping beads down my back—and at the same time, I start to shake. I fold my arms close to my chest, shove my hands between my biceps and boobs, and grit my teeth to stop them from clattering. With absolutely no direction from me, my hip cocks like Haisley’s does when she’s posing next to Killian at dinner, and my lips peel back in a smile that can only look like a chimpanzee’s fear grimace.
Annie gapes up at me. Kennedy visibly winces with secondhand embarrassment.
I clear my throat. Annie leans forward. Kennedy tilts her head. On the porch, Darragh’s muscles clench impossibly tighter as if he’s bracing himself. They all wait for me to say something.
I don’t know any words. They’ve all vanished from my memory, and even if I knew any, my throat is squeezing shut.
Darragh’s beautiful, brown and gold, albeit bloodshot, eyes drill into mine, and I’m struck with a bolt as sudden and shocking as the late summer lightning that burns the air and sears black spots across your field of vision. My lungs seize mid-inhale. I stop breathing oxygen, my body continuing to pump blood on sheer adrenaline.
My wolf howls with excitement and launches herself at the border between us. I stumble. The front door of Abertha’s cottage creaks.
Annie and Kennedy suck in breaths in unison.
The screen door hits the wall with a sharp crack, and the witch emerges.
Her thin form is draped in a flowing turquoise kaftan, her long silver hair matted to the side of her head, an oversized coffee mug in her hand that reads “hocus pocus, this witch needs coffee to focus.” A cigarette dangles from her mouth.
She squints over at me.
She glances back at Darragh.
Her eyebrows raise to her hairline.
“Shi-it,” she drawls. “Didn’t see that one coming.” Her cigarette bobs, but it doesn’t fall from her lips.
My wolf surges forward, snarling, saliva flying from her slavering maw, and she slams herself against the barrier that separates us, claws scrabbling, teeth gnashing. I squeeze every muscle in my body, clutch my arms against my chest, trying with all my might to hold her in, to stop myself from combusting into a wolf gone completely mad with jealousy.
Girlfriend does not care that there’s no sex in the air. She wants witch’s blood.
While I’m literally holding myself together, Darragh Ryan raises his eyes to the distance again, furrows his brow, grunts unintelligibly, and without a backwards glance, strides off across the clearing, past the bee yard, and disappears into the woods.
My heart drops like a stone, and my wolf freezes mid-frenzy.
Kennedy’s hoe hits the ground again with a thud. A crow caws high in an oak tree.
For a long moment, the witch, my wolf, and I size each other up. Magic crackles in the air. I sniff the breeze. Darragh’s scent is fading. From the direction of the witch’s cottage, I smell coffee. Beer. Whiskey. Pot. No sex, I point out to my wolf. Grudgingly, she shakes out her bristled fur and stalks back to her corner.
Kennedy, Annie, and I exhale in unison.
The witch raises her hand in an awkward wave. “Planting rhubarb, eh, girls?” she says.
“Yes, ma’am,” Kennedy answers her.
Annie ducks her head and hunches her shoulders. The familiar stench of Annie’s reflexive fear mixes with the odor of stale liquor and smoke. I sneeze.
“Where’s Una?” Abertha asks.
“In the greenhouse.” Kennedy and I work it out so Una gets the standing-in-place jobs ’cause of her leg. Una wouldn’t go along with it if she knew what we were doing, but Kennedy and I can be pretty slick when we want to be.
Una’s our leader, but she’s that Declan Kelly generation, too. She’s tough and brave, but still, she’s obviously traumatized and has to work at not being scared of her own shadow.
“Anything you need from me?” Abertha says. She’s looking straight at me now, one elegantly arched eyebrow raised. I drop my gaze, and my face burns.
Kennedy waits for me to answer, but when I don’t, she says on our behalf, “No, ma’am.”
“Well, uh, keep it down out here.” Abertha takes a drag of her cigarette, and without exhaling, chases it with a big gulp of coffee. She considers us for another minute as smoke curls from her nostrils like a dragon, and then she shuffles back inside. The screen door thuds shut.
Kennedy widens her eyes at me as she sweeps her hoe up. I snatch a rhubarb plant from the wheelbarrow. “Ready for another one?” I ask Annie, my voice squeaking out, weirdly bright and pitchy.
Annie holds out a trembling hand. I slap a rhubarb in it. Annie has hair trigger nerves, and she has a fear response to basically anyone who outranks us. It’ll take her at least an hour to chill out. Until then, it’s best to keep her busy.
Kennedy’s still staring at me. She catches my eyes and tilts her head in a question. I give her a quick shake of the head. She shrugs a shoulder and lifts her hoe high overhead, swinging it into the overturned dirt with bloodthirsty zest.
We’re all back to work when Annie stammers, apropos of nothing, “Th-they s-say Darragh Ryan’s wolf will rip out your throat, and then tear your limbs from your body and leave them stacked in a pile like f-firewood.”
Kennedy and I freeze mid-motion.
“He doesn’t even eat the m-meat,” she whispers, and then once more, so low it’s almost inaudible. “He doesn’t even eat the meat.”