Watcher by Holley Trent
As she always did upon waking, Leticia Modesto sighed to greet the new day, curled the stiffness out of her toes, and stretched her arms overhead.
During her routine self-interrogation of what day it was and which of her body parts was taking its turn to revolt, her knuckles banged against something smooth and solid.
What the hell?
Her eyelids sprang open.
Her brain may not have been fully charged yet, but she was still reasonably sure there was no headboard, or even a wall, behind where she usually slept.
Am I…not there?
Her bleary gaze darted around the space. From her supine position, nothing appeared to be where it should have been, and the colors of everything were all wrong.
She rubbed her eyes, thinking maybe she’d fallen prematurely out of a dream and was still seeing the remnants of it in her wakeful state. Werewolf dreams were notoriously vivid, and she sometimes didn’t realize she was asleep until the bleats of her alarm shattered the imagery.
No. Not from a dream. This is real.
But it didn’t make sense.
Having recently moved out of her eldest sister’s house and into her own apartment in the isolated community of Norseton, New Mexico, Leticia’s current dwelling was a downtown studio apartment. Her bed, temporarily, was a pullout sofa because Norseton didn’t have a furniture store. The village was too small and distant from the rest of civilization to support a massive retail economy. She’d ordered a bed through a website that had been offering free shipping for a limited time. That bed wasn’t due to arrive for another week.
So, what is this?
Without moving the rest of her body, she patted curiously behind her. Instead of highly textured upholstery fabric, there was a solid surface that was cool to the touch and hollow sounding.
“Cheap wood.” She let her brow crease.
Her eldest sister, Lisa, always told her she looked like a French pug when she scrunched up her face. Leticia had mostly broken the habit, but the present circumstances merited a bit of a backslide.
Pivoting her gaze upward, she studied the crisp white ceiling.
White’s wrong. Why is it white?
Her ceiling was supposed to be peach. She hadn’t gotten around to painting that part of the living room.
She was definitely not at home.
Well, shit. Where am I?
Pressing her palms to her eyes, she rubbed some more and tried not to let the panic rising in her overwhelm her logic. It wasn’t unusual for the occasional ditzy werewolf to wake up somewhere and not know how they got there, but Leticia didn’t have an animal form yet. She couldn’t shapeshift, so there was no way she’d taken an unscheduled prowl.
Okay. There must be some explanation for this.
She drew in a deep breath through her nose and analyzed the scents. The smells weren’t right, of course. There was no lingering spice from the previous evening’s meal. There was no taint from the kitchen paint still off-gassing after two weeks. And there was no scent of desert soil through the open windows or the sweet, musky tang of new wood ceiling beams.
She smelled cleaning chemicals, too damned much detergent in the sheets, and recycled air.
That was a hotel smell, and she only knew that because she and her sister had stayed in one for a couple of nights during their furtive travel west to Norseton.
Did I lose a day?
She gave her hair a frustrated yank, but the sting to her scalp didn’t do anything to clear her thoughts. She’d never lost a day before, not even that one time as a kid when she’d caught a virus more powerful than her supercharged immune system could chase out.
Was I sick? Oh no. I was around the kids. I’d better call Alpha.
Jerking herself upright, she opened her eyes. The sight of a man-shaped creature beside her startled a yelp out of her and made her gracelessly spaz over the edge of the bed.
Her nose had apparently missed one very important scent, and her peripheral vision had missed one huge lump at her left.
The shirtless, dark-eyed werewolf that’d been lounging beside her crawled over and stared down.
His lips moved, but she didn’t hear what came out of them.
Her heart was beating too hard, and the inside of her head was high-decibel pandemonium. There was a swarm of yellowjackets spiraling in there, and they were all buzzing questions like, “Where am I?”, “How did I get here?”, “Why is Jim here?”, and “Where’s his shirt?”
She didn’t know what else he wasn’t wearing because he had the covers pulled up over his waist. And since that she was no longer beneath the sheets, she finally noticed that she, too, was nude above the waist.
Though she was too mortified to look to confirm, the itchy carpet beneath her ass suggested that she wasn’t wearing anything below the waist, either.
The buzz in her head got louder, and suddenly her throat seemed to collapse.
For a moment, he leaned away, sparking her instinct to get up and run, but shuttered that quickly. Too soon, he returned to her view with the bed scarf.
He handed it down, and she made quick work of turning herself into a low-class mummy.
“What the hell are you doing in here?” she shouted.
She generally wasn’t much a shouter, except when she was talking to her sisters. That was simply their way of communicating. If they didn’t keep getting louder, then it meant they didn’t care at all what they were talking about. Desperate situations, however, called for desperate measures. Leticia considered being ass-naked atop hotel carpet of uncertain cleanliness to be pretty desperate.
It wasn’t that Jim Mason was a stranger. He’d become a member of Norseton’s wolfpack at about the same time she had, though they’d joined for different reasons. Lisa had secreted Leticia and their middle sister Graciella away from their old pack in Delaware before their corrupt former alpha could try to force them into unwanted mate matches. At the time, they were basically still little girls. Graciella had been seventeen and Leticia only sixteen. Had they stayed, they wouldn’t have been left attached for a single breath after turning eighteen, and that was if their alpha was being generous.
Leticia didn’t know Jim’s story, except that his name wasn’t what she’d initially been told. “Jack” was how he’d been introduced, but that’d apparently been an alias. His name was Jim, which was really James, but no one ever called him that.
What was a given was that he’d run away from something, just like her. Almost all the werewolves in Norseton were refugees of some sort. Despite the Wolves all converging from different packs, she doubted there would be anything surprising in his history. As her brother-in-law Colt always said: “Same shit, different pack.”
Jim hadn’t answered. He was staring at her in the dispassionate way Colt sometimes did when she said something unintentionally snarky. Usually, Colt would say, “Now, what the hell did I do to deserve that?” Getting on Leticia’s bad side was generally harder to do.
She closed her eyes again because her head had started to throb, either from her fall or from her sudden state of heightened anxiety. But that only made her dizzy, so she opened them back up and waited for the falling sensation to abate.
“I need you to answer me,” she said with more strength in her voice than the rest of her had. “And while you’re at it, tell me where’s here. And give me a reason for me being naked that doesn’t involve sex.”
While she didn’t know him well, she did know that Jim’s face didn’t change much unless he was highly irritated or surprised. He wasn’t a Wolf who spoke with his expressions.
He pushed one dark eyebrow up, so he must have been truly struggling to figure out what to say.
Leticia couldn’t take that as a good sign.
“I’d been trying to talk you awake for about fifteen minutes,” he said in a level, businesslike voice. “I didn’t want to touch you, figuring you’d freak out, but it was getting late.”
Surreptitiously, she tugged the lobe of her left ear.
I didn’t hear any of it.
The tugging wouldn’t help her hearing any, but old habits died hard. She’d evidently slept with her head turned onto the wrong ear because she was on the wrong side of the bed. She usually slept on her left side.
“Answer my questions,” she said.
“I’m in here because this is my room. I booked it.”
“And…where is this room?”
She blinked to clear her thoughts like people in novels always did, but that didn’t actually do anything. Her brain was utterly vacant of memories of Vegas or anything of the journey there. There were only seething yellowjackets and a panicked echo of, “Oh no. Oh my gods. Oh no. Oh my gods.”
She’d have to come back to that memory issue, though. As disturbing as it was, there was something more pressing for her to investigate.
Gritting her teeth, she gave her low-down parts a speculative clench and held her breath. She expected a burning sensation or sharp pains of some sort, but there was nothing.
Her body didn’t respond with discomfort of any sort, but she wasn’t sure she should have felt any. She wasn’t sure if being “officially” deflowered was supposed to hurt as much as the whisper network claimed.
She allowed herself a deep inhalation before speaking again. “I guess I’ll come straight out and ask one more time. Why am I naked?”
“Because you wanted to be,” he said in his same, inflectionless tone.
“Why did I want to be naked?”
She really preferred the Jim that didn’t make faces. Blank-faced Jim was as dangerous as any Norseston Wolf, but the Jim whose face did things made Leticia’s internal “Oh no, I fucked this one up good” radar bleat.
“Why did I want to be naked?” she repeated, and more urgently, added, “Did we have sex?”
“No,” he said forcefully.
At least that something—that tone was something more than he’d been giving her.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“At my age, I think I’d know whether or not I did anything resembling sex.”
She didn’t know if that explanation made her feel better or worse, but the yellowjackets in her brain had already swarmed onto two new branches of questions. “If we didn’t have sex, why’d I take off my clothes? I don’t understand why I would do such a thing. I don’t go around taking my clothes off in front of random men.”
“Not random men, just me.”
“Okay, one man who isn’t random. Why would I?”
“I honestly don’t know, Leticia.” He shrugged. That was another thing Jim Mason didn’t do. He never shrugged. He either had an answer, or he’d say, “Can’t tell you yet. Give me some time.”
“Maybe someone at the reception planted a bug in your ear,” he said.
“A but in my ear about what?” she spit out without forethought. “And what reception?”
“What reception? I—” Clipping whatever thought he was going to speak, his eyes went round, his jaw dropped, and his hand raked with frenzied intensity through his short hair. “How fucking much did you drink?”
“Drink? I’m not—” Suddenly thinking better of confessing, she closed her lips on the words. She’d been about to say, “Not old enough to drink,” but he already knew how old she was. Everyone knew. At nearly twenty, she was the youngest adult Wolf in Norseton, meaning that every non-Wolf male in the community knew to be hands-off with her. None of those witches would come near her, even if she wanted them to. No one wanted to eat a werewolf fist sandwich, and Lisa and Colt kept at least four of them prepared to serve at all times.
Leticia hadn’t left an unfavorable mate future in Delaware only to immediately become someone’s girlfriend in New Mexico. She ran so she could have time to choose for herself if she wanted to pair off. Being the fifth wheel in a place where everyone seemed to have someone was tough sometimes, but she kept convincing herself that she didn’t need to rush. She could wait until twenty-five, or even thirty, if she wanted to.
She had no idea how old Jim was.
Nearly everything about the man was a mystery. He played his cards close to his chest, but the men in the pack trusted him to watch their backs. They wouldn’t have done that if his background check hadn’t returned squeaky clean.
They called him “Watcher.”
All the men had nicknames. When they were at work or on the road, they rarely called each other by their birth names. That was what Lisa had told Leticia, anyway. Colt went by the handle of “Idler” on occasion. In Leticia’s opinion, the name didn’t really suit him, but apparently, it was stuck on forever.
“I don’t remember drinking,” she said after tidying up her loose thoughts and shooing out a few of the bugs in her head. “I don’t remember anything except this one thing that just came to me.”
“And what’s that?”
She had to close her eyes to shut off some external stimulation. The memory had just emerged and was already trying to fade. “I left work at the clinic building at five, as always. Then I went to the grocery store to get coffee, and then…”
With her eyelids still squeezed tight, she tried to wring the memory of what happened next out of her head, but it had retreated. Once again, she was a blank.
“Damn!” Annoyed, she pounded her thigh.
“Maybe the memories’ll come back to you eventually. I have no idea what you drank or who let you drink it, but you were definitely a little under the influence when we met up last night.”
“Where are we? You said something about a reception.”
“Yeah. Mary and Andreas decided to finally make their relationship official. That’s why we’re in Vegas.”
Gasping, Leticia put her hand over her heart and stared dumbstruck at Jim. “I missed Mary’s wedding? No way.”
She loved Mary Nissen and considered her an honorary Modesto.
Mary was a paralegal in Norseton and a witch of the Norseton sort. Most of the people in Norseton were from a clan called the Afótama. Mary, and her new husband, apparently, were from a group closely related to the Afótama. They were descended from some psychic Vikings that had crashed ashore in Newfoundland about a thousand years ago. Andreas Toft’s particular parcel of magic made him a werewolf. The Norseton alpha, Adam Carbone, happily accepted him as a pack member. However, Andreas was far more aristocratic than anyone who lived in the Wolf village. The guy was rolling in old money.
“Well, you didn’t miss it. You were there.” Jim rolled onto his back, which meant he was no longer in view. “Half damn pack here.”
Leticia’s brain had to scramble to fill in the gaps left in his sounds. “Half the damn pack is here,” he’d said. She really wished people came with closed captioning.
She craned forward and put her better ear toward him.
“Basically, everyone who didn’t have to do urgent work today. I’m guessing you’re one of those people who have memory blackouts if she drinks alcohol, so maybe you should just…not drink. Ever.”
Having no intention to argue that point, she expelled a manic titter. “I feel like hell. Alcohol might explain why.” Scratching her carpet-irritated calf, she furrowed her brow again. “But I still don’t understand why I wanted to be naked.”
For a long time, Jim didn’t say anything.
The pauses weren’t unusual for Jim. He could be in a room full of Wolves and go hours without saying one word. In fact, prior to their unique hotel situation, Leticia hadn’t known the man had such a strong Southern accent. She’d heard him speak, but perhaps not from close enough range.
She simmered in self-annoyance that her mental “file,” of sorts, for him had been missing that information.
What else have I missed?
“This is pure speculation,” he said. “From what I was able to piece together, I came up with a theory.”
“Tell me your theory,” she said weakly.
“You were talked into certain actions by some troublemaking ladies in the pack. One happens to be your sister.”
Talked into it?
Leticia nibbled the inside of her cheek while contemplating how such a scenario might have played out. No matter how hard she tried, she simply couldn’t imagine the conversations that were had.
“Which sister?” she asked. “Lisa is totally straight-arrow.”
Leticia gave her head a slow shake of vexation.
Usually, Graciella’s Middle Child Syndrome presented with mild passive aggressiveness and fierce independence. Sometimes, though, it came with excessive pragmatism and sisterly bullying.
“And what does your theory have to say about what came next?” Leticia asked.
“I was hoping that would jog your memory enough, and you’d remember the rest on your own.”
“Nope.” She popped her tongue and gave her fingertips impatient taps against her sides. “Nothing in there. Just yellowjackets.”
“Never mind. Just Leticia things.” Some Wolves had inner canines influencing their behaviors. Leticia had winged pests.
“All right,” Jim said, but for a change, he didn’t sound sure of himself. She tended to have that effect on people. “Well, my theory is that she and Petra and Ashley put their heads together after a bottle of champagne or two. And maybe they told you that since you were already in Vegas, you should go ahead and marry your mate.”
Leticia’s eye started to twitch as her brain collected that pile of words from her good ear and filled in the gaps she might have missed. She thought she’d caught them all, but if that were the case, there was a severe deficit of logic in what he’d said.
“What?” she asked in a small voice.
Like most male Wolves Leticia knew, Jim didn’t sigh or groan when he was frustrated. He growled. As far as growls went, it was a subtle one, though—more like a long exhalation and not a message of warning.
He appeared once more at the edge of the bed.
She nearly yelped. She didn’t remember his energy being so imposing. It was almost like she’d been dropped into the middle of a crowd, but only the two of them were there.
He didn’t seem to notice her distress.
She settled her gaze on his lips, desperate not to miss a single word. “All right, so this part is half theory and half fact,” he said. “I heard Graciella tell Ashley that Adam was going to nudge you toward me sooner rather than later. The ladies probably thought we should just go ahead and take care of the business end.”
“The business end?” She’d left Delaware to escape the business end. That was precisely what she didn’t want. Through gritted teeth, she asked, “And why would Alpha do that?”
Perhaps there was too much snap in her tone. Jim ground his teeth, too.
“I think I would remember getting married,” she said when he didn’t respond. “This is preposterous.”
“Maybe it is, but look at your hand.”
She raised it.
“The other one.”
She picked up the left hand and shot up to her feet, gaping at the thin gold band on her fourth finger.
He held up his left hand, too. “They match. The gunmetal color was Ashley’s idea.”
“And you went along with it?” Leticia was shrieking. Being the youngest of three sisters, that wasn’t exactly an unusual thing. Still, she’d convinced herself that she’d matured out of her histrionics phase. Apparently, it didn’t take very much to trigger her back into it.
“You seemed sober,” Jim said neutrally. “I didn’t realize you weren’t until we got back here.”
“Before or after I took my clothes off?”
“During the taking-off.”
“And you claim I took my clothes off because I wanted them off?”
“People take their clothes off before they have sex. In most cases, anyway.”
“You were going to have sex with me?”
“I imagine most Wolves enjoy sex with their mates and spouses.”
Mate and spouse.
Disoriented again, Leticia plopped into the armchair in the corner by the window. She tugged the bed scarf tightly around her.
By no stretch of the imagination would she ever consider herself wise, but she’d always believed there was a difference between those two words. One could be a spouse without being a mate, and vice versa. However, most Wolves she knew back at home used the terms interchangeably.
Marriage was a legal agreement. Mateship was something else entirely. It wasn’t supposed to be an arrangement, though modern Wolves had come to accept it as being only that. Mateships were supposed to be about magic and the knowing of two people that their partnership was necessary and unavoidable.
A thick lump of anxiety had wedged in her throat again because the way her brain tended to work was by jumping to conclusions. The conclusion it was straining to make was that a lot of people knew something about her long before she did. The Norseton Wolves didn’t arbitrarily match mates.
“When did Alpha announce the match?” She didn’t know why she was whispering, only that the quiet seemed appropriate given the circumstances.
Alpha had matched four of the couples in the pack, including Lisa and Colt, and had vetted many other pairs. He had the Wolf goddess’s ear. She never steered him wrong, and she always told him when a couple had the right stuff to stick.
“Adam didn’t have anything to do with the match,” Jim said.
“I don’t understand. He always knows if a couple is wrong.”
“It was a…natural match.” Jim said that last part in a mumble, and with her hearing being what it was, she needed a moment to filter the sounds and speculate on what should go in the gaps.
“A natural match? You mean…”
He made that growling sound again, which was terrifying when his eye contact was so focused and when his energy was crowding.
“But I don’t—” She halted her stream of words. She’d been about to say that she would have known if she’d had a mate but then remembered that there was a chance she wouldn’t have. She’d been a minor when she arrived in Norseton. Although she’d known Jim for a few years, they hadn’t spent much time around each other. While she’d certainly looked at him countless times through the eyes of a young woman who occasionally harbored fantasies about well-built men, she’d never thought those fantasies would go anywhere beyond her dreams. She’d always viewed him as inaccessible—as someone else’s.
Apparently, he was hers, and the goddess had nothing to do with the pairing.
If what Jim was saying was true, he and Leticia had formed an alliance during their earliest awareness of each other. Or at least, the animal parts of them did. Not her yellowjackets, but that long-silent wolf in her.
Leticia wasn’t tuned in to what her inner wolf had to say. Maybe she and it were too estranged to share thoughts the way some people did with their creature selves. Perhaps Jim’s creature had opinions and freely shared them.
Judging by the flat press of his lips and the twitching of his jaw hinges, Leticia guessed that he seemed as happy about the circumstances as she did.
“I…undressed and then changed my mind?” she asked.
“You undressed yourself some and then undressed me before you finished with you.”
“And then you started listing and slurring. Your pupils were doing weird shit. I put two and two together then.”
“I didn’t want to put my clothes back on?”
“You didn’t have time to put your clothes back on. You passed out.”
Once more, she ground her eyes with the heels of her palms. Eventually, she’d have to circle back to the nudity part, but she had to get some things clarified first. “You agreed to marry me?”
“Why? You don’t look thrilled. Did you happen to have a bit too much to drink, too?”
“I didn’t have a single sip of alcohol last night, Leticia.”
“Then why did you marry me?” She forced herself to look at him again. “I was totally oblivious to any connection between us, and we could have gone on being that way if you didn’t want to be with me.”
He forced a breath out through his nose, tore his gaze away from her, and swore under his breath.
Rather than respond to her, he scooted to the opposite edge of the bed, then stalked nude to what must have been the bathroom.
The lock snicked softly after he closed the door.
Of course he hadn’t put his clothes back on. He was a werewolf. Werewolves ran naked all the time. But nudity was different somehow when it was achieved for non-shapeshifting reasons. He’d never seen her naked before the prior evening. She couldn’t shapeshift yet because she didn’t have a mate’s bite, so she didn’t run with the pack the way Lisa did every month.
He’d seen her in a way that only her sisters and mother had.
She picked up her hand and stared at the thin wedding band. “What in the world happened last night?”
The whole evening had been blacked out of her mind.
She’d gone to work at the clinic reception desk in Norseton and then woke up naked and married in Las Vegas.
The worst part was she felt stupid for not knowing if the situation sucked or not.
She tilted her hand side to side to watch the metal glinting in the light.
“Jim Mason?” she whispered in a whisper heavy with astonishment.
He had a strong, silent appeal going for him. And he was hot. She could admit that now that it was clear that he evidently was not someone else’s.
But she wasn’t supposed to be married yet. And she wasn’t just married, but the wolves in them were mated. He was her natural mate. He’d sensed something about her, and Alpha knew enough to counsel him on it.
“How long did he know?” she whispered, turning the ring around her finger.
That wasn’t even her most pressing concern.
The parties in a mated pair always had something to offer the other—some way to make each other balance. She wasn’t sure what Jim’s flaws were, but she wasn’t so sure that whatever they were would be grave enough to offset the fact that she was functionally deaf in one ear. Wolves who didn’t have perfect senses were unsafe Wolves, and she didn’t know yet if her hearing would improve when she ever assumed her animal form.
She rubbed the spot over her breasts where most mate bites tended to land.
If he even bites me. I hope he does.
Colt had given Lisa a bite, but not all men in the Norseton pack were so traditional. Beast hadn’t bitten Christina. Maker still hadn’t bitten Graciella. She doubted that Andreas’s bite would do anything to Mary. He was a different strain of Wolf.
Some women just didn’t want the bite, but Leticia did.
She always had.
If Jim found out about her ear, he’d probably be hesitant to give her the bite that would allow her to run on four legs. He looked at her like he didn’t even want her.
But the longer she stood there, nearly naked and shivering in that air-conditioned corner, the more she wanted him.
Her sisters got their handsome Wolves. Why not her?