Suddenly I was so tired.
I crawled off the couch and forced myself into the kitchen. Eating Raphael’s food was out of the question. Shapeshifters attached a special significance to food. A shapeshifter approaching his or her mate would try to feed them. That’s how Kate got burned once: the Beast Lord of Atlanta, the Pack’s head alpha and the final authority, fed her some chicken soup. She ate it, having no clue what it meant, which, according to her, the Beast Lord found incredibly amusing. Curran had a peculiar sense of humor. Cats. Weird creatures.
I tried the phone. No dial tone. The magic was still up.
I went back to the sofa and closed my eyes just for a moment.
The enticing aroma of meat tickled my nostrils. My eyes snapped open. Raphael, clean and mind-numbingly gorgeous, stood in the kitchen, trimming a piece of steak.
My mouth watered, and I wasn’t sure if it was the man or the steak that caused the reaction. Probably both. I was so hungry. And I so deeply wanted Raphael. I should’ve never come here.
Raphael glanced at me, his eyes like blue fire. My heart actually skipped a beat. “I’m cooking you dinner,” he said. “Shocking.”
“You know I can’t take that from you,” I said.
I shook my head.
He casually flipped the knife in his fingers. His knife skills were uncanny. A flash of irritation flared in his eyes. He hesitated. “Look, I know you’re starving. If you won’t let me cook for you, will you at least cook for yourself?”
That was the first time I had ever seen him irritated. I pushed off the couch. “Sure.”
He opened the fridge. A complicated web glistened in the back of it, gathering into a knot in the corner. An ice spider. It cost an arm and a leg. I, like most other normal people, had to buy friz-ice from the Water and Sewer Department to keep my fridge from getting warm when the tech failed and magic robbed it of electricity.
Raphael pulled another steak and slapped it on the cutting board next to his. “Here.”
We stared at each other for a second, and then I took the saltshaker and began to season my steak.
We glided in the small space of the kitchen, boxed in by the island and counters like two dancers, never touching each other, until we ended up next to each other searing our steaks on twin burners.
“I would just like to know if I have a chance,” Raphael ground out. “I’ve been patient.”
“And I owe you something because of that?”
He glared at me. “I just want an answer. Look, it’s been half a year now. I call you every day—you don’t take my calls. I try to meet you and you blow me off. But you look at me like you want me. Just tell me yes or no.”
“Is that your answer or are you refusing to tell me?”
“My answer is no. I won’t sleep with you. I’ve never led you on, Raphael. I told you from the beginning this wasn’t going to happen.”
Raphael’s eyes went dark. “Fair enough. Why?”
“Yes, why? I know you want me. I see it in your face, I smell it in your body, I hear it in your voice. That’s why I kept coming back after you like a fucking idiot. At least you can tell me why.”
I unclenched my teeth. This talk was almost six months in coming. “Your mother is a good person, Raphael. Her clan is a good clan. But it’s not like that everywhere. My mother was the weakest of six females in a small bouda clan. The others beat her every day. There were only two males and my mother didn’t get to mate. Hell, if one of them looked at her, the others attacked her. In other places boudas don’t stick that strictly to the Code. There’s no Beast Lord to hold them to it and no punishment. They get to govern themselves, and the pack’s only as good as the alpha. You know what my first memory is? I’m sitting in the dirt and our fucking alpha, Clarissa, is beating my mother in the face with a brick!”
“My mother didn’t want to mate with my father. They forced her to do it, because they got off on the perversity of it. He didn’t know any better. He didn’t understand the concept of rape. All he knew was that there was a female and she was made available to him. For three years my mother was raped by a man who had started his life as a hyena. He had the mental capacity of a five-year-old. And when I was born, they started beating me as soon as I could walk. I was beastkin. No rules applied to me. Under your precious Code, I was an abomination. Every bone in my body was broken before I turned ten. As soon as I healed, they started on me again. And my mother couldn’t stop it. She could do nothing. They would’ve killed me, Raphael. I was weaker and smaller than them and they would’ve kept beating me and beating me until there was nothing left, if my mother hadn’t gotten together what little shreds of courage she had left. I live now because she grabbed me and ran across the country.”
His face turned bloodless, but now it was too late to stop.
“When Kate drove me to the flare to your mother, I kept trying to get out of the cart, because I was sure Aunt B would kill me. That’s what ‘bouda’ means to me, Raphael. It means hate and cruelty and disgust.”
I shoved my pan off the fire to save the half-burned steak.
“So you refuse to be with me because of what I am,” he said. “You can’t be that shortsighted. What happened to you was awful. But I’m not them. I would never hurt you. My family, my clan, we would never hurt you. We protect our own.”
“What you are is only a part of it. If you were a different man, maybe I could get over it. But you’re a typical bouda male. I want love, Raphael. I might not deserve it, after some of the stuff I’ve done, but I want it. I want security and kindness and a home. I want monogamy and consideration for my feelings. What do you have to offer me? You’ve slept with every bouda woman who isn’t related to you. Everybody had you, Raphael. They offered to give me pointers on what you like in bed. Hell, you didn’t stop with boudas. You played with wolves, and with rats, with jackals . . . To you, I’m just another weird thing to hump. For God’s sake, you got stuck inside a jackal girl while you were both in beast form and they had to call Doolittle out to separate you two. What were you thinking? You outweighed her by a hundred and fifty pounds and you aren’t even of the same species!”
“I was fourteen,” he snarled. “I didn’t know any better. She wiggled her ass in front of me . . .”
“You’re like a greedy kid in an ice cream store. You want everything and so you make this giant rainbow mess of a cone and gorge yourself on sweets until you can’t even think anymore. You have no restraint and no discipline. Why would I want to get involved with you? So the next time someone wiggles her ass before you, you’ll take off like a rocket? Please.”
I grabbed a fork, stuck it into my steak, and marched out of the kitchen, carrying off my charred piece of meat. I got outside, climbed in my Jeep, and realized I had left my guns and my keys inside. There was nothing left to do but chew on my steak. I really wanted to cry.
I was so screwed up. I tried so hard to be a human, and he unhinged me. I just fell apart like a doll. The beatings, the humiliation, the fear—I had left those things in the past. I had interacted with other boudas and never once had been bothered by them. But with him all of it came flooding back in a choking painful wave.
Only Kate, the boudas, and the Beast Lord knew what I was. If the Pack found out that I was beastkin, the Beast Lord would protect me from physical harm. Curran had considered the issue of beastkin and come to the conclusion that he wouldn’t tolerate genocide against us. But at least some of the shapeshifters would still despise me. If the Order found out what I was, they would expel me. The Order took a dim view of monsters in their ranks unless they were fully human.
Years of hiding, first in adolescence, then during the grueling training at the Order’s Academy, stressed to my limit, tortured physically and mentally, hammered into shape, into a new me, then service in the name of the Order. I had rigidly maintained my humanity and composure through it all, and what undid me? Raphael, with his blue eyes and warm hands and voice that made me want to press against him and purr . . .
How could I have fallen for a damn bouda?
I slumped forward and rested my head on the steering wheel. Why did I tell him all that? What possessed me? I should’ve just laughed off his dinner invitation. But it had been eating at me for months now and I just couldn’t help myself. There was this bitter emptiness inside me and it made me want to scream, It’s not fair! and I didn’t even know why.
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that I wanted to wake up next to Raphael. It wasn’t fair that he was a bouda. It wasn’t fair that for eleven years boudas tortured me and my mother.
Half an hour later Raphael emerged onto the porch and held open the door. Remaining in the Jeep was childish. Even storming out in the first place was childish. I took my fork, hopped out of the Jeep, and went inside with as much dignity as I could muster.
Raphael closed the door behind me. An odd light played in his eyes. He grabbed me by my shoulders and pulled me to him.
The breath jumped out of my lungs.
His stare was hard. “You will give us a chance.”
“Things happened before I met you and before you met me. Those things don’t matter. You had no control over your past, but here, right now, you control the situation and you’re voluntarily giving it up. You’re punishing both of us because of something that happened half a lifetime ago. It makes no sense.”
I tried to pull away, but he held me.
“There hasn’t been anyone since I met you. I’ve been good, and don’t think for a moment it was because of the lack of wiggling asses. Have you ever seen me with another woman since we met? Have you heard of me being with another woman? The same women who wanted to give you pointers will tell you that I haven’t touched anyone since I saw you. Are you jealous of them? Is that it?”