Chapter 1 of 'Switching Gears'
“Christ. I don’t know what to do about her anymore. I mean, I’m used to people being a little nuts around here. With Cammie and Margie being friends, you never know what the outcome will be with those two; but Amie?” Zeke shook his head and stared off over Skip’s head. Looking into the woods usually helped calm him, helped center his thoughts, but nothing seemed to do that anymore. Emotionally, he was strung out. “I want to love her but she won’t let me get close enough.”
A hand landed on his shoulder and the gentle touch was comforting. The Alpha, Skip Peters, didn’t do warm and fuzzy, but he was a great leader to their small, ragtag pack. The man was rough around the edges, back woods and proud of it. But for a group of shifters living in the hills of Virginia, that’s what they needed. And at the moment he was exactly what Zeke and his animal needed. Skip’s presence and touch helped bring Zeke’s coyote to heel and helped him grasp a little tighter to hope.
The men stood like that for a long moment, one offering and the other accepting companionship. A silence, full of understanding and shared sympathy, hung between them. Friends, mentor and mentee, Alpha and Beta. The two were many things to each other and, in this one moment, they were men confused over the inner workings of the female mind.
The same questions he’d been pondering for weeks plagued him like a record skipping. Where solitude and comfort would have been seeping through his feet as he stood in the woods, now the silence gave his mind time to wander. The path his thoughts took was well worn, dug deep into his psyche like a game path. Did she hate him for the pull? Did Amie really not want him as a mate? She’d demanded he leave her alone and he’d done as requested. He’d hoped she would give in to the mate pull, but she hadn’t. Should he move away?
“She’s had a rough youth, you know that right?” The softly spoken words brought Zeke back to the moment. Skip continued, “She has a tough road ahead of her in the relationships department. But a strong man will get through to her.”
“Yeah, but am I strong enough? That’s the question. I thought I was. When she made me chase her months ago and nearly drove me insane I thought I was ready. But it all went horribly wrong. Maybe I’m not the one she needs.”
The coyote who Zeke shared his mind with howled in pain. The animal had claimed her and accepted her claim of him. It didn’t want to hear about issues with the human side of their mate. The creature wanted to make her see they were meant to be together. He wanted to grab the bad kitty by the scruff of her neck and make her submit. Which would be fine in all other instances, but it didn’t work so well with women. Especially not those prone to burglary, vandalism, and who knew what else in retaliation.
Amie Dorner. God, the woman got his blood boiling, and most of the time in anger instead of lust. But he knew she was his mate. The pull to her was strong, the need to be with her, to keep the irritating girl safe was enough to make him spend nights wandering around outside her house in both coyote and human forms. Keeping one eye on her while she slept and the other on the roads to make sure the sheriff didn’t show up to chase him off her property. Not that Connor would arrest him, but the irritating man would use it as fodder for blackmail or a good laugh.
Skip’s hand squeezed Zeke’s shoulder again and the unspoken agreement was there. Women were irrational and irresistible.
“What am I supposed to do? She’s got me and my animal all wrapped up in craziness. Did anyone tell you about my house? She broke in and changed all the fucking locks. Even on the inside doors.” Zeke turned and found his friend laughing silently. “Yeah, go ahead and laugh at me, man, but you have no idea what a mind fuck that is. I had to climb a fucking tree to find the key to the front door and then play this hide and seek game with my nose inside to find the rest of the stupid things. Each door had a different lock. I mean, come on. Who does that kind of thing?”
The anger and exasperation he’d felt flooded him again. Throwing his hands up wasn’t enough. Zeke started taking long strides, pacing the small clearing they stood in. “If that wasn’t enough, she found a way to screw with my cell. Every fucking hour it goes off and I can’t figure out how she did it. Every hour. Of every fucking day. I’ve changed it, put the damn thing on vibrate, everything. I’ve even factory reset it, and it still goes off.”
Skip snorted. “At least she’s persistent.”
Zeke whipped around and couldn’t help his slack-jawed stare. “She licked me. Licked me. When she finally gave me the chance to take her on a date, we went to see Mama at the diner and someone must have looked at me funny because the crazy woman stood up in front of everyone, humans included, growled and stated I was hers. Then? Then she leaned down and licked me. On the throat. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, she stood back up, grinning that crazy smile she gets, and announced that I was all hers because, and no joke, if she licked it, it was hers.”
The Alpha’s response followed the same set of reactions everyone else seemed to have about this little piece of information. He burst into peals of laughter. Tears, stomach holding, and gasps for breath kept the other man busy for a while, as Zeke slowly blushed.
“Fuck you. Do you know what this did to my coyote? He’s been claimed, by his mate. Do you know the pain I’m in all the time because that’s the closest I’ve ever been to her? Do you? My heart aches, my chest aches with constant pain and I can’t go more than two minutes without a hard on. I can’t sleep, can’t eat. Every time I shift I’m fighting for enough control to not chase her down. I’m going insane.”
When he’d finally finished his admissions Skip was not laughing anymore. A look of deep concentration flowed over the Alpha’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize this was causing you so much discomfort.”
Zeke shrugged and turned away, feeling the always-present tension in his muscles. “Well, whatcha going to do? I can’t force her and I can’t seem to get through her shroud of psycho-ness, so I’m stuck. I’d leave if my coyote would let me. At least then I wouldn’t have to smell her around, or see her. I could get over her in time. But the dumb creature thinks she’s going to take us as mates because of the whole licking thing and won’t let me even attempt to leave. It’d sever our connection I think. That’s how smitten he is.”
Silence met his comments. Perhaps he shouldn’t have admitted that he’d thought about leaving, but anything was worth thinking over. He hadn’t lied. Nothing was right anymore. Sleeping did nothing for him. Eating was required but he really didn’t taste any of it. Even training the pack’s teens didn’t hold any fun for him. Every day it was a toss-up between being pissed that she’d done something to him or disappointment that she hadn’t.
He felt strung out mentally and physically. Some days he could swear he was transparent with it, thinned so much that the only thing holding him together were the clothes on his back.
And even the things he used to find solace in were tainted with his crushing need for her. The woods used to hold peace for him, but now he felt as if he was abandoning Amie if he ran in his coyote form for too long. His animal side balked each time they headed away from her. Even this morning, when he’d woken up, it’d taken a direct order from his brother to get him to the training session with the teens. Zeke had wanted to sit at home and sulk. At least then he was likely to see her if she slunk around to torture him further.
“I didn’t realize it was eating you up so much.” Skip whispered.
“I know. I didn’t want her getting in trouble. If I left that would be one thing, but I don’t want to see her driven out of here by some friendly fools thinking harassing her is the answer.”
The sounds of the woods changed slightly and a moment later a howl split the air. Finally.
With a silent prayer of thanks for the timing, he turned back to his Alpha. “Sounds like my boys have found their hiding spot. Want to run and track them with me? I’m testing their aptitude in using landforms as camouflage and confusing trackers today. It should be fun.”
Skip shook his head, a look of contemplation still on his face. “Nah, you have a good run and find them. I have too much to get done today. I’m working on Jason and his standing in the pack, and it looks like we have another orphan that will need a house.” The Alpha sighed. “I’m a busy guy these days.”
“Do you ever regret taking the position?” Zeke had always wondered. No one else could do the job as well as their leader, but it seemed like a burden more and more lately for his friend.
“No. I don’t regret it, but it does give me pause sometimes. It’ll be nice to have Jason as a backup when I need it. Although I’m not sure how long he’ll survive here. I don’t think he can handle being under another Alpha for long. Now, go on. We don’t want those teens thinking they’re better than they are.”
Zeke grinned and started pulling off his jeans. “Thanks, by the way. I’ve needed someone to talk to and just haven’t felt like unloading on Pete. I’m afraid he’d do something stupid on my behalf.”
Skip smiled back. “Any time, right? And that’s what brothers are for. They get to do the dumb shit you want to do.”
With a practiced relaxation Zeke opened himself up to his other half and relished the feeling of freedom that rushed from his coyote as they swapped places in their shared mind and body. It took a heartbeat to change forms and another to center their combined thoughts on the task at hand instead of running off toward Amie’s house.
In his furred body everything was so much simpler, but he kept them on the right path. He had to chase the scents of the teenage boys, find them, give them feedback on their attempt to hide.
Then he could decide if he wanted to try to talk his mate into giving him another chance. Even in his animal form he sighed. Yeah. They were in complete agreement that they wanted the chase for Amie’s love over with. Sooner rather than later.
Running through the underbrush gave him a boost of pride in this group of boys. The teens were of mixed animal forms, but worked well together as a unit. They were learning very quickly about tracking and how to hide their own trails. Zeke had to double back more than once when he lost their scents. They really had thought out their plan and even started separating off some of the group and forcing him to choose which members he’d follow. It was a great tactic. He made a mental note to commend their leader’s plan.
On one such backtracking episode he caught the smell of a particular plant and it took him one instant too long to pinpoint what it was. Poison ivy. Fuck me. The moment his brain caught up with his nose, and his feet stopped moving he knew it was already too late. Standing haunches deep in a huge patch of the dark-green, three-leafed torture had a moment of panic flooding him. Yeah, most humans had some sort of allergic reaction to the stuff, but in the shifter world it was nearly unheard of to have any allergies. Zeke, poor soul that he was, was horribly affected by the stupid vegetation. And the moment he stood still was enough for him to realize that his paws were already tingling and the bare skin between the pads were heating.
He turned tail and ran full out to the clearing he’d started in. Looking around gave him few options. His truck wasn’t parked far away and he could obviously drive to the clinic, but the oils would surely touch every open inch of skin when the fur receded back into it. Running all the way to town was going to take forever. And, even then, he’d have to try and explain—without shifting—the situation, the help he needed, and trying to convince someone to shower him with soap a few times before he could take his human form.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuckity fuck.
Shards of pain pulsing up his legs from his swelling feet and toe pads made the decision for him. There was no way he could make it to the clinic running as fast as he could driving. He’d have to go in human form and hope he didn’t pass out before he reached it.
Shifting forms wasn’t as pleasant this time around. Zeke’s skin erupted in goose bumps the moment his fur pulled back into his skin. Each hair carried the oils of the fucking plant, and those spread like melted butter onto his bare skin. The burning sensation on his hands and feet became a body-engulfing inferno within moments. Scrambling naked behind the steering wheel of his truck was uncomfortable but he didn’t want to take the time to throw clothes on. His hand automatically went to start the truck but the keys weren’t there dangling from the steering column. With an aggravated growl he grabbed the pile of clothes sitting on the seat next to him. Digging the keys from his jean pockets had the denim brushing painfully against his hand.
Panic made his breaths come quicker. With one hand he turned on the truck while he used his phone to speed dial Margie’s number.
“Hey, Zeke. What’s up?”
He nearly cried when his friend and the vet for the town answered on the first ring. “Margie. I’m on the way to the clinic. I’ve been in poison ivy.”
The pause was telling. “Okay, I’m calling Doc on the office phone to let him know you’re on your way. Are you okay to drive?”
Her concern washed over him and calmed some of the anxiety. “Yeah, I think so. I’m out at the pack lands.”
“Okay, well, why don’t we chat while you drive? That way I know you made it there okay. How did you end up going through that shit, anyway?”
Few in the pack knew about the extensive trips Zeke, Pete and Skip made each year into the woods to make sure the stupid plant wasn’t growing anywhere. He’d filled in Margie not long after she’d moved in. At the time she thought he was just a plain ol’ human, but had still been interested in knowing the information.
“I don’t know. I’d been out with the teens working on tracking practice. They were hiding from me and one of the switchbacks they’d pulled happened to be through a freaking huge area of the stuff. How we missed it this spring, I don’t know. As soon as I get through this I’ll make sure we get it killed though. Damn, my hands hurt.”
“How’s the belly?”
He glanced down and winced. “The splotches are already breaking out and I hurt. God I hate this. Why me? Huh? Don’t I deal with enough shit?”
She chuckled. “Stop whining. Get to the clinic and take a shower, that will help, and you know in three days you’ll be perfectly fine. Imagine being a human with a human’s rate of healing. Then you could bitch.”
“True enough.” He thought if he was human and reacted this badly to the plant he would probably be dead already. He tried to not think about the itch starting, or the fact that his skin had turned a mottled maroon. “Talk to me Margie. Tell me about your mate. Give me some dirt I can blackmail him with.”
The laugh on the other end of the call made him smile until the bunching of his cheeks caused him to grimace. The skin around his mouth felt hot and swollen. When he glanced in the rearview mirror he thought perhaps mirrors should be banned for his immediate future. This was going to suck. Big time.