© 2016 by Layla Nash All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover design by Resplendent Media.
afe hated Valentine's Day
. Hated it. Hated that the ruckus around it practically began as soon as the new year started. He hated the constant barrage of commercials and advertising with happy couples and expensive rings and candy and bullshit. The pressure to be part of a couple, and the unfairness of being single, only increased after Christmas and the inevitable New Year's Eve celebrations. Normally he suffered through Valentine's Day with a couple bottles of bourbon and his sister's caustic wit to make the day less awful, but since Ruby fell in love in Carter Chase, Rafe didn't think she'd want to watch old horror movies with him instead of going out with her mate.
He gripped the steering wheel of his parked car and scowled out the windshield. For at least the fifth time, he started the car and almost put it into gear. He didn't want to walk into the matchmaker's office and pretend he enjoyed dating or social situations or meeting new people. He didn't. He liked his life, he liked his pack, and he liked his job. He didn't want to change anything about himself to suit someone else. He growled and turned the car off. He hated the idea of another year without his mate. But he hadn't found his mate yet and he wouldn't find her unless he did something about it. Unless he tried something new.
And he might feel like a first class asshole for going to a matchmaker, but Carter tried it before he finally manned up and asked Ruby out. Rafe took a deep breath and unbuckled his seatbelt, kicking open the car door to brace against the freezing wind. He strode into the expensive office building downtown that housed the matchmaker's office headquarters, and didn't make eye contact with anyone in the lobby, the elevators, or the hall. It felt more like torture than dating.
He ground his teeth as the receptionist in the matchmaker's office looked up at him and asked perkily, "Are you looking for love?"
Rafe hated questions like that. And the cute little blonde behind the desk had probably never had to look for love. Love probably found her more often than she wanted. He struggled with control and forced a less pissed-off expression onto his face when she blinked at him. "Maybe. I have an appointment. Rafe O'Shea."
"Wonderful," the girl said, bouncing to her feet to retrieve a packet of papers. "Please fill these out, Mr. O'Shea, and be totally honest. We can't find your soul-mate if you're not upfront."
She beamed at him as Rafe took the packet and clipboard, and he managed to growl through a clenched jaw, "Right."
He didn't want to fill out surveys about his eating habits and sleeping habits and sexual needs. The matchmaker knew about shifters; she was a damn cougar herself. All he had to do was leave a gym shirt there and hope that one of the women who came in was his mate and recognized his smell. He'd sniff a few shirts every couple of weeks. That was about the level of effort he intended to make.
So he only half-assed the surveys, tucking them away when the matchmaker, a statuesque woman with brown-gray hair and striking green eyes, appeared from the inner rooms of the office. She smiled and offered a hand. "Mr. O'Shea, so lovely to see you. Do please come back to my office."
Rafe shook her hand and followed suit, the papers crumpling in his fist. He waited until the door to her office shut before exhaling, trying to push away the irritation. He didn't need to be so angry about not finding his mate. He might not ever find her. Some people didn't. And he was at a point where she didn't need to be Ms. Right or Ms. Perfect. She just needed to be Ms. Good Enough.
The matchmaker, Paula, pressed her hands together on the desk and eyed him. "Well, Mr. O'Shea, it's not often I get a single, available alpha in my office."
"It's not often I ask other people for help with my personal life, so I suppose we're both in unfamiliar territory." He tossed the surveys onto her desk. "I'm guessing those aren't necessary."
"On the contrary," she said, and picked up the papers to flip through and study his answers. "I'm sure you're aware there are very few single shifter ladies in the city or our adjacent counties. In a hundred-mile radius, Mr. O'Shea, I've only got a dozen or so female shifters who are looking for their mate. The important thing is to get a profile of your ideal woman, and then put you in front of as many of them as possible until you find someone you like. Or someone who can tolerate you." She gave him a raised eyebrow, clearly displeased with his attitude.
That wasn't something his wolf wanted to hear. The wolf wanted their mate. Full stop. That was it. He sighed, rubbing his jaw. "I don't have time for a hundred dates. I'd rather leave something here with you, and you can call me when someone shows up who meets the criteria."
She smiled, but the edges of her teeth showed. "Mr. O'Shea, I certainly don't show up in your pack and tell you how to do your job. I assume because you're here that you need the assistance of a professional. So please, let the professional do her job."
Rafe gripped the arms of the chair he occupied, but managed to nod. "Very well."
"Wonderful." Paula made a thoughtful noise under her breath as she studied his surveys, taking a few notes on a pad next to her phone, then studied him with half-closed eyes. "I have an interesting candidate for you. She's human, but adorable. You'll like her."
"I'd rather start with the shifters, if you don't mind. I don't want to drag a human into the pack unless it's a last resort."
She tapped her chin and retrieved a file folder from inside her desk. "I understand. I don't think you two will be a perfect match, but since you weren't particularly... thorough in your responses, we might need to break a few eggs before we get the omelet we want."
Rafe took the folder and flipped it open, frowning as he studied the profile inside. A petite brunette girl with a cheerleader grin posed in a full-length photo, staring back at him, and claimed she liked things like hiking and beer and watching football. Things girls said when they wanted to sound like one of the guys. He rubbed his jaw and handed back the folder. "I don't know."
"Consider it practice. It's just a couple of drinks, maybe dinner if you both feel like continuing the date." Paula arched an eyebrow in challenge. "Surely an alpha like yourself isn't afraid of a drink and conversation with a pretty girl?"
The wolf objected to being baited and trapped. Strongly objected. But Rafe knew she was right. He wouldn't find his mate if he didn't get his ass out the door and talk to people. So he crossed his arms. "Very well."
Paula smiled and rose from behind the desk, extending her hand. "Good. I'll email you the details as soon as I get the date and time arranged, but plan for tomorrow night or the night after."
Rafe shook her hand, turned on his heel, and strode out without another word. He could hardly breathe in that damn office under the weight of her attention. He exhaled in a rush only when he reached the frigid air outside and could see his car. The matchmaker was a terrible idea. Terrible. He never should have gone. He'd even forgotten to leave the gym shirt he'd brought.
But two nights later, he walked up to a trendy bar downtown, wearing his good jeans and a sport coat, and prepared to meet the cheerleader with the dark curls. Paula set everything up and emailed him the details, just as she'd said, and Rafe hated everything about it. The lack of control drove his wolf into near panic. And the bar she'd chosen was the very opposite of the bar he and Ruby owned — a classy dive bar, but a dive bar nonetheless.
This place was something called a 'gastropub,' whatever the fuck that meant. Rafe walked to the bar and ordered bourbon, grimly appreciative that the hipster chic place at least stocked the good stuff. And then he waited.
When the girl was fifteen minutes late, he started getting irritated. At thirty minutes, he dialed Paula's number and prepared to give her a piece of his mind. Only the good bourbon kept him on the stool at the bar, scowling at the line of bottles and hating that he'd actually combed his hair for once.
And then a soft voice said, "Excuse me, are you Rafe?"
He turned, about to tell the cheerleader she'd missed her chance, but it wasn't the cheerleader who spoke to him. His breath caught and the wolf hopped to attention. The girl looked breathless and flustered, her cheeks red from more than the wind outside. She was beautiful — punch-in-the-chest beautiful. Full-figured and curvy, tall enough she could look him in the eye, and with long dark hair in giant curls around her face. His brain stopped working and he could only stare at her. Perfect. She was perfection on sky-high stilettos and wearing a dress that probably qualified her as a naughty secretary. Glasses would make her a naughty librarian. Whatever kind of naughtiness she wanted, the wolf was happy to oblige. This girl, whoever she was, was his mate. He felt it like a knock in the head.
Turned out, he owed Paula an apology.
espite the threat of snow
, I stood outside the bar for longer than my ankles or my bare legs could tolerate. The man I was supposed to meet was intimidatingly handsome and had an impressive résumé. But it was more than that stopping me from walking in. I checked my lipstick again, impressed with the classic shade of red. No, what stopped me from striding into the most exclusive, expensive bar in the restaurant district was the fact that the handsome man waiting inside wasn't waiting for me. He waited for my roommate.
The matchmaker saw Olga at the mall and recruited her to go on dates with rich men in the city, and Olga had been happy to sign up. Except this particular date conflicted with Olga's pre-existing plans with her wannabe rock star boyfriend. So she asked me to go. I shouldn't have agreed. I shouldn't have. Olga and I were total opposites, and though I rocked my curves and didn't have any problems getting dates, I knew he expected Olga's petite frame to walk through that door. Not me. And I always felt like a bear next to my roommate.
But eventually I screwed up my courage, told myself to hike up my big girl panties, and walked into the bar. Despite the crowds, he stood out. Rafe, the email said his name was. He sat at the bar with a glass and a bottle of bourbon, and while the bar was full of confident men, Rafe dominated the space with an easy confidence. He didn't have to try to impress anyone. It didn't even look like he'd combed his hair.
I wouldn't have minded going out with a guy like that. He looked like he might take control everywhere in his life. My cheeks flushed at the thought and I worked my way through the crowd, trying to reach him, and hated that I was late. Even though it wasn't my date. I'd worked really hard over the last few months to get my life back together, and dating him would be a good test for how together I actually was.
I finally reached him, out of breath from elbowing past a group of stockbrokers or lawyers, and touched his elbow. "Excuse me, are you Rafe?"
He turned and I nearly fell on my ass. The picture hadn't done him justice, and neither had peering at him from across the room. Dark hair and darker eyes, a hint of stubble on his jaw, and hard angled features gave him a classically masculine profile. He looked competent and secure and... angry. He looked angry, pissed off. My heart sank. Chances were a guy like him didn't get stood up.
"I'm so sorry, I had some trouble finding a parking spot." I offered a smile, apologetic, and waited for him to speak.
But the anger faded into a stunned silence. He looked taken aback. My heart beat a little faster and panic set in. I waited for the accusation that I'd misrepresented myself as Olga, so I tried to explain, reaching for his wrist to steady myself as my aching ankles wobbled. Borrowing her shoes had been the second terrible decision I'd made that night. "I should explain. My roommate, Olga, was the one the matchmaker set you up with, but she's feeling under the weather and since we didn't have a way to contact you, I came instead. So you wouldn't think you were stood up."
His gaze dropped to where I touched him, and the muscles of his arm went rigid under my fingers. Shit. Okay, lesson learned. We didn't touch Rafe. I hastily drew my hand away and his gaze dragged up my arm, across my chest, and up to my face. My cheeks burned – whether with lust or humiliation didn't matter. I could have jumped in his lap right there in the bar. But he still stared at me as if I'd walked up and kicked him in the junk.
I cleared my throat and tried to catch the bartender's eye. "So you're Rafe, right?"
A wooden nod. No words. At least it was progress.
The bartender finally appeared and I ordered a gin and tonic, throwing back half the drink to get a little liquid courage. Maybe that was why a gorgeous hunk of man like Rafe needed a matchmaker – he couldn't talk to women. Or maybe I only thought I was explaining myself, and instead all he heard was gibberish. It had happened before. I tried again, easing onto the stool next to him so I didn't break my damn ankle. "I'm Meadow, by the way. It's nice to meet you."
"Yeah," he said, and managed to shake my hand. He concentrated on the bourbon, shaking his head a little, and my heart sank.
Or maybe he didn't want to talk to me because he was disappointed I didn't look like Olga. A slow fury started burning in my chest. His confidence started to look like arrogance. If he judged me on appearance alone and didn't want to get to know me because of my looks or my figure or because I'd been a little late, then that was his damn loss. I forced the anger away, knowing it stemmed from way too many assholes in high school, and instead gave Rafe another chance. "What do you do for a living, Rafe?"
"I own a bar," he said. And that was it. He stared at me, dark eyes a bit lighter than I'd thought originally.
Awesome. I finished my drink, left cash on the bar even though Rafe moved as if he wouldn't let me, and I planted a finger in his chest. "Okay, you. Listen up. You're being a dick."
He blinked, mouth agape, and I wished for a split second that I could take a picture of that expression and carry it with me always. He didn't look like a guy who got surprised often. But I didn't give him the chance to deny it or start offering excuses. "No, I'm not Olga. She's shallow and kind of a bitch, so she just wasn't going to show up. I felt bad. I didn't want you to sit here by yourself, because I know what that feels like. So I got dressed up, spent two hours doing my hair and makeup and nails and everything, and I hiked all the way out here for a drink, after working ten hours. I'm tired. My feet hurt. And I still made the effort to show up."
"No," I said, and jabbed him in the chest again. "You listen. Just because you're so handsome I want to cover you with whipped cream and eat you up doesn't give you the right to be an asshole, and you're being an asshole. I'm awesome. I'm amazing, and I'm funny, and I actually
footfall, unlike Princess Olga. But you're too shallow to see past a dress size, so you can go fuck yourself."
I picked up his glass of bourbon, finished that as well, and stormed out of the bar before I burst into tears. Even confident, grown-ass women could cry when someone that good-looking rejected them. I just prayed I made it to my car before the waterworks started — mostly from anger and rage but a little bit from hurt. For half a second, when I walked up, I felt like I knew him. He felt familiar. And for the briefest moment I thought I'd found someone. Love at first sight. I wrenched at the door to get out of the bar, starting to panic as my throat burned and my vision blurred.
And the panic increased as a commotion rose up behind me, a few guys muttering for someone to chill out, and a low voice said, "Meadow. Wait."
I couldn't face him. Couldn't. Didn't want to see the fake sympathy in his eyes, the lies as he said it wasn't my figure that threw him off. I'd heard it all before. There were plenty of men in the world who wanted to date me; I didn't need to waste another second with an asshole who didn't.
I managed a deep breath of the freezing air before a warm hand slid around my arm and stopped my forward momentum. "Wait."
I scowled and fought for control as my heart thrilled to see that grim face even as my head said he was bad news. "I don't have anything else to say to you."
"Well, I have something to say to you." He faced me and folded his arms over his chest.
I wanted to run. The more he talked, the more I liked him. Even the
it took for him to chase after me... I tried to harden my heart. I'd hear him out, not because it was the right thing to do but because my feet hurt too much to try to outrun him.