"She's not here?"
"She's here." Ezekiel Crawford leaned against the wall, bored as hell and twice as annoyed. He could easily think of a million and one different things he'd rather be doing tonight, other than this. But being here, as lame as it was, was necessary if he wanted to claim his mate. And he did. More than anything else in the world.
"How do you know?" asked his best friend and confidant Daniel Hunter, who was braving the throngs of power-hungry mothers and their desperate daughters with him tonight.
"Because I smell her."
"Really?" Daniel waved his hands around. "Even through all these..."
"I was going to say people," Daniel said dryly.
"Sorry. People." Ezekiel chuckled at his friend's disgusted tone. He knew it couldn't be easy for the human man to be friends with a werewolf at times, but that's what made their friendship fun. For Ezekiel at least. "To answer your question though, yes, I can smell her." Yvonne's scent was like no one else's. A combination of the sweetness that lingered on her from the bakery as well as her own earthy aroma.
"Then where is she?"
"Not in here." Where she was supposed to be along with all the other single eligible women of town. "So the question, my friend, is why?"
"No. This is no coincidence. She's been kept from me on purpose."
"Who would be stupid enough to do that?"
The list was long, but the top offenders were easy to point out. "We can start with granny." Ezekiel nodded to the front of the room toward an older African-American woman who was doing her best to blend in with the crowd. "Daddy." This time he gestured to Mayor Tyrone Rousel, Yvonne's father. "Or Deputy Dawg," he drawled, staring straight ahead at Sheriff Jasper Phelps, who was watching the two men intently from across the room.
"So many enemies..."
"So few places to bury their bodies." Just to annoy the sheriff more, Ezekiel winked at him, laughing to himself as Jasper rested his hand on the butt of his gun. His animosity amused Ezekiel in the worst way. In Jasper's head, they were nemeses, in Ezekiel's, Jasper didn't even warrant a second look. Bored now with the supposed standoff, Ezekiel sighed and crossed his arms. "Can we go home yet?"
"Not without picking a mate first, I'm afraid."
"I've already picked my mate." Years ago, as a matter of fact. He'd just given Yvonne time to come into her own before he made his move.
"They don't know that." Daniel gestured to the crowded room and the preening women who were staring at Ezekiel as if they were the wolves and he was the prey.
Damn. Didn't anyone ever tell them it was the wolf who was supposed to do the chasing, not the other way around? "Then let's make the announcement so I can get her and bail. I'm starving." And horny and anxious to finally make her his. But Ezekiel didn't have to tell Daniel that. His friend knew his heart and mind as if they were his own.
"No, you can't." Daniel sighed in a long-suffering manner. "You know as well as I do there's a protocol to follow."
"Protocol sucks." All Ezekiel wanted to do was get Yvonne and leave. He didn't think he was asking for too much.
Ezekiel let out a sharp bark of laughter at his friend's crass comment. There weren't many humans or wolves who would dare speak to him in that way, especially considering he could tear Daniel limb from limb without even breaking a sweat.
"Can't you just enjoy this for a moment? Look around, man. Every woman in this room wants in your bed."
"You don't sound like the man who could have his pick..." Daniel smiled, "...pardon the expression, of the litter."
Daniel shook his head in disgust. "Sex appeal is wasted on the jaded."
"Sex appeal." Now that was amusing coming from Daniel. The fair-haired muscular man had been turning down pussy from the moment he hit puberty. "I sincerely doubt they're here because they find me attractive as much as they find what I can offer attractive. If they're chosen, then not only will their bellies increase with an heir to a large dynasty, so will their bank accounts."
Money. It always boiled down to money. Ezekiel didn't consider himself a cynical were by far, but he knew if it wasn't for the monetary compensation, a deal between his pack and the people of Monroeville would have never come about.
Protection for wives. It was the deal that had sealed the fate of everyone involved. Protection for the town against unsavory sorts plus the bonus of financial stability, while the wolves gained the mates who could help them reproduce and keep their species alive.
Mother Nature was a finicky bitch. Although she gifted the wolves with many things, the ability to father daughters wasn't one of them. Their unique werewolf DNA made it impossible, so they had to reproduce with humans to keep their lineage going. It was a deal lucrative for all involved. But it had nothing to do with love, a fact Ezekiel was about to change.
"Don't sell yourself short, my friend," Daniel said.
"I'm not. I'm honest. Half these women hadn't given me so much as a second look until I defeated Lars last month in the pack challenge."
"You have to admit, you winning the challenge was a long shot."
"It wasn't a long shot. I was underestimated." A mistake he was sure his packmates wouldn't make again. A quiet man, Ezekiel preferred to play his cards close to his chest. He didn't talk to hear himself speak, he didn't wrestle to prove he was strong, and he didn't throw down a challenge unless he meant to win. "We're allowed to fight for the right to pick a mate every five years. I couldn't chance Yvonne would still be single in another five."
"You had motivation, all right, my friend. They..." Daniel gestured to the fawning women in the crowd, "...just don't know that it wasn't them."
"They'll know soon enough."
"That they will."
Ezekiel knew he should feel bad since some of the women there may have genuinely been interested in him, but he had a difficult time summoning up the proper guilt. Yvonne was all he cared about.
"Look." Daniel jabbed him lightly with his elbow. "Your father has arrived."
Ezekiel looked over at his father and Alpha, Lehi, as he entered the room followed by several of his packmates, including his older brother Azarel. As if sensing his son's stare, Ezekiel's father glanced over at the two men and gave a small nod. "Looks as if we're finally going to get this party started."
"And yet Yvonne is still unaccounted for." Uncrossing his arms, Ezekiel pushed away from the wall. "This will never do." He didn't damn near kill his packmate to be waylaid now. This was too important. She was too important.
"Before you get all riled and furry, let's go look for her. But--and I hate to say this because of how much I have riding on this as well--have you ever considered there's a chance Yvonne's not here because she doesn't want to be here?"
"No. Never." There wasn't a chance in hell of that.
"No. I know my mate."
Daniel sent him an annoyed look from the corner of his eyes that made Ezekiel laugh. For someone who didn't have dual forms, Daniel possessed a very strong beta vibe. Ezekiel was more than sure there had to be a strain of wolf DNA coursing through his friend's blood. "Mine, yours, ours. Is there a difference?"
"I'm making sure we are on the same page."
"Maybe not the exact same, but somewhere in the same chapter for sure."
"Then by all means. Let's go find her."
The two men left the main hall and headed toward the back rooms where her scent was stronger. Ezekiel followed her heady aroma to the small kitchen. There they found Yvonne humming to herself as she lined the silver serving tray with cookies from her bakery. She was staring down at the dish and swaying about as she listened to the music blaring out of the small white earbuds connected to her iPod. From the way she continued to arrange the food, Ezekiel knew she hadn't heard them approach, which was fine with him. He enjoyed watching her while she was unaware.
It was the only time he could freely look at her and not have to worry about guarding his expression. Ezekiel had been told plenty of times by Daniel that everything he felt for her was written all over his face whenever she was about. And Ezekiel believed him. She was his mate, and in a word, Yvonne was perfect.
He'd known her since she was a little girl, but there was nothing kid-like about the woman in front of him now. Gone was the dark-skinned, knobby-kneed tomboy who was constantly into mischief, and in her place was a self-assured, voluptuous woman who made his cock hard whenever he caught a glimpse of her.
The pretty African-American woman was the epitome of beauty in his eyes, and he couldn't wait until she was finally his.
"What is she humming?" Daniel whispered.
"'Somewhere Down the Road'," he answered without thinking. "Manilow song." It was one of her favorites, a fact Ezekiel had filed away in his mental rolodex a long time ago.
"And why do you know that?"
There wasn't much about her he didn't know. "He's her favorite singer."
"Yes, I know, but leave it to you to show me up by being able to name the damn song."
Ezekiel chuckled at the annoyance in his friend's tone. Daniel hated being out of the loop, especially if it had anything to do with the woman they both loved. As if suddenly sensing their presence, Yvonne looked up and gasped, dropping the spatula she was holding.
"Oh, my God." She tore the earbuds from her ears and pressed her hand against her breasts.
The two of them entered the room, coming to a stop when they reached the island where she was working. "Did we scare you?" Ezekiel's question didn't warrant an answer, but he asked it all the same.
"You know you did," she said with a mock frown. "What are you two doing back here?"
"We could ask the same thing of you." Daniel snagged a cookie from her tray, earning him a smacked hand in the process. "Hey."
"Keep your grubby paws off of my food." Her harsh words were softened by the warm look in her big brown eyes. Yvonne was a natural nurturer. He knew for a fact she gave away more cookies then she sold, but making a buck never seemed to be an issue with her. He couldn't wait to see how she was with their cubs.
"He's the one with paws, not me." Daniel popped the cookie in his mouth with a grin, looking not at all remorseful. Not that Ezekiel blamed him. Her delicious treats were worth a smack or two.
"Like I can tell one from the other." She countered her gruff tone by scooping up a cookie on her spatula and holding it out to Ezekiel. "Here, you might as well take one too."
"Can't you?" Ezekiel asked quietly as he took her offering.
She frowned. "Can't I what?"
"Tell the difference."
"Of course. He's the blond human hottie and you're the brunet wolf hottie." She tempered her sassy words with a wink that had him grinning. She was one of the few souls who had that effect on him.
"The real question is who's hotter?" Daniel pulled up a stool and sat down in front of the island.
"I'm not touching that one with a ten-foot pole." She smiled and shook her head, sending her shoulder-length twist braids bouncing about.
"You never did answer his question." Ezekiel reminded her, grabbing a stool for himself and sitting.
"What are you doing back here?" He needed to hear for himself she wasn't avoiding him or the chance to be his mate.
"My grandmother asked me to help in the kitchen for a bit."
Ezekiel glanced over at Daniel and smiled. He loved it when he was right, and lucky for him, he was right enough times to make being him fun. "For how long?"
"Until the ceremony started."
"Is that what she said?"
Yvonne frowned. "Well, no."
Ezekiel didn't think so. His attraction to Yvonne was clear to everyone but the woman in question. And her family knew according to the rules laid out centuries ago, Yvonne had to actually be present in the hall in order for him to claim her. "The ceremony is about to start."
Yvonne arched her brow in her cute and bossy way. "Then shouldn't you be out there?"
He matched her brow for brow. "Shouldn't you?"
Before she could comment, Daniel, the peacemaker of the duo, butted in. "Were you even going to come out into the hall?"
"Of course." She smiled, dropping her haughty act. "You think I'm going to miss the opportunity to meet the woman who finally reins him in?"
"What makes you think you don't already know her?" Daniel asked.
"Better question," Ezekiel interrupted before she could answer. "What makes you think it isn't you?"
For a second, Yvonne's heart stopped beating, then common sense kicked in. He wouldn't pick her any more than she'd sprout wings. He was teasing her. As usual. Ezekiel was always doing stuff like that. Both men did, in fact. Sometimes she wondered if either of them drew pleasure from doing anything else.
"Well?" Daniel queried. The handsome blond reached out and brushed his hand against the back of hers.
Her skin tingled, as it normally did when either of them touched her. She was such a goner and they didn't even know it. "Well what?"
"How do you know he's not picking you?"
"For one simple reason," Yvonne teased half-heartedly. "He can't handle me."
"Oohhhh," Daniel instigated, smiling broadly. "Did you hear that, man? She thinks you can't handle her."
"Of course I heard her. I'm standing right here."
And not denying her words at all. Yvonne's spirits sank. Even though she knew he would never in a million years pick her as his mate, she didn't necessarily enjoy having the proof of it waved in her face.
In all honesty, Yvonne had dreaded this day for as long as she could remember. The day when some perfect little thing would swoop in and take Ezekiel from her once and for all, and with him, Daniel as well.
"Are you going to tell me who it is?" So I can learn the name of my new mortal enemy. "There's a pool going on, you know."
"Who are you betting on?" Daniel asked, snagging another cookie. With as much as he ate, she would have thought he would be big as a house. Instead he was as fit as his partner in crime. Ezekiel was far more muscular, but that didn't mean he was more attractive than Daniel.
In fact both men were finger-licking good and they complemented each other in the best of ways. Where Ezekiel's hair was dark as oak, Daniel's was light as wheat. Daniel was clean shaven and Ezekiel had a goatee and mustache. They were opposites, but both gorgeous all the same.
"Well?" Ezekiel prodded. "Who gets your vote?"
"I actually didn't place a bet." Yvonne grabbed the plastic wrap and ripped off a good portion to cover the cookies. If she didn't do something fast, there would be no snacks for anyone after the choosing ceremony.
"Because I'm not sure what your type is. If you even have one. It's not that you've dated anyone. Ever." Much to her immense delight. Since they started hanging out more than three years ago, she'd had them all to herself, just the way she liked it. "Hell, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard you'd won the challenge."
Ezekiel bristled. "Why, didn't you think I could fight?"
Despite his werewolf DNA, Ezekiel was still very human, especially when it came to stupid things such as his male pride. "I wasn't surprised you won." She placated him with unsuppressed amusement. "I mean, look at you. You're built like a freaking prizefighter." And that was putting it lightly. Ezekiel didn't have a six-pack, he had an eight-pack. Hell, his muscles had muscles. "I was surprised there was someone in your life worth fighting for."
"Then I guess you don't know me as well as you think you do."
"Apparently not." And that hurt too. There wasn't any doubt in her mind Daniel and Ezekiel were best friends, but Yvonne had at least thought she was a good friend, if not a best friend. The least they could have done before they broke her heart was to give her a little warning. "Look at you having secrets."
"It's not as if I'm the only one."
"Excuse me? I know you're not referring to me." Her life was an open, boring, sleep-inducing book.
"Oh, but I am."
"What secret do I have?" Apparently it was such a mystery even she didn't know about it.
"The one about you and Deputy Dawg dating."
"Dating?" Yvonne rolled her eyes. Not even. She wouldn't date him if his semen shot out fourteen-carat gold. "I am not seeing Jasper."
"That's not what I heard," Ezekiel said.
"Then you heard wrong. We had coffee. Once." She grimaced at the reminder of her mistake. One she wouldn't make again. The African-American man was more in love with himself than any woman could ever be with him. Yes, he was handsome, very, but he was also an ass. And ass trumped handsome any day of the week. "Just once." In fact, if it wasn't for her matchmaking grandmother, she wouldn't have even agreed to have a drink with him. "And trust me, that was enough."
Her revulsion appeared to amuse them both, especially Ezekiel, who wouldn't let the matter rest. "And isn't that a date?"
"No. I have coffee with the women in my book club. That doesn't mean we're having a big old daisy-chain gangbang every third Wednesday of the month."
"Damn." Daniel snapped his fingers in mock disappointment. "Another fantasy bites the dust."
"Or maybe," Ezekiel said, not letting up, "you don't want to admit to me you're seeing him."
Now he was being ridiculous. "Why would I lie about it if I were?"
"Because you're ashamed of your horrible taste in men," Ezekiel suggested.
That was funny coming from one of the men she was in love with. "I happen to have very good taste in men."
"Really." The interest in Daniel's big blue eyes unnerved her. "Give us an example of someone you fancy, and we'll let you know whether or not he passes muster."
"No." There was no way she was going say anything to the two of them. It would be way too easy for them to recognize themselves as the men she described.
"Why not?" Ezekiel asked.
"Maybe I don't want to hurt your feelings."
"Maybe she only likes black men," Daniel offered as way of explanation.
"You know that's not true. I like all men." Yvonne stole a quick look at Ezekiel, who was staring at her intensely with his golden eyes. They were her favorite feature of his, besides his body, that was, and the only attribute on him that stayed the same no matter what form he was in. "Even the ones who turn furry every now and then."
"Really?" Ezekiel leaned forward. "You'd date a werewolf?"
Not any werewolf. Just the one sitting across from her now, but she couldn't say that to him at this moment. Not with him only minutes away from picking a mate. "Sure, why not?" Yvonne tried to be cavalier about the whole thing in hopes of hiding her true emotions. "Why, do you know one who might be interested in me?"
"Maybe. You willing to wait around another five years if I do?" His penetrating gaze bore right through her.
Yvonne pushed down the despair she was feeling at the fact it wouldn't be him she'd be waiting for, and answered honestly. "For the right person, I'd wait forever."
"Let's hope that's not necessary," Daniel teased, cutting some of the tension in the room.
Thankful for the reprieve, Yvonne forced out a laugh. "I hear you, because unlike you two, I don't get better looking the older I get."
"I would disagree with that." Daniel's tone suddenly turned serious.
"As would I."
"Aww..." She only wished their compliments weren't merely lip service. "What am I going to do without you two sweet talkers around all the time?"
"Hey," Daniel protested. "He's the one getting mated, not me. You can't get rid of me that easily."
"Thank God. I can't go losing both my guys at once, can I?"
"Maybe you won't have to lose either one of us."
Yvonne shook her head regretfully. "If you think that, Ezekiel, you have a lot to learn about women."
"Why do you say that?"
"I think it's a pretty safe bet no matter what woman you pick, she won't be thrilled with you hanging at my crib to the wee hours of the night watching really bad Asian game shows. Women are possessive creatures."
"You're not possessive."
"Maybe you don't know me as well as you think you do," she said, tossing his words back in his face.
A small smile flashed across his full lips. "Touche."
"I should have known I'd find you here."
Yvonne looked over the two men's shoulders and smiled at the robust, distinguished-looking gentleman standing in the doorway. "Lehi." She walked around the counter and gave Ezekiel's father a hug. "I didn't know you were here already."
"Just came in a few minutes ago." The older man returned her hug, careful as always of his strength. "Smells good in here. Did you bring something in from the bakery?"
"And they're delicious," Daniel said as he rose from the stool.
"Did you two eat them all? Again."
"Not all," Ezekiel denied, joining his father at the door. "She covered them up before we could."
"That's because she knows you so well." Lehi's expression turned serious. "It's time to begin, Ezekiel. We don't want to keep everyone waiting."
That made one of them. Smiling falsely, she looked at Ezekiel. "You better get out there before the horde huffs and puffs and blows this place down."
"I thought that was our job," Lehi teased.
Yvonne rolled her eyes. Stereotypes were so 2008. "Please, there's nothing big or bad about you."
"Tell that to Deputy Dawg," Ezekiel said.
"Did you ever think..." she turned her attention back to Ezekiel, "...Jasper might like you more if you didn't call him names?"
"Don't care." He grinned.
"Of course you don't." Yvonne shook her head. "What am I going to do with you?"
"We can discuss it after the ceremony."
"There won't be a ceremony if you don't get out there," Lehi reminded him.
"True. Come on, Yvonne, let's go."
"I'll be there in a second," she hedged.
Ezekiel's easygoing grin slipped away. "No. Let's go now."
"I have to fini--"
"It can wait, my dear," Lehi said jovially as he placed his arm around her shoulder. She was barely able to grab her red shawl before he pulled her out of the room. "You don't want to miss this."
Says you. "But--"
"No buts. This is a very important day for our families, yes?"
Maybe his. No, that wasn't fair. The Crawfords had always made her feel as if she was one of them, despite her inability to turn furry. "Yes. Yes, it is."
While Ezekiel walked with his father to the front of the main room to begin the ceremony, Daniel guided her to the back of the room, where the two of them leaned against the wall to watch. Chilly as usual, Yvonne wrapped the shawl around her shoulders to ward off the cool temperature of the room.
"You look nervous."
It was nothing compared to how she felt. "As I said earlier, I don't want to lose either one of you."
"You can't make a promise like that." No matter how much she might want him to.
"I know the woman he's going to choose. Trust me when I say she won't stand in the way of our...friendship."
He knew her. Yvonne stole a quick glace at Daniel. "Do you...?" She paused and licked her lips before continuing once more. "Do you think she'll make a good match for him?"
"Yes." His voice took on a husky quality. "I approve his choice wholeheartedly. In fact, if he hadn't picked her for a mate, I would have pursued her myself."
"Really?" That was news to her. Daniel never seemed all that interested in anyone either. "So she's good people?"
"The best. She's kind and giving to a fault."
"Sounds like a paragon of virtue." And not like anyone she knew who lived in town.
"She's no saint." He chuckled. "But she's as close to perfection as one can get on earth."
It was beginning to sound as if Ezekiel wasn't the only one taken with this woman. "As long as she's deserving of him. That's all that matters to me."
"And now..." Lehi's voice boomed throughout the room, "...my son will pick his mate."
Yvonne took a deep breath and prayed for the strength to make it through this. Without thinking, she threaded her fingers through Daniel's and held on tight as Ezekiel began walking down the center aisle toward his destined mate. Her grandmother rushed to her side.
"Yvonne. What are you doing in here?"
Yvonne looked down into the desperate face of her grandmother. "I'm watchi--"
"No. No." The older woman grabbed hold of her arm and began to tug on her with a strength that surprised Yvonne. "You can't be in here. You have to leave."
Frowning, she tried to pull her arm free. "Granny. Stop it."
"You have to go. Now."
Daniel held on tight to her. "Let her go, Mrs. Rousel."
"No. She has to leave. Right now. Right now."
"The only place she's going is home with me."
Shocked, Yvonne turned and stared at Ezekiel, who was standing in front of her. "I choose you, Yvonne."