Two Marks, Book 3
Chester, my so-called boyfriend, pulled up in front of my parents’ Palo Alto mansion and parked his convertible BMW in the circle drive. From the window, I couldn’t miss the pale blue shirt, or the way his dark hair was perfect. That meant he had more product in it than I ever used in mine so it wasn’t wind tousled. He was perfect at all times. Perfect.
Ugh. I’d been dodging him for three days. He’s perfect for you, darling. Think of it, you’ll be a senator’s wife someday! It’ll be perfect when you’re married to a man with such aspirations. Your children will be perfect.
Perfect. Perfect. PERFECT. My parents didn’t understand that I didn’t want perfect. That I wanted to choose my own man, one with flaws. Was it too much to ask to own my own life? To do my own thing? Make my own choices? Fail, even?
Failing didn’t happen in my family. It was considered impossible in the political spotlight my family lived in.
I’d graduated from Stanford, like my father and grandfather before me. I was smart, and didn’t need coddling. Or being told what to do. Like marriage. To Chester. The wedding I hadn’t planned. The one that was being thrust upon me by Chester and my parents.
I just needed a minute to breathe and figure out what I really wanted to do instead of becoming Mrs. Chester Barnes IV. The perfect wife.
I’d made it crystal clear to them, I didn’t want to get married. I didn’t want Chester. I’d been hinting for years at a life that didn’t involve my parents’ closest friends’ son. To become arm candy as Chester worked his way up in my father’s law firm and into politics. He needed me and my family’s clout to win.
Since I was going to become a senator’s wife, I wanted more of a life than vote stumping, planning charity events, and wearing fashionable dresses. Glancing down at myself, I took in the blue dress, the navy pumps. Pearls. God, my mother must have told Chester what I was going to wear so we matched.
My heart galloped in my chest with anxiety and panic. No matter what I said, my life was being planned for me. Everyone was ready for me to step into the mold they’d created for me. To continue the family legacy. It wasn’t as if they ever considered me to be the senator.
Chester let himself in the house without knocking since my parents already thought of him as their son-in-law. “Rach? Babe?” he called. “Come on, we’re going to be late.”
I sighed and left my childhood bedroom before he came up and invaded my space any more. The only good thing was that my parents insisted we wait until marriage before living together. I’d added on that I was saving myself for marriage. I remembered that night, when I’d told Chester of that. It made me smile even now.
For once, he hadn’t gotten his way. It wasn’t that he was overly gentlemanly, but because he didn’t want to blow any chances with my father. The future lawmaker was willing to take some cold showers.
But for not much longer.
“Late for what?” I asked. “I thought you were taking me to dinner.”
“I am. I made reservations.” He had already started up the stairs as I sailed down them, pausing to receive a perfunctory kiss. I felt nothing from it. Where was the heat? The pulsing between my legs I read about in my romance novels? Why was the perfect hero seemingly too perfect?
“Well, I don’t think they’ll give our table away if we’re two minutes late,” I said.
He followed me back down the steps and across the foyer. “Are you ready? You look ready.”
My stomach twisted. I really needed to break things off with him. To just end it. Say I didn’t want him. That we weren’t a ‘thing.’ That he should find someone else who’d be happy to wear matching outfits and be eager for early tee times. Nothing about us worked for me, and I was getting tired of pretending it did.
Tonight. I’d do it at dinner tonight, where we were in public and he couldn’t make a scene.
“Sure. I’m ready.” I needed to get this over with.
I struggled to think of something to say as we cut through the ritzy neighborhood, but it didn’t matter, because Chester launched into a ten-minute long boast about his latest racquetball sessions, only taking a breath when he pulled in front of the valet at the country club.
I looked around. “Wait. We’re having dinner here?” I’d grown up coming to this place. It wasn’t romantic or private. Not a place I wanted to go on a date.
“Uh, yes.” He came around and joined me by the entrance. “I figured for old time’s sake. We practically grew up here together, right?”
I’d grown up coming to the club. But together? Hardly. Chester was five years older, so most of our childhood had been him leading his group of friends to pick on mine. But okay, whatever.
I also didn’t understand why he’d need reservations. It wasn’t like the restaurant was ever over-full. It was a private club, and both our families were members.
“Come on, we’re through here,” Chester said, taking my hand and leading me around to a side entrance that led to one of the private dining rooms.
My pulse started to pick up, and not in a good way.
Crap. Chester had something planned.
And here I thought the surprise would be me breaking up with him.
But it had to be done.
He opened the door and put a hand on my back to usher me in.
A loud chorus of voices shouted at once, making me jump and scream.
The lights flipped on, and I blinked.
A large banner was strung across the far wall. Happy Engagement Chester and Rachel. No comma after engagement, which for some reason was the first thing I noticed. Not the actual words.
Because the actual words were… untrue. We weren’t engaged. He hadn’t asked. I definitely wouldn’t have said yes.
“Wh… what’s this?” My high-pitched voice sounded more like my mother’s than my own.
My parents, and Chester’s, and a bunch of random family friends all stood around the large table with broad smiles. There were presents in the middle like it was already our wedding night. Not that we were having a wedding night.
“It’s a surprise engagement party,” my mother explained, coming over and hugging me. Her familiar scent swirled around me, cloyingly sweet and heavy. “Isn’t it wonderful, dear?”
I tried to take a step back, but Chester’s hand at my back stopped me. “Um… but we’re not engaged,” I managed to say.
Chester pulled out a box, and dropped to one knee.
There were a few gasps, but all I saw was the box. The ring. It was big and gaudy. Something easily picked up in photos.
Oh no. Oh, crap. My stomach dropped. Panic made it feel like the walls were closing in.
“Chester, no.” I tried to stop him.
He looked up at me with an adoring, eager expression. “Rachel, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
I shook my head. I’d gone along with everyone for so long, but I couldn’t do it now. Not here, not like this. This wasn’t what I wanted. Maybe I’d enabled everyone by not saying no before, but now I was.
“No. No way.”
I was able to back up, and I did. One step, then another.
I backed right up until I hit the closed door, then I reached behind my back and twisted the handle.
“This… um… I can’t… this is not, um…”
Torn between being the good girl who didn’t want to embarrass Chester, and my fury at him and my family for banking on that good girl saying yes for exactly that reason, I opted out of any explanation at all.
“I won’t marry you.”
I turned and ran, as fast as I could. From the life they had planned for me. The life I didn’t want.
Hunger was what took me to the diner for lunch. As usual, I’d lost track of time—between patients and my research, it was a common occurrence—and arrived well past the busy lunch rush. For such a small town, it was good to see all the business in West Springs. Locals—humans and shifters—took care of their own. As I settled into my usual booth in the corner, I breathed in the scents. Chili. Chicken pot pie. Vegetable soup. Fall had set in, the leaves past their peak and the trees were almost bare once again, which meant warm and comforting foods on the menu.
I hadn’t been in for a while, having been away for over a week at a medical conference in Texas, then tackling back-to-back patients to make up for lost time.
Something was different today. I took a deep breath and tried to figure it out. A new spice? Fruit pie? I noted hints of cinnamon and cherry. Perhaps Bessie had found a new recipe. My mouth watered, eager to try it. I was a confirmed bachelor in town, so Bessie ensured I ate well. Being the only doctor in West Springs, I kept the humans in town healthy, which kept me busy all hours of the day and night. Then there was my research into shifter DNA and gene mapping that distracted me.
Like now. I missed the blur of a woman as she pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen, followed by a clatter and breaking of dishes as they hit the floor. I winced and hoped only empty plates had been dropped instead of food that would be wasted.
A minute later, Bessie came out, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. Seeing me in the corner, she offered me the usual smile and wave, then veered to the coffee pot. She came over with a mug and filled it to the brim.
“How’s it going today?” she asked.
While she couldn’t ask me after my patients because of confidentiality, she knew as much, if not more, about the residents of West Springs than I did. I might know who had bursitis—humans—or how fast someone healed after a fall on a full moon run—shifter—but she knew everything else.
“You tell me,” I replied.
She set her free hand on her hip and took a deep breath. At sixty, she was as spry as ever. Her two mates kept her busy. One was in the kitchen cooking, the other on their ranch on the back side of the mountain, keeping everything running.
“Sally’s eager for her baby to be born.” She looked left and right to see who was sitting nearby. She didn’t dare say pup in the restaurant because of all the humans. “I’m sure you know that.”
I didn’t need to treat any of the shifters, since they healed on their own from all but the most severe of injuries, like beheading or being shot with a silver bullet. Both of which were possible, but I’d never known it to happen. I did follow the reproduction of our species closely.
“Little Jack Morring’s cow won a blue ribbon at the fall fair last weekend. Still no grumblings from the ranchers. Well, no more than usual,” she went on.
I frowned and took a sip of my coffee. I loved it black and strong, and Bessie knew just how to make it to strip paint off a barn. Over the summer, two ranchers had killed some wolves, and been given fines for their actions. Since they had been the ringleaders of the group of older and pestering humans, the remaining group who frequented the diner for their morning coffee klatch didn’t have the same drive to put action to their anger. Thankfully.
“That’s good to hear.” I took a sniff, picking up that delicious dessert scent. “Got a new pie you’re trying out?”
She frowned. “Pete made a batch of his potato soup.”
The scent definitely wasn’t that.
A woman came in from the kitchen with a tray on her shoulder but it leaned dangerously toward spilling. She was the one I’d glimpsed before, but could now watch. I could check out her curvy body, the way the diner uniform t-shirt clung to her full breasts. The way her blonde hair slid like a curtain over her shoulders.
My mouth watered, eager to brush that hair to the side and kiss her neck. To nip at the spot where it met her shoulder.
Going to a table of men on the other side of the diner, she began to serve them. She had a difficult time balancing the tray, and I was practically on the edge of my seat with the need to rescue her. All of the meals had safely been placed on the table, but a glass of iced tea spilled, pouring off the edge of the tray like a dark waterfall.
Her instant reaction was to turn away from the diners, which flung the liquid across the tile floor.
The sweet scent was stronger now, and I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the woman. A flush of pink brightened her cheeks, clearly from embarrassment. She set the tray on an empty table and bent down to wipe up the spilled drink with a cloth she’d had tucked into the apron at her waist. Her jeans were snug across her curvy ass, and I couldn’t look away.
Neither could the men at the table. I saw red, and a growl escaped my throat.
Bessie held out a hand. “If I told off every man who looked at one of my waitresses with a little extra attention, there’d only be female customers.” I didn’t like her words and glared at her, but only for a second because I had to look back at her. Because I’d been just like those men, ogling her. Hell, my dick was hard just watching her from across the room.
“Who is that?” I had to know. It wasn’t just important, it was imperative. I couldn’t leave here without that information, and anything else Bessie had on her. All I knew was that she was around twenty, gorgeous… and mine.
“She’s new. As you can tell. She’s as smart as a tack, figuring out the checks without using a calculator.” Bessie leaned down, although she wasn’t whispering for me. She did it so Rachel couldn’t overhear, which meant she was human. “The worst waitress I think I’ve ever had. She’s broken more dishes than she’s served, but on the bright side, my floor’s never been cleaner with all the wiping up.”
Then she laughed, to soften the harsh words. She’d been in the business for decades, so it was saying a lot. I took offense for Rachel.
“If she’s so terrible, why did you hire her?” I asked.
Pete hollered from the back for Bessie. She huffed, then turned on her sneakered foot, not answering.
I wanted to go and yell at her mate for interrupting what I could learn about Rachel, but then I’d come across as insane.
Which I felt at this moment.
What was wrong with me? I itched to stand and toss Rachel over my shoulder. Carry her off. Help her with her tables. Put her coat on her before she left so she didn’t get cold.
“Rach, hon, help the doc with his order while I see what Grumbly Pants in the back wants,” Bessie said.
Rachel stood from her crouch and nodded to Bessie, then glanced my way.
Holy shit. Her eyes were the palest of blues. Intense. Frustrated and upset. She raised a finger to me, then went and poured a new glass of iced tea and took it to the waiting table. Then she came my way.
I took her in up close. Fuck, she was young. Her skin was flawless. Her eyes were bright, and her smile a little forced. “Hi there. I’m Rachel. What can I get for you today?”
She nodded and her hair swung around her cheek. I wanted to reach out and tuck it back. Wrap it around my fingers and hold it as I kissed her. Taking a deep breath, I tried to calm my raging heart… and dick.
Then it hit me. This was the sweet scent I’d picked up. Her.
She was the dessert I craved. She was the cherry pie, and I knew why. I sounded like a horny asshole, but I knew just by looking at her that she was sweet. And the reason I scented cherries was because she had one. Fuck me. My dick spurted pre-cum, and my wolf, who was usually quiet and tame, surged forward and licked his lips. She was a virgin. It wasn’t as if she had a sign on her forehead, but I knew. I’d bet my medical license on it. Crazy, yeah.
She. Was. My. Mate.
“I, uh, I’ll have some more water,” I choked out.
Unaware of my porn-worthy thoughts, she nodded and headed to the kitchen.
I barely remained in my seat, but remembered at the last second that following her with a raging hard-on wouldn’t be smart. I was the town doctor. I was always in control. It was my job to have a level head. To be calm and collected. A quick thinker.
Now, I was out of control. Wild. Driven by my basest needs to make her mine.
I’d never expected to meet my true mate. To find the scent of her. Because, while I’d been born in West Springs and was a pure-bred member of the Two Marks pack, I had no scent match. Meaning there wasn’t another male whose scent was the same as mine. Who would claim a mate with me. The quirk of the West Springs shifter DNA. Hell, I knew all about it, since I studied it with a passion.
I was the broken one. The kind I studied the most. Yet, while I’d now found my mate, I couldn’t claim her as a Two Marks mate should. I was alone, and I was deficient. Not only did I not have a scent match, but I couldn’t give her or the pack the pups that were deserved. And our species was rapidly dwindling.
Rachel returned with a glass of ice water. She kept her eyes on mine the whole way over, as if she sensed something different about me too. As if she were attracted. Needy.
Her nipples poked against the t-shirt, giving her away. I took a deep breath. Her scent was even sweeter now. Fuck, she was aroused. I scented her desire. Her need.
For me. This wasn’t one-sided.
No. I’d be hers as much as she’d be mine.
She closed the distance between us, but at the last second, she stumbled. The ice water flew over me, the freezing liquid drenching me. The glass dropped to the floor and broke.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” Rachel cried.
I’d never been thankful for being doused in ice water before. My dick went down. Until she pulled a rag from her apron pocket—she must have grabbed a new one after the iced tea incident—and started drying my chest and then the front of my pants.
Now I was so hard, I was sure the zipper would break. Her hands froze and she looked up at me, meeting my gaze. Her eyes were so blue, like a summer sky. In those depths, I saw her. Recognized her. Knew she was mine.
I had no idea how long we stared, but she blinked, yanked her hand back from my jean-covered dick, then turned away. Her cheeks flushed a bright pink, and it was obvious she was mortified. She squatted down and began to pick up the broken glass.
“No, don’t get that,” I warned. “You’ll—”
She hissed, then sucked her finger into her mouth. Shit, she’d cut herself. Before I could reach out and see how badly she was hurt, she popped up and ran for the kitchen, the swinging door moving back and forth from her haste.
I stared after her, stunned.
Her scent lingered, and my wolf howled. I’d found her, and now she was gone. I stood and followed. I’d dwelled on all the reasons why I shouldn’t keep a mate, but now that I knew who she was, all I could think about was being with her. I couldn’t let even a room separate us.
Not now. Not ever again.
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