“YOU’RE going to shake things up, that’s for sure.”
Lilliana Rouse’s new boss, Matilda May, shook her head and uttered the same words she’d been muttering for hours. Lilliana smiled at the older woman. Matilda was nice and easy to work for. If she occasionally got lost in her own thoughts, Lilliana had no intention of pointing it out to anyone. All she needed was for someone to declare Matilda unfit because of how much she talked to herself, and then Lilliana would be out of yet another job.
That couldn’t happen. Lilliana had been laid off five times in one year. That had to be her absolute maximum. Six might push her off some kind of proverbial ledge she’d yet to discover.
The door to the diner shook and rang the little bell attached to the back. Someone must have come in. Lilliana didn’t turn around to look. She had ice cream to scoop, and Matilda liked to seat the clientele herself. The shop might be just a diner, but Matilda was determined that it would be a classy diner.
They weren’t at their busiest time of the day, and, with three waitresses working, the more customers that came in, the better. The kitchen could handle it and Lilliana knew not one waitress would complain about having some extra tips at the end of the day. Maybe a busload of people could show up.
“Why hello there, Travis,” Matilda purred. As Lilliana dug deeper into the impossible-to-scoop French vanilla, she couldn’t help but grin. “It’s always a great day when you come to visit us.”
This Travis must be quite a looker. Lilliana imagined a sophisticated old man with silver hair that curled a little bit at the end. She could practically picture the two of them together. To see if she was right, she glanced up to check out the man Matilda had escorted further into the restaurant.
He had his back to her, but his rear view did not confirm Lilliana’s speculation. Very tall and broad-shouldered, with visible tattoos that looked eclectic—some tribal, some black and white, and some that resembled an animal—up and down his arms, he was obviously not a gray-haired senior citizen.
A brown-haired man in the prime of his life, by the looks of it.
Apparently, Matilda preferred the hot, inked-up variety of guys. Lilliana shook her head. She hadn’t even seen his face, and she could predict his level of attractiveness. Perhaps her mother was right—when it came to men, she would always be a hopeless romantic; that was why she’d sworn off guys. Lilliana Rouse wouldn’t fall in love this year.
This was the year Lilliana would discover herself.
With that thought adding a bounce to her step, she walked to the customer who had been patiently waiting for her to bring him his ice cream. He was a nice man in his fifties, who usually came in with his wife. When his other half was with him, he ordered salad. Alone, he always went for the ice cream.
“Here you go, Pat.” She placed down the bowl. “And I know. Not a word to Carol.”
He winked at her, and she smiled. This was a good place to work. Much better than the back office of the accounting firm where she had crawled out of a window to get away from her creepy boss. He’d tried to touch her and she’d scratched him up, torn his shirt into two with her fingernails. Most people screamed, kicked, or punched, but Lilliana had discovered she had a propensity to claw when she felt threatened.
Odd, even for her.
Everyone who came through the door at Matilda’s diner treated Lilliana with respect. No one had been lewd or inappropriate, yet.
“Has he been in this week?”
Lilliana turned at the sound of Matilda’s friend’s voice. Low, deep, and scratchy, it sent shivers down her spine. She sucked in her breath. Hell. The man’s voice exuded sexuality. Matilda had sat him in Lilliana’s section, so at least she knew she’d soon get a glance at his face.
“No, darling.” Matilda sighed loudly. “You know better than to expect Cyrus Fennell to let anyone know his plans. He’ll come here and pick up your message when he’s damn ready and not a minute before.”
Lilliana walked over, holding her notepad. “Hello, there.” She smiled brightly at Matilda and then turned her attention to the man who had gotten her worked up before she’d ever even seen his face.
Her mouth went dry.
Yep, her initial impressions had been correct.
Sex on a stick.
She immediately forced her thoughts away. This man wouldn’t be getting in her pants, even if he were interested in doing so.
One year. No men. That left her six more months to go.
So what if he had high cheekbones, a long, strong nose that looked like it had been broken more than once, if the scars in the center were any indication? A five o’clock shadow covered his jaw, and his blue eyes were warm while he regarded Matilda, a big plus as far as character went. Anyone who liked her boss got a check-plus in Lilliana’s book.
“Lilliana, this is Travis Michaels. He is a very special customer here. Take good care of him.” Matilda patted Lilliana on her shoulder before she turned back around. With one finger, she pointed at Travis. “And you. Behave.”
Matilda walked, her gait slow but steady, back to where she sat by the door waiting for customers at the hostess station.
Travis raised his thick, dark eyebrows and looked at her. Her cheeks heated up at his open consideration. She immediately glanced down.
“Lilliana.” His voice had lowered in tone from when he’d spoken to Matilda. “Look up, please.”
“Oh.” She forced her eyes upward. Why had she gotten so interested in her feet? “I’m sorry. That was rude.”
He shook his head. “No, it wasn’t.”
“Okay then.” She’d really blown it already. All it would take was Matilda’s special customer to tell Lilliana’s boss how weird her new waitress was and she’d be out on her ass. Again. Why couldn’t she ever seem to be normal? “What can I get you to eat?”
He pointed at the booth across from him. “Sit down.”
She moved before she could stop herself and took a seat where he had pointed. What the hell did I just do? “No. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t sit here. I’m working.”
“You can sit for a minute. Matilda won’t mind, and someone else will temporarily cover your tables.”
“I don’t want anyone else to cover them.” She stood up. “I’m sorry. I need my own tips. I can’t share.”
Travis leaned back in his seat and goose bumps broke out on her skin. The man made her feel like she couldn’t sit still. “Why did you get up when I told you to sit?”
“Because I have a job to do.” Why did he sound so surprised? Did no one ever say no to him? Probably not. Gorgeous men tended to get what they wanted. “What can I get you to eat?”
“Who do you belong to, lady?”
Okay. This had gone from weird to downright rude. “I don’t belong to anyone, thanks. Do you want some more time to look at the menu?”
“Bring me a coffee to start.”
She nodded before she scampered away. This was going to be a long shift.
* * * *
Travis Michaels watched the little she-wolf take off like a bat out of hell to get his coffee. At first he hadn’t been sure of her origins. She didn’t smell exactly like a werewolf.
He wouldn’t be surprised if she turned out to be some kind of hybrid. Part werewolf, part human would be his guess since he did not smell vamp on her anywhere. Their metallic base always made his teeth hurt.
Why hadn’t she told him who she belonged to, and why had she been able to get up and leave when he’d told her to sit? His blood stirred, making him shift uncomfortably in his seat. It was two weeks until the full moon. He shouldn’t already be this antsy.
Lilliana stopped to speak with another customer, bending over slightly to look at something on the bill. She smiled, touching the woman’s arm. Travis stared at her ass. Round, supple, and firm—he wanted to bite it.
When was the last time he’d reacted this strongly to a woman? His cock hardened, and the closer she got to his table, the more her individual scents hit him in the gut. The aroma of peaches and cream coated her skin. Beneath that, she smelled of lavender. A growl sounded in his throat, and she jumped back a step.
At the hostess desk, Matilda cleared her throat. Travis gripped the table. He hadn’t spontaneously growled in twenty years. On his twelfth birthday, his uncle had taken him outside and whipped him for the slip-up. Twelve was too old to lose control and thirty-two was way too damn old.
Lilliana’s hand shook when she set down his coffee. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” He paused. “Are you?”
Mate. The thought should have surprised him; only it didn’t. The growl had pretty much cemented that for him. To make matters worse, the smirk the old wolf Matilda wore told him she’d known this would happen. A little warning might have been nice.
Matilda, one of the few remaining New Jersey wolves, had always kept her own counsel. She didn’t belong to him, and she wasn’t part of his pack. She owed him no allegiance.
“I’m fine. I mean you just made that noise, and I…”
“You what?” Wanted to run? Got scared? Wanted to bite me? Got wet in your panties?
“I don’t know. I reacted very weirdly. I’m sorry. It’s none of my business what noises you make. I have strange reactions to things. Don’t mind me one minute. Now, did you decide what you wanted to eat?”
The truth dawned on him suddenly, like a flashbulb going off on a camera, and when it moved through him, he saw the same stars he would have had she taken his picture. Lilliana did not know she was a werewolf. This meant she’d also be unaware that he was a wolf or even that he was an Alpha of a pack. If she’d been aware of her gift, she’d have scented his status, and this would all be going much smoother.
“I’m going to have the meatloaf.” He handed her his menu. “And a shot of tequila if this place has any.”
She scampered off again, and he got out of his seat to find out from Matilda exactly what was going on. He leaned over the hostess desk, making his eye contact.
A wolf didn’t get to be as old as Matilda without knowing how to read cues. He wasn’t even going to make this hard for her.
She raised a gray eyebrow. “About what?”
“The she-wolf you hired. I need details about her.” Because I’m going to go insane if you don’t tell me everything you know immediately. It was a good thing Matilda couldn’t read minds. He didn’t need her going down that particular train of thought with him.
“Well, first off, I would think it was obvious to an Alpha like you that she has no idea she’s a wolf. I’m guessing she’s half.”
“That’s what I thought. How can she not know? You can’t shift into a were every full moon and have no clue about it.” Unless you are really, really dumb.
“There’s another option. Think about it, Alpha-wolf. I’ve known you since you were a little boy. Your father would bring you here to my diner on your way home to Philadelphia after he would go visit with the Alpha-Prime in New Hampshire. You’ve seen the world. What is the other option?”
Realization settled on his shoulders before traveling down his spine. His whole body clenched at the thought. “Are you telling me I’m mated to a latent?”
“You sound like a snob.”
He rolled his eyes. “I couldn’t care less most of the time. I’m running a war. If she can’t defend herself, than she’s going to be forever at risk.”
“Travis.” Matilda put her hand on her hip. “Do you really think the mate of the Alpha of Philadelphia is going to be hurt? Do you think anyone would dare?”
He gripped the side of her table. “I think that son of a bitch Cyrus Fennell, who won’t answer my peace treaty, could very easily take her.”
“Then you’re going to have to do a better job than that at taking care of her.”
His head pounded. He needed to go, to think, to plan. Lilliana came out of the kitchen holding his meal on a tray. The platter practically dwarfed her. The woman couldn’t be more than five feet tall. She had no fat on her bones, and when she moved, it seemed graceful, as though she floated instead of walked.
Her brown eyes were huge and chocolate. Lilliana had a pert nose and a cleft in her chin that he wanted to pinch until she smiled. Her blonde hair was held back by a rubber band to keep it away from her face. He’d love to see it flowing down her back, not stopped by anything, maybe blowing in the wind.
Lilliana’s breasts were ample and she had hips to match. An image of him taking her up against the wall filled his mind, and he had to adjust his pants. This woman would be able to make him pant.
He walked over to the table and set down twice as much money as he owed. Cyrus wouldn’t be showing up to leave any notes today. The asshole liked to be obtuse just to get under his skin, but if he pulled any more shit, Travis would take his peace offering and show him why his pack had such a high success rate in battle.
“Are you not going to eat the meatloaf?” Lilliana looked between him and the plate.
“No.” He had to stop himself from growling, tossing her over his shoulder, and taking her home. If she’d been a full wolf, that wouldn’t have been a problem. She might have challenged him, bit him, or attacked, but it would have all been part of the mating game. Given the circumstances, he might as well be thinking about mating a human. “I need to think.”
“And you can’t do that here?” She tapped her foot, and he stared down at it. So she did have fangs…just of the verbal variety.
“Don’t worry. I’m going to be back for you, Lilliana.” He liked saying her name and intended to do it all the time just for fun. “There will be other meals.”
He made his way toward the door, forcing himself to turn his back on his mate. Travis needed a war plan. He had one for dealing with Cyrus, and now he had to make one for wooing. Someone needed to give him romancing-the-latent-half-werewolf instructions.
Matilda grabbed his arm. “One more thing.”
He pulled his gaze away from Lilliana walking back to the kitchen to stare back at Matilda. She dropped her eyes. Really? It was that kind of conversation? A submissive one?
“She’s in and out of heat, even though she has no idea that’s what’s happening. The were genes might be latent, but they’re there. The swearing-off-men she’s done is just because somehow she has to know that she’s waiting for the one in a way beyond what humans do. Men of all types—humans and non—can’t stay away from her.”
“And what you’re reminding me is that, one way or another, a were-female eventually has to have sex, even if she doesn’t find her mate, or she goes crazy for wanting it.”
Matilda nodded. “Don’t wait too long to take her. She’s been celibate for six months.”
* * * *
Nothing ever came easily. After a full day of working, when all she wanted to do was go home and curl into bed, Lilliana sat outside the diner in her vehicle, her mouth gaping open.
Her. Car. Wouldn’t. Start.
She banged her head on the steering wheel. What would it be this time? The alternator? Some kind of auxiliary fan? She sighed. Whatever it turned out to be would cost a ton of money, something she did not have.
“No signing up for school right now, I suppose.” Maybe she needed to throw out this idea of ever being a college graduate. She couldn’t even get her prerequisites done. Her mother’s illness. Her car. Getting thrown out of her apartment when the landlord had moved his sister in.
A tap on her window made her jump. Travis’ face stared down at her from the other side of the glass. After he’d left, she hadn’t been able to think about anything else for the rest of the afternoon, especially the way his muscles showed off the ink of his arms. Is he tattooed anywhere else? That thought had been the reason she’d carelessly dumped tomato soup all over a man wearing a suit, who’d stormed from the restaurant.
She’d be lucky if Matilda didn’t become ex-boss number six this year.
With a sigh, she rolled down the window. “Can I help you?”
“I’m thinking I can help you. Car won’t start?”
“That’s right. Can you fix cars?” She opened her door, and he scooted backward so he wouldn’t get hit with it. “What are you still doing here?” He’d left five hours earlier.
“I had some things I couldn’t get out of my mind. A person I expected to see earlier didn’t show up. I drove by to see if he was here. And, well, I wanted to see you again.”
“You did? Why?” She’d done nothing but stumble and stammer the whole time he was around.
“Because.” He smiled, and her heart stuttered. Small lines dotted his face. Laugh lines. Travis had a dimple on his left cheek. It made him look softer and she liked the effect. With his ink and the sheer size of Travis, he intimidated her. However, the laugh lines showed her that he had a gentle side too. She wanted to reach out and touch them. Only that would be weird and she really worked on not doing odd things. That had to be one of her goals.
“Pop the hood for me.”
She bent over to flick the switch to show the engine for his inspection. Her shirt rode up her back just a touch, and when she stood up, she noticed him watching her from the corner of his eye.
Lilliana bit down on her lower lip. No sex. No men. No. No. No. Somehow she had to remember that meaningless sex made her feel exactly that way…meaningless.
The next time she took a man to bed he had to be the right one.
Even if Travis made her wet just by looking at him.
He bent over and studied her engine.
“Is this what you do? For a living?”
He raised his head, leaning to the side so she could see him. “I own a collection of body shops in Philadelphia. I don’t repair the cars myself anymore, but I certainly remember how.” He moved away from the car. “This one is shot. When was the last time you changed the oil?”
“Um.” She’d done so much to the car. Had she really forgotten to have the oil changed?
“Um.” He laughed. “That says enough. Regular maintenance on all cars keeps this situation from happening.”
She could have taken anything but him patronizing her. Unable to stop the surge of anger that flowed through her veins, she banged on the side of her car.
“You know what? You don’t know the slightest thing about me. Do you think that I’m just some stupid woman who couldn’t be bothered to change her oil? Because I was, what, going to the mall?”
Whatever he would have said, she didn’t hear because she kept going. “I have bills beyond bills. My mother is dead. She left a ton of debt, and my name was co-signed on all of it. I’ll never be able to pay any of it off. Not ever. This car is the only thing I own in the world, and now you tell me its dead. Before yesterday, I hadn’t eaten more than a cracker with a slice of cheese on it in two days. You can take your superior attitude and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
She turned on her heel and stormed back toward the diner. A tow truck would cost and arm and a leg, but what choice did she have?
“Wait.” Travis grabbed her arm, and she spun around, her fists clenched. If he didn’t let go, she might punch him in the nose.
“Relax.” His eyes met hers, and the strangest thing happened. Her heart rate started to calm down. Little by little she could feel herself doing as he’d told her to do. He smelled really nice. She could make out the scents of soap and sandalwood. Her mother had often said she had a gift for aromas. In another life, maybe she could have designed perfumes. Made millions of dollars.
Travis raised an eyebrow. “You okay now?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I don’t usually have a tantrum when things don’t go my way.”
“I think it sounds like you’re entitled.”
“I really don’t know what came over me.” Her throat clogged, and she feared she might start to cry.
Anger to weeping in less than a minute. A new record for her. What kind of hormonal mess had she become?
“Maybe you really wanted to tell me about it. That’s okay. People talk to me. I’m good at listening.”
To her surprise, he pulled her against his large chest. “I’m going to give you a ride home, and I’m going to take care of your car. It will be outside your home tomorrow morning.”
“You don’t have to.”
He petted the back of her head. “Consider it already done.”
His actions were highly inappropriate, but she liked the feeling of being taken care of, even if it was temporary and by a stranger. For once, maybe it was okay to take a deep breath and just say thank you. Her shoulders sagged. Maybe the universe was finally giving her a break.