Hope(less) (Judgement of the Six #1)

Clay, will you keep me warm tonight?”  I’d barely whispered the words when he jumped off the bed. A moment later, he pulled back the covers and joined me.  He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me to his chest.  Bare chest.  I sighed, pressed my face against his skin, warming my cold nose, and wrapped my free arm around his waist.  Then, I tucked my feet under his calves.  He grunted slightly but didn’t loosen his hold. “No more fur at night.  Deal?” The blankets and his chest muffled my voice, but I knew he heard me.  He kissed the top of my head, the only part exposed.  I smiled, figuring it meant yes. The

from him and put them back in the dish on the counter. 

Gabby, look,” Rachel squealed as I pushed open the screen door.  “A dog!” On the deck, Rachel reclined on her side, stretched out on a beach towel.  Between her towel and the one she’d set out for me, lay a monster of a dog, relaxing in the sun. I stopped and stared.  What was that thing?  Although the size of a mastiff, it looked nothing like one.  At least seven feet from nose to tail, the dog’s shaggy brown coat gave it a wild look.  Rachel didn’t seem to mind, though.  She continued to pet its head affectionately. It turned its head, which moved it out of Rachel’s reach.  Its soft brown eyes met mine. Rachel shifted to a sitting position to reach its head again. “It just walked up the porch steps and lay right down.  I nearly peed myself.  Have you ever seen a dog this big before?  What kind do you think it is?”  She continued to pet it lovingly. I remained glued in place, my stomach sinking.  Any lingering homesickness died as my suspicion grew.  What are the odds that an extremely large, random dog just appeared at my door scant hours after Sam dropped me off?  Improbable odds.  When I’d said I would get a dog, I’d meant it as a joke.  I couldn’t afford a dog. “And you’re not going to believe what its tag says,” Rachel said, not seeming to care that I hadn’t answered her questions.  “‘If found, please provide a good home.’  Isn’t that funny?”  She ruffled his neck fur, which made his hidden tags jingle.  The dog continued to watch me and ignore Rachel’s ministrations. “Yeah.  Funny,” I mumbled.  The size of the dog would ensure men didn’t bother me.  But a dog half its size would do the same.  Why get one so big?  Its size compared to Sam in his fur.  Did Sam think some of his kind might bother me?  If so, I didn’t see how a plain old dog would help.  My eyes widened as my own idiocy dawned on me. Not a plain dog. I needed to call Sam, find out what he’d been thinking, and then give him an earful for sending someone to the house to keep an eye on me.  I was about to turn and go back into the house when Rachel said something that made my stomach drop to my toes. “His tag also says his name is Clay.  What do you think?  Should we keep him?

Gabby, what’s wrong?” “Clay is here.  In fur,” I said as quietly as possible. After a brief pause, Sam chuckled.  “What did you expect, Hun?  He scented you as his Mate.  He’s probably been following you since.  Only, when you were with me, he trusted me to protect you and kept his distance.  Moving away...well, you might have forced his hand a bit.  Then again, I think he had planned on joining you from the start.” “Right...”  I heard a creak of leather and knew Sam had sat in his office chair to get comfortable for a long conversation. “Listen, this isn’t so bad.  With him there, you won’t need to worry as much about other men, right?” “Yeah, but what about him?”  I went to my dresser to look for clothes. “I told you...he has control.  You won’t have to worry about him becoming aggressive with you.” Before I could say anything, Rachel’s muted voice called from the kitchen. “Hey, Gabby?” “I gotta go.  Just wanted to tell you he was here.  I’ll call if anything stranger pops up.

have some questions before we talk about my bribe and your price.”  I crawled back upon the bed and sat on my heels once I reached his side.  “Will you try to answer my questions?” He continued to watch me without answering. “Are you able to physically speak?” After a brief hesitation, he nodded. “Are you ever planning on talking to me?” He smiled wide and nodded again. I nervously noted his teeth were bigger than they’d been a minute ago.  My stomach did a flip, and I could feel the fading blush rekindle and spread across my face. “Clay, were you asking for a kiss?”  I had to know for sure. He nodded slowly and reached out to twine his free right hand with mine.  His thumb soothed the outside of my hand while he waited for me to decide what to do. “Clay, I can’t even see your mouth to know where to kiss.  I hope this bargain includes a shave.” His whiskers twitched, and I guessed he smiled.  He appeared laidback, completely calm as if my answer didn’t affect him at all.  It bolstered my courage. I let go of his hand and leaned forward, bracing myself on his shoulders.  I could see the glint of his eyes as he watched my slow descent.  My stomach churned with nerves and anticipation.  Despite my teasing comment, I found his lips without any problem and lightly touched mine to them.  His warm breath fanned my face, and I pressed closer.  Something inside me melted a little. Closing my eyes, I reached a hand up to gently brush against his face, exploring his brow, ear, and jaw.  He changed the kiss by tilting his head slightly.  His lips began to nibble at mine, slow and easy.  My stomach dipped, and my heart started to flutter with desire. When

He had waited patiently for me to invite him in and would wait patiently for the next step, whatever I decided that would be. My

He slid in behind the wheel and took some time to better tuck the blanket around me.  His hand smoothed over mine briefly before he pulled away and backed out of the driveway.  I struggled to keep my eyes open.  Sleep pulled at me. “I

How can you know him at all when you two don’t talk?” “You don’t need to talk to get to know someone.  You just need to listen,” I said absently, trying to concentrate on my reading.  My words rattled in my head for a moment before what I said clicked into place.  I froze and looked at Clay.  His brown eyes met mine steadily. Damn the patient, clever dog.  A smile twitched my lips.  I never had a chance...and I didn’t mind. “But that’s what I’m saying.  He doesn’t talk.  What are you listening to?” I laughed at her and myself.  “Actions speak louder than words,” I quoted, finally looking up at Rachel.  “He’s there when I need him, he’s kind and caring, he keeps me safe, and as you’ve seen, he cooks and cleans.  What’s not to like, Rachel?” She grumbled under her breath but didn’t have anything else to add. Clay walked over to her and lay on some of her dresses, ending her mutterings that I should get out and meet other people.  She laughed at him then tried to move him.  He laid his head on his paws and winked at me.  He wasn’t mad but enjoyed giving Rachel some grief. Shaking

I have some questions before we talk about my bribe and your price.”  I crawled back upon the bed and sat on my heels once I reached his side.  “Will you try to answer my questions?” He continued to watch me without answering. “Are you able to physically speak?” After a brief hesitation, he nodded. “Are you ever planning on talking to me?” He smiled wide and nodded again. I nervously noted his teeth were bigger than they’d been a minute ago.  My stomach did a flip, and I could feel the fading blush rekindle and spread across my face. “Clay, were you asking for a kiss?”  I had to know for sure. He nodded slowly and reached out to twine his free right hand with mine.  His thumb soothed the outside of my hand while he waited for me to decide what to do. “Clay, I can’t even see your mouth to know where to kiss.  I hope this bargain includes a shave.” His whiskers twitched, and I guessed he smiled.  He appeared laidback, completely calm as if my answer didn’t affect him at all.  It bolstered my courage. I let go of his hand and leaned forward, bracing myself on his shoulders.  I could see the glint of his eyes as he watched my slow descent.  My stomach churned with nerves and anticipation.  Despite my teasing comment, I found his lips without any problem and lightly touched mine to them.  His warm breath fanned my face, and I pressed closer.  Something inside me melted a little. Closing my eyes, I reached a hand up to gently brush against his face, exploring his brow, ear, and jaw.  He changed the kiss by tilting his head slightly.  His lips began to nibble at mine, slow and easy.  My stomach dipped, and my heart started to flutter with desire. When

I knew without a doubt I’d found the perfect man. He would stand by me. Always.

I mean, he asked for the keys to the truck last night and brought them back earlier this morning.  Truck’s fixed.  I checked myself.  So, I’m wondering what you said to him.” My mouth popped open.  I couldn’t believe he’d actually listened to me.  A silly smile tugged at my mouth.  Did this really mean he’d let me go?  My barely formed smile faded.  Or would I just wake up back in this apartment tomorrow morning if I tried to leave? Sam continued to remake the bed with the clean sheets from the hidden compartment in the matching sofa ottoman. There had to be a catch.  Sam had told me a tied pair didn’t part until completing the Claim.  When Clay had scented me, and I’d recognized him openly, the Elders saw us as a pair.  They, in turn, announced it to everyone over their mental link.  Every werewolf, whether in a pack or Forlorn, recognized our tie.  If my words truly changed Clay’s mind, great—but Sam’s question caused me to begin to doubt that possibility, and I struggled to come up with what I’d overlooked. “The truth,” I said answering Sam’s question.  “Let’s say he is my Mate.  He’s an uneducated man from the backwoods.  How are we going to live?  I can’t turn on the fur like you guys can and live as a wolf like he’s done for most of his life.  Where does that leave us?  I just pointed out that I had to go to school to get the education I needed to land a good job to support myself because he can’t.” Sam had stopped remaking the bed and looked at me in disbelief. “Well, I said it nicer than that.” He gave me a disappointed look. “You don’t know anything about him, Gabby.  He may have lived most of his life in his fur, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t intelligent or that he’s more wolf than man.  You may have caused yourself more trouble than you intended.” I shifted against the door.  “Hold on, I didn’t say either of those things to him.”  Granted, I did tell him he needed to bathe.  “And what do you mean ‘more trouble’?” “He said that you suggested he live with you so you could get to know each other better.” I froze in disbelief.  That is not what I said. “Wait.  Did he actually talk to you?” “Well, I had to put on my fur to understand him since he was in his, but yes.” Sam’s kind communicated in several ways when in their fur—typically, through body language or howls.  Claimed and Mated pairs shared a special bond using an intuitive, mental link.  Once establishing a Claim, the pair could sense strong emotions as well as each other’s location.  Mated pairs had the same ability to communicate with each other as the Elders had with everyone in the pack. I closed my eyes and thought back to my exact wording. “I didn’t say we should live together, but that he should come back with me to get an education.”  Fine, I hadn’t worded it well, but how did he get “hey, we should live together” out of that? “Like I said, you’ve got trouble.”  He gave me another disappointed look, folded the bed back into the sofa, then picked up his bag from the floor.  He strode to the bathroom and closed the door on any further conversation. Crap.  I needed to talk to Clay again and find out what he intended.  I’d been counting on his feral upbringing and his need for freedom to cause him to reject my suggestion—a suggestion that hadn’t included him living with me.  I’d meant he should find a place nearby so we could go through the motions of human dating, which was the extent of my willingness to compromise.  I hadn’t thought he’d take any of it seriously but that, instead, he would just let me go. I

I met his eyes and smiled back. His easy acceptance of everything that happened finished melting my heart. ‘I love you’.

I met his gaze. Even then, he’d known me. I hadn’t been ready for any monumental life changes and still wasn’t sure if I was now.

I’m going back in,” I said as I turned toward the door.  Clay sprang to his feet before I reached it and crowded behind me.  I looked down at him then back at Rachel, who watched us with an enormous grin. “Looks like another guy who can’t take his eyes off you.  Living with you is going to be a riot.”  She laughed and picked up the towels.  “Let’s all go in.  The neighbor’s tree is going to shade the deck soon anyway.” Having little choice, I opened the door for Clay.  His fur brushed my bare thighs as he moved past me into the house.  His head came to about my sternum.  He really was huge...a huge problem. Sam had warned me Clay had taken my speech as an invitation to live together.  At least, Clay had shown up in his fur.  However, any relief I might have felt went unnoticed as I contemplated how he’d found me in a completely different state.  If Sam told him, I’d have to kill Sam.  Since I didn’t have the stomach for outright murder, I’d break his coffee maker. I

In the past two years, not once had I felt any physical interest in any werewolf.  There’d been some nice ones I’d enjoyed talking to, but nothing more.  No spark that Sam had insisted I would feel.  He’d stressed that whatever I felt, the male would feel infinitely stronger, a compulsion that they wouldn’t be able to deny. No,

I pulled open the door and yelped.  The steady thump in my head increased its tempo. Clay stood just outside the door, leaning against the wall.  He held a glass of water in one hand and two pills in the other.  I tried to read his face, but he kept it perfectly blank.  I hoped that meant he wasn’t angry with me.  Desperate to relieve the pain in my head, I released my death grip on the door and gulped down the pills. When I tried handing him the empty glass, he shook his head and picked me up again.  My feet had been getting cold, anyway.  Holding the empty glass, I sighed and rested my head against his chest. He went toward my room, and I almost complained until I saw what he’d done.  He’d changed the sheets and remade the bed.  Socks, slippers, and my hairbrush lay on the quilt, waiting.  He’d known I would go for the shower and had given me privacy even though he hadn’t wanted me to get out of bed.  Not only that, but he’d gotten everything ready for when I finished. I looked at him.  He studied me, his arms still securely around me.  I leaned in, kissed his cheek tenderly, and hesitated there.  He smelled so good.  I just wanted to curl back up with him. 

I stared at Clay as he dragged Luke in by the cuff of one pant leg.  Luke didn’t appear to mind.  Instead, he was laughing.  His hands clutched the waistband of his pants to keep Clay from pulling them off entirely.  After they cleared the threshold, I saw a crowd watching from the hallway.  Not good.  News of this would get back to the Elders.  No doubt Sam would want to talk to me as soon as he found out I was awake.  I moved from the couch to the door and slammed it closed.  The poor door would need some repair work. Clay reached the middle of the room, dropped Luke’s leg, and without pause, turned back to the door.  I didn’t move away from the exit.  He reached for the knob without meeting my gaze, but I stopped him with a hand held up. “Clay, I need you to stay and listen.  Please.” He still didn’t look at me, and I knew asking to speak with Luke had hurt him.  Why wouldn’t it?  Had I really ever given him much hope we had a future together?  Sam showed up at our door just days ago saying I’d rejected Clay and needed to do the Introductions again.  Instead of putting my foot down, we went back.  Granted I’d told Clay I didn’t like to see him hurt and admitted we both knew he was the one for me, but we hadn’t talked about what we’d do about it. “Please,” I said again, when he hadn’t moved.  “Give me a chance.”  I touched his face and forced him to meet my gaze.  “I’ve asked so much of you already and know it’s not fair to ask again, but I am.”  I chose my words carefully aware of our audience inside the apartment and in the hall. He sighed, reached up to cup my face, and gently smoothed his thumb over my cheek.  A tender look crept into his eyes before he abruptly dropped his hands, turned, and headed toward the still laughing Luke.  Clay dragged his feet as he stepped over Luke.  Luke grunted when a foot connected with his ribs, and his laughter started to quiet. As

I still think you should go to the doctor.  Could it be something you didn’t think of yet?”  She casually leaned close to me.  “Pregnant?” she whispered. Clay dropped the spoon.  It hit the stove and bounced back at him.  He caught it tight after a close fumble.  Both Rachel and I stared at his back, but with dignity, he stayed facing the stove and kept cooking. I turned back to Rachel with a wide smile.  “No.  Now, behave.” We

I stood staring at the cake a long time.  How could I be so blind?  He’d shrugged when I’d asked why he’d gotten his job, but the answer, wrapped in layers of sinful chocolate mousse frosting, sat before my eyes. Thinking back, I identified several of the little things I’d previously overlooked.  Things I’d assumed Rachel had purchased, like movies I’d mentioned I wanted to see.  He’d gotten his job for me because of my speech the day after we’d met.  My heart melted a little as I thought of all the effort he’d put into trying to be what I needed, and I knew I fought a losing battle. *

It’s annoying not being able to see you,” I said in place of a good morning.  I flipped to my stomach and propped myself up with my elbows to get a better look at him. “If you don’t talk, and I can’t see your face, how am I ever supposed to figure out what you’re thinking?” I reached out to move some hair out of the way, but he stopped me in a blurred move, catching my wrist gently in his hand.  He didn’t let me any closer.  First, he ditched me on dinner night then he wouldn’t let me touch him?  The thought stopped me.  I really hadn’t touched him before either, at least not as a man.  Maybe he was like me, a little standoffish.  I could understand that. “Seriously, Clay, what kind of bribe is it going to take for you to get rid of some of that hair?” He flashed his elongated canines at me again in explanation. “Can’t we at least trim it back some?”  Okay maybe a lot, but I knew to start with baby steps. He tugged my hand to his chest, laying it flat.  So much for my theory about not wanting to be touched.  I patiently allowed it because with him, everything was guessing or pantomime.  His chest warmed my palm. Using his free hand, he tapped my mouth.  I frowned, perplexed. “What, you want me to be mute like you?”  Was he hinting I talked too much? He shook his head and reached out again.  This time, he cupped my jaw and lightly ran his thumb over my bottom lip.  The gentle touch caused the pull in my stomach to intensify.  Though I couldn’t see his eyes, I read his intent. “Whoa!”  I scrambled out of the bed as if it had caught fire. He stayed where I left him and turned his head to study me as I stood trembling beside the bed.  I nervously rubbed a sweaty palm, the one that had moments before rested on his chest, against my leg.  His whiskers twitched down.  I couldn’t recall him frowning at me before. I almost asked where that idea suddenly came from, but guessed it was long overdue.  According to the Elders, when an unMated male finds his female, he begins a courtship of sorts.  The end goal is to Claim his Mate. But Clay hadn’t courted me.  He just lived here in his fur.  And sometimes cooked for me.  And sometimes helped me with chores...and when he wasn’t around, I felt disappointed and missed him.  My fearful expression slackened to one of stunned amazement.  He had been courting me these last few months.  Clever dog. Not

I turned to leave him, but he caught my wrist again and gently tugged me to his side.  He brought my hand to his mouth, kissed the back of it, then my knuckles.  I felt a tug in my stomach.  That stupid, annoying, kinda-growing-on-me-a-lot pull which tied us together.  My annoyance at him evaporated.  Unable to help myself, I brushed my fingers through his hair.  I liked the feel of it. “I’ve lost everyone that’s ever really mattered to me.  I thought caring about a werewolf would be safer,” I admitted softly. He raised his head to look at me for a long moment then pulled me into his arms. Normally, I wouldn’t like someone hugging me like that.  But with Clay, it felt safe.  I hugged him back gently, not wanting to hurt him more, and hoped the safety I felt wasn’t because I’d already lost too much of my heart to him.  I’d never fully recovered from losing my mom or grandma.  I doubted I could lose much more and remain the same person.  Losing Clay, even now, might break me. Eventually,

It won’t be safe,” Sam said, interrupting my thoughts.  He looked up from his half-empty cup.  “You know it won’t be safe.” “Sam, I’ll get a dog.”  I could see by his expression that he was gearing up for another round in an old debate.  Why couldn’t he understand that I’d rather get a dog than be Mated to a werewolf? 

My heart melted a little thinking of the effort he’d put into trying to be what I needed, and I knew I fought a losing battle.

One arm wrapped around my shaking shoulders.  He started to rub little circles on my skin with his thumb.  He reached up with his other hand and lightly touched my forehead.  Though he was upset with me, his concern was plain, as was...I squinted in an attempt to see clearly and then scowled. He

Pack law: Protect unMated females from unMated males.  Another pack law: Don’t place yourself in a situation where you’ll be alone with an unMated male or it could be seen as acceptance of his suit. Inside,

So, when do we get started?”  I paced around the room to stretch my legs after the long drive. “Soon as you’re ready, I guess.”  Sam riffled through his bag, looking for something. “How many this weekend?” He didn’t look at me.  In fact, he seemed to be making an effort not to look at me and had been making that effort since breakfast.  My stomach wanted to do a flip, but I firmly smashed down my emotions.  I needed to figure out what was going on before I reacted in any way.  Emotions around werewolves gave you away.  They could smell some and hear others. “I’m not sure.  All of the Elders put a call out since it’s your last one.  Ready?”  He straightened, with pencil and paper in his hand, and still did not meet my gaze.  He kept himself busy by tucking the pencil into the spiral of the notebook as he moved toward the door. “Yep.”  I fell into step behind him.  “So, what does that mean?” “That there are more ears than usual.”  He opened the door for me. A werewolf fun fact to keep in mind at all times: They have excellent hearing. 

Sunlight penetrated the darkness behind my eyelids.  I no longer sprawled sideways on the bed on top the comforter but underneath it, snugly tucked in.  Clay sat up in the space next to me, pillows stacked behind him as he read a book.  His posture didn’t fool me.  He really sat there to watch over me while I slept.  I knew with an unexplainable certainty that he would never leave me again. “Good morning,” I said, pulling the covers up to my chin.  Thanks to Rachel-the-heat-miser, the room felt cool, but I enjoyed lower rent. Clay closed his book as soon as I woke and turned to examine me. “I want to talk to you but keep falling asleep.  If I do it again, wake me up.”  I smiled at him when he pulled me close to snuggle against him.  It was much warmer that way. “During

The next morning I woke snuggled up against Clay, who must have snuck in at some point during the night.  Though Rachel had technically turned on the heat, she kept it low.  It made Clay’s extra warmth nice. When the sleep cleared enough from my head, I realized he laid next to me on his back...in man-form.  I held still, trying to decide how I felt about it.  When I’d been sick, he’d done it to help me.  There hadn’t really been a choice.  I wasn’t sick now.  But he wasn’t being weird about it.  So, should I really make a big deal out of it?  I decided not to.  Warm feet felt nice; a warm all of me felt better. Considerately,

You didn’t tell me he could cook,” Rachel stage whispered. Giving her a crooked smile, I made my way to a kitchen chair.  I was exhausted. “He cooks, he cleans, he warms up my feet at night, and he keeps the toilet seat down...so hands off.  He’s mine.” Rachel laughed, and Clay turned to give me an undecipherable look.  I had a feeling he liked the “mine” part. “How

You don’t need to talk to get to know someone, you just need to listen,