·SERIES: Masters of Maria #3 (novella)
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Alex Cavanaugh is used to fielding odd requests at her waitressing job. She would have never predicted, though, that she’d get brazenly propositioned for a one-night stand with a needy werewolf—or that she’d be lonely enough to tell him yes.
Ben Swain’s inner wolf has been howling for him to take a permanent mate, but he’s terrified of change. He’s clawed his way to status and respect from his pack and doesn’t want to sacrifice that for anything. A short tryst while he’s visiting Maria, New Mexico, before the holidays is supposed to be a stopgap measure to keep his wolf hormones in check, but Ben’s animal side wants more of Alex.
Although she’s a human, quirky Alex’s go-with-the-flow, practical personality perfectly complements Ben’s wild intensity. But after being burned by men before, her budding horticulture career has become her number one priority. Sure, she wants love, but she’d rather be alone than with someone who isn’t fully committed. So why can’t she seem to resist Ben?
If the two can’t figure out a way to balance the two most important things in their lives, all they’ll be getting for Christmas is regret.
Alex Cavanaugh wiped down the table for the former queen of elves and pulled out a chair for the pocket-sized lady. Clearing her throat, she looked around the packed restaurant, and then leaned in close to Clarissa.
“Did you bring it?” Alex whispered.
Clarissa chuckled and took the offered seat near the diner’s door. “You make it seem so illicit.”
“Tastes like it is. Tastes illegal.”
Clarissa’s brow creased and eyes narrowed on Alex. “Now that I think about it, there may be some laws on the books about products made with ingredients that actually aren’t legal.”
“Aha.” Alex snapped her fingers and straightened up. “I knew something wasn’t right. I figured you were baking magic into them.”
Clarissa snickered. Smiled in her serene way. “Oh, nothing so arcane.”
“Then what’s the secret?”
“Nothing that’ll cause hallucinations or seizures, as far as I know, but I could be wrong.” Clarissa shrugged and notched her brown hair behind her perfectly rounded ears. “I imagine you digest controlled substances slightly differently than the fae do.”
“Controlled substances?” Alex whispered.
Another shrug from Clarissa. Another serene smile.
If Alex had been a reasonable, cautious woman, she would have nodded serenely at the ancient elf and backed away slowly to fetch coffee or something.
But she wasn’t cautious.
For two years, Clarissa had been Alex’s go-to fruitcake dealer. Alex had gotten her first one on a fluke. Her friend Belle had carelessly left hers on the counter at the rental home they shared at the time. When it had become obvious that Belle wasn’t going to eat whatever was in that foil-wrapped package, Alex’s curiosity had gotten the best of her. She’d pulled the foil open and gasped with her hand over her heart.
Most people were either ambivalent about the stuff, or flat-out hated it. Alex, though, had inherited an unhealthy reverence for fruitcake from her late grandmother.
Whatever Clarissa put into that dense, gooey batter gave Alex champagne wishes, caviar dreams, and made her kinder to small children and old people. Alex didn’t know for sure if there was elf magic in it or if the booze inside did all the heavy lifting, but the people in the town of Maria needed her to have that fruitcake. Her customer service skills over the holidays would improve exponentially with each slice.
She rubbed her palms together greedily and whispered, “Well, where’s the cake? I might have fruitcake for dinner.”
Clarissa snorted softly and rubbed a water spot off her spoon. “At Noelle’s. I figured that was best, given its weight and bulk.”
“You made me a Bundt-sized fruitcake?” Alex asked with a whimper.
“I sure did, and I guarantee you there isn’t a strain of mold alive that could survive on it. It’ll keep. Swing by later. Hopefully, no one will molest that particular parcel. One can never predict how people will behave around food.”
“Ugh, Clarissa.” Alex groaned and pulled out her order pad. “You should know not to expect the best of people.”
Especially not the people in Clarissa’s motley entourage. The other elves, Jenny and Noelle, had normal-enough appetites. The other creatures in her company were who Alex didn’t trust. For one, Noelle’s partner Tamatsu was a fallen angel who, in the past, could order one of everything on the diner menu and still be hungry. Alex didn’t trust the guy around her fruitcake, or any of the shapeshifters that tended to swarm around the place, either.
“I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, dear,” Clarissa scolded.
“But we’re not talking about people. We’re talking about creatures. They don’t play by the rules.” Alex scratched Coffee for 3 onto her order pad simply to have the record. The diner owner hated for her to keep orders in her head, thinking she was skimming cash or something. If he’d actually shown up to supervise the place every now and then, he would know better.
Alex edged to the door and peeked out. Maria was a sleepy New Mexican town. At three in the afternoon, the sidewalks were mostly empty and roads quiet.
She was in the calm before the diner’s dinner storm. Fortunately, she got off at four and the next waitress on the clock could deal with the locals’ lack of holiday cheer evidenced by shamefully poor tipping.
“Hi, ladies.” She waved to the other two members of Clarissa’s party out on the sidewalk.
Jenny gave Alex a cheerful fingerwave and bent her head again over the newspaper she and Noelle were squinting at.
Noelle and Jenny worked in real estate, and Maria—a town of five thousand—didn’t have much inventory. There wasn’t much churn in the population. Folks tended to stay put. They were due for a shakeup, though.
There was about to be a huge influx of warehouse workers into the area, and they were scrambling to find housing for the early white-collar arrivals. Most of their local leads came, surprisingly, from print sources, and they got the papers from various neighboring towns delivered to their post office box next door.
“You talk about playing by the rules,” Clarissa murmured to Alex as the town’s youngest witch bounded over and thrust her half-eaten candy cane forward. “I don’t even know what they are, anymore.”
“Cah,” the child proclaimed.
“Thank you, darling, but you can have that all to yourself.” She gave the babe’s nose a little tweak.
“Sorry!” her mother called across the diner. She had her hands full scraping squash puree off her other child’s face. “Scoot her toward the book box. She’s easily distracted.”
The child toddled away on her own waving her candy around like a little wand.
Not that any of the witches in Maria used wands. They were more prone to wield athames and daggers if they used any magic enhancers at all.
Maria being a supernatural hotbed wasn’t common knowledge to humans, but Alex had insider info. Her former roommate and fellow waitress, Belle, was a Cougar, and not the kind of sexually voracious woman who dated pretty men half her age. Belle Welch was a lady who could shapeshift into a predatory cat, and she’d come by the affliction naturally. Her father had been the Cougar group’s alpha when he’d been alive. Her brothers took over the mantle as the Cougar glaring’s bigwigs.
“So, do you put rum in the cake or some kind of black-market liqueur?” Alex asked Clarissa as she backed to the counter. She didn’t usually have such a one-track mind, but she’d been thinking about fruitcake since January when she’d finished the last one Clarissa had made her. That one had been tiny. Apparently, Clarissa didn’t actually expect people to eat the things, but she was set in her traditions and baking for people she liked was one of them.
“Actually, no,” Clarissa said, picking up a special holiday menu from the table’s stack. “Moonshine.”
“Moonshine?” Alex gave her head a clearing shake. “You don’t mean the bathtub stuff, do you? You’re talking about the kind that’s sold in cute mason jars and that have names like Mountain Glitter and Thirsty Beaver right?”
“No,” Clarissa said flatly and squinted with great interest at the backside of the menu. Everyone did that. The cheap bastard diner owner used smaller font to fit more words on the page. “I don’t know if Ben makes the whiskey in his bathtub, but there’s certainly nothing cute about it. My son-in-law claims the stuff is powerful enough to run a lawnmower with.” She shrugged and glanced over the top of the menu. “Ben added spice to the batch I got jugs from. I think the flavor is delightful, but my taste buds may not be calibrated to what’s normal.”
“Ben?” Alex murmured. “Which is that?”
She plopped her hands onto her hips, chewed on a dry patch of her lip, and sifted through her mental Rolodex. She was pretty sure he was one of the unkempt werewolves who sometimes accompanied Clarissa on her journeys from North Carolina. There were usually two, and they were hard for Alex to tell apart. Most of the shifters in Clarissa’s entourage were related. They were all swarthy and dark-haired, and probably couldn’t get a close shave even if they were paid to. Alex was pretty sure she’d heard someone mumble once that two were double cousins. Their fathers were brothers and mothers were sisters, or some other combination. The men looked enough alike to be siblings.
Normally, Alex was pretty good at memorizing faces and names, but on Belle’s guidance, Alex tried not to pay too much attention to shapeshifter men. “Just trust me,” she’d said, and Alex figured Belle knew what she was talking about. After all, Belle had three shifter brothers.
“Want me to go ahead and get an order started for you?” Alex asked Clarissa.
“Coffee until Noelle and Jenny come in, and keep it coming once they do.”
“Understood. How long are you going to be in town, anyway?”
“Through the twenty-fourth.” Clarissa leaned back and let Alex set a mug and coffee decanter in front of her. “I’d stay longer, but everyone back at the farm expects me to be there on Christmas morning.”
“Can’t blame them. I’m sure my Christmas will be the same as always.” Alex pulled the door open for Jenny and Noelle, waved at Tamatsu watching across the street, and pushed the doorstopper in place. There was up to an inch of snow in the forecast for overnight, but the current outside temperature was around seventy. Alex had lived in Maria since she was five years old and still hadn’t gotten used to the vagaries of southwestern winters. “My brother and I will probably lounge on my sofa and watch holiday movies in between sniping at each other. Same as every year.”
“No other family in the area?”
“Nah, and we don’t really go visit. We moved down here with our grandmother after she retired because my mother was freaking out about her being here alone, and so of course we started freaking out, too. God forbid Granny get confused and disappear into the desert or something, right?” Alex chortled and ignored her brother’s emphatic groan from the kitchen.
He already knew the story, and Alex told it the same way every single time.
“Anyway, Mom had finished med school and was working crazy hours. She figured sending us down here temporarily would be a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
“And the next thing she knew,” Chet called out, “we were almost adults and there was no point of making us go home. Order’s up for table four, Alex.”
Alex rolled her eyes and grabbed the cheeseburger and fries from the pass-through. “You could at least add a little pizzazz to the story so we don’t sound like losers.”
“Aren’t we, though?” Chet asked, deadpan.
“Can’t speak for you, but I’m trying desperately not to be.” Alex set the platter in front of the sheriff and refreshed his ice water.
“You’re young,” bubbly Jenny said as Alex set a mug each down in front of her and Noelle. “You have plenty of time to get your act together.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re practically immortal.” Alex figured there was no need to whisper. No one left in the diner was ignorant to the paranormal. Alex had been aware of the odd goings-on in Maria since soon after she and Belle had their first playdate in kindergarten. Alex’s grandmother had come right out and asked Belle’s mother if the rumors about the Foyes being some kind of shapeshifters were true. Apparently, Mrs. Foye trusted her enough to be honest.
Most of the “in the know” element in Maria knew that Alex knew. Chet wasn’t quite as entrenched as Alex, but had managed to recently end up the official designated driver for the local Coyote pack. They had to guess that he knew at least a little about them.
The uninitiated might have said Jenny’s grin was far too toothy and made her appear inane, but that was simply Jenny’s way of showing encouragement. “Proportionally, I think you’re well ahead of the curve from where I was.”
“Never change, Jennnykins.”
“Eh. I’ll try not to.”
As the elves concentrated on their menus and the sheriff pretended he didn’t see shit, hear shit, or know shit, Alex swept food from beneath the stools. She kept an eye peeled on the interchangeable werewolves skulking in front of the plate glass window, probably waiting for Clarissa.
“You’ll be waiting awhile, boys,” she murmured.
One of them kept making covert glances inside, which would have made Alex suspicious if not for the fact that she was used to Coyotes, and they made lurking sketchily a fine art.
The other Wolf kept shifting his weight and passing his hand through his messy hair. Agitated, for some reason.
Alex didn’t think there was a full moon coming, or even if moon cycles mattered to their particular species, but either way, that guy looked like he wanted to jump out of his skin.
That can’t be good.
Noelle held up her menu to Alex and tapped the picture of the special.
“Sure.” Alex shouted back to Chet, “Noelle wants the turkey.”
“Anyone else? We’re running low.”
Jenny raised her hand and wriggled her fingers. “Me.”
Clarissa sighed and dropped her menu onto the pile. “May as well make it three.”
“Two more, Chet,” Alex called.
“No more after that,” he said. “Dinner crowd’s SOL.”
“I won’t be here long enough to hear the griping.” Thirty more minutes, and she would be heading home to soak her feet and count the seeds she’d heisted during her last foraging adventure. However many she had wasn’t enough. If she were really going to turn her seed-collecting hobby into a for-profit venture and put her waitressing days behind her, she needed to be more aggressive about building stock. She couldn’t exactly march into Home Depot and pluck seeds for obscure heirloom plants off the racks. Nope. She had to hike into the desert for those and shake them off plants. Or sometimes just accidentally drop her car keys over the fence into someone’s overgrown yard and, while she was there, pick up a few pods since she was doing all that bending over anyway. No harm done.
She slid the sheriff his check, handed him a to-go cup of coffee, and twirled around to find one of Clarissa’s shifty Wolves looming three inches from her.
“Ho-lee—” She clutched her heart, closed her unfocused eyes, and sputtered. “You can’t sneak up on people like that.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Pardon me?” she asked, opening her eyes and launching an eyebrow into the stratosphere. Of course, that meant she had to look at him, and she wished she hadn’t. He was attractive in the darkly handsome way that pirates of yore were attractive. The sex would probably be bad for her health, he would probably steal her silverware—if she’d had any—and he likely thought women’s brains would be more useful as paperweights.
She had his number. She was through with men pirating her time and her worth in one way or another, and she refused to put up with it anymore.
“How. Old. Are. You?” He carefully enunciated every word and in increasingly louder volume, as though she were not only stupid, but deaf.
“I heard you the first time, dweebus,” she snapped. “I was trying to confirm that you really asked a lady you barely know how old she is.”
He nodded slowly as though she were not only stupid and deaf, but visually impaired.
She got a sudden yen to pluck him right between the eyes like she did to Chet whenever he asked to borrow money.
“That’s what I asked,” Sketchy said.
“Oh. Okay. That makes the question okay, then.” Turning her hands over, Alex looked to Clarissa for assistance. Certainly, she could make sense of the guy if anyone could. He and the other moon-howler worked for her. They followed her around and made sure she didn’t get kidnapped or something. Rationale was always so obscure where creatures were concerned.
Still tranquil, Clarissa stirred her coffee.
“Anything you can tell me?” Alex asked.
The sheriff thrust his credit card at Alex.
Grateful for the distraction, she took it to the register with a Wolf at the heels of her orthopedic sneakers.
“Act like normal people,” she told him as she swiped the card. “I know you know how.”
“Of course I do when I have to. Still need to know your answer, though.”
“If I tell you, will you go away?”
The receipt on the slow-churning machine had cranked all the way out before he said, “Sure.”
To Alex, that sounded like a yes with caveats, but she’d deal. She wanted him to go away. She wasn’t going to let anything slow her down from leaving work on time.
“Twenty-three,” she said flatly.
He counted off something on his fingers, and then hightailed it out of the diner.
Alex looked to Clarissa again.
Still frustratingly serene, but her lips had curved up behind her coffee mug and her shoulders were shaking ever so slightly.
“Here’s the soup for the specials,” Chet called from the pass-through.
Alex slid them onto a tray and dropped them off after dropping off Sheriff’s card, the receipt, and a pen.
The Wolf returned.
“Oh, good,” Alex mumbled.
“What time do you get off?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“Twenty-three’s okay,” he said.
“Okay for what?”
“You’re at the end of the shift, right?”
“How about you start answering some of my questions?”
“You’re not allergic to fur or nothin’ like that, are you?”
“I—” This is why Belle told me to avoid them. Alex took a breath and pinched the bridge of her nose. They were insufferable. She’d learned the hard way that she didn’t have to put up with insufferable. “Go away,” she told him. “I’m working.”
“Good that you work. Working’s a sign of character.”
“No, it’s a sign that I have rent due on the first.”
“You have a bedroom to yourself? Or some other place with a door that locks? I know y’all humans like privacy and stuff. Wolves don’t need all that. If the temperature’s warm enough outside, you can do it in the woods.”
“Are you freaking kidding me?” Alex grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him toward the door, and gave him a scoot. “Keep the ridiculousness outside for another half hour, and I’ll give you five whole minutes of undivided attention before telling you to go to hell.”
“Oh, okay.” He lifted the bill of his faded Cheerwine trucker hat and shoved his enviably thick hair back. “Cool.” He moseyed outside, tugging his cargo pants up his narrow hips as he went.
“That man is not right,” Alex said to Clarissa as soon as he was out of earshot.
“He’s a Wolf.” Smiling in her peaceful, queenly way, Clarissa turned the page of the menu. “For them, that’s normal. You’ll get used to it.”
“I can’t think of a single good reason why I should have to.”
Clarissa nodded and made the quietest “Mm-hmm,” sound.
Alex didn’t think that was a good sign.