Single White Incubus (Supernatural Selection, #1)
Does a bear shift in the woods?
Well, partially. That was what got grizzly shifter Ted Farnsworth into trouble. He wasn’t trying to break the Secrecy Pact. He just wants people to see the real him. So he signs up with the mate-matching service Supernatural Selection — which guarantees marriage to a perfect partner. Not only will Ted never be lonely again, but once his new beaver shifter husband arrives, they’ll build Ted’s dream wilderness retreat together. Win-win.
Quentin Bertrand-Harrington, scion of an incubus dynasty, has abstained from sex since nearly killing his last lover. When his family declares it’s time for him to marry, Quentin decides the only way not to murder his partner is to pick someone who’s already dead. Supernatural Selection finds him the ideal vampire, and Quentin signs the marriage agreement sight unseen.
But a mix-up at Supernatural Selection contracts Quentin with Ted. What’s Ted supposed to do with an art historian who knows more about salad forks than screwdrivers? And how can Quentin resist Ted’s mouthwatering life force? Yet as they work together to untangle their inconvenient union, they begin to wonder if their unexpected match might be perfect after all.
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Themes: acceptance, financial gap / class disparity, fitting in, heritage, immortality, interspecies, isolation, legends, marriage, marriage of convenience / fake relationship, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection
“Ted? Did you hear the question?”
Ted Farnsworth blinked, shifting his gaze from his therapist’s neck to his movie-star handsome face. “I’m sorry, Dr. Kendrick. What was it again?”
Dr. Kendrick was used to Ted getting distracted, since it happened at every visit at least once. Okay, twice. Three times, tops. But he never frowned with censure the way the head of the bear shifter council always did. Or snort with annoyance like Ted’s brother. Or even sigh with impatience like some of his friends. Nope. Dr. Kendrick just calmly repeated himself.
“Why didn’t you come to see me as soon as you got the council’s letter of reprimand?”
“Oh. The letter.” Ted squirmed, the urge to shift prickling along his spine and over his scalp. He gripped his knees, squeezing tight. Shifting here would be bad. Dr. Kendrick’s nice office furniture isn’t rated for grizzlies. “I couldn’t come to town until now. My truck’s in the shop.”
Dr. Kendrick’s eyebrows drew together. “But I installed the emergency communication app on your phone for a reason. You could have called me for transport through Faerie. There’s a threshold in my backyard and another practically on top of your cabin.”
Ted shrugged sheepishly and picked up his cup of Dr. Kendrick’s excellent office coffee. “I know. But I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Arranging an appointment, especially when it’s council-ordered and you could be censured for ignoring it, is a perfectly legitimate use.” He crossed his legs and settled his hands on the arms of his wingback chair. “I want you to promise me that— Is something wrong?” He tugged on the knot of his tie. “You keep staring at my neck.”
“No! Nothing. Nope.” But I’m pretty sure that’s a hickey peeking over your collar, and it’s really distracting. “I guess I’m just not used to the new look.”
“Ah. Is this better?” Between one blink and the next, Dr. Kendrick morphed from young-Hugh-Jackman gorgeous to the comforting face Ted was used to from before Dr. Kendrick had broken his curse: outsized skull, overhanging brow ridges, broad, misshapen nose, the whole nine.
Fae glamourie. It was a thing. Although Dr. Kendrick was the only fae Ted knew who would use it to look uglier instead of more beautiful, just to make somebody else feel better.
“Yeah, thanks.” But that hickey is still winking at me. Ted forced himself to concentrate on Dr. Kendrick’s deep-set eyes.
“If your truck is in the shop, how did you get from the coast to Portland today?”
“Oh, I hitched a ride with Matt.”
“Matt?” Dr. Kendrick frowned, and with his old face, that was PDS—pretty damn scary. “Matt Steinitz? The tabloid photographer?” The shock in his tone was a good indication of how bad an idea he thought this was. Dr. Kendrick’s voice was never anything but well-modulated and soothing.
“After the council’s last warning, I thought you’d broken off contact with him.”
“It’s not what you think.” Mostly, anyway. “He lives in Dewton now, down the mountain from my place.” Although he wouldn’t have moved there if it weren’t for Ted’s stupid shifter tricks. “We’re . . . we’re friends.”
“But, Ted . . .” Dr. Kendrick did sigh this time, running his hands through his hair. “Your association with him is exactly why Bruno Killingsworth escalated the most recent incident from a bear shifter matter to one for the combined supe council.” He pointed to the tabloid newspaper lying on the coffee table between them, Matt’s picture of Ted in his partially shifted form on the front page above the fold, with the headline screaming Bigfoot Sighted in Coast Range! “Aside from the fact that you’re endangering the Secrecy Pact, Sasquatch is seriously annoyed at the continued impersonations. They want to file suit against you for identity theft.”
“I’m sorry.” Ted bit his lip and set his half-empty cup on the table, wishing he hadn’t drunk it quite so fast, because his stomach was definitely complaining. Should he confess to Dr. Kendrick that he’d staged another “incident” just two days ago—and that he’d phoned Matt from his motel with an anonymous tip this morning before this appointment?
“The council sent that reprimand because their forbearance is exhausted. They’re threatening to tag you, Ted.”
Ted’s heart plummeted to his shoes. “T-t-tag me? But—” He squeezed his hands tighter, his fingers digging into his knees. If they tagged him, he’d have no privacy at all. He wouldn’t be able to take a piss without the news being fed to the Supernatural Monitoring Agency. And the sphinxes who ran the SMA were really fussy—they never slept and they had zero sense of humor. They were worse than Santa.
“And tagging is only one step from form-locking. Two from—” Dr. Kendrick cleared his throat, his gaze sliding away from Ted’s face. “Two from termination.”
“Termination? You mean . . .” Ted drew his finger across his throat, and Dr. Kendrick nodded.
Nope. Not confessing. Matt might not do anything with the latest photo. And Ted could bail on this morning’s tip, not show up this time, even though he hated to disappoint Matt. He was a good guy—and he got so excited about cryptid sightings.
Besides, they were sort of payment for the ride to town and back—not to mention a goodbye present.
Because even if the council hadn’t come down on Ted’s ass like a ton of manure, after today, he was swearing off Sasquatch impersonations for good.
“You don’t have to worry about me anymore, Doctor, and neither does the council. I’ve got something to show you.” Ted hefted his backpack off the floor. But the strap—frayed by too many trips up and down the mountain in his bear’s teeth—snapped, knocking his cup over and sending a wave of lukewarm coffee over the table, soaking the newspaper and dripping onto Dr. Kendrick’s shoes.
“Shoot!” Ted leaped up, glancing around wildly for something to mop up the spill, but only succeeding in knocking the table with his shins.
Dr. Kendrick waved him back down. “Sit, sit. Please don’t worry about it.” He got up and walked over to open the door. “David? We’ve had a bit of a spill. Could you help, please.”
“Of course,” David, Dr. Kendrick’s assistant and husband, said from the lobby. “Be there in a jiffy.”
Dr. Kendrick waited at the open door until David appeared, carrying a roll of paper towels and a spritz bottle of some kind of cleanser. David paused, glancing from Dr. Kendrick to Ted. He placed a hand on Dr. Kendrick’s neck, leaning in to whisper to him. For an instant, Dr. Kendrick’s beast glamourie flickered off, and his cheeks flushed dark pink.
When David took his hand away, he flashed a brilliant grin at Ted—and that distracting pink spot over Dr. Kendrick’s collar was gone. But Ted knew what he’d seen. It was a hickey, and David zapped it. Dr. Kendrick’s husband was an achubydd, a magical healer. Guess that comes in handy when things get a little exciting in the bedroom.
Ted toyed with the broken strap as David mopped up the spill and Dr. Kendrick resumed his seat. Guess I need a new pack. He carried it in his human or bear form, when he schlepped between his cabin and the cave above Dewton where he kept an extra set of clothes. He hadn’t mentioned that to Dr. Kendrick either. When his truck was on the fritz—or sometimes just because he felt like it—he’d shift into bear form to get down the mountain faster, then hike the rest of the way to town after he changed in the cave.
Dr. Kendrick and the supe council probably wouldn’t approve of that, and the bear council definitely wouldn’t approve. Of course, none of them understood why Ted wanted to go to town in the first place. But by now he’d gotten that message loud and clear—he wasn’t exactly your average bear.
After David left with the wastebasket full of soggy newspaper and soiled paper towels, Dr. Kendrick smiled at Ted. “Now, you were saying?”
“Oh. Right.” Ted pawed through his pack and pulled out two folders, one plain manila and one glossy white. “You know the Walton clan property next to mine?”
“Walton? The marten shifters? Didn’t they move up to Canada last year?”
“Yep. They’ve had the place on the market since then.” Ted grinned, flipping open the manila folder, and tapped the grainy photo on the real estate listing inside. “Last month, I bought it.”
Dr. Kendrick’s eyebrows quirked, but he leaned over to study the picture. “This structure doesn’t look very sound. Or complete, for that matter.”
“Oh, it’s not. It’s pretty much a shell, actually, but I’m gonna fit it out as a wilderness retreat center.”
Dr. Kendrick frowned. “Ted, I don’t like to discourage you, but you’ve had difficulties with follow-through in the past. Do you have a solid plan for the business?”
“Um . . .” Ted dog-eared the corner of the listing, then smoothed it flat again. “Not exactly. But I don’t have to.” He nudged the other folder, the shiny one, toward the doctor. “I’m married.”
Dr. Kendrick blinked, and his face flickered back to beautiful for a second. “Married? Congratulations. I didn’t realize . . .” He leaned back in his chair, his beast persona firmly in place. “Who’s the lucky supe?”
Ted opened the folder and teased out the picture of his new husband. My husband! His heart threatened to prance right out of his chest. “This is him. His name’s Rusty Johnson.”
Dr. Kendrick glanced up sharply. “Rusty Johnson from the Dawson beaver clan in Eugene?”
“You know him too?”
“Of course. All shifters with inactive shifting genes are required to submit to regular quarterly counseling sessions, although Rusty is the most well-adjusted Inactive it’s been my pleasure to treat. But, Ted . . .” Dr. Kendrick laced his fingers together, his expression serious—although it was tough for his beast face to look unserious. “The last time I spoke with Rusty, which admittedly was almost three months ago, he was still expecting to mate with Fletcher Dawson, the clan heir. Your courtship must have been quite sudden. When did you two meet?”
“We . . . ah . . . haven’t actually met. Yet.”
“But you said you were married.”
“We are. All signed and sealed. Here.” Ted took a three-color brochure out of the pocket of the folder. “You know how in our last session, you suggested I look for other ways to meet friends? I took your advice.” He handed the brochure to Dr. Kendrick.
Dr. Kendrick opened it, smoothing it across his knees. “Supernatural Selection?” He glanced up, clearly troubled. “When I suggested you look for other means to meet people, I didn’t mean you should buy your friends.”
“Not a friend. A mate. A husband. I thought you’d understand. You’re happier now that you’re married, right?”
“Yes, of course, but wouldn’t you prefer to meet potential partners in a more . . . organic way?”
“But see, that’s the great thing. The agency is run by a witch’s collective. They know shit. Spells, and . . . and clairvoyance and psychic stuff.”
“You think they could know you better than you know yourself? Enough to match you with a compatible partner?”
“They promise a perfect match.”
“But, Ted . . .” Dr. Kendrick set the brochure on the table. “They’re constrained by their own clientele. They can only connect you with other supes who are on their roster. What if your perfect mate isn’t registered? Don’t you think interacting with the larger shifter community would be a better bet for you?”
Larger shifter community. That was a laugh, although Ted doubted Dr. Kendrick meant it as a joke. There weren’t many shifters larger than a grizzly.
“This is best. It’ll be great, Dr. Kendrick, you’ll see.” He tucked the brochure into the folder and stuffed everything back in his pack. “My perfect match. My lifelong companion. I’ll be happy and stay out of trouble from now on.”
“Sir. Excuse me. Sir?”
Quentin Bertrand-Harrington cracked open bleary eyes to peer up at the flight attendant in the aisle. The seats next to him were empty, as apparently was the rest of the plane. “I’m sorry. Have we landed?”
“Yes. I must ask you to deplane now so that we can prep the equipment for the next flight. Do you need any assistance?” She reached out to him, but he jerked his arm out of reach.
“No. Thank you, but no.” Even with the suppressant still active in his bloodstream, making him woozy and half-disassociated with his body, he shied away from touch. He had been too long without a partner and he was just so hungry. Even the casual touch from a stranger was likely to pose a danger to said stranger.
He struggled out from under his blanket—it looked like a space blanket, silver and metallic—but really it was a bespelled cloak that prevented human energy from touching him and tempting him despite the suppressant. He banged his head on the back of the seat in front of him—damn, how did people who flew coach all the time manage?—as he retrieved his carry-on from the floor. He shoved the blanket inside the case and scooted to the aisle.
He hadn’t staggered two steps before the flight attendant caught his arm. He whirled on her, jerking himself away with such force he nearly fell over the nearest armrest.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but you forgot your iPad.” She held it out to him.
“Yes. Thank you. I’m sorry for . . .” He made a vague gesture with his free hand before taking the tablet from her. “I’m still a bit disoriented, I fear.”
“No worries.” She pasted on a professional smile. “Welcome to Portland. You’ll find your baggage on carousel three.”
Quentin hobbled off the plane and up the jetway. Devil take it, but the large dose of suppressant he’d swallowed in Boston—triple the amount he downed daily to keep his appetites in check—had totally knocked him for a loop. His mouth was dry, his vision blurred, and he felt as if he’d never be able to stand up straight again.
You could if you took a sip—just a sip—from someone big and handsome and—
Quentin was a married man now, for all he’d never met his new husband. Regardless, he’d owed the man fidelity from the moment he’d signed the Supernatural Selection mating contract—in blood, because witches were tradition-bound when it came to binding rituals.
The Portland airport wasn’t nearly as crowded as O’Hare, where he’d caught his connecting flight, but it still had far too many people for Quentin’s peace of mind. If he were a normal incubus, he’d simply pick one of the couples engaging in a joyous reunion and brush close enough to absorb sufficient ambient sexual energy to remain ambulatory. But Quentin wasn’t a normal incubus. Even the regular energy “parties” his grandmother threw with willing human hosts—elegant, oh-so-civilized events with exquisite hors d’oeuvres, themed cocktails, and live chamber music—loaded Quentin with debilitating guilt. Feeding from a stranger, even inadvertently, smacked too much of nonconsent. Hence the heavy dose of suppressant.
But tonight is my wedding night. Tonight, for the first time since he’d nearly killed his last serious boyfriend with nothing more than passionate foreplay, he’d have sex again.
A celibate incubus—it was unheard of. An incubus who cared about consent was even rarer. And after leaving Rory as nothing but a husk, requiring months of treatment both mundane and magical, Quentin hadn’t dared go so far again.
Instead, he’d signed a permanent mating agreement with a vampire. There wasn’t much damage he could do to a man who was already dead, as long as he kept the sun out of the house and limited his garlic intake.
He took the escalator down to baggage claim. Carousel three was swarming with people, and he shied away, taking refuge at carousel one, which was presently deserted. He could see all three of his suitcases trundling along on the serpentine belt, but didn’t dare go close enough to grab them, not when he couldn’t avoid coming into contact with the other passengers.
A touch on his shoulder, coupled with his name, made Quentin whirl and stagger back several steps. A young man holding a sign with Quentin’s name on it smiled at him hesitantly.
“You are Mr. Bertrand-Harrington, aren’t you?”
Quentin clutched the strap of his case with both hands, wanting nothing so much as to grab the man’s hand and feast. “Yes.”
“I’m Jason. Supernatural Sel— I mean, the agency sent me to pick you up. I’m to drop you at your husband’s home. Transportation—it’s included in your contract?”
“Oh.” Between his incessant, nagging hunger and his suppressant-induced disorientation, Quentin had been so out of it when he’d signed the damn thing that he hadn’t bothered to read the final version. “Thank you.”
“If you could point out your luggage to me, I’ll escort you to the car first, then collect your bags afterward. We can be on our way in no time.”
“Yes. Thank you—” he checked the driver’s name tag “—Jason.” Reprieve. He wouldn’t have to shoulder his way through the crowd, although it was dwindling now. “That would be most welcome.”
He followed Jason out the doors and across the roadway to a parking garage. Jason flourished a key fob, and the lights flashed on a nearby Town Car. He opened the rear door for Quentin to slide in. “Make yourself comfortable. There’s water in the cooler. I’ll be back shortly and we can be on our way.”
Quentin settled into the lush leather seats gratefully. To be on the safe side, he pulled out his not-a-space blanket and spread it over himself from shoulders to toes. For any number of reasons, he had no desire to drain any energy from someone who was driving him to his new life. It would be a traffic hazard. It would be the next thing to cheating.
And it would be far too tempting to let it go further.
He leaned his head against the seat back and closed his eyes with a sigh.
“Mr. Bertrand-Harrington? Sir?”
Quentin cracked his eyes open. Jason was peering at him from the front seat. “I’m sorry. Are we ready to get going?”
“Um . . . actually, we’re already here. You’ve been asleep since we left the airport.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I hope you didn’t need me to give you directions.” Especially since he wasn’t sure what they were. They’d been included in the glossy Supernatural Selection folder along with his new husband’s dossier and his mating contract copy, but he hadn’t read them. He’d barely made it to Logan Airport and onto his flight before the suppressant had kicked in.
“No. Everything was handled by the agency. I’ve taken your bags to the—” he glanced out the heavily tinted windows “—the place. Is there anything else you need? I’ve got to get back to the airport for another pickup.”
Quentin shook his head and scooted across the seat to climb out of the car, blinking in the sunlight and shivering a bit in the cold. He’d left his heavy winter coat back in Boston, more as a diversion than with any clear plan in mind. If his grandmother saw his coat hanging in the closet and his boots in the mud room, she wouldn’t notice he was missing until she had yet another “eligible” human husband or wife for him.
His decision to contract his own spouse had been an impulse, spurred by a discreet ad in the back of Supernatural Travel Monthly. Now, he was forever out of her reach—or rather out of the reach of her scheme for a “normal” ’cubi match for him with a partner who’d live an almost completely separate life, putting up with the occasional necessary sex in exchange for wealth and social influence. But not companionship. Not closeness. Not love. Anyone who wanted that wouldn’t last ten years married to an incubus.
Or in Quentin’s case, judging by past experience, wouldn’t last ten minutes.
Still disoriented from the suppressant, he vaguely registered the car pulling away. He turned in a bewildered circle, taking in the vast, autumn-bedraggled meadow, the wide lake, and the trees that ringed the clearing, telltale mounds of snow scattered under their branches. The sun was bright but it wasn’t warm, not in the frigid air. Don’t be a drama queen. This is a temperate state. It can’t be as cold as it was in Boston.
He shivered anyway, huddling in his inadequate suit coat. Wait a minute. Lake? Field? Forest? His new husband was supposed to live in a spacious modern home in the Portland West Hills. This was a hill, no doubt—or rather a mountain, judging by the peak that rose above the rather derelict building sprawling next to the lake. But where was the city? Where were the neighbors?
Where was his husband?
His hands started to shake from something more than cold. Calm down, calm down. It’s daylight, and sunny at that. Casimir is a vampire. Perhaps he was still asleep, or at least sequestered somewhere in the dark. Maybe the derelict building was merely a glamour cast over the true mansion—he’d seen the pictures, and the place was impressive—to protect it from prying eyes.
What prying eyes? There’s nobody around for miles.
Nevertheless, he stumbled through the rank weeds toward the wide porch where Jason had stacked his luggage. Any step now I’ll break through the veil. But the farther he crept toward the building, the further his heart dropped. When he climbed the creaking stairs to stand on the wide planks of the porch, and it looked even worse up close than it had from the middle of the clearing, he had to admit that it was exactly what it appeared to be: a rambling, ramshackle shell of a structure, dropped in the middle of nowhere.
But the driver from Supernatural Selection had brought him here. He wouldn’t have done that if this wasn’t the right place. Somewhere here he’d find his husband. And then he had a few questions for the man—er, vampire. This was hardly the welcome he’d expected.
He clutched the rickety porch rail. The counselor at Supernatural Selection had warned him that Casimir was under council orders to contract an acceptable marriage. In fact, they were the ones who had selected Quentin. Quentin had thought that Casimir had been amenable—he’d signed the contract, after all. Was this some kind of vampire stunt, meant to thumb his nose at the council?
In a way, Quentin could relate. He was doing exactly the same thing to his grandmother and her plans, after all. But he expected to be a partner to Casimir, not an adversary.
Quentin sighed, eyeing his suitcase. Should he dig out a warmer coat? Not yet. First he wanted to find out if he was quite as alone as he thought. He descended the stairs and fought his way through the weeds to circle the building. It had an impressive footprint—like some kind of inn, judging from the number of floors and windows. Although when Quentin peered through some of them—the ones that weren’t boarded up—the inside was a forest of bare studs and plywood floors.
The rear of the place had the skeleton of a deck that, if it were complete, would have a stunning view of the lake and the surrounding hills. He stood looking at it, the chill from the damp ground seeping through the thin leather of his Italian oxfords. Some kind of large bird burst from the trees, startling him, and skimmed across the lake with a cry.
The lake lapped quietly at the shore, but he could hear cascading water and . . . was that someone singing? The sounds were coming from the side of the house closest to the trees. Quentin crept forward until he could peek around the corner.
Holy mother of fire.
There was a man. An enormous man. An enormous naked man. An enormous naked man, sluicing himself off in an outdoor shower. Quentin should have shivered just from the notion of what cold water in the colder air would do—not that it seemed to have any effect on Enormous Naked Man’s . . . er . . . appendage.
Despite the suppressant still floating around in his system, despite his determination to avoid anyone who wasn’t his husband, despite the cold air that ought to have cooled him down to almost zero, heat rose in Quentin’s core—and so did his cock.
Oh no. Absolutely not. Even if he weren’t contractually bound to someone—who could not possibly be this man, since it was broad daylight and his husband would disintegrate under this much sun exposure—Quentin had sworn never again to let his incubus libido endanger another living person.
And then Enormous Naked Man opened his eyes and stared straight at Quentin.
Devil take it. I am so so so fucked.
For a second, Ted thought the guy peeking around the corner was Matt—or maybe Larry, the mechanic from Dewton who doubled as the delivery guy for the lumberyard. Then he wiped the water out of his eyes and realized the guy was way too small and frail to be either one. Matt was taller and Larry was stockier—and neither one of them had black hair and a goatee and looked like the least breeze would blow them off the mountain.
A stranger. And I’m naked. Whoops. Good thing he wasn’t here ten minutes ago when I shifted. Because shifting in front of a human? Yeah, that was a sure way to bring the council down on his ass, especially after what Dr. Kendrick had told him this morning.
Ordinarily, Ted would have shifted back to his bear form and shaken the water off to get dry—he’d only stopped out here to shower because he’d run afoul of an illegal dump site when he was lumbering back up the mountain after Matt had dropped him off in town. So he didn’t have a towel. Or clothes.
Well, it was his place, damn it. Wasn’t he entitled to privacy here? He wasn’t expecting anyone until Rusty arrived next week, so he should have been able to parade around as naked as a mole rat if he wanted, with no one the wiser.
And even though shifter blood ran hotter than human, and he’d already started to put on the padding around his middle in the run-up to winter hibernation season, it was still damn cold in the wind off the lake.
“Sorry. I—” he gestured to his body “—wasn’t expecting company.” If he could just get the guy to go around to the front of the lodge, Ted could shift and dry off. Wouldn’t help the no-clothes situation, but he had a stash in the lodge, and a cache inside the tree line for emergencies—or when he was running the Bigfoot scam. He sighed. Can’t do that anymore either.
But the guy just kept staring at Ted, his eyes behind those rectangular hipster glasses getting bigger and bigger. Which had the unfortunate effect of—what did Dr. Kendrick call it? Sympathetic reaction? Because Ted’s dick started to keep pace.
I’m a married man now. I need to keep it in my pants. When I have pants. He turned his back. “Could you, you know, go back to your car until I get dressed?”
“I don’t have a car.” The guy’s voice sounded like he was trying to get the words out past someone’s fist.
“You too? Yeah, my truck’s in the shop, so—” Ted slapped himself on the forehead. Not relevant. “If you’d just go around to the porch, I’ll be there in a minute and you can let me know what you need.”
The guy let out a noise that sounded like “Awp!” But since that wasn’t a word, it couldn’t have been what he’d said. Ted took it for a yes because when he checked over his shoulder, the guy was gone.
“Whew.” He shifted back to his bear, heat singing along his bones as the shifter magic reformed his body. He sighed in relief. Ordinarily the itch from the fur sprouting through his skin drove him nuts and he’d search for the nearest tree to rub against, but today he was too damn glad of the heat.
A little thrill raised the fur along his spine. I’ll have a husband to rub up against soon. Would Rusty like Ted’s bear form? Or would it be insensitive to shift since Rusty couldn’t? He should have asked Dr. Kendrick about that this morning, dang it. For Rusty, I can keep it together, control my shifts. He’d known marriage would take some compromises. If shifting in secret was one of them, at least it would give him practice being “discreet.” That ought to make the council happy.
He shifted back, the energy drain from the second shift making him a little light-headed. Making a mental note to eat an extra helping at dinner to make up for it, he ducked through the back door of the lodge into the mud room—the only room that held anything but sawdust and building materials. He pulled on a pair of jeans that could use a wash and an old flannel shirt with a stain on the front from when he was changing the oil in his truck. Sheesh. He needed to upgrade his spare wardrobe if he was going to be getting random uninvited visitors.
I need to upgrade it anyway. He glanced at his wedding band, a grin stretching his cheeks. I’m married now. Time to step up my game.
He stepped back outside, closing the door behind him. It didn’t stay closed, of course. He really ought to fix the latch and put in the locks. Although why bother? Nobody but Larry ever came up here. Larry and little random hipster dudes.
Yeah. About that. Ted strode around the lodge and there the guy was, standing on the top step of the porch with his arms wrapped around his middle. He’d be kind of cute if he weren’t wearing an expression like he’d just stepped in a steaming pile of bobcat scat.
Still, he was a visitor, and how often did Ted get those? He smiled and held out his hand. “Hey. Sorry about the . . . um . . . casual dress, but I wasn’t expecting anybody. Ted Farnsworth.”
The visitor glared up at Ted, not offering his hand—or his name—in return. “Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting you. Where’s Casimir?”
Ted blinked. “Who?”
“Casimir Moreau. Are you the caretaker?” He glanced around at the obviously unfinished lodge. “I can’t say much for your abilities, if that’s the case.”
Ted scowled. “Here now. There’s no call to get nasty. The lodge is under construction, and it’s not like I invited you up here.”
“I’m here to meet Casimir. I don’t understand . . .” The guy suddenly seemed so lost and confused and cold that Ted’s anger vanished.
“I’m not sure who this Casimir guy is, but who are you?”
He looked up—even standing on the top step of three, he had to look up at Ted. Jeez, the guy was little. “I’m sorry. I’m just so . . .” He still didn’t hold out his hand, but he bobbed his head in a weird little bow. “Quentin Bertrand-Harrington.”
Ted nodded in return, since hand-shaking was apparently off the table. “Nice to meet you. That’s some double-barreled name you’ve got there.”
Quentin shrugged, and a faint smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “It’s tradition in my family. Blame it on stubborn ancestors.”
“Huh. Interesting.” The only tradition in Ted’s family was for everyone to get as far away from each other as possible. But that was a bear-shifter thing.
Quentin gazed around him like somebody who’d just woken from a nap and still hadn’t figured out he wasn’t in a dream anymore. Ted could relate. He felt the same way pretty much all winter. “Where is this place? I can’t see any part of Portland.”
Ted laughed. “Of course not. Portland’s nearly a hundred miles east of here.”
Quentin’s eyes got big again. “A hundred miles? But . . . but the Supernatural Selection driver said he—”
“Wait. Supernatural Selection?”
Quentin’s expression closed down, turning wary. “Yes. Do you recognize the name?”
“Do I?” Ted beamed, holding up his left hand and waggling his ring finger. “They found me my husband.”
Relief flickered across Quentin’s face. “Oh thank the gods. You’re a supe, then?”
“Yep. Bear shifter.”
“And your name is Ted? Half the bear shifters I know are named Ted.”
Ted scowled at him. “That’s an exaggeration. Half the bear shifters are female. Though now that I think of it . . .” Ted scratched the back of his head. “Some of them are called Ted too, although more of them are Winnies. But you’ve got a good mix of Smokey, Yogi, Baloo, and now and then a Fozzie, if the poor guy’s parents had a weird sense of humor.”
“You can’t be more original than that?”
Ted sniffed. “It’s tradition.”
Quentin cracked a smile. “Fair enough, bear shifter Ted. No wonder you didn’t mind the cold.”
“If I’d known you were part of the community, I wouldn’t have made you run away. Although”—he waggled his finger again—“married, so probably shouldn’t be flashing my junk to random guys.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Quentin swallowed and looked down at his feet, faint pink staining his cheeks. “As it happens, I’m married too. I’ve just come from Boston to meet my husband, and I thought the driver was supposed to drop me at his home. But they left me here.” He glanced around. “I don’t understand. Unless . . . do you have a vampire retreat hidden somewhere nearby?”
“Vampires? Here? No way. Those jokers wouldn’t come so far from the city. No food supplies.” He studied Quentin more carefully. He didn’t have any obvious supe markers—but then, most supes didn’t. It was how they were able to pass for human, and why the Secrecy Pact worked. “You’re married to a vampire? Really? That’s . . .”
Quentin raised his chin defiantly. “Weird? Perverse? Stupid?”
“I was going to say ‘brave,’ but I guess you have some feelings about it. How long have you guys been together?”
“We haven’t. That is, we’ve signed the contracts, but we haven’t met. That’s why I’m somewhat at a loss here.”
Ted rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, remembering the feel of the enchanted needle piercing his flesh, and the three witches intoning the binding spell. “Yeah, the signing in blood thing was intense. I just signed mine yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” Quentin’s gaze sharpened. “Where’s your husband, then?”
“Oh, he’s not arriving until next week. Some kind of big to-do with his old clan. The chief’s heir is getting engaged or something.”
“But you were together to sign the contracts, right?”
“No.” Ted drew out the word, not entirely sure where Quentin was going with these questions. He sounded almost accusatory. “It was by proxy, in the Supernatural Selection office.”
Quentin grew paler, if that was possible. He’d probably pass for a vampire, if he wasn’t standing in the sunlight. “I signed at the supe notary. Yesterday.”
Quentin whirled and tottered, nearly falling off the step. Ted reached out and steadied him. “Careful. Not too steady on your pins.”
He jerked away with a gasp. “Never mind that.” He dug through a leather messenger bag, embossed with his initials in gold. Jeez, this guy probably had gold-plated everything. He pulled out a glossy folder with the Supernatural Selection logo. Ted recognized it—he had one himself, with Rusty’s dossier and his copy of the mating contract. “They messengered this to the notary’s office, but with the suppressant, I barely registered . . .” He opened the folder, rifling through pages until he must have found the one he wanted, because he froze, staring down at it, all remaining color leaving his face. “I don’t understand. How could this happen?”
Quentin held up the contract, pointing to the stupid “party of the first part” clause at the top that Ted always skimmed over. The first party, of course, was Quentin Bertrand-Harrington. But the party of the second part . . .
Quentin stared at the huge man in front of him—Ted. His name is Ted Farnsworth. And enormous, formerly naked Ted Farnsworth was bent nearly double, peering at the contract as if it were written in ancient Babylonian, his wide brow furrowed.
He poked the paper with a thick finger. “That’s me.”
“Yes, that’s you. And that’s a giant problem. It’s supposed to say Casimir Moreau. That’s who it’s said in every other version of the contract since negotiations began last week. How the devil did it suddenly become you?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“Because it’s your name!”
Ted blinked. “Shit on a biscuit. Does that mean I’m a bigamist?”
“Where’s your contract?”
“What business is that of yours?”
“I’m magically mated to you! That’s what business it is of mine. Where’s your bloody contract?”
Ted straightened, tugging at the hem of his shirt. “Chill out, Q-Bert.”
“Q-Bert?” Quentin’s hair threatened to catch fire. “How dare you—”
“I’ve got the contract here. I just got back from a trip to Portland myself.” He took off around the lodge with his giant stride, leaving Quentin to run to catch up.
Since Quentin’s breath was already coming in gasps, he was nearly hyperventilating by the time he caught up at the back of the lodge. He leaned against the rough shingles, trying not to pass out, while Ted dug through an oversized backpack with a broken strap.
He pulled out an identical Supernatural Selection folder. “Here it is.” He opened the folder, thumbing through the papers at a pace that rivaled a retreating glacier. Somehow, Quentin managed not to snatch it out of his hand, because this was a fucking disaster.
“Ah. Here we go. ‘Party of the first part, Ted Farnsworth. Party of the second part . . .’” His mouth fell open and he raised wide eyes to Quentin’s face. “‘Quentin Bertrand-Harrington.’”
Quentin sank down, heedless of the rough shingles snagging on his suit coat or the damp weeds under his ass. “How can this be? They guarantee a perfect match. There are spells. Safeguards. Proofreaders!”
“I don’t get it. This should say Rusty Johnson.” Ted rummaged in the pack again, and pulled out a folded bundle of papers, wrinkled and dog-eared. “It did say Rusty Johnson. See?” He held up a page with the Draft watermark blazoned under the text.
“That hardly matters. The one you signed in blood says Quentin Bertrand-Harrington. Didn’t you read it before you signed it?”
Quentin pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. “I was . . . distracted.” Heavily sedated. “I sent the draft to my lawyers after I reviewed it myself—”
“Yeah, well, I reviewed the fricking draft too. I signed off on the damn thing. What was the point of reading it again?”
“Apparently,” Quentin said acidly, “to prevent clerical errors. Unless the error wasn’t unintentional at all.”
Ted pointed that enormous finger at Quentin this time. “Don’t put this all on me. You think I want some clueless guy who doesn’t know any better than to wear a business suit in the wilderness? Who looks like the heaviest thing he’s ever carried is a briefcase? Who probably doesn’t know one end of a hammer from the other?”
“I know enough to know which end to hit you with,” Quentin muttered.
Ted ran both hands through his hair, sending it skyward. “I can’t believe this. I sank all my money into this property and the contract. Rusty was going to help me finish it. Get it set up as a money-making retreat. Now—”
“If you think my family’s money will bail you out, think again. They don’t even know I’m here.”
“I’ve never heard of your family or your fucking money. I don’t give a shit about that. I want—” Ted’s voice caught. “I want my husband. I don’t want you!”
Before Quentin could say another word, either of apology or accusation, Ted ripped off his shirt, dropped his pants—exposing that truly stellar ass—and shifted into the biggest grizzly Quentin had ever seen. Ted took off into the woods at a lumbering gallop, leaving Quentin alone as the sun sank toward the lake.
He let his head thunk against the shingles, lacing his fingers together to stop them from shaking. “Well. That could have gone better.”
* * * * * * *
Ted crashed through the trees, heedless of the branches lashing his face and catching at his fur. Rusty, damn it. I want Rusty. And now I’m stuck with Quentin Bertrand-Fuckington. How could this have happened? Well, he knew how it had happened. He’d been so damned moony over the idea of a partner, a mate, a lover, that he’d rushed through the last ritual with barely a glance at the contract. In fact, he’d been so focused, he’d seen nothing but his name printed below the signature line as the lead witch pricked his finger and dipped the quill in his blood.
He waded into the stream and splashed along downhill. He should have paid more attention—to the ceremony, to whether random dudes were lurking around his property, even to what he’d spilled to Matt. Had he actually mentioned who—or rather what—his husband was? He barely remembered anything he and Matt had discussed, either on the way to Portland or on the way home. Something about the lodge. Something about his marriage. Something something something. That was the problem when Ted got too excited. He didn’t pay attention to details or guard his tongue. Dr. Kendrick was always warning him to think about potential consequences, especially when interacting with non-supes. But it was so hard to remember sometimes.
He climbed out of the stream and shook himself. He really needed to talk to someone. He could call his brother, he supposed, but Ben was a true bear shifter: living alone in the mountains of Montana and liking it just fine. Ted still called him once a week—when the cell signal allowed—but counted himself lucky if he got three sentences out of Ben.
He needed more than that today. Should he call Dr. Kendrick? He froze, staring at his paw on the stream bank. I can’t call Dr. Kendrick or Ben or the dude at Supernatural Selection or anybody. My stupid phone is in my pants back at the lodge.
He growled low in his throat, startling a crow out of a nearby tree. Great. As if I needed another example of my impulse control problem. On the other hand, it was probably a good thing he couldn’t call Dr. Kendrick right now. Just the idea of what he’d say about Ted’s monumental mistake made the fur on Ted’s spine stand straight up.
No, he couldn’t confess the disaster he’d made of his life to any other supe. Supes—the kind that didn’t get sanctioned by the council—knew how to behave, how to keep a low profile, how to blend in.
It’s really hard to blend in anywhere when you’re six foot eight.
He needed someone that he could just kick back with. Someone who wouldn’t ask him about his supernatural missteps. Someone who thought he was just a regular guy.
Yeah, Matt made his living selling photographs to sketchy publications, but he was a good guy. Easy to talk to, unlike some people Ted could name.
Ted took off down the mountain. When he got to the cave where he kept his clothes, it was nearly dusk. Matt had dropped him off less than six hours ago, and the one thing Ted could remember from their conversation was that Matt had a dinner appointment with somebody else, some guy he thought might be a new source for him. So Matt wouldn’t be around.
But Ted couldn’t face going back up to the lodge. Quentin would be there or he wouldn’t, and either way, Ted didn’t want to deal with it. So he crawled into the cave and curled up next to the wall. He’d sleep—never tough to do at this time of year. Matt always ate breakfast at Wanda’s Diner in Dewton, so Ted could catch him in the morning.
As he drifted off, he felt a twinge of worry for Quentin. Yeah, the guy was an asshole, and obviously thought Ted was a waste of space—so far beneath him that he wouldn’t even shake Ted’s hand—but the lodge wasn’t exactly a five-star hotel. Ted’s cabin was farther along the lake shore, so Q-Bert would have to hike half a mile in his fancy-ass shoes to get there, assuming he noticed it at all. Whatever. He could just shift to his animal form, whatever it was, and stay warm overnight that way, just like Ted was doing.
It’s not like I invited him. It’s not like I want him. And he certainly doesn’t want me.
Q-Bert could damn well fend for himself.
After his pulse settled and his breathing returned to normal, Quentin stood up and stalked around to the porch. His anger was simmering just below the surface, partly at Farnsworth for running out before they could figure out their next steps, and partly at himself for behaving like an entitled asshole.
Grandmother would have my guts for her viola strings. Pauline Bertrand-Harrington was a firm believer in maintaining the social hierarchy, but she was also a stickler for proper etiquette. And Quentin shouldn’t have allowed his own panic to goad him into being rude—or rather, downright nasty—to Farnsworth. He might be an unsophisticated, unconnected bear shifter, but he seemed like a reasonably nice man. Like any decent person, he deserved no less than common courtesy and consideration, and certainly didn’t deserve to have his unexpected husband kill him with sex.
However, a generous part of Quentin’s anger was directed at Supernatural Selection. How the devil had they made such an enormous mistake? The error was theirs, so remediation should be theirs as well, or Quentin’s lawyers would have a bloody field day.
Except I can’t tell the lawyers where I am yet. They’d tell Grandmother, and she’d use this to push through her own agenda. The whole point of Quentin’s decision to use Supernatural Selection was to avoid that agenda. He was a three-hundred-year-old incubus. Surely he could figure this out on his own.
First, he’d contact Supernatural Selection, demand that they send the driver back to pick him up and take him to a cushy hotel in downtown Portland at their expense. Then he’d figure out his next move far, far away from the temptation of Ted Farnsworth’s ridiculously large body.
Word Count: 82,000
Page Count: 321
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Series: Supernatural Selection
Release Date: 10/22/2018
Release Date: 10/22/2018