Animal Instinct (Box Set)
by Amanda Steiger
Ebook ISBN: 07448-02402
[ Shifter Romance, MF & MM ]
Sometimes, the shape of desire isn’t human. Shifter desires can be dark and intense, their sex wild and rough. Humans are fragile, but adventurous.
Publisher’s Note: Animal Instinct (Box Set) contains the previously published novellas Runaway, Eyes of the Wolf, Wolf’s Promise, Half-Blood, and Dante Burning.
Runaway [Book 1 – M/M]
It was the smell that had first caught his attention — the sharp, musky, unmistakable smell of wolf.
The man sat alone in a corner of the diner, wearing an oversized sweatshirt. His brown hair hung disheveled and wild around his face, and his eyes held a faraway, haunted look. As Keith watched, his fingers tightened on the handle of his coffee cup and a patch of dark fur sprouted on the back of his wrist. The man shut his eyes. Sweat gleamed on his brow as he breathed in deeply, and a moment later, the fur receded back into his skin.
Keith sipped his coffee. There wasn’t a pack anywhere within a hundred miles. The presence of another werewolf here, now, could only mean one of two things. Either the young man was new — recently infected — or he was a stray, like Keith.
When the young man left the diner, Keith followed him down the street to the bridge at the edge of town. Thunder growled, and lightning split the dark sky. Below, the rain-swollen river frothed and churned. Clouds of muddy foam, like chocolate mousse, swirled over the surface. The young man stared at the water, gripping the cement rail with both hands.
“Hey!” Keith called.
The man tensed and turned to face him. His lips pulled back from sharp teeth and his eyes flared a bright yellow. “Stay back!” he shouted.
Keith held up both hands, palms out. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just wanted to ask you a few questions. How long have you been a werewolf?”
His eyes widened. “You’re crazy. There’s no such thing as werewolves.”
“There’s no use denying. I can smell it.”
The young man turned to run. Keith lunged and grabbed his wrist.
“Listen to me. I can help you.”
“No one can help me.”
Keith’s grip tightened. The young man’s pulse drummed under his fingers. “At least give me a chance.”
The man looked up, and Keith saw something change in those eyes. The fear was still there, but there was a flicker of hope, as well — a desperate desire to believe the truth in his words.
“What’s your name?” asked Keith.
“Taylor. Taylor Brandon.”
“How long have you been a werewolf?”
“A few months.”
“Does anyone else know?”
“No.” Taylor hesitated. “You said you could help me. Does that mean there’s a cure?”
“No, but I can teach you how to control the changes, how to live with what you are. I’m like you. I’m a werewolf.”
“That’s right. We’re the same. Let me help you. Please.”
Taylor looked down at the river, then back at Keith. With his wet hair and clothes plastered to his body, he looked smaller than he was and vulnerable. Lost. “I have nowhere to go. No home. No money.”
Keith placed his hands on Taylor’s shoulders and felt him shivering. “I’ll take you to my place. Once you warm up and get some dry clothes, we can talk.”
* * *
Taylor huddled on the faded sofa in Keith’s apartment, his wet brown hair plastered to his brow and neck. He’d borrowed dry clothes from Keith, and the white shirt clung to his damp skin, emphasizing the ridges and hollows of his slim, hard body.
“Feeling any better?” asked Keith.
“Yes, thank you.”
Keith eyed his new guest. Taylor was tall, about Keith’s height, with long, sleekly muscled legs, full lips and big hazel eyes framed by thick lashes. He’d showered and shaved earlier, and he looked younger without the scruffy stubble, his smooth cheeks still flushed from the hot water. Cleaned up, he was pretty cute — a far cry from the ragged, disheveled man Keith had spotted in the diner. The shirt’s neck dipped, offering a glimpse of smooth chest. Keith couldn’t help wondering if that skin was as soft as it looked, but he pushed the thought away. Now was hardly the time to be ogling him — there were important matters to deal with. “How old are you, anyway?”
“Twenty.” His wide eyes never left Keith, and his shoulders were rigid beneath his thin shirt.
“Relax. I’m not going to hurt you. I may be a werewolf, but I’m not a monster and neither are you.”
He dropped his gaze. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Yes, I am.”
“Lycanthropy is just a condition. It doesn’t make you evil.”
“You don’t understand. I hurt someone.” His hands curled into fists. “When I changed for the first time, I panicked and ran through the streets. This guy was in my way, and I just… lost it. I didn’t even think. I just ripped into him with my teeth and kept running. I woke up later with blood on my hands, blood in my mouth.” He wiped the back of one hand across his lips. “It’s going to happen again soon, I know it. I’m running out of time. I knew I had to stop myself from hurting anyone else, and there was only one surefire way I could think of.”
A chill skittered down Keith’s spine. “You were going to jump off the bridge?”
“I didn’t know what else to do. It had to be quick, or I’d lose my nerve. I just couldn’t go on, knowing I was a danger to everyone around me. Better to die as a man than live as a monster.”
“I told you, you’re not a monster.”
He bit his full lower lip. “But…”
“What happened wasn’t your fault. You weren’t in control of your actions. If you’d had someone there to help you through the first change, it would have been different. Where do you live? In town?”
“I’ve been staying in a motel. I came here to get away from what I did, but the memories follow me wherever I go.”
“Yeah, memories are a bitch that way.” His voice softened. “I’ve got a pot of coffee brewing. Want some?”
Keith poured a cup of strong, black coffee and brought it to Taylor, who took a sip. He looked around at the threadbare, faded blue carpet, the naked, off-white walls. The living room had no furniture, save for the sofa — a lump of stuffing held together with duct tape — and a tiny TV on a rickety coffee table. A few cardboard moving boxes stood in a stack against the wall. “Did you just move in?”
“I’ve been here for about six months. I just haven’t completely unpacked.”
“Oh. It’s… cozy.”
“That’s one word for it. I do all right for a stray, I guess.”
“Guess I’ve got some explaining to do.” Keith poured himself a cup of coffee, blew away the steam, and sipped. “Most werewolves live in packs.”
“Just how many werewolves are there?”
“Probably a few hundred in the U.S.”
“That many? How is it that regular people don’t know about them? About us?”
“Well, there are always sightings and rumors, but we’re very careful about keeping our secret. The pack alphas make sure of that. Anyway, a stray is just a werewolf without a pack. I left mine about eighteen months ago.”
“Why? I’d think living in a pack would be safer.”
“It is, but when you’re a member of the pack, you don’t own yourself. The pack owns you. I could go on about that for a long time, though, and you’ve got more important things to learn, like how to control the change. Thing is, it’s not really something I can explain. I’ll have to show you. Once you see how it’s done, you’ll have a better idea.”
Taylor blinked. “You mean change? Right now? In front of me?”
“That’s the idea.” He set down his coffee cup.
“Is that safe?”
“Sure.” He took off his shoes and socks, then his shirt.
Taylor’s shoulders stiffened. “What are you doing?”
“If I shift in these clothes, I’ll ruin them.” He unbuttoned his jeans.
Taylor gulped and averted his eyes. His cheeks flooded with color.
Keith’s jeans dropped to the floor, and his boxers followed a moment later. He stood naked, facing Taylor.
Werewolves were generally pretty casual about nudity. During pack-meets, when all pack members shifted together, no one thought anything of undressing in front of each other. But of course, Taylor hadn’t been a werewolf very long, so he didn’t know that. Keith wondered if he should have given him a bit more preparation.
But damn, he was cute when he blushed like that.
As he stared at Taylor’s flushed face, a jolt of tingling heat shot through him, and he felt things tightening low in his body. He glanced down and saw his cock jutting from the thicket of curls between his thighs, red and engorged.
Well, this was awkward.
Taylor looked up, and his gaze focused on Keith’s erection. His eyes widened and the pupils dilated. Keith could hear the muffled, rapid thump of his heartbeat, even from across the room, and the musky, tangy scent of arousal filled the air.
Keith’s own heartbeat quickened, but he decided it would be better not to call attention to either his reaction or Taylor’s. “Watch me, now.” He took a deep breath.
There was no step-by-step process. He simply thought about shifting, relaxed some mental muscle, and the change took over. Bones crackled and popped as his body rearranged itself. Skin prickled as fur sprouted. A deep, oddly satisfying pain ripped through him. His teeth grew long and sharp in his mouth. His hands shortened and thickened into paws as he dropped to all fours. Sounds and smells sharpened, and colors bled away as the apartment shifted to subtle tones of gray and brown.
Taylor leapt to his feet, and the color drained from his face.
Keith shook himself like a wet dog and sat on his haunches. He wagged his tail a few times, hoping it would put Taylor at ease.
The shift back was always easier. It happened quickly, smoothly, with relatively little pain, though it itched like crazy. Keith’s fur pulled into his skin, his tail shrank into his spine, and his paws stretched into human hands. He stood and slipped into his clothes. “See?” he said, buttoning up his jeans. “Once you get the hang of it, changing back and forth is the most natural thing in the world.”
Taylor let out a breath as the tension eased from his shoulders. “If you can control it, does that mean you never have to change?”
“Oh, you’ll still have to change. About once a month, though it has nothing to do with the full moon. But being able to control when you do it makes a huge difference. It’s like going to the bathroom. You can do it at a time when it’s convenient, or you can wait and wait and eventually, it’s just going to happen.”
“Then there’s no way to avoid becoming a wolf?”
Keith shook his head. “If you try to suppress it, you’ll just make things harder for yourself. I know how weird and scary this seems, believe me, but shifting really isn’t so bad.” He hesitated. “There’s one other thing I should warn you about. This is going to be hard to hear, but it needs to be said.”
“What is it?”
“You can’t tell anyone what you are. Not your friends, not your girlfriend, not even your family. It’s too risky. No matter how well you know someone, there’s no telling how they’ll react.”
Taylor shrugged. “I don’t have a girlfriend, and I’m an only child. My mom’s been dead since I was little, and I haven’t spoken to my dad for years. As for the few friends I had, they stopped talking to me after I was bitten, like they sensed something unnatural about me. Who am I going to tell?” He smiled, a tight, strained expression. “Guess I’ve got it easy. I’ve already isolated myself.”
“You don’t have to stay isolated. Werewolves can still have jobs, friends –”
“They just can’t get too close to anyone, right?”
“Not humans. No.”
“You told someone once,” Taylor said quietly, “didn’t you?”
Keith’s heartbeat quickened. Damn, was he that transparent or was Taylor just that perceptive? He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. “Yeah.”
“Who was it?”
“A lover. I’d rather not go into detail.”
The silence stood between them like a wall.
“I’m sorry,” Taylor said at last. “I shouldn’t have asked. It’s none of my business.”
“It’s okay.” Keith forced a smile. He glanced at the clock. “It’s late. You can spend the night, if you want.”
“I hate imposing on your hospitality like this, but I have nowhere else to go.” He sank to the couch, sighed, and ran his fingers through his wavy, damp brown hair. “I’ve let my life fall apart.”
Keith sat next to him. “Becoming a werewolf is a pretty big adjustment.”
Taylor looked at him, and there was a strange longing in his eyes. “I don’t want to be a burden.”
“You’re not. Not at all.” Keith gazed at Taylor’s lips. He had a perfect Cupid’s bow mouth, pink and luscious. Keith wondered if those lips were as soft as they looked, wondered what his mouth would taste like. Then he forced his gaze away. Kissing him would be a bad idea. It wasn’t even a question of whether Taylor was gay or straight. After what had happened with Matt…
His chest tightened at the thought. He wouldn’t, couldn’t let that happen again. Even so, Keith’s fingers itched to touch that smooth face, that soft brown hair. He kept his hands planted firmly on the couch as he watched Taylor from the corner of his eye. “Taylor, listen, I…”
Keith’s head jerked toward him in surprise. “What’s wrong?”
Taylor’s eyes squeezed shut. His fingers clenched tight on the arm of the couch. His nails grew into claws and punched through the upholstery. He yanked his hand back and curled his hands into fists, hiding his claws. He trembled, beads of sweat welling on his brow, eyes still scrunched shut. When he uncurled his fingers, the claws had shrunk back to human fingernails. Blood welled from punctures in his palms. He glanced down at the rips in the upholstery. “Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean –”
“Never mind the couch. When was the last time you shifted?”
“Almost four weeks ago.” Taylor’s face was pale and drawn, his eyes wide. “It’s going to happen tonight, isn’t it? I can’t stop it.”
“I can coach you through it. The most important thing is to stay relaxed. If you start to tense up or panic, you’ll just make it harder on yourself.”
“Relax? How can I possibly relax? You have to tie me up. You have to lock me in the closet.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“But what if I hurt you?”
“You saw me when I changed. Was I a crazed monster?”
“No. But last time –”
“Last time, you weren’t prepared. You were alone, afraid, and in pain. You lashed out at the first person you ran into because you were confused. You perceived him as a threat. That won’t happen now, because I’m going to be here and I’ll be guiding you every step of the way. You won’t hurt me.”
“How can you be so sure?” His breathing quickened. “If something happens, I’ll never forgive myself. Please, Keith. Just lock me in a room until it’s over.”
“No. You’re not a rabid animal, and I won’t treat you like one.”
“But…” Taylor gasped again, doubled over, and pressed his hands to his stomach. “Oh, God.” He panted. Another violent spasm gripped his body.
Keith leaned closer. “Taylor, look at me.” He gripped Taylor’s face between his hands. “Don’t fight it. Relax into it.”
“Just look at me. Focus on my eyes and my voice.”
Taylor’s nails sharpened into claws. Fur sprouted in dark patches on his hands and neck. He cried out and clawed at his own body, as if trying to tear the fur away. His claws ripped through his shirt and drew blood.
Keith wrapped his arms around Taylor, pinning his arms to his sides. “Let it happen. It’ll be all right. I promise. Trust me.”
Taylor threw his head back and howled. His clothes ripped. His back arched. Vertebrae popped and creaked and bones ground against each other, rearranging themselves inside his body. He wrenched himself from Keith’s arms and collapsed to the floor. Dense, shaggy fur flowed over his back and limbs. His face stretched into a short, blunt muzzle, and for a moment, he resembled the traditional werewolf, the half-man, half-wolf monster from horror movies. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp.
A large wolf lay on the floor near Keith’s feet, muzzle flecked with foam and stained with blood where sharp teeth had cut into his lips. His clothes hung from his body in ragged shreds. Even beneath his thick fur, his ribs were visible. It was obvious he hadn’t been taking care of his body, but even so, he was a beautiful wolf. His fur was a deep, rich, chocolate brown, his ears and tail tipped with black.
Keith crouched beside him and removed his own clothes. He dropped to all fours as the change rippled through him, and moments later, he stood beside Taylor in wolf-form. Gently, he nudged the limp body with his snout.
Taylor’s eyes opened a crack. Keith woofed softly, encouraging him. Taylor opened his mouth and let out a low, growling groan. His mouth moved, trying to shape the sound into words.
Don’t try to speak. We can communicate like this when we’re in wolf-form. Just think the words you want to say.
Taylor stood slowly and looked around the room, ears flattened against his head. Everything is gray. It looks wrong.
Don’t rely on your eyes so much, replied Keith. Use your nose and ears.
Taylor’s nostrils twitched and flared, exploring a rich world of scents hidden to the human nose. Keith could smell it too: the potato chip crumbs behind the TV, the mellow, warm smell of old wood, the powdery scent of plaster and dust.
How long do I stay like this? Taylor asked.
You can change back whenever you want to. He felt Taylor’s doubt. Just think about it happening.
Taylor lowered his head and closed his yellow eyes. A minute passed. He twitched as bones crackled and popped. His fur melted away. Moments later, a pale, naked human form sat on the floor, a dazed look on his face. Keith shifted back to human form as well and got dressed again for the second time that night. He tried not to look at Taylor’s naked body. “See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“It was nothing like before, that’s for sure. God, this is all so weird. A part of me still thinks this is some long, crazy dream.” He glanced down at himself, as if remembering he was naked, and flushed. One hand moved between his legs, trying to cover his cock, drawing attention to it in the process.
Keith’s own cock stirred, and a tingling heat spread through his balls. He ignored it, grabbed a blanket from the couch, and tossed it to Taylor.
Taylor wrapped the blanket around himself and clutched it to his chest.
“Wait here. I’ll get you some new clothes.” Keith left the room and returned with a fresh sweatshirt and sweatpants. He turned away as Taylor dressed, then peered at Taylor’s pale face, the dark circles under his eyes. “You could use some sleep, I think.”
“Yeah,” said Taylor. “It’s been a long day. Does this couch fold out?”
Keith shook his head. “I’ll take the couch. You can have the bed. Though it’s more of a futon, really.”
“Oh, no. I don’t want to impose.”
Keith found himself smiling again. He was so polite, even in the midst of what was probably the strangest night of his life. “You’re not imposing. Hell, I sleep on the couch half the time anyway. It’s better for my back.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“I’m sure.” He led Taylor down a narrow hall, to the bedroom door. “Make yourself at home. There’s a spare toothbrush in the bathroom. Top drawer on the right.”
“Thanks.” Taylor paused, looking at Keith with an unreadable expression.
Keith stared into those large eyes. Up close, he saw they weren’t just hazel, but a mix of colors, amber-brown near the pupils, with a band of deep, pure leaf-green around the edge. “You’ve got gorgeous eyes, you know that?” The words popped out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying.
Taylor blinked. “Um… thank you.”
Shouldn’t have said that. Why had he said it? Stupid, stupid. Keith cleared his throat, wondered if he should apologize, then decided to just let it go. “I’ll see you in the morning.” He turned away and walked into the living room. He stretched out on the couch, threw a blanket over himself, and listened as Taylor ran water from the bathroom faucet and brushed his teeth. Keith closed his eyes. After a few minutes, he heard soft footsteps, then the creak as Taylor closed the bedroom door. He waited a few minutes, then reached beneath the blanket, into his pants, and wrapped a hand around his cock.
He felt guilty, masturbating while Taylor slept in the next room, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep until he did. His cock was so rigid and swollen it almost hurt.
He always fell for guys like Taylor, guys who seemed to need something –affection or protection, or just a place to stay. Matt, his last lover, had been like that, a struggling student working two minimum-wage jobs between classes. He’d been living on ramen and bologna, working his ass off just to get by. Keith hadn’t had much money himself, even back then, but he’d helped Matt out with his tuition, let him stay at his place. Then one night had changed everything, and Keith’s life had come crashing down around his ears.
That wasn’t the first time his heart — or his dick, if you wanted to be cynical –had gotten him into trouble, but somehow, he never learned.
He thought about Taylor’s soft, full lips, imagined them swollen with kisses, imagined sucking and nibbling that plump lower lip like a piece of candy. He imagined them wrapped around his cock, engulfing him in wet heat. Keith groaned. His balls tightened as he thought about that mouth tugging, sucking him…
Keith pressed his face against the couch cushion to muffle his cry. Another few strokes and he came into his hand. He went limp, flushed, sweaty and panting, and lay on his side, eyes shut.
He pulled his hand from his pants and stared at the thick come dripping from his palm. Then he grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on the coffee table and wiped his hand clean.
Keith showered briefly, changed into a fresh pair of boxers, flopped onto the couch, and pulled the blanket over himself.
Right now, Taylor had nowhere else to go. It would be wrong, very wrong, to take advantage of him in this situation. He ran the arguments through his head as he tossed and turned. Still, he couldn’t stop picturing Taylor’s naked body stretched out on a bed beneath him.
This was going to be difficult.