(Be sure to catch up with the story in Part 1 and Part 2.)
Downtown possessed as much life as a dead fish. Once beautiful buildings leaned dangerously towards deserted streets. A handful of newer buildings sprouted up in the last decade or so, but did little to restore the former glory of the area. The decrepit landscape did nothing to lift my dark mood. One small benefit to downtown being nearly deserted, no traffic. It would’ve taken me twice as long to drive north to the more popular part of the city. The downside, I didn’t have nearly enough time to psyche myself up for the meeting.
Wulf’s Café sat across the street from the old courthouse building. The building housing the café changed so often in the last decade I didn’t know what was there until Matt gave me directions to the meeting. Wulf, the owner and proud weretiger—don’t mistake his name for his species—found a better use for the building, utilizing the solitude abundant downtown. His café acted as a safe haven for newly infected lycanthropes and their families. I pulled into the small parking lot alongside the building.
“I can do this.” As far as pep talks went, it sucked.
Afraid that someone would look outside and come to ask why I didn’t come in, I got out of the car. Cool autumn air sent goose bumps down my arms. I took a deep breath, then another.
The patio was deserted. Chairs sat upside down on top of small glass-topped tables. On meeting days, the owner closed the café to the general public in order to give group members a sense of privacy. I appreciated the effort. Matt’s job put us both in a precarious position if his secret got out.
Inside the double doors, the café welcomed me with a warm embrace. A pedestal to the right of the door bore a logbook with the initials L.S.G., Lycanthrope Support Group. I signed in and noted the small list of names above mine. My stomach did that horrible nervous flip-flop thing.
“Goodness, Ms. Myers. If you were any greener, I’d think you were a plant.”
Startled, I looked up. And then up some more. Wulf smiled down at me. His golden eyes warm as sunshine. I relaxed a little. He wiped a large hand on the apron wrapped around his waist and offered it. I shook, fighting down the panic that hit. This was really happening. Oh. God.
“You aren’t going to faint, are you?” Wulf’s brow creased with concern.
“I’ll be fine.” A small fib, which earned me a look from under golden brows.
“And I’m going to sprout feathers. But if you want to play brave I won’t judge you.” He pointed back over his shoulder.
“Go join the others. Mary will bring you some coffee.” His voice softened at the mention of his wife.
Mary wasn’t a were. She’d been dragged into their world the same way as I’d been—we fell in love with a man who was more than he seemed. Matt tried to arrange for us to have lunch the week before the meeting. Unfortunately our schedules clashed. I’m not sure if meeting her beforehand would’ve helped.
My shell-shocked and terrified expression didn’t exactly make the best first impression. A few curious looks came my way. I dropped my head, making a beeline for the first empty seat available. Hands clutching my purse, I didn’t dare look up. It didn’t matter that they all at some point wore the same shoes I did. All I could think was, what if they tell me to give up now before I make Matt’s life worse?
“Here you go, hon. Lots of cream and sugar, it’ll help.” The warmth in her voice washed over me, soothing like bath water.
I lifted my head. Mary smiled down at me. A real smile that made little wrinkles around her cornflower blue eyes. She nodded at the mug in her hands. Her short blonde hair bobbed around her ears. The overall effect of Mary was… self-assurance, inner strength. How long did she struggle with losing Wulf to fur and teeth once a month?
“Drink your coffee. There will be plenty of time for questions later.” She slid the coffee mug into my hands when I didn’t make a move to take it.
“How did you—”
“I was new to all of this once. Whatever you’re feeling is perfectly normal.” Mary smiled again and moved on to check on the others.
The coffee did its job, with just enough cream and sugar to settle my nerves without requiring a shot of insulin after a few sips. I hugged the mug to my chest and stared into it, half wishing I could dive in and disappear for a while. Only for a couple days until I could deal with the whirlwind that’d picked up my life and transported it to Oz.
A few more people trickled in while I let mistress caffeine slip off with my worries. Mary greeted everyone with a hug and a cup of coffee. One woman waved it off. Mary’s smile brightened when she returned from the kitchen with a glass of orange juice.
The woman couldn’t be more than thirty. Her short hair tried desperately to escape from the messy ponytail it’d been wrangled into. A large green t-shirt fit her like a dress. And I would have missed the subtle bulge hidden underneath, except she absently rubbed her stomach as she sat down with her juice. Watching her there, seeming so happy about being pregnant gave me a little hope for a future including children with Matt. Don’t jump the gun, I reminded myself
A handful of the men scooted the tables back against the walls and moved the chairs into a large circle. Almost everyone settled in with a cup of coffee clutched in their hands like a lifeline. I didn’t blame them. I felt the same. Up until the weres unveiled themselves to the world, I would’ve said every person in the room needed serious psychological help. Now I understood them all too well.
“I think we’re all settled,” Mary announced in that utterly calm way of hers. “It’s so nice to see some old faces and even better to see a new one in our midst. This is Annie Myers.”
My head shot up to look at her. If I were a turtle, my head would’ve sucked back into my shell before anyone could catch a glimpse of the shocked look on my face. I envied Mary’s calmness. She was where I wanted to be; comfortable with the man she loved and helping others learn how to do the same.
“Hi,” I squeaked out. The ghost of a smile pulled at my lips.
“Don’t worry about talking today, hon. On their first visit, we like to let the newbies to sit and watch. Less overwhelming that way.”
I gave a relieved sigh and nodded. Everyone said their welcomes. For the first time I managed to take a deep breath. Mary, God bless her, gave me a Get Out of Jail Free card. Sitting there listening to how everyone else dealt with the furry side of their relationships was a cakewalk. I’d have to remember to send Wulf and his wife a present. What does one buy for a weretiger? Catnip? The idea made me giggle quietly.
“Who wants to speak first?” Wulf asked as he joined the circle.
He nodded and smiled. “Go ahead, Tiffany.”
Tiffany stood, smoothed an unseen crease in her pants, tugged on the hem of her shirt, and finally took a breath to speak. “Last full moon I went to the foothills with Elise.”
She paused. A handful of soft, reassuring comments floated up from the group. Tiffany pulled the end of her unbelievably long ponytail over her shoulder and stroked it.
“It was my first time. Mary stayed with me, thank goodness. We brought a picnic to tide us over while we waited for the moon to rise, but—”
“It’s okay, sweetie. Go on,” Mary gently urged.
Tiffany nodded. Her words wavered, but once she got going she didn’t stop.
“The moon rose and everyone gathered. Elise stayed right where I could see her. She gave me a wink and when her eye opened, it’d changed colors. I think I almost broke Mary’s hand at that point. All around us the tigers began to shift. I didn’t see them, though. Just Elise. Her body twisted and the sounds, God, I thought she’d scream. It sounded like everything broke then healed in a new shape. Her face changed last. I was doing okay until then and when she padded up to check on me…”
Tears pooled in her eyes. A woman on the other side of the circle passed her a tissue. Tiffany blotted her eyes. Color crept up her cheeks until even the tips of her ears were bright red. Wulf gave her a subtle nod.
“I fainted. Elise was still in the tiger’s eyes. I could see her concern and it just sent me over.”
Mary stood and gave the trembling woman a hug. She whispered something in her ear. Tiffany pulled back with a small smile and took her seat. Mary took her spot in the middle of the circle.
“Tiffany isn’t the first to faint like that. And after she came to, she was able to sit with Elise for the rest of the night without incident. That is what matters. You’ll be going back next week with your girlfriend, right honey?”
Tiffany’s face lit up. “I am. When else will anyone get the chance to be surrounded by that many tigers without fear of being eaten?”
Everyone laughed and applauded her bravery. I relaxed a little, but not much. If she could make it through watching her lover change, I could do the same. Right? Humans instinctively ignore that which our brains cannot comprehend. Going to the woods with Matthew and the pack during the full moon would ensure I couldn’t ignore it any longer.