“Who’s up next?” Mary asked as she resumed her seat.
The pregnant woman stood. I noticed she wasn’t quite to the stage where moving was a chore. Mary waved the other woman on.
“Go ahead, Mandy. If you could, please start with when you and Stephen decided to have a baby for our new folks.”
“We decided to try three years ago. At first neither of us thought anything was wrong. When month after month it didn’t happen, we’d just try again.” A faint blush colored her cheeks.
“But after a full year without even a false alarm, Stephen got worried. He wanted a baby so much and the disappointment ate at him. So we went to the doctor. And then another doctor. And finally a fertility specialist that wasn’t afraid of addressing Stephen’s lycanthropy.”
Mandy paused. Her hands went to her belly and she gave a sad smile. “That’s when we found out. Something about the disease changes even the basic DNA of the males. It makes them infertile unless they breed with a were of their species.”
A loud noise startled me. Looking down, my eyes tracked the tendrils of coffee snaking across the wooden floor. Interspersed in the puddle were shards of a coffee mug. Shocked, I looked at my hands.
Wulf knelt down, picking up the broken mug. Mary came to my side, but I didn’t hear any of the softly spoken words she said. All I could hear was Mandy’s admission that lycanthropy made it impossible for males to impregnate humans.
“But how did she—”
“We found a donor.” Mandy dipped into the chair beside me. Understanding darkened her blue eyes. “One of Stephen’s friends wanted to help.”
The overload of information sent my head spinning. Mandy reached over, her small hand laid over mine. The small gesture became my undoing. Tears pricked at the back of my eyes. She’d lived through my nightmare, gone through the exact thing I’d secretly been worrying about since realizing I wanted to make a life with Matthew.
“Stephen won’t be the father,” I managed to say at last.
“Being a parent isn’t about who provides the DNA, Annie. Stephen is more excited about the baby than I am. He’s already got the nursery half finished and a list of names longer than my arm. There is no doubt in our minds who the child’s father will be.”
“And your friend?”
“He’s perfectly okay with being Uncle Billy.” She smiled. “You aren’t the first to feel cheated by this and you certainly won’t be the last. It’s a cruel twist of fate, but it doesn’t have to doom your future.”
Wulf brought in a mop to clean up my mess. Mary rubbed my shoulder and nodded to the rest of the group. They all gave me a reassuring look, understanding my shock. Now I knew why Matt never mentioned children.
“That’s enough for today,” Mary announced. “Lunch is almost ready. Guys, if you fix the chairs, we can eat and relax.”
I didn’t think I could eat, but got up and helped shuffle the tables and chairs back in place. Everyone settled into their seats. Somehow I managed to snag a table off to side where I could sit by myself. No way any sort of civilized conversation would come out of my shocked mind. Only two people shared their experiences and it’d been enough to make me want to run.
“You’re stronger than that, damnit,” I told myself.
“There you go again, thinking too much. Get out of your head and dive into this.” Wulf placed a bowl in front of me.
“You made gnocchi?” My fork slid into one of the little potato pillows.
“By hand.” He winked. “I have very skilled fingers.”
Mary heard him and laughed. “Yes he does.”
Blindsided by their flirting, I blinked up at the big man. He joined his wife with a chuckle. She patted his backside and relieved him of one of the bowls of gnocchi. They were so comfortable with each other, even in public.
“It’s the full moon,” Tiffany said softly. With her own food in hand, she dipped into an empty seat at the table. “Something about it being so close sends the were’s hormones into overdrive. Well… you know.”
Unsure of how to respond, I took a bite of the food. Oh dear heaven, the cream sauce was amazing.
Tiffany continued on, obviously not catching on to how uncomfortable the turn in conversation made me. “We’re lucky to get lunch with the way they carry on. Don’t worry, though. They won’t do anything with us here. Not again.”
I choked on a mouthful of gnocchi. She leaned over to pat my back. Yeah, like that’d help. A blush heated my cheeks despite my best effort not to. Tiffany slid a glass of water over; I took a grateful drink and focused on breathing normally for a moment.
Curiosity got the best of me. Quietly, I asked, “What happened?”
“A few months ago they went to grab lunch after the meeting for everyone and never came back. We all made bets on what they’d break, it was so obvious what they went off to do.”
My imagination went wild thinking of what all could be broken in a restaurant by an overly amorous were. The list of possibilities got longer and longer, much to my dismay.
“So who won?”
She cocked a thumb over her shoulder. A mousy man at the next table gave us a glance. “Vincent. He bet twenty on the bathroom sink. The café had to be closed for a few days to repair the water damage.”
“How the hell do you break—”
“Tiffany, I know you’re not telling that story again.” A dinner roll flew across the room, barely missing the other woman. She picked up the roll and threw it back at Mary.
“It’s alright,” Tiffany reassured. “They can handle a little teasing. Are you feeling any better?”
The concern in her eyes made me bite back the automatic, “I’m fine” response and actually think about it. Was I feeling better? Her joking distracted me from the shocks I’d suffered during the short meeting. Laughing with them felt good, brought me back to a sense of normalcy I hadn’t felt since waking up.
I gave her a smile. “Yeah, I feel a lot better.”
“I can’t believe a broken bathroom sink made you feel better,” Wulf griped.
“We wouldn’t be talking about it if you could keep your pants on, Cat Man,” Vincent chimed in.
The weretiger gave a predator’s grin and turned towards Vincent. Two large steps saw him across the room to loom over the smaller man. He paused, then roared in laughter and clapped him on the shoulder. Wulf’s strength made Vincent wobble in his seat.
“What’s the fun of caging the python when his playmate can’t get enough?”
Amused, Mary gave her husband a look. “You’re going to give Annie a heart attack talking like that, honey.”
“Oh hey, look. Food.” Thankful for anything to distract myself, I dove into my lunch.
Around me conversations changed to more mundane subjects. Mandy updated everyone on her last doctor’s appointment. The baby looked to be healthy, so was she. One of the other men, Gary, just bought a house in the woods on ten acres of land so his werepanther wife could stay at home during the full moon. Wulf reminded him to install high fences around the property line just in case. My mind settled into the comfortable tones they used with each other and I began to relax.
“So are you going to do it?” Tiffany’s voice started me.
“Do what?” Oh God, don’t ask if Matt and I are into public sex…
“Watch him transform on the full moon.” Golden brows dropped down as she studied me. “I saw how you reacted earlier. You haven’t seen the full package yet, have you?”
Shaking my head, I focused on mopping up the cream sauce leftover from lunch with a piece of bread. It bought me time to think. Her story worried me. I wouldn’t have Mary by my side to witness Matt’s change. No one I knew would be there to catch me if I fainted. Watching the man I love disappear into the wolf would be nearly impossible. What if he didn’t come back after hunting in the woods? What if a lycanthrope-phobic idiot shot Matt while he was gone?
“I’d be all alone,” I said at last.
“You have a little time to get to know them if you are willing to go during this moon.” She patted my hand. “Everything gets better after the first time. A whole new world opened up for Elise and I. We’ve been so much closer.”
The symphony of questions in my head came to a crescendo. Hands shaking, I fought not to scream for everything to stop for a moment or two. I looked around at the people left after lunch. They’d made it through this first vital step to being with a were.
“Do you think I can do it?”
“We do brave things in the name of love. If he really is the one, you can do anything.”
“And if he isn’t?”
She gave a sad smile. “Then you move on. But I have to tell you, no one that’s made it as far as coming to the group has failed to meet their partner’s other form. They are the people we love, even when furry.”
The frankness of our conversation made me restless. Standing, I paced across the back wall of the café. Tiffany watched, her calm eyes tracking my progress back and forth. My mind took a similar route, going around and around the same problems until everything finally settled. I stopped at the table.
“I’m going to do it.” The butterflies in my stomach gave protest. I ignored them.
“Knew you would,” Tiffany said.
Mary walked across the room and dragged me into a hug so tight I thought she’d rupture my liver. “I’ll give you the contact info for Alex and Sheila, the Alpha wolves. They can introduce you to the other humans in the pack. I trust them to take care of you.”
The goodbyes were sweet but brief. What I needed more than kind comments and shoulders to lean on was time to think. More importantly, I wanted to be home when Matt got off of work. If I waited more than a few hours, I’d change my mind.