"I'm seeing someone."
In retrospect, the lie comes much easier than I thought it would. It feels icky, lying to the woman who's raised me since I was twelve, but in the face of my seventh bad date (or has it been eight now? I've honestly lost count) in three months-it also feels necessary.
My grandmother, Moira, has a reaction as immediate as it is expected. "What? Who? Someone from work? Is it someone I know?"
I know if I don't shut down this line of questioning quickly, it will spiral into a full-blown interrogation.
"No," I say quickly. "You don't know him."
I think that this part at least isn't so much of a lie, since I don't know him either. Since he doesn't exist.
My grandmother means well, she does, but her taste in men-be they human or shifter-is downright terrible. I have caught movies with shifter model train experts who wanted to scent me on the first date, I have gotten coffee with human data analysts who asked if I could somehow keep my tail in human form (I don't even want to explore the thought process there); every bad date has only solidified the idea that I am better off focusing on my job rather than my grandmother's wishful thinking that I will find a nice man to settle down with and give her a litter of grandchildren. As if I don't have enough to deal with. Sometimes I think Gran is no better than the dates she sends me off with when it comes to my omega status.
It's rare, what I am-but it doesn't make me all that different from any other shifter. Maybe once it did, back when shifters were still living in secret underground hierarchy systems unbeknownst to everyone else-but now it just means that I have an annoying stigma following me around that I'm somehow better in bed than other shifters. I swear, anyone I've ever told has expected me to spontaneously go into heat at a whim. Hence, I mostly keep it to myself nowadays.
"How long have you been seeing him? How old is he? Is he a shifter? I know how busy you are, dear, but I'm not getting any younger, and it would be so nice to hear the pitter-patter of-"
"Gran, it is way too soon to be thinking that far ahead." I shudder at the thought of crying babies. "It hasn't been that long. It's still new. Like, very new. Practically still has the plastic wrap on it."
"Oh, Mackenzie, why didn't you tell me? Are you trying to break my heart?"
"You know work has been insane. We've had four bar fights in the last month-not to mention the pileups from all the black ice we've been getting . . . It's been an utter nightmare in the ER. I think I'm getting carpal tunnel from all the stitches I've given lately."
"You work too hard, dear, couldn't they transfer you somewhere not so . . . fast-paced?"
It's a question she asks often, but she knows my answer already. I love working in the ER. Even on the most harrowing of days, I still go to bed at night knowing that I'm saving lives.
"Gran . . ."
"Right, right. So tell me about your mystery man. At least give me a species, dear."
I know the most obvious choice to keep her appeased.
"He's a shifter," I say, still feeling icky for lying. "You'd love him." I make a quick decision based solely on knowing that Gran will see right through me if I try to say I met my mystery man anywhere else, since I don't really go anywhere else. "I met him at work."
I can practically hear her clicking her heels together. She's probably doing a little dance in her kitchen as we speak, thinking that her granddaughter is finally going to settle down with a nice wolf who will give her and my grandpa grandchildren. It makes me feel that much more guilty. Thinking about the model trains date strengthens my resolve though.
"I have to meet him. When can I meet him? You could bring him to dinner . . . You haven't been to visit in too long, honey. It would be so nice to see you and your new friend."
"No, no," I say quickly. "I told you, it's new. We're taking things slow. I don't want to jinx it, you know? It could . . . make things awkward at work."
"At least give me a name, will you?"
I panic, unable to think of a single name. There are dozens of eligible fake boyfriends working on my floor at this exact moment, and I can't recall any of them. Is this punishment for lying to Gran? Is the universe cursing me for being a bad granddaughter? I can feel my hippocampus practically melting into a puddle of goo in my head, blanking on even one syllable that might wrap up my poorly planned lie in a neat little bow.
"Oh, well . . ." I can feel my mouth going dry as I scramble for something, anything. "His name? His name is-"
Now, I can count on one hand the number of hospital staff at Denver General who I don't vibe with. One of the benefits of being, at twenty-nine, one of the youngest ER doctors is that everyone treats you like the baby on staff, and while it can get annoying sometimes, it means that I have made very few enemies while working here the last year. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that most people I've come to meet while working here like me. But that doesn't mean there aren't exceptions. I mean, I'm likable, I think. As long as the other party in question isn't trying to sniff my neck.
However, that isn't to say that every one of my work relationships is all sunshine and roses. And of course it's with this thought that the break room door opens, revealing thick, midnight hair that nearly scrapes across the top of the doorframe, attached to the massive frame of one of the few physicians who fall into the "don't vibe with" category. His permanent frown set in a wide pink mouth turns my way, settled below piercing blue eyes that regard me in the same way they always have in the time I've known him-a stern look that says he's unhappy to have another living, breathing person in the same room he's entered. And of course because the universe seems to be punishing me for my white lies before I can even finish getting them out-it is his name, unfortunately, that is the first one that my brain seems to be able to formulate.
"Noah," I tell Gran in a hushed tone, so that he can't hear me. "His name is Noah Taylor."
Gran is gushing, her voice fading as I watch the surliest shifter I've ever met give me his back to crowd the coffeepot, gears of the worst kind turning in my head. It's not the dumbest idea I've ever had, I think. I mean, it's certainly not the best, but there are worse options. Probably. And besides, it's not like he would actually have to meet her or anything. Maybe he snaps a picture with me and cracks a smile for the first time in his entire life. That could give me at least a few weeks' reprieve, right? What could be the harm in an innocent little picture? Surely even Noah Taylor takes selfies.
Actually, I wouldn't put money on that, now that I think about it.
"Gran, I need to get back to work," I say, cutting off her incessant line of questioning that I can't hear anymore. "I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"
"All right, but I want more details when you do. Don't think this is the last of this conversation."
"Right," I tell her, absolutely knowing it isn't. "Sure thing."
I'm still staring at Noah's back as he pours coffee into his mug, watching his massive shoulders rise and fall with a sigh after what must have been a long night. Noah is an interventional cardiologist on staff at the hospital, not to mention the head of his department, and he comes in pretty high demand. Anyone who walks through our doors with a bad ticker gets an instant referral, and from what I can tell, the guy might actually sleep here. I'm not convinced he hasn't made a den of some sort in the basement. He's been working here far longer than I have, years even-but it took me only one meeting to recognize how much of an ass he is. Especially since in our first meeting he said that I "barely looked old enough to tie a suture." Let's just say he's not one to rub elbows with his fellow shifters for camaraderie's sake alone.
He catches me staring when he finally turns to take a sip from his cup, one perfect brow raising in question as he notices me. "Can I help you?"
"Maybe," I say honestly. "What sort of night have you had?"
He looks uncertain as to why I would ask the question, or why I would even care in the first place, pausing for a moment before he huffs out a breath.
"Horrible, if you must know," he tells me. "Two heart attacks back to back. I've placed seven stents in the last five hours. And if that isn't enough, now I have to deal with the damn board and their ignorant-" He narrows his eyes, seeming to realize he's actually holding a conversation with a fellow employee that doesn't involve glowering. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, because . . . professional courtesy? You looked . . . tired. Sounds like you had one hell of a night."
Noah looks unimpressed by my attempt at friendly conversation. I think idly it's probably the first time anyone has ever attempted it with him. "Exactly. So forgive me if I'm not up to chat."
I roll my eyes. "As if that's anything new."
"Right," he says flatly, holding up his mug. "I think I'll take this in my office."
Noah turns, that perplexed expression still etched into his features as he's probably realizing that this is the longest conversation he and I have had in at least the last six months; I can't actually remember the last time he returned my polite hello when I pass him in the corridor, now that I think about it. Not that anyone would blame me. I think the last time we spoke, he told me my shoe was untied without even slowing his pace. I'm not sure that even counts as conversation.
He's looking at me with annoyance now, like I'm wasting his precious time. "Yes?"
I can't believe I'm considering asking the Abominable Ass of Colorado to help me. It might be the worst idea I've ever had, but I'm in it now.
"I was wondering"-I know I'm going to regret this-"if you would take a picture with me."
Noah looks utterly confused. "Pardon?"
"A picture. Maybe you could smile in it too? I'm willing to pay. In better coffee, or snacks-" He looks like he doesn't know the definition of the word, and honestly, that tracks. "Okay, so no snacks. Whatever you want. I just need a picture."
"Explain to me a situation where taking a picture with me helps you somehow."
"Well, you see, that's complicated." Noah blinks at me for about three seconds before he turns to leave, seemingly done with the conversation, and I call after him again. "Okay, okay," I sigh. "Look. I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I need to use you."
His eyebrows nearly shoot into his hair. "Excuse me?"
"It's not a big deal, it's just, I needed someone from work, and I kind of blanked when she asked, and your name sort of spilled out since you were right there, and all I need is a picture, really. I think that would buy me some time at least to-"
"What on earth are you talking about?"
I take a deep breath, regretting this already. "I need you to be my fake boyfriend."
He lingers in the doorway for a good number of seconds, ones where I can feel my stomach churn in embarrassment. I know that I should have given Gran a random name. I know that I could have told her I was fucking a random colleague on the side and properly silenced her with a blush-but I didn't do any of those things, and if I can't buy myself some time, I'm looking at a fun-filled Friday night with some egghead explaining cryptocurrency to me. (Did I mention that I have been on some really bad dates?)
Noah takes a sip from his mug, swallows it, then closes the break room door. He crosses the space to pass the other little wooden tables that fill the room, his considerable bulk settling into one of the padded chairs on the opposite side of the one I'm occupying. For a moment he says nothing, studying me with a mercurial look as the old wall clock to my right ticks the seconds away, but then he takes another sip from his mug, swallowing it with a bob of his Adam's apple before he sets it down on the table.
”So.” Noah’s cup is almost empty, his expression hardly any different than it had been ten minutes ago when I began to explain my horrible dating history and my aversion to experiencing even one more bad date-all leading up to my lie. “You want me to pretend to be your boyfriend . . . so that you don’t have to get a boyfriend?”
"You don't even have to do anything."
"I fail to see the need for me at all then."
I'm pretty sure I've never been this close to Noah. At least not for this long a time. I can sense a sharp tinge of suppressants rolling off him, which I find odd; most male shifters choose to forgo them, too hung up on their ego to miss out on clouding a room with their scent in the hopes that a female shifter will come running. Maybe it's a professional decision? His scent might not be pleasant. Although, I think I can discredit that theory, given that, strangely, I can faintly make it out even under the chemical tang of his suppressants, making me think he needs a stronger dose. Not that I'm complaining, since I think it might be a nice scent. It's woodsy. Like pine needles and crisp air. It reminds me of running in the snow on all fours.
Copyright © 2023 by Lana Ferguson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.