Rejected & Cursed by J. S. Striker

Chapter 1

“Remember, the night is all about appearances. We must be the best-dressed at the event and we have to impress my father.”

“You can manage best-dressed. But impressing the clan leader takes more than dressing up. Perhaps I can impress him with my huge—”

“Luca!”

Luca Charles grinned, amusement sparkling at the scandalized expression on Rowena Bennett’s face. He was amused in general, the good mood punctuated by two things: one, that this was the first time the two of them had been out on a date in weeks, a fancy dinner affair that ended with them taking a walk on one of the highest rooftops where they had a fantastic view of the city below.

Second, that he got to experience all of it with his now-fiancée, who had accepted his proposal amid that fancy dinner and the ring presented. He glanced at the ring on her finger, the gleam of the large diamond still visible in the dim lighting. It was as elegant as she was. He took her hand and squeezed it.

“Manners,” Luca finished. “I was going to say I can impress your father with my huge manners.”

He expected amusement but found her brows furrowing, deep in contemplation. Wanting her to appreciate the view as much as he did, he glided his fingers up, rubbing her forehead. She shook her head then looked at him, a gorgeous being even when not smiling: shiny blonde hair framing blue eyes that could get whatever they wanted if they softened just the right way, pouty lips that suited whatever lipstick shade she had on. There was also that golden skin and knockout figure, which he couldn’t wait to get his hands on.

“Good manners will impress him, but there has to be more,” Rowena stated firmly. “I already ordered our clothes for the ritual—”

“I have clothes, Rowena.”

“Not suitable for the event,” she shot back. “My father knows designers and appreciates your effort if you dress up for events. It’s a sign of respect. As for wealth…”

“You know I have savings. The investments I made these past few years paid off.”

“I know. But there has to be a future goal. A strong plan for your business. He will ask. The only thing my father cares about is if you’re successful and a purebred.”

“Right.”

“I booked the spa for the day after tomorrow. We’ll get pampered and prepared for the meeting and eventual mating.”

“No spa,” he said, so abruptly that confusion flitted on her face. “I have some affairs to attend to.”

“What affairs?”

Recovery.

But there was no telling her that—not when he was so close to the goal, not when he was so close from becoming a permanent part of her clan…from being her mate. Luca took her face in his hands.

“Some business ones. Things Dan will appreciate, I’m sure.”

Guilt glimmered at the lie, but he swallowed it and watched her frown ease. She sighed.

“Fine. No spa. But what about the clothes?”

“I’ll visit your place when I’m done,” he promised, leaning forward to steal a kiss. That led to more kisses, his hands roaming her body, wanting to keep the happy mood going…fighting the darkness curling in his stomach, a sliver about to grow as the hours passed. Before the lust could shift naturally into mutual pleasure, hands pushed at his chest until he broke the kiss. He eyed her in question while she gave him a scolding look.

“Not tonight, baby.”

“Baby, we just got engaged. Can’t we…?”

“I need to get to sleep early. I have a hair appointment tomorrow and we both need to do a fitting.”

“It won’t take long,” he teased, laving her neck with kisses. She sighed, softened a bit, then pushed him again. Getting the picture, Luca disentangled and looked at her fluttering lashes.

“You’ll do this for me, won’t you, Luca? Please? We can do what we want after the ritual. If you really love me…”

He smiled. “Fine. Fitting tomorrow morning. No spa. That’s it.”

“Thank you, baby. I’m so proud to have a strong, successful man like you as my future mate.”

To any outsider, Luca was the epitome of a man who had a perfect life—something he heard plenty of times, this time from Angelo Bennett, who sat across from him at the diner they frequented.

“You’re the luckiest bastard to ever grace the planet, do you know that? Your investments paid off, you get hitched to my cousin, and you get to be part of my amazing clan and get a shot at clan leadership.” Angelo devoured his ham and eggs enthusiastically. “What’s next? Businessman of the year? I don’t even know what your business is.”

Luca chuckled, digging at his bacon while he eyed the man in amusement. There was just something about the younger Angelo that drew comfort and more honesty than he allowed in days. Maybe it was the fact that the man was less aloof than most of their clan’s members, who thrived off of exclusivity. “Let’s just say buying and selling land and buildings is a good investment, and being smart about stocks is a bonus.”

“Well, shit. I didn’t know you were an investor.”

“Of sorts.”

“Are you planning to open a physical business soon?”

“Maybe.”

The first lie of the day.

“With your eventual connection to my uncle, you won’t even need marketing. His powerful reputation in the business world and other clans will guarantee you even more success in that department.”

That was what Luca was afraid of, but he answered carefully, anyway. “With proper planning, it can happen in the future. For now, there are no guarantees.”

Not until he was mated and sure it would change his life.

“Hmm. Rowena will be pleased, too. I don’t even know how you got her to say yes, let alone last that long. She has always been choosy with her men, but I suppose that just means you’re deserving.”

“Oh?”

“My cousin has been chased by men all her life. I don’t blame them, but man, it gets old when she gets all snobby over it.” Angelo glanced up, mouth stuffed full and sheepish. “You’re a good man and will make her happy. So I’m just happy that she will be loved and settled.”

Warmth spread through his chest but also added to his guilt as Luca stayed quiet and finished his breakfast. They filed out and walked it off after, blending in the New York crowd until they got to the park, where they eyed the people milling in public areas before their attention strayed to the thicker, less-visited forest parts.

“Do you want to go out and chase some rabbits tonight?”

The invitation was open and hopeful, another extension of Angelo’s support to Luca. While their friendship had formed only after he had started dating Rowena, it had bloomed on its own without the female.

“We always chase rabbits a few times a month.”

“Yes, I know, but not during the full moon. You’re always gone on some business trip during the full moon,” Angelo teased. “But I’m sure you don’t have one tonight, seeing as it’s your mating ritual soon.”

“I do have one tonight.” Second lie. “So rain check?”

“Jesus, you’re such a workaholic.”

Luca tried to smile. “Maybe in a month or two? I’ll be free by then.” And less dangerous.

Angelo brightened. “Great, man. I can’t wait.”

They parted ways, and his good mood lasted until the curling darkness returned, snuggling in his belly where it always started. Luca made sure he was safe at home by the time the sun set, ate what he could amid his rumbling nerves, and took a long shower to get rid of the guilt that had plagued him, especially this morning. Oddly enough, it was stronger when faced with the young man who looked up so much to him.

He stepped out of the shower, fresh and anticipating the ritual that would change his life. He locked the doors, turned off the lights. Then he slipped into his study room and crawled down under the table to get to the trapdoor, leading downstairs to a dungeon no one knew about. The small space had no windows and no other forms of entertainment, only a cage with bars that could hold tons of weight and force—tried and tested for years. Luca glanced up and decided not to close the trapdoor, assured that the locked doors and shut windows would be enough to keep him safe…or to keep them safe.

He entered the cage. The clang resounded softly in the space as he locked it, followed by silence as he sat on the corner block of stone acting as a chair. The darkness spread, his bear wanting to come out in its natural form, eager to be free and explore and…just be wild, but still in a state that allowed him to think and be in control of himself. The darkness crawled up, turning his vision blurry. His claws grew, sharp and glinting.

Something else came out instead, his fur sprouting at odd angles and the rumble from his chest eager as his vision and ruminations were wiped clean. Inner Luca screamed, trapped in the horror of his shift, pain spearing him from head to toe.

But outer Luca rejoiced, the monster coming to life and wanting only flesh and blood to tear apart.

Twelve years ago, Luca had celebrated his birthday in a way seventeen-year-olds could only dream about: having his virginity taken by the ever-lovely Heather Anderson, the head cheerleader and most popular girl in school. Having her agree to go out with him had been a scenario he had never expected to happen in his life, much less taking her home—even much less sucking on her tits in the backseat of her car before her expert hands had gotten him hard and randy. That backseat had become his fondest place as he had fucked her clumsily, half in love and proud of himself for not coming too early. The walk home had been just as sky-high as he had replayed it over and over in his mind, feeling like the luckiest bastard in the world.

His walk suddenly interrupted when a figure appeared before him, blanketed by the dark but just visible enough for him to make out a woman. His goofy grin had dipped slightly as he had puzzled over it, then decided shifters wouldn’t be out terrorizing this part of the city and exposing themselves. When the figure had stepped forward and revealed a beautiful woman, he had relaxed, tucking his bear form inside.

“Hello. Can I help you?”

“I don’t know if you can.”

The voice had been smoky, melodic, complimenting the woman’s incredible gray eyes. She was slightly older, he could tell, and so incredibly hesitant that he had figured his presence alone must have been a detriment. Understanding women’s fears and how he refused to play with them, he had watched her solemnly and had stayed still, hands splayed out.

“Aww, shucks, miss, please don’t be scared. I promise I mean no harm. Are you lost?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, I was just on my way home. I was with my girlfriend earlier,” he added, deducing that would ease her. “Well, the girl I’m dating.”

The woman’s head had tilted as she perused him. “You can help me?”

“Sure. Ma’am, you can tell me where you need to go. I can happily give you directions if you don’t want a stranger accompanying you. Heck, I can even take you to the police station if you want authorities to help you out.”

“You’re very kind.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“Yes, yes,” she said absently. Then, “Is she your first love?”

The question had caught him off guard, then had him contemplating before shaking his head. “I just started dating her. There are feelings for sure, but love…maybe it will come.”

“It won’t.”

“What?”

She had moved closer, a blur he had missed as he blinked. Then a blast of darkness had surrounded him, rendering him blind before it dawned that he couldn’t move, too—like his limbs had been shackled by invisible chains. Luca hadn’t panicked yet, another realization slithering in.

“You’re a witch, aren’t you? I don’t know enough about you, but I don’t believe the lies spread about your kind. I know a witch at school. She keeps to herself and accidentally exposed herself in the library, but I never told anyone. And she knows that I know and gave me this crystal—”

The words cut off as pain so sheer had knocked him back down, this time pinning him to the ground. He had laid there spread-eagled, screams muted, mind scrambling in confusion before it had turned blank. Everything hurt, his body unable to take it in, the trembling starting from his toes until he had been violently spasming in reaction. Then a shadow had fallen over him, had him looking up at those gray eyes, a hint of regret before the cool, confident gleam took over. The melodic voice had become hushed, but he had heard every word.

“I put this curse upon you for as long as is required—until you find your one true mate. It shall be your identity and your second self. It shall be the burden you carry until your path leads you home and you find your one true love. She will be your salvation, and you will be hers.”

The melodic tone had turned dark, her voice brimming with power, no longer in hiding. Amid the pain, he had caught a glimpse of gray eyes turning into black orbs, lifeless and still, tendrils of sparks creeping towards him. Then he had only caught every so many words as the pain had bordered on unbearable, repeatedly slamming over him until he could take no more.

“Magical journey…make changes…life over…”

He had let out a scream, and this one had broken through and pierced the air. Then he had broken through the invisible chains and was running, somehow reaching a forest area away from any signs of life. But the magic had still thrummed, coating him with malice, until he was begging.

“Please. I didn’t do anything. Please release me. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I did. I’m sorry.”

No one had listened, but he had kept on, switching to a litany of curses until his voice had become hoarse. Then his voice had changed, turned into a growl. So had he, a shifting that often happened under the full moon. But the bear he had tucked in hadn’t come out, cowering in terror. His bones had snapped and his muscles had creaked, hurtling him in another round of pain that had him shaking in its force. Something else had risen, a creature howling at the night…one brimming with a vengeance and so angry. It had taken over, and Luca could only hold on, praying it would be over before his consciousness drowned.

The next day, he had woken up surrounded by dead forest animals and blood, the latter coating his naked body.

Every full moon, it had been the same scenario, but with little changes: sometimes a little less painful, other times so excruciating, his body never fully recovered until days later. Most of the time he had blacked out, but sometimes that semblance for control had fought back, allowing him a front-row view of the monster he had become.

On his nineteenth birthday, he had found a spot miles away from the campus where he could ride his pain more efficiently and in peace—and hadn’t banked on his English teacher going on a hike on that weekend. Waking up to a bloodied, unconscious man had been the last straw, and he had sobbed for what he had done before he had snapped out of it.

Luca had made sure the man was alive before he had escaped and called 911. Then he quit school and moved to another city, getting lost in the crowd, wandering until he had snapped out of that, too, and signed up for online classes. He got a job, had earned more than he could have dreamed of, and had built the cage in the dungeon himself, where he had spent his remaining years imprisoning the monster under the full moon. Despite everything, he had never forgotten the witch and the curse, the words she had uttered that were imprinted in his memory forever.

When he had met Rowena at a banquet, looking like a tall glass of cool, polished beauty, he had zoned in on her like she was salvation: the answer to his prayers and the solution to a curse he had abhorred for so long. Having built up his endurance and charm all those years, it hadn’t taken him long to snag that date, ask her to be his girlfriend, and meet her clan, where Dan Bennett ruled with an iron fist but had taken him in, anyway—as a business protégé and a suitable boyfriend for the man’s only daughter. The proposal had been a long time coming—and when it happened, it had solidified Luca’s hope that, at last, his problems were about to be over. An official mating and the curse would be lifted, allowing him to live the freedom he desired so badly. It tasted so sweet, a reality he was about to experience, but of course, he had needed to tell his lies first and hide.

Rowena made it easier. Thinking about her increased that hope. Tonight, the monster was knocked down as he gained some semblance in the middle of the night, where he grasped through the muddled fog in his mind until a vision of her washed over him. This was the monster’s last show, the curse’s last night. This was the last suffering before the happy days would come pouring, but the pain…

Think of Rowena. Goddamn it, hang on to her.

He reflected over Rowena, always glamorous and in control of her life, not a hair out of place as she navigated through her affairs with confidence. He recalled the power and acceptance her clan held before his ruminations returned to her, ignoring the discomfort of certain moments when they were in the most sophisticated of places. He would get used to it.

He saw her in her fancy dress, in her expensive underwear, a woman not prone to losing control and the type of person who would help him keep his. Rowena smiled like an angel, spoke like the worldly woman that she was—

Rowena looked at him now, a gasp escaping her lips as she stumbled back in horror and disgust.

The vision crumbled. He was hurtled back into reality, this one more terrifying than anything he had experienced as he saw himself through the reflection in her eyes: a dark, furry creature with spots of dead skin, crooked claws, and teeth that could tear anything apart, gnawing on the cage bar. Starving for her torn flesh, and the worst part was his face had bashed itself repeatedly on the iron bars somewhere along the way, leaving him all battered. Like mangled meat.

With effort, he pulled back, clenched his muscles, and desperately growled the words out. “I can explain.”

“You’re a monster.”

“Rowena—”

“You’re a monster. Oh, God. You’re an ugly monster and liar.”

The love of his life turned and ran before he could have a chance to explain.

And the love of his life, his salvation, didn’t see as Luca tried to fight it before he succumbed to the nightmare, his monster winning for the nth time.