I tipped my head to the side and narrowed my eyes on Kendra, my best friend and a med student who was always more than happy to offer me free medical advice.
Most of the time her diagnoses were spot on. There were, however, a few occasions when she’d spent too much time studying a disease or rare condition and saw symptoms of it everywhere she looked. Like the time she told my boss at Ink This he had the plague.
Or like now. When she told me I was pregnant.
“That’s not possible, Kendra.” I shook my head. “You of all people should know how lacking my love life has been. It’s been so long, I can’t even remember the last time I had a social orgasm.”
That last part was a flat out lie. I knew exactly when I’d had my last orgasm that involved another person. Seven months.
Seven months since I got dumped by Danny the Dickhead. Or not so much dumped as got front row tickets to him involved in nearly acrobatic sexual acts with two women. Neither of them being me.
Technically I was the dumper, but I’d have to say, finding out he scheduled regular playtime with several of his co-workers, I felt more like the dumpee.
My mind rushed over the events that followed—the bar, the overconsumption of alcohol, the sexy soldier who teased me out of my melancholy and right into bed with him.
A tiny smile tugged the corner of my lips up.
“Oh, God, you’re thinking about him again.”
I blinked and focused back on my bff. “Sorry. Drifted off there for a second.”
She rolled her eyes but then her lips tightened and concern came through clear in her gaze. “Is there something you’re not telling me? I promise I won’t judge.”
She held up one hand and placed another over her heart.
“Like what? That I’ve taken to trolling bars and picking up strange men in the hopes they’d give me the tingles the way Mason did?”
Her eyes grew wide. “Have you?” Her question came out on an almost breathless whisper.
It was my turn to roll my eyes. “No. What is wrong with you? You know me better than that.”
And she did. She was the only person in the world I shared every secret with. After everything we’d been through together—two horrific foster homes, getting spit out of the system the second we turned eighteen, rotten jobs, living in dive apartments through four years of college, breakups, breakdowns, and all the usual messes life brought—she was the one person I trusted.
“Sorry. But maybe…”
The door to the exam room opened and the doctor who ran the small clinic where Kendra volunteered stuck her head in. “Oops. Sorry, I didn’t know you had a patient in here.” Her eyes skimmed over me where I sat on the end of the exam table and then came back and rested more fully on me. “Oh, hi, Juliet.”
“Hi, Dr. Walker.” I smiled.
“Everything okay?” Dr. Walker’s gaze darted between the two of us.
“Actually…” Kendra started while bugging her eyes out at me.
I knew what she wanted—permission to talk to Dr. Walker about my “condition.” I shrugged.
“Juliet has been having some symptoms so I had her come in today. I hope that’s okay?”
“Of course. That’s what we’re here for,” Dr. Walker said. “Do you need help?”
Kendra opened her mouth, but before she could speak, I jumped in.
“Yes. Please.” I shot an apologetic smile toward Kendra. I didn’t want to step on her toes, but in this particular case, I really wouldn’t mind a second opinion. “I was telling Kendra I’ve been having weird joint and muscle aches, nausea on and off throughout the day for the last few weeks, and I feel like I can never get enough sleep. I’ve only had very spotty periods, but that’s not totally out of the ordinary for me. I’ve always been irregular.”
“And I did all the standard stuff. Blood pressure, weight, medical history, and,” Kendra shot me a look loaded with meaning, “a pregnancy test. I wouldn’t normally do that based on what I know about Juliet’s history, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.”
Dr. Walker stepped more fully inside the little exam room and closed the door. “Sounds like you did all the right things.”
“Except for the fact she gave me the wrong diagnosis,” I said. “Kendra thinks I’m pregnant. But it’s impossible.”
“I don’t think you’re pregnant, Juliet. This isn’t my opinion. Your pregnancy test came out positive. And I ran it twice to be sure.”
I shrugged. “Faulty tests?”
“Can I ask why you think it’s impossible, Juliet?” Dr. Walker asked.
Mild embarrassment sent a tingle of heat across my cheeks. “I haven’t had sex in, well, seven months.”
She nodded. “I see. That does make it seem unlikely, doesn’t it?”
“But how would we get two positive results?” Kendra asked.
Dr. Walker looked at me and an odd expression flashed in her eyes. “Juliet, do you know if your last sexual partner was a shifter?”
I stared at her for several long beats. A shifter? I mean, I knew they existed. They’d been public for almost my whole life. But I’d never met one in person before. At least not that I knew of.
I opened my mouth to tell her it wasn’t possible. And immediately thought better of it. Images of my night with Captain Mason Hunter flashed through my mind. There had been something primal about the way we were together. Wild.
I’d chalked it up to the combination of alcohol, the abundance of unruly emotions, and pure and simple sexual chemistry. But, now that Dr. Walker brought it up…
“I guess he could be a shifter.” My words were pulled from me like molasses pouring from a bottle. I could feel my cheeks burn before I made my next confession. “I never, ever, ever have one-night stands, but well, I might have just that one time. But we were safe. I swear I asked about his sexual history. And we used a condom.”
Actually, we’d used condoms. Plural. Which is one of the reasons the night was so memorable. I might not have been my usual self when it came to hooking up with a guy I just met. But I absolutely, positively did not let go of my number one rule when it came to sexual partners—no glove, no love.
Dr. Walker gave me a kind smile. “No judgments here. I just had a thought that might shed some light on what’s going on with you. Do you mind if I do an ultrasound?”
I glanced at Kendra and she gave me a nod. I turned back to the doctor with a shrug. “I guess that’s okay.”
She pressed her lips together for a second, her expression delivering an apology. “I’m sorry, but I think our best bet is to do a transvaginal ultrasound. I’ll need you to change into a gown. You can leave your bra and socks on.”
I had no clue what a transvaginal ultrasound was and I’m pretty sure I’d be happy to get through the rest of my life without that knowledge. I opened my mouth to share that with Dr. Walker, but Kendra jumped in ahead of me.
“I’ll get her set up, Dr. Walker. No worries.”
I glared at Kendra while the doctor hurried from the room. “I think this is totally unnecessary.”
“Mmhmm. I’m sure you do.” Kendra ignored my spluttering and moved around the room, pulling a screen out from the wall and placing a paper gown on a stool behind it. “Get changed.”
Her set expression told me two things. One, she wasn’t about to let me get out of here without a full work up to figure out what was wrong with me. And two, she’d tackle me if she had to.
I’d known Kendra long enough. I wasn’t about to put her to the test. I grumbled while I did it, but I jumped down and stepped behind the screen and stripped off my black sleeveless T-shirt. I adjusted my bra with a sigh. My already abundant curves had begun to spill over the tops of the cups in recent months.
I pushed my jeans over my hips, pausing to run my fingers over the red welts left behind on the curve of my waist. I wiggled them the rest of the way down, and kicked off my black Converse as I went.
The extra snug fit of my clothing lately hadn’t escaped my notice. I’d just attributed it to my addiction to Caramel Macchiatos with extra whip cream, White Russians, and late night trips to the café next to my apartment for day old beignets.
A shot of cold fear raced through me at the thought that it was none of those things that turned my figure from curvy to downright voluptuous.
“I’m not pregnant,” I called over the screen, though I’m not sure if I was trying to convince Kendra or myself.
“Okay,” was her only response.
I tied the strings around my waist and stepped out from behind the screen, the paper gown sticking out from my body at odd angles and rustling with every step I took.
Kendra’s lips pressed together and she scanned my face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I promise.” I stretched my lips into what I hoped would pass for a smile and stopped in front of the waist high counter that ran along one side of the small exam room.
I straightened a folder so it sat at a right angle to the counter’s edge, and lined two pens up in straight lines beside it. I eyeballed the jars containing cotton balls, tongue depressors and cotton swabs. Pushing one back against the wall so it was even with the others, I twisted another so the sign on the front faced out.
“You are definitely not okay,” Kendra said.
Before I could respond, the door opened and Dr. Walker came in pulling a small cart with a monitor behind her. “Want to hop up on the table, Juliet?”
I couldn’t think of anything I rather do less, but I was pretty sure she didn’t actually expect an answer to that question.
Kendra helped me to get up on the table and lie back. My eyes must have popped open wide when I saw the wand Dr. Walker held and she explained where it would go.
“Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it looks,” she reassured me.
All I could do was blink and turn my attention to the ceiling tiles. If I was a praying kind of person, I might be asking for a little help here. But I wasn’t sure what I’d ask for.
I gripped the sides of the table tightly until Kendra slid her hand under mine. I squeezed it and she squeezed right back.
“You’ll be fine, no matter what,” she whispered. “And I’ll be right here by your side.
I looked up into her face and nodded. She was right. Everything would be okay. She and I had gotten through so much together. This wouldn’t be any different, no matter what the doctor found.
“Okay, here we go,” Dr. Walker said.
I turned my head to the side and found myself staring at a black and white mishmash on the ultrasound screen. I squinted, trying to decipher something that might tell me what was going on.
Dr. Walker pressed a button on the machine and the image froze. She leaned in and put a finger on the screen. “This is your baby.”
Thank goodness I was lying down. My head got light and for a moment I had the sensation I floated right out of my body. The words echoed over and over again my head.
“Juliet, are you okay?” Kendra asked.
I turned my head toward her and blinked. Having the image of the tiny blip on the screen out of my line of sight helped me to clear my mind a bit.
“It’s not possible,” I whispered.
“I can probably clear that up,” Dr. Walker said.
I turned toward her, tilting my chin down so I could see her and the ultrasound image was only a speck in my peripheral vision. “I swear, I haven’t had sex in seven months.”
She nodded. “I believe you. And I’ll preface what I’m telling you with the fact that I don’t see many shifters in my practice, so I’m not an expert.” She held my eyes until I nodded my understanding. “My best guess is that the father of the baby is a bear shifter. They have been known to share a unique genetic characteristic with their wild bear ancestors.”
I drew my brows together. “Okay.”
“Bears in the wild experience a delayed implantation. What that means is that when they mate, an embryo is formed, but it doesn’t actually implant in the uterus for about five months. The female bear isn’t technically pregnant until implantation takes place.”
“So you think that this happens to shifters?” Kendra asked. A glance at her showed her eager med student face had replaced her concerned friend expression.
Dr. Walker nodded, her eyes never leaving my face. “From the looks of things, you’re just about two months along. The timeline you gave me fits with this being a case of delayed implantation, except…”
“Except?” I asked after several beats of silence.
She sighed. “I haven’t really seen it happen before. From what I’ve read, delayed implantation in shifters has gotten exceedingly rare. And not much research has been done on shifter and human reproduction.”
My eyes flew to the screen and my hand flew to cover my belly. Protective instincts I never knew I possessed surged to the forefront. “Does that mean something could be wrong with the baby?”
“No,” Dr. Walker quickly assured me. “Everything looks good. Your symptoms and the ultrasound show nothing but a very normal, typical pregnancy outside of the delayed implantation. Honestly, I imagine he’s a tough little bugger if he survived five months before implanting.”
My mind raced over the last five months. “Oh my God. Is he all right? I’m not supposed to have alcohol or caffeine and I work in a tattoo shop with dyes and chemicals. Is he okay?”
Dr. Walker removed the wand from my body, pushing the stool she sat on backward. “Relax, Juliet. You have no reason to worry. You’re only in the first trimester, but right now everything looks great.”
I sat up, shifting the gown over my legs. No reason to worry? Was she crazy? I had a million reasons to worry. Starting with the fact that I was pregnant with a shifter’s baby and ending with the fact I had no experience with good parents. My own placed me in foster care before I turned two and the foster parents I had in the years between then and now were not exactly models to base my own parenting on.
“I can’t do this.”
Kendra transformed back into concerned friend and draped her arm across my shoulders. “You’ll be fine, Juliet. We’ll figure it all out. We always do.”
“I know this is a lot to take in.” Dr. Walker moved the ultrasound machine aside and came to stand on my other side. “And there’s a bit more for you to consider.”
Oh, crap. What more could there possibly be? I stared at her, and I could feel my eyes widen. I must look like a crazy person, but I wasn’t sure how much more I could take.
“Like I said, this is not my area of expertise, but from what I’ve read, all shifter and human pregnancies result in a baby with most of the shifter abilities.”
I thought of the little peanut shaped image on the sonogram. Shifter abilities. That little peanut growing inside me was a shifter. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea.
“And,” Dr. Walker went on, “there have also been documented cases where the human mother…well, turned.”
“Turned?” Kendra asked.
“I guess….shifted is the correct terminology.”
“Juliet’s going to become a bear shifter?” Kendra shrieked in a pitch so high I was sure dogs and wolves in a fifty mile radius must be cringing. For myself, all I could do was sit there, speechless.
“It’s a possibility. And it could explain some of the extra symptoms you’ve been having, Juliet. Like the muscle and joint pains.”
I blinked. Once. And then again. “I can’t do this. I can’t…I can’t do this.”
Dr. Walker nodded slowly. “We can discuss other options if that’s what you choose.”
“Yes. Options. That sounds good. Can I choose not to become a shifter?”
An odd look passed over the doctor’s face and she tipped her head to the side. “I honestly don’t know what would happen if you started making the transition and then terminated the pregnancy.”
“Terminated the pregnancy?” Once again my hands flew to the gentle curve of my belly. “I don’t want to terminate the pregnancy.”
And as I said the words, the truth of them hit me with the power of a freight train. I would do anything in my power to take care of the child growing in my womb. Anything.
The little peanut was my family. A surge of longing shot through me at the thought and protectiveness followed hot on its heels with a violence that almost knocked me off the table.
I fought the urge to bare my teeth at the kind doctor, and clenching my jaw was the only thing that held back a snarl.
Dr. Walker held up her hands, palms out. “My apologies. I misunderstood. When you said you couldn’t do this, I assumed you meant…” She waved a hand toward my stomach.
I shook my head and blew out a breath slowly as I felt my blood pressure climb down a notch. “No. I thought you meant you had a way I could keep from turning into a werebear. Not…the other.” I couldn’t even bring myself to say the word. “It’s probably not fair. I’ll probably make a terrible mother. But I’m not giving up on him.”
Dr. Walker offered me a soft smile. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Juliet. From what I just saw, you already have the most important part of motherhood down pat—you’re obviously willing to do anything to protect your baby. I have no doubt you’ll be a wonderful mother.”
I prayed she was right.
“I do think we need to consult with someone who specializes in shifter pregnancies. Let me talk to some of my colleagues, and I’ll get in touch with you about possibilities.”
I nodded, but my mind started to speed ahead, trusting Kendra to get all the info about prenatal vitamins and follow up appointments.
My baby was a shifter. I might be a shifter. How did that all work? I was clueless enough just thinking about how to change a diaper or deal with midnight feedings.
And just the thought of leaving that little peanut on the ultrasound screen alone with a stranger while I worked made my hackles rise.
“So, I think that’s everything. Do you have any questions?”
Kendra nudged me and I made an effort to tune back in. “I’m sorry?”
“Do you have any more questions for me?” Dr. Walker asked.
Was she kidding? I had so many questions they were caught in a bottleneck as they tried to wedge their way through my brain. I opened my mouth and closed it again and just shook my head.
“Not right now,” I finally managed to get out. “But I’m sure once this all sinks in, I’ll have a million for you.”
She smiled and patted my arm. “You can feel free to call me any time. I know all this must be overwhelming.”
“Thanks for everything, Dr. Walker.”
“You’re welcome. I’ll see you soon.” She stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her.
I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding and turned to Kendra. “I am awake, right?”
Kendra gathered me tight in her arms and rocked me for a second. “You are, sweetie. But I promise, it’ll all be fine.”
I nodded my head against her shoulder, waiting for panic or fear or elation or…anything to move through me. But at that point I was more than a little shell-shocked.
Kendra pulled back a little bit and looked down into my face. “What do you want to do now?”
I think she meant right that second. Like did I want to go home or go somewhere I could stuff myself with hot beignets and Caramel Macchiatos until the whole world faded into one giant sugar-coated blur.
But instead I answered her with a sureness that surprised even me.
“I want to find the baby’s father. I need Mason.”