Everything Erica knew about werewolves before Derek came from romance novels, cheesy dramas, and even cheesier horror films. Derek had added hunters, alpha wolves, and maybe even dying a dramatic death.
He hadn't warned her about flatirons. She might never forgive him for leaving that part out.
"Ouch!" Erica hissed and flinched as the iron got a little too close to her scalp. "What are you doing, threatening it into lying flat?"
Derek grunted a non-answer. He was sitting behind her with his knees on either side of her hips. Now and then he shifted, leaning closer or away, the legs of the fold out chair scraping against the floor. By comparison with chair noises, a grunt was nearly a word.
After the pep talk in the morgue, she'd expected more than chair noises. A kiss, handholding, something. The creepy old subway station, she could take; creatures of the night couldn't all live in six story mansions. It was more than a fair trade for no more seizures and acne-free skin. Even having to dash barefoot through the streets to get there hadn't been so bad, after she realized she wasn't running out of breath. But there'd definitely been some making out implied in that talk, and Erica was starting to feel a little cheated on that end.
It was just her luck that as soon as he got what he wanted, Derek turned into someone completely different. Typical guy.
Huffing to herself, Erica slouched down a little, picking at the hem of her gray sweatshirt for something to focus on. It didn't fit with her new manicure. Derek had done that too, just grabbing her hand and telling her to hold still while he clipped and filed and polished, his face set with a constipated sort of concentration that would have been funny almost any other time. The fingers looked like they belonged to someone else, someone who wasn't wearing a sweatshirt that was so old the hems were fraying, whose shoes weren't practical flats and who didn't have an alpha werewolf playing with her hair.
"Why are you doing this?" she finally asked, after a full fifteen minutes of brooding, awkward silence. Her head was starting to feel odd, prickly around the roots, and the strands that brushed her cheeks weren't frizzy anymore. "You didn't... you said it would take care of my seizures. Not..."
"We're pack." It was maybe the first full sentence he'd said since sitting her down. She felt like maybe she should let it go, since clearly her hair required that much concentration. But the quiet was starting to bug her; usually, when people were quiet around her, it was because they were holding in the laughter until she was out of the room.
"And pack... does each other's hair?"
"It's about confidence." He did something complicated to the left side of her head, tugging hard enough that it yanked sideways. "You need it. This is a start."
The sharp pressure on her scalp eased, and then a piece of hair was flipped forward over her shoulder. It was shiny and smooth, curling in gentle spirals that were still warm when she ran a fingertip across it. A slow smile spread across her lips as she wound the new curl around her fingers, tugging gently. "Where did you learn to do this?"
Derek went still. Erica felt herself freezing with him, breathing in deep through her nose, ears straining for the sound of a threat. As soon as she realized what she was doing, she was able to relax again, but not completely, not until Derek's fingers started moving through her hair again. It still wasn't like before; the silence had grown teeth.
After a few more pieces of hair were done, Derek finally said, "My sister. She could never reach the pieces in back."
"Oh." Erica resisted the urge to hunch down even more. Laura. He'd told her about his family before biting her, laying all the cards on the table, a perfect example of the worst that could happen. By then, she'd been nodding along, willing to accept just about anything for the gorgeous older guy who promised to fix everything that was wrong with her.
Now she thought that maybe she should have listened harder.
"Is that why you did the nails, too?" she asked in a small voice, running her fingers along the curl again. Maybe with the curls, they looked right.
"The right hand is hard."
"But you only did a top coat." Which had been another odd thing she hadn't asked about at the time. What was the point of a manicure if there wasn't going to be any color?
He didn't really laugh. It was just a soft release of air against the back of her neck. "Color wouldn't survive the change."
"Oh." That made sense, even if it was disappointing. "I could, though, right? If I wanted to? As long as I fixed it after."
"If you wanted to," he said, with another soft not-laugh. It was strangely relaxing, easing tension out of her that she'd barely been aware of.
The quiet got easier after that, comfortable, like a favorite blanket she could snuggle into. Erica lost track of time, just letting herself live in the moment, until Derek announced, "Done," and she realized that the smell of heated hair had been fading for a good while.
Reaching up, she ran her hand over her hair, feeling the long, silky fall of it, the way the curls tangled around each other. Maybe it was worth trading the dating an older man dream for personal hairstylist. Twisting around on her stool, she smiled. "This is... this is great. Thank you."
Predictably, Derek didn't smile back. He just stood up and reached for his jacket, shrugging it on like it wasn't a crime to cover up all those muscles. "We're not done yet. Get your things."
"But—I have to get to class." Still, she grabbed her backpack, swinging it around to settle on her shoulders. It was lighter than she remembered, and that was a whole new reason to smile. "I'm probably already late."
That did make him smile, a feral little curl of the lip that probably shouldn't have been as hot as it really was. "You'll make lunch."
"The mall?" Erica trailed Derek through the echoing stretches of corridor. At nine o'clock on a school day it was nearly deserted, but even that was too much. She could hear everything: the lady behind the counter to their right chewing gum, a punch of toddlers chasing each other around the fountain, an entire phone conversation without a single phone in sight. Too bright, too sharp, too many colors and textures and noises. She thought she might puke from just the smells alone: tacos and burgers and chicken and cookies and people and hair spray and lotions, all crowded together into a mix that was like an olfactory nuke.
Something sharp passed by, a smell like sugar and mango. Erica slowed down, head turning as she tried to locate the source of the scent. By the time she pinpointed it to some kid eating candy fifty feet away, Derek had gotten a good ten steps ahead of her.
And he still hadn't answered her question.
Speeding up, Erica caught up enough to grab his elbow. The look he shot her was all tension and teeth, but she had a feeling that it wasn't directed at her. She kind of wanted to growl, too. He didn't shrug off the touch, though, so that was something. "Why are we at the mall?"
"Exposure." Using her grip against her, he nudged them in to one of the little stores, a place that smelled like air freshener and metal. Leather jackets hung in the window, real leather, soft and supple, making her fingers itch to run over it. "You need to get used to things, or they'll overwhelm you. This is the place to do it."
Erica eyed the shoes on display. They were mostly heels and looked like they doubled as weapons. Some of them had spikes. "Is that all?" she asked hopefully. They'd already done her hair and nails. She didn't think clothes would be too much to ask. "Hard to look like a confident badass in flats, right?"
He raised an eyebrow but reached out to a rack of jeans. "First things first. What's your size?"
Running an eye over her, he shook his head and grabbed an eight, then shoved it at her. "Hold this."
That was how they spent the next half hour, Derek going from rack to rack, shooting down her ideas and then loading her with his own. His taste was about as far from her usual as it was possible to get, without a set of fat-day jeans in sight.
"You want me to try all these on?" she asked, staring at the pile of clothes in despair. Pulling the top piece off, she held it up. It was a skirt, tiny and black, barely long enough to cover her ass and so tight she was going to need thong panties. Not that her legs were bad, but she didn't show them off much. Wearing a skirt was a dumb move when you might end up seizing on the floor and having it posted online.
Derek rolled his eyes and just looked at her. The next thing she knew, she was in the dressing room with at least three cows worth of leather and no idea what she was doing. At least he hadn't bought her any bras. That would have been too weird.
"Are you sure?" she called through the door. Three different mirrors stared at her accusingly. "I have t-shirts! And jeans!"
"Just try them on."
Swallowing, Erica reached for the pile. It was a simple outfit at first, a clingy blue top and dark jeans, with some sort of half-jacket to go over it all. The neckline plunged down to show off cleavage she sometimes forgot she had, almost low enough to show off her bra, and the jeans hugged her curves.
Staring at herself in the mirrors, she could almost see someone else looking back. "First set fits!"
"Come out here."
"What?" Panic grabbed her throat at the thought of going out, where he could make that judgmental face and send her back to try again. "No, really, this is fine!"
"Just do it." Even through the door, she could tell Derek was rolling his eyes.
Swallowing down her nerves, Erica cracked the door and slipped out. "Well?"
Derek was lounging in one of the chairs, sprawled out as if he waited in changing rooms every day. His eyes started at her face, slid down to her ankles and then back up. He nodded. "Good."
The girl at the register whistled.
After that, it was easy.
They ended up buying everything, with shoes to match. She walked out of the store in a plain white tee with the black skirt and matching leather jacket, finished off with leopard print heels that were so high she would have broken her ankle in them before. Three different sets of eyes followed them out.
When Erica got home, she was going to burn her old clothes.
"Where are we going next?" She twisted away from him, getting a few steps ahead so she could walk backwards and see his face. "There's two hours until lunch."
Derek didn't look down at her cleavage, even when she locked her hands behind her back and leaned forward a little. "You'll see."
Tall, dark and mysterious. Also full of crap. She might have been annoyed, but it had landed her a lot of clothes. She could put up with a lot for that. "Fine, fine. Lead the way, Alpha mine."
He snorted and stepped up to grab her waist, twisting her around to keep her by his side. That was fine by her. Snuggling in, Erica watched out of the corner of her eye as the few girls that were around shot her jealous looks. That's right, she wanted to tell them. Mine. Even though he really wasn't. It was the look of the thing. No one had ever been jealous of her before, and she wanted to enjoy it while it lasted.
She was so busy being smug that she missed when they'd passed from the main mall into one of the big department stores until the smell hit her. Knees locking up and eyes watering, she staggered sideways. Derek's arm tightened to keep her upright as he all but forced her into the store, past racks and racks of purses and old lady clothes.
Erica's eyes tried to cross as the stench of a thousand chemicals masquerading as flowers hit her like a brick wall. Breathing through her mouth didn't help; the air tasted as bad as it smelled. "What are we doing here?"
"Makeup." A couple of turns past glass cases and too-bright lights, and he all but threw her into the arms of the guy manning the makeup counter. "Have a seat."
Erica somehow didn't stumble when she caught herself in the makeup guy's chest. Shoving off, she twisted around, fists clenched and glaring. Sure, she was kind of a social reject, but Derek knew that when he bit her. He didn't have to be rude about it. "I have makeup. I just don't normally use it."
There it was, a little twist of the lips that was nearly a smile. Crossing his arms, he cocked a hip and leaned against the nearest counter. "Is it hypoallergenic?"
Derek was laughing at her, the furry jerk. "Hypoallergenic?" she asked, crossing her own arms under her breasts. Werewolves didn't have allergies. He'd said that. She could eat strawberries without her throat swelling closed, and that was action item three on her new to do list. "Why would I need hypoallergenic makeup now that—now?"
The smirk turned into a full-on grin. "Perfumes."
"Perfu—oh." Erica imagined having all the chemicals that were plaguing her nose on her face, all the time, the smell following her everywhere, clogging up every breath she took. Her stomach twisted at the thought. "Okay, makeup."
Derek didn't stop grinning. Bastard.
Nails. Hair. Clothes. Makeup. Erica looked like a new person.
She didn't really feel like one.
They were in Derek's car outside the school, waiting for the lunch bell to ring. No one was around to see her. No one to witness the change from the dumpy old Erica to the new. No one there to laugh at her for thinking she could become a new Erica. She still had time to go back to her sweats and flats, to wipe off the makeup and shove her hair under a hat. It was one thing to go parading around the mall, hanging on some hot guy's arm and strutting in a set of killer heels, but school was different. Everyone there knew her, had seen her seizing up like a freak on the gym mat. Had laughed while it happened.
There must have been some sign of her oncoming panic because Derek grabbed her hand over the center console, wrapping it up in his bigger one.
"Breathe," he said quietly, and she did, slow in and even slower out, until her heart stopped beating in her ears. "You'll do fine." He squeezed her hand, then let go to cup the back of her neck, warm palms that were sharp with calluses and soft at the same time. That was even better than the hand-holding, the firm touch making her lean back in the chair and relax. Derek would take care of her, she knew. It was bigger than just the clothes, or the makeup or hair. He was her alpha.
Pack. It had a meaning that she was just starting to understand.
"Thanks." She smiled, knowing it came out shaky and weak. "Some werewolf, huh?"
"High school is hell, doesn't matter if you're a human or werewolf." His thumb rubbed the spot just at the base of her skull. "All you have to do is go in there and be sure they see you. Then come back out here, and we'll go get some food."
Erica closed her eyes and leaned into the touch, feeling like purring. Maybe she was turning into a werecat instead of a wolf. "He's going to drool all over the floor, isn't he?" she asked, smiling to herself. "Stiles. I had the biggest crush on him once."
The hand on the back of her neck went from gentle to tight. She hissed, back arching as Derek's nails dug in. "Ignore him," he growled. "Focus on McCall. He's the one we're interested in."
Stupid as it was, Erica laughed, even as she tipped her head back to bare her throat. "What? Got a thing for some hot Stilinski ass?" Not that she could blame him if he did. Pot, kettle.
Derek's eyes had gone deep, rusty red. He let go of her neck, and the door locks clicked open. "Just go."
That wasn't a denial.
"It's okay. He's pretty cute, isn't he?" Laughing at the expression on Derek's face, Erica leaned over and pecked a kiss to her alpha's cheek, then scrambled out of the car before he could snap at her.
Time to show the world her new look. And if the world happened to include Stiles Stilinski, well... Derek would just have to live with it.