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Conundrums: Every Family Has Its Quirks

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SUNDAY MORNING

The day had started out with great promise.

Kyle woke to Warren burrowing into his side, murmuring, “You smell delicious.”

“And g’morning to you, sunshine.” Kyle stretched luxuriously, relaxed in the knowledge that for once he had no court cases scheduled, no urgent appointments with feuding spouses; in fact, he had no plans for the day at all.

And neither did Warren. Well, Kyle was certainly not adverse to improvising.

Warren's cell phone rang.

“For God’s sake, ignore it.” Kyle grabbed Warren’s hair and pulled him up for a sleepy kiss.

“Mmmmm.” Warren licked into Kyle's mouth, apparently not the least bit put off by morning breath. “I shouldn’t.”

“Yes, you should. That’s what voice mail is for.” Blessedly, the phone stopped ringing, and Kyle took the opportunity to run his hands down Warren’s back and cup one ass cheek in his hand.

“Yep, my ass is still flat as a pancake, in case you’re checking.” Warren gently nuzzled Kyle’s ear.

“Well, cowboy, that’s why your jeans ride so low.” Kyle grinned. “Works just fine for me. And it means no one’s distracted from watching my lovely ass when you’re around.”

Warren narrowed his eyes at Kyle. “They better only look.”

The phone rang again, and Kyle reached over to turn it off, whispering, “Ignore it,” again.

“I can’t,” Warren said sharply. “It’s Adam.” With that, Warren grabbed the phone and rolled off Kyle and out of bed.

Kyle listened, wishing he could hear both sides of the conversation, but only hearing Warren’s increasingly agitated responses.

“Hey, Adam, what’s up?“ Then, “Okay. No, no. It’s fine. I’ll be there.” Warren flipped the phone shut.

“Be where?” Kyle asked.

Warren looked over at him. “Can’t talk about it now.” He scrambled into his jeans and t-shirt. “I’ve got to go.” Without another word, Warren was out the door, and their lovely Sunday morning bed-scene came to an abrupt end.

*****

Jesse pulled her tattered old journal from beneath her mattress. It was a lame place to hide it, but her dad would either respect her privacy or he wouldn’t. If he was so into secrets, he should respect hers.

Way back when she was 13-years-old, he'd caught her writing on-line and given her his ‘I’m a super understanding dude, but still your father and the Alpha and don’t you forget it' look and said, “No place on-line is really private, Jess. I know it’s a lot for someone your age to handle, but being part of this family means that you have to be able to keep secrets. Not just our own, but a whole community’s. That’s just the way it is. You’re going to have to go old-school if you want to keep a journal.”

Everything about her family was on a top-secret, need-to-know basis. But sometimes it felt like a kind of one-way deal; she couldn’t talk about anything to anyone, but every single member of the pack thought it was their God-given right to know where Jesse was and what she was up to all of the time.

Well, at least her journal was one place she could be real. And the up side of having Alpha-Dad was that sure as hell no one would go messing around with things in her room.

Jesse chose the purple gel-pen to write with today.

I just finished reading Moby Dick. I almost gave up with that endless, BORING introduction, but Ahab’s a pretty fascinating character, and it makes me wonder if everyone has their own Great White Whale to chase. I don’t know. Anyhow, it’ll be a good thing to reference when I take the AP exam.

Speaking of obsessed maniacs (jk!), my father is driving me crazy. Ever since that whole thing with Mercy and the vampires, he won’t let me go anywhere on my own. Darryl is downstairs right this minute, supposedly watching a 49ers game. How naïve do they think I am? He’s guarding me. And for what? Nothing bad has happened to me. At least not anything from the Big Bad Guys. Worse thing ever happened to me was when Mom forgot to come home that week. And Mom’s not a bad guy, she’s just easily distracted. It was that dickhead Jerry got her drunk…though he didn’t force the drink down her throat, did he? She could have called…but whatever, I was fine.

Holy Goddess!!!! I hate it when I write that stuff. Mom is mom. ‘Nuff said. (And in case anyone is reading this journal, STOP READING, cuz I love her and she’s not so bad, so STOP JUDGING HER.)

Anyhow, as dearest papa says, I must try to “honor my human heritage.” Gag.

Honestly, I don’t know where he comes up with his little bon mots. What’s so great about being human? I wish I could be a Coyote like Mercy, but she says she was Born That Way. Ha! Wonder if Gaga was writing about Fae when she wrote that. Odds are she’s probably Fae herself. Everyone interesting is something.

Anyways, since I'm not a shapeshifter, I guess I’ll have to be a wolf. Even though Dad says absolutely, 200% NO, OVER HIS DEAD BODY. I wonder what color my fur will be? Mercy told me she thought I would be the very first Turquoise wolf. Of course that’s when my hair was blue. It’s Manic Panic Pink now, but that would be ridiculous on a wolf. I think I’d like my fur to be peacock colors. Wouldn’t that be totally Awesome!!

But Dad got mad at Mercy for “encouraging me,” and she put on her serious face and said she thought I was totally cool as a human. I hate it when she does that—goes all grown up on me when I know that inside she kind of agrees with me. I thought it would be perfect when she became Dad’s mate, but now I’m not so sure. It’s not like she tries to be my step-mom or anything…but it’s as if there’s some part of her that’s always listening, weighing what Dad will think about it.

I just can’t wait to be a Wolf! I imagine what it will feel like to have paws, to run full out, to feel the wind in my fur, to….

Well, to kill deer. That still grosses me out. Nobody ever heard of a vegan werewolf. LOL! But still….

I know one thing I’ll NEVER do—that is bow down to all the male wolves. Why should I? Especially Ben and Darryl. Mercy doesn’t…at least not much. But she’s not really a wolf, is she? It’s a CONUNDRUM (cool word, right?).

So, who’s going to help me turn? No one’s going to be willing to do it when Dad is so set against it. Maybe I need to move to England or something. Far, far away where I can find a Wolf of My Own. J

The rate I’m going, I’m never even going to be able to leave my room. I’ll end up not just human, but the world’s most boring human ever. In fact,

Before she could complete her thought, the doorbell rang. Jesse heard Darryl get up, open the front window, and yell, “No one’s here, Kyle. Go home.”

Jesse jumped out of bed and ran downstairs. “Don’t you dare send him away, Darryl!” But apparently she didn’t need to worry; Kyle was steadily pounding on the door.

Darryl stood at the bottom of the stairs, blocking Jesse’s way. “Your dad didn’t say anything about visitors, young lady.”

“Kyle’s not a visitor,” Jesse said furiously. “He’s family. Get out of my way.” She pushed at Darryl, who for a minute held still, an immovable mass…and then, shrugging, stepped aside. Jesse tumbled forward to the door and flung it open. There stood one of her favorite people in the world. Kyle grinned at her, and she threw herself into his arms. He had on some kind of silky, deep purple shirt with a complicated, vaguely oriental-looking gold design, and he smelled, well, yum. Not like anyone else she knew.

Kyle wrapped his arms around her. “Well, that’s more like it,” he said, giving Darryl a dismissive glance. “How are you today, my lovely?”

“Bored to the bones. Everyone’s been gone all day, and Dad’s still being all protective, and I’ve been stuck here with no one to talk to and nothing to do.”

“A sad story indeed. One I must admit seems just a little too familiar to me. I’ve had rather a day of doldrums, myself. I don’t suppose you’ve seen my beloved about, have you?” Kyle was trying to look casual, but Jesse could tell he was stressed.

“Sure, ages ago.” Jesse took Kyle’s hand and drew him inside. “Come on. Let’s go to the kitchen and have some of Mercy’s chocolate chip cookies and get all caught up with each other.” Darryl started to follow them into the kitchen. “No need to interrupt your game, Darryl,” Jesse said breezily.

After glowering at Kyle for a moment, Darryl grabbed a beer from the fridge and headed back to the living room.

“Ah, Darryl. Always such a charmer,” Kyle commented drily.

Jesse bristled a little at the implied criticism of someone in her pack. “He’s not so bad, really; his bark is worse than his bite.”

“Well, at least it’s clear that he has your back, Jess—that’s good.” Kyle waved away Jesse’s offer of cookies, going instead to turn on the electric kettle. “What kind of tea do you have?”

*****

A half hour later, Kyle sat at the kitchen table, sipping green tea. Jesse had run upstairs to answer a cell phone call. She hadn’t been able to fill in many blanks regarding Warren’s whereabouts—just that Warren had come over in the morning and left soon after with Mercy and Adam for a run.

Damn Warren anyways. Where the hell was he? This was supposed to be their day together. And the morning had started out with such promise….

That had been eight hours ago, and still no word from Warren. Kyle wasn’t exactly worried—after seeing Warren live through that last attack, Kyle had sworn off worrying. If he was going to have a boyfriend who was a werewolf, he was just going to have to accept that physical violence came with the territory.

Nope. Not worried.

Irritated.

Irked.

Fractious.

Every time he thought he’d finally gotten the hang of having a boyfriend who just happened to be a werewolf, something happened that threw him off again. It wasn't that he was the possessive sort. In fact, his past relationships were rather laissez faire and based on a pragmatic Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that kept lots of options open for everyone.

But that was before he met Warren. Warren, who had made Kyle understand that the open door policy had been more a matter of not really caring all that much. Warren, who made it clear that he was not interested in sharing Kyle with anyone.

Much to his surprise, Kyle found he kind of liked that possessive streak. That was, until Warren disappeared without an explanation. Repeatedly. Now that Kyle had found the wonders of monogamy, he hated that his boyfriend was beholden to another man. Sure, intellectually, Kyle understood that Adam Hauptman was the Alpha, but it didn’t mean he had to like Warren jumping out of bed whenever Adam crooked a finger.

“It’s kind of like being in the Marines,“ Warren had explained. “When your sergeant says jump, you don’t ask how high.”

Kyle had found this explanation lacking. First, there was that weird pack thing where Warren could feel when Adam needed him—some kind of inner magnet that always pointed towards the Alpha. No damn Marine sergeant could do that. And second, Kyle didn’t think many Marines spent time licking each others' faces or snuggling together in a bed.

Well. Maybe some of them did. Kyle smiled to himself, remembering one particularly eager young Marine at a masquerade ball years ago. And he couldn’t really make an issue of the face-licking thing; it did only happen when Adam and Warren were in their wolf forms.

Still, the pack was definitely not like any military unit Kyle had ever seen. More like a big, dysfunctional, highly-patriarchal family, with a weird set of rules and roles that were virtually indecipherable to anyone who wasn't pack. And Kyle understood one thing; he would always be just that: Not Pack.

Which, come to think of it, wasn't such an unfamiliar feeling, after all.

Shit, what was he doing, waiting around for Warren to return like some kind of love-sick puppy? This was a terrible precedent to set. Just as he was gathering himself to go, Jesse came bounding down the stairs.

“Dad just called. He says they’ll be home in about an hour. He seemed kind of excited about something. Said you should stay for dinner.”

Kyle’s phone started playing Don’t Fence Me In, his ring tone for Warren. “Kyle Brooks,” he answered in his best lawyer voice.

“Hey,” said Warren.

“To whom am I speaking?”

Kyle could hear Warren curse under his breath. “Kyle, hang on a minute. I need to go where I can talk more privately.”

Well, Kyle appreciated that. He’d learned the hard way not to say anything too personal to Warren on the phone when the pack was around. They heard every damn thing. Kyle crossed his legs and waited.

“Kyle, look, I don’t blame you for being pissed. I know I just kind of disappeared this morning.”

“Yep,” Kyle responded noncommittally, acutely aware of Big-Ears Darryl in the next room.

“Look, it was kind of urgent. Adam didn’t really explain it, just said Mercy was in trouble and to keep it on the down-low.”

First things first. “Is Mercy okay?”

“More or less,” Warren replied with an odd hesitation in his voice. “I mean physically—there’s nothing wrong. She’s just kind of…confused, I guess you’d call it.”

Kyle was trying really hard to be reasonable. “And I suppose that it’s pack business and needs to stay on the—love the hood talk by the way—down-low.”

“No. Actually, that’s not it at all. Not this time. Hey, I know I don’t have a right to ask this after bailing on you all day. But could you just stay at Adam’s until we get there? I think we all need to talk.”

“Okay, mystery man. I’ll patiently await your return, my heart aflutter,” Kyle said in a flat voice.

“Kyle,” Warren whispered, suddenly intense. “You know I love you, right?”

Before Kyle could answer, he heard an odd sort of whining noise over the phone.

“I’ve gotta go. See you soon.” And Warren ended the call.

“Shit!” Kyle was poised to fling the phone against the wall until he saw Jesse hovering close by, an anxious look in her eyes. Kyle pulled himself together.

“Well, kiddo, it seems you're stuck with me for a while. Let’s get some dinner going and have a good gossip.”

Jesse gave him a thumbs-up and said, “Dinner’s easy. We’ve got steaks and potatoes and salad makings.”

“Good. Chopping vegetables sounds like just the thing for me.”

“They’re in the fridge. I’ll get the potatoes washed and in the oven.”

Kyle rummaged through the vegetable drawer and came up with a red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, red pepper, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, carrots, scallions, and some parmesan cheese. In the cupboard, he found a jar of artichoke hearts. As Kyle cut and peeled veggies, he felt himself relaxing into the familiar rituals of cooking, able to focus on the moment.

Jesse was absolutely animated. Kyle tried to remember not to laugh too hard at her spot-on imitations of various members of the pack; she always got defensive the moment he joined in the mockery. After a bit, Jesse asked him if he liked Panic! at the Disco.

While Kyle had occasionally observed some good disco-panicking, he’d never heard of the band.

“Right now, they’re my favorite. You’ve got to hear them.” Jesse switched on her iPod, the speakers set on high, and angled them toward the living room where Darryl was still watching football.

Ah. Must be time for secrets, Kyle thought.

Sure enough, Jesse walked up to Kyle and began speaking in a low, urgent voice about her desire to become a werewolf, and how everyone was set against her.

Kyle understood why she opened up to him. He was, after all, one of the only other humans in on the family secret. As a divorce attorney, Kyle was the guardian of many people’s family secrets. Usually, he was able to keep his distance, think through legal implications with a clear head, and devise strategies for keeping people safe. But something about Jesse's dilemma touched him: the yearning she had to be other than she was; his own curiosity about the werewolves; her disregard for the dangers inherent in the change. As a result, he was unusually unsure how to respond to her.

He didn’t want to encourage her, but did he have a right to discourage her?

Jesse leaned in towards Kyle. “I may be human, but I know, I just know that I’m meant to be a wolf. I don’t care what Dad says, what Mom says, what Mercy says, what anybody says. This body of mine,” she gestured dismissively at her lithe young self, “it’s just temporary accommodations. You know?”

In a way, he did. Not that he’d ever wanted to be anything but human or male, but he remembered the acute sense of dislocation he’d felt during his childhood, knowing in his core that somehow, someway, he was different. He could be the smartest boy in his class (and he was), the best pitcher on the team (and he was), and he still wouldn’t be the kind of son his father wanted.

Suddenly, he was awash in memory, his so-often-absent father appearing on the front porch on his 13th birthday for a “father to son discussion,” his mother pushing him none-too-gently out the door, saying, “Go, go, Kyle. Your dad, he’s trying.”

And his father taking him over to his stinky apartment, cigarette ashes spilling out of the ashtrays, a terrible oil painting of a buck hung crookedly on the wall, and a school photo of Kyle, from second grade, his front teeth missing, in a frame on the fireplace mantle. It was that last detail that always got Kyle. He still couldn’t make sense of it.

But his father had sat him down and said, “I reckon you’re about a man now. And you’ll be having a man’s needs. Don’t go and do anything stupid, like I did. Don’t get no girls pregnant. You can wank off to this until you’re old enough to take care of things.” And with that, he had handed Kyle a cardboard box filled with old Playboy magazines. Kyle wordlessly accepted the box, and his father drove him home.

Later that night, Kyle took the box of magazines into the back yard. Using a Bic lighter he’d stolen from his father’s house, he tried to light one of the magazines on fire. Frustrated by how the sleek magazine pages resisted burning, he went into the garage and pulled out a quart of lighter fluid. He had generously splattered lighter fluid over the whole box, and the flames burst out with a satisfying whoosh.

Kyle stopped the memory reel running through his mind. He hadn’t really connected this before, but there it was: his 13-year-old self dancing around the fire, his face raised to howl like a wolf at the moon. He laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Jesse asked, bringing him abruptly back to the present.

“Just an old memory, sorry." Kyle stopped a moment to throw peelings in the compost pail. Jesse was briskly assembling ingredients for the salad dressing. She had the confidence of a natural born cook—humming to herself as she sorted through spices.

She turned towards Kyle again and said, just a little too nonchalant, "I was thinking, maybe, Warren would turn me. Do you think he might?”

The unexpected question left him gaping for a long moment. “And go against your father? No. I don’t think he would, and I’m not sure it’s even a good idea, Jess. Come on, you’ve seen what it’s like—the pain people go through with the turning. It’s pretty gruesome, if you think about it. And besides, imagine what it will be like to shave your legs. You are the only teenage girl I know who actually wants to be hairy.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Jess giggled. “And it’s fur, not hair. There’s a difference, you know.”

Kyle thought about Warren as Wolf, and the satisfaction he found tugging hard on that velvety fur, Warren’s playful nips in response—such control behind such power. No. It was nothing like hair.

“True," he admitted. "I was actually thinking about coming out, just now. I was only 10-years old when I really knew. You know, knew for sure that I was gay. That was 1986. I know, ancient history. But that was back at the height of the AIDS crisis, and all I heard anywhere was that being gay meant I was going to die young and tragically. So, for a while I tried to think my way out of it. I would catalog everything I liked about girls. And there was plenty. I’ve always gotten along well with girls. When I was 12, I used to practice on my next door neighbor, Megan, who was pretty and fun and smart and everything I could ever want in a girl. I can remember writing a list on a yellow pad of paper: the way her hair shines; the way she holds a curling iron; the way her lips taste like grape bubble gum…”

“You kissed her?” Jessie interrupted, fascinated.

“Oh sure. I was nothing if not thorough and scientific. But it didn’t make a whit of difference. When I fell asleep at night, I’d dream about Benny Wheatson down the street, or Brad Pitt. Never Megan.”

“Yeah, Brad Pitt is still pretty hot, for an old dude.”

“You should have seen him back then. Did you ever see A River Runs Through It? Yes ma’am, I’ve always had a weak spot for cowboys.”

“So, you do know what I mean,” Jesse said eagerly. “I mean, you couldn’t wish yourself out of being gay, and I can’t think myself out of being a werewolf. It’s meant to be.”

“No. No. It’s not really the same. It’s only kind of parallel. It’s true that, at some point, I decided to hell with it—if being a fag meant I was going to die, so be it. At least I’d really live before I died.“

“Yeah, that’s like me. I want to really live.”

“And have you given that a chance yet, Jess? Really living?” Kyle saw Jesse raise her shoulders defensively, but he pushed on, knowing this was not what she wanted to hear from him. “It seems to me that you haven’t even taken the time to figure out what kind of woman you might grow up to be. Of course right now being a wolf looks good—look where you’re living! You're 16—you’re antsy, a little depressed, and you want to have adventures and be totally other than you are. Well, welcome to being a human adolescent, honey!”

Jesse gave Kyle a wounded look. “Et tu, Kyle? You’re all so scared! Stop being so damn scared.”

Kyle looked back at her. “Reading Julius Caesar at school?” he stalled.

“No, Kyle. Reading Shakespeare because I fuckin’ like to read. And don’t change subjects. Why can’t you, at least you, just support me?”

“Jess, I think the thing that you’re not seeing—the thing that every single other person in your life can see absolutely shining around you—is that you, Jesse Hauptman, you are already magic in every way that really matters.”

“I don’t feel like even one tiny molecule of me is magic,“ she said ferociously.

“No. We never do see that in ourselves, do we?” he sighed. “But trust me, you are something special. And the world would be a grayer, more dismal place without you in it. And from what Warren tells me, there’s more than a 50/50 chance that the change could kill you. I don’t want to live in that gray world, hon.”

“Oh...thank you, that’s sweet, but….” Jesse threw her hands over her mouth with a look of horror. “Oh my God! Do you know what I just realized? Ick. Just ick. You sound like Edward trying to talk Bella out of becoming a vampire. And she is pathetic!” She peeked out between her fingers as Kyle gave a short, sharp laugh.

“Well, maybe we’re a little Twilight-ish around the edges,” Kyle agreed. He freely admitted to loving the Twilight movies. Of course, now that the world knew there really were Fae and Werewolves, the movies had become more controversial—people picketing theaters with “Humans for Humans” signs; nervous talk show jokes about how at least vampires weren’t real, were they?; and the whole Jacob vs. Edward thing no longer seeming quite so innocent. But anything that made Warren laugh in a deep and abandoned way was just aces with Kyle.

“I can’t even. Just gag me.” Jesse rolled her eyes and cocked her head thoughtfully. “I never understood why Bella was in such a hurry. Oh I know, sex and all that…but she was only 18.”

“And you’re 16.”

“And I don’t have to be a wolf to have sex.” She gave him a sly, challenging look.

Kyle wasn’t even going to try to be parental on that one. “Yep, Jess, plain ol’ humans have been known to enjoy sexual relations.”

“Okay. I guess I don’t have to hurry this whole thing. But don’t get all triumphant and smug on me. I’m not going to change my mind.“ Jesse gave a determined tug of her hair. “I will be a wolf one day.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “But I’m not going to be just any wolf, Kyle. I’m going to be an Alpha. Oh, not for a long time. I mean, I love my dad. It’s going to have to be somewhere else, so I’m gonna have to have money to move, and then someone to turn me, and then…well, it’s complicated.”

“Yes, I rather see that it is.” Kyle couldn’t help but admire her audacity. But as far as he could tell, being an Alpha meant being able to fight off all contenders. Jesse was tall for a girl, but still, decidedly a girl. She’d never out-muscle or out-weigh the other wolves. So he simply said, “Waiting. That seems a fine idea.”

Jesse nodded in agreement, but then stuck her jaw out. “I’m not gonna wait forever, though. And when that time comes, I think I’ll need you…and maybe Warren, too. Promise me you’ll help me when the time comes. Promise me—one human to another.”

Kyle started to shake his head. No. Life was already complicated enough.

Yet, didn’t Jesse deserve to be a big bad Alpha if she wanted to be? Wasn’t that what his whole life's work was about—helping people to define their own paths, make their way out of the impossible, tricky traps of family?

What Jesse was talking about was dangerous. And he already knew what Warren would think: much as Warren poked fun at the pack hierarchy and tried to navigate along the edges of it, he was Adam’s loyal follower to the core. Warren would say this was absolutely none of Kyle’s business. And he’d be right.

Jesse held her hand out to him, looking at him with a long steady gaze.

And damn if he didn’t find himself taking her hand and saying, “If you really give yourself some time to grow up first, to taste the world, make love with someone you care about, get the hell out of here for a while…. If you do all that and you still want to make the change, okay, Jess. I promise. I’ll be here for you.”

Jesse gave his hand a squeeze, but didn’t look the least bit surprised. Maybe the girl had a little Alpha in her after all.

***

By the time Jesse’s father, Mercy, and Warren finally got home, dinner was ready and the table was set. Kyle had transitioned from green tea to a dry martini, and Darryl was impatiently nosing around the kitchen, drawn by the delicious aromas drifting through the house.

The first thing Jesse saw as her family trooped in the kitchen door was a puppy tucked up beneath Warren’s chin. Mercy was watching the pup grumpily, but Dad just seemed amused.

Something about the puppy was different. Dogs were usually pretty terrified around the Pack, but not this one; she calmly looked about with her big brown eyes—a young princess surveying her realm. Jesse couldn’t resist; she ran over to Warren and reached out to greet the puppy. The puppy sniffed Jesse’s fingers and began to wriggle with excitement.

“Aw, she likes you, Jesse,” Warren said.

“Oh, she’s so cute! Can I hold her, please?” Jesse opened her arms.

Almost reluctantly, Warren passed the puppy over to her.

The puppy squirmed in her grip, trying to lick her fingers, but Jesse's attention was unexpectedly caught by the tense reunion in front of her.

Warren stepped over to Kyle and gave him a hug, whispering something in his ear that Jesse couldn’t hear. Kyle shook his head once: No.

Jesse's breath caught.

Warren, seemingly unfazed, leaned back against the kitchen counter. “Come here. Come on,” he said softly, pulling Kyle around until he was leaning back against Warren. Jesse watched Kyle resist for a moment, clearly still irritated by Warren’s long absence, but then Warren said, loud enough for all to hear, “I’m sorry. In the future, I’ll try to remember to use my words before I disappear.”

Kyle gave a dubious little snort that clearly indicated he’d believe it when he saw it, but he relaxed back into Warren’s arms.

Jesse breathed a small sigh of relief before an enthusiastic lick across her cheek reclaimed her attention.

After a thorough, face-licking hello, the puppy settled nicely into her arms. Jesse buried her head in the puppy’s fur, cooing meaningless words into the tufted ears.

“Looks like that puppy has made more than one conquest tonight.” Kyle winked at Jesse.

“Well, not exactly a puppy,” Warren said.

Mercy looked about apoplectic, making a low sound that sounded suspiciously like a growl. Jesse had never seen Mercy so clearly out of her element—no matter what was going on, Mercy could usually be counted on for a flippant remark that would crack everyone up. Something about the puppy had clearly ticked her off.

“Isn’t she just the most yumptious!” Jesse said, stubbornly taking the puppy's side. “Daddy, please oh please can we keep her?”

Jesse’s dad looked at her, a smile playing across his lips.

Mercy surprised them all, abruptly shouting, “She’s not a damn puppy. She’s a Coyote—a shapeshifter, same as me. And no, Jesse, you absolutely may not keep her!”

Oh. Jesse had always wondered if Mercy was lonely being the only known shapeshifter in the world. But apparently she preferred being a one-of-a-kind oddball.

Darryl decided that was the perfect moment to stick his nose into things, saying that Dad should send the pup right up to Bran, since Bran had experience with this kind of problem, and one Coyote in the Pack was more than enough. Darryl simmered down after Dad gave him the magic Alpha stink-eye, but then Dad said he thought there was plenty of room in the house for just one more. Mercy turned into a Coyote right that very moment and began growling at him.

Warren didn’t say anything, but he lifted the puppy from Jesse’s arms, hugging the pup tight to him and covering her ears with a big hand. Kyle started teasing that if he’d known Warren wanted a dog, he would have bought him a nice, regular puppy ; maybe something small and easy to travel with, like a poodle or a Lhasa Apso. Hell, he’d even get him a big dog—couldn’t go wrong with a Golden Retriever, right?

Darryl made a grab for the puppy, and Warren swatted his hand away with a curse.

Jesse cleared her throat and tried to get everyone’s attention, but Mercy was pacing the room, snarling, and everyone kept talking on top of each other, until finally Jesse grabbed a pot and a big metal serving spoon and started banging on it.

That shut them up.

“That’s right. Settle yourselves down, everyone, before this turns to biting,” Jesse ordered, her hands on her hips. “Just breathe. Breathe.”

Kyle gave Jesse an approving look, and languidly clapped his hands in applause.

“Wisdom from the mouth of babes,” he said. “Now, I've found most everyone thinks better on a full stomach,  besides which I must warn you that I will be one unhappy man if Jesse and I spent an hour slaving over dinner and its left to get cold. So let’s pull our fangs in and eat some dinner.”

This seemed to be one thing all could agree on, and moments later they were settled around the table to eat. Mercy stayed in coyote form, and Jesse fed her steak scraps under the table.

With food in their stomachs and a great deal of alcohol shared by everyone but Warren and Jesse, the adults settled into a reasonable conversation. Jesse made one more bid to have the little coyote pup stay with her, but a none-too-gentle nip from Mercy—and her father’s statement that he would not go against Mercy in this—made that option null.

Warren held the pup in his arms, asking Kyle a question with his eyes.

At last, Kyle lifted his martini glass. “I’d like to make a toast.”

Everyone obediently raised a cup or glass.

“I raise a toast to crazy, impulsive cowboys everywhere. Cowboys who hide hearts of mush behind their manly exteriors. It seems that we have a new puppy—er, child.”

Warren let out a deep sigh and gave Kyle a look that Jesse felt right in the center of her heart. She hoped a man looked at her that way someday.

He carefully handed the puppy over to Kyle and, just at that moment, the pup turned into a human baby girl. Kyle shrieked and almost dropped her, but then his eyes opened wide and he bent down to kiss the baby’s head. “Well, what do you know? Hello, beautiful baby girl.”

Kyle told Warren to go get something warm for the child before she froze to death. And Warren yelled, “Find me some swaddling clothes, someone.” And then Darryl and Dad started laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. Mercy just kind of sniffed the baby and went into a corner and curled up.

With the adults all flailing uselessly, Jesse was glad that at least she kept her head. She went upstairs and found a blanket for the baby and a soft old tee-shirt to wrap around her.

“It’s high time we got this little girl home,” Warren said a few minutes later, looking just a little bit stunned.

“Not the Sunday I was expecting at all,” Kyle said as he got up to leave. He looked over at Jess. “I assume that you have mad babysitting skills, my sweet. Because we’re not doing this alone.”

Jesse couldn’t stop smiling. “I’ll be there any day, any time that you need me.”

With that, Kyle and Warren went out the door. The last thing Jesse heard was Kyle fussing about not having a car seat, and Warren saying, “Just this once, I think she’ll be okay. Let’s take this one step at a time.”

**

Jesse pulled her journal out. It had been such an intense day. It already seemed like ages since Kyle made his solemn promise to support her.

He was her first, official ally on her journey toward becoming her true self. She couldn’t tell him how right this felt. He, like all the other grown-ups, was so easily frightened. But still. It was a beginning.

She would let that settle in a little before writing anything about it. Chew over what it meant.

Instead, she pulled out her pen and wrote:

AN AMAZING DAY

I can’t believe how much has happened since I was writing earlier! Weird how everything looks the same, but nothing is.

Because now I have a sister. Or at least a cousin.

She’s part of my Pack. I know it.

And Kyle’s right. We have plenty of time.

Maybe tomorrow we’ll even learn her name.