Jeff rolled over and flung an arm around his mate’s waist. The gesture was more than instinct at this point; it was as reflexive as breathing. Half-asleep, he tugged her closer and swirled his nose in the silky mass of her dark hair, while he pushed his body against hers, covering her skin with his from shoulder to toe, his chest to her back, and sliding his knees into the crook of her bent legs. He breathed in her scent – burnt sugar – as he pressed open mouth kisses to the nape of her neck, tasting the salt on her skin. It started as a gentle nibble of the soft skin, but he soon found that wasn’t enough. The nibbles progressed to slow, deliberate licks up her neck and along her jaw, ending when he sucked the vulnerable lobe of her ear into his mouth.
“Too hot,” came her muffled response. But her body made her a liar, as she began to roll her hips back and forth against his growing desire.
“Your fault,” he growled back. “Makin’ us sleep up here in the middle of July. ‘Course it’s like a sauna.” And as if on cue, a drop of sweat slid down his nose to splatter on Sam’s temple. She wiggled around, which did nothing to alleviate his building lust. In fact, the motion only egged him on. Once she was facing him, he dragged his cheek alongside hers, letting the prickle of his beard work its magic on her. She shivered in his arms and pulled him in closer, the sweat making the slide of their bodies smoother.
Jeff wasn’t even conscious of the low rumble that reverberated from deep within his chest; he couldn’t help himself. Every time his beautiful beta gave herself to him, trusted him with her body and heart, it was like the first time all over again, even if that first time was nearly a century ago.
“If we’d slept downstairs,” she rasped, voice as oaky and smooth as fine bourbon, “you would have found a way to slink back into your study and burned the midnight oil again.”
He grunted, not really in a position to argue with her. She knew him too well and there were a few matters of pack business that had been frustrating him over the last couple of days. He probably would have tried to slip out of the guest room to settle into one of the lumpy, leather chairs and bury his nose in some reports. But just because she was right didn’t mean he had to admit it.
“I’ll have you know that pack alphas do not slink…ever,” he groused and rolled them both so that he was on top of her. He combed a hand through her thick locks and stared unblinkingly into her chocolate eyes. Before he could do or say anything more, a dull thud sounded from down below.
“Dammit,” Sam hissed, sharp eared as ever. “Something’s in the pantry.”
Jeff, propping himself up with an elbow on each side of her head, took a deep breath. “Got into the flour,” he agreed and, after another sniff, added, “and probably the beans, too.”
She glared at him, before letting out a huff of air that ruffled her already messy bangs. “Well?” she asked expectantly.
The alpha squinted down at her. “Well what?”
“Aren’t you going to get your lazy butt down there and deal with it, oh mighty alpha?”
He leaned down and nipped hard at her ear. “Watch your tone, woman.” Pushing himself back up, he smirked. “As I recall, the kitchen is your domain.”
“That’s a rather sexist attitude to take, alpha,” she argued, flicking his nipple. Jeff flinched at the semi-ticklish sensation.
“Sexist bullshit. You were the one who banished me from ‘your domain’ months ago,” he replied. “Whatever mess is down there is your mess now, babe,” he grinned as he rolled off of her. Samantha narrowed her eyes.
“I walked into the kitchen and felt like I’d been hit by a blast of Napalm! It took me days to get the place to a point where you could walk in there and not feel like your skin was melting off,” the beta snapped.
“One, little mishap…” Jeff mumbled.
“Mishap? Even the pot of water was on fire. I practically had to call in a hazmat team!”
“Things like that can happen when roasting ghost peppers, but they’re a key ingredient to my secret, hot sauce.” And Jeff did not sound wheedling at the end one bit. It wasn’t his fault that cooking with them could be so…volatile. Samantha was unmoved, if her glower was any indication of her feelings towards those particular chilies. “So you’re on your own now.”
If looks could kill, he thought gleefully.
“Fine,” she huffed and climbed out of their bed. Tucking his hands behind his head, Jeff couldn’t help but admire the view she presented him with like that. Although past the age of bearing pups, his beta was still tone and fit, with supple muscles and graceful curves. And she was all his.
“I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave,” he teased as his mate grabbed at the silk robe that hung off the corner of their bed and angrily thrust her arms through the voluminous sleeves, purposefully not looking back at him as she tugged her hair free of the collar and let it fan out below her shoulders.
As she stomped off, Jeff let his gaze drift up to the untreated and exposed beams of their bedroom ceiling. He dreamily made out patterns and shapes in the whorl of their grain, like finding figures in the clouds, despite the near absence of light. Lying there, he tried and failed to suppress a smirk at the real reason Sam was pissed at him. Despite being a fearsome warrior that had stood by his side for decades, the woman had an irrational fear of mice and rats. He never could figure out why, but that fear had fueled years of relentless teasing and tonight was shaping up to be another tale to torture her mercilessly over.
Even though she was stealthy, the San Antonio pack alpha heard her every move, as well as the scratching of whatever critter was burrowing into some of their foodstuffs. And whatever was rustling around in the pantry sounded bigger than a rat.
Might be a coon, he reasoned. Pretty damned hungry or stupid to go nosing around in a wolves’ den.
He had to bite his lip to keep from barking out a laugh as he heard his mate pull a broom out of the closet nearest the kitchen. He didn’t have to see her to be able to picture what she looked like – padding silently through the kitchen, robe swirling around her, hair like a dark waterfall and a broom held firmly in front of her. Such an apex predator. He pressed his face into the pillow to stifle his giggles when the pantry door creaked open, just waiting to hear her yelp when she spotted whatever was pilfering their dry goods. He didn’t get the reaction he was expecting.
“Jeffrey,” the beta murmured.
Even though it was barely above a whisper, Jeff shot out of bed and pulled on a pair of track pants out of sheer habit. She hadn’t shifted, so he knew whatever it was she had found wasn’t an immediate threat, but her tone still spoke of need and expediency. He sped down the stairs and was by her side in a matter of seconds. Her somewhat relaxed stance helped to slow his heart rate and he followed her shocked gaze to the source of her surprise and he sucked in a sharp breath.
Backed into a corner, surrounded by spilled lentils and rice, was a tiny wolf pup. He’d clearly gnawed his way into a sack of flour, given how his dark coat had a fine, white dusting that ran from his head down to the base of his tail. He was half-crouched over a box of Lucky Charms that he had chewed into as well, since there was little left of Lucky’s face or his promise of “bigger marshmallows”. A scattering of purple, blue and yellow sugary treats surrounded his pint-sized paws. And the little thief had the balls to growl at the two adult Weres, who easily towered over him. The entire tableau would have been almost adorable if the alpha hadn’t been able to count every rib in the little omega’s body.
“What the hell?” he rasped.
Samantha slapped him on the shoulder. “Language,” she hissed. Their own pups might be grown Weres now, but she was still a mother through and through.
“This ain’t right,” Jeff continued, absently rubbing his bicep. The woman packed quite a wallop when she had a mind to. “No one’s reported anyone gone missing, especially not a baby. None of the nearby packs have, either. And he’s been on his own for a while now.” Looking the little fellow over, Jeff was fairly certain the omega was probably close to a year old, give or take a few months. His height was pretty decent, but too many of his bones looked like they might poke through his hide, as sharp as they were. That kind of malnutrition didn’t happen overnight – it took weeks to affect that type of damage on a growing, young one. And Weres didn’t just abandon their young. It was hardwired to take care of them and if a Were found him or herself overwhelmed, the pack would always take over for them. Always. That wasn’t law; that just was. So this baby was a mystery that had plopped himself into their lives at 3 AM.
Dragging a hand down over his mouth, Jeff sighed. “Well, let’s get the rug rat outta there.” And he leaned over to scoop the pup up, but the little fellow backed up even more and bared his needle-sharp teeth at the pack alpha. He didn’t miss the snort that escaped Samantha.
“Looks like he’s not afraid of the big, bad alpha, either,” she quipped before sobering. “Now you just stay put,” she ordered and Jeff was mildly surprised to realize she was talking to him. “I’ll make up some porridge and we’ll use that to lure him out. Don’t you go scaring him!” And she backed out of the pantry into the kitchen, still holding the broom in one hand.
“I do know my way around pups, you know,” he grumbled mostly to himself, but he slowly slid down the doorframe and settled on the floor, legs bent and arms propped up on his knees. The pup lowered his lips, but he still growled intermittently at the alpha. Jeff cocked his head, studying the skinny wolf, before reaching over to one of the lowest shelves, making sure his movement was slow and deliberate. He pulled out an unopened box of Lucky Charms and proceeded to rip across the top.
As he unwrapped the waxy bag inside the carton, he began, “It’s not a bad choice. My pups loved this stuff when they were little.” He kept his voice conversational and calm. “They’re all grown up these days, so there’s no real reason to keep this stuff any longer.” He paused and looked over at the omega, who was no longer growling, but hadn’t given up his defensive position yet. “But I’ll tell you a little secret,” and he lowered his voice conspiratorially. He noticed the pup relax a hair. “I might give Sam shit about her suffering ‘empty den syndrome’, but I miss my girls a bunch.” The alpha glanced over his shoulder to see if he had been caught out for swearing, but the only sound from the kitchen was the water running from the tap as his beta fixed up the porridge. “So I keep this stuff around as a reminder of when they were babies. Makes me smile.” He wedged his big hand inside and pulled out a handful of the cereal, before setting the box down next to him.
The stray omega slowly sat down as Jeff started to pick at the food in his fist. The alpha didn’t let anything show on his face, but he surreptitiously studied the little one while he popped a dried marshmallow into his mouth. The boy – Jeff could smell the omega’s sex and status as soon as he had entered the pantry – didn’t show any kind of deference to him, which was all kinds of odd. Even newborns would calm almost immediately in the presence of a pack alpha, but this guy didn’t show a hint of instinctual recognition, which he should have despite his fear and hunger. It was as if the little boy had never been around one before and every pack member would be introduced to their alpha leader within a few weeks of being born at the latest. The fact that this little fellow appeared not to have been sent up another red flag in Jeff’s mind. He wondered, before all was said and done, if he would have to send word to High Alpha Ackles. Since the death of the High Alpha’s mate, the Were had been on the hunt for someone to blame and he was currently focusing all his senses on the humans. He had practically demanded to be informed whenever the slightest issue came up that deviated from the norm, and this omega’s appearance was shaping up to be odd indeed.
Pushing away those concerns for the moment, Jeff carefully selected a few of the colored marshmallows from his hand and began lining them up on the floor alongside his left foot. He separated and sorted them by color. “I guess each one of these ‘charms’ is supposed to have some kind of magical power.” The pup cocked his head curiously. “You look like a pretty sharp fella, so you probably don’t buy into all that. I mean, it’s probably all a marketing gimmick anyway.” He kept his gaze on the snacks and shrugged his shoulders. “But if you were wondering, I could tell you about them.” He raised his eyes as the pup raised one, floppy ear upright.
With one finger, the alpha slid a yellow shape almost all the way over to the young omega. The pup bristled and stood again, banging his little butt against the shelf behind him. Jeff quickly withdrew his hand. “I don’t blame you. That’s the ‘pot of gold’ and it’s a bit of a disappointment. Other than being gold, it doesn’t really do anything.” Jeff kept up his banter and fussed with some of the other marshmallows, giving the omega a chance to check out the food. He had to suck in his cheeks to keep from smiling as the pup couldn’t help the twitching of his nose or the grumbling that came from his stomach at the presence of the morsel. He took a careful step toward the treat, before surrendering to its sugary pull and gobbled it up.
Jeff placed his fingertip on the yellow and white “charm” and pushed that one forward, but not as far as he had the “pot of gold”. “Now the shooting star is a little more interesting. That’s supposed to give you the power to fly. It would be pretty cool to be able to turn into a bird, now wouldn’t it?” he asked the baby. “I mean, it’s already cool that we can turn into this,” and he spread his hands, indicating his current form and eyed the pup expectantly. Weres typically wore their wolf form exclusively from birth until they were about a year old. So if he had judged the boy’s age correctly, he should have changed at least once into his more “human” shape. But the pup simply twisted his head in the opposite direction before moving on slightly surer footing over to the star. He barely bothered to sniff at it before practically inhaling the cereal piece and then peeking back up at Jeff.
He slid over a couple of green chunks. “Here’s where I get a little disappointed. When the cereal first came out, there were only four shapes and these,” he pointed to the blobs “actually looked like real, four-leafed clovers. Nowadays, that’s supposed to be a clover on a hat. Just lazy if you ask me.” And he took a chance and leaned slightly towards the pup. “Probably too expensive to make the clover shape so that is meant to be a clover on a hat.” He was pleased to note that the omega held his ground. “They still bring you luck even if they look stupid. But,” and he raised a finger in the air. The pup plopped onto his tiny backside at the gesture and Jeff smiled. “You don’t know what kind of luck you’re going to get.”
The little wolf regarded him curiously before deciding to apparently take his chances and swallowed the green marshmallows down. Jeff pushed his lower lip out and nodded encouragingly. “Not averse to a little risk-taking, are you? I like that in a wolf.”
While the omega crunched up the green charms, Jeff dumped another handful of cereal onto the floor and chose the next shape. He nudged a half dozen purple horseshoes towards the boy, who was now much closer. The pup looked at him expectantly instead of just diving into the offered cereal. He was waiting for Jeff’s explanation.
“Curious, huh?” Jeff smirked. “I’ll bet these guys might be your favorite if you’re anything like my girls. The horseshoe is supposed to have the power to speed things up and I know when you’re young, you can’t wait to grow up, so these ones sound like a really good deal. But I gotta tell you,” he said and leaned forward again as though he was sharing a secret. The little boy leaned ever so slightly toward him as the alpha did so. “Don’t be in too much of a rush.” He nodded then and the wolf lapped them up.
With each color, Jeff enticed the young one closer and closer. And with each anecdote the alpha provided, the more the boy shed his fear like a winter coat in summertime. By the time Jeff got to the last, unique shape, the omega was right next to him. Jeff shook his hand like a craps player and held out the treasure to the pup. Nestled in his palm was a single, pink heart.
“This one, I think, is the most special.” The pup sat, enraptured, albeit somewhat sleepy. He scratched half-heartedly behind his ear and nearly rolled backwards with the uncoordinated movement. Jeff couldn’t stop the fond smile that spread across his face. “I understand. It’s a lot to take in. The heart,” he continued, “is the only shape that hasn’t changed in almost forty years, so it has what I think is the most magical property. It has the power to bring things to life,” he whispered.
The small omega’s ears perked up and he eyed the charm warily. Jeff didn’t set it down, but kept it in his hand, all the while poking and prodding the heart gingerly. He angled his palm more towards the pup. “You think maybe you’d like a new life, baby?” Whatever events had unfolded to bring this wolf in his current condition to Jeff had had to be traumatic and he knew, without a doubt, whatever the omega’s life had been before was over. It was time for life to start anew.
The boy crept closer and placed his soft muzzle in Jeff’s hand, nosing the treat around. The pack alpha held his breath. Finally, as though coming to a decision, the pup lapped up the heart, but he didn’t stop there. Before Jeff even realized it, the little omega placed a hesitant paw on his forearm and began to make his wobbly way up onto Jeff’s lap. Without hesitation, the alpha wrapped his arms around the painfully thin body and snuggled the pup close.
By the light spilling in from the kitchen behind him, he saw that the tiny fellow’s fur, underneath the flour, was as dark brown as his beta’s hair. With one hand firmly under the pup’s body, he slowly stroked him with the other. The omega didn’t do more than sink bonelessly into the alpha’s hold, barely awake. Jeff began immediately planning on a diet to help the pup regain some healthy weight and keep his growth on track. He was so lost in thought, he almost didn’t hear his mate approach. But the savory smell of her porridge tipped him off. He tried, and failed, to keep the shit-eating grin off his face.
“All right. Let’s see what he thinks of this,” she announced, but grew silent as soon as she saw the two of them. If he hadn’t have been so pleased with himself, Jeff might have taken offence at her shock. It seemed like she had completely forgotten that he had helped raise their pups as well as oversaw the welfare of their entire pack’s young; he was their alpha, after all.
“Well, fuck me naked,” she drawled.
“I thought you said it was too hot for that,” he retorted cockily and then yelped softly when she swatted him on the side of his head. “Hey,” he complained as he adjusted his hold so as not to jostle the pup, “you were the one who swore that time.”
“That was for feeding him sugar,” she replied, taking in the myriad bits of cereal scattered about like chunks of fairy dust all over the pantry floor.
“A Were’s gotta do what a Were’s gotta do,” he uttered sagely.
“Mm hmm,” she hummed, but he could see how her stance softened the more she looked at him and the pup. “Wonder what his story is?” she spoke quietly.
“Don’t know,” Jeff answered, looking down as the pup squirmed in his arms until he was practically on his back. It was a slightly awkward and vulnerable position for a wolf, but spoke volumes about trust. He returned his gaze to his mate. “But I do know we’ll figure it out, one way or another. For the time being, he’s just gonna have to bunk with us, if that’s okay with you.”
Samantha’s smile grew and then her mouth opened wide. Jeff didn’t need to see it to know what had happened. He felt the slide and stretch of bones and fur. He grinned so hard at his mate he knew his dimples must have appeared before finally turning his eyes back to the omega.
Where only moments before was a wolf pup, now rested a skinny toddler still dusted in flour. Curious, hazel eyes peeped up at the alpha through a clump of brown curls. Cautiously freeing one hand, Jeff gently traced a path along one downy cheek and was amazed to see a dimple form in the wake of his touch. The little boy pressed his face against Jeff’s chest and sighed, pulling his arms in tight, before eventually nodding off.
Jeff hugged him closer before pressing a kiss to the omega’s forehead and whispered, “My little, lucky charm.”