A few weeks ago …
Jackson Forrest slammed his foot on the brake, causing his truck to come to a screeching stop. He normally didn’t treat his Dolly this way, but today was an exception.
Well, not exactly; it was the same shit, different day. But, just like shit that didn’t get cleaned, it could pile up, making it a pretty fucking awful day.
His fingers gripped the wheel so tight he could hear the plastic creaking under his hand.
Control yourself. He’s just a boy.
His inner wolf, that animal all Lycans shared with their bodies, was in conflict. On one hand, this was their cub, their blood. The child they had nurtured and raised. But on the other hand, Jackson was pissed. Sick and tired of his son’s out-of-control behavior.
“You learned your lesson yet, boy?” He looked up at the rearview mirror, at the green eyes so much like his own. In fact, except for his platinum blond hair, nine-year-old Austin was his spitting image. Even down to the scowl on his face.
“Yeah, yeah,” came the sour reply.
“And what did you learn?”
“That Jimmy Presley is a fucking rat that can’t be trusted.”
“Austin Campbell Forrest, watch your mouth!” Jackson whipped around to look his son straight in the eye. “What did I tell ya about cussing?”
“You do it all the time!” Austin accused.
“That’s because I’m an adult.” Jackson scrubbed his hand down his face. This shit was starting to get old. Hell, he was feeling ancient, at least when it came to his son. “Why the hell did you break into the teacher’s lounge?”
Austin shrugged. “I dunno. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Standard Austin answer. “You’re grounded.”
“Yeah, yeah. Can I go now?”
“For a month.”
“A month?” Austin’s eyes went wide and his mouth twisted. “Why the hell—”
“You wanna make it two?”
Austin sank back into the seat. “Fine. I—” His head swung around as a loud sound rumbled from behind. A black truck identical to Jackson’s stopped right beside them. “Aunt Evie and Uncle Connor are here?”
“Yeah, it was a surprise trip.” His brother and sister-in-law, along with their infant son, Cliff, lived in New York, a couple of hours drive from the Shenandoah Valley. “They’re here for Grams’ birthday.”
“Yes!” Austin raised a fist in the air. “Are we going to have a party? Or a camping trip? Or—”
“Well, we—that’s Grams, Aunt Evie, Uncle Conner, and Cliff, and everyone else—will be celebrating with a big barbecue by the pond. You’ll be at home.”
“What?” The boy exclaimed. “You can’t stop me from going to Grams’ birthday!”
He wagged a finger at his son. “Grounded, remember?”
“This is so unfair!”
Jackson gritted his teeth to stop the words that wanted to come out of his mouth. Instead, he yanked the door open, stepped up, and walked over to the other side of his truck. His son was learning a valuable lesson. Life wasn’t fair. And that fact was cemented even more as he glanced at who was coming out of the other truck.
It was still strange, after all these months, looking at the man who was the exact mirror image of himself. Same height, build, face, and both sported tattoos all over their body. Identical twins, though they had only met last year. Connor had been taken away from their family when he was an infant. The man who’d destroyed their lives had wanted to steal both boys, but ended up with only one. His brother still bore the scars from his cruel upbringing, and not just the physical one that ran down his eye and cheek.
Meanwhile, Jackson grew up with a mother, surrounded by family and other Lycans, and was now Alpha of his own clan. No, life certainly wasn’t fair.
“How’s it going?” he asked Connor, holding out his hand. “How was the drive?”
Connor grasped it and squeezed. “Long. But glad to finally be here.”
Instead of letting go, Jackson pulled him in for a hug. For once, Connor didn’t stiffen, though still didn’t quite relax either. Progress. His inner wolf was oddly calm, recognizing its brother’s scent and presence.
When Connor first showed up on their doorstep, Jackson’s wolf instantly went on the defense. It knew—Connor’s wolf was not right. But also, it recognized that the man standing outside their porch was the blood of their blood. And for Lycans, that meant more than anything in the world.
“Connor, a little help please?” came the feminine voice from the other side of the truck.
His twin pulled away and gave him a sheepish look. “’Scuse me.” He walked over to his wife and mate, Evie, who was struggling with a car seat. Connor easily took it from her.
“Thanks.” She pulled out the diaper bag from the back seat, and as she swung it around her shoulder, Connor leaned down and gave her a kiss on the mouth. She gave a girlish giggle when he finished. “Connor.” She gave him a playful swipe on the arm, which only earned her another kiss.
Jackson pushed down the envy churning in his stomach and told his whining wolf to quiet down. He was happy his brother had found love, and in his True Mate no less. The one his soul was destined for. Maybe life wasn’t fair, but there were other ways that the scales tipped.
He cleared his throat. “Momma will be happier than a clam when she sees the three of you.”
“It was a great idea,” Evie said as she walked over to give him a hug. “Thanks for inviting us.”
Jackson returned it, but quickly released his sister-in-law when he saw Connor tense. “You know you can come over anytime, no need for invites or any of that formal stuff.” Lycans were very territorial, and if a Lycan from one clan wanted to visit another, they had to get permission from the Alpha.
Technically, Connor was part of the New York clan, though his brother was previously a Lone Wolf, a Lycan with no clan. That had changed last year when he decided to pledge to the Alpha of New York, Grant Anderson. Connor was born to the Shenandoah clan and could have pledged to them, but Jackson didn’t begrudge him that choice; after all, Evie’s life and career as a Broadway actress was in New York and so was the rest of Connor’s adoptive family, the ones who had rescued him and gave him a home after the ordeal he went through.
“Where is Lily?” Evie asked. “And Austin?”
“Momma’s probably out checking on the new folk. She’ll be home within the hour.” Jackson stepped over to his truck and yanked the backseat door open. “Austin,” he said. “Come out here and say hello. Then march straight to your room.”
Austin’s scowl deepened, but he did as he was told, unbuckling his seat belt and hopping down. He trudged over to Evie, wrapped his arms around her waist and murmured something, then looked over to his uncle.
Connor sighed and dropped to Austin’s height. “How’re you, kid?”
“Fine. I guess.” He looked over at the small bundle in the carrier in Connor’s hand. “Wow, he’s gettin’ big, huh?”
Connor snorted. “Babies tend to do that.”
“Do you still think babies are stupid?” Evie asked.
The boy sniffed. “Not Cliff. He’s my cousin. And he’s not a girl.”
“Austin,” Jackson warned.
Evie laughed. “Well, maybe the next one’ll be a girl.”
Jackson raised a brow. “Is there a next one?”
“No.” But she blushed as she looked at Connor. “We’ll see.”
“Whatever you want, Evie,” he said. “I know you still got plans. Things you wanna do. We can wait.”
Jackson’s lips pulled into a thin line. The scales definitely did tip in favor of his brother. And it was damned time, considering the hell Connor had been through before he met Evie.
“Maybe you’ll get a little sister instead, Austin.” Evie had that mischievous look on her face.
“Ew!” Austin crossed his small arms over his chest and pouted. “I’m puttin’ my foot down, Pa. No sister. Or brother. Ever.”
“Maybe I should get you a little brother or sister, serves you right,” Jackson bit back, then shook his head. No, there would be no mate and no other kids. True love and True Mates were a rare thing, and Jackson didn’t have time to go looking for either. He was plenty occupied with being Alpha, running the ranch, and raising Austin. Whenever the need for female companionship struck, he could always run down to the dive bar in town.
“Aww, Pa! No.”
“Now go to your room,” Jackson ordered. “And stay there until dinner.”
“Fine.” Austin turned on his heel and stomped—very loudly—toward the house.
As Jackson let out a sigh, Evie gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm. “It’s just a phase. He’ll grow out of it.”
“I sure hope so.” This phase had been going on for years, ever since Austin could walk and talk. Sometimes he wondered, if Arlene had stayed, maybe things would be different. But Austin’s biological mother had walked away from them.
They weren’t in a serious relationship or anything, not at first. He and Arlene hooked up every now and then; she was convenient, was there when he was feeling horny, and never demanded anything more than he could give.
Jackson had been ecstatic when he found out she was pregnant and she confirmed it was his. After all, Lycans had a hard time conceiving and every pup born was a joy to their kind. He married her right away. Big mistake. They fought all the time, and one day, she just served him with divorce papers. Said the mother thing wasn’t working out for her. Last he heard, she was shacking up with the Beta of some clan in Texas. Good riddance. Now she was some other guy’s problem.
“Jackson? Did you hear what I said?” Evie’s voice cut through his muddled thoughts.
“I said, could we head up to our room and get refreshed? I’d love to take a shower before Lily comes home.”
He scratched his head. “Sorry ’bout that. Of course.” Thoughts of the past forgotten, he motioned to the house. “Everything’s ready. And Momma doesn’t suspect a thing, so she’ll be mighty surprised.”
* * *
“It really is great having you here,” Lily Forrest said as she cuddled little Cliff against her chest. “I was disappointed when Jackson said you weren’t going to come to the party.” She gave sly looks to her sons.
“We wanted it to be a surprise.” Jackson winked at Evie and Connor.
Evie took a sip of her coffee. “We haven’t seen you since you came over when Cliff was born. And we haven’t visited since before we bought the house.”
“How are things around here?” Connor asked.
“All good,” Jackson answered. “Busy. But good.”
“More than good,” Lily interjected. “Especially with Grant Anderson and Sebastian Creed sending those Lycans here for their rehab.”
“The Alpha and Creed are happy with the results so far,” Connor said.
“We have you to thank, for putting in a good word,” Jackson replied.
Most of the Lycans from the Shenandoah clan were notoriously difficult—a lot of them had aggressive wolves and would have ended up cast out of any other clan or worse, which is why they chose to live in isolation. However, the steady work and maybe the freedom to shift and roam as they pleased somehow turned out to be a good thing for them, allowing them to lead normal lives.
When Grant Anderson, Alpha of New York, and Sebastian Creed, Connor’s boss, had found out about this, they asked Jackson to take on a few of their charges—wolves who had been taken and brainwashed by their enemies, the Mages—to see if they could help them out. Jackson agreed and took on three of the broken Lycans, putting them to work on the ranch and helping them work through their violent tendencies. In less than three months, their aggression levels went down and two of them were reunited with their families, while one even stayed behind to work with the Shenandoah clan.
The program had been so successful that they now regularly took on more “clients” from the New York clan. It was good money, adding to the Shenandoah clan’s struggling bottom line and kept them busy the last year.
“You do great work,” Connor said.
Jackson nodded. “We’re glad to help.” And he really was. Their clan had been isolated for so long, it was nice to be able to meet other Lycans and Alphas too.
“Are they sending any more new people?” Evie asked.
“Not at the moment. Though Grant wanted to talk to me about doing corporate-type retreats for his Lycan employees.”
“I hear those things are big now,” Lily said. “Getting in touch with nature and all that.”
Connor scowled. “You mean, that hipster, feel good, touchy-feely, bullcrap?”
Evie chuckled. “Connor hates hipsters. They take up too much time ordering at his favorite coffee shop.”
“Why the hell do you need more than one second to order a cup of coffee?” Connor grunted. “Fair trade, soy milk, gluten-free, what a load of shit. Coffee. Black. That’s all you need.”
Jackson raised his mug. “I hear ya, bro.” He took a sip of the hot liquid. “But, Grant’s idea might be worth a try. I don’t know how you city Lycans stand it, not being able to just shift whenever you want.”
“You get used to it, I suppose,” Lily said. “But yet, it’s a shame you have to hide all the time.”
“It might be good for these city slickers to get outside. Get them in touch with their Lycan sides again, maybe take them out for a big camping trip under the stars. Hell, we’ll do some trust falls and team-building exercises if that’s what Grant wants.” It seemed easy enough. Rehabbing the broken wolves was challenging. A couple of corporate pencil pushers looking for an adventure and maybe a run in their wolf form? He could handle that with one hand tied behind him.
“It’ll certainly bring more excitement around here, not to mention money,” Lily added.
“Momma,” Connor began, “if you need money—”
“Oh hush, Connor,” Lily interrupted, making Cliff stir in her arms. She cooed at him and rocked him against her chest. “We’re doing fine, especially with what the last batch of rehabbers brought in.”
“They were the worst bunch yet, so Creed put in a big bonus,” Jackson added. “We’re good, really we are. And we’re glad to help.” He didn’t add, of course, that it was his way of making up for Connor. For being the one who had escaped that horrible fate.
Still, Connor had not held it against him and Lily never made him feel less loved, but it kept Jackson awake at night. What if he’d been the one who was taken away to be raised by monsters and forced to fight in a cage since he was a teen?
A loud bang came from upstairs followed by a string of muffled curses, then a series of loud thuds. Jackson sighed. Austin had come down to eat dinner, then been promptly sent back upstairs without any dessert.
Lily handed Cliff to Connor. “I’ll go check on him.”
“No, Momma, sit down and enjoy your coffee,” Jackson said. “He’s just looking for attention.”
“What he’s lookin’ for is an ass-whooping,” Connor added.
Jackson couldn’t agree more, but that just wasn’t his way. Though maybe if it had been he wouldn’t be in this situation.
“Connor,” Evie admonished. “Would you hurt Cliff?”
“What? Of course not,” Connor said. “But then again, he ain’t never tried to change the grades on his report card. Or burn down a high school. Or,” he turned to Jackson, “what did he do again this time?”
“Break into the teacher’s lounge.” Jackson sighed. “Maybe Austin does need a stronger hand.”
“What Austin needs is a gentler hand,” Lily countered.
“A what?” This time, both Connor and Jackson said it together.
“I think what Lily is trying to say,” Evie began, “is Austin needs a mom.”
“Oh no.” Jackson put up his hand. “No way. Uh-uh.” He got up, dropping his napkin on the table.
“C’mon, Jackson, would it be so bad?” Lily said. “Austin needs someone to take care of him. A female influence.”
“He’s got you, Momma,” he pointed out.
Lily laughed. “I’m his grandmother. It’s my job to spoil him and give him everything he wants. Only a mother can give him that ‘I’m disappointed in you’ look that will make him think twice of doing anything bad.”
“Not to mention, a wife might do you good, too,” Evie said in a teasing voice. “Someone to share your troubles with.”
“Ha!” Now they really were delusional. No way was he getting married again. It just wasn’t worth it, not after what happened with Arlene. “I think I hear … the cows mooing.” Pathetic excuse, but he needed to get out of there. “‘Night everyone, I’ll see you all tomorrow. I’ll be out early getting supplies for the party.”
Jackson headed out the door, not even giving them a chance to stop him. He left the kitchen–dining room and headed to the front door, stepping out onto the wraparound porch.
The air was cool this time of the year, signs that winter was behind them and that spring was here. It was his favorite time of the year—a new beginning. And he wished there was such a thing in life. A new beginning. A do-over.
Not that he would ever wish Austin was never born. Of course not; he loved his son. He was just a failure as a father and he knew it. But what was he supposed to do? He had so many responsibilities, he couldn’t juggle them all.
Jackson wasn’t even surprised that he didn’t notice Connor had followed him. He moved silently, even for a man of his size. “Yeah,” he answered back, not bothering to turn around to look at his brother. “Can you believe it? Me with a wife?”
“Can you believe me with a wife? And a son?”
Jackson spat on the porch, a move that his momma hated. “Not you too.” He turned around. “Are you gonna give me a lecture about finding a mom for Austin?”
“Me? Give a lecture?” Connor shrugged. “That boy doesn’t need a mother.”
“Glad you agree with me.”
“But maybe what you need is a mate.”
“Ha! It’ll be easier to find a mother for my little hell-raiser. Besides,” he glanced back at the house. “What you got with Evie? One in a million.”
“You would think so,” Connor said. “But I’ve seen stranger things.” He placed a hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “Also, you know that Momma and Evie are in there plotting right now.”
Jackson let out an audible groan. “I don’t know where they would even find any woman who would date me. The few females in our clan already know what they’re in for with Austin which is why none of them would even touch me, and I’m not ready to bring a human into the clan.” Lycans were mostly unknown to the rest of the world, save for a few who were considered Alliance families. And of course, with the lack of available Lycan mates, many of their kind married humans.
Connor shook his head. “I don’t envy you right now.”
“I don’t envy me right now either.” Jackson rubbed a palm down his face. “Let them try. I doubt they’d find anyone who would be interested in me.” His wolf, which had been quiet and calm most of the night, let out a whine. Oh, he knew what it wanted; whenever they were around Evie and Connor, it had longed for what they had—love, companionship, and more pups. It was like that damned biological clock women supposedly had, but this one had teeth and claws instead of a ticking hand.
“You never know,” Connor said.
“You too?” he accused.
Connor chuckled—a rare sight. “I dunno. When women put their minds to something …”
“They can try.”
Jackson looked out at the rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley and the sun setting behind them, bathing everything in a golden light. He should be content, with everything he had. A clan. A thriving ranch. His brother back after being cruelly taken away from them. And yes, even Austin. Despite what the kid put him through—and what he suspected he would be put through as the boy grew into his teenage years—he had everything he needed and wanted right now. A wife would just be another monkey wrench that would turn his world upside down.