An Otherside Christmas – A Free Christmas Story

It’s Christmastime again and I /really/ wanted to have this project done LAST year, but by the time I figured it out, I wouldn’t have had enough time to write it AND get it edited and published, so I waited and decided to make it this year’s little freebie. An Otherside Christmas is a little companion novella set in the point of view of Kia. It’s set about a year after the happenings in Wolfspirit, so I suggest you read Spirit before you read this, but I don’t think it’s necessary? It’s a matter of personal preference, of course 🙂 Either way, it was nice to hop back into the heads of “the gang” that I’ve come to love so much, and I really hope you enjoy it 🙂

 

 

An Otherside Christmas

by Kodilynn Calhoun

 

Chapter One

 

 

Christmastime was always one of my favorite times of year, filled with fond memories of me and my little sister and our mom trekking out into the snow, bundled up in coats and scarves, hats and gloves as we went to pick out the perfect tree to grace our living room. Every year, right after Thanksgiving, we’d venture out and bring one home, trussing it up in bright lights and tinsel and ornaments, piling presents under it Christmas Eve only to tear them open again the next morning over laughter and memories.

But that was before I came to the Otherside, to embrace my werewolfness and become Alpha to a pack who desperately needed a leader. And if we were being honest? This life, this simple realm? It suited me better than the “real world” ever did. I wasn’t an awkward teenager anymore, out of place in the chaos. Here I had a purpose, a mate, a daughter. On top of that, I had a large and bustling family of people who considered me a part of them. Never thought I’d ever say those words, but I liked it here. I belonged here. My wild heart was free to roam these wintry woods.

But that didn’t mean I didn’t miss my human family. My mom, Kitane, even my brat of a sister, Shae, though she was a pain in my tail. And I missed Greyson and Sam—two of the best friends a guy could ever ask for. The holidays always brought a sense of forlornness along with the snow flying through the air.

Especially today, as I watched specks of icy white gather on the backs of a couple of pups wrestling in the village, pelts of silvery gray now studded with little flakes as they snapped and growled playfully at each other.

One of them bumped into my legs, scrambling away from the other. “Easy there, boys,” I said with a laugh, a low rumble of sound. The brown-eyed pup looked up at me, an impish gleam in his eyes, before he licked at my hand and then took off into the woods, biting at his friend as he passed, beckoning for him to follow. I shook my head and watched them go.

A moment later, I saw the rusty red fur of Scythe as the bigger, notched-ear wolf took off after them at a slower clip. Always watchful of the pups, especially since the attack on our hunting group a few weeks ago.

As far as we knew, it was a couple of hungry rogues crossing our territory. No reason to believe they’d been sent by the Rashti. I’d called for peace years ago—a break from the war sparking between Altehrei and our rival pack. For the most part, it had been peaceful. I’d encouraged trade between the packs in the marketplace, offered to expand our territories, to blend them into one, but old fears died hard. The Rashti were cautious creatures after living for so long under the brutal fist of Kanzi Blackthorn, who’d hated anyone with the golden eyes of Skoll’s Sight.

Which would be me.

But the past was the past. For all we knew, this recent attack was completely unrelated. My Betas assured me that all was well and that the rogues had been dealt with. Still… It made me nervous to leave the pack behind, even if just for a few days, but it was almost Christmas. It was tradition to go back home for the holidays, for me and Arii to take our little Shiba’rii to the place where I was born and raised. I wanted her to grow up knowing her human side of the family, and Kitane and Mom adored spending time with their only granddaughter. I couldn’t not go, but…

“Did you get everything?” Arii’s voice floated through my thoughts, drawing my gaze away from the woods where the pups and Scythe had disappeared into, the trees bare and spindling like skeletal hands. I nodded my head and looked up at her. She quirked a brow, tucking a strand of unruly blonde hair behind her ear, and I couldn’t help but grin goofily at her. God, she was perfect—and she was all mine. My wife. My mate. The mother of our child. And I loved her more than I’d ever loved anyone in my life.

I stepped back, motioning to the pile of packages I’d strapped down to a wooden sled with metal runners, to cut through the ice and snow on the trek back to the portal in the woods where we always crossed over. Tucked safely within Altehrei territory, when we activated it and stepped through, we’d come out in the middle of the forest on the Otherside, just a few miles away from home. “Packed and ready,” I announced, patting the bundle of furs where Shiba would be riding. In comfort, just like the princess she was.

I looked at her. “Are you ready?” My voice softened. She’d been acting a little off the past few days, and even now, under the brightness of the crisp winter sun, she looked paler than usual, her skin almost as white as the snow all around us. It worried me.

“When am I not ready for Christmas,” she teased, planting a hand on one hip. “Your dad makes the most delightful feasts and you know the quickest way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach.”

I snorted softly. “Now you sound like Shae.”

“Maybe she’s rubbing off on me.” She flashed a grin. “Really. I’m ready.”

“You’re feeling okay?”

“Kia. Seriously. I’m fine. You’re worrying for nothing.” She walked towards me, each step quick and deliberate, before grabbing a handful of my scarf to drag me down to her level. Her eyes flashed with an impish sort of blue fire, heating me up in all the right places. She placed a kiss on my chapped lips, biting gently before soothing the spot with the tip of her tongue. Then she danced away, waving a hand at me. “I’m fine. The pack is fine. Everything is fine. It’s Christmas. If you keep stressing yourself out, you’re gonna end up with an ulcer. Stay there—I’ll go grab the munchkin and we’ll be set.”

With that, she danced off.

“She’s right, you know.” The husky rasp of laughter sounded from behind me and I turned to see none other than Sikta standing on the other side of the sled. She ran slender fingertips through the silvery fox furs and shook her head, tutting at me. “You need to have a little faith in my abilities to keep Altehrei safe. It was my home before it was yours, after all.”

She smirked at me, her dark hair tied up away from her face in a messy knot at the back of her head, one hand curled over the slightly rounded bump of her belly. “I’m pregnant, not disabled, and you and I both know damn well that if anything happens, I’ll be the one kicking ass. So chill out, Silverwind. Go home to your family, enjoy a little holiday away from the pressures of the pack, and let me worry about it for a few days, yeah? That’s a command.”

I shook my head with a wry grin. “Well if you put it that way, I can’t exactly disobey.”

She huffed. “Exactly.”

A moment later I heard the familiar squeal of a certain little girl and I turned just in time to see Shiba bundled up in a plush coat with mittens covering her hands, her blonde hair wispy around a heart-shaped, chubby face as she toddled quickly towards me. “Daddy!” She collided with my legs a minute later, wrapping her short arms around them to give me a full body hug, and I felt myself melt even more as I scooped her up. She giggled.

Sikta smiled—something she’d been doing more since the day she and Chase announced that they were expecting—and shook her head. “See? You’ll be fine. Have a good time, Kia.” She leaned in to press a small kiss against Shiba’s forehead. “Stay safe, little princess. And you too, Arii.” She met my mate’s gaze, nodded, and then with a little wave, she began to walk away. “I’ll have Szarsa follow you to the woods, in case you were worried.”

“Thanks. I mean it.”

She shrugged it off, bowing her head to me. A show of respect. “Anytime, milord.”

I plopped Shiba down on the sled, on top of the pile of plush furs, and pulled one over her legs like a blanket. “We’re going home to see Grandma and Grandpa,” I told her, making sure her hat was on snug. When she began to babble, most of her words unintelligible, I placed my finger on her nose. “Stay there.” I stood up and looked at Arii, who was smiling at me—though this time it was a gentle look on her face. Love. Adoration. “Ready?”

“Yep!” She beamed, brighter than the sun, and it eased my fretful heart.

I grinned and began to push the sled through the village, feeling the way it glided over the snow with a soft whooshing sound. People all around the village called out farewells, wishing us a safe trip. “Let’s do this.” And sure enough, slinking along at the edge of the woods, watching us closely, were a pair of wolves with plush winter coats. Our guardians. They danced between trees like shadow sprites, making no sound except for their paw steps crunching over the crust of the snow. Arii caught sight of them and gave a little wave as we moved through the woods at a steady pace.

Our place was marked by a shattered tree, half split down the middle by a lightning strike a year or so ago, the remnants left charred and ashen. I let go of the sled long enough to run my hands down the smoothness where the bark had burned off. I could feel the dying energy of the tree beneath my palms and offering a silent apology, I used my senses to feel out the location of the portal—the gateway between worlds—summoned with an incantation and a few drops of blood. It shimmered into life, shivering and sparkling against the snowy backdrop. If you looked into it, it was like looking through a window to the other side of the world, so close and yet so far away.

Arii gave the sled a shove. I grabbed the side of it, guiding it through to the Otherside even as Shiba squealed and clapped her hands, seemingly delighted by the crackle of magic all around us. It was disorienting—it always was, going from one realm to the next by just stepping through a doorway—but only moments later, we stood ankle-deep in fresh snow, our footprints disappearing into nothingness as the gateway flickered closed behind us.

“Everyone alright?” I turned just in time to see Arii waver on her feet, off balance. Swooping in, I wrapped an arm around her waist to steady her, my earlier worries jumping right back into focus. My brows furrowed together of their own accord. “Are you sure you’re okay? Arii… You’re kinda freaking me out.” I held her close to me, brushing hair out of her face as she seemed to sway, her eyes pressed tightly shut.

She gave her head a small shake. “S-Sorry. Just got a little bit dizzy. I’m fine.” She tried to untangle herself from me, but I didn’t let her go.

“Get on the sled with Shiba. I’ll push you both.”

“Kia.” Her voice was sharp. “I’m okay. I think it’s just a bug. I’ll be fine, honest.” She looked at me, determination written all over her face, but I cut her off with a look of my own. One that said not to mess with the Alpha and she ducked her head, sighing softly.

I pointed to the sled, scooping Shiba up off the furs and balancing her on my hip. “Just humor me,” I told her. She glanced between me and the sled and then, giving a low harrumph of sound, she gracefully eased down on the pile of furs. “Thank you.” I moved to place Shiba in her lap, but the little girl had other ideas. She began to squeal and flail, all but leaping out of my arms. “Hey! Easy!” I placed her on the ground and she sank into the snow, but wasn’t deterred by it in the least.

“Woof! Woof!” She waved her hands in the air and toddled forwards, pushing through the snow banks like her legs weren’t short and chubby, high stepping each step as she babbled excitedly. Then there was a sharp bark and a moment later, a large tawny wolf came barreling forwards, flying over drifts in leaps and bounds until he came face to face with Shiba. “Al-ee-el!” she shrieked, wrapping both arms around the wolf’s big neck and clinging to him as if her life depended on it.

Aliel grinned a doggish smile, tail wagging a million miles an hour as he slathered her cold-flushed cheeks with licks and kisses, though he was careful not to knock her down. Her fingers tightened in his fur, stroking over him as she began to babble words that no one but Shiba herself understood. “Hi Kia.” His voice echoed out in my head, making me grin. He turned to Arii. “You’re looking a little green around the gills, sis. You okay?”

Arii huffed, indignantly crossing both arms over her chest. “I’m fine, for Skoll’s sake! So maybe I’m having an off day. It’s not like I’m on my death bed. Geez, guys.” But she smiled at her little brother as he struggled under the grip of Shiba. I bent down and picked her up, rescuing him, and plopped her down on Arii’s lap. When she squirmed to get free, Arii wrapped both arms around her, placing a kiss atop her head. “Can we get going? I don’t want Shiba to catch a cold.”

“Yeah. Gimme a sec.” Aliel’s body seemed to twitch and withdraw on itself, his large wolven form shaking as he shifted, his golden fur falling away to bear a boy dressed in jeans and a hoodie with a head of blond curls, his two-toned eyes glittering with mischief. Like our Shiba, he had Hati’s Sight, but he’d been blessed enough to not have visions. I could only hope and pray that like her uncle, Shiba would be perfectly fine. “Shae’s up ahead, waiting in the car. Figured you guys would be thankful for a little heat. It’s cold as tits out here.”

“Al. Little ears,” I warned him.

“I doubt she even heard me,” Aliel teased, balling his hand into a fist and punching me lightly on the shoulder. I rolled my eyes and shoved into him, sending him stumbling forwards with a low laugh. “Want a little help there, Kia?” he asked, motioning to the sled. “Maybe you should invest in a team of sleddogs. Sled…wolves. Whatever. Mush!” He let out a bark of laughter, then wound around to the back of the sled, his gloveless fingers curling over the cold wood. “Let’s go, then. Like I said…” He mouthed the words, “Cold as tits,” and I shook my head.

Once a punk, always a punk.

Together we pushed the sled through the woods, about a mile to the closest back roads, where Shae’s retro yellow VW Bug sat idling on the shoulder of the road, exhaust coming up in plumes of white. The minute she saw us, she burst out of the car, waving and dancing around. “Hi! Need some help? I think I’ve got enough room in my trunk. Jesus, it’s cold out. Sorry. Hyper. May or may not have had coffee. Caffeine!”

She giggled and together the three of us unstrapped the gifts from the sled and packed them carefully into the car’s tiny trunk. “Oh! I brought the car seat. It’s in the back. Might be a tight squeeze, though, for you guys. Sorry about that.” She reached for Shiba, cooing excitedly. “C’mere, Shibi!” she sing-songed, swiftly picking the toddler up and swinging her around before ducking down in the back seat to strap her in. “I’ll sit in the back with Arii. Al, you can drive. Al got his license last month!”

“Good job, bro,” Arii said, carefully climbing out of the sled and wrapping him in a hug. He patted her gently on the back. “Look at you, kicking butt as a human. How does it feel to have a real life?”

He laughed, an almost musical sound, obviously pleased with himself. “It feels great, honestly. This place suits me.” He squeezed her once, then let her go. “Kitane and Tasha are making dinner now so it’ll be hot when we get home. They’re really excited to have you guys back. I think you’ll be pleased with what they decided to cook.” He turned and flicked me on the nose before sliding into the driver’s seat. “It was Shae’s idea, if that tells you anything.”

“No guessing!” Shae barked as she and Arii climbed into the back seat of the Bug, sitting on either side of Shiba’s car seat. I stashed the sled behind a couple of snow-heavy fir branches, then went around the side and opened the passenger door, getting in and buckling my seat belt. Immediately the blast of heat hit my cold face and I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding, hovering my hands over the vents to warm them up.

“Is it tacos?” I asked, feeling a little hopeful.

“It’s not much of a surprise if you ruin it…” Shae mumbled.

“Trust me, I’ll act surprised,” I told her. “Tacos sound like heaven right about now. I’m starving.” I’d been too nervous about the trip over to eat lunch. Seemed like I was blessed with my mother’s worry gene. Lucky me.

“Alright! Let’s do this,” Aliel crowed. He punched the radio volume knob, cranking it up until the merry sound of Christmas tunes filled the car and when the Hippopotamus song began to play, Shiba giggled and clapped along. I really didn’t realize how much I truly missed it, this side, until we pulled into the driveway of the small, two-level home I was born and raised in, the front of the house all decked out in Christmas lights, ribbons and wreaths hung up on the door, and Mom’s favorite blow up Santa waved to us from the front yard.

Damn.

As Aliel put the car in park and killed the engine, Shae jumped out of her seat, Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand as she deftly unbuckled Shiba from her car seat with the other.”I’ve got this, Arii. Don’t worry, I’ve missed this little troublemaker. It’s time for her to hang out with Auntie Shae.” Then, balancing Shiba on one hip, she sauntered up the sidewalk and disappeared into the house.

“I’ll help bring your stuff in,” Al offered, pocketing the keys with a lopsided smile. He popped the trunk and the three of us gathered up what we’d stashed there, the presents for my family as well as our personal belongings, and we headed inside. I led the way, the bittersweet memories touching my heart as I shoved through the front door—only to be greeted with a soft cry as Mom saw me and then immediately burst into noisy tears.

Typical Mom.

I only had a second to put my armful of boxes down when she launched herself at me, wrapping her arms around me in a death grip. “Oh, Kia… It’s been too long. How have you been? My little boy’s growing up,” she all but sobbed as she hugged me. I hugged her back fiercely, feeling my eyes burn a little, try as I might to keep it under control. Then she took in a deep breath and leaned back to stare at me. “But you look good.” She beamed. “C’mon, everyone. Dinner’s on the stove, I know you have to be hungry. I made your favorite!”

“It smells amazing,” I told her, the scent of Mexican food filling the house. I wandered into the kitchen to find the countertops set up with a sort of make your own taco station. Leaning over the stove, I pinched a bite of taco meat, all but groaning at the taste. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Excuse me? Thank who?” Kitane cracked a grin at me as he strode into the kitchen, clapping a hand down on my shoulder before drawing me into a quick hug of his own. “Last I checked, I was the chef around these parts.” His tone was teasing and I bumped my shoulder into his. He turned and grabbed the stack of paper plates and handed them out. “Dinner’s served! There’s plenty for round two—yeah, Shae, I know you too well.”

“Oh shut up!” She snickered, tossing an empty water bottle at his head. Kitane, werewolf reflexes and all, dodged it and it clattered to the floor harmlessly. “You’re lucky you make good tacos.”

Kitane chuckled and waved her off as the rest of us gathered in the kitchen, taking turns creating our meal before we took a seat at the kitchen table. We spent dinnertime laughing and catching up and it was amazing. A little slice of heaven, a part of my life that my soul had missed. Home. Family. It was different than with the pack, but it was just as wonderful and all at once I was filled with emotion. I was so thankful to have them.

“I’ll be right back,” Arii said, pushing herself away from the table, leaving her half-eaten taco on her plate as she all but darted for the hall. A moment later, the bathroom door clicked shut and I frowned mid-chew.

Shae pointed at me, a jab of a finger into my shoulder. “Don’t give me that worried puppy-dog look, Kia. She’s fine. You worry too much! It’s probably just her time of the month. I always feel like shit when Aunt Flow visits me.”

“Shae!” Mom sent her a glare.

“What? It’s true!” she said, then stuffed her mouth full of food. “Yum!”

That night, exhausted from a long day, Arii and I went upstairs to my old bedroom, still painted the same soft yellow with the same curtains and even the same bed sheets on the old full-sized mattress. “You’re sure you’re okay?” I asked her as we changed into PJs and climbed into bed, diving under the covers, the furnace rattling as it piped heat through the vents in the floor.

Arii stretched out beside me, propped up with pillows. She smiled, gentle, as she reached out to touch my face. “I promise you, I’m alright. Come lay down.” Shiba lay curled up between us, already tuckered out and fast asleep, and I trailed fingers through her silken hair. She was like a little angel, a cardboard cutout of her beautiful mother, and it hit me then, how blessed I was.

“I trust you,” I murmured, placing a soft kiss on Arii’s lips. “I love you. Get some sleep, beautiful.” And with Shiba’s little feet pressed against my side, I curled around her and burrowed my head into the pillow, breathing in the soft scent of home as I closed my eyes.

All I knew was peace.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

One minute I was fast asleep, my mind thick with dreams, and the next I was being shaken awake, my heart leaping into my throat at the sudden attack. I let out a low growl as I jerked fully alert, only to stare up into the teasing hazel eyes of my best friend. Enough to give a guy a heart attack.

Greyson Meyer took a step back, raising his hands in front of him in defense as he grinned that lopsided, boyish grin of his. “Easy there, wolfboy. Your dad sent me to wake your lazy ass up. It’s almost noon and we got stuff to do, places to go, people to see. Get up, sleepyhead.” With that, he grabbed a pillow off the bed and smacked me gently upside the head with it. “Up!”

I groaned and resisted the urge to roll back over and bury myself deeper in the warmth of my bed. Instead I looked at him, sitting up a little bit as I wiped the grainy sleep from my eyes. “Noon?” Jesus, I slept like the dead. “Did I miss breakfast?”

Greyson snorted. “Do you ever not think about food?”

“Hey, I’m hungry. Not my fault.” A pause. “Did I?”

“Yeah, but luckily for you, Tasha saved you a stack of pancakes and some sausage. I’m surprised you didn’t smell it cooking. Man, smelled like heaven. Kitane sure knows how to cook.” He shook his head, swatting at me again. “Shiba and Arii have been up for hours. C’mon, it’s been too long. We need to catch up but not when I know you’re probably naked under those sheets. Put some clothes on and join the living.”

“I’m not naked!” I muttered, kicking off the sheets to prove that I wore a pair of old Batman PJ pants. I stumbled to my feet and ran both hands through my hair, then bent and grabbed a t-shirt out of the clothes I’d packed—clothes that were appropriate for this side of my life. I tugged it on and stretched, then smacked Greyson’s butt as I walked past.

He spun around defensively. “Easy there, Kia. I’m engaged.”

I snorted softly. “Good thing I’m not interested then.”

“Touché.” He followed me out of the bedroom and together we made our way down the stairs and the smell of leftover sausage and pancakes was faint, but there. “Your plate’s in the microwave, by the way,” he said as he slipped past into the living room, where everyone was gathered, forming a semi-circle of family around Shiba, who was playing patty-cake with Sam. Always the center of attention, but my attention was on my growling stomach. I punched in two minutes on the microwave and heated my breakfast up, then drizzled the stack of fluffy pancakes and sizzling sausage with maple syrup and sat down at the table.

Even reheated, it was amazing.

I rinsed my plate off in the sink and stuck it in the dishwasher before moving to the living room. Sam gave a cheery little wave as he saw me, scooping Shiba up off the floor and handing her off to Greyson as he stood up and came over to give me a hug. “Long time, no see. Are you ready for today?” Green eyes sparkled mischievously behind thick-framed glasses.

Uh oh. “What’s today?” I asked.

He merely offered a Cheshire grin. “Oh, coco, you have no idea. Today is shopping day! We’re all gonna go to the mall and hang out and have a grand adventure, just like old times.”

I groaned. One thing I didn’t miss about this world was how packed the shopping mall was around this time of year. So many people, all of them bustling through the halls, shopping bags in tow as they hit the last minute Christmas sales. There was a reason I always bought all my gifts in November. Or online. “Seriously? Remember last year? You’re going to give me a panic attack.”

“It’s Christmastime,” Shae reminded me. “This is tradition. Suck it up, cupcake!”

I sneaked a glance at Arii, to find her grinning like the cat that ate the canary, and I knew I was doomed. “Then let’s get it over with.”

“Bah humbug!” Greyson teased me and I smacked him in reply. “It’ll be fun. I’ll even buy lunch at the food court. Chinese food for everyone!” He winked. Damn it, he knew the way to my heart…or at least my stomach.

“Okay everyone, get dressed and ready and we’ll meet back here in twenty,” Aliel said, standing and stretching, almost tall enough that his fingertips grazed the ceiling. “And Kia, don’t worry about Shiba. Your parents have already offered to babysit.” That was code for: No way are you getting out of this, bucko.

“Lucky me,” I replied wryly.

“You’ll be fine!” Arii said, taking my hand in hers. “Shower. Clothes. Shopping. It’ll be fun.” Then she gave my arm a tug and together we darted back up the stairs. We may or may not’ve showered together (okay, we totally did) and by the time we got dressed and went back downstairs, everyone was bundled up in coats and hats, ready to brave the crisp winter weather.

“Ready?” Shae asked as she came back inside, face flushed from the cold. “I scraped both the cars. You’re welcome, Sam.”

“Thanks, darling, I owe you one.” He blew her a kiss and she pretended to catch it, and held her hand over her heart, which in turn made him crack up laughing. “Alright, people. Grey and I will take the truck. Al and Shae, you get to babysit Kia and Arii.” He smirked, flicking me a look, and I rolled my eyes. “Let’s get this show on the road. We’re already behind schedule, thanks to someone.” I gave him the middle finger and then we were off.

Sure enough, the shopping mall was packed. Even for a small town like Rockfell, the only parking available was near the back, giving us a slick and slippery trek through the lot before we ever got inside and when we did, my ears were immediately pummeled by the sounds of people. People everywhere, chatting to one another, jabbering on their cell phones, parents yelling at kids to stay with them, kids shrieking because they wanted a toy. For a moment, it was almost overwhelming—but I was blocking the path and Greyson shouldered past me, leading me by the elbow.

“You alright?”

“I’ll be fine,” I told him, plastering on a smile to cover up the worry that might show on my face. “Just not used to this many people in such a small concentration, is all.” Arii came up beside me and twined her fingers with mine, reassuring me that all was well, and I relaxed another notch. “Let’s go shopping.”

We spent the afternoon together, shopping and hollering and laughing, getting stares from passersby, but it didn’t matter. We were happy, we were together—a family. Any time I got a little restless, Arii would lead me to a quiet corner in the nearest shop and we’d catch our breath. Somehow, she didn’t seem bothered by all the chaos, even though she’d been raised on the Otherside and I’d been raised here, but people and crowds had never been my forte. I’d choose furry and four-legged any day. Despite how much I loved and missed my family here, my heart and soul belonged to the simplicity of the Otherside.

I didn’t even realize she had slipped off until I went looking for her and came up empty. “Hey, where’s Arii?” I asked as Greyson and Sam came into view, sans my mate.

Sam waved me off. “Said she wanted to do a little shopping of her own. We’re all gonna meet back at the food court. If I were you, I’d take this time to buy her a little something special.” He winked at me and motioned to a kiosk selling hemp and gemstone jewelry. Taking his advice—because he was usually spot on—I circled the little stand, looking over all of the little pendants, necklaces and bracelets alike, until I found something perfect.

It was a necklace made of braided cord with tiny, ice blue beads strung along one thread. They caught the light, sparkling and winking, and at the base of the necklace was a sterling silver wolf, howling at the moon. It was beautiful—a little pricey, but Arii was worth it. I paid for it quickly, then bagged it and stuck it at the very bottom of one of the other bags, so she wouldn’t see it.

And sure enough, a little while later she was at my side, slipping her smaller hand into mine even as I squeezed her fingers. I smiled down at her, bending to place a kiss at the very corner of her lips, and her eyes were alight with a glow. “Someone looks happy,” I teased her.

“I just… Really love the holidays,” she replied, tugging on my hand. “Let’s go find Shae and the gang. I’m suddenly starving.” We all convened at the food court and true to his word, Greyson paid for everyone’s lunches and we shoved a couple of tables together to make one giant one as we gorged ourselves on teriyaki chicken and fried rice that was to die for. Or maybe we were just really hungry.

Then, shopping bags in tow, we went home. The minute I got into Shae’s car, the heat pouring out to blast me in the face, I couldn’t help but yawn. “I’m ready for a nap.”

Shae snorted. “You’re getting old, bro.”

“Maybe so, but you can’t deny that a nap sounds amazing.”

“Dude, you literally just woke up.” Aliel was grinning at me, fingers tapping over the steering wheel in beat to jingle bells. “I think Shae’s right. You’re getting old.”

“Yeah, screw you both.” I laughed.

Greyson and Sam beat us home, their truck parked on the street, half on the curb where the snow was scraped away. Aliel pulled into the driveway, the Bug’s tires slipping a bit over the slick pavement, but we made it. I grabbed up the bags and made a beeline for the front door, wanting nothing more than to kick off my boots and shuck my coat, cuddle up on the couch with a blanket, and take a nap.

But the universe had other plans.

I’d no sooner stepped foot inside the door when my head swam, black edging around the corners of my mind, sharp and jagged as I was transported from the real world straight into a vision. They didn’t come on as often as they used to, but it still caught me off guard. I stumbled and caught myself on the doorframe and braced for it, teeth grinding together as my vision blacked out.

There was a little girl, all alone in the middle of the woods; her clothes were torn and muddy, her mop of brown hair in a mess of tangles and her face was red and tear-streaked as she sobbed brokenly. “Please. Please, don’t hurt me…” She turned her face just enough that I could see that her eyes were the brightest shade of sapphire blue—too vivid to be anything but werewolf—but I always remembered a face and I knew for sure I’d never seen her before in my life.

I reached out to her, my heart aching because I could smell her sadness, that inner turmoil, but before I could do anything, the vision shattered, slamming me right back into reality.

I tried to catch my breath, leaning heavily against the door frame and both Shae and Arii were at my side, concern written all over their faces. I swallowed against the taste of blood in my mouth—I’d bitten my tongue—and shook my head to try and shake off the vision. “I’m alright,” I told them, standing up straighter. “Just… Took me by surprise, is all.”

“Kia…” Arii’s voice was worried, so I cupped her face in my hand and kissed her, soft and sweet.

“I’ve had a long day. I’m just tired is all? I think I really do need that nap.” I tried for light and she shook her head and hugged me, her slender arms wrapping around me as if she couldn’t bear to let me go. “I promise you, I’m fine.”

After a late dinner, we ended up curling up on the couch with popcorn and hot cocoa as one of the older Christmas movies played on the TV, but I couldn’t seem to shake the vision, the sight of that little girl, all alone. I tried to settle down, but my heart was jumpy and it was making me restless. Very slowly, I untangled myself from a snoozing Arii. I got up to grab my coat off the hook before ducking out the sliding glass door into the back yard. I took a deep breath of the cold night air, breathing it in, letting the chill linger in my lungs.

And I smelled blood. Blood and wolf. My nostrils flared as I took a step forward, then another, scenting the air. Definitely wolf, which was concerning in itself and I was just about to go off into the woods, to try and find the little girl from my vision, when I heard the sliding glass door slide open once more. “Kia?” I turned to look at my sister, to find her brows furrowed together. “Everything okay?”

“I’m fine but… Do you smell it?” I asked her, gazing back out towards where our property line met the forest.

“Smell what?” She sniffed the air, then wrinkled her nose. “I don’t smell anything except how freaking cold it is out here. What do you smell?”

“Wolf.” I frowned. What if that little girl was really out there? She hadn’t been wearing a coat. She was probably freezing, and my stomach knotted up. In concern for a little pup who I knew absolutely nothing about. What did I expect to do? Go hunt her down and bring her home? Expect a happily ever after? I was such a sap.

“Kia. There’s nothing out there,” she murmured, reaching for me. I felt her fingertips catch my sleeve as she pulled me back and I forced myself to turn towards her. “Probably just a wild coyote or something. Why would another werewolf be out here?” She shook her head. “Come on. You just need to sleep. Trust me. I’m a sister, I know these things.”

I snorted softly and rolled my eyes. “If you say so.” But I followed her inside anyway, against my instinct telling me to go out into the woods, to seek out the source of my vision. I woke up Arii and cradled our daughter in my arms as we slowly climbed the stairs and went to bed. But even as Arii’s breathing evened out into slumber, my mind wouldn’t shut off, wouldn’t stop thinking about a little girl alone in the cold at Christmastime.

So I tried to sleep.

I didn’t get very far.

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

The minute I fell asleep, my dreams hit me with another vision, this one more shocking than the last—the same little girl, her hands smeared with blood, red coating the front of her shirt and speckling her face. Her eyes were filled with fear as tears streaked down her cheeks, her voice tiny and scared as she begged someone, anyone, to please. Help her. Help her.

I jerked back to consciousness with my head spinning and my mouth dry as cotton. I carefully stumbled out of bed, trying not to wake my family, and pulled on the t-shirt from yesterday that was lying on the floor. I hitched up my PJ pants and slowly descended the stairs, careful not to hit the one creaky step. My heart thundered, hammering against my chest because I suddenly knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had to find her. No matter what.

I tugged on my boots and pulled on my coat, leaving my hat and gloves stuffed in the pockets, and then snuck outside. My footsteps crunched across snow as I moved towards the woods, lifting my head to scent the air every few moments. The blood smell was old, but the smell of werewolf was fresh. Female. Young. A pup. I followed the scent out into the middle of the woods, and that’s when I saw her.

She was tiny, scrawny and frail and so much younger than she’d seemed in my visions. She was maybe four or five, her clothes and hair unkempt and her blue eyes wary as they locked onto me. I saw the sudden shock—and fear—burn through those sapphire eyes as she saw me and likely smelled me. With a soft growl, she bolted deeper into the woods, banking a hard left.

“Wait!” I cried after her, my voice shockingly loud in the dead silence of the night as snowflakes drifted down all around me, tiny little beads of ice peppering everything. I ran after her, the sudden need to protect this pup overwhelming, but in a matter of moments she was just…gone. I bent down and under the light of the moon, I saw where her little footprints had turned to paw prints, indented into the crust of the snow. Damn. All I could do was follow them. I had to help her. It was fate. I didn’t believe in coincidence, after all.

“Please don’t hide from me,” I called out, softening my tone. “I won’t hurt you. I want to help you.” Because all I could think about was my vision and her broken sobs as she begged for help. If she was in danger, then I wanted to help her any way I could. “Little wolf… Let me help you.”

I took another few steps forward, only to see a streak of silver fur as the pup launched herself at me, ears pinned flat against her skull and fangs bared as she clamped her little jaws over my arm, but my coat kept her teeth from actually hurting me. I lifted my arm and she hung on for dear life, tinny growls reverberating from her small form as she twisted and yanked and fought me every step of the way. Swinging her around, I used my free hand to grab the scruff of her neck, then dropped to my knees in the snow.

With only a small hum of sound, not quite a growl but a verbal warning and one pups from my pack usually heeded, I pinned her to the ground beneath me, fingers curling into the fur around her throat even as she thrashed for a moment. Then she went deadly still, trembling beneath me, her tail tucked as she licked her lips and offered her throat with a pitiful whine. “Easy,” I murmured.

Her tiny form shivered and almost like a shutter flash, she was back to human once more, both of her small hands coming up to curl around my much larger one, fingers pressing as she began to sob in heaving breaths. “P-Please. Please don’t hurt me. I’m sorry.” Her voice was filled with such fear that it made my stomach knot up. No child her age should be so afraid. Her eyes widened, pupils mere pinpricks as she clung to my hand. “Please…” she whispered, barely making a sound.

“It’s okay,” I said, softening my grip on her. “You’re safe. I’m not going to harm you. I’m here to help.”

The minute I let her go, she scrambled out of reach, bolting to her feet, but she hesitated. She watched me with such wild, wary eyes before she ducked her head and motioned with her hand—to follow? I wasn’t sure—and then took off into the woods.

I hurried after her. She darted from tree to tree, as if hiding from something much more predatory, and my heart squeezed. Then she ducked into the mouth of a cave, the ceiling low enough that I had to stoop to follow her, my head bumping the stone when the smell of blood thickened, dank and coppery and teeming with infection.

I found the little girl on her knees beside a woman, whose arms were wrapped tightly around her torso, blood staining her clothing black and my mouth soured when she looked up at me. Her eyes were the same shade of blue, that same vivid hue that all werewolves from the Otherside had, though hers were exhausted and filled with pain. She breathed in a shaky breath, then slowly motioned me forwards.

“You are him?” she murmured hoarsely. “Descendant of Skoll. The one who ended Kanzi’s reign?” When I nodded, her gaze softened, her expression turning rueful. “They speak of you across the lands. I knew I had to find you. I… Came to ask for your help, milord. My pack is a small one with barely any territory. Our wolves are hungry, our numbers dwindling, but my Alpha refuses to ask for help. He’s gone mad. He decided that our children were taking up too many resources. They were so hungry, so skinny…”

She swallowed, letting out a low breath. “He says that the next generation is too weak and he… He started killing them. The children. I didn’t know what else to do, so I ran. I ran from him, because he would’ve killed my Rini. She’s all I have left and I’m not going to be here much longer. I brought her here, to this world, in hopes that she might be able to grow up without the hunger in her belly every night, without the fear of our mad king trying to dispose of her. Please, milord.”

I moved over to her and the child—Rini—let out a warning growl, though her mother shushed her. “He’s here to help. He’s a good wolf,” she told her, before offering me a tired smile. I knelt down next to her, the smell of sickness making me feel half nauseas, and when I went to move her arm, to inspect the wound, she flinched away, shaking her head. “There’s no hope for me. Not now.”

Shielding her wound from Rini’s view, she revealed the mass of flesh and protruding organ coming from the slit in her gut and I hissed. How she got here in one piece was beyond me. “Please. I just need to know that my baby will be safe, taken care of. She’s been through so much. Help her get accustomed to this world’s beauty. Help her find a way to be happy again. It’s all I ask.”

“Momma,” Rini whimpered, fingers tightening in her mother’s shirt. She looked up at me, worry gleaming in her eyes, and began to whine softly. “Help her.” Her plea struck me through to my soul and it hurt, an almost physical pain. “Please. Please!” Then she burst into tears.

My throat swelled tight and I had to force myself to look away from that little girl. “I promise to do whatever I can,” I told the woman quietly. “I’ll make sure Rini is safe.” I couldn’t just abandon her out here in the middle of winter—I wasn’t Kanzi. I brushed my fingers against the woman’s forehead to find her burning with a fever, her body trembling with each labored breath she took. It looked like I got here just in time. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

She looked at me, then closed her eyes and shook her head. “Rini.” She cupped her daughter’s face in both hands, forcing the little girl to look at her despite the tears swimming in Rini’s eyes. “Listen to me, child. You are my world, my light, the sunshine in the darkness and I love you. This man, he’s here to help you. He’ll take care of you when I no longer can. I promise you. No more fear.” She wiped Rini’s tears away with the pads of her thumbs, never once shedding a tear of her own despite the pain she must’ve been in. “Be a good girl, Rini. I love you. Come here.”

She wrapped one arm awkwardly around the little girl and Rini hiccupped out a sob and buried her face into her mother’s neck, clinging to her as if she was her lifeline, desperate. “Please, Momma. Please stay, I love you,” she cried, voice muffled by fabric and emotion burned through me, but I couldn’t look away. Was this the pain that my mom felt when I’d been stolen away by werewolves, gone without a trace? Was it worse because she never had any closure? I swallowed hard.

“Thank you, milord,” the woman whispered, letting her heavy eyelids fall closed as she leaned back against the cave wall, each labored breath coming shorter and more shallow. Rini held very still, as if focused on this very fact, that her mother’s life was slipping away with every last breath. And when the woman, a werewolf whose name I would never learn, went still, there was a heartbreaking moment of silence as the little girl leaned in, tears in her eyes, and pressed a kiss to her mother’s temple.

Then she collapsed into a puddle of sobs, her wails tortured, battered things as she curled her arms around herself and screamed. I went to her side, running my fingers gently over her skin as she cried, whispering soft words to her though she didn’t react. I didn’t try and stop her from mourning. How could I? I just tried to be there for her, the best a stranger from another pack could. “I’ll take care of you now. You’ll be safe, Rini. I promise. It’s gonna be okay.”

Dawn streaked through the sky when Rini finally exhausted herself, her body curled into my lap with my arms around her, holding her solid and steady. And when she finally stopped crying, I wiped away her tears and offered a smile. The smell of death lingered in my soul. It wasn’t healthy for Rini to be here anymore. “Come on,” I murmured, taking her by the hand and leading her out of the cave and back through the woods, towards my house.

The minute I walked through the back door with Rini in tow, I was bombarded with questions and relieved looks from Kitane and Aliel—and Shae, who slapped me for freaking them out. “You can’t just disappear like that!” she growled, shades of her snow leopard side showing in her vibrant green eyes. “You’re lucky Mom’s still asleep. She would’ve had a cow!” Then she seemed to startle as Rini clung to my leg, crying all over again. “Who’s this?”

“The pup from my vision,” I told her. “This is Rini. She’s gonna stay with us for a few days, until I figure something out. Her mother just passed away, so be gentle,” I warned her. Shae mumbled an apology and bent down to greet Rini, but the little girl scrambled away with a shriek, taking off down the hall.

“Oops…”

“She’s scared. She was being hunted by her own pack. This was the only safe place her mother could think of.” I shrugged off my coat and boots and slowly wandered down the hall, looking for the lost little pup, following the soft sounds of her sobs. “Rini… It’s okay.” I found her tucked away inside the closet in Shae’s room, huddled between the wall and a box of books. I knelt down by the door. “They won’t hurt you.”

“Just leave me alone,” she whispered. “Go away.”

“Do you want something to eat?”

“No!” she all but screamed. “Go away, go away!”

“It’s okay. You’re safe here,” I told her, backing away and flipping on the light so the bedroom wasn’t dark. I pulled the door shut and let out a deep sigh. Kitane stood in the hall, silhouetted by the sunlight peeking in through the open blinds. “She just needs time,” I told him. “Hopefully you aren’t mad. I couldn’t leave her out there all alone.”

“No, I wouldn’t expect you to. I’m proud of you,” he said with a smile. “You’re a good person, Kia. A good Alpha. She’ll come around. C’mon, since most of us are already up, I might as well make breakfast. Omelets and bacon sound good?” He cocked his head to one side, curious.

“Do you really have to ask that?” I laughed.

Later that afternoon, Greyson and Sam popped in for a visit and I gave them a quick rundown of the situation. Sam looked a little surprised, but as always, he accepted it without question. If there was one thing I was thankful for, it was that the human side of my family seemed to acknowledge and accept all the weird things that came with being a werewolf, including taking in an orphaned wolf pup at Christmastime.

Mom made chicken soup and cheesy garlic biscuits for dinner and as we all sat down to eat, she made the comment, wondering if the little girl was hungry yet. She had to be starving, but she hadn’t so much as popped her head out of the closet. I’d checked on her a few times and she hadn’t moved. Greyson was the first to finish his meal, standing up and announcing that he was gonna go try and tempt Rini out of the closet with biscuits. “Because who can resist Tasha’s award winning recipe?” he teased and Mom blushed.

With a small bowl of soup and a couple of biscuits in hand, he disappeared down the hall. When he didn’t return after an hour, Sam offered to go check on them while the rest of us gathered around the kitchen table and began to wrap presents. Kitane cranked up the Christmas tunes and began to sing along, warbling and off tune, but we didn’t judge. Arii and Shae giggled amongst themselves as they kept what they were wrapping a secret. I rolled my eyes and vowed to buy Shae only socks for Christmas from now on.

Around eight, I felt a tug on my sleeve and turned to see Arii grinning at me. “What—” I started, but she shushed me, placing her fingertips on my lips, so I kissed them. She shook her head, then crooked a finger at me, motioning for me to follow her quietly. Together we crept down the hall and peeked into Shae’s bedroom, the door open just a crack. And what I saw made me smile.

Sam and Greyson both sat on the floor, cross-legged, and Rini was sprawled in Sam’s lap, her skinny legs curled up beneath her as he braided her hair with careful fingers, the whole while Greyson was reading a book out loud. Every time someone in the book would speak, Grey would change his pitch, making his voice sound funny. And Rini laughed—a small sound, but it was still progress. “And I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!” he boomed and I felt a swell of pride as Arii took my hand and led me back down the hall, to leave them in peace.

Those two would make epic dads one day.

That night we all gathered around the glow of the Christmas tree, with its silver bulbs reflecting the lights and casting colorful flickers across the other ornaments. The presents and packages we spent the day wrapping all sat nice and neat under the branches and to everyone’s surprise, Rini followed Greyson and Sam out of the bedroom for more food. The poor thing ate like a starved dog. She wouldn’t leave Grey’s side, but I actually thought he kind of liked it.

She sat in his lap and Shiba was sprawled out in Sam’s, the two pups peering at each other almost shyly. Then Shiba seemed to accept her, babbling her baby talk once again and all was well in the world—at least until the kids got sleepy. Shiba crawled over to Arii and buried her face in the couch and was out in a matter of minutes. Rini, on the other hand… Cranky was an understatement.

When she began to cry, Sam scooped her up and began to rock her gently in his arms, weaving a tale about the spirits of Christmas keeping her safe. I didn’t miss the look he gave to Greyson, didn’t miss the way Greyson seemed to melt a little bit when Rini slowly fell asleep in Sam’s arms. Damn. I’d never seen them so over the moon for a kid before. Not even Shiba, and they adored her.

“I think we’re gonna head home,” Sam said, carefully standing up, cradling the pup in his arms. “She seems to feel safe with us. Maybe because we’re not werewolves? I mean, since her pack was trying to kill her and all, maybe you scare her? We’ll take her home tonight.” He smiled.

“Are you sure?” I glanced between the guys. They shared a secret smile.

“We’re sure. We’ll be fine. Get some sleep—tomorrow’s Chrismtas Eve and, as always, we have something planned.” Greyson grabbed the keys off the counter and gave a little wave. “Night guys!” When Rini stirred, Sam murmured to her in a soothing voice. She blinked tiredly at me, then snuggled back in with a sigh, and then they were out the door. I stood at the front door, feeling a little incredulous as I watched them drive away. Damn and double damn.

“I think they’re smitten.” Arii giggled.

“You could say that again.”

“I think they’re smit—” she began, her tone taking on a sassy curve, and I shut her up with a kiss. A good one. I placed my hands on her hips, dragging her flush against me and she laughed, breathless as she wrapped both arms around my neck, fingers curling in my hair. “Yes, please.”

“Get a room!” Shae barked, though from the way she and Aliel were cuddling, there was zero space between them.

I rolled my eyes. “Gladly,” I replied, kissing Arii once more for good measure before flashing a wicked grin. “Shall we?” I offered a hand and she shot her brother a look when Al groaned, sticking out her tongue and together we ran up the stairs.

We barely made it to the bedroom.

I would never get enough of her.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

Christmas Eve morning dawned bright and early, the sky in shades of raspberry pink and sherbet orange under the haze of clouds that promised snow. As per tradition, Mom began the day by baking sugar cookies and within a matter of minutes, the sweet scent of dessert filled the house. My mouth watered just imagining the first bite I would take and I must’ve been drooling, because Mom shooed me out of the kitchen. “There’ll be plenty. Go do something fun. Something human,” she said around a small smile, raising her brows in suggestion.

Shae took that moment to shuffle into the kitchen dressed in PJ pants and a leopard print tank top, her auburn hair all mussed with sleep and her eyelids still heavy. “Smells good,” she murmured, making a beeline for the coffee pot. “Need. Caffeine.” She was so not a morning person.

“Grab a cup for me too, would you?” I asked. She grunted in reply.

Aliel popped his head through the doorway, nose wrinkled as he sniffed the air. He grinned at Mom, impish. “Dang, it smells amazing. You’d think with all the culinary talent shared between you and Kitane, that Kia and Shae should be able to cook like pros. But alas…” He chuckled.

Shae gave him a death glare in reply. “Don’t make me chuck a mug at your head,” she warned, pouring another cup of coffee, complete with cream and sugar, and she pressed the steaming mug into my hands. “For you. A gift. Don’t expect anything else of me until I’ve had my fix.”

“Thanks, sis.” I took a sip of the near scalding liquid. She knew me well; I could barely taste the bitterness of the coffee over the amount of sugar she’d poured in. Perfection. “Let’s go to the living room, give Mom some space to work her magic.” Mom shot me a thankful look and I nodded. “And once Shae wakes up a little bit, I challenge you both to a duel. Tennis, anyone?” The Wii was always a good source of entertainment, especially when it came to my sister.

“Caffeine first. Games later.” She meandered into the living room to flop ungracefully down onto the couch, kicking her slippered feet up on the coffee table.

Al and I followed her. He shot me a look, then handed me my favorite Gamecube controller, head tilted to one side. Purely canine. “Mario Kart?” he offered and when I snatched the controller away from him, he laughed and booted up the old console and five minutes later we were racing each other around a jungle racetrack as dinosaurs tried to stomp our cars flat. He won, of course, so we played again.

He sprawled out on the floor, eyes glued to the television screen. “You’re out of practice, Kia.”

“You’re telling me!” I chucked a bomb at him in-game, only to run into it myself, blowing us both up. “Unlike you, I don’t exactly have access to video games on the Otherside.”

“Guys, seriously.” Shae sat up in her seat, looking a little perkier. “Whenever Kia loses, hand me the orange controller. I wanna play too!” And sure enough, I came in at seventh place. Aliel plugged in the spare and handed it to her and then booted up another round. I didn’t get any better, no matter how many courses we played, and in the end it was Shae kicking both of our asses. “Oh yeah, baby. I am still the boss. Look at my crown!”

“You wish you had a crown.”

“Let’s see if you’re any better at virtual tennis, eh?” she teased me. “Remember that one time you swung and ended up chucking the controller across the room?”

Al laughed. “I distinctly remember this. You broke a lamp. Tasha was ticked.”

“Shut up.” It was true. Not one of my finest moments.

Shae’s cell phone buzzed across the glass tabletop and she paused the game, reaching for it. “It’s Grey. He says they’re gonna spend the day with Rini, take her to the mall and let her get a taste of Christmas. They’ll meet us at the park at eight for a sleigh ride through Rockfell. Sam’s treat. Aw, how cute.” She sighed. “Those two… Totally a one-true-pairing. I ship it.”

As Shae and Aliel began their thirtieth tennis match, I slipped away, my stomach growling. The house smelled like heaven, perfect cookies placed out on wax paper, covering the countertops and most of the kitchen table and I couldn’t help myself—I snatched one. I took a bite and groaned as the sugary sweetness practically melted in my mouth.

“Kia! Out!” Mom swatted at me and I shoved the rest of the cookie into my mouth like a dog that’d just been caught stealing food off the table. Not that bad of an analogy, honestly. “These are for later! You’ll ruin your appetite.”

“Mom. C’mon, it’s me. When have I ever ruined my appetite?” I looked at the cookies longingly, wanting another, but the lasers shooting out of Mom’s eyes were enough of a warning.

Kitane caught my gaze, looking a little impish himself as he winked at me, grabbed two cookies while Mom’s back was turned, and then disappeared into the other room. I couldn’t help but laugh and when I followed him, he handed me a cookie. “Breakfast of champions,” he said with a firm nod. “Just can’t help myself when she bakes like this. I have zero self control.” But the boyish grin he wore told me that he wasn’t ashamed in the least.

“One more. Let’s brave it together. Perfect father-son time,” I told him, peeking into the kitchen.

He chuckled. “Your funeral.”

“Like you said, zero self control.”

So we risked it, snatching a few more un-iced cookies, and we were nearly home free when Mom turned around and shrieked at us, exploding in a cacophony of not-quite curse words. Shit. Busted. “Alright. Fine. You want cookies? You’re gonna have to work for them. Both of you sit down.” Her tone left no room for excuses and Kitane and I shared a glance. “Now.” The word was a growl, fiercer than any werewolf.

She plopped down a couple big plastic bowls of red and green icing and handed us both a butter knife. “Get to work. Sprinkles are in the cabinet and I swear to god if I come back and you’ve eaten them all, I’ll ground you both!” She huffed, hands planted squarely on her hips. “Don’t make me mad at Christmastime.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kitane said sheepishly and she stormed off muttering about us being a couple of unruly delinquents. Kitane waited until her back was turned, slathered some icing on a cookie, and took a big bite. Then he looked right at me and mouthed the words, “Worth it.” I fetched the wide array of sprinkles and toppings from the cabinet above the stove and popped a red hot into my mouth.

By the time we finished icing and decorating the cookies, there were significantly fewer than when we’d started and my belly gave a happy grumble. Breakfast of champions, indeed. Kitane looked at me, a smudge of green icing on his nose, and we fist-bumped. “You got a little…” I leaned in and gave him a spit-bath, wiping the traces of our sin off his face, and he grinned. “There.”

“You’re such a dad. Following in my footsteps, I see. God, I’m so proud.” He stood up and ruffled my hair despite my groan of protest, but I let him do it anyway. He missed out on the biggest part of our childhoods, thanks to Kanzi. It was the least I could do, to let him be a dad.

That evening, we got trussed up in winter-appropriate clothing and then piled into Mom’s new SUV to make our way to the town square, where they held the sleigh rides every year. Sam and Greyson sat on the park bench outside the courthouse, Rini sitting between them, bundled up in a brand new winter coat that almost matched her eyes, with faux fur around the hood and cuffs. She saw me and ducked her head, but gave a little smile nonetheless.

“How was your day, guys?” I asked them, offering Rini a cookie from the baggie we brought along. She looked at it suspiciously, so I knelt down to her level and took a bite. “It’s yummy,” I told her, handing it over. She took it, sniffed it, and then gave a timid nibble—and her eyes lit up like Christmas bulbs. She squeaked out a sound and devoured the cookie, and then two more. “Told ya,” I teased her and her already pink-stained cheeks tinted a little brighter.

She looked almost…happy, considering all that had happened in the past few days.

“We had a great time, didn’t we, Rini?” Greyson asked, looping an arm around her shoulders in a half-hug. “We took her to the mall and let her meet Santa Clause. She was brave and sat on his lap.” He beamed, obviously proud of the little girl. “And then we went shopping, got her this lovely blue coat, and when we went home, Sam pulled out the scissors and worked his magic on her hair.” He grinned. “She almost passes for human.”

Rini shrugged her shoulders, hunching them up around her ears, but she was smiling. “I met Santa Claws,” she said, tilting her head to one side, looking thoughtful. “But he didn’t have any claws for real, unless they were under his mittens.”

“What did you ask him for for Christmas?” I asked her.

She hesitated and looked down at her lap with a frown, then mumbled, “To not be alone anymore.”

I reached out and gently squeezed her shoulder. “That’s a good wish.” She furrowed her brow and nodded, then pointed at the pair of chestnut draft horses strapped to the sleigh with red harnesses, the adorning bells chiming with every step they took as we got into line to wait our turn in the blustering cold. Flurries flew past, pelting us with tiny balls of ice, and I shivered against the cold. Rini was staring at the horses with a strange look on her face. “Can I pet them?”

“Sure,” Sam said, reaching for her hand. She slowly slipped her gloved hand into his and he led her over to where the horses were tied. But the moment she reached her hand out to them, they seemed to spook, snorting softly with little puffs of white escaping their nostrils and their handler had to grab the closest one’s bridle to calm it down. Both horses showed distress—maybe they smelled the wild on her skin? The wolf below the surface?

“Sorry, sweetheart. They’re a little antsy tonight. I think the weather’s calling for more snow,” the woman apologized, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a candy cane. “Merry Christmas.” Rini ducked behind Sam’s legs and Sam laughed, thanked the lady, and then gently took the candy cane and they got back in line with us.

The sleigh ride was a nice little holiday touch; we wrapped up in warm blankets and circled the town, taking in the snow-frosted Christmas decorations, the lights strung up around Rockfell, each house more colorful than the last, with blow up snowmen and wreaths hanging from light posts, the lights dancing behind the swiftly falling snowflakes as the clouds seemed to let loose. It made it all the more magical while Sam spun a tale about reindeer and how they flew through the sky every Christmas, their hooves touched by Santa’s magic.

“And,” he added in a hushed tone. “It’s the same kind of magic that allows you to become a beautiful wolf.” When he lifted his brows, as if to assure her that this was the truth, Rini broke out in a full blown grin.

“You mind watching her for a couple of hours?” Greyson asked after we’d gotten off the sleigh and were making our way back to where the cars were parked. He looked at me and under the dim yellow light of the street lamps, his hazel eyes seemed brighter somehow. Happy. “We kinda wanted to do a little last minute shopping for her. You know…to give her a Christmas to remember. She’s lost,” he said sadly. “And I would do anything to keep her smiling, you know? I know it’s stupid, but—”

“It’s not,” I cut him off. “Not at all. I would do the same for Shiba. We’ll watch her. Maybe we’ll put on a cartoon and let the kids wear off their sugar high.” Because ever since she’d had those cookies, Rini was bouncing around almost excitedly, a different person than she’d been only a day ago when she’d sobbed so openly in my arms. It was a nice change. “You and Sam go do your thing.” I hesitated, glancing between Rini and Sam, then back to Grey and my voice softened. “Just… Don’t let her down.”

Sam quirked a grin, patting me on the shoulder. “No worries there. That’s the last thing we want. C’mon, darling,” he said to Grey, catching his hand and lacing their gloved fingers together. He bent down to Rini’s level and patted her shoulder. “Stay with Kia. We’ll be back.”

She stiffened. “W-Where are you going?” Her voice was breathy.

“We gotta go talk to Santa Clause. Privately, you see. It’s about your Christmas present.” He grinned charmingly, then ruffled her curly brown hair. “We’ll be back. I promise.”

“Okay.” She glanced up at me, peeking from beneath a fringe of bangs and when I offered my hand, she took it with only a moment of hesitation. We stood there for a minute as Sam and Grey waved goodbye, then got into their truck and drove downtown, before Rini gave me a sideways look. Questioning. “Can I have another cookie?” she asked, hopeful.

“Alright, but don’t tell Greyson. It’ll be our little secret.”

She giggled and nodded and we went home.

After a couple of cookies and an accompanying glass of milk, Rini and Shiba sprawled out on the couch with Kitane, watching a re-run of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was just about to kick off my boots and join them when Arii grabbed my hand and gave me a tug towards the sliding glass door. “Grab your coat and let’s go for a walk?” Her blue eyes were bright as sapphires, the grin toying up one side of her lips impish and excited.

“Where are we going?” I asked, snatching my coat off the hook.

“It’s a surprise. Hurry up,” she said with a chuckle, then dragged me out the back door. I only made it a couple of steps before she spun to face me. She grabbed hold of the front of my jacket, fingers tightening in the fabric before she glanced up suggestively and my heart thudded in my chest, like I had a crush on her all over again, and sure enough—mistletoe.

She giggled, then leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed me. It was soft and sweet and gentle, her lips tasting of the peppermint chapstick she’d bought at the mall, and she tasted divine. I cupped the back of her neck, pulling her in for another kiss, and then another, unable to get enough of her.

“Kia!” she said, albeit a little breathlessly. “Follow me.” Snagging my hand, she took off through the fresh snow, the two of us trampling it as we ran together through the woods, hand in hand and heart in heart. And the love I had for her, in that moment? It was overwhelming. We slowed and she breathed out a small sigh. “I wanna give you an early present. It can’t wait until tomorrow,” she said and in the darkness, under the light of the white-washed moon, I saw nerves dance across her face.

“Okay,” I said, coming to a halt in front of her and taking both of her hands in mine. I tugged them to my chest, holding her there, and she grinned. “What is it?”

She looked up at me, her gaze catching mine, locking there for a moment before dropping back down to our joined hands. “I’m pregnant.”

For a moment, I couldn’t think to breathe—couldn’t think at all. All I could see was Arii as she looked up at me, hope and happiness shining in her eyes. Then I gave a little bark of laughter and wrapped my arms around her in a fierce, full-body hug. “Damn,” I said, floored. “Shiba’s gonna have a little sister?”

“Or a brother,” she replied happily. “I’m so excited. I’ve felt so off lately and, like, I thought I was? But I wanted to be sure, so I bought one of those little test sticks at the mall, while you were shopping with the guys, and… Yeah. Positive.” She squealed softly, dancing in place, before kissing me again. “I’m so excited, but I didn’t want to break it to you in front of family.”

“Can we tell them?” I asked.

“Right now?”

“Yeah. Can we?”

“Yes!” she all but squealed and the two of us raced back towards the glow of the house, our laughter coming out in little plumes of white, our cheeks flushed with the sharpness of winter’s chill, but oh, it was worth it.

We burst through the back door, startling Mom, who nearly jumped out of her skin. “You scared me half to death! I was just about to lock the door, too.” I offered the most innocent of grins and she shook her head, looking at us with an ever-softening expression. “You two are beautiful,” she said, sniffling a little. “I’m so happy you made it home for Christmas.”

“Always,” I said.

“And next year, you can expect four of us,” Arii murmured almost shyly.

Mom froze, looking down at Arii’s stomach, back up at her, and then at me. Her jaw unhinged a little and then she started to cry for real. “Oh, sweetheart,” she said, enveloping Arii in a huge hug. “I’m so happy for you. Oh my gosh.” She dabbed at her leaky eyes with a Kleenex. “You’d better try hard for a boy. I need a grandson in my life!”

After Greyson and Sam came in with an armful of presents, over eggnog and cookies, Arii and I told everyone the news—officially—and Shae began to squeal and dance. “Perfect ending to a perfect day!” she said with a happy sigh, flopping back down on the couch.

“Almost perfect, anyway.” Aliel stood up and cleared his throat. He wore his typical smirk as he glanced around the room, his gaze lingering on Shae. “While we’re on the subject of happily ever afters…” Shae snorted softly—at least until he got down on one knee in front of her and cracked open a ring box—and then she began to cry. “Since we’re doing this the human way, instead of the werewolf way. You’re already my mate. I knew that the moment I saw you. But would you do me the honor of being my wife?”

Shae shrieked, because it was Shae and she had no volume control, and then flung her arms around Aliel’s neck. She peppered his face with kisses before claiming his lips, nearly melting into him, and it was so obvious that they were in love with each other, despite everything they’d been through. “Yes! A million times yes. Like you even need to ask. Oh. My. God.” She pulled back and held out a shaky hand and he slipped the diamond ring onto her finger. She let out a strangled sob-laugh. “I love you, jerk,” she said.

“I love you too.” He grinned. “Now it’s a perfect ending.”

Kitane leaned forward in his seat, his eyes alight with amusement. “Looks like we’re gonna be grandparents times two,” he teased, nudging Mom with his elbow as he winked at Shae.

Shae responded with a growl, flailing her arms around. “Hey now! Not fair. I’m only nineteen—I have my whole life ahead of me and spending the best years of my life chasing around a couple of hellions isn’t on the menu. Not for a long time. Sorry, pal!”

“You so sure about that?” Al countered. “Maybe I’d like seeing you chase around after a couple of hellions. Besides, c’mon Shae. They’d be our hellions.”

“No. Not happening. Nope. Sorry.” She folded her arms over her chest, stubborn as always.

Aliel just laughed and wrapped her in a hug. He shot me a look, complete with winning grin, over her shoulder. As I said before, once a punk, always a punk. Beside me, Arii entwined her fingers with mine and I let out a happy sigh.

Life was good.

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

At eight-thirty-two AM Christmas morning, with the sunlight peeking in through the blinds to try and wake us all up, the entire family gathered around the Christmas tree as if it was a beacon of hope and holiday cheer. We were armed with mugs of coffee—the only breakfast we’d get until after the hoard of neatly wrapped presents piled high beneath the limbs of the tree (as well as packed on either side of it) had been shredded with joyful squeals and excitement.

Until then? Coffee it was.

“Tell me again why we can’t do Christmas at like…ten?” Shae bemoaned the early morning, clinging to her cup of coffee as if it were her very heart blood, and Aliel snickered and elbowed her in the ribs. She groaned and flailed a hand at him, almost spilling her coffee in the process. “Just…shut up and give me a few minutes to wake up. Then I’ll turn on the holiday cheer, I promise.”

“Why don’t we let the little ones open their gifts first?” Kitane offered, leaning forward on the couch to brace his elbows on his knees. “Since most of us,” he shot me a teasing look, “are adults and can be patient. But we’ve got two special little girls who are wide awake and can get started. Tash, grab something for Shiba and Rini, would you?”

Shiba clapped her hands and babbled excitedly, bobbing in Arii’s lap. The two of us sat cross-legged on the floor, even though I knew the position would eventually make my butt go numb, therefore making it nearly impossible to stand up once I lost all feeling in my legs. Arii smiled at me sleepily, her blonde hair mussed and tied away from her face in a hasty ponytail. I ran a hand through my own dark hair, shook my head to shake it off, and then took the present wrapped in blue and silver gift wrap when Mom handed it to me.

“Look what we have here,” I murmured to Shiba, crinkling the paper, giving it a little tear to capture her attention. She turned her two-toned gaze on me, zeroing in on the shiny ribbon, and then reached for it. Her stubby fingers worked to peel away at the flap of paper I’d started to rip.

Rini knelt on the floor between Greyson and Sam, watching Shiba with a puzzled expression on her face. And when Mom offered her the gift, she pulled back. Greyson set it in her lap and pointed to Shiba, who was happily tearing at paper, getting a kick out of shredding it and making a mess without a care in the world for what was actually wrapped up inside the gift. “See? You open it. There’s a present inside,” he told her, tugging at the bow. Rini huffed softly and began to carefully undo the tape on either end.

“What did you get?” Arii asked brightly as Shiba finally unwrapped a blocky cardboard book with dogs on the front. “A book!” Shiba giggled and gave it a toss, sending it spiraling across the room, and Kitane cracked up laughing.

“Doesn’t look like she’ll be a very avid reader, huh?”

Rini held a stuffed husky with eyes as blue as hers, her fingers gently petting over the faux fur. “You can sleep with him at night,” Kitane said gently. “And he’ll keep you safe, okay? His name is Guard Dog and he’ll always protect you.” She looked between Kitane and the stuffed animal before nodding and holding it close to her chest. Like she was completely happy to just cuddle her new toy—but we were far from done.

Nearly an hour later, shreds of colorful wrapping paper littered the carpet, bows discarded on the floor and toys upon toys piled up on either side of the girls. Shiba was gnawing on the ear of a floppy hound dog plushie while Rini helped Sam tediously undo the little plastic twist-ties holding a Monster High doll—a werewolf, talk about irony—in its packaging. It was cute, watching the three of them trying to untangle the doll from her cardboard prison.

“Remember that year Mom got you a Furby and you flipped your unholy shit?” Shae teased.

I groaned. “You bring this up every year. Of course I remember it. That Furby was the devil incarnate. It never shut up, talking in gibberish! God, that thing was creepy as hell.” I wadded up a ball of wrapping paper and chucked it at her. It bounced harmlessly off the couch, because my aim was terrible, and Shae snickered at me.

As round one of presents came to an end, Mom grabbed a big plastic trash back out of the kitchen and she and Aliel started picking up the mess that covered the floor, paper crinkling underfoot as they tried to get every last piece, and Greyson grabbed a small red box from under the tree. “Last one, Rini,” he said, offering the gift to her. She took it and I didn’t miss the look Greyson and Sam shared as she began to undo the ribbon that tied the lid on.

Inside the box was a tattered-edged scrapbook—namely, the photo album Greyson had started when he first got together with Sam. “See these pictures?” Inside the pages of the book were memories upon memories, photographs of Sam and Grey and their families. Photographs of Shae making goofy faced selfies and photographs from Kitane and Mom’s wedding. There were even pictures of me and Arii and baby Shiba in there. “These are our memories, Rini. These pictures tell a story about two boys who met each other and fell in love. And you know all love stories have happily ever afters, right?” He smiled.

They went through the book together and when Greyson flipped to the very back, it came to a page that was completely empty, except for one picture. In the center of the page, there was a photo of Rini, sitting on the lap of a mall Santa, with Greyson and Sam standing proud as can be on either side of her.

She looked up at them, confusion on her face, and Sam leaned in and tapped the picture. “And this one, this memory… Is you. You came to us, even though we weren’t looking. You entered our lives, a lost little pup needing a home. A family. And sweetheart? We want to keep you. We want you to be ours—our daughter. We want to give you a home, a place where you’ll always be safe and no one will ever hurt you again.” His voice cracked, softening. “Would you like that, Rini? Would you wanna come home with us? Join our family?”

Rini let out a broken whine, looking between the guys, as if afraid of being let down again. “You want me?” she asked, a hush in the quiet, because everyone had fallen silent to watch the magic unfold. Even Mom stood awestruck, wrapping paper in hand as she seemed to be stuck in time.

“We want you,” Grey said firmly. “You’ll never have to be alone again.”

She gave a hiccupping sob and launched herself at Greyson, throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face into his shirt as she cried. He laughed, looking a little teary eyed himself as he held her close, rubbing his hands across her back to soothe her. Sam came up behind them and wrapped them both in a fierce hug and Greyson began to laugh, an almost relieved sound.

I looked at him, my face aching I was grinning so hard. “Are you sure?”

Grey just gave me that reckless smile he wore so well and nodded. “Never been more sure of anything in my life. I mean, yeah, it’s a little early, but we were planning to adopt anyway. Might as well be a werewolf, right? Keep it in the family?” He chuckled and then gently pried a tear-streaked Rini away from him, sitting her down on his lap. “We lied; there’s one last gift. You’ll love it,” he promised and Sam jumped to his feet and jogged down the hall.

A moment later he came back out holding a snow white kitten with big blue eyes and a matching bow tied loosely around his neck. Sam looked right at me, winked, and then handed the kitten down to Rini who began to squeal. She took the little cat gently, petting it with careful hands. “My baby. Thank you! Thank you!” she cried, burying her face in the kitten’s silken fur.

“She saw this little guy at the pet store in the mall and was smitten,” Greyson explained.

“And we’re a couple of saps,” Sam agreed, giving his fiancé a knowing look. “Anything to make her smile. She’s worth it and we want to prove that to her. And if that means scooping a litter box, well.” He reached down and ruffled the little girl’s hair and she beamed up at him, eyes bright and shiny with tears. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”

Arii squeezed my hand in hers, leaning in to press a kiss to my lips. I wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close, and she kissed me again. “You did a good thing, saving her,” she said. “You’re a good person. A good father. A good wolf, and I’m proud to have you as my mate.”

“I couldn’t just leave her out there. It’s Christmastime, after all. Everyone deserves to have a family for Christmas; I’m just happy that she gets a happily ever after.” I winked at her. “Alright guys. I think it’s time for round two on the presents. My inner-child wants to rip and tear!”

“Mine too!” Shae cried. “Me first! I’m the youngest and the youngest always gets to go first!”

And after all the presents had been opened and Kitane had started breakfast, the heavenly scents of blueberry Belgian waffles and crispy bacon quickly filling up the house, I walked over to where the little girl sat on the couch, surrounded by gifts, though they had been forgotten in place of the little cat she cradled tenderly.

I knelt down beside her and offered a smile. “Hey, Rini. What are you gonna name him?” I ran my fingertips through the kitten’s velveteen coat, as white and pure as the snow outside. He purred loudly as I scratched under his chin, seemingly content wrapped up in that little girl’s arms, and if he was afraid of her werewolfness, he sure as heck didn’t show it.

Rini pressed her cheek against the kitten’s fur, gently kissing him on the head. “Santa Claws,” she replied, matter of fact. I grinned and looked up just in time to see Greyson and Sam share a look, adoration apparent on their faces, completely smitten with the little girl who’d come into our lives only a few days ago and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everything was gonna turn out alright.

“Merry Christmas, Rini.”

 

The End

 

Happy Holidays, my friends! Thank you for reading and, as always, for your support.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s