“We’re not sure yet, Mom. Arthur has given us the name of that town, Dryden, northwest of Thunder Bay, so we have something to go on. Everyone has settled in nicely, so we’re not really needed here now, are we?”
“Needed, no, but Tobyn, you and Kellar haven’t had any chance to catch your breath. Don’t you want to take it easy for a while? My goodness, you’ve just found Hugh’s mate, and….”
“Hugh found his own mate, Elinor.”
“You know what I mean, Kellar. From what you’ve told me, you two were there for Hugh in every way when he needed you, and don’t try to tell me it was easy. So, back to my question. What’s the rush?”
“The rush is that shifters are still dying, Mom, and we want to cover as much ground as we can before the weather changes and winter sets in. That’s when we’ll stick close to home.”
“Close to home?”
“You don’t miss anything, do you? Yeah, Morningstar most of the time, but we plan to spend a lot of days at the cabin too. We like it there, and you’ve seen how much work my mate has put into it.” Tobyn turned to Kellar and winked. “It’s best to prepare her now.”
Elinor sighed deeply, leaning back in her chair. “It is a lovely place. You know I worry when you’re gone.”
“We do. All we can tell you is we’ll be careful, and before you say it, just because we’ve said we think the hunters’ numbers have shrunk considerably, we know the threat is still there. Kellar and I will never be caught unawares.”
“We could spare a couple of members to go with you now. I’m sure Percy would love to go with you, and he’s already faced a hunter….”
“Mom, please. We’ve been through this already. Yes, Percy has come face to face with a hunter, but it was Ian who pulled the trigger, and there’s no way in hell we’re going to ask him to leave Joanne. Look, we understand your concerns, but this is a time for the pack to jell. I have no doubt we’d get a lot of volunteers if we asked, but we honestly think we’d be better off continuing to do this on our own. Remember, being able to communicate without others knowing is a powerful advantage.”
“Good job, babe.”
“Thanks. She’ll never be completely on board with us going off by ourselves, though.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll stop being mom… for the time being,” she said unconvincingly, “and don’t think I’m not aware you do that ‘talking amongst yourselves thing’ with me.”
Both Kellar and Tobyn stayed quiet, but grins slipped onto their faces.
“Stop looking so smug, the pair of you,” Elinor said with detectable amusement. “Oh, did I tell you I’ve almost talked Clarence into joining our council? He’s thinking it over. Ingram and Maynard really like him, and so do I.”
“Ingram just wants more time out on the lake.”
Elinor laughed. “True, but the poor man. Did you know Dot got queasy when he took her on a boat ride for the first time? She says the water’s not for her. He didn’t show it, but I’m sure Ingram was disappointed. If anything could keep him on solid ground, it’ll be his mate.”
“Maybe she’ll get used to it,” Tobyn said, chuckling at the man’s luck. “But you’re right about Clarence. He’s an impressive man, and he’s learned from his mistakes. He’s without ego, and he puts his members first.”
Elinor nodded her agreement. “I’ve seen that in him—we’ve had some good talks—and that’s exactly why I’d like to involve him in the day to day running of Morningstar.”
“He’s a great fit,”Kellar agreed. “I hope all the alphas we meet are as fair and welcoming as Clarence was.” When a frown creased Elinor’s face, he regretted his words. The mother in her was resurfacing, and he could picture the scenarios she was imagining. “That’s the thing about shifters, though. After not knowing any for most of my life, I haven’t met a single one I didn’t like.” Hopefully, that helped.
“Well, there was Logan for a while there,” Tobyn pointed out with an exaggerated shudder.
“God, he was a jerk, wasn’t he? Unfortunately, we met his tumor before we met him.” Kellar grimaced at the memory, and then smiled. “I love watching him with Tilly. He expresses himself, but only after Tilly has. It’s cute.”
“He’s a man in love, doc. I expect there will be a wedding there soon too. Probably right after Adelin’s.”
Elinor snickered. “Just between us, Logan showed up here after breakfast, before he went off to the marina—says he loves working there and doesn’t care if he ever sees lumber again—and asked me about weddings at Morningstar.”
“Really? Wow. That was fast.”
“Don’t misunderstand, Toby. He was wanting to know if his dad would be allowed to perform a wedding ceremony here, if he doesn’t join the council. I told him of course Clarence could do it no matter what he decided. He’ll still be an alpha even if he doesn’t take a leadership role. He was pretty happy after we talked, but asked me not to mention our conversation to Tilly.”
“So, he’s thinking about it,” Tobyn said thoughtfully. “He probably got a wistful vibe from his mate over Adelin’s upcoming wedding. She’s not easy to read sometimes, but Logan’s a pretty smart cookie. He showed as much in the challenge of getting Vega over the hump. He was in tune with the members, which was pretty impressive to witness considering he spent years suffering constant pain and mood swings. He was the one who called for a vote, and remember his talk at the table, doc, about setting aside logging and concentrating on what makes Morningstar strong?”
“Yeah, I remember. There’s nothing wrong with his brain now, that’s for sure. He’s his father’s son, babe, with the same talent for diplomacy you have, and that got hidden for a while because of the tumor, but it never disappeared.”
Elinor had gone quiet, looking from one to the other. “We’ve added so many good people. It’s been ages since I’ve felt I could relax, and not worry about our future every waking minute.”
“All this responsibility has to weigh a person down,” Kellar mused. “You should start taking it easier now… you’ve earned it.”
“Thank you, dear. All these new members have changed the atmosphere of Morningstar so much. I don’t feel the pressure I used to. It gives me more time to enjoy life. Me and Denver. He can leave later and get home earlier now, and I’m going to try to do the same. I would like more family time,” she said, wearing the tiniest of smiles.
“You know, don’t you?” Kellar gave Tobyn’s mother a direct look.
For a second, Elinor looked like a deer caught in headlights, and then she relaxed. “I didn’t, not for certain. It’s awfully early.” Her gaze went to Tobyn.
“What are you two talking about? Mom?”
A smile grew on Elinor’s face. “I believe Kellar just verified what I’d only hoped until now. You can tell already?”
Kellar nodded, his attention focused on his mate.
“Are you saying…?”
“That you’re finally going to be a brother? Yes, it would appear so.” Elinor was beaming.
“Holy crap. A brother? I… I always wanted to be a brother.” He turned to Kellar. “You can see it?”
“Yes, I can see it.”
“Can you tell what it is?”
“Yup. It’s a baby. That’s all I can tell you. It’s a tiny little thing right now, but it’s made a home.”
Elinor leaned forward, her arms reaching across the desk. “Are you happy about it, Tobyn?”
“Oh, my, yes.”
“Then so am I. It’s kind of a shock, but Kellar predicted it a while ago. Hell, yeah, I’m over the moon. A baby. Wow. Does Denver know?”
“No, he doesn’t. I didn’t know until just this moment, but I had a feeling, and of course there was a physical sign indicating I could be. My cycle has always been reliable. I was dying to ask if you could detect whether I was, Kellar, but at the same time, I’ve been afraid to get my hopes up.”
“I saw it right away, Elinor.”
“Right away? What do you mean, right away? Like, the day we got back from Vega?” Tobyn asked.
“Yup. I can see a pregnancy from the time the egg is fertilized and the cells start to divide.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“How could you keep that a secret?”
“What… do you think you should know before your mom does? That wouldn’t be right. Besides, it hadn’t made it to the womb yet.”
Tobyn looked at his mother and grinned. “I guess my mate is your physician now, and he’s invoking some doctor confidentiality thingy.”
Elinor giggled, but then she gave Kellar a penetrating look. “Does everything look okay so far?”
Kellar didn’t miss the apprehension the question held. Years of stillborn children could not be forgotten overnight… probably never. “All I can say is nothing appears wrong. There is no color there that shouldn’t be, and the zygote’s aura is strong. You can relax, Elinor.”
“Thank you.” She let go of the breath she’d been holding as she said the words.
“Zygote?” Tobyn asked.
“The beginning of your brother or sister, babe. It’s really early yet, but it’s becoming an embryo as we speak. It has just attached itself to the uterine wall, which means it’s about two weeks old, give or take. No more than three.”
“Oh, okay. Does it have a pattern already?”
“No, but it has a glow that’s an opaque white. It’s the reason I noticed it.”
“Cool. How do you know all this stuff?”
“All I used to do, night after night, was read those journals. You’ve seen them at the cabin. And to be honest, I’ve studied it in human women whenever I flickered and saw a pregnancy. I’ve seen babies at every stage. It’s fascinating,” Kellar said with a shrug.
“You’re definitely hired.” Tobyn stood and walked around the desk. “My head is spinning, but I’m stoked as heck and I need to hug my amazing mom.”
Instant tears formed in Elinor’s eyes at her son’s words, and she giggled again. “That’s another sign. My emotions have been all over the place the last few days, and I knew it had nothing to do with Vega.” She stood up and walked into her son’s arms. The sight of them sharing the moment had Kellar experiencing some emotions of his own. Finally, the payoff for defeating the malaise was beginning, even sooner than expected, and it was fitting Elinor was starting it off. Come hell or high water, this baby would be born alive and healthy. Kellar would ensure it. And yeah, he was Elinor’s doctor. He was every members’ doctor, and that was fine with him. It was what he was born to do. The timing of Clarence’s arrival, an experienced alpha, was even more fortuitous given this new and important pregnancy. The earth mother at work again?
It was ten-thirty in the morning, and this time they were determined to get out on the lake. Tobyn was practically vibrating from hearing of a new sibling on the way, and a new baby for the pack. Kellar had to caution his excited mate not to let anything slip as they walked through the sparsely-populated dining room and out the front entrance of the lodge.
They didn’t even make it to their vehicle before a strange truck pulled into view, moving slowly.
“Who the heck is that? There are signs to direct the tourists.”
“I can’t see through the glare on the windshield,” Kellar said. A scent reached him through the open windows. “Hey, that’s Connor.”
At the same time, they heard the heavy rumble of a big dually coming from the farm road, still a fair distance away. “And that must be Hugh,” Tobyn said, his attention still on Connor’s progress. He waved the man forward, and the truck responded, edging up its crawl and pulling in next to them.
Kellar walked over to the driver’s side, with Tobyn in the lead.
“Hugh’s supposed to have met me here… well, at the road down there”—Connor pointed back from where he came—“but, he wasn’t there.” He looked extremely agitated.
“Hi, Connor. Good to see you. No worries. He’s on his way. We can hear his truck, and it’ll be about a minute before he drives around the corner.” Tobyn’s words seemed to calm Connor enough that he visibly relaxed.
“Oh good. I was worried something had happened to him. I, ah… I thought it would be busier around here.”
Kellar reached around Tobyn and put a hand on the relieved man’s shoulder. “It will be when lunch starts. Are you guys doing okay? We didn’t see Hugh on the grounds yesterday.”
“Oh, yeah, he was with me. He called someone named Charles and took the day off. I brought him back before first light this morning and dropped him off at the marina road. That’s where he said….”
“Speak of the devil. There’s your mate, looking just as stressed as you do. Not easy being separated, is it?”
“Fuck, no.” Connor blew out a huge breath. “It’s hell. Is it always going to be like this?”
Kellar chuckled. “It gets worse, and then it settles down. No complaints from us though, right, babe?”
“No, but we’re never apart, except the one time, and I don’t even want to think about what that was like,” Tobyn said, stepping out of the way as Hugh hurried over from where he’d parked.
“Sorry, Connor. I got caught up in something and I couldn’t leave until it was finished. A stupid cow got out of the pasture when I let go of the gate… I was having trouble keeping my mind on the job,” he said sheepishly as he finally acknowledged the other two men. “Hi Kellar. Hi Tobe.” He returned his attention to his mate. “Are you coming out of there?”
“Don’t you have to ask permission first?”
Hugh shook his head and chuckled. “Permission? No. I guess I didn’t explain it right. I only meant I wanted to ask one of our leaders for their approval to show you around. It’s a courtesy thing for your first time here. Humans aren’t allowed in the private areas as a rule… it’s for our safety and security. Once you’re introduced as my mate, we’re all good. You’ll be one of us.” Hugh seemed to be out of oxygen when he finished.
“Hugh, calm down and breathe,” Tobyn teased. “Mom’s in there, and she can’t wait to meet Connor.”
Connor was in the process of stepping out. “She knows? You told her about me? What did she say?”
Hugh didn’t answer at first. Instead, he pulled his mate close, and they held the embrace for half-a-minute. Kellar could hear the deep inhales of each other’s scent, and moved closer to his own mate, waiting for both men to have their fill. Yeah, hours of separation will do that. “No, I didn’t get the chance, and I wanted to get my work done so I could meet you. I figured we’d tell her together.”
“Kellar and I told her, Connor. You can’t keep anything from my mother. So, you guys spent the whole of yesterday together? I’ll take that as a good sign,” Tobyn uttered to the still entangled men.
Hugh snickered as they finally let go of each other, except for clasped hands. His breathing was much calmer. “You could say that. He’s smarter than me, but we have so much in common it’s scary.”
“Hey, I’m not smarter than you,” Connor objected. “I’m just an idiot savant when it comes to computers. You figured out why my one stove burner wasn’t working in two minutes, and it stymied me for two months.”
“That’s true. I guess I’m the smart one then.”
“That’s not what I said.” His smile was brilliant as he stared upward at his mate. “We’re equally smart.”
“Works for me. Are you ready to be introduced?”
“As your mate? Yeah, I’m ready.”
“You guys are so cute. Connor, it’s a good job you didn’t meet this guy when he was a kid. He was so goofy looking, you would have run away.”
“I highly doubt that. He’s exactly what I’ve been looking for, and just look at him now.” He wore his own goofy look as he locked eyes with his mate.
Kellar flickered and watched their colors interact. Things had changed. “You guys started the joining, didn’t you?”
“Doc! That’s none of our business.” Tobyn gave him a wink they all could see.
“Sorry, but it’s pretty obvious, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“We are guilty of a few lip locks… okay, a lot of lip locks,” Connor said unabashedly. “That’s it, though. Hugh wanted to wait for even that—give myself time—but I didn’t see the point, because I’m not going anywhere.”
“Yup. Those lip locks will do it, and there’s no turning back now. I’m happy for you both. Everyone will be… you’ll find nothing but a warm and genuine reception here, Connor. Tobyn and I will say it first. Welcome to Morningstar. Where are you going after you see Elinor?”
“I’m going to show this guy everything, but first he’s going to meet my mom,” Hugh said with a big smile on his face. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud in my entire life.”
Connor groaned at the other two. “I’ve never met a mom before.”
“You’ll love her. I guarantee it,” Tobyn said. “She’s an absolute sweetheart, and she always has cookies.”
“See. Nothing to worry about, and you’ll get sweets as a bonus.” Hugh slid a hand up his back and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “She’ll love you, I promise.”
“How do you know that? She hasn’t met me yet, and she doesn’t even know you’re gay.”
Hugh laughed. “Well, she’s going to find out, isn’t she? Don’t worry. My mom only cares about my happiness, and you make me happy. It’s only been her and I for so long, and now she’ll have you to dote over… fair warning, but I don’t think you’ll be complaining. I still can’t believe how you’ve handled me being a shifter. I’m so lucky.”
Connor sighed and smiled at the same time. “What’s to handle? The earth mother picked you for me, and all I have to do is look at Kellar and Tobyn to see she knows what she’s doing. I don’t just get you… I get your beautiful wolf. You’re an animal lover’s dream,” he teased. “You’re not the only one who’s fortunate here.”
“See how amazing he is, guys. He’s been saying stuff like this since we went on our first walk. I thought it would be me having to reassure him, but it’s the other way around.”
Tobyn chuckled. “You don’t have to convince us, bud. We’re Connor fans already. So, if you don’t mind me asking, how are you going to handle the being apart situation? You were both freaked out when you got here.”
“Yeah, we can’t keep doing this. Once was enough, right?” Hugh’s lips grazed his mate’s forehead. “This morning was five hours of hell.”
“Same for me, and I didn’t like it, no. It’s hard to concentrate, but Kellar said it gets easier after it gets worse.”
“I did say that, but it’s something you two have to work out, and the sooner the better if you’re anything like Tobyn and I.”
“We just had our first taste of separation, Connor, and while I would do anything for you, all our talk about taking this slow just isn’t going to fly. Working in two different places, miles apart, is going to be torture.”
“Do you guys want to talk about this in private?” Kellar asked after Hugh’s impassioned words.
“Doc, come on. They need us right now. They need a nudge. Connor needs a nudge.”
“I don’t like interfering.”
“What are you talking about? That’s all we do. We have our noses in everything.” Tobyn did a quick eye roll.
“No. We need your insight. You’ve been through this,” Hugh said with a plea in his voice.
“Yes, dear. You’re right.” Kellar returned the eye roll.
“Do you know what I was thinking about all morning, while we were so far apart?”
Connor searched his mate’s face before nodding. “Brian.”
“Yes, Brian. I know you think you’re safe at Davidson’s by yourself, but tell that to my wolf when all he wants to do is run back to you. If you were on pack grounds, we’d both relax, and I wouldn’t be scared out of my mind and imagining all kinds of awful stuff. We have plenty of work for you here, the same as you’re doing now if that’s what you want. And your dividend check would be way more than what that cheap bastard pays you.”
Connor snorted. “You should be in sales. You do make good points, but we’ve only been together a couple of days. Don’t worry about Brian. I’m not… and I really don’t like to be pushed. I’ve been there and done that.”
Hugh sputtered. “I’m sorry if it seems like I’m pushing… God, I would never try to bully you. I’m having a hard time after this morning, but I’ll go along with whatever way you want.”
“I know that. I do. But, I don’t do well with pressure, and you’re talking about me uprooting my life after two days… everything’s moving too fast.”
“But you’ve started the joining,” Kellar said softly. “This is part of that ‘something more’ we talked about. When Hugh says his wolf wants to run back to you, he’s downplaying it. It’s like being clawed from the inside. It hurts, and it hurts bad. If we think our mate could be in any kind of danger, even if it’s only a chance, well… it’s not fun. I think you might be downplaying something too. You say Brian isn’t crazy, but that’s not what your injuries say. He twisted your wrist after it was broken, didn’t he? And he did something to make your ankle worse after it was almost healed. Am I right?”
Connor’s jaw had literally dropped. “You can tell that?”
Suddenly, eye contact was impossible for the dark-haired man. Even Hugh’s eyes were avoided.
Tobyn stepped in front of the two of them. “I look at you guys, and I see something strong… something great. Nothing from the past matters now you’ve found each other. You’re earth mates, and not wanting there to be distance between you is one of the best things about that, once you accept it. My advice, Connor”—the man met his gaze—“and maybe I’m out of line, but I truly believe you should move onto pack grounds as soon as possible. Make picking a house part of your day here if you don’t want to move in with Hugh just yet, but can you honestly see yourselves sleeping in different places at night? Kellar and I never could, even when we thought we were just friends.”
“He’s right. You can’t fight the fact you need to be together. It’s a losing battle. And yes, it’s moving fast, but that’s part of being earth mates. We have more than enough help, so maybe an option is for you, Hugh, to take some time off and spend it at Davidson’s with Connor,” Kellar suggested, in an effort to help.
“I would gladly stay there. Just say the word.” Hugh’s gaze was on his mate.
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You can ask me to do anything, and I will. You’re my mate.”
“I believe you mean that, but… let’s talk about it later, okay? Shouldn’t we go meet the leader now?”
“Good idea. Are you all right? I didn’t push you too hard, did I, because….”
“Stop, Hugh. I’m fine, and no you didn’t. I needed to hear all this. You’ll figure out I can get stubborn for no reason.”
“Boy, that sounds familiar,” Kellar said, grinning at his mate.
“Shut up, mountain man. I got there, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did.”
“I love you, Kellar.”
“My beloved.” Kellar winked.
“Can you guys come in with us?” Connor asked.
“Ah, safety in numbers?” Kellar asked with a grin.
“Yes. I’m pretty nervous about today. I don’t want to let Hugh down.”
Tobyn laughed. “Look at him”—he pointed to the attentive man—“as if you could ever let him down. I understand, though. We’ll go in with you, and if it helps any, my mom happens to be in a really good mood.”
A wide-eyed Connor shook hands with Elinor. The surprise on his face caused smiles from the other three when she moved in and hugged him. “Welcome to Morningstar, Connor. I’m so happy Hugh has found his mate. He spent as much time at my house as he did his own, growing up. Frankly, I’ve never seen him look so happy.”
Elinor had another fan. Connor melted into the embrace. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m just as happy as he is.”
“Good. You should be. That boy has become a wonderful man. My goodness, you’re so handsome. No wonder he looks like a cat that swallowed the canary.”
Hugh was standing back, grinning like a fool. “I lucked out, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did,” She agreed, stepping back while still holding onto Connor’s hands. “Tobyn tells me you’re good with computers. We need someone with expertise as we go forward. He and Kellar want to set up a safe way to communicate with any packs we find in the future, while keeping our existence a secret. Could you do something like that?”
“Absolutely, ma’am. That’s a pretty simple thing to do.”
“Wonderful. Now, what are your plans? Will you be picking out a house today? We still have some very nice ones available. Tilly’s frame two-bedroom would be worth a look. It’s bright and cheery, and it’s available in the next few days. And there’s a stunning, older log home that’s in great shape. It’s not big, but it has amazing views and a wonderful setting. Do either of those sound interesting to you?”
“Ah, yes, they do, but… no, ma’am. I won’t be looking at homes today”—he glanced over at his mate, whose brave face fooled nobody—“unless Hugh wants to move. I haven’t seen it yet, but his house sounds really nice. I’ll be moving into that one with him, but thank you for the offer, and the suggestions.” A strange noise came from Hugh, but Connor kept his eyes on Elinor.
“Good choice. What are you waiting for, Hugh? Take your mate to see his new home. Make sure you’re back here for lunch so he can meet our rowdy group,” she said, smirking.
“Yes, Elinor. We’ll be back after Connor meets Mom. And after he sees our house.” Hugh stepped up beside his mate and took his hand. “She’s kidding. The pack members aren’t rowdy, but they will be excited to meet you. Did you mean it?”
“Mean what?” Connor asked innocently.
“You know what. Did you?”
Connor sighed before he nodded. “Yes, I meant it. I just needed a few minutes to work things out in my head. I will gladly move in with you here at Morningstar. You were right about everything, and I can’t fight it. I don’t want to fight it because I don’t want to be away from you either. But, I can’t desert Lorne. I need to be there until he comes back. He’s supposed to be back tomorrow or the day after, so I think I need to give him one week’s notice after he gets home. How do we handle that?”
Hugh wrapped his arms around the smaller man, lifting Connor’s feet off the ground and spinning him around. “You’re incredible with how generous and accepting you’ve been with this whole thing. Thank you.”
“Could you put me down and stop embarrassing me, please? We aren’t the only ones in the room, you know. People are watching us,” he attempted a scowl but laughter burst out when Hugh shook his head ‘no.’
“Elinor, I need to take some time off from my responsibilities here.” He did set Connor back down, but didn’t take his eyes off those pale blue ones. Kellar, holding hands with Tobyn, was captivated by what had taken place in front of them.
“I guess you were right. Our nudges did some good.”
“I usually am, aren’t I?”
“Yup. It’s kind of cool there’s another gay couple living at Morningstar.”
“Two more, doc. One couple just doesn’t know it yet.”
“Take whatever time you need, Hugh,” Elinor responded, looking equally mesmerized by the scene before her. “Look after this new member of ours. He’s a delightful young man.”
“Yes, he is, and I will. I definitely will.”
Thank you to my Editor, Timothy M., who has been with me from the beginning, and to all those who support my efforts to entertain.