Taken In The Woods

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Epilogue

A year later...

Riley

I carry the huge salad bowl under the shade of the gazebo and begin arranging all of the food donations. It feels so good to be outside enjoying the glorious weather, attending Bear Creek's neighborhood barbecue. I was thrilled to see some familiar faces here today. The folks here have always been rather tight-knit, which is a good thing because our neighbors are the eyes and ears of our community when we're away from our homes. We should be able to confide, trust and depend on our neighbors for neighborly duties, crime prevention and general kindness that makes living in our town somewhere where we want to belong.

"How much longer? Some of us are starving over here," I call out as I work, the smile never leaving my face.

"Give it two more minutes," Axel answers back.

The grass feels warm under my bare feet and it cools the second I seek sanctuary in the shade. It's hot and humid so I snatch a few moments of respite beneath the airy white canopy. The fact that I'm a pale-skinned read-head means that I run the risk of being baked to a crisp. But this neighborhood is beautiful. What's not to love about enjoying a nice summer's day, up in the mountains? I reach into the ice-bucket and retrieve a bottle of Bear Creek spring water. As I stop and intake a warm breath of pollen-infused air as I twist off the cap to take a drink. Axel is standing by the grill, flipping burgers while wearing a ridiculous chef's hat. I see the flames licking up the meat greedily and my stomach gives a growl of approval... Or maybe it's a sign of my own little fox-bear telling me that she's hungry.

For all I know, it could be a boy. It's far too soon to tell. We haven't formally announced anything yet. My scent has only just started to change and people have begun asking questions. Our parents keep casting suspicious glances, which means that we can't keep them in suspense any longer.

"Riley, you're looking a bit peaky," Mom says, sounding overly concerned. "Do you need to sit down?"

Whoa! Could she be any more obvious?

"Mom, I'm fine. I just desperate to get my hands on my husband's meat," I rush my words, then realize what I said. "I mean, the burgers," I correct myself.

God damned baby brain!

Mom makes a face that suggests I'm 'Hangry' then skulks off to go find my dad. I see Brian putting out a fresh bowl of water for the old labrador retriever he's had from a pup. The kids are all running around playing with water pistols, some of the dads are standing around the grills like they're guarding a fresh kill, leaving the moms to rush around arranging the picnic tables.

I spot the colonel, Beast standing over by the children's bouncy castle, getting attacked by a raucous little boy and twin girls. The petite brunette beside him is clutching her stomach with laughter. A huge blond Viking-type guy hands Beast a cold beer and they chortle about something. It is endearing witnessing so much community spirit. It makes all the shit I have to deal with on the council seem worthwhile.

Axel bestows his father the honor of the spatula, then comes to greet me with a plate piled high with mouthwatering patties.

"These look divine," I say, yanking off the top of a bun and slathering ketchup onto the grilled meat.

I close my eyes as I take the first bite, savoring the incredible taste as it explodes my tastebuds.

"Do I have the royal seal of approval from my girls?" He asks as if waiting for me to bow down and kiss his feet.

All I can offer to him is a 'thumbs up' because my mouth is busy tasting and my brain wants this precious moment to last. The smug look on his face is too cute to ignore so I grip his face gently and pull him down for a peck on the lips as I swallow. He licks his own lips, tasting the same mouthful as me.

"When shall we tell the folks?" His husky rasp sends delicious chills across my skin as he wraps his arms around my waist.

It's considerate of him to wait until I've scarfed the rest of the burger, pressing his lips against my temple while he waits. It doesn't bother me that he's watching me eat like a carnivorous beast, or that I've dripped ketchup down the front of my dress. How is it possible to fall deeper in love each day? A little over a year ago, I would've scoffed at that and said it was crazy.

"I thought you wanted to wait until Rebecca arrived?" I mention.

Axel tilts his arm so that we can get a clear view of his watch. "She's over an hour late," he mutters.

I wriggle away and see the frown that has scrawled across his face.

"Just give her a call," I advise, then reach out to snatch another tasty burger.


Axel

I fish my cellphone from out of my back pocket and thumb through the contacts. It isn't like Becca to be late for anything, so I can't help but feel like something is amiss.

She picks up on the second attempt. "Hey Axel," she answers, sounding flustered. "Uh, I can't exactly talk right now, I'm kind of busy. Can I call you back later?"

"Becca, where the hell are you? Everyone is here. Your mom has made your favorite treacle tart. If you're not here in the next thirty seconds, then Riley is going to eat it," I tell her, noticing the indignant scowl on my wife's gorgeous face.

I hear Rebecca's breath rattling down the line along with the sound of an injured yowl.

"Damnnit, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she apologizes, talking to someone else.

"Oh shit! Are you that kind of busy?" I cringed, flaring my eyes with horror.

Just as I'm about to hang up, thinking some guy is going balls-deep into my childhood bestie, she's quick to defend, "Eww, no! Fuck! I uh... I um... I did a Riley! I better go. I need to call a recovery truck... And an ambulance," she says before cutting the call.

I'm left staring at the screen of my phone, mystified.

"Is she on her way?" Riley asks, placing a cold bottle of water against her forehead.

She takes my baffled expression as a sign that I don't know.

"Shall I do the honors or are you going to inform my father that you impregnated his only daughter?" She dares.

I take her hand in mine and lead her across the yellow patchy grass that looks more like straw. My nieces and nephews dart past us as they run around playing Tag. My sisters have set up a kid's face-painting stall, which means it's difficult to tell the fuckers apart.

Everyone seems to be in high spirits, lately. Not just here in The Creek, but across the entire state of Forest Lake. It might have something to do with the alliance our president has forged with the reaper and how we haven't experienced a hunter attack in months. My mate has made quite an impact during her short time on the council. The crime rate has dropped. The residents have a new-found respect for our leaders. Even I gave up my reclusive haunt in the woods and bought a nice little cabin in the suburbs. Now I have neighbors who wave at me whenever I stick my head out of the door, or come over and chat about the weather as I wash our car or mow our front lawn. No, wait—that's me! Yeah, I'm that guy. That irritating neighbor who could talk the tits off a turtle.

And this new me is going to become a father. I actually managed to persuade a woman to create a baby with me! I can just see it now; I'll be one of those dads who straps their cub to their chest and carries a diaper bag wherever he goes. Soon it'll be all juice boxes and crayon packs, and complaining about sleep deprivation to other parents in the schoolyard.

We approach our mothers who are both sitting together on the porch, swapping family stories. I dread to think about the things that my mother has confessed to Sasha. They both have watery eyes as they overcome a fit of giggles.

It better not have been about the Tripod thing!

I low-key love that nickname but I fucking detest how I earned it.

"Mom?" I say, grabbing her attention. "There's something I want to say to you." I flash my eyes down at Riley.

Riley fumbles with her hands then coughs to clear her throat. "Yeah, we wanted to wait until you were all together."

Carlton and my father, and my three sisters come over to join us at this point. They look as if they anticipate what we're about to say, but this is our special moment and we want to share it together.

"Now that we've got you all here, Riley and I have something important we want to tell you," I say, excitedly.

My mother looks as if she's about to burst with happiness as she places her hand over her heart. Sasha is holding her bottom lip between her teeth. Our dads are waiting there, beers in hand, ready to drink to the good news. My sisters are practically squealing as we keep them waiting a few torturous moments longer.

"We're pregnant!" Riley says, and I pull her tightly against me, feeling so damn proud I might explode with joy.

Celebratory cheers sound throughout the crowd. Everybody had been listening just as anxiously and were all thrilled as we delivered our news. My chest swells with emotion as I turn to embrace my stunning wife. I really did feel like the richest man in the world right now, not that money had anything to do with it. I can see that she gets it because she looks like she's thinking the exact same thing. The key to true happiness is counting the blessings that money can't buy. She's given me her heart and her time, and those things are priceless.

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