With a groan, I stirred and a flurry of giggles and whispers came from the foot of the bed. The events of last night trickled back into my memory and I considered pinching my arm to convince myself it wasn’t a dream. I peeled my eyes opened to look at Drew, still sleeping. Still sick. Still not out of the woods. My whole body ached, punishing me for running around the mountains in my human form. I sniffed, willing my body to move and stretch. Even muscle must have cracked.
Another burst of giggles came out of nowhere and I picked my head up. Staring up at me were two pairs of big brown eyes. Little hands clung to the bed sheets. They were little girls, one older but there was no way she was older than ten. They both had soft round faces and big chipmunk cheeks, still in little princess pajamas.
“Hello?” I cocked my head.
The little girls screamed, not in horror. It was like I told the greatest joke in the world and they scurried out of the room, hand in hand. The smaller one wobbled, almost falling over without the other’s help. I could hear them gushing as they hurried down the stairs. “Girls!” Liam’s voice boomed from the bottom floor. “You better not be upstairs!”
There was a hum of noise downstairs, rumblings and chatter. The smell of breakfast wafted into our corner of the world and I could have burst into tears, it all smelled so good. I glanced around, settling into my surroundings. I reminded myself. “You’re in some town called Dearest. You’re staying at an Inn... they all know you’re a Rogue. We’ve had worse,” I said to Drew, even if he couldn’t hear me.
I turned, placing my bare feet on the floor when I noticed a note on the bedside table:
Wash up before you come downstairs and find us in the kitchen. Avoid the dining room, if you wanna stay hidden. I’ve left some of Liam’s old clothes by the the door. I hope you like breakfast food. It’s all we make.
Just what the doctor ordered, I showered and used the provided shampoo and conditioner. The body wash smelled like apples and cinnamon, which made me feel like a waxy walking candle. Liam’s clothes were a little baggy, but with a belt, his jeans stayed upright and I rolled up his plaid thermal, leaving it open to show off Liam’s old gray high school shirt. It said, “Who’s the Dearest of them all?” I cracked a smile and hurried out the bathroom with my arms out to show off to Drew, but he hadn’t stirred awake. Not even a little bit. The disappointment added weight to my heart. There was a nervousness I just couldn’t shake. Not until he was awake.
I searched the bathroom until I found a hair tie that could get all this hair out of my face, when I walked back out, a little figure stuck her head inside the room. She grinned over being caught. “Hi,” she said, coyly with the deepest set of dimples. She was the older little girl with her hair arranged in short black twists. A huge bow was clipped to the side of her head, which matched her red corduroy overalls. She also wore a chunky cream sweater and polka-dot socks.
“Hi,” I waved a little.
“Is he awake?” I heard Grace’s voice.
The door opened completely and Grace held the other girl. She must have been a toddler, sitting snug on Grace’s hip. She had a fluffy mess of curls. She was drooling on her little gray sweater, making incoherent noises. Grace smiled, taking in my fresh appearance. “We’re getting somewhere. We’ll cut your hair after we eat. Girls, this is Zach. Can you say hi Zach?” She asked the girls.
“Hi Zach,” the older one said while the baby just made more noises.
“Zach, these are my daughters. This one is Mia,” Grace nudged the older one with her foot and with a baby voice, she introduced the one in her arms, using the little thing’s arm to wave at me. “And this is Emily. Who wants to show Zach downstairs? Hm?” Mia ran at my leg, tackling me slightly. She grabbed my hand and yanked me towards the door.
“My-my Mommy said I could make you eggs,” Mia said with effort. She spoke in-between little huffs, needing to catch her breath. “I’m really good at cooking.”
“I’m honored,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means...” I quirked my brow and finally said, “it means I’m happy and it makes me feel special.”
Mia snapped her little chin up in pride. “We try to make all our guests feel special.”
“Nicely said,” Grace cheered her on.
And like that, I found myself downstairs eating scrambled eggs at the kitchen island. Liam whirled around the kitchen, making trays of cinnamon rolls, crisping piles of bacon from a skillet and whipping up eggs to order. There were two waiters that fluttered in and out, telling Liam the next order and bringing out the ready food. When the door opened, I caught a few glances of the dining room. I saw some brick walls, maybe a fireplace and lots of windows to the outside. One of the waiters, Ryan asked who I was and Grace promptly told him, “I don’t pay you to be nosy.”
Grace sat on the counter, flipping through a magazine and pointing out different hairstyles. “I can’t imagine you with a dramatic cut. You might look good with a little bit of length.”
“What makes you think you can achieve any of those hairstyles?” I asked with a mouthful of grape jelly on toast. It was warm, buttery and with the best crunch. This food made me wish I wouldn’t stop being hungry, so I didn’t have to stop eating it. “Have you ever cut anyone’s hair before?”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” she sang and flipped to the next page with a little more gusto. “I cut Liam’s hair-”
“You shave my head,” Liam corrected. He barely looked at me, but he still refilled my coffee without complaint.
“You’re not getting anywhere near my head with scissors,” I clarified, “or a trimmer.”
Mia pushed opened the door, running for the water pitcher on the counter. She grabbed it at the end and Grace had to take it off, lowering it to her. Mia piped up, “Table five needs water!” She ran back outside, dodging Ryan’s wobbly legs.
This one smelled like human. He was young, maybe just started college. He had messy red curls and peachy skin, complete with a splatter of freckles and a mole on his chin. He wore a red apron around his waist and a stripped black and white sweater with a gold name-tag attached.
“Whoa!” Ryan yelped and stumbled, twisting all the way around. His vans squeaked as they scuffed the floor. The other waiter, Dominic appeared, wrapping his tan arm around Ryan’s waist and used his other hand to catch Ryan’s tray of dirty dishes.
Dominic smelled like a wolf, maybe a Beta. Maybe a Gamma. It was difficult to say. He was a little taller than Ryan and wore a baseball cap backwards, concealing his choppy dark hair. He had the making of a dark beard, mostly scruff for now. He looked young enough that this might be the first time he’s trying to grow one. He wore a loose T-shirt that showed off his muscular arms and his collar bone. A long necklace with a safety pen on the end hung down the middle of his chest.
Without releasing Ryan, Dominic cocked his head and grinned at the human. His hazel eyes sparkled, “If you wanted me to hold onto you, you could have just asked.”
“I-” Ryan huffed, breathlessly as his whole body turned red from his arms to the tips of his ears. He broke out of Dominic’s arm and yanked his tray back. The plates rattled and the room collectively held its breath. He pulled his towel off his shoulder and smacked Dominic with it. “I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Come on, Red,” Dominic grinned wickedly and grabbed the rag, yanking Ryan forward and the dishes jumped again. They were only a few inches apart when Dominic crooned, his eyes all dreamy . “What’s the next excuse? You just fall into my lips?”
“As if I’d ever,” Ryan muttered, barging past Dominic. If it was possible, he achieved an even deeper red. He dashed out of the room with his head down. “Not in a million-”
Dominic chuckled. He called after him, “You forgot to leave the dishes!”
As Dominic laughed to himself, Liam sighed. He said, “Spare him, Dom. He’s only human.”
“I can’t help it,” Dominic rested his hands on his hips. “Did you see that reaction? Virgins are the best.”
Both Grace and Liam groaned and begged him to shut up, while I chocked on my coffee. Grace rolled up her magazine and smacked him in the back of the head like a misbehaving dog that just peed on the floor. “If you keep talking like that,” Grace warned. “I am going to fire you again.”
“Don’t test her,” Liam grinned. “You know, she loves to fire you.”
“Besides man,” I leaned back in my chair, swiveling around to face him. “That kind of stuff isn’t going to make him fall for you. You’re just going to push him away-”
“Well, what does someone like you know?” Dominic glared. The subtext of that “you” was glaringly obvious. It cut through the nice morning. Made the sweet smell of syrup sour and the taste of my coffee stale and cold. He said, “Don’t hold your breath. I’m not taking the advice of some creepy Rogue.”
Grace hopped off the counter, but I was already up and across the room. I grabbed a handful of this asshole’s shirt and shoved him up the wall. He had to stand on his tip toes to keep touching the floor. I could smell it now. He was a Beta, but I was better. Dominic froze, showing little resistance and I had to laugh.
“Oh,” I nodded, feeling the thrill of the action make my arm hair stand to attention. My heart pounded, reminding me I was still alive. “I get it. You’re all talk.”
I dropped him and he stumbled to move around me. The door flung open and Mia pitter-pattered back into the room with an empty pitcher of water. “I finished!” She announced and I offered my hand for high five.
“Way to go, Boss Lady!”
She pulled her hand back and put all her might into that high five. I barely felt it, but feigned some stinging and shook my hand out. She grinned wider and I met Grace’s eye. She was peering close. “Mia, watch the front. Mommy is going to cut Zach’s hair.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a warm person?” Grace asked me.
“Oh, yeah all the time,” I rolled my eyes, mostly because she couldn’t see me with my back turned from her.
She flicked the top of my ear and I jumped.
“Ow! What was that for-”
“That is no way to make friends!” She tied my hair off in a low pony tail.
“You sound like-” I caught myself before I said the wrong name. I swallowed and said, “You sound like Lyle.”
“Lyle sounds like a smart guy...” She took out the scissors, cutting underneath the band. Something, maybe the scissors or maybe my hair, made a terrible whining noise as she chopped off my locks. I didn’t dare peak, listening to the snap of the scissors. It was a blood bath at my feet. The checkered tile was covered in chunks of black hair. She only pulled out the electric razor to clean up the back of my neck.
“How long have you guys been Rogues?” She asked and I swallowed. I should have seen this interrogation coming from a mile away. It was perfect. She had dangerous questions and a sharp object close to my face. She added, “Or have you always been a rogue?”
“Do you want me to give you a bowl cut?”
“Ask an easier question.”
“That’s not an easy question?!” She yelled and it bounced off the corners of the bathroom, like two different people were yelling at me. She sighed. “Sorry, sorry.” She shook her head and kept snipping. “Can I ask about you and the kid in the bed?”
“You can do whatever you want,” I muttered.
She didn’t pull her punches too quick. She took her time, trimming as she pleased. “How long have you been together?”
A soft ball.
“As long as I’ve known him. Kind of,” I shrugged. “We were together a while, without being together. You can’t just ignore your mate. I used to be a mess, so I made him wait. I guess we’ve only been official for...” I counted back the months. If only she knew this answered both her questions. “Six months.”
“Used to be a mess?”
I snorted. “It has gotten messier.”
“What made it messier?”
I didn’t say anything. I rubbed my hands across my jeans, feeling the seconds tick by and weigh down my soul. What I would give to spill all my secrets to this woman... what I wouldn’t do to feel just a moment of relief, but that wasn’t my life. My life wasn’t easy. Not anymore.
Walking around me, Grace trimmed at my bangs. She pulled out her magazine with my future hairstyle and trimmed more. Her eyes peered at my face. They’d flicker from my face to the magazine, over and over. She made a show of trimming a long piece and smiled, “Alright. The top is done. Let’s get rid of the bird’s nest on your face.”
She grabbed my chin, tipping it upward and turned the trimmer on. It buzzed nice and loud to drown out my thoughts. I told her, “I smelled him first...” She froze, meeting my eyes. “You’ve heard mate stories. We’re no different. I smelled him and drove my motorcycle right into his Grandmother’s chicken coop.”
“Ah-ha!” She cheered with a devilish grin. “Gotcha! So, you guys have a family? Where are they? What made you two go Rogue?”
“Grace,” Liam appeared at the door, his arms crossed. “Finish him up. If he’s gonna stay here, he’s going to pull his weight. Obviously, he can’t work with Dominic without killing him, even though I loved every minute of that.”
“Anytime,” I smiled.
“Now, who’s the freak?” Grace smirked.
“So,” Liam gave her a look. “I’ve got a few things in mind for him.”
“Fun,” I frowned.
Grace chuckled and started trimming off the mountain man beard, so I closed my eyes and let her do whatever she wanted. I’d let her dye my hair pink if that meant Drew had a safe place to sleep with a roof over his head. She could tattoo the name of the Inn on my forehead as free advertisement. I was going to do whatever Liam asked me to do and I’d do it well to make myself indispensable.
“All done,” Grace turned the clipper off in triumph. She sat it down and then, used her fingers as a frame as she explained her vision. “I wanted to keep you a little rugged and I have got to say that was a good idea, because Zachary you look like a heart throb. How’d I do Liam?”
“Definitely better,” Liam smirked.
With a sigh, I lifted myself up, but I didn’t move. I just stared at the floor, giving myself time. Even when we shifted for the first time in months, I didn’t look at myself. Glancing at first, I just saw my jaw and the dark scruff there and across my upper lip. I could see my edges again, the cheekbones and my strong nose, plus the old break. My hair wasn’t as long as before, just under my ear. My long bangs and hair was still a little wavy, trying desperately to curl at the bottom and very layered. I ran my hand through it.
“Is it okay?” Grace asked.
“I...” I licked my lips. “I look like me.”