Jess bumped my knee on purpose, but I didn’t react on the outside. Inside, my heart fluttered and danced all around. My focus was on Mia as she pressed a temporary tattoo against my arm with a squishy warm cloth. It had to be me. Mia only found a small slither of skin on Jess’ arms that wasn’t already inked. She grinned, bobbing up and down.
We sat on the ground in front of the sink in the kitchen. It was early in the afternoon on the weekend. “Which one are you going to get?” I asked her.
Jess rested his chin on my shoulder. His hot breath tickled my skin and awakened my slumbering goose bumps. I smiled despite myself, still focused on Mia. Her hazel eyes sparkled. “I want all of them. I wanna look like Jess.”
“Oh, Boss Lady,” Jess snickered. “It takes a lot of work to look this good.”
I elbowed him and he grabbed my arm, pulling me towards him. He kissed the back of my neck and I laughed, “Ignore him. He’s a dumb boy. You’re going to look better than Jess.”
She unveiled my temporary tattoo, a black cat from an old Halloween sheet. “Thank you,” I smiled. “It looks great.”
“You’re welcome,” she said, instinctively from good breading and went through her box of temporary tattoos. We all took little safety scissors and cut around the ones she wanted when Cameron walked into the kitchen. I could feel him approach before I even saw him. He parted the air as he walked. He must have come from a long line of Alphas because he only walked into the room and the Omega inside me quivered.
It used to not be like that. Ezra never made me feel so weak.
Yesterday, I didn’t know Cameron was going to be with Jess and Grace. He was bringing his clothes upstairs in loose piles and he caught me sitting on the stairs. I was afraid to go downstairs and see all those people hanging around, all those strangers. We locked eyes and a horrible feeling seized up inside me and I ran back upstairs. Instinct had just taken over. If Jess and I were back in the woods, I would have ducked under shrubbery or into a hole.
It’s been awkward between us.
When I tensed up, Jess kissed the side of my head, rubbing his warm hand up and down my arm. I melted against that touch, sinking into his chest. I looked up with a smile to reassure him. I was just being dramatic. I’d get over it.
“Hey,” Cameron said awkwardly. He looked at Jess’ hand on my arm and a storm cloud covered his blue eyes. He seemed utterly defeated. Jess made the fight between Cameron and his mate sound hopeless.
Mia snapped her head around, whipping her curls at Cameron and huffing at him. Her little brow narrowed, angrily cutting up her tattoos of sparkly butterflies. “Cameron,” she grumbled with her nose up, “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Wha-” Cameron gaped. He changed course from the fridge to us on the ground. Jess curled his lips to keep from smiling. Cameron walked over, his hands on his hips. He leaned forward while I stood and waited for the tap water to warm up. Cameron tilted his head. Some people stood out over how good-looking they were, like you could tell they were meant for the movies.
“Are you mad at me, Mia?” Cameron asked. “I thought we were friends.”
I squeezed the excess water out of the rag and checked the heat against my own skin, before I bent back down and pressed one of the sunflowers to her arm. Mia said, “Jess is my friend and you were mean to him and you haven’t apologized, and you should apologize if you’re- um, you’re the wrong one.”
Cameron smiled softly. He sat down with his long legs crossed. He said, “It’s complicated, but you’re right. I was wrong. Were you always so smart?” He grinned, still boyish and I could see a guy like him being molded by a place like Dearest. He was like this place, full of rustic small-town charm. However, the fact he still didn’t apologize was not lost on me.
“This is getting too sentimental for me,” Jess grunted, hopping up. He ran his hand through my hair and kissed the top of my head. I still reached for him, running my hand down his arm and hand until he was out of reach.
“See, Mia,” Cameron rested his chin on his palm. “I’m not the problem. Jess is—” He put this in air quotes ”Mr. too cool for emotions.” He glanced at me and I tensed up, holding my breath. He quickly looked away, eyeing Jess. “Oh, no I scared him off. Jess, come back. I didn’t mean it. You’re full of emotions. I can’t wait to see them one day.”
Jess bit his lip, keeping in a laugh. He shook his head and I helped Mia with the next tattoo. Liam glanced into the kitchen and disappeared, only to quickly return. “Oh, there you are,” He motioned to Jess. “You and me, we’re going to the market. I want to teach you how to pick and choose ingredients.” He snagged his jacket from the backdoor jacket hooks.
“Why?” Jess raised a brow.
“Athena doesn’t want to give you a job,” Liam huffed, and toss Jess his jacket. “Fine. I’ll give you a job. Congratulations, you’re the Dearest Inn’s new sous chef. I’ll teach you everything I know. People might not go to her garage, but there’s nowhere else to get the best breakfast food in town, so there.”
Jess froze up for a second, but he didn’t argue. He slipped into the jacket and winked at me. My face warmed.
“Wow, the full package,” Cameron chuckled. “Works on cars. He’ll be able to cook. Mia likes him more than me, even though I used to babysit her-”
“Mark babysat,” Liam interrupted. “You and Mia.”
He ignored Liam and eyed me. “You’ve worked hard for this moment Drew, take a lap.”
The words wouldn’t form in my mouth, trapped behind that closet door in Jess’. Any other person, I would thank him for the recognition, or I’d joke and say I knew Jess had it in him all along, but the words spoiled on my tongue and disappeared. I just nodded and started another tattoo, creating a small quarter sleeve of flowers, butterflies and now a flock of birds on Mia’s brown skin. Mia’s eyes still glimmered. She sucked in her lips, moving her head around as if she could steal a peek underneath the rag.
“I guess I’m out of here,” Jess said, walking up to me, so I stood up. Even when we were surrounded by people, he could narrow it all down to just us. He caressed my cheek with his thumb, his warm hand fanning out down my neck. He just brushed the top of my bite marks and I shivered. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in days. When I get back, let’s hang out. Just us.”
I smiled, playing coy as I buttoned up his coat, moving him back and forth. I asked, “Are you asking me out on a date? I wouldn’t count our first one.”
“Is that a no?”
“That’s a stupid question. It’s always a yes, but what are we going to do?”
Jess shrugged. He leaned in close, slowly just to make my heart race with anticipation. I met him the rest of the way, pressing my lips to his and stole another kiss and then, one more. Jess smiled against my lips. He whispered, “I’ve got some time to think about it.”
“Come on, Jess,” Liam stressed as he yanked Jess by his collar. “Every time it’s like you’re going to war, I swear.” He dragged Jess out of the house and Cameron meandered, making coffee and looking for stuff to make food. We didn’t talk, but Mia filled the room with stories of her dream last night and how she’s trying to teach baby Emily to crawl.
Grace wandered in with a few tools on her belt. She had been fixing small things, broken tiles in bathrooms, oiling door hinges and cleaning out drains. She spotted Mia’s arm and bent down. She cooed, “Oooh, these are nice. You look good.”
She kissed the top of Mia’s head, glancing at me. She did a double take. With a huff, she rolled her eyes. “Drew, my sweet angel, how many days have you been wearing that sweatshirt?”
“Uh,” I thought about it a hair too long and that was answer enough.
“I can’t stand to see it anymore. Cameron,” She looked around. She didn’t ask, she stated, “You’re not doing anything, do me a favor and take Drew to get some clothes, actual clothes that fit him. If I see him wearing that sweatshirt or one of those over size shirts one more time, my eye balls are going to fall out of my head.”
“No, Grace,” I spoke up. “I’m fine. I don’t need-”
“You’ll both be doing me a favor then,” she said.
“I don’t have any money.”
“I do,” she smiled and walked over to her purse on the counter.
Cameron stood from his bar stool. “Hey, what if I do have stuff to do?”
Grace whipped out her phone without even looking at the screen. “Oh, what do we have here? Mark is on my speed dial list-”
“Fine!” Cameron raised his hands in defeat. She handed him her credit card.
“Good,” she smiled. She sighed a little, hunching her shoulders. “You both need to get out of this place anyways. No more moping, boys.”
Before we left, I begged Cameron. “Um, can we go somewhere really inexpensive? Like a second hand store? I really, really don’t want to spend a lot of Grace’s money.”
“Uh, yeah,” he rubbed the back of his head. “I know a place.”
The walk to town was the most awkward ten minutes of my life. We didn’t talk. We didn’t even look at each other. I kept my head down. I made the mistake of looking up once. A woman saw me and moved her kid to the other side as they walked across the street from me. People waved to Cameron though. They all briefly asked if he was well.
One guy, someone Cameron’s age yelled from across the street, “Hey, buddy! I hear Mark kicked you out!”
Cameron shook his head and shouted back, “Is that a question or...?”
“Just letting you know I know!”
“Alright, Thomas,” He nodded and waved in a way that meant fuck off. He chuckled a little, a twinge of misery lacing that laugh. He sighed and eyed me for a reaction.
I smiled, nervously. “Mark is your mate, right?”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Since high school.”
He shrugged. “When you know, you know. I knew before we both made the change. I’ve been obsessed with him. God, my whole life.”
“I only met Jess when I was sixteen, but I understand what you mean.”
“Obviously,” He raised his brows. “You could say the same thing about Jess. He’s like a whole other person around you.”
I shook my head. “No. You just have to get to know him.”
“Yeah,” he snorted. “I’ll hold my breath. Here we are,” he motioned to the next door on the left. The door was carved with ornate flower bouquets. A metal sign curved over the threshold that read: “Thred Up”. He opened the door for me and I was welcomed with warmth and classic rock music playing. The store was lines of clothing racks. Old vintage band T-shirt were framed with respect, while the high rafters were covered with worn out sneakers hanging by their laces. The mannequins were dressed to the extremes, almost cartoonish with mix-matching patterns and one even wore a huge puffy orange jacket.
“They’re always having sales here,” Cameron rubbed his hands. “Let’s make a game plan. We get you the basics. We gotta get you some layers and definitely a jacket. What’s your size?”
“Oh, medium-” I started to say, but caught myself. Blood rushed to my face at my mistake. When the realization hit me, I couldn’t stop the thought from pouring out of my mouth, “actually, I guess I’m a small now.” I looked at the clothes, suddenly overwhelmed.
“That’s fine, that’s cool,” Cameron nodded. “You’ll just have to try some stuff on. When I was a kid, my mom wouldn’t let me get anything I didn’t try on first.”
Like that, we separated and looked through the racks. Cameron pulled out interesting choices. He gravitated to brighter colors. He’d hold up his finds and I struck most of them down. It was hard not just shopping for Jess too, but I focused and found a basic gray knit sweater and gravitated to something burgundy. It was soft, though most of this stuff had a certain used smell.
The woman one aisle over whispered just loud enough for me to hear, “That has to be the other rogue. I think he’s an omega.”
I froze. The blood in my arms thinned. I couldn’t let go of the sweater. Couldn’t do anything.
She inquired, her excitement bubbling over. “Have you seen the other one? The one with red eyes?”
The young woman’s friend chuckled. “Yeah, he’s so creepy. Did you hear he tried to get a job in town? Is he an idiot? What did he expect?”
“They’re so strange. Did you smell the omega?” The woman asked, her voice growing tantalized. It sounded like they were talking about something so salacious. Cameron crawled underneath the rack behind me. Maybe he had tried to get my attention. I couldn’t hear anything else. He arrived at my side to hear this woman say my worst fear, “He doesn’t smell like his ‘mate’.” She said it like it was a ridiculous lie as if Jess wasn’t my mate as if he wasn’t truly mine.
“Cameron,” I whispered, pushing him back. “L-let’s go. I really don’t need any.” I shouldn’t have said anything. The pressure pushing against my face became too much. My voice cracked and my eyes watered with hot tears. I wanted to shrink, become as small as possible and disappear. Cameron’s whole demeanor hardened. He focused on the women.
“I mean,” One said, “that beta’s smell is on him, but someone else too. It’s a mess. He’s so young to go through two mates. I couldn’t believe it. There’s slutty and then there’s that.”
I took the name like a slap. My whole face was on fire as I closed my eyes and the tears leaked out from the corners. I dipped my head, turning away. I didn’t want Cameron to see.
“Well, they’re rogues Sarah,” the other woman snickered, taking stabs at the last of my integrity. It was worse than any nightmare of showing up to school naked. I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life. “That pretty little thing probably had to sell a little bit on the side to survive. I’d hate to imagine how many bites lurk underneath his clothes-”
"Hey!” Cameron snapped. His yell brought the whole store to attention. He raged, “Mind your own business, Karen! And Sarah, don’t act all high and mighty! We all know you slept your way through your associate degree. The pot called, he’s calling the kettle black.”
The women gasped. Sarah in particular went red in the face and told Cameron, “Excuse me? You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“We’re alike then, huh?” Cameron snorted. He grabbed the clothes from my hands and threw them on top of the rack. He grabbed my arm, pulling me out of the store, but he didn’t slow down. He let me go and I struggled to keep up with his long legs. I quickly rubbed away the tears, praying no one saw me like this. He was muttering, practically spitting fire. “The nerve of people. I mean, that’s a fucked-up thing to say! And you! You should have told them to shut up-”
He stopped suddenly and I nearly smashed my face against his chest. He pointed at me, “Tell me, what were you doing? Before the whole rogue thing? Or were you always one? Tell me who you are.”
“Um.” I swallowed, my voice still shaking. My adrenaline hadn’t had time to climb down. “I was going to college to be a librarian. I was taking care of Jess. I lived with my grandmother-”
“Librarian? People still try to be librarians?”
“Y-yes,” I laughed through my nerves. “Obviously.”
“You like books then?”
“I love books.”
A smile spread across his face. “I have an idea then.” He rummaged through his pockets, pulling out his phone. He muttered, “Though, this might get me killed, I don’t know.”