My eyes stayed locked on the kitchen door. If I tilted my head just the right way, I could see the front door. Just a sliver of it. Drew had been gone a few hours too long for my liking. My anxiety weighed a ton, sitting on top of my chest, even though I knew he was with Cameron. No one was going to mess with him with an Alpha around, but Cameron didn’t know the truth. He didn’t know we needed to lay low. People were looking for us.
Bad news tended to knock on my door.
The uneasy feeling never stopped rolling around my stomach, making it difficult to focus. The first pancake I made on my own burned as black and bitter as my personality. Liam and I quietly looked at the smoke wafting off the pancake as the kind of mess that was so awful, neither of us even knew where to begin with fixing it.
“I’m trying out a new charcoal flavor,” I said.
Grace snorted, sitting at the table.
“The first pancake is always bad,” Liam sugarcoated my failure for me and patted my back, but I doubted this man made anything bad in his whole life. This included Mia and Emily.
I eyed the front door again as I tossed the scorched pancake into the trash. “Are you sure this is even a good idea? I mean, Dominic is gonna be pissed, right? Isn’t he your second in command?”
Grace laughed again. “Dominic will be fine. He only works for us during the off season. I mean, we don’t even pay that kid.”
I froze, holding the pan in the air. “You don’t pay him?”
“He doesn’t need the money.” She stared back at me like I’m a god damn mind reader and I’m supposed to understand the whole story from her face. She must have noticed my blatant look of confusion and dropped her magazine. She shook her head. “Jess, you’re kidding me. Haven’t you ever noticed the name on the Apple Orchard sign?”
“Grace,” I glared back. “I’ve left the Inn like twice.”
“It’s the Flores Apple Orchards. Dominic is the heir to the Orchards that fund this whole town,” She motioned to everything, waving her arms around like he owned the air too. “All he wants is free food, a little shit from me every now and then, and a place to flirt with Ryan. Dominic doesn’t have to work.”
I almost asked if he had so much money, why couldn’t he afford sleeves, but bit my tongue and actually let this revelation sink in. “Why is this the weirdest fucking town in the world?” I asked Liam because Grace obviously wasn’t seeing how ridiculous this was to me.
“You’ve only made it weirder, Jess,” Liam said with love and a chuckle. We went back to whipping out more pancakes and I eventually got the hang of it, teetering towards the adding complicated topping stage. Liam started to explain how he finessed the waffles, when Drew’s smell tickled my nose.
“I’ll be right back!” I announced and tossed my apron to the side, rushing into the living room. Drew walked through the front door with the biggest smile on his face. His eyes shined the moment he saw me and ran into my arms. “Hey, welcome back-”
My mouth dropped as I forgot the words. Drew was dressed the way I remembered, before we went Rogue, before we had to survive on the scraps of life. Drew wore a dark sweater and a crisp collared shirt. Even his jeans fit and hugged all the necessary parts. I was tempted to turn him around and check out the merchandise. I might owe Cameron one.
“Jess! Jess!” He was practically bouncing up and down. I rested my hand on his neck, rubbing my thumb up and down his cheek. There was never a person as adorable as my Drew Burton. He started talking a mile a minute, gesturing with his hands. “We went to the bookstore and it’s beautiful, Jess. Every time I thought it was the end, there was more books and the owner, Reiko is the best and it’s really a testament to how much I love you because I came back.”
“Is that so?” I kissed him because if I waited another second, I would implode. Sliding my arm behind his back, I pulled him closer, using my lips to open his mouth. My hands caressed the length of his back and Drew shivered, igniting a mischievous part of me that debated abandoning my work in the kitchen.
“Jess,” he said my name between the kissing, but I couldn’t help it. I had to sneak one more kiss in. He said, “Jess, I got—” One more kiss for good luck “—I got a job at the bookstore!”
I leaned back, holding his arms. “What? You did what?”
I swear the light in the room only brighten as Drew smiled. “I got a job there!”
“Wait, how? I mean, Drew! That’s incredible!” I yanked him off the ground, throwing us both into a spin. He laughed and I sat him back down, putting my arms around him. I rested my head on top of his and just let out a sigh, let out all of the tension I had felt when he was gone. He was safe. He was happy. “That’s so good. I can bring you lunch.”
“It’s a date,” he grabbed the ends of my hair before fanning his fingers out. We kissed only briefly. A knock on the door jolted us out of our private daydream. Still in my arms, Drew turned around. Cameron and Mark walked through the door, carrying the bags.
“Mark,” Drew said, “this is my mate, Jess.”
My heart did a dance. He sounded so proud saying that.
“Hey, Mark,” I said, trying to appear cool, even though my face warmed up. I gave Mark a thumbs up. “I loved the show you put on in town. I gave you a great review on Rotten Tomatoes, can’t wait for the sequel, ten out of ten, would recommend.”
“I aim to please.” Mark laughed as Cameron glowered at me.
“Okay! Let’s all make fun of poor Cameron!” Cameron announced to the entire Inn as he barged his way into the house and past us. He went up the stairs, making every step known while Grace threatened him with decapitation for waking Emily up from her nap.
Mark chuckled. He examined all my parts. I guess they weren’t too repulsive, so he just nodded and said, “Hey, Jess. It’s nice to meet you.”
He laughed again and walked into the kitchen, receiving his praises and love from Grace and Liam. Grace stated, “You’re staying for dinner, right? You have to stay! It’s been so long! You’re staying, I decided it. Liam, grab another plate for Mark.”
“Um,” Mark mumbled, glancing at the stairs, where Cameron disappeared and back. “Uh, sure. I have to eat.”
Grace grinned. “Might as well eat here.”
Still hesitating, Mark gripped his backpack for a moment. His eyes lingered on the ceiling, but he eventually disposed of his bag and coat. I grabbed Drew’s hand, yanking him back to my side before he could follow the others into the kitchen. I led him halfway up the stairs and out of the prying eyes of Inn guests. I tilted my head, waiting for the kitchen door to close. We were finally alone. My grin appeared on its own, looking into Drew’s eyes. So much of the light that had lived inside his eyes had dimmed, but it was back now and shining so bright, it nearly blinded me.
I said, “Sorry that we’ll have to postpone our date.”
“That’s okay,” Drew shrugged a little, closing an inch of space between us. “I’m not going anywhere, are you?”
“Not if you aren’t...”
I leaned towards him. We stood a breath apart and I nudged his nose with mine. Drew dragged his hands across my jaw to grab a handful of my hair. He closed the space and kissed me slow, kissed me gently like a breeze turning a page on its own as he opened my mouth and stole a taste of the world inside. My hands held his sides, pressing him closer. I was pinned to the railing, leaning back so Drew would be laid on top of me. I let my hands explore, slipping underneath his shirt. Drew shivered and I took a step up the stairs, ready to enjoy a bit of dessert before dinner.
“What about...” He whispered, breathlessly between kissing. His skin was cold from the outside, but his mouth was warm, and his face was flushed.
The wolf inside me growled and I hoisted Drew up, spinning him around so he was straddling my waist and pressed against the wall. He laughed with arms secured around my neck. “What about what?” I teased and grazed my teeth down his neck. I nibbled his fair skin and he trembled, his legs unconsciously wrapping around my waist tighter. Now, it wasn’t just his mouth getting warm. I took another bite just to feel him flutter in my arms again.
If we didn’t want to ruin his new clothes, we should go upstairs.
“Um,” Cameron spoke up. He cleared his throat from the top of the stairs. He was redder than red, maybe even redder than Ryan could go with his eyes pinned to the ceiling and away from us. “Can I please go downstairs?”
“You really know how to kill the mood,” I grimaced and carefully dropped Drew back to the steps. Drew covered his flushed face with his hands as if Cameron suddenly wouldn’t be able to see him, if Drew couldn’t see him too.
“Trust me,” Cameron winced. “I wish I wasn’t me. I wish I wasn’t here.”
“I wanna die,” Drew moaned and faced the wall.
“Jess!” Grace yelled from the kitchen. “Where the hell did you go?”
“I’m saved,” Cameron whispered and ran past us to get to the kitchen.
I looked down at my blushing mate and kissed his nose that stuck out from the middle of his hands, before walking down the steps. “Meet you in there,” I said, figuring he wanted a moment to cool off. I joined Liam in the kitchen, making everything he requested and a bit more, after all the failures. By the time everything was ready, Liam and I were forced to sit at the island while the rest took up the kitchen table, a huge table made from a refurbished barn door.
“You just caught me off guard,” I insisted, after I was reminded that Cameron kicked my ass the first time we met.
“You can’t fight our nature, Jessie-Boy,” Cameron grinned, oozing with smugness. He half stretched and half flexed his muscles for show. “Being the Alpha has its perks.”
Mark rolled his eyes, but I could see him biting down a smile.
I shook my head, waving a fork full of overcooked eggs. “Okay, sure but you’re forgetting that I’m a freak of nature.” I motioned to my eyes and then popped the fork into my mouth. Speaking through the bits, I added, “and you’re not technically my Alpha.”
Cameron grinned, a wicked glint in his eyes. I figured that might have pissed him off, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Cameron looked amused. He sat up. “It sounds like you’re picking a fight.”
“Can we please not compare lengths?” Grace said delicately in front of her adorable small children. She was sharing a plate of dry pancake, drowned in syrup with Mia as she fed Emily. Liam shook his head with a little chuckle. He got up from the stool and began picking up the remaining plates. Drew finished his entire portion, the love of my life.
“There’s a way we can settle this,” I said, matching Cameron’s grin.
“Here we go,” Drew mumbled and helped Liam clear the tables.
“I’m all ears,” Cameron tested back, inching forward in his chair.
“Let’s arm wrestle-”
Before I could even finish, Cameron cheered his approval, along with Grace and Mia. Mia held her clenched fists up in the air with a monstrous roar. Mark full belly-laughed for the first time since I’ve met him, and Cameron was too enraptured with his smiling face to help clear a spot for us to fight.
The others stood behind me, circling this side of the table. I took a seat across from Cameron and said, to get his attention back, “Unless you don’t want to embarrass yourself, Cameron.”
Cameron blinked. A dark cloud covered his big brown eyes and his lips curled. He looked wicked enough to put a curse on this household. Rolling up his sleeves, he righted himself and offered his hand, daring me to crumble. His Alpha pheromones leaked out his edges, causing an army of goose bumps to stand at attention across my arms. “Worry about yourself, Jess.”
We locked hands and I fluttered my fingers around Cameron’s hand, teasingly. He laughed. It was a funny, unfamiliar buzz that crowded my brain. It was a feeling I almost forgot. The last time I had this much fun with someone other than Drew was with my roommates. Hell must have frozen over, because an Alpha and I were getting along. Too bad I was going to have to make a fool out of him in front of his mate.
Grace put her hands around ours and announced with a gruff, “Alright boys, I want a clean match. No funny business,” she said eyeing me, so I gifted her with one of my winks. She rolled her eyes and said, “Okay! Three... Two...”
“Come on, Jess!” Drew cheered me on.
“Any words of encouragement?” Cameron posed to Mark, who just shrugged.
Mark said, “If you break your hand, at least you’ll still have your looks.”
“Three!” Grace shouted and jumped away. It was the gun being shot in the air and Cameron and I were off to the race. We pressed against each other, like I was trying to push a brick wall over with one hand. Cameron’s strength took me by surprise again, but only for a moment. My muscles protested with my wish to give this giant blonde a run for his money.
We were evenly matched at the start, our limbs trembling. A vein in my arms thickened and pulsed as I gritted my teeth. Even my neck felt strand. Everyone was shouting, encouragingly. I heard my name more than anything and Cameron, red in the face, rolled his eyes.
“Why can’t someone ever be on my side?!” Cameron insisted and I slipped up from laughing so hard as Cameron managed to tilt my hand to the loser’s side. Grunting, I forced my quaking arm to stay stagnant in that spot too stubborn to throw in the towel. I’d rather stay like this forever than let Cameron win. Yet, it wasn’t up to me. Cameron’s quivering little lip quirked as if he knew a secret and didn’t want to tell me. He pushed on my hand, forcing it lower and lower when Cameron’s phone rang.
Cameron jumped and I took my opportunity to slam Cameron’s hand onto the other side of the table and the room boomed with cheers and laughter. Cameron cursed, coming up with a list of excuses, while I just took a lap of victory around the room. With a small smile, Mark slipped Cameron’s phone out from his back pocket. He raised it up, until Cameron snatched it. Cameron sighed and pointed a dangerous finger at me. “That didn’t count!”
“Whatever you say!” I called after him and plopped down back down. I leaned behind me, grabbing Drew’s hand and yanking him into my lap. As Drew laughed, I kissed the side of his head and wrapped my arms around his waist. He held my arms back, leaning into me.
“Hello?” Cameron asked from the other room. “Hey, Tyler... No, of course I have time. What’s going on?”
Drew and Grace started going back and forth about picking out a movie next as Mia piped up with her demands. Liam went back to finishing the dishes, but when I opened my mouth to say the winner should get to pick the movie, I noticed Mark hadn’t stopped looking at the door. He was focused, listening to every word that fell out of Cameron’s mouth. His face was a mess of emotions, circling from anxious to glad, maybe even relieved and then back to anxious.
“Everything okay?” I asked him.
It took a moment for Mark to realize I was talking to him. He glanced at me, chewing on his thoughts. He admitted, “He’s... He’s Cameron, but also so... so much more....” He couldn’t land on the word, but the color of his face warmed to a rosy red. He ran his hand through his hair and quickly got up and fixed his clothes. “Uh, I think I’m going to head home.”
“What?” Drew asked. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I need to grade some papers...” He glanced back at Cameron. “I’ll let myself out.” He went around the room, handing out hugs. I stood up to shake his hand. He smiled. “It was nice to meet you. You treat your mate very well and I’m glad... I’m glad you’re friends with Cameron. I think you’ll be a good influence.”
My eye brows nearly flew off my face. “Are you making fun of me?”
“I’m bestowing you with a compliment,” Mark chuckled with his gravely voice. “Take good care of it, I don’t do it often.” He gave Drew the last hug and promised to see him later. He took a step towards the door, nearly running right into Cameron and the blush that had just faded, burned a bit brighter.
“You’re leaving?” Cameron asked.
“Are you sure? It’s getting late.”
“I’m familiar with night time.”
Cameron smiled, sadly and leaned into the door frame. He made one last protest. “Are you sure you want to leave, right now? This minute?” They stole these moments, saying nothing. Just staring into each other’s eyes and they must have been thinking of all the things they could say and all the things they’re too afraid to reveal.
Finally, Mark said, “I’ll see you later.”
“Promise?” Cameron grinned wider.
Biting down another smile, Mark rolled his eyes and maneuvered around him. Cameron followed his master to the door like a good little puppy and I left them alone. Whatever else they did by the door was none of my business. I walked behind Drew, wrapping my arms around him and taking a rest. I wasn’t a religious man, but I closed my eyes and prayed to the Moon Goddess that this job would work out, that Drew would be safe with Mark’s mom.
I wasn’t worth much, but I’d give everything I had to see that wish come true.