He wasn’t entirely sure he needed to open the Feed and Seed this time of year. Most of the day had been spent alone, going over the paperwork that Seth was still trying to catch up on from the harvest season as well as preparing for spring. Being the manager he could have worked from home, and the comfort of his desk next to the fire. Mostly everyone would be hunkered down for the next few weeks but he wanted to make sure that anyone who needed feed for their animals or for themselves wouldn’t be left out in the cold. Not that they had officially branched out into human fodder. That was still very much Leyland Jr’s business. But Caleb and Jacob had taken to supplying the store with deer during the winter months to pass on to any of the families who might be struggling. Not everyone was blessed with a good crop to feed themselves until spring arrived, and it didn’t seem much of a hardship for the wolves to drag any surplus kills the few miles into town despite their advancing years.
Seth was very much wishing he could turn into wolf himself in that moment before he entered the house. For all his mate’s belief that he didn’t feel the cold, there was no escaping that icy wind. Relief swept over him when he finally got to close the door behind him. Especially as the swell of heat converging in the halls from the open fire in the sitting room and the wood stove in the kitchen—and the smell of some sort of rich stew coming from the latter—told him that Malcolm was home and dinner was ready.
“Thank the goddess you cooked,” he called as he hung his coat on the hook. “I’m so cold I thought my extremities might drop off on the way home.”
Seth brushed his hair with his fingers briefly as he passed by the mirror in the hall. “If anyone calls by to say they found a johnson in the snow between here and town, it’s probably mine.”
He didn’t exactly stumble but his gait stuttered somewhat as he rounded the corner to the modest kitchen. It afforded him a breath to take in the scene before him before deciding that, more than anything, he needed a drink before dealing with Malcolm’s sheepish look from where he was seated at the kitchen table.
To anyone else, Malcolm would have looked calm and relaxed, sat in his shirt sleeves with his bare forearms resting lightly on the arms of the chair, but there was no fooling Seth. They had been together far too long for that. Malcolm’s slightly hunched shoulders and that pinkish tinge to Malcolm’s ears, that only happened when he was truly reluctant to talk about something, were a dead giveaway.
Seth sighed and gathered his thoughts, determined to keep up the pretense that everything was normal. “Is there coffee in the pot?”
Malcolm narrowed his eyes slightly, and gave an almost imperceptible nod. Clearly, Seth’s reaction wasn’t what he’d been expecting, which in itself pleased Seth no end.
Seth beamed back at him and strode over to the fire. He took the mug from the mantle and filled it half way, then added a generous splash of the good Irish whisky that had been a gift from Patrick on the occasion of Seth’s last birthday. He figured the situation warranted the indulgence.
The concoction was strong, but not so strong that it prevented him from taking a long draft. Although Seth had a feeling it might not be strong enough for the conversation they were about to have.
“Ah. That’s better.” Seth smiled sweetly at his mate before leaning on the back of a chair with one hand and gesturing to their guest with his mug. “Who the hell is that?”
Malcolm remained composed. “It’s a small boy.”
Seth took another drink. “I can see that. I’m just wondering why he’s sat at my table eating—wait, is that my dinner?”
Malcolm rolled his eyes and sighed. The small boy in question hadn’t moved since Seth had appeared in the doorway, frozen in place, eyes flitting between the two strange men, all the while holding a spoon in his mouth with his chubby little fist. When Seth mentioned the food, he slowly pulled the slightly-too-big utensil free from his lips and started to chase a hunk of meat around the plate in front of him.
He couldn’t have been more than three years old. He looked healthy, if a little battered—a small bruise on his brow, his cheeks red from cold, dirt under his nails and his eyes looked red from crying—and he was dressed warmly under the blanket that was doing a bad job of staying wrapped around him.
Malcolm reached over to help the kid, taking the spoon from his hand and catching the elusive morsel for him. “He was found.”
Seth shrugged. “All right. But why is he here?” He wasn’t being callous, not entirely. As much as he himself had been accepted into the community over the years, and attitudes to Malcolm had soften—especially since John had passed on his sheriff’s badge—but still the idea that the good, god-fearing people of Lastford wouldn’t balk at the idea of two confirmed bachelors being left in charge of a child seemed…unlikely.
Malcolm pushed back his chair and nodded towards the hallway before walking out to stand with his back to the kitchen, arms folded across his chest, in the shadow where the lamp light didn’t quite reach. Seth followed reluctantly, and found himself having to step right up to his mate to hear him as Malcolm whispered. “I didn’t think anyone else would take him.”
Seth shook his head. “I don’t see why not—”
Malcolm’s withering look had Seth glancing over Malcolm’s shoulder at the boy. Dark eyes stared back at his from the kitchen, and dark hair fell all around his chubby cheeks as he leaned over the table to watch them. Seth hadn’t noticed particularly, being that he saw echoes of the same features on his mate’s face every day. “He’s…”
“Pawnee. I’m pretty sure anyway.”
“You think he’s from the reservation?”
Malcolm shrugged. “He’s a long way out if he is.”
Seth tried to imagine why a kid would be wandering around by himself. Then wished he hadn’t. “Who found him?”
“The mail stage. Spotted him wandering about near the river. It’s a miracle they bothered to stop. We were the next town so they just dropped him off with the mail. And before you ask, yes, I went to take a look.” Malcolm sighed and put his hands on his hips and lowered his voice even more. “There was a blood trail that led to the river.”
Seth’s head dropped. “So, he’s alone then.”
Malcolm nodded. “Yeah. It gets worse.” Seth’s stomach fell away but Malcolm’s lips turned up at the edges. “He is eating your dinner. Sorry.”
Seth shook his head. “It’s not funny, Mal.”
“No. No, it isn’t.”
“You’re absolutely sure?” Seth didn’t mean to sound quite so desperate but it had been a long few weeks.
“I can try someplace else but I don’t think it would make much difference.”
Jacob was trying to sound serious but his attention kept flicking across to where Caleb was bouncing the new arrival on his knee over on the large couch in the parlor, making the small boy squeal with laughter. Generally, the kid seemed happy enough most of the time; except at night. Or anytime Malcolm left the room. Or when he heard a wagon roll by, or more recently when Seth had to go to work. Then he would weep and scream and Seth thought maybe he was going slightly mad from sleep deprivation.
But for all those things seemed to terrify him, the boy loved the Alphas. He had no fear of them even as wolves. Which is why, along with Malcolm contacting all the towns in the county, Jacob had reached out to a variety of packs too, to see if any pups were missing. Even though the boy was decidedly human, they all knew that didn’t mean a damn thing.
“Maybe if he could tell us his name or where he came from it might be easier. He still won’t say anything?”
“Oh, he talks plenty,” Seth sighed, “but it’s all gibberish. At least to us.”
“Sorry, Seth but I can’t think of anyone else left to contact.” Jacob didn’t look sorry at all. Mostly, he just looked like he wanted a turn doing the bouncing.
It was strangely pleasing to Seth that he could gift his Alphas with such happiness. But he was torn.
“Then what should we do? With him, I mean?”
The laughter abruptly stopped. Caleb was holding the boy close and frowning at Seth, and Jacob wasted no time in sweeping up the boy for himself and proceeded in a sustained tickling attack that elicited such peels of laughter that Seth had to leave the room to save his ears.
Caleb followed him to the kitchen, although he didn’t speak until they both sat down at the table. He looked almost as grave as he sounded. “What do you want to do? Drop him off at the reservation?” Seth shook his head. Caleb nodded and looked a little relieved. “What does Mal say?”
Seth huffed out a laugh. Caleb should have known better than to ask that. He’d been Malcolm’s friend longer than Seth had known him. “What does Mal ever say! Nothing. He glowers plenty, some hard staring. A shrug here, a sigh there…”
Caleb nodded slowly, doing a good job of keeping his temper with Seth for once. It had been twenty years and still Seth never really tired of seeing Caleb’s annoyance at his nonsense.
“Knowing Mal as I do, I’d imagine he’d like to keep the boy.” Caleb almost phrased it as a question but not quite.
Seth leaned forward, holding his brow in his hands, murmuring, “I’d say you’re right.”
“But you don’t? Want to keep him, I mean.”
Seth covered his face. He didn’t want to have this conversation, didn’t want to say aloud the thoughts that tormented him and kept him awake long after the little one had fallen asleep. But if he was going to have to talk about it, it was only right it should be with Caleb.
“Afraid of what?” Caleb sounded surprise.
Seth took a deep breath as he drew his hands down to lay flat on the table in front of him. “I’m afraid to love him. I’m afraid that we’ll take him in and he’ll start calling Malcolm, Pa, and you and Jacob will get attached…and then when he’s settled and we’re settled and a family, someone will show up and take him back. Take him away from us.” He looked up at Caleb, praying that his Alpha would understand. “Can you imagine what that would do to Mal?” To me.
“You’re right. All those things might happen.”
Seth laughed at the way Caleb sounded so matter-of-fact about it, simply sighing out the words and leaning back in his chair. “Wow. That’s all the mighty Alpha wisdom I’m getting today, huh?”
“But they might not. And even if they don’t—well, let’s just say letting go of your children at any age isn’t easy. But the time you do get to have with them is a gift. Might as well enjoy it while you have it.”
A scream of laughter came down the hall from the sitting room and Seth had to smile. For all the worry the boy had brought, all the sleepless nights and change to the routine they’d had for two decades, Seth had to admit, he and Malcolm had rarely felt more content. Wiping at his eyes, Seth shrugged. “Certainly sounds like Jacob’s having a good time.”
Caleb clapped him on the shoulder as he rose from the table. “Maybe you should try it.” He paused for a second before adding quietly, “You’ll be a good father, Seth, don’t ever doubt that.”
Seth was sitting alone when Malcolm bundled in the back door some minutes later, clutching a pile of wood and looking more like a pile of blankets than a man. He cocked his head at the happy sounds coming from inside. “Caleb and Jacob are here I take it.” Seth didn’t say a word, simply rose from the table and made a bee-line into his husband’s open arms. “What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
Seth shook his head and buried himself deeper into Malcolm’s cold neck, mumbling, “No. Nothing. Just hold me.”
Malcolm smiled against his cheek and held him tighter as he whispered, “Oh, Wolf. We’ll work it out.”
The room was lit only by the dying flames of the fire. Seth was contemplating how he would manage to add another log, when he heard Malcolm treading lightly down the stairs. The door barely creaked when he came into the room. The light dimmed somewhat when Malcolm placed a hunk of wood on the embers making them fly up like dancing fireflies but he found the chair opposite Seth with no problems in the darkness.
“Thank you,” Seth whispered.
Malcolm smiled, his eyes glowing with warmth and looking all the world like his heart might burst. “I thought you might need a hand.”
Seth huffed out a laugh and looked down at the sleeping boy on his chest. “We’re doing all right.”
“Are you?” Malcolm sounded concerned. They had talked finally. About Seth’s fears and Malcolm’s hopes. The pain from their pasts never really faded but, as always, together the future always looked brighter. “If you’ve changed your mind…if this is too much for you—”
Seth carefully wrapped one arm around the boy and used the other to push himself up a little. “I thought it was but—it’s strange. Sometimes I look at him and I see my sisters at his age. It hurts but at the same time…”
“It feels like they’re here. Like they would want this for us.” Malcolm smiled sadly. Seth knew he understood. They had both lost their families, and for a long time it had been enough to find that in each other.
“Caleb says that children are a gift.”
Malcolm chuckled. “Then let him come and do the night shift so we can sleep together for once.”
Seth smiled back. “Is this really what you want? A family?” It had been such a long time since they had spoken of such a thing. Back in the beginning, they had passed over the subject, both still too raw in their grief and newly in love to contemplate the responsibility. And over the years it had just never been a part of their thinking. They had the pack, Martha’s children when they came to visit, and the ever expanding family in New York so they never really discussed a child of their own again. Until now.
As the log caught, the light flickered in the room making Malcolm’s face glow. He looked so content, gazing sleepily at Seth and the babe in his arms. “I do. I do want it. If you want it.”
Seth felt emotion well in his chest. Looking down at the sleeping child, he felt an urge to kiss his forehead—not for the first time—but he allowed himself to act on it for what would be the first of many. “What should we call him?” Seth looked up. “What about Seth Junior?”
“We should do this in the morning.”
“What about John?” Seth looked over hopefully.
Malcolm frowned. “I don’t know—”
“It was your father’s name. And I’m sure the sheriff would appreciate it.”
“Former-sheriff…” Malcolm grumbled and Seth couldn’t help but feel gratified that the joke still annoyed his mate. Malcolm was getting harder to tease in his old age. “And yes, I think he would.” Malcolm rubbed his chin. “What about Jonathan? Jon, for convenience.”
“Jonathan Mason…I like the sound of that.”
Malcolm slowly got up trying not to let the springs in the chair squeak. “I think you mean, Jonathan Walker. It does have a ring to it.”
Seth smirked at his mate as Malcolm deftly settled into the seat next to him. “You know we’re going to have to let Caleb and Jacob have the last say on this.”
Malcolm sighed and brushed his hand lightly over Jonathon’s hair. “Let’s save them the trouble then. Jonathan Fletcher sounds pretty good to me.”
Seth leaned closer and was grateful to find Malcolm’s lips come to meet him. “I love you, Malcolm.”
“And I you, Wolf.” He smiled. “I told you we would work it out.”
Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.
Winter’s gift – ©Alex Jane 2017 – All Rights Reserved