With the new house, my mate got the brilliant idea to host Thanksgiving, not just for our families who were coming in from Collier Pack, but also for my entire unit at Westin Force. Our home was large, but I wasn’t sure it was large enough for that many people. I supposed we were going to find out.

Only two days until Thanksgiving and people were already starting to roll into town.

“Ben!” Troy said as he jumped from the car and ran over to tackle me.

I laughed as I embraced my younger doppelganger in a big bear hug.

Will wasn’t far behind him.

I hadn’t seen my twin little brothers in months and suddenly the idea of having my family here for Thanksgiving wasn’t sounding so bad.

Shelby, my mate, always said while Troy got my looks, Will got my personality. Two halves of a whole. I hadn’t been around enough for them, and that was my burden to bear. Having run off to enlist in the Army when they were still young and then moving to San Marco to take a job with Westin Force made it difficult to really be there for them the way I often felt I should.

Having kids of my own now and seeing them grow so quickly was just a reminder of all the years I’d missed out on with my brothers. I could never get those years back, but I would make damn sure to make the most of every moment I got with them going forward.

“We flew in with the Alpha,” Will informed.

“Thomas, Lily, and the girls are already here?”

My dad chuckled as he limped towards us. “I’m pretty sure all the Collier family is here already. We had a packed plane.”

“Hey Dad,” I said, embracing him.

“All my favorite guys back together at last,” Mom interrupted.

I leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Thanks for coming, Mom.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

A scream from inside the house rang out and I turned to run towards the chaos with a grin on my face, not sensing any immediate threat. Inside I found Shelby on the floor being tackled by our triplets as they tickled and tormented her while she squealed for them to stop.

“Daddy help!” she yelled as I snagged my daughter from on top of the pile.

“I think the uncles can handle these two,” I proclaimed as Troy and Will swooped in to rescue my mate and I passed Mary Alice off to her grandmother before helping Shelby to her feet.

“You’re here? I thought you weren’t coming in until tomorrow,” she said hugging my parents affectionately.

“Surprise,” Dad said. “Thomas said there was room on today’s flight.”

“I’m not sure he was right. It was pretty packed, but everyone made it okay,” Will explained.

“Everyone?” she asked looking around at the mess of toys littering our living room floor.

“Relax, dear, the house looks wonderful,” Mom assured. “Like my spoiled grandpups have everything three little pups could possibly want or need in life.”

“I still have so much to do to get ready for Thursday,” she explained.

I wrapped an arm around her and kissed her temple. I knew how badly she wanted to do it all herself, but I also knew that it was a lot to take on.

“Well now you have a few extra hands to pitch in and help with that,” Dad told her.

I felt her cringe a little in my arms.

“It’s going to be perfect, sport,” I tried to reassure her.

She sighed and nodded just as Emma walked in.

The kids squealed and wriggled to get down before launching themselves into her arms. Emma easily picked up all three and carried them like a pro. I was hard-pressed to admit that even I struggled with that now that they were getting bigger, yet she made it look so easy.

“Mom, Dad, guys, this is Emma.”

“I’m not sure we could survive without her. She keeps the kids while I work,” Shelby explained.

“Emma, it’s so nice to finally put a face to the name. I’m Marnie, and this is my mate, Don, and these are our boys Troy and Will.”

“And me. Don’t forget me.”

Mom chuckled. “Never.”

“I heard everyone was coming in early and with the team rolling out, I thought I’d stop in and see what I can do to help.”

“Wait, the team’s rolling out?” Shelby asked looking to me in confusion.

I shrugged as I reached for my phone. My heart sank when I realized it wasn’t on me.

“Excuse me,” I said as I walked quickly upstairs to our master bedroom to find it still charging on the nightstand next to my side of the bed.

I groaned as I picked it up and scrolled through a dozen messages and missed calls.

“When do you leave?” Shelby asked softly.

I turned to around to see Shelby standing at the door.

I checked the time and cringed. “Thirty minutes.” We both knew it took fifteen to get to the Lodge and being on time was the same as being late.”

Her shoulders stiffened and her jaw locked as she nodded.

“Okay then, get a move on it.”

I sighed. I knew how much she was looking forward to us spending the week with our family. There was still so much to do. How could I possibly leave her?

She shook her head. “None of that. Silas wouldn’t call the team in this close to Thanksgiving if it wasn’t important.”

I nodded. “If I’m reading this right, Delta was called in too.”

I didn’t miss the slight catch of her breath. Delta team’s primary objective was to guard the Pack. They were only called in for the biggest, typically most dangerous, assignments for backup. Their entire team never traveled outside Westin borders at once. Someone always stayed back to guard the Alpha and his family. This was no doubt going to put a kink in their plans this year as well.

“This is what we signed on for. Yes, it sucks. No, I’m not going to be happy about it. But this is your job, Ben. Go.”

I walked across the room and pulled her into my arms to just hold her for a minute.

“What did I do to deserve you, sport?”

She grinned up at me, but instead of replying, she wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me down to kiss her.

My tongue quickly sought hers as I savored the kiss until she sighed and melted against my body. It would be so easy to just lift her into my arms, kick the door shut, and make love to her on our large new king-sized bed.

Between my job and raising young triplets, Shelby and I were well accustomed to quick stolen moments for ourselves.

She smiled and then giggled as if she somehow knew what I was thinking, and she probably did. We’d known each other our whole lives, minus the years I’d wasted running from the pain of thinking she had taken another as a mate. I couldn’t get those years back with her anymore than I could my brothers, but like them, I was determined to make every moment count of the time I did have now. I never took even a second of it for granted.

Pushing me back, Shelby gave me a scolding look as I replied with a sheepish grin.

“You’re going to be late,” she warned me.

I brushed her hair back from face and gave her one more quick kiss.

“I know. I’m going, but I don’t have to like it.”

She smiled brightly, but I knew she was right, and I needed to double time it up to the Lodge now.

I begrudgingly left her side and went to the safe room. There was a biometrics scan next to the door. I placed my hand on it and waited for it to activate.

The door popped open and inside I grabbed my always packed bag and then closed it behind me. There was a small arsenal hidden in there, mostly my personal collection, and securing them was more important than ever now that the kids were into everything these days.

“All set?”

I nodded. “I need to go tell the kids.”

She beamed up at me proudly.

Since the day I’d brought those kids home, I’d made a promise to myself and them that I would never just walk away and disappear. Being a sniper was dangerous business and there was always a chance I wouldn’t come home from a mission. It wasn’t something we openly discussed often, but Shelby and I were both fully aware of the risks that came with my job.

If the worst possible scenario ever occurred, I wanted no doubt in my children’s minds that they had been loved and that I had done everything possible to get back to them. So, whenever I left, regardless of day or night, I made a point to say goodbye to each of them.

I headed back into the living room where Emma and the boys were entertaining the triplets. Dad was reclined back in my favorite chair and Mom was busy trying to keep toys from scattering further around the house.

It was a perfect scene. I stopped and gave myself a second to soak it all in.

Nathan noticed me first and at the site of my bag his little face fell as he jumped and ran towards me.

I didn’t hesitate to wrap him in my arms. He was the largest of the three of them with a strong protective side.

“Daddy?”

“I know buddy. I have to leave for a bit. You take care of things and hold down the fort for me while I’m gone, okay? I’m going to try my best to be back in time for Thanksgiving.”

I never knew for sure how much the kids understood, but when he nodded his little head and threw his arms around me I thought, just maybe, he really got it.

Zachary came over next.

“You watch after your mama, sissy, and brother, okay?”

“Okay, Daddy.” He hugged me tight, always giving the best hugs.

Mary Alice was in tears when I picked her up.

“Be safe, Daddy,” she cried.

“Always, sweetie. I’ll be home before you know it.”

She kissed my cheek before I set her down and she scurried off to play with Troy.

Mom was watching me closely as I interacted with my children. There was a look of wonder on her face, and maybe a little pride.

“Sorry, Mom.”

“You go and do what you have to and get back to us real soon,” Dad said from the chair.

“We’ll be fine,” Mom added.

“Yeah, Troy and I really just came to see our niece and nephews anyway,” Will proclaimed, but I knew he was just trying to lighten the situation.

Still, I grinned at him appreciating the effort. Troy remained quiet. He had taken it the hardest when I’d signed my life away to the military, and again when I packed up Shelby and moved halfway across the country.

I clapped him on the back as he continued to ignore me while playing cars with Zachary.

“Okay, well, I have to run. I’ll be back as soon I can.”

Shelby walked me to the door where we shared another long kiss. I held her never wanting to go, but she stiffened up and pushed me back.

“Go,” she insisted.

“I know, I know. I’ll call you on our return. Love you, sport.”

“Love you too. Be safe.”

“Always.”

Without another hesitation I hardened into battle mode as I jumped into my car and drove over to the Lodge, arriving five minutes before go time.

“You’re late,” Silas reminded me.

“I’m here,” I simply replied.

“Your family comes in tomorrow, right?” Painter asked.

“Nah, they arrived just ahead of the call. My phone was charging, and I got distracted with their unexpected appearance. If Emma hadn’t showed up after saying goodbye to you, I probably would have missed the call entirely,” I admitted.

“We’d have come for you,” Baine assured me with a cocky grin. “But look, whatever this shit is, we need to wrap it up quickly. Olivia’s exhausted and I don’t want to leave her for long.”

“Is the baby still up every two hours?”

“Yes, that kid just doesn’t sleep, like ever. I hate leaving her to deal with her all on her own.”

“She’ll be fine.”

“We all have reasons we want to get back here as quickly as possible. So let’s strap up, roll out, and get this job done. The plane is fueled and ready,” Silas announced.

No one asked what we were doing or why we were being called in this close to Thanksgiving. We simply loaded into vehicles and made the short drive down to the airfield knowing we’d be briefed on the flight.

Michael, Tucker, and Walker from Delta team were joining us while the remainder of their unit stayed behind to watch the Pack.

“How are the kids?” Tucker asked as we boarded, and he took the seat across the aisle from me.

I softened immediately. “They’re great. You should come by and see them sometime. You won’t believe how big they’ve gotten.”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Annie keeps me on a tight schedule, but I’ll see what I can do.”

“Or just bring her along.” I knew Tucker’s mate wasn’t exactly one of Shelby’s favorite people, but to keep Tucker in our children’s life we were both willing to endure her.

Tucker had once been a prominent member of Bravo team, but his mate, Annie, asked for his reassignment closer to home. I couldn’t blame him that, though secretly I think he’d have been better off staying with Bravo and having a break from her once in a while.

That was a terrible thing to think, but she just came across as uncompromisingly strict and controlling sometimes. It wasn’t that she was a bad person, just a lot to handle at times.

In contrast, Tucker was a great guy, easy going, and a lot of fun to hang out with—when he was allowed the rare time away from his mate outside of job requirements.

I got it. They had fallen in love and mated young, making a life that seemed to work for them. Tucker seemed happy, even if the rest of us did regularly harass him about his ball and chain.

Still, he had been there to assist me in bringing my kids into this world and I couldn’t help but wish Annie and Shelby got along better. I wanted him to remain a stable part of their lives, but over the years it was clear that probably wasn’t going to happen. I kept the invitation open, though.

“Saw the Colliers arrived,” Walker said interrupting us. “Are they all staying with you?”

“No, man,” I said with a chuckle. “I haven’t seen most of them yet, except my family. My parents and brothers are staying with us while Shelby’s family is scattered around. I think Thomas and Lily are staying at the Alpha house, Zach and Cora too. Peyton and her crew are at Maddie and Liam’s. Clara and Gage are crashing at Cole and Lizzy’s, and last I heard Ruby hadn’t made up her mind yet, but I won’t be surprised if they end up with us.”

“Is Shelby holding up okay? Really? She seemed nervous and worried she wouldn’t get everything done in time.”

“Dude, you’re still hanging out with Ben’s mate?” Baine teased. “What the hell?”

Walker shrugged good-naturedly. “She’s one of my best friends. It’s never been a problem,” he insisted.

I groaned and rolled my eyes. If only he knew how badly I wanted to rip his throat out when we first met. He was right though. Shelby was mine and I was secure in our mating. Plus, Walker was one of the good guys and completely harmless. Knowing he was no threat to me or my family, I never protested his odd friendship with my mate.

Others didn’t understand it, but he meant a lot to her, and there was little I wouldn’t endure to ensure Shelby’s happiness. Leaving her family behind and moving to San Marco hadn’t been easy on her. Having Maddie and Lizzy here helped, but for some strange reason, Walker had helped more.

Without him we wouldn’t even be here. He had helped get me the job with Bravo team, and while we’d never made it official, Shelby and I had decided early on that if anything ever happened to the both of us, Walker was the one we trusted to take the kids, love them as his own, and raise them in our absence.

It wasn’t something any parent wanted to think about, but our bond was tight and while we didn’t think it was entirely sealed, the possibility of it doing so was strong. In my line of work that was even more terrifying because it meant that if something happened to me one day, it could cause our babies to lose us both.

When we’d sat down with Walker and discussed the possibility, he’d humbly accepted.

Grant laughed and I realized they were still harassing him about his relationship with my mate.

“You guys are being ridiculous,” Walker finally grumbled.

“He’s harmless,” I insisted for probably the millionth time.

They continued to tease and torment him until Silas rose and we instantly quieted. He passed out folders to each of us to begin our briefing.

I opened mine and gasped at a fuzzy picture of a strange looking creature.

“What is it?” I blurted out.

“We don’t know,” Silas exclaimed. “We’ve heard some rumblings of strange occurrences down around the bayou not far outside New Orleans. That’s not always uncommon as human imaginations often conjure up the mystical and paranormal surrounding that area, even though ninety-nine percent of it is bullshit.”

“This photo started circulating around the internet yesterday. It very well may just be another Bigfoot scenario, but the Dannett Pride of panthers that live in this territory have raised some concern as well. There have been a slew of unexplainable things going on down there.”

“So we’re basically going to hunt the Swamp Thing now?” Taylor asked. “Because that’s what this picture reminds me of.”

“Maybe?” Silas shrugged. “In truth we don’t have a ton of intel, but according to Phillip Dannett, King of the Dannett Pride, something very wrong is occurring down there. We’re simply going to check it out.”

“What aren’t you telling us?” I questioned. “To do our jobs properly we have to know what we’re walking into here.”

Silas’s jaw locked and he stubbornly glared at me.

I knew I was right. There more to this story.

“Look, we all know you wouldn’t have called us out the week of Thanksgiving to just go and gather intel. It’s your twins first Thanksgiving, Silas, and you called in half of Delta to assist. What happened?”

I wasn’t one to question often. The Army had broken me of that a long time ago, but I didn’t like the idea of going in blind unnecessarily either. If we didn’t have the intel, that was one thing. It seemed clear by the look on Silas’s face that he knew exactly what we were walking into.

Still, I didn’t think he was actually going to tell us.

He and Michael, the leader of Delta team, shared a look. Michael nodded and Silas sighed.

“This morning, whatever this creature is killed one of the Dannett panthers. The mutilated body was found near the river where this photo was shot. We honestly don’t know what we’re dealing with here. No one alive has laid eyes on it, not really.”

“Great, so there’s some sort of swamp beast on the loose killing people down there?” Grant asked.

Tucker shuddered.

“Basically, yes. We’re just here on recon to see if we can get some answers.”

The rest of the flight was quiet as each person was lost in their own thoughts. There was a monster of some sort killing people. That was more than enough of an answer to justify the mission for each of us.

I didn’t believe in swamp creatures and boogiemen. I’d seen my fair share of beasts and they were never the product of Hollywood imaginations, well, unless you considered the fact that many would call me a werewolf. Like all shifters, I much preferred the term wolf shifter.

I was no threat to humanity as long as they left me, my family, and my Packs alone.

Silas issued further orders just as the plane landed. As usual, I would have eyes from the sky.

The Dannetts had vehicles waiting for us at the airstrip. I smiled seeing a familiar face.

“Kian Dannett.”

“Ben, it’s nice to see you. Walker,” he said with a quick embrace.

“Good to see you, man,” Walker said with his friendly manner.

“Is there anyone you don’t know?” I snorted.

Walker shrugged. “Chase and Jenna like to come down to visit and who do you think gets to escort them?”

“Oh, yeah.”

I didn’t know Kian, the Dannett Prince, well, but we’d crossed paths on occasion, and he seemed like a good man.

We wasted no time heading straight for the site of the murder as Kian filled us in on everything they knew. Apparently, this wasn’t the first death that was being attributed to this monster. Two humans had been found a few miles downriver over the weekend.

“So we can rule out a shifter target,” I said.

“We aren’t ruling shit out just yet,” Silas reminded me.

“Whatever this thing is, it seems to strike at night,” a man informed us.

“This is Bas. He’s with me,” Kian said letting us all know he was one of the panthers, as if most of us couldn’t tell by his smell.

“I can setup a lookout for tonight,” I suggested to Silas.

“That would be good. We’ll try to set a trap and see if we can catch this beast. Tell us everything you know about it.”

For the next few hours, we went over every possible scenario. I didn’t like the idea of making any of our team bait for this thing, but in the end Grant and Taylor agreed to do it.

The first couple they found appeared to be having a late-night picnic along the river in a swampy secluded area. The body of the dead panther was in a similar setting three miles downriver. We moved a few miles further down to find a comparable looking place in hopes that this was a pattern.

We all knew it was a shot in the dark, but there was a desperation to get this over with quickly and get home in time for the holidays.

While the others went back to Dannett Manor, I scoped out a place in the trees that would give me the best possible vantage point for as much shoreline as possible. I wasn’t certain I believed some mysterious beast was rising from the swamp waters though, and made sure I could see anything coming or going from the woods as well.

I carefully setup my stand and prepared my rifle. Once I was confident in my placement, I added a layer of camouflage over my gear to blend in better with the environment. Who knew what sight capabilities this creature had—if it even was a creature.

I took a moment to thoroughly spec out the area. The one thing I was certain of was this beast-thing was nowhere to be seen at the moment.

I was settled for the night and began rummaging through my backpack looking for something to eat when Michael pulled up.

He looked around for a few minutes and then up into the trees.

“Over here,” I yelled down to him, still confident we were alone.

I climbed down to ground level to see what he needed.

He tossed me a bag. “Thought you could use some food. Grant and Taylor will be along shortly to start setting up. They’ve found a few common factors between the sites and want to try to recreate them to lure the creature out.”

“Thanks. How are you liking being in the field again? It’s been a while.”

He shrugged. “It’s fine.”

“You don’t like being away from home, do you?”

He sighed. “Since the Raglan attack on our territory I’ve been apprehensive about traveling. Kyle insisted this time.”

“That wasn’t your fault, you know.”

“They broke through my borders on my watch, Ben.”

“We let them,” I insisted. “It was a trap.”

“Only because Jake got the intel to us in time.”

“True, but isn’t that what we do, Michael? Trust the intel and secure our perimeter as best as possible?”

“I suppose, but I can’t let anything like that happen again.”

“Look around us. Threats are everywhere. You’re a great leader and you’re doing everything you can. You can’t beat yourself up over the things you can’t control.”

He nodded, but I could tell he didn’t like the truth of what I was saying. None of us did because we all had the protective instincts of an Alpha, which gave us the ability to handle doing the jobs we did.

“Anyway, be careful out here tonight.”

“Always.”

“In hopes to flush this thing out as quickly as possible, I agreed with Silas to set up two sites. Tucker will be our eyes on the other one about two miles further downriver.”

I nodded. Tucker was a solid sniper, not as good as me, but good enough for this assignment.

The group was being split into two teams. Grant, Taylor, Silas, Jake, and Tarron were with me, while Michael, Walker, Tucker, Painter, and Baine made up the second team. Painter was setting up as the second bait.

I grinned and shook my head at the thought. That beast didn’t know what he was getting into if he came after our second in command.

Shortly before sunset we got into position.

Grant and T made a fire and got cozy down by the water’s edge.

For hours we sat there listening to them talk and giggle by the fire.

Jake ran off two alligators, but otherwise there was nothing.

As we all settled in, knowing this was truly a shot in the dark, Grant took advantage of the situation to make out with his mate.

I groaned. No one wanted to watch it, but since that was what the human couple had been up to, it made sense.

They were starting to get hot and heavy when I heard a splash in the water.

“Jake was that you?” I asked over coms.

“Nope.”

“Be on alert. We might have company.”

I noticed Grant stiffen and reach for his gun, but to the outside eye he still looked completely occupied with his mate.

With a loud roar, a large creature burst from the water’s surface and stalked towards them.

Grant and Taylor backed up quickly.

My orders were to only shoot if their lives were truly in danger.

I looked at the beast. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It certainly wasn’t human, but it didn’t look like any animal known to man either. It was a hideous abomination, the sort of thing nightmares were made of.

It had a long scaly body similar to an alligator but was standing up on two feet that looked a little like legs of a kangaroo and had arms as massive as Silas and Painter’s in their gorilla forms. Its head was large and distorted. I had no idea what I was looking at but didn’t miss the jagged pointy teeth and large claws as potential lethal threats to my teammates.

It advanced quickly, far faster than its body should have been capable of moving.

The creature knocked Grant backwards sending the gun flying from his hands. Taylor screamed as she reached for her knife.

“I’m sighted in,” I said calmly, putting the crosshairs of my scope right on center mass of the beast.

I wanted to shoot. It would be so easy to pull the trigger and end this creature’s life while saving my friends, but I’d been given an order not to shoot-to-kill unless absolutely necessary.

Tarron and Silas approached from opposite sides and the beast roared and advanced on them both. Jake tried to come around from behind, but its long tail knocked the wind out of him on approach, almost as if the thing had eyes on the back of his head.

It was fast and seemed only irritated by the shots the others were firing at it.

“What is this thing?” Tarron yelled.

“Nothing I’ve ever seen,” Jake said.

“How do we stop it?” Taylor asked.

“Did you see that? Where did he go?” Grant jumped up and looked around.

“He’s in the shadows to your nine o’clock,” I said calmly still sighted in on the creature.

“I don’t know what the hell this thing is. We aren’t taking it alive. Ben, take the shot.”

“Yes, sir.”

Without hesitation I pulled the trigger.

The creature froze in shock and then let out an ear-piercing scream as it fell to the ground.

Silas, Jake, and Tarron moved in to surround it still on full alert.

“What the hell is it?” Jake asked.

“I don’t know,” Silas agreed.

“Thank you,” I heard a strangled voice and watched the life go out of the beast.

Jake kicked at it and when it didn’t move again, Silas called it.

I packed up my gear and climbed down to join them.

Taylor screamed and my whole body went into full alarm as I whipped out my pistol and started clearing the area as I hurried towards them.

“What just happened?” Jake yelled.

“That was a shifter?” I heard Grant ask just as I reached the team all standing around the beast.

But as I looked down, I didn’t see the freakish monster I’d been forced to put down. Instead, there was a naked man with blood pouring out of his chest.

All color left my face, and I thought I was going to be sick.

I shook my head. “That wasn’t a man. It wasn’t. Any type of hallucinogen that may have been down here couldn’t have reached me from there. It was a monster. You all saw it.”

“Ben, calm down,” Grant said. “We all know what we saw. Look at the ground around him. You can see the imprint of the beast. He shifted as he died.”

Taylor sobbed. “He said ‘thank you’ just as he passed. I heard him.”

I nodded several times still in shock. “I did too.”

I’d done a lot of stuff I wasn’t exactly proud of. That was the life of being a sniper. I didn’t make the calls; I simply pulled the trigger. But nothing of my past could have prepared me for this.

“What kind of shifter was it?” Jake asked.

“None that I’ve ever seen,” Silas admitted.

“It looked like some sort of mutated abomination,” Tarron tried to explain as we all attempted to reconcile what we had seen with the man lying before us.

Silas called it in to the other team and they soon arrived to help clean up the site as we tried to explain what had happened. They could see the signs, the impression in the ground, the marks along the river where he’d slithered from the water, and the destruction of limbs and branches too high for it to have been the man before us.

None of it made sense.

Quietly we finished cleaning the site and took the body with us.

King Dannett had a lab of sorts ready and waiting for the beast. The cage was no longer necessary, but we laid the body on a table.

“Human?” the King asked.

“No, sir,” Silas said as he portrayed the tale of what we’d just experienced.

Despite all the evil we’d seen in the world, this one had the whole team in shock.

“We’ll run some tests and see what we’re dealing with,” he assured us as a team of lab techs started drawing blood, pulling prints, and whatever else they did before taking it all to the microscopes to evaluate things.

They worked all day and well into the next evening. We stuck around, hanging out and napping since none of us had slept. I couldn’t sleep though. There was something about this job that wasn’t sitting well with me at all.

Finally, we were called back to the lab for an update.

“Sir, you might want to sit down for this,” one of the men said.

“What is it?” The King asked

“Mutations. So many mutations.”

“Fingerprints came back quickly,” another man said. “Sir, it’s Horace. Even in this human state I barely recognize him.”

King Dannett’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head.

“Who’s Horace?” Silas demanded.

The King sat down hard.

“He’s one of my panthers. He went missing about a year ago. He was confirmed to be with the Raglan. We heard they were running experiments on the shifters they took, but this? This is too much.”

“The Raglan did this?” I asked. “How?”

“We’ll hopefully know more from some tissue samples and a full autopsy, but if I had to guess, I’d say they were running genetic experiments on him. Screwing with his DNA.”

I gulped hard.

My babies were born in a Raglan facility. There had been talk and concern of experiments run on their biological mother. Shelby and I had adopted them in faith despite the fears of the woman’s Pack that they were abominations of nature.

Seeing this creature and just the thought of what they could have done to my children’s DNA made me want to throw up.

Tucker was watching me closely. He put an arm around my shoulders.

“They’re fine,” he assured me as if he were reading my mind. “Perfect even. They aren’t monsters.”

“I know. I know,” I said trying to convince myself as much as him.

In that moment, I just needed to get home and reassure myself that my family was okay, that my kids were alright.

“If you have everything under control here, I think we’re going to head back to San Marco. You’ll keep us informed of whatever you find? And I’m sure Kyle will want to send over a few of his own men to help oversee the testing,” Silas said solemnly.

Phillip Dannett nodded. “I’ll reach out to him and let him know what’s happening.”

He extended his hand and shook Silas’s and then Michael’s. “Thank you all for coming. I don’t think my panthers are quite equipped to handle taking this thing down, but we do have the scientists to assess what’s happened postmortem. We will be in touch with the results soon.”

“Thank you, and best of luck.”

We all nodded as we turned and walked out.

It was clear I wasn’t the only one shaken by what we’d witnessed and learned here.

The flight back was quiet, too quiet. It had my wolf on edge.

I didn’t even begin to calm until I pulled up to my house and walked inside to the familiar scents of my family.

I went straight to the nursery. We’d just recently converted the cribs to beds having left them in there far longer than we should have. I knelt beside Mary Alice’s first and hugged her, fighting back tears from exhaustion and the fears trying to surface. I looked at her sweet face and couldn’t make a connection between her and that mutated beast I’d been forced to take down yet knowing they had potentially come from similar situations was eating me alive.

I kissed her forehead and moved on to Nathan and Zachary as I took a moment to simply watch each child sleep and remember all the good things I knew of them.

The door creaked open, and I looked up to see Shelby standing there watching me. She didn’t say a word but held out her hand for me.

I kissed my son and rose to go to my mate.

She linked our fingers and walked me silently down the hall to our bedroom. It wasn’t until the door shut that she turned to me, no doubt feeling the heaviness and emotional war battling in my heart.

“I thought I heard you come in. This was a bad one, huh?”

I nodded and then told her everything that happened. I didn’t often share my missions with her. They were my burdens to bear, not hers, but this one she needed to know.

I felt lighter having shared it all with her.

She wasn’t as upset by it all as I was, and I wondered if she truly understood what I was telling her.

Shelby reached out and ran her hand through my hair and then she kissed me before pulling back and looking into my eyes and right into my sole.

“We’re shifters, Ben. We all have a bit of monster inside us, a wild beast we constantly battle to tame. Our babies are blessings and the greatest gift we’ll ever have. It doesn’t matter what beasts they may carry inside of them. They will not be treated or trained any differently. Have a little faith that regardless of what they are, our love will make them strong and ready when they surface.”

“I love you so much. You always know exactly what I need to hear.”

“It’s going to be a long day and you look exhausted. You should try to get some sleep.”

“I haven’t slept in two days,” I admitted.

She snuggled close to me ready to settle in for the night, but I had other plans. I needed my mate to settle my wolf.

I kissed her shoulder as I wrapped my arms around her as I rolled to my side and pulled her back against me. I was already hard and ready for her.

She giggled and tried to scold me.

“Ben, you need to get some sleep.”

“I need you, sport.”

“I can feel that,” she teased.

The kids were getting bigger, and they slept through the night soundly now, but we were still accustomed to stolen moments and quickies when possible, always fearing someone would wake even though they hadn’t in a while.

Not this time, though. This time I planned to take my time making love to my beautiful mate and enjoying every precious inch of her.

And that’s what I did until we were both fully satiated and sleep finally consumed me.

*****

“Daddy!” Mary Alice yelled as she jumped on my chest jolting me awake.

“Sweetie, what is it?”

“Happy Thanksgiving!”

I smiled feeling more peaceful in the daylight.

“Well, happy Thanksgiving to you too.”

“Everyone’s here and I’m hungry.”

“What time is it?”

She shrugged.

“Get up, Daddy.”

“Okay, okay. Do I have time for shower?”

“No, hungry!”

I groaned but grabbed her up in a big bear hug tackling her down onto the bed as she squealed trying to get away from me. I kissed her all over letting Shelby’s words remind me to love each of my children every second I had with them.

“Daddy!” she yelled in protest.

“I love you, sweet girl.”

“Love you.”

She wiggled out from under me and ran from the room.

With a smile and catching the smell of a Thanksgiving feast waiting for me, I got up and showered quickly, dressed for the day, and left the sanctuary of my bedroom.

I stopped at the entrance to the madness where my living room opened to the dining room and kitchen that had become the hub and heart of our home. I looked around smiling.

Tables and chairs had been set up everywhere to make room for the abundance of people. I could see they were even spilled out onto the back deck and assumed we were having a warm day. You never could tell this time of year.

Only one corner of the living room had been left untouched as numerous kids gathered fighting over toys, laughing, and playing. Troy, Will, and Oscar were trying to keep them wrangled in, and a line of infant carriers filled with the littlest of our family and friends were acting as a barrier to contain them all.

“Hey Uncle Ben,” Oscar called out when he spotted me.

“Hey Oscar. You guys have your hands full over there.”

“We don’t mind,” Will assured me, but the look on Troy’s face told me he wasn’t quite as agreeable to that statement.

I made my way around the room hugging and talking to everyone I passed. Not only was my family there, but also all of Shelby’s family. As one of seven children, that was a lot of people. We’d invited Beta team too. It was a lot, but they were just as much family to us as our own.

When Tarron had said they’d just stop by for dessert later so not to hurt Nonna’s feelings, Shelby insisted on inviting them too, adding not just Nonna but Susan’s siblings as well, and looking around I noticed they’d brought a few additional friends with them too, as did others.

I just shook my head and smiled seeing Sage and Kellen laughing on the couch with their friend Jax. They all had a special place in our hearts, and it would feel wrong to exclude even one of them.

But I was genuinely surprised when Macie ran by with Zander in tow.

“Zander? What are you doing here?”

He stopped in his tracks and looked up at me guiltily.

Instincts told me that he and Macie were likely up to no good, but I ignored it as waited for an answer.

“Well, Aunt Lily was whining about having to divide the day between the Colliers and the Westins. She didn’t want to miss out on time with anyone, so she convinced Shelby and Mom to join forces. We’re all eating here instead.”

I snorted and shook my head. When I smiled, he seemed to take that as a cue to escape and the two of them ran off whispering and laughing.

Continuing through the room I stopped to chat with Ruby and Bran before making my way over to Silas and Vada.

“You okay?” my gruff leader asked.

“Yeah, I am,” I told him honestly.

He just nodded as he slapped me on my back.

At last, I spotted Shelby surrounded by several of her sisters. She looked radiant and so carefree that it lightened my soul even more.

“Excuse me,” I said.

With her in my sights, I walked purposefully through the room stalking my mate.

Peyton nudged her. “Incoming.”

The girls went quiet as I walked up, which was never a good sign.

I gave them each a quick hug welcoming them to our house even though they’d clearly already made themselves at home. And then I wrapped Shelby up in my arms and kissed her as if I were claiming her once more for the whole room to witness.

“Well, good morning, or should I say afternoon?” she teased as her cheeks flushed.

“Thank the Lord, Ben’s finally decided to join us,” Walker announced loudly making everyone stop and stare.

“What the hell is he doing here?” I groaned.

Shelby smacked me. “Be nice.”

“I’m always nice.”

“Tucker and Annie actually stopped by to check on you. He was worried about you. I invited them to stay and then Walker swung in, and I found out he didn’t have any plans, so I had them call the rest of their team and since they are all bachelors, we adopted Delta too. I mean at this point what’s a few more mouths to feed?”

I grinned down at her. “I love you so much.”

She gave me an odd look and then kissed me. “I love you, too.”

“Shelbs, can we eat already?” Thomas complained.

Lily smacked him. “What are you whining about? I’m the one eating for two over here.”

My mouth dropped and I gave a confused look towards Shelby. “Again?” I mouthed.

She laughed and nodded. “Yup, again. Baby number three is on the way.”

“Are you still evilly wishing another girl on him?”

“Definitely,” Peyton leaned in and whispered as the sisters laughed.

Oliver wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her stomach. “Girl or boy, here, I don’t really care. But hey, another little girl would even out our tribe nicely.”

Shelby squealed. “You’re pregnant?!”

“Pretty sure this will be our last, but yeah, we just found this weekend.” Peyton elbowed her mate. “And we weren’t announcing it yet.”

“What?” Lily screeched. “Peyton’s pregnant too?”

She blushed and nodded as the family cheered in celebrations and new beginnings.

Shelby had tears in her eyes. “This family just keeps growing.”

“I’m not sure it’s safe to even be here,” Silas grumbled. “Twins is more than enough for me. I don’t need that kind of mojo rubbing off on us.”

Vada’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head at the thought, making me laugh. I knew that feeling and the joys and insanity of life with multiples.

“Don’t worry, big guy. I’m pretty sure it’s not contagious.”

Lily snorted. “You sure about that?”

“Slugger, leave them alone,” Thomas told her.

Zach Collier and Jason Westin stood by the kitchen and silenced the room.

“It does my heart well to see our families coming together, growing, loving, and laughing,” Jason said.

“Absolutely,” Zach agreed. “And before we start eating, I’d just like to say a special thanks to Shelby and Ben for hosting us all here today. It’s not always easy sharing my babies as they’ve found their mates and ventured off on their own paths. But seeing the love and friendship here today reminds me that she is exactly where she needs to be and really, isn’t this what Thanksgiving is all about?”

“Thanks Dad,” she whispered leaving my side to walk over and hug him.

“Ben, this is your home, as host is there anything you’d like to say before we eat?” Kyle offered.

I hadn’t been prepared to be put on the spot like this, but it wasn’t every day that four Alphas deferred to me for anything. I cleared my throat looking around at my children and all their cousins and friends, my parents and siblings, Shelby’s parents and siblings, my team –the brothers of my heart, our friends on Delta, our adopted family within Westin Pack, and so many more.

I wrapped my arm around Shelby’s shoulder.

“I have to admit that I awoke to easily twice as many people than I was expecting to be here.” They all chuckled. “But really, that’s just a testimony to my amazing mate who has the biggest heart of anyone I know. So it doesn’t surprise me that she invited half of Westin Pack on top of our families this year.”

She blushed and smacked me.

“This last mission wasn’t an easy one for me.” Those that had been there understood and nodded. “But last night when I got back, Shelby reminded me of just how much we have to be thankful for in our lives, and looking around at all of you, I know she’s right. To have mated my best friend whom I’ve been in love with my entire life, and to raise three very special children with her, makes me feel like the luckiest man alive.”

“Aww,” the room cried.

I grinned and shushed them not trying to embarrass Shelby. “But looking around this room today, I know we couldn’t do this without the love and support of each and every one of you. It means a lot to the both of us to have you here today. Thank you, and I’ll stop talking now because I know this amazing feast behind me is the real reason you’re all here. So, let’s eat, and happy Thanksgiving!”

I didn’t know for certain that everything would be okay, but I did know that whatever came our way, Shelby and I would be all right and our kids would be okay, too. We’d face it head on together, and with so much love and support surrounding us, how could we not overcome anything the future may hold?


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WISHING YOU AND YOUR LOVED ONES A VERY HAPPY THANKSGIVING!