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Devon Anderson’s life changed forever when his wife died; leaving him to care for their three small children, run his thriving Family Practice, and be the Golden Boy of their small Wyoming town, Garden. He thought he’d found the perfect solution to his loneliness and desire to have a companion when he asked Mary Jane Poppy to be his wife, but fate had something else in mind.
Fate came in the form of lithe, hybrid Carolline Greene; make that Dr. Carolline Greene, expert in Hybrid Development and Studies, and the one who showed Mary Jane she could go after the man she really wanted. A year down the road and Devon was still struggling to stay afloat with all of his responsibilities and battling the need for a companion even more.
Carolline Greene loved the new life she was building in Garden. She had a home she could call her own. A few very dear friends she would do anything for. Most importantly though, she had a position at the hospital that allowed her the time and resources to help people like herself. Give them the support, knowledge, and understanding she never had. She saw a bright, albeit lonely future, but she could deal with that. It wasn’t until a leisurely morning run ended with her thwarting the attempted kidnapping of three kids did her life take a sudden and life-changing turn.
Now that Fate has pushed them together, will Devon and Carolline look beyond first impressions and rumors to see what they could be? Mates meant to be together…forever.
Devon Andersen jogged up the brick path leading to the front door of his house. Unlocking the massive wooden structure, he found Sebastian’s backpack sitting exactly where Devon had left it—right next to the door. He’d set it there the night before so he wouldn’t forget. A plan that was apparently an epic failure, yet again. Shaking his head at his own stupidity, he snatched up the bag, relocked the front door, and made his way back to his SUV.
One would think he’d be used to getting the kids ready for their day at this point, almost two years after his wife Sasha’s death. Once he’d pulled himself out of the shock that rocked his mind and soul when his love died, he’d done what he did best…compartmentalized. He had blocked the pain and devastation, shoving it to the back of his mind into the deepest recesses he could find, and lived his life for three small, very important reasons.
The big black Lincoln with the latest and greatest in safety features was filled with those important reasons—his kids. Marcus, his eldest at seven years old, had his window down and sat chatting with his baby brother, three-year-old Sebastian. Tabitha, his five-year-old daughter and spitting image of his deceased wife, sat on the other side of Sebastian attempting to read a book amid the boys’ constant chatter. One little hand was pushed up against her ear attempting, in vain, to block out her brothers. The other hand she kept on the page, flipping it as she read.
Devon climbed into the driver’s side and tossed the dinosaur backpack onto the front passenger seat. “Found it. You guys ready to go?” He peered into the backseat, double-checking the kids were strapped into their seats.
“We’ve been ready, Papa,” Tabitha piped up, not bothering to look up from her book. Her straight midnight black hair hung down, creating a curtain around her little face. If her nose were stuck any further in her book, she would probably disappear. She glanced up quickly, as if she sensed him staring at her, and smiled, a mischievous twinkle sparkling in her bright green eyes.
He winked and smiled back at his little girl, swallowing down the pain threatening to well up. God, it killed him every time he looked at her. Not in a bad way. Never in a bad way. No, it was in a way that had his heart clenching and aching all over again at their loss. Tabitha was a mini version of her mother. Quiet and well-mannered. A tiny, fragile frame very much like Sasha’s. He worried about her every minute of the day. Every time she went to school, or he had to be separated from her, his anxiety skyrocketed, which seemed to be happening more than he wanted. However, his job didn’t allow for more flexibility in his schedule, and neither did her schooling.
The rush of a familiar sadness gripped his chest, as the oxygen stopped up in his lungs. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the good. Forced himself to keep breathing and go on like he had since the day of the accident. One breath in. One breath out.
He’d lost the love of his life. His children had lost their mother. A beautiful, gentle woman who dedicated each and every waking moment to them. They would never again feel her soft kiss goodnight after she sang a lullaby. They would never experience her turning the lights out and whispering my eternal love into the quiet of the room.
She wouldn’t kiss their boo-boos, soothe their hurt feelings, or see their first shifts. If they shifted at all. She wouldn’t see them grow into taciturn teenagers, or help guide them through falling in love and conquering overwhelming heartbreak when it didn’t work out. She would never see them enter adulthood, or experience what it would be like to become a grandmother.
“Dad, we’re gonna be late for school,” Marcus insisted, thankfully pulling Devon from his depressing thoughts. He couldn’t get sucked into that downward spiral again. He promised himself he would move on and not dwell on things he couldn’t change.
Devon checked the clock on the dash, startled to see the time. Shit, and I’m going to be late for work. “I’m on it, son.”
Throwing the SUV into reverse, he backed down the long driveway and out into the street. It took him ten minutes to get across town to the school Marcus and Tabitha attended. When he pulled up in the drop-off zone, Marcus’s door swung open, and he hopped out before Devon had a chance to throw the vehicle into park.
“Hey, you need to wait,” the words trailed off when Marcus slammed the door and ran off without a backwards glance. It was a good thing they were the last vehicle there. Regardless of it being a drop-off zone full of children, people just didn’t pay attention when they were in a rush.
“See ya later, Dad. Love you.” Marcus shouted when he was halfway to the building.
Already, his oldest boy was pulling away from him. He never expected it to happen when his kid was seven—soon to be eight. Still, maybe he should have. If he were to fall into the same patterns of a tiger in the next couple of years, he should be testing his boundaries. That was the next couple of years though. Not now. Not this early. Devon wasn’t ready for it.
He swallowed down any thoughts of panic before they could grab hold. Devon would take what he could get. The chances of Marcus being a shifter were unknown. A human mother and shifter father. There weren’t many statistics on children like Marcus, or his other two children. Out of sight, out of mind is what most purebred Guild members went with. The curriculum every shifter was taught.
Sure, if he and Sasha were true mates, then it would be a no-brainer. His kids would be shifters. Unfortunately, there was this nagging voice in the back of his mind throwing doubt on what he believed.
Shaking his head, Devon waited for the teacher assigned to the Kiss and Ride area to open Tabitha’s door. Tabitha unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned over to kiss Sebastian, then him. “Bye, squirt,” she giggled. “Bye, Papa.” She waved as she hopped down and took hold of the teacher’s hand. The teacher leaned down to listen to his daughter talk as they walked. It warmed his heart to see his baby girl’s smile. To see the comfort and ease she felt with the other adult. It didn’t happen with many people.
He couldn’t help himself. He needed one more hug from her. Getting out of the SUV, he met them by the front. The first day of school had been hard on them both. Tabitha didn’t want to leave her little brother; so used to spending her days at home with him and the nanny or in the on-site daycare at the hospital. She confessed she was afraid she wouldn’t make friends because she was so quiet. No one would like a little thing like her, who didn’t talk a lot and liked to read books instead.
Hell, he was afraid of the same things for her. Without her mom around, Tabitha withdrew into her tiny shell. She wouldn’t speak to anyone, and she wouldn’t leave his side. To this day, he could still feel her tiny hand in his, squeezing as tight as she could whenever they went out. It took almost six months of therapy to get her to talk again. To find out she was petrified she would lose him like she had lost her mommy.
She was doing better now, thankfully. She had friends in her class, she talked, and smiled more. There were still moments when he worried about her. Would always worry about her. Moments when she looked at him and he saw stark fear reflected at him in her eyes.
Tabitha stopped next to him and tugged on his hand. He knelt down next to her.
“Do you want me to walk you to the door, sweet pea? The teacher can stand here with Sebby until I get back.”
“No, Papa, it’s okay. I’ll walk with her. You need to get to work.” She wrapped her skinny little arms around his neck and squeezed with all her might. “Bye, Papa. Love you,” she said before kissing him on the cheek.
He hugged her back, pouring all of his love into it. “Love you.” He pulled away from her and searched her tiny, shining face. “You sure you don’t want me to walk you to the door?”
Tabitha’s gaze slid to the teacher waiting patiently nearby, then back to him. “I’ll be okay.”
She adjusted her pink princess backpack, slipped her hand into the teacher’s, and serenely walked to the open door of the school. She turned at the last minute and blew him a kiss before going inside.
Devon sighed. How in the hell had Sasha handled it every day? He loved seeing his children happy and healthy, excited to go to school. A piece of his heart broke every time though when he watched them walk away. His babies were growing up, and he was the only one around to see it. The only parent to share in the joys and heartbreaks. It damn near gutted him.
“Daddy, we late. Miss Tree gonna be mad at you,” Sebastian said from inside the SUV.
Devon climbed back into the driver’s seat and grinned at his youngest son. “Miss Crabtree won’t be mad at me.” His son always left off the first part of the woman’s name, and it was a mystery as to why. Miss Crabtree thought it was adorable, while Devon wanted him to learn to use the woman’s full name. He checked his son in the backseat. Sebastian was frowning, and the bitter, lemony scent of worry rolled off him.
“Should we bring her a cookie just in case?”
Sebastian’s face brightened and he giggled. “Not cookies, daddy. Brownies.”
Devon’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. That was news to him. He faintly recalled the older woman turning her nose up at the brownies another co-worker brought in for a class party. But then, he couldn’t be sure it if was because of them being brownies, or that she was opposed to mint chocolate with actual mint leaves sticking up from the tops like miniature trees. “Are you sure we’re talking about Miss Crabtree and not you?”
Sebastian shrugged and smiled. “Get both.”
Leave it to a three-year-old to come up with the solution. Devon chuckled and pulled away from the curb. “Cookies and brownies it is. We’ll hit the drive-thru at Cuppa Claire’s, sound good?”
“Yay!” Sebastian clapped his hands gleefully.
Devon hauled Sebastian, Sebastian’s backpack (because he refused to put it on), Devon’s own briefcase, and their overstuffed Cuppa Claire’s bag through the parking garage and into the hospital. It was a good thing he forgot to order the coffee he wanted. He didn’t have any hands left to carry the damn thing, and it would be a shame to leave it behind.
The first sight greeting him as they passed through the sliding door was Miss Crabtree, the on-site daycare supervisor.
“You’re late, Dr. Andersen,” she said sternly, left eyebrow arched high and bright red lips pursed. “What have I told you about that? You need to have the children on a good schedule. You need to be seeing your patients—on time. No one likes to be left waiting.” She held out her arms ready to receive Sebastian and all of his things.
He handed her the backpack, but when he went to shift his son to her, Sebastian wiggled and insisted he get down. “I walk.”
Devon wished the kid had said that ten minutes ago when they were trudging through the parking garage. Fishing inside the Cuppa Claire’s bag, he pulled out another smaller bag, then handed the big one over. He kissed sixty-year-old Miss Crabtree on the cheek. “You’re the best, Mary. Don’t let those other doctors tell you any different.”
Miss Crabtree blushed, even as she tried to hold the stern look on her face. “You’re the only one I have a problem with. Now scoot. Off you go and get to work. Young Master Andersen and I have things to do. Pictures to color. Macaroni to glue down. Glitter to spread far and wide.” A mischievous glint appeared in her eyes, as the last couple of words registered in his brain.
He cringed, knowing the mess that would become of his youngest when glitter was involved. The kid loved to make things sparkly. Devon saluted her, kissed Sebastian on the head, and then turned to walk toward his office.
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