Avery is a lone werewolf without a pack; Nicole is a social worker trying to put her life back together after a personal disaster. When he shows up on her doorstep with a box of orphaned werewolf puppies, and danger in pursuit, can two lonely people find the family they’ve been missing in each other?
Special Agent Avery Hollen was not having a good day.
He was currently the ranking agent on duty in the Seattle office of the Special Crimes Bureau, informally known as the Shifter Crimes Bureau. A particularly virulent flu, nasty enough to knock down even a shifter’s resilient immune system, had taken out half the office; the other half were on field assignments, surveillance detail, or otherwise absent. And Division Chief Pam Stiers was on leave with her wife and stepdaughter at an unspecified location with orders to disturb her “only in the event of a total infrastructure collapse or act of God.”
To make things worse, it was a week before Halloween, which meant the SCB, as the government agency that dealt not only with shifter-related crimes but also with everything inexplicable that other federal agencies didn’t want to handle, was hip-deep in the usual array of seasonal strangeness that fell into their laps. Things didn’t actually get weirder around Halloween, at least not in a supernatural way; it was just an unfortunate side effect of the public’s belief that things would get weirder, along with the inevitable side effects of a lot of people pulling pranks and running around in costumes.
So far today, he’d dealt with nine ghost reports, two Bigfoot sightings, and an outbreak of so-called werewolf activity in Delridge. Avery himself was a werewolf—wolf shifter, more accurately—and he knew for a fact that werewolves looked like normal humans or normal wolves, not like the bipedal monster with a wolf head, straight out of a Lon Cheney movie, that two anxious witnesses had reported. From the sound of things, it was some teenage kid using a Wal-Mart werewolf mask to hide their identity while they ran around committing acts of vandalism.
And now the SCB’s lowest-ranking intern had managed to break the office email system.
“How did you do this?” Avery demanded, staring at the list of bounced emails on the screen, half-hidden by a swarm of suspicious-looking popups. His emails were bouncing. Everyone’s emails were bouncing. No one had been able to successfully send an email in hours. He was too impressed by the scope of it to even get upset. “Mayhew, please shift back. I’m not going to yell.”
Though he made no promises about Stiers.
The large jumping spider perched on the keyboard stared up at him. Jumping spiders had a natural tendency to look startled and woeful. This was also one of Intern Pete Mayhew’s habitual expressions in human form, usually after destroying something expensive.
“Or … don’t.” He might not be able to. Most shifters needed mental calm to control their shifts. Mayhew had turned out to be as good at this as he was at everything else, which was to say, not very. He’d once shifted while leaning over the conference table to hand Stiers a file and fallen into her cup of coffee. Fortunately it was lukewarm at the time—due, if Avery remembered correctly, to Mayhew permanently changing the coffeemaker’s settings somehow.
“If only we could harness that kid’s ability to screw up technology and use it against the bad guys,” Avery’s partner Jack Ross had once remarked while trying to get the elevator unstuck. Mayhew, of course, had been trapped in it, along with another intern, falcon shifter Rivkah Rosen.
Rivkah, a tall, thin woman with a cascade of dark hair, was just now striding in the door. “Agent Hollen, I talked to the techs. They said don’t touch anything. It looks like someone accidentally installed malware on one of the computers that turned our main server into a spambot.”
“Really,” Avery said, leveling a look in the direction of the guilty-looking jumping spider. It hopped off the keyboard and scuttled behind a can of pencils. “Someone. You don’t say.”
“So now our emails are bouncing because a bunch of different mail hosts have blacklisted us as spammers. Oh, and the techs said to tell everybody not to go on our website ’til they can fix it. Looks like it’s serving viruses, too.”
“Meaning?” Avery asked.
“Meaning every time someone goes to our website, they could get a virus.”
“Our official website,” Avery said blankly. “Our official, as in, ‘we represent the government of the United States of America’ website.”
“Oh, my God.” Stiers was going to kill him first, and then kill Mayhew. Or maybe the other way around.
His phone picked that moment to ring.
“If this is another werewolf sighting …” Avery muttered, glancing at the screen. JENNIFER CHO, the ID read. Thank God, someone with sense. Agent Jen Cho had spent the day at Pike Place Market, trying to pick up some leads on a shifter thief who had been working the tourist areas.
“My email’s not working,” was the first thing she said.
“The techs are aware of that.” He left Rivkah to see if she could coax out Mayhew out of hiding and limped to the coffee machine, which fortunately seemed to have escaped Mayhew’s mayhem for the time being. He didn’t usually bother to use his cane to walk around in the office, but he’d been standing too long, leaning too much weight on his bad leg, and the traumatized, atrophied muscles screamed protest.
Ten years ago, Avery had been a young soldier in Afghanistan when an RPG fired into the convoy vehicle he was standing next to had left him with a medical discharge and a lingering disability. Werewolf healing had helped him survive, and he’d proven himself as a field agent for the SCB, but he still tended to get desk duty more often than not.
He could hardly argue with it. Even as a wolf, he was not a fast runner, though he’d developed a relatively speedy three-legged gait to make up for his lame rear leg. But increasingly, working around his disability meant babysitting interns and handling minor disasters while everyone else did the field work that was the whole reason he’d wanted to be an agent in the first place.
Cho was still talking. He could barely hear her. She was outside, and there was a lot of background noise.
“Avery? Are you listening?”
“I think I caught part of that,” he said, holding the phone in the crook of his neck while pouring a cup of coffee. “What was the last part?”
“Puppies, Avery, I said puppies.”
“You … had puppies?” Most of the SCB’s employees were shifters, so it wasn’t completely out of the question, but Cho was a gecko shifter. It seemed unlikely.
“No,” Cho said impatiently. “I have puppies. Someone found them in a box beside a trash can.”
“Poor little things,” Avery said sympathetically. “There are some good rescue and adoption organizations in town. I can have one of the interns look up—”
“Avery, you dink. I’m talking about shifter puppies. Babies. Wolves, I think. They look more like Husky puppies to me, but wolf shifters are just about the only kind who come into their shifting abilities this early.”
“Wolf shifter puppies?”
“Yeah, I’m bringing them in, all right?”
“Yeah—ow!” He’d overfilled his cup, splashing coffee over his hand. This day just kept getting better. “Yeah, do that. And by the way, don’t go on our website.”
“The SCB website?” Cho asked in a distracted tone. “Why?”
“Just … don’t.”
Cho showed up a half hour later, toting a large cardboard box with PLEASE TAKE ME HOME in large, sloppy black letters on the side. She plunked it on Avery’s desk, on top of the form he was filling out on the latest not-Bigfoot incident.
“You’ve been sitting in a nice warm office all day,” she said, leaning her elbow on the edge of the box. “I’ve been walking my feet off and freezing.”
When she left the office that morning, she had been wearing a stylish tan jacket against the October Seattle chill. Now she was dressed only in the sweater she’d had on under it. The jacket had been draped over the top of the box. Occasionally it was pushed up from underneath by a suspiciously squeaky lump.
“They looked cold,” she said defensively. “And kept trying to climb out.”
Avery pulled off the jacket and looked in. A dirty white blanket had been used to make a sort of nest, and four chubby puppies were crawling around and over each other, trying to climb out of the box. One was reddish blond, two were brown and gray, and one was small and dark gray with smart white paws.
And they were definitely wolf puppies, and definitely shifters. They might look like Huskies to Cho, but some atavistic sense of Avery’s wolf side pinged them immediately.
For a moment his brain simply whited out. He wasn’t used to being around kids, and in particular he hadn’t been around children of his own kind since he was a young child himself. It wasn’t even that he couldn’t handle kids. He’d dealt with ordinary shifter kids, and human kids, on cases and at the SCB company picnics.
But he was one of only two wolf shifters, that he knew of, in the entire organization. Werewolves didn’t leave their packs, unless, like Avery, they had no choice.
And now there were children of his own kind on his desk, and his brain locked up.
Cho stared at him and then swooped in. “Rosen, Veliz, do we have towels? It’s raining out there, and these poor kids are freezing.”
Fortunately, the puppies were an instant hit with the interns. Soon all four plump balls of fuzz were out on the floor and being passed around between laps, dried off with handfuls of paper towels by enthusiastic young people.
Avery had relaxed enough to help Cho dust the box for prints. There wasn’t anything to find; the box was damp rather than soaked, but cardboard didn’t hold prints worth a damn even when it was dry. The blanket was just an ordinary white sheet, now filthy and stained from the puppies’ incarceration. Avery bundled it into a bag for Forensics to look at.
“Are you okay?” Cho asked quietly.
“Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“Avery, when you looked in that box, you went whiter than that sheet. You’d think I just handed you a severed horse’s head instead of an armful of babies.”
Where to even begin. “My childhood wasn’t great,” Avery said. Understatement of the year. “And wolf shifters are highly social. It was just … a shock.” Some kind of empathy feedback loop, he guessed. His instincts wanted to connect to the kids, but didn’t know how, and everything else in him recoiled screaming from the thought.
Downright pathetic if he thought about it too hard. He refused to meet Cho’s eyes, afraid she was looking at him with sympathy or, worse, pity.
“Are you entirely sure they’re shifters?” asked Brit Temple, one of the other interns, holding the gray puppy in her lap. She was a non-shifting human who sometimes jokingly referred to herself as a quota hire in the mostly-shifter SCB.
“Yes,” Cho, Avery, and Rivkah chorused, and then looked at each other.
“But how can you tell?”
“You just know,” said Yesenia Veliz, a chinchilla shifter intern.
Cho nodded. “I could tell as soon as I saw them. I don’t even think I could tell you how.”
“Why don’t they shift, though?” Mayhew asked.
“No clue,” Avery said. It was a reasonable question. Did wolf shifter puppies customarily spend their early childhoods in their shifted form? He had vague recollections of being four-legged a lot when he was young, but there had been extenuating circumstances, and most of his early childhood was a vague blur anyway. He’d always blamed that on the abuse, but now he wondered for the first time if it had more to do with being a wolf a lot, and might be perfectly normal.
“Well, in any case, they seem to be in pretty good shape.” Yesenia held up the gray puppy, which squirmed unhappily until she cuddled it against her chest again. “I’m a volunteer at a pit bull rescue in town, and a lot of the ones we get are much worse off than these guys. Thin, dirty, covered with fleas. These pups are damp and hungry, but that’s about the worst of it.”
Something in Avery’s chest unclenched. He’d been afraid to look too closely at the puppies, he realized now, in part because he was afraid of what he’d see.
He crouched down at the edge of the circle of interns, not quite touching the puppies, but making an effort to stop treating them like unexploded bombs. “Do you think this is related to the shoplifting?” he asked Cho. She’d been on the trail of a shoplifter—or possibly more than one—whose shifted form was a small coyote or jackal. Pretending to be a stray dog, it wandered in and out of stores, quietly removing items, stealing purses and the like.
“No way to tell unless we actually catch him or her,” she said. “My best guess is whoever I’m after is a street kid, so it could be a very young wolf, I suppose. If it is a wolf, it certainly isn’t old enough to be these ones’ mom. It’s possible we’re dealing with an organized gang of shifter street kids.”
Great. “Anyone heard anything about something like that?” he asked the assembled interns. He’d learned not to discount the interns as a source of information as good as any of the agents’ cultivated street contacts. This time, though, there were a bunch of headshakes.
“I wonder how long they were out there,” Rivkah said. She lifted a pup to her shoulder. It squirmed against her neck, nestling under the dense curtain of her hair. “Oh! Poor babies.”
“It stopped raining early this morning, and then started drizzling again around the time I found them,” Cho said. “So they weren’t out overnight. Otherwise they’d be soaked.”
“No more than a few hours, tops,” Yesenia put in. “If these were actual puppies—I mean, non-shifter puppies, I’d guess they’re about three or four weeks old. So they would need to eat pretty frequently. And they’re hungry, but not starving. Oh, sorry, baby.” She gently detached the pup from its attempts to nibble on her fingers. “I’m not your momma. We need to find you a momma, huh?”
“What we need to do is call Child Protective Services,” Avery said. He reluctantly allowed his fingers to drift to the soft coat of the puppy in Rivkah’s arms. It tried to chew on his fingers with sharp puppy teeth. “Who’s our shifter contact over at CPS?”
“I’ll look it up.” Brit Temple started to get up, then sat back down. “Except I can’t. The server’s down.”
“I’ve dealt with them before,” Cho said. “It’s a Dr. Yates, I think. Nicole Yates. She’s a good egg. I’ll text you her office address.”
Avery looked up desperately.
“No,” Cho said, before he could say anything. “I’m going to run back down to the Market before the trail goes colder than it already is. There might be witnesses around, or security cameras.”
“But—” Avery began.
“Look, otherwise I’d need to describe to you exactly where I found it. Besides, I’ve spent the whole day at the Market. The vendors know me. It makes more sense this way, Avery, tell me it doesn’t.”
“Put the kids back in the box,” Avery told the interns.
There was a chorus of “awes”. Yesenia began making a new nest in the bottom of the box out of paper towels.
“As for the rest of you—Rivkah, you’re in charge.” She was the most responsible of the bunch, or at least, the one who was least likely to precipitate a department-wide crisis and/or burn anything down if left alone for a few hours. “Call me if there are any more disasters. And in the meantime,” he sighed, shouldering the box of unhappily squeaking puppies, “I’ll go see if Dr. Yates’s day needs a box of puppies as much as mine does.”
Nicole Yates was not having a good day either.
“We can’t cut the postnatal home visits, JJ. I don’t give a damn about funding. That program works. In some cases it’s the only thing keeping these families from ending up back here in crisis a few years down the line.”
What she didn’t say, couldn’t say, was that at-risk shifter families were even more likely to end up in crisis than human ones, and therefore more in need of intervention. For healthy families, the close-knit nature of shifter communities tended to act as a buffer against social breakdown. But those who fell through the cracks could easily go into free-fall, reeling under the triple blows of dealing with poverty, raising what basically amounted to special-needs children, and being a minority in a society they had to hide from.
“So what else goes, then?” her supervisor asked over the phone. “Do we chop hours off the counseling and home visits for kids who are neck deep in shit that most adults would have trouble dealing with? Do we cut back on domestic violence shelters? Cut funding for substance abuse treatment, or youth suicide programs? This grant will only stretch so far. If you could email me some stats, maybe, on which programs are working—”
Nicole tucked the phone into the crook of her neck, only half listening. The light was blinking to indicate a call on another line, and she was typing an email at the same time. “JJ, both my caseworkers are out today and my receptionist called in sick. I’ve already had to cancel every out-of-office appointment this afternoon because I’m holding down the fort by myself. I can get you something tomorrow.”
“I need to turn in the paperwork tonight. I’m doing you a special favor holding this for you, Nicole. We could’ve just made arbitrary cuts, but I’m trying to help.”
And he really was trying, which was, in a way, the worst part. More sources of funding dried up every year, and to Nicole Yates fell the thankless job of attempting to address the special needs of the shifter community while trying to keep their very existence a secret. In the process she’d cultivated a reputation as the branch office that dealt with “difficult” cases. Sometimes this meant dealing with kids who turned into tigers and tried to eat their parents, but at other times they were not shifters at all, just regular human children who had been through so many abusive situations that other caseworkers didn’t want to deal with them.
“I have an appointment tonight, but I’ll try to pull some figures together after that, okay?” After all, who needed to eat? Or sleep? “JJ, I have to go. Call you back later, yeah?”
Without waiting for an answer, she hit the button to switch lines, but whoever it was had already hung up without leaving a message.
I really hope that wasn’t important.
It was almost five anyway, not that she ever managed to get out of the office at five, or even close to it. Allowing herself to fudge the time a bit, she flipped all the phones to voice mail (rerouting the emergency line to her cell as usual), hung out the CLOSED sign, and pulled down the blinds on the door. Then she steeled herself and went back to the email—a follow-up on a home visit that hadn’t gone well. She had another scheduled for tonight at seven, the only time she’d been able to fit it in. She was exhausted just thinking about it.
Her cell went off: her sister, who was also her landlord. She thought about ignoring it, then put the phone on speaker and set it next to the computer so she could keep typing. “Not the best time, sis.”
“Hi to you too.” In the background, Nicole could hear the cheerful babble of life in the Leung-Yates household, as Erin’s two kids competed with the TV to see who could be loudest. Erin talked over the top of them without seeming to notice. “I just needed to know if you’re working late tonight. Should I set another place at the table, or put aside a plate for you?”
“Erin, you don’t have to. Tonight’s going to be another late one. I can microwave something at the office.”
“Uh-huh. Because ramen cups are great fuel for someone who works ninety hours a day. Speaking of, are you sure—I know how you get when I ask about this, but I know you’re not sleeping a whole lot, and I promised Mom I’d make sure. That you aren’t. You know.”
Nicole gritted her teeth and bashed the keys a lot harder than she meant to. “Erin, I’m fine. Really. I monitor my mental health. I’m not going to push myself too hard.”
Erin’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Are you taking your pills and everything? Because I counted the ones in the bathroom and—”
“You counted my meds? Seriously?”
“I was worried!” Erin said defensively. “I just wanted to make sure! Because whenever I ask about it, you do this.”
“Because I’m tired of people micromanaging my personal life! Not to mention treating me like I’m going to crack if they look at me funny!”
“It’s called taking care of you. Someone’s got to.”
“You know I’m a big girl and can take care of myself, right?” She shouldn’t have moved to Seattle for a fresh start. She should’ve moved to … to Turkey. Or Antarctica. Anywhere her family was not. “I’m taking my meds, I really am getting enough sleep, and I am not going to fall apart just because the job is stressful.”
“You don’t have to bite my head off. I’m just looking out for you.”
Nicole took a deep breath and massaged her temples. “I’m sorry.”
Somehow whenever this happened, she was the one who ended up apologizing to Erin, even if she didn’t want to. She was, after all, a guest in Erin’s home, and no matter how many times Erin reassured her that she was a full member of the household, no matter how often she reminded herself that she pitched in on rent and no one minded having her there, she still felt like a freeloader. Especially these days, when she was too busy to help with household chores, let alone scrape together the time and money to look for a place of her own.
“De nada,” Erin said, an Americanism she’d picked up and was now obnoxiously running into the ground. “And since an unfed Nicole is a cranky Nicole, your dinner will be waiting on the top shelf of the fridge.”
“Thanks, sis,” Nicole sighed. Retreat was often the better part of valor. “Love you.”
Somehow a summer at her sister’s place in the U.S. to get her head screwed on straight had turned into almost a decade of being the poor relation living in her sister’s spare bedroom. She wasn’t entirely sure how much more of Erin’s sisterly concern, however well-meant, she could put up with, though.
Someday soon I will take some of that massive pile of vacation time I’ve built up, she promised herself. I’ll shop around for apartments, and maybe even go home to see Mom and Dad. I just can’t do it now, because we’re heading into the holiday season. Maybe in January—no, that’s when Kathryn is having her baby, so I’ll have to cover her caseload. Maybe this spring … oh, who am I kidding.
She tried to buckle down and finish up the email, and got a whole two more lines before someone knocked at the office door.
“Oh, for the love of Christ! Can’t you read?”
They knocked again, louder.
If they weren’t giving up, it might be important. Life-and-death important.
Or it could be her supervisor had dropped by to talk to her in person. Technically, she wasn’t closed yet. By the clock, it was still 4:58.
All she wanted to do was stomp over, wrench the door open, and yell at them. Instead, she firmly schooled herself to calmness, ran a hand over her head to try to get at least some of the frazzle back where it was supposed to be, and then managed to walk, not stomp, to the door. “JJ, if this is you—” she snarled under her breath, and peeked through the blinds.
It wasn’t JJ. It was a handsome young man she’d never seen before, dressed in the semi-casual way that passed for business attire in Seattle: dark jeans and a light gray sweater under a black wool coat. More curiously, he had a large cardboard box wedged between his chest and the wall, and he was trying to stuff a puppy back into it without dropping the entire box.
I know I will regret getting involved in this, she thought, but she was already unlocking the door.
When the door opened, he looked up quickly. His eyes were a clear grayish-blue, and dark hair flopped over his forehead. “Hi!” he said, giving her a smile that was slightly distracted due to another puppy trying to make a break for it. “Are you Dr. Yates?”
“This isn’t the ASPCA,” Nicole informed him. Then she took a closer look at the puppies. “Wait, are those—”
“Wolf,” he said. “Werewolf to be exact. I’m Agent Hollen of the SCB. I’d show you my ID, but I’ve kinda got my hands full at the moment.”
As if to demonstrate his point, a third puppy started to slither over the edge of the box. Nicole caught it just as it made its getaway, scooping it up. It was heavier than it looked. She noted in passing that it was a girl.
“Have they eaten?” she asked.
“No. One of our agents found them in this box at the Market—”
“Come on in,” she said, against her better judgment.
Agent Hollen hesitated briefly, then followed her. He was limping badly, but didn’t seem incapable of carrying the box, so she didn’t offer to take it. Instead, she kept the puppy she had picked up. It squirmed, but settled down somewhat as she petted it.
She led Hollen through the outer office, where Kathryn and Mike, the two caseworkers who worked under her, would normally be.
“Everyone out today?” Avery asked, glancing at the empty desks. He sounded sympathetic.
“It’s been a day, Agent Hollen. Definitely a day.”
She saw him looking over the child-friendly decor. Cubicle walls attempted to give an illusion of privacy to the clients consulting with Mike and Kathryn, and beside them was a small waiting area adorned with bright rugs, several boxes of toys, and a child-height bookcase stocked with picture books that she’d picked up from garage sales and library book remainders. She’d done her best, often using money out of her own pocket, to try to make the tiny suite of offices as inviting and friendly as possible. She had painted over the institutional beige walls with bright colors, and had picked up colorful child-sized furniture from garage sales, cleaning and repairing it in Erin and Tim’s backyard.
The smaller inner office, which accommodated Nicole’s desk and was used by all three caseworkers for private consultations, was similarly geared toward attempting to set her young clients and their troubled families at ease. Her sister’s kids had helped her paint the bright mural of rainbows on the wall. As well as furniture to accommodate adults and kids, there were a few items with hidden uses that would only be apparent to fellow shifters like Avery. The playpen, for example, was useful not only for toddlers but also for the containment of shifted children. A big plexiglass tank, held steady with brackets screwed to the floor to keep children from pulling it on themselves, had an assortment of nice rocks, soft sand, and pieces of wood for little snakes and rodents to hide behind. It also had a few toys, because non-shifting children or their parents were generally curious about it, so making it look like a sandbox was an effective way of hiding it in plain sight.
Nicole marched past the toys and into the adjoining kitchenette and bathroom. “Put them down,” she instructed Agent Hollen. She returned the puppy to its siblings, and began looking through cabinets for what she needed.
Hollen looked over her shoulder as she bypassed the plastic bins of clothing, the care packages of toiletries for homeless teens and battered women, to pull out blankets, baby bottles, and packaged formula.
“It’s not uncommon to deal with people who can’t go home for some reason, or don’t have a home to go to,” she explained, passing items over her shoulder to him. “So we try to keep things on hand for every eventuality.”
The puppies started howling, a high-pitched squeaky chorus. Hollen winced.
“They were doing that in the car, too,” he said. “And wouldn’t stay in their box.”
“Well, of course. They’re babies. They’re cold, hungry, and scared. They don’t understand being shoved into a box and ignored.” She began mixing formula according to the instructions on the box, and used self-assurance to cover the fact that she hadn’t actually done this very much. She did not often deal with extremely young children without a parent, nurse, or someone else better qualified to care for them than herself. Speaking of … “Where are their parents? Do you know?”
“No, like I said, they were found on the street. We don’t know who the parents are. Yet,” he added.
“You had better stop that ankle-biter there.” Nicole jerked her head at the kitchenette doorway.
One of the puppies, the same ginger-colored one Nicole had caught climbing out of the box, was currently waddling for freedom as fast as she could. Hollen’s longer legs overtook the puppy easily, even with his limp, and he hesitated briefly before scooping her up. Nicole watched out of the corner of her eye, but after a moment’s awkwardness he cradled the puppy to his chest, tucking her blunt snout into the crook of his arm to shut out sensory input. The puppy settled down, nestling against him.
He’s naturally good at it, she thought, filling the bottles. He was awkward enough around these kids that she guessed he didn’t have kids of his own, but he seemed to be able to intuit what to do with them, even lacking base knowledge to draw upon. Some people, when handed a child, were miserably inept. Agent Hollen seemed to be the sort of person who could understand and anticipate their needs without realizing he was doing so.
Which was, she discovered, a remarkably attractive quality in a man.
“So,” Hollen said, depositing the puppy back in the box, where it started plaintively squeaking again. “Since I’ve dropped these off with you, I need to be getting back to—”
“Oh, no you don’t.” She shoved a bottle into each of his hands. “I’m only one person. It’ll go twice as fast with help. We need to get these little ones fed and comfortable, don’t we?”
“I don’t know how to do this,” Hollen said, staring at the bottles as if she’d handed him live grenades.
“Who does? No parent alive, let me tell you. Everyone starts on a learning curve.”
She folded herself cross-legged on the floor, going down with a speed and grace that belied her heft. Nicole wasn’t a slim woman, but she started every morning with a half hour of yoga, and had the flexibility to prove it.
“Come on,” she urged him. “They won’t bite. Well, even if they do, it’s only a minor hazard of the job. They’re old enough that they might already be eating solid food, but I thought it would be best to start with formula, since we don’t know when they last ate or what they’re used to eating.”
Hollen transferred both bottles to his left hand, gripped the countertop with his right, and lowered himself down that way, extending his right leg stiffly in front of him. It was a smooth and practiced move; she could see he’d done it many times before, which let her know he hadn’t simply twisted an ankle or given himself shin splints while jogging. Whatever was wrong with his leg, he’d had time to adjust to it, time to learn all the little workarounds that people used for such disabilities.
And it’s none of your business, she scolded herself.
Sitting on the floor, Hollen stared anxiously at the seething box of puppies. Nicole plucked one out, plunked it deftly into her lap—on the continuing assumption that confidence covered a multitude of sins—and stuck the bottle into its mouth. It immediately latched on.
Rather than asking for instructions, Hollen watched her do it, and then picked up a puppy of his own, considered it briefly, and settled it in his lap. He tucked the bottle into its tiny jaws.
“Nicely done,” Nicole said.
Hollen looked up and flashed her a quick smile, and it was a good job she was sitting down, because her knees went suddenly weak. He had a nice face to begin with, handsome although somewhat cool; this was a man who kept a lot locked up inside. But his smile—a true smile, not the small polite one he’d given her earlier—was beautiful. When he smiled, it was like standing in a sunbeam, her face turned up to the light.
To cover her reaction, Nicole turned her attention to snuggling her puppy down in her lap so that she could hold the bottle with one hand and pick up one of the remaining puppies with the other—the active, ginger-colored escape artist. She quickly got a bottle into its mouth before it could get away, as it was clearly trying to do.
The remaining puppy was the small gray one. Too little to climb out of the box, it wailed in misery at being left behind.
Nicole raised her eyebrows and cut her eyes pointedly at the box. With each of her hands feeding a puppy, it was not as if she could rescue the poor creature herself.
Hollen shifted the one he was feeding into the space between his legs, and leaned over carefully to pick up the gray one. Then some juggling ensued—Nicole tried not to laugh, but may have snorted a bit, as he wrestled with the two puppies and eventually got them lined up in a row, nestled in his lap and sucking away happily.
“Whew,” he said, and gave her another of those gorgeous, melting smiles.
Nicole had to look down at her lapful of puppies. She had enough to keep her busy: having finished her bottle already, the ginger puppy decided to go exploring.
“No, no,” Nicole said, tucking little Ginger back with her brother, who was still eating. The puppy yawped unhappily and then draped herself over Nicole’s leg and fell asleep with her stubby snout propped on the cuff of Nicole’s pants leg.
“Why won’t they shift back?” Hollen asked, idly petting the puppies in his lap. “Is that normal?”
“If they were abandoned, I assume they’ve been through some kind of trauma. They might feel safer in their wolf shape. Agent Hollen—”
“Avery,” he said. “You can call me Avery, Dr. Yates.”
“I’m not a doctor of anything, just a social worker. I don’t even have a PhD, so you’d better call me Nicole. In any case, could you hand me the can of formula there? I don’t think little Ginger is finished yet.”
It was oddly peaceful, sitting here on the floor with him, the puppies contentedly finishing their dinner—like an island of calm in the whirlwind of her day.
“So what happens now?” Avery asked. “Where will they go?”
“Ideally, to one of our foster families who have volunteered to be on call for emergency intakes.” She looked down at the puppies, frowning. “That’s going to be a problem in this case.”
“Because they’re shifted?”
“Yes,” she said. “They can’t go to a regular foster family, and we have an extremely limited number of shifter families, who I think are all full up tonight. Just a minute, let me check.” Not wanting to disturb the puppies by getting up, she got out her phone and logged into the office system.
Avery waited patiently while she checked, and checked again, and then triple-checked by calling the one family she thought might be able to do it. They couldn’t. Nicole tipped her head back against the wall.
“They can’t go to Animal Control,” Avery said tightly, cupping his hand over the gray puppy’s small head.
“No, of course not. Don’t suggest such a thing. I could take them myself for a night—I’ve done it before—”
He looked up, hopeful.
“But I have a home visit tonight,” she finished. “And it’s going to have me out late. Agent Holl—Avery, can you take them for one night?”
The hopeful look changed to shock. “I don’t have kids. I don’t know anything about kids.”
“You don’t have to. No one gets a user manual. You’re doing fine, and I’ll give you supplies. They’d certainly be better off with you than any of the other situations I can imagine depositing them into. I’ll work on getting them into a more permanent placement tomorrow.”
“This can’t be legal,” Avery protested. “Your office doesn’t make a habit of dumping children on random strangers, do you?”
“Of course not. But right now, you’ll note, they’re legally dogs. That’s the problem, after all. And working as an unofficial liaison with the shifter community means, by necessity, the ability to flex. You’re an SCB agent, which means you’re the best I’ve got. Do you have a stable living situation? No potential sources of abuse or harm to the children?”
“I have an apartment,” he said. “I live alone. Uh, I don’t smoke.”
“That’ll have to do.” She unloaded her burden of now-sleeping puppies into his lap and stood up. “I’m going to put together a package of supplies for you. Formula, bottles …” She was talking to herself now, more than him, as she found a bag under the sink and put items into it. “They will need to be examined medically, but that can wait for morning. They seem healthy enough, no visible signs of abuse.”
Avery set his jaw, swallowing his protests. “Is there anything I need to know? Specific stuff—uh, I don’t even know how much to feed them, or how often.”
“At that age, they’ll let you know.” At least, so her sister used to claim. “Giving them a bath when you get home might be a good idea—it’ll settle them down and help them sleep. In the morning I’ll call around for a proper, certified foster home. Oh, and if any of them shifts, call me immediately.”
“Why?” Avery asked anxiously. “Does it mean there’s something wrong?”
“No, it means you’ll have a child whose presence in your house you can’t explain. That’s for your protection as much as theirs. No one is going to ask questions if you show up with four puppies. Four toddlers is something else.”
“These children are as entitled to the protection of the law as any other child—”
“Of course they are, Avery, but if they were human, I could place them with a human family. We’re in a legal gray area, and we’re going to have to use it because we don’t have a choice.”
“You’ve done this before,” Avery said. He sounded thoughtful, drawing his hand down the back of one of the sleeping puppies. His blue-gray eyes were steady on her.
A shiver ran down her spine. She straightened her back defiantly. “I do what needs doing to keep these kids safe. And I know full well you boys and girls over at the SCB bend the law however it suits you. Because you can’t exactly take shifter criminals to trial in a regular courtroom, can you?”
Avery regarded her without a change of expression. “There are safeguards in place—”
“And so there are, but at the end of the day, you do the best you can in an imperfect system. Am I wrong?”
The corner of his mouth quirked up faintly. “You’re not wrong.”
They began gathering up the drowsy puppies. When Avery went to put them back in the box, Nicole stopped him with a hand on his arm. She remembered how much trouble he’d been having, stopping them from climbing out. “That’s not a safe way to transport them. Let me see what I can find.”
She rummaged through the storage space until she found what she was looking for, a large airline kennel for transporting pets. A baby blanket from her crate of baby things made a serviceable bed.
“Are you serious?” Avery stared at the kennel in open dismay. “They’re not dogs. They’re kids.”
“Yes, I know, and in a perfect world they should be strapped into child restraints, but I haven’t enough to give you. Besides, could your vehicle accommodate four restraints? Car seats, that is.”
“No,” Avery admitted. “But this doesn’t seem right.”
“They’ll be all right with the blanket for padding, even if you get into an accident. Just make sure to restrain the carrier itself.”
He clearly didn’t like it, but he passed her the puppies. However, when she swung the door shut, Avery caught it before it could latch. “They can’t get out.”
“That’s rather the point.” She firmly removed his hand and snapped the door into its latch holes.
“But they can’t get out,” he said again, helplessly. “What if something happens and they need to get out?”
“They’re children. They need to be restrained for their own protection.” But she had to admit that closing the kennel door on them felt a bit too much like putting them in a cage. Particularly since the puppies didn’t seem to like it either. They were starting to stir out of their food coma, and broke into a chorus of tiny whines. One of them started barking, high squeaky alarm barks.
“See? It’s hurting them!” Avery all but tore the door open, and pulled the puppies out, piling them into his lap. They climbed over each trying to get away from the enclosed space.
“The only person alarming them is you,” Nicole snapped, exasperated. But then she took a closer look at him. He was pale, with fine beads of sweat along his hairline.
This isn’t about the puppies, is it, Agent Hollen? This is about you.
The puppies settled and calmed in his lap. Nicole crouched next to him.
“Avery,” she said gently, laying a hand on his arm. He flinched slightly when she touched him, but didn’t try to shake her hand off. “They’re going to be fine. If we let them fall asleep and put them in gently, they won’t even notice they’re confined. And you can leave the door open so they can leave if they want to, okay?”
She left him petting the puppies, calming both them and himself, while she went to log off the computers and close things up for the night. When she came back, the puppies were back in the carrier, napping in a heap. The door was swung gently to, but not snapped into its latch holes.
“I was thinking,” Avery said, looking up at her, “maybe we could secure it with a piece of tape? So it won’t swing open, but if they need to, they can get out. Like, what if I’m in an accident, and the car’s on fire, and they can’t escape?”
They wouldn’t be able to escape from a burning car either, but she decided humoring him was easy enough, and better than fighting. “I think that sounds like an excellent idea. Just a minute, I’ll get some tape.”
A couple of long strips of Scotch tape secured the kennel door. Avery stood up by hand-over-handing himself up the cabinets. Nicole picked up the box to throw it away, but he called, “Wait, don’t take that. I need it.”
“It’s trash,” she said. The cardboard was soft and damp, the bottom of the box soiled from the puppies’ messes.
“No, it’s evidence. I need to take it in so Forensics can look it over.”
“Do you think there was a crime?” She carried the box and the bag of infant supplies, while he picked up the puppies’ carrier. He limped heavily, but seemed to be able to handle it okay, resting a hand occasionally on the wall or countertops to steady himself.
“We found them on the street,” Avery said. “At the very least, we’re looking at child abandonment, possibly kidnapping. So, yes. Crimes.”
“I’m glad that’s your area and not mine. I just take care of them after the bad thing happens.”
She rested the box between her hip and the wall while locking up the office door.
“I can take that,” Avery said, reaching for it.
“I’m going down to my car anyway. I may as well take it down for you.” She thought he would be able to steady himself more easily if he had a hand free to rest it on the stairwell railing. Not that she was going to say so out loud.
They went down the stairs slowly, for Avery’s sake, but in a companionable sort of silence. Nicole rarely made it out of the office when her co-workers left, so she was used to walking to her car alone.
Avery was short, for a man. Nicole herself was 162 centimeters tall—5’4″, to Americans—and she guessed Avery was about four inches taller. It meant she didn’t have to tilt her head back and look up to talk to him. She liked that.
“I’m sorry about dropping these kids into your lap like this. I know it’s an imposition. I wouldn’t do it if I had any other choice. I’ll start working on getting them into a foster home first thing in the morning.”
“I know,” he said. “It’s really okay.” He hesitated, then said, “You have an interesting accent. I hope you don’t mind if I ask, but I can’t place it.”
Americans, she’d found, usually couldn’t. They were so used to the broad Crocodile Dundee accent that they wouldn’t know an authentic Australian accent if it bit them on the nose. The fact that she was of mixed European-Chinese ancestry threw them off still further.
“It’s Australian,” she said. “That’s where I’m from.”
“Where in Australia?”
“Brisbane—well, a suburb. I’ve lived in the U.S. for almost a decade now, though.” To head off the next question people usually asked, she added, “My dad was white and Mom was Malaysian Chinese. In case you were wondering.”
“I figured you were married.”
It took her a minute to understand the relevance—oh, her last name, which was very clearly not an Asian name. “No, I’m not. That’s Dad’s name.”
They were outside now, on the sidewalk. Avery started to turn toward the one car remaining at the curb, a Prius gas-electric hybrid, then paused when he realized she wasn’t following.
“I’m the other way,” she said, jerking her head to indicate the direction. “In the parking garage there.”
She held out the box and the bag of supplies, then helped him juggle his burdens, tucking the bag into the box so he could carry it and the puppies’ kennel. “Oh,” she said, “my card.” She tucked one of her cards into his bag. “That has my personal number on it. Please call me if you have any problems.”
“I will. It was really nice to meet you, Nicole from Australia,” Avery said, smiling.
“You too, Avery from the SCB.”
She turned and began to walk briskly toward the parking garage, but she couldn’t help looking over her shoulder after a moment. Avery had the trunk of his car open and was putting the box into it. The airline carrier sat on the pavement beside him.
He’ll be fine, she told herself. And so will they.
But she couldn’t get the memory of that smile out of her head.
$0.99 for Amazon Kindle