Toby didn’t know if a baby who wasn’t half wolf would be the same, but right now, Heath was happy. He knew Toby already, though Toby couldn’t explain the whys or hows of it—the baby’s emotions were too undefined for that. What he knew was that he felt a deep sense of contentment from Heath, a sense that only magnified after he opened his shirt so he could hold Heath directly against his skin.
The baby was very wolf in that, in liking skin privileges.
Arranging the blanket over Heath’s back, Toby turned to the woman who’d come to the door of the nursery. Corkscrew curls of black with reddish highlights dancing around her face, Lara smiled at him, before walking over to muss his hair and kiss him on the cheek. “Stealing Heath again?”
“He wants to go for a walk,” Toby said with a straight face.
Tawny eyes bright with humor, Lara kissed him again. “Bring him back when he starts to get hungry.” Love emanated from her, until it wrapped Toby in maternal warmth. He knew it wasn’t only because he held Heath—Lara had been the same before the baby was even a possibility. She loved him and Marlee even though she hadn’t given birth to them.
Toby had reassured Marlee of that when he’d found his younger cousin sitting alone in her room, worrying that Lara wouldn’t love them anymore now that she had Heath. “Lara thinks of us as her kids,” he’d said. “You know I have empathic abilities—her love toward us is as potent as what she feels for Heath.” It was, however, different from what she felt for Toby’s uncle, Walker—but that was normal.
How grownups loved each other wasn’t the same as how they loved children. He’d asked Sascha about that when they had one of their sessions where she taught him more about the empathic side of his abilities, and she’d thought for a moment before saying, “Love has many hues and variations.
“With a child, in involves a strong thread of protectiveness and care, while with adults who choose each other as Lara and Walker have, it’s a meeting of equals.” Then she’d smiled. “You’ll always be a child to Lara and Walker, no matter how big you get. Their love will always have a parental flavor.”
Toby was more than okay with that. Especially after sensing the same kind of protective love from Lara’s mother toward Lara. “Call me Grammy,” Aisha had ordered him after his uncle and Lara mated, her love for Toby and Marlee different again—it held deeper tones of indulgence, less of discipline.
“I’m going to take Heath to see the pupcubs,” Toby told Lara. “Riley brought them with him today.” The triplets were older than Heath, but he thought his new cousin would like to be around other babies.
“I can already see the formation of a new gang,” Lara said as she walked him to the door. “I’ll be in the infirmary, checking in on some of my patients.”
Toby nodded; Lara couldn’t stop being a healer as he couldn’t stop being a telepath. “Don’t work too hard,” he said with a frown. “You know you’re supposed to take it easy for a couple more weeks at least.”
Lara looked at him with infinite tenderness. “Just like Walker.”
Chest swelling because he’d like nothing better than to grow up to be like Uncle Walker, Toby walked out, Heath cuddled up against his chest. Packmates who saw them inevitably stopped to look at the baby, or to whisper hello, or to touch a finger to his cheek. Changeling in his ways, the baby slept through it all, content in the embrace of pack.
But he wasn’t all changeling—and the featherlight touches Toby felt now and then against his mind were like those tiny fists that opened and closed against his chest. Instinctive, without intent. He’d asked his uncle if he felt them too, and Walker had nodded. “He’s got some telepathy.” Quiet words. “We’ll all watch over him to make sure he gets the training he needs—but right now, you just get to be his big cousin.”
So Toby allowed the featherlight touches to continue, allowed the baby to explore. He didn’t have to be a grownup with Heath, not yet. When a very small wolf padded up to him, he smiled. “Hi Elodie.” He bent down to pet the wolf pup with one hand, the baby held in his other arm.
“We’re going to see Riley and the pupcubs,” he said after Elodie greeted Heath with a gentle nuzzle. “Want to come?”
Yipping excitedly, Elodie ran off ahead—stopping every few steps to make sure he was coming. Toby laughed and followed his small guide. When his yearmate Miyoko stopped to pet first Elodie, and then Heath, he wished Elodie would yip again in impatience, giving him an excuse to get going. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his fellow juvenile…but that he liked her too much.
Tall, black haired, with skin of darkest brown, and a brain that didn’t stop, Miyoko was going to be a soldier, everyone knew it. She was tough and dominant and scared of nothing. She also had zero interest in Toby beyond friendship.
He didn’t read emotions on purpose anymore without permission, but stuff leaked in now and then. He couldn’t exactly turn off his empathy. Most of the time, it was fine, and he supposed at least he wouldn’t humiliate himself by asking her out when she would only say no, but he wished he didn’t know.
Then, he could pretend in his daydreams.
As it was, he felt his cheeks begin to color as his body reacted to the closeness of hers. After telling Heath how adorable he was, Miyoko looked up with eyes gone wolf-amber. “I better go. I have a date.” She beamed, her smile effervescent. “My first proper one!”
“Um, congratulations?” Toby managed to get out past his choked throat.
Grinning, Miyoko leaned in to kiss him on the cheek. “Thanks, Toby. You’re such a good friend.” Then she was gone, and his cheek, it burned, his nostrils filled with her scent.
A playful bite at his ankle, Elodie’s small furry face looking up at his when he glanced down. “I’m coming,” he said, and carried on. “Girls,” he told Heath. “They have soft skin and they smell really good, and they make a guy crazy.”
The baby snored.
Toby scowled. “Some cousin.” He kissed Heath’s nose.
Elodie, glimpsing this, came running back for her own kiss. He was crouched on the floor grinning when a pair of booted feet came into his vision. His entire body tightened. If Miyoko made him feel all hot and stupid and excited, Hawke’s presence made things get all tense.
The SnowDancer alpha had always been kind to Toby—even when he hadn’t been sure about the adult Laurens who’d defected to SnowDancer, he’d accepted the children. But everyone else in Toby’s year group knew their place in the hierarchy of the pack. Miyoko would be a soldier, and so would Toby’s friend Iain. Mara was heading into healing, and Angie was planning to be a tech specialist, but she was also at peace with her submissive nature.
Toby was the only one who didn’t fit. Where in a wolf pack did you put a shy telepath with low-level empathic abilities?
“Yes, I see you,” Hawke’s deep voice before he scooped Elodie up in one arm. Then he reached for Heath.
Who smiled in his sleep at his alpha’s touch.
Both pups were all but purring by the time Toby stood up. But Hawke’s strikingly pale blue eyes, eyes that didn’t change shade whether he was in human or wolf form, were focused on Toby. His breath caught in his chest, his pulse ratcheted up. Toby wasn’t a wolf, but it was impossible not to be affected by Hawke’s alpha dominance when you were the focus of his attention.
Hawke said, “We need to talk.” He bit lightly at Elodie’s snout before handing her over to Toby. She snuggled into him, already half asleep.
Throat dry and Elodie’s warm weight held with care, Toby fell into step beside his alpha—and brother-in-law. Sometimes, he didn’t know which side of Hawke he was speaking with, but today, he had zero doubts: he was with his alpha.
“Am I in trouble?” he asked, because he had joined in with a recent prank that involved wrapping every single thing in Hawke’s office with festive paper—down to the paperclip and pen.
“Why? What have you done?” Wolf eyes glinting in amusement because Hawke always knew exactly what the juveniles were up to.
Hawke’s laughter held the wolf’s growl. “You’re not in trouble. I just want to know why you haven’t signed on to the basic soldier module—the one that’ll give you a good idea of what a future as a pack soldier would entail.”
Toby blinked. “I didn’t think I’d fit.” He wasn’t like his uncle Judd, who was one of Hawke’s lieutenants. “I don’t have an offensive ability.” His telepathy was long range and crystalline in its clarity, and he supposed he could destroy minds with it, but not only would his empathy not allow him to do that, changelings didn’t fight that way.
Hawke was silent for several steps. “Do you understand what Riley does for the pack?” he said at last. “All the things he organizes and schedules and clears up so we work as a smooth machine?”
Toby chewed on that. “A little bit,” he said hesitantly. “He doesn’t teach classes at the juvenile level.”
“Maybe we need to change that,” Hawke murmured. “But for now, I’ve spoken to Riley, and he’s happy to have you shadow him for a while, see what he does.”
A pause, pale, pale eyes holding Toby’s. “Sometimes, Toby, communication and organization is all that stands between victory and defeat. Wolves are not simply brawn. Wolves are so powerful because we work as a unit, as a pack. And we utilize every skill and talent at our disposal.”
A sudden wave of emotions against his senses. Affection entwined with pride. From an alpha to a young packmate. From Hawke to Toby. And it wasn’t by accident. Hawke was mated to a cardinal Psy. He understood how Toby’s abilities worked. He wanted Toby to know.
“You have the heart of a wolf,” Hawke growled as he gripped the back of Toby’s neck with his free hand. “A heart built to protect, built for family, built for pack. You fit. Perfectly.”
Throat thick, Toby nodded. The tightness in his chest disappeared, his breath coming easier and his recent confusion erased by the truth he’d learned long ago and just forgotten in this age where everything was changing: he, Toby Lauren, wasn’t only Sienna’s brother and Hawke’s brother-in-law. He wasn’t only Heath’s and Marlee’s cousin. And he wasn’t only a Psy telepath with empathic abilities.
He, Toby Lauren, was also a SnowDancer. A boy with a wolf heart.
Copyright © 2020 by Nalini Singh