Dean Wagner slapped his alarm clock when it blared loudly. It silenced immediately, but he didn’t get up. He was so tired after tossing and turning all night and knew it was a sign that today would be more difficult than usual. He groaned softly and sat up. Beau snuffled in his sleep, starting to wake up. The Golden Retriever slept sprawled across the empty side of the bed. He liked to cuddle at night and Dean appreciated it. He had never had someone or something to hold while he slept. Lucy, Dean’s long-haired calico, slept at the end of the bed. She didn’t even open her eyes, convinced it was too early to get out of be
He yawned and rubbed his eyes, looking around. He definitely agreed with Lucy, but he had to get up and move around. The large master bedroom was completely dark and he was tempted to lay back down. Damn, he was so tired. He threw the covers off, grumbling. Spring in Maine was a cold, wet, and muddy time, and he could feel it all in his bum leg.
After a hot shower, his leg felt a bit better and he was fully awake. He headed to the nursery first. Min was almost a year old, and Dean knew he needed to start planning a birthday party soon. “Hey baby boy,” Dean whispered. Min was already sitting up and rubbing his eyes. He gripped his brown stuffed rabbit tight and smiled a goofy little smile when he saw Dean.
“Papa,” he said, holding his arms and rabbit up. Dean smiled as warmth filled him.
He picked Min up and changed his diaper quickly then dressed him for the day in loose grey pants and a blue and grey shirt covered in bunnies. “Your big brother, Caden, likes to cover you in bunnies, doesn’t he?”
“Papa,” Min said and gave Dean a wet kiss on his scarred cheek.
“Come on, little charmer,” Dean said, picking Min up. He left the nursery and headed for Jake’s room next door. The cabin was the nicest home Dean had ever had and he loved it. After his son-in-law finished adding the huge master bedroom and renovating the attic, the house had five bedrooms and three bathrooms. Each of his boys had a bedroom of his own for the first time in their lives.
He knocked on Jake’s door, then cracked it open. Jake was thirteen now and insisted on privacy. “Jakey,” Dean said softly. “Are you up?”
“Mm-hmm,” Jake mumbled from his bed. Dean poked his head in and saw movement. Lola raised her head from where she slept at the foot of the bed. The Beagle yawned and lay her head back down.
“You have thirty minutes to get dressed,” Dean said. “Grab a shower first.”
Jake pushed his covers back and yawned. His reddish brown hair was a mess atop his head and his blue eyes were sleepy. “Waffles?”
Dean smiled. “If you’re ready in thirty minutes, you’ll get waffles. If not, you can eat a banana and yogurt on the way to school.” He shut the door and went to Jules’ room.
Julian was already up, reading a book his best friend, Harry, had lent him. Jules looked just like his older brother, Jackson. His hair was brown, his eyes green, and freckles covered him head to toe. Two fat cats curled up with him, one on each side. The grey and white tabby cat rubbed her head on Jules’ knee while the white Persian stared at Dean, silently berating him for interrupting his Jules time.
“Grab a shower in my bathroom, sweetie, and get dressed. Waffles will be ready in thirty minutes,” Dean said and stuck his tongue out at Pounce. The Persian just glared back.
“Yummy,” Jules said, jumping up. The tabby, Betty, meowed startled by the movement, but made her way to Dean, weaving around his legs. Dean grabbed Jules as the boy sped out the door and kissed the top of his head. “Eww, Papa,” Jules said, then grinned. “Love you.” He ran toward Dean’s room, and Dean made his way upstairs to Jimmy’s attic room.
Jimmy was already up too, finishing something on his drawing board. Caden and his brother had fixed the attic up to be an artist’s haven with plenty of windows and open space. Jimmy had covered the walls in framed copies of his favorite pieces, from renaissance artists to comic book covers.
“I can’t believe you’re already up,” Dean said, peeking over Jimmy’s shoulder. It looked like he was finishing a panel for a new comic book.
“Summer and I want to have the new comic out by the end of the week,” Jimmy said, focused on his drawing. James looked just like his papa and his oldest brother, Yeo. Their features showed off their Korean heritage, but the electric blue streaks in Jimmy’s black hair were all him.
“Well, you have thirty minutes to get dressed and down to the kitchen if you want waffles for breakfast,” Dean said. “Don’t forget to shower.”
“Okay,” Jimmy said, distracted.
“Immy,” Min said, reaching out a hand to grab his brother’s hair. Jimmy looked away from his drawing and turned around, prying the baby’s hand from his hair.
“Mini-boo,” Jimmy said, grabbing the baby and giving him kisses. “My sweet Mini-boo.” He handed Min back to Dean. “I’ll get ready now, Papa.”
Dean tickled Min’s belly and went back downstairs. “Good boy. That’s the way to get them moving.” He headed to the kitchen, completely unsurprised that there was a large, African-American man already working on breakfast. Waffles were Ray’s specialty and his boys loved them. Dean loved them too.
“Hey,” Dean said, yawning. He set Min in his purple hippo baby walker, laughing when the little boy took off. He would definitely be walking soon. He turned back to Ray and watched the man move around the kitchen.
“Did you have nightmares again last night?” Ray plugged in the waffle maker and filled it up with batter.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “I only woke up once, though, so I got plenty of sleep.” He didn’t regret telling Ray about the dreams. Ray was his friend, and Dean trusted him.
“Yeah,” Dean repeated, sighing. “Same thing.” Almost every night, Dean had the same dream. He was back at the farm in Tennessee and his dead husband, Simon, was still alive. Their last fight had been brutal. Simon had held him down and used a broken bottle to open up the scars on Dean’s face. Luckily Jackson had taken the kids outside when the alpha first started yelling.
“I know a great therapist, Dean. She could really help you deal with the trauma you lived through.”
“I’ll think about it,” Dean said. It’s what he always said, and he really did think about it. He just always dismissed the idea. He didn’t want to talk about Simon. He didn’t even want to think about the asshole. Not many people had ever believed Dean when he asked for help and those that had didn’t care what Simon did. He was the alpha, so he could do what he wanted. He noticed a bright red coat hanging by the door where his old, ratty rain coat used to be. “What’s that?”
“You needed a new raincoat, Dean,” Ray said. “This one will keep you dry.”
Dean picked it up and put it on over his sweater. “It fits perfectly!” He took it off and held it up, looking at the brand. “Outdoor Research? It wasn’t expensive, was it?”
“No. Not at all,” Ray said, voice going high. He was lying. Dean always knew when the man fibbed. Not that he did it often or over anything important. “You needed it, Dean, and I happened to find it. No big deal.”
“You buy us too much,” Dean said. After almost a year of daily gifts, he had accepted that Ray was his guardian angel.
“Jimmy needed those new pencils,” Ray protested.
“Did Jules really need another hamster? Were two not enough?”
“He loves McCoy,” Ray said. “Spock and Kirk needed a friend. They told me so.”
“Hearing voices, are you?” Dean watched Min move his walker right behind Ray. “You have a Min behind you.”
Ray looked over his shoulder. “Mini-boo,” he cooed. “How’s my baby boy?”
“Dada,” he said, waving at Ray.
Ray’s grin lit up the room. “Damn, but I love it when he calls me that.”
“I’m sorry,” Dean said, wincing. “He isn’t old enough to understand and I try all the time to get him to call you Ray.” It was even worse when they were all in public. More than once, a young woman had abruptly stopped flirting with Ray when she heard Min call him Dada. Every time, Ray just laughed and kissed the baby’s chubby little cheeks.
“I like it,” Ray said, shrugging. “Anyway, I’m making bacon and eggs too. It’s cold out there and you’ll need a warm meal in your belly.”
“Thank you, Ray,” Dean said, hugging the man around his waist. He set his head against the beta’s back. “You make every day so much easier.” Dean meant it too. Ray did a lot for them, but simply being there with his wide grin and cheerful personality made Dean’s life so much better. He would make some lucky woman a wonderful husband one day.
“I’m going to take care of the beasts, then I’ll be back to eat. The boys should be down in about twenty minutes.” He forced himself to let Ray go and put on his new coat. “It’s so warm!”
“Good,” Ray said, pleased. “Don’t forget gloves.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dean said, pulling his gloves on. He smiled at Ray one more time and headed outdoors. It was still dark outside and nasty. Snow slowly melted, making it wet and cold. He followed the gravel path to the big red barn, smiling like a loon. Damn, but he loved the outdoors, even when it was miserable. There was something about this place that soothed him. It was home.
He opened the door and Jules’ miniature pig, Petunia, came running to him along with her brother, Dandy, and her sister, Daisy. The three pigs had free reign of the barn and little nests in one of the stalls. Dean had installed a doggy door for them go outside when they wanted, but the spoiled brats preferred the warm barn. “Hi, cuties,” Dean said and took a minute to feed them. If they weren’t eating, they’d be right under his feet.
“Moo!” A loud, impatient sound came from the back of the barn.
“Moo, to you too, Miss Swiss,” he said, grinning.
The Swiss dairy cow poked her head over her stall door. “Moo!”
“I’m coming,” he said, opening her stall door. “Are you ready to be milked, girl?” Miss Swiss’ sister poked her head over the wall separating them. She was the quiet, sweet one. “I’ll be with you shortly, Brownie.”
He milked the two cows and brought the milk to the little kitchen Gramps had insisted be added on when the barn was built. He poured the milk into glass bottles and set them in the sink. Then grabbed his frozen water bottles from the freezer. He set them around the bottles and ran cold water into the sink. His Swiss girls produced a lot of milk, but his boys went through it fast.
While the milk cooled, he fed and checked on the horses and Donkey, then checked for eggs from the chicken coop. He let all the animals out into the pasture and put the cooled bottles of milk in the refrigerator, adding them to the sixteen bottles already there. He grabbed a dozen eggs and two bottles of milk, then headed for the house, saying goodbye to the piggies when he went. He whistled as he limped along the path, pausing to appreciate the beautiful cabin, warm light pouring from the windows.
Beau, Lola, and the cats were fed by the time he got back. The boys were finishing breakfast and he checked the time. “Bus will be here in five minutes guys. Jules, don’t forget your science project.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jules said, stuffing the last bite of bacon in his mouth. He ran to the living room and came back with his lemon powered battery. “Almost forgot.” Ray handed him his lunch box and Jules ran out the door with Jake and Jimmy, heading down the driveway.
“Jimmy really needs a car,” Ray said. “He could drive the boys to school every morning then.”
“He just got his license,” Dean said. It had taken his son longer than usual to pass his driving test. He… wasn’t the best driver. “I don’t know if I trust him to get them all there alive.”
“He’s not that bad,” Ray said with a laugh. “Plus, he won’t get any better if he doesn’t actually drive.”
“I’ll think about it,” Dean said. His job with Marco paid well and provided them with insurance, and his side jobs with Noah and Ernie gave him a chance to build up his savings. A car was a big expense, though, and Jimmy was saving all his money from his comics for college. He planned on majoring in art and specializing in drawing and illustration.
“Shawn bought a beat up Nissan a few weeks ago and has been working on fixing it up,” Ray said. “It’s not looking so bad now. Just saying.” He sat at the table with his own plate of breakfast. Dean piled a plate high with food and sat across from Ray.
Dean stared at his plate, hiding his blush. Life was so damn good when Ray was here. He wished this was real. He wished Ray was his husband and the kids were his. He wished it never had to end.
“Thanks for helping, Dean,” Gramps said. The older man stretched his arms above his head. “Spring always means the fields need tilled and the earlier the better.”
“Driving a tractor is a lot easier than chasing cattle around all day,” Dean said with a laugh. He had finished early with Marco’s cattle today and decided to pitch in with the rest of the Wilsons to get the gardens and fields plowed and ready to be planted.
“That’s the truth,” Marco said, jumping down from his own tractor. “If I have to pull another calf out of the mud, I’m going to scream.”
“You love it,” Dean said, smirking. His boss just smiled and shrugged.
“Marco,” Grammy called. “Come help me with the drinks. We need to warm these folks up.”
“Coming, Mama,” he said, jogging to the truck where Grammy was unloading insulated cups of coffee.
“How’s Ray doing today?” Gramps bumped his shoulder against Dean’s as they walked slowly toward the truck. Dean’s leg was starting to hurt, but it always did toward the end of the day.
“He’s good. Watching Min and working from the house. He got to start a new investigation today, so he was all giddy,” Dean said. The beta liked puzzles and had a mind like a steel trap.
“He’s over at your house every day,” Gramps said.
“He’s a good friend,” Dean said, smiling. Ray really was his best friend. Well, Ray and Susan were his best friends. He could never forget the amazing woman who cared so much about him.
“I’ve seen the way he looks at you, Dean,” Gramps said. “He wants to be more than a friend. Has for a long time.”
Dean stopped walking, frozen, the vision of Ray and him together filling his head. He blinked a few times then starting laughing uncontrollably. Oh god, that was hilarious. Like Ray would want a forty-six-year-old man with more aches and pains than an eighty-year-old. Plus, did Gramps not see the women throwing themselves at Ray every time he went to town? Ray was gorgeous, sweet, and in high demand. “Seriously, Gramps,” Dean wheezed. “That’s impossible.” It would be wonderful, but Dean didn’t stand even a speck of a chance with Ray.
“Why would it be impossible?” Gramps huffed and stood with his arms crossed.
“To start, Ray is twelve years younger than me,” Dean said, chuckling. “Plus, have you seen me?” He waved to his face. A lot of the scars were faded, but they were still there. The emotional scars were far worse and what man would want to deal with them on top of the physical ones?
“Oh, I’ve seen you, Dean Wagner,” Gramps said, cupping Dean’s face in his hands. “You are a beautiful man, both inside and out.” Dean’s eyes met Gramps’ and he felt them water. The damn man saw straight into him.
“Well, now, what’s going on here?” Grammy said, brow raised and hand on her hip. She winked as she handed Dean a cup of coffee.
“Telling this idiot how beautiful he is,” Gramps said, shrugging.
“That he is,” Grammy said, kissing her husband on the cheek. “Beautiful I mean, not an idiot.” She gave Dean a stern look. “You deserve happiness, Dean. I know you love it here, but there’s an empty wanting in you and it breaks my heart. You are a beautiful soul and there are plenty here in Hobson Hills who see it. You just have to see it too.”
“I don’t know,” Dean said quietly. “I do… I do feel it. The kids and our home make me happy, but I know there’s something missing. I’ve just never gotten to want things of my own before.”
“Think about what you want, Dean. Think long and hard on it,” Grammy said. “When you’re certain, I’m telling you now, it’s yours for the taking.”