Finn unloaded the last of the maple-wood bowls from his truck, giving his shopping cart a pat. “That’s it,” he said. “Let’s get going—we’re late!”
The wagons squeaked their wheels, jostling around Finn in the busy parking lot. Crumpet herded them across the packed dirt, barking at Cart Three to stay in line.
Finn made sure his legs were bundled up properly, then leaned on the handrail of Cart One, limping his way through the crowded lot.
He hadn’t meant to be late. But with the heavy clouds and oncoming storm, he’d been distracted with putting his tools and lumber away. He couldn’t afford for the wood to dampen and warp.
Once a week, the wolves of the Topanga pack came together for a farmer’s market—young and old, bringing home-grown produce and various crafts. By 11 AM, the market was in full swing.
Nestled in a shady dell at the mouth of the Topanga Canyon, the market was open to the public—wolves, whisperers, and even non-magic folk. The market was what helped sustain the pack and brought them together, when the younger pups had found jobs in the city, when they weren’t always home with the rest of their families.
The murmur of voices rose through the air, and the scents—the loam of wolves, the sharpness of non-magic folk, the occasional brine of a sea-dweller—threatened to bowl Finn over.
He squeezed through the crowd with his five mismatched carts, Crumpet bringing up the rear with his persistent yapping. Eventually, they arrived at Finn’s table—it was empty, waiting for him like it always did.
“Thought ya weren’t comin’,” Old Bill rumbled, shuffling over from his own booth. “Four hours late, Finny-boy!”
“Bill!” Finn brightened when Bill reached into Cart One with his gnarled hands, helping lay out the carved pens and salad bowls. “I was caught up with... with everything.”
“Youngins like ya, don’t gotta worry.” Stooped and wizened, Bill grinned, missing some teeth. “Catch yourself a break!”
“I’m not young anymore, Old Bill.”
At forty-three, Finn was one of the few Topanga pack omegas left on the shelf. It was fine. He wasn’t fit to be bonded anymore, not since... well. Not since the limping began.
Finn arranged the largest of his wares on the ground behind him—the coat rack, the umbrella stand. With Old Bill’s help, he hefted a solid oak dresser out of Cart Four. They were both panting when the dresser’s legs thumped onto the dirt.
“Someday, ya gotta stop makin’ them heavy things,” Bill wheezed. “So ya ain’t needin’ two people ta lift one o’ these.”
Finn chuckled. “Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t.”
But it had been such a fun project, too, whittling the knobs for that dresser, notching exquisite trimmings into marbled oak. Finn loved the big projects best—they were almost like children, something for him to linger on and nurture, things of beauty emerging from raw lumber.
“At least, wait for one o’ the pups ta come over,” Bill said, nodding at the younger alphas in the other booths. “Mercy knows they’ll scamper ta help.”
“It’s too much trouble,” Finn said, a flush rising through his cheeks. He didn’t like attracting attention to himself. Nothing to see in someone older like him, with a bum leg and scars on his body. Perhaps there had been an alpha, once, a long time ago.
Finn shoved that thought away. Dante was... not someone who should return.
And yet his heart ached.
He ushered his carts behind the display table so the market-goers could examine the cutting boards and serving trays. Then, he collapsed onto his seat, kneading his fingers into the stiff scar tissue in his thigh. It hurt on the colder days, when his muscles tightened and pulled.
The carts bumped up behind him, nudging into his back. Crumpet yapped. Knee-high and scrawny, there wasn’t much the terrier could do about the carts, when they had minds of their own, turned sentient by the magic in their steel.
“Those carts givin’ ya trouble?” Old Bill asked, nodding at them.
Finn smiled. “They’ve been great. You don’t have to worry about me, Bill.”
It wasn’t quite as lonely in the forest with the carts around. Finn’s medley of carts helped in different ways—the shopping carts lent him support as he walked, and the low wagons helped move lumber through the forest and his workshop.
Three days a week, Finn’s students would attend class in his workshop, practicing on the lathes and band saws, sanding and carving and polishing. The rest of the time, Finn kept to himself, working on his own projects for sale.
Every Saturday, Finn visited the farmer’s market, telling his mom and Old Bill he was fine, so no one would worry about him. Bad enough that he never showed his face on Moon Night.
He watched as Old Bill chatted up the omegas in the crowd, selling a couple jars of fruit preserve here and there, and sometimes an entire bucket of honey.
A four-year-old and his omega mother stopped by Finn’s booth. Little Thom’s eyes caught on the lacquered children’s drums. They looked like scarlet lollipops, with the palm-sized drums perched on thin sticks, beads dangling from two strings.
“How are you doing, Thom?” Finn asked, cheering up. Thom had been sick last week, but his cheeks were rosy now, his eyes bright and curious.
Thom smiled shyly, sucking on his thumb.
“He’s doing better today,” Daisy said with a grin. She was omega, from her sage scent, and the slenderness of her body. “Thom sure was miserable during that cold!”
“I can imagine,” Finn said. “Are you stocking up for the storm?”
“Looks like a bad one.” Daisy glanced up at the looming clouds, wincing. “Here’s hoping it won’t wash the roads out.”
“You’d best stock up on food,” Finn said.
“Definitely.” Daisy squeezed Thom’s shoulder. “Want a drum, Thom?”
Thom looked hesitantly at the drums, then at Finn.
So Finn picked up a drum, holding its stick between his palms. Then he rubbed his palms together. The drum spun on the stick, back and forth, the beads on the strings hammering loud and cheerful on the drum’s surface.
Children in the crowd looked over. Thom laughed, reaching for the drum.
Daisy handed Finn a bill from her wallet, watching her son. “Anything for that smile. You make the most beautiful things, Finn.”
“I want them to last years,” Finn said.
“Don’t we all?” Daisy grinned, ushering Thom away. “See you around. We’ll have to get back to Mike—he’s waiting. Let’s go find your dad, Thom.”
Finn watched as Thom and Daisy wandered off, his chest heavy with longing.
What would it be like to cradle his own child? If he had an alpha to return home to, and a pup? Dante had never wanted pups—he had been barely a child, himself. Not that Finn would return to him.
He rubbed his belly, just over where the ruddy scars were.
“Lil’ Thom’s a cute one,” Bill said, nodding at the boy. His rheumy eyes lingered knowingly on Finn, though.
I’m that obvious, huh? Finn sighed. “It would be nice,” he said, “to have one of my own.”
“It’s not too late,” Bill said.
“I wouldn’t want to ask that of an alpha.” Finn grimaced. “I’m too much to live with.”
When Bill raised an eyebrow, Finn lifted his sweater, just enough to reveal the angry, jagged scars over his belly. Bill sucked in a sharp breath. Finn’s face burned.
Everyone knew that Finn had disappeared five years ago. Not everyone had seen how badly he’d been injured.
“I’m sorry,” Bill rumbled, reaching over to squeeze Finn’s knee. “Ain’t the end of the world, though.”
Finn smiled wanly. There was nothing he could do about his leg. He’d barely tolerated the sight of it himself—he wasn’t about to put an alpha through looking at it.
As the day wore on and the clouds grew darker, Finn fidgeted. He still had a load of freshly-milled lumber to put away. The overcast sky had thrown the market into faint shadow. More than once, the shoppers peered up at the clouds, frowns on their faces.
“Bee in ya bonnet?” Old Bill asked, chewing on a straw of honey. “Looks like a damn old storm comin’ in.”
Finn winced. “I need some help around the cabin, I think.”
Bill nodded at the young alphas on the other side of the market, tossing sacks of potatoes from a truck. Finn hesitated. “I’ll just put up a notice for help,” he said. “At worse, my students will volunteer.”
But the students wouldn’t visit for three days yet, and the clouds looked like they might burst today.
Toward late afternoon, Finn flipped over the price tag for the sold-out drums, scribbling a note.
Help needed: A pair of strong arms to move some timber.
Beneath it, he included his address.
When there was a lull in the crowd, Finn hobbled past booths with ripe tomatoes and colorful dahlias, to the notice board at the corner of the market.
A group of women was crowded there—his mom, and two other pack wolves. Finn relaxed. No need to make small talk with strangers.
“I can’t believe they released Dante of the Weregrits,” Aunt May said, her brow furrowed. “That murderer!”
Finn froze in his tracks, his blood turning hot and cold. The notice for help crumpled in his hand. Dante? Released? When?
His thoughts reeled. Dante had killed other people elsewhere. Everyone in the pack had thought Dante had killed Finn, except Finn had returned six months after the accident, his wounds badly-healed. By then, nothing he said could’ve changed their minds about Dante.
Besides, Dante had left. There wasn’t any point trying to fight for an alpha who wasn’t there—worse still when Dante belonged to the Weregrit pack.
Mom must’ve smelled him, because she turned. “Finn!”
She broke into a smile, her warm eyes crinkling. She was short, plump, nothing like Finn. Where her hair was white and curly, Finn’s was auburn, wispy. Where her limbs were all soft curves, Finn was thin, bony, weak. He’d been born the runt of the litter—he’d always been weak.
Mom pulled Finn into a hug, sniffing at him. “I didn’t see you at your booth earlier. Bill was asking about you.”
Finn cringed. “Sorry. I was distracted.”
Mom clucked her tongue. “You don’t take proper care of yourself, child.”
“I’m not a child.”
“You’ll always be a child to me.” Mom smiled, brushing Finn’s hair away from his face. “Your heat’s coming soon, isn’t it? Cover up that leg if you’re looking for an alpha.”
Aunt Pat and Aunt May glanced over, curious. Finn’s cheeks heated. Didn’t need to remind them of his leg, or his lack of an alpha.
Didn’t need anyone to know he’d be in heat soon, either.
He could already feel the start of it, the rise in his body temperature, the rush of blood in his veins. The slow, building heat in his belly, that would soon blossom into an insatiable hunger.
Merciful gods, but Finn was tired of spending his heats alone, locked up at home with nothing but his fingers for company. It had been good with Dante, Dante’s strong hands on him, Dante’s hot breath in his ear. Even if Dante had been eighteen years Finn’s junior.
He glanced up, and between his aunts, he saw a newspaper clipping on the notice board, a black-and-white picture of Dante, with his full lips, his strong jaw, his narrowed eyes. He looked angry in that picture. Finn’s stomach flipped. The warmth in his body bloomed further.
He’s a criminal, Finn thought. I shouldn’t still want him.
Mom followed his gaze, pursing her lips. “Did you hear about Dante of the Weregrits?”
“I didn’t,” Finn croaked. The scar on his leg prickled. “What happened?”
“He was released from the San Bernardino prison yesterday,” Mom said. “His charges were cleared.”
“For mercy’s sake, he murdered ten people,” Aunt May snapped. “And this bull about being manipulated—I can’t believe the judges bought it.”
“I hope he doesn’t return,” Mom said quietly, shivering. “He may kill us all.”
It had been five years since Finn saw Dante. Back then, Dante had been violent—never toward Finn, but he couldn’t control his wolf. To think about ripped throats and puddles of his pack’s blood... Finn swallowed.
“When you go home tonight, lock all your doors,” Mom whispered. “If you see him, call Gabe and Ken. They’ll send him away.”
“O-okay,” Finn said, his palms sweating. He lived deep in the woods—there was no way Dante would visit. Hell, Dante didn’t even know Finn was still alive.
The last time Finn had seen Dante... Finn had fallen into the ocean, the rush of saltwater drowning out Dante’s voice.
Mom squeezed Finn’s arm, her eyes solemn. “Be safe, child,” she whispered, kissing him on the cheek. “I have to close up shop, but I’ll see you next Market Day, okay?”
He nodded numbly, the words on the news clipping swimming in his vision. Slowly, Finn pinned his cardstock on the other side of the notice board, trying not to look at Dante’s picture again.
He gave in. Saw bits and pieces of newsprint.
... gruesome murder of three humans and two elves... the Octogod conspiracy... thirteen wolves charged... The convict provided information on his accomplices... the blood of three species on his hands.
Finn looked away. Imagined Dante feral, leaping onto him, tearing his throat out. Maybe Dante was better locked up in prison instead.
Except Finn had also seen Dante with his eyes warm, with that lopsided smile on his face, his nose damp as he sniffed up Finn’s throat. He’d taught Dante patience, taught the boy to slow his footsteps, listen to the voices of the forest.
Finn turned away from the notice board, his heart heavy.
Once upon a time, Finn kind of had an alpha. That had been his student, a boy he’d taken in. Dante had been prowling along the edges of Finn’s property, sniffing around. Back then, he’d been wolf, and unable to speak. Finn had brought him to the workshop, taught him to carve lumber into bowls and candlesticks.
Dante had been sixteen, back then. He’d stayed for four years, until he was twenty, young and strapping, his eyes raking over Finn. Finn had always sent Dante away during his heats, knowing the self-control he had would vanish during that week.
It was for the best that Dante had never seen Finn in heat... even if Finn had succumbed after.
He’d taken Dante into his bed. That was a secret Finn would carry to his grave, the nights of tangling with that young alpha, Dante’s lips on his skin.
That had been a long time ago. Dante probably had an omega now. At least, someone he could return to before he’d been jailed.
Finn trudged back to his booth, staring blankly at the wad of cash Old Bill shoved at him.
“Sold ya dresser,” Bill said, his eyes crinkled. “Here’s ya earnins’.”
Finn glanced at the spot the dresser had sat on, four divots in the dirt from its feet. He didn’t even count the money from Bill, just shoved it into his pocket.
Bill’s smile faded. “What’s the matter?”
Finn shrugged. “I don’t know. Moods, I guess.”
As a beta, Old Bill never understood any of the alphas’ posturing, or the omegas’ heats. He just was, and sometimes, Finn wished he was as unaffected as Bill was.
If he were beta, maybe he wouldn’t have made that mistake with Dante.
Maybe he wouldn’t have fallen in love.