Caleb Winchester didn't care for his boss, in fact he despised him. He hadn't meant to quit that day--the words 'I quit' spilled from his mouth without thinking--but once said he had no regrets. He was a good ad executive, he could find another job.
Quinn Dorsey and her father, Alexander, had seen Caleb's work and that was the artist they needed for their dog food labels. When the agency couldn't deliver the ad campaign they ordered, and then lied about Caleb working on the project, they went looking for the man himself.
Caleb hadn't expected his customers to seek him out, but when Alexander shows up at Caleb's house with his daughter, Quinn, Caleb is floored--she's his mate and she's been marked by another alpha.
Caleb's not going to let an alpha beat him out of his mate. This lunatic has been marking females left and right, but if Caleb claims her, he risks not only his life, but the life of his mate and family as well....
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“Dag nabbit boy, what is wrong with you? Do you have sawdust in that noggin of yours?” Caleb said he wasn’t sure. “I’d be thinking you’d better be getting sure if you wanna live through this here thing. Your momma, she’s going to be having herself a kitten if I don’t miss my bet.” He looked over at the truck, or what was left of it. Caleb wanted to tell his dad that it wasn’t his fault, that he’d done nothing wrong, only he was sure that he’d still be in trouble. Caleb had been driving and he had hit the tree. “I’ll pay for the damages.” His dad said he darn tooting was. “And I’ll make sure that the tree is all right. I don’t know how I’ll make that happen, but I will. Mr. Wheedle likes this tree, and I would feel bad if it died.” The tow truck arrived about ten minutes later, and Caleb saw his mom get out of it almost before it was completely stopped. She asked him if he was all right, then she hugged him. Caleb waited for her to make sure he wasn’t bleeding profusely, then stood straighter when she glared. “Where were you going in an all-out hurry?” He told her he wasn’t speeding. She looked at the truck, which was on the dolly now, then at him. “You want to tell me why the truck, the only vehicle that we have, is all mangled up like those towels you left on the floor this morning?” “I wasn’t driving fast, but the wolf that ran out in front of me seemed to be...I think it was hurt.” He looked over at his dad, then at the ground again as he continued. “A wolf came out of nowhere. I wasn’t going to hit it, but it seemed to just jump in front of me. Like it was trying to kill itself. I swerved to miss it and lost control. I’m not blaming the wolf, because I was the one driving, but I didn’t want to hurt the wolf. But like I told Dad, I’ll pay for all the damages and work on the truck until it’s running again.” Neither of his parents said anything and Caleb looked up. They were looking at each other, and he felt his wolf run over his skin. There was something going on and he had no idea why, but he thought they believed him about the wolf. “This wolf, you ever seen it before? I mean, around the house?” He said that he’d not. “Can you tell me if you thought it was a shifter or just a regular old wolf? And I need you to be sure, so if you don’t know, then say it.” “It was bigger than a regular wolf. Of that I’m sure. But as for whether or not it’s a shifter, no, I don’t know.” His mom nodded and looked at his dad again. “May I know what’s going on?” “You know old Mr. Cartwright?” He asked if she meant his old math teacher. “Yes, that’ll be him. His mate died a few days ago. She was poorly for a while now and she just passed on. Mr. Cartwright, he was with her a good long time. Said he didn’t think he could live without her.” “So he was trying to kill himself?” Caleb’s mom said nothing, but he could see the hurt on her face. “Mom, I didn’t hurt him. I missed him by a mile. He...I like that old man. I hurt that he does.”
“I know you do, son. So do I. To lose a mate…you know how that would make me feel should I lose your father.” She hugged him again. “But I need for you to do me a favor. A big one. And before you say something, yes, it is a lie, but it’s a good lie. Don’t tell anyone what happened here today. The pack will frown on him trying this.” “All right.” He looked at the truck, then back at his parents. “I’ll still take care of this. I swear to you that I will. And I’ll make sure that I keep a better lookout for Mr. Cartwright, too.” “You do that, Caleb. You go on ahead and do that for him.” Caleb and his dad made their way to the tow truck. “You know why we don’t want you to say anything? I mean, the real reason?” “No sir.” He watched his dad help Mom into the tow truck. She didn’t need it; Caleb knew that, but he loved watching his parents together. They loved each other the best, he thought. Always thinking of the other one no matter what was going on. “Mr. Cartwright loved his mate. I know that you understand that part of it, but he had nobody but her. They don’t have themselves any children or anybody else to call their own. If he were to die like this, by suicide, the pack wouldn’t bury him in a proper way. They’d just let his body rot in the field where he crawled to and let him just be more alone. On account’a that, he’d not be next to his mate in the cemetery. Understand?” “Yes, sir. He’s a good man who’s suffered a great loss.” His dad said that was it. “I’ll go on over and see him later. I won’t mention what happened, just see if he wants to go fishing or something. Keep him company.” “You’re a good boy, Caleb. All you boys are. I’m right proud of you.” Caleb felt his face heat up with embarrassment. “Now, you go on home. I’ll work something out with the driver here. We’ll muddle through this. I swear it.” Caleb knew that his family ran right on the edge of poverty, like a lot of families around here. But unlike most of them, his family had food on the table nightly and they had power and heat. His dad worked hard every day to make sure of that. And he and his younger brothers, all of them, did everything they could to help too. This wrecking of the truck, however, was going to hurt them for some time. Instead of going home, he found himself standing in front of the Cartwright home. Mr. Cartwright was sitting on the front porch, rocking in his chair like he was going someplace. And he was crying. Caleb coughed, then cleared his throat to make sure to give the older man a little bit of time to collect himself. “What are you doing here? Don’t you have enough to do around that farm of yours that you should be here bothering me?” Caleb nodded and told him he had plenty to do, but wanted to ask him something. “Whatever it is, you don’t have any business asking me. Go on home.” “Would you like to go fishing with me? I sure could use a nice little break today. And I know you have that nice stream that goes behind your house.” Mr. Cartwright stopped rocking and asked him why he needed a break. “I had myself an accident earlier. My mom, she’s not mad at me. More glad that I’m all right, but I’d like to make it up to her by bringing home some meat for dinner.”
“And that means what to me? Are you telling things that aren’t true, boy? You do that and I’ll come after your entire family.” Caleb asked him what he meant by that. “What did you tell your parents about wrecking the truck?” Caleb looked at the ground again. He’d not said a thing about the truck, or wrecking for that matter. Mr. Cartwright would only know that if he’d been there. His parents were right in what they had thought. “I just needed to take a little break, that’s all. I thought.... Well, I guess you have more important things to do than to spend a lazy hour with a kid.” He nodded at him, his heart hurting for what the man was going through. “I’ll see you around, Mr. Cartwright.” “Now hold on there a minute. I never said I’d not go.” He stood up and Caleb tried not to notice how his face was a little scuffed up and that he was walking slower than usual. “You and me, we’ll go fishing today, but I don’t want you to make a habit of just showing up here. You need to be working on your math more than you need to be fishing with an old man.” Mr. Cartwright got them both some gear and even packed them up a nice basket of food to share. There was sweet tea to go with it, too. As they made their way down to the stream, Mr. Cartwright told him about how he had a good recipe for trout, and that he had some stored apples still from last year. The two of them caught nine trout and two catfish. As he was helping the man gather up their papers from the food and the gear, Mr. Cartwright asked him if he’d take the entire catch with him to his house. “I already told my mom what I caught. She said that there was so much, you should come join us.” He hadn’t talked to his mom, but knew that if Mr. Cartwright would agree then he would. “She even baked a nice peach cobbler today. I was smelling it this morning. I’m betting there might be some homemade ice cream too.” In the end, Caleb was able to convince Mr. Cartwright to join them, and his dad said he’d dig out the old churn, that ice cream sure did sound good. The cobbler was the only thing he’d not lied to the man about. It was, after all, what he’d asked for as his special dessert for his birthday. Caleb Kelley Winchester was seventeen today. As he walked the man back to his house, they didn’t say much. He was stuffed as he’d ever been, and eating with the man beside him had made for a great gift, one he’d not expected to get. When he was up on his porch, Caleb turned to go home when Mr. Cartwright said his name. Caleb turned back to see him standing there with a sad look on his face. “My wife is gone. I know you know that, but I hurt with it. Worse than I ever dreamed I’d be, and that was a lot.” Caleb said he was sorry. “I’m sure you know it was me that caused you that accident. And.... Well, I’m sorrier than I can tell you that you missed me.” “I’m not. Had you died out there, I would have killed a great man on my birthday. I don’t think that would have settled well for me, do you?” He shook his head. “Mr. Cartwright, if you don’t mind, I’d very much like to hang out with you sometimes. I’m sorry that you hurt so much, and there isn’t anything I can do to fix it, but I really enjoyed today. And the meat was an added bonus. You’re a good man, and I liked today.”
“I did too. It’s the first enjoyment I’ve had in a while.” Caleb nodded. “And if you want to come by here and see me, I’ll not be sorry about that either. You’re a good boy, Caleb. I hope you know that.” “I hope so. My mom will be really disappointed in me if I’m not.” He laughed with Caleb. “I’ll come by tomorrow, sir. And we’ll see about fixing that leaky roof that you were telling me about. All right?” “Yes, I’d like that. I might have a few other chores around here that you can help me with too, if you’ll allow me to pay you for them.” He said that wasn’t necessary, but he’d like the company. “I would as well. I’ll see you tomorrow then.” Caleb returned home with a lighter step. He knew that things were going to be tighter now. His dad had told him that the truck towing alone cost nearly fifty dollars, more than he knew his parents had. He was going to go see Shelton in the morning to see if he could work off a bit of that a week. Caleb was going to hold to his promise of paying for the damage. ~~~ Arnold sat on his rocker and felt better than he had in a while…since his wife had taken her last breath, as a matter of fact. He wiped at the tears that fell, thinking that he just hurt to think about her too much. “I failed you, my darling. Failed to come to you today.” He looked in the direction that the young Caleb had taken. “I should have been a little more selective of who I ran in front of, I guess. An older driver, he wouldn’t have been that quick to swerve to miss me. But I got me a friend out of this mess I put me in. A few of them, I think. And the trout was almost as good as you made me on occasion.” Rocking more, he thought of the Winchester family and how meager their table had been tonight. He wondered what they might have eaten had they not brought the fish to them. But whatever might have been on their table, he was sure that they would have enjoyed it and felt blessed by it. He rocked a little harder. “They got themselves nothing to get around in because of me. I did that to them. I heard that boy telling his daddy that he’d make it right. And I have a feeling that he will too. No matter the cost to his time.” Arnold paused in his rocking to think of what he could do to make it up to them. “That old truck out back, I think they’ll be able to use it, don’t you?” He thought of other things that he had that he no longer had any use for. He’d give it to them, to make up for what they’d lost. But he’d have to be sly about it. Arnold would not take their pride from them. And he knew for as much as they didn’t have, their pride was a thing they valued a great deal. Pulling his phone toward him, he called Shelton Bloom. When he answered his phone on the forth ring, Arnold had to laugh. He was sounding like a man who might need a break himself. “Shelton, it’s Arnold Cartwright here. I wanted to talk to you about the Winchester truck that you brought there today.” Shelton told him it wasn’t worth fixing even if they had the money. Arnold had already figured that was what he’d say. “You got anything there that they can use up? I’ll pay you for it. Not top dollar, but I’ll pay you for it. That
boy, Caleb, he’s going to be running me around, and I need him to have something to use.” “There are two old beaters in the back that run all right. But I don’t know, Mr. Cartwright. You might need something better than that. I’d surely hate to think of the two of you broken down on the side of the road. How about I let him take that car that Masterson never paid for? It’s a beauty and runs like it’s in its second childhood.” Shelton understood what he was doing, even if Arnold was a little nervous about it. “I think it’ll hold you both, and his family, should they need to be on an outing together. What do you think? It won’t cost you a thing either. Mr. Masterson said I could have it for working on it.” By the time he hung up the phone, he’d planned to have the towing paid by him and his old truck looked at to make sure it was running well. There wasn’t any reason why he couldn’t drive himself around, but to have that boy helping him might be worth it. As he settled into his chair again, Arnold spoke to his lovely wife. “I might not be joining you just yet, my love. This family, I have a feeling that they need me as much as I do them. And I have a powerful need to help them out.” He nodded into the darkness, thinking of how much more alive he felt because a boy hadn’t killed him like he’d wanted. “You just hang on tight and I’ll be there soon enough. I need to be helpful to them and in return.... Well, I think they’re going to be more helpful to me than I ever thought.” Over the next few weeks, not only did he get his leaky roof fixed by Caleb, but he also got his lawn mowed, his bushes trimmed, and he even got the steps to his barn repaired. Not only did Caleb help him, but the rest of them, including that mom of his, lent him a hand or two. He had berries in his freezer, and a few little pies he could eat when he wanted. His pants were patched up, and there wasn’t a single button missing off any of his shirts. His wife, Thelma, she’d been sick for a time, and those things had gone by the wayside. It was nice having the house all aired out and the sheets on his bed to be fresh. It was like they’d adopted him, and he was liking it. Caleb was in his yard, mowing the last of the grass, when he realized how much more he could help this boy. College. He needed this boy—hell, all them boys—to go to college. Arnold also knew that the Winchesters would be lucky to send one to college, not to mention six of them. So he set about, in his own little way, making that happen as well. And he sat down to dinner with them every night too. Sometimes there was meat, most nights not. But Arnold didn’t mind. He was with good people, and that made up for his belly being just a little upset with him for not having a hunk of meat in it. He decided to help them out with that as well. Arnold was having fun. Helping these people was fun. “I need me a person to work for me full time.” Caleb’s father asked him what he needed and that he’d find him someone. “No, I’m talking about you, Kelley. I need you to come work for me full time.” “Mr. Cartwright, you’re a very nice man. And I have to tell you, you couldn’t have helped us out any better than giving us that vehicle to get around in. Mary said it’s a real
treat for her to go shopping and not have to load it all in the back end of that old truck of ours. And don’t think I don’t know that you’ve made a few other things happen for us too. I’m appreciative of it, I swear to you. But you don’t have to go making up work for me. I’m glad to help you out.” Arnold started to speak, but Kelley cut him off before he could. “Caleb is learning a lot from you. How to be a better man, and to know that not everything he does needs to have a payment in the end in the form of money. I thank you for that too. But like I said, you’ve done about enough.” “No, I’ve not, Kelley. Without you—without that boy there—I’d be dead now. We both know it.” Kelley nodded and Arnold nodded before continuing. “That day that I hurt him—and I know that it did—but that day he gave me something I’d not had in a long while, since my wife took ill. He gave me purpose. And this job that I have for you, it’s not a made up one. I do need you. I have...I don’t have anyone else.” “You know that I’ll surely be glad to help you. You’re a good man.” Arnold thanked him. “What is it you need help with? I’m not too smart, but I’ll give it my best shot.” Arnold had no doubt whatsoever that he would too. Yes, sir, he was going to have the time of his life with this family.