Ready or Knot by Susi Hawke
The Haven Center,an omega shelter and counseling center, was about an hour’s drive outside of Chicago. Dante Hernandez Novak parked the car and stretched his arms. “I love this place. Perkins has really done an amazing job. It’s easy to forget you’re surrounded by suburbs and city out here. A shifter can run.”
The shelter and counseling center looked like someone had plopped a modern college campus in the wilderness. From the parking lot, I could see three buildings, the largest of which was directly in front of us. Carefully landscaped gardens drew my eye up the wide stairs to the welcoming entry.
“Chance should arrive—ah, there he is!”
I remembered the golden retriever shifter from one of the Novaks’ parties. He wasn’t shifted now, of course. But he loped toward us with a giant grin, his golden hair bouncing over his eyes.
“Wyatt! I’m so glad you’ve decided to come! Can I give you a hug?”
In some people, his exuberance would have seemed overwhelming. But with Chance, it was simply welcoming. Still… he was an alpha. The idea of having an alpha so close to me, touching me, made me flinch.
“I… I’d prefer not.”
“No problem. Air high-fives, then?” He made a ridiculously large swing with his arm and high-fived the air between us. Smiling a little, I did the same. “I’m so excited you finally decided to join us.”
“You’re stealing away our lobito, Chance. I hope you know how lucky you are to have him.” Dante and Chance bumped fists in greeting.
“You can’t keep all the amazing people to yourself, Dante!”
At their easy praise, I blushed. I wasn’t that amazing. I’d learned as much these last few years.
The memories I’d been fighting the last few months surged up, and I desperately shoved them back in their box where they belonged. I was having more and more trouble forgetting the past. My struggle, more than anything, had driven me to accept Chance’s invitation to The Haven Center. I just wanted to be normal again.
“What should I show you first? There are so many things! There’s a gym, and we’ve got stables. Lots of great trails for horse riding around here. Or running. You’re a wolf, yeah? You’ll have no trouble finding the safety boundary. Big chain-link fences. Not to keep anyone in, but for the safety of our residents. The cafeteria is a cafeteria, but they have an amazing dirt pudding on Wednesdays.” Chance walked toward the building, pausing while Dante grabbed my bag from the back of the car.
I made a face. “Dirt pudding? That sounds disgusting.”
Ignoring my held-out hand, Dante hoisted my bag over his shoulder. “I think you are forgetting that Wyatt didn’t grow up here, Chance. It’s chocolate pudding, with crushed chocolate cookies and a little stick of mint on the top. In Puerto Rico, we call them tiertas.”
“You put mint in yours? We use gummy worms. They’re the best,” Chance said.
“Sometimes we use worms, but the mint? You need the mint.”
“Regardless, you have to at least try it, Wyatt. But where are you from? Dante probably told me, but my brain is a sieve unless I write things down.”
“Ukraine, but only when I was a kid.” I probably never would have left if my family hadn’t been destroyed.
“Do you remember much about it? Or were you too young?”
“I remember it… the cities are far more beautiful than your concrete monstrosities.” I grinned, hiding my pang of homesickness. Was it still homesickness after years in the United States? Or was it merely pain?
“I can’t wait to hear more about it. Let’s see… we can probably bypass the main office. You sent your work in ahead of time—good. We’ll need an official signature or two by the end of the day, but why don’t we drop your bag off in your room? You’ll have two and a half roommates, the half being Hunter’s baby. Just the cutest, fattest thing. I hope that’s okay? They’ll be in your session group, too. Not the baby. He goes to daycare.”
The Haven Center had dorms, four or six to a room, but it also had townhouses. I wasn’t sure if they sorted who went where based on need or preference, but I was grateful to be in more of a home situation. Living with the Novaks had been overwhelming enough, with six brothers and their mates and children coming and going constantly. Plus all the Novak family’s men. Soldiers. Whatever you called the guys who belonged to a mafia family. Not exactly employees, but not real family, either.
My “session group” was my therapy group. I felt equal excitement and dread. I wanted to put my past behind me, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to confront it.
The Haven Center was supposed to help.
“Sorry it’s such a long walk, but we’re almost there.” Chance pointed at the edge of a building peeking out between the trees. He and Dante had filled the conversation easily. I kept wondering if I should jump in. Was my silence awkward? Were they happy I wasn’t talking?
I felt like I’d forgotten how to be a person these last few years. If I’d ever really known how.
We ambled around a bend in the road, and a dozen or so townhouses came into view. Each house faced the road, forming a large circle with a fenced playground in the center. The houses had cheerful faces, painted in bright, but not garish, colors.
“Looks like you’re at number… seven.” Chance shoved his phone in his pocket and pointed at a dusky blue building to our right.
He knocked on the door. When no one answered, he fished a key ring out of his pocket and handed it to me. “The honor is yours.”
This was my first set of keys. Ever. As a child, I hadn’t needed them. Our house had never been empty. The guards recognized me, and that was all I’d needed. And since then…
Since then I’d been a prisoner. A sex slave. I never would have been allowed keys for anything, unless it had been in jest. Maybe a set of those big plastic ones they gave babies.
God, I was glad they’d never thought of something so cruel.
“You okay, Wyatt?” Chance’s voice was soft, but I jumped anyway. His head was lowered, his big eyes concerned. I was so glad he hadn’t reached out to touch me. I probably would have shifted and ran.
Clutching the key ring tightly in my hand, I nodded. The keychain was a squishy ball with the The Haven Center logo, and there were two keys attached. “Which one is for the door?”
“The larger one. The smaller one opens your room.”
I even had a lock for my room? More privacy than I’d ever had in my life. Hands shaking slightly, I managed to unlock and open the door.
“You’ll want to keep your keys on you at all times. They’re always locked for the outside. Just an added layer of protection, but you don’t want to be stuck outside without them. If you were to get locked out, there’s a security phone in the pavilion. You’ll also put the trash there each week. I’ll show you. Your room doesn’t lock itself, though, so remember to lock it.”
The door opened into a short hallway, a folding door to my left and a regular door to my right. Chance opened them one after the other. “Closet. Toilet. And then we walk into the dining room here. To the right, kitchen, obviously. The stairs lead to the bedrooms.” He walked between the stairs and the small dining room table to peer into the living room. “Hi, Craig! Sorry to intrude. We knocked.”
I came to stand beside Chance. A lanky man with almost black hair pulled a set of headphones out of his ears, the music loud enough I could hear it. He sauntered over to us, his straight hips swaying slightly out of sync with his stride as if to call attention to them. He wore a white shirt with a neckline showing a good four inches of smooth chest. A brilliant blue gem stud glinted in one ear. The last thing I noticed was how his heavily lined eyes matched his earring.
“Another puppet learning to be a Real Boy, huh?” Craig nodded slowly at me. “Hey.”
I nodded back. His foxy scent was familiar to me. Growing up, I’d had several fox shifter playmates, and I’d met a few since then.
Chance shook his head with a smile. “You’re already real boys, Craig. Nothing to learn there. Is Hunter home?”
As if pointing with it, Craig tilted his chin up. “Studying, as usual. Unless he’s jerking off. Hopefully the latter. Kid needs to loosen up a little.”
“Well, if his door is closed, we’ll let him be.” Chance took Craig’s comment in stride. “Come on, crew. Let’s get Wyatt settled!”
Craig was already putting his headphones back in, so I wasn’t sure if he heard my quiet, “Nice to meet you,” but he nodded at my wave. So that was something.
The stairs led to a straight hallway with four doors. The one to our left was open, so Chance stuck his head in. “Hey, Hunter. Got a minute? I’d love to introduce you to Wyatt.”
A moment later, a tow-headed, chubby omega appeared in the doorway. His hair spiked in a multitude of directions, like he’d just rolled out of bed or been running his hands through it constantly. His scent was a mystery to me. My wolf-brain said prey, but what kind? I had no idea. “I only have a minute. I want to finish this module before Bast gets back.” He thrust out his hand. “Hunter. Nice to meet you.”
Even his brusque attitude was more than Craig had offered. I took his hand. I wasn’t nervous about touching other omegas. Only alphas bothered me. “Wyatt.”
I was grateful no one seemed interested in sharing last names. I hadn’t decided what to do with mine. Stanislav had practically become a curse word to me, but I didn’t have an affinity for anything else, so I was stuck with it for the time being.
“I work on school from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon, unless I have an appointment. On Tuesdays, I have class from six p.m. until nine. Even if my door is open, please don’t interrupt during those times.”
“Okay, sure. No problem.” Was I going to be required to do that much schooling as well? I had a hard time imagining Craig setting such strict schedules, so maybe that was a Hunter thing?
“Nice to meet you.” Before any of us could respond, Hunter closed the door.
“He’s a little serious, but a good heart,” Chance said.
“I see what Craig meant about him needing to loosen up,” Dante muttered.
“Dante…” Chance’s disapproving tone made me want to tuck my head. He was so bright and cheerful, I couldn’t imagine his disappointment being turned on me. “You of all people should know everyone has their own way of dealing with things.”
“Disculpe. Yo sé. Which of these is Wyatt’s?”
Chance pointed at the closed door directly across from Hunter’s. “There’s Craig’s room, and next door is yours, Wyatt. The bathroom is right across from you.”
My room had a single bed, pressed into the corner underneath a window facing out at the playground. The walls were painted a gentle off-white, and the bedding was a light blue, probably matching the house color pretty closely. The only other furniture was a nightstand with a lamp, but it was mine and more than I’d owned in a while.
I bit my lip, swallowing through the lump in my throat as Chance showed me the closet and explained that there was a warehouse full of donations I could go through to decorate my room.
Dante put his arm around my shoulders, and Chance trailed off as he realized I was struggling. “Are you okay, lobito?”
I closed my eyes and nodded. I was okay. It was all just… it was a lot.
“Do you want to get settled in?” Chance asked softly. “Take a nap? Whatever you need. We can do the tour any time.”
I cleared my throat so I could speak. “No, I want to do the tour. But maybe… maybe I could have a few minutes to unpack?”
Chance nodded understandingly. “Of course. We’ll be downstairs.”
Dante squeezed me close in a hug. “You’re doing great, guapo. And you know, you are always welcome en mi casa. I’m proud of you for taking this step forward, but I want you to know you have a home with us.”
“I know. But I think this will be good for me.”
“Claro.” Dante gave me one last smile of encouragement, then shut the door behind him.
I left my bag where Dante had set it on the floor and sat on my bed, surveying my room. My room. I jumped up and turned the lock, then tested the doorknob. It was secure.
I leaned my forehead against the door. This was my first step to figuring out who I was. Not as a Stanislav. Not as a child. Not as a slave. But as myself. Wyatt.
Whoever he happened to be.