A Hippogriff for Christmas by Zoe Chant

 

Chapter 1

“I’m suspicious.”

Agent Beau Colson of the Shifter Patrol Corp waited as his boss, Hardwicke, narrowed his eyes at him, and did his level best not to look suspicious.

After the silence in the room extended beyond the tenth second, though, it became clear to him that whatever was making Hardwicke suspicious, he was keeping it to himself.

“Anything I can do to make you… less suspicious?” Beau asked when the silence finally got to him, despite every shifter instinct he had telling him to close his mouth and keep it closed.

Hardwicke leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers.

“Usually I have to beg agents to take some leave around Christmas time,” he said finally. “They usually have to get to the point of almost burning out, and then I have to force them to take some leave, for their own good and for the good of the team. Burned-out agents make bad judgments, they miss obvious clues. They’re a liability. But I still have to talk them into taking a break every single time.”

“Not me,” Beau said cheerfully. “Especially not around Christmas time. When word went around there was leave available, I put my hand up right away.”

Shut up, for the love of God, shut up!His inner voice sounded desperate, but it was a bit late now, Beau supposed – the words were out there in the world, and there was nothing he could do to take them back.

Anyway, anyone who knew him knew he loved Christmas. He worked insanely hard the rest of the year, tracking down shifter criminals and bringing them to justice. Was it so wrong to want a week and a half off over Christmas to go see his family? Between working his cases, he barely got to catch up with them most of the time. And while he was proud of his nieces and nephews – six of them at the last count, with a couple more on the way – it did give him a small pang of regret how much bigger they were every time he saw them. It was like he was just seeing the highlights reel of their lives, and missing everything in between.

But his job wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that allowed for a lot of family time. And that was why he treasured the few weeks a year he could take off – especially over Christmas.

If that made Hardwicke think he was a slacker who couldn’t wait to shoot out the door the moment he had the chance… well, there wasn’t a lot he could do about that, Beau decided. If his sterling work record wasn’t enough to convince Hardwicke that he was a hard-working, dedicated agent, then it was a price he was willing to pay in order to hold on to his precious family time.

After all, his nieces and nephews never got on his butt about his messy desk or wonky handwriting – all they cared about was getting to swing off his upper arms and grabbing onto his legs as he walked across the lawn.

Hardwicke raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Finally, he sighed.

“So there’s really no catch? You really just want the time off to go spend time over Christmas with your family?”

“Yup,” Beau said sunnily. “That’s really all. If it’s an issue, I can work some overtime when I get back.”

Hardwicke shook his head. “That shouldn’t be necessary. I have enough people here to cover things while some of you are away.” He paused, his eyes narrowing. “I’m still a little suspicious. Things are never this easy with you people.”

“I guess I’m just an easygoing guy,” Beau said, grinning widely. It was true enough, he supposed – it was the number one thing people had always told him about himself, regardless of whether they meant it as a compliment or a complaint. It had definitely been a complaint sometimes when he’d been younger, and paired with fiery, ambitious agents who wanted to make a name for themselves as quickly as possible.

Beau just wasn’t like that, even though he, like many of his colleagues, was a mythical shifter – a half-horse, half-eagle hippogriff. Dragons, griffins, pegasi, hippogriffs – all of them were well-known for their fierce temperaments and short fuses, aside from the other powers that were unique to their shifter types.

But Beau, maybe because he’d grown up as a middle child in a large extended family, had been even-tempered all his life, even if his hippogriff did give him trouble on occasion when it got riled up.

Within him, he felt his hippogriff lift its head now, shaking it in impatience.

When will we see our family? You said we’d see them soon.

Beau swallowed, doing his best to soothe it.

It will be soon, he promised.

Beau might have regretted how little he saw his family, but his hippogriff was downright ornery about it most of the time. So when it had sensed Christmastime was almost upon them, it had barely given him a moment’s peace.

“Well, all right then,” Hardwicke said. He slid a piece of paper across his desk toward Beau – his approved leave form.

If he already approved it, why give me the third degree?Beau wondered, but for once he managed to keep his mouth shut, and didn’t blurt out the first thing that crossed his mind. He might not have had a dragon’s fire burning within him, but he did have a pretty bad habit of sticking his foot right in his mouth, and sometimes then jiggling it around a bit for good measure.

“Thanks, boss!” He grabbed the leave form before Hardwicke had the chance to interrogate him even further, giving him a quick, jaunty salute as he opened the door of his office.

Beau caught the tail end of Hardwicke’s irritated sigh as he closed the door behind him again, and couldn’t help but grin a little. Hardwicke might act like a hardass, but beneath the gruff exterior his concern for his agents was a by-word around the office.

I just wouldn’t want to ever, ever piss him off,Beau thought, a shiver running down his spine at the mere idea of it.

Making his way through the sleek, black and silver office, he glanced around, looking for someone he could share his good news with. The office was, as usual, pretty bare of actual agents, since most of them spent the majority of their time out in the field.

Aw.

Beau resisted the urge to sigh a little – he was happy, and he liked to be around other people when he was happy. Or just anytime in general.

Oh, you’re a people person,was the other thing he most often heard about himself, right after the part about how easygoing he was.

Good, it means we can leave this place and go see our family all the faster, his hippogriff said moodily, flexing its talons and shaking its head. We shouldn’t delay any further.

You’re probably right, Beau admitted. Still, part of the fun of going on a trip is saying goodbye to people, don’t you think?

No, I do not, his hippogriff replied, right as Beau heard a sudden chatter of voices and three men rounded the corner from the office kitchenette, coffee cups in hands.

Beau perked up immediately – he recognized the men at once as his friends and fellow agents, Rowan Stanton, Garrett Kolev and Declan Reed – at least until he realized they seemed to be in the middle of an argument.

“Look, all I’m saying is, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. But you’re wrong. You’re very, very wrong,” Rowan was saying in strident tones.

I’m wrong?” Garrett growled out, eyes flashing in anger. “How can you stand there and say that? On what grounds am I wrong?”

“Now, now.” Compared with Rowan and Garrett, Declan sounded at least a little more reasonable. “Think about it like this: you’re both wrong.”

“What?” Rowan and Garrett said together, both sounding as outraged as each other.

“What the hell do you mean by that?” Rowan demanded. “I’m obviously right, and I have the figures to back it up.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this.” Garrett shook his head. “You’re being serious right now?”

Swallowing, Beau made his way over to where the three of them stood, wondering what could be the cause of such a rancorous argument. Maybe he could help smooth things over.

“Hey guys,” Beau said as he approached. “What’s up? Anything I can help sort out?”

“Not unless you can convince this idiot to get his head out of his ass and admit he’s wrong,” Garrett growled.

Rowan shook his head. “Just admit it, Garrett – Wannabe is the best Spice Girls single. I know it, you know it, the whole world knows it. You just think you sound cooler if you pretend to like something else.”

Beau blinked. The Spice Girls…?

“That’s not true at all,” Declan broke in. “Wannabe might have been their first hit, but Spice Up Your Life is obviously the better song.”

“You are both so full of shit, I can’t believe it!” Garrett slapped his hand – the one not holding a cup of coffee – over his eyes. “Does no one appreciate a good ballad anymore? Viva Forever is the best song they ever did!”

As the argument devolved into dark looks and angry snarls, Beau could only shake his head.

“So, you guys have been spending… a lot of time in the office?”

“It’s these end of year reports,” Rowan moaned. “I keep thinking they’re done, and then I find something else that needs doing! At this rate I’ll never get home to see Emilia and Laura.”

Beau could tell Rowan’s anguish was real. Ever since he’d found his mate Emilia and their first child Laura had been born a little under a year ago, he’d barely been able to talk about anything else. His desk was littered with photos of Emilia wrapping Laura in fluffy blankets, Emilia and Laura in their garden, Emilia and Laura with the approximately twenty thousand animals Emilia cared for in her animal shelter, Emilia and Laura doing this, Emilia and Laura doing that…

To be honest, it was kind of cute. Beau had never imagined Rowan would be the type: he’d always seemed 100% dedicated to the job. But since Laura had been born, he’d seemed not to even mind being assigned to desk duty more than usual, so he’d always be around to help Emilia with the baby if she needed it.

You know I love field work, but if it takes me away from my girls, then it’s not worth it,Rowan had explained.

“It’s Declan’s fault for even having a ’90s pop playlist on his iPod in the first place,” Garrett said. “And then playing it on repeat four hundred times in a row.”

“Hey, I asked if you minded if I put some music on,” Declan shot back. “I didn’t realize you had such strong – and incorrect – opinions about the Spice Girls.”

“All right, all right,” Beau said peaceably when it looked like the argument was about to start up again. “How about we all just agree to disagree. Especially since everyone knows their best song is Stop, which is, coincidentally, what you guys should do with this argument.”

It took a second, but then all three men burst out laughing, the tension in the air evaporating in an instant.

“I guess I’m just going a bit stir crazy at the moment,” Garrett said, shaking his head. “My Christmas leave starts tomorrow, but it still feels like it’s an eternity away.”

Yes, I know how he feels, Beau’s hippogriff spoke up.

We’re leaving in just a minute! Beau rebuked it, ignoring the way it snorted at him, stomping the hooves on its back legs.

Garrett had always had a reputation around the office as a growly loner with no time for anything but the job, but since he’d met his mate last year, Beau had seen a whole other side of him – a surprisingly friendly man who doted on his mate Georgia’s nine-year-old son, Logan. He had settled into fatherhood easily, and it was clear to Beau that Garrett was happier than he’d ever been since he’d known him.

Maybe one day I’ll know that kind of happiness too, Beau thought wistfully – before quickly pushing the thought aside. You couldn’t predict when you’d meet your mate, if you ever met them at all. You just had to hope you were one of the lucky ones who did.

In the instant that followed he caught Declan’s eye, and saw he was thinking the exact same thing. He still hadn’t found his mate either – but in Declan’s case there was the added complication that he was a unicorn, one of a dying breed, and who was restricted by his clan from mating with anyone other than another unicorn – unless he could find his one true mate before he turned thirty.

Thank goodness I don’t have those kinds of time pressures, Beau thought, relief warring with sympathy for the predicament Declan was in.

“Well, I was just swinging by to tell you guys my Christmas leave’s been approved, so I’m off. I’ll send you some photos from home.”

“Lucky bastard,” Rowan muttered. “What’ve you done lately to get into Hardwicke’s good graces?”

“Just been my charming self, I guess,” Beau said with a light laugh, running his fingers through his hair. “Being so popular and lovable has to have some perks, right?”

“Oh my God, get out of here before I puke,” Garrett said, shaking his head. “This is too disgusting.”

“Envy is the only truly disgusting thing around here,” Beau shot back. “But seriously, guys, only a day to go – then you’ll be free too.”

As Rowan and Garrett sighed and nodded, conceding he was right, Beau couldn’t help but notice that Declan hid his expression behind his coffee cup, raising it to take a sip of the dark liquid.

Whoops.

He supposed talking about mates must have reminded Declan of his own lack of one – and the fact that he probably wouldn’t be heading home to see his family. Unicorns were notoriously insular, even by shifter standards. Beau knew that Declan having chosen to live amongst humans was a bone of contention between them.

“Anyway,” Beau said, “I better get going. I’m driving out there, since unlike some people, I actually take notice of the weather reports. So if they tell me there’s a storm warning, I don’t fly.”

“Hey, I’d say that worked out pretty well for me in the end,” Rowan retorted, though his voice was mild.

They all knew exactly what Beau and Rowan were talking about, if only because it had become something of an office legend: three years ago, Rowan, being the impulsive hot-head he was, had decided to try to out-fly a storm on his way to investigate a case, failed – and as a result had crashed straight through an unsuspecting shed roof.

It’d been lucky for Rowan that the shed had belonged to a beautiful woman – and that the beautiful woman had turned out to be his fated mate.

“Take care, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Rowan said. “Unless I can tempt you with finishing these reports…?”

“Not a chance,” Beau said, laughing as he turned away, waving as the three of them headed dejectedly back to their desks.

As sorry as he felt for them, Beau couldn’t bring himself to be too downhearted. He had trouble smothering his smile until the elevator doors had safely closed behind him – at which point he pulled out his phone.

Hey. Just got out of work. Be there tomorrow. Drive overnight if I have to he texted to the family group chat, something his older sister Darla had thought up to help their close-knit family keep in touch with each other.

Before the elevator doors had opened onto the underground parking lot, he’d already been bombarded with responses.

can’t wait 2 c u. drive safe from his Aunt Betty.

Yaaaaaaaay! from his younger sister Courtney.

lmk what you want for lunch and it’ll be in the warmerfrom his father, who was king of the kitchen at this time of year.

Beau finally let his smile run free across his face as he texted back his answers while he walked to his car. There was no substitute for this – for the happiness and warmth of family.

He absolutely loved Christmas.