THE familiar sound of a sharp axe splitting a log was satisfying. The raised eyebrow from his friend and family member Sean was answered by a tiny shake of Mikael’s head. There was no need to split the pieces further. Sean tossed both pieces of wood, now split into halves that would fit any of their numerous fireplaces, to the pile in the corner of the wood shed. Mikael handed the axe to Sean, barely able to suppress a groan.
“Tired already?” Sean grinned as the older man wiped his brow with his sleeve.
“Nah, just want to save my shoulder. I don’t get what’s wrong with it.” Mikael frowned.
“Might want to have Zoya take a look again.” Sean swung the axe in a perfect arc, and the thunk of the blade penetrating the wood and connecting with the chopping block made Mikael smile slightly. It was all about the little things.
“Maybe. We’ll see tonight if it bothers me more during the day.” He shrugged, and then promptly winced when the pinching pain flashed through his shoulder.
Sean’s wife, Zoya, was their resident masseuse. She had some training, and she knew acupuncture as well, which made her the go-to person on the farm when someone had this sort of pain.
“You know, maybe we should—”
Mikael’s words were cut short by a loud banging noise, a frantic neigh or two, and the sound of hooves.
“Shit!” Sean swung the axe again to make it stick on the chopping block, then ran after Mikael to the farmyard.
“What the fuck?” Mikael cursed, watching as all three of their horses vanished toward the forest. The wrong side of the forest, because they were running toward the Russian border instead of away from it. If the horses would manage to lose the people chasing them, they might get to the border and they would be impossible to retrieve without the help of the border guard.
“You grab the lead ropes and the bucket. I’ll run after them,” Sean said quickly and began to strip off his jeans and flannel shirt to be able to shift.
By the time Mikael reached the stable doors, a large gray wolf sped past him, vanished around the corner and after the horses.
“What’s going on?” A worried call in a soft, feminine voice floated down from the main house’s porch at the upper yard.
“Gate is down, horses ran,” Mikael called out to Lark, a young female lynx shifter who was like a kid sister to him. “Go check the sheep!”
Lark’s light steps on the wooden stairs leading toward the back of the house barely registered with Mikael’s mostly human hearing. He was already straining to keep up with the task at hand, and he hoped that the sheep, at least, would be where they should: safely inside their fence.
As he finally made it to the edge of the forest, he caught a glimpse of red and another of gray from his left, coming from the lakeside. That explained a lot; the banging sound had been someone running on the sauna’s plate roof. It made his blood boil to know that the rules the farm had set for everyone’s safety had been defied again.
“You two, shift back immediately when you get to the horses!” he yelled at the teenagers trying to be helpful after—most likely, because no one else would do such a thing—causing the whole commotion in the first place.
He ran with the bucket, knowing that the horses would hopefully stop where they always did: a little patch of grass on a flat spot not far in the forest. There wasn’t much grass this time of the year, but the horses weren’t picky. Anything green, even if it had been just uncovered from the snow, would do. Unless they were too scared of whatever it was the two adolescent members of the farm family had done. If the horses were truly panicked, there was no telling when they’d stop or where they’d run. Gods help the boys if the horses got injured because of their stupidity!
Finally, Sean raced through the forest, back toward Mikael.
“The meadow?” the human asked, and the wolf made a sound that was clearly a yes to a trained ear. “It was the boys,” Mikael added, slowing down so he wouldn’t scare the horses away again.
The wolf trotting next to him made a disgusted and slightly snarly sound, and Mikael knew Sean’s son, fifteen-year-old Jude, who was one of the troublemakers, would get a strong scolding this time.
When the men got closer to the clearing, Sean stopped and tilted his head toward Mikael.
“No, go ahead. The boys will do the walk of shame, and I’ll grab Onni,” he said, and the wolf began to trot back to the farm.
“We’re really, really sorry,” Anton, the other misfit, said as soon as he got to the clearing with Jude in tow, and Mikael could tell both boys were nervous and ashamed.
“No, you’re not. At least, not yet.” Mikael grinned evilly at the boys and threw them a lead rope each. “I’ll take Onni. You take the others.”
His tone left no room for argument, and the boys, both naked as the day they were born, walked to the horses after Mikael’s old Finnhorse gelding. Onni—Finnish for luck—stuck its head into the bucket and began to happily munch away at the oats. The other two horses, a young cross-breed mare called Candy and a Shetland pony called King, were trickier but would follow Onni to the ends of the earth if need be.
So there they were, Mikael leading the gelding on a loose rope, walking briskly without paying any attention to Jude, who was struggling with the mare a little, or Anton, who was led here and there by the stubborn-as-a-mule pony. It was a good punishment, but it wouldn’t be the only punishment. No way.
“You do know your parents will kill you for this, right?” Mikael asked over his shoulder when Jude finally managed to make Candy behave enough to stay on the narrow path leading to the yard.
“Yeah, we’re really so—”
“Save it. Your parents will deal with you. Anton, I’ll deal with you, so once the horses are in the smaller paddock and you’ve repaired the bigger one’s fence, you’re to report to me immediately.” He made his tone emotionless and firm.
“Yes, sir,” Anton called toward him from where he was trying to tug the pony from a tuft of apparently delicious early spring grass.
Mikael led the sad little parade into the yard and made sure the horses were safely in their other paddock, as he thought about the mess he had in his hands. The problem wasn’t new; the boys misbehaved and caused trouble every now and then, but he would have thought that Anton, who had just turned eighteen, would be a little more responsible. What if one of the little ones, Jude’s siblings, had been close when the horses rushed out of their broken fence?
The only reason Mikael nodded at the boys when they asked if they could get dressed before fixing the fence was that there were occasional visitors, and it wasn’t smart to have two teenage boys naked on your yard, no matter that none of the farm’s inhabitants would look at them twice. Human rules were human rules, and Mikael was already labeled as the “slightly odd, probably gay man who feeds wolves despite having cattle on his farm.” He’d heard several theories about his farm and the people living with him. The most popular guess was that they were some sort of cult. He shook his head and walked up to the house. Chopping wood was abandoned for now; the time he had scheduled for it had been used chasing horses and telling teenagers off. Luckily, the farm really didn’t need that much firewood this late in the spring anyway. It was mainly used for the saunas and extra heating for the nights that would still get colder.
Mikael stepped into the kitchen, where Lark was already making his midday coffee.
“Sheep are all where they should be. What did the boys do?” she asked, turning to place some bread on the kitchen table.
“They were on the roof of the sauna, that much I know. The horses couldn’t have seen them until they managed to rattle the plate roof, and I guess King decided to charge the fence or something.” Mikael sighed and began to butter a piece of rye bread.
“Oh, in case they need their clothes, they have to come and get them from the utility room.” Lark’s tone was slightly amused. “I found them strewn about the yard while I was checking on the sheep.”
Mikael said nothing, just grinned, knowing that the boys would absolutely hate coming to get their clothing from Lark. She was like their big sister, and her disapproval was a big deal for them. Lark finding the clothes in the yard was at least proof that the boys had stripped hastily before shifting to help Mikael and Sean with the horses, instead of being on the roof while in their animal forms. Doing anything so reckless while not having opposable thumbs to help them climb down was forbidden. Not that they were allowed on the roof of anything in their human forms, either.
When the boys’ voices sounded from the back porch, near the utility room’s entrance, Lark excused herself to go give them their clothing.
“Have you checked what we need from the grocery store?” Mikael asked when she got back.
“The list is on your desk,” Lark said and poured them both a mug of coffee.
“Okay, good. What do you think about sending the boys to do the shopping as a punishment?” Mikael smirked at her a little.
A delighted giggle escaped the young woman sitting across from him. It was weird how similar the shifters’ appearances could be in both of their forms. Cat or woman, Lark always looked like Lark. When Lark, the child of a Finnish mother and a British father, had first come to Mikael’s farm, he wondered what her form would be. When she had finally gotten brave enough to tell him, he wasn’t surprised; her strawberry-blonde hair and shy and quiet demeanor were that of a lynx.
“Sounds good to me,” she said, giggling a little more before taking a bite of her sandwich.
She suddenly froze, her head tilted in the curious way the shifters did as they listened to something in the distance.
“Noah’s back?” Mikael guessed.
Lark nodded. “Yes. The engine sounds better.”
Noah, a jaguar shifter and the farm’s only American, had taken one of their cars, an ancient Land Rover, to the garage to be fixed. The farm managed with almost everything, but they didn’t have a doctor or a mechanic.
The car parked on the driveway, and soon they could hear Noah’s heavy steps when he came inside the house. The man was fit from his years in the military back in the United States and almost always in a good mood. But there was a more serious side to Noah as well. Something seemed to eat at him sometimes, and he would retreat to his room on the second floor of the main house and only appear for meal times or to do his job around the farm.
“Ooh, just in time.” Noah grinned and went to get himself a coffee before plopping down next to Mikael instead of Lark. She might have been uncomfortable despite having known Noah for years.
“How much?” Mikael asked, and Noah waved his hand dismissively.
“Not much at all. In fact, Joonatan said he can just add it to our next bill.” He shrugged in a good-natured way, and Mikael decided to let it drop.
Joonatan, the closest proper mechanic and a high-school friend of Mikael’s, was a good man. He had a family to feed, though, so Mikael decided to go back sooner rather than later. Maybe one of the cars needed an oil change soon or something.
“What’s with the boys? They were so not interested in anything but fixing the fence of one of the paddocks. I didn’t even know there was something wrong with it,” the former Marine asked as he poured milk into his coffee.
“They went on the sauna roof, scared the horses, and I think King used his thick head as a ramming device….” Mikael frowned.
“You don’t happen to have military camps for teenage boys in this country?” Noah asked innocently, and Mikael had to grin a little. Even Lark smiled.
“Sadly, no, and we can’t really have Anton drafted, even though he’s of age. Too bad his foxy side wouldn’t agree with service.” Mikael sighed as he got up to put his dishes away.
“Yeah, he’s in no sort of control that would allow that. Was difficult for me, too, and I was raised by a family of shifters who taught me things. Besides, I was lucky. Never getting injured enough to have the cat pop up…. Damn lucky.”
Mikael left Noah to eat his lunch and Lark to clean the kitchen and went to his office. There it was, neatly on top of his desk like it always was on Thursdays: the shopping list. The drive to the closest proper large mall was well over thirty miles. With all the shopping that needed to be done for the main house alone, the trip was grueling to say the least.
The wolf pack did its own shopping, but Mikael assumed that the boys would do both the main house and the wolf pack’s house that day, just because both Sean and Zoya believed in making their kids do the less pleasant jobs when they were being punished for something. Sure, they took away toys and such from the younger kids, but it was much more efficient to make one of the kids, pups as they all called them, sort the laundry or pick up all their toys than deny them access to their DVD collection. The teenagers were more tricky; you had to figure out better punishments for the “terrible duo,” and shopping was just the thing this time. Losing their privileges was getting a bit old and, apparently, ineffective.
Mikael added a few things to the list and was paying some bills when a quiet knock sounded from the office door.
“Come in,” he called out and continued making an online payment for the outrageous sum he had to pay each month for an Internet connection that was unstable at best. Living in the middle of nowhere had its perks, but being “sort of connected” to the Internet was not one of them.
It was Anton, clothed this time, who stepped into the room and waited ever so patiently for Mikael to lift his gaze from the computer screen.
“So, the fence is fixed?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. We moved the horses back in.” Anton shuffled closer to the desk.
“All right. Here’s the shopping list. You can take the Rover for the trip. Here’s the farm’s credit card, and you will buy what is on this list. Nothing more, nothing less. If Zoya gives Jude the pack’s list, you’re to oversee that the kid gets all on that one too.” Mikael didn’t let the boy’s forlorn expression sway him into giving him an easier punishment.
Luckily, they had had time to get Anton his driver’s license late in the winter, just as he turned eighteen, the legal driving age in the country.
Without another word, Anton sighed and left the office. Mikael was glad that he didn’t have to go to the mall himself and that punishing the teens was handled at the same time too. Hell, he hated to punish them, but the potential danger… no. It wasn’t acceptable. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong, and they needed to learn.
“Mikael?” Noah asked from the doorway. “Can we go check the boat now? I need help turning it, and I just saw Sean go back to chop wood.”
“I’ll pay the rest of the bills and be right with you. If you’d check the sauna, see what it needs done for spring cleaning, I’d appreciate it,” Mikael said, and Noah nodded before going to do as asked.
He had promised Noah, who was an avid fisherman in their little lake, to help him turn the wooden boat over and inspect it for possible damage. They did this every spring, and while Noah was certainly strong enough to turn the boat right-side up in the spot where it was stored during the winter months, it was better to have an extra pair of hands anyway to avoid injury to the shifter or the boat.
A while later, Mikael walked down to the lakeside and looked around. It was early days of May, and while the ice was already gone from their lake, the water was still cold.
The old house, where the wolf pack lived, was between the sauna and the yard, while the new house Mikael had had built—a large, modern, two-story log house with enough room for the shifters who came through the farm every now and then—was on the other side of the yard, higher on the property.
While the lake, sauna, and old house formed the south side of the yard, the north contained the new house and a garden Lark took great care tending to. On the forest’s side—the east side—were the stable, paddocks, and a barn with an attached wood shed. The west side had a long driveway leading away from the farm through some thick forest, with Mikael’s dad’s old garage shed and some extra parking space nearby. Their closest neighbor was six miles away, and that suited the shifters—and Mikael—just fine.
The daffodils and crocuses bloomed against the old house’s wall, where they got the most sunlight. Mikael sighed. That meant that it would be his birthday soon, and he’d turn thirty-eight this time. Close to forty now, without a mate of his own or a family of his own—not that he particularly wanted one, with the way things were. He was responsible for his family’s farm, his family heritage, even though the shifter side of it had come only after his dad met his mom forty years ago.
He wondered if things would be different had his mother survived his birth. Maybe not, but there was always a chance. Mikael’s dad had died surrounded by his own farm family, but he had never remarried or let anyone close again. Losing his one true love had changed him, or so Mikael heard from the few people in town who really knew his father before his only child was born.
There had been some warmth in Mikael’s childhood, but mostly from one of the older shifters, a grandmother figure. She was a lioness who had wanted to get away from her stressful life as a businesswoman in the States, and she came to Finland after hearing of Mikael’s family’s farm. She lived there from when Mikael was about six to when he left to study abroad when he was nineteen. To hear that Gail had died while he wasn’t there for her had been hard for Mikael. That was one of the reasons he came back: to see his father to the grave when he got ill.
And so he had returned to the farm eleven years ago, during his father’s last few months by his side, and promised to stay to take care of his legacy.
“There you are,” Noah said, emerging from behind the sauna with a grin on his face.
“Yeah, let’s do this.” Mikael gave him a faint smile, pulled his gloves on better, and walked to close to the part of the shore where the boat and canoes were stored.
Sometimes Mikael thought it would have been convenient to have romantic feelings for Noah. Instant mate. Then again, it wasn’t like he had anything to offer to anyone, and Noah could do so much better. Besides, Noah was certainly too young at twenty-nine, but Mikael got lonely, and Noah would have been an insta-answer. It was just a matter of time until another gay shifter came along to sweep the gorgeous American off his paws.
Mikael’s dad had known he was gay and had eventually forgiven him for it at his deathbed. It wasn’t like Mikael was ashamed. No, he had been proud, even back then, but he just hadn’t wanted to rub it in. His father had been old school. Gays were odd, unnatural—funny to hear that from a man who had gotten a shifter pregnant and then raised her half-shifter son—and so on; and out of love for the old man, Mikael hadn’t wanted to make the little time they had together any harder than it already was.
He had never brought anyone to the farm, never had a real adult relationship after his return to Finland. While he was studying in the US and in the UK, he had a few experiences with dating the same guy longer than a week, but not after he came home. For all intents and purposes, he was celibate and had been for the last eleven years. Sure, every now and then during those years he went away from the farm, took holidays, and met friends elsewhere, which usually led to getting laid. There were also a couple of times when a shifter who had come through the farm had been hot, willing, and able. He just found it a little bit sad that no matter how you counted, he had gotten laid approximately once every year since he returned to the farm.
Mikael snorted at the thought, and Noah looked at him over the boat they were wrestling around.
“What?” the other man asked.
“Just that I’m pathetic.” Mikael grinned self-deprecatingly.
“What, good-looking guy like you?” Noah, as usual, knew what he was thinking.
“Shut up and lift.” Mikael rolled his eyes, and they heaved the heavy boat toward the shore.
They got the boat to where it was supposed to be, and Noah stayed to clean it up while Mikael went to check on the wolf pack. He wanted to know what Zoya would say about his shoulder, sure, but also he wanted to scope out the situation with her eldest, who was by now well on his way to the mall with Anton.
He walked to the front door of the old house where he’d spent his childhood. With a smile on his lips, he knocked before stepping inside and kicking off his shoes.
“Anyone home?” he asked, hearing squeals from deeper in the house and then the distinct sound of little feet running.
“Uncle Miki!” Five-year-old May, the liveliest of Sean and Zoya’s little ones, ran to him and thumped against him when he knelt down to hug her. The dozen or so wet little kisses on his chin and cheeks made him, once again, wonder how similar these kids were to actual wolf pups.
“Hello, little Miss Puppy, where’s the rest of the litter?” Mikael asked, and May giggled at him.
“’M not a puppy, I’m a wolf!” she said, then howled loudly.
Her little brother Jamie walked over, looking a little wobbly still as he held the hand of nine-year-old June.
“Hi, kids,” Mikael said, and caught Jamie when the boy stumbled toward him.
They went to the living room, and soon Mikael sat there with the two smaller kids crawling on top of him, and June nearby.
“Hi.” Zoya smiled at the picture they formed when she came in from the side room where she held her lessons for the kids, who were all home-schooled. For Jamie and May, it was still mostly playing, but June was a smart, serious girl who was already a year ahead of what the public schools would have taught her.
“So, you gave a list to Jude too?” Mikael smirked at Zoya, who returned the expression while she sat down on the other couch, probably relaxing for the first time since that morning.
“Oh yes, a long list,” she said and looked decidedly wicked—until she sighed. “I don’t know what to do with those two. I know Anton is getting old enough to know better, and he’s not my child…. It just seems that they have extra energy and….” She sighed again.
“Maybe we need to figure out something more for the both of them to do. At least Anton needs more adult responsibilities now that he’s a legal adult. He doesn’t want to go to high school, but I know he’s talked to Joonatan to possibly go apprentice at the garage or something. I need to have a talk with him and see what he wants to do. I mean, sure, there’s the vocational school and everything….” Mikael let go of May to run his fingers through his short hair and winced.
“Shoulder again?” Zoya observed.
“Yeah, would you check it out?”
“Sure. Let me put the food in the oven, and we’ll take a look,” she said, getting off the couch. “June, you can watch a DVD, but no fighting, and you clean up the classroom first.”
The kids left the living room enthusiastically, and Mikael smiled after them. “They’re lovely,” he said quietly.
“Want one? Or two? Some days four kids is too much.” Zoya smiled a little.
“It’s not normal, is it? I mean, having four kids and being the only parents in the pack?” he asked, trailing after her to the kitchen.
“Not really. I mean, if we had another couple living here, then the number of kids could double, and it would still be easier. It’s more of the dynamics of the pack, not about the number of people. Sure, the alpha-pair runs the show, but the other wolves are there to support them, take some of the load off. Even if I could relax, my wolf can’t.” She frowned a little, and Mikael nodded his understanding.
Suddenly, May ran into the kitchen. “Uncle Miki, can I ask you a question?” she asked politely.
“Sure, Miss Puppy, go ahead.” Mikael smiled and looked down at her beautiful pale-blue eyes.
“You’re not wolf-people or cat-people, so what are you?” She tilted her head curiously.
Mikael smiled at her. “I’m just a human. Or, well, my mom was a shifter, but my dad was human. I think that makes me half-shifter.”
“Okay, okay…,” she said, pondered for a moment, and asked, “Can you shift? Adults can shift, right?”
She knew, as all the kids did, that they could shift “when they got older,” which usually meant at some point during puberty. Her big brother had shifted for the first time when he was fourteen, a year ago, when his puberty was just starting. Anton had shifted when he was sixteen. It was different for everyone, but Mikael was sure glad the three little ones were all years away from coming to their powers.
“No, see, only my mom could shift, so that means I can’t. You can, because both your mom and dad can. Anton’s mom and dad could too,” he explained to her.
“Okay….” Another pause, then: “Was your mom a wolf like my mom?”
Mikael’s smile faltered for a moment. “I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I never knew my mom, and my dad missed her so much he didn’t want to talk about her.”
“Oh….” She wrapped her little arms around him. “Don’t be sad, Miki, we love you.”
Then she was off again to watch a movie with her siblings.
“Sorry.” Zoya frowned from where she was mixing a sauce of something, probably tomato for a lasagna.
“It’s okay. I knew they would eventually ask questions, and it’s fine,” he said, and sighed. “The funny thing is, I really want to know what my mom was, but there’s nobody around who can tell me.”
It was part of his identity, his shifter side, but so far, he hadn’t met anyone who could tell him what she had been. The wolves and Anton told him his scent wasn’t canine, so she must have been a cat shifter of some kind. But so many different kinds of cats had visited the farm that he would have thought one of them could tell him if his scent was familiar enough to fit their species. So far, there had been no luck.
Because Mikael’s father had started the shifter sanctuary—as he called it himself—after Mikael was born, there hadn’t been anyone around to tell Mikael about his mother but his dad, and, well, he wasn’t exactly what you’d call a willing source.
“One day you’ll have your answers, and you’ll feel better.” Zoya smiled over her shoulder.
Once the lasagna was in the oven, they went to the master bedroom, where she told him to strip off his flannel and T-shirt and lay down on top of the bed.
He took the shirts off and then grunted for show when he lay down and Zoya began to rub at his shoulder to find the sore spots.
“You do know you’re in a compromising position with an alpha-wolf’s mate, right?” Sean’s asked dryly from the doorway just as Zoya straddled Mikael’s thighs.
“Oh yes, but you know how her touch is. Makes a man take all sorts of risks.” Mikael smirked at Sean, who rolled his eyes, walked closer to the bed, and kissed Zoya while smacking Mikael’s bare arm with one hand.
“Behave,” the wolf murmured, and Mikael wasn’t sure which one he meant, him or her.
“Go check on the kids, and let me get this man some relief; otherwise, you and Noah will be doing all the hard labor without his help,” Zoya told her husband, who quickly retreated from the room, leaving Zoya to make sure Mikael got all the care he needed to function normally.