Caleb and his friends have been in Gillham for months, but the memories of what happened to him in the lab still torture him. He developed the habit of sleeping in the forest in his chinchilla form to avoid waking his friends with his nightmares. One night, he finds a man under his tree, and that man is his mate.
Freddy knows most of the pack doesn’t like him. He used to be a drug dealer, and while his reason was to keep his brother out of that life, he knows it’s not a good enough excuse. He’s not angry at the way the pack treats him, and when he meets his mate, he expects Caleb to behave the same way.
Caleb doesn’t. Caleb’s friends aren’t enthusiastic about Freddy being his mate, though, and when one of them makes it clear that he expects Freddy to do whatever it takes to keep Caleb safe from his father—even if that means his own death—Freddy decides he’s right and chooses to confront his dad.
Caleb forced himself to smile at Dane and his mate. He’d been the one who’d organized their bonding party, after all. It wouldn’t do for him to pout and mope in a corner, no matter how sad he felt.
So instead of doing that, he drank down what remained of his Cosmopolitan and wondered if anyone would notice if he had another. He wasn’t sure a third—or fourth—drink was a good idea, but the alcohol helped to dull the edge of the pain that was always with him. He knew it was a slippery slope, and he didn't want to rely too much on alcohol, but surely it wouldn’t hurt him to drink just for one afternoon? They were celebrating, after all. It wasn’t every day one of Caleb’s best friends bonded with his mate.
“Are you okay?” Dane asked, frowning at Caleb’s empty glass.
Caleb grinned wider. “Sure. Why shouldn’t I be? So, where are you two going to live?” he asked, hoping to distract Dane.
“We haven’t talked about it yet.”
“Mmm. You’ve been spending most of your time over at the alpha’s house. I guess that answers my question.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.” Dane looked at Max. “We can live wherever you want to live, but…”
Max smiled. “You’d like to move back in here with your friends.”
“Yeah. They’re more than my friends.”
“They’re your family.”
“I know Jessie is just as important to you, so I’ll understand if you’d rather stay with him.”
Max sighed and patted Dane’s hand. “We’ll talk about it later, okay? But I can tell you I’m open to moving here if everyone agrees with it.”
They both looked at Caleb, who had to jerk his gaze away from their joined hands. He swallowed and smiled back. “I’m fine with that. The more, the merrier, right?” He got up from the couch and gestured toward the kitchen. “I'm going to go get another drink.”
Dane’s smile vanished. “Are you sure you should drink so much?”
“It’s a party.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to get drunk.”
“I’m not.” He waved his empty glass. “Seriously. I’m fine, Dane. You just have fun with Max. You deserve it.”
He left without waiting for Dane to stop him. He had no doubt Dane would have tried if he hadn’t been just mated and so focused on Max.
Caleb stopped smiling only once he was behind the closed kitchen door. Everyone was gathered in the living room, and it gave him a few moments to drop the mask and breathe.
It hurt. Caleb wasn’t sure what hurt the most anymore—the memories, the feeling of being wrong that hadn’t left since he’d been in the lab, or seeing his friends slowly getting over what had happened to them and opening up, finding friends, and mates.
Caleb was trying, but sometimes he wondered if he was trying too hard. He did his best to be loud and chatty, hoping people would be distracted enough they wouldn’t see the black hole in his soul. So far, he’d done a good job, but he knew one of his friends would eventually find out. They’d all been focused on trying to get better, getting used to living with the pack, finding their way in a new life, but sooner or later, they were going to notice something was wrong with Caleb.
It had been so much easier to hide how he felt when they’d been on the run. He hadn’t had to hide—all of them had had nightmares, all of them had felt hopeless. They didn’t anymore, apart from Caleb.
He looked down at his glass and decided he really did need a refill. He put it down on the counter next to the fridge and grabbed the vodka, pouring a hefty amount into the shaker. He added some lime juice, a dash of Cointreau, and cranberry juice, and put everything back in the fridge before adding the ice. The shaker almost slipped out of his grasp when he shook it, but he managed to save his cocktail and pour it into his glass.
He closed his eyes as he sipped on it. It burned, and he didn't like the taste of alcohol, but he liked how his head felt lighter. When he opened his eyes, he saw his glass was empty again.
He hadn’t realized he’d drunk the whole glass. He eyed the shaker. He wanted another one, but with the way his hand shook when he reached for the shaker, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it.
He hated feeling weak, but there was no denying he was, both physically and mentally. He wasn’t sure what to do about that apart from hiding it, and he knew getting drunk wasn’t a good idea. Well, getting drunker than he already was. It wouldn’t take much for his happy façade to fall.
He had to stop.
He put his glass into the sink and ignored the shaker. He didn’t want to go back to the living room, but he knew his friends would notice if he didn’t. He washed his hands and face in the kitchen sink, took a deep breath, and went back, doing his best to walk in a straight line. He almost collided with the door frame, and when he entered the living room, he knew Ryan had noticed.
He always noticed those kinds of things.
Caleb beamed at him and went to flop next to Lucas, who was stroking Tristan’s fur while listening to Dane talk about his job answering the hotline. He and Max had been put in charge of it, and sometimes Caleb wished they weren’t. He kind of wanted to call, to be able to tell someone he didn’t know and who didn't know him about the hole in his chest, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t risk Dane recognizing his voice and realizing what was going on in his life.