When Seb arrived at the hospital with Dom, the rest of the team was inside with Peyton. Seb stood to one side of the door as Dom hurried into the room and went to Peyton’s bedside. He went into full big brother mode, running a hand tenderly over his head. Peyton took up most of the Therian-sized bed, his bright red hair a stark contrast to the white of the pillow. His fair skin strewn with freckles looked pale, except for his cheeks which were flushed, and his big blue eyes were bloodshot. His bottom lip quivered, and Seb was reminded of how young Peyton actually he was.
As the youngest member of his team, Peyton was five years younger than Ethan, and hadn’t even turned thirty yet. It was one of the drawbacks of being a Tiger Therian. People had a habit of just seeing size. Peyton might be fierce, but that was only out in the field when he needed to be. The rest of the time, he was sweet, cheerful, always ready with a big smile. Where Dom was brutally honest, and brought down the hammer, delivering harsh truths when their fellow teammates needed it, Peyton was the gentle voice of reason. He listened to his teammates then offered quiet council. When anyone needed a hug, he was there with open arms.
Dom’s voice drew Seb’s attention, and he moved his gaze to Peyton who quickly wiped away at a stray tear.
“We got into another fight, and I’d had enough. I never told you guys, but….” Peyton looked away, his face filled with shame. “He’d cheated on me.”
“What?” Zoey jumped to her feet, but Dom placed a hand on her arm, and she reluctantly settled back down on the edge of the bed.
“He was so convincing the first time,” Peyton continued. “I believed him when he said how sorry he was, that it would never happen again. I was over at his place, and we’d just um, you know. Anyway, I got up to go to the bathroom, and he must have thought I was asleep. I heard him talking on the phone to someone. He was telling them how much he missed them and all the things he was going to do to them we he saw them. I used the bathroom, got dressed, and told him I was leaving. For good. We got into a fight, and when I opened the door to the apartment, he… hurt me.”
Seb studied Peyton, the way he was refusing to look at any of his teammates in the eye, his fidgeting, the way he grabbed fistfuls of the blanket. Then Seb noticed it. He moved over to the bed, and Dom quickly stepped aside. Seb took a seat on the edge of the bed, and Peyton swallowed hard. He closed his eyes and nodded. Seb very gently, lowered the neckline of the hospital gown, and the air was sucked out of the room. There was an angry looking red strap mark around Peyton’s neck.
Angel was on his feet looking like he was about to explode. He paced the room, fire blazing in his eyes. “Are you telling me that no good hijo de puta tried to choke you?”
“I’m going to fucking rip his balls off,” Zoey snarled.
While the rest of the team was up in arms, Seb cupped Peyton’s cheek. “Hey, look at me.”
After a shaky breath, Peyton did, tears welling in his eyes. “He said it was my own fault. That I’d deceived him. How he’d given me a chance because he thought I’d be… tougher.”
Seb closed his eyes for a moment, and took a steady breath. When he opened them, he smiled warmly at Peyton. “It wasn’t your fault, you know that right?”
Peyton nodded, his frown deep. A determined look came into his bright blue eyes. “I want a restraining order against him, and I’m pressing charges.”
Seb patted his shoulder. “Good man. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
“You will?” Peyton looked surprised.
“Of course I will. We’re a family, right? Family sticks together.”
Peyton’s bottom lip wobbled before he threw his arms around Seb, and squeezed him tight, his head on Seb’s shoulder. Seb wrapped his arms around Peyton, and held him, running a soothing hand down his back.
“It’s going to be okay,” Seb murmured softly. “Why don’t you get some rest. We’ll be outside.”
Peyton nodded, and pulled back. He smiled at Seb. “Thank you.”
Everyone loved on Peyton until Dom ushered them all out of the room so the poor guy could get some peace and quiet. As much as Peyton loved his team, Seb knew from experience the rowdy bunch could be a bit exhausting at times.
Out in the waiting room, a tall leopard Therian stood from one of the seats, his eyes going huge when he saw them.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Dom bellowed, coming around Seb. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who the man was. Seb grabbed Dom’s arm, ands turned to face his team who all had intent in their eyes.
“Everyone calm down. I’ll take care of this. Why don’t you guys go get some coffee or food or something, and I’ll join you in a minute.”
Dom searched Seb’s gaze. What he was searching for, Seb had no clue. A heartbeat later, he nodded.
“Come on,” Dom growled, storming off in the opposite direction, the rest of the team following him, albeit reluctantly.
Seb turned, his hands in his jacket pockets as the man approached him.
“Thanks, man. I owe you one.”
Seb narrowed his eyes at the cocky bastard. “Don’t thank me just yet.” He slapped a hand on the guy’s shoulder, and squeezed until he winced.
“Jesus, what the hell?”
“Walk with me.”
“That wasn’t a request,” Seb said, his tone brooking no argument. He led the guy out of the waiting room and into one of the hospital wings with little foot traffic before turning the guy and crowding him, his voice low and steady. “Here’s how this is going to go. You’re going to stay away from Peyton.”
“Please, I need to see him. I’m so sorry about what happened. I really care about him. I do. Things just got out of hand, and—”
“Shut up,” Seb snapped. “You have a serious problem that you’re going to go get help for, but whatever you thought you had with Peyton, is over. A restraining order is going to be filed against you, and you’ll be charged with assault.”
The guy blanched. “What?”
“You strangled him with your belt,” Seb hissed, his hand wrapping around the guy’s neck. He winced at the pain as the tips of his claws pierced his fingers, and pressed into the bastard’s neck. “You are never to go near Peyton again. Is that clear?”
“You can’t do this.” The guy was shaking with rage and fear at the same time.
“My team is my family, and as Team Leader, I’m the head of that family. I won’t let you, or anyone hurt them. I’m going to be keeping an eye on you. Don’t test me. Peyton is a gentle, sweet man who instills trust and compassion. He would never lash out at anyone in anger.” A low feral growl rose from his chest, and his fangs elongated. “Me? Not so much. This is your only warning. Now get the hell out of my face.”
Seb released the guy, and he scrambled away from Seb, dashing for the door like someone had set his ass on fire. He sniffed the air, and turned, arching an eyebrow at what appeared to be an empty doorway which wasn’t so empty. He should have caught on to the scent earlier, but had been too preoccupied.
“How long have you been there?”
Dom stepped out of the doorway, and leaned against the wall, a lopsided grin on his handsome face. “Long enough. Also….” He motioned behind him, and the rest of the team walked out.
“What’s going on?” Seb asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Zoey walked around Dom, and came to a stand in front of Seb. “You really consider us your family?”
Seb nodded. He let out a heavy sigh, and dropped his arms to his side. “I know you guys drew the short straw on Team leaders. You went from having a vigilante who betrayed your trust, to a fuckup who only got this gig because he got credit for solving a case his old team couldn’t take credit for.”
“Hey,” Angel growled, stepping forward. “We were there, remember? Without us there to backup Destructive Delta, they wouldn’t have gotten close enough to take Hogan down, or rescue Cael. They needed us, and you could have turned them in for working off the books, but you didn’t.”
Brianna nodded. “Because Destructive Delta are also your family. You protected them. Just like what happened to Dr. Colbourn. You risked your life, and your career to protect him. That doesn’t make you a fuckup.”
“That makes you a hero in my book,” Dom said.
Everyone agreed, and Seb couldn’t believe it. “You all really believe that?”
“Yep,” Lee beamed up at him. “And just so you know, we weren’t spying on you. We came in case you needed back up.”
Seb couldn’t help his dopey smile. “Thanks. I appreciate that. How about we go get something to eat. My treat. We can bring back something for Peyton.”
They all whooped, and Lee patted Seb’s shoulder. “You’re the best, Boss.”
“Don’t call me that,” Seb grumbled.
“Sure thing, Boss,” Zoey called out over her shoulder as they all hurried for the exit.
Dom walked alongside Seb, and grinned up at him. “Welcome to the family.”
“Thanks.” For the first time in a long time, Seb felt… settled. He had a home again at the THIRDS. Maybe one day he’d have his man, too. One day….
Copyright © 2018 Charlie Cochet. THIRDS published by Dreamspinner Press.