Today's First Chapter Friday is from my super sweet romance, PIKA OMEGA PLUS ONE. It's the third book in my Shifter Towers series, and includes dates at the park and the children's museum.
Enjoy the first chapter of PIKA OMEGA PLUS ONE (Shifter Towers #3)
“I’m going to miss you so much.” The kiss I placed on Odega’s fuzzy head didn’t seem like enough, but it would have to do. I had to leave him behind and catch the bus or I would be late for my first day back to work. “I’ll only be a few hours. Until I get back, Uncle Malone and the girls will take good care of you.”
I kissed my son’s head again then rushed out the door, waving goodbye to him, my brother, and my nieces. My stomach churned all the way to the bus stop, guilt consuming me for leaving Odega behind. It was the first time I’d gone anywhere without him. But I couldn’t bear to be apart from him. Not ever. Not with how I’d lost his father.
At the same time, I couldn’t expect my brother’s husband, Thadeus, to financially support me and my son forever. Thadeus and Malone had been kind enough to take me in after I found out I was pregnant. Widowed and a single parent at the age of twenty-three. But Thadeus wasn’t my alpha, my mate. I needed to repay him somehow.
When the bus pulled up to the stop a couple houses down from my brother’s, I trailed on behind the other passengers using the same mode of transportation. They were mostly young omegas who hadn’t been claimed yet, and a few claimed ones as well. On the bus, a couple young alphas sniffed around like they were selecting their choice of delectables from the dessert cart. Yet not one omega gave them the attention they wanted.
I turned my back to them, hoping I still smelled of Daniel’s claim even though it had been over a year since he was killed in a car accident. I didn’t want any alpha sniffing around me. I had a young child to take care of and didn’t have time to date. Plus, I never wanted to go through the pain of losing someone I loved ever again.
When the bus reached the transfer station, I piled off with the rest of the passengers then rushed to catch the light rail transit. A route I was familiar with, but one I hadn’t taken since going on paternity leave. The train would take me right to the center of town, the stop in the courtyard immediately behind Shifter Towers. I’d made it, and no longer had to worry about being late for work.
Yet other issues plagued my mind. I didn’t think I would ever stop worrying about Odega. I’d never left the house without him since his birth, and those outings were rare. I was a homebody, had a couple acquaintances who were also busy as new fathers, but spent most of my time with my family.
Then there was work itself. I hadn’t exactly left there on the best of terms with some of my coworkers. Didn’t help that the manager we had was known to play favorites and often pitted all of us against each other when it came to who worked the most and best hours, and who got the best positions. I’d worked hard, more concerned about making money than friends, so I’d secured a favorable status. But after taking my six month leave, I could only hope the manager remembered my work ethic.
Walking in between the back two skyscrapers, I headed to Tower One of Shifter Towers. NJ Fresh Foods was on the main floor, with the head office for the chain on the thirtieth floor. Apparently those who were promoted in the company, even at store level, got the chance to visit that office. Though I hadn’t yet. Not even for my original interview. So, that was my goal. I wanted my hard work to be recognized. I would visit the head office one day. I would be promoted so that I could one day afford an apartment for just Odega and I.
Walking into the store, I glanced around for the manager, Hayley. When I called two weeks ago, she’d given me my schedule and then emailed me the paperwork I had to fill out and send to head office to indicate I wanted to come back before my full paternity leave ended. But she wasn’t around. Instead I saw someone else wearing a manager uniform.
No, not him. My stomach twisted and I felt my skin itch, my body wanting to shift.
My nemesis, Randall Bickell, turned around then sneered. “Milo. I heard you decided to come back early.” I’d have believed he’d stolen the uniform if he didn’t have a nametag with his name engraved into it with the words Shift Manager underneath.
With clenched fists, I struggled to remain in my human form. I’d be fired right away if I let myself shift. I wanted to back away and spin around before running out of the store. This wasn’t how my first day back was supposed to go. Instead, my feet refused to move. I was stuck there under his scrutinous gaze. “Hi. Yes, I’m back.”
“Lucky me,” he mumbled, though definitely loud enough for me to hear. “Well, since it’s been a long time since you’ve worked here, and I don’t have time to retrain you, you can be responsible for restocking and cleaning.”
I rolled my eyes. He knew damn well I knew what I was doing and didn’t need to be retrained. It wasn’t as if we had a new or complicated checkout system. He just wanted to punish me for all the times I’d proven I was better at the job than him, rub it in my face that he had been promoted during the time I’d become a father. “Fine. But I can still do the job better than you.”
“I am a manager.” Randall tightened his jaw as his face reddened. “And you will not talk to me like that. You got your first warning. And your work period hasn’t even started yet.”
“Whatever.” I darted past him toward the staff room to drop off my stuff in a locker. I’d get through today and hope most of my time at work had anyone else as the manager.
The first hour started out fairly slow. The morning crowd trickled in over a couple hours, so there was no rush for anything. I stocked as I got the chance, and cleaned up the occasional spill as needed. No one really sat at the tables or used the washroom as most customers picked up their order to take to work with them. Nothing I couldn’t handle. At the same time, I knew what to expect at lunch. I had everything stocked and made sure overstock was easily accessible to keep up with the upcoming demand. The first group hit NJ Foods at 11:30 a.m. During that time, those in the food prep stations kept their own area stockpiled with various offerings. I focused on keeping drink refrigerators and snack food racks filled. And when an occupied table became free, I quickly cleaned it for the next patron. When I had a chance, I also checked the bathrooms to make sure the stalls had toilet paper and no one had left a big mess.
The rush at noon was much bigger and lasted longer. Customers were in more of a rush making them much more careless. The lines at cash were long, and everyone was in the way of someone else. I spent more time cleaning up during that hour than anything else. So, by the time the last lunch crowd arrived at 1 p.m., I was still on the floor, trying to fill shelves as fast as possible.
Randall had been too busy trying to speed up the cashiers to bother with me, but at the sound of his cackly laugh, I cringed. He was over at the pizza booth, flirting with one of the employees there. Whatever. As long as he stayed away from me.
I squatted down to fill a half empty chip rack with various flavors. An easy task, and out of the way. Or so I thought until burning liquid slid down my back. “Fuck!” I jumped up and untucked my shirt as fast as possible to get the material away from my skin.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry,” I heard someone say. But his words didn’t matter. My clothes were ruined, and I had another mess to clean up. What a great first day back.
I sat at my desk, watching as the anchor, meteorologist, and head of sports and entertainment signed off for the noon news. My quick two minute report about the car that drove through the front window of La Sandwich Shoppe at West First Avenue went well. In that short amount of time, I’d shown the accident site and interviewed the officer sent to the scene, the owner of the shop, and even a mouse shifter named Herbie, who was a witness. Everything had been pre recorded earlier in the day and I’d even had a quick chance to edit the footage before submitting it for the noon hour program. My first on screen story.
“Nice work!” The producer patted my back on his way past my desk. “Got a special interest story for you next. You’ll have the information after lunch.”
“Thank you,” I called after her. I’d been at Saramto Shifter News Network for several months already, hoping my paid internship position would turn into a fulltime job. Or even part time. Just something more permanent. Until this week, I wasn’t sure that was possible considering I’d never been assigned my own stories. I simply shadowed another news correspondent to gain an understanding of how the equipment worked and what was expected in a report. But when Dannie went on vacation, the station trusted me to tackle some stories on my own. A nice change, but I didn’t know how long this opportunity would last, whether I’d go back to being a shadow when my mentor returned, or whether this was the beginning of me working on my own. Time to shine and prove myself, I guess.
When I’d originally come to Saramto after graduating from Highland University with a Bachelor of Communications Studies, I’d expected to easily find a job. Especially being an alpha. But, it turns out, in this city shifter alphas are given even more priority over regular human ones. And even though I’ve never seen anyone shift in public, the residents of Saramto all seemed to know who was a shifter and who was not. Namely me.
Trying not to feel sorry for myself, considering the new opportunity in front of me, I headed down to NJ Fresh Foods on the first floor to get a bowl of soup and a sandwich for lunch. I might as well be prepared for when my next assignment was given. Dannie had taught me to always eat when I had the chance because I might not get another break for several hours when covering a story. And I wasn’t exactly one to make my own food. I could burn a pot of water. And had many times. So, I simply bought my meals from the various food shops around Shifter Towers. La Sandwich Shoppe, the place I went to for the accident, was absolutely delicious. I first learned about them when they’d catered a network lunch. But most of the time, I went to NJ Foods. They had meals that were prepped daily, and a great selection of choices from various cultures around the world. I never grew tired of eating food from there.
When the elevator doors opened on the first floor, I darted through the crowd now finished their lunch break, and heading back up to work. Though I was hungry, I actually preferred to have a later lunch. Without the crowd, I could take my time selecting exactly what I wanted to eat, and most of the time didn’t have to wait in line to pay for my food.
At the soup station, there were always six to choose from along with the basic chicken noodle and chili. Today they had Kusksu, a traditional Maltese soup, which looked and smelled delicious. Food I never would have had a chance to enjoy back in Malton. Everything there was so traditionally greasy, tasting of fat and salt. I scooped some of the Kusksu into my reusable bowl then slid over to see what they had for sandwiches.
I hadn’t watched where I was going, my eyes too focused on the food. And I tripped over someone. My soup fell out of my hand, and when the container hit the person I tripped over, the lid opened and the soup spilled down his back. I gasped as he jumped up, cursing under his breath. I grabbed a handful of napkins to wipe it off him, but he spun away from me, untucking his shirt in the process.
“Sorry!” I grabbed his arm, trying to get him to hold still so I could help. I felt horrible. “I’m so sorry.”
He shook me off. “Whatever. I need to clean up this mess now.”
“Let me.” It was all my fault. He shouldn’t have to clean up after me because I wasn’t paying attention. I just hoped he was okay, that he wasn’t badly burned.
Wiping up as much as I could off the floor with the napkins, I tossed them in the closest trash container. The guy returned with a mop, the back of his shirt untucked. Though he’d managed to wipe the soup off, the material was still wet from my clumsiness. I reached for the mop. “I’ll do it. It’s my fault.”
“No.” The guy, Milo according to his nametag, sighed at me. “Just get more soup and go. This is my job. Don’t worry about it.”
Easier said than done. I’d hurt him and made a mess. It was my fault, and yet he’d suffered for it. “Your shirt. Is it ruined? How much does another one cost?”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Enjoy your lunch, sir.”
How was I supposed to respond to that? I hadn’t fixed anything and only felt worse. Releasing a heavy breath, I heard my dad’s words in my head. You’ll never find a mate if you don’t start acting like an alpha.
I’d heard that advice over and over since puberty. The moment my results had come back. That had been a surprise to me, and an even bigger one to my parents. So much so, they’d had me tested again. Same thing. When I announced I had an internship in Saramto, my surviving father had been overjoyed. He’d believed I would learn to be a proper alpha in a big city. His only restriction was that I stay away from shifters. Kind of hard to do in this metropolis. I definitely felt like an outsider here. And my mentor was a non-binary beta black panther shifter. Great at their job, but not exactly what my dad had in mind.
I didn’t care. I’d always been this way, and I didn’t plan on changing. So what if I was too sweet or not dominant enough for some. When I found the right person or shifter, that wouldn’t matter.
Glancing around, I realized Milo had finished cleaning my mess and had rushed off somewhere. Probably away from me. I refilled my bowl, found a sandwich—though my appetite had dwindled since my spill—and headed for the checkout.
When I sat down at my desk to eat my lunch, I found a new message from the producer. My next assignment. I spooned soup into my mouth as I read. Nothing like any of the stories I’d covered with Dannie. This one involved preparing a five minute piece about the upcoming Children’s Festival on Sunday. the event was a fundraiser for the local children’s hospital, and I had to interview the organizer, some of the participants, and even the children it would be benefitting. The segment was supposed to promote the festival, of which our station was a major sponsor, and encourage those who didn’t have children to donate as well. Not only that, but I was expected to volunteer at one of the booths the day of. Not a problem since I didn’t have any plans anyway. My dad would recommend I go to a local church to meet a “nice omega,” but the Children’s Festival sounded far less torturous.
After I finished my lunch, I made various phone calls to arrange interview times for tomorrow. They all ended up being spread throughout the afternoon at the Children’s Hospital. Good because it meant I didn’t have to travel back and forth throughout the day, but it would lead to a late night tomorrow since the piece needed to be ready to be approved the following morning, and then aired on Thursday’s lunch, evening, and late night news.
Since there wasn’t much else I could do at the station, I decided to go home. I would do more research on past events there, and come up with my own interview questions. Something different than what had been done in past years.
I had just stepped away from my desk when my phone rang. My dad. What part of “Don’t phone me while at work” did he not understand? Though sometimes my hours varied, I was always working this time of day.
I rushed to the bathroom and answered the call. Talking to him at my desk would only distract the other correspondents who were busy with their own stories.
“Hi Dad? Are you okay?” I wanted to somehow make sure he understood not to call unless it was an emergency.
“Fine, Yoni. Why wouldn’t I be?” He sounded confused, having no idea why I would ask that. I wasn’t going to win this argument.
I guess I simply had to stop answering when I was working. “I’m at work. What do you want?”
“No need to take such a harsh tone with me. But at least you’re sounding more like an alpha.”
I rolled my eyes. Why were conversations with him so painful? I know things had been difficult when my alpha father had passed away, but he’d seemed fine before I left, encouraged me to go. He’d said his younger sisters would be his company. Maybe they’d all pissed each other off and weren’t talking. Wouldn’t be the first time. “How are you, Dad? And what is the purpose of your call?”
“Now you’re just being silly.” He chuckled a little. “Anyway, I called to see if you’re coming home this weekend. It’s a long weekend, so I assumed you’d have some extra time off.”
Oops, I’d forgotten all about the holiday on Monday. But, that didn’t matter. I already had plans. “Sorry, I have an assignment on Sunday. I can’t make it.”
“How dare they make you work on a holiday weekend! And a Sunday at that!”
I had to hold the phone away from my ear at the sudden change in his tone. I preferred not to be deaf.
“You’re supposed to come home, go to church with me, and meet a nice omega I’ve been talking about you with. He’s very interested, and very cute.”
My stomach churned. My father’s taste in guys and my taste never seemed to mesh. And no matter how many times I’d told him, he wouldn’t accept the fact. “Well, it’s too bad I have other plans. I’m actually volunteering at the Children’s Festival, a fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital here in Saramto. It’s part of my current assignment, and I just couldn’t say no.” And neither could he. Not when it involved charity work.
“Oh, well then. I guess that’s okay.”
I could hear the disappointment in his voice, but I really didn’t feel bad.
“Hopefully he’s still single the next time you come home then.”
Hopefully not. For his sake and mine. Because I was sure we wouldn’t work out. “Maybe. But, I’ve got to go, Dad. I’m just starting this assignment, and I have a lot to do.”
“Oh, sorry. I’ll let you go then.” He acted as if I hadn’t already told him I was at work. “Make sure you do well on this assignment. I’m proud of you.”
“I love you, too, Dad.” I hung up the phone and shook my head. When would he stop? Being an only child had been nice while growing up, but now I wished I’d had a sibling simply to take some of his attention off me.
Even more anxious to leave the station, I loaded my laptop and phone into my messenger bag, and then headed to the equipment room to sign out what I would need for the interviews tomorrow. I was still too new to get a station vehicle to use, but my daily travel costs were paid for, and the hospital was easily accessible by public transportation between both my apartment and the station. Plus, it wasn’t as if I had to travel anywhere near Jackson Street. That’s one neighborhood Dannie had warned me to avoid, no matter how big the story seemed. So, I usually left my car at home, unless I drove back to Bolton.
Before catching the light rail transit to the stop near my apartment, I returned to NJ Foods. I wanted to grab something for dinner, and try to apologize again to Milo. I searched the entire store, even tried to listen beyond the customer areas for his voice. But, I think he had already left. I’d have to keep coming back until I had a chance to see him once again. For some reason, I couldn’t let what had happened rest, couldn’t stop thinking about him. Even when on the phone with my dad, I’d pictured Milo when my father talked about finding an omega for me. I don’t know why. I was sure the guy hated me. But I had to make it up to Milo somehow. I just needed to figure out a way.
Jessica E. Subject is a USA Today bestselling author of Sci-Fi and Paranormal Romance.
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