A Hippogriff for Christmas - 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